April 19, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HOW TO BE HAPPY
(Sermon opens with Pharrell Williams video, “Happy.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Sxv-sUYtM)
You look happy! Happier than you did after that intro video we played each week for “The Gospel of the Nobodies” series. And I’m pretty sure I look happier than I did those weeks when we had technical difficulties with that video!
Are you happy? At Simply Worship one of our favorite songs is, “If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands.” Some of those who attend aren’t physically capable of clapping their hands. So Helen has made sure those who can’t get their hands together have “clapping assistants”. It’s kind of like giving them a high five. These people are happy while they are singing that song. Actually, before and after that song, too. We have some of the happiest people I’ve ever met who attend Simply Worship.
To help us get into this subject, I’m going to ask you to think right now about the happiest person you’ve ever met. This is a person who just radiates joy. A person you love to be around. You’re probably smiling right now thinking about this person.
Next, in order to wipe that smile right off your face, I want you to think about someone who is a real “sourpuss”. Someone who is always negative and bitter and complaining. Someone you’d rather not be around. Think about that person. You don’t need to look at that person. You don’t need to poke them in the ribs. Just think about that person.
Now, think about places that make you happy. What’s the happiest place on earth for you? Hint: it’s probably not Disneyland. Where would you most want to be right now if you could be anywhere on earth?
I have a crazy question. Why can’t our church become the happiest place on earth? What if we became well-known in CanyonCounty for the joy people experience when they come here? People show up maybe for the first time, they’re a little nervous about coming to church, they don’t know the Bible, they don’t know anyone here, they have all these problems, but they walk in and they just start feeling better. They’re feeling happy. Kind of like you feel when you hear that Pharrell Williams song. But it’s not artificial. It’s real. And it makes them want to come back for more.
Most people when asked the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word “Christian” would not say “joyful”. They might say “judgmental”. They might say “sourpuss”. They would probably be surprised by the passage we read today. It was written from prison. Paul is in trouble. Serious trouble. Yet, he’s so joyful! You can’t miss it as you read this. He can’t stop talking about joy!
He wrote this letter to the Philippians. I’m going to start reading it at the beginning and you hold up your hand when you first hear the word, “joy”.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus in Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy . . .
That’s the fourth verse. It didn’t take him long.
I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this . . .
That’s another word he uses a lot in this letter. Confident. Here he is locked up in a prison cell, and he’s confident. Amazing.
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the Gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Jesus Christ.
This is a remarkable letter. The very first line holds a surprising truth about happiness. Paul’s letters almost always start the same way: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus.” This time there is a variation: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” Paul and Timothy are not co-authors of this letter. Paul wrote it by himself. He mentions Timothy only because Timothy helped him found the church at Philippi. The readers would recognize that name and be glad to see it. But the variation I want you to notice is that he doesn’t say, “Paul, an apostle” as he almost always does. This time he says, “Paul, a servant“.
Why? Well, Philippi was notoriously class conscious. They were really into pedigree and titles and status. So Paul deliberately chooses to use the one title they would never dream of using for themselves. Servant. Literally, “slave”.
He’s making a point. He’s saying, “Climbing the ladder of success is not what matters to me. What matters to me is being a servant in a great cause.” And in a roundabout way he’s also saying something else: “If you want to be happy, think less of yourself and more of others.”
We might call this the paradox of happiness. I will never be happy as long as the ultimate goal of my life is for me to be happy. There are a lot of people who are miserable because they are trying so hard to be happy. Happiness is not a goal, it’s a byproduct. We get it by not trying to get it. We get it by pursuing something that matters more than my own happiness. We get it by pursuing meaning. It’s the pursuit of meaning, not the pursuit of happiness, that makes us happy.
Whatever we don’t have, we tell ourselves, “If I just had that, then I would be happy!” If I just had that graduation diploma. If I just had someone who would marry me. If I just had children. If I just had children who would move out and pay their own bills. If I just had that perfect job. If I just had more money and a better place to live and a better car to drive and a more affluent lifestyle . . . You can add to the list. If I just had “this”, then I would be happy. And the problem is, you get “this” and you might be a little happier for a little while, but it never lasts. Because what we think will make us happy is seldom what will keep us happy. It’s a meaningful life that is a happy life. If you aim at meaning you will get happy thrown in. If you aim at happy, you will get neither happy nor meaning.
I think Paul had that one figured out. He’s thinking of others more than he’s thinking of himself. He’s serving more than he’s worrying about being served. And therefore he’s about as joyful a prisoner as you will ever meet.
Here are four thoughts on this. First, joy is connected to kindness. We find this most clearly in Philippians when we get to the second chapter. Remember, Paul is writing to a class-conscious, ladder-climbing group of people. Now he is pointing out that it was just the opposite for Jesus. Jesus didn’t climb up the ladder. He climbed down the ladder. He lowered himself. He took on the role of a servant. He modeled for us the way we are meant to live.
It’s funny. We think we’ll be happy when we get what we want. Actually, we are happiest when we give what someone else needs. So one of our “next steps” on your Connection Card this week is asking you to put this one to the test. Do something for someone else. It can be something real small. Do something around the house to help out that is not something you normally would do. Volunteer for some project here at church or in the community. Maybe you have a neighbor who could use a helping hand with something. Bake something and take it to someone. Visit someone in a nursing home. If you want to have some fun with this one, do something for that person I had you think of earlier. That sourpuss. Do something really nice for him or her for no reason at all. They will wonder what you’re up to. It will make them nervous.
Joy is connected to kindness. I’m sure you’ve already figured that out. Check it out again this week, just to make sure.
Second, suffering may subtract from happiness but suffering can add to meaning. Suffering is a big part of life. I’m sure you’ve figured that out, too. Some of you are in the middle of some real pain and suffering right now. All this happy talk might seem flippant, maybe even offensive, because it’s so far removed from where you are in your life.
Can you be happy when you’re suffering? Probably not. Can you be joyful when you’re suffering? Most definitely you can. Because there’s a difference between happiness and joy. We’ve been using these two words interchangeably, like they mean the same thing. They don’t. The word “happy” does not appear once in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The words “joy”, “rejoice” and various forms of these words appear 14 times. Because Paul is suffering. So he’s not very happy. But he is joyful. Does that sound like a contradiction?
It’s all through the Bible. Great joy in times of great suffering. Paul didn’t have the greatest experience when he was in Philippi. He was in prison there, too. After he was beaten to within an inch of his life. And he was singing hymns praising God in his jail cell (Acts 16:25). Why? Had he lost his mind? No, the suffering he was facing was in service of a great cause. There was meaning in his suffering. Hence, he was rejoicing! Maybe he wasn’t very happy, but he was filled with great joy.
It reminds me of that verse in Acts before we meet Paul.
Peter and the other apostles have just been given a savage beating. Then you read the next verse and you can hardly believe what you are reading: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the name [of Jesus]” (5:41).
Some of you have been through a beating. You might be so depressed it was all you could do to climb out of bed and get here this morning. You might be going through something that’s harder than anything you have ever faced in your whole life and you don’t know how you’re going to get through it. I’m glad you’re here. I’m proud of you for making the effort. We are a community of fellow sufferers. We’ve all been there. We’ll all be there again. And we are here for each other. You don’t have to wear your happy mask in this church.
The Psalmist says, “Weeping may tarry through the night, but joy comes with the morning” (30:5). I don’t know when morning is coming for you, but I know it is coming. And with it, joy.
Third, meaning comes from relationships. Paul knew this. He writes his friends in Philippi, “I thank God every time I remember you.” He has all these memories. “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.”
People matter more than anything. “People who need people are the happiest people in the world.” I’m not sure where that is in the Bible but I’m sure it’s there somewhere.
We think money will make us happy. Someone said, “Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but I think it’s only fair to give me some and let me learn that lesson for myself.” There have been studies on this. There is hardly any correlation between income levels and happiness. Very often happiness goes down as income goes up. You can be the richest person on earth but without people who love you and people who you love, you can easily also be the most miserable person on earth.
Another Getty died recently. Andrew Getty. He was 47. He was alone when he died. It was not suicide, there was no evidence of foul play, but it was a strange death. The Getty family has a history of being rich in things and poor in relationships.
Andrew’s grandfather, J. Paul Getty, was for many years the richest man on earth. He had a son, Timothy, who developed a brain tumor as a boy. The treatment was costing a lot of money, way too much J. Paul complained to his wife. This is the richest man on earth complaining. Timothy died when he was12. His dad didn’t attend the funeral. Here’s his diary entry for the day:
Funeral for Darling Timmy. A sad day . . . Sent cable
to Zone that Aminoil can have 50% of Eocene by giving
us 50% of Burgan.
His wife divorced him later that year. She was the fifth woman to divorce him.
The Apostle Paul wasn’t rich in things. He was rich in relationships. “I thank God every time I remember you.” So he was rich. He had made the wisest investment of all. He had invested in people. Meaning comes from our relationships.
Fourth, meaning is found in whose we are, not where we are. Paul send this letter to Philippi. Philippi was not the happiest place on earth. As we’ve noted, there was a lot of dysfunction in the value system that was prevalent in that place. So why didn’t the Christians just pack up and leave? Why didn’t they find an environment better suited to who they were as Christians? Why didn’t they go somewhere else in pursuit of happiness? Because they were already right where God wanted them to be. They could live in Philippi physically while at the same time they could live in Jesus Christ spiritually. The meaning in their lives was found in whose they were, not where they were.
Unhappy people often think if they could just move to another place they would be happy. We live under the illusion that there really is a “happiest place on earth” and if we aren’t happy, it’s because we aren’t there. The happiest place on earth is where you are right now. Wherever you are, God is there. Wherever you are, you belong to God. Wherever you are, you can bloom where you are planted.
I watched a lot of basketball during the March madness of the NCAA tournament. Therefore, I saw one particular television ad many times. It was an ad for Powerade, a sports drink. It was about Derrick Rose, the often injured star for the Chicago Bulls. It begins with a little boy who is supposed to be him riding his bicycle through the slums of South Side Chicago. It ends with him as a professional basketball player entering the UnitedCenter where the Bulls play their games.
There’s a voiceover that runs through the ad. It is the actual voice of Tupac Shakur, the rapper who was killed in a drive-by shooting almost 20 years ago. He’s reciting one of his poems:
You see, you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love its will to reach the sun. Well, we are the roses. This is the concrete. These are my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why. Ask me how.
I’m no poet. I’m no Tupac Shakur. But if I were to add to his poem, it might go something like this:
If you aren’t happy with your life right now, don’t ask why. Don’t ask why the world is conspiring against you to cheat you out of the life you deserve. Don’t ask why there’s so much concrete and so little topsoil where you’ve been planted. Don’t ask why. Ask how. How can I honor God right here and right now? I’ll never be happy if the ultimate goal of my life is to be happy. So how can I make sure the ultimate goal of my life is about God, and not about me?
God, I pray for my brothers and sisters in this room right now. There are some here who feel such joy, such gratitude, such happiness. Wonderful things are happening. Great relationships. Great satisfaction with work. Great health. We never want to take these blessings for granted. Thank you God. Thank you. But there are others here who are really hurting. Loss of loved ones, challenges with health, conflict at home, problems that don’t seem to have solutions. God, remind us that when times are tough, we have only one hope. Jesus. Jesus who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame. Rejoicing that he was counted worthy to suffer for you. Lord God, bring joy into every heart here, into every circumstance, a joy that transcends our circumstances. A joy that even death cannot defeat. In the name of the One who alone can bring us joy, even Jesus, our Risen Lord. Amen.