How are you pursuing happiness?
This summer here at WCUC we are focusing on the practice of Shabbat, the practice of Sabbath. It feels like an audacious thing to do – to spend a whole season on just one religious practice. But I am convinced that this is a necessary exercise. It’s necessary because holy rest is so hard for us to understand, to practice, and to prioritize; and because it is so high on God’s list of instructions for us (number three or four on God’s list of the 10 most important commandments).
So, this summer we are focusing on Sabbath: we are reacquainting ourselves with the concept of holy rest. We’ve already spent some time thinking about what we should try to avoid doing during our time of Sabbath. But the question remains: what should we do instead? If we leave all our work and worry behind, how shall we pursue our happiness? It’s not quite as straightforward as we would like.
The text today from Isaiah is for a people who are also struggling in their pursuit of happiness. This text comes from the beginning of the third section of Isaiah. At this time in their history, the Israelites have just received their greatest desire. After years of exile in Babylonia, they are returning to their beloved city, Jerusalem. The Israelites are finally back in the streets where they once walked; the houses they used to live in. They are finally back at the site of the holy temple, where they worshiped. The Israelites are finally back in God’s holy city. It should be a time of joyful celebration. And yet — happiness still eludes them. The pain of the past is still real. And, more than that, the city they have returned to is not at all like they remember it. The neighborhoods have changed. The great temple is in ruins. And where there used to be familiar faces, now there are foreigners.
In this time of great excitement and great disappointment, the prophet offers words of promise. It starts back in chapter 55: Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant… (this part sounds good! But there’s more…) Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘the Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths… and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters …all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
The Israelites have returned home, into God’s city and into God’s covenant. But they’re not the only ones who got an invitation to the party. This is a come-one, come-all kind of event. The gifts of God and the blessings of Jerusalem are for everyone, whether they like it or not.
The Israelites are h aving trouble with their pursuit of happiness. How are you pursuing happiness? This story is a warning that we may not always be our own best guides when it comes to finding joy. What we most desire may not be what God has in mind. What we most desire may not even be what would satisfy us most deeply.
But we know this already. After all, if we really were great at pursuing our own happiness, we would be different people. You’ve read the advice, you know what to do if you really want to be happy. If we really were great at pursuing our own happiness, we would all be habitually well-rested, diligent exercisers with amazing prayer practices. We would give most of what we have away and be content with the rest. We would take satisfaction in the good things in our lives, accept our limitations, and experience freedom from anxiety and competition and jealousy, anger and hate.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not there yet. And even when I have the time and energy to pursue my own happiness, I don’t always make the best use of it. Here is what God suggests: instead of pursuing what we think will make us happy, making an idol of our own comfort, we need to make room to receive what She has already given us. This is the gift of Sabbath.
Whatever time we find for Sabbath, we should use to cherish what we have: food, sex, music, nature, beauty. We should use it to invest in friendships, family, or solitude. We should use it to treasure spacious moments of the mind; daydreams, naps, flights of fancy. We should do any or all of these things; or whatever will help us to notice and enjoy what we already have.
And what do we have? Above all else, God teaches us this strange thing: we have already what our souls most deeply desire: to be loved and accepted, known and found worthy. The holy one who created us has also made for us a home. We are fully accepted here,
whether we have famous ancestors or whether we are newly grafted onto the tree of faith; whether we are held in great renown or whether we are foreigners or eunuchs, strangers or outcasts. Whoever we are, God invites us into his holy promises and into the holy practices
that he has established for his people. God will give to us, in her house and within her walls,
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name that will not be caught off. God has given us an open invitation to join that great gathering at a house of prayer for all peoples.
What shall we do with our Sabbath time? Stop our pursuit, and instead make space for whatever reminds us, most powerfully, of whose we are, and where we belong: at home, with our maker, one of the mixed and motley crew of sinners and saints who lift up our hands and call on her name. Thanks be to God.
Practice: Prepare a Sabbath meal, alone or with friends or family. Choose ingredients and recipes that bring you pleasure. Cook at a leisurely pace. Enhance your meal with flowers, candles, music, silence. Notice and appreciate each taste.
Prayer: God, you fill our cups to overflowing. Help me to notice the feast set before me and eat it with joy. Amen.