Scrapbooks

Bill Cockrill
(Deuteronomy 8: 7-18; Matthew 11: 16-19)

“You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you…”

As we consider this text this morning, I want us to begin by thinking of what it takes to make people happy.  What makes us happy?

Now understand, we are not talking about happiness that is fleeting joy.  We are not talking about Davidson defeating Carolina in baseball – twice in one week – to win the regional championship! Not that kind of momentary sense of positive excitement; but rather something more undergirding and lasting.

Perhaps contentment is the better word, but for the moment we’ll use “happiness.” What is the source of true happiness?

You know, depending on whom one asks, one will get various answers to this question.  Someone once said, no one chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness. (English writer Mary Wolstonecraft)

According to the dominant economic model of capitalism, there is an assumption that prosperity somehow leads to happiness.  Usually prosperity is shorthand for financial well-being. Many people think that money makes for happiness.  Business and political scandals are constantly reminding us – if we need reminding – that some people will do most anything to get more money.

John D. Rockefeller, who at one time had more money than anyone in the world, was once asked about money and happiness.  “How much money is enough to make you happy?” someone asked him.

Rockefeller thought for a moment and answered, “Just a little more!”

I suppose that we can take that as expert testimony, can’t we!  And we must conclude that, if one always needs just a little more of it, money does not necessarily make one happy!

Or, maybe it is physical health.  Certainly as we get older, we come to appreciate good health.  Perhaps good health is a component of happiness.

And yet, it must be said that, as desirable as it may be, not even good health is the true source of happiness.  In fact, haven’t we all known people who have actually “enjoyed poor health!”  And, conversely, haven’t we also known people who were in desperate straits physically; and yet they were able to exude joy and happiness?

Then, of course, we also must note that there are those folks who just refuse to be happy, you know, people who always seem to be looking for something to justify their being “unhappy”.  There are “perpetual victims”, always blaming others for their unhappiness.

Surely then, we might say, in the first instance, that, to some extent, happiness is a choice.  Somewhere on my bookshelf there is a book by that title!  Happiness is a choice. It is a function of one’s worldview.  It’s the glass that is half full or half empty.

When I accepted the call to my first church, the widow of a former pastor of mine gave me a piece of advice.  I am sure you have heard this before: She said one should not try to make everyone happy.  “That’s not your job,” she said.  “If you try to make everyone happy, no one will be happy.”

I sometimes think that over the years, I was far too successful in following that advice! But you know, there is great wisdom in that, if for no other reason than that, some people just refuse to be happy.

We see this in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus is talking about people of his time.  Some of them just would not accept any message from God, whether in the austerity of John the Baptist or in the liberal forgiveness of Jesus.

Jesus says that the people of that generation are like bored children who do not really know what they want to do.   When it is suggested that they pretend they are celebrating a wedding, they refuse.  When it is suggested they pretend to be wailing at a funeral, that’s no good either!

You see, even in Jesus’ day, some people refused to be happy!

You know, think about “this generation”.  Think of today’s consumer culture and modern demands for “instant gratification.” Think of people waiting in line at the Apple store to get the latest I-phone or people trampling one another trying to get into Best Buy as soon as the doors open! Refusing to be happy is a frequent phenomenon.  And I think it makes this question about the source of happiness even more pertinent.

So then, if it isn’t money or health or getting exactly what we consumers want when we want it, wherein is true happiness?  Whence does genuine contentment flow

Today’s Old Testament text reminds us that, as the people of God, we are oriented toward the future.  But it also reminds us that  we have been shaped by the past.  More importantly, the people of God are those who understand that not only are we the product of history, but that God has effected and affected that history.  God has actively provided for God’s people.

And you may remember, at least I hope you remember, that over our years together, we talked a good deal about providence: that as Christians, we are a people who remember and who are grateful for God’s providence.  And that we strive to live in a way that is marked by our gratitude for the message of the Gospel that in Jesus Christ we are forgiven!  Every week, we repeat that statement, lest we forget it!

Thus today, as we think about what it means to be “happy”, it seems to me that happiness and gratitude are inevitably linked.

This linkage, this mutual dependence of happiness and gratitude, is suggested in our text, in this sermon of Moses to the people of Israel as they are preparing to enter the Promised Land.  To encourage them, Moses is cataloging details about the new land and all its resources.

It is a land with abundant water.  How marvelous that must have sounded to those people who had wandered in the desert all those years!  Lots of water!

And not only does the land have water, but it is also full of food: fruit, grain, honey.  Even today, one almost gets hungry reading about it!  Wheat and barley, figs and grapes and pomegranates!  “Bread without scarcity,” says Moses. And the land is laced with minerals, too, iron and copper.

You see, Moses describes the new homeland as a place of great potential.  But he admonishes the people that they always remember whence they’ve come!  No matter how good they may have it in the Promised Land, they need to remember the hardship through which they have passed.  In fact, the better they have it, the more they need to remember, and be grateful.

One must have long-term memory Moses says, one needs a memory that reaches back, even beyond one’s own life, to the time of parents and grandparents, and further back even than that.   And so Moses says that as the people mine and cultivate the land, they should also cultivate a good memory.  They should cultivate within each succeeding generation an understanding of their heritage.

Oh, Israel will dwell in a fertile land.  They will have silver and gold, and live in fine houses.  They will have all these things, says Moses.  But ultimately Israel’s well-being, indeed their happiness, depends upon their gratitude.

Thus, it strikes me that there is a marked parallel with our own history: people escaping oppression or persecution, certainly many of them risking great peril, coming to a new, fertile land, with such resources.  Just as Moses instructed Israel, so it was with those who settled in North America.  They would have cause for gratitude for God’s bringing them to this place and providing them with such abundance.

Now, of course, some people came to this land against their will.  But even the descendants of those who were originally brought here involuntarily have cause for gratitude.

A caveat here: I am not advocating civil religion, “Americanism” or “patriotism” or whatever it might be named. Indeed the practice of the civil religion often distracts us from Christian faith.  Rather, I am advocating something much more personal than that.

We began this morning with verses from Psalm 16: “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places…”  The psalmist here is referring to the way in which the Promised Land was divided up among the families of Israel, by casting lots, by God’s providence.

On a very personal level, as I read these verses, they bring to the surface of my own memory things that I have forgotten, or at least some things that I had stuffed down somewhere to a subconscious level.  Events, people who have shaped who I am and guided my journey.

We all need to do this every once in a while: do some “dredging” of the depths of memory to pull up those formative events and people.  You see, this is what Moses is telling us we should do if we are to be grateful people.  You see, therein is the source of real happiness!

I remember my fourth grade teacher. She taught me what to do if there were a tornado.  I am grateful for that and even more grateful that I’ve not had to use that information!  But, who knows when it will come in handy.

And I am grateful for my grandfather.  He was a tall, slender man, sitting across the Sunday dinner table.  One such Sunday, after the fried chicken and biscuits were all gone, he began opining as to the perils of smoking cigarettes, and he looked me sternly, and straight-on. “Do you smoke?”  he asked.  I mean, I was only 6; but the question haunted me in a good way!

Perhaps you remember your father or whoever it was who taught you to hit a nail with a hammer; or your music teacher or choral director who made you practice, and taught you discipline.  Or a football coach or a drill sergeant; people who by example taught us things like honor, charity… grace.  Maybe even a pastor…

We each have our own mental “scrapbooks” of such events and people.

Now, I know that one might say that this is mere sentimentality.  But, the point I mean to make is that true happiness, well-being, contentment are centered in gratitude for the people and events in our “scrapbooks”, gratitude to God as the source.

I was talking with a psychologist recently, who reminded me that this link between gratitude and happiness is actually physiological.  When we are grateful, it triggers a chemical reaction in our brains that translates gratitude into a sense of well-being – happiness!

Happiness comes from understanding our lives in context with the lives of others and within the context of people through whom God works.  Happiness comes in the recognition that none of us has come to where we are alone, that each of us is the product of countless encounters with other people.

And yet, don’t we know that, day in and day out, to be so grateful and thus to be happy can be difficult!  Our memories get crowded; and we forget.

I mean, today we are flooded with so much information from so many sources.  The truth of the matter is that we have so many facts that sometimes it is difficult to put the facts together into a whole truth about anything.  So much information actually induces a kind of forgetfulness.

You know, if you watch CNN or Fox News, it is easy to think that there is nothing but bad news in the world!  It’ll drive you crazy!  Worse, it will make you unhappy!

It’s kind of like dreams that are revelatory of something that we had forgotten or never understood. We have the dream, and we awake in the middle of the night and tell ourselves, “I’ve must be sure to remember this in the morning.”  But the next morning it is gone!

Now, we are not going into Jungian psychology, today, but that frustrating inability to recall our dreams is like the inability to remember because the important things in our lives get obscured by that which is unimportant.

You see, Moses foresaw this challenge.  He understood that in the Promised Land, woven among the vines laden with fruit, imbedded in the mineral richness of the hills of Canaan, there was also a threat.

Now, one would think that the more one has, the deeper should be his gratitude, the happier he should be.  Such blessings, however, often seduce us into self-centeredness, complacency and even greed.  Moses knew this.

“Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…Lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built fine houses …and your silver and gold is multiplied…. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’”

You see, Moses warns that affluence and the passage of time will dull the people’s memory.  They may to forget that it was God who had brought them there, who had provided them the land, and enabled them to build their fine houses.

And Moses warns: forgetfulness will bring upon the people consequences much worse than the poverty whence they had come. Moses warns the people of the crime of forgetting, that none of them were so talented, none were so capable that they could do anything or acquire anything but for the enabling hand of God.

“If you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods, the gods of self and self-sufficiency, if you say that ‘I have done this on my own,’ you shall surely perish.”

Now, of course, what Moses was really concerned with is what others would call the sin of pride.  Isaiah would refer to it as the “crown of pride” the glorious beauty of which is a “fading flower.”

You see, pride in self-sufficiency interferes with our being grateful. Pride separates us from God and undermines true happiness.  As forgetfulness induces pride, we tend to see ourselves as god

You know there is much public discussion today concerning the points of tension between Islam and Christianity.  And surely, there are significant differences.  But there is also a point of significant agreement.

The greatest sin in Islam is called sirk. Sirk is ascribing partners to God. Lifting up things, ideas, and people to equal status with God.  We would call it “idolatry”, treating some part of God’s creation as though it were God.

John Calvin spoke to the subject this way.  He said, “The examples of moderation in prosperity are rare; … as soon as men perceive themselves to be in a flourishing estate, they begin to swell with arrogance and [they] so admire their [own] exaltation that they despise even God himself.” (Commentaries on the Last Four Books of Moses, Baker House edition, 1998, vol I, p 398.)

Indeed, there is hardly a text in the Bible that is more relevant to us American Christians.  Moses could have been speaking directly to us, “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.”

You see, we need to open our mental scrapbooks.  That is where we find happiness.

I’ll close with an anecdote. Since my retirement, Kathy and I have had more opportunities to travel; and a couple of summers ago, we were able to visit France, where we went to see the beaches at Normandy.

We had a beautiful day to visit the seaside villages.  Families were out with their children enjoying the summer sun.  People were eating ice cream, enjoying the sun. There was even a merry-go-round!

Obviously, it was a very different scene on June 6, seventy three years ago this week when the D-Day invasion initiated the liberation of France and the rest of Europe.

On Omaha Beach, Kathy and walked down to the waterline and turned around to look back toward the land.  When you do that, you have to wonder how anyone could survive crossing that beach under hostile fire!  It cannot be done!  But young men did it, seventy-three years ago!

More to point, however, was our visit to the American Cemetery.  We were with a group of about 50 other Americans, and I have to tell you, it was a moving experience to look out over those acres of headstones, all in perfect lines, dress right dress, 10,000 of them.

Our group was greeted by a young French woman, perhaps in her thirties. She welcomed us to the cemetery.  And then, very sincerely it seemed, on behalf of the people of France, she expressed her gratitude for the sacrifices that Americans had made to liberate her country.

You get the point.  That young woman was not even born in 1944.  I daresay her parents were at most infants then.  But she had a “scrapbook!”  Here!  Her “memory”, cultivated by those who had lived before her, sustained her gratitude and that of many more like her.

Well, back to Moses: most of us do not have flocks, but we are able to eat until we are full – and more than that!  Most of us live in fine houses; even the most modest of our homes is “fine” by the world’s standards.

It would be very easy to take pride in these “blessings”. It would be far too easy to view the world from our fine houses and thus to forget.

But that, of course, is one reason we gather to worship.  To remember.

In worship, you might say we open our own scrapbooks as God’s people.  Each week we praise God for God’s grace, as we thumb through those remembrances that have been handed on to us, and proclaim various interventions of God in human affairs and in our own lives, especially the news of the gospel.

As we worship, we gather in order to be persons who remember and to be a people who are grateful.

Indeed, as God’s people in Christ, the boundary lines have fallen for each of us in pleasant places.  We have a goodly heritage.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.