“The Way to Life: Celebration” by Rev. Cody Sandahl – May 14, 2017 (Mothers’ Day)

Lay Reader = John 15:9-17

9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Introduction

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We are still in our series looking at how our spirituality can be life-giving. Last week we looked at life-giving meditation. We were reminded that Christian meditation is anything that eliminates distractions, helps you listen for God’s voice, and then encourages you to put it into practice. But all you REALLY remember is me choking on the Gobstopper.

This week we are looking at life-giving celebration. It may seem counter-intuitive, but celebration can be a discipline, it can be a choice. But doesn’t that take all the fun out of it? Well, maybe…but maybe not.

Philippians 4:4-9

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Negativity Bias

At my previous church, there were two families with very different reactions. Both of these families were pretty young. Both of these families had a little kid. Both of these families had a little kid who liked to dance in church when the music was playing. But these two similar families had very different reactions.

One family chose to start sitting closer to the door so they could whisk their kid out of worship and chastise him for being a distraction. The other family chose to start sitting closer to an open area up front so their kid could dance without running into anyone. And do you know how people responded when they connected the dots? They would say, “Oh, you’ve got the dancing kid! I love seeing such joy!”

And that got me wondering – what are those reactions really teaching the kid about faith in Jesus? The one who was chastised was being taught that faith is serious business. The one who was allowed to dance was being taught that faith is about expressing your joy.

Which one was right? Well, both are capturing part of the truth. But I know plenty of Presbyterians who take their faith seriously, and I don’t know too many who are distractingly joyful. That’s not really our gig, right?

Over the course of this series, we’ve looked at fasting – serious spiritual business. Prayer – serious spiritual business. Meditation – serious spiritual business. Being serious is in our wheelhouse, right? That’s our thing! Practicing celebration, though – that might be a bigger stretch for us than fasting.

Let me show you what I mean. We have a weekly Joys and Concerns – you can pick them up as you leave the Sanctuary today and see how you can pray for people in our congregation. And you know, we are never lacking for concerns – lots of people to pray for. That’s good. But I can’t tell you how many times we have to ask, “Anyone have a joy we can share?” It is FAR harder to find a celebration than it is to find a need. It’s how we’re wired.

This is actually something that has been studied – it’s called negativity bias. We weigh the negative far more than the positive. To illustrate, imagine a person who has lied to you 17 times in a row. But the 18th time they tell the truth. Does that change your opinion of them? Now let’s flip the script. A person has told you the truth 17 times in a row. But the 18th time they tell a bold-faced lie. Does that change your opinion of them? If you’re like most of us, it only takes a few lies to write someone off as dishonest, but you’ll always wonder about a dishonest person no matter how many times they tell the truth. We remember the negative far more strongly than the positive.

Even the text we read today, which tells us to rejoice always, to never worry, don’t be anxious, to put our minds on excellence – do you know what was written just TWO verses before this? Paul, the author, had to tell two prominent women in the church to stop fighting with each other. That was the context. He’s telling them and the rest of the church to focus on their reasons to celebrate rather than whatever it was they were fighting about. Paul wrote this, not because the church was practicing it, but precisely because they WEREN’T. The practice of celebration is exceptionally difficult – it goes against our nature.

We all need someone who is safe to vent. To blow off steam. But do you have someone who can listen to your celebrations and joys? Do you just HAVE to share the good news with the same vigor that you HAVE to share the bad news? We are wired to complain more than we’re wired to celebrate.

Joy Is a Choice

Have you ever seen a Christian community in a developing country? A place where they still lack the basic necessities of life – like our sister churches in Zimbabwe where we’re helping them build wells. If you’ve ever been to a place like that, were the people walking around complaining about everything they didn’t have? Were they angry and bitter because you had so much more than they did? Did they hoard what they had lest they run out?

In my experience, it’s just the opposite. Many times the communities that have the least are the most joyful. Many times the communities that have the least are the most open in sharing their resources. I’ve built houses for people in poor parts of Mexico where the things I could fit in the bag I packed for the trip probably had more value than everything they had. And yet they insisted on cooking our team a meal, and they wouldn’t let us pay for it. They fed us out of their joy rather than demanding more from us out of their need.

On the other end of the spectrum, on another trip we repaired houses for elderly people outside of Chicago. They were low income but not extremely poor. They had everything they needed, but they couldn’t afford to pay someone to repair some big things around their home. After our second day on the sites, we had a debrief and one of the students was complaining that the homeowner was following them around saying how bad of a job they were doing, and how annoying it was that they were in her home, bringing in dust and causing noise. I asked the student if Jesus would tell him to stop serving that homeowner because of her attitude. He grudgingly admitted that her attitude didn’t change what we came to do. It just made it harder.

So the community in Mexico had almost nothing, yet they were joyful. The community in Chicago had far more than Mexico, but they had little compared to their wealthier neighbors. And they were demanding and bitter. I know very wealthy people who are joyful and generous and gracious. And I know very wealthy people who are deathly afraid they’ll lose everything tomorrow, so they hoard like a squirrel saving up for winter.

So if you can be poor and joyful or poor and bitter. If you can be rich and joyful or rich and bitter. If you can be somewhere in the middle and either joyful or bitter. Then I think it’s safe to say that it’s a choice. We can choose to be joyful or bitter. We can choose to find reasons to celebrate or reasons to complain. We can choose to look for God-sightings or devil-sightings. It’s a choice.

I mean, today is Mothers’ Day. So I have a question for the moms in our midst. Rewind if you can to the moment you saw your first child for the first time. What do you remember? What emotions do you recall? What were the first words you had for your child?

I bet I can guess what you said. “You, baby have been a pain in my pelvis for the last nine months, you little stinker!” No? Did I guess wrong?

Of course not! Despite the fact that that baby had been making you hot, giving you back pain, making you not fit into your clothes, changing your taste buds, maybe giving you morning sickness which is never just in the morning, not to mention the childbirth process (which I’ve heard is mildly unpleasant) – despite ALL of that, I bet you weren’t complaining about the baby you were holding in your arms for the first time. No promises on how long that moment lasted before they started screaming at you, but hey let’s focus on that first moment.

Joy is a choice. Joy is a decision to fill your mind, as Paul writes in our text today, with “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Filling our mind with THESE things results in the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” Peace isn’t a function of our circumstances. It’s a function of remembering the most important things. Peace is a result of remembering that you are a child of God. Peace is a result of remembering that there is truth, there is honor, there is justice, there is purity, there is pleasure, there are things worthy of praise. The world isn’t exactly filled with these things, but they exist. And in Christ they are enough of a reason to celebrate. In Christ they are enough of a reason to be firm in the storm. Fill your mind with THESE things. That’s a CHOICE to celebrate.

Celebration

Now you do have to watch out for fake celebration. Have you ever been at a restaurant and seen someone pray with thanksgiving over their food before tasting it and sending it back to the kitchen? They’re not really thankful for that food. Or have you ever known someone going through a tough illness or a bitter divorce and yet they’re spouting off how wonderful everything is? There’s a fine line between choosing to celebrate and being fake.

But Mark Twain once said that the only reason angels can fly is that they take themselves so lightly. So I want to give you a chance to fly today. Let’s try to celebrate right now.

You have a bulletin in front of you, so grab one of the pencils or pens in the pew, or pull out your phone and start up a note. Get ready to write something down.

Take a minute now to list three reasons you have to celebrate. Three reasons to be joyful. Three things that Paul would say to fill your mind with. Take a minute now to write down just THREE reasons to celebrate. (LONG PAUSE) When you put your mind on the reasons to be joyful, your heart BECOMES more joyful.

Now you may only have one thing. But I don’t want you to complain about how hard it was to find reasons to celebrate. That’s going the wrong direction down a one-way street! Just celebrate whatever you have in front of you.

And be on the lookout for reasons to celebrate this week! My wife and I are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year. But do you think it would be OK with her if I waited for year 10 instead of celebrating each of the previous anniversaries? I wouldn’t have made it to 10 if I did that. You don’t have to have a world-changing event to celebrate.

We know a couple who celebrate not just their anniversaries but also what they call “love week.” The week that marks the start of their dating relationship. It’s just another reason to celebrate their relationship.

Or I know it’s tempting to just throw away all those school art projects, but how can you celebrate them first…and then throw them away when no one’s looking?

What about half year birthdays or anniversaries? I know someone who gives baptism anniversary gifts.

Find reasons to celebrate – they don’t have to be world-changing. This is like the Christian version of “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” There’s a reason to celebrate somewhere. There’s a reason to be joyful somewhere. There’s a reason to remember who we are in Christ somewhere.

Summary

In the first text we heard today, Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus wants you to filled with joy. He already went to the cross for you. Beating yourself up about what you’ve done wrong won’t help. Beating others up about what they’ve done wrong won’t help. What will help is putting your mind on the excellent things in life. The evidence of Jesus’ presence around you. The abundance of love and the opportunities to show love. That’s a CHOICE that will help us have Jesus’ joy in us, and that our joy may be complete.

Sisters and brothers put your mind on the reasons to celebrate. They don’t have to world-changing. But constantly choosing to remember our joy makes our hearts more joyful. That’s my prayer for you this week. Amen.