Sermon: Sunday 4 August 2013
The Revd Canon Paul Hackwood, Canon Residentiary
A man is walking down the beach and comes across an old bottle. He picks it up, pulls out the cork and out pops a genie. The genie says, ‘Thank you for freeing me from the bottle. In return I will grant you three wishes.’ The man says, ‘Great! I always dreamed of this and I know exactly what I want. First, I want one billion pounds in a Swiss bank account.’ Pow! There is a flash of light and a piece of paper with account numbers appears in his hand. He continues, ‘Next, I want a brand new red Ferrari right here.’ Pow! There is a flash of light and a bright red brand-new Ferrari appears right next to him. He continues, ‘Finally, I want to be irresistible to women.’ Pow! There is a flash of light and he turns into a box of chocolates.
The readings today are about how we order and shape our priorities, about how we work out what is really important and what it is that will make us fundamentally and deeply happy and bring us the contentment that most of us long for. So this morning I am going to give you the secret of happiness.
Now let me just begin by making clear what will not bring happiness, and again this is set out clearly in our readings this morning. The idea that if we have more things, more possessions then we will be more happy – we live in a world where people always want more, and it is never enough. It’s a view that is deeply engrained in us through marketing and the media is the dominant view of how most people see the world. It is far and away the most generally accepted route to happiness in our society at present – but it’s wrong. Jesus makes this clear in our gospel reading: ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,’ and that’s the whole point of the parable he tells about storing up riches on earth.
There are few things that we need to recognize about our human personalities if we are to recognize the power that this view of the world has over us.
The reality is that we human beings are never satisfied – it seems to be a part of our nature. We think that if we have just a little more we will be satisfied, but then we get there, we’re not. Indeed the more we have, the more we want. And the more we have the less effective it is at bringing us joy. Now this is not to say that some degree of wealth is not important but when we get past having our basic human needs met then money’s capacity to make us happy radically diminishes.
Why doesn’t money bring us happiness? Well for three main reasons:
First, people overestimate how much pleasure things will bring them; the initial thrill soon disappears and then we want more to satisfy ourselves. I imagine even driving a Ferrari can get boring.
Second, making money can often be stressful. A larger house further away from work can bring some benefits but it can also lead to a longer trip to work less time with the family and so on.
Third, we human beings naturally compare ourselves with others, usually our friends, which can lead to just a bit of jealousy and a desire to compete.
But the real problem with this greed for material possessions is that it focuses us in the wrong place. We thirst for the wrong thing. In theological terms money becomes an idol that replaces what does have the real capacity to bring us happiness.
Now if money and material possessions do not and cannot bring us happiness then what can? Well what the Christian tradition says is something very different to the idea that we can make ourselves happy with money and possessions. It is the idea that we are on a journey in our lives and that journey is in some way or other a journey towards God. So our freedom is not something that we use for the purposes of making ourselves rich but rather something that we use to make choices for God and for those around us.
This is the idea that if we really trust God then we shall come to believe that he loves us and will do the best for us. So we believe that in some way what we need or do not need is wrapped up in God’s purposes, that we do not in fact live in a world of scarcity where we have to compete with each other for absolutely everything but rather we live in a world of generosity where what we need has already been provided. Now if we can find a way of grounding this belief in ourselves – and it’s a very difficult thing for us to do because we have been repeatedly told that it’s not the case – it is the route to contentment because we come to see things differently and our perspective on the world changes.
Billy Graham used to tell a story about this which illustrates the point well:
One day a father and his rich family took his son to a trip to the country with the firm purpose to show him how poor people can be. They spent a day and a night at the farm of a very poor family. When they got back from their trip the father asked his son, ‘How was the trip?’ ‘Very good Dad!’ ‘Did you see how poor people can be?’ the father asked. ‘Yeah!’ ‘And what did you learn?’ The son answered, ‘I saw that we have a dog at home, and they have four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of the garden, they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lamps in the garden, they have the stars. Our patio reaches to the front yard, they have a whole horizon.’
When the little boy was finishing, his father was speechless. His son added, ‘Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are!’
Our happiness comes really from the way we frame our world and how we order our priorities.
If our lives are authentically a journey towards God then this alternative frame through which we look at the world offers us some protections from the temptations and the addictions of wealth. Make no mistake, Wealth is a dangerous thing and money needs to have its right place in our lives.
So what can we practically do to get ourselves on the journey that leads to God and happiness?
Well three things:
First, the quality of our relationships. If we want to be happy getting our relationship with other people right is absolutely key – which is fairly fundamentally about the commitments we make and how hard we are prepared to work to spend quality time with others. It is about putting the work into those around us so that they blossom.
Second, the quality of our character. How far we are prepared to work at being a person who does the right thing, cultivating courage, humility, a concern for others and a fundamental honesty, prepared to speak the truth and stand up for those who are vulnerable. Being prepared to look at those parts of ourselves that need to change.
Then third and most importantly the degree to which we are prepared to see ourselves on a journey that leads to God. St Augustine, who knew a lot about what it is to be a tested human being, saw life as a journey towards God. For him this was the purpose of our lives. Anything that distracted us from that journey was for Augustine eternally dangerous because it made us make the wrong choices. The secret of happiness is in that reading from Colosssians.
‘Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.’
Do not let your possessions rob you of life. Set out on that journey with Christ now with the life, love, joy, peace, hope, security, acceptance, and forgiveness that this and this alone brings. It is truly the way to contentment and happiness.
© The Revd Canon Paul Hackwood