I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Sunday, April 17, 2005

"Art of Happiness I" (Sermon)

Here are my sermon notes from last week. My apologies for its lateness. It is first in a series entitled "The Art of Happiness". The title of this series came from an article about a lecture by one of my predecessors at Eliot, Waldemar Argow. It was written in 1965 and implies a certain relentless optimism that can be hard to find these days. It interested me...

Argow scholars (if there are any) will know that there are two of them (father and son) The Argow mentioned here is the younger. The title of this sermon came from 1 Peter. One other note: as the first in a series, I find that it has an "introductory" feel. Others might as well....

The Imperishable Seed
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
Eliot Church

The Rev Waldemar Argow
Among the most influential ministers
Ever to serve the Eliot church
Used to tell a story about a little girl
Who was wiser than she knew:

The girl had been playing with her father
Who was simultaneously trying to read the paper
Now, his daughter was quite distracting
So, in a fit of desperation the father
Tore a picture of a map of the world out of the paper
Cut it up in pieces
And set the girl to putting it back together again

Much to his surprise
The little girl quickly returned
With the map accurately repaired
No doubt sensing a previously unnoticed
Gift for geography, the father asked her
How she had put it together so quickly

At this point the girl turned the paper over
And showed that the other side
Had a picture of a man
I put the man together, she said and the world came out all right

To this Argow concluded
If we would learn to put ourselves together in the right way
Maybe the world would come out all right

In many respects this is the task of religion
To put ourselves together for the sake of the world
In the words of St. Peter
To be born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed
Through the living and enduring word of God

An imperishable seed
Not one that can rot or fail to grow
But a seed that lives and grows eternally
Through a connection to the Divine
To the energy that keeps us all

How to do this/How to make that connection
Remains the challenge to humanity
How do we plant the imperishable seed
In ourselves and how do we make it possible for others
To get themselves together?

The answer to this question lies in the
Development and practice of the Art of Happiness
Now, I am speaking of happiness
In its broadest sense
That is, in the same way that Thomas Jefferson
And the other writers of the Declaration of Independence
Meant it to mean
When they placed it along with Life and Liberty
As inalienable rights

So the Art of Happiness
Means more than being happy in the short term
But generally happy, content, and connected

However, even in this broad sensewe are talking about a feeling, a personal
As well as a corporate state
Today we heard from some the great works of Wisdom Literature
The Tao Te Ching, Ecclesiastes, and the Fragments of Heraclitus
Each deals with experienced faith
It doesn’t so much concern itself
With science or art or the theological niceties
Of the professional academic
But with the way in which lives are lived

Bible Scholar Milton Horne puts it this way
When writing about the Book of Proverbs
The meaning of life is not found in the macro-assumptions one holds but in the way one manages life’s micro-significances

In order to manage those Micro Significances
To perfect the Art of Happiness
(As with any art)
We need to have a basic understanding of its tools
And its limitations
Our brush and canvass
Are the tools of faith and reason
One for the recognition of order and beauty in creation
The other for the exploration of that beauty

Also, in the case of this art
We need to recognize two very important facts
The first is that Evil exists
And the second is that we all die

That is to say that our imperishable seed
Cannot stop bad things from happening
Nor does it make us immortal in this world

The fact that there is evil in this world
Is more controversial than one might think
After all, on the surface one person’s evil
Can be another’s good

If good was an easily identified absolute
(The argument goes)
Then there wouldn’t be as many wars
People wouldn’t starve
Poverty would be eliminated
And on the personal level, we wouldn’t argue quite as much
Over things we feel strongly about
We would achieve clarity and consensus with little effort

Still, not everything is relative
Evil exists, real evil
We all have the capacity to do harm
And not just accidental, but willful harm
To others

There are plenty of situations, I think
Where one person’s evil
Is another person’s evil, too

Do we need examples?
Look at the Ten Commandments
You shall not commit murder,
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal
You shall not bear false witness
Against your neighbor
I can think of few situations
Where the violation of these rules
Constitutes a good or a right act
Even if one person benefits
Or is forced into the action

In the seemingly contradictory statements
And circular concepts of the wisdom writers
There is an attempt to identify rules of right living
Part of the purpose of the wisdom literature
Is to help us to identify the good
And separate it from our own self-interest

The book of Proverbs says
Plot no evil against your friend
Your unsuspecting neighbor

And implies a communal responsibility
The writer is telling us not to do evil to others
Not only for our sake but for that of the community
The rules of life, when they are at their best
Are for the benefit of all people and things
Not for the few

In the pursuit of Happiness
We aren’t necessarily expected to look toward the experts
Ecclesiastes states:
The wise ones know in their hearts the right time and method for action

And Heraclitus warns us:
What are these people’s wits, who let themselves be led by speechmaking crowds, without considering how many fools and thieves they are among, and how few choose the good? The best choose progress toward one thing; a name forever honored by the gods, while others eat their way toward sleep like nameless oxen.

We can move toward enlightenment
Under our own power
Or unquestioningly accept
The rules and teaching of others
Become unthinking followers/Nameless oxen ourselves

Liberal Religion is sometimes described
As a faith not for sheepBut for goats,
Not for dogs but for cats
There is some truth in that
Nor would we want to have it any other way
As Thomas Jefferson once said:
Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there is one, God must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded faith.

But there is one thing that we cannot reason ourselves toward
That we cannot change or avoid
And that is the presence of death

We have talked about this before
In some detail and about Buddhist thinker
Thich Nat Hahn and his belief that birth and death are illusions
That we are like the little wave,
Worrying so much about crashing on the beach
That we forget that we are a part of the ocean

This sentiment can be found in Heraclitus, too
When he states The way up is the way back/The beginning is the end
And The baby born under the new moon under the old moon holds her grandchild in her arms
Birth and death are part of the natural cycle
And (to paraphrase a line from JRR Tolkien)
All we have to do is try to make sense
Of what we do with the time we are given

Still, this can be cold comfort
(The acceptance of mortality)
And because of this we, both as individuals
And as societies, try to fill in the blank spaces of the unknown
We try to explain both evil and death

Sometimes get so confused that we believe that death is evil
When we do this, fear can take control
And we can start to hide behind elaborate fortresses
Of strict belief
No longer willing to seek or accept the truth
Gilbert Murray (A classical scholar
And major supporter of the League of Nations)
When discussing the decline of Athens
Called this fear a “Failure of Nerve
He said that the decline of Athenian culture
Was caused by the rise of
Pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation… It is an atmosphere [he says] in which the aim of the good person is not so much to live justly…but, rather, by means of a burning faith, by contempt for the world and its standards…to be granted pardon for unspeakable unworthiness and immeasurable sins.
In other words, they took that man on the back of the map apart

Now, it would be wrong to say that the Bible
Didn’t send a message laced with fear of God
And of the Divine wrath
But the pursuit of wisdom
Requires that we not be overcome
By our anxieties and concerns
Otherwise we and the world may not come out all right

This year’s sermon series is about that
About picking up the pieces
About how not to suffer a failure of nerve
How to persevere in a faith that can be challenging
And that while providing shelter and security in a storm
Can like all faiths still leak a little bit and toss us about

I will be honest with you:
The religion of Waldemar Argow
And John Eliot and Walter Kring
And I would say of Jesus
And the disciple Peter, too
Has always been the road less traveled
But it is our road; it is our religion, our science and our art
It is worth doing well

Argow once wrote that
Religion is an affirmation of the essential goodness and nobility of life, and a way of living a life so conceived. It is a consecration of the highest of values…and a technique for realizing those values and living by them.

So this spring
We, too, shall practice and think
About the Art of Happiness
And the Imperishable Seed