The Secret to Joy

Telling-Our-Stories

Readings for Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Acts 18:1-8

Psalm 98:1-4

John 16:20-23a

This open-ended homily was preached at All Saints Chapel at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley CA on May 15, 2015. 

A grandmother was watching her grandchild playing on the beach one day when a huge wave came and took him out to sea. Desperately, she prayed, “Please God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.” Right after she prayed, another big wave came and washed the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She then looked up to heaven and said, “He had a hat!”

chesterton

English writer G. K. Chesterton said, “There was… one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to this mirth. In the Farewell Discourse, he calls it his “joy.”

Throughout this semester, I have been exploring the spirituality of the Fourth Gospel with Episcopalians, Jesuits and a Mormon, especially in its relation to the question of suffering. We have discussed the importance of lament, complaint, anger and resentment in our relationship with God. And we have seen how God in Christ receives our anger even to the point of death. In the words of Christopher FitzSimons Allison,

“[Christ] takes our resentment in his torn hands, our bitterness in his nailed feet, our hatred in his pierced side and buries them. Yet it is not as a scapegoat that Christ takes our anger but as a lamb. The all important difference between a scapegoat and a lamb is that the Lamb makes us responsible. Scapegoats for our anger are projections that feed our self-righteousness. We always attempt to justify ourselves with scapegoats. The Lamb of God puts the responsibility back in our laps where we are no longer able to justify ourselves.”[1]

In today’s Gospel, Jesus does not receive resentment or bitterness or hatred. Instead, he invites us to receive his joy. The joy Jesus promises in John’s Farewell Discourse is a mystery that deserves its own semester’s worth of attention. However, there is a secret to joy that can be shared in one homily, in one sentence, even in one word. So for my final homily at CDSP as the Bogard Teaching Fellow, I feel it is an appropriate time for me to share with you all the secret to joy…

There is a spiritual practice that instantly brings joy to the practitioner. The spiritual discipline is built into our liturgy and is commanded throughout Scripture more than any other command. The more we practice this discipline the happier and more joyful we will become. It is commanded in the Psalm we just read as well as in the Psalm that Jesus likely sang in the upper room with his disciples the night before his crucifixion, during the Farewell Discourse. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn and most scholars agree that the hymn was Psalm 118, the last of the six Psalms of the great Hallel (the great “Praise”), recited by Jews on Jewish holidays. Psalm 118 begins and ends with the same verse, which holds the secret to joy.

joy3

Do you want to know the secret to joy and happiness?

It can be expressed in one word: gratitude. Numerous times, the Scriptures invite us to give thanks to the Lord. In our liturgy, we respond to the Word of the Lord by saying “Thanks be to God,” we conclude our worship by saying “Thanks be to God” and the English translation of Eucharist is “Thanksgiving.” When we gather together here in this chapel we are essentially giving thanks. There are indeed times for petition, confession and lamentation, but if that is all we do then we will miss out on the joy and abundance we receive instantly by giving thanks. There is a Sufi saying: “Abundance can be had simply by consciously receiving what already has been given.” And Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast says, “We are never more than one grateful thought away from peace of heart [and profound joy].” And I just saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said, “Happiness is wanting what you have.”

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Personally, I am not very good at practicing gratitude. I often focus on what I lack and easily succumb to resentment and the voice of the Satan (the Accuser), who accuses me of not being worthy of abundance or who blinds me from the abundance that is already all around me. This inevitably leads to depression and anxiety. This is partly why frequent Eucharist is so vital for people like me. We need to be reminded regularly of all God’s blessings and mercies, which are new every morning.

When I was a teenager, my youth pastor introduced me to the spiritual practice of praying without asking for anything, but simply giving thanks. [“When that day comes,” Jesus says, “you will no longer ask me for anything.”] The spiritual practice of gratitude invites us to resist our tendency to petition the Lord and instead, offer praise and thanksgiving for all the blessings that God has already bestowed. It is a wonderful way to enter into the abundance that is all around us, simply receiving what already has been given. So I invite us to practice this now, to offer thanks to God for all the many blessings of this life, no matter how trivial or trite they may seem…and to receive the abundance that is right in from us and the peace of mind that is only one grateful thought away. So let us receive joy together by sharing in a word or phrase or sentence whatever we are feeling especially grateful for this morning…

[1] Christopher FitzSimons Allison, Guilt, Anger, and God: The Patterns of Our Discontents (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), 86.

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