A sermon on Joy, one of the Cathedral's four core values.

Joy

Preacher: The Revd Canon Sarah Brown, Sunday 3rd March 2019

In the light of three readings today about what it has meant and still means to encounter the glory of God, today we explore another of the values of our Cathedral Vision - Joy, the slightly awkward sibling to Generosity, Inclusiveness and Integrity.

Awkward for two reasons. First, unlike the other three which are about behaviour, Joy is a feeling, an emotion and most of us do not have much control over those. Some are better than others at repressing our feelings but it is almost impossible to genuinely feel something to command, still less to communicate it through our words and actions to those we meet! The second reason why it is difficult is ‘Life’! The instruction in Philippians to rejoice 'in all things at all times' seems a cruel and difficult instruction when you are watching someone die, feeling tired, or angry, or ill, or facing any of life’s potholes and complications. What has joy got to do with it anyway - and I guess we have all been on the receiving end of Christians who are resolutely chirpy in the face of cataclysm, churning out bright smiley clichés which may or may not be true but do not help anyone because they don’t feel authentic. So listing joy among our four key values is very challenging.

Despite this trickiness I’ve had a crack at a definition. We know it when we see it, but what is it? The best I can do, with a bit of help from various commentators, is

a good feeling in the soul, generated by the Holy Spirit, as He causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the Word and in the world.

It is sometimes triggered by an unexpected experience. We can only imagine what those sleepy disciples on top of that mountain with Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the voice of God – an encounter with glory - must have felt. I’m guessing that, once the terror had subsided, joy was high up there. Anyone who has experienced direct contact with Jesus might know laughter and tears. The day I encountered God’s forgiveness, with the help of a rural priest, I tried later to explain to a colleague what had happened. He took one look at my shining face and said "O for goodness sake, you’ve fallen in love with the vicar". I hadn’t but the symptoms are very similar! Imagine if everyone associated with the cathedral radiated that kind of joy, smiled mysteriously at people on buses, refused to rise to provocation or get offended, had a spring in their step and a song on their lips…!

Whatever Joy is, it is fundamental to our faith. The very heart of a Christian’s hope is the flourishing of individuals, communities and all creation, based upon an understanding that there is something bigger than our circumstances. But I fear that it has become increasingly absent from our experience in churches and in the world. Reminders of transcendence take us part way but if we need ever more glorious music, ever more beautiful buildings, ever cooler worship bands, ever more whizzy Holy Spirit experiences to sustain our joy, like an addict looking for a better high, then it probably isn’t the right sort of joy but just self-gratification. Without joy we see a flattening out, a greying of our corporate life. The centrality of the theology of joy in the Church has, I think, been caught in secular tides, redirecting interest from the transcendent God to human beings and our mundane affairs and replacing passionate, joyful love of God and neighbour with a self-defeating concern for the self and the desire for personal and corporate satisfaction. Luke-warm religion of any churchmanship, overly concerned with its own affairs, will rarely feel or exhibit joy. And when life bites hard, unless we are rooted in joy then we don’t stand a chance against financial worries, suffering, self-pity, self-medication, bitterness and despair. My chest cold, my mother’s dementia, my feelings about my job, will determine choices and their outcomes. Our constitution, our balance sheet, our hard grinding efforts in mission and ministry become the be all and end all.

Arguably, generosity, inclusivity and integrity are values that secular organisations could espouse. Joy is our thing and the world needs it very much indeed. It comes from the understanding of who God is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, what He has done for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and why he bothers. And it comes from a sense that this is so much bigger and more significant a picture than our own small lives and problems. If that is our value then part of living it out must be to fully and more fully comprehend that, deep in our souls.

A survey among young people asked "What is the basic feeling you have about life?" 60% answered, "Fear". Not fear of death but fear of life, anxiety about the future! How can we bring joy to a world so anxious, especially when it so easy to be anxious too!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer trained 67 pastors at his seminary. Their opposition to Nazism got them closed down. So Bonhoeffer wrote circulars to encourage them. What do you say to friends forced into Nazi military service? How do you comfort them when they hear of more friends murdered? How do you address the daily anxiety, the persecutions, the threats and the loneliness?

You might have similar questions. What do you say to family and friends in the grip of cancer or dementia? How do you comfort parents whose children are off the rails? How do you address the uncertainty of Brexit and world affairs? How do you manage joy in the face of homelessness, injustice and poverty? Isn’t joy a false thing - a forced jollity against all the odds - at best a denial of the truth of the awfulness of human life and at worst a plain naïve stupid lie? Was Julian of Norwich’s promise that "all will be well and all manner of things will be well" simply infuriatingly crass? (The answer to that is clearly "nope!" Her vision and understanding of the love of God deeply roots her joy. But the sort of joy that admits nothing of the heart’s pain and anguish and dread can never last but will only numb the pain.)

Those disciples up on the mountain witnessing the transfiguration must have been blown away by what they saw and heard. But it was followed by the pain of failure when they came down the mountain and could not heal the child. Christian joy is rooted in pain and reality and comes out the other side.

Bonhoeffer wrote

The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.

What matters is this joy that has overcome. It alone is credible; it alone helps and heals. The Risen One bears the marks of the cross on his body. We still stand in daily overcoming.

The resurrection has been called an eternal laugh! Easter laughter explodes out of the tomb, which is not to conjure up a fantasy about a life without trials and challenges. Rather it is about courageous, self-forgetful, joyful living. To reach Easter we must first go through Lent and Holy Week, otherwise the laughter is hollow.

So what does Joy mean for us as a value? It means that we must be a place of mission and discipleship, teaching each other and everyone who purports to stand for this place about Jesus, the substance of our joy. We cannot make staff, volunteers, worshippers and visitors be joyful. That is not in our power. But we have to point clearly at its source and pray for encounters with Jesus in the Word, in the Cathedral, in the World, that the Holy Spirit will ignite into joy which will translate into most excellent Christian conduct.

We must read his Word and seek him in each other and share our experiences of him. We must believe his promises, I am with you always (Matt 28:20). He is indeed present with us and we must practice his presence by giving thanks continually for every aspect of daily life, by blessing God, by saying those simple 'thank you’s' which routinely express our joy that the Lord is here. By blessing God for all things we drive back the encroaching secular wasteland and The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom (Isaiah 35:1).

We must believe in his coming by expecting it to happen every day under cover of ordinary events, the duties, the irritations and the joys. Heaven hovers around everyday life. The Lord speaks out of the storm and in the still, small voice. Anything or anyone can be a channel of his coming, everything can speak of his presence and those who hear it will be joyful.

I learned this when working nights in the canteen of a Tesco Distribution centre, preparing food for two hundred warehousemen. The supervisor enjoyed making miserable the life of the posh, Christian bird so he always gave me the onions to prepare - and when I say onions, I mean 3 buckets full of onions - I streamed with tears night after night but I learned to marvel at the creativity of God in the design and beauty of each onion, and I still find joy in onions today.

There are as many reasons to be miserable here as anywhere else - frustration, overwork, people, worship that isn’t 'just so'. There are endless things to complain about. And as we all know, life delivers a dirty payload sometimes - illness, death, family troubles, work troubles, political worries. Life sometimes doesn’t feel very glorious at all. Just because we are Christians doesn’t mean we are exempt from the muck and the mess of life. But we are Christians reborn in the Holy Spirit and as Paul says in our reading from 2 Corinthians this morning, where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom! So we can raise our eyes above the muck and the mess and look upon his glory. We can dimly, hear the enduring melody of the angels and be joyful. There is music in the air. The old Baptist hymn, How Can I Keep From Singing, made beautiful by Enya, and quite possibly ruined by me, says it all:

My life goes on in endless song, above earth´s lamentations
I hear the real, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness 'round me close, songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I´m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

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