Epiphany 4A Sermon (1993)

4th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Micah 6:1-8; I Cor. 1:26-31


I’d like to begin with a fable:

Once upon a time there was a kingdom of people who pursued happiness. Nothing was more important to them than being happy. The pursuit of happiness was written into their charter. And the happier they became, the happier they wanted to be.

The source of the people’s happiness was a magic Happiness Machine. Whenever the people felt unhappy they would pour their troubled feelings into the Happiness Machine. The magic machine would melt their feelings down and purify them. The residue of their troubles became waste, and the waste was drained away and dumped into a distant part of the kingdom. The people would take their purified feelings and go away singing and feeling happy again. The years and centuries went by, and the happy people became happier and happier because of the wonderful effects of the Happiness Machine.

There was only one problem. Another group of people lived in a distant part of the kingdom where all the waste was being dumped. The waste made them very unhappy. And the more waste that was dumped, the unhappier they became. Unfortunately, these poor, unhappy people were not permitted to use the Happiness Machine, because the one thing the magic machine could not do was purify its own waste.

The unhappy people complained to the happy people about the problems they had with the waste. But the happy people ignored their complaints. When they were confronted with the terrible results of their happiness, these happy people simply took their troubled feelings to the Happiness Machine and it made them happy again. It was easy to believe that it was not the waste of their own troubles that made other people unhappy. Rather, they convinced themselves that the unhappy people were just incurably unhappy and that they had nobody but themselves to blame for their unhappiness.

It was not long before the unhappy people began to protest more insistently about their situation. They organized marches and demonstrations. They demanded that the waste be removed from their part of the kingdom. And they demanded a fair share of happiness for their people. But the happy people turned a deaf ear to their protests, which only served to make the unhappy people angrier, and they protested all the more, putting a severe drain on the happy people’s happiness.

All these new troubles made the Happiness Machine work even harder. The happy people had to produce an even bigger and better Happiness Machine, and the waste was piled higher and higher and spread farther and farther into other parts of the kingdom. The Happiness Machine grew so large and productive that there was no place left on earth left to put the waste. Now the happy people were threatened not only by rebellion of the unhappy people, but also by their own Happiness Machine and its growing piles of waste.

Is this fable sounding familiar yet? You may have already guessed that it is about us and our real-life Happiness Machines. The real Happiness Machines are the structures and institutions of our society. They belong to us, and they work for us. They produce food and clothing, cars and housing, resorts and recreation, law and order. Their purpose is to make us happy.

But our Happiness Machines do not make everyone happy. They produce waste. They produce poverty and segregated ghettos, unemployment and underemployment, and inadequate housing, health, and education. The very same systems that create and sustain our standard of living also create and perpetuate wretched conditions for millions and millions of people not only in the United States, but throughout the world as well. And for the most part the lines are drawn racially. White people benefit the most from the Happiness Machines, and people of color get the waste. I would like to suggest that this fable is, in fact, no fable at all, but a story about the real world in which you and I live.

You might want to dispute some of the finer points of this story, but I would like for us to use the portrait it paints as a stark contrast to the radically different view of happiness that Jesus gives us in this morning’s gospel lesson. The word “blessed” is translated as “happy” in many other translations: “Happy are the poor in spirit, happy are those who mourn, happy are the meek,” and so forth. Yet the groups of people that Jesus names as “happy” are not those we generally would think happy! In fact, it was likely that Jesus was speaking to people that day on the mount, who in terms of our fable were the ones who got their society’s waste dumped on them. In other words, Jesus’ view of happiness would turn the view of our fable completely upside-down! Real happiness, according to Jesus’ beatitudes, is to be found among those who society would forget.

How can this be?! Let’s try to understand Jesus’ inverted logic by taking a look at the most outrageous of these beatitudes: Happy are those who mourn. Think about it. That’s almost a point-blank contradiction! How can Jesus utter the words “happy” and “mourn” in the same sentence, referring to the very same people?! How can it be a blessed or happy thing to mourn? The strange truth is that, when we say “yes” to Jesus, we say “yes” to a life of not only increased joy but also increased mourning. In a very real sense, Jesus calls us to mourn because he also calls us to care for and to love God’s creation. Jesus calls us to be deeply engaged in life, to be fully involved with those around us.

James Reid once said, “The saddest thing in all of God’s world is not a heart that sorrows. It is a heart so dull that it is incapable of feeling grief at all, a heart so selfish that nothing but what touches its comfort and its ease could move it a twinge of feeling. For to sorrow means to love. Mourning is but another and deeper side of loving.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus would say, “Happy are those who mourn.” Mourning is a by-product of loving. And there, my friends, is the crucial difference between Happiness Machines. The power that drives Jesus’ Happiness Machine is the power of love for God’s whole creation, not just the love and pursuit of personal happiness. And the by-product of grief which love produces is not a waste to be thrown away to some distant part of the kingdom, but grief is the bittersweet fruit that must be tasted when we take the risk to love. In the mystery of God’s love, he permits us to continue using our Happiness Machines, so that we continue to live with the results of its waste, death. So the reality of mourning remains. But even in the midst of that waste, Jesus spent his days showing us another way to happiness, a crazy upside-down one in which we show love precisely to those who live in the waste of the human Happiness Machines.

And, of course, the story of God’s Happiness Machine goes far beyond the kind of life Jesus led among the outcasts of society. God’s Happiness Machine is most crucially connected with Jesus’ death. In what looks like utter foolishness and powerlessness by human standards, God’s Happiness Machine is the cross. We said earlier in spinning our fable that our human Happiness Machines cannot purify their own waste. But the miracle of God’s Happiness Machine is that it can! On the cross Jesus had heaped on him the refuse of our sin, the dregs of all time. He took on the waste of our Happiness Machines and showed us the power of God’s Happiness Machine. God’s power of love is the power of life, even in the face of death. And the promise is that some day God’s Happiness Machine, his love, will rule the day, and we will no longer need to grieve those who get the waste of human Happiness Machines dumped on them. Those who mourn will be comforted, when death and grief will be no more.

In the meantime? In the meantime our response to this promise begins with recognizing that none of our human Happiness Machines measure up to the standard of God’s model. We come to see that our efforts always fall short. We are thereby moved to also simply accept God’s Happiness machine as free gift, independent of our efforts.

The next step is to then admit that we ourselves are among the outcasts of society, even if society doesn’t see us that way (which, as middle-class North American white folks, is mostly the case). So we come to see the illusion of a system that says all can someday benefit from our human Happiness Machines (e.g., “trickle-down” economics?), or even that some do benefit from the Happiness Machines while others get their waste dumped on them. We come to see that, in the end, we are all victims of our own machines. The promise of the Gospel is that Jesus has come to be present with all who are victims of those human machines. Ultimately, that means all of us.

But it is also a matter of perspective. If we live by the illusions of the human machines, there will be many places where we fail to truly know Christ’s presence. In order to get out from under those illusions, which are mighty strong ones, it is helpful to begin by finding Christ’s presence among those whom even society sees as outcasts, those who have the waste dumped on them. Authentic Christian ministry, beginning with Jesus’ beatitudes, has generally always retained a focus with those who suffer, with the poor and oppressed.

The specifics of all this is worked out in our life and mission together as God’s chosen outcasts. God has called the foolish of the world to shame the wise, the weak of the world to shame the powerful. What is most important is that the daily repentance of our baptisms faces with the basic choice: whose Happiness Machine shall we live by? When we are unhappy, whose Machine shall we bring our unhappiness to, the one which simply dumps it to other parts of the kingdom? Or God’s Machine which can purify those feelings and turn them to love? Jesus calls his disciples to have faith that true happiness comes through loving — not just to love those who are given by nature for us to love, i.e., our family and our friends who are like us, but to love those who live in the parts of the kingdom where the waste of our machines is dumped. The Good News of God’s Happiness machine, the cross, is that it takes our sin and replaces it with the power of Jesus’ love. We can actually find that kind of love for our lives, to reach out and share with others. Through Christ Jesus our Lord, God has chosen us to know the joy of bearing that kind of love to the world. Now, with the help of his Spirit, it’s our choice. Which Happiness Machine shall we choose?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Howell, MI, January 31, 1993

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