Saints and the Way of Happiness

It happens all the time, really without us even noticing it. You wake up in the morning, and it won’t be the first thing on your mind, at least, not most days. Instead, it will creep in, naturally, slowly, without drawing attention to itself. You’ll be in a conversation with a loved one and you’ll hold back, just a little bit, what you’re thinking about. Or you’ll double-check the locks on your house before you go out for the day. You’ll walk down the street and look over your shoulder a couple times. You’ll be asked how you’re doing, and you’ll say, “Fine,” which is only half-true today. You’ll hear your candidate promising to make you safer, to hold to what is rightfully yours, and you’ll nod in gratitude. You’ll be up in bed trying to sleep, wondering how things have reached this point in your life, wishing you had had the chance to change something, to be someone else for once.

It’s called living with something to lose, and it’s a way of life all of us know too well. When you live as if you had something to lose, protection becomes your first priority. You hedge your bets in relationships; you’re careful in who you let in and how much you let them see. Your concern is holding on to what you have, because, whether you admit it or not, you’re ashamed of what you’ve already lost and afraid of losing even more. You justify things that are unjustifiable in the name of safety or caution. “You can’t be too careful” becomes your unspoken motto. Living with something to lose means living safely, and safety is a seductive idol.

Of course, the safe life is a boring life most of the time. You’re anxious, certainly, about what you might lose, but excitement usually comes in the form of having enough money to pay the next insurance bill or the retirement or college fund or the latest gadget that keeps you secure. Being bored and anxious at the same time is no fun, but what else are you supposed to do? Safety demands you limit your risks while maximizing your protection. After all, what you have is precious, and you can’t afford to lose it.

But the real problem is not boredom. The real problem is what seems to be the alternative: carefree, indifferent living. The blow-your-wad, bet-the-farm, all-or-thing life of reckless juveniles and immature adults. Jumping out of planes, experimenting with the latest fads and crazes, leaping before looking, living as if you don’t care about what anyone else thinks: if that’s the only other option, living with something to lose is the more sensible approach, isn’t it? And isn’t all that craziness just a manic way of dealing with the boredom and anxiety that living with something to lose precipitates in the first place?

This is why it’s so important that those of us who follow Jesus Christ celebrate All Saints Day. The saints, you see, are people who lived with nothing to lose. They were not bored or anxious, not ultimately, and they did not recklessly toss their lives around with no thought of the consequences, either. Far from being their top priority, protection and safety were left to the side in favor of gratitude and faithfulness. They were happy, because they had something to do. Holiness was their occuption. They were happy because in Christ they inherited something that could not be lost, and they lived with nothing to lose.

In the Beatitudes, whether you read them in Matthew 5 or, as we just did this morning, in Luke 6, are the keys to happiness given to us by Jesus Christ. Most of us are familiar with the repetitive litany of the beatitudes: blessed are you who are poor; blessed are you who are hungry; blessed are you who weep. But the Greek word in each of those cases, makarioi, can just as easily be translated “happy,” and some more recent translations now read “happy are you” instead of “blessed are you.” I used to be suspicious of this change, because in our day “happy” is so much more vapid a word than “blessed.” But I have come to see the virtue in choosing “happy” over “blessed.” As human beings, we want to be happy, and we want to know the things that make for happiness. Jesus tells us flat out: if you want to be happy, become poor, become one who is hungry; become one who mourns; become one who is excluded for the sake of Christ (and Christ alone). If that seems hard, start hanging out with those who are poor, hungry, in mourning, suffering for Christ.

In Matthew’s gospel, that’s where Jesus stops, but in Luke Christ takes things a step further. He tells us not only things that will make for happiness; he lists those things that are a recipe for unhappiness: wealth, full bellies, flattering speech. I think it’s no coincidence that these are the very things we spend so much of our lives trying to protect. When we have things, we worry about losing them; when we are full, we secure our food chains; and when we have a good reputation, we guard it carefully. Unhappiness is living life as if you had something to lose. Happiness is found in living with nothing to lose.

Jesus goes on: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; turn the other cheek; give to the thief; give to those who ask for something; do not try to recover whatever is taken from you; do not try to protect whatever it is you have. This is the path of happiness; this is the way of living with nothing to lose. You are anxious now, and bored, in protecting your possessions, your way of life, your safety and security. You know these things make you unhappy, but you are addicted to them, and to protecting them. Don’t you want to be happy? Don’t you want to be free of the worries and trials of living with something to lose? What holds you back from true happiness?

Maybe you think it’s too difficult. Maybe you think Jesus was only addressing super-disciples and not ordinary Christians like you and me. Maybe the chains of worry and anxiety are strong and hold you back from freedom in Christ. Maybe you don’t know where to begin. If so, today is your day, your blessed day, your happy day, because today is All Saints Sunday. All Saints—not some, not the super-disciple saints, but all of those who persisted to the end and were given the grace of perseverance. All Saints, who eventually learned to live as people with nothing to lose.

When the Church calls a person “saint,” we are not saying, “Every moment of this person’s life was without blemish.” Nor are we saying, “This person got everything right.” No. We only say those things about Jesus Christ. We should expect our saints to have flaws and imperfections: they are human, even if they are graced by the gift of participating in the God’s own life. But when the Church calls a person “saint,” we are saying, “Look to these people for the life of blessedness, for the way of happiness. They are examples, they are light-bearers, they are way-markers on the journey of Christian discipleship.”

This is true for famous saints, the ones everyone seems to know about, and local saints, the ones cherished only in communities like ours here at Centre. We need saints like Francis of Assisi, who tells us that it is possible to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to love your enemies, even in the most trying and uncertain of times. We need saints like Mother Teresa, who reminds us that being with the poor is much more like being with Jesus than being with the comfortable and the privileged. But we also need saints like Joan Armstrong, who lets us know that praying without ceasing means actually praying with and for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We need saints like Betty Kirk, who tells us that you can make worshiping Christ a life priority, no matter how sick or tired or busy you might be. We need saints like Don Kirk, who reminds us that strength of character develops over time and isn’t something that happens all at once. We need all saints, these saints and every other one, to prod us, to challenge us, to strengthen us as we find happiness in Jesus Christ.

And these saints we need so badly, they are not figures from the recent or distant past. They are present to God in Christ even now, and eternally. They do not join us once a year or at those moments when we happen to remember them. No—we join them; we become part of their ever-widening circle, as we grow in faith, hope, and love, as we enter into habits of prayer and self-giving and Scripture study and worship, as we leave behind the idol of security for the risky way of the kingdom of God. We acknowledge this every Sunday when we pray at the Communion Table “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

You have lived, perhaps, as someone with something to lose. On this All Saints Sunday, I invite you to being living with nothing to lose. What you have in Jesus Christ can never be taken from you; it cannot be stolen, it will not rust, and even when you die, it will live on. And what you protect can never be truly secure: it will fade with time, it will lose its value, and it will die, no matter how tightly you hold it. Follow in the paths of the saints; follow in the way of happiness. Do not wait for tomorrow: sainthood beings today!

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