On my IPhone, I have a special playlist, which I listen to mainly when I need a lift, when I need to feel good, or when I am a little blue. The first tune on that playlist is Pharell William’s song, “Happy.” It is the theme song from one of my favorite cartoon movies, “Despicable Me,” you know the one with those cute little yellow Minions with goggles for eyes. “Happy” is a simple, bubbly tune, and the chorus goes like this, “Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth. Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. Because I’m happy, clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.” I love this song because Williams describes happiness as not merely as a fleeting emotion. He describes happiness as an attitude, which is the kind of happiness we hear about today in John’s gospel.
Jesus is with a crowd of followers on the plain and he preaches a sermon in which he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” The Greek word for“ Blessed” is most often translated as “happy.” Jesus is preaching about happiness, but he is not talking about the personal happiness that seems to be the prime motivator for advertisers today. We are bombarded with offers and ads that guarantee happiness through material acquisition.
For example, I saw a Facebook ad the other day from Lens Crafters that guaranteed me that their eyeglasses will make me happy, or I could get my money back. Coca Cola claims that if you drink their product, happiness is surely yours. You know, “have a Coke and a smile.” Happiness is more than having the right house, the bossy sports car, hip new clothes, and the perfect Pantene hair products. This kind happiness is not what Jesus is teaching the crowd about in today’s gospel, for these things offer only a temporary satisfaction, they do not bring about lasting joy, found only in the reality of the present and future hope we find only in Christ.
Happy are the Suburbanites???
In his “Sermon on the Plain,” Jesus taught, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” “happy are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and “happy are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Jesus reframes our ideas about what is important in life, and redefines the situation and attitude we need, in order to discover real and lasting joy. The Christian journey is life lived out-of-sync with the world, and Jesus’ sermon affirms that and contradicts our consumerism-based pursuit of happiness.
Our culture would have us believe, “Happy are the poor and hungry when they can get a good job and buy a house in the suburbs, lease a new car, and build up a 401K.” We all know that even when we attain those material symbols of happiness, we may find ourselves depressed, empty, and discontented. Some folks have everything and still ask, “when is enough, enough?” “Things” will not fill the spiritual destitution with which, many Americans struggle, but Jesus gives us the hope we can have joy found in him alone.
Theologian William Burghardt once wrote, “I discover (Christ) in my own insufficiency, when, dissatisfied with myself, I find the power to go beyond myself, and I know that the Power is Another.”(3) In other words, our real joy is found in the grace, love, and peace we have in Christ, and not in something else or even our own selves. Christian joy (happiness) manifests itself in the constant discovery of the grace of Christ poured out for us, and in all of life’s circumstances.
Joy, Happiness, Peace in the Storms
We can have joy right now, because Christian joy is not just some future reversal of all that is wrong in the world. It is a present reality. In my nine years of ordained ministry, I have witnessed the tangible evidence of real Christian joy in the lives of others. In my first parish, I sat at the bedside of one of my parishioners who was facing her own imminent death. I asked her the question, “Why are you so joyful?” She proceeded to tell me about the life she lived, the peace she shared, the struggles she endured, and the hope she had in God’s promises. Even when facing the end of her earthly journey, joy and peace abounded in her eyes. My dear friend and parishioner’s joy came not from the material things that surrounded her, but from a life she lived in faith, in steadfastness, and in peace in Christ.
Theologian George Thomas asserts, “Joy brings with it a feeling of contentment and confidence, which can take us through a storm in our life-journey. Happiness is not present when we are in the midst of a storm; it just vanishes.” (5) I believe that is why those who are poor in spirit, hungry, and weeping know real joy, because we all travel the journey of laughter and tears, with its ups and downs, but in all those moments, we find real joy in Christ, and the promises of Kingdom come.
The promise of the joy of God’s Kingdom comes when we discover the things of true value, those things sometimes lost but with God’s help found. Do you remember Jesus’ parables of the woman who lost a solitary coin and the shepherd who lost a solitary sheep, and then both found their lost items, and then rejoiced with her friends? The real joy of these folks in the parables is not when they reacquired their lost stuff. The recovery is a metaphor of the moment when they discovered their path back into relationship with Christ. Jesus explained, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Real joy (or happiness or blessedness) is found in our lives lived “Through Christ, and With Christ and In Christ”, and that my friends is Good News; good news we must share.
Happy are those who share happiness
Joy is something we do not hold onto, but something we share. However, we cannot just walk around as happy clappy Christians saying, “ I got my Jesus this week and all is well.” We cannot just sing, “Because I’m happy clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” and who cares about anyone else. Jesus warns us, “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” Jesus warns us about just being content with self-consumed happiness, which has no purpose or mission beyond ourselves.
The church is not called merely to have an attitude of mercy, but we are called to exhibit concrete acts of mercy towards others. The church is not called to remain merely spiritually pure, but we must devote our lives to join in Christ’s mission to relieve the circumstances of the poor, downtrodden, and lonely. The church is not called to merely be at peace with each other within our four walls, but we must devote ourselves to the work of reconciliation, both within the walls, and in the world around us.
Moreover, Jesus is not calling us merely to some future utopia, where the rich are poor and poor are rich, where the hungry are fed and the fed are hungry, or even where those who weep will laugh and those who laugh will weep. Jesus calls his church to turn upside down the spiritual poverty, hunger, and sorrow of our sisters and brothers found right here beside us, and then do the same for our neighbors out there around us.
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 God’s Kingdom come right now. The community that hears itself so-called will be able to answer with no hesitation, a very important question if ever we are ever asked, “Why are you so joyful?” If we are truly blessed, then with God’s help, we will always and every day sing, “Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like a room without a roof. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like God’s grace is the truth. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you know what joyfulness is to you. Because we’re joyful, (won’t you) clap along if you feel like joy, peace, love, mercy, and reconciliation is really what we wanna do.”
(1) Willimon, William H. “Damn Preacher.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 3, Feb. 2004, p. 18
(2) Ellenwood, Lee K. “Face to Face with the Living God: Reflections on the Lectionary Readings for February.” The Living Pulpit, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2007, pp. 34–36.
(3) Burghardt, William, S.J., “Gospel Joy, Christian Joy,” The Living Pulpit, 1996. (see Joy issue focus of The Living Pulpit 5.4, 1996.)