Carlos Wilton, May 13, 2012, Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B; Mother’s Day; John 15:9-17
“I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
– John 15:11
It’s Mother’s Day, and what you’re all expecting, I’m quite sure, is a sermon about love.
Love is a perfectly fine topic for Mother’s Day, and in any other year, I might be inclined to oblige. But not this year.
This year, I was looking hard at the Gospel lesson from John 15 prescribed for the day. It’s a lesson for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, not Mother’s Day (which is a secular holiday, with no recommended scripture texts). I found in verse 11 of that chapter a topic that’s every bit as important as love, when it comes to good parenting. That topic is joy.
Now, I know that may strike you as odd. But, bear with me. Come along for the journey. Maybe you’ll find what the text is saying to you.
First, I’ve got to define what I mean by joy. One thing I don’t mean is happiness. The two are frequently confused.
Happiness derives mostly from circumstances external to ourselves. Happiness is enjoying your favorite meal. An all-inclusive vacation, where you can kick back on some tropical beach with no worries (“Don’t worry, be happy,” as Bob Marley used to say). Watching the Super Bowl (or the Metropolitan Opera, if that’s your thing) on a brand-new big-screen TV. Winning the lottery. (Well, maybe not winning the lottery – because, for many jackpot winners, their long-term happiness prospects aren’t so good. Lots of winners aren’t prepared at all for that huge change in their lives. Many say, later, that their happiest day was the day they won, and it was all downhill from there!)
Lots of times, mothers – and fathers, too – think Job One for them is making their children happy. You’ll hear them explicitly admitting it: “I took the kids through the drive-thru to get a Kids’ Meal with the latest toy inside. I wanted to make them happy.”
There’s nothing wrong with making another person happy. It’s a kind and caring thing to do. It’s even one of our self-professed national values. You know what it says in the Declaration of Independence: you and I, we’ve got certain”inalienable rights” that come straight from God: “among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Notice it doesn’t say just “happiness,” but the pursuit thereof. There’s a huge difference. Our nation’s founders weren’t trying to say it’s the government’s responsibility to make us, its citizens, happy. No, that happens on our own dime. What the government does promise is to try to remove any impediments that block us from commencing our own individual happiness-quest, however we define that term.
It’s a radically individualist document, the Declaration of Independence. The best and the brightest of the American colonists, who voted that thing through the Continental Congress, came to this land (or maybe their parents or grandparents did) to escape the oppressive structures of the Old Country. They (or their ancestors) crossed the ocean, risking their lives and facing incredible hardship, because they yearned for a level playing-field. Some of them arrived with barely a shilling in their pocket, but they did so cheerfully. They didn’t mind all that much, because they believed in themselves and in their innate ability to make themselves a fortune in this unspoiled, uncultivated wilderness that was America.
If you mothers (and dads) out there believe one of your missions, as a parent, is to coach your kids to slap a number on their chest and back, and take their place in the starting-blocks of the great American happiness-race, then more power to you! You’re not alone, in wanting that for your kids. It just may be one of the most important gifts you could give them: that fire in the belly to go out and claim for themselves the low-hanging fruit that is happiness.
Well, that may be true from the secular, political perspective, but here’s the question: Is it true for Christianity? Is it God’s wish for our lives that we achieve that elusive clear playing-field for the pursuit of happiness?
Let me give you an example from history – a vivid account of the happiness-chase in its most primal form – and you can tell me if it’s the sort of thing God wants for us.
On April 22 in the Year of Our Lord 1889, 50,000 people – a staggering number, in that day and age – lined up alongside the border of the newly-minted Territory of Oklahoma. Most of them had never been to Oklahoma before. They had journeyed from the East to engage in what was one of the biggest land-grabs in human history. No fewer than two million acres were at stake.
Up till that time, the Oklahoma Territory had been “Indian Territory.” It had been the dumping-ground for all sorts of cast-off native peoples from various tribes. They’d been pushed off their forested hunting-grounds back East, because the European settlers wanted to see their plowshares bite into the black earth. They wanted to see if they could grow themselves some happiness.
At high noon, at various places along the border, Cavalry buglers sounded their horns to mark the start of the race. The fastest of the settlers took off on horseback. Others bumped along in a motley assortment of wagons and horse-drawn carriages. Slowest of all were those who were too poor to own any means of transportation other than their own two feet. They didn’t mind, though. Two million acres were an unimaginable treasure-trove of potential happiness. Surely there had to be a farmstead for each of them, somewhere in that vast, new territory!
As they raced deeper into the new lands, those settlers discovered that others had arrived there before them. There were plots of land, even whole towns, already staked out for homesteading. The people who did that, they called Sooners – although land poachers is really what they really were, cheaters who bypassed the rules of the contest, sneaking across the border early. Many of them, in fact, were deputy U.S. Marshals, sent in ahead of time to police the land distribution. As government officers they were forbidden from staking out plots for themselves, but that didn’t stop them. As the land rush began, the deputy Marshals just turned in their badges, took out their mallet and stakes, and commenced to mark out the choicest parcels for themselves.
But, no matter. It was two million acres, after all. The frantic homesteaders rushed onward, deeper into what used to be Indian Territory.
Most of them did manage to lay claim to a plot of land, eventually. It all happened in the blink of an eye, historically speaking. One contemporary reporter, writing for Harper’s Weekly, put it this way:
“Unlike Rome, the city of Guthrie was built in a day. To be strictly accurate in the matter, it might be said that it was built in an afternoon. At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government.”
It was instant community – and all in pursuit of that elusive prize, happiness.
Mothers out there, and fathers, too: even though it’s written into our national DNA to get out there and grab as much happiness for ourselves as we can, I’ve got a message for you. It just may set your minds at ease about a few points. The message is this: It is not your responsibility to make your children happy.
It may be Chuck E. Cheese’s job to do that. It may be the job of the electronic game designer to do that. It may be the job of everyone involved with manufacturing that iPod whose tiny white headphone cables dangle from the ears of your preoccupied progeny. But, it’s not your job. It’s really not.
You may well wish for your kids that they will one day build for themselves lives brimming over with happiness – and that’s a fine thing to wish for – but it’s not your responsibility to make it happen: at least, not from the Christian perspective.
What I think is a far more practical – not to mention faithful – goal is to point your sons or daughters in the direction of joy.
As I said earlier, joy and happiness are not the same thing. C.S. Lewis traces the outlines of the difference between them – at least the difference between joy and pleasure, which is pretty much the same as happiness – as he writes: “Joy is never within our power, but pleasure often is.”
Pleasure, or happiness, is the meal at the fancy restaurant, the front-row seat at a Springsteen concert, the last pull of the slot-machine handle that produces a clattering cascade of casino tokens. Does our Lord Jesus Christ care if we accumulate the wealth to enjoy such pastimes whenever we want?
Not much. At least that’s what he says to a certain rich, young man who comes up to him one day and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus seems, at first, to want to brush the man away like an annoying mosquito. It matters little to him that the young man has diligently observed God’s law from his youth. So, there’s one other thing Jesus tells him to do: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The story ends with these words, that I think are among the saddest in all of scripture: “When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” [Matthew 19:16-30].
Another way of looking at it is to say the young man was so wrapped up in his quest for happiness, that he had no time to seek the joy that was all around him – spiritual joy the prophet Isaiah says is “without money and without price” [Isaiah 55:1].
So, how do we, as parents, or grandparents – or even the concerned neighbor next door – lead young people to discover that elusive gift of joy?
We do it, I think, by learning to share the deepest thing that is within us, that takes up residence in that most private of places, the human heart. We do it by sharing our faith.
I’m not talking, here, about teaching a whole lot of intellectual concepts belonging to theology, that academic discipline they used to call “the queen of the sciences.” I’m talking about letting that young person we care about into that deeply personal place where we encounter the presence of the living God.
If you have children older than toddlers, do they know where it is you’re inclined to turn, most reliably, to find God? Have they heard you tell what a difference it makes for you to sit down in a church sanctuary and await the first notes of the organ? Or, if seeking God in the great outdoors is more your style, have they heard how your heart leaps when that glowing orange disk of the sun suddenly bursts its way upward from out of the ocean waves? Did you marvel at the miracle they themselves are, the day you first held their infant form in your hands for the first time? If so, did you ever tell them about how awestruck you were, and what that experience taught you about the Creator? And have you shared with them what it is you do most consistently, when you pray?
One of the time-honored definitions of evangelism is that it’s one beggar telling another beggar where to find food. Have you ever turned to those special young people in your life and showed them where to find not a mere crust of bread, but a rich banqueting-table, the veritable “groaning board” of God’s grace?
One of the sad and baffling experiences I have, as a minister, is when I’m asked to do the funeral of someone I don’t know so well, and seek out the son or daughter making the arrangements, and ask them to tell me something about their mother’s spiritual life, so I may mention it in the service. Can you tell me, I ask, what scripture passages were her personal favorites, what hymn-tune you could hear her humming as she washed the dishes, or about the time she sat you down and told you what she really believes, and why?
It’s an unaccountable mystery to me why, in so many cases, the son or daughter says: “I really have no idea. I know she went to church. She even took me to Sunday School. But, she never said a word about such things. I know she was a believer, but she was a very private person. She never let on to me where she felt God’s presence, or how.”
What a missed opportunity!
We come now, very late in the sermon – far later than usual – to our scripture text. It won’t take long to apply it, though, because its message is self-evident. It forms a sort of capstone to all we’ve been talking about.
Jesus says to his disciples in John 15:11, “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
“That my joy may be in you.” That it may dwell in your heart as well as mine, that it may take up residence there and grow as you grow, so that one day – maybe even on the day of your dying – it may be said to be “complete.”
To know such joy is quite unrelated to the amount of happiness we may experience in this life. Some of the most deeply joyful people I’ve known are people whose lives have been in some ways an absolute horror. Their joy arises not from their personal circumstances, but from their relationship with Jesus Christ, who got them through those hard and painful days.
As one anonymous writer has put it: “Joy is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of God.”
Joy is not something we summon up from within ourselves. Rather, it is a wonder that comes to us unbidden, a gift from God. Yet, though we can’t take credit for it ourselves, over the course of a lifetime we may come to know the places where it may most reliably be found.
“One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Not a bread-crust, but a banquet – and the host at the banquet is Jesus Christ. The question is, for those of us who have sons or daughters, or other younger people with whom we are close: Do we love them enough to tell them?
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
William Willard Howard, “The Rush to Oklahoma,” Harper’s Weekly 33 (May 18, 1889): 391-94. http://www.library.cornell.edu/Reps/DOCS/landrush.htm