John 14: 23-29
Where do you find joy in your life? I say “find” because joy is like a great treasure buried in a field. It is there to be discovered, there waiting to be uncovered, claimed, prized.
Now, listen to me carefully. I didn’t ask – what makes you happy? I asked – where do you find joy? Happiness is different from joy. Happiness is a feeling; joy is a state of being. Get me a Pizza Hut thin crust Supreme Pizza and I am happy (as long as I don’t eat more than half of it.) Give me a good night’s sleep and I am happy the next morning. Tell me you like my sermon (and mean it) and I am happy for the rest of the week. Happy is good but happy is beyond our control. We are happy when life is going well and we are unhappy when life is difficult. The day Gaston soaked its way through Richmond and I watched my refrigerator and oil tank float across my children’s play room in the basement was a pretty unhappy day. By contrast, the day the last repair was made and I had a new furnace, new washer & dryer, sparkling new room for the kids – that was a happy day. In both cases, how I felt was dependent on what was happening to me.
We like being happy but the way life goes we can’t always count on “happy” – happiness is fickle, happiness is fleeting. Joy, on the other hand, is something deeper, something more permanent. When you know what gives you joy then you can draw on it even when life isn’t going well. In other words, you can know joy even when you aren’t happy.
The day my father died was not a happy day. As I sat by his bedside late into the night watching him struggle for every breath, crying my eyes out, reading him psalms through my tears, I was anything but happy. And yet those hours were ones of great joy. Joy in the love we shared, joy in the memories that stood between us, joy in the man he was and in the man he had helped me to become, joy in our shared faith that his death was not the end. The day my father died was not a happy day, but, looking back on it, I can honestly say it was a day when I experienced joy.
Too often we think we aren’t living right if we aren’t happy all the time. If we aren’t happy then we must be doing something wrong. And so we go to cocktail parties and we smile at each other and whenever anyone asks how we are, we say – great, wonderful, fine. But we aren’t, not really, not a lot of the time, and so we wonder what’s wrong with us? Why can’t we seem to get it right when everyone else seems so happy?
When I was at Yale, I remember an when a graduate came to speak with us about her experience as a medical missionary in Africa. She described to us the awful conditions in which she lived for years, the poorest of the poor she served, the limited medical supplies she had at her disposal. She talked about struggling to treat so many sick people and how often she saw someone die needlessly. After speaking for about thirty minutes she paused to take questions and a student raised his hand and said: “How could you ever be happy in a place like that?” She paused for a long time before she responded, “I don’t think life is about being happy. I think life is about finding joy. And believe me serving those people I found joy”
There is nothing in the New Testament that promises us happiness. In fact, Jesus’ life and the lives of his disciples were quite difficult. I imagine they were often unhappy but I also know that they lived lives full of joy – the joy of doing God’s will, the joy of living for something grand and great and glorious, the joy of knowing real love, the joy of service.
I find joy in this day every year. I am a great lover of music, of jazz in particular, and when I can combine the joy I find in music with the joy I know in the Eucharist, it’s a great day. I say, joy rather than happiness, because in the beauty of today’s music combined with the power of the sacrament I touch something deep, something beyond me, something not contingent on the circumstances of my life.
When I listen to Jesus’ words – “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end,” I am reminded of the joy that brackets all of our lives. The joy of knowing that God is there at our beginning and God will be there at our end. The joy of knowing that as God’s children we are loved and protected whether we are happy or sad, whether life is good or a struggle.
At the beginning of this sermon I asked the question – Where do you find joy? It is an important question for each of us to answer. Because to find joy is to find a little bit of God, to find joy is to discover something you can count on. Thomas Aquinas once said, “No one can live without joy.” But I think many people try to. They try to because they don’t know where to look for it and they don’t recognize it when they find it. There is a wonderful photograph by Henri Bresson, one of history’s great photographers. “The photograph depicts a run-down alley surrounded by decaying walls, strewn with rubble, and riddled with bullet holes dotting gray walls. The setting alone evokes feelings of sadness and despair. But then…the contradiction. Within the grim alley children are playing. They wear dirty and tattered clothes, but like playing children everywhere, they laugh with carefree joy. In the foreground, a tiny boy on crutches hobbles away from two other boys, his face lit up with a broad grin. One boy is laughing so hard he has to hold his side. Others lean on the cracked walls, beaming with delight. It is easy to spot the contrast — and the point. Joy amidst the rubble of life. Laughter amongst its ruins. We cannot avoid pain, however hard we try. But we can avoid joy. We cannot escape hardship and trouble, but we can miss out on much of life’s peace and laughter.”1
Find your joy. Look for it in the love you give and the love you receive. Look for it in the relationships that mean something to you. Look for it in your fondest memories, in the simplest pleasures, in the quietest moments. All joy like all love comes from God. Happiness is wonderful, but joy is something you can build your life on. Amen.
1. Steve Goodier