Happy Easter! Every year we wish one another Happy Easter and so we should because the events of this day are the happiest of all. But do we really give thought to the kind of happiness that we are wishing for one another or the kind of happiness that we seek for our own lives?
When Jesus taught the Sermon on the Mount He repeatedly said “ Blessed are…” as in “Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…” Some modern translations correctly translated all of those “blesseds” as “happy are….” Perhaps from this we can conclude that Jesus wants us to be happy because He taught us how to get there. Still it seems to be that happiness is as allusive as catching your shadow.
Perhaps one reason for that is because there are so many daily things that assault our happiness. The other day I was in a fairly good mood until I decided to call my Credit Union to ask one simple question. On my initial contact I get an automated voice. “For English press one.” Why? I’m not calling from Hong King. And how would I know to press one if I did not speak English? I did it anyway. Then the voice asked for my identification number. I punched in my 7 digit id number and expect to hear a person pick up. Instead the automated voice asked for my pin number. I had no idea what my pin number is so I had to look it up and as I did she times me out and hangs up. I make the call again and press one for English, give my 7 digit id number and then my 4 digit pin number. Am I home free? No siree! She says “To speak to a customer service representative say “Three.” I say “Three.” She comes back “Okay you said ‘Thirteen.’” I say “No Three.” “Okay you said ‘Thirteen.’” After two more of these exchanges I am yelling into phone and calling the automated voice names. Finally she accepts my number and says “For security reasons please give us your Credit Union membership number.” That is a 10 digit number which I dutifully punch in. Finally a real voice comes on, “Hi, thank you for calling us Mr. Kasch, for security purposes what is your Credit Union Membership Number?” At this point I am in fetal position under my desk and I can’t remember why I called. I know that you have the same daily frustrations and many times over.
But surely the blessedness or happiness that God wants us to have can transcend such annoyances because there are even greater challenges to our happiness. Illnesses, failed marriages, economic setbacks, dealing with dysfunctional families; there can be a world of pain out there. Way beyond overcoming life’s annoyances we need to know how do we find a happiness that can transcend life’s most challenging blows.
One day I was listening to NPR and they made reference to TED talks. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and it is a program where they bring in experts who have about 18 minutes to make a concise presentation. They are fascination but one that particularly caught my attention was a number of presentations on happiness. It was very enlightening.
One talk was by a guy who was on the leading edge of technology when it first came on the scene. At 28 years old he found himself being transformed from from a regular guy who grew up in a middle class family to now being a multimillionaire and he didn’t know what to do with himself. He didn’t go crazy, like you hear about of many lottery winners, but he did buy a number of nice things including a new home. To his surprise none of this made him any happier. He went on to do some research and he discovered that Americans today are living in three times the amount of space than we did just 50 years ago and still we do not have enough space for our things. Today storage is a $22 billion per year business taking up 2.2 billion square feet and yet our happiness level as a nation has flatlined over the last 50 years. “Blessed are the hoarders” is something that Jesus never said.
What really got my attention was a German presenter who said that happiness is connected to gratitude. He remarked that we all know people who have an abundance but they are not happy because they always want something more or something different. But grateful people are happy and so the question is how we go about being grateful.
He said that we are grateful when we experience two things. First we experience something of significant value to us and second it must come to us as a true gift. It cannot be something that we have earned or for which we have traded. It must be a gift. And when we experience a highly valued gift, gratefulness rises in our hearts and we become spontaneously happy.
It must be highly valued and it must be a gift. Can there be a better definition of the grace of God in Jesus Christ? And it is precisely that grace that is the foundation for our happiness. You know the story but let me tell it to you again.
(taking two chairs, one white and one black, have them face one another)*
In the beginning God created man to be in fellowship with Him. The Bible says that Adam and the Lord would walk with one another in the cool of the evening. (turn the black chair). But then man turned his back on God and tried to go his own way. The fruit of that was disobeying God’s commandment, brother killing brother and such rampant wickedness that God regretted He had even made man.
( bring white chair to again face black chair). But God’s love was stronger than His regret and so again and again He sent the prophets to call man back to Himself. His promise was that He would be their God and they would be His people. He offered a return to fellowship, union, communion. It would work for a time but man would again turn to his own wicked ways (turn black chair away). They killed the prophets.
It would have been a surprise to no one if God at that point hadn’t given up on man. But God still so loved the He sent His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him would have eternal life (bring white chair to face black chair).
He sent Him to a woman who had sought unconditional acceptance in husband after husband after husband after husband until she gave up on marriage and probably she gave up on herself. Now she was living with a man who was not her husband and she was filled with so much shame and to avoid the wagging tongues, she came to draw water in the heat of the day. The love and acceptance that Jesus offered her would become springs of living water within her so that she would never thirst again.
(Hold black chair overhead) He sent him to a man who was despised by all. Small in stature and even smaller in character. He not only collected taxes for the enemy but he bilked his own people to line his pockets. His lonliness cried out even louder than his self-contempt so Jesus said, “Come down, tonight we will break bread together,” and the man was introduced to the Bread of Life, never to hunger again (bring black chair down to face white chair).
(lay black chair on its side). He was sent to a man who was really everyman. The man is lame. He wants to be whole but the only way for him to be healed is to enter the waters when they are stirred by an angel. But he is lame so he cannot help himself. All that he can do is live a life of quiet desperation, wanting for what he can never have. Jesus makes the impossible possible (stand up the black chair). He says “Take up your mat and walk.” I cannot even fathom the gratitude that burst into happiness for this man.
And what of our penultimate enemy death? (lay the black chair on its back). God sent His Son there too. (collapse the white chair and lay it on the black chair). Psalm 138 says “If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” That is what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed when we declare that Jesus descended into hell. He descended to the place of the dead to take captive the captive or as Peter put it, to preach to those who were in prison. There is no where we can go to escape God’s love. (return to pulpit).
The Gospels contain story after story of Jesus giving people things of great value, like giving the widow woman her son back from the dead. Like setting free a possessed man and putting him in his right mind. Like healing a woman who had an issue of blood for 12 years. Like giving sight to a man who had been born blind. Like raising Lazarus from the dead. And in every case it was a pure gift, it was nothing that they had earned or traded for and truth be told it was not even something that they deserved. It was grace. It was love in action.
But gratitude and happiness are not something that we derive from only looking back. Hear again the words of our Epistle lesson. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Too many Christians, or people who claim to be Christian, view salvation as if it were simple fire insurance. Punch a ticket now so you don’t burn later. But that is not the Gospel Jesus came to preach. His sermons were about the kingdom of God that is now and not now. It is a kingdom that is in our midst now and it is a kingdom that will one day come in its fullness. It is a kingdom where our citizenship resides now and that influences who we are and how we act and how we treat one another. So Saint Paul says that we are not to set our minds on things of the earth but on things above. But then he goes on to tell us of our future. We who are hidden in Christ will be glorified along with when He returns. God’s inheritance for us goes beyond salvation. His goal is for our glorification. To be honest I have no idea what all of that looks like but I do know it is far beyond fire insurance. Every now and then I get a taste of happiness and fulfillment when I realize that I am doing what I was created to do and so I can only imagine that when we are fully sanctified and glorified that we will be exactly who God made us to be and we will know a kind of happiness and fulfillment that we can now only dream about. St. Paul declares in another letter “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.”
One of our parishioners is in AA. He told me that the difficulty for him is that sometimes it seems they are speaking of a different God than the one revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of a God who wants us to have life and have it abundantly, too many of his friends believe in a god of retribution, what he calls “a gotcha god,” a god who is always looking for you to mess up so that He can get you.
Easter paints a very different image than a “gotcha god.” The baptisms that we will witness today, as the Holy Spirit baptizes them into Christ’s Body, speak of a very different God than a “gotcha god.” Easter and baptism reveal a God who left glory not to get us but to adopt us, to make us His family, to be our God and to make us His people.
We receive through the resurrection of Jesus a salvation that is more to be valued than fine gold and it comes to as a free gift. If that does not produce spontaneous happiness in us, I can’t image what will. All that is left for us to do today is to receive it and say “Thanks be to God.” Happy Easter.
* Concept taken from a presentation by Fr. Steve Robinson comparing the Orthodox and Protestant views of salvation on You Tube – Love Wins – An Orthodox View