SERMON PREACHED BY THE REVEREND DR. HAROLD T. LEWIS, RECTOR
CALVARY EPISCOPAL CHURCH, PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA
ON THE SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
11 FEBRUARY 2001
"Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20)
Perhaps some of you remember hearing a Reggae tune popular a few years ago. The lyrics of the song contained these words: "Don't worry... Be happy... Everything's gonna be all right." The song suggested that life is too complicated and that we would all be much better off if we were to simply slow down and enjoy life, and if this could be accomplished on a Caribbean island, under a palm tree with a rum punch in one's hand, all the better. What does it really mean to be happy? Maybe we put too high a premium on it in the first place. I had a friend at college who was from Singapore, and he maintained that Westerners are obsessed with happiness, so much so that a person who is anything short of euphoric is deemed to be a failure. What does it take to make us happy? When I counsel couples who want to get married, I often ask them what role they think arguing has in marital relationship? Some hapless couples say that arguing is a sign that there is no longer happiness in the marriage, so that it's better not to argue; rather, you should keep the peace. I tell them that what many people believe they are keeping the peace is in fact maintaining a cease-fire!
If you ask people what makes them happy, they often respond in terms of things, and particularly things that bring them security --- a roof over their head, a steady job, money in the bank (a place which may soon become more popular than the stock market). In other words, happiness is equated with not having to worry, and the conventional wisdom is that having these things will create a life free of anxiety. But you and I know that the couches of therapists, psychologists and counselors of every kind are frill of people who want for nothing when it comes to this world's goods, but who nevertheless find happiness elusive.
In today's Gospel, Jesus addresses his disciples, not the generic crowds, mind you, but those who have already decided to follow him. And he gives them a series of four propositions. He tells the poor that they will inherit the kingdom of God; he assures the hungry that they will be satisfied; he lets weepers know that their tears will be turned into laughter; and he gives the persecuted the comforting news that they will be rewarded and ultimately justified. These sayings, and the longer list in Matthew's Gospel, are called the Beatitudes, because in the Latin Bible each proposition begins with the word "Beatus" But the original Greek word, translated "blessed," is makarios, and the first definition of that word is "happy."
Now about now, you're saying "Thanks for the etymology lesson, but since when are poverty, hunger and persecution considered guarantees of happiness?" Now some Biblical scholars will go so far as to say that all these groups lack something, so that they literally have nothing to worry about; they are not burdened with the cares of the world like those who have these things. But that's a little patronizing, don't you think? And it leads to the kind of pie-in-sky-bye-and-bye theology that tries to make the poor satisfied with their lot, with the assurance that they will be rewarded in heaven.. No, I think Jesus is holding up certain qualities of the poor: a simplicity of heart, the capacity to find happiness in oneself and in the love of people rather than in the luxury of things. And these qualities are often lost when we are encumbered with things. This is why the Beatitudes are countered with a list of "woes." Things have the capacity to corrupt, the capacity to make us insensitive, the capacity to give us a distorted view of life.
One of the ways I rate movies is on their theological insights. Based on this criterion, one of the greatest movies of all time was "Trading Places." Eddie Murphy, the poor, inner-city street hustler, is, through the machinations of Don Ameche and Ralph Bellame, catapulted into Philadelphia's high society, while Dan Ackroyd is forced to exchange his town house, butler and tony friends for a walk-up flat, a landlady who is a prostitute, and the denizens of Skid Row. Mr. Murphy is given an instant lesson in the ways riches can corrupt, while Mr. Ackroyd learns something of the good qualities of those people who make up the underclass. Ackroyd's character sees the pain, danger and unhappiness of the poor, but also gets a glimpse of what is ultimately important --- and that is setting priorities and goals of quality, not quantity. The happiness that Jesus promises is not the passive kind that sees fulfillment as a lazy life under a palm tree. It is, rather, a life that has purpose and that is important. Happiness is not a carefree life; it is the overcoming of care by trust and resolve.
Critics of Mr. Bush's tax plan have suggested that the wealthiest one per cent or so of the population will be able to save enough under the new tax cut to buy a Lexus, while the poorest families might be able to use their savings to get the family jalopy repaired. It is interesting that our first instinct is to see a windfall or whatever size in terms of what it can be used to acquire. No one has suggested that the money might be used to provide a scholarship for a child, or to rebuild part of a village in India or El Salvador. Is there something about the American psyche that believes that happiness means just having one more thing? Are we truly happy? And if not, why not? Is it perhaps because we are still trying to get our priorities right? Let's worry about that for a while, because it just might lead to radical decisions that will make us happier than we've ever been before.
Let us pray:
Cure thy children 's warring madness,
Bend our pride to thy control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss thy kingdom 's goal. *
*Harry Emerson Fosdick, "God of grace and God of glory," The
Hymnal 1982, 594.