Sermon: “Can God Make You Happy”
Robert Bell, the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church
George burns once said: Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family ….in another city. Oscar Wilde said some people cause happiness WHEREVER they go – while other cause it WHENEVER the go. I know you know some people like this. In a more serious vane St Augustine said that man's last end is happiness: "all men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness." Jefferson etched our right and purpose to pursue it in our founding declaration. The Dalai Lama says the purpose of life is to be happy. And certainly modern culture is filled to the brim with the maximum, expectation, and urgency in books and articles and talk show galore on how to be happy in life. So we in the church, we religious folks naturally ask the question: What does God and the church have to do with all this happiness business?
You may have heard this story before. I have told this true story to several different gatherings here at the church. When I had my first church back in the last century we lived in a old manse on the second floor next to the church and one Sunday morning my wife called up to our then three year old daughter to come down so that they could get over to worship. I knew that Rachel was not immediately coming because her bedroom was over an old dining room on the first floor and whenever Rachel would jump up and down on her bed doing gymnastics the old crystal chandelier in the middle of the room would rock back and forth. My wife called several times and the chandelier kept swinging. Frustrated at our daughters non response Joann finally yelled up to Rachel “It is time to go to church, now”; and shortly thereafter a little blond head peaked around the second floor railing and said: “But mommy I am having such a good time”….and Joann replied: “It is time to stop having a good time and go to church!”
Is church a place to have a good time? Does religion make you happier? Is one of the reasons we turn to God and religion is that it will make life happier – easier – more bearable? Is Karl Marx’s old maxim: “the opiate of the people”, correct? Is it God’s job to make us happier people in life? Or to bring it closer to home: Do you normally have a rip roaring good time at 15th St Church congregational meetings?
Frankly, I am a little bit torn on the issue. On the one hand I would naturally respond “Yes” of course….Christians are supposed to be happy aren’t they? God loves them. Jesus saves them. Eternal life is a life changing gift and reassurance. You come to church and every other word is joy – praise – alleluia. But on the other hand, I am a little skeptical of Christians who always walk around with a big smile on their face, happy all the time. I know that I shouldn’t judge them but secretly I wonder, “What are you on?” Didn’t you have to drive through Washington traffic this morning? Didn’t you see that pathetic football game at Fed Ex field yesterday afternoon? Didn’t you only get 3 hrs sleep last night worrying about the kids or the check book or the relationship that is not going so well. Avoidance and a plastered on smile are not my idea of real happiness. You never know what may cause one’s outward attitude or lack of it. Longfellow said “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.” But I would add – at least: “real”.
I am sure that all of you remember your confirmation and learning the first question and answer to the shorter Westminster…. Catechism: What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to ENJOY him forever. There is also much in the bible that that tells us that, “yes” happiness should be our purpose and stock and destiny in life. The psalms: “Be glad in the lord, rejoice, and shout for joy; In your presence is fullness and joy; You have put gladness in my heart”. In the gospel of John Jesus puts it plainly: “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full (john 15:11) So Jesus was joyful and wanted us to be likewise.
But also I think we know well that part of our faith and indeed many parts of the bible are not just full of joy but speak of the sorrow of life – the hardships of life – the trials and tribulations….the complexity and mystery. Life is not always brimming over with happiness. And to be Pollyanna –always upbeat – always optimistic – always looking on the bright side is not only difficult, it can be silly and ludicrous to expect that we might be like that all the time or in times of great sorrow and challenge. It simply does not take the world and life seriously enough. Think of the times in Jesus life when he was the very opposite of the happy go lucky Christians who fear and see no evil and merrily look the other way. Jesus weeping over the death of a friend; raging in anger at the injustice of a one sided economic system; running from an angry mob; shaking his head in disgust at the insensitivity and callousness of some people; living through torture and feeling forsaken and alone and all but totally lost. I am not sure Jesus’ life stacks up that well in the world history happiness rankings …..Not at all.
In today’s world and culture we run ourselves ragged seeking to be happy. With the almost unbelievable and rampant consumerism…got to buy it….got to have it….to be happy…..to be fulfilled. The sales pitch confronts us at every street corner, every click of the remote.
In her book, The Myths of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky says we all buy into the myths of happiness, beliefs that certain achievements will make us happy: marriage, kids, jobs, wealth. And certain failings or adversities will make us unhappy – health problems – not having a life partner – not having money – we feel will make us unhappy forever! But she writes happiness it seems is not as black and white as all this. She says that one of the most common myths is that “I will be happy WHEN…. When I say I do – when I have a baby – when I am rich” …..Lyubomirsky goes on to say that indeed these “whens” may make us happy in part for a while. But it doesn’t last forever and so then we wonder why they did not keep us happy. And we question, What is wrong with us?—the achievement of these goals did not make us as happy as we thought they would. Same with the negative or flip side. I can never be happy when: this or that befalls me. We feel life is over – happiness gone forever…… And in response we make all sorts of questionable decisions. If I am not happy, then it must be the person I married, or the job I have, or the wrong brand of what I bought……so let me change it.
Lyubomkirsky says, today we tend to measure our lives by certain crisis points and we exaggerate the good ones---this new job or money or purchase will make be happy forever. We expect one thing to be the be all and end all. We buy into the glorified promises over estimating their effects and value on us. But this negates the many other things that happen to us that our important and influential along the way (i.e. life). As for the negative or bad things that happen, she finds that although surely they can be traumatic at the time but again due to “life” and the many other things that happen to us and our ability to cope that these crisis negatives are not the expected dramatic and perennial expected happiness killers. And often these crises points are opportunities (depending on how we respond) for positive and happy change in life (one gets laid off from a long standing career and it prompts you to make a change to another more loved profession—your heart gets broken but a time of singleness helps you to understand yourself better and grow and meet a more suited mate). This is wisdom for the ages: That trivial transient things cannot bring happiness and we cannot always predict the effects and outcomes of larger more important single changes. Life and growth and meaning (and thus happiness) is complex and mysterious and hard won not quick fixes. William Blake wrote in a poem that “Joy and Woe are woven fine” (Lyubomkirsky)
In our scripture today – we have Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes. The sub title is “true happiness” and in the good news translation instead of bless-ed they use the word happy.
Happy are those who are spiritually poor;
Happy are those who mourn;
Happy are those who are humble;
Happy are those who are merciful;
Happy are those with a pure heart;
Happy are those who work for peace;
Happy are those who may be persecuted for doing all these things.
Happy is a translation of the Greek word Makarios. Whatever word we use we are trying to get away from the trivial here –not blessed as if you are lucky or going to be blest in some material or advantaged way. Or happy in the sense of fleeting emotions or if circumstances go well in life…. (They will sometimes and not at other times)….not a mushy sentimentality but blessed or happy in the sense of a profound satisfaction and contentment –being at home with your life and the world. John Buchanan calls it an “A robust and full bodied happiness”.
This distinction between a “fleeting emotion” and a “true sense of abiding joy” is not the only difference between the happiness proposed by Jesus and that of the world. The major distinction is that Jesus advice here is so contrary to what we hear every day. So different from what the world tells us about how to achieve happiness. To be honest Jesus’ words undercut the way we are usually taught to live. Not only does it not depend on the ups and downs of life or what happens to us but more on our response to it. Even further, it values things differently - what we prize in life – what is important – how we live and connect to our life –You might say how we are “in it”. Some will say that the Sermon on the Mount is just an impossible ideal –not possible to live this way in the real world – Maybe Jesus didn’t really mean it –don’t worry about living that way or living up to it – maybe it’s just a goal and we should not worry too much about achieving it ……But do we really want to begin writing off what Jesus tells us?
Like all things in Jesus’ life, Happiness, seems to have a lot to do with Loving. When we love we become best connected to him, to others, to God, and our best selves. And Jesus says this will make us truly happy. It is a new way to look at life. It is not what we own, or what we have, or even what we achieve, but who we are in relation to others, that brings happiness. It’s true, you know. When you are down, depressed, spiritually weak, grieving; the love of those who stand by you will see you through. When you do what is right or extend yourself for others in perhaps unexpected ways, there is a contentment born not of pride but of the good that uplifts you. When compassion takes hold as a lifestyle and you find yourself engaging in everyday acts of forgiveness, peacemaking, and mercy; God becomes clearer and more present. And if that doesn’t make us happy, I wonder what will? Amen