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The 9th Sunday after Pentecost; Luke 12:32–40

The Gospel for this day seems to consist of two almost unconnected parts. For the first few verses you might think I ought to be up here wearing a Happy Face Smiley T-shirt! Don’t be afraid, little flock, God will give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, sell everything you own, and give it away. That way, you will build for yourself treasure in heaven, treasure that will not decay, that can’t be stolen, purses that will never wear out! Don’t worry about how you will live, God will look after you. “Don’t Worry; Be Happy!” – that trite slogan seems to capture the essence of the first part of today’s Gospel. And then, in the second part, Jesus becomes serious, and seems to recommend a worrying, joyless, and anxious watchfulness for the dreaded return of a judging “Son of Man.” Not much connection between those two parts, it seems.

I’ve used seems several times deliberately, because the sensible, face-value interpretation of what Jesus is saying misses the point. And, that word “point” is deliberate, because at the heart of Jesus’ words today we can find a joke – a joke God plays on the world. But first, I want to talk about Trivial Pursuit! Not the game; real pursuit of triviality.

Living next door to the United States, we tend to accept their national myths as our own. Written into the American “Declaration of Independence” are certain supposedly inalienable rights, rights that every citizen has automatically, which cannot be taken away. The third of these is “the pursuit of happiness.” [We might note Canadians are promised no such thing; our founding documents promise us “peace, order, and good government”, and as has been noted by numerous wags, most of the time we get two out three, and that isn’t so bad.] Nevertheless, I have no doubt that most of us believe that pursuing happiness, wanting a good life, is our right. After all, who would not want to be happy, and therefore not do everything reasonable to ensure happiness. Yet, I hope to persuade you that, at its worst, pursuing happiness can be pursuit of the trivial.

In one sense the pursuit of happiness is not trivial; it has a very high cost! The 19th c. English poet Thomas Lovell Beddoe (1803-1849) asked, “If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?” and questions how much dreams would cost. The reality is, there are dreams for sale, there really are, and everyone buys one. There is one dream per person and all cost the same, our life, all of it, every last moment. Every day another twenty-four hours is spent in the pursuit of whatever it is we think will bring us happiness, completeness, whatever we dream for ourselves. And in the end, our dream for ourselves costs us all our days, and all our years, and life itself. And that, perhaps, is not trivial.

There are numerous stories and plays (in several languages) and at least two operas based on the story of Faust; Johann Georg Faust, Doctor of Divinity, who actually lived in Germany in late 15th early 16th century. In the Faust legends he wearies of his studies, despairs that they will bring him happiness, and makes a pact with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Faust gets years of almost absolute power, the granting of his every wish (except getting out of his devilish bargain), and at the end of about 25 years (the times vary) his immortal soul belongs to the devil. Having all this power, what does Faust do with it? Again, the various tales differ, but here’s a representative selection. He eats grapes out of season! He makes fun of the Pope! And he seduces a young woman named Marguerite (or Gretchen, the German diminutive) and destroys her life! And the price is his soul! Grapes out of season? We can buy them any day. Making fun of the Pope? I don’t see the attraction, but if I wanted to, what is to stop me? And the seduction and ruining of a woman’s life? Faust himself comes to regret it deeply, but the devil still collects his soul! Poor Dr. Faust, pursuing meaningless dreanms at the cost of his immortal soul. Trivial pursuit!

And then there is Richard Rich, at least as he is portrayed in the play and movie, A Man for All Seasons. He was a protegé of Sir Thomas More during the reign of Henry VIII. When Henry divorced Queen Catherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, More, the King’s friend and Lord Chancellor of England, refuses to sign the oath of loyalty to the new Queen. Not to sign is high treason! But More, imprisoned in the Tower of London, manages to preserve his life by his cleverness, wit, and wisdom, his and grace and charm, without compromising his integrity. Until Richard Rich, his young friend, lies under oath! With perjury he assures Thomas More’s execution and is rewarded by being made Attorney-General of Wales. When More sees him with his new chain of office he teaches his betrayer a lesson in the cost and triviality of wanting earthly power. “For Wales?” he asks, and goes on, “Richard, it profits nothing to give one’s soul for the whole world, … But for Wales?” Trivial pursuit.

We all do it, and for much less than Wales! Our search for happiness becomes trivial pursuit when we go after trivial things, when we seek happiness in things that are too small for us. We are human persons, made in the image of God. The Spirit of God lives within us, and we cannot find happiness in things that are lower and less than us. Wouldn’t it be sad to think that ordinary things like money and property, gadgets and toys, power and sex would be enough to satisfy our spirits? What poor creatures we would be if that were the truth of us! We are made for beauty and loveliness and goodness, and for love of God, neighbour, and self; ultimate values without which the spirit within us shrivels up and finally dies.

Which brings me to the first half of God’s joke on the world. The pursuit of happiness is trivial, because the harder we go after happiness, the less chance we have of actually being happy! There are some things you can’t get by desperately going after them. The harder you try, the further away they slip. That’s the essence of it. You and I probably know people who are trying desperately to be happy. Usually they are among the more unhappy people we know. But when you are not pursuing happiness, when you are doing something else; raking the lawn on a crisp Fall day, taking a walk in the country, enjoying a light spring shower, talking with friends, singing in the shower, loving someone, taking care of someone who needs you, simply being yourself; there, suddenly, silently, without warning, happiness finds you. I’m sure you’ve experienced it. There you are, working or playing at some worthwhile task, giving it all your energy, with never a thought of happiness in your mind, when suddenly joy and happiness surprise you. It came to you, unpursued, God’s good gift, given when least looked for or expected.

Have you noticed how many important things in life are like that? Have you noticed that people who are trying hard to be original seldom are? Sometimes they aren’t even interesting! But forget about being original, just do your best, and we often surprise ourselves (and others) with how original we can be.

Have you ever tried to be humble? If any of us have ever tried to be humble we are in a spiritually very hazardous condition! What happens if we succeed? Do we tell our friends, “I’ve done it! I now excel in humility!” We cannot achieve humility; truly humble people never think about it, they are too busy with more important and exciting things.

Goodness is like that too. Work at being good, and chances are you will end up being self-righteous, which is something very different. Have you noticed that the people who are truly happy and truly humble and truly good never worry about their happiness, humility, and goodness? Their minds are elsewhere. Do you really have the illusion that Mother Teresa was trying hard to be happy, humble, and good?

You can’t get happiness by pursuing it. It has to find you. You only get happiness, and for that matter humility and goodness, when you are after something else. And do you know what that something else is? It is simply to know and love and serve God! As Jesus said,

Do not be afraid [or anxious, or desperate], little flock, … it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

That is the second half of God’s joke on the world. It is also the 2nd half of today’s Gospel, which is about watchfulness, and attentiveness to the things of God. If you work for, watch for, and are attentive to God, and the coming of God into human life, then happiness, and humility, and goodness are thrown in, as is everything else that the human spirit needs. And that is truly the gift of the kingdom.

Copyright ©2022 by Gerry Mueller