True Happiness? -- A Sermon for Epiphany 6A (Psalm 119)
|Marc Chagall's "The Praying Jew"|
Last Sunday’s sermon ended with an invitation: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” Just so you know, I wasn’t asking for applause. But, what better way to start a sermon that mentions true happiness than by offering the same invitation? So, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!”
When it comes to happiness, the Declaration of Independence asserts:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
According to Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, the “pursuit of happiness” is a self-evident and unalienable right endowed to us by our Creator. Jefferson never explained what he meant by this, but the pursuit of happiness appears to be a natural right. The emphasis should be placed on the word “pursuit.”
So, are you pursuing happiness? If so, what does happiness mean to you? I imagine we all have our own ideas about what happiness looks like. It might be a day at the beach or a hike in the mountains. It could involve reading a good book by the fire or coffee with a friend. In other words, does happiness involve something pleasurable? Or, could the pursuit of happiness involve walking on a path set before us by God, even if that path doesn’t always involve something pleasurable?
According to our reading from Psalm 119: “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” Yes, “happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who do no wrong, but walk in his ways.”
These words stand at the beginning of the longest Psalm and the longest chapter in the Bible. This Psalm was written in the form of an acrostic that has twenty-two sections of eight verses each, with each section beginning with one of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Our reading this morning comes to us courtesy of the letter alef.
The Psalmist suggests that if we want to be happy then we should live a blameless life. This involves walking in the Law of the LORD, keeping God’s decrees, seeking God with our whole heart, doing no wrong, and walking in God’s ways. Yes, whatever happiness is, according to the Psalm, it involves walking in God’s ways. That might not have been our first guess. We might have been thinking about sitting on a beach in Hawaii on a morning like this, but this is the message of a Psalm that celebrates the Torah.
Now, we might object. This sounds rather restrictive. Why can’t we set our own rules and do our own thing? It’s a good question. But, consider this: If you go on a hike in the woods, you might see a sign that says: “Stay on the Path.” There’s a reason why that sign is there. It’s there to protect the hiker and the environment. Going off-trail might seem like fun, but staying on the path might keep you from getting tangled up in poison oak or poison ivy, whichever is present in a particular area. Besides, you probably won’t get lost in the woods if you stay on the trail. When it comes to the environment, by staying on the path you won’t step on fragile plants or disturb the homes of small animals. It would seem that when you go for a walk in the woods, happiness is staying on the path.
The pathway to happiness, according to this Psalm, is revealed to us in Torah, in the Law of the Lord. Now, I realize St. Paul said some harsh things about the law, but we need to be careful with how we read him. He was concerned about imposing certain requirements on Gentile Christians that didn’t represent the essence of God’s path. He was concerned about imposing circumcision and food requirements that might be a stumbling block to these new Christians. But, Paul also believed in Law and Order. That is, he wanted things to be done “decently and in order.” So, I don’t think he would have rejected the message revealed in this morning’s reading.
In fact, if you drop down to the last verse, you will hear the Psalmist declare: “I will observe your statutes; do not utterly forsake me” (Ps. 119:8). That verse seems to suggest that walking in the way of the Lord requires grace. We need the empowering presence of God’s Spirit if we’re to find happiness in the Law of the Lord.
There is a word in this morning’s reading that I think needs some attention. That word, in its English translation, is the word blameless. The NRSV and quite a few other translations suggest that “happy are those whose way is blameless.” But what does that mean? Does it we must live sinless lives? Or does it mean something else, because I think Augustine was right about our inability to live sinless lives?
Perhaps John Goldingay’s translation of this verse can help us with this question. He uses the word “integrity” instead of “blameless.” I think that word is more fitting to our times. But, if we use the word integrity here, what does it mean?
According to the Psalmist, integrity is rooted in walking “by Yahweh’s instruction!” (Goldingay). We hear a lot these days about authenticity, which is often contrasted with hypocrisy or being phony. Now, no one wants to be called a hypocrite, but is being authentic the same thing as having integrity? I’m not so sure. I think they can go together, but I don’t know that they necessarily coincide.
Sometimes when I hear people talk about being authentic, what I hear involves just following the crowd. For many, being authentic involves being true to yourself, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unfortunately, sometimes people push authenticity a bit too far. After all, you can a bully and be authentic. You’re just being yourself. You can harass someone and still be authentic. That’s just who you are! You can say things that hurt people, and chalk it up to candor. Again, that might be authentic, but is it an expression of integrity? As Thumper’s mother told him, “if ya can’t say nuffin’ nice, don’t say nuffin’ at all.”
While Thumper’s mother offers us good advice, the Psalmist takes us deeper than simply being nice. According to the Psalmist, integrity is rooted in following the way of the Lord. It’s rooted in Torah, in something outside us. It means loving God and loving our neighbor. Integrity means living lives that conform to what is true and what is good. This is revealed to us in the instruction that comes to us from God. As Eric Todd Myers puts it: “The Torah serves as instruction on how to live out God’s desire for God’s people. In this way, the Torah is not a heavy burden but rather direction as to how to live in joy following God’s way.” [Connections, Kindle loc. 7878]. This is the pathway to happiness.
As we consider this call to walk in the ways of God, I thought I might share this word of witness from another faith tradition that seems to affirm what we hear in this Psalm. This is a word from the Quran:
“Truly God commands justice, virtue, and giving to kinsfolk, and He forbids indecency, wrong, and rebelliousness. And He admonishes you, that haply you may remember. [Quran, 16:90]
The promise given to those who walk in the ways of God, whether they are male or female, is that they will be given a “new life, a good life” [Quran 16:97].
As we consider this call to walk with the Lord, to follow the path set forth in Torah, Scripture also speaks of walking in the Spirit of God. Grace Kim writes that:
When the Spirit fills our lives, we follow the rhythm of the Spirit. We are guided by the Spirit to become new creatures and become agents of change. We become workers in the Spirit and for the Spirit. [Reimagining Spirit, p. 130].
It is the Spirit of God who empowers us to walk in the ways of the LORD, so that we might stay on the path that leads to happiness, to blessings, and to joy.
Now “walking in the law of the Lord” doesn’t mean we never break any rules. After all, Jesus was a rule-breaker. So, were Esther, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well. There are rules and regulations that must be broken. That was the point of the Civil Rights Movement. Whenever a rule is unjust, it is imperative that we stand against it. But, such rules are not the way of the LORD. They do not represent the way of integrity.
So, let us walk with integrity in the way of the Lord and in so doing, may we find true happiness. As we experience happiness in the presence of God, let us also share the blessing that comes with true happiness with our neighbors, near and far?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 16, 2020