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Love is Life

Sermons

Sustainable Happiness

February 03, 2013

Bible Reading

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

(Isaiah 55:1-3, 12-13)


“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

(Luke 6:27-38)

Reading from Swedenborg

We may gather the magnitude of heaven’s pleasure simply from the fact that for everyone there it is delightful to share their pleasure and bliss with someone else, and since everyone in heaven is like this, we can see how immense heaven’s pleasure is. For as I explained above (§268), there is in heaven a sharing by everyone with each individual, and by each individual with everyone. . . .

It is different for love of oneself and love for the world. Love for oneself takes away and carries off all the pleasure of others and diverts them to itself because it has only its own welfare in mind. Love of the world wants the possessions of the neighbor to be its own. So these loves by nature want to destroy pleasures for other people. If they have any tendency to share, it is for their own interests and not for others (except insofar as they can appropriate and embody the pleasures of those others); they do not tend to share but to destroy.

(Heaven and Hell 399)

Sermon

Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will given to you—a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure you receive in return. Luke 6:38

A recent book by Derek Bok1 entitled The Politics of Happiness draws some provocative conclusions. First, current research suggests that despite the significant rise in our national standard of living, we are not appreciably happier now than we were fifty years ago. Second, we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy. The impact of something like getting a new car or a raise in salary or moving to a warmer climate is actually modest, and tends to dissipate almost entirely before long. Third, and perhaps most surprising, in connection with the growing financial inequality in our country, the only people who seem to be “measurably upset” are the well-to-do.

The latter two observations dovetail quite convincingly. There are no conspicuous signs that the well-to do are troubled by the inequality—they seem to be doing little to counter it. It is more likely that they are people who believed that higher income would make them happy, and are finding that it does not. They are faced with disillusionment, then, and the more time and energy they have devoted to gaining wealth, the more they have sacrificed toward that goal, the harder it is to admit that they have failed.

Still, they keep trying, and trying even harder, and one reason is fairly obvious. Every gain has brought a lift of spirits, so it is not too hard to believe that the answer must be to gain more. There is no place in their vocabulary for the word, “enough.” While to some it means contentment, to them it means stagnation, defeat, something alarmingly akin to death. Is that all there is for me?

If Bok is right, the main problem is that we are short-sighted. We reach for what will give us an immediate lift, and are slow to learn that these immediate lifts don’t last. Perhaps we should regard them not so much as stimulants as painkillers. They make us feel better, but only for a while. Before long, they wear off, and we find ourselves feeling worse again. That means it’s time for another dose, and if possible a stronger one, and before long, we are addicted.

The pain we are trying to suppress is the work that we do when we are doing it primarily for the income it will bring. It is surely revealing that we have come up with images like “the rat race” and “the treadmill,” and this clearly implies the discouraging news that there is little or no real happiness in the work itself. Satisfaction, perhaps, and something like pride, but not a feeling that brings a smile to the face. We would rather be doing something else, presumably something that would make us happy; but as Bok indicates, we are not good judges of what will actually accomplish that for us. The prophet Haggai speaks of people who “earn wages and put them into a bag with holes” (Haggai 1:6). Isaiah asks why we spend our money for what does not nourish us and labor for what does not satisfy (Isaiah 55:2). Happiness nourishes us. Happiness satisfies us.

The rat race is not what the Lord has in mind for us. The angels did not bring the shepherds six-figure contracts. They brought the real thing, “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10), and the word “gospel” means “good tidings.” “These words have I spoken to you so that my joy might be in you, and so that your joy might be full” (John 15:11).

There is nothing short-sighted about this, nothing whatever. When we speak of “having fun,” we know that we are talking about something that won’t last. In a way, that is what enables us to let go and enjoy it. We can let go and be irresponsible for a little while because we know we will take up our responsibilities again before long. The “joy” or happiness the Lord is trying to give us is long-term, really long-term. “In everything that it does,” we are told, “the Lord’s divine providence is focusing on what is infinite and eternal” (Divine Providence 46); and that is as “longterm” as you can get.

One of the healthier trends over recent decades has been toward recognizing the importance of sustainability, recognizing that policies that brought immediate benefits all too often had serious longterm consequences. Eventually, we run out of room to dispose of our trash. Eventually, the air becomes toxic. Eventually, the antibiotics don’t work. Eventually, the bills have to be paid.

Our theology is trying to tell us not only that there is such a thing as sustainable happiness but also that true happiness is selfsustaining in and of itself. We do not often put these two words together, “sustainable” and “happiness,” but that is surely where they belong. Who wants sustainable unhappiness? Who wants unsustainable happiness? To borrow an image from Mission Impossible, do we want happiness that comes with the message that it is programmed to self-destruct?

The solution is actually absurdly simple. Luke gives it to us in a single word: “Give.” “Give, and it will given to you—a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure you receive in return.” Our third reading expands on this, telling us first of all that for everyone in heaven “it is delightful to share their pleasure and bliss with someone else,” and that on the contrary, “Love for oneself takes away and carries off all the pleasure of others and diverts them to itself because it has only its own welfare in mind.” That is the message that has self-destruction programmed into it for the simple reason that it sets us against each other.

That third reading calls attention to the immensity of heaven’s happiness, but does not mention its sustainability. Could this be because its sustainability is so obvious? When I am warmed by your happiness and you are warmed by mine, this is the polar opposite of self-destructiveness. This is happiness with a programmed-in growth hormone, a hormone whose trade name is “eternal.” This is happiness that is actively contagious.

That is what makes it sustainable. My true happiness is never at the cost of yours. It actually increases yours, as yours increases mine.

Not to mince words, we are talking about the polar opposites of generosity and greed. Granted that they rarely if ever occur in pure, unadulterated forms, in their essence the contrast is absolute. Generosity makes friends. Greed makes enemies. When Lincoln said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” he had the Gospels squarely behind him (Matthew 12:25, Mark 3:25, Luke 11:17). Greed is inherently, essentially, divisive; and divisiveness is inherently, essentially, self-destructive.

At this point, we need to be clear that there is nothing inherently wrong with simple “getting.” If we don’t get the groceries, we won’t have health. If we don’t get housing, we won’t have shelter. If we don’t get directions, we won’t know the way. Our theology says very clearly that we need to take care of ourselves, and to do this first, if we are to be of any use to each other (New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Teachings 97-99). It is a question of priorities. We have things backward if we live in order to eat.

The good news is clear, and it comes to us in the form of a commandment: “Give.” But aren’t we giving in order to get? Our text does not stop with that command. It says “Give, and it will be given to you.” That argument has been dealt with at some length, though, in the verses that precede.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect a return, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order get as much back. No, love your enemies, and do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return.” (Luke 6:32-35)

There is nothing particularly strange or improbable about this. We know from experience that we enjoy lending a hand from time to time. From time to time, the papers have pictures of volunteers working on a Habitat for Humanity project. With due allowances for human imperfections, these are pictures of happiness. These are people working together on something they believe is worth doing. They aren’t getting paid; they are there simply because they want to be. It would be nice to be thanked, but the experience is not spoiled if we are not.

There really is a lot of this going on, and only a tiny fraction of it gets into the papers. I wonder what would happen if each of us kept a kind of diary of such events. Some of them might be very brief; some of them might involve ongoing commitments. In some cases, we might be physically alone, but conscious of others whom our activities would be affecting, or conscious of the fact that it is their contributions that have made it possible for us to be doing something worthwhile. There is a definite warmth to realizing that we are putting to use what others have taught us, and we find ourselves wishing we could let them know that their teaching has borne fruit.

When we find ourselves enjoying a gift of learning that was given us decades ago, there could hardly be a clearer sign of the sustainability of true happiness. When we give others happiness, it is a gift that keeps giving. When we think of “commandments,” the first that come to mind may be negative ones. We have needed these from time to time, and still do; but when Paul said that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10), he was saying that all the commandments could be summed up in a single word: “Give.” Amen.

Prayers

Dearest Lord,
Whose glory is made no greater by our creation
And whose power is made no stronger by our redemption;
Teach us to care for one another, not our of duty but out of love,
And to be moved in all our actions by love, and love alone;
Through Christ our Lord.

- St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)


Arm us, O Lord, with the whole panoply of God,
With the shield of faith,
The sword of the Spirit,
The helmet of salvation,
The girdle of truth,
The breastplate of righteousness,
That we may be able to stand in the evil day;
And let our feet be shod
With the preparation of the gospel of peace;
That, having done all, we may stand in the same,
Now and forever.

- Eric Milner-White, Daily Prayer, 1941 (from Ephesians 6)


Footnotes

1 Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Return to reference

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole