Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 17, 2017
“There is Joy Now. Even in Grief”
Psalm 126 – The Message
“It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations--
“God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
we are one happy people.
4-6 And now, God, do it again--
bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.”
“It seemed like a dream, too good to be true.” Wow. How apropos. There was joy in Whoville Wednesday morning because we learned that there is actually a limit to the level of indecency our country will descend, although by an exceedingly slim margin. Despite the willingness of white evangelicals to further debase the Christian faith, indecency lost. But only through the coalition of massive turnout by African American women and enough moderate Republicans to say stop. Combined with the bravery of #metoo. It wasn’t much of a margin. And isn’t it a sickeningly low bar of morality that Christians would trade a child predator for a sure vote? An editorial in the conservative Christianity Today, written before election day, lamented that regardless of who won, Jones or Moore, the real loss was Christian integrity.
But lest our joy become a prayer at the altar – thank God I’m not like those other people! – we do well not to be joyful this morning over something as fleeting as an election. Winning or losing. Joy does not depend on who is in power. If it did, we’d be in worse trouble. Joy has nothing to do with who is up and who is down.
The great spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote that joy “does not separate happy days from sad days, successful moments from moments of failure. Joy does not even depend on the absence of sorrow and pain. It is a divine gift that does not leave us during illness, grief, oppression, or persecution.” In fact, he said, “the most painful times of my life are those times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself. It was that reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope.”
I join many others who grieve their first Christmas without a loved one – in my case, my mom. We didn’t get to spend every holiday together, but nevertheless, there will be no more annual Christmas letters. No more phone calls. A painful loss like most of us have experienced; which we will all experience. But while I was thinking about this, I was reminded of how much fun we had at her funeral. Such that I almost felt kind of guilty. But everyone being together, telling stories, remembering good times, demonstrated to me that joy didn’t die. Nor would my mother have wanted it to.
Nouwen said, “We are inclined to think that when we are sad we cannot be glad, but sorrow and joy can exist together. 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 parts of the same experience. Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow.” Nouwen said, 'My grief was a place where I found joy.'
That will be such an interesting thing to ponder during moments of sadness this Christmas. Joy doesn’t need to wait for some future holiday. There is joy in my grief now. This isn’t just a holiday for grief to mess up my joy.
Eminent theologian Karl Barth adds a twist to all of this. He said joy is always defiant. “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.” Coming from Barth that’s interesting, especially because he was the consummate traditionalist who had little time for liberals and disdain for the social gospel. He was a post-war realist and hero of the neo-orthodox movement in the 1950s. So, a word as strong as defiance from him is notable. But he is also the one who famously said sermons should always involve reading the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. We are cautioned, however, to very carefully always read the Bible to interpret the news, not use the news to interpret the Bible. A very important line to walk. But it might also explain his claim that “Joy in this world is always in spite of something.” In spite of the news. In spite of whatever is happening in our lives. In spite of grief.
It’s one way to read today’s Psalm. Psalm 126 is called a Song of Ascent, one of 15, recited by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the festivals, likely sung on the way up the last hill to the Temple. They are remembering, telling stories, laughing, singing… There is a certain note of nostalgia for days past. They sing about how wonderful God has been to them. It seemed like a dream, too good to be true. We were the talk of the nations. But it’s not just the past. We are one happy people, it says.
Yet, in the next verse, they speak of their lives as drought-stricken. They acknowledge despair in planting their crops. They admit to harvesting with heavy hearts. But do it again, they sing. Rain and joy and laughing and armloads of blessing. But it’s not “jingle-bell joy,” as Talitha Arnold calls it. She said, “Their joy and anticipation was planted in sadness and watered with tears.” That doesn’t quite fit Barth’s claim: that “joy in this world is always in spite of something.” But it speaks to the fun we had at my mother’s funeral. It was grounded in sadness and watered with tears. And the harvest was joy, but not in spite of grief. I found joy in the grief.
I naturally like the notion of joy as protest. Drought, despair, and heavy hearts. Taxes, health care, and nuclear war. Joy as defiant choice.
But I also believe that joy is simply a divine gift that does not depend on good news or bad. Joy is always and already within us. Even so, we must still choose it. Nouwen said, “Joy doesn’t just happen. It is a spiritual practice.” But it’s not hard because it already exists. Therefore, it is not something we need to stress about or strive to achieve or create. We nurture it, grow, practice it. And there are lots of lists on “how to nurture joy.” Oprah’s always good for that. Among the lists, one is called “40 ways to find joy in your life.” Finding joy through things like singing out loud, getting outdoors, and snuggling.
Even so, there are plenty of articles that claim we can create joy or achieve joy. There’s even a website called achievingjoy.com. But it requires your credit card to access. I kid you not. That should tell you something!
Whether it involves defiance, making a choice, or receiving a gift, finding it or nurturing it, all I know is that joy is not something that will come later when something else happens. It is not an achievement. Or subject to failure. And therefore, we don’t have to be afraid of the pain of loss or grief we may feel at Christmas. Though it can be a very difficult time – whether the 1st Christmas after, 10th or 50,th I will try to remember: Joy doesn’t need to wait for some future holiday. There is joy in our grief now. This isn’t just a holiday for grief to mess up our joy because joy and grief are friends.
Joy is here. Already. Now. Therefore, let’s not wait until we feel better or things are looking up; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until we see results; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until people say they’re sorry or until they stop talking about us; because there’s joy now.
Let’s not wait until the pain in our body disappears or our minds are at ease; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until our financial situations improve or we can retire; because there is joy now.
Let’s not wait until we understand every experience in our life that has caused pain or grief; because there is joy now. Name it and claim it.
I’m not going to wait until the journey gets easier or my challenges are removed; because I have joy now. Even in grief. Maybe especially in grief. I claim joy. How about you?
 Benjamin Reaves, “Joy...That Lasts!” 30GoodMinutes.org
 Talitha Arnold (Pastor of UCC Santa Fe) Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, p. 58