The Joy That's Shared

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, June 3, 2018.

Every now and then, we don’t invite you to come forward and light candles of joy and sorrow in our prayer time. Instead, we ask you to speak aloud the names of people and the things you’re praying for, and thinking of, and grateful for, from where you’re sitting. Sometimes, like today, we do this because of timing—with the Veggie Cafe and our annual meeting today, it would be good for the service to end sooner rather than later, and with spoken candles, you never know how long that can take. 

But have you noticed, that when we invite you to say aloud your joys and what you’re grateful for, there are fewer of these than when you name sorrows and concerns? This isn’t a criticism—I myself tend to focus more on who is hurting, what is broken and who needs help, than on what we have to celebrate. Maybe it’s our human nature, maybe it’s our culture; the Puritan ancestry that shapes New England could be part of it too—we seem inclined to focus more on sorrow than on joy, to pay more attention to what is wrong than what is right.

And the church can amplify this. Most religious traditions that I’m aware of seem better at, and more comfortable with, sorrow and grief than they are with celebration and joy. Of course, facing difficulty and trouble is certainly an important part of what we do here. The poet Phillip Larkin says this about the church: “a serious house on serious earth it is.” There’s nothing wrong with being serious—some of the time. 

But remember those familiar words from Ecclesiastes:

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4).

Many of us were encouraged, at an early age, to be quiet and still in church. We learned  this was a serious place, and a safe place to weep and to mourn, but how many of us were encouraged to laugh in church, or to dance? 

Our worship theme for June is “joy,” and isn’t it a wonderful theme for this month? When so much is blooming and in bud, when so many people are getting married and having anniversaries, when trees and plants have put on their green summer clothes and birds are building nests and having babies. 

When I first think about joy, I imagine a raucous, loud, unbridled kind of joy. You know, the yelling at the top of your lungs kind of joy that you can see at graduations or when your team wins the Super Bowl or the NCAA basketball championship. 

About the closest I get these days to that full-throated kind of joy is when the weather finally starts to get warm enough to drivie down the highway with the windows down, and makes me feel so happy that I put on that song from Bruce Springsteen and sing along, 

“Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere…”

But more often, the joy I’m acquainted with is a quieter kind of joy. A feeling of gratitude for moments of peace, and for simple blessings. Times when things just seem right, and I have the presence of mind to notice, and not miss it. Sometimes, I will look up or look around, and smile, and say, “Thanks for this, for all this.” 

This is what Anne Sexton told us about this morning, the practice of attentiveness that she shares in her poem, “Welcome Morning,” her simple ode to joy. I’m going to share it with you again:

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.

So how do we expand joy, how do we share it and keep it going? You could start by painting a thank-you reminder on your palm. You want to do it in a way that increases joy, that doesn’t make others feel sad or left out. Did you notice that when Anne Sexton writes about sharing joy, she’s actually alone? Unless you count the kettle and the spoon and the chair that cry out to her each morning, and the birds at her window, and the God to whom she offers her prayer of thanks. “All this is God,” she says, and isn’t this good theology? All this around us is gift, is holy, when we take the time to see it in its fullness. The way the morning light comes through the window and shines on the table. The way the candles you light here glow with your unspoken and heartfelt prayers. All this is God. I mean, the holy is in everything. If we will take the time to notice.

You can share your joy, even when you’re all alone, by noticing it, and by letting that joy fill you, and by acknowledging it, offering you thanks for these gifts. You can offer up a little prayer, naming what it is that’s bringing you joy, and this practice will actually deepen your joy. 

Of course, you can also share your joy with others. You can call them on the phone, or send them a card spreading the joy. Social media can works for this too. But isn’t there something about doing it in person, and isn’t that part of why we are here—to really see one another, to acknowledge our humanness, the gift and blessing that we are here together?

One of the joys of ministry is getting to officiate at weddings, and I tell the couple, when the ceremony is over, that they shouldn’t hurry away from that moment, but rather, when they turn from facing each other toward all those people there to witness and celebrate their vows, they should pause for a moment and just take it all in. “Bask in it for a moment,” I tell them. “And let your families and friends look on you and rejoice with you, before you walk down the aisle together.”

We could take more time to bask in the glory of these days, couldn’t we? To bask in the beauty of our earth, to bask in the presence of one another. To be more attentive to the little joys right here in our midst.

I know we didn’t invite you to come up and light candles this morning, but I wonder if there may be some joys among us that need to be shared. Does anyone want to speak out and name a joy that’s in your heart today?

One of the difficulties of this time that we’re living in is that some folks seem to think that if others succeed, then this takes something away from them, that it somehow diminishes them. The growing distrust of and animosity toward immigrants and people of color, Jews and Muslims, seems to come from this fear. As if there’s a limited amount of freedom, and if you get yours, then somehow I will lose mine. But that’s not how it works with freedom, or human rights, or with joy. You joy doesn’t diminish anyone else’s. If you share it, you make more joy. And don’t we all the joy we can get?

Two thousand years ago, standing on a hillside, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). The Light is not just in some of us; it is in all of us (Marianne Williamson). We are here to let our own light shine, and to hold open a space in the world, so that others can let their light shine too. We are here to share our light and our love and our joy. To let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.