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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Rules for Happiness

The Beatitudes

Sermon by Fr. Joseph Mungai
Fourth Sunday of the Year, Jan 29, 2017 
St. Mary of the Pines, Shreveport, Louisiana
Father is visiting the U.S. from Kenya

"Happiness is that which everybody seeks." So says the great philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle also observes that everything people do twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, is what they believe will bring them happiness in one form or another. But the problem is that what people think will bring them happiness does not in fact always bring them true and lasting happiness.

Think of the drunkard who believes that happiness is found in the beer bottle. He runs a red light, hits a car and wakes up in a hospital with plaster and stitches all over his body. Then it dawns on him that the happiness promised by alcohol may be too short-lived. 
Or take the man who frequents the casino for excitement. By the end of the month, he finds he can no longer pay his house rent.  Then it dawns on him that the happiness promised by the casino is fake. So Aristotle says that the ethical person is the person who knows and does what can truly bring them true and lasting happiness.

Another word for true and lasting happiness is “blessedness” or “beatitude.” In today’s gospel, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount shows that He really wants his followers to have true and lasting happiness, the happiness that the world cannot give. This state of blessedness is what Jesus calls living in the “kingdom of God.” 

The eight beatitudes we have in today’s gospel  (Mt 5:1-12) constitute a road map for anyone who seeks to attain this happiness of the kingdom.

Everybody seeks happiness. But often we look for it in the wrong places. Ask people around you what makes people happy and compare the answers you get with the answers Jesus gives. The world has its own roadmap to happiness. It's not the way that God thinks. 

Where Jesus says, 
“Blessed are the poor in spirit;” the world says, “Blessed are the rich.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn;” others say “Blessed are those having fun.” Where Jesus says “Blessed are the meek;” the world says, “Blessed are the smart.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;” people  say “Blessed are those who wine and dine.”

Where Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful;” others say “Blessed are the powerful.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart;” we like to think, “Blessed are the slim in body.” Where Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers;” the world says, “Blessed are the news makers.” And where Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake;” society says, “Blessed are those who can afford the best lawyers.”

We see that the values prescribed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are in fact counter-cultural. We cannot accept these teachings of Jesus and at the same time accept all the values of our society. Of course, Jesus does not demand that we abandon the world. But he does ask that we put God first in our lives. Only God can guarantee what our hearts long for -- true peace and happiness. Nothing the world gives provides this, and once God has given it to you, nothing in the world can take it away.

The Eight Beatitudes do not describe eight different people such that we need to ask which of the eight suits us personally. No, they are eight different snapshots taken from different angles of the same godly person. The question for us today, therefore, is this: Do we live our lives following the values of the world as a way of attaining happiness or do we live by the teachings of Jesus? If you live by the teachings of Jesus, then rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

On the Epistle, (1 Cor 1:26-31) God Delights to Work with Nothing. 

The reading tells us that God knows how to write straight with crooked pens; that God, in fact, prefers to write with crooked pens.

"Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God." (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

Paul begins this section by inviting the Christians of Corinth to consider their call.  It is God who takes the initiative and calls us to His service. We sometimes find ourselves considering whether we should remain in the church or not. We feel that it is up to us to decide to follow Jesus or not. But Jesus tells us that the initiative to follow Him comes not from us but from God himself.

“You did not choose me but I chose you.” (John 15:16)  “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” (John 6:44). It is a calling given by God. 

What standards does God use to choose men and women to belong to Him and do His work? Now, this is exactly where God’s ways part from our ways. Normally we would expect God to pick people who are wise, powerful, and of a good reputation in the eyes of the world. But Paul tells us that God actually chooses people who are the exact opposite. Why does God prefer to work with the nobodies of this world? There are two reasons for this: one is  for the best of the one called, and the other is for the best of those among whom they work.

We can  do the work of God only with the strength that comes from God. Therefore, the first requirement of a servant of God is that he or she learn how to depend on God. For this reason God sometimes allows His servants to carry the burden of their human weakness, so that they will learn that unless they stand in God, they cannot stand at all. St. Paul had a “thorn in the flesh,” which he asked God to remove.  God did not remove it. God simply said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul concluded, “Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10).

The second reason why God allows human weakness in His servants is so that the people among whom they work will realise that the good accomplished by His ministers come from the grace of God, not their own ingenuity.  If they understand this, people will not be tempted to idolize their ministers. The Christians of Corinth had already fallen into this temptation when they began labelling themselves according to their favourite missionaries: “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” God wants us to see beyond the ministers who bring us the word of God and to keep our eyes on Jesus, who is Lord and Saviour of us all.

The Lord calls all Christians, and especially those men and women who minister to God’s word to us in any capacity, to a life of holiness. 

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