July 23, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Matthew 5:1-12 (two versions)
I missed it. Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated March 20 as the International Day of Happiness. It’s a day to be intentionally happy, and most especially a way to recognize the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. Yes, happiness is a deep, persistent and universal goal for humanity but it’s no simple matter. The Bible teaches much about it, and perhaps the Beatitudes, more than any other text focuses on requirements for true happiness. “Some texts use the words, “Blessed are those who….” Others use the translation, “Happy are those who….” In either case, the meaning is about happiness.
Americans (in particular) have made happiness a central piece of their national quest. When the Founders of our nation gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 to draft the official statement of principles upon which the new Republic was to be built, they decided that happiness was SO FUNDAMENTAL A GOAL AND GOOD that they wrote it right into the preamble! “We hold these truths to be self-evident (they wrote) that all men [sic] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
From the very beginning, then, as a people we have been passionately devoted to pursuing our individual happiness. The American Dream holds that each one of us ,no matter how limited we are by birth, background or ability, can achieve for him- or herself whatever measure of fulfillment of life we desire. And at least the stated ideal for this country is that we structure our economic, social, political, and familial lives in ways which we believe will maximize happiness for the greatest possible number of individuals.
Who among us does not devote a great deal of time and spiritual and emotional energy seeking happiness? We do things and get things that we think will make us happy.
But what is happiness? A few weeks ago the theme of our service was Rejoice and I distinguished between joy and happiness; joy being a gift, a deep state of being and happiness as something about which we have some control.
However, personal happiness often has little to do with outward life circumstance or one’s luck in one’s family, career, or health. Recent surveys reveal that the levels of one’s income, status and education (even the all-important condition of one’s health) have almost NOTHING to do with how happy people report themselves to be. We’ve all known wealthy people who are generally quite unhappy. And perhaps like Tom and I you’ve traveled to third world countries and seen people living in very primitive conditions, with none of the possession that we think that we need, who are obviously very happy. We’ve known people with relatively minor, irritating medical issues who bitterly complain constantly and others who suffer from serious and painful illnesses who are at peace and happy.
Happiness is an INTERIOR reality of the heart, a psychological or spiritual state that can be quite independent of the external trappings which might or might not come our way. However from my experience of working closely with people all of my adult life, I am convinced that all authentic and enduring happiness is at its core RELATIONAL. The truly happy person is the one who has a good relationship with him/herself, with others and with God.
So how do we develop and/or maintain these right relationships? Non-Christian, Thomas Jefferson said that the beatitudes was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.” What is this code? There’s no doubt that the core message is love. But what does it mean to love someone? Thomas Aquinas, citing Aristotle, said that at a minimum “to love is to will good for someone”; that is, to do what we can to see that a person has a good life.
The Hebrew word for peace is “Shalom.” Shalom has two main meanings. One is that it describes perfect welfare: serenity, prosperity, happiness. When one Jew passed another Jew with a greeting of “Shalom,” this was not only a wish for freedom from trouble; it was also a wish for everything for that person’s contentment and good. In addition and also related to the previous wish Shalom describes right relationships: intimacy, fellowship, uninterrupted good will between people.
To be true to Scripture then is to understand shalom or peace as the happiness and well-being and perfection of human relationships. If we can keep that in mind, we can understand what Jesus meant by peace, and what the biblical writers meant. For example, when the writer of Psalm 122 prays for peace within the walls of Jerusalem, he is not praying simply that no outside force will try to destroy that city. He is praying that every good blessing will come upon it and its citizens, and that right relationships will exist. Every letter in the New Testament begins and ends with a prayer for peace for those who read the letters or listen to them being read. That prayer is for the welfare of each and for right relationships.
So when Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he included all of us. If we are to be considered “children of God” it means working for the welfare and the well-being of all people so that they can be at their best and highest. It means good and right relationships.
And one of the most significant components for achieving and maintaining right relationships is the ability to forgive and to accept forgiveness. This week Patrician Mulholland, Anne Murray and I attended ChoralFest: A summer camp for liturgical music. Between the music sessions that we had I was preparing this week’s service on relationships. I was a little nervous taking so much time away from church work and hoped that the ChoralFest experience would give me material for my sermon. Every morning, we had a simple but beautiful prayer service. One morning the person who gave the message quoted Peter Ustinov who said, Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit. When I heard this quote I knew that it was indeed central to a message on right relationships. Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.
So let’s look at right relationships in that light. First of all, there is our relationship with ourselves. Blessed, indeed, is the man, or woman, or child who has succeeded in coming to a right relationship with himself or herself. Every other right relationship depends upon our loving relationship with ourselves; a tender look which has become a habit.
Peacemaking begins with oneself. Having good relationships with others requires that we be persons of peace. How does one achieve this? I think Jesus spells it out in the first six Beatitudes. He did not arbitrarily list these innate rules for happiness. There is a sequence. The first six beatitudes say that we will be happy if we accept our reliance on God, not put the weight of the world on ourselves and if we understand that we are all one, if we maintain a light hold on all that is fleeting, if we are kind and if we are open to God’s presence and goodness in and all around us. In that way we will be at peace.
But we are human, which means that we are imperfect. To be in right relationship with ourselves, love ourselves, we need to be able to forgive ourselves. We need to accept our human condition. We are not perfect. There are things that we do well, and many things that we don’t. The people who attend ChoralFest are from all over the country and mostly Unitarian Universalists and mostly people with a long and rich background in music; music Directors and singers who sing professionally or volunteer in various singing groups. Many sight read effortlessly and most have beautiful voices. I don’t sight read well and no longer have a good voice. As best I could tell, I was the least qualified participant there. It felt odd to be at the bottom of the class; sometimes a little embarrassing, when I came in a beat before everyone else, and on the wrong note to boot. But it was good too. It gave me an opportunity to be gentle with myself, accepting of my humanness. I have high expectations of myself and I can be quite harsh on myself when I fall short of those expectations. ChoralFest gave me several opportunities to develop the habit of looking at myself tenderly.
Being in right relationship with ourselves also requires that we forgive ourselves for our wrong behavior; sometimes asking forgiveness from others and sometimes making amends. But regardless of whether others forgive us, we need to forgive ourselves. A favorite theologian of mine, Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”
If we are to be in right relationship with others, we need get out of our own way. And we will not be able to forget ourselves and be totally present to the other, unless we develop the habit of looking at ourselves tenderly. Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.
Once we have at least minimally established the right relationship with ourselves, we can move on to our relationships with others. TRUE HAPPINESS CANNOT BE HAD IN HUMAN OR WORLDLY ISOLATION. Happiness comes only to the one who has taken the risks of giving, serving and sharing. And, like everything else in life, this process is cyclical. People report that it’s the caring relationships we nurture with our families, friends and with the broader community that bring us the most happiness. It is only when we SHARE WHAT WE HAVE WITH OTHERS that we ourselves know our profound beauty and worth, and therefore experience happiness.
The great 20th Century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead seems to have understood this perfectly when he wrote, “. . . the secret of happiness lies in knowing this: that we live by the law of expenditure. We find the greatest joy not in getting, but in expressing what we are. There are tides in the ocean of life, and what comes in depends on what goes out. The currents flow inward only where there is an outlet. Nature does not give to those who will not spend; her gifts are merely loaned to those who will not use them. Empty your lungs and breathe. Run, climb, work, and laugh; the more you give out, the more you shall receive. Be exhausted, and you shall be fed. (Our) gladness is not in taking and holding, but in doing, the striving, the building, the living. It is a higher joy to teach than to be taught. It is good to get justice, but better to do it; fun to have things, but more fun to make them. The happy person (Whitehead concludes) is the one who lives the life of love…”
Yes, of course. It’s so obvious, yet at times so hard to see. The happy person is the one who lives the life of love…who relates to other life in caring ways, who offers the self and gives freely to others, who lives by the law of HOLY HUMAN EXPENDITURE.
Our Covenant with each other at Union Church invites deep, ongoing relationships. If you haven’t read it for a while, please do. It’s on our website. You’ll be reminded that we commit to much more than pleasant interactions and even helpful acts. We are called to significant relationships of caring, engagement, reciprocity, service, and communion. In right relationship with each other, we acknowledge our shared interdependence; we rejoice at one another’s joys and grieve at one another’s sorrows and do what we can to heal the causes of those sorrows. It is to the degree that we are in right relationship with each other in this faith community that we will experience spiritual blessing individually and that this church will continue to develop as a spiritual wellspring for all who come here.
And remaining in right relationship with others over time, for the long haul, requires the ability to forgive. People will let us down, hurt us, disappoint us and we human beings are wired to avoid pain. So, if we don’t forgive we will withdraw. We may keep coming to church and bringing our cookies, but to remain fully engaged with each other will require that we forgive, time and time again. Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit. Blessed are the merciful!
Our third relationship is our relationship with God. St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord and our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in you.” In his book, From the River Styx to the Rio San Buenaventura, With Occasional Diversions, Richard Heggen describes what we believe and honor here at Union Church. He says, “There are many wells of faith and knowledge drawing from one underground river of Divine wisdom. The practice of honoring, learning and celebrating the wisdom collected from these wells is Deep Ecumenism. We respect and embrace the wisdom and oneness that arises from the diverse wells of all the sacred traditions of the world.” This is our stance with each other and it is reflected in our worship. We experience rich blessing as we remain open to God’s presence everywhere. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Our Gospel this morning began with the words, “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.” This is relationship in action. The divine is made available to us anytime, anywhere. And when we are in communion with the divine we may feel discomfort as we recognize the gap between God, who is perfect love and ourselves. It is then that we need to be open to forgiveness, to accept forgiveness for our failures and imperfection. God invites us into right relationship as we are. He looks at us tenderly and says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love and you are mine.” God’s Love for us is an act of endless forgiveness. Peace.
Shalom. I wish for you and for our world all happiness and right relationships.