Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Don't Worry; Be Happy" - Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s a phrase, which comes from a popular song, which goes like this: “Don’t worry; be happy.” It’s a phrase very much in vogue in thw world’s society today, so much so that it was pretty much the centerpiece in a slogan war which took place in England recently. Atheists there had taken out these huge ads on the sides of London buses, saying, “There is no God. Don’t worry; be happy and enjoy life.” And in a move led by the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain, Christians responded by taking out ads that said, “There is a God. Don’t worry; be happy and enjoy life.”

The Christian response to the atheists’ slogan is one very much on the spot, because the fact is that properly understood - and I stress, *PROPERLY* understood, the sentiment expressed in this snippet of song, this popular phrase, is very Orthodox, something which has a deep and profound meaning for us. And the way in which to properly understand it... that is the lesson given us in today’s Gospel reading.


Christ tells us today, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.” And He gives us an example which is meant to show the truth of that statement: the lilies of the field. “They toil not, neither do they reap, yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.”

Now I’ve sometimes wondered, and I’m sure this has occurred to others at some point in time, just how relevant this example is for us today. After all, science has revealed to us the inner workings of plants; any high school biology student is going to know that while lilies don’t toil nor reap, what they do is photosynthesize, They take sunlight, along with water and nutrients provided by the earth, and by that process provide energy for themselves while at the same time working to provide oxygen for the benefit of humans and animals on this planet.

But I would argue that our greater understanding of the biochemical processes at work within the lilies of the field actually makes the example far more relevant to us today, not less. For this complex biological process is something which God has set within each lily through the process of evolution. God has equipped them with the innate tools with which they can care and provide for themselves and their needs.

Now humanity is far higher in the scheme of things than lilies, yet the same principle applies. One of the important reasons we should not worry about our lives is precisely because God has set within each one of us various talents, gifts for doing particular things very well and with liking and joy, diverse callings for us to embrace. These are the innate things within us with which God has equipped us so that in the embracing of them we may work to care and provide for ourselves and our needs. This embracing of our innate gifts and our using of them is our cooperation with God’s grace and power - synergeia, working together - through which we accomplish God’s will in our lives and in the world.

That’s not to say that when we do the work which we enjoy and to which we are called everything will be coming up roses. All we have to do is pay attention to the news these days to see that, to see that unfortunately many people are unable to do the work which they enjoy and to which they are called. But even in these situations Christ’s exhortation, “Don’t worry” is applicable. Photosynthesis is an innate process which provides for the needs of the lilies, but it is not an isolate process, existing only within and unto itself. It uses sunlight, water and soil provided by God in creation. It cannot perform its function without those others. That principle applies to us humans as well, for the various talents we have and the work that we do should not only provide for our own needs but also serve for the aid of others, because we are ultimately not individuals but persons in community. I saw this demonstrated very forcefully in the Bread for Life program, particularly in the graduation this past week. All the people to whom has given the innate gift and love for the various aspects of the hospitality industry, with which they provide for themselves and their needs, also provided for five others, unlocking within those five their own innate gifts so that they may work and provide for their needs.


In the outside world Christianity, and Orthodoxy in particular, has often gotten a bad rep as a dour religion loaded with rules which prevent humans from realizing happiness. A popular song by Billy Joel has the line, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; sinners are much more fun.” Indeed, this misperception is what provoked the atheists in England to put up their ads in the first place. But it *is* a misperception.

“Happiness” is actually very much central to our faith. The Greek word “makarios”, which is usually translated as “blessed”, also has - maybe primarily has - the meaning “happy”. “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsels of the wicked.” as we say in the kathisma sung at Great Vespers on Saturday evening.

Today’s Gospel sums up Christ’s exhortations with, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [daily provision about which we shouldn’t worry] will be added to you.” But what is the Kingdom of God?

First of all, it is the community of the Church and of the world, the venues in which we use our gifts and talents to provide for our needs and those of others. Fundamentally, though, it is a state of mind, a way of looking at and living in those communities. St. Theophylact of Ochrid in Bulgaria, in his commentary on today’s Gospel, says, “The Kingdom of God is the enjoyment of all that is good. This comes through righteousness.”

It is the enjoyment of all that is good. This means the proper enjoyment of all the things of the world which God has created, and we should enjoy the world... for though there is evil in the world, the world itself is not evil. It was created good by God and remains that even though it too shares the effects of the Fall, that is, decay and death. In the creation story in Genesis, after creating Adam and Eve, God shows them the Garden and gives them everything in it (save the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) for food, and by this shows them that they are to use and enjoy creation. We see examples of this as well everywhere in the Church, when sanctified matter is used in our enjoyment and feasting. Human relationships too are meant for enjoyment: Christ sanctified marriage and everything associated with it at the feasting in Cana of Galilee.

Proper enjoyment... the first part of today’s Gospel speaks of this, when it reminds us that we cannot serve two masters. When we forget that we are to enjoy the things of the world as part of our growing together in communion with each other and with God, when instead we make them our sole focus and absolutes in our lives, when we turn them into idols for which we sacrifice others and God – which in fact is what Adam and Eve did when they disobeyed God and partook of the forbidden tree - then that is sin. We are meant to be happy and to enjoy the world… but we must not be slaves to it.

So: “Don’t worry; be happy.” Let us enjoy life and enjoy the world knowing that it is God’s present to us, for which we return thanks to Him in serving and helping to provide for the needs of our brothers and sisters, that every human person, body and soul one and integral, may be saved and deified. Amen.