Sunday, July 27, 2014

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

When he. . . found one pearl of great price, [the merchant] went and sold all that he had, and bought it. 
                                                                - Matthew 13

In last week’s sermon, I spoke about the difference between our current existence and the hope that we have of that greater life promised in our Lord Jesus. As Christians, we have to move toward both acceptance of the fleeting nature of this world as well as surrendering to the hope which is God’s alone to give. The lessons this morning build on the themes of last week’s lessons with the motif of desire being found in all of them. This morning I want to say something about desire and hope and what it means to desire as a Christian.

The ancients spoke of four emotions: pleasure and pain, fear and desire. Pleasure and pain relate to what one experiences in the present moment: something feels good or it feels bad. Fear and desire are the anticipation of what is coming in the future, either pleasure or pain. We fear pain and desire pleasure. According to the ancients, into these four emotions we can fit all other emotions. Take anger as an example; anger is classified as a desire, namely, a desire for retribution and justice for wrongs inflicted.

A passing observation will show how much human decisions and actions are based on emotions. When we desire something we work towards the anticipated pleasure of attaining our object. It is axiomatic to say that sometimes the thrill is in the hunt. We know that sometimes, depending on what it is that we want, the attainment of our object leaves us unsatisfied and searching for something additional or better. Similarly, with fear, we try to avoid some future pain. Take somebody who finally gives up smoking because his doctor has told him that he is in eminent danger of lung cancer. The present pleasure of smoking is outweighed by the fear of future illness.
Now the ancients took a variety of attitudes towards these four emotions. One group—the Stoics—maintained that the goal of philosophy is to help train someone to ignore all emotion. Emotions are all bad, so the goal is to eliminate emotions or at least to render them impotent. Another group—the Epicureans—said that true happiness is found is seeking pleasures and avoiding pain. This is the “do what makes you happy” philosophy, and you can see how in many ways this attitude is exceedingly prevalent in our society today. You can also see that if the best thing we can do is enjoy ourselves, seeking as much pleasure as possible, then there is very little room for love, because true love will sometimes mean the experience of pain. In love one seeks the good of another, even if it is painful. Our Lord’s death is the consummate picture of this principle of love.

Saint Augustine of Hippo the great Christian theologian of the ancient world adopted the traditional four-fold conception of human emotions. However, he adapted it to a Christian perspective: for Christians the goal is not necessarily to stop feeling or responding to emotions, and it certainly is not just to seek out pleasures. Rather, St. Augustine proposes, there are good and bad emotions. A bad fear would be a fear for the loss of property because material goods are fleeting and will not give lasting happiness. We will eventually lose them when we are separated from them either by their decay, their theft or our death. A good fear would be for the loss of communion with God because in him is lasting joy and peace. Many of us realize how easy it is die alone and unhappy because life has lost ultimate meaning and purpose apart from abiding love and joy, apart, that is, from God. If you not sure what I am talking about, go watch Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane.

What St. Augustine would indicate, what a Christian conception of emotions would show, is that our emotional lives are mixed. The problem with this world is that human beings are fallen. God gave us a desire for the good life, but now in our fallen and sinful condition we desire all kinds of things that are wicked and destructive. In our fallen state, we desire that which will hurt us and others. Think of the alcoholic who knows that drinking is killing him, and yet he still wants a drink. The modern conception of alcoholism would think of this as a condition of an illness, and while I don't believe that Christianity is in conflict with this idea, it does offer the explanation that we live in world where such an illness is possible because it is a fallen world, broken by sin and anarchy against God’s rule.

If we are honest, we are often a mass of different and occasionally conflicting desires. We want that which we know will hurt us or hurt others. We want two things that cannot be had together like abundant material wealth and freedom from anxiety: it is clear that the more stuff you have the more you worry about that stuff breaking or being lost or stolen. Sometimes it is as if we are groping in the dark for that which will give us lasting happiness, only to be frustrated by the handfuls of dust that we find. The Christian answer to all of this futility and confusion is the new life promised in our Lord Jesus. In him, we have the hope that our desires can be reordered; we can begin to desire that which won’t hurt or kill. One of the collects from the prayer book powerfully captures this hope. The prayer opens with these words, O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men. It is God alone who can restore us to sanity in the words of the 12 steps. He is our only hope of reordering our desires, our affections as the prayer puts it.

The lessons this morning show what it is that we should really desire. Whereas in our confusion we desire many things, the lessons indicate that there is one thing that we should desire. In the first lesson, Solomon wants this one thing: wisdom, specifically the wisdom of God to be a good and just king. Similarly, the merchant in our Lord’s parable wants one thing, the pearl of great price. Our attitude towards the kingdom of God should be that we are willing to sacrifice and surrender everything for it. If all of this sounds abstract and remote from our everyday lives, our everyday desires, consider what Paul writes in the Epistle lesson: “we do know how to pray as we ought.” To pray, of course, is simply an older word for ask. In a way, we don’t know what we want or why we want it. God has given us his Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, Paul writes, who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. We’re yearning for that good life even when we seek it in all the wrong places. The Spirit prays on our behalf to lead us to that the true good life which is in God. All this requires trust and surrender to the Spirit within us. You can stay on the wheel of empty human desires, or you can give yourself to him who can give you better things than we deserve or can even desire. I want to end with the entirety of the collect I quoted from earlier. May it be the prayer of all of our hearts:

O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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