“The Happiness Agenda”

Happy Face Image

Matthew 5:1-12

One of the claims to fame for Noe Valley Ministry is that Bobby McFerrin once performed here. Bobby McFerrin, world musician extraordinaire, is also a bit of an eccentric. I once saw him conduct a Beethoven symphony in his bare feet. As a gesture of good will, the cello section also played in their bare feet. But as highly regarded as he is, he is somewhat chagrined that the thing he is most famous for is a silly, insipid song: Don’t Worry, Be Happy.

In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry, you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy.

It’s sort of in the same category of silliness as Roger Miller’s You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.

Ya can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd
Ya can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd
Ya can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd
But you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

All ya gotta do is put your mind to it
Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it

Ya can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd
But you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

So, there you have it: being happy is merely the result of determination of the will. You just decide to be happy, no matter what else is going on.

Are you happy? Not an easy question. Happiness can be such a transitory thing. Hard to pin down. One moment it’s there; the next it’s gone. I watch a two-year old child in the park chasing pigeons on the grass screaming with delight and I think, “There’s a happy child.” The next moment he trips and falls and bursts into tears and the happiness is gone just like that. Then mom consoles him for a bit and off he goes chasing pigeons again, happy once more. Is that what happiness is?

You might say “I couldn’t stand too much of that kind of happiness—up and down all the time.” Life would be too much like a roller-coaster—happy, sad, happy. Too exhausting! So we settle for an average happiness. Is there such a thing? Even out those highs and lows. A good steady yet low-key happiness pace is what we can handle. Not too exciting but it will do. That kind of happiness is certainly better than sadness, we might say.

It seems that being happy is a very important attribute for us humans. A most desirable commodity. For certain, to be sad or depressed is not a good thing. Our society says that sad or depressed people must have something wrong with them. So we pity or look down on such people. We like happy people. We want to be happy people. Psychologically, being happy is one of the most important qualities of life a person can obtain in today’s world.

When I was in college I was a social science major. Now, I know that real scientists often don’t believe that social scientists are real scientist.  Yet, social scientists try to measure things that are hard to quantify. Things like “happiness.” Using scientifically based research methods they’ve tried to figure out what makes people happy. What they have found out is that happiness doesn’t seem come out of circumstances. Wealth doesn’t bring happiness; being poor doesn’t bring happiness. Lasting, deep happiness is not based on circumstances. It is something that comes from deep within, from the soul.

These most famous words of Jesus are often said to be words about how to obtain true happiness. Indeed, several translations use the word ‘happy’ for the word ‘blessed’ (like on the cover of the bulletin). Happy are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and so on. Somehow, we’ve been taught, if we can just learn to be happy in Jesus’ way we will be truly happy.

But we also are skeptical. I mean look at this formula. Poverty, mourning, persecution—where’s the happiness in that. So, this is where I turn 180 degrees. The Beatitudes really aren’t about happiness—emotional or spiritual. There is no happiness agenda here. Instead, here is an agenda of justice. Here is the kingdom agenda. Here is Jesus’ inauguration speech, if you will, on the way things are. And the way things are is that Jesus’ kingdom is directly opposed to the kingdom of this world.

Jesus’ agenda as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, and of which these Beatitudes are just the introduction, is to announce an alternative way of life than what the world generally knows. The world knows only power and domination and inevitably injustice. In the beatitudes Jesus declares God’s special concern for the oppressed of that domination system. God sides with the poor, not because they are particularly virtuous, but because of their suffering; not because of their goodness, but because they have been sinned against. And he proclaims them blessed, not because poverty is holy, but because poverty gives them a perspective to understand Jesus’ agenda. He declares those who are weak, fortunate, not because their suffering produces character, but because it opens their eyes to how injustice permeates their existence.

In sharp contrast to a recent inauguration speech given recently, Jesus’ inauguration speech is about a new order of justice. In this new order Jesus proclaims that blessings belong not to those who lord their power over others through violence and manipulation but to the “poor in spirit” (who indeed are really poor, not just spiritually humble), to “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “the merciful,” “the pure in heart,”, “the peacemakers,” and even “those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” Jesus announces the agenda of the kingdom that has come near, indeed, which is breaking into this world—this world characterized by power and dominion.

We, who follow Jesus, are part of that new order. We participate in that new order when we make Jesus’ agenda our own. Are you happy? Are you blessed? May we know the favor of God as we work for justice and peace in our world.

This is the vision that Christ brings to us. This is the vision we pray for.

Finally, don’t worry, be happy! Amen.

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