Monday, February 3, 2014

Choosing Happiness

You may not be aware that there will be a football game played later today.  It’s called the ‘Super Bowl’ and it will be broadcast live in at least 180 countries and in 25 different languages.  About 50 million homes and 110 million viewers are expected to watch here in America.  Advertisers are going to spend $4 million dollars for a 30-second spot during the telecast.  I used some math to determine that we here at St. Paul’s could convert our entire operating budget for the year into a 2-second commercial!  Regretfully, the Vestry nixed that idea.  Spending in the United States on Super Bowl-related merchandise, apparel, and snacks is expected to exceed $12 billion, or an average of $68.27 per consumer. 

The entire spectacle we will watch tonight – from the game to the halftime show to the well-crafted and often emotionally moving ads – convey very powerful messages about what it means to be an American and what it takes to be happy:

· Happy are the successful.  Winning is what life is all about.

· Happy are the powerful.  It is better to be able to impose your will on others than to have others impose their will on you.

· Happy are the gifted.  We admire the player who can run the fastest, hit the hardest, or throw the ball with the greatest accuracy.

· Happy are the rich.  Those ads are designed to entice us to want products and it takes money to buy them.   

· Happy are the famous. Make a name for yourself and translate your notoriety into more success, more power, and more wealth.

As followers of Jesus, we could not find a greater contrast if we tried than to put the message and values of the Super Bowl up against the teaching we heard moments ago:

· Happy are the poor in spirit – those who cannot afford to buy a thing and have no cause to celebrate.

· Happy are those who mourn – the losers.

· Happy are the meek – those who cannot or will not impose their will on others.

· Happy are those who hunger and thirst – not for victory or for a new Lexus – but for righteousness.

· Happy are the merciful – those who extend forgiveness rather than perpetuate violence.

· Happy are the pure in heart – not those who feel compelled to purchase this or that.

· Happy are the peacemakers – not those who persist in and benefit from conflict.

· Happy are the persecuted – not the privileged and protected.

· Happy are those about whom others speak poorly – not those on whom praise is heaped.

These sayings of Jesus are known as ‘the Beatitudes’, an Anglicized word for the Latin adjective beatitudo which means ‘happy’, ‘fortunate’, or ‘blissful’.  The Greek word translated as ‘blessed’ in the original biblical text is makarios.  It was a fairly common word in Jesus’ day, but he used it in an uncommon way.  Typically it was used to describe either the wealthy (because their standard of living made it appear as if they were above the cares of everyday life) or the Greek gods (who had the ability to gratify their every desire).  Essentially, makarios/happiness was a state of contentment and delight reserved for a privileged few.  Jesus rejects this notion in two ways.  First, he says makarios/happiness is open to all and second, what makes for makarios/happiness is not at all what we have been led to believe.  Jesus says to his followers – and to us – that we are to think of happiness in a new way.

Is that possible?  Is it possible to change your thinking about the world and to align your notion of happiness with a value system that is counter to that of the prevailing culture?

I have mentioned before that I came to the Episcopal Church after college and was offered a position working with Christian Education and youth at a parish in my home town.  I worked there for only two years before going to seminary and then was back one summer, but I count that brief time as one of the most formative experiences in my life.  The rector was a brilliant man and a caring pastor who took a liking to me.  He was always available to me for counseling and conversation. 

I cannot recall the specifics of a particular exchange, but I have never forgotten the way he challenged me.  I must have been talking about something negative that had happened in my life or ministry and how it made me feel – angry or sad or something.  The inference I made was that because X had happened I was obligated to feel Y.  That sense of obligation is what the rector challenged.  “Why would you feel that way about it”, he questioned?  “What do you mean,” I responded?  “Why wouldn’t you feel Z about it”, he said?  “Are you saying,” I questioned, “that I can choose how I feel about something?”  “Yes,” he said.  “You can choose to be hurt by this, or you can choose to be happy.  No one makes you feel anything.  No one can control you.  You are always free to choose what you think, how you feel, and how you will respond.”  Well, at that moment, you could have knocked me over with a feather.  But I look back on that conversation as being a day I took a huge step forward into maturity.

Through his teaching Jesus challenges his listeners to embrace a very different set of values from that of the world and he challenges them – and us – to think about life in a new way; to do more than simply react to it.  Keep in mind that amongst those who listened to Jesus there were people who were poor and downtrodden and powerless in the face of Roman occupation; people who could do nothing but endure the way certain Jewish political and religious leaders capitulated to it.  Meekness, for them, was not a choice.  It was a survival skill.  Persecution and false accusations were common-life experiences.  Jesus counseled that they didn’t have to change a thing about their life in order to be happy.  They had to change the way they thought about the lives they had. 

Evelyn Underhill once said that we say we believe Jesus was raised in a carpenter’s shop but act like we believe he was raised in a confectionary store.  By this she meant that we tend to take Jesus’ words as benign and sugar-sweet teachings, when in fact often there is something very muscular and demanding about them.  I hear in these beatitudes something of what I heard that rector tell me years ago: you can think of yourself as life’s victim or you can choose to see yourself as something else.  You can choose to see yourself as God’s child; loved for who you are, not for what you have or for what has happened to you.  This world is not a place for pouters.  Happiness is to be found in every instance and in every condition because God is with us and because we are together as God’s people. 

I doubt there is a single person here this morning who does not bring with him or her a burden or two or many.  It may be something you are carrying for yourself.  It may be a concern you hold for a loved one or a friend.  It may be all of this and more.  Our prayer list alone suggests that there are many whose needs are on our hearts.  Jesus is does not say life is easy.  What he says is that in and through the challenges we face we can find happiness.  We are blessed.  We can see our lives in a way different from how the world might see them, because that is how God sees us.

Through the Beatitudes Jesus says that you and I can choose – choose – to see life as God sees it, or you can choose to see it as the world sees it.  You can choose to see yourself as the world sees you, or as God sees you.  Perhaps you have every advantage the world offers, but somewhere deep inside you sense it is not enough.  Or perhaps you have little of the advantages the world offers, but know that it this does not define you.  Why?  What is it that causes restlessness within for those who should be at peace and peace for those who should be discontented?  What is at work in those who have little or nothing of society’s advantages and makes for darkness and despair for those who do?