Over the years, I have used various readings with this sermon, including: “If There is to Be Peace” by Lao Tse, a section of Honey From Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God by Chet Raymo, and from O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen. I have used the responsive readings #517 by Starhawk in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, or “The Stream of Life” by Rabindranath Tagore, found in the old Unitarian blue hymnbook as #351 and in a shortened version as #612 in “Singing the Living Tradition.”
Once upon a time, a Buddhist monk was being chased by a tiger. As he burst through the forest, he saw a cliff in front of him. But then he saw a tree branch hanging over the edge of the cliff. So he gripped the branch and jumped off. The branch held. For a moment. Then the branch broke. But as the monk fell, he saw a vine, and managed to grab hold of it. The vine stopped his descent. Then the monk saw a strawberry growing on the cliff face. A perfectly ripe, red strawberry. And as he stretched out to pluck the berry, the vine broke. But he managed to pick the fruit before he fell, and in the last moment of his life, he savored the sweetness of that fruit. For that moment, only the strawberry existed; for that moment, the monk knew true joy.[ref]Adapted from: Forest, Heather, Wisdom Tales From Around the World, Little Rock, AK: Random House, 1996, 40.[/ref]
One instant of joy before death.
But joy is our birthright. God is everywhere. In everything. Or, if you don’t like the term “God,” then beauty is, or the beating of our hearts, or the life force. These things give us joy.
I met a man who toured the country talking about the sky. He encouraged people to look at the sky, day and night, to learn the shapes of clouds, the brightness of planets rising. For no matter how dismal a home a person lives in, or how filthy the street he sleeps on, he can still see the sky. And even if that sky is fouled by our technological lives, the sunrises and sunsets will be beautiful. And the moon still comes up. That is what joy is about.
Quiet joy settles in our bones and ripples through our muscles, humming softly, but never bursting into full-fledged song. The satisfying soreness I feel after I dig a garden bed, the pleasure I know as I watch children splash in the water, the comfort of clean sheets at night, the taste of berries — that is what I think of when I think of joy. Contentment, soft smiles, warm eyes, dew, the shadows of leaves dancing on the porch. The ten thousand pieces of life. That is joy. Joy depends not on whether our lives are agreeable. When we can finally afford the home we want, or we get the job we want, or someone praises us, we feel happy, glad. But joy does not depend on things. Joy simply is.
But joy does exist, in spite of God’s flood of tears, for pools of god stuff remained hidden here and there, and even now, bits of god stuff drift down from God’s body as she looks upon the earth and blows her breath across the planet. So parents can care for their children, can give them happiness, love, and peace. And Dickens’ Tiny Tim could know joy.
But this connection, this understanding of the universe as a single bit of god stuff so compact it would fit inside a hazlenut, even this tranquility and love, is not all we need in order to feel joy.
Joy comes when we live in the moment. Not that every moment of our lives is, or should be, joyous. Some of our moments are fraught with pain. Loss, anger, shame. Those difficult emotions do exist, and we can’t know joy if we don’t let ourselves know anguish.
Although Tagore wrote that “perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy,” he also reminded us of the poignancy and loneliness of autumn.
But so what if we know joy? Ours is a harsh world, no Eden this. To survive our children must be hard and rigid. Our old people have no right to expect handouts when we haven’t enough for the new people being born. Joy? Hah! Who, you may ask, has time for joy?
I submit that we must find time for joy. All of us. And we must spread our joy. For when joy is absent, people hurt each other; when joy is absent, life becomes hard and bitter; when joy is absent, we gouge the surface of our planet and destroy its life forms. If joy teaches us that our world is part of us as we are part of it, how can we hurt that earth? How can we hurt another person, destroy a forest, extinguish a species?
If every person on this planet truly knew the joy that was his or her birthright, would this world not become Eden once again?
So, if joy is so important, why aren’t we all joyful, all the time?
Well, some people don’t have the power to feel anything, none the less joy. They are too hungry, or cold, or they’ve worked hard that day, dodged bullets on the way home, squabbled with their children, so that all they have left is the energy to climb into bed and sleep and forget. In such a life, where is the strength to feel?
And not just to feel joy. Because if we let joy into our hearts, we must also let in pain. When our hearts open to one emotion, they open to all emotions. We can not open our hearts one moment and shut them the next, like a curtain we close on stormy skies. Even for the luckiest of us, some days do not go well. Happiness fades.
But if pain frightens us — or if our lives are so filled with pain we cannot bear it — and if we therefore reject happiness, joy, and ecstasy, then we are not really alive.
The monk could not help but die. Yet he could make the last moment of his life special. He could fully live even that final instant, so long as he felt no fear of the pain of life’s ending.
Joy is about life, it is about love, about beating hearts and throbbing veins, for the work of our lives is joy. This does not mean we will always feel happy, yet with our open and beating hearts we can rejoice even in our tears. For tears are simply part of being present, and whenever we are present, we are close to the holy, to the life source, to joy. An iris is the same as a star. It is also the same as a chimney swift or a beetle that lives in a snag in a Peruvian forest. There is no end of wondrous things to taste and hear and feel, and yet, we are not always joyous.
So what do we do?
Live in the moment, make a connection. Find a tree to hug, or a child to watch. Children know the magic of ecstasy. At least, they should. Unfortunately, some children are empty and broken, and that is wrong, infintely wrong.
Our birthright is joy. Every person on this earth deserves to know the taste of joy.
Once upon a time, there was an eagle who couldn’t fly. She went to the village wise turtle and asked what she should do. The turtle told her she must climb a mountain, step after step, not stopping to eat or rest, and when she reached the top, she would find that she could fly.
So the eagle went to the local mountain and proceeded to climb, step after step. Her wings dragged in the dust. Other birds jeered at her and pecked at her shoulders. She grew hungry and thirsty and wished she could go home. But on she pressed, even into evening, when the sun began to fall and she grew weary.
Finally, after a long, cold night of walking, just as the sun began to crest the neighboring peak, the eagle reached the summit of her mountain. There, below her, the valley spread out, dew sparkling in the orange glow of morning, and she was amazed. Trembling with a fearsome joy — and with perhaps a bit of weariness and hunger, too — the bird spread her wings and leapt from the cliff.
At first she soared, warm air buoying her body, but then the air currents changed and she tumbled, head over tail, cascading down thousands of feet, flapping her wings futiley until, finally, just before she struck the stones at the bottom, a breeze lifted a wing. With one strong, sure stroke she pressed against that air, and, lo, she rose.
High, higher, climbing so high she could look, once again, on the peak of the mountain up which she had walked.
For a long time she flew, reveling in her new power.
Then she soared back to the village and landed at the turtle’s feet.
“I almost died,” she told the turtle, angrily.
“I never told you to jump off a cliff,” the turtle said.
The eagle considered. “If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have flown.”
“Probably not,” the turtle said.
“But I might have died!”
“What did you want?” the turtle asked. “Safety of the earth, or the magnificence of the air?”
After that, the eagle spent a lot of time jumping off cliffs into that magnificent ecstasy. That was the only way she could feel the same thrill, you understand. But eventually something changed. The feeling became more quiet, peaceful, became a constant joy. That joy stayed with her then, day after day, night after night, and she no longer had to risk death to feel it.
We think sometimes that joy is the delight in a full moon, the tingle of soda on our tongues, the freedom of movement as we dance, the warmth of love we share. And it is. It is. But these are only the particulars. Joy is a constant.
Unlike ecstasy, joy need not fade and tumble from our memories, for it is the quiet calm in the center, the peace in the midst of turmoil, the blossoming and burgeoning of self, the awakening to dawn and the mysteries of the universe, which, we realize, are with us always, everywhere. Joy is not something that happens to us. Joy is the way we live in the world. The ability to laugh at ourselves, to appreciate life in its fullness.
If that means that sometimes we cry and rage and storm, so be it, for there is great joy in the ability to open our hearts and weep.
Sorrow is not the antithesis of joy. It is joy’s other half, for without that sadness and emptiness there would be no happiness and fullness. When we feel the sorrow of our lives, feel it deeply and release it, we are emptied once again and ready to be filled with the wonders of the universe.
It is in the ordinary that we must finally come to know joy, and we cannot be afraid of it, for if we do not open our hearts to the fierce rush of colors, then our lives will become cold and our hearts seal shut, and if our hearts seal shut we will no longer know love. Hatred will overwhelm the world with misery and suffering that leave no room for joy at all.
An Inuit shaman named Uvavnuk wrote:
The great sea has set me in motion,
set me adrift,
moving me like a weed in a river.
The sky and the strong wind
have moved the spirit inside me
till I am carried away
trembling with joy.
Joy is our birthright.[ref]Singing the Living Tradition, Boston:Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, 526.[/ref]
First presented at the First Universalist Church of West Chesterfield, New Hampshire in 1993. Permission granted to use quotes from this sermon for non-commercial purposes, as long as proper attribution is made. Latest version Copyright 2010 Barbara E. Stevens.