Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity (4 August 2019) by The Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity (4 August 2019) by The Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean reflects on those things we dream of and pray for which we think will make us happy. 

What do you dream of? What do you think will make you happy? and why is that not enough?

Here at St Paul’s in our early morning Eucharists we lay before God the written prayers of people made in the cathedral the day before. I was presiding a few days ago, and so looked through the prayers as I usually do for ones which we could all join in with, for particular people in need – those who are sick, dying, bereaved; loved ones who are missed; sometimes cries for help from desperate people who long for hope and a life, people who are homeless or deeply unhappy; and all these we can pray for together. But a few days ago I couldn’t find any prayer requests which we could all pray for in the morning service. The prayers were about making dreams come true: for God to provide me and my family with a better future, a better job, the husband or wife of my dreams, good exam results, safe journeys, health and happiness. And I can’t bring myself to pray for such things, so I simply offer the people who seek their dreams and made these prayers into God’s hands, so that they may encounter the God who seeks for them. 

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the dream, the prayer, of the man who comes to him as a means of diagnosing his spiritual condition. Our dreams show to us, God, and others, where our hearts are, what we think really matters to us. But God will not be used as a power to make our dreams into realities. 

God doesn’t work with our dreams, but with the deepest desires of our heart, the longing for God within us, the desires to love God and love our neighbour. God alone is big enough to be the end and object of our lives – our dreams are too small to do that.

But, I hear you say, there’s nothing wrong with having dreams – doesn’t everyone want to have something good? Don’t we all want to be happy? Of course we want those things. But wanting things and wanting to be happy is the problem. Things don’t bring happiness. And happiness is not the point of living.

Think of life as a road which we travel along. Where do dreams fit in? They’re a sort of signpost, an indication of our wishes; dreams are the direction we think we’d like to go in. But happiness, and the dreams we weave around it, are not destinations in themselves – they’re stages on our journey. Having a dream may lead us on the next part of our life: but getting to our dream and wanting to stay there is a recipe, not for happiness, but for disappointment. 

Being happy or unhappy is an emotional state which can be produced by getting or losing some things, but it’s a temporary state which will end, probably sooner than later. The question is – what do you want these dreams to come true for? What then? When you’ve got what you think you want, what happens next? When you’ve married a lovely partner, the hard work of building relationships has to continue. 

When the person you love recovers from illness this time round, how long will that health last? When you achieve your dream of winning Wimbledon or Olympic gold, then after the initial rush of happiness, what are you going to do with your life? It’s no good running from one thing or one person to another thinking that this time when we get to where we want, it will bring us happiness. 

Living happily ever after like in fairy stories is not something that can exist, because we’re not made to live in a state of happiness: we’re made for a living ever after where our deepest desires are to be fulfilled in God. And that fulfilment is something quite different and much deeper than getting our dreams and being happy.

In our gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples how tough living for God can be, and yet how God will walk with us through it all. 

And in the middle of his challenging address, a man in the crowd says, Stop all this religious stuff, Jesus, and get my brother to give me my share of the family estate. This man had a dream, his prayer, which he thought Jesus would make happen for him. His older brother had inherited the family land and wouldn’t share it with him – maybe for good reasons. This younger brother saw his chance to get something for himself, to reach for his dream, and he could use Jesus to make it happen, like other rabbis in Palestine who would act as local judges in family disputes.

This Jesus is a powerful man, and like God he can get me what I dream for – and then my life will be just fine.

But Jesus will have none of it. Who made me a judge over you? he says. Your situation isn’t my concern. More than that, you’re asking for the wrong things, for money, for possessions; thinking that having some thing will bring you security and happiness. You’re looking in the wrong direction, my friend. 

And then Jesus tells the story of the successful entrepreneur who coins it in and has to solve the problem of having too much food and goods, and so builds bigger storehouses and looks forward to a life of ease and pleasure: ‘and God says to him, you fool! this very night you’re going to die, and the things you’ve gathered together will go to someone else not you. And what was the point of that?’

We should feel sorry for Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, for Warren Buffet and Vladimir Putin, for all those with lots of money, and all the successful people who have no good idea of where to go with their success. Why would you want to be one of the rich and famous? All that responsibility, all those decisions to make, all those people trying to get money out of you, constantly in danger of losing sight of what really matters in life. 

Read the stories of what happens to many of the people who win a lot of money on the lottery – it doesn’t make them happy in the long run. 

Look at the devastation that can happen to the children and families of those with large amounts of money. Having your dreams come true doesn’t bring you or others happiness. So it is, says Jesus, for those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.

But then, as Jesus reminds us, it’s not just a trap for rich people. We’re all in danger of pursuing our dreams and thinking that if we got the things we want, we would be happy. But behind our dreams of happiness is something much deeper. 

God isn’t in the business of making dreams come true. God might lead us in a direction where we find some of our dreams along our journey, like benches by the roadside to rest on for a little while – but they’re refreshment stops, not our destination. We have to let go of the idea that happiness is our goal, that getting things and people and God to work for us will be the answer that makes us happy.

In our first reading this morning St Paul wrote: ‘If you’ve been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is; your life is hidden with Christ in God’.

Don’t get stuck in your dreams. Have a bigger vision for your life than happiness. Ask what your dreams tell you about what you really think important. Follow the journey to fulfilment with God, looking beyond the here and now to the love of God in Jesus that changes and moves the world. 

We hear very little about people, especially rich ones, who are generous, though there are some of them around – we call them philanthropists, which literally means those who love people. So however much or little we have, let’s all be philanthropists, and love others in the name of God.

And in our prayers, let’s not pray for what we think will make us happy, but for the love of God to transform the lives of ourselves and others. 

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will give all my surplus to the poor, and give them back the land I’ve taken from them so that they too can be prosperous.” And God said to him, “Be blessed! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, you know whose they will be.” So it is with those who do not store up treasures for themselves, but are richly fulfilled in God.