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Sermon for July 5, 2009

The Pursuit of Happiness
Based on the sermon “The Pursuit of Happiness” by Ian Lawton
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God. God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. Matthew 5:3-10
Lately I have been having some discussions with people that center around what kind of congregation we should be. There are some here who want members to adhere to one strict rule of faith and practice. At the extreme, these people believe that the church’s job is to colonize the life-space of others. They promote the idea that if you believe what you’re told to believe and if you live your life according to a prescribed rule based on a narrow interpretation of scripture, only then can you be one of us. I’m tired of that kind of church – the kind that wants you to check your mind at the door, along with your doubts and pains and struggles. I want something else: a church that celebrates independence – a place where there is no one elite group of leaders watching over you, telling you what to think or say -- a place of deep faith but no prescribed creeds to which you must adhere in order to participate in the life of this community – a place of discernment where our members and friends order their lives around a set of mutually agreed upon values and principles. My deep hope is that TCC is transforming into a place where you can be free to pursue happiness -- in your life, in your relationships, in your work, and in your play. With no guarantees that you are going to attain it, and without too closely defining what it will look like if you get it, my hope is that this community will be a place where we inspire each other to pursue happiness, and offer each other life and liberty as a gift.

Imagine this scenario: You have your choice. In one hand, you can pick a lottery ticket. In the other, a set of water-skis. Which of those options do you think you would take? If you took the lottery ticket and won, you could buy all the water-skis you would ever want. You could travel around the world and ski in every lake you find. On the other hand, if you didn’t win the lottery you would be left with nothing. So you may be better off taking the water-skis. If nothing else you will get to take one good ride on your new skis. Of course, as you are pulled through the water by a high speed boat, you run the risk of suffering a terrible accident and becoming a paraplegic, so maybe the lottery ticket would be the safer bet. However, research suggests that one year after winning the lottery, people are no happier than they were before they won. So maybe the lottery ticket is not the better choice. Then again, some researchers suggest that one year after becoming a paraplegic, people are no more or less happy than they were before the event.

So, one year later, people those who win the lottery or those whose mobility is tragically altered have the same level of happiness as they had before those events occurred. We’ve been deluded to think that events make us happy or unhappy. We think that if we get possessions and property that we will be happier. But, some studies have shown that when people move from living at a survival level, where only their basic needs are being met, to having a roof over their heads and a small income, the increase in happiness is huge. But beyond about $12,000 per year, happiness levels begin to plateau. The difference between earning $50,000 and 50 million dollars a year does not equate to greater happiness. Happiness does not come from great wealth or possessions. Money might make misery easier to live with, as Twain said, but it cant buy happiness.

Think about another scenario: Imagine being left at the wedding altar. Imagine standing where I stand now, on your wedding day, and having your partner flee from the church. Imagine how you’d feel if that happened to you. Would you not say that was the worst day of your life? Anyone who is honest would say this is the worst day of their life. And yet, some testimonies suggest that one year later, many people who’ve been dumped at the altar claim that it was the best thing that could have ever happened to them. We have a tendency to magnify the significance of events, when in reality they are unlikely to be giving us any more or less happiness than expected.

I’m reminded of a story about a farmer who was completely dependent upon one horse for his livelihood. The horse eventually died, and the farmer’s neighbors all said “you are so unfortunate.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” Sure enough, a few days later, one of his neighbors had great compassion on the farmer, and bought him a new horse. The neighbors said, “You are so fortunate.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away, and the neighbors said, “You unfortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” Sure enough, two days later the horse came back with another horse. For the first time in his life the farmer owned two horses. All the neighbors said, “You fortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” The next day, the farmer took his son riding for the very first time now that they two horses. The son fell off and broke his leg. All the neighbors said, “You unfortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.” Sure enough, two weeks later the military came to the town to gather all the young men for war. They ignored the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. The neighbors said, “You fortunate man.” The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

If only we could take more of a “we’ll see” approach to life, we might find ourselves in a lot less misery. No event is an end point. No incident is the last word on life. One of the ways we can pursue happiness is to allow life to ebb and flow all around us, and not grab onto it too tightly. Whatever you are going through right now is not the end of the story. There’s always more. There will be mysterious twists and turns that we cannot predict.

So what is happiness? The World Database of Happiness keeps track of how nations subjectively appreciate life. Their survey asks two questions. The first is, “Are you happy right now?” The second goes a little deeper and asks, “All things considered, are you satisfied in life? Are you content?” Right now, Iceland is the happiest nation in the world. Mexico is number 5. The United States ranks somewhere between 27 and 31. The countries with the lowest levels of happiness are Rwanda, Benin, Iraq, Ethiopia, Chad (four of those countries are in Africa).

All things considered, taking a broad view of life, are you satisfied? Are you content? I wonder if this is what Jesus was speaking about when he gave the beatitudes to his disciples. People gathered around Jesus and he began to teach them by using a poem. Most of you will recognize the traditional translation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The word in Greek is makarios. Makarios is used in Greek literature to describe the bliss of the gods who were not affected by the changes of life. Another translation of this verse could be, “Oh the unending bliss of the poor in spirit.” Jesus says that the poor in spirit can be content, because they know what it is to come within an inch of having their hope taken away from them. Because they know how it feels to be on the edge of spiritual devastation, they hold on to things, and perspectives, and people loosely. Satisfied are those who know that what goes around comes around.

Jesus then says, “God blesses those who mourn.” Oh the bliss of those who mourn, because they go deep within themselves to embrace sadness. It’s because they’ve embraced sadness they know what it is to embrace gladness. Oh the bliss of those who mourn because they know that life is too short – that it ebbs and flows and cannot be taken for granted.

God blesses the meek. Oh, the bliss of knowing your minute place in this gigantic, unthinkably large cosmos that we’re part of. Oh, the bliss of knowing how microscopic you are and yet how significant you are all at the same time.

Blessed are those who have a vision for justice. Blessed are those who know that when someone else suffers they suffer too. Oh, the bliss of those with a sense of mission concerning God’s love-filled justice and who will not be stopped from their mission no matter what criticism comes their way. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Happy are those who have a strong sense of authentic calling in life. No amount of persecution can stop them from pursuing that vision. Righteousness means a thorough seeking of justice and peace for all people.

Our country was founded with a mighty vision: a vision of life and liberty for all. It has had many false starts over the last couple of hundred years. There have been many groups in this country that have not enjoyed life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. So, the words of the beatitudes have been ringing in my ears on this Independence Day Weekend: God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. That sounds like the kind of country where I want to live. It also sounds like the kind of church at which I want to worship. The pursuit of happiness, whatever it looks like, and wherever it takes you, is about affirming life and humanity in its brokenness, affirming liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.

A spiritual teacher was once questioned by his students who asked, “Why are you so happy? You are surrounded by suffering and loss, so why are you so happy?” The teacher picked up a crystal glass and she said, “I love this glass. I love the way it sounds when I touch it. I love the way it glistens in the sun. And yet one day, no doubt, my elbow will knock it off of the table and it will break. I love this glass because I know that it’s already broken.”

“All things considered, are you satisfied? Are you content?” Our lives are like broken glass. Our humanity glistens in the sun and chimes with the sound of shared love. Yet, Jesus suggests that we seek happiness in the broken places of our lives. When we understand our brokenness, we won’t grab life too tightly. We might stop striving to save it by putting it in a bottle or storing it on a shelf. We let life come and go around us without clutching it. We stand alongside each other and together we take one step toward greater life, greater liberty, and greater happiness. Can it happen? We’ll see.


Anonymous said…
So very true and beautifully said. Let's all strive for this perspective day by day, and cultivate compassion for ourselves and one another.

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