Resolved: Seeking True Success

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
January 29, 2017

1 John 3: 13-19 (CEB)
Don’t be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14We know that we have transferred from death to life, because we love the brothers and sisters. The person who does not love remains in death. 15Everyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. 16This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17But if a person has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and that person doesn’t care—how can the love of God remain in him?

18Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth. 19 This is how we will know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts in God’s presence.

I honestly don’t know if we humans are any more misguided than when it comes to the measure of true success. I mean, this is exactly why we were witnessing all these silly arguments last weekend about the size of the crowd at the presidential inauguration. We think success is measured in numbers, or titles, or salaries. But in a world where wars still rage, genocide is still happening, and people are hungry, that’s just the kind of thing that really doesn’t matter. And yet, we have said it matters. We have placed value on this type of thing. I know this personally. Let me tell you a story.

I am a United Methodist minister, and this time of year is, let’s say, “special” for us clergy. You see, this when our Cabinet (the Bishop and District Superintendents) start talking about moving clergy. So, inevitably, this time of year, we clergy start trying to make predictions about who’s moving where, and then we attach to that our own judgment of whether that is a “good move” or a “bad move.” These judgments are typically couched in our personal feelings about the person, or the church, or whether we feel like we would be a “better” fit. And let me just tell you, we get really, really caught up in this kind of stuff. We measure ourselves against one another and our respective appointments, and we do it all the time. And any United Methodist clergyperson who tells you they don’t get caught up in this stuff is probably not be totally honest. Upon reflection, it’s terribly unhealthy.

We get an idea in our heads of the size church we should be serving, or the salary we should be earning, or whatever, and we judge ourselves better than so-and-so who’s current church is clearly not doing well (by our determination). Then, when the appointments start coming out, we get really angry when we don’t get the bigger church we thought we deserved, or the higher salary we were hoping for, or so-and-so (who’s so terrible) got this appointment we knew was really meant for us. To a detrimental degree, we United Methodist clergy measure our success, and even our personal worth by our appointments. I don’t know if any of you have experienced this kind of thing in other careers, but I’m sure it’s extends far beyond the reach of the United Methodist itinerant system.

This morning, we are finishing our exploration of what constitutes a truly good life. We’ve talked about the fact that the good life doesn’t come through accumulating greater possessions, but through gratitude for the blessings we do have and pursuing our higher purpose. We’ve talked about the importance not of having great wealth, but of using money well to foster the good life. And today, we are talking about the measure of success that points to a truly good life.
Like us United Methodist clergy, most of us equate success with the good life. A quick Google search of the word success generates over 1.3 billion websites on the topic. We believe deeply, even personally, that achieving success means achieving happiness, but that is simply not the case. We have numerous examples in our modern world of people who were wildly successful, but who were also terribly unhappy: think about Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Howard Hughes, and Marilyn Monroe. Now, I realize that those four folks all come out of the entertainment industry, but no matter your field, success and the good life are not the same thing.

So if the sort of success that makes life better isn’t measured by numbers, or salaries, or titles, what exactly is the sort of success we should be striving after? Listen again to John’s words from his first letter: “We know that we have transferred from death to life, because we love the brothers and sisters.” If what we want is the good life, the key to success is investing in loving relationships with our brothers and sisters, neighbors, and even our enemies. Do you remember Christ’s act on the night before he was crucified. He wrapped a towel around his waist, then he knelt down and washed the feet of every one of his disciples, including Judas. After washing their feet, Jesus said, “I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.” Then a little later that night, he said this, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” The greatest commandment Christ gave was that we would love God and love one another. Love is built in relationships, relationships where we offer ourselves in service to one another. When we can do this, we will be living successfully, and we will experience greater happiness.

Each year, the United Nations releases the “World Happiness Report,” which is based on research conducted by Gallup. The report lists the 50 happiest countries as measured by a number of indicators such as GDP, social support, life expectancy, and so on. We call the United States the greatest nation on earth, but when it comes to happiness, we don’t do so well—in 2013, of the top 50 happiest countries, we were ranked number 33. In 2015, we fell to number 38. Why would this be when we have a relatively good GDP, a high level of social support, and one of the best life expectancies in the world? In the 2015 report, the U.N. went on to say that the studies reveal that the greatest indicator of true happiness is relatedness, where relatedness is purpose, meaningful relationships, and contributions to the greater good of the community. In other words, social relationships make people happy. Seeking for the common good, loving and serving others, is actually a driver of happiness in our lives. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, the reading we heard earlier in the service: “Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity….” Working for the good of all—these are the endeavors that bring true success.

But there’s one more measure of true success, and it also connects back to that greatest commandment. We are to love God. And for us, that means putting our whole faith in God. The good life is found when we trust in God. The Greek work that we translate as “life” is zoe, and it’s meaning is more than just life, it refers instead to fullness, abundance. So just about every time your run across the word “life” in your Gospels, this is the sort of life that is being defined. Jesus declares that you “will have life and have it abundantly.” He instructs that he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” This is the kind of life that is good even when our lives our bad. Does that make sense? God desires the good life for us. God wants us to experience wholeness, restoration, abundance. And that life is possible in God no matter what is happening around us. But we have to connect with the good life that God offers, and that requires faith, complete devotion, unconditional love.

I’ve seen us put our trust in a whole lot of things besides God—possessions, wealth, numbers, titles, policies. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen us love and serve ourselves way more than we love and serve others. I’ve done it myself. I’ve seen us strive after a success that only left us feeling empty, disappointed, and angry. I’ve done it myself. And I look around, and everywhere I see the carnage of our misguided attempts to achieve “success” in life. And I know that we will continue to make the same mistakes many times over. We are broken. We are unhappy. We feel as if we have accomplished nothing and our lives are useless. I have felt this myself. But there is a better way. We can experience the good life. We can achieve the greatest success, and it comes through love; complete love of God, and the self-giving love of one another. Christ gave us the greatest example when he sacrificed his own life for each of us, and he calls us to the same. Our success lies in nothing less.

We can count numbers, throw our titles around, and compare salaries all we want. But ultimately, those things will just leave us disappointed. True success comes when we love the people that are in our path, when we make the world better by investing in others, and when we trust God with our unfailing love. “Let us not grow weary of doing good….” For then, we will experience the good life.

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