Our first scripture reading from the Acts of the Apostles mentions two ways of dealing with inconveniences caused by other people either not doing what we want them to do, or doing what we don’t want them to do. The first way (one of dismay and disappointment) is shown by the reaction of the owners of the slave girl, out of whom Paul exorcised the fortune-telling demon. Instead of being happy for her freedom from demonic possession, her owners were upset at their loss of income. They were more interested in someone else making them comfortable that in the comfort of that someone, and their self-centeredness brought a lot of useless trouble and disturbance to many people, while never restoring their income from the slave. The second way (one of joy and happiness) is shown by the reaction of the jailor in charge of Paul and Silas when the earthquake opened the prison doors and unfastened the prisoners= chains. Although he was initially upset enough to consider suicide, once Paul convinced him that the prisoners were all still there, the jailor wanted to know how he could have a share in Paul and Silas’ saving God, and then he brought that salvation the rest of the people in his house, and the next day the prisoners’ cases were dealt with in a favorable manner. The jailor’s ultimate positive reaction to the freedom of his prisoners brought about a chain of good events.
Unfortunately, our reaction to other people’s good fortune is often that of the slave owners, because we tend to focus on our own inconveniences more than on the freedom of others. In the heat of the moment, we don’t usually stop and consider the fact that another person’s good fortune can only add to our good fortune in the long-run, even though it might be a block to reaching some of our short-term goals. We tend to be not only self-centered, but also short-sighted (and in fact, the two are the same). We all depend on each other, because that is the way God made us, and the true fulfillment of others can only be good for us and everyone else. Every person is equally loved by God, and so is deserving of our respect. By building up others, rather than tearing them down, we strengthen ourselves. By being joyful at others’ good fortune, no matter how it makes us feel initially, we only add to our joy and the joy of the world around us. A book in our library by Sister Ayya Khema calls this good reaction to others’ good fortune “sympathetic joy”, and she lists it as one of the four best friends we can have in life (the other three are loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity).
Sympathetic joy is difficult for us because we tend to falsely believe that we are the center of the universe, and so if we are not at the top of every heap, our universe is in danger of collapse. The truth is, that if we are the center of our universe, then our universe is already collapsing, whether or not we are the top of the visible heap. God is the true center of everything, and by allowing God to be our center, we are free to be our true selves (relieved of the burden of holding our universe together), and others are free to be themselves (relieved of the burden of propping up our false regimes). Others might do things or believe things or say things that make us uncomfortable, but that will be ok, because it won’t be a threat to our false godhood anymore.
God is God, and we are not. As we heard in our second scripture reading from the revelation to John, Jesus is the “Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Jesus will hold our world together and will be everything we need, so our legitimacy and integrity do not depend on how well others buttress our world view, beliefs, and desires. Our legitimacy and integrity spring from God, who says: “Come”, so that then we can say to others: “Come – let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” We are not given the option of deciding who does or does not get to come and drink. We are only given the option of being happy about it or not. Life is too short to choose unhappiness, and eternal life is too long to choose unhappiness. Sympathetic joy really is one of our best friends. AMEN