Well as most of you know, our Director of Music, Peter Black, and our special musicians do such an amazing job every week at choosing and selecting songs that match and enhance our lectionary readings for each Sunday. But as we just heard, the Gospel reading from today's lectionary, which I just read for you, is all about the beheading of John the Baptist. And we really don't want to be singing songs about beheadings, do we?
So I'm so grateful that the United Church of Christ has suggested that today we put our focus on the Old Testament reading, the one that Chris read for us about King David and the people leaping and dancing and rejoicing in God.
Now don't get me wrong. John the Baptist is one of my favorite biblical characters, and we're going to be talking more about him later this year during the season of Advent. But I'm so thankful that I get to talk with you today about joy, because joy is one of my favorite topics. And we could all use a little bit more joy in our lives, can't we?
Now, many of you know that Gregg and I had the joy of owning a bed and breakfast in Saugatuck for a number of years. And in the dining room of the bed and breakfast, we had an old antique sign on the wall, and it said, "Do one thing every day that brings you joy."
I used to love seeing that sign every morning as I was bringing people their breakfast and helping them plan their day. It was a good reminder for me. But then one morning, one of our B&B guests pointed to the sign, and she looked at me and she said, "That sign is so sad." And I said, "It says, 'Do one thing every day that brings you joy.'" And she said, "Well, it says only ONE thing." And I'm so glad she said that, because I've never forgotten it all these years later.
It is true. We shouldn't be doing just one thing every day that brings us joy. Our days should be filled with joy. I've shared with you before that one of my favorite quotes from the entire Bible comes from John, Chapter 10, Verse 10.
And Jesus says, "I have come so that you may have life and have it to the full." That's why I conclude the service each and every Sunday here with the words, “Let us go forth from this space to live fully…” Because you see, that's what God wants for us. God wants us to enjoy this life abundantly.
And God gave us seven gifts. You read in Scripture, there were seven gifts of the Spirit. And one of those gifts is the gift of joy. You don't have to do anything to get it. It's already been given to you. It's within you. Joy is your natural state of being. Now, if you were with us last Sunday for July 4, we were talking about the Declaration of Independence, and how it says that our Creator, our God, has endowed us or gifted us with three inalienable rights, the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… Joy. Joy is an inalienable right, which means it cannot be taken away from us, because it is within us.
But as we know, there are people who are not living lives of joy. They're much more focused on worry, and fear, and lack, and limitation, and resentment. You see, they think that joy is an outside-in process. They think once I have my dream house, once I land that dream job, once I meet that perfect person, then I'll experience joy.
What they fail to realize is that joy is an inside-out process. Joy comes from within you. So if you're not living a life of joy, there's only one person responsible for that. Don't blame another person. Don't blame a situation in your life. Don't blame the state of the world. You are responsible for your joy.
Now I've shared with you before one of my favorite Christian writers of the 20th century was a man named Henry Nouwen. Our words of integration and guidance this morning, that Chris read for us, are from one of his books.
And as he said “Joy is a choice. We have to choose Joy and keep choosing it each day.” Yes, God gave us that gift of joy. But we have to open it. You know, God also gave us free will. You can choose joy or not. It's really up to you. It reminds us there's a difference between joy and happiness. “Happiness,” he said, “is based on outer circumstances. So when those outer circumstances change, then our feelings change. But “Joy,” he says, “is not dependent on outer circumstances.” It doesn't matter what's happening around you. Within you is this place of joy that you always have access to. Nouwen says, this doesn't mean that it's easy, that joy actually takes work. It requires work. And yes, there are a lot of things that are happening in our world and in our lives, that bring us sadness, and worry, and anxiety. And many of us are experiencing deep grief. But Nouwen says that the spiritual life doesn't just automatically happen to us, we actually have to do the work of choosing joy, especially in those moments.
I think that's why Jesus says in the Scripture, that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Because most of us, you see, don't want to have to do the work of choosing joy. It's much easier for us to just blame other people and outer situations for our unhappiness, rather than taking control of our thoughts and our emotions.
Some of you may be familiar with the name, Viktor Frankl, Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist who was in the concentration camps in World War II. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz. But when he was freed, he wrote a book, which is now a well-known book called “Man's Search for Meaning” In that book, Viktor Frankl says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And within that space is our power to choose our response. And in our response is our growth and our freedom”
I'll say it again, “Between stimulus and response, there's a space and within that space is our power to choose our response. And within that response is our growth in our freedom.”
So let me give you an example. Someone cuts you off in traffic. That's the stimulus. Between that stimulus and your response. There is a space, and within that space is your power to choose your response. You can choose to be angry. You can choose to retaliate. You can choose to get upset. Or you can choose to let it go. You can choose joy. You have the power to choose your response. And that's your freedom, right there.
I'd like to read to you what some other well-known people have had to say about choosing joy. Groucho Marx said, “I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead. Tomorrow hasn't arrived yet. I just have one day today. And I'm going to be happy here.”
And Walt Whitman said, “Happiness is not in another place. It's in this place. It's not in another hour. It's in this hour.”
And Helen Keller said, “Your happiness lies within you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you together shall form an invisible host against difficulties.”
And in the Bible, the prophet Ezra says, “The joy of God is my strength.”
I think that's so interesting. It doesn't say the love of God or the peace of God or the mind of God. “The joy of God is my strength.”
And I think that's why Jesus says to us, he says “All of the things that I've told you are so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
So that is what the spiritual life is about. If you are not feeling more joy in your life, if your life isn't becoming more joyful, then you're doing spirituality wrong.
Now, again, it doesn't mean that everything in your life will go smoothly. You are going to experience sadness and grief and difficulty. But within the midst of that, there is joy within you, and you always have access to it.
So how do we do that? How do we access that joy?
Well, I was watching the Today Show a couple of months ago, and they were talking with people who live lives of great joy. Now, most of these people are people who have experienced a life of difficulty, great sadness and grief. And they asked them, How do you find joy?
There are a lot of great ideas, I just want to share one of them with you, because I thought it was so helpful and so easy.
A woman shared what she called the 5-3-1 Method. She said, 5 minutes a day of meditation. Within that five minutes, you express 3 things that you're grateful for. And then during the day you do 1 act of kindness or service for another. 5 minutes of meditation, 3 things to be grateful for 1 thing of service. Stillness, Gratitude, Service = The secret to happiness.
I’ve shared with you before that I've been keeping a gratitude journal for more than a decade now. I keep a blank journal on my nightstand. And before I go to bed each night I write that day's date. And then I write down things that I'm grateful for that happened that day.
And that practice -- no exaggeration -- has literally changed the makeup of my brain. It really has. Instead of putting my head on the pillow and thinking about worries and fears and things that happen that upset me, I'm going to bed at night with those expressions of gratitude.
You know, in the Scripture, it says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That's what transforms us. And you know, science now is demonstrating that we can actually retrain our brains.
I know a lot of people say “I can't help it. I'm just the person who worries a lot. I just, I can't help it”. But science and spirituality teach us that we can retrain our brains.
Karen Armstrong, a really wonderful spiritual writer, in her book, The History of God, says this: “Our brains are reptilian. They come from ancient ancestors who had to fight for their survival. They were in survival mode all the time, so that the species could continue.”
So the thoughts of fear and anger and envy and all of those things are reptilian, or ancient thoughts. We don't need those anymore. That's the old brain. And we can have a new brain.
I love that we can have a new brain. I think that's what Paul meant. In that letter to the Corinthians, the early Christians, he said, put on the mind of Christ. Instead of the human mind, that reptilian brain, put on the mind of Christ, the divine mind. And that's the mind of trust and hope, and love and peace and joy.
And so, my friends, I want to encourage you this week, to sow some seeds of joy in your life -- to cultivate more joy. Maybe try the 5-3-1 method every day. Maybe start a gratitude journal, retrain your brain, renew your mind, choose joy and keep choosing it every day. For you are the light of the world. May you shine that light and that joy for all the world to see.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration & Guidance
by Henri Nouwen
Joy is essential to spiritual life. Whatever we may think or say about God, when we are not joyful, our thoughts and words cannot bear fruit. Jesus reveals to us God's love so that his joy may become ours and that our joy may become complete. Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away. Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God's love for us. We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but in the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together. That isn't easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experiences, such as being present at the birth of a child or the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience. Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow. I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. I dare even to say: “My grief was a place where I found joy.” Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God andhave found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.
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