Sermons: What Makes You Happy?

Exodus 16:1-8
Exodus 16:13-21, 35 

"My house is good," he says. Minoj Singh gets up at 4:30 in the morning, rides a bike into the heart of Calcutta, and picks up his rickshaw. He spends the day pulling it around – not a bike but walking, gripping the wooden handles, a person or two sitting in the carriage behind. Through pouring rain or oppressive heat, or both, he carries people around the packed and dirty streets. "Happy," a fantastic documentary I watched this week – that I credit our colleague Barb Schmidt for telling me about – starts with Minoj.1 The producers synthesized a ton of research from around the world to try to better understand the question, "What makes you happy?" We meet folks from the Louisiana Bayou to the streets of New York, from groups of widows on Okinawa, back to Calcutta. It turns out that it is pretty simple what makes one happy – family and friends, social connections, being involved in something that matters. Minoj, it seems, is statistically about as happy with his life as the average American. He sits outside his house – about a third of the size of the choir loft for 6 of them – bamboo rods forming the frame, plastic tarps tied together forming the walls and roof. "My house is good," he says, matter-of-factly. "During the monsoon, we have some trouble with rain blowing in. Other than that we live well. When my son comes home and calls out to me, when I see my baby’s face," he says. "I feel happy." 

The contrast today’s text sets up is powerful. After 430 brutal years of slavery, the people were free.2 In an extraordinary series of miracles God called Moses, confronts Pharaoh with plagues, parts the Red Sea. But it only takes them 45 days – a month and a half – after 430 years, to start complaining. If only we had died as slaves, they say. At least then we had something to eat. For YOU have brought us out to kill us with hunger. We are at the beginning of what scholars call ‘the sojourn tradition,’ the traveling before and after their time at Mount Sinai, the heart of the Exodus experience.3 Point 1 of this tradition reminds us of the faithlessness of the people. When things get the least bit unsure, folks gather in a corner and start grousing, then they decide who they can blame. The complainers churn and churn, content to stir people up, rarely desirous of any sort of solution. It seems as though most of our political class is in a perpetual state of complaint. But it trickles down, as we complain about our jobs or our kids’ teachers, that the television that doesn’t work, that people aren’t quite who we want them to be for us. The yard needs to be mowed, our house [what good news, we have a house to live in, with a roof, and electricity!] isn’t quite the way we want it to be. Whether 430 years of slavery, or 45 days of wandering, or 2 days of a plumbing problem. It is hard to be satisfied where we are.

But God meets them with grace. Not even a well-deserved lecture on the fact that they were doing forced labor 2 months ago and now were FREE. God says, I am going to provide for you. And not just today, but each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. This is point 2 of this same sojourn tradition: they are reminded that God can be trusted. God provides anyway. In the wilderness, when times are uncertain, God calls us to trust.

But simply trusting doesn’t compute. In the morning there was a layer of dew in the camp, and as it lifts, this flakey stuff is on the ground. And what do the people do? They ask each other, ‘What is it?" What is this? Why is this here? They can’t see. Moses reminds them that God made a promise. Here it is, guys. This interchange is likely how we get the word manna, what we call this bread. The question, ‘What is it?’ in Hebrew sounds awfully similar to ‘manna,’ and so most scholars assume that first question ended up providing the name for the bread.4 And we continue to question, because I tend to think that deep down folks like us still have a hard time believing that grace comes as a gift. No matter how privileged our upbringing or how many folks help us along the way, we tend to believe we earn what we have. And we work darn hard, don’t we, to scratch and gather and achieve? To take that next step up, to get the very best for us and our families. But this so easily – often without us even realizing it – becomes a relentless drive for more, and deep anxiety when it feels like there is not enough. And then you are stuck, because when you always want more, it also always feels like you don’t have enough. It eats you up. We end up restless, never content, with the idols we create of who we are and what people think of us and who we long to be taking over the simple love of God and neighbor among us. I think in communities like ours figuring out our relationship with money is THE spiritual disease of our time, that gets us off track, distracting us from those who matter.

And so God carefully structures the deal with this manna. This is almost as important as the gift itself. They are commanded to gather as much of it as they need, defining ‘need’ – an omer, close to 3 quarts.5 But even when they didn’t follow directions, verses 17 and 18 tell us that they all ended up with around the same amount, ‘as much as each of them needed.’ This is the way the covenant community works. Not too much. Not too little. Enough for the day. If they sway from gathering enough, it rots. "The wondrous reality," Walter Brueggemann writes, "about the distribution of this bread is that their uncompetitive, non-hoarding practice really does work, and it works for all!"6 The second point of emphasis – in the section we didn’t read but will come back to next week – is on the Sabbath. Every other day there is enough for that day. Except for the day before the Sabbath, when enough for the next day is included.

As you are by now aware, today is the beginning of stewardship season. While some may roll their eyes, I actually like this time of year, because it calls us to really dig into what each of us values. What matters? What do you care about? Or, asked a slightly different way, what makes you happy? Not ‘happy’ as a vague pleasant feeling, but something more akin to joy. This is the season to take a little more time to remind you what we do in some way or another every single week as we hear assurance of God’s forgiveness, and as we are called to the offering. God our God is a God of abundance, of boundless grace, and God gives that grace to us as a gift. Not as something you need to earn – goodness knows even the best of us aren’t capable of earning it. Grace is a gift. And that is the best news I will ever have to tell you. God loves you for exactly who you are. Really. For exactly who you are. But God also loves you enough to want you do respond in joy, to share with others, to love, to love, to love.

It is also the time when the church will ask you to respond in a specific way, by asking you to make a pledge. This year we’ll ask you to take a brochure home, to read it – it is an exceptional document that a lot of people put a lot of work into – and to think and pray upon your gift to this place. I have probably been a bit too lax in the past few years in asking you all for a commitment. But I am here to tell you from my experience, in my life here, and in my life more broadly, that the church is the gift God gives us for this difficult journey. To surround us. To teach us. To drive us out way beyond ourselves to do campus ministry and feed homeless people and taking care of victims of domestic violence. None of it happens without you. We will be talking more in the coming weeks about the gifts God gave the people in the wilderness to shape their life together – of this manna, of the Sabbath, each of us giving as we have been blessed, and of the biblical standard of tithing. I am convinced that an investment in the ministry of this place is an essential act of faithfulness, one that binds us together, as we do so much remarkable ministry, that embraces each of us and – as the organizations we support tell us so well in the brochure – is critically important to Durham.

After we meet Minoj, the filmmakers of "Happy," walk us through some research. They tell us that around 50% of our happiness is determined by our genes – that we are born with a kind of genetic set range. External circumstances – your job, your finances, your health, account for only 10%. Most researchers have concluded that the remaining 40% is intentional behavior. The things you choose. We get to choose what kind of perspective we will have about our lives. We get to choose how anxious we will be about the world. We get to choose how we will think about who God is, whether we believe God is, in fact, gracious. And we get to choose how we will respond, as we come to lunch, as we go to work, as we contemplate the ways we will return those gifts to God not only during stewardship season, but far beyond.

The documentary closes back in Calcutta. Andy Wimmer is from Sweden, a financial manager who, 17 years ago, showed up to work in Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute and dying. He had all these fancy clothes, he said, and then he realized he was ridiculous. His first day, he said, they brought in a 15 year old who had been found in a dumpster. And he held to his mouth a small glass of water, and his eyes shot open, and they were connected. ‘And there it is’ Andy said. "I got this life, my parents, my friends, I was never really sick and I always had enough food to eat. I was the first generation in a long time to never experience a war. My life, he said, is a loan given from God. I will give this loan back, he said, but with interest. You love, you serve the brother or sister in front of you. That is how you have a happy life."

All praise be to God. Amen.




1. Learn more at It’s worth your time!
2. We don’t really know how long, but Exodus 12:40 gives us the 430 number.
3. Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), pages 58-59.
4. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), page 813.
5. The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, Henry Gehman, ed, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), p 685
6. NIB, 814.


Sermons: What Makes You Happy?

Psalm 1
Psalm 2

"Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper."

I wonder what it is that makes you happy? We all have the regular answers of family, friends, a job that pays the bills, enough to eat for the day. Sometimes it’s more specific: turning in a big project, the kids cleaning up their own rooms without anyone yelling, the particular click when your iron contacts the golf ball cleanly and you see it, high, drifting in towards the pin. In thinking about this sermon I noticed happiness isn’t a word we use much anymore – it has come to connote something too much on the surface, a vague pleasantness without depth. The word the psalmist uses here is asher, which is just as often translated as blessed as happy, implying something that comes from beyond us, that is meaningful and true. When Leah, Jacob’s wife back in Genesis 30, bears a son, she names him Asher, saying "Happy am I! For all people will call me happy." All people will call me blessed.

But much of our world seems perfectly content remaining on the surface. Rows in bookstores offer us titles that give us 6, 9, 12 steps to happiness. I have mentioned before the Italian Ice place by our house that when you walk in has signs that literally say, ‘Ice. Custard. Happiness.’ The implication is that this is not only attainable, but that it can be purchased. I think the grip of consumer culture is a key discipleship challenge for folks like us. A recent article in The Atlantic wonders in its title, "What Isn’t for Sale?" The author, philosopher Michael Sandel, begins by noting that almost everything can be bought these days:

In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay $90 a night for an upgrade – a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them. A growing number of "concierge" doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. South Africa has begun letting some ranchers sell hunters the right to shoot a limited number of endangered black rhinos for a mere $250,000.

And then we try and figure out how in the world we pay for all of this happiness! A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies to hire homeless people to queue up so the lobbyists can get good seats at Congressional Hearings. The world tells us where value is, from home makeovers to manicured lawns. And even when larger problems do arise, can’t we throw some money at those, too? Surely money is what is going to solve homelessness. If enough people gave enough money, then surely everyone could go to sleep with their bellies full. That’s the language our culture speaks. That’s the way problems get solved.

Except there’s plenty of money in the world, and these problems still exist. Sandel argues that when everything is up for sale, inequality only grows. The more you have, the more you can afford to buy. Then, before you know it, affluence affects much more than what kind of vacation you go on, but what kind of health care is available to you, what kind of education your kids receive. Those with money and access – folks like us – only get more, and those without only end up with less. The other result, Sandel argues, is corruption. Our tradition calls this sin. If something can be bought, we’ll try and find a way to buy it, no matter what it takes. We scramble and cheat and gather, regardless of who we have to step on.

But, the jostling for the right stuff and the money we think will make us happy largely ignores the questions in these psalms, and in much of scripture. What is good? What is blessed? What is right and true and gives meaning? Psalm 1 begins the book with a crystal clear answer: the law of the Lord. God’s holy Torah – not rigid law that confines, but a guiding structure of righteousness that cares for ALL people, especially those with less. That sees ALL people as equal. That understands that life’s meaning is not found in gathering stuff to one’s self, but in giving. Giving of the money we think belongs to us to some of our folks as they go off to seminary, to a STOP Hunger NOW event as David just mentioned. Giving of your time – in a season of vacations, thinking of the time you give to the church, to those who seek out the hungry and the lonely. Investing – not just doing a few jobs, investing – with all of ourselves, in listening for God, mediating on God’s Word, like the psalmist writes, day and night. That is where we find meaning. We end up like trees planted by streams of water, healthy and strong, yielding fruit in due season.

But in addition to the encouragement they bring, most of these first two psalms bring a strong warning, making a clear distinction between the way of God and the way of the world. And these two set the tone for the entire collection, announcing, as Walter Brueggemann writes, that the "primary agenda for Israel’s worship life is obedience, to order and conduct all of life in accordance with God’s purpose and the ordering of creation." But we are pushed – threatened, even – to see the limits of our desires. These psalms call us to be suspicious of power and politics, calls those in the public arena to be very careful. The rest of us are called on the shallowness of too much of society, that can be blown away like chaff by the wind, as we get caught up on following the crowd, at the beck and call of marketers and charismatic leaders. Nations conspire, the psalmist writes, people plot in vain. People and communities and nations look after themselves. And God laughs, then speaks in anger – some of psalms 1 and 2 are quite scary. Then, at the end of psalm 2, comes the gift: be wise, O kings, O peoples. This is your warning. Here is how you do it: serve the Lord. Worship God alone. Happy, blessed are those who place their trust in him.

Yesterday morning Carrie and the kids left early to head to see her Grandmother. After they left, I went to Panera with a book for breakfast. As I got settled outside a father and daughter, she was 13 or 14, came out with drinks. The dad went in, and a few minutes later a young man, I presumed her brother, came out. He was bigger than her, but looked younger. He also had braces on both of his legs, thick glasses, and spoke as if he had some sort of developmental disability. The parents were heading in and out, checking on the coming food, obviously with some other things to do. And I sat and watched for the next 15 minutes as she sat with her brother, asking about his days at school this week, playing a game with him on her phone, catching his drink when he almost knocked it over. She was filled with such tenderness. Now I would imagine that as a regular teenage girl there were things she could have been doing. Sleeping. At a friend’s house or a sporting event. But she sat with him, like a tree planted by streams of water, rooted in things that matter. Filled with love, happy, blessed, like the joy on Betty and Chuck’s faces in here yesterday. It is the same happiness I wish for you, for us here, that we might risk true community, that we might put our grit and our sweat into things that matter.

Psalms 1 and 2, as good as they are, are way too black and white. Most of the life I know is grey, filled with complex nuance. But, that nuance can be found throughout scripture – other psalms, certainly other books argue back that same point. But psalms 1 and 2 lay the foundation, and challenge us to ask, in the midst of our living -what in our lives is about US? And what is about God?

May those questions haunt us, as we seek true happiness. All praise be to God. Amen.



1. Michael J. Sandel, "What Isn’t for Sale?", April 2012, The Atlantic.