One Friday three couples decided to treat themselves to a steak dinner. When they arrived at the steak house, they were assigned a number, sent to a crowded, noisy room and told to wait there until their number was called. As they waited, a cocktail waitress came by and said, “Welcome to happy hour, what would you like to drink?” The three couples graciously declined anything from the bar. “Just waiting for a table,” they said. Fifteen minutes later, the waitress came by again with the same invitation. Again, the couples informed her they were waiting for a table. Five minutes later she returned. One of the men mentioned to his wife that their table was probably being delayed in hopes that they would order something from the bar first. So when the waitress came by with her, “Welcome to happy hour” speech again, the man’s wife said to her: “Honey, we are all Baptists and this is as happy as we’re going to get, so tell them to get us a table!”
On this Fourth of July weekend, we pause, as we do every year, to consider our independence and freedom as a people and a nation. In the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, we find these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What meaning do these words have for us today? How do they apply to us as individuals within these United States, and as citizens of yet another commonwealth, whose dimensions know no bounds? In the short space of a year, life has changed for many of us; we have had more of an opportunity to ponder our liberties and our freedom, and happiness is still as elusive as ever. I would, therefore, like to reflect with you briefly this morning upon life, upon liberty, and the upon the pursuit of happiness.
How do you and I view life? How do we view life in this great republic of ours in the year 2019? I came across an article the other day which sheds some light on this subject. The article claimed that only in America can a pizza get to your house faster than an ambulance; only in America do drugstores make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions, while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front; only in America do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries and a DIET coke; only in America do we leave cars worth thousands of dollars in the driveway and put our junk in the garage; only in America do we use answering machines to screen calls and have call-waiting so we won’t miss a call from someone we didn’t want to talk to in the first place; only in America do we buy hot dogs in packages of ten and buns in packages of eight. Which just goes to prove that not everything about life is as logical as we think it should be.
Several years ago in Lafayette, Tennessee, James Kruger was watching the presidential debates on TV. Suddenly a warning appeared on his TV screen: a tornado was headed toward Lafayette. As soon as Kruger read those words, the lights went out. He put on sweat pants, grabbed a flashlight, “and then I heard this noise,” Kruger said. He headed for a door, “and all of a sudden I heard the glass breaking and it was sucking,” he said. “When I tried to shut the door, it seemed as if the door were lifting up. So I just dove and I lay flat on the floor.” Lying there, time stood still as everything in the house flew over him, scraping and banging his back. Then the chaos stopped. “I was lying in the dirt. There was no floor. No nothing.” The house was gone. But Kruger says he knows why he survived. “I think God was holding my leg, teaching me that I had not been doing everything he wanted me to do.” There is an old saying attributed to Samuel Johnson that declares, “Nothing concentrates the mind quite like a hanging at dawn.” In other words, when faced with the very real possibility of our death, our brains zoom in to a finely tuned focus on what is most important in life, what our lives have meant, whom we truly love, and what we ultimately believe in.
Perhaps we could all take a lesson or two from an 85-year-old Kentucky woman named Nadine Stair. On being asked what she would do if she had her life to live over again she replied: “I would make more mistakes next time. I would relax. I would limber up. I would take fewer things seriously. I would take more chances. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones. You see, I am one of those people who lives sensibly and sanely hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I would have more of them. In fact, I would try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I have been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had to do it again, I would travel lighter than I have in the past.”
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann argues that the greatest mystery of human existence is not the reality of evil, or injustice, or hatred. Rather, the greatest mystery in the universe is human freedom -- the freedom that God has chosen to give you and me that enables us to order our lives in any way we see fit. We are free to become a Mother Teresa or an Adolph Hitler. We are free to give our lives to God, or free to crucify Jesus the Christ.
John Winthrop, who died in Boston in 1649, was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To those who shared that bold and daring experiment with him, he was fond of quoting scripture. He often chose the words of Moses in the 30th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy: “I offer you the choice of life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life and then you and your descendants will live; love the Lord your God, obey him, and hold fast to him: that is life for you and length of days in the land which the Lord God swore to give to your forefathers.” “Let us choose life.” It is not automatic. We need to choose life. The liberty we refer to this morning is really the freedom of self-determination, the freedom of choice, or free-will, that God gave to us at the moment of creation.
An example of how we exercise that freedom of choice can be seen in a letter that was once sent to columnist Ann Landers. The writer said: “Yes, my parents were abusive, both verbally and physically. They never bothered to control their tempers, and they took out their frustrations on each other and on us children.” She went on to say: “Forgiveness is a great healer. I no longer hold feelings of anger over what happened to me as a child. There is a great deal of freedom in forgiving. I can achieve any goal I wish without the shackles of blame. I have no score to settle with my parents. I don’t keep a tally of wrongs done to me by them. I awake every morning free and unchained.” The writer concluded: “Life is so very, very short. Why spend time on negative thoughts? They only hurt the person who feels them. If you must have revenge, then forgive. That is the best revenge of all.” To forgive is something we are able to do, because we have that God-given liberty, that freedom of choice.
When our nation was founded, Thomas Jefferson suggested that the great seal of the United States have on it a picture of Moses crossing the Red Sea. He suggested the picture of Moses and the Israelites saying good-by to the past, and in faith, in courage, and in hope setting out for a new life, to new shores. And why did he want this? Because this was exactly the freedom of choice to which he believed we were called, and still are today. Ever since its first bestowal upon that primordial couple in the garden, we have struggled to learn the secret of that freedom, that liberty – both dreading its loss, and in rare moments of trust offering it back again to God in praise and thanksgiving.
Finally, we come to the pursuit of happiness. The happiness which we pursue is not happiness for the sake of itself–for that would be pure hedonism---but rather happiness with a purpose. And that purpose is the living of life as God intended it to be, namely, in service to one another out of love. Our happiness, as a Christian community, as a Christian people, is rooted in the fact that we are children and followers of the Lord God. As the Psalmist says, “Happy is the person whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord God.”
Dr. Barbara L. Frederickson has spent fifteen years studying happiness. She has reached the conclusion that happiness comes from finding positive meaning in the things that happen to us. You get a flat tire on the way to work. Bad experience. You have a great conversation with the mechanic who comes to fix your flat. Good experience. Your presentation at work didn’t impress your colleagues as much as you had hoped it would. Bad experience. You learn valuable lessons from your failure that you can use in making your next presentation. Good experience. People who find positive meaning, even in bad experiences, are happier and more resilient than are people who only focus on their bad experiences.
Take Mike Riley, for example. Mike dearly loved his new silver turbo-charged Porsche. When someone stole his sports car, he was dismayed. By the time police tracked it down, the vehicle had been stripped and gutted. Mike felt terrible, but on the way to the junkyard he got an idea. Instead of just dumping his beloved wreck there, he had them crush the vehicle into a two-by-three-foot cube. It now serves as a coffee table in his living room, and he serves drinks from his custom hubcaps. As Steven Mosley put it: “Mike’s root beer may taste a bit greasy, but he teaches us something important about troubles: namely, turn them into something else! Turn the car wreck into a coffee table.”
There are, however, a lot of negative people in the world. I much prefer the attitude of a man Tony Campolo tells about who got on an elevator in the World Trade Center before its destruction. This man could have been like all the other businessmen on that elevator--serious, tense, gloomy-- but he chose not to be like them. As he got on the elevator, he turned and faced the people behind him instead of facing the elevator doors. Then he smiled at all assembled and said, “We are going to be traveling together for quite a while, you know.” And then he added, “What do you say we all sing?” And would you believe it, they did? All those serious business people sang a raucous round of “You Are My Sunshine.” By the time they reached their floor, they were all laughing and relaxed. We need more people like that in the world, to help us express our happiness and joy in living.
And so, as we reflect upon the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for which our ancestors pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, let us remember that life does not always make sense and is not always as predictable as you and I would like it to be. We need, therefore, to treasure each day with all that it brings, to travel more simply than we have in the past, and to focus more fully on the persons and things that matter most to us. Let us also remember that one of the greatest gifts and mysteries of life is the free-will or freedom of choice that God has given us from the day we were born. We need to be responsible in the exercise of that liberty, because life is so very short, and we have so little time in which to choose to forgive others and to trust God. And finally, because we are children of God he bids us to find positive meaning even in bad experiences, so that we can lead our lives as men and women of whom it can be said: “Happy are they whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord God.”
Sermon by Reverend Philip Stowell