Happiness for a Lifetime

Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32, September 28, 2014

If you want happiness for an hour—take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day—go fishing.

If you want happiness for a month—get married.

If you want happiness for a year—inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime—help others. Chinese Proverb

I sat down and read Paul’s letter to the Philippians from start to finish Wednesday morning. It took me less than 10 minutes. And I am really glad I did. A reading from this letter is today’s Epistle Lesson and another reading will be used in worship and Sunday school on October 12, when graduates of Dance Camp will dance to Farrell Williams’s song “Happy” in worship.

When I finished reading Philippians, I remembered the Chinese Proverb that I started my remarks with this morning. I thought, “If you want to start your day in a happy frame of mind, read Philippians.” Joy practically spills off the page in this letter. Paul has great affection for the friends in Christ he made in Philippi. They supported him financially when he was in great need. Paul and the Philippians have been through a lot together and their struggles have made them a stronger community. The bonds of love that are obvious throughout this letter are like muscles that are strong because they have been used repeatedly.

Many people turn to Philippians when they need encouragement or perspective. It is a rich, even a dense letter. Like a heavy dessert, I recommend reading it slowly and savoring its words. It is also humbling. We talked about this passage at our staff meeting last week. It’s powerful and even “joy-filling” to realize that when Christ is in your life, you are a different person and in the church you are surrounded by other people who are becoming a new kind of community. And the marks of that community are a desire to look out for the good of the others in the community, not to look out for Number 1. And Paul holds up as an example of the foundation of this kind of community Christ himself.

I hope you were following the words on the screen as John read them. In explaining the selfless community that Paul urges the Philippians to strive for, he turns to either song lyrics, or a well-known poem to make his point. The words change from prose to poetry and they follow an interesting path. Christ, God’s own Son, did not claim the status that he could have, but instead became a model of humility for everyone. He was obedient all the way to his death on the Cross. From a lofty beginning, Christ plunged to the deepest despair, even being abandoned by God. But then, the essential plot twist, the fact that makes Christians different from other believers, Christ rose. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re here on Sunday.

Just after Paul quotes this poem he says something that I believe has been completely misunderstood by all kinds of people. Paul praises the Philippians for being loyal to his instruction even when he has not been with them. That’s the sign of a good worker or employee: he’s not only diligent when the boss is watching, but when the boss cannot possibly observe him, he goes on to say, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That’s a phrase you’ve all heard before. And I know that it makes at least some of you very uncomfortable, because it sure sounds like if we work hard enough we can earn our own ticket to Heaven. That sentence, read alone, really sounds like “Everyman for himself.” Which is the polar opposite of everything Paul praises in the Philippian church. What he means is more along the lines of, “Since I can’t be there, hovering over your shoulders every minute to guide you in the way of Christ, find your own way to be Christ’s body in the world, together.”

In Confirmation last week I pointed out that Presbyterians are all about community. We know that we are better together, that we are stronger and wiser when people of all different opinions and mind sets and perspectives can come together. That means it can take us a long time to make decisions. When we are at our best we wait for voices that may take a while to emerge and be heard. And when we’re at our best we are looking out for other people, and caring without keeping score or expecting to be paid back. That’s why I like the last line of that Chinese proverb, “If you want happiness for a lifetime—help others.” There is something uniquely satisfying about helping someone who cannot possibly pay you back. Really, sometimes when I’m having a bad day, I remember that keeping myself under a rain cloud and walking around in a pity-party just gets worse. Breaking out, being kind to someone who might not even know about it, makes me feel better.

Paul’s lesson is about the joy of Christians being together, working together and praising Christ together. And this is a stark contrast to the lesson from the gospel of Matthew this morning. There really are two short, but distinct readings in Matthew. In the first one, the powerful religious leaders confront Jesus in the temple and ask for his credentials. They use the word “authority,” which really means “Who said you could do these things?” Now they are not specific about the “things” Jesus has been doing. This conversation happens just after the day we call Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode up the temple mount on a donkey and crowds of people turned out in a spontaneous street demonstration because they saw their king coming. The day before this conversation, Jesus had turned over the tables in the temple where people were making a good profit selling animals that were good enough to be sacrificed. They were changing Roman money into Jewish money so that people could pay their temple taxes. It was a racket and Jesus had gone into the heart of the religious and cultural center of Jerusalem and had a tantrum or started a riot or made a big mess. And while he was at it, he cured the blind and the lame [21:14] This was all upsetting to the power structure for a lot of really good reasons. “Jesus,” they ask, “who told you to turn the money changers out of the temple, and heal the lame and restore sight to the blind?”

He poses a dilemma to the leaders that they cannot resolve without enraging the whole community. [Remember, just the day before the people had been singing “hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord."]  Jesus is popular and respected and subversive. So when Jesus asks the religious elite whether John’s baptism of repentance and renewal, a movement that had taken crowds from Jerusalem out to the Jordan River, a distance of about 20 miles, was of human or divine origin, they are in a difficult position. If they say John’s baptism was merely human, the crowd will be furious. The crowd following Jesus, that is, the one’s identifying him as the Son of David, will be furious. If they say John’s baptism was divine, then they are guilty for not having been baptized themselves. They did not undergo John’s baptism. They acted as though they did not need it. They lived, and ruled, as though they were the true followers of the faith. They were the elite, the know-it-alls, the in-crowd, as people said around the lunch table Tuesday. John the Baptizer, to the chief priests and elders, was a crackpot, a crazy man who lived out in the country and who lived on bugs and wild honey. To others he led a movement that helped them make a new beginning. And to us, he prepared the way for Christ.

This second bit of the Gospel reading reminds me of a conversation I had with my first confirmation class. I asked the students, “What is Holy Week?” and after a brief silence, one of them said, “A…week…that is holy.” I went to the board and wrote the word “tautology.” A tautology is a term in logic that is a restatement. I told them they could go far in school if they mastered repeated what they had just been told. This parable Jesus gives is like that: Two sons are sent to the vineyard. One says he will not go, but does. The other says he will go but does not. Which son did the will of the father? The one who did the will of the father. The one who did the will of the father. What he did determined his status. To put it in modern terms, the first son walked the walk. The words each son spoke are meaningless in this passage, what they did is everything.

And at this point, Jesus turns back to the elders and chief priests. He points out that the lowly, disdained people, the most conspicuous sinners in Jerusalem, were the ones who went to the Jordan and got baptized as a sign of their desire to turn from their sins and make a new start. They were the ones who recognized their own sin and made the trip to the Jordan and made a new beginning. The chief priests and scribes couldn’t imagine that they ever needed to make a change like that. God was lucky to have them.

They were scandalized and angry. They didn’t get it, I don’t think they could get that Jesus really was the Son of God. They had too much to lose, too much power, status, clout…too much that they were unwilling to let go of, to embrace Jesus. And it will get worse for them. In the weeks ahead we’ll hear more stories about how Jesus upset and overturned the thinking and status of those with religious authority. They had a lot to lose and they were used to being powerful and safe. It’s easy to condemn the leaders of the Jewish faith in Jesus’ time. In fact, it’s too easy, in my opinion.

What’s hard, and what’s rewarding and satisfying is living together with other followers of Christ. What’s hard is really putting the interests of others before oneself. Of putting the common good against what we know is easy, safe and comfortable. It’s difficult to really live the humility for which Paul praises the Philippians. But it gets easier. Really. As we stretch in faith, as we learn to trust one another and face difficulties together, we become stronger and more faithful. I saw that happen at this month’s Session meeting. Confronting difficult and unpleasant situations forced us to work together and call on gifts and reserves of strength and wisdom we didn’t know we had. Or more likely, we had to work together and in that togetherness we emerged stronger and more confident because we knew and trusted that God is with us. Always. And especially when we most need God to be with us. And that is how to be happy and healthy and faithful for a lifetime. Amen.