original meaning of the word “believe” didn’t have anything to do
with what we think or what we mentally affirm. It had to do what
what we “belove” – how we act. We’re looking at beliefs right
now, for the purpose of considering what we belove, and to check and
see if our lives are lined up with what we belove.
are comparing three different believe systems: Moralistic Therapeutic
Deism, the Christian Right, and “Jesus Following”. Moralistic
Therapeutic Deism was identified by sociologist through a large
research project with US teens, and is the actual belief system of
most teens, despite any religious tradition they claim. Furthermore,
as teens are most heavily influenced by their parents when it comes
to faith, we have reason to believe that a rather large segment of
the population actually believes “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
So, we are looking at it, and finding where it does and doesn’t match
our actual faith tradition.
Therapeutic Deism” has 5 salient points.
god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human
life on earth.”
wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in
the Bible and by most world religions.”
central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when
God is needed to resolve a problem.”
people go to heaven when they die.”
week we are going to take a closer look at the third of the them:
central goal of life is to be happy and to feel
good about oneself.” For me, at least, this is a complicated
statement. I don’t disagree. However, before you get your hopes up
for a really short sermon, I don’t actually agree either. I have no
objection to happiness or feeling good about yourself – I’m all for
that – but I still think it falls short as the CENTRAL goal of life.
So, YES, we are meant to be happy and it is great when we can feel
good about ourselves BUT….
the BUT has three parts. We’re gonna take two of them together. So
first,… BUT we don’t really know how to seek our own happiness and
actually find it! And, secondly, … BUT we are not called to be so
individualistic. We are meant to increase joy in the world, yes, and
to increase the ways that people notice goodness and God-ness in
themselves, but not JUST for ourselves – for each other! More
interestingly, most studies suggest that the best way to make
yourself happy is to bring joy to others.
one of those studies, they gave people money with instructions.
Those told to spend it on themselves did, and those told to spend it
on others did. And who was happier the next day? Those who spent
the money on others. The boost in their joy was bigger and longer
lasting – having given someone ELSE a gift. They tried it with
various amounts of money, in a few countries, under different
scenarios, and it held. Further, they also found that if people were
given money and instructed to spend it on a team member, the success
rates of the whole team when up! (True of sports teams and business
also say that the happiness of our friends friends friends impacts
our own! We are social animals, impacted deeply by one another, and
the best way to increase our own happiness is to increase the
happiness of others. On the converse, self-indugence doesn’t bring
you want to increase your happiness, spend more time with people you
love – engaging with them – and bringing them joy. These two
objections really end up being similar. We are called as Christians
to seek goodness together, and that’s how it really works.
Other studies also point out that when we are doing the work we love
best we are profoundly happy. This suggests a way of understanding
our roles in the world as our calls by God. Amazingly though, that
happiness that we have when we lose ourselves in a task we love –
we all tend to describe it as a way of NOT being in ourselves. There
is something to giving ourselves away that is deeply related to
chose two scriptures this week to offer the Christian perspective on
happiness, mostly because either of them individually seemed
incomplete. The Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes,
the “blessed are they…” which are sometimes actually translated
“happy are they….” or could be translated “fortunate are
they…” but the blessing or the happiness are definitely NOT the
beatitudes don’t say blessed are the rich because they can buy what
they want or blessed are the young because they don’t have aches and
pains or blessed are the aged because they have enough wisdom or….
or anything like that! They say, blessed are the peacemakers,
blessed are the humble, blessed are those who mourn! The beatitudes
turn upside the idea of who is lucky, and with whom God’s presence is
found, but they can be read, easily, as a means of social happiness.
This fits with the Gospel message itself.
look at them: Blessed are the:
poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3) – those
who do not seek wealth for themselves, or well-being for themselves,
but for others.
who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4) – those who have
meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (5:5) – those who let
others get what they need.
who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be satisfied.
(5:6) – those who care for the needs of others
merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7) – those who are
merciful and kind to others
pure in heart: for they shall see God. (5:8) – those who love with
peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. (5:9) –
those who bring wholeness to others
who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: for theirs is the
kingdom of heaven. (5:10) – those who believe enough to be willing
to take on pain for others
are the happy? The blessed? The fortunate? The ones in deep and
wonderful relationships with others – the ones giving themselves
away to others. The ones whose lives intersect.
second scripture is a vision of the completion of the kingdom of God
on earth, the coming of God’s spirit to dwell with the people, in a
time without death or pain or sorrow. Its the ultimate “happiness”
and its for the people as a whole. Its the goal toward which we aim,
as Christians, the completion of the kindom of God.
gets us to the third objection. YES,
we are meant to be happy and it is great when we can feel good about
ourselves BUT….it is not the central point. The central point is
building the kindom of God. Because I believe these two things are
the same thing expressed in different ways, I can also say, the
central point is sanctification – creating space for the process of
growing in love for God, self, and others. Our Jesus-following
tradition says that sanctification is a gift from God, but there are
known “means of grace” that are likely to open ourselves to the
think joy is a means of grace, and hope that people take their joy as
a source of wisdom about their particular roles in the world. I
think God wants us to be joyful both because God loves us AND because
each instance of joy in the world is a blessing to others and
increases the wholeness of joy. But in the end I agree with the
often shared (and regularly misattributed) quote , “The meaning of
life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”
Yes, this bring joy and happiness, but it also blesses the world.
And, dear ones, we are blessed TO BE blessings. Not just so we’re
happy while others … aren’t!!
far I’ve left the Christian-Right out of this conversation. I’ve
argued only with the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism perspective, and
shared from the Jesus-follower one. In this case the Christian-Right
perspective is radically different from both. Within the
Christian-Right, suffering is seen as redemptive. This one has bled
into mainstream Christianity in ways I’ve often worried about. In
other churches I’ve served there has been an innate fear of too much
pleasure, as if it is unholy to enjoy the goodness of life. But in
the Christian-Right this goes deeper, suffering is assumed to be a
punishment from God, a “gift” in the form of a lesson to be
learned, a way of knowing that one needs to seek forgiveness from
God. I’m told, however, that this assumption is sometimes biased:
other people’s suffering is thought to be good for them, but in one’s
own life the goal is to be blessed through righteousness rather than
suffering. The idea that the righteous are blessed directly and the
unrighteous are blessed through correction is inherent in this
part of this that REALLY concerns me is that if suffering seen as
redemptive, the desire to lift people out of oppression is hindered.
You see, if suffering is … necessary… then there isn’t a reason
to worry about people in poverty, or about people being mistreated by
employers, or about people being abused…. because their suffering
brings them closer to God’s desires for them so it is … sort of
anyway… good. And, since the Christian-right is focused on
afterlife, the idea is often presented that suffering in this life
will be rewarded in the next… another motivation to allow the
suffering of people or groups.
I’m not entirely sure that the Jesus-following movement has a
fantastic theology of suffering. We tend to do one of two things:
ignore it and hope it goes away, or fight against suffering as
oppression as hard as we can. While the latter is something I value
in our believe/belove system, there ARE some sufferings of life that
are simply unavoidable. Making space for people to be in pain, and
to be heard and valued when they are in pain definitely matters to
making space for all of God’s people – and we can’t solve
everything. We can’t solve cancer, we can’t solve trauma, we can’t
solve grief. What we can do is be with people where they are, and I
hope that some of our work on sanctification/ kindom building is work
in increasing our capacity to sit with people who suffer.
think God is with people in suffering, and sometimes suffering can be
very holy work. However, I don’t think God ever GIVES people
suffering as punishment NOR as a lesson to be learned. That’s where
the Christian-Right and the Jesus-follower movements disagree.
in the Jesus-follower perspective, happiness and joy are GOOD, but
they’re not everything. Suffering and pain are real, but they’re not
“gifts from God.” The central goal of life is not our own
happiness. Instead, the central goal of life is
sanctification/building the kindom. That is, the central goal of life
is increasing communal well-being – and with it communal joy and
happiness. God is working with us to bring more joy into the world –
for all. Thanks be to God. Amen
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
September 15, 2019