Sunday, October 18, 2009

Becoming Spiritually Joyful and Joyfully Spirital -- Core Values Sermon 4

Core Values Sermon 4

Philippians 4:4-7

When someone always seems to be happy, don’t you suspect that they may be hiding something? Something just isn’t right? Life simply isn’t that wonderful! This is especially true when it comes to religion. I won’t mention any names, but some of those TV preachers, and their imitators, promise us a great life, with little cost – except for what they’d like you to send in to support their “ministry.” And yet, even if faith in God isn’t the pathway to riches and fame like they promise, surely there has to be a bit of joy in this journey of ours.

This morning we’re continuing our conversation about the congregation’s core values, and today we focus on joy. There is another word involved in this core value – the word spiritual. But no matter whether you put it first or second, if our faith in God – that is our spiritual life -- is without joy, then something is wrong. That doesn’t mean that we should be happy every moment of the day. It doesn’t mean that we should expect a life without pain, sickness, suffering, questions or doubts. It doesn’t mean that we can expect to be cheerful at all times and in all places. That’s simply not the way things work. Not even Disneyland – or World – is happy all the time!

So, what does this core value mean, and why does Paul say: Rejoice in the Lord always? Well, to be begin with, we’re not talking about happiness. As James Evans points out that while we can pursue happiness, which is something the Declaration of Independence promises us as our right, we can’t pursue joy. That’s because joy is something that overtakes us while we’re walking in the ways of the Lord. It’s something that happens from within a deep and abiding longing for God, which is why Paul can make this claim even as he is sitting in a prison cell, not knowing what his future holds. Our spiritual joy is not dependent on our circumstances. It’s not something that can be provided for in a pill or even a song. It must come as we walk consistently in the presence of God, even during life’s difficult moments. 1

1. What do we mean by spiritual?

Although I want us to focus on joy, we need to first identify what we mean by spiritual. The word spiritual is quite popular today, and many people contrast spiritual with religious, by which they mean institutional religion. They usually have in mind a sort of do-it-yourself spirituality – a little of this and a little of that.

Although we Disciples are non-creedal, and our list of essentials is few, the spirituality that we’re talking about today is defined by Christ. It’s defined by a gospel that proclaims that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Corinthians 5). It’s grounded in a relationship with the one who “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6ff). It’s a spirituality that allows the Spirit to “will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). It’s a spirituality that embraces the Holy Spirit’s work of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility that exist between insiders and outsiders (Eph. 2:14), like what we saw just two weeks ago, as we shared together in the Great Communion. It’s as Clark Williamson puts it:
The Christian life is one of eucharist, gathered regularly around a table where we give thanks for the love of God and neighbor so graciously given to us.2

We discover joy as we taste this life of grace that has been given to us by God. This joy is a fruit of our relationship with the living God, especially as we participate in acts of loving-kindness.

2. Living Out a Joyful Spirituality

As we reflect on this walk of faith, this Christ defined spirituality, we can now ask the question – what about this joy that Paul speaks of? In reflecting on this passage, James Evans offers three themes that make a lot of sense. I believe that these themes speak directly to who we are and where we’re going as a congregation.3

  • Joy brings Patience
We live in a society that’s increasingly uncomfortable with delayed gratification. We simply don’t want to wait for anything. That’s why we embrace fast food. But it’s not just our food. We want our political leaders to deliver now, not later. And think about the TV shows we watch. If a TV show doesn’t break through in a matter of weeks, it’s off the air – even if some of our best and most enduring shows, such as Seinfeld, Cheers, and the Waltons, took time to attract an audience. But, with the joy of the Lord comes patience. That’s because, as James Evans puts it, joy has the “character of longing.” That is, it’s a “waiting filled with wanting,” and it’s a spiritual virtue because it requires us to trust in God, not just for the moment, but for the long haul.

Last spring we shared together in a study of Gay Reese’s Unbinding Your Heart. We didn’t add huge numbers of new members and attendees as a result, but I do believe that this event made a major difference in the life of this congregation, even if we haven’t yet seen all the fruit. That’s because congregational transformation takes time. It doesn’t happen over night. Indeed, as Gay Reese points out in her newest book, Unbinding Your Soul, Bill Gates is known to have said something like:
People overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in ten.

How often do we try something once or twice, and when we don’t see immediate results we move onto the next thing? If we rest in the joy of the Lord, then we will have the patience to see God work in our lives, transforming us from the inside out. And, if we return to the passage that defines our missional calling -- Acts 1:8 – the one that gives us our commission to minister in the world, from our neighborhoods, to the ends of the earth, we need to hear the promise that goes with the commission – wait for the Spirit.

  • Prayer is the answer to anxiety
Prayer is the answer to our anxiety, because prayer requires that we trust in God. We don’t do this by coming to God with a long wish list, but by coming to God in a posture of humility and gratitude. When we do this, we put ourselves in a position to experience the joy that comes from God. This is why Paul can say “Don’t worry about anything, just pray.” I know that when we hear this verse, in the back of our minds we hear that old song from the 1980s: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Got worries, Bobby McFerrin sang, don’t worry about it, just be happy. Just pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind. After all, he is writing from a prison cell, and he knows that there are troubles brewing in the Philippian church.

So, when he says – don’t worry, just pray, he’s asking us to do what Jurgen Moltmann calls praying with open eyes. When we pray, we should pray watchfully, and when we watch the world, we should do so prayerfully. Moltmann notes that when we pray, we usually close our eyes, fold our hands, and look inwardly. But this isn’t praying watchfully. It’s not a posture of prayer that lets us see the world and bring that world into our prayers, so that we can see the world as God sees the world. But if we pray with open eyes, with supplication and thanksgiving, we can find joy, even when our circumstances are less than perfect. That’s because our trust is in God and not in our own devices. 4

  • Joy brings Peace
When we walk in the Lord, and trust that God will be true to God’s promises, then joy will mark our lives, and with this joy comes peace. This is the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” It’s not peace as the world conceives of it. That is, it’s not an absence of conflict or suffering, but rather it is a confidence that God is with us, no matter the circumstances. This is a peace that comes when we walk together in pursuit not of joy, not of happiness, but pursuit of a relationship with the living God. This is a peace that lies beyond human comprehension. Ultimately, it’s a peace that we will never completely experience in life. That’s because our relationship with God is a life long pursuit.

Therefore, as we seek to live into this core value, that our missional life together will be a life full of the Spirit of God, and therefore one that is full of joy, let us embrace this promise that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

1. James H. Evans in Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., (WJK, 2009), pp. 62–64.

2. Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, (Chalice Press, 1999), p. 248.

3. Evans, in Feasting on the Word, p. 66.

4. Jurgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendell, Passion for God: Theology in Two Voices, (WJK, 2003), pp. 62ff.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 18, 2009
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

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