Sunday, November 23, 2008

I preached this

I don't get to preach very often. In a good year, it is maybe three or four times. This means that doing so is a very big deal for me. Last Sunday, was one of those times and I thought I went well. Because I talk fast and occasionally stutter, it is absolutly necessary for me to write exactly what I want to say and the memorize it, so here it is:

I was in Target this past week, and I noticed that the Christmas displays are completely up. Of course, it did not really surprise me, because I was in there a few weeks ago just before Halloween and I noticed that they had already begun to sneak Christmas decorations out in a couple of isles. It seems that retailers are dead set on making the Christmas season last two months. However, it seems that extending this time is really not in our best interest. After all, there is already a problem with Christmas blues. I am sure that you like me have heard that December is the highest month for depression. It seems odd though doesn’t it? We work really hard to make December one of the happiest months of the year, but instead people get more depressed that month than any other. In fact it seems that overall we have a problem with happiness. A recent study showed that the United States is the 16th happiest country in the world. Sixteenth out of 97 is not bad, I guess but considering that the United States is the wealthiest country with one of the highest standards of living, you might think we would be happier. In the past fifty years, Americans have worked really hard to be happy, to the point that some have said we are addicted to happiness, but the overall happiness of the average American has not increased in the past fifty years. I suppose given the current state of the world we could find a lot to be unhappy about, but I think happiness is something that all of us want, so this leads to the question are you happy now?

I believe that today’s scripture, the beatitudes as they are commonly known speak a lot about happiness. But first, it is probably best if we define happiness, because the word happy is one that is maybe a bit overused in our language and a word we take for granted. A strict dictionary definition of happy is characterized by joy. I think that is a very good definition, but I want to take it a bit further. They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words so I want to show you a video that I think best portrays this idea of being characterized by joy.

I can not watch that video without smiling, and I think it shows the key to being happy. To be happy is to be characterized by a contagious joy. To be happy is to have such a deep seated joy with in us that is so evident that it makes those around us happy as well. I don’t know about you, but I think such a joy is more than desirable, and I want to know where to get it, which is why we turn to the beatitudes.

The beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are probably one of the best known teachings of Jesus. However, it may also be one of the least understood; how exactly do the meek inherit the earth, what does it mean to be poor in spirit, and what does blessed mean anyway? To that last point, John Wesley made a very interesting observation. In his notes on the New Testament and in his sermons on this scripture, Wesley pointed out that blessed is better translated happy. When one reads the beatitudes in this way, I think it makes a lot of sense and goes a ways to showing us how we can have a happiness that is characterized by contagious joy. I think that one could spend hours mining the beatitudes for its deep richness, but I know you don’t want to listen to me for that long, so instead we will briefly touch on three.

The first is “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” Or rather happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. This of course leads to the question what does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness? Righteousness is a very churchy word, that is often used in the negative light of calling someone “self righteous.” However to be righteous is to be in right relationship with God. In his letter to the Romans Paul makes clear how one is in right relationship with God, “righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21) When we confess our sins, accept that a creator God loves us, and then proved God’s love through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our lord then we are made righteous. All of use gathered here struggle with the sins of pride and selfishness. These temptations threaten to pull us away from a right relationship with God. When we are prideful and selfish then we essentially make ourselves the most important thing in our little world, instead of God. Doing this makes it impossible to be in right relationship with God. Righteousness is not a once and done deal but a process of continued repentance and renewal. Because of this we must hunger and thirst for this righteousness. Food and water are the essentials to life, we hunger and thirst for them so that we may live. In the same way, righteousness is the essential to happiness. We can not be truly happy, we can not have a contagious joy unless we are in a right relationship with God. The good news promised to us though is that when we hunger and thirst for righteousness we will be filled. Have you ever tried to feel a cup to the very top without spilling over? It is just about impossible, and when we are filled from a relationship with God the happiness can not help but spill over and spread to others.
The second beatitude to look at is this one: Happy are the pure in heart for they will see God. Part of our Methodist tradition is that we view the Christian faith as a religion of the heart. This means that we see our faith as something that affects our inner most being. We are Christians not because of what we do but because our hearts have been changed. So how exactly is one pure in heart? Again I think that our Methodist tradition has insight into this. When the first Methodists met they were dedicated to following three general rules: 1. Do no harm 2. Do all the good one can 3. Attending to the ordinance of God. The first rule is fairly simple, do not purposely wrong or hurt another. The second rule is to be born out of a love for neighbor, and this is closely tied to the third rule. The ordinances of God are things like public worship and private prayer. The third rule deals with our relationship with God. Jesus gave the greatest commandment to love God and the second one like it to love your neighbor as yourself. The three general rules speak to this. By loving God and being in personal relationship with God, that love spills over and we love our neighbor by doing all the good we can and by doing no harm. This sounds great, but we all know that we fall short. We do harm, we fail to do good, and we let the ordnances of God fall to the wayside. Again, this is a process of repentance and renewal that our tradition calls Christian perfection. To be pure in heart is to fully love God and neighbor. When we journey in life to always more fully love God and neighbor, then we are pursuing being pure in heart, and once again this leads to a deep seated, contagious happiness.
I sincerely believe that being in right relationship with God will lead to true happiness. However, there can be a problem with focusing on happiness, and that is that sometimes we are not very happy. To be human is to suffer and to suffer is to experience grief. I think that is why the third beatitude to look at is so powerful. “Happy are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” This is so paradoxical, how can one mourn and be happy at the same time? If our happiness is grounded in God’s extravagant love and grace then not even grief can take it away. This does not mean that we should not grieve in the face of suffering. Grief is part of life and we must allow ourselves the chance to grieve appropriately. However, this beatitude reminds us to keep grief in perspective, and to keep our perspective on the eternal. I think one of the most powerful testimonies I have heard that reflects how one can be happy in mourning is that of Horatio Spafford. Many of you by this point have no doubt heard this story, but it is worth repeating. Horatio was a successful Chicago lawyer in the nineteenth century. He suffered a string of personal tragedies. First his son died of Scarlet fever and then a year later many of his investments were destroyed in the great Chicago fire. Spafford realized that these traumas were having a toll on his family, he decided to take them on an extended holiday in England. Right before leaving Spafford was delayed by a business meeting, but he sent his family along. Unfortunately the boat his family was on sunk. His wife survived but his four daughters drowned. Heart broken, Horatio Spafford boarded a boat to join his wife in England. The story goes that when he passed over the place where his daughters had died, he sat down and wrote the hymn “It is Well with my soul.” Even though Horatio Spafford was grieving from a terrible loss, he was able to keep things in perspective. I am sure he missed his daughters terribly, but because he was in right relationship with God he could still happily proclaim “It is well with my soul.”
How is it with your soul? Are you happy now? I know that we all desire happiness, but many people look for it in the wrong place. The happiness that the world can offer, no matter how great, is always temporary. True happiness, happiness that is best defined as contagious joy, only comes from being in right relationship with God. This means accepting and being filled with the love of God that is been made known to us through Jesus Christ. It is my prayer for all of us that we can find this sort of happiness, and no matter what troubles and tribulations we feel in this world that we can sing joyously “It is well with my soul”


Blogger Jacqueline said...

Great blog!

I agree that true happiness comes from right relationship with God.

However, there are many people on this planet for whom the Christian religion does not fit.

The sooner we all love and realize one God, the sooner we will be one humanity.

5:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home