Rejoice in the Little Things
Beloved God, I pray that you would inspire these words that they could be a message in line with your hope for our lives. Where these go astray, I pray that no harm would be done. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight.
I began writing this sermon halfway up Mt. Mansfield this week. Now, you could argue that it's pretty clever rationalization to work a hike into my sermon prep. And you wouldn't be entirely wrong. Man, that was a nice hike. But I did, indeed, have a method to my madness for my Wednesday hike. Our subject today is joy and a mountain hike is a fabulous metaphor for this sermonizing journey.
First of all, what is Joy? And how is it different from happiness?
I think the best way to explain the difference, is that joy is a spiritual discipline, something we cultivate inside ourselves. Happiness, on the other hand, tends to be dependant on outside forces: getting a thing you want, interacting with certain people, experiencing events that trigger the emotion. Happiness is basically a surface emotion that comes and goes. Joy is a deep experience that lasts and tends to be consistent in spite of outside influences. Joy can actually grow through suffering. Happiness cannot tolerate suffering.
There is some correlation, however: people who cultivate inner joy, tend to feel happier more of the time.
What does this have to do with climbing a mountain? Well, there is a certain amount of suffering that happens in the process of mountain climbing. Obviously this suffering varies depending upon how in shape the mountain climber is and how difficult and dangerous the mountain in question happens to be. Mt. Mansfield is on the tame side and I’m in relatively decent shape for a 41 year old, so it wasn’t by any means terrible. But there was some inherent suffering, nonetheless. Muscle soreness and sweat, it was particularly foggy and rainy that day so I was pretty much constantly damp, I got hungry and thirsty, I slipped a bit from time to time so there were a couple bumps and bruises, and to avoid some slipping I scooted down a few very wet rock faces on my tush so ended my hike with very wet pants.
I am fully aware that some people would never intentionally sign up for such a thing. But this is a kind of suffering that I choose, that I can even say I enjoy. Why? I don't know. I like it. Perhaps it's because this kind of experience helps me to increase my capacity for suffering as well as my capacity for gratitude - and therefore Joy.
While some might go on such a hike and focus on the pain and discomfort, I tend to revel in the beauty around me, the solitude of a quiet hike, the accomplishment of the summit (and getting safely back to my car), and the heightened senses that such a task seems to encourage. Because I get thirsty and hungry, every sip from my water bottle is delightful and the snacks I have at the summit are almost ecstasy! Because of the damp, sweat, and muddiness I experience on the trail, the hot shower at home and clean dry clothes feel heavenly! Cognitively, because it is hard to simply feel it, I am also aware that the sore muscles mean that I am keeping my aging body strong and healthy. Physical activity and solitude also help my mind process stress therefore making it easier to think both logically and creatively later. And the beauty! Did I mention the beauty? Every kind of weather on that mountain just amplifies how stunning it is!
Because I hike, I have learned to find gratitude and joy in the midst of suffering. I have found that this translates into every facet of my life.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Did Jesus just basically say the same thing as Billy Joel who sings “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”? I think I can almost hear Jesus telling these self-righteous men that they need to repent of their grumbling and griping. In fact, just three chapters later we read The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In that one we see the self righteous Pharisee turn his supposed gratitude into a gripe and a self-congratulatory statement whereas the tax collector bowed low and asked for mercy. Jesus wasn’t too keen on the pretentious and instead taught authenticity. Gratitude and joy come from a place of authenticity, as do authentic humility and suffering - which we will talk more about next week. In fact, we’re covering joy and sorrow back to back because they are, in a very real way, two sides of the same coin.
In today’s parables Jesus talks about joy, enjoyment, rejoicing! It is in the little things, the daily things, that we find joy - if only we will notice them and be grateful. Sometimes we need to lose something before we can truly be grateful for it. The shepherd lost his sheep and found it again, the woman loses a precious coin and searches the whole house before finding it. Jesus is talking about mundane, everyday things that bring us joy. And he’s comparing it to the joy in heaven at the change of heart in a lost soul. I think heaven rejoices at our joy and when we help bring joy to others.
Last year I read I book that I highly recommend called The Book of Joy. It documents a week long conversation between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama as they talk about Joy, how they cultivate it within themselves - sometimes in the midst of extreme adversity - and how we can each experience it in our own lives. Honestly it was hard to narrow down which parts of it to quote as I was thinking about this sermon… just read the book, it’s fantastic. But here’s one worth pondering:
“Adversity, illness, and death are real and inevitable. We chose whether to add to these unavoidable facts of life with the suffering that we create in our own minds and hearts... the chosen suffering. The more we make a different choice, to heal our own suffering, the more we can turn to others and help to address their suffering with the laughter-filled, tear-stained eyes of the heart. And the more we turn away from our self-regard to wipe the tears from the eyes of another, the more- incredibly- we are able to hear, to heal, and to transcend our own suffering. This is the true secret to joy.” I think those were the Dalai Lama’s words.
My mountain summit was lovely this week, but there have been other things this week that I found joy in in the midst of challenges. My visit with a hospice patient, cleaning the kitchen at my home, getting things figured out at a trustees meeting, washing dishes and providing hospitality at the Friday community dinner… All of these, and many others, are opportunities for joy! It's authentic goodness about the day to day living of life.
How many things in our lives are opportunities for joy out of the midst of suffering? Especially in the helping of another…
“I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much math,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu quips in The Book of Joy, “because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way  you gave and it then seems like in fact you are making space for more to be given to you.”
Dear friends, Hedding Family, let’s embrace the joy in the midst of the suffering and work laid out before us, for in it we will find the joy of heaven. Let’s be authentic in our lives - experiencing the sorrow and sadness as well as the joy and gratitude with hearts unguarded and eyes wide open. Together we can hold one another up, laugh through our tears, and cry through our laughter. This is joy.