What is Success?

This sermon was originally preached by Rev. James Morasco on July 8, 2018. 

Earn your success based on service to others, not at the expense of others.
— H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’
— Jeremiah 29:11
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
— Philippians 4:12-13

It’s often easy to look at what we consider “successful” people and think that it’s all come easily to them. In many cases this is not what happened.  Colonel Sanders went to more than 1,000 places trying to sell his chicken recipe before he found an interested buyer. Thomas Edison tried almost 10,000 times before he succeeded in creating the electric light.

The original business plan for what was to become Federal Express was given a failing grade on Fred Smith’s college exam. And, in the early days, their employees would cash their pay checks at retail stores, rather than banks. This meant it would take longer for the money to clear, thereby giving Fed Ex more time to cover their payroll.

Sylvester Stallone had been turned down a thousand times by agents and was down to his last $600 before he found a company that would produce Rocky. The rest is history!

The poet Robert Frost had his first poetry submissions to The Atlantic Monthly returned unwanted.

Ray Kroc, the late founder of McDonalds, knew this too. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence” he once said. “Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with great talent. Genius will not. Un-rewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence, determination and love are omnipotent.”

I think that what the world defines as success doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as what our Creator might have had in mind. According to Webster’s dictionary, success is defined as “the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence."  We see it all the time.  A person seems to have everything, wealth beyond their dreams, a mansion, cars, etc…  But then we read about those same people addicted to drugs, being charged for criminal behavior, getting divorce after divorce, committing suicide. I think that sometimes the very thing that we consider success is the same thing that brings them down.

I once knew a man who was a multi-millionaire.  He owned a string of successful businesses.  He had spent his entire adult life making money and providing materially for his family.  Unfortunately, this meant that he was hardly ever home.  When I met him he was in his 60’s, divorced, living alone and very unhappy.  His children only contacted him when they needed something.  On the outside he had everything we would consider were signs of success.  On the inside, however, he was bewildered and depressed.  The world’s definition of success didn’t match what he really needed as a human being to be successful. He was taught by his father that to become wealthy was the means to having a fulfilling, happy life.  He followed that formula to the max. Unfortunately he was finding out too late that in doing so he had missed out on life.

A few years ago JK Rowling, author of the best selling Harry Potter novels, delivered an amazing commencement speech at Harvard University. Titled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination," Rowling describes how seven years after graduating university her marriage had broken down and she found herself an unemployed, single parent living in poverty. She was, in her mind, an abject failure. But hitting rock bottom brought a clarity that changed her life.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life…

Now I see this in different terms.  We are told to rest, take time away from everyday life and meditate on who we are and what we need for fulfillment.  I see that as similar to hitting “rock bottom." It’s a stripping away of the things that we use to define ourselves to others, an honest look at ourselves and a realization that success is being true to ourselves and others.  It’s identifying the true purpose of life and how we can move it forward.

Let me tell you about another man I knew named Joe.  Joe’s mother died when he was young and he was left, along with his siblings, with a father who had no idea how to raise children.  His father fell back on the only thing he knew and that was to rule the home with an iron fist, using physical and emotional abuse.  Joe was the oldest and most of the responsibility rested squarely on his shoulders.  That meant he was also on the receiving end of much of his father’s wrath.  When WWII broke out, Joe quickly signed up for the Navy.  It was his first time away from home and he loved it.  After training he soon shipped out for duty and was involved in many navel battles.  On two occasions, the ships he was assigned to were sunk.  He narrowly escaped death several times before the end of the war. After getting discharged, he came home, but was restless and unsure of what to do with his life.  Then the Korean War started and he signed up for the Army.  Because of his experience he was made a sergeant and was involved in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.  Upon returning home, he was suffering from PTSD and had developed an addiction to alcohol.  One morning, after a night of drinking, Joe found himself waking up on a bus not knowing where he was or where he was headed. Looking back, he realized it mirrored his overall life direction.  As the saying goes, he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired”; he checked himself into a VA Hospital and began the long process of recovery.  Joe eventually used his GI Bill to pay for college and earn a Master’s degree.  He married, had a daughter, and retired after a long and meaningful career helping others as the Administrator for Veterans Affairs at the University of Florida in Gainesville.  Joe’s life could have turned out very different.  He was abused as a child, went to war twice, developed PTSD and suffered from alcoholism.  You might wonder what had caused such an amazing change in Joe.  One thing he also found along the way was a deep understanding of a higher power.  He found the unconditional love of God.  For the first time in his life, he knew he was accepted and that nothing this world could do to him or give him mattered as much as what he believed to be true.  And so, Joe really was a success.  He wasn’t wealthy, lived a modest life, but what he knew more than anything else was that he had been given a gift, the gift of universal love.  It was a gift he didn’t squander, but he used it wisely to achieve the success he sought in life.  I met Joe twice in my life.  You see, he was my uncle. And though he lived a thousand miles away, we knew of his experiences through family stories, pictures and an occasional visit.  He served 20 years in the armed forces and was the first in our family to attend college.  Considering his father never attended any school and grew up herding sheep, Joe’s accomplishments in life were tremendous.  But you would not have heard that from him.  He was a humble man who exemplified today’s New Testament reading from Philippians 4:13 - "I can do all this through him who gives me strength."

So looking at all of today’s stories, I’ve identified some things people have cited as what it takes to be successful.

Persistence – Never giving up on your dreams.

Determination – Setting a goal and working towards it.

Love – The importance of family and friends to share the journey with.

Clarity of Purpose – Being clear about who you are and what gift you can use to make the world a better place.

Faith in a higher power regardless of the circumstances – above all else you need guidance to set the tone and give you structure.  Aligning your life with the Creator’s expectations and wishes, gives you stability and consistency in good and in challenging times.

Similarly,  Deepak Chopra writes: "Your mind, your body and your consciousness – which is your spirit – and your social interactions, your personal relationships, your environment, how you deal with the environment, and your biology are all inextricably woven into a single process … By influencing one, you influence everything."

He developed what he refers to as The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success:

Sunday: The Law of Pure Potentiality

Take time to be silent, to just BE. Meditate for 30 minutes twice a day. Silently witness the intelligence within every living thing. Practice non-judgment.

Monday: The Law of Giving

Today, bring whomever you encounter a gift: a compliment or flower. Gratefully receive gifts. Keep wealth circulating by giving and receiving care, affection, appreciation and love.

Tuesday: The Law of Karma

Every action generates a force of energy that returns to us in like kind. Choosing actions that bring happiness and success to others ensures the flow of happiness and success to you.

Wednesday: The Law of Least Effort

Accept people, situations, and events as they occur. Take responsibility for your situation and for all events seen as problems. Relinquish the need to defend your point of view.

Thursday: The Law of Intention and Desire

Inherent in every intention and desire is the mechanics for its fulfillment. Make a list of desires. Trust that when things don’t seem to go your way, there is a reason.

Friday: The Law of Detachment

Allow yourself and others the freedom to be who they are. Do not force solutions—allow solutions to spontaneously emerge. Uncertainty is essential, and your path to freedom.

Saturday: The Law of Dharma


Seek your higher Self. Discover your unique talents. Ask yourself how you are best suited to serve humanity. Using your unique talents and serving others brings unlimited bliss and abundance.

Native American, Chief Seattle once said – “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

In my mind that’s exactly what we have been talking about today, no different than what we read in Philippians 4: 13 – “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  God created the web that we are all a part of and, as the creator, holds the answers to this path we share.  If only we would listen. 

It seems to me that we go out of our way to make this journey more difficult than it needs to be.  We are easily distracted by what the world says it has to offer, forgetting this is only temporary.  We say things like “you can’t take it with you” and then live our lives as though we can.  The saying; “the one who dies with the most toys, wins” is the mantra of many.  But in the long run we know its promise is hollow.

My wish for you today is that you find it in your heart to “love your neighbor as yourself."  That includes the person right next door or a thousand miles away. Its people you know and someone you never met before.  It’s expressing God’s love for them at home and across the world. As you strive to be a success in your life, remember God has already said it is so.  It’s your job to believe it and to find ways to demonstrate it.  And, as was read today – “Earn your success based on service to others, not at the expense of others."