The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s061e05 Lockleys Sunday 28 9/10/2005
"I have learned to be content with whatever I have". Philippians 4.13
When I browse through those mens' and womens' magazines in doctor's waiting rooms, or see those "picture perfect" models on the television, I recall, I think it was a Jewish theologian was who commented that if some woman got up each morning, looked in the mirror and thought: "What a beautiful creature I am!" (which I hasten to add is an universally accurate perception and a true statement) -- a multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry would collapse overnight! Mind you, men have their own vanities, when it comes to cars and boats and computers, and I certainly do not exclude myself in this. I understand I am what is termed an "early adopter" -- I am a person who regularly upgrades my computer for a later model. I pay lots of money for the latest, and by the time I get to really know how it works, there is always a bigger, brighter and better model on the market, usually for less money than I paid for the earlier model. How much we all suffer from not being content.
A while back I came to the conclusion that I have reached my level of incompetence when it comes to using a computer. This has been staved off for quite some time by my using a Macintosh rather than a PC, but I have come to realize that the territory of making DVD's of movies is beyond me. I long ago gave up programming the VCR -- that is definitely for those with younger and more agile minds than mine. So I too must learn to be content with whatever I have, and realize that that which I have is also diminishing rapidly.
St Paul had to learn to be content -- it did not come naturally. Some people do have a contented nature -- others do not. I have used the example of the two people in a nursing home before. One, a good church-goer all her life, spent the little time remaining to her, complaining to God why such a fate had befallen her. The staff, for all their diligent efforts, were never able to make her comfortable. In the same nursing home was another person of similar age and similar condition. She wasn't quite the church-person as the other. I suspect that she spent considerably less time in prayer and much more time making the most of the situation, joking with the staff whenever she could. This person looked at her situation realistically and made the most of it. For all the self-same staff cared for both of these people, there are no prizes for guessing who they probably found it more pleasurable to look after.
So one does not necessarily become more content with advancing years, with prayer and bible reading. Many elderly people who have made the Church their life can end up very self-centred and discontented.
While I was on my sick leave, I happened to buy a "Great Aussie Fact book" to read, and there it listed the convicts on the First Fleet and their offences. As I read through them I began to notice a small pattern, the number of people who were convicted and sent to Australia for the theft of one single handkerchief. 17 in 785 were sent to Australia for the theft of one measly handkerchief. One of the afflictions of advancing years is that people forget where they put things. I could well imagine a fair proportion of these unfortunate people were convicted because they were servants and were blamed for something that was actually lost. Another person was transported to Australia for the theft of two handkerchiefs, and another 8 for the theft of an unspecified number of handkerchiefs. In all 26 of the 785, 3.3% could well have been unjustly punished because of the dementia of their masters or mistresses, feeding their discontent that their servants haven't heeded the message of the 10 commandments.
The trouble with discontent is that it is never assuaged. For a time one can focus on a particular cause of discontent, and it may or may not go away. But even if it does go away, there is always something else that replaces it.
Our consumer society and advertising is driven by these feelings of discontent. People make money out of it.
But it is so destructive. One has only to think of those who suffer from anorexia and bulimia nervosa to realize that discontent can literally eat us up. In the case of those who suffer from eating disorders, at least it doesn't affect those around the person. But how often do we blame others for our discontent? If only so and so would do this or that! This is but the early symptom of a slippery slide into perpetual discontent that actually alienates us from others.
Which leads me on to parish life, and the question, are we are a content parish? Are we a place where people can come and be in congenial and caring surroundings -- or will they come into a place where those who don't come, those who don't come often enough, those who don't measure up to our standards -- never mind any excuses they might proffer -- they are automatically "one the outer".
So it is an important question we must put to ourselves: 'have we learned to be content with whatever we have?' Or perhaps we think that the scripture only applies to others and not to ourselves?
I recall vividly the sermon of a priest in another parish. It happened to be the last Sunday before he retired, so he was 'shooting from both barrels' you might say. Some of those words still ring in my ears: "I have nothing but contempt for those who only come to church when they need God" he said. How discontented this man was -- he wasn't even happy when people came to Church, he questioned their motives! Needless to say he discouraged people who weren't members of the congregation from getting married in Church or bringing their children for baptism. Only a month or so ago, one of his former parishioners told me that she had moved parishes to avoid his preaching -- and I thought -- good on her! So going to church, living a life of prayer and reading the bible, even being an ordained minister of God does not mean that we have learned to be content. And, I might add, I understand age has not helped this priest one iota. He believes he has had a prophetic ministry, given by God. Sadly, I think it was more driven by his own inner demons.
So I have to recognise that we have all grown up in a church that has often used the paradigm of being discontented to threaten and intimidate others, and old habits die hard. But let me say that unless we actually, like St Paul, have learnt to be content with whatever we have, let us not pretend that we have any good news to offer anyone else.
So often in the councils of the Church, I hear people bemoaning the fact that few young people come to Church. And I often ask myself, why on earth would they? I do not want people to come to a parish that has not learned to be content -- for it is soul-destroying. If what we offer is not good news, but soul destroying, I am glad young people do not come to church.
Let me say that I do believe that the good news is affirming to one and to all, though of course, not just to an elite at the top of a pile.
Now there are people who have considerable justification for being discontented. The original inhabitants of this land have considerable justification for being discontented. In the clash of cultures they have often been considered as lesser individuals, by high-minded but deluded Christian people. Those who have been sexually abused by members of the church have every right to be discontented. Those incarcerated in detention centres have considerable justification for being discontented; having got so far, yet at the very last post, freedom is denied them. I think women have a good deal of justification for being discontented, for they have been officially marginalized by the Christian Church -- not to mention gay people. Our society has changed enormously and many of the traditional "entry level" jobs for young people, like bank tellers, have simply disappeared. Unemployed young people have a right to be discontented. Some older people may say, "I'm an old dog, too old to learn new tricks -- I'll always be like this -- everyone will just have to put up with me". This effectively means that they believe that the commandment to love our neighbour is directed towards everyone else -- and not towards them.
Being justified doesn't make it healthy -- having good reasons doesn't help at all. We alienate ourselves and we alienate others; and once on that slippery slide of being discontented, it is hard to learn otherwise. All we will do is crash out at the bottom -- usually alone.
Contentment is something we all have to learn -- for none of us have got everything we want, and none of us ever will. If we face this fact, get over it and be content, then we as individuals are likely to be someone who other people might just be attracted to. This parish doesn't have everything we need and we will never have everything we want. If we face this fact, get over it and be content as a parish, then we as a parish might just have something that everyone seeks.
One begins to realize that if it comes down to a choice of having everything we want or being content, it is actually the second that we both need and desire. May we all choose to learn this vital lesson as individuals, for ourselves and for those around us -- and as a parish as well as for those for whom we as a parish hope to attract by the good news.
It is by our contentment that we proclaim most effectively the good news of God's amazing love.
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