“How Can I Be Truly Happy?”
Listen to the sermon here.
Thomas Jefferson declared that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. Two centuries later the pursuit of happiness has become an industry. Surveys show that if you ask most people their goal for their children they’ll say “I just want them to be happy.” So numerous books, tapes and articles tell us about how to find happiness. The most popular course at Harvard in 2010 was on happiness. Shawn Anchor’s Ted talk on happiness is one of the 10 most popular.
So what is the key? The great theologian G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The test of all happiness is gratitude.”[i] Albert Schweitzer called gratitude “The secret to life.”
And the cover story on this month’s Oprah magazine is entitled The Power of Gratitude. So there must be something to it. Might it be that the best way to be happy is to be grateful? That would be good news. Let us pray.
Our scriptures this morning tell of two experiences Jesus had on the way to Jerusalem from Galilee near the end of his life. Luke 17 tells a story of ingratitude. Ten lepers desperately wanted to be healed. Jesus cured them but nine never gave thanks. Too often we get what we want and never look back. There is a story of a man who’s late for a wedding and looking for a parking space. He prays frantically, “Oh God, please open up a spot. I’ll go to church every Sunday.” Suddenly a spot opens up right in front of him. And the guy says, “Oh, never mind, God. I found one.” But the leper who did show gratitude to Jesus was the happiest.
Then in Luke 19, we hear of Jesus passing through Jericho, a prosperous town located on a lucrative trade route. As the chief tax collector of a prosperous city, a man named Zacchaeus was rich. He was also unpopular. Kind of like in Les Miserables where the Master of the House sings that “Everybody loves of a landlord.” Yea right. Nobody loved a tax collector in the ancient world either. They took your money, collaborated with the Roman system of economic oppression and were often corrupt.
Zacchaeus was wealthy, but not happy. He was lonely and an outcast in the area where he lived. Zacchaeus was rich in possessions, but poor in friends. Yet Jesus came to save those who were lost. Knowing this, Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus, so he went into the crowd, where he was likely pushed or kicked. He climbed a sycamore tree, which would have been seen as undignified for someone of his station, but appropriate for someone of his stature.
Jesus called to Zacchaeus and said he’d like to stay at his house. The text doesn’t tell us how Jesus knew his name. But then God always seems to know us. Now today inviting yourself and your friends to someone’s house for dinner would seem rude, you have to think of what Mrs. Zacchaeus might have thought, but at this time it was quite an honor. In what ways is God offering to come into your house, your dinner times, your life? How is Jesus engaging you to further the kingdom of God?
Jesus came to Zacchaeus and asked him to share what he had from his home to help Jesus and to further the kingdom of God. Zacchaeus responded to Jesus with gratitude, saying he’d give half his possessions to the poor and if he defrauded anyone he’d give them four times what he took. In doing so he more than fulfills the law. John the Baptist had said in Luke 3 if you have two cloaks and you meet someone without one give him yours. That is giving half of one’s possessions. Jewish laws of compensatory damages said if someone stole something and admitted it they were to return it plus 1/5 more. If they didn’t admit it they had to return it plus twice the value more. If there was violence involved four times the amount. Zacchaeus is offering much more than he was required to and Jesus celebrates this change of heart by declaring that salvation had come to his house.
Unlike with other parts of the Bible, such as the rich young ruler who was required to give up everything to have eternal life or some of the disciples who leave everything when they “drop their nets and follow” him, Jesus lets Zacchaeus keep his job and many of his resources. This signifies that there is no black and white rule on possessions for Jesus. We are each on our own path. Salvation comes to Zacchaeus when he shows he is free from his self-focused life by demonstrating his gratitude through giving part of what he has to help others. His giving what he has in gratitude to Jesus is celebrated by God.
University of California professor Robert Emmons writes that there are two parts to the process of gratitude. First, recognizing the goodness of life. Life is a mixed bag of positive and negative, but we must seek the positive amidst the challenges. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew that life was not always easy. He died in a German concentration camp. Yet Bonhoeffer concluded, “In life we hardly recognize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”
Gratitude can be transformational.[ii] Think of something in your life which at first seemed bad but ended up being a positive. The job you lost that opened a door for self-exploration and a new opportunity. The relationship which ended and you were pretty bummed but someone quickly told you you had dodged a bullet. Emmons argues that when we recognize blessings in it all we re – cognize, we re-think situations. Emmons writes of how horror novelist Stephen King was almost killed in a car accident in 1999. Walking on a road he was hit by a distracted driver who threw him into the air, into a ditch, causing multiple fractures. When asked for his reaction to it all in the hospital, King responded with the word, “gratitude.” He said, “It’s God’s grace that the driver isn’t responsible for my death.”[iii] Stephen King is not our usual poster boy for positive thinking, yet gratitude helped him stay positive in a tough situation.[iv]
Secondly, gratitude takes us outside our self-focus. Gratitude helps us acknowledge that the source of life’s goodness comes partially outside ourselves. One can be angry at oneself, pleased with oneself, proud or guilty of oneself. But one isn’t grateful to oneself.[v] This is important because our natural tendencies might be to think we earned or deserved all that we have. It goes to the immortal scene from the Simpsons where Bart Simpson is asked to pray at the family dinner table and says, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”[vi]
The larger point is that there is much goodness which happens independently or even in spite of ourselves.[vii] It’s important to acknowledge that there are forces out there which helped along the way. The more we focus on ourselves as the source of our success, as Zacchaeus did, the lonelier we’ll feel if things don’t go our way. Selfishness is confining and limiting. It’s no coincidence that Zacchaeus is described as a small man who could not see.
As we go through life, the quality of our relationships have the greatest impact in our happiness long term. Research demonstrates that the more we focus outside ourselves the happier we are over time.
Gratitude also makes good things happen. Cicero said that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others.” Being positive promotes positive outcomes in work and friendship and family life. Studies of college students found that the most cheerful students in college on average made $25,000 more than dour students as adults. [viii] Gratitude can help one reduce stress and recover from illness and can add years to your life. [ix] A recent program on bike helmet safety at Appalachian State University called “The Grateful Head” used gratitude as a principle to radically increase the percentage of students wearing bike helmets at the school, reducing campus injuries.[x]
So how do we cultivate gratitude? We have to practice it. One member of our church cultivated it while walking our labyrinth and at every turn he thought of something he was grateful for. There are twenty-one turns in our labyrinth and it happened that the day he first tried this, his sixty-third birthday, he walked three times through exactly.
I’d like us to do something between now and Thanksgiving. I am challenging myself to do the same thing. Keep a list of your blessings. Before you go to bed, write down a few things you are thankful for each night between now and Thanksgiving. One study of people who wrote down their blessings nightly found that those who do reported getting more sleep each night and spent less time trying to get to sleep than those who did not. This works by the way. Last night I stayed up far too late watching a football game that should never have gone into overtime and I couldn’t sleep afterwards. Then I started to think of what I was grateful for, and it helped me sleep.
Families might find other times or ways to do this. Our family is going to write down our blessings at the dinner table.
The more we recognize that there is grace in the world, the more we are inspired to help others because we look outside ourselves to the sources of blessings. We may seek to be a blessing too. The good news is that we all can achieve the happiness which gratitude offers.
Dr. Kent Brantley was the first Ebola patient on American soil. He volunteered to treat patients in Liberia where he contracted the disease helping people. He was flown back to the U.S. for treatment and he said he prayed every day to God for help and survival. Brantly is now Ebola free. When interviewed recently, Brantly thanked God and said through it all he was grateful. He is showing gratitude now by donating blood to treat others with Ebola. It turns out antibodies in the blood of those who have survived can help new patients and while on a trip Brantley detoured to the nearest clinic in Kansas City and gave blood to have it sent to the nurses in Dallas.
Today is Reformation Sunday in the broader church as we note that nearly 500 years ago Martin Luther tacked his 95 thesis on a church door calling for reforms. Luther called gratitude “the most basic Christian attitude.”[xi]
In liturgy, the word Eucharist means “thanksgiving” and each communion we share a great prayer of thanksgiving. In song, our weekly doxology is a hymn of praise. In scripture, the Apostle Paul begins most of his letters saying thanks to whomever he is writing.[xii] In theology, the most basic part of the Reformation is the idea of grace. A key part of the Reformation is that are to give thanks for the gift of salvation. As Paul puts it, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”[xiii] Karl Barth said that grace and gratitude go together like heaven and earth. The word gratitude comes from the Latin gratia meaning recognizing grace.
Gifts have givers. The Bible tells us in thirty-three places to give thanks to God who is the ultimate source of life, of the blessings of this life, and is our hope for life to come. [xiv]
Supporting our church financially is one way we say thank you for grace and we build the kingdom of God. Supporting our church financially is an important way we practice gratitude. For at its best, the church presents opportunities for us to get out of our self-focus, and to find the happiness which comes from connecting, caring and creating with others.
Yet for the church to be that kind of place for us, we need to invest in it. That is why I hope you will consider joining me in responding to God with gratitude by making a financial pledge to our church for 2015. The church makes such a difference in the well-being of people. We say thank you to God by keeping it strong. Bridget and I are going to give as generously as we can because we believe deeply in what Bradley Hills means to our community and to us. We hope you will too.
Comedian Ben Stein once said, “I cannot tell you anything that will make you rich. I can tell you how to feel rich, which is far better. Be grateful. It’s the only totally reliable get rich quick scheme.[xv]
“Today salvation has come to this house,” said Jesus, because Jesus could see that something had changed in Zacchaeus’ heart which showed he was committed to God. His excellence in giving was evidence of that.
The Psalmist tells us that the world is God’s and all that is in it. We’ve just have been called to manage what is God’s wisely in God’s name. We are God’s stewards. Our gratitude reveals our stewardship. And our stewardship shows our gratitude.
There once was a professor who knew just about everything philosophers of the world had to say about happiness. Still, he pondered the subject incessantly. He was so obsessed that he set out in search of the happiest person in the world. After years of travel, he finally was told of a woman who fit the description he was looking for. He set out to the top of the mountain where she lived.
The woman greeted him with a smile and listened for hours as he described his pursuit of happiness through years of research. At the conclusion of his discourse, he begged the wise woman to let him in on the secret of happiness. “Tell me now,” he demanded, but the wise woman would not be hurried. “I suggest we have some tea,” she said. Unhurriedly, she began the tea ceremony and slowly poured the brew into the professor’s cup. She poured until the cup was overflowing. Finally, the professor asked her to stop. “Just tell me the secret,” he shouted.
“Like this teacup that is overflowing, your mind is so full of your own thoughts that you have no room for anything more. If I tried to tell you the secret of happiness, it would only spill out. Be grateful for what is already in your cup. Let what you have overflow so it blesses others. And in the space that creates, you will find your happiness.” Wise words. Amen.