May 21, 2017 | Matthew 13:44, John 15: 9-11 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
Several years ago I went through a time when almost everything in my life felt like a challenge. There were things I was trying to come to terms with in my personal life. In my professional life I was trying to navigate my way through a very touchy situation involving an employee in the congregation I was serving. I was anxious, stressed and exhausted much of the time.
So I did what I often do when I feel like I’m falling apart at the seams, I went away on a silent retreat. On that retreat I discovered something about myself that was quite shocking to me at the time. Somehow, in the midst of dealing with all that was on my plate, I came to realize, I had completely lost my joy. It was shocking to me because I have always considered myself to be a fairly joy filled person. So how was it that I had become joy-less?
A couple of weeks ago when I was back at Bethlehem Retreat Center for the first time in quite a few years, I found myself thinking once again about that joyless time in my life.
It happened one evening when my colleagues got together for an “fun night.” Eric Hamlyn, the youth and young adult minister for our presbytery was in charge of the program. He began by dividing us into 5 groups. He then announced that each small group would be required to make a series of presentations to the large group based on a series of words he was going to give us. The words were things like sing, karate, poetry, yoga, fashion, humour and dance.
As soon as I heard the instructions I started looking for the exit. I looked around at the group I had been put in a flood of stressful thoughts started racing through my mind: I’m going to embarrass myself in front of my colleagues; our ideas aren’t going to be as good as the other group’s ideas; how did I end up in the group with the least creative people; why didn’t I sit next to my friend who is a poet so I would have been put in her group; I hate these kinds of forced “fun” activities.
And then, because I was on the planning event for the team I had to just jump in and go with it. At the end of the evening, our group probably was one of the least creative groups in the bunch, but I no longer cared. I had laughed harder than I have laughed in a long, long time. The laughter was restorative. I came away from that week long event feeling rested and renewed, in no small part due to that evening of belly aching laughter.
Why is it that we take ourselves as adults so seriously? Where is it that we are so intently trying to arrive at in our lives, that we have no time to stop and enjoy the moment?
Maybe its global warming, famine, or the latest political scandal coming out of the US or our immediate access to every disaster that happens around the world that’s got us all feeling so responsible. Maybe it’s the drive to succeed or for some of us just the drive to survive.
Whatever it is, when I think of that evening of pent up joyful emotion spilling out of me and my colleagues, I’m reminded of the times we see that on a societal level, often around a sporting event and the way it speaks to something primal within us – something at the core of what it means to be human – something which many of us neglect far too much in our far too serious lives.
One time my doctor was telling me about her faith community “They’re all so earnest” she said. “They’re earnest about the building and earnest about the finances and earnest about studying about Jesus, I’ve got enough earnest in my life” she said “all I’m looking for is spiritual community.” When I asked her how she avoided getting involved in all the earnest work at her church she replied. “I volunteer to wash the dishes.” And then she laughed.
One day Jesus was talking to his disciples about heaven. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that very same field.
It’s a parable that evokes the question, what is it, that gives us that kind of joy – not status, not security, not a sense of importance but joy, so much joy that we would willingly pay any price to have it?
If you can’t immediately think of what that is or might be, not to worry, the treasure in the field was hidden. In fact if an answer to the question came immediately to your mind, you might just want to think again.
Over and over again in the scriptures, Jesus talks about the realm of God, the kingdom of heaven as something that is not readily attainable, something not easy to find, something just below the surface but not apparent to the untrained or unfocussed eye.
And maybe that’s what makes us so earnest in our searching for the things of heaven, for our joy, that sense that nothing worth having ever comes easy.
This week as I was pondering this parable of the hidden treasure I found myself wondering how long the man had been searching for it. I lay awake at night imagining him painstakingly going over every inch of the field with a stick turning over the soil just waiting to hit paydirt. I recalled the movie the Shawshank Redemption in which the main character Andy Dufresne takes 20 years to dig his way out of prison with a rock hammer so he can reclaim a bundle of money he buried in a field year ago.
I thought to myself the kingdom of heaven is so well hidden surely only the most patient and diligent and persistent of seekers can find it.
And then it occurred to me… there’s nothing in the parable that indicates the man was actually searching for the treasure when he found it. In fact the way the story unfolds, its more likely he just stumbled upon it one day.
Over and over again in the bible Jesus uses everyday occurrences and the things of ordinary life to speak of heavenly matters: yeast and seeds, bushes and trees, fishing and farming.
You might think that something as valuable as the realm of heaven, that which causes us the deepest and the most lasting joy, would only be found in monastery in Europe or an Ashram in India. But the way Jesus talks about it, the treasure is more likely to be found right under our very noses.
In the year that I lost my joy, the things that led me back to it were pretty basic: going to the market to buy food, making the time to cook, inviting friends over for a meal, going to the theatre and the art gallery, having a picnic on the beach, listening to beautiful music, creating a place in my home for quiet contemplation. Bit by bit as I opened myself to these simple things in life, I found my joy returning, my playfulness increasing. I became a better human being to live with and to work with and therefore what I had to offer the world was better.
Sister Wendy, the famous art historian, says this about joy in reference to a particular painting of Monet’s: “It is inadequate, even misleading, to speak of ‘experiencing joy’ though it is impossible to find another phrase that can suggest what is meant. Joy is too great to be experienced. It is never our own, never within our power. It is rather that we are taken up into its vastness, and that what we experience is not joy itself, but its residue: our reactions, our emotions after the vision has left us. When we experience joy we recognize it, not for what it is, but for what it makes us recall…”
That evening of playful laughter with my colleagues was very much like that for me. Once I realized there would be no escape, I found myself getting caught up in something coming to life in my midst that was larger than my ability to control it or myself. It happened the moment I was swept up and out of my self-conciousness, all those worrisome thoughts I was having about whether or not I would embarrass myself or who we would be better at the task than I was. It happened the moment I let go of judgement and remembered my joy.
In the scripture reading from last Sunday which was all about loving others as we have first been loved by God and abiding or dwelling in God’s love, the purpose of living in love was stated in the text: abide in my love so that my joy may be in your and your joy may be complete.
There’s something about taking ourselves lightly and taking unconditional love seriously that leads us to joy.
So often we think heaven’s demand on us is the hard work of seeking justice; the hard work of changing our lives and making amends; overcoming our fears; the hard work of welcoming strangers and feeding the hungry; the hard work of living the gospel and being a better person.
And there is no question that to live the Jesus way, to live a life of integrity and purpose, can be very demanding. It is costly. But beneath all that hard work, just below the surface, is heaven’s greatest claim on our lives—we are meant and made for joy.
May we not only find it in our lives, but may joy find us.