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Sermons

The Receipt of Happiness

February 17, 2013

Bible Reading

While the Israelites were camped in Gilgal, they kept the Passover in the evening on the fourteenth day of the month in the plains of Jericho. On the day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.

(Joshua 5:10-12)


He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

(Luke 12:22-34)

Sermon

I have been thinking about the experience of anxiety—you know, worry and doubt and fear. Like all people, I have my share, but as a minister, I am particularly called to make some sort of sense out of these familiar experiences of darkness.

Today’s reading is a classic example of the Lord seeking to help us understand the meaning of anxiety. As I reflected on this subject, I became aware of those undeniable moments when God breaks through, takes over, dispels the clouds and doubts and fears, and reveals the simple beauty and “isness” of life. What was I so concerned and worried about? I remember that “the Lord has done great things for me” (that’s an understatement!), and I realize that I am in fact very glad because of it.

Most of us are usually somewhere in between these two states: between the press of anxiety and the serenity of trusting in God, between what we call the “natural” and the “spiritual” perspectives. This is in fact our freedom, our equilibrium between two opposing forces. We are Janus faced; citizens of two worlds simultaneously; an intersection of natural and spiritual influences; creatures of the earth and inhabitants of the realm of spirit; increasingly subject to the limits of nature, of time and space, and increasingly unlimited in matters of compassion and understanding.

All of this doubleness can be confusing, and we can easily find ourselves firmly rooted in one or the other at different times. At times it seems as if “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” At other times, it can seem as if God has abandoned us, that providence has been subverted; at times, God’s apparent absence can even be mistaken for his nonexistence. If each perspective seems real when we are in it, how can we tell the difference; how should we make our decisions? We are given a clue (actually, more than that) in Scripture, in revelation, which teaches us in ways that the senses and reason cannot. There we learn that this “dynamic tension” we live with, and often struggle with, is the only context in which we can grow spiritually and come to receive the happiness God longs to give us.

It is an age-old truth, whether western or eastern: the problems of the proprium are very serious problems to the proprium, but they are illusions to the higher self. To the extent that we are in the proprium, the problems seem all too real, and usually as insurmountable as they are unjustified. It is only as we move out of the proprium perspective that we can begin to see the shadowy, insubstantial nature of so many of our concerns and anxieties.

“It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Scripture is bold to suggest to us that God is not an irate dictator, but Divine Love and Wisdom itself; compassionate and wise, merciful and just, caring and capable. Because God is essentially love, we can begin to understand that our sense of fear, anxiety, and worry are not the ways of God; this is not what God longs for us to experience. Our burdens are not a price to pay for God’s approval, but the self-imposed restraints that keep us from experiencing the warmth of God’s love in the first place. Because God is essentially love itself, we need only turn to God to experience the peace and freedom he offers. “For the Lord is such that he wills to give himself to all; and therefore satisfaction and blessedness are increased with those who are images and likenesses of him” (Arcana Coelestia 6478).

So far so good. But first we need to deal with the proprium.

“The more a person acknowledges that in himself there is nothing alive, and nothing good, and that everything living and good is from the Lord, the more he is in happiness” (Arcana Coelestia 1153.2).

Emptied of self, we become filled with the God of love and wisdom; delivered from the illusions of the proprium, we receive the peace and happiness of heaven, and freedom from all fear. To say that we need only turn to God reminds us of the importance of free will in spiritual matters. Turning to God is turning from the appearances of the lower self, the proprium. This is what it means to sell our possessions and give to the poor, to relinquish the hold we have on our “truth” and open ourselves to a new understanding. (Two dogs live within each person. Which one grows? The one that is fed!) “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” The essence of God’s love and wisdom is (1) to love others outside of oneself, (2) to desire to be one with them, and (3) to make them happy from oneself.

The Lord gives blessedness, satisfaction, and happiness without end to those who receive his love in themselves. For God, as he is love itself, is also blessedness itself; and as all love breathes forth delight from itself, so Divine love breathes forth blessedness and satisfaction to all eternity. Thus God makes angels, and also people after death, happy from himself; which is effected by conjunction with them.” (True Christian Religion 43)

Swedenborg makes two interesting points about the Lord’s divine providence that I would like to share with you. The first concerns God’s famous omnipresence. The Lord, the source of all happiness, is in all things universally precisely because he is in each thing in particular. The Lord’s providence and care for us is not some kind of generalized concern for our well-being, such that “everything will come out right eventually, just hang in there.” His providence is omnipresent because the Divine is not in time or space to begin with. God is not another “thing” that can ever be separated out; there is no there where God is not, for God is reality itself, the author of creation. This is the transcendental thinking behind the comments about the lilies of the field and sparrows of the air, and even the hairs on our head, as another reading puts it.

The second point is similar: the Divine is the same in things least and great (small and big). It’s the same divine presence that is with us whether we are considering the plight of those in the Middle East, or getting a notice of a tax audit, or stubbing our toe in the night. We are all precious and cared for, at each moment and in each moment, regardless of the world’s standards. God is there to bless us, to heal us, to calm us, to strengthen us, to enlighten us, to make us happy. It is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

There is no absolute need to be miserable; there is absolutely no need to be miserable. For example, the rules of the healing method known as Reiki state, “Today: no anger, no fear, no pride.” But to say that life is inherently good strikes the proprium as too optimistic, as not realistic enough. Here we see that the proprium equates reality with pain. How often do we see life in terms of struggle, risk, vulnerability, threat, danger, loss, illness, death, and so on? The problem is not that we experience anxiety from these things—that’s natural. The problem is that we think it is perfectly normal to do so—and that’s downright unspiritual! I do not mean to downplay the truly serious problems we all face in the course of our lives; rather, I want to remind you that the power of God to bring us through those problems is freely offered to us at each moment. Our problems and anxieties are not the last word. God’s Word is the last word.

The Lord tells us that the kingdom of heaven is within us. That is, heaven must be in our hearts before we can live in heaven. The heavenly life is a happy life, because everyone in heaven is freely and consciously involved with the Lord, who is love itself.

However, we know that we are not born loving to do right. We are first taught by our parents, and later we begin to make ourselves do right because we see that we get along better that way. This is like the children of Israel going about in the wilderness, obeying Moses because they were sure to get into trouble if they didn’t. But this is not a heavenly state of life. However, as we continue in the work of repentance and reformation, the Lord gradually implants in our hearts a love of doing right. Then we are ready to “enter” the Holy Land, to have heaven in our hearts and minds, and so to receive the happiness that God has created us for. The occasional sense of spiritual satisfaction that we get during the process of reformation is merely a foretaste of the steady joy of heavenly living. People who live spiritually are happy with a deep, abiding happiness that no natural satisfaction can ever give. Such people are no longer divided, but fully united with God.

Here’s another thought: how often do we ask God to take a burden from us? Yet how seldom do we ask God to reveal to us the path we should be walking, the task we could be performing?

My point today is simply to remind you that the good is real, no matter how dark things seem. Yes, the sun is always shining, even if it behind the clouds. But more than just a simple, optimistic platitude, we need to remember that God offers us the power to remove the spiritual clouds that block our perception of the kingdom within us (as we cannot do when it rains). Those feelings you get of peace and reassurance, sometimes to the point of laughing at yourself for getting so caught up in externals—those feelings are real! This the message of the church, the good news of the Gospel, which is alternately rejected as unreal pie in the sky and embraced as the key to life. As we know, it is the path of letting go, of surrender, of lowering our expectations of the world and others, and learning to trust in the Lord’s providence, which is both loving and universal, a very present help in trouble.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. Happy is he whose help in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them. Amen.

Prayers

God is a shoulder to cry on; support yourself on him.
God is a joker; laugh with him.
God is peace; relax in her.
God is a father; sit on his lap.
God is a bird; shelter under her wings.
God is a builder; work with him.
God is love; care with her.
God is a defender of justice; stand up with him for what is right.
God is creation; create with her.
God is a mother; love with her.
God is a child; marvel with him.
God is good; do not condemn yourself by her.
God is a tree; stand tall and straight with him.
God is a friend; trust in her.
God is a wind; you can’t see him, but he can be felt.
God is creation; rejoice in it.
God is part of you, and you are part of God.
Laugh with and at and love yourself.

- Oliver (a student), The Living Spirit, 2000)


May all created things praise you, O Lord;
May you be blessed in the fellowship of human hearts.
May you be worshipped by the exile, hallowed by the pilgrim,
and adored by the saints; until together
we come to the palace of your heavenly glory;
and this we ask through Christ our Lord.

- St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

Rev. Robert McCluskey