What is Success?

What is Success?

Glynn Cardy 7th May 2023

Last Monday I drove out into the countryside to visit a family whose mother, Vicki, had died the night before.  I had officiated at Vicki’s wedding some years ago, and before that her dad’s funeral.  My connection with the whanau goes back to the ‘80s.

With the blessing of google maps, I found the farm, followed the horse trailers, knocked on the door, and was ushered into the big lounge.  The family were all there.  Relatives.  Close friends.  Some I’d married.  Young adults I’d known since they were small.  All sitting around, relaxed, chatting, comfortable with each other and with Vicki who was lying dead on her hospital-style bed in their midst.

They hadn’t rung the undertakers in the middle of the night.  No, they’d sent off some texts (one to me), then stayed surrounding her all night until I came at 11 the next morning.

At the funeral on Friday, they asked me to pray this prayer:

Vicki, may the angels guard and comfort you,

as your soul leaves the bosom of this life,

the arms of your family and friends,

journeying to the great unknown.

There may you know yourself to be held,

by the strong and resilient threads of love,

spun between you and those loving you,

threads that we might call God.

May you remember us, holding our smiles.

May you forgive us, letting go of our hurts.

May you bless us, recalling the good times.

May you travel light and with love.

And may you know yourself,

as we’ve known you,

to be blessed,

and a blessing to others.

Rest this day, and forever more, in our peace.

The theme for my sermon today is ‘What is success?’  What does success look like?  And my first thought was of Vicki surrounded by her whanau in their lounge.  Success looks like committed love.  It looks like family.  It looks like laughing and crying.  It looks like the strength and resilience that had cared and nursed Vicki for the last year.

Death in circumstances like these is not failure.  Death comes, sometimes too soon.  And we push back, resist.  We care, we try, we love, we hope.  But in the end death comes, and when it comes surrounded and held by the threads of love – threads that strengthen the living, not just the dying – then this is not failure but success.

Love that does the mahi (the work) of journeying with another, through thick and thin places, through loss and delight, in joy and pain…  this is what success looks like.  It’s gold.

My second thought about ‘What is success?’ is the story of the contented fisherman from a book by Anthony De Mello.  I first read this tale in the 80s and it’s sat in the back of my mind since.  For it asks a question of those of us who are continually busy, and of our society which values busyness (and calls it productivity), and of our language around success and growth and value and profit.

It’s a little like the challenge of Mark 8:36 “For what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their own soul?”  This is a story about soul.

The moral of the story is not about whether one should be a fisher or an industrialist, or the owner of a fishing business with many boats or a worker in the industrialist’s factory, but in knowing what contentment is.  Knowing what peace is and what brings you peace.  Knowing when enough is enough.  Which is not easy.  Particularly in a culture that values more, doing more, having more, and wanting more.  We are stuffed with more.

For contentment is not just our 2023 equivalent of lying beside our boat smoking a pipe.  Contentment is a state of being.  It’s about being happy with who you are, and what you’ve done.  It’s a daily soul discipline of rejecting the philosophy of more, of learning to be content with what we have, and of stilling that lying voice which says our worth is fundamentally in what we do or contribute.

If you want to have a bit of a giggle, I suggest you google Jesus and success.  There you will find article after article, American after American, trying to do the impossible with a camel and a needle.  The impossible being taking the assumptions of modern-day, purpose-driven, growth-orientated, capitalist America and trying to justify it all in reference to Jesus.  So, Jesus, according to the junk articles google threw up, had a plan/strategy for the advancement of his kingdom (read multi-national company) by empowering and investing in a key group of disciples (read executives), underpinned by his hard work (go the extra mile) and willingness to risk sacrifice for a greater gain (dying, others thinking you’re buried, but then coming back to life again on the stock exchange).

Success is a big word in America, a big word in American Christianity, some of which washes up here.

Compare this with a piece written (with some adaptions) about 100 years ago by James Allen Francis (also an American).  He called it ‘One Solitary Life’.

‘Jesus was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant.  He purportedly worked in a carpenter shop until he was 30.  Then, for maybe three years, he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book.  He never held an office.  He never had a family or owned a home or made much money.   He never lived in a big city.  He didn’t go to university.  He didn’t do ground-breaking research, or start a successful business, or set up a hospital (or church!).  He never travelled 200 miles from the place where he was born.  He did none of the things that we usually associate with greatness.  He had no credentials but himself.

He was only in his thirties when the tide of public opinion turned against him.  His friends ran away, denying him.  He was turned over to the authorities, was beaten, and went through the mockery of a trial.  He was nailed to a cross between two thieves.  While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his garments, the only property he had on earth.  When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave, through the pity of a friend.

Twenty centuries have come and gone, and today he is probably the most well-known human being.  I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings and politicians that ever reigned – put together – have not affected the life of humanity as much as that one, solitary life.’

The challenge of this ‘One Solitary Life’ piece is that it upends most of the markers we have for success.  Not that I think we should stay at home until we’re 30, never form a romantic relationship, and land up on a Roman gallows. 

I don’t think, despite google articles, that Jesus planned too much of what happened to him. 

I think, and maybe I’m being too simplistic about it, that Jesus discovered something of the breadth and life-changing call of a love that was vastly bigger than himself.  A love he called God.  A love that sought reconciliation and justice and compassion across race, religion, gender, and the politics of empire.  The latter not taking kindly to his suggestions.

Jesus’ immersion in this love called God led the author of John 14, our text today, to say there is room for everyone in God/love.  A room for everyone.  No matter how nutty, or different, or difficult you think others are.  Or you are.

And to say that if you want to see God, know what God is like, then look at someone who is immersed in love.  Who loves with a fierce, committed, and joyful love. 

And to say loving like this – doing the mahi like this – is the way, the truth, and life of a journey of going through thick and thin places, through loss and delight, in joy and pain, to what success looks like.  It looks like love.  The means is the end.

That one solitary life was about the compassionate-justice-love that has the potential to bring incredible change and hope.