John 15: 9-17 

            You may know that, for the last few years, the most popular course at Harvard has not been in finance or economics, but rather in psychology.  The course is named "Positive Psychology" and it attracts students by the hundreds.  The course is a little surprising for such an esteemed academic institution because its focus is summed up in its subtitle: "How to Get Happy."  Some of the most intelligent and most driven young people in our country simply want to know how to find happiness.

            The field of Positive Psychology is only about 10 years old, but more than 100 colleges and universities now include it in their curriculum.  From the barely educated to the best and the brightest, from the poorest in society to the fabulously wealthy, from those on the margins of society to those well-connected, people want to know the secret to being happy.

            It seems that these days, there is more than enough to make us unhappy.  People continue to die in the war in Iraq, our country is becoming more deeply engaged in the war in Afghanistan, the bottom has fallen out of the economy, global warming is threatening hundreds of species, people are dying from the swine flu outbreak, we are now known by many around the world as a nation that endorses torture.  There are plenty of dismal realities to blow our level of unhappiness off the scale.  You could rattle off a half dozen without giving it much thought.

            How can our faith help us?  Can a spiritual life uncover secrets to happiness?

            We know that for many people organized religion has been not the path, but rather the obstacle to happiness.  From nuns who smacked student's wrists with rulers, to preachers who threatened sinners with damnation, to Sunday school teachers who loaded on guilt for even thinking about sex, organized religion has left many people with emotional scars.  And even when there has been no abuse of authority, some have drained religion of happiness by simply making it so sterile and somber.

            For many years, David Read was the pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.  He talks about growing up in Scotland and the strict Presbyterian Church of his upbringing.  He remembers his Aunt Belle, whom he described as his most religious relative.  He said that it was impossible to avoid God when you were in her home and religious faith was anything but a pleasant experience.  She forced him to attend morning and evening prayers, and church services that were so endless that the point seemed to be whether or not you could endure them.  And God was anything but a loving Parent.  God was a stern figure to be feared.  The severe Scots Presbyterianism of his upbringing was dour and lifeless.  Happiness was anathema to faith.  As he was reflecting on the grim nature of his childhood faith, he cited a Christopher Marley novel in which a character remarks about Presbyterians and their religion, "It don't prevent them from committing all the sins there is,  it just keeps them from getting any fun out of it."  In the same vein, Lutheran scholar Conrad Hyers writes, "Our God is infinite in gravity (and we think) we are most religious when we are at our dreariest and dullest."1

            That simply does not square with the teachings of Christ.  Certainly Christ seeks to engage us in the deep questions of life and to prompt us to seriously ponder our direction and purpose, but he wants to encourage happiness, not stifle it; he wants to expand happiness not restrain it.

            I'm not talking about fluff or mindless entertainment that is designed to avert our attention from the important questions.  I'm talking about the happiness and sense of well-being that derives from spiritual awareness.  Christ wants to inspire hope in us, and hope cannot help but produce happiness.

            Yet in this morning's passage, we discover that even happiness is not enough.  Christ wants us to experience something deeper than happiness.  He wants us to experience genuine joy.  Now, the distinction between happiness and joy may be subtle, but this morning's passage comes from an occasion that was anything but happy.  Jesus had gathered with his 12 closest followers for his final meal.  Darkness was closing in as the religious leaders plotted to silence Jesus.  In a few hours he would be betrayed and events would go terribly awry eventually culminating in his crucifixion.  It was definitely not a happy occasion.  It was a heavy one in which Jesus was delivering his words of farewell to his friends.  Yet even in that deadly serious moment, he spoke of joy. 

            He says that joy comes from knowing that we are loved by God and from loving one another.  Jesus ties joy to love and says that joy becomes rich and full and complete in us when we love others.

            God has created the world in such a way that human beings are designed to care for each other.  We thrive when we recognize the interrelated nature of life and that our well-being depends on the well-being of others.  We flourish when we help one another and work in harmony for the common good.  Scientists have even pointed out that reciprocal altruism makes sense from an evolutionary view.  Those "who aid others commonly receive aid in return...(Those primitives who reasoned) I'll carry your baby if you take my son on the hunt tomorrow"2 survived better than those who did not help one another.  Acts of kindness strengthen ties within families, with tribes and with larger communities.

            Further, God seems to have created us in such a way that we are hard-wired for justice.  We have an intuition of what is right and fair, and we believe it should be rewarded; and we have a sense of what is wrong and unjust, and believe it should be punished.

            But not only has God created us as moral beings who desire justice, we also seem to have a predisposition for compassion.  We naturally empathize with victims who are injured and we consider it abnormal to be indifferent to the suffering of others.

            In today's passage, Christ strikes a chord within us when he calls on us to love one another.  We are created as children of God who are loved by our divine Parent and who find fulfillment - that is, deep joy - when we love others. 

            Through the words he spoke, but more importantly, by the way he lived, Christ showed us that love is much more than a feeling.  It is action focused on the well-being of others.  And in today's passage, Jesus says it can include extreme actions.  He says, "no one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."  This is no "Kum ba Ya" moment where we circle up, hold hands and tell each other how much we like each other.  This is the recognition that love can be challenging and sometimes demands extraordinary resolve.

            Walt Kowalski is an aging and angry, ex-auto worker who is disgusted with the world.  He has just buried his wife and the scowl he wears announces that he would just as soon check out of this life, too.  He whittles away his time in isolation; sitting on his porch with his dog, drinking beer and delivering his acerbic commentary on the world. 

            He is a racist Korean War veteran who lives in a rundown Detroit neighborhood.  Walt's way of coping with the world that is decaying around him is to denounce every immigrant group he spots with epithets that are far too vulgar to use in the sanctuary.  Besides his yellow Lab, the only two objects he prizes are his M-1 rifle from his days of combat in Korea and his Gran Torino from his happier days in the assembly plant.

            When Hmong immigrants move in next door, Walt (played by a rugged, steely-eyed Clint Eastwood), shows nothing but contempt for this family of Southeast Asians, whom he considers inferior beings.  Though he wants to keep them at a distance, the Hmong family invades his world when the fatherless teenage son is pressured by a street gang to steal Walt's Gran Torino.  Walt catches the boy in the act and, fortunately, does not shoot him.  The boy's family is humiliated by his attempted theft and force the teenage boy to do penance by working for Walt, something both the boy and Walt dread. 

            However, gradually, Walt begins to change.  Despite his deep-seeded bigotry, he becomes the protector of the family; and eventually he discovers a new mission in life: saving this teenage boy.3 

            He becomes a bold defender of the weak, and stands up against the injustice and violence that threaten to shred our society.  A colleague writes, "that despite responding with violence in the face of evil, this is essentially a tale of conversion and redemption.  (It brings to life the words of this morning's passage) 'No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.' And how much greater is this love when a man rises above his bigotry and narrow-mindedness to put his life on the line for those he so recently loathed?...Walt comes to realize that doing what is right and good is far superior to holding on to long held prejudices.4  This bitter, venom-filled man is transformed when he puts his life on the line for others.

            Many people believe that what will bring them happiness is to further fixate on themselves; to focus more intently on personal issues and perceived needs.  But the truth is something else.  We discover the deep joy that makes life rich and exciting when we extend ourselves to others with love.

            Walt's cynical view of the world as a dark and disappointing place is not totally inaccurate.  However, it is an incomplete picture.  A world starved for love does spawn dissension and violence.  A world starved for love is dreadful and depressing.  But a world where people reach out to others with Christ-like love - where people are willing to sacrifice for the good of one another - can become a place where people prosper, live together in peace and experience deep, soul-satisfying joy.



1. John M. Buchanan, "More Than Happy," May 21, 2006.

2. Lynn Margulis, "Does Evolution Explain Human Nature?" an essay for the John Templeton Foundation celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

3. This description of the movie Gran Torino, was compiled from movie reviews by Kenneth Turan, in The Los Angeles Times and Manohla Dargis in The New York Times; a synopsis by Jason Buchanan on and Dan Dick, "Scripture and Screen," in Lectionary Homiletics, April-May, 2009, p. 58.

4. Dan Dick, "Scripture and Screen," in Lectionary Homiletics, April-May, 2009, p. 58.