"Can Joy Be Sustained?”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – December 11, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11


    Most of us have had peak moments when joy has lifted our spirits. Maybe as a young football player, you were at the right place at the right time. Your teammate moved the ball directly in front of you and you kicked it into the net for the winning score with only seconds left in the game. Everyone screamed in ecstasy and your teammates surrounded you with hugs!  Mom and Dad sat in the stands beaming with pride, announcing to everyone, “That’s our daughter out there!”

    We routinely watch professional athletes experience this outburst of energy.  Last week when Tiger Woods sank his putt to win his own tournament, he used his familiar body language to communicate, “The ice is finally thawing around my game!” 

    In the religious sector, we can tune in as one of the television pastors is preaching. Cameras focus our attention on some members of his congregation standing up, raising their hands and appearing to be experiencing a form of ecstasy. 

    Originally Quakers received their name, not because they produced oatmeal cereal, but from their body movements during worship. There were also Shaker colonies that became known for the same reason.  Both of these sects shook and would often fall down and roll around on the floor as they experienced a form of spiritual ecstasy.  

    The problem with this kind of joy is that it is unsustainable.  When our joy is connected to something in the external world, even the birth of Jesus, it fades when the stimulus causing our joy gives way to current and future demands on our lives.  We move on and sometimes that movement can be swift.

    A woman was once struggling with the demands of her work that she had no time to get a single Christmas card into the mail.  Christmas was two days away. She went to a number of stores and found very few cards left on the shelves.  In desperation she decided to try one more store.  To her absolute delight, there was only one pack of 50 cards left. That was about the number of cards she needed.  The front of the card had a perfect picture.    

    She arrived home, hurriedly signed all of them and took them to the post office.  She got home, brewed a cup of strong black coffee and collapsed in a chair to relax. She was so happy that her Christmas card chore was behind her. As she was relaxing, she saw the box on the end table and pulled one of the few remaining cards to read what it said.

    Immediately she understood why the box of cards was still on the shelf.  Her peak moment of joy vanished as she read the words inside the card. The card read, “A late Christmas greeting is better than none, and I’m sorry it has arrived after your fun.  To you and yours I will simply say that a little gift is on the way.”   As my mother used to say, “Haste makes waste.”

    We can multiply the seesaw effect of joy and back to normal over and over again.  When our joy is connected to an event in our external world, it can leave us as fast as it has arrived when our world suddenly changes.  

    There is, however, the kind of joy that is sustainable, but it is far more challenging to master.   This joy comes not because something absolutely wonderful has happened to us but rather it comes when we are doing wonderful things for others.

    In our lesson today Isaiah wrote these words, “The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his Spirit.  He has chosen me and sent me to bring good news to the poor and to heal the broken-hearted.  He has sent me to proclaim that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.”  (Isaiah 61:1f)  His joy came from what he was being sent to do.   His spirit and energy would not be receiving anything.  His sustained joy would come from giving himself away.

    There was an episode in my life where I had the opportunity to see sustained joy coming from another person.  Such people are in our lives to help us remember what is possible for us.  This one particular incident made me acutely aware of the distance I had yet to grow. 

    The evening was dark because daylight savings had ended.  I was standing in the line of our local post office.  The line was not moving.  There was one window open and several postal workers in the back saw the long line and could have easily opened up another window.  That never happened.

    The hold up was caused by an elderly woman who was sending a good number of Christmas cards to different countries.  She had a change purse and was laying the exact change on the counter for the required postage of each card.  Once people saw what was happening, many of them left their place in line and walked out of the post office. 

    When such delays happen that are beyond my control, I have trained myself to detach from my emotions and watch events unfolding without making any judgments.  This has served me well, but not on this particular evening.       

    My own thoughts would not allow me to be at peace.  Irritation of being inconvenienced evoked questions like: “Why doesn’t this postal clerk ask for help from some of his colleagues?  Why are the other postal workers so unresponsive to an obvious need?  Is this a union thing?  Why don’t they have a special line for people who just want to buy stamps?”  All of us know how our minds work sometimes when we are being inconvenienced.  We know that our thoughts never change anything but our mood.

    Out of nowhere, a mother and her three children came into the post office.  In an excited voice she said, “Oh, look children!  They have the post office decorated.  Look at the Christmas ornaments on their tree. Aren’t they beautiful?  Look at the wreaths!  Look at the picture of the new Christmas stamps!” 

    I had come into the post office to buy stamps and to get out of there before dinner.  All of the things she pointed out to her children had escaped my attention. However, everyone in line became captivated by the joy of this woman who never let up in her enthusiasm.  Her contagious spirit transformed all of us.

    Soon the lady with the change purse completed her transactions and the line was moving again.  When I left the building, I knew that beautiful mother had given me a sermon illustration about what happens when someone’s joy confronts our own impatience.

    Isaiah had a mission, one that required using his talents and abilities to change the lives of other people with a new expectation.  He was going to bring good news to heal broken hearts and to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God.   That mother was on a mission as well -- to keep her children focused on the wonders of Christmas that were surrounding all of us in that post office.  She had learned how to sustain her joy.  Can we learn this seemingly lost art?

    There is a book by Steve Lundin simply called, Fish. Some years ago this book made a tremendous impact on the business community.  The story described the transformation of a common fish market into one that developed long lines of people eager to buy its products. When the employees learned how to radiate a contagious spirit to their customers rather than expecting something wonderful to happen simply by showing up for work, the transformation happened. 

    Steve outlined his findings with seven observable principles active every day in that business. The principles that transformed Pike Place Market into a thriving six days a week world class fish-market could be applied to any organization, even to a church family.  His book demonstrated that people can be trained how to sustain their enthusiasm for life when they learn that joy is a choice.

    The first principle was to learn how to play.  Everyday the employees displayed a playful attitude about every aspect of their work.  For example, one guy would pick up a heavy, slippery salmon and throw it 8 feet to a co-worker who had the ability to make spectacular one-handed catches.  This is the way fish were transferred from their bed of chipped ice to the guys who are preparing and packing them for customers. 

    Those buying fish stood enthralled by the sideshow unfolding in front of them.  The result from such playfulness was productivity. Everyone was having a good time.  Laughter was constant.  The employees were constantly smiling and radiating a captivating spirit. 

    The second principle was to involve your customers.  An employee would grab an unsuspecting person, put an apron on her and have her get involved.  Once, one of the guys began tossing salmon to a woman who could not catch any of them. It was entertaining to watch this.  One of the workers yelled out, “She’s out of here!” Everyone laughed.  The crowd loved it.  

    The third principle was for employees to show up to work wholeheartedly.  In other words, when they were doing their work they were engaging someone in conversation.  They let customers know that they are interested only in them.  Focused-energy is powerful. When people feel valued, they come back. They want to be around highly energized people.  We can understand how these principles can easily be adapted to a congregation.

    The fourth principle was to learn that employees can choose their attitude.  All the workers in the market discovered how exhilarating it was to take responsibility for how they felt about life.  No one could make that choice for them. If they are irritable, hurt or angry, that was a choice that showed in their personalities and was reflected in their faces. Such a blank, absent presence will not sell many fish. All the employees knew that.      

    The fifth principle was commitment.  All the workers were committed to the mission and vision of the fish market. They expressed this orientation in their own unique style.  Steve wrote, “When a group of people has this level of commitment, powerful things happen.  Employees trust each other and thus collectively they move forward in the achievement of their common goals.” 

    The sixth principle was the key to the market’s success -- be the message.  They did not expect anyone to apologize to them, give them a warm fuzzy, hold their hand or make their day.  It is up to every employee to determine the quality of the message they wished to send. Steve wrote, “Every moment that employees are awake is an opportunity to ‘be the message,’ i.e., to be what they want to communicate to the rest of the world.”

    Finally, the seventh observable principle was to become a coach of the others in the work place.  Everyone in the fish market coaches all the others every day; even the owner can be coached by one of the newest employees.  Everyone recognizes that they are a student who has much more to learn in order to sustain their enthusiasm for life. When joy becomes an intentional choice, being the message is no longer a chore.

    This is what kept Isaiah’s enthusiasm pouring forth from his spirit. Isaiah was in the business of healing broken hearts. He began teaching people to reverse their energy flow from life is about me to life is about us. Isaiah was sent to preach the good news that God was coming in a form that people would understand.

    We have lighted the Candle of Joy this morning as we anticipate the arrival of Jesus’ birth.  The only way our joy can be sustained is by our choice to be the message and we practice that choice everyday.   That is what Isaiah did and that is exactly what Jesus did.  Now, it is our turn.