Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
October 11, 2020
Last weekend, Dary, the girls and I went out to see the sunflower field that Scott McGill’s company, Ecotone, planted out in Baldwin, and I’m so glad we did. Tall, stately sunflowers stretching out as far as the eye could see – mostly all facing the same direction (east) with their heads bowing over, nodding towards the promise of sunrise. It was beautiful. As you might imagine, the girls were delighted! They stopped to admire each blossom, complimenting them as if they were people. As I watched them run, giggling, through the field, chasing each other, with the sun warming my face and the blue sky overhead and the enormous flowers all around, I was overcome with something like happiness, and gratitude for that moment, the people I was with, the beauty of the good earth. The only word I have for that feeling is joy. Deep, fleeting, joy.
Can you remember the last time you felt that way? Maybe for some of you, it was just yesterday, or even this morning. For others, perhaps it’s been a long time. I mean, joy is not necessarily the emotion I’d use to characterize these past few months. Joyful is not how I would describe this year, a year that gave rise to a thousand dumpster fire memes. This year plenty of us have felt anxious, sure. Stressed. Furious, sometimes. Preoccupied and worried, maybe even afraid or even numb. But not necessarily joyful.
In fact, a flurry of articles were written by mental health professionals over the past few weeks observing that we are now more than six months into this pandemic, and the six month mark of any crisis is when many people tend to hit a wall. We’ve adjusted to the new normal of life despite Covid: worshipping online, an assortment of masks by the front door, and hand sanitizer in our pockets. We’ve figured out our grocery routines and how to work remotely, we’ve learned to connect to friends and family through Zoom. But we’re tired. About six or so months in, people are over it, ready for the illness to go away, yearning for a sense of normalcy. When runners talk about hitting a wall, they mean they’ve used up all their energy stores and aren’t sure they can push on. So six months into this marathon of a pandemic, it is normal to feel tired. Depleted, running on empty. It’s normal if you are finding it hard to focus, much less be creative or innovate. Worry about the coming election, and the madness of the national news doesn’t help, either. It can make us feel ready, even, to give up and turn off the news and try to forget all of this ever happened. We’ve hit a wall.
It can make Paul’s letter ring a bit hollow, can’t it? “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!”
Is joy a feeling that can be summoned, just because we want to feel it? What is joy, and how is it different from happiness? The folks in our Bible Study shared what was bringing them joy these days: time outside in nature, in beautiful places – camping or hiking in the woods, walking on the beach, or time with friends and family brings them joy. Ingrid Lee, a designer turned happiness expert says joy is “an intense momentary experience that makes us smile and laugh, and feel like we want to jump up and down.”  Through her work, she has dug into what sparks joy. She’s discovered there are things which universally inspire joy – across ages and stages and cultures. Bright pops of color, a sense of abundance and multiplicity; symmetry; round, curved objects; and a sense of lightness – found in bubbles, sprinkles, rainbows, fireworks, and yes, a field full of sunflowers. She says our joy in these things, “reminds us of the shared humanity we find in our common experience of the physical world.” Joy connects us to one another!
Maybe when Paul says, ”Rejoice in the Lord always,” he’s tapping into the sense of connection and shared identity that come from being part of the church. Because he feels deeply connected to these people – maybe closer to the Philippian church than to any other church he started. He calls them his joy and crown! He longs to be with them, he loves them and misses them. In his absence, the people in the church in Philippi have had a few squabbles, as church folk sometimes do – so he’s writing to encourage them to work it out, for the sake of the gospel and the wider community. As an aside, it brings me joy to know that the leaders of this beloved church were women! Though many of their names are lost, women did figure prominently in leading and supporting the early church! Thanks be to God!
It’s important to remember that Paul’s not away from the church in Philippi because he’s out on his missionary travels, and he’s not writing them from the comfort of his home. Paul is writing from prison. He was imprisoned for evangelizing, for preaching the gospel and building communities of radical inclusion that threatened the social order and drew unwanted attention of religious authorities. So it is in a jail cell that he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” There were surely no pops of color, no fireworks or sunflowers or sprinkles in a Roman jail cell, so what kind of joy is he talking about?! And how do we attune ourselves to it?
The joy Paul is talking about is a joy rooted in the enduring love and goodness of God. That kind of joy does not arise from your current context, which changes day by day, moment by moment. God is beneath, above, around and in all things – and God’s grace and love made known to us in Christ makes it possible for us to be joyful whatever happens, no matter what. Paul calls joy a fruit of the Spirit – an outcome of the life of faith, made possible by the work of the Spirit within us. Karl Barth calls joy in Philippians “a defiant Nevertheless.” Regardless of present circumstances, we will rejoice.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who helped lead resistance to the Nazi infiltration of the church in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Though he was a member of the Nazi intelligence, he worked for the German resistance and was eventually imprisoned for his critique of the regime and involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. While in prison, he wrote countless letters to his family, fiancé, and friends – which express both his deep appreciation for the books and cigarettes they smuggled in to him, and also a sense of joy. “The calmness and joy with which we meet what is laid on us are as infectious as the terror I see among the [other] people here…” he wrote. Joy, despite miserable circumstances. He writes to his fiancé about their union as “a token of God’s grace and goodness, which summon us to believe in [God]…” …and gives them hope and faith in the future. Faith, he writes, “that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us.” Faith despite hardship. Joy despite suffering. A defiant nevertheless!
Here, six and a half months into this pandemic that has upended life as we knew it, a few weeks out from a crucial national election, in a country that is bitterly divided along partisan lines, with a militia storming the statehouse in Michigan and dehumanizing dissents coming out of the highest court of the land… we may be hitting the wall. Exhausted. Weary and longing for an escape. So believe it or not, now is a good time for us to embrace Paul’s exhortation to rejoice! One commentator called Christian joy “not an outcome based on circumstances,” but rather “a discipline of perception.”
And Paul teaches us how to tap into that deep and abiding joy. “Do not worry about anything,” he writes, “but by prayer and supplication make your requests be made known to God.” Now, my former colleague Shannon Webster says a lot of people read this and want to make God into the great vending machine in the sky, where you put in a prayer and get out exactly what you asked for. But we know this is not how the world works. It’s not how God works. Prayer is a practice, a daily effort to listen and attune our hearts to God’s. If anything, prayer is a discipline of attention – attending to God’s presence with us, asking for help where we need it, lamenting the brokenness around us and asking for God’s intervention, and again and again, lifting up our gratitude for the blessing of this life. This practice doesn’t give us exactly what we want, but it will bring us peace.
For the most part, we cannot control what happens to us. Our circumstances are forever changing. But we can control how we respond to them. We can view the microcosm of goodness – the love we share with family and friends, the quiet wonder of the world around us, the warmth of being known and valued, the stunning stately beauty of a field of sunflowers – as testimony to the larger goodness of God who created us, loves us, and calls us good. And even now, whatever happens to us, maybe we can rejoice! Thanks be to God.
 Doyle, Nancy, “Professor Ahmad’s Six-Month Wall: Rehumanizing the Virtual Workplace,” Forbes, 9/24/20, https://www.forbes.com/sites/drnancydoyle/2020/09/24/professor-ahmads-six-month-wall-rehumanizing-the-virtual-workplace-with-the-human-touch/#f95323368ad4.
 Lee, Ingrid Fetell, “Where joy hides and how to find it” TED talk, April 2018, https://www.ted.com/talks/ingrid_fetell_lee_where_joy_hides_and_how_to_find_it/transcript.
 Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Philippians, qtd. by Daniel Migliore in Philippians and Philemon, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2014, pg 156.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers From Prison, Eberhard Bethge, ed; Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Company: New York, 1971, p 156.
 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, qtd. by Micah Royal in a post to Spiritual and Communal Responses to Covid-19 Facebook group, 10/8/20.
 Eddy, Nathan “Homiletical Perspective on Philippians 4:1-9” in Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Westminster, John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2011, p 161.