The article on misery began by noting that people who do not have enough money for their basic needs experience enormous stress. No surprise there. But it went on to say that, after a point, more wealth also seems to increase stress, “probably because of high-pressure work with time constraints.” The result is, a lot of stressed and unhappy people in our society across the economic spectrum.
Thankfully there is a remedy: service to others.
The article is mostly about service in our jobs. Some jobs are all about service right on the surface. I think of teachers or nurses or firefighters. But every job involves an element of service to others if we pause to think about it for a minute. And pausing to think about it can make a difference in how happy we are in our work.
The article told a story about a traveler who met a pair of stone masons. He asked them what they were doing. One said, “I am making a living.” No service there. The other said, “I am building a cathedral.” Same job. But the second mason saw his work as part of a larger project that contributed to the well-being of his community. And he was happier for seeing his job that way.
As I say, the newspaper article was about work. But opportunities for service are certainly not limited to the workplace. We do lots of service here, service both for the Saint David’s community and for the larger community. We do that service to help others. But, this article says, service is good for us too.
The other article made essentially the same point. It began by describing “a magic pill for happiness and longevity.” This “pill” leads to “lower blood pressure, lower risk of dementia, less anxiety and depression, reduced cardiovascular risk and overall greater happiness.” The “pill” has no negative side effects and is readily available to all of us anytime.
The “pill” is generosity broadly defined. Generosity with our time and our talent and our money.
What makes generosity so good for us is that acting generously pushes us to focus on the needs of others rather than on our own needs. When we focus mainly on our own needs, ironically, we end up unsatisfied.
The problem with focusing on our own needs is that our “needs” keep multiplying. In my adult life, my salary has ranged pretty dramatically. My high was nearly five times my low. At no point did I feel real deprivation. And at no point did I experience real surplus. It is as if my “needs” grew right along with my salary.
I doubt there is any end to that process, or at least not an end that any of us are likely to reach. My “needs” could always keep pace with my salary. So if my goal is to have enough money to meet all of my possible “needs,” I could never get there.
That is true for virtually all of us. So here is a law of human nature: If we focus only on our own needs, we are doomed to frustration because we can never satisfy all our possible “needs.”
The solution offered in both newspaper articles is to shift the focus off ourselves, off our own needs and concerns, onto the needs and concerns of others. Serve others. Be generous. Think less about what we want and need and more about what others want and need. And, ironically, our own truest and deepest needs—our need for community and purpose, for love, for God and God’s people—those needs will more likely be met.
I read all that in newspapers in the last couple of weeks. But there is nothing new in that. Religious teachers have been saying the same thing for literally thousands of years. It is the lesson in our gospel reading for this morning.
Jesus and his disciples are heading to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified. He warns the disciples about what is coming. But the disciples cannot wrap their minds around what he is saying. They do not understand, and they are afraid to ask.
Why the fear? My guess is, the disciples are afraid because they really do understand at some deep level what Jesus is saying, and they really do not want to hear a call to suffering.
So instead the disciples argue about who among themselves is the greatest.
It is exactly the disconnect that the newspapers articles describe. Jesus is focused on the needs of others—the needs of all of us who are estranged from God. Jesus is willing to suffer and die so that we can be made whole and reconciled to God. Jesus is the ultimate example of someone who focuses on the needs of others.
But Jesus’ disciples cannot handle that, at least not yet. His disciples are too focused on their own wants and needs, on their own ambitions. They are focused on what they can get out of life, not on what they can give.
So Jesus works with them. Jesus says the key to true joy is service to others. Jesus says to welcome the child, the helpless ones in our midst, the ones who cannot support our efforts to become great in the eyes of the world. Jesus says that it is in serving, in welcoming, in focusing on the needs of others that we can become truly great, great in love, great in humility, great in joy.
The lesson is simple. Our world will be better if we are not the center of it, if God is at the center of our world and if all God’s children have an important place in our world.
The disciples have trouble with that lesson. But who are we to despise them for their folly? After all, newspapers today repeat the same lesson as if it were new, as if it were news. And they are right, because Jesus’ message remains as much a challenge today as ever.
Wonderful as it is in so many ways, the Unites States has a culture of selfishness. We are all about what one author calls “the Big Me.” We take it as self-evident that we should pursue our happiness, which all too often we define in terms of my stuff, my status, my wants.
We sometimes see life as a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, if other people prosper, there is less for me. So if some policy does not directly benefit me, fight it. After all, why should I contribute to help others?
Jesus’ message and Jesus’ life is a radical challenge to that way of seeing life, that way of living life. Jesus is willing to serve and suffer and die, and Jesus invites us to do the same.
If we can accept his invitation, if we can live a life of service and generosity, if we can put God and our neighbor at the center of our world, then, and only then, we will know true life, deep joy, and divine abundance.
May we have the faith and the hope and the love to accept Christ’s invitation. In the name of the one who shows us the way. Amen.
 Arthur Brooks, “Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work,” New York Times Sunday Review, page 9, September 6, 2015.
 Terri Yablonsky Stat, “Be Generous: It’s a Simple Way to Stay Healthier,” Daily Hampshire Gazette, C1-2, September 8, 2015.