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  • Zachary Helton

"Seeds of Joy," by Zachary Helton

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The Spirit of Exalted YHWH is upon me, for YHWH has anointed me: God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to announce a year of favor from YHWH, and the day of God’s vindication; to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve in Zion— to give them a wreath of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of tears, a cloak of praise instead of despair. They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by YHWH to display God’s glory. They will restore the ancient ruins, and rebuild sites long devastated; they will repair the ruined cities, neglected for generations. For I, YHWH, love justice; I hate robbery and sin. So, I will faithfully compensate you, and I will make an everlasting covenant with you. Your descendants will be renowned among the nations; and your offspring among the people; all who see you will acknowledge that you are a people blessed by YHWH.’ I will joyfully exult in YHWH, who is the joy of my soul! My God clothed me with a robe of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and a garden brings its seeds to blossom, so Exalted YHWH makes justice sprout, and praise spring up before all nations.

Luke 1:46b-55

Mary said: “My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior. For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed. For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name. Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you. You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty. You have come to the aid of Israel your servant, mindful of your mercy— the promise you made to our ancestors— to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.”



This is the Sunday of Joy. Joy which, no one needs to point out, for many of us, is probably in short supply at the moment. Joy can be one of those things you take for granted. It shows up every so often and when it does, you’re grateful for it… but you really don’t start asking questions until it stays away for a bit too long. That’s when you might start wondering exactly where did it go? What’s blocking it out? And most importantly, how do I get it back? This is the situation a small group of us at Northminster were in about four months ago, about six months after we locked down. Our feelings were throwing up all kinds of red flags and it took us a minute to realize for the first time just how much of an impact all this was having on our wellbeing. So, we started a group to deal with it together. We decided to meet on Sunday mornings over Zoom for ten weeks to try to see more clearly just what sorts of invisible forces had been playing on our spirits, and what we could do about it. Our first meeting was on August 23rd. We started working through the best studies and practices psychology had to offer, looking at the work of academics like Dr. Laurie Santos of Yale, Dr. Elizabeth Dunn, Dr. Nick Epley, and their colleges in positive psychology, and as we studied, we began to realize that much of what we assumed would bring us joy, or even what passes for “joy” at all… is actually totally wrong. As we met for those ten weeks, I discovered that the truth was actually hiding in plain sight, attested to by the great wisdom traditions, including our texts this morning… and that is that joy comes, not from grasping at anything, but from surrender. The first mountain we had to scale when it came to understanding joy was the way we imagine joy to begin with. There’s a story we have to un-learn, the story that says if we’re not feeling happy, then there are certain things outside of ourselves that can make us happy, if we can just get to them. A few years ago, Amazon was advertising it’s new one-hour delivery service in big cities, and they said it most blatantly when they put up billboards that said: “Zero to happy in one hour!”[1] You feel nothing. We can sell you happy. This is the story that tells us that when we eat, when we drink, when we buy, when we travel, when we scroll, when we watch… then it’ll bring us joy, and it does… for a minute. It’s good for a quick dopamine high, but nothing more. Because, of course, the vacation ends, the plate is empty, and we are left with our unchanged selves, hungrier, in fact, for our next fix. Swap out those nouns and you could just as easily be describing a cycle of addiction. While that may be great for the bottom line, as you might predict, it’s detrimental to our wellbeing. Much of what passes for the pursuit of happiness is nothing more than the pursuit of distraction, and in the end, we’ve got nothing more lasting than a hangover and a taste in our mouths.[2] But then, there’s another way to imagine joy. What if we thought of it, not as something out there to be grasped, but as something in here to be nourished. What if we called joy, as the Buddhists do, a seed always present in the soil of our soul – a seed which may be dormant, and needs proper attention nourishment in order to grow? Imagine a tomato plant. In order for your plant to actually grow, you can’t just focus on the seed itself, you’ve got to focus on other things: the soil, the water, the availability of sunlight, the temperature, the season, the insects, the other plants around it… you focus, not directly on the plant, but on all these other factors that enable the plant can grow. Gardening, like joy, is an indirect practice. It’s as Dr. Viktor Frankl wrote, “…happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”[3] So the question, then, becomes, what actually nourishes the seed of joy in us? As we studied, we learned that it’s not what we usually think. As a matter of fact, the things we typicaly turn to, like screen time, are actually actively harmful to our seed of joy. We discovered that the seed of joy is watered, not by any kind of indulgence, but by things like exercise, sleep, and rest. It’s a sprout nourished by the practices of mindfulness meditation, gratitude, and real social connection. It grows as it’s nourished by resilience in the face of adversity, by surrender to the service of something greater than ourselves. These are the things that encourage the seed to grow, to strengthen, and bear fruit. We have to re-imagine joy, not as something out there, but as is a seed in the soil of our soul. A seed that has to be nourished to grow. In our group, this image became so central, we named the class “Watering the Seeds of Wellbeing.” But then, in our sixth week of meeting, I encountered a study that complicated things a little bit. We were taking a look at studies that focused on “hedonic adaptation,” in other words, they focused on the question “Can money buy happiness?” There was one particular study done on this question in 2010 by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton out of Princeton.[4] In their published results, they reported, as you might expect from the trope, no, money cannot buy happiness, it does not water the seed of joy in us… but with one caveat. While money had no bearing on joy to someone making a comfortable living, whether they were making $75,000 or $750,000, money did have a bearing on people who weren’t making a comfortable living. A significant bearing. It turns out, for people unable to meet their basic needs, who did not have the assurance of enough food, freedom, or adequate shelter, Kahneman and Deaton reported weaker levels of joy, leading us to amend the aphorism: Money can’t buy happiness… unless you don’t have any. Then it actually makes a pretty big difference. It turns out, for some, the seed of joy of buried so deep by injustice, nourishment has a difficult time reaching it. For some, the seed of joy is buried under the rocky soil of economic inequity or lack of access to healthcare. It’s choked out by weeds of systemic racism and threats of violence. Those same basic nourishing practices we talked about, they’re still available, but are much more difficult to cultivate, the result being the seed never has much of a chance to grow. When we read our texts this morning, it becomes clear that this is the position from which they were written. The Magnificat and Isaiah’s sermon were written by those who hadn’t seen the sprout of joy for too long. It is the work of those too long denied the basic human rights of freedom, dignity, or an adequate income. The joy in Isaiah’s sermon was the joy that, after a long season of exile and poverty, “God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison… Let us joyfully exult in our God,” Isaiah wrote, “who makes justice sprout and blossom like seeds growing from the earth!” The joy in Mary’s song was the joy that, after struggling to breathe under the military boot of a dominating empire, “God has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has come to the aid of Israel, keeping the promise made to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants forever.” This is the kind of literature that comes from a community that had been unable to water the seeds of their joy for far too long. It’s the joy of one who has been watching and waiting through a very long night, and now catches the first ray of the of liberation on the horizon. For some, the seed of joy of buried so deep by injustice, nourishment has a hard time reaching it… but there is hope. A few minutes ago, I shared part of a quote from Viktor Frankl, that “happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue,” but that’s not the full quote. It continues with, “and it does so only as the […] side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself, or as the by-product of one’s surrender to [something] other than one’s self.” In other words, our seeds of joy are nourished, not by grasping at pleasure or seeking out distraction, but in surrender to the God who fights for justice and equity. When our wellbeing group had been meeting for about eight weeks, as we came to the end of our time together, I came across another study worth mentioning. In 2002, Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began doing studies in partnership with Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who also holds a PhD in molecular biology. The studies went like this: Richard would climb into an MRI, and Davidson would observe his brain as he practiced Metta meditation – a meditation focused on lovingkindness. It’s a meditation we’ve done before, the one that starts with “May I be free, may I be happy, may I be healthy…” and then expands to friends, enemies, and the whole earth Well, as Ricard meditated, Davidson, watching the monitors, was shocked. Because the parts of the brain associated with joy caught fire. They would go on to discover that such meditation can actually alter the structure and size of particular cortical areas of your brain,[5] and other studies have continued to consistently show joy strongly associated with things like acts of kindness and generosity, service and connection with others. Our truest selves, it seems, are hard wired for love. Here’s another way to say that: the joy of the wealthy is tied up in the joy of the oppressed. If you want to nourish the seed of your joy, that path will take you into the heart of justice, into total surrender to the God of love. Now, don’t misunderstand. This does not mean there’s a simplistic formula. It’s not that when we work for justice, the world somehow owes us good feelings. That would be just another form of distraction, a prosperity gospel. Those who believe such things are destined for burnout and frustration. What this doesmean is that when we surrender to the God in us, the part of us that is generous and humble, that loves justice and mercy, then we access an abundant part of ourselves, a flow of giving and receiving love that carries in it the inherent and uncaused joy of God. Our seeds of joy are nourished, not by grasping at pleasure or seeking out distraction, but in surrender to the God who fights for justice and equity. So, People of God, what is left but to surrender? What is left but to let go of that false joy of something out there, the empty promise of craving and distraction we’ve chased for too long, the false joy that has never delivered? For the sake of real joy, for the sake of the joy of those around us, let us die to those parts of ourselves, and allow to be born anew a new humanity, one that values justice of indulgence. Let us give birth to the kind of Spirit that invests its treasure, not in banks, but in the bellies of the poor, not in some attic to be lost to moth and rust, but in the kin-dom of heaven on earth. Let us be ones who surrender to the God born through us, the God of liberation to whom Mary and Isaiah cry out. This is death and it is life and it is sustenance and it is unconditional joy and it is not out there, but right here, at hand. May we know the joy of surrender. Amen.


Invitation to Respond

On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:

  • What would you say are the biggest sources of joy in your life? Are these really sources of joy, or sources of distraction?

  • What practices really nourish (or could nourish) the seed of joy in your soul? What are the obstacles in the way of you practicing these things? What would your life be like if you were to commit to them? The lives of those around you?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the live chat, or to continue the conversation in the “Narthex” chat after the service.

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