Sunday, May 17, 2009

What Makes You Happy?

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 17, 2009

Year B: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 10:44-48)
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

What Makes You Happy?

Jesus said to his disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Today’s gospel lesson picks up right where we left off last week. You may remember that last Sunday we heard one of the “I am” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In this case, at the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

As Lauren pointed out in last week’s sermon, these “I am” statements by Jesus in the Gospel of John would have packed quite a wallop for the first Jewish readers and hearers of the gospel. They would have picked up the reference to the name of God revealed to Moses in the Book of Exodus. The first readers and hearers would have understood that the author of the Gospel of John was making the bold claim that Jesus was divine.

That bold claim of Jesus’ divinity doesn’t have quite the same impact for us Christians two thousand years later.

But the rich metaphor given by Jesus, “I am the vine, you are the branches” should still pack quite a wallop for us today because it offers us deep insight into our relationship with Jesus and with one another.

“I am the vine, you are the branches” reminds us of our complete dependence on Jesus and our deep connection with another.

And then in today’s lesson Jesus continues by telling the disciples how the branches of the vine – how we – are to live. Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

I don’t need to tell you that’s a tall order – and we might very well reject it as pie in the sky, idealistic nonsense. Or we might look at that commandment and see it as an undue burden – with all that we have to do, with all of our worries and responsibilities, on top of all that, we have to not just tolerate, not just get along OK with, but we are commanded to love one another.

Everybody here knows this commandment, but even though it’s familiar, it still seems unreasonable. Really, love one another? Is that really necessary?

But Jesus insists loving one another is necessary when he says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Jesus gives this great commandment to love one another so that our joy may be complete. The truth is, when we love one another we’re the most joyful, the happiest, the most human we can be.

And I think everyone here knows that’s true. And yet, and yet… It’s still a tall order for lots of reasons. When we offer love we make ourselves vulnerable – vulnerable to rejection and, let’s face it, there’s a good chance people may just take advantage of us. And, needless to say, society gives us a very different message than love one another as Jesus has loved us.

And sometimes, with all that goes on in our lives, we may simply forget of us that it’s when we love one another that we’re the most joyful, the happiest, the most human we can be.

And since offering love makes us vulnerable, since offering love is not the way of the world and since we sometimes forget, we try to find that joy and happiness elsewhere – maybe in buying and accumulating stuff, maybe making a lot of money, maybe in achieving prestige, maybe in entertainment.

And, time after time, all of that fails to truly satisfy us – fails to give us the joy and happiness we receive when we love one another.

Maybe because the world hasn’t made them cynical yet, I think children can remind us that loving one another gives us true joy and happiness.

I received one of those reminders from the kids who came to this month’s “Pizza Compline.” Now, you may think this is funny, but “Pizza Compline” is one of the more challenging parts of my job.

Many of you know that on the first Wednesday of the month the kids and I make pizzas in the kitchen, Mary Lea provides leads a craft or service activity and then we all go into church for compline – the beautiful bedtime service of the church.

Now, I know what you’re thinking – but it’s not the pizza-making in a hot kitchen full of kids that makes “Pizza Compline” so challenging for me. (And, if I may so myself – the pizza we make is actually pretty good.)

What makes “Pizza Compline” challenging each month is coming up with a homily that can say something meaningful to the children, but also at the same time also offer some food to the adults who are present.

A couple of weeks ago I was really struggling to come up with something for my homily so I asked Mary Lea if she had any ideas about what I could talk about.

She thought for a few moments and then she said how the kids – and all of us, for that matter – are constantly bombarded with images and sales pitches that tell us that we’ll be happy if we have a particular object, or dress in a certain way, or drive this kind of car. She thought this would be something worthwhile to talk about with our children. Yes! I wholeheartedly agreed – relieved to have something good for my homily.

So, that evening I began my homily by simply asking the children, “What makes you happy?”

I thought I was ready for their answers. I expected that they would talk about all the things that make them happy – things like their American Girl dolls, or video games, or some TV show.

Instead, one by one, they talked about their friends, their families and (especially) their pets as what made them happy. Not one of the children mentioned a “thing” – only the people and pets they loved. One of the adults did chime in and said gin and tonic made him happy, but I chose to ignore that at the time.

What the kids had to say was very moving, but also created a problem for me – because with their beautiful answers, one by one the children were preaching my homily. They were stealing my thunder! At the end, I was left in the position of saying something like, “well, keep up the good work,” and then quickly throwing it to Dr. Anne to lead us in the next hymn.

Although my homily was ruined, I was deeply moved by how the kids understand what really gives us joy, what really makes us happy. The children offered a powerful reminder that Jesus is right – we find our true joy and happiness in loving one another as he has loved us.

If you’re still not convinced, it turns out that science backs up Jesus and the children about what gives us true joy and happiness.

In this month’s issue of The Atlantic there is a fascinating article called “What Makes Us Happy?” It’s about a Harvard study that’s been going on for 72 years, tracking 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 1930s, tracking them through all the ups and downs of life. About half of the subjects are still alive and they are almost all anonymous, although we know that John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee (the former editor of the Washington Post) were part of the study.

Not surprisingly, many members of the study achieved a great deal of worldly success, rising to high levels in government and business, writing best-selling novels. And, maybe also unsurprisingly, the lives of others in the study seemed to fall apart and end tragically. Reading the summaries of the case studies, it’s disturbing how young men who seemed well adjusted in their youth, full of optimism and promise, ended up dying drunk and alone. And others, who seemed to be dealt a pretty bad hand in life, ended up overcoming challenges and living a happy life.

With over 70 years of data, the study offers some fascinating insight into what makes for a happy life. Some factors are obvious – education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and healthy weight.

Certainly those are all crucially important, but when the current director of the study was asked what he had learned from this enormous study he said, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

This enormous study reveals that although we may try to find happiness and joy elsewhere, it’s in loving one another that we are truly happy and truly joyful.

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Jesus gives us this commandment not as a burden, but because this is the way to a joyful, happy life. We can try to live other ways, looking for joy and happiness in things, or money, or prestige, but each time we’ll find that they don’t satisfy us.

Jesus knows, the children know and even the scientists know that it’s loving one another that gives us true joy and happiness.

What makes you happy?