as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, June 11, 2023
Each year during our annual auction, I offer up the opportunity for someone to win the right to pick a sermon topic for one of our services. I enjoy the exercise. It challenges me to preach on something that I might not have focused on otherwise. One year, for instance, I was asked to lead a service on the spirituality of Neil Diamond. Not being a Diamond fan, I had to do a bit of research in preparation for the sermon. I learned, amongst other things, that he is sometimes called “the Jewish Elvis.”
In preparation for the service, I meet with auction winners to discover a little more about their hopes for the sermon. Sometimes they come to these meetings armed with a box full of books and very clear expectations. The person who requested a focus on Diamond even brought a request that the choir perform his 1974 easy listening hit “I Have Been This Way Before.”
This year’s winner was more succinct. She asked for a sermon on joy, gave me about half a page of notes, and told me, “we have a lot of should, could, and would on Sundays. I would like a celebratory service focused on joy. Otherwise, you figure it out.” When we let her know that she could have a say over some of the music, she basically told Cymphoni to play something that would make her joyful.
Joy, joy is one of those emotions that is a bit difficult to pin down. Sad and happy, those are simpler. Sadness often manifests itself with a certain weight, a feeling of heaviness. Happiness offers the opposite, a moment of elation, a light step. But joy is more complicated. As my colleague Galen Guengerich has observed it is “typically … described in spiritual terms” and is rooted in “a deep sense of satisfaction.”
I think that there was a bit of joy in last Sunday’s flower celebration. Were you there? I find it gloriously joyful to lead worship in a sanctuary filled with flowers. There is something wild and infectious about their beauty. Through them the Earth’s joy blesses us with a rainbow’s worth of color. Lilacs, violets, roses, sunflowers, the very names of flowers invoke nature’s canvass.
The philosopher Iris Murdoch wrote, “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” There is something truthful about that observation. The flower celebration can certainly have a bit of the taste of madness about it. If you were at the 11:30 a.m. service, you probably know that the silent communion at the end ascended into the cacophony of coffee hour.
You probably also observed something that I found singularly joyful: a couple of spontaneous child dedications. Now, we had, in the order of service, some child dedications listed in a neat and tidy fashion. But that is not what I am talking about. Instead, I am referencing what happened with a couple of young families who were joining the congregation. When the parents came up for the membership ritual their kids came with them. And after we blessed the parents, well the children wanted their blessing too.
I have not been blessed to experience something like that before. The kids were radiant. There was a little bit of humor as we struggled to deal with the unexpected. And there were flowers–red roses for new members; lilac ones for the children. But what I mostly felt in that moment was joy.
Joy, joy, I want to pause here and invite you to think about something that gives you joy. When was the time you felt it? Was it a shared experience–the spin your partner round and round of a good dance–or solitary bliss–that tomato ripe from the garden? Joy comes in many forms. Whatever it was, I invite you to bring that joy into your body. Can you feel it in your hands? Can you feel it in your heart?
I want to invite you to share a little of that joy. Make a joyful noise. Clap your hands. Stomp your feet. Shout, “Hallelujah!”
Hallelujah, it is one of the oldest religious words. It is a mash-up of two other Hebrew words, “hallel”–to praise–and “jah”–signifying God.
Hallelujah, will you say it with me? It is a word that has been used to express gratitude for joyful worship, for the joy of being alive, for the joy of flowers, for a hundred generations. Hallelujah!
We Unitarian Universalist are not typically known for our exuberant or joyous worship. I have had more than one friend from another tradition tell me how much they appreciate the meditative feeling of our services. Cathartic release is not something we cultivate all that often on Sunday mornings. I would not be surprised if my encouragement to make a joyful noise or my invocation of Hallelujah made more than a few of you uncomfortable.
Yet Unitarian Universalism is a tradition that encourages us to live joyful lives. One of the nearby evangelical congregations has in their promotional materials that “Religion is about good behavior and living in fear.” We take a different view. It is one that can be found a favorite verse of mine in the Christian New Testament, Luke 17:20-21. Do you know it?
It describes Jesus’s response to the question, “When will the kingdom of God come?” He answers, “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. You cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’ or ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is within you!”
The verse can alternatively be translated, “the kingdom of God is among you!” Either way, the verse suggests that we do not look for spiritual satisfaction or salvation in some distant realm. The kingdom of God is within you! The kingdom of God is among you! Whatever God is–metaphor or manifestation–God, the divine, the sacred, the holy, is to be found here, in this world, not in some distant realm.
Can I get a Hallelujah?
If the presence of God is to be found here, so too shall we find joy. Unitarian Universalists do not proclaim a religion of fear. We do not understand–as some Christians do–the world to be inherently corrupt or wicked. Instead, we proclaim the beauty of the Earth, the sweetness of the flowers, the joy that is found in gathering together.
This might be why the queer poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s piece “Recuerdo” is one of my favorite texts:
We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear.
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
It is a joyful poem. In ordinary life, in simple pleasures, there is much worth celebrating. The poem does not call for change or transformation. It revels in a beautiful night when rather than seeking something extraordinary the poet and her friend had “gone back and forth all night on the ferry.”
Have you had similarly joyous experiences? I certainly have. It is not that uncommon for me to encounter them in the simple act of walking. The unplanned for ramble, through city streets or lush countryside, is one of my great joys. No matter how well I know the path, there is always something unexpected to be found. And truthfully, I connect many of the most sustained periods of joy in my life to walking: pushing strollers; walking children to school; taking hikes through canyons and up mountainsides on family vacations; exploring the illogical mazes of medieval cities; traversing oak arched neighborhoods; or beach roaming–sand getting everywhere, the ocean crashing, a scatter of sandpipers, a flash of fish, a glint of light, and whatever happens next.
There is even an argument to made that such sauntering is an essential Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice. No less a figure than Henry David Thoreau–the peripatetic philosopher whose relationship with Unitarian Universalism might best be described as “its complicated” and from whom so many of us draw inspiration–wrote a lengthy essay on the subject. He found such joy in walking that he claimed any trek could be a trip to a “Holy Land.” He found such inspiration in it that he claimed, “There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament–the gospel according to this moment.”
The gospel according to this moment, can I get another Hallelujah? It is hard for me to think of a better definition of joy than “the gospel according to this moment.” The word gospel originally meant, after all, the good news or the glad tidings. How better to describe joy than the good news or the glad tidings of the moment?
Joy, the good news or the glad tidings that can be found in the moment. The commitment of Unitarian Universalists to joy is one reason why, throughout this month, members of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, including this one, will participate in Pride. We do so, it is true, because we want to proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of every person at a time when neo-Confederates and other reactionaries are mounting assaults–deploying the politics of cruelty–focused on LGBTQ communities.
But it is also true that our presence in Pride is connected to the simple belief that there is joy found in all communities. The Black queer poet Nikki Giovanni summarized her understanding of “Black joy” as being “proud we are here, working through life because that’s all you got to do.” Joy, for her, is a matter of celebrating your existence when other people want to denigrate it. In her view, the people who want to diminish the joy of others are so often straight white men, like our governor or the former president, who want to declare that the only ways of being, the only paths to greatness, are the ones that benefit those who have long held power.
Joy need only take on a political valence when there are others who seek to quash it. I often encounter it in the most mundane of places–the kingdom of God is among you–and in objects like the ever useful “Joy of Cooking.” I suspect you know the classic book, with its well worn path to table fellowship and repository of arguments–at least between my mother and I–over what exactly makes the best caesar salad: its the sautéed croutons, no the mashed garlic and anchovies, no the right addition of parmesan cheese, no the … joy!
The books of famed Unitarian Universalist minister and author Robert Fulghum mostly consist of encouragement that we find joy in such ordinary items as cookbooks and activities like making a caesar salad. He is best known for his injunctions titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It contains such joyful advice as:
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you
Live a balanced life–learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and work every day some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
I personally follow that one rigorously.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the … cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
We are all like that, the kingdom of God is among you, can I get a Hallelujah?
We are all like that, one of most enduring aspects of our religious tradition is a commitment to the joy of life. I sometimes refer to the waking up to the reality of the joy of existence as the experience of undergoing the resurrection of the living. Quillen Shinn, the first minister from our movement to preach in Houston, told the founders of this community that Paradise is “not a place, but a condition.” It is “a state of spiritual exaltation” interwoven into human life. It is found when we joyfully wake up to the beauty of the Earth–the sparkle of the rainbow–and discover the worth of each day.
The worth of each day, this one, and the next one, as we move towards the close, let me recommend a spiritual exercise to you. Make a list of the things that give you joy. It help you to find joy when you have sorrow. It can remind you of the goodness found in life. Here’s part of mine:
the voice of a poet–Linton Kwesi Johnson reading a snatch of “Beacon of Hope,” “tonight you will illuminate the path of dreams / like glow-worms of the northern climes”;
the unfolding growth of children;
walking from home to garden and back again with my love and the dog;
a trip to the fishmonger;
wild sunflowers reaching skyscraper high;
smooth stones touched by light;
unanticipated graffiti proclaiming hope;
an abundance of street murals (have you seen the ones scattered throughout downtown?);
a table meal with friends;
your faces on a Sunday morning.
Can I get a Hallelujah? There is joy to be found in the every day. That a sense of it has grown stronger amongst us in this hour, I invite the congregation to say Amen and then Hallelujah!