Psalm 15, Pursuit of Happiness

Who May Dwell on your Holy Mountain?
St. Patrick’s Mountain, Ireland

February 19, 2012                   In Pursuit of Happiness

2 Kings 2:1-12            Psalm 15          2 Cor. 4:3-6                 Mark 9:2-9
Happiness, the pursuit of happiness, is an American ideal; everyone has the right to pursue his/her happiness, but what does this happiness mean?  Webster says that happiness is a state of well-being and contentment.  It’s not a state of ecstatic, frenzied delight, but quieter, recognizing that all is well in your own world, peace and contentment.  How does one achieve this?  Psalm for today offers a clue.  The Grail version of the Psalms entitles this psalm as “True Happiness.”
Psalm 15 is didactic, teaching psalm.   In a time when the written word was uncommon, teaching was done primarily through memorization of lessons.  These lessons used mnemonic devices to help the student remember.  This psalm asks, who is the true man/woman of God?  It instructs on what is necessary for worship to result in blessings.  It has three parts, a question: verse 1, “O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent?  Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?”; the response, verses 2-5b; and the reward, “He who does these things shall never be moved.”  The qualifications listed in verses 2-5b are 10 in number, forming a decalogue, a common teaching device of the time.  This person is to 1. Walk blamelessly and do right (reminiscent of Micah 6, “You have been told, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you:  only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”).  2. Speak truth. 3. Do not slander. 4. Do no evil to friends.  5. Do not take up a reproach with a neighbor.  6. Despise the reprobate.  7. Honor those who fear the Lord.  8. Stand firm (swears to his own hurt and doesn’t change).  9. Do not lend money at interest. 10. Do not take bribes.  His reward is to enter the temple of the Lord, where he shall not be moved, like the man who builds his house on rock in Matthew’s gospel, 7:24-25.  He will be blessed with security, and against all assaults of evil will stand unshaken as a rock.
This psalm doesn’t deal with sins like murder, stealing, adultery, nor does it address a person’s duties to God, prayer, fasting, almsgiving.  Rather it focuses on social sins which deal with community – lying, slander, gossip, bribery, greed – indicating that this was written during a time when people of integrity and truth were needed – is there ever a time when that is not the case?  It provides simple rules for living in community with others.
This Godly person “speaks truth from his heart” – there is congruence between his thoughts and his words and his actions, as he believes so he speaks.  “To speak in the heart” means to think in Hebrew.  His words are truthful, he doesn’t lie or slander, he guards his tongue, perhaps asking, “Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary” before speaking, a helpful guide for speaking.  He doesn’t associate with “bad company,” but associates with others like him, and is not greedy.  Interest rates at that time were 20-50%, exploiting those in need.  Not so far from our own day with some interest rates soaring, especially for those who can least afford it, those who have poor credit, though a far cry from the lower interest rates many others are enjoying.
A sojourner (as found in revised standard translation) is one who has no inherent rights in a community, who is permitted to enjoy permanent guest privileges of membership.  To have such a status in the temple of a god brought riches of divine favor and protection, however one must prove worthy to have this.  We have no inherent right to heaven, but if we do these things, we will be welcome to take up residence there, where we will be happy, content.
Our psalm asks, who shall dwell on thy holy hill, or mountain.  There is a strong tradition in Scripture of mountains being, holy places, close to God, places of worship and retreat.  Celtic spirituality speaks of such holy places as being places where the veil between this world and the next is thin, where one can experience God in a way that one cannot in the “real” world.  Often these places are in the hilltop and mountain areas, such as St. Patrick’s Crough/mountain where Patrick would go to pray.
In our Gospel, Jesus took Peter, James and John, up the mountain where they experienced a new reality.  There the veil between this world and the next was thin and they see Moses and Elijah standing next to Jesus; they were able to see Jesus as he truly was, in all his glory.  Moses and Elijah were two of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament.  Jesus is seen as one in this line of great prophets, a successor, yet more.
Jews believed that Elijah would come again, before the coming of the Messiah (Mal. 4:5).  In 2 Kings we see where this idea of Elijah returning originated.  He is taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.  He doesn’t die, is the only person who did not die, being taken up into heaven while still alive.  As such it was believed that he would come back.  A number of traditions center on this belief.  A seat is reserved for Elijah at Jewish Passover services, as well as at circumcisions.  Elijah is taken up while Elisha watches Elijah make that journey between this life and the next.  It is another situation where the veil between this life and the next is thin; Elisha is allowed a glimpse into that world while still remaining in this world.  Notice that not only did Elijah warn Elisha about following after him, the groups of prophets all tried to get Elisha to stay behind.  There was a fear associated with Elijah’s meeting the Lord.
It’s common at the time of death, that our loved one may see those who have gone before them into new life or see a vision of another reality.  This can be a sacred time, their room becoming another “thin” place as they are caught between this world and the next as they prepare to go to heaven.  It can be a good place to be, a holy place, yet often we, too, fear this time.
Paul, in our reading from Corinthians, speaks of a veil over the gospel that he preaches.  Perhaps Paul had been criticized for not being clear enough in his presentation of the gospel, for being obscure, making it hard for others to understand.  Prior to this, 3:13-18, Paul referenced the veil that Moses wore after coming down from the mountain and speaking to God, a veil meant to hide his face because the people were afraid to look upon his face, which glowed from the experience.  He says that for some, a veil lies over their hearts, dulling their senses to the Spirit, however with Jesus the veil is removed, “whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed . . . all of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.” (3:16, 18a)  Whatever the basis of the criticism of Paul, Paul asserts that the gospel is only veiled to those who do not have eyes to see, the veil of unbelief lies over their eyes, keeping them for seeing the gospel for what it was, God’s revealed word.
The mountaintop is a good place to be, as Peter so awkwardly acknowledges when he says, “Rabbi, it is good to be here.”  But it can also be scary; as noted in our reading, the disciples were terrified.   It is hard to see God face to face.  It can be hard to look at that other reality; that is why we only get glimpses now and then.  That is why Moses’ face was veiled after seeing God, why some people find it hard to accept God’s word or to believe in a greater reality beyond this reality.  We can’t live on the mountaintop, the holy hill, but there are times when the veil is thin.
Psalm 15 gives some simple requirements for being just and thereby being allowed in God’s temple, ultimate happiness.  It provides simple yet very helpful advice for all living here in community, to speak truth from our hearts, to think before we speak and ask ourselves, is it true, is it kind, is it necessary, to avoid hurtful gossip and slander.  Happiness isn’t found in isolation but in right relationship with each other and our God.
Our New Testament readings give us even simpler instructions for holiness.  Paul tells us, it is through Jesus that we are saved, that God’s light has been brought into the world and shines through the face of Jesus.  Jesus allows us to see the face of God.  In our Gospel reading, God tells the disciples, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”  Listen to him, therein lies holiness, therein lies contentment, therein lies true happiness.  Listen to him and do his word.
If we are to find true happiness, peace and contentment in this world, we need to be aware of the next, that other reality that is more real than what we consider real.  We need to remember what is necessary for communal living; that happiness is not found in isolation but in life shared in love with others.  We need to remember that true happiness comes from listening to Jesus with our whole heart and mind, following him, putting our belief into action.  Then we shall find the happiness we pursue.
Robertson, Copyright February 2012
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