(1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:44-46)
Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He is the current director of an almost-80-year study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development that has tracked the lives of 724 men since 1938.
The study consists of two groups of men from opposing circumstances. The first group contains men who were sophomores at Harvard College when the study began. They were well-educated and privileged. The second group contains men who were boys from the poorest neighborhoods of Boston when the study began. They were not under-educated and disadvantaged. The young men went on into a variety of professions and lifestyles. Some went into professional fields, like law; others went into trades, like bricklaying; one even became a President of the United State. Some suffered from alcoholism and schizophrenia. Some climbed the social ladder, while others fell from it. About 60 of the original 724 men are still alive and still participating in the study, with most of them being in their 90s. Now, more than 2,000 children of these men are being studied, also.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is unique in the length it has existed, continuing through three directors of the study and into the fourth director, who is Waldinger. It has been able to study entire adult lives to see what makes people healthy and happy. The study has involved interviews with the men and their wives, questionnaires, medical exams, blood tests, and brain scans.
So, what lessons have been learned from the study? According to Waldinger, “[T]he lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this . . . study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Despite the fact that a survey of millenials that asked them what their most important life goals are revealed that the most important life goal for the majority is to get rich and famous, the unique, almost-80-year Harvard Study of Adult Development has revealed that it isn’t fame and fortune that make us happy and healthy: It is good relationships.
Waldinger calls the message that “good, close relationships are good for our health and well-being . . . wisdom that is as old as the hills.” Wisdom. This is what Solomon asked God to give him. Wisdom. And this pleased God very much. So he gave Solomon a “wise and discerning mind” (1 Kings 3:12).
Waldinger calls the message of the study “wisdom” and wonders why this is so hard for us to understand and so easy for us to ignore. Why are human beings so often foolish and so rarely wise? Why do we believe – particularly when we are young – that fame and fortune will make us happy and, even, healthy? Why are these things our most important goals when the simple way to become happy and healthy is to focus on what is right in front of us: the people with whom we have relationships. Love those people and nurture the relationships with them and we will be happier and healthier than we would be otherwise: so simple, and yet so hard to do.
There is a simple way of staying focused on the simple truth the Harvard Study revealed, and that is to focus, first and foremost, on our relationship with God. This is, after all, what the first and greatest commandment asks us to do: Love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind (Mt 22:37). We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind not only because the Lord our God deserves this from us, but because it is good for us! It is, truly, the only thing that matters, and all other good in life flows from this love. It is good for us! We are to love God this completely because it give us the life that truly is life. Any other kind of life turns to dust and ashes. Only the life that flows from our complete love of God is forever.
When we focus on our relationship with God, when we nurture it and it grows, then the rest of our lives are oriented correctly and we honor all the other relationships in our lives. Honoring our relationship with God first and then all the other relationships in our lives enables us to be happier and healthier than we would be otherwise, despite anything else that is going on.
This is what we see the field worker and the merchant do in the reading from the Gospel According to Matthew. The worker in the field discovers a treasure as he works. He hides the treasure while he goes and sells all he has so that he can purchase the field and own the treasure. The merchant is searching for fine pearls and finds one of great value. He, also, sells all that he has so that he can purchase the pearl and own it. The field worker discovers the treasure by accident as he goes about his work, whereas the merchant discovers the pearl because he is actively searching for it. The two have opposing ways of discovering the kingdom of God, but each realizes its value when he discovers it and does everything he can to possess it.
Our relationship with God – and the kingdom of God that the relationship gives us – is the only thing that matters. It is the ultimate treasure, the pearl of great value. Nothing should come before it and, if anything does, we should “sell” that thing so that we are not prevented from valuing the treasure, the pearl. All else that is good flows from our foundational relationship with God. Without it, we have nothing of value, nothing that will last. We have only dust and ashes in the shape of things; dust and ashes that will, eventually, blow away, and we will be left empty-handed and empty-hearted.
There is a modern illustration of the parable of the pearl of great value. It is told in the magazine Giving.
“[A] woman finds a valuable pearl in an obscure shop. The merchant says he will give it to the woman in exchange for everything she has. Wanting badly to own the pearl, she writes a check for several thousand dollars, emptying her savings and checking accounts. The merchant asks, ‘What about your house?’ The woman signs over the deed. ‘What about your two cars?’ She signs them both over to him. ‘What about your boat and your vacation home? Your stocks and bonds, retirement funds, and life insurance?’ The woman transfers all of these to the merchant.
Then the merchant says, ‘Now the pearl is yours.’ The woman is delighted! She turns to leave, but the merchant stops her, saying, ‘Here is all that you have given me to purchase the pearl; I am giving all these things to you. They still belong to me. But I will let you have full use of them for as long as you live. The only thing I ask is, whenever possible, share my houses, my cars, and my other wealth with those I send your way.’
The woman is overcome with joy. ‘Of course, thank you’!
‘Remember,’ says the merchant, ‘you may use these things as if they are your own, but on occasion, I will ask you to share or even give them away to others’.”
This modern illustration of the parable is powerful. It shows us that all we have is God’s to begin with, even though we don’t realize it until we sell all we have to purchase our relationship with God. At that time, we sell to God all that God originally gave to us! God buys it all back from us – even though it was all His to begin with – and then lets us use it all, anyway, asking only that we share with or give to others when they have need. Everything other than our relationship with God is not really ours. It belongs to God. God lets us use these things while we are living. However, we are to hold these things lightly so that we can let them go when others have need.
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Jesus said (Jn 14:6). When we focus on our relationship with the God of Jesus Christ, we find the Way, we know the Truth, and we live the Life that truly is life. As the Harvard Study of Adult Life revealed, “good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” And, all of those good relationships begin with our foundational relationship with God. Period. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, November 26, 2017, the Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday.
 Information about the Harvard Study of Adult Development is from Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk, “What Makes a Good Life?” and from the article from the Harvard Gazette, “Good Genes are Nice, But Joy Is Better,” by Liz Mineo (April 11, 2017).
 Quotes from Waldinger are from his TED Talk, “What Makes a Good Life,” unless other wise noted.
 Giving: Growing Joyful Stewards in Your Congregation. Blaine, MN: Ecumenical Stewardship Center, 2013, 5.