“Joy Infusions” by Jolie Olivetti – April 16, 2017 –  Easter Sunday

OPENING WORDS

“i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

TIME FOR ALL AGES

“The reason I like chocolate” by Nikki Giovanni

 

The reason I like chocolate

is I can lick my fingers

and nobody tells me I’m not polite

 

I especially like scary movies

‘cause I can snuggle with Mommy

or my big sister and they don’t laugh

 

I like to cry sometimes ‘cause

everybody says “what’s the matter

don’t cry”

 

and I like books

for all those reasons

but mostly ‘cause they just make me

happy

 

and I really like

to be happy

 

READING

 

“There is a gold light in certain old paintings” by Donald Justice

1

There is a gold light in certain old paintings

That represents a diffusion of sunlight.

It is like happiness, when we are happy.

It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,

And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross

Share in its charity equally with the cross.

2

Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.

With so much to look forward to he looked back.

We think he sang then, but the song is lost.

At least he had seen once more the  beloved back.

I say the song went this way: O prolong

Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.

3

The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.

One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.

The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.

Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.

And all that we suffered through having existed

Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

 

SERMON “Joy Infusions” by Jolie Olivetti

I have lots of trouble sleeping. And it’s not just because there’s two of me right now. For years I’ve been a finicky sleeper, often waking up in the middle of the night for a couple of hours to fret. One of the pleasures of springtime is that my fretting gets a soundtrack. At around 4 am, the robins start going. Their chirping is whimsical, like bubbles floating up in spirals. I imagine them tugging gently on the sun, lifting it with each cheerful note. To hear their birdsong, I’m reminded that early morning can be sweet and full of promise, and that probably the worst thing that will happen as a result of not sleeping is that I will feel sleepy. I’m reminded that soon the sun will rise and my problems will feel more manageable. I feel renewed.

Spring, especially Easter Sunday, is just the time for such renewal, for starting afresh even after a difficult night. Time to throw the windows open and wipe away some dust, time for the robins to tug us out of the darkness. Just like the perpetual cycle of night into day and day into night, we live our whole lives in these little circles. We go down, and then we come up again. We go through cycles of loss and gain, small deaths and miraculous rebirths.

We had some time earlier in our worship today thinking about what makes us happy, singing about joy. Now I’m not trying to bring you down in this sermon, I’m just trying to be real about something we all know: that it can be hard to feel happy on demand, even on Easter, surrounded by gorgeous flowers and eating chocolate. Celebration with no acknowledgement of pain can feel hollow or misplaced. Perhaps the two go hand in hand, joy and sorrow. As the Lebanese philosopher Khalil Gibran put it,

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

The title of my sermon today, “Joy Infusions” comes from one of my favorite divinity school professors. She explained to the Trauma and Theology class I took with her that previous years’ students had complained that the material was too depressing, that doing the readings and participating in the discussions took a huge emotional toll. So she instituted a practice called “joy infusions” where we signed up to offer the class something fun at the beginning of each session. We colored cartoon animals in coloring books, we sang silly songs, and perhaps most memorably we once watched a video of fuzzy young helper monkeys-in-training getting baths in the sink.

Of course, we also had to think deeply about hard stuff. We learned that trauma such as war and intimate partner abuse inflicts wounds that may never heal. We asked how a good and loving God could permit such evil as slavery and the Holocaust – or is such evil just within human nature? And what comfort is that? I didn’t mind the joy infusions – they were fun – but sometimes our efforts at levity seemed feeble. Does a pile of kittens provide any relief when we are faced with such suffering? Sometimes, yes. I’ll get back to why I think so later.

Last week, on one of those super warm and sunny days, I went on a walk to get some errands done. I ran into a friend as they were coming out of the post office. We got to talking and I explained that I was thinking about joy a lot in preparation for this sermon. This led my friend to tell me a story, explaining that they had been talking to an ex about a bunch of really tough stuff, about the hateful policy proposals coming down from the executive branch, about feeling helpless to do anything about our military dropping bombs on Syria and Afghanistan. My friend’s ex paused the conversation and said, wait, but tell me, what’s going on that’s good, what’s bringing you joy? My friend, who is just emerging from a couple months of depression, replied – joy is not exactly where I’m at right now. Right now I’m glad to say that I’m able to wake up each morning, and not regret it.

I’m telling you this story today because that’s the way it is sometimes, even on Easter. Sometimes our resurrections, when we rise from the tombs in our hearts, sometimes the springtime of our recoveries aren’t always pure glee. Instead we find ourselves in a slow, quiet return to life, to ourselves. The robins chirp us gently into the daytime, it feels OK that we’re sleep-deprived, but we aren’t necessarily awash in delight.

Easter is really the culmination of a whole season of holy days in Christian religious life. Perhaps some of you have observed Lent and Holy Week, which comprise more than a month of preparation including self-sacrifice and reflection, rituals of mourning and lament. I definitely did not grow up with these practices. For me as a kid, Easter was mostly about dyeing and finding eggs, eating chocolate bunnies, and wearing a pretty dress. So it’s been a good education for me to learn about how many Christians observe Eastertide. People give up something important to them for Lent. The cross in many churches may be draped in black cloth before Easter. Roman Catholics and others traditionally fast and observe a day of penance on Good Friday, and contemplate Christ’s crucifixion. Some have practices on Holy Saturday grieving Jesus’ death, including paying respects to a tableau of his tomb. This long series of rituals carries the faithful into a place of deep mourning. People descend to the depths, and then emerge to the exultations of Easter Sunday, proclaiming, He is Risen! Easter is an insistence on goodness’ triumph over evil, the return of life from the depths… but only after this journey through ritualized grief, entering into joy only after confronting and releasing deep sorrow.

I was talking to another friend about preaching on Easter. He told me that one year after the death of a close family friend, the Holy Week offerings at a Christian church in the neighborhood were particularly important to him. He is a lifelong UU like me, but he was at that church with numb devotion when they stripped the altar bare during a stark service on Thursday night, and he was there praying during the mournful Good Friday worship the following day. Then on the night of Holy Saturday, he gathered with others in the chill in front of the church to rekindle the Christ light. He told me he’d have done anything to protect that tiny flame and its promise of life and hope, wanting to wrap his whole body around it as it flickered in the March wind. He cried to remember his friend who he missed dearly, and all the preciousness of life’s persistence amidst loss seemed concentrated in that small candle and the circle of people who surrounded it. He began to feel his grief crack open, to feel the promise of healing on the horizon. Halleluiah, Christ is Risen! said the people in church the next day. Halleluiah for spring, for feeling better, for rebirth!

I stumbled across a poem when I was in high school and it caught my eye, the first four lines of it, really, because I had no idea what the rest of it was about. I’m talking about the poem by Donald Justice that I read earlier. I fixated on these first four lines:

“There is a gold light in certain old paintings

That represents a diffusion of sunlight.

It is like happiness, when we are happy.

It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light…”

A warm glow of recognition filled me when I first read those words. I totally knew that moment when joy arrives, unbidden, and floods us with sunshine. I was so intrigued by this accurate account of fleeting delight that I needed to investigate this poem. Who are these soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross? And what on earth are the other stanzas about?

The poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross, according to the scripture, were the Roman centurions charged with guarding the crucified Jesus. The poem contends that they and the cross itself are bathed in the same gold light. Even upon the execution of Jesus, revolutionary prophet of love – for Christians, God incarnate and the savior of humankind – even at this moment of imperial evil and ultimate tragedy, there it is! There is utter happiness emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once, bathing everything from the crucified Lord to the Romans responsible for his death, in gold light. The promise of joy’s return, the rekindled flame of hope on the sorrowful night before Easter, the life that continues to dwell below the soil waiting to burst forth again, it surrounds us all in gold light.

The next stanza takes us to the underworld of Greek mythology, where Orpheus the musician was attempting to bring his beloved wife back to the upper world, the world of the living. The problem was he could not follow his only instruction, not to look back at his wife coming up behind him. He sang then, the poem reads. He sang, just as we may sing next to the deathbed of a loved one, “O prolong, now the sorrow, if that’s all there is to prolong.” This is part of Easter, too, the descent to the underworld, the longing to return, the knowledge that love that binds us together beyond death.

And the third stanza takes us to a kind of promised land, where out of the dusty world we may one day be led from sickness and suffering. As for me, I’m trying not to wait for that sweet by-and-by, for that promised land; rather, my religious quest is to encounter paradise here in this life, even amidst all life’s struggle.

So, back to the class on trauma. The thing that made it one of my favorite classes, rather than just overwhelming, was the relationships that we formed in the class. Together, we grappled with big questions about faith and suffering, we shared personal experiences, and we learned from one another. None of us had all the answers to these big questions but facing them together gave us a greater appreciation for one another. And really, this was the reason that the joy infusions were at all effective. Instead of any one of us alone trying to lift our moods watching clips of zookeepers wrestling with frolicksome baby pandas, it really did infuse some joy into our hearts when it was a classmate who we knew struggled with depression showing the whole class these videos. Our very last assignment was to present a “Hope Statement” that did not ignore the realities of a wounded world but that still offered hope. Everyone had something to share: stories of people who overcame their trauma as survivors of domestic violence through organizing to end abuse, stories of veterans and survivors of war advocating for peace, group games that had us all laughing belly laughs.

So my joy infusion is that I can share a laugh with a friend. My joy infusion is that I can still smile to hear the robins sing in the early morning. And that’s why I like chocolate, just like Nikki Giovanni, because licking my fingers makes me happy.

And my final thought for you this morning is that here at church, we have a practice that speaks to this holy tension between pain and celebration. We hold one another’s joys and sorrows each week, lifting each other up in prayer and love. Our sorrow does not diminish our joy, our joy does not trivialize our sorrow. Just like my friends in the Trauma and Theology class, we are here for one another for the full range of our experiences. Like my friend who attended the Holy Week services, sometimes we all want to cup our hands around the Christ candle, protecting that beloved flame of life and rebirth. It is amazing that we can move through such sorrow and still know such soaring joy, it is a blessing that we can truly say to one another, Happy Easter, Halleluiah, we are risen like the flowers in spring.

And so may the great source of our joy, which comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, bathe us all equally in the promise of life’s return, may it bathe us all in its glory.

 

CLOSING WORDS By Colleen M McDonald

Like jelly beans and chocolate rabbits, may each season’s special delights always bring you sustaining joy. Like the Easter Bunny’s hidden presents in the springtime grass, may surprises and unseen givers ever lead you to give thanks. Like cheeping chicks from eggs and opening crocuses, dewy fresh, may the miracle of life fill you with awe forevermore. Amen.