June 14, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This is the 13th week of Zoom Church. 13 weeks; that’s over 3 months; a quarter of the year. Back in March, when the state shut down the schools and a wave of closures swept across New York, the church leadership met to discuss moving to Zoom and our initial timetable that we announced to the congregation stated that virtual worship would last for “the next two weeks at least.” Though we already suspected it might be longer, I don’t think that on March 15th, any of us could have foreseen that we would still be Zooming in June. Nor did we have any idea then that moving to Zoom worship which felt like a monumental change would come to seem in the grand scheme of things like just an inconvenience. Parents had to learn to homeschool, college students moved home, businesses shut down, the national economy slid off a cliff, it snowed into the middle of May, and then, when we thought things could get no worse, George Floyd was murdered and the nation erupted in protest. The first thing I do now when I get up on Sunday morning is check the New York Times to see what new grief I may have to address in our prayers and though over the years of my ministry I have had numerous Sundays when I preached to our collective sorrow, I can’t think of a time in my life when that grief has been as unrelenting as it has been in the past three months. We have had a lifetime of heartache compressed into thirteen weeks.
Nor are any of us naive enough to think it is over. As we try to re-open the nation, we are encountering new challenges and arguments about the safest way forward. The burning anger of the Black Lives Matters protests may have settled into a more determined calm but the racial injustices we have witnessed are still raw and the debate over solutions will continue to roil our communities, and should roil our communities because no one should want to just go back to the way things were. The pandemic has not gone away and we are all now more realistic about the possibilities of additional spikes and more changes ahead. And of course, we have a presidential election coming up which is stressful and divisive enough in the best of circumstances, and these are far from the best of circumstances. And these are just the things we know. To quote the infamous Donald Rumsfeld, “there are known knowns…. [but] there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” To illustrate our naïveté over believing we can predict the future, it has become popular on the internet to post pictures labeled “My Plans” alongside pictures labeled “2020.” One of my favorites has a picture of a family lounging on a crowded beach enjoying some fun in the sun labeled “My Plans” and next to it, labeled “2020,” is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
Given the unrelenting difficulties of these past months, it may seem odd, even callous, that I chose joy as my theme for today’s worship. When some of the Black Lives Matter protesters turned their march into a street party, an organizer chastised them saying, “This is not a time for dancing and laughing — this is serious business!” Her assumption, which many of us share, is that joy and sorrow are opposites and if you are truly feeling empathy with those who suffer, your heart would be too full of pain to have room for any joy. How could we possibly talk about joy when the world has crumbled beneath our feet?
To think that, however, is to confuse joy with happiness. The dictionary defines happiness as “a pleasurable or satisfying experience,” something that is very contrary to the suffering and grief of today but joy is not a feeling of pleasure. In fact, the Bible tells us that joy is not really a feeling at all; it is an attitude that we actively and deliberately cultivate. Joy may lead to an emotional experience, but it begins with an intentional determination to be joyful. The verbs the Bible uses to describe joy are in the imperative tense, the tense used to command, so we read, for example in Psalm 100, the command to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord.” The psalmist doesn’t say, “When you are feeling happy, come and make a joyful noise to the Lord;” but commands us to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord. Period. Serve the Lord with gladness.” Likewise, Paul, as he sits in prison not knowing what his future might bring, writes to the churches saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” He doesn’t say, “We will rejoice when I get out of prison,” but he demands that they cultivate joy right then, and always. Christians are commanded to seek joy and create joy even when the circumstances of our lives leave us unhappy or distressed, not as some sort of rose colored glasses coverup, but because joy is defined in the Bible as a conviction about the steadfast quality of God’s grace which remains at work regardless of the circumstances around us.
Joy in the Bible is the cultivation of gratitude for instances of goodness and beauty even when cruelty and ugliness threaten to overwhelm us.
Joy is the insistence that our lives have meaning and purpose even when events are not in our control.
Joy is the declaration that darkness and cruelty and fear cannot erase all that makes life worth living; and that we are determined to hold onto the light, goodness, and hope that continues to remain even in the worst of times.
Joy is knowing that we are loved and loving people and that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Joy is an attitude that the Bible commands us to cultivate because to seek joy is to remember what makes life worth living in the first place. To seek joy is to look toward the One who created us in beauty, in goodness, and in love, and whose beauty, goodness, and love remains with us and can be seen in moments all around us even when the world is sliding off a cliff.
Let the protestors dance in the street. Even as we fight to tear down the horrendous structures of racism in our country, may we dance in a celebration of the goodness of life and love that the worst injustices cannot take away. And let us sing psalms of joy from our quarantines. Even as we suffer the pain of social isolation, let us celebrate the unquenchable bonds of family, friends, and church which cannot be severed by distance. And let our joy be complete, for no matter how much grief and pain our hearts may have to bear, we know with certainty that we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ who strengthens us, comforts us, keeps us, guides us, cherishes us, and walks with us every step of the way. In him, our joy is complete, so let us today and every day, make a great and joyful noise to the Lord.