Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9
For the last two weeks we’ve been talking about joy, using this book The Book of Joy written by Douglas Abrams and based on a series of conversations between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Two weeks ago we talked about what joy is. Then last week we talked about obstacles to joy – the anger, grief, adversity, fear, and other feelings or situations that might prevent us from living a joyful life.
We’ve also heard from both the Apostle Paul and the Psalmist on their experiences of joy and hardship. Today we heard from Paul again, from his letter to the Philippians. Philippians is sometimes known as “the letter of joy” because Paul says “joy” or rejoice” 16 times in four chapters. You heard him in the passage we just read – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.”
The thing is that, just like anyone else, the Philippians had reason to not rejoice if they wanted to. I guess otherwise Paul wouldn’t have had to be so adamant about it. Philippi was a Roman city where worship of Jesus Christ was not necessarily looked kindly upon. Paul, the spiritual leader of this persecuted community, was in jail at the time. There were people coming in to try to teach the Philippians things Paul considered heresy, like you had to be circumcised to be a Christian. AND, there was infighting in the community, too. And yet Paul has the audacity to tell these people to rejoice always.
This is really a beautiful passage and yet I find it a little annoying because, as I’ve said throughout this series, it just doesn’t seem as easy as Paul makes it out to be. Rejoice always, oh OK, I guess I’ll just do that, then.
But actually what I realized about this passage is that Paul follows this command up with some instructions. Rejoice always. Be gentle to the people around you. Pray and release your worries to God. Look around you and see the good things God has given you in the midst of your difficulties. Keep doing these things, and you will be at peace.
Paul knows joy isn’t automatic, especially when times are hard. Joy needs to be chosen, and nurtured, and cultivated. So today, in this last week in our series, we’re going to talk about positive qualities we can cultivate in ourselves – or, as I said last week, let God cultivate in us, but with our own cooperation.
[And – I’ll add what has become my usual disclaimer: our experiences of mental health and/or illness may significantly affect our ability to feel joy. If you suffer from depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, that does not mean that you somehow aren’t doing faith right. God does want joy and healing and wholeness for you, as God does for everyone, and that might come through medication and therapy as well as through prayer and the support of a faith community.]
Our book lists eight pillars of joy, and just like with last week’s obstacles to joy, any one of them could make for multiple sermons in itself. So if you want to hear more about any of these, you can read the book – or let me know and maybe I’ll preach a longer sermon on one or more of them sometime.
Last week, we talked about the power of reframing our situations when we encounter obstacles to joy. This is one of the pillars of joy: the ability to put and keep things in perspective.
The book tells the story of someone who visited an army medical center and met two soldiers, on the same day, who had both lost the use of their legs. Their physical state and prognosis was the same. But one of them was curled up in bed railing against God and life and everything that had brought him to this place (which, by the way, I find totally understandable.) The other said he had been given a second chance at life.
The Dalai Lama says we should always look at every situation from both a wider perspective and a larger perspective. With a wider perspective, we see things more objectively – we realize that we are not the only one who matters, we are not necessarily the main player, and “our limited perspective is not the truth.” When we look at things from a larger perspective, we think about how things will seem and how much they will matter a month or a year from now or even in the context of history itself.
Archbishop Tutu calls this seeing things from a “God’s eye perspective.”
When we can put things in their proper perspective, sometimes our problems and difficulties don’t seem quite so big after all.
The Dalai Lama told the story of a spiritual leader at a conference he went to in Delhi who insisted that his seat be higher than everyone else’s seat. They had to bring in bricks to put under the legs of his chair to raise it up.
Needless to say, this is NOT the way to true joy. In fact, when I read that story, I realized Jesus had something to say about that: “When you’re invited to a wedding feast,” he advises, “don’t sit in the seat of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited” (Luke 14:8).
Humility isn’t about being self-effacing or being hard on yourself, which in the end, are just more ways to focus on yourself. Rather, humility allows us to see our actual place in the midst of things, to know that we are loved, that we matter, that we have something to share with the world – but also that we matter neither more or less than anyone else, and that other people have their own gifts and perspective to share as well. When we’re not so worried about where we fall in the hierarchy, that frees us up to live more joyfully.
I’ve mentioned in the past couple weeks that it was surprising to me how much a book about joy really talked about suffering. But something author Douglas Abrams made a note of was how much time during these conversations was spent laughing. “Having spent time with many spiritual leaders,” Abrams said, “I’m tempted to see laughter and a sense of humor as a universal index of spiritual development.”
Obviously, laughter is not always an appropriate response to personal or global problems. But often times there is something to laugh at within a situation that itself is not a laughing matter. Archbishop Tutu talked about how during apartheid, they would sometimes have funerals for people killed by police, which would turn into unofficial political rallies. He said, “We found that one of the best ways of helping our people direct their energies in positive directions was laughter.”
I know that as I’ve officiated funerals, some of the best funerals I’ve seen are ones where people tell stories and laugh about the person who has died. It’s not about denying grief, since there are often plenty of tears too. But laughter is a way to find joy and gratitude and togetherness even in the midst of sadness and loss.
If you need some help cultivating your own sense of humor, Archbishop Tutu also has some advice for you: “If you laugh at yourself,” he says, “…it’s really the easiest place to begin.”
The Dalai Lama’s favorite saying is: “Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? What is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”
I know many people, in this political climate especially, who would say, “If you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.” I know a lot of people who would say that this week in particular. In other words, it seems like the last thing we should do is accept the status quo.
But acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. It doesn’t mean cynicism. It means being realistic about what currently is so that we can move forward from there. Acceptance means not hiding from the truth, not being in denial, but seeing what is and what we can do to change it. In the famous words of Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’ve told you before that the first time I ever considered that I might be called to ministry, it was in reading Archbishop Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, about his time leading South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the end of apartheid.
Archbishop Tutu has some powerful stories to tell – for example, about the parents of Amy Biehl, a white student who was killed in one of South Africa’s black townships. She had gone there to do the work of reconciliation, and her parents carried on that legacy after her death by forming an organization to improve conditions in the township – and even employing the person who had killed their daughter. And, for example, the story of a black mother whose son had been dragged to his death who confronted her son’s killer during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings and said, “My child, we forgive you.”
“When we forgive,” Archbishop Tutu says, “we take back control of our own fate and feelings.” Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean your relationship is the same as it once was. Rather, you can decide whether to renew the relationship or release it. But either way, that person doesn’t have to keep you imprisoned in your anger and bitterness anymore.
In the words of a Benedictine monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful; it is gratefulness that makes us happy.”
At the beginning of this year, I tried taking this to heart by starting a gratitude journal. The plan was that every day I would write down things I was thankful for. I have not done that every day. I have averaged maybe once a week. It’s been an imperfect practice, but I’ve also found that even during the hardest times I’ve had since I started doing this, there are always things to be grateful for.
I realized during one of those hard times that I could be sad but genuinely grateful too. Gratitude doesn’t mean that we stop feeling normal human emotions. But it does, I think, open up some room for joy even in hard times.
According to the Dalai Lama, it’s not just those good things that we should be grateful for. We should even be grateful for our enemies, “our most precious spiritual teachers.” So if you feel like you’re pretty good at gratitude and want to level up, you might try being thankful even for the hard times and difficult people you encounter and how they can help you grow.
One of the monks who works with the Dalai Lama had a good definition of compassion: “Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved.”
In other words, it’s possible to have empathy and simply feel someone else’s pain, but compassion moves us toward action.
“When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering,” said the Dalai Lama, “our own suffering is reduced.”
In the end, we are not meant to do this alone. When we are both ready to help someone in need and willing to receive help from others when we need it, we are living into who God created us to be as human beings. We can live more genuinely and more joyfully when we live it together, with all of its challenges and heartaches.
We all know that money can’t buy happiness, right? Well, apparently it depends.
I heard a TED Talk a while ago from a professor at Harvard Business School who had been involved in a study. They took a bunch of people, asked then to rank their happiness level, and gave them some money. To some of the people they said go do with this money whatever you would normally do with it. Buy something, go out to eat, pay your bills. To the other people they said use this money on other people. Give it away, buy someone something, or donate it. At the end of the day they asked the people to rank their happiness again. The people who spent the money on themselves were no more or less happy at the end of the day than at the beginning. But the people who gave it away or spent it on others were more happy at the end of the day.
Not everyone has gobs of cash to give away, of course, but actually in this study, the amount didn’t matter. It’s not limited to money, either. I know I’ve experienced real generosity from people I meet here during the week who probably don’t have a whole lot. I’ve been handed money for the offering plate from people who are staying at the Homeless Services Center. I’ve also gotten flowers, Metro tokens, and baby gifts. I’ve been bought breakfast. Generosity is never the privilege of the rich – in fact, statistically, the more we have, the less – proportionally – we tend to give.
This is another one of those times when Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said to give to everyone who begs of you, to lend without expecting anything back, even when he told the rich man to sell everything he owned and give the money to the poor. These aren’t just impossible expectations. They are invitations into a more joyful life.
Archbishop Tutu likes to say that “God doesn’t know very much math,” because instead of having less when you give something away, you end up with more.
Again, joy isn’t found by flipping some switch, and none of these pillars of joy are the result of flipping a switch. These are all things that we can keep growing into over the course of a lifetime, as God grants us grace, and as we intentionally take God up on it.
A life of faith is perhaps by definition not an easy life, because it is a life of sacrifice and service and giving yourself for others. But God does want it to be a joyful life. Joy may not be immediate, it may not be automatic, but God invites us to grow in it – and we can start today.
 His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness
in a Changing World. All quotes and references in this sermon come from the third section of the book, “The Pillars of Joy,” p. 191-275, unless otherwise specified.