I have decided to preach on the lesson from 1 Timothy 6 and I'd like to focus in on verses 6 through 11.
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. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.
There are times when reading the Gospels, or the letters of Paul, or really, any part of the Bible that you come across very simple words that make sense, that are easy to understand, that seem freeing and even comforting in their directness, but which ultimately—if we were to adopt them—would dramatically change our lives.
"Take up your cross and follow me." Well, okay…simple words, but we know that "the cross" is not just standing up in church on Sunday, or even putting up with some complication in life. If our cross is to be like Christ's cross, then it will be both a symbol and a reality that being a Christian comes before everything else. Simple words…not so simple in their ultimate meaning.
In one place Jesus simply says, "Follow me." Two words. Direct. Uncomplicated in their grammar. Unmistakable in their meaning. I have said them to people needing directions. I am sure you have, too, but when Jesus says it to Philip in John's Gospel, is it a command? Or an invitation? And because we know the story, we know that these simple words are part of the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth.
When you and I heard the words "follow me" –maybe when we were children, maybe later—and something inside of us was not able to get away from them, how were we to know that it would change us so completely?
I read the words from First Timothy and nodded my head, "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 those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction."
They are very simple words, and I nodded my head in recognition of their truth. When you are content... When you realize that you had nothing to start with and will have nothing at the end, it puts a great deal of perspective on that part of life which is striving, grasping, trying to get ahead, trying to make it work.
"If we have food and clothing, we should be content," writes the author of Timothy, "but those who want to get more and more fall into all sorts of senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction." I nodded my head. Of course. It is as obvious as the nose on my face. When you let loose your greedy desires for more, always more, it is a recipe for all kinds of temptations to misbehavior. Because what is ever enough? Someone will always have more than you do. You will never own it all. There is no number so high that one cannot be added to it. Of course.
How many murder mysteries has Agatha Christie written about the greediness of a family member that leads them to kill the rich relative? How many newspapers have been printed with stories about the corruption of people in authority. Power and position were not enough. The campaign chest could always be larger. The office and staff could always be bigger. Timothy is right, greed can lead to "all sorts of senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction."
But as I pulled back from the text, I looked down again at those words, "If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these." And my head was no longer nodding in agreement. Food and clothing. That's it?
The psychology textbooks tell us that there are three basic needs. Timothy missed one. Shelter. But, you know, in the first and second centuries shelter could be as basic as a cave or a tent or a very modest house. Let's not quibble over this. Let's go ahead and add shelter to the list.
But even with that, If we have food, clothing, and shelter, we will be content with these. Really? I'm sorry, but I am not so sure I can agree. When you move into a new living space—a student into a dorm room, a family into a new home—the clothes are hung, food is bought and stored in the appropriate places, but it's not enough. It's just not.
The people who read this letter, I am sure, did not think so either. The most extreme ascetics may give up everything, even including food, clothing, and shelter, but you cannot expect humanity as a whole to adopt that manner of living. Even people with very little have items they treasure.
I will never forget, when I worked in a homeless shelter, taking people in and having to go through their bags. I remember there was a man who had a Crown Royal bag and inside he had various souvenirs from his life, including an artist's depiction of Jesus. There was nothing of any intrinsic value in that bag, but to him it was a bag of memories. "Man does not live by bread alone." Contentment with the barest needs seems absurd.
And what is this word "contentment," anyway? If someone said they were content, what would you assume? That they're happy? No. Content means you've given up. Content has a measure of surrender in it. We would rather hear the word "fulfilled," right?
"It's hard work, but it's very fulfilling." Yeah..! Now that's what we like to hear. But.. "It's hard work, but I'm content…" Doesn't that just bring things down? Fulfillment is going somewhere, it's got the possibility of more in it. Content just sits in a rocking chair, petting a cat.
The problem, really, with "Content" is that it breaks the cardinal rule of the American way. And that is ambition. Everyone should have ambition for something. If it's not money, then it's something else. Bigger this, better that. It's what built this country. We were told we couldn't, so we had to show the world we could. And that drive is behind our sense of optimism and progress—ambition.
From very early on, we are taught that the early bird gets the worm. We are taught that ambition is the virtue that will carve out a successful and fulfilling life. Never be satisfied, there is always more—more money, a better job, a bigger house, a better life. You can look better, feel better, do more, have more.
You and I should be so driven by ambition that nothing should ever be good enough, no matter how good it is. As soon as you rest on your laurels, someone else is out there getting ahead. And when they have the money, and you don't, then where will you be? And here comes the word "content" right alongside the two lonely words, "food and clothing." You've got to be kidding. If we don't have ambition… If we're content, than we're just saying, "This is as good as it gets." And from there it's not too far to get to complacency, and I don't care.
But that's not what the author of Timothy is saying. He is saying "Be content with things, but continue to pursue those behaviors that deepen our relationships with God and others. He writes, "Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." Pursue those disciplines that cannot be measured, but which are priceless.
(Pause.) Some years ago I met a friend coming out of a bookstore with a bag of new things to read, and he said, "I'm buying these books, but I think I'm buying the time to read them." Isn't that the way it is? We chase after items, believing them to bring us the time to enjoy them. But we don't take time to be content. We're too busy thinking it could be better.
I have spent a lot of time with this text, and being an Anglican, I'm very cautious about either/or. I almost always think the truth is somewhere between extremes. It seems to me that in the healthy Christian life, there must be both contentment and ambition. Just as there must be work and play.
But you have to be able to value the present in order to have any happiness at all in life. Each day is built by these little fleeting moments of glory and sadness. Taken too quickly, or with our eyes always on the horizon, and we live in a kind of mindless unfocused desire for anything other than "right now." But when you can stop long enough to value the glory of the moment, the person you are speaking with "right now," or the knowledge that God has given you this very moment to live, it changes everything. And then you can actually do what Timothy's letter says and "pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness."
Brother Curtis Almquist of the SSJE led a clergy retreat some years ago, and he began by saying, "We have just received word this morning of some impossibly good news. In fact it is news that will change all our lives." And then after a very heavy pause, which, of course, heightened our anticipation, he said, "It seems that God has given us another day to live. Now go live today."
Every day is a mixture of good news and bad news, progress and failure. Ambition in little helpful amounts over the course of a day and a life is a very good thing, as long as it never obscures the pursuit of that which truly matters. (Pause.)
We ask children what they want to be when they grow up. We may not realize how awkward that question can feel to a child. It confronts them with an unknowable future. It asks for a little window into their interior life where we may be able to see their ambition.
Let me ask you: what do you want to be when you grow up? I don't mean that as an insult. We are adults here. What do you want to be?
My guess is that the true answer—for all of us, regardless of what vocation we wish to have— is actually much more basic: We want to be happy. We want to be fulfilled. We want to know that life is better for others because we are there. That we will be truly missed when we die. That our acts of love and kindness will be treasured and our failures will be forgotten. None of those desires has any relationship to money. How kind and gentle godly ambition is.
I still want to be a Christian. I want to be a much better Christian. A better husband, a much better father. I want to go to sleep at night believing that people love God more because of me. I'm pretty sure you want the same thing, because you're a Christian. You want people to love God more, because you believe.
It's a small ambition, but it's the ambition that holds contentment in its hand. It's the ambition that holds contentment in its hand.
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The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.