Psalm 126: A Harvest of Joy
A Song of Ascents.
1 When our God restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
‘The Divine has done great things for them.’
3 The Holy One has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O God,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Continuing Testament: Living My Life, Written by feminist, anarchist and atheist Emma Goldman – 1931
At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin … a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, …for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal. (Living My Life, Emma Goldman p. 56)
This is the longer passage that has been often quoted as, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” And yes, I realize Emma Goldman would probably be horrified to be a part of a sermon. But her wisdom is critical to this moment for us at Lyndale, building the Realm of God here and now, or what she might call our own beautiful ideals. We spend a LOT of time talking about justice. And that’s because there is a LOT of injustice in the world. But we also need to fill our mouths with laughter and shout for joy. That’s the only way to sustain ourselves, to be able to be long-term, life-long justice makers. We have to practice joy.
So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. In another crowdsourced sermon like we did about the theme of vocation over the summer, Michael Vanderford, Heather Oleson and Nancy Anderson will join me up here to talk about practicing joy. We’re in this transition period as Pastor Don has retired after 34 years among us. It’s so important for you, Lyndale, to have a sense of your magnificence independent of any particular pastoral leadership. I have no doubt that as this group speaks, magnificence will be obvious.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, meditates and writes on “the gentle power” of gratefulness in his TED talk from 2013. He says, “It’s not happiness that makes us grateful; it’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” Now, I think this is a monk on a fancy TED talk stage using the language of our times to talk about something that’s really more complex than happiness. As far as I can tell, there is no biblical word for happiness. In our psalm for today we have words for laughter, rejoicing, gladness and joy. But not happiness. And this is probably part of why. The word for rejoicing is actually about the noise – as in a shout – but it is the same word for shouts of joy or of grief (rinnah). In other words, there is a very conscious connection between the dual realities of joy and grief in our text in a way that us moderns or post-moderns don’t like to remember. The word “Happiness” has a way of masking that intimate relationship in our culture. Joy, in the biblical sense, is not independent of sorrow and grief. It is in the midst of it. So because this is not a TED talk, let’s try on this rephrase of Brother David’s quote: “It’s not joy that makes us grateful; it’s gratefulness that makes us joyful.”
I have two points of evidence for this statement. The first is biblical and is the psalms. I love the poetry of the psalms and they also totally vex me. And that’s because they feel like whiplash to me. They go literally from “Woe is me” to praise of God and joy in just a few lines. I so desperately want to prose version of the poem that tells me how the psalmist got from woe to joy. But I think the thing is that it’s not about the journey to joy so much as the practice of joy. The psalms teach us that even in the midst of profound loss and lament, to practice praise and thanksgiving for the Holy. You don’t have to feel it. You don’t have to evolve into joy. You have to practice it. And the way to get there is gratitude. In other words, joy is a by product of gratitude. In the psalms the joy almost always comes in the midst of thanksgiving to God, in the midst of gratitude.
Which leads me to neuroscience, which confirms this. Gratitude boosts our dopamine and serotonin levels, the same neurotransmitters that some of our most common antidepressants boost. But here’s the absolutely awesome thing I found: “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.”
We don’t have to be good at basking in gratitude to experience joy. We just have to remember to look for gratitude. For me, this community of Lyndale UCC is a place and more importantly a group of people that remind me to look for gratitude. I can feel it each week – like a cosmic shift in my neurological and soul make-up – when gratitude kicks in. My wife reminds me too. So does my backyard garden, and Lake Harriet.
Who reminds you and what reminds you to look for gratitude? Lean into them. And Joy will be waiting.