The Rev. Dr. Kenneth L. Schmidt
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
1350 Waller Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
THE RECTOR’S REPORT FOR ANNUAL REPORT 2013
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 9 February 2014
IS GOD HAPPY? Is God happy? I admit, that’s a question I’d not given much attention to until I received an anthology of essays as a birthday present last October written by someone I’d never heard of before and whose name I’m certain I’m not pronouncing correctly: Leszek Kolakowski. Born in 1927, Kolakowski was professor of the history of philosophy at the University of Warsaw until he was forced into exile in 1968, fleeing from Poland to England where he became a senior research fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. This book of essays was published posthumously after his death in 2009 and offers a delicious spiritual feast with essays with intriguing titles like these: “The Death of Gods,” “My Correct Views on Everything,” “Jesus Christ—Prophet and Reformer,” “Anxiety about God in an Ostensibly Godless Age,” “An Invitation from God to a Feast,” “Idolatry and the Death of God,” “In Praise of Unpunctuality,” “In Praise of Snobbery,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Lot’s Wife or the Charms of the Past,” “Our Merry Apocalypse.” And tucked in among all of those, is the shortest essay, just four pages long: “Is God Happy?”
Sorry to say, Kolakowski doesn’t think God can be very happy at all, and with good reason. He writes:
The question [Is God happy?] is not absurd. Our conventional view of happiness is as an emotional state of mind. But is God subject to emotion? Certainly we are told that God loves His creatures, and love, at least in the human world, is an emotion. But love is [only] a source of happiness when it is reciprocated, and God’s love is reciprocated only by some of His subjects, by no means all: some do not believe that He exists, some do not care whether He exists or not, and others hate Him, accusing Him of indifference in the face of human pain and misery. If he is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when he witnesses human suffering. He did not cause it or want it, but He is helpless in the face of all the misery, the horrors and atrocities that nature brings down on people or people inflict on each other.
That we humans create such unhappiness for God is frequently suggested in some of my favorite cartoons in The New Yorker, which I’ve been collecting for several decades now. Rendered by various artists, they almost always feature a bearded old guy in the clouds talking to an angel or saint about his unhappiness over the planet which is pictured floating in the background. When I showed them to John yesterday, he picked as the best one that is captioned: “What if the meek don’t want it?” I myself was torn between two others, one captioned “I can’t deal with famines, massacres, or epidemics right now—I’ve got to help some guy sink a foul shot,” the other, “This human experiment has gone on long enough. Give the hippos control.”
“GIVE THE HIPPOS CONTROL”: Now, if it makes God happy, I’m all for giving the hippos control. But I prefer not to see myself so responsible for God’s happiness. That would be co-dependency writ large. Very large. As large it gets. So let’s let God take care of God’s own happiness. Let’s focus now on our own.
Though Kolakowski doesn’t think that will get us very far. If God is not happy in heaven, he wonders, how can we be happy here on earth?
In short the word ‘happiness’ does not seem applicable to divine life… nor is it applicable to human beings. This is not just because we experience suffering. It is also because, even if we are not suffering at a given moment…we can never forget the existence of evil and the misery of the human condition. We participate in the suffering of others; we cannot eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life.
This is where I beg to differ. For even though we can’t “eliminate the anticipation of death or the sorrows of life,” God’s presence with us in our sorrows and death, as in our joys and living, often brings us a measure of happiness, and sometimes even an ample supply of it. That’s what the Beatitudes tell us. We missed reading them last Sunday because the wonderful Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple took priority. But we read them every year on our Name Day in November, All Saints’ Day, and All Saints’ Sunday. Granted, we usually read them using the word ‘blessed’ but biblical scholars are unanimous is saying we should read them as ‘happy’. So here’s the list of those whom Jesus considers happy and what our happiness consists of:
- Happy are the poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
- Happy are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.
- Happy are the meek, for you will inherit the earth [whether you want it or not].
- Happy are you who hunger and thirst for righteous, for you will be filled.
- Happy are the merciful, for you will receive mercy.
- Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
- Happy are the peacemakers, for you will be called children of God.
- Happy are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.
- Happy are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
HAPPINESS: If Jesus is right about what happiness means, I think we should all be very happy as we look back on The Year of Our Lord 2013 and look forward to the remainder of the Year of Our Lord 2014.
Surely be happy about your financial generosity to our worship and ministry. Funding who we are and what we do is always a struggle. So it sometimes takes an outsider to help us see how happy we should be. When I walked Bishop Swing back to his car after he came for the celebration of our twenty-five years of ministry together, he said to me, referring to the Stewardship Box in the bulletin, “Kenneth, it would certainly be good if you had more pledging units, but the amount given by those who pledge is really staggering. I hope you know how good you have it.” Well, I do know how good we have it; especially because I was able to add quickly, “Bill, you haven’t seen anything yet. There’ll be more pledges. And our annual Christmas Giving appeal will bring in another 20 grand.” Sorry for being so crass as to use the phrase “bringing in another 20 grand.” And I’m even sorrier I had such little faith! Your gratitude, grace, and generosity contributed close to $30,000 for our neighborhood Saturday morning food program, general operating expenses, the Jackson Building Fund, the windows restoration project, our music program, and the Rector’s Discretionary Fund.
About the window restoration project: as you know, we didn’t have to do a general congregational appeal for Phase I, the windows on the east side of the Church (Saints Elmo, Michael, Joseph, David, and Stephen). Generous people simply came forward once they knew in what bad shape our aging windows were in and made substantial financial gifts, anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000. If you feel left out because you weren’t asked to give, don’t worry! Phase II will begin this year: the windows on the west side of the Church. And there will be Phase III in 2015, the windows on the north and south sides. I’m happy to report that a major contribution has already been given for the window of St. Francis, and a pledge has been made for the window of St. Patrick.
“THROUGH WHOM THE LIGHT SHINES”: Our window renovation project shows us vividly that our happiness is not just financial. According to any of the happiness studies I’ve read since reading Kolakowski’s book, our happiness comes from the warmth of our personal relationships, one to another, in all the ways we connect to each other, and those whom we are called to serve. And so we connected to the saints of yore. That’s why on the Sunday before the windows of Phase I were removed, we used the devotional booklet written by Larry Holben, a former member of All Saints’ who is now the vicar of St. Barnabas Church in Mt. Shasta, California (and who is visiting us this morning), to express our happiness at how these heroes of the faith continue to inspire us today. As Larry writes in the introduction of the booklet, Through Whom the Light Shines:
The saints of the church have sometimes been described as those through whom the light of God’s light shines with particular brilliance and clarity.
Such a characterization is apt for reflection upon the life and witness of those saints memorialized in the windows at All Saints’…The images in glass of these men and women surround the people of All Saints’ when we gather, diffusing the light by which we pray…together…Taken together the lives represented here provide diverse and significant threads in that much larger tapestry which is the whole company of the faithful who have gone before us.
The saints we honor, of course, are not just those of yesteryear. They are also you and I—here today. That’s why one of the most splendid things about our renovation was the spontaneous “rogues gallery” of photographs that went up on the empty plywood panels when the windows were removed. We could not abide such emptiness. And so week after week more and more photographs were put up on the panels: of ourselves (yes, maybe too many selfies!) and also of the departed. How young some of us looked in the snapshots we taped or pinned to the wood. How grown-up the children and youth now are! And how wonderful to see that the happy saints we honor are you and me, here today!
This morning I’d like to give special honor to some of the saints here today:
- We remember the departed: Ethel Henderson, Mary Farcas, William Whitefield, Mary Hurlburt, and Stephen Wright. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. And let light perpetual shine upon them.
- We give thanks for the ministries of Elizabeth Welch, a volunteer Pastoral Associate, who moved to Montreal to begin doctoral studies in bioethics at McGill University; Margaret Trezevant, our Parish Deacon who is now serving at St. Luke’s, San Francisco; and Marcus Crim, our seminarian from the School for Deacons.
- We welcome Carlos Luna, our new church sexton; Dan Burner, first as our parish intern and then as our transitional deacon; Michael Hiller, who joined us as a volunteer assisting priest; Philippa White as our seminarian from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific; and Ken Powell who (I’m delighted to announce) will be installed as our new Parish Deacon next month.
- Most important of all, the largest group of new members at All Saints’ in all the 25 years I’ve been here: by baptism, Joseph St. Martin, Khalil Moore, Caitlin Powell, and (next month) Harlan Russell; by confirmation, Claire Dworsky; by Letter of Transfer from another Episcopal Church: Br. Simon, Craig Schillig, Colby and Katherine Roberts; and Carson Perez; and by reception from another Christian denomination: Malcolm Campbell, Janet Molinari, Susan St. Martin and William Walsh. Quite a crowd! Now that’s happiness.
- We celebrated Tom Traylor’s 10th anniversary as a Pastoral Associate and my 25th anniversary as your rector. Let me repeat the tribute I wrote to Tom in the latest issue of “To All the Saints”:
Tom, we thank you for serving All Saints’ so long and so well! We are filled with gratitude to God [and you] for your steadfastness, joy, and good humor, in your ministry as our pastor, priest, counselor, teacher, colleague, and friend!
“THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE”: Speaking of Tom…He closed his sermon last week by reciting a song he learned in his Baptist Sunday School. My only criticism of his otherwise stunning sermon was that he only recited one verse of it…and that he didn’t sing it! So to make up for that, I’m going to recite the whole song as I learned it in my Baptist Sunday School. (Don’t worry, I won’t sing it.) But I will use the hand motions I learned then. And I’m doing it because I think that Jesus’ admonition in the Gospel read this morning “to let our light shine” is quite right, especially if we want to be happy as people who name ourselves Christian:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
Hide it under a bushel? No, I’m gonna let it shine.
Shine all over Buffalo, I’m gonna let it shine.
Won’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine.
Let it shine ‘til Jesus comes, I’m gonna let it shine.
I recite this children’s song I learned many years ago not only because it expresses so vividly the point of Jesus’ admonition, but because it invites us to be happy over one of the most important things happening this morning of our Annual Meeting: the blessing of our newly renovated children’s room downstairs. It’s only one of two children’s rooms—a second one still needs to be renovated. But one room is a start in resurrecting a long dormant children’s program here at All Saints’, which I hope can begin as soon as the First Sunday of Lent, 9 March. We begin it for the sake of the children already here. And for the children we hope will come in the near future. It is said, “If you build it, they will come.” I hope that’s true for us here.
Obviously, the success of a children’s program needs more than just a space. It requires parents committed to bringing their young children to church; volunteers who will serve as teachers; and all of us together, offering on a regular basis the wonderful hospitality we already extend to the young at the children’s Christmas Pageant in December and the Easter Egg hunt on Easter.
So please come to the Annual Meeting after Mass whether you are a voting member of the parish or not. Come to celebrate another year (our 110th!) of our worship and ministry together, with refreshments hosted by the Vestry and officers of the parish. Come to elect new members of the Vestry, our representatives to deanery and diocesan conventions, and a trustee of our parish endowment. Come to hear the annual reports of John Prescott, the Senior Warden; Edwin Waite, the Junior Warden; Mark Patterson, the Treasurer-for-life; and Rick Cornelius, the Stewardship Officer. Come to get an update on the next phase of “Through Whom the Light Shines,” by Margaret Taylor, the chair of the Building & Grounds committee. And come to bless the new children’s room renovated by a parishioner who prefers to remain anonymous.
As anonymous as that person prefers to me, let us all become “un-anonymously” happy by the prayer we will use to bless the children’s room:
Jesus said “let your light so shine among others . . . that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.
Let us pray: Gracious God, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ took young children into his arms and blessed them. Embrace the children who come here with your unfailing love, that they may manifest your love to each other and to all whose lives they touch. May they grow in the knowledge and love of you; guide, comfort, and strengthen them, and preserve them evermore in peace. Amen.
By making our children happy, I hope we become happy too. And who knows. Maybe if we become happy, God will be happy too.
That’s not the conclusion Kolakowski comes to:
If we have absorbed wisdom of the higher sort, we might believe…that whatever is, is right; or…that we dwell in the best of all…possible worlds…or that all must be right with the world because it is under the constant guidance of God…[so that] we experience the splendor, goodness, and beauty of the Universe in our daily life, then can we not be said to be happy? The answer is no, we cannot.
I think the answer is yes, we can. Not because we are in denial about the darkness in which we live. But because we hold up “this little light of mine” and are happy to “let it shine.”
So, is God happy?
She better be!