October 12, 2014, Psalm 106:1-5, Philippians 4:1-9
“Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” A poster with that sentence hung on a cabinet in my mother’s kitchen when I was a child. It’s a good sentence and a good sentiment to carry around in your head. I remember it vividly because one time when I was in 10th grade a friend was eating at my house and he looked at my mother and asked, “So, are you very religious?”
If you want to see a Presbyterian struggle for words, ask one that question. I’m pretty sure my friend saw the poster and it made him curious. What would you say if someone asked you whether you are very religious? It’s a disarming question and a personal question and who’s to say what it is to be very religious?
Back to my friend’s question, I think my mother said something like, “Well, uh, I uh, we go to church….How about another sloppy joe?”
I return to this conversation often in my memory. I wonder whether we missed an opportunity, or if we were afraid of presenting our faith in a way that might make our guest uncomfortable. And then I think, “What about joy should make anyone uncomfortable?”
“Joy” is the theme today, and we planned this worship service with that in mind. The Sunday school students are focusing on the epistle lesson from Philippians. And we just had dancing to perhaps the most joy-filled song of the year. I’m all in favor of joy, but I want to go a little deeper this morning. Joy is difference from happiness.
If you saw the fliers our Director of Christian Education, Kate Hood put up around town you saw a passage from Psalm 30, “”You have turned my mourning into dancing…” It is a powerful statement from someone who has known difficulty, the author of that psalm cried for help and was healed, her soul had gone down to Sheol, that is the place of the dead before God restored her; the Lord heard her when she cried out; the Lord was gracious to her; the Lord took off her burlap clothes—that is the clothes that people wear when they are expressing sorrow over their sin—and clothed her with joy!
Things were very, very bad for whoever wrote Psalm 30, and God came through. And that’s a reason to dance! Dance is an act of praise. Really. Remember last month when we looked at the escape of the Israelites from Egypt? Pharoah’s cavalry was closing in on them and the waters of the Sea of Reeds was in front and they were scared to death, but then God acted, threw Pharoah’s horsemen and soldiers into the water and clogged up the chariots’ wheels and the people escaped. Miriam led the women in singing and dancing with tambourines. It was a joyous moment, when the people celebrated God’s deliverance of them.
The psalm that ¬¬¬Chuck read is also about joy. And it ties joy to gratitude. When one realizes and marvels at everything God has done, and really feels and trusts God’s steadfast love there is a deep joy. I love the part that goes, “Remember me, O Lord…that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation….” That word “rejoice” means “feel joy again.” Joy is something that is real and can always be renewed. But joy is also particular, and I’ll ever say joy is local. I need to explain that, and I will.
The letter to the Philippians is brimming with joy. I said two weeks ago that it takes about 10 minutes to read and the affection that Paul feels for his friends in Philippi is real and deep. He loves those people and they love him. They are very, very grateful that he has shared the saving grace of Jesus Christ with them. They have been through a lot together. The verse that really caught our attention for Sunday school is verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Right. Well, how is it possible to rejoice always? There’s a difference between rejoicing and being happy. And at this point I regret that the song we just heard and danced to is called “Happy,” because it would really be a better fit today if it were called “Joyous!” Happy is a fleeting feeling. Happy is a pleasant surprise, a warm feeling, the response to good news. Your team won their game last night, so you’re happy. It’s nice, but it’s neither deep nor lasting. Happy is an “easy come, easy go” feeling. Joy is a much stronger word. Joy is able to absorb difficulty, pain and negativity. Joy has an “in-spite-of” resilient quality that makes it possible to feel joy even in the midst of difficulty.
I was trying to describe the feeling of joy I have in the friendship my family shares with our next door neighbor in the editorial that appeared in Tuesday’s paper. Beck is not special to my family because nothing has ever gone wrong in our families. Beck is special because we have weathered difficult times together. Last Sunday was hardly the first time we have been out in the yard cutting huge tree branches into smaller branches! The silver maples in our neighborhood are old and sometimes they…just…break. And when they do we pitch in and help each other. Same thing with blizzards. It is the moments of adversity, of trial and difficulty that we remember and make us closer and stronger friends.
This sort of thing happens a lot. Once before I led a mission trip from this church to Henderson Settlement in Tennessee, someone wished me a trouble-free trip. And I thought about that and realized I don’t want a trouble-free trip. What would you remember from a trip when everything went as planned? What I have learned to expect is not that everything will go smoothly, though we certainly plan carefully so that everything will go smoothly. Instead, I expect and even hope for difficulties that the group can face together on the road, that we can overcome, and in working together, far from home in trying circumstances we will become a stronger group. Community is like a muscle that gets stronger when it is used. Not only do I believe that, I’ve seen and experienced to trust and expect it.
That’s why I want to close this morning by calling your attention to the parts of this letter that might be easily, even safely overlooked. A colleague calls these “Paul’s gospel in post-scripts.” Remember, originally this was a letter that Paul wrote, probably dictated, to the church in Philippi. It probably took weeks for the letter to reach its destination, and getting a letter from Paul, the man who taught the Christian faith there, the one who founded their church, was a big, big deal. Chances are it was read aloud when they gathered for worship on the first day of the week and they probably met for worship in what we call today as somebody’s living room.
Paul mentions three people by name as he is winding up his letter, and refers to another, probably the person who carried the letter from Paul to Philippi. Euodia and Syntyche are two leaders in the church there and it appears that there is some kind of dispute between them. Let me stop here and point out that there were strong, female leaders in Christian churches from the very start. These two women are said to have struggled side by side with Paul for the sake of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. He urges—or pleads—with them to put their disagreement aside. We do not know what the dispute is over, remember--we’re reading someone else’s mail—but it has gotten Paul’s attention and it is something that he feels needs to be addressed. And as I look closely at this letter, it seems to me that it could end right after Paul urges these two leaders to put their differences aside and work with others who have also struggled as they had for the sake of the gospel.
But Paul starts up again. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say. Rejoice” and “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.” Those are powerful, inspiring words. Words that remind us that joy is possible, in fact, more possible and real, when it comes after, and is seasoned by adversity.
Here’s the thing about joy. It is the most infallible sign of the presence of God. And it comes in response to hardship and difficulty. Our dancing comes after our mourning. Knowing Christ, trying to follow Christ, does not keep bad things from happening to Christians. Far from it. But knowing and following One who loved each of us enough to die for us gives us a completely different perspective on life…and death..than the world has. We can trust that bad times won’t last, and even if they do, God’s love is eternal. Hardship is an occasion when we can recognize that God is one who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. In whatever circumstance we find ourselves we are never alone.
Since we are never alone we can rejoice in the Lord. Always. Amen.