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The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr. The Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr.
The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., is rector of St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, TX.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

St. Martin's Episcopal Church - Houston, TX


Russ Levenson: Living Happily Ever After

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

6th Sunday after Epiphany - Year A

February 12, 2017

The humorist Judith Viorst shares in her book How Did I Get to be Forty and Other Atrocities--she writes:

I've finished six pillows in Needlepoint,

And I'm reading Jane Austen and Kant,

And I'm up to the pork with black beans in Advanced Chinese Cooking.

I don't have to struggle to find myself

For I already know what I want.

I want to be healthy and wise and extremely good-looking.


I'm learning new glazes in Pottery Class,

And I'm playing new chords in Guitar,

And in Yoga I'm starting to master the lotus position.

I don't have to ponder priorities

For I already know what they are:

To be good-looking, healthy and wise.

And adored in addition.


I'm improving my serve with a tennis pro,

And I'm practicing verb forms in Greek,

And in Primal Scream Therapy all my frustrations are vented.

I don't have to ask what I'm searching for

Since I already know that I seek

To be good-looking, healthy, and wise.

And adored.

And contented.


I've bloomed in Organic Gardening.

And in Dance I have tightened my thighs,

And in Consciousness Raising there's no one around who can top me.

And I'm working all day and I'm working all night

To be good-looking, healthy, and wise.

And adored.

And contented.

And brave.

And well-read.

And a marvelous hostess,

And bilingual,

Athletic,

Artistic...

Won't someone please stop me?

 

Viorst is a funny woman, but like most humor, there is an element of truth behind the veil of laughter. I wonder if any of you, kind of feel like Judith--you are 'working all day and working all night' to be contented, to be happy. What is it that brings real happiness, real contentment? Two days from now is Valentine's Day, a day we think on love stories; and you and I know that most love stories that we enjoy end with those words, "And they lived happily ever after." Is that a pipe dream, is it fantasy, or is it really possible to be happy, and not just happy, but happy ever after?

In his book Care of the Soul, the former monk turned psychotherapist, Thomas More writes,

The great malady of [our time], implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is 'loss of soul.' When soul is neglected, it doesn't just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning...

The emotional complaints of our time, complaints we therapists hear every day in our practice include, emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression, disillusionment about marriage, and family, relationship, a loss of values, yearning for personal fulfillment...All of these symptoms reflect a loss of soul and let us know what the soul craves...

He continues:

...We yearn excessively for entertainment, power, intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and material things, and we think we can find these things if we discover the right relationship or job, the right church or therapy. But without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying, for what we truly long for is the soul in each of these areas. Lacking that soulfulness, we attempt together these alluring satisfactions to us in great masses, thinking apparently that quantity will make up for a lack of quality....

We may be like Viorst--lost in a search for happiness--we keep turning to wrong places and wrong decisions and keep ending up with the same feeling inside... "Won't someone please stop me...won't someone please show me the way...?"

We see some direction here in both of our Lessons today. In Deuteronomy, Moses is, once again, trying to point the way to the life the Hebrew people want. We know the old, old story. Moses, with the mighty hand of God, helped free the enslaved Hebrews from Pharaoh's grip, but no sooner are they free than they want to turn their back on the very life God wanted for them by enslaving themselves once again to idolatry and self-rule. In this passage, Moses is trying to beat a bit of truth into stubborn heads and hearts by saying,

You are not going to find your way to happiness, by ignoring the one Who created the concept... Happiness and Life are only found in following him.

"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live."

It is about as simple as that, as an automobile runs on gasoline, not water--at least not yet--the human engine is supposed to run on the grace, the mercy, the goodness of God. When we try to put something else in that engine, then the very life we hope for becomes illusive.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus counters the argument that some amateur biblical scholars sometimes try to make--that the God of the Old Testament is mean and angry and harsh, and the God of the New Testament is all ease and sweetness and light. I think in both Old and New what we find is not mean and harsh versus sweet and nice; but like any good parent...clarity, love, parameters, grace, warning and forgiveness.

Which is why we find Jesus taking the well-known laws of the Old Testament about murder and adultery a bit further than Moses. He says frankly, that righteous living that is called out of us, is not just a matter of actions, but of heart as well. It is not enough to keep back your hand from violence, but unjustified anger and rage are not acceptable either; it is not enough to keep from infidelity, one must guard the heart as well. In the words from Moses and from Jesus, we learn there is a 'way,' a 'path' to happiness, and it is not by living according to our own wills, but by succumbing to God's.

We want to somehow find happiness on our own terms. "Can't I just worship the Golden Calf a little?" we want to say. Moses' answer--Jesus' answer--is "No...no you can't...not if what you want is real happiness...real life."

Our Gospel lesson reflects what scholars call often the "hard sayings of Jesus." But when Jesus and the New Testament writers began to unpack hard lessons about righteousness, what they stressed was not so much action, but heart; not checking all the right boxes, but getting one's heart right with God.

For Jesus, to be righteous, meant being in a "right relationship" with God, and that kind of relationship bears the fruit of "right actions," not the other way around. It is not, for instance, the wedding service that makes one honor, love and cherish; it is when one falls in love that they began to live into all of those marriage vows. It is not the burden of vow-taking that makes one happy in marriage; it is the relationship itself that leads one to happiness.

Most of us know the old joke. On a dark night, a policeman comes up on a man hunched over, obviously desperately searching for something under a bright street lamp. "What's the matter?" asks the policeman. "I've lost my keys. Will you help me find them?" The policeman says, "Well, I will help you." And after several minutes, the policeman finally stands up straight and says, "Hey, we've searched this whole area, and I just don't think they are here. Are you sure this is where you dropped them?" The man responds, "Oh no, I dropped them over there," pointing to the dark alley across the street. "Then why on earth are you looking here, good man?" "Well," the man says, "The light is better here!" Many of us, frankly, are looking for happiness we seek, by looking in the wrong place.

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, "If you are not happy with your life, you can change it in one of two ways: either improve the conditions in which you live, or improve your inner spiritual state. The first one is not always possible, but the second is, because that is often up to the choices we make and the pattern we live our life." And frankly, he wrote from his own experience!

In his later years, he wrote a book entitled Confessions. An autobiography of sorts, he shares that he had rejected Christianity as a child...so...he left the university and entered the social world of Moscow--drinking heavily, living promiscuously, gambling, and he found that did not satisfy. Ambitious for money--he had inherited a large amount, and he made a lot on his books--but he found that also did not satisfy.

So he turned to success and notoriety and wrote what the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as "one of the two or three greatest novels in world literature." But he was left asking, "Well, that's fine. So, what now?"

Then he tried family. He married in 1862 to a wonderful woman. He had 13 children--which, he said, did distract him from his overall search for meaning. He had achieved it all and yet one question brought him to the verge, actually, of suicide. He wrote, "Is there any meaning in my life which will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?"

Eventually, he found that the peasant people of Russia had been able to answer these questions through their simple Christian faith, and he came to realize only by living in relationship with Jesus Christ does one find true happiness and peace.

That's the answer to our search for happiness: lifting the thin veil of wanting life to turn out my way on my terms, and giving in, finally to God...His life...His terms. But the source for our goodness is not fear of God's wrath; it is a response to God's love. And when we love God and his love meets our love, there, my friends, ends the search for true happiness. It is what makes life here not just bearable, but down-right enjoyable.

I love that little line from C.S. Lewis' work, The Four Loves, "God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that he may love and perfect them."

Not too long ago, I witnessed this powerfully, not through the lives of two of our members at St. Martin's, but actually through their deaths. The first, a beloved friend, wife, mother and grandmother named Virginia. Virginia lived a good, full, rich life. It was not perfect, none are by the way, but by its end, Virginia was very, very happy and very, very ready to go to her new life in our Lord's presence, not because she was always right, but because she was in a right relationship. And so, days before her death, she smiled and said, "I don't know what He is waiting on...I am ready to go!"

Not too long after Virginia's death, another long-time member of our church named Willie Mae graduated to that other room in God's house. Her daughter Susan told me that I could tell you that in her last visit with the hospital chaplain, she was ill at ease, she was actually restless with having to continue here on earth. A nurse asked Susan if she would like the chaplain to visit again, and Susan thought it might be a good idea. He did and when he arrived, like any good chaplain, he began to pray. He said, "Lord...bring healing to this your servant...." At which point, Willie Mae held up a finger and said "Nope...nope...un ugh--not healing...time to Go...pray for that."

Now that, my friends, is righteousness; that is a right relationship with God. And having that kind of confidence, not just in your love for God, but His love for you, that is what brings the happiness that we all seek. That is what sustains us in life here and life yet to come.

You and I are never going to find happiness by turning to the golden idols around us, and certainly we are not going to find it by living life on our own terms. We will, however, find it when we quit wrestling with or against the love of God and let it invade us...invade you.

By the way, Virginia and Willie Mae are no longer with us, but like other saints who have gone before, they have shown us, have pointed the way, to real happiness, and now...well now, they do live happily ever after.

What say, let's make it our aim to join them?

Amen.

 


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