“Better than Happy”
A sermon preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean
On February 2nd, 2014
Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12
Our first scripture lesson for today is the Old Testament lectionary reading from the book of the prophet Micah, chapter 6, verses 6 through 8. Micah, in this passage, attempts to answer the question of what God desires from the ancient Israelites, against whom God has lodged a complaint. This is Micah’s answer for what God wants for them. Listen for the answer; it is an answer that is timeless, an answer that holds true for us today. Pay attention to the word justice.
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Our Gospel reading for today is from the very beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Listen now for what Jesus taught the disciples on that mountain right at the start of their ministry together.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Let us pray.
O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our rock and our redeemer. And may the Gospel be more to us than mere words. May the Holy Spirit produce in us strong conviction. Amen.
This past August, a writer named Mark O’Connell penned a clever little piece for The New Yorker about the proliferation of what has come to be known in the journalistic world as the “listicle.”[i]
A listicle is an article presented in the form of a list of similar or related elements. A few days after O’Connell’s piece was published, the word listicle was added to the Merriam Webster open-source online dictionary.
O’Connell poked fun at how ubiquitous these “listicles” have become on the internet and in print media. Ten Things I’ve Noticed as I Get Older. Top Five Signs You Probably Have Pancreatic Cancer. 37 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Pit Bulls and so forth.
You’ve seen them on the net or at the grocery store newsstand; in the Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping or Cosmo or Men’s Health; on the Huffington Post, or Salon or Buzzfeed or Pinterest.
Name your favorite online site. 12 Tricks for Decluttering Your House This Holiday Season. 35 Kitchen Hacks. 99 Life Hacks. 7 Ways to Divorce-Proof Your Marriage. 10 Phrases People Probably Need to Stop Using on Twitter. 15 Things From The Seventies That Never Should Have Died. 12 Most Popular Biblical Boys Names. (Aaron is not on the list!)
“Lists,” suggests O’Connell, “are our way of trying to impose order on life, a culture, a society, a difficult matter, a vast and teeming panorama of cat adorability or nineties nostalgia.”[ii]
“Umberto Eco put it dramatically,” O’Connell says: “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.”[iii]
I don’t know about you, but it’s the listicles about happiness that always grab me. Happiness can be so elusive, and there’s something in me that just wants to pin down how to attain it and keep it.
Gretchen Rubin, on her blog The Happiness Project lists The 8 Splendid Truths of Happiness. You can look them up.
Just a cursory search this week showed me that you find listicles about The Twenty Happiest Countries on Forbes.com. 10 Ways to Pursue Happiness on How Stuff Works blog. You can find 30 Happiness Tips and Six Secrets to a Happy Marriage. Nothing like a listicle to try to nail down how to get happiness. Oh, we’d like that easy answer, wouldn’t we? Just give us the list.
If you read some translations of Jesus’ Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, the words typically rendered “blessed are the” are written instead “happy are the.” And happy is certainly one way to translate the Greek word Makarios. So I suppose the Beatitudes could be repackaged as a listicle- 9 ways to be happy that you need in your life right now.
But you get right down to it, and the things Jesus is calling blessed, saying would lead to a happy life, don’t seem like they’d make the typical happiness list.
Happy are the poor in spirit, or otherwise? Happy are those who mourn? Happy are the meek? Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Happy are the persecuted? Huh?
William Barclay, that great Scottish Presbyterian bible commentator of the twentieth century, grasped that there is something about the English word ‘happy’ that doesn’t quite get to the meaning of the Greek word it is intend to translate.
You see the word happy has in its very root, hap, the idea of chance. Perhaps. Happenstance. Hapless. Whatever happens.
But what Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes, says Barclay, is a state of mind and being that is centered in something deeper than the circumstances of life. A blessedness that cannot be buffeted by the vicissitudes of life. A blessed consciousness that gets that all of life won’t fit into neat tiny boxes, no matter how many lists or ideologies we put together to try to tame it.
A blessedness that understands that you will face your share, and sometimes it seems more than your share of hardship and pain, right, whether or not you are a “good person” who comes to worship every Sunday and contributes to the needs of the poor and not always but more often than not stands up for the right and just and loving thing. It will happen. Hardship and pain will happen. What Jesus understood is that sometimes you’ll face hardship and pain precisely because you stand for the right thing. The kind of blessedness Jesus is talking about has nothing to do with feeling comfortable and everything to do with being compassionate.
Jesus needed to tell his disciples that at the beginning of their ministry together before they really got going in earnest because he wanted them to be prepared for what they would face. He wanted them to know that they were doing Kingdom work, whether they had hammers and bells or not. The work of reaching out to the outcast, caring for the poor, working for peace and to make the world better more just place more like a God of love would want it and that that wouldn’t be easy.
So he told them blessed are the poor in spirit (those who know they don’t have it all figured out, who, when encountering oppression and hardship sometimes feel alone and afraid and not enough, who know they need God) for theirs is the kingdom of God—now.
Blessed are those who mourn (the ones who notice and grieve over the pain and injustice in the world), blessed are the meek (the humbly God-led whose voices sometimes get drowned out), blessed are those who hunger and thirst to do what is right, those who do justice and love kindness as Micah said, who show mercy in a world that is not always kind, who are pure in heart, who do the things that make for peace, and because of this, not in spite of it, but because of it, are persecuted and reviled. The disciples needed this kind of encouragement before they headed out on the road, because it wouldn’t be easy.
Pete Seeger, the great activist and folk singer, whose music helped fuel the Civil Rights movement, died on Tuesday at the age of 94. John Nields already led us in singing one of his songs. It was just what Pete would have wanted- not one voice, but a whole choir.
I have a colleague in ministry, a commissioned lay preacher in a presbytery south of here, who sent me a message the other day asking if she was crazy to be thinking about talking about Pete Seeger in the context of a sermon on the Beatitudes. After all, she wasn’t sure he was even a Christian.
I told her, “I don’t know whether Pete would have claimed to be Christian in any orthodox, traditional, sense of the word (although he was a member of a Unitarian church for a while), but I do believe that he was a follower of Jesus and his way.”
You see, it seems to me that Pete understood about blessedness, about makarios. He had a kind of indomitable spirit to him, an infectious joy, and a happiness, yes, but that didn’t mean he didn’t undergo hard times. In the 50’s, during the height of McCarthyism, Pete was dragged in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and if you haven’t read his brave testimony on that occasion, it’s worth reading. He stood for what he believed, he didn’t back down or betray others, and he kept singing and leading others in song as they stood for a better more just, more loving world. And the congress could tell him that he couldn’t sing there, but we can’t tell him that he can’t sing here.
I can’t help but think of Paul and Silas singing at midnight in a Philippian prison. I can’t help but think of Pete standing on the rock where Jesus stood. Singing and leading others in singing, “Mary Don’t You Weep.” “Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome some day.” Pete sang and led marchers in singing before they faced attack dogs and the spit and fury of angry opponents who were trying to protect their way of life. “When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn,” Pete sang and lead others in singing, lamenting what everyone knows, the tragic cost of war.
Pete’s was a message based in Micah’s call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. It was a message that understood that the blessed dream of God can’t be summed up in a listicle. It’s not about being comfortable, it’s about being compassionate. It’s not about being secure, it’s about being unafraid. It’s not about seeking revenge, it’s about being merciful. It’s not about the despair of present circumstances; it’s about hope for a better world. And that kind of blessedness, friends, is better and deeper than what we call happiness. That kind of blessedness is worth singing about. And that kind of blessedness is what we celebrate at this table. And we do it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
[i] Mark O’Connell, “10 Paragraphs About Lists You Need in Your Life Right Now,” The New Yorker (August 29, 2013). You can find it online here: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/10-paragraphs-about-lists-you-need-in-your-life-right-now.html