Sermon, September 25, 2016

Godliness Combined with Contentment
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
September 25, 2016   Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 146; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

It matters how we live in the material world. We risk wasting this one precious life if we do not find and choose the way of life that really is life. We risk feeling lost and without ultimate meaning when we are alive and we risk deep regret and anguish when we die.

Today’s passages speak passionately about this. The scriptural messages are clear, but even devoted Christians have a hard time living up to them. The author of I Timothy gives us a formula that could help: “Godliness combined with contentment.” Godliness and contentment are very different qualities, and yet if we hold them together in balance they point to the sacred way like divining rods that we use to find a spring of living water.

A Pentecostal preacher from South Africa came to a church near here several years ago and boasted during his sermon about how abundantly God had blessed his home congregation. He described their new building and parking lot full of Mercedes and BMWs. He then talked about how God had called them to share their riches with the poor. The way they were doing it, he said, was to go into the poverty stricken townships and preach the prosperity gospel, saying to the poor, believe in Jesus and you will become rich like us.

I wonder if that is what Jesus had in mind with his parable today. I wonder if what he wanted was for the rich man to go out after his daily sumptuous feasts and preach to Lazarus as he lay starving on the ground with the dogs licking his sores, promising that he could be rich if he just believed.

The author of I Timothy warns of the danger of the way the South African preacher was thinking.

Just before today’s passage I Timothy condemns those who think of godliness as a means to fulfill their ambition for material or financial gain. On the other hand, it says, there is much to be gained from godliness combined with contentment.

Contentment was a word loaded with meaning from Greek philosophy. First Century readers would associate contentment with a simple life in which we feel satisfied with a modest sufficiency of basic necessities. Contentment also meant equanimity, an acceptance of the life we have been given with all its limitations or struggles or suffering as well as its freedoms and pleasures and joys, surrendering to what we understand as the way of God.

I Timothy says, “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.” It is not money but “the love of money” that is “the root of all evil.” It is not the riches but the harmful desire to be rich. The author says to Timothy, “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” It says, “take hold of the eternal life…. take hold of the life that really is life.”

I wonder if you see how different these concepts of godliness and contentment are. Contentment is at rest. Godliness fights the good fight, it pursues spiritual virtues, it pushes away harmful desires for material things and takes a firm hold of a spiritual way of life.

Recently I quoted Augustine saying, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Godliness implies a restlessness of the human heart, a longing for the realm of God to be established on earth and for all to dwell in it. Godliness is not content as long as there is one Lazarus begging at the gate, godliness is not content until the sores on Lazarus’s body are healed and his hunger filled and his homelessness sheltered. Godliness will not rest as long as there is more that love can do, it will not rest as long as there is a shadow of death that needs the light we have to shine.

An old, dignified and wealthy grandfather was slowly dying of congestive heart failure. He lived alone in a big house and occasionally took in a grandchild who was in transition between college and a first apartment. The old gentleman’s home was neat and clean, his life well ordered in his quiet retirement, and he insisted that his grandchildren keep it that way.

One day one of his wilder grandsons was coming down from his third floor room and found his grandfather crawling on his hands and knees up the stairs, pausing on each step to catch his breath, looking as if he would die from the exertion.

The grandson was horrified and asked what he was doing. The old man said he was coming up to inspect. He said, “When there is one messy room you can feel it through the whole house.” He said, “Cleanliness is akin to godliness.”

It was not enough to the grandfather that he was still able to breathe and enjoy having a grandson in his home. It was not enough that he lived in a mansion where every room but one was neat and clean. It was so important to him to establish his version of godliness that he would let nothing stop him, he would risk alienating his grandson, he would risk even his life.

This could be an admirable and righteous way to live and die if it were the story of Lazarus. Imagine if the rich man in purple was dying but dragged himself out to the gate to bring Lazarus food and medicine and money. That would be taking hold of the life that really is life.

But the grandfather was motivated by a saying that is as un-Biblical as the prosperity gospel the Pentecostal South African preached. Cleanliness is good, but it is not akin to godliness—in fact the book of Acts makes it clear both that God’s love can make anything clean and, for the sake of love, we should be ready to set aside our rules about cleanliness. Peter had a vision where he saw a feast before him of foods that were considered impure, and he heard God inviting him to eat. Peter refused, saying he had never eaten anything profane before. God replied, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter realized then that he had to transform his thinking. He said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-36)

God was saying to Peter and to us all that we need to be ready to let go of our attachment and desire not just for wealth, but for our traditions and ideas of how things are supposed to be if those ideas are getting in the way of love and peace and extravagant hospitality.

The old man climbing the stairs was attached to his control over his home and his concept of how his home should be. It does not matter that he was right that a neat and clean house is a good and pleasant virtue. What matters is that his attachment to it got in the way of love, peace and extravagant hospitality.

How about you? Can you think of any notions you have about the way life should be that are keeping you from having Christ-like love and promoting peace in your home or church or community? Are you judging a situation or a person and shutting them out from your generous-hearted lovingkindness?

We may feel godly and righteous in our restless negativity and our attempt to gain perfection, as the old man did, but then we need to hold up the other half of the formula, and see what contentment is calling us to do. Is what is bothering us something we can forgive and accept and hand over to God and let go of in trust? Are our Godly desires actually harmful to God’s higher purposes of compassion, love and peace? Can we simplify our righteous expectations and standards and settle for a sufficiency of basic needs and call things good enough for the sake of inner and outer peace and well being?

Or is there an issue of highest godliness at stake, like the condition of poor Lazarus, where love and compassion demand that we have a holy discontent and not rest until we have expanded the realm of God to include someone who is shut out?

The church often gets this wrong by going too far in one direction or another, skewing the divining rods by its own desires rather than letting the Spirit lead. It can go too far in the direction of contentment and forget godliness as in the case of the South African church that reveled in its material gains and offered nothing but empty words to the poor.

The church can also go too far in the direction of godliness and forget contentment, simplicity, sufficiency, acceptance, compassion, love and peace. A year ago I talked about Horatio Spafford in a sermon. He was an elder in an evangelical Presbyterian church and a rich businessman. The great Chicago fire of 1871 destroyed much of his real estate holdings, and then his young son died, and then all four of his young daughters drowned in a shipwreck. His church responded by saying that God was punishing him for his heretical departures from their true doctrine. Spafford violated their narrow interpretation of what godliness meant, so instead of responding with compassion and love to his absolute devastation, they cast him out and left him like Lazarus bleeding and broken hearted at their gates.

Spafford himself combined godliness and contentment. He came through unimaginable grief to a place of acceptance and peace. The power of God’s love saved him and filled him with a love he felt compelled to share with others. He established a mission in Jerusalem that offered the kind of help Lazarus needed, feeding the poor, offering medical care to the sick and providing a home to the homeless. The mission befriended Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, content to love them as they were without preaching or trying to convert them.

As Elizabeth Kübler-Ross said in today’s Silent Meditation, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” This is as true of a congregation as of an individual. Godliness combined in perfect balance with contentment will always point to love, and that love will always transform suffering, struggle and loss into a new creation that is beautiful and inspiring to behold.

Let us pray in silence…