A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 19, 2017
Psalm 100; Philippians 1:3-6; 4:11b-13 ESV
For several years now, my Dad has said to us when every Father’s Day, birthday, or Christmas rolls around, “Now I don’t need anything, so you just save your money.” Such is a very nice gesture on my Dad’s part. But I rarely, if ever, listen to him and try to think of some gift that would be appropriate anyway. I often end up buying a gift card so he or my Mom can go pick out something that he might actually need or use.
For a long time, I didn’t really understand where my Dad was coming from in saying, “I don’t really need anything.” But the older I get, the more I am beginning to understand it. There isn’t a whole lot that I can think of that I want or need, materially speaking. Well, other than a nice, new log cabin in the woods (which is more of a fantasy than an actual need). Occasionally I think of a new book I would like to have. But my list of material wants is much shorter than it was in previous decades. I am not sure if it is such because I have accumulated many of the material or earthly things that once were on my wanting list, or if it is because my perspective on such things has changed over time, or a combination of both.
Finding contentment with one’s current situation is a cardinal principle of an authentic spiritual life. Not that I have arrived there, mind you. I am not well versed in Buddhist thought, but I seem to recall that one of the principles of Buddhism is reaching a state of contentment and a state of freedom from the desire for material things.
The Apostle Paul touches on the idea of contentment in his letter to the Philippians. Philippians is probably my favorite of all the authentic Pauline writings in our New Testament. Such a warm, congenial spirit flows in this letter, and it is free of some of the heavy theological language to be found in some of Paul’s other works. The letter begins on a note of thanksgiving: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,” Paul affectionately assures his readers. It is obvious throughout this letter that there is a real bond of love and commitment between Paul and this congregation he had established. Now, we need to remember that as Paul penned this letter, he was sitting in prison, probably in Rome.
But near the end of the letter, Paul testifies that in spite of his imprisonment and all the troubles he is facing, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:11). What a testimony! What a perspective on life! To be content, no matter the situation. Whether it be plenty or hunger, abundance or need. Paul proclaimed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Paul’s faith; the relationships, love and support he had with fellow believers; and the relationship he felt he had with God and Christ all contributed to his sense of contentment in life, regardless of the present circumstances.
But must we not confess that if we were to permit ourselves, it would be easy to be more focused on regrets of what we don’t have versus contentment with what we do have. It would have been very easy for the Apostle Paul to spend his time in prison bemoaning his present situation and being miserable over what he didn’t have. Paul could have thought, “Oh, if only I were on a fourth missionary journey! If only I had gone over there instead of where I did where I got arrested! If only this, and if only that! How I wish I had such and such!” But he didn’t.
I’ve been there a time or two in the past, and perhaps you have too; those times when you allow yourself to be obsessed with what you don’t have or what you want or desire (and not necessarily what you really need). It is easy for us to fall into the line of thinking of, If I only had that automobile, or if I only had that house, or if I only had that modern convenience, I would be happy. And such can become our focus to the exclusion of all other considerations. Obsession over not having one material thing can take precedence over and every other blessing we have in abundance, if we allow it to.
But one of the secret keys to a fulfilled life is not only finding contentment in life, but being thankful for what we already have. Every spring and every fall, I switch my clothes out in my closet. So recently I moved all my spring and summer clothes to the back end of my closet, and I moved my fall and winter shirts and pants to the front where I can easily access them. And I do the same with my winter coats, gloves, hats and such. And in the process, I invariably run across a nice shirt or pair of pants or sweater that I had forgotten I even owned. And I have to say to myself, “That is a really nice shirt or sweater! I had forgotten I even owned that.” And I pause for a moment of gratitude that I have that and can look forward to wearing it.
Well, this personal confession has a wider application. When we pause to take inventory of our lives, we realize that we have blessings in abundance that we may have forgotten about; not just items of clothing that make us feel good when we wear them. But books and artwork, and pieces of family heirloom furniture, and family photographs, and dozens of other objects (perhaps passed down from family members) that bring us joy when we remember that we have them. But above all, there is the blessing of relationships and the many people who love us, including some relationships and distant friendships that we sometimes forget about.
God grant us the attitude of Henry David Thoreau: “I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence.”
I realize that it is easy for me – for most of us in the United Church – to talk about finding contentment and being thankful for what we already have since most of us live very blessed lives. But many of our county and world find life to be much more difficult. They don’t have a summer wardrobe and winter wardrobe. They probably do spend a lot of time thinking about what they don’t have rather than what they do have. I get that.
But you and I have to live our own lives and respond accordingly. If we can find contentment in what we already have, and if we do have much for which to give thanks, then such is what we are bound to do. As the authors of The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons put it, “Now is a good moment to gather our thanks. Now is the time to remember that we have what we need to give us strength and nourishment during barren, fallow times.”1
As we remember the Plymouth Pilgrims this week, we are reminded that they could have spent that autumn of 1621 focusing on regrets and bemoaning what might have been and all the suffering and hardships they had endured. They had found themselves in a harsh, cold environment without the comforts of home they had known in Europe. They had almost starved to death. All of them had lost loved ones to illness, exposure to the cold and death. Nevertheless, they chose to focus their thoughts on gratitude and thanksgiving for the blessings they did have.
Every now and then all of us may find ourselves having regrets over what isn’t, what might have been, or what we don’t have. But every November, Thanksgiving rolls around to remind us to go through the closets of our lives and take stock of, be reminded of, and to cultivate a more thankful spirit for what we do have. May it be so for each of us this Thanksgiving week and always. Amen.
1Joyce Rupp & Macrina Wiederkehr, The Circle of Life: The Heart’s Journey Through the Seasons. Notre Dame: Sorin Books, 2005. Pp. 220-221.