A Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 14, August 25, 2002, dedicated to Ms. Bonnee Henry for the leadership and love she brought our congregation this past year as our Seminary Intern and always to the glory of God!
Part VI of VII in the Sermon Series: "Seven Lost Keys to Understanding the Misunderstood Jesus"
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Today, we reach the sixth of seven lost keys to understanding Jesus. We have looked at Law, Grace, Meekness, Anger, and Sanity. Next week, we end with "Touch: The Healing Hands of Jesus." Today is Contentment.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Contentment is one of the most elusive realities in our times. It is so elusive, because so many people seek contentment outside themselves. Whether in gaining status with the perfect job; or adding possessions in an attempt to gain the best car, home, game system, or DVD; through seeking a more perfect relationship with the perfect partner; or getting to the place in life where all things are just seem right - contentment always seems one job, one house, one car, one person, one beach, or one reality beyond us. But the truth is, no matter how many things we accumulate, or how much perfection we find, contentment is not found in the bottom of the golden pot at the end of the rainbow. Like the Kansas farmer who once said, "I don't want to possess all the land in the world, I just want all the land that borders mine," our wants exceed our needs and hold contentment (on all four sides) just one parcel of acquisition away!
Not only is contentment elusive for many, contentment is not even a word used by Jesus. So, you ask, how could one of the seven lost keys to understanding Jesus stem from a word Jesus didn't use? Well, although Jesus never used the word "content" or "contentment," he clearly lived the concept and practiced contentment in daily life. If contentment, as I contend, is measured by how a person takes on life and how one lives on the inside, out, then it was one of the major concerns of our Savior.
Jesus spent most of his ministry with the discontented ones. Those who were religiously discontented challenged Jesus at every opportunity. He responded through parables and corrective measures as he reinterpreted Mosaic law. The politically discontented sought from Jesus a military rebellion based on the crises of the times and the size of the crowds that followed him. Instead, he showed them that an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth simply leaves the world blind and toothless. The economically discontented called on Jesus to turn around their life circumstances, which he did through healing, not through job training. And the spiritually discontented were always hoping he would solve their problems with the wave of a wand. Instead, Jesus taught them that repentance and conversion were within their grasp and a God-given fruit of the Spirit. Although Jesus never mentioned contentment, he spoke against those things which caused much of it. Jesus spoke against widespread injustices to the poor, to women, to children, to orphans, to widows, to people who were sick, disabled, and the lepers in his society. Out of the discontent, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God becomes manifest through the salvation and change of individuals and systems. Contentment is not arrived at by an either/or approach - that is either personal piety or social transformation. Rather, contentment is found by a both/and approach - personal faith and social transformation. I believe, no life of faith today can find contentment by retreating from ethical and moral issues into a bubble of prayer only. But no ethical and moral issue can be fully engaged unless it is engaged by a heart at prayer.
Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard and pastor of Memorial Church addresses I Timothy 6:6-8 which says,
"Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these."
Dr. Gomes, a great-grandson of slaves, writes of his great-grandmother's triumph over slavery coming through inner freedom she found in Christ. He says:
I learned that what made it possible for my mother's mother's mother to deal with I Timothy (6:6) and the whole world in which she was brought up as a slave in Virginia, and to still embrace the Christian faith as true, authentic, authoritative, and relevant is all its verses, not just the agreeable ones, was the notion that she already possessed in her soul that inner strength, that contentment that freedom in Jesus Christ to which indeed the apostle is here speaking. This did not make the burdens of life any less real than they were, this did not make the pain any less disagreeable, but it certainly made it possible to retain one thing that slavery could not take away, one's inner strength, one's identity, one's sense of worth and value, one's intention to survive and triumph, indeed one's contentment . . .
Contentment is not resignation. Contentment is not submission. Contentment is not simply rolling over and letting it happen. Contentment is the capacity within you not simply to survive but to prevail. (Quoted from Peter Gomes, "Contentment," Pulpit Digest, May/June 1992, pp.8-9).
"The spirit of Jesus does not teach us to be content with injustices and wrongs, to simply draw our salaries and wait for our pensions. Rather, we are to prevail, to overcome evil with good, to replace evil with the reign of God. Gomes continues": (Clyde Fant, The Misunderstood Jesus, Peake Road, Macon, GA., 1996, p. 129).
Contentment, St. Paul tells us, is to be found in the search for justice, piety, integrity, love, fortitude, gentleness. This is Paul's advice, and why? Not because these things are rewards. They are not! They are not prizes for the virtuous life. They are means to make the fundamentally unvirtuous enterprises of life manageable, bearable, and even fruitful. (Ibid.).
Contentment for Jesus did not mean the absence of pain or sorrow. I have heard some people through the years say that when suffer great losses, we should not grieve or display our emotions. This certainly was not said or done by Jesus. At least in my background it comes from my often stoic German-Swiss roots. Thankfully, my parents didn't stifle my tears with words like, "real faithfulness means no crying." Quite the opposite.
We remember that when Jesus' friend Lazarus of Bethany died, Jesus was deeply affected. He wept openly. When John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus was deeply disturbed. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood as we implored his Father in Heaven to let him live and let the cup pass from him. In Revelation Death is regarded as God's enemy. And the Apostle Paul writes in Corinthians that death no longer has victory, but acknowledges that it still brings us pain. God isn't content with death, so why should we be? Any reaction to death which denies grief isn't in the contentment plan of God.
Years ago, I witnessed a young mother who had lost her baby and lived into and through her sorrow. At the funeral home, people were gathering around her saying, "It will be okay. Let your baby go! God needs another angel in heaven." Finally, she burst out, God has plenty of angels! I needed my angel! So back off and let me cry! I just lost my baby and have the right to weep!" Truly, a Christ-worthy response!
Beyond his responses to discontent and the discontented ones, Jesus showed true contentment by his simple lifestyle, his appreciation for all people regardless of their place in society, and his delight in creation. Of creation he said, "consider the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor spin, but I tell you, Solomon in all his glory was not adorned like one of these." He also said, "not a sparrow falls that God does not notice." With humankind he moved easily among working people and scholars; among women and children and he never once used his power to injure or harm anyone. He envied no one and nothing. He grieved when he lost loved ones, celebrated at joyful occasions and delighted in life! He showed his contentment with being human.
Then as now, one of the greatest sources of evil in society is the attempt to deny humanity for others by making them less than human. When this happens, we actually become less than human ourselves. When we put down another person, we are put down, too! When we ignore others, we show our ignorance. When we take from others what is theirs or what they have claims to, we rob ourselves of human contentment.
In recent months, we have witnessed the true discontent brought on by corporate scandal. Within the past two weeks, we have discovered that WorldCom hid more than twice as much as previously reported - well over seven billion dollars! Conseco, the Indianapolis lender/insurance company, we now discover has been misleading its investors through most of the 1990's. And of course, the cases now in the courts with Enron and Arthur Anderson speak for themselves. Outrage, pain, and financial loss have affected many Americans - the domino-effect of which is felt here among all of us.
We ask what kind of greed could have possessed men and women to stain and scare the system of economy we have come to depend on and trust? Writing in the Columbus Dispatch Friday, August 16th, my friend and seminary cohort, Richard A. Burnett of Trinity Episcopal on Capital Square wrote, "The essential aim of all financial markets in a free, open and democratic society is the desire for the common good." How simple. How true. For the sacred integration of faith and work values and points to uplifting "the common good."
If our systems of economy are disabled and rotting, the common good is disabled, devalued, and deeply wounded. In other words, "the interest of all the community stakeholders as well as the business' stockholders must be the starting point for any moral analysis that takes us beyond self-serving blame and destructive complaint." (Burnett, Dispatch, E2, 8/16/02). In this regard, what is really at stake is not simply the honor of those who lead us economically, but the very soul of a nation which needs to focus on the common good and contentment for all.
Contentment may be the missing key to life in our times. Contentment is that quality that puts us at ease with both what we have and what we do not have. Having only the sandals on his feet, the coat on his back, and nowhere to lay his head at night, Jesus lived and died a contented life. Only his hunger and thirsting for righteousness brought him true contentment. Let's face it, the things of our lives will never bring us true contentment, but meaningful relationships with God and with others will. "The essence of contentment is godliness," writes Peter Gomes, "and the essence of godliness is inner strength because of God." (Ibid., p.5).
I pray that for you, as seekers of contentment, that you find your inner strength and contentment in God - the true source of contentment. Amen.
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