Last week, I told you that we would be looking at the life and message of St. John the Baptist today. I assure you that I had planned a brilliant and eloquent sermon that would have surely expanded your minds and lifted your hearts to heaven. However, last Friday’s news headlines of a school massacre in Connecticut led me to set aside that work-in-progress.
By the end of the day, I knew that I would not be able to read the words of this week’s Epistle Lesson with any integrity and not comment on them. This brief passage comes to us from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s short, so I’ll read it again here in its entirety for the sake of those who are listening to this sermon online or on the radio:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
“Rejoice in the Lord always…”
“How in the world,” I thought to myself, “can I (or any minister) have the audacity to stand in a pulpit 48 hours after the mass murder of children (two weeks before Christmas, no less) and utter the word ‘Rejoice’?” It almost seems vulgar.
Joy is a big theme for Paul in his little letter to the Christians at Philippi. The book is only four chapters long. Reading out loud, you could get through the entire letter in about fifteen minutes. However, in those few minutes, you would hear the words “joy” and “rejoice” sixteen times altogether. Philippians is sometimes referred to as “the Letter of Joy” because of this persistent theme. Paul can’t seem to say enough about it.
The fact that Paul emphasizes the theme of joy so strongly becomes especially curious when you realize that Paul wrote this letter from a Roman prison, which would have looked and felt more like a medieval dungeon than a modern penitentiary. So, joy seems like an odd topic for him to focus on at that particular time and place.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
We Americans are used to associating joy with happiness, an emotional condition brought about by favorable circumstances, but real joy, in the sense that Paul means it, must be something else entirely. I think joy has to be deeper and wider than mere happiness if it can survive in a Roman dungeon.
I think joy, in the sense that Paul meant it, is something that arises from our experience of harmony in the universe. Joy can, and often does, bring a smile to your face. You can feel it surging up inside when you get lost in a sunset or a clear night sky, when you hold your newborn child for the first time and your heart feels like it’s about to leap outside your chest, or when some piece of art or literature touches something deep within your soul. In such moments, we experience joy. We marvel at the wonderful and beautiful way in which the universe is put together. Joy.
Joy is easy to recognize in such moments. It really does feel like happiness. We feel the touch of beauty and harmony in the universe and that touch makes us want to smile, laugh, jump, or even weep for joy.
However, there is another side to joy. This side is not so easily recognized. I believe the shock, sadness, and anger we have all been experiencing since Friday are also, in their essence, expressions of joy. These unhappy feelings come from the same places in our hearts that gave rise to our experience of wonder. Something within our hearts instinctively embraces harmony when it is present and yearns for it when it is absent. Last Friday, the harmony of the universe was violently shattered and our hearts have been screaming inside ever since. That scream is the scream of joy, the dark side of joy to be sure, but joy nevertheless.
I call this pain “the dark side of joy” because it would mean that our hearts were dead if we didn’t feel a stinging outrage at what happened. If we anesthetize ourselves to joy’s dark side, we will also be numb to joy’s light side: the happiness and wonder at the world I mentioned before. The truly cynical people in this world are not those who are mad at the world, but those who have ceased to care altogether. They are the ones who heard the news on Friday, shrugged their shoulders apathetically, and went on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Such people have been so wounded by life that, in order to protect themselves from experiencing more pain, they’ve had to close themselves off to all emotions whatsoever. If you are angry about this, it means that you care. So long as you are still able to feel the anger, you are still able to experience joy.
Joy then, in this sense, in the sense that Paul meant it, is an act of defiance. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” is a call to action. We, the angry joyful ones, declare ourselves to be in open rebellion against the powers of chaos, hatred, and violence. In the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, we will resist you nonviolently. In the Spirit of Jesus, we will kill you with kindness. We walk in the shadows of joy’s dark side. Victory is ours: for we know that, so long as there remains even a single soul that still feels outrage at the murder of children, then joy is still alive. Therefore, even in our anger and pain, today we celebrate the Sunday of Joy.
We who worship in the Christian tradition have come to identify the harmony we observe in the universe with the hand of God. We believe that all joy has its origin in the presence of infinite love at the heart of reality. We further believe that the person Jesus of Nazareth is, for us, the paradigmatic embodiment of that selfsame love in a human life.
We, as Christians, seek to follow him by honoring harmony and embodying love in our lives in whatever way we are able. The late Rev. Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister who was better known as the host of the children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
In order to help us be better “helpers,” as Mr. Rogers said, I would like to share with you some good advice I came across this week in an article in the Huffington Post by the Rev. Emily C. Heath, a pastor in the United Church of Christ. The title of her article is:
Dealing With Grief: Five Things NOT to Say and Five Things to Say In a Trauma Involving Children.
I hope you will keep these suggestions in the back of your mind and find them helpful in this crisis and whenever you are called upon to care for someone who has lost a child under any circumstances.
As Christians, our first duty is to love like Jesus and thereby testify to the truth that love is the heart of reality. As Christmas approaches, we prepare to celebrate the presence of love, not enthroned in some far-away heaven, but embodied in our midst. This infinite love, the harmony we observe in the universe, is here: within us and among us. The Light of the World, the little Christ Child, reigns from a feeding trough in a stable, from whence his little light is passed from candle to candle, soul to soul, person to person, in all the little ways that we are able to embody that same love in our own lives.
This morning, I’m calling for a temporary suspension of the liturgical calendar. Christmas is coming early this year, because we need it more than ever. I proclaim to you the good news that Christ is here: in you and in me. His love, the wonderful harmony at the heart of the universe, is embodied in our acts of love and compassion.
This morning, on this Christmas before Christmas, I call out to you from the dark side of joy. I call upon you to rise up and rejoice as an act of defiance and resistance against the carnage we witnessed on Friday. Proclaim with me the truth, as it says in John’s gospel, that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The very pain we feel this morning is the sure sign that joy is not dead, that Christ is alive, and that God is love.
So, sing with me now. Sing, “Joy to the world!” Proclaim with me, in this hymn of radical, revolutionary defiance: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground,” for Christ “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Sing out loudly, confident in the knowledge that God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it. Let us sing…