October 22, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Paul speaks God’s command to the church to rejoice. Always. He repeats himself: Again, I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ What are we supposed to make of that? Is rejoicing something you do on command? Is it like the other commandments: do not steal, do not lie, do not covet, do not murder? Those are things we can, with some discipline and self-control, accomplish. Or what about other things we know God wants us to do, like share our food with the hungry, and welcome strangers, and clothe the naked, and care for the sick, and visit those who are imprisoned? Is the command to rejoice always like the requirements to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God? Do we rejoice like we show hope, faith, and love? All of those things we can turn into some specific tasks, then put them on our “to do” lists. But “rejoice?” Can we just tick it off as another item on the list? “O.k., so today I have to do the grocery shopping, take the car to get the oil changed, mow the grass, rejoice, and then get that stack of ironing done.” It doesn’t quite work that way.
Would it help us understand what God wants us to do when the Scripture commands us, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” if we consider rejoicing as a feeling, rather than as a task to accomplish? Is this, then, a command simply to feel joy? I’m not sure that works any better. Feelings are something that seem out of our control. They are dependent on circumstances, like what is going on in the world, what is happening in our communities and among our family and friends, and what kind of moods the people around us are in. We do not decide to feel sad one day; we feel sad because someone we love is hurting, or because we miss the people and the times which we used to enjoy each and every day. We usually do not wake up in the morning determined to be angry. Well, there was that one lady down the street when I was growing up who seemed determined to be angry all the time, but I don’t believe that most of us can control our anger any more than we can control any other feeling. Feelings just happen; we do not choose them; they depend on circumstances. Isn’t that the same with rejoicing?
But God wouldn’t command us to “rejoice…always” if that was the case. Paul never talks about things which he does not believe are possible; he is far too pragmatic for that. Rejoicing cannot be a task to add to our “to do” list, but it also cannot simply be a feeling which is beyond our control. Happiness may be a feeling like that. We may be happy sometimes and sad, or angry, or nostalgic, or content at other times. But God didn’t command happiness. God wants us to rejoice.
Maybe it will help for us to think of rejoicing differently. One commentator I read this week put it like this: “Joy is a discipline of perception, not an emotion dependent on circumstances.” Not an emotion which depends on circumstances outside of our control, but a “discipline of perception.” We cannot choose what we feel, but we can choose what we perceive. Put another way, we can look at the circumstances which are outside of our control, and we can feel what we are going to feel in response to those circumstances, but we don’t have to stop there. We can keep looking to see where God is at work in those circumstances. We can keep looking to see where God is blessing us even in the most difficult times. We can keep looking to see where we have strength which is beyond our own. We can keep looking to see where love is shown, where help is provided, where acts of comfort and care take away the sting, where love becomes real. We can keep looking to see where the hungry are fed, where strangers are welcomed, where the naked are clothed and the sick receive care and where someone reaches through the iron bars of another person’s prison. We can keep looking to bear witness to justice which does more than we expected it would, and bear witness to mercy which is shown with a loving passion, and bear witness to humility which tramples all over the powerful and the proud. We can keep looking, and we can always, always find triumphant hope, unimaginable faith, and love which surpasses understanding.
Rejoicing is not an emotion dependent on circumstances, but a discipline of perception. In that sense, it is like worry. There are plenty of circumstances which cause us to feel fear. We feel fear in response to everything from the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially in the hands of people who want to harm our country, to things that go bump in the night. We feel fear in response to everything from the uncertainties of the economy and job markets to the people who don’t look like us who now live on our street. We feel fear in response to global circumstances of violence and war and personal circumstances of health problems, financial problems, family problems, or just problematic problems. All of those circumstances are, at some level, out of our control. But what is under our control is our perception of those circumstances. Do we see in those circumstances our certain doom? Do we convince ourselves that we have to shoulder the burdens of those circumstances all alone? Do we let our imaginations run wild, so that the power of those circumstances are like shadows lurking around every corner? Or can we discipline ourselves to a different set of perceptions: to see how things might work out for the best, or to remind ourselves that we have friends and family and our communities and other people who can help us if we just ask, or to imagine light wiping out shadows at every turn, so that we receive the assurance that everything will be o.k. We just read this in the scripture lesson: “The Lord is near; do not worry about anything.” Fear is an emotion dependent on circumstances; it is natural and normal. But worry is a result of our perceptions, and perceptions can be honed and shaped with discipline.
And in the same way, rejoicing can be honed and shaped with discipline. Paul doesn’t just tell us to rejoice; he follows his repeated command with a list of some tools which might help us to discipline our perceptions so that we can rejoice. Gentleness helps; no one can rejoice in violent, angry reactions to every situation. A steady, constant reminder that the Lord is near seems like it might help, too. Prayer will help to shape your response to circumstances; when it is hard to see what reason there is to rejoice, then it is time to take the whole mess to the Lord and beg God’s grace on those circumstances. Thanksgiving is a good way to pray, too; it may seem childish, but it’s really a good way to practice rejoicing: if you discipline yourself every day to name one thing you are thankful for, it doesn’t take long until you notice things you had never thought to be thankful for. And there is more, a lot more, which Paul gives us to shape our discipline of rejoicing: seek truth, pay attention to honor, pursue justice, appreciate purity, share pleasure, be generous with commendation, point out excellence, and heap up praise wherever it is deserved. There are so many ways to discipline ourselves to perceive joy! Rejoice in the Lord, always!
In a few minutes, we will pour some water into that bowl over there, and we will baptize baby Kimberly. There are a lot of people in this room who have also been baptized with water in that font, and generations of other folks who aren’t here anymore, too. Many of us were baptized with the same kind of water in similar bowls in other places. That water is the sign and seal for us that God’s promises will never end: for Kimberly, for her whole family, for all of us gathered here today, and for all of God’s people in every time and place. God will always love us, God will always keep us, God will always save us, and God will always be with us. Sometimes, though, it will be hard for Kimberly to see God’s presence. Sometimes it is hard for any of us to see God’s presence. Rarely do things work out the way we think they ought to, and never do we get to control the circumstances which shape our feelings. All of us have been through times when it is impossible to feel happiness, or really anything positive, and certainly it is tough to find a reason to rejoice.
But it is our job to teach Kimberly and everyone else who has been baptized in that same water to rejoice in the Lord, always. It is our job to show her how to do all those things Paul listed: to seek truth, how to pay attention to honor, how to pursue justice, appreciate purity, share pleasure, be generous with commendation, point out excellence, and heap up praise. It is our job to give her the tools of gentleness, of prayer, of thanksgiving, and even of how to beg God’s grace when nothing else seems to be working. It is our job to show Kimberly and everyone else who has been washed in that same water, even to show ourselves sometimes when we have forgotten, that light overcomes every shadow, every time; that none of us is ever alone; that doom is never certain, but that things might just work out for the best.
Because this command to rejoice is not about an emotion dependent on circumstances. Instead, rejoicing is a discipline of perception. Sometimes it is easy to rejoice: to see the ways that God is working in the circumstances we face. But sometimes, it is not. In all times, though, we are called to perceive where God is blessing us, where God is strengthening us, and where God is making love real. In all times, we are called to see where food is shared, where strangers are welcomed, where the naked are clothed and the sick are cared for, where the prisoners are restored by the presence of another. In all times, we are called to perceive where there is justice, where there is mercy, and where humility shows its power. In all times, we are called to see where hope, faith, and love abide.
And so my prayer this morning is that we will engage in this discipline of perception. My prayer is that we will perceive how God is working in all circumstances. My prayer is that we will use those tools which will help us to see God at work: gentleness, prayer, thanksgiving, and even begging God’s grace. My prayer is that we will hone those skills which will help us to perceive God’s blessings: truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasure, commendation, excellence, and anything worthy of praise. My prayer is that we will rejoice in the Lord, always; I will say it again: I pray we will rejoice. And, as Paul tells us, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…and the God of peace will be with you.”