Finding Joy and Wonder, in All our Lives, All the Time (Sermon Notes)

Sermon Notes / Produced by partner of TOW

This is the first sermon in the series: “Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture.”  It was delivered by Steve Watson, Senior Pastor, at Reservoir Church Cambridge Massachusetts on September 13, 2015.  This content is part of the Ruth and Parables curriculum, an 11-week integrated sermon and small group series on faith and work.

As a dad, I find myself driving my kids around now and then. And this past year, trying to inject a little more fun into these times, I started playing a podcast out of Minnesota Public Radio called “Song of the Day.” 5 days a week, we get a new song to listen to that we’re likely to never hear on the radio. We’ve had country and hip-hop, and rock and poppy little things – serious, funny, all kinds of music. Each time we’re in the car, we’ll play the latest songs of the day and rate them from 1 to 10. Well, one of our higher rated songs over this time was a cool little tune by a band called the Cayucas. They’re named after the California home town of the band’s twin brothers Zach and Ben Yudin. And the song, that our band here is going to cover in a minute, is “Mooney Eyed Walrus.”

You’re going to hear a fun, summery song, with kind of inscrutable lyrics. They sing about a cosmonaut and a large, mysterious walrus with fanged teeth, giant eyes, and stegosaurus-evoking sword-like tusks. It’s kind of weird, kind of magical, kind of mysterious. But in the chorus, you get a sense that the song’s deep woods and magical sea are all about transcendence and dreams and wonder. The stuff that takes us deeper, that makes us believe, and want to see more.

Let’s given a listen to this fun and weird and magical song. I turn it over to our band, with the Cayucas’ “Mooney Eyed Walrus.”

Kind of weird, though isn’t it? When Dana and I were talking about this song, we were hoping there isn’t some cryptic symbolism going on in these verses that will embarrass us. And who knows? I really don’t know what that drippy eyed walrus has to do with the cosmonaut or the batwing cave…

But what I do know is that as we drove around listening to this song, I found myself singing along, with these words, “I believe. Deeper. I wanna see. Bigger and bigger.” And that would take me to this happy, expectant, wondrous state of mind. Until my kids would tell me to quiet down, stop singing along and ruining the song.

But I do think that’s what the song’s about, at least it is to me. The video the Cayucas released has the two twins walking through a lush, green forest carrying a surf board, which seems a little random until the end, when they emerge out of the trees onto a cliff overlooking the Pacific surf. And you realize that they’ve been walking in the direction of this incredible place of brighter brights and higher heights, as they sing. That maybe it’s a metaphor for all of life as a journey toward the deep and big stuff that evokes joy and wonder.

That’s at least where I want to take us today, to ask how it is we can find joy and wonder in all our lives, all the time, and maybe just why we’d want to do that at all. We’re starting a new Sunday series today, and we’ve called it, Inspired: The Whole of Life with God in the Picture. All fall we’ll talk about the whole of our lives – our work, our housing, our networks of relationships, our strategies for securing a happy life and the fulfillment of our dreams – and we’ll ask how it is there can be more in all of that with God in the picture.

One of our companions this fall is going to be this little gem of a book from the Hebrew Scriptures called Ruth. Ruth reads like a little fairy tale in some ways, except that its writer takes significant pains to ground it in Israel’s history, and to fill it with the kind of people and situations that raise questions about how it is we can find inspiration in all arenas of life.

This fall, Ruth will give us immigrants and refugees, family drama and local politics. It will raise issues about the law and economics and how to manage personal wealth or poverty. There’ll be efforts to move out of unemployment and rather creative sexual advances to move out of singlehood. It’s an earthy, whole life story, this book of Ruth.

But it starts amidst crushing tragedy. So where better place to ask if it’s possible to find wonder and joy, in all our lives, all the time, then to take a quick look at a woman who’s hit rock bottom.

Here’s the introduction to this story we’ll track with this fall. It’s on the inside flap of your program if you want to follow along there.

Ruth 1:1-7 (NLT)

In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.

Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.

Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.

Talk about rock bottom tough times! Our author gives us a clue about just how bad this is going to be when the story starts with the line, “In the days when the Judges ruled....” Judges is the book in the Bible just before Ruth. It tells the story of how the early federation of 12 Hebrew tribes was more or less falling apart. Over and over again, it says, “the people did evil.” And right before Ruth, the book ends with this big scene of murder and human abduction, a chapter of mayhem that ends with this line:

In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”

And then Ruth begins right where that left off. There’s a famine in the home country of Judah, so Naomi and her husband Elimilech and their two sons flee essentially as migrants or refugees. We’re getting a wake up call in the West these days through this multi-year Syrian crisis just how painful life as a refugee can be, and here the book of Ruth throws us right into one of these stories. And the prospective marriage of these two sons to daughters from Moab – happy as it may sound – was not exactly a dream come true. I don’t know much about what I’m sure were the wonderful people of Moab, but from Israel’s perspective, well… let’s just say that Israel’s legend for how the whole people of Moab came into being is that they were born from an incestuous relationship. Yeah, nasty stuff…

So we’re in a lawless, brutal, violent age. Naomi and her family are refugees, fleeing famine. And their sons’ only marriage prospects are a from a people group Naomi would have been raised to look down upon. But then things get really bad.

First, Naomi’s husband dies, and then her two sons do marry these Moabite women, but ten years later, they both die as well. And what does Naomi have left? Just a rumor that things have gotten better in her homeland. But she’s a widow, in a time and culture that where that equaled destitute, and not only is she a widow, but she has two foreign widow daughters-in-law in tow, whose fate would have been no better than hers.

I developed an affinity for these Hebrew Scriptures first when I was young, through my dad. Like these stories, my dad has kind of a tragic, emotionally complicated streak in him. But maybe more significantly, my dad at the time of my birth was also a doctoral student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. My dad likes to brag that he was the first ever Gentile in his particular area of doctoral studies in that largely Jewish department in a largely Jewish university.

My dad never finished that program, but the basement area outside my bedroom as a kid was still littered with the remnants of those uncompleted studies. Stacks of books on Jewish history, Arabic and Hebrew flashcards for study, file cabinets full of dissertation notes, and Bibles and Jewish commentaries on them.

This dad of mine was pretty upbeat about my life and future – he clearly believe in me. But he was gloomier about his own life, unsatisfied with his accomplishments, and un-reconciled with the parts of his childhood that were barren and cold.

This year, my dad actually went to an extended family reunion for the first time ever. And we talked again about his own childhood, which I’ve heard about before, how his mom had a really bleak childhood and barren inner landscape, so that she just wasn’t kind or loving. About how his dad was so silent and didn’t know how to treasure or invest in his own sons.

But my dad said there was this one perspective he picked up at his family reunion that helped him appreciate his family, particularly his father, more. He said when his dad did talk about his childhood, it was clear that his depression-era youth in the suburbs of New York City was really poor. There was very little that he had in the way of decent food and clothing, let alone any luxuries. But he always talked about the time he got a new shirt for Christmas, or this one nice meal with another family from church, or whatever it was. His stories always centered around gratitude.

And at this family reunion, my father spoke for the first time with the children of one of his uncles about how their father would talk about his childhood, growing up in the same home at the same time as my grandfather. And what they said is that he always talked about all that he didn’t have – the opportunities and the possessions he was denied, and how hard and embittering that was.

And my dad thought that for all the gaps his own father had as a dad, he was never bitter. He was always grateful, and again, for all his lacks, he seems like he ended up a few steps better than his embittered brother.

And my dad thought aloud that isn’t it so interesting that two people in the same circumstances can leave that situation telling such different stories about it. That our attitudes and dispositions can go in such different directions, again, even given the exact same circumstances. Perhaps we always have a choice.

Life can certainly throws a lot of stuff our way. It can be a bumpy road, can’t it?

This past week, I’ve been kind of locked in on the launch of the next steps in the career of Stephen Colbert. Anyone else taken in any of the Late Show? I think someone decided that there were not quite enough white men, with late night variety shows. We needed one more, I guess.

But for all that, to my mind Colbert’s been pretty refreshing. I watched his interview with Joe Biden the other night, which was kind of stunning. Biden of course has known significant tragedy, losing his wife and daughter decades ago, and facing the death of another child, his son Beau, this past year. And politics aside, Joe Biden was impressive as a human being in this interview, as he expressed a deep sense of gratitude for his life, almost a sense of wonder of it all, despite the tragedies.

And I thought this is so interesting, because Colbert – as you may know – is also no stranger to tragedy and gratitude. When he was ten, Stephen Colbert’s father and his two brothers closest in age to him died in a plane crash. And he was raised alone by his mom. But Colbert, in this remarkable interview this summer in GQ said, “It’s by my mother’s example that I am not bitter. Because she wasn’t. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.”

And he goes on to say, that the world, “It’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive (he says), even though I know a lot of dead people.” And he says, This is just how I’ve always felt: grateful to be alive. And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God.”

The Joe Biden, the Stephen Colbert, you could say, of my growing up was my tenth grade English teacher, Ken Jones. Mr. Jones had us write these weekly journals, so we’d get used to simply writing more often, and he’d read them every week and actually write back to us a bit. I hadn’t been close a teacher for years, but there was something about this that really impressed me, that endeared him to me, so I started writing these journals and taking them kind of seriously, I guess.

But that year, Mr. Jones became not just a great teacher to me, but a hero as well. See, I had heard through the grapevine that a year or two earlier, his daughter had died of an illness she picked up overseas, serving with the Peace Corps. And we knew somehow that his wife his marriage had ended several years earlier as well. And there was clearly some sadness about Mr. Jones. But then during my year with him, we heard the shocking news that his son was on the Pan Am flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. So that suddenly, Mr. Jones was without wife, and now without both his children as well.

My high school chorus sang at the memorial service. That whole year Ken Jones was my English teacher, I watched a man grieve, I watched a man keep on with his life in the face of tragedy. And I was stunned at what I saw.

At my big brother’s senior graduation events that year, they asked Mr. Jones if he would speak, and he did. He called his talk, “The Marvelous Incomprehensibility of God.” Which probably wasn’t kosher, but they let Ken Jones do what he wanted that year, I guess. And I don’t remember most of his speech, but he talked about the mystery, the inscrutability of life, and how challenging it is to have courage and faith when there’s so much you don’t understand. But I still remember one single line from the speech, when near the end, near tears, he gripped the podium with both hands to stop from shaking, and he said, “Here I stand, bereft of children, but not of hope.”

Here I stand, bereft of children, but not of hope.

Ken Jones became my hero that day.

Life gives us a mix of things, doesn’t it, and we have to figure out what to do about that, if we can still be hopeful people, and if we can find, or maybe despite ourselves, get found by God in the middle of all that.

Jesus has this story he tells that gives me some imagery for this. This fall, we’ll be tracking not only with this ancient narrative in Ruth, but with parables from Jesus as well – these intriguing stories he tells with kind of arresting images of life with God in the picture.

And here’s this week’s parable, the second scripture on your program:

Matthew 13:24-30 (NLT)

Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew.

“The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’

“‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed.

“‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked.

“‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.’”

So here we have it. Jesus says, here’s how things work with God in the picture – what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. Or put it more simply, here’s how heaven on earth works. Someone, later Jesus says it’s him, so Jesus is always planting and growing things, planting and growing, and yeah for wheat that grows. But sometimes, people spot these weeds in his fields, and he’s like, “Dang! What the… an enemy has done this!”

So even Jesus gets fed up and frustrated with the way life works sometimes. And these helpers of Jesus think they can somehow get rid of all the weeds and just let his good stuff keep growing, but he says that’s impossible. Wait until later. We’ll sort it out at harvest.

Now later on Matthew says, Jesus extracts a very particular meaning to this parable. That weeds and wheat are kind of like people who are increasingly full of goodness and people that are increasingly full of badness, and how it’s not always easy to tell the difference, so we shouldn’t try. God will work it out in the end. And this is an important note to first century churches who were really concerned about weeding out toxic people from their communities. Matthew quotes Jesus saying, “Don’t do that.” Leave judgment in God’s hands because you won’t be very good at it.

But I think there’s a broader meaning here as well. Jesus, after all, says these things as parables, as stories, because they’re meant to intrigue, to arrest people’s imaginations with the deepest truths about life.  

And I think at its most basic level, this story Jesus tells affirms that life is complicated. That no matter how good a season we’re in, there’s still going to be challenge or pain or just drudgery. No matter how wheaty the field is, someone’s going to plant some weeds. And that’s OK.

Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven working out doesn’t require perfect conditions.

Heaven on earth isn’t depending upon a weed-free field.

We can still have a life of profound joy and wonder, regardless of our circumstances.

Two years later, I had a quiet moment with Ken Jones in his living room.

(This, as an aside I’ve got to mention is at the end of the both warm and kind of creepy era when professional adults and kids had kind of fuzzy boundaries sometimes. I had another teacher who took my and another kid on a trip when I was seventeen. I dressed up in a tux at his college reunion and served him and his buddies cigar and cognac. I was seventeen years old. An absolutely great story for another day.)

But anyway, here I am, in Ken Jones’ living room. I’m a junior or senior in high school – 16 or 17 years old. And it’s only newly his living room, because he’d remarried that year with a counselor in our school. A woman who happened to also be our class advisor. And he’d joined her and her three children in their home, just a mile away from mine. And one night, the two of them had their kids out, and had me and my high school girlfriend over to dinner with them. And the now Mrs. Jones and my girlfriend were in the kitchen, and there’s Ken and teenage me, just chillin’ in the living room, and I remember asking him, “What’s it like to be here? And to be in this life you’re living, where so much has changed?”

And I remember he looked around the room, and I think his eyes teared up a little, and he said, “Sometimes I just can’t believe I’m in this life I have.” That here I am with Mrs. Jones, and here I am in this house, and it’s mine now too. And these three amazing kids, they’re really so great. And I’m just astounded by all that I have. Sometimes I can’t believe it.

I don’t know how it passed, but I remember that kind of holy moment of grace and wonder, listening to Ken Jones – whose life most people just saw as tragic – but looking at him, and listening to him absolutely full of wonder, just deeply grateful for the life he had, and for all the surprising goodness in it.

Let’s talk about those of us in the room.

Some of us have had summers, and we’re walking into falls just obviously full of beauty and wonder. You’ve been on some great vacation, or maybe just been to the ocean, and like the Cayucas, you can say, “Oh, from the edge of cliffs above the trees, I believe!” Or you want to see your dreams you dreamt get bigger and bigger. I know some of you that are in relationships you love, or you’re expecting your first child, or school’s awesome, or you’ve just launched a business that’s going great!

But some of us look back at our summer, or we look at the weeks ahead, and it seems more bleak or desolate, or maybe just mundane. You’d suffered loss, some of you in the room, I know. Or you’re facing messy problems. Some of you tell me about those, and I know those. are. hard. Or maybe you’re just bored. School or work or home is kind of disappointing. And there’s nothing new, nothing particularly satisfying going on. 

Well, I think today’s stories tell us that yes, there are always weeds in life, but… there is also always wheat, always blessing as the story in Ruth says.

Jesus and Ruth, the stories of my grandfather, and Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden and my old teacher Ken Jones all suggest to me that no matter what life throws our way, we can always find joy and wonder and gratitude. That we can always find God.

We’ll talk about finding God, or maybe God finding us, in all kind of circumstances this fall. Next week we’ll talk about finding God in unexpected people. And there’ll be all kind of interest stuff coming your way after that.

But I want to wrap up our first talk here, with a few next steps on finding joy and wonder, wherever you are. This will be where your program notes pick up, if you feel like grabbing a pen and following along. Obviously, your call on that. But here we go, four invitations for you:

Next Steps:

  1. You have both wheat and weeds in your life – notice them both.

Most of us are pretty good at noticing the weeds in our lives, aren’t we? We see what’s wrong or what’s missing, don’t need much help there. But some of us have a hard time finding the wheat, or just forget to give it attention, forget to see the wheat. But whatever our tendency is – giving more notice to the good or the bad – it seems important to notice both. I remember hearing once, maybe in this church from another pastor here, this great line I love, that “Reality is the friend of God.” Reality is God’s friends. Because it’s our real lives, this life, this day, that is the only material God has to work with. And as we saw with Jesus and some of the stories today, as we’ll see with Ruth, that’s always good enough for God.

What we don’t need, though, is to spin or deny our problems, so:

  1. Don’t fake being happy about the lousy stuff.

Some of us have been told that we have to engage in some kind of mental or spiritual gymnastics to be grateful for all the junk in our lives, as if we’re supposed to say, it’s so great to be lonely, or bored, or suffer disappointment or tragedy. I’m so grateful!

With the weeds that creep into anything good, we saw that Jesus himself says, “An enemy has done this!” This is not a good thing. And we can do the same. We don’t have to celebrate whatever junk or mess we’re dealing with. But we can do something else profound, I’ve experienced, which is:

  1. Turn towards the blessing, whatever it is today.

This is a more religious sounding phrase than I normally like to lay on you, and – to be honest – it makes me mildly uncomfortable. But I’m quoting from Ruth here, and I decided not to paraphrase.

You’ll remember that Naomi is alone, without her two sons or her husband, as the text tells us. And then she hears that God has blessed the people back in her home region of Judah with really abundant harvest again. The region she once had to leave because of famine has rebounded.

And so even though she’s gone from refugee to kind of settled in Moab by this point, and even though it might be humiliating for her to return home with nothing, we read that hears about this news, and then she gets ready to return, sets out, and takes the road.

There’s all kinds of irony here, but there often is for us as well. Finding our blessing can be as simple as practicing gratitude – like my grandfather did in looking back on his impoverished childhood, like Stephen Colbert was doing in the interview.

But often we can find that there’s a blessing right in the place of a previous or current weakness. It’s Ruth learning that the most abundant food is available where there once was only famine for her. It’s Ken Jones in the living room, with both of his children dead, suddenly embraced into the lives of three step-children. It’s me on Thursday morning, having realized I’d been an absolute jerk as a dad to one of my kids – I really had been. But then seeing that in my child’s disappointment in me, there was an opportunity for me to learn and grow as a human being, and I could be grateful for that. 

But it’s there – find the blessing, and lastly, when you do:

  1. Milk every bit of praise, awe, and wonder – this just might be the point of life.

I shared so many stories of loss and gratitude today – my grandpa, Joe Biden, Stephen Colbert, Ken Jones – because they move me so much. These are people who have found gratitude, they can look at life that’s had tragedy in it and still be grateful, still say, God, you are good. And a sense of awe and wonder flow out of that.

When you find yourself in that kind looking at your blessing and in one of these Cayucas moments – “I believe. Here’s that good thing, and it’s deep and wonderful.” Stay with that. Tell God how great it is. Give expression to that wonder you feel, tell someone about it.

Increasingly, I wonder if that’s the point of life.

A remarkable Jewish scholar I’ve read, Abraham Heschel, thinks it is. I’ve shared this quotation before, but here it is again:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

I won’t give it all away now, but this is where the whole book of Ruth is going. Happy woman loses it all, renames herself “Bitterness” but then ends with her friends telling her life is good, and she quietly agrees. She finds praise and awe and wonder again.

Life isn’t a puzzle to be solved.  We cannot smooth it all over until there’s no challenge, no pain.  And yet, life also isn’t suffering to be endured.  Rather, it is ALL of life that can be inspired, because God is in all things.  We can honestly face our circumstances and still find joy and wonder.

Can I pray that this will be so for you this week?