Sadness Makes Room for Joy

Sadness Makes Room for Joy
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
March 2, 2022

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
   sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
   for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
   a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
   a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
   nor will be again after them
   in ages to come.

12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
   and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain-offering and a drink-offering
   for the Lord, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
   sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16   gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
   assemble the aged;
gather the children,
   even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
   and the bride her canopy.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar
   let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O Lord,
   and do not make your heritage a mockery,
   a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples,
   “Where is their God?” ’

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

The prophet Joel speaks today to a community likely living through a catastrophe, one that theologian Wil Gafney calls “ecological—and therefore economic—catastrophe in the form of an unparalleled locust plague and the devastation of crops leading to the decimation of livestock.” (Wil Gafney, Working Preacher)

A people living through waves of suffering caused by forces beyond their control, wondering how to engage with God in a time of chaos and deep loss. 

Sound familiar?

What does it look like to relate to God when the world is breaking our hearts? What are we to do as God’s people when the structures and institutions we have trusted are unraveling before our eyes? When we don’t even have proper words to explain our burnout? As we watch one war fail after decades of suffering only to see another war explode from the kindling of human greed? What are we to do here, as we sit amongst the ashes of this Wednesday?

The prophet answers:
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” 

That seems odd. I like to think of returning to God as a time that would immediately lead to joy! But the prophet here calls us to something different in order to return: fasting and weeping and mourning. I had hoped the prophet would lead me away from the ashes. I don’t think I like the idea of sitting in those ashes any longer than I have to, and yet the prophet seems to be saying that ashes are the way.

As I thought about the prophet’s call to stay amongst the ashes of grief (and my resistance to it), I remembered the Pixar movie Inside Out. A little girl named Riley moves from Minnesota to California with her parents, and she’s going through a lot in that transition. The emotions that live in her mind and body are characters in the film: Joy, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. These characters spend the whole movie trying to help Riley deal with the big move and all that she is feeling about it. Joy especially is determined to get Riley to be happy again. At one point in the film, Sadness starts touching some of the core memories in Riley’s brain, times Riley had once felt happy in Minnesota, and those memories, embodied by little glass globes, turn from the yellow happy memory color to the blue sadness color. Joy and the others tell Sadness to stop ruining all these previously happy memories and they tell Sadness to just stop touching anything until they can figure out what is going on. Sadness retreats, convinced that she is part of the reason Riley is in so much emotional pain.

But then, something happens. Joy has reached the end of what she can try to make Riley happy again. She picks up one of Riley’s memories in her hands, a small glass globe with a little video snippet of Riley cheering with her hockey team, a memory steeped in the yellow color of joy. She rewinds the memory just a bit, and realized that this happy memory, now in yellow, was actually a blue sadness memory to begin with. Riley had missed the shot she had taken in a playoff hockey game in this memory, and when she missed it, her team lost the game. She was sitting by herself and she began to deeply express her sadness, all while enveloped in that blue color. That sadness led her parents to her side, wanting to bring her comfort and connection. Then it led her team to come around her and cheer for her anway, celebrating that Riley was still part of their team. The memory globe then turned from blue to yellow. Sadness had given way to Joy. And Joy had a realization: “Mom and dad, the team, they came to help because of Sadness.” (YouTube Video Clip)

I think that is what the prophet Joel is getting at here, as we ground ourselves amongst the ashes on this Wednesday. Because when we are hurting, I believe the prophet knows that the embracing and full expression of our sadness is what will lead us back to each other. 

“…call a solemn assembly;
gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation;
   assemble the aged;
gather the children,
   even infants at the breast.”

When we take the risk of getting honest with each other about the depth of our grief and sadness in these days, we truly begin to see the family God has given us. The whole community is called into this communal sharing of sadness, elders all the way down to the newborn babies, because the Spirit of God wants us to know from the very start of our lives to the end, that letting out our lament together, the road of Sadness, the embracing of ashes, will lead us back to each other. And in that space of community, somehow we find Joy. 

The people whose sadness leads them to the streets to protest injustice start to look around. They find people to organize with, and in that community, over time, somehow, there is joy. 

The parent with a broken heart shares with someone what’s really going on in their child’s life and they find in that someone a person who knows the struggle, who says, “Me too.” The pain hasn’t departed, and yet somehow, in that “I’m not alone”-ness, there is joy.

The person who always holds it together breaks down in tears under the pressure of all that’s going on, and the friend next to them simply holds space for their sadness. The tears flow more freely with that person next to them, and yet somehow, because the tears are not shed alone, there is joy.

It turns out that Sadness and Joy are fullest when they are together. 

It turns out that Joy can only be her fullest self when Sadness has all the space she needs. 

This is what the ashes of this Wednesday are all about, letting our sadness, our lament, our tears, our wounds, our ashes have all the space they need. The vulnerability of showing your pain feels scary and risky, and yet sharing it with those you trust is the pathway to Joy, not a happiness that tries to negate what hurts, but a fullness of life that welcomes Sadness as the friend who knows the way home. Who can  you open up with to share the ashes of your life? How can you bring your sadness and grief into this church family, rather than check them at the door? May this be our Lenten practice, to embrace the ashes on this day and in this season, knowing that they transform into the composted soil where new life can grow.

“…rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
   for [God] is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”

Amen.

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