SERMON 1/30/11 Epiphany 4A
In 1988, a little known songwriter, Bobby McFerin, wrote the number one Pop Hit in the U.S. You may remember it, and it went something like this, “Here’s a little song I wrote, you might want to sing it note for note, Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double, don’t worry, be happy.” The English word “happy,” is actually a clearer translation of the “Blessed” used repeatedly in today’s gospel. Blessed is the Latin root word where we get the word “Beatitude.” Surely, McFerrin found the inspiration for his song in the words of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. According to McFerrin, being happy seems much more like an active choice, rather than a responsive attitude that is completely dependent on our circumstances. Happiness as an active spiritual inclination is related to the key word “BE” in the song. Don’t worry, BE happy.
Conventional wisdom has a lot to say about what it means to be happy. We are bombarded with happiness offers through television, radio, magazines, and most frequently through internet pop-up ads. Surfing the internet the other day, an ad tried to convince me that with the right eyeglasses, I can experience the ultimate happiness. Lens Crafters guarantees that their eyeglasses will make me happy or I can get my money back. I guess seeing is believing. Coca Cola is also in on this game. Their great new ad claims that if you drink Coke, happiness is surely to be ours. Remember, “have a Coke and a smile?” Other offers of happiness are out there too. If you have the right house, the bossy sports car, the hip, new clothes, or if you have the perfect Pantene hair products, you too can experience happiness. This happiness is not what Jesus is declaring in today’s gospel, for these things offer only a temporary satisfaction, they do not bring about a reality of the present and future hope we find only in God.
Jesus had a habit of turning upside down our notions of what is important, what makes happiness. Jesus reminds us that the life of a disciple is not all about satisfaction and feeling good, it is about our call to live in the reality of God’s promises. The Christian journey really is life out-of-sync with what the normative understanding of joy and happiness. Jesus turns these cultural notions on their head and reminds us that our joy and our happiness are found only in God. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus completely re-framed happiness as a disciple. The Beatitudes are not practical advice for successful living, but they stand as an objective reality of the result of divine action and not merely a subjective feeling. Happiness is about an orientation to the future reality of God’s Kingdom. The Beatitudes are not a descriptor of something that already is, but brings into being, the reality they declare. The mere hope of the words “Blessed or Happy” are those (fill in the blank), declare a reality that already is.
Jesus taught, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The poor referred to here are those who are literally living in poverty. The emerging knowledge of our own poverty puts us in touch with a sense of our own need. We all must realize that we are in our very nature dependent on the grace of God. Nothing we have, nothing we are happens but by God’s grace. Jesus is teaching us that as the true people of God our very lives are out of our control. The people of God know they are poor and that leads to our utter dependence on God. Through that, we come to know the Kingdom of God. We come to know happiness in this fact when we can embrace our state of poverty and utter dependence on God.
Jesus also taught, “Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” There is a particular type of mourning found in this teaching. The people of God’s hearts are inclined to lament the present condition of God’s creation. The people of God desire the realization of God’s dream for creation recognizing that it has not yet come. We long for the time that justice and righteousness will reign and we have the promise of God that it will come. We who mourn about the present condition of God’s creation are not resigned to its present condition, but we actively live in hope that the present is not final. We, the people of God mourn and with hands and feet, heart and gifts work to bring about God’s dream in a broken and hurting world. We know happiness in the promise of God’s restoration of creation, and we embrace our God-given desire to see it come to fruition.
Jesus proclaimed, Happy are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Meekness is not passivity or a victim mentality, but the people of God living in humble patience and gentleness. It’s not an attitude of complacency, but a spiritual inclination whereby, we denounce violence and seek humility. We know happiness through the present reality of God’s dream where neighbor loves neighbor and relationships are based rightly on the love that comes from God. We come to know happiness in a meekness that is found in the reality of God’s kingdom here and now.
Justice, righteousness, and mercy are not antithetical, but are complementary natures of the heart of God, and the Kingdom of God is what Jesus proclaimed to be a present reality. Jesus taught that happiness is found through the declared reality of the Kingdom here and now. He affirmed, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is not the people of God being merely being pious “do-gooders,” but embracing and longing for the reality of God’s Kingdom and the vindication of right. “Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” This is not just an attitude of mercy, but the people of God exhibiting concrete acts of mercy towards others.
Happy are the “peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” This is not a life of passivity, but the reality of Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation is present now and with it comes joy. Happy are the “pure in heart for they will see God.” This is not a mystical vision promise for those who remain spiritually pure, but for those who devote their lives to and are of one heart with God, they can live in the reality of the future hope of God’s presence. Our Lord’s proclamation that the Kingdom of God is present is a fact because righteousness, mercy, peacemaking and pure devotion to God are not only a future promise, but all are an incomplete reality now. Embracing this reality is the source of our joy, our contentment and our happiness.
We cannot leave the beatitudes without exploring Jesus’ last few sentences about persecution. If you have ever been on the receiving end of persecution or false accusations, the notion of happiness has been the farthest thing from your mind. Jesus however, makes it clear that we can know joy in the face of persecution. The joy of discipleship is not found in spite of persecution, but because of it. Joy is not found in taking pleasure in a martyr complex, but in accepting our badge of belonging to the people of God. The people of God have been on the receiving end of persecution, because we have always been out-of-sync with what has been conventionally considered significant. In Isaiah, the prophet declares that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts not our thoughts. The world declares that peace, contentment, joy, and yes happiness are intimately connected with circumstances or personal possessions and experiences. As the people of God, we incline our hearts toward God’s and thus, we often come into conflict with the conventional wisdom. Our joy is found in the present reality that the mere declaration by the Anointed One, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, that God’s Kingdom is present, makes it so. God declares his people to be blessed, to be joyful, to be happy. The community that hears itself so called, so pronounced as blessed, can thus act in accord with God’s coming Kingdom because for us, it is our reality. Through embracing our badge as a blessed people, we can live in confidence of God’s promises. In the face of poverty, grief, any of life’s circumstances, even in the face of persecution, our peace abounds. We know God’s peace, we know God’s joy because through that reality, we hear Our Lord declare, Blessed are you my people. It is by God’s declaration that we can confidently go forth with joy singing, “Don’t worry, be happy.”