Sunday, February 11, 2007

Epiphany 6C

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

One of the happiest, places in the world for me, when I was very little, was my grandparents’ house. And one of the happiest places in that house was my mom’s old room, where some of her stuffed animals still sat in the window seat, and a bulletin board was covered in pictures from high school and summer camp, and the shelves were filled with books – Nancy Drew and Vicky Barr mysteries, stories about dogs, and Peanuts books.

Do you remember those little books, kid-sized, with brightly colored pages on which Snoopy danced and Schroeder played his piano and Lucy gave out advice and Charlie Brown smiled despite it all? The words were kid-sized, too: “Happiness is a warm puppy.” “Security is a thumb and a blanket.” “Happiness is when the bell rings just before you are called on to recite.”

Those books are back in print right now, looking just the same as they did at my grandmother’s house thirty years ago. Happiness is picking up the book at the bookstore and seeing the familiar pictures, re-reading the familiar words. Familiar to me, anyway, until the very last page, which it seems I hadn’t remembered at all. It says: “Happiness is one thing to one person, and another thing to another person.”

I suppose we’re not all warm puppy people. There are as many different means to happiness as there are people who seek it. For me, these days, happiness is a lap full of yarn and a pair of knitting needles. For my husband, happiness is having a guitar and spare time in his hands. For our son, happiness is any quantity of matchbox cars. The means are different, but the happiness – the contentment, satisfaction, security and comfort – is very much the same.

This morning we are re-reading the familiar words of the Beatitudes (from the Latin, beatus; the Greek means both “blessed” and “happy”). The words are so familiar to us that we hardly have to remember them at all. It’s the same familiar picture of the crowds surrounding Jesus, and Jesus sounding for all the world like one of those old Peanuts books…happy are they who...blessed are you when…

In the Hebrew scriptures, beatitudes were a common formula for prescribing moral, faithful behavior. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream, wrote the prophet Jeremiah. In our psalm this morning, Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners. For a people whose lives were rooted in Torah, in the law, the connection between following that law and being blessed, being happy, made sense.

In the world, there are (there have always been) many formulas with many variables for finding what is also called happiness and sometimes even blessedness. In some of those formulas, luck is the only variable that counts. In others it’s hard work. In some it may be fate. And setting such variables as warm puppies, knitting needles, and matchbox cars aside, the constant always in play is our deep and desperate need for security, for our share of comfort in world that never seems to have enough for all. For a people whose lives are caught up in the world, the connection between what we have, who we have, what we’ve accomplished, what we’ve acquired, how far we’ve come and being happy makes sense.

I wonder who Charles Schultz had in mind on that very last page of his sweet little book about happiness. Did he really mean that for some people happiness is a warm puppy and for others it is a fuzzy sweater? As I re-read the now not-so-familiar words, other pages began to stand out. “Happiness is a bread and butter sandwich folded over.” “Security is knowing you are not alone.” “Happiness is owning your own home,” with a drawing of Snoopy hugging his doghouse. One whole book in the series is devoted to the comfort of food, another to the comfort of friends, and still another to the comfort of home.

“Happiness is one thing to one person, and another thing to another person.” When I was little, a bread and butter sandwich folded over was an after school snack. For very many people in the world, a bread and butter sandwich is more than they will eat all week. Happiness would be even the bread by itself. Butter would be a step up, a blessing…

In this season of Epiphany, of revelation, of coming to understand who Jesus is, we have the opportunity to re-read the Beatitudes and find the words of blessing and of woe now not so familiar, not so sweet, not so formulaic. Jesus tenders blessings that have nothing at all to do with luck, or hard work, or even faithfulness but instead have everything to do with who God is. God’s calling of the people of Israel had begun with a blessing, when God said to Abram, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. The oldest existing fragment of parchment containing words from scripture has upon it the blessing God asked Aaron and Moses to speak over the Israelites in the wilderness: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. Blessing immediately and unconditionally conveys something of the life-giving, life-transforming power of God upon those who are blessed. Blessing conveys something of who God is, of how God acts, of what matters to God.

Blessed are you who are poor, Jesus said, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, who are hated and excluded and reviled and marginalized. Blessed are you. Happy are you. None of that would ever make it onto Charles Schultz’ list – or anyone else’s list for that matter – of what happiness, contentment, satisfaction, or security is. Happiness is being rich, having full bellies, laughing, being accepted and included and honored….right? Jesus had the world backward, upside-down.

But Jesus wasn’t describing the world with which everyone was familiar. Jesus was describing the world with him in it, divinity mingled with DNA, heaven and earth inseparable. Jesus was describing the world with the kingdom of God in it, of which he had heard his momma Mary sing, He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Happiness, blessedness is one thing to people, and another thing altogether to God.

Blessed are you who are poor, Jesus says, for yours is the kingdom of God, for you matter to God. In the kingdom of God, which is mine to bring, you matter. In the words of these Beatitudes, in these words of blessing, we read what matters to God. Poverty matters to God. Hunger matters. Weeping matters. Those who are hated and excluded and reviled and marginalized matter. In all of our gospel accounts, but especially in the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ life and ministry is spent among people who had been told by the world, “Happiness is…not for you.”

And so what are we to do, we who believe that Jesus was indeed God-with-us? Happiness is having something practical to offer on the last page of a sermon: how to be a better disciple, how to start a new ministry, how to live a more faithful life. But we must take care with the Beatitudes, because they are not a to-do list. They are not about how to get into the kingdom – do this, and you will be blessed, do that, and woe is you. They are not a glorification of truly wretched social and economic conditions that continue to diminish those whom God has blessed. They are not, by themselves anyway, a divine formula for altering those conditions, for we who eat buttered bread are a variable in that formula, too – Jesus will in many other teachings ask us to alter some conditions in our lives.

Instead, the Beatitudes simply and powerfully reveal the kingdom of God already present here, now, a kingdom utterly unfamiliar in a world that measures out happiness, that awards blessedness. Indeed, woe are they who continue to measure out happiness, to award blessings and store up security, for they are living in a world that no longer exists – the kingdom of God in which blessedness is for all is now in the world, but they cannot see it.

What are we to do? We are to understand what matters to God. We are to understand what matters to Jesus. We are to understand that, as his disciples, these things must matter to us. Blessed are we and all the whole world when the kingdom in our midst becomes what is most familiar. Amen.

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