Good morning. My name is Susan Pitchford, and I am Epiphany’s “Off-site Anchorite,” so I work on supporting adult faith formation. I’m also a professed Third Order Franciscan; that is, I’m a member of a religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th c. Franciscan spirituality focuses on simplicity of life, rejection of materialistic values, working on behalf of the poor and marginalized, and reconciliation between enemies. We have brothers and sisters who live in monastic communities, but the third order, founded by Francis himself, follows the Franciscan way “in the world.” So we don’t wear special clothing, we can be married or partnered, and we have all sorts of jobs. If you’re interested in Franciscan spirituality, let’s talk.
Today I want to talk about happiness, and obstacles to happiness. So there’s a story told about St. Francis: he and one of his earliest followers, one Brother Leo, were traveling on foot in bitter cold from Perugia back to their home base near Assisi—so about 15-20 miles. And Francis started talking about their movement, which was still relatively new but growing fast. He told Leo that if the friars achieved a great reputation for holiness and good works, this would not give them perfect joy. The two walked on a bit, when Francis continued: the brothers might perform great miracles of healing, even raise the dead, but they would not find perfect joy in that. They might produce some great scholars, they might speak with a prophetic voice, but they would not find in any of that “perfect joy.”
This had gone on for a couple of miles, and Leo was tired and cold, and probably getting pretty impatient. I mean, Francis was a charismatic leader, but there’s nothing to say charismatic leaders can’t work your last nerve. But Francis is oblivious, caught up in imagining all the great things that might happen that wouldn’t bring them perfect joy. Finally, Leo begged Francis, “For the love of God, tell me where perfect joy can be found!”
Francis responded that if they got home and knocked at the gate and the porter didn’t recognize them (remember, Francis is the founder and they’re at the movement’s home base—so this is pretty bad); and they had to spend the night hungry and cold; and if they kept knocking and the porter cussed them out, called them imposters, accused them of trying to steal alms from the poor, and beat them with a stick; and if the two of them bore this abuse without complaint, thinking of the sufferings of Christ; then that, Francis insisted, would bring them perfect joy. Notice that Francis included both material, bodily suffering and the suffering of not being seen, of not being welcome.
In the Beatitudes we heard this morning from Luke’s gospel, I think Jesus is doing something very similar. He’s taking all the things people normally think will bring happiness, and turning it all upside-down. And like Francis, he includes both literal poverty and the poverty of being unseen, rejected, misunderstood and mistreated by others.
So what Jesus is doing here, which Francis was also trying to do, is to outline the things that make for happiness. And in both cases, their lists are not what we’d expect. Notice, by the way, that Jesus doesn’t do this in the form of commands: be poor, be hungry, be hated and excluded. He’s not telling us to seek suffering. He’s just saying that these are the people who are happy. But it sounds delusional. Should we believe him?
Well, we are Christians so we’re supposed to believe him. But this goes against everything our culture identifies as the program for happiness, right? I mean, ask any parent what they want for their kids, and most of them will not say that they want them to play in the NFL, or become a doctor, lawyer, movie star or whatever (even if they secretly do want them to do those things). What they most likely will say is, “I just want them to be happy.”
So how do you think Jesus’ criteria would go over with parents who want their kids to be “happy”?
- “I just want them to be poor.”
- “I just want them to be hungry.”
- “I just want them to weep a lot.”
- “I just want them to be shamed and shunned.” (#so blessed)
This is so counter-intuitive as to be basically absurd. So what is Jesus getting at here?
I suspect that one of the greatest obstacles to our happiness is the assumption that true happiness comes from things running smoothly, from goals we’ve achieved, from filling our lives with things that “spark joy” and eliminating what doesn’t.
The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas observed (and my own field of sociology tends to agree with him) that people mainly seek four things for fulfilment in this life, four things which we have a tendency to put in place of God: money, power, status or honor, and pleasure. These are broad categories, and they cover much of what we tend to seek out in this life.
None of these things is “evil” in itself; it’s not money that’s the root of all evil; it’s the love of money. Power can give people the ability to get good things done. Status and honor aren’t bad in themselves; Paul tells us to honor and respect the leaders who work among us. As for pleasure, God gave us chocolate. Come on.
So what’s the problem? These things, these “goods” that we seek are good, as long as we “seek God and God’s kingdom first,” as Jesus tells us a few chapters later. Then all the other things can take their proper place in our lives. The obstacle arises when we don’t seek God first, when we look to these other things to make us happy. Then these goods become gods, and enslave us. I realize “enslave” is a touchy term, but it captures the way false gods come to own us and order us around. They’re addictions.
Consider the trap of celebrity. Sometimes being famous is just a byproduct of doing some wonderful, important work (like finding a cure for cancer, or Covid). But if fame is the actual goal, the point of it all, then the celebrity is a slave. Because their success, their happiness, is entirely based on how well and how often other people think of them. It’s entirely out of their own hands; they’re completely dependent on others. And it has an addictive quality: how many followers on social media does it take to be an “influencer”? Is it ever enough?
Michael Norton at the Harvard Business School has looked at the link between wealth and happiness. He wondered why some people who long ago passed the point where more money would affect the quality of their life still aren’t satisfied with their wealth. He says that when people try to gauge whether they’re satisfied with some aspect of their life, they tend to ask themselves two questions: 1) Am I doing better than I was before? And 2) Am I doing better than other people?
With a lot of things, it’s really tough to answer these questions: How well are you doing at parenting? But at least with money you can count it. The problem is, there’s no absolute standard; you may be taking in more money than you did last year, but there’s always going to be somebody else with more. So the goalposts keep moving, and it’s never enough, never enough.
We’re all vulnerable to this kind of thinking, including the Church. When the Church (I’m speaking of the whole Church here) puts growth and protecting the institution first, it can inflict terrible harm and suffering on the very people it’s supposed to care for and protect. “Cover up the bad stuff; protect the institution at all costs.” “Don’t welcome ‘those’ people, because some people we have might get offended and leave.”
I’ve been hurt badly by “bad shepherds,” and maybe you have too. I’m here at Epiphany because I don’t see those attitudes here. But even here, where I see a deep commitment to caring for the people God brings here, and sharing the spiritual journey with them, if we substitute a race for numbers or any other false god for our real call, we’ll find ourselves continually frustrated.
Whenever we worship something that is not God, whether it’s money or even the expectation that we’ll always be successful and comfortable, our idolatry will always be an obstacle that stands in the way of our true happiness.
So what Jesus is saying in these beatitudes is not so much “Go out and get people to hate you”—although Christians have been known to act at times like that’s a commandment. What he’s saying is, “How happy are you if you’re not addicted to these things!—these goods that are not God. If you have detachment from these things. Because then your true happiness—your perfect joy, and your peace—comes to you from God alone. And no one can take it away from you.”
Well, that’s reassuring, isn’t it? But then comes the bucket of ice over our heads: the woes. “Woe to you who are rich, and full. Woe to you who laugh.” I mean, I have a nice house, I drive a fun car, and I have a great sense of humor. Woe unto me? Woe unto you?
The reading from Jeremiah, with its blessings and curses, is a kind of mirror image of Jesus’ beatitudes and woes. My favorite verse brings it all down to the heart—and I’m going to give it to you in the King James Version, because it packs more of a punch: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
If you know anything about the kind of treatment the prophet Jeremiah was subjected to, you’ll maybe forgive him for having a pretty dim view of human nature. But he’s right to say it’s the heart that makes the difference. Those who trust in mere mortals and their strength, whose hearts turn away from God, are in trouble. When hard times come, they’ll discover that they’re planted in the desert and there’s salt in the ground. In other words, they’re dead—or about to be.
But those who trust in the Lord, who put God first and let everything else fall into place around that goal—Jeremiah says they’re like a tree planted by water, with deep roots—a tree of life. Notice that Jeremiah doesn’t say the heat wave won’t come to them—it will. But these trees go on bearing fruit, because at the deepest level they’re still connected to the water.
How happy, how blessed, are these trees. Because no matter what suffering comes to them—poverty, grief and loss, failure and rejection, old age, invisibility—they are trees of life, because they’re fed by the Living Water. They’re not enslaved to their own ego, or to things going their way. They’re not addicted to money, power, status, or pleasure. They’re fed from the depths. So they’re blessed, they’re happy.
Most of us try so hard to avoid suffering, and if it comes, we often hide away in shame, driven by our egos, not wanting anyone to know about our weaknesses and failures. We can go to social media for affirmation, living for “likes” and “shares.” More idols, more enslavement, more obstacles in the way of our true happiness.
Here’s the take-away: If you’ve had a life of unbroken comfort and joy, you belong here, at Epiphany. Maybe you can bring your strength to accompany others who need a hand, but in any case, don’t get too attached to that comfort, because it may not last.
And if you’ve suffered, if you’ve got some deep wounds, we need you here. We need your perspective, we need the wisdom that’s come from your visits to the shadowy places. Don’t ever forget that God is in those places too, and Jesus calls you blessed. When you know that in your very soul, then you have the peace that surpasses understanding, a peace no one can ever take away.