Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
If I asked you to give me an adjective to describe God, what would you say? Our first hymn (Immortal Invisible God only wise) had lots if these: immortal, invisible, wise, hidden, blessed, glorious, ancient … or perhaps you’d think of loving, gracious, creating, redeeming. I hope not angry or judgemental: that’s not the gospel we preach here. But would any of you have thought of joyful? Probably not. But that’s what today’s gospel tells us. God experiences Joy. How do I experience joy too?
The two parables we heard today are about rejoicing over finding something that is lost. I doubt if there is anyone who hasn’t lost something. It happens to me quite often these days. A couple of weeks ago, I turned the apartment upside down looking for my keys. They had to be there somewhere because I’d unlocked the door when I came home the precious evening and I hadn’t left the building since. Panic set in as I searched my purse for the umpteenth time Then I saw a message on my phone. I’d left them sat my neighbours when I’d dropped in the previous evening. Did I rejoice – well, no. I felt relief, and also embarrassment at being so stupid and forgetful. But Joy?? Did I call all my friends to rejoice with me? Not at all. So how do I experience joy?
Are Joy and Happiness the same?
Joy isn’t something we talk about a lot. When did you last use the words rejoice or joyful in ordinary conversation? The one exception is the word enjoy. But in today’s reading we have a shepherd and a widow who rejoice when they find what is lost, parables about Joy in heaven. To rejoice is the verb from Joy – be full of joy; and according to the dictionary, joy is extreme happiness. We tend to think of the words joy and very happy as being somewhat interchangeable. But there are two different concepts, which our language doesn’t give us good tools to think about or talk about.
There is ordinary happiness, an feeling which is based on external events or people and is often fleeting. It changes when circumstances change. You are at a picnic on a bright sunny day in the woods. You are happy. Then it starts to rain, you get wet, the food is spoilt, it’s a long walk back to the car. Still happy. Probably not.
Joy, on the other hand, comes from within. It’s a gift of God which we can cultivate, an attitude of mind rather than a feeling. I think of a man I knew, dying from Cancer and barely able to leave his chair. He looked at me with joy in his eyes one day and said “God is so good. Look at the wonderful family He’s given me”. This is how I am going to use the words happiness and joy today. Happiness is a fleeting feeling. Joy is an abiding attitude of mind. I think it is closer to the Biblical concept of Joy.
The Bible tells us to rejoice
The bible is full of invitations to rejoice, and we try to make worship at St George’s joyful. I invite you to look at the Psalms. In the New Testament. Then, Jesus commands our joy: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”; “Leap for joy”. And Paul drives it home further in his letters: “Rejoice in hope”; Rejoice with those who rejoice”; “Finally, brothers, rejoice”; “Rejoice always”’ And then, the joy tidal wave of Philippians: “Be glad and rejoice with me” ; “Rejoice in the Lord”; “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice”. Easily said, but how do I experience joy?
Can we rejoice when the world is in chaos?
This is all very well, but how do we rejoice when we see what’s happening in the world. Just read the newspapers. The devastation in the Bahamas and elsewhere from hurricane Dorian; forest fires burning up the Amazonian forests and in Indonesia; global warming, famines, wars, floods. The list goes on. We weep over these things, and surely God does too (if I can be excused for ascribing human emotions to God).
Joy is not a squishy Hallmark feeling, any more than the love Jesus commands is. Like Love (in the sense of respect) it’s an attitude of mind that can be cultivated. Yes, it’s a gift from God. It’s one pf the fruits of the spirit, in fact the second one listed after Love. These fruits are gifts, but they don’t come full blown, any more than the gifts of an artist or singer. The fruits of the spirit are developed as we grow in the Christian life. So how do we develop or cultivate Joy? The practice of developing joy is just that, a practice, and each of us needs to think about: how do I experience joy.
How do I experience Joy? I have to want it
First, we have to want Joy. I know that sounds crazy. Who wouldn’t want joy? Because it requires work and practice, we have to want it to develop the skill. If I have musical talent and don’t practice enough to develop that talent, I’ll never become even an adequate pianist, violinist or whatever. And so it is with spiritual gifts.
How do I experience Joy? It takes time
Then we have to realize that Joy takes time to develop. It isn’t fast food. It is the result of living an appreciative (thankful) life that delights in the beauty of creation, focusing on the positive and living the life of love that Jesus modelled and loving the life we have. That’s the third thing.
How do I experience Joy? By accepting the life I have
Joy requires acceptance, saying “yes” to life, to the life we’ve been given, to the hand we’ve been dealt. I expect we’ve all sometime realized that the script we’ve been handed in the play of life is not the part we thought we were trying out for. It seems to me that joy requires a deep willingness to accept how little of our life is actually within our own control. Not being in control is one of life’s strongest stress or anxiety factors, and anxiety is an enemy of joy. Saying yes to life – the life we live as individuals, as members of a family, as members of a parish, as members of various professional or volunteer circles – increases our joy.
How do I experience Joy? It requires endurance
Wanting, taking the time and accepting life as it is are all are necessary, But most of all, Joy requires endurance. Throughout the Gospel, Joy is associated with suffering or difficulties. Like so much of our faith, it is a mystery.
Joy and suffering are not mutually exclusive
What does joy look like in the midst of suffering? True joy isn’t always laughing, smiling, or in a good mood. True joy doesn’t mean you won’t hurt or cry. On the contrary, true joy cries and hurts and asks, “Why me?” Joy and suffering aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have one AND the other. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Very truly I tell you… you will have pain… but your pain will turn into joy”? That’s not what we want to hear!
Joy is a gift from God
In Galatians, Paul describes the gifts given to those who live by God’s Spirit. He wrote: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Joy proceeds from the inner realization of relationship with God, which descends upon us at ever deeper levels as we walk our faith journey. Since joy is the result (or fruit) of God’s Spirit abiding in us, we have access to joy all the time and can have it regardless of what’s going on in our lives. Does that mean we’re walking around all the time with silly grins on our faces, not acknowledging the suffering we’re experiencing or the suffering of the world? Does that mean we’re always laughing while enduring affliction? No!
Spiritual growth through great love and great suffering
Joy isn’t contingent upon how we feel or what we’re going through. Indeed, true joy embraces all the different emotions we experience but doesn’t allow those emotions to rule us. Our joy will not be perfect in this life; we will always strain and struggle. But there is a direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy. That the extent to which we have known suffering, so we can know joy.
Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and spiritual writer teaches; “Any journey of great love or great suffering makes us go deeper into our faith …. Love and suffering are finally the same, because those who love deeply are committing themselves to eventual suffering, as we see in Jesus. And those who suffer often become the greatest lovers.” Maybe this goes some way to explaining the paradox of Joy and suffering. Love and suffering are 2 sides of the same coin, and if love leads to Joy, then suffering must also lead to Joy. Unless and until we have experienced great love and suffering, the mystery will not start to become clear. It takes great love or great suffering, and often both, to develop our spiritual maturity and to grow the fruits of the Spirit, the second of which, after love is joy.
Give thanks for joy
We seems to have come a long way from our reading today, but not really, The shepherd suffered when he lost his sheep; losing 1/10th of her wealth was suffering for the widow. Without the suffering, they would not have found joy. So I leave you with words from Psalm “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have … clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.” Amen