Desire and Circumstance

Desire and Circumstance

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 25, 2022

Desire and Circumstance

Homily for September 25, 2022
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Timothy 6:6–19

Two weeks ago I quoted from Barbara Brown Taylor’s short but invaluable book Speaking of Sin, in which Taylor makes the case (as the title suggests) for speaking of “sin.”  Though usually when we hear the word “sin,” she writes, “People hear the guilt coming and leave the room”; yet “sin,” she insists, is a “helpful, hopeful word,” a word without which we would be diminished and whose absence would preclude us from finding full healing and health.  “Sin is the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance,” she says.  And though I want to get back to speaking of sin and to that potential for full healing and health that it offers, I first want to speak of shoes.

When in the late 1990’s Sara Jessica Parker strutted onto the set of Sex and the City as the fictional Carrie Bradshaw, fans aplenty lusted after her wardrobe, in particular her shoes.  There were, for example, the feathered “Slingback Sandals” by designer Jimmy Choo, one of which (in Season 3, episode 1) she lost while sprinting to catch the Staten Island ferry.  (“Wait,” she yelled after the ferry, “I lost my Choo!”)  Then there was the strappy red number by designer Manolo Blahnik that (in Season 3, episode 17) she lost when mugged at gunpoint.  (“Please, sir, they’re my favorite pair.”)  Then there were the ruffled pink “Travalata Pumps” by designer Christian Louboutin purchased for an important date but which, when her friend Miranda’s water broke, became drenched and unwearable.  And then there were the white Christian Louboutin pumps in which (in Season 6, episode 20) Carrie stepped into a pile of dog poop.  What was Carrie Bradshaw’s shoe collection worth, and how much space did it take up in her New York apartment?  Estimates are… probably close to her $40,000 per year salary as a freelance journalist, and probably a not-insubstantial portion of her, say, 450 square foot Upper East Side studio.

In today’s lesson from 1 Timothy, Paul doesn’t write about shoes, but he does say, “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.”  Though Paul’s words probably would not cut it with the producers of Sex and the City, I have a hunch that we know Paul’s words to be true; we know that contentment does not arise from having more things, or from having more money, or even from having more shoes.  Deep down, I think we know that contentment does not come from having more.

But do we know that the inverse is true, that we come to contentment by having less?  In his brief but wise book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, the 17th century Congregationalist preacher Jeremiah Burroughs writes,

A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition as by way of subtraction.  That, [subtraction,] is our way of contentment, and it is a way in which the world has no skill…. The world is infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have…. (2,II)

Though Burroughs wrote in the 17th century, yet his words ring true for us today.  As in the early 17th century, today many are deceived and do think that contentment results from having more—more things, more money (more shoes).  We need but look around our attics, garages and basements to see that we live in a consumer society and that, at least when it comes to material goods, we are not poor.  But things tend to weigh us down; things tend to burden us, and do not make us happy because they can’t.

To come to that place of “subtraction” and ultimately contentment, I thought Burroughs’ solution might be similar to Marie Kondo: if it doesn’t “spark joy,” get rid of it.  But while a Marie Kondo-like decluttering could be an important first step toward contentment, Burroughs’ solution is at once more startling and more nuanced.  Burroughs says that the best way to get out from under the burden created by our things is to take on yet another burden.  (And here we return to speaking of sin).  “A Christian comes to contentment,” he writes, “not so much by getting rid of the burden that is on them as by adding another burden…. [which is, he says] to load and burden your heart with your sin.”  Burroughs anticipates our objections:

“How is this?”… you will say…. “This is a strange way… ease to our condition, to lay a greater burden upon us when we are already burdened.”  You think there is no other way, when you are afflicted, but to be jolly and merry and get into company.  But you are deceived, your burden will come again…. If you would have your burden light, get alone and examine your heart for your sin, and charge your soul with your sin.

Burroughs’ solution to find contentment by “loading and burdening our heart with our sin” may seem paradoxical, even offensive, to our 21st-century ears.  But Burroughs’ counsel is consistent with addiction recovery programs in which, in order to be freed from the burden of addiction, participants take on the additional burden of being forthright, of what we in the Church might call “Confession.”  Participants admit they have an addiction, they admit that there are those whom they have harmed, they admit they need help, and they call on a “higher power.”  Addiction recovery programs replace one affliction that has no cure—we will never find contentment in having “more,” be it things or money, or alcohol or drugs—with another that has, which is: admitting our shortcomings (to use twelve-step language), or confessing our sins (to use Church language).  For the admission of sins there is a cure.  For once we have “loaded our souls with the charge of our sins” (to borrow from Burroughs), or once we have “turned our will and our lives over to the care of God” (to borrow from twelve-step literature), then there is the possibility of forgiveness, then there is the possibility of healing and health.  Having replaced one burden that cannot be cured with another that can, God can bring healing and wholeness, and we can find peace and contentment.

Those who seek contentment I invite to consider Paul’s words: “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.”  Though I may seem to have dissed her, those who seek contentment I invite to consider doing a Marie Kondo-like decluttering, for our material possessions can weigh us down; without our realizing it our possessions can become a burden and preclude contentment.  And for those who desire to take the next step, who are ready for the “advanced placement” course (as it were) in finding contentment, I invite you to do as Burroughs suggested: to “get alone and examine your heart for your sin, and charge your soul with your sin.”  For then, having replaced one burden that cannot be cured with another that can, God will help us discover the riches, the healing, the wholeness, the freedom, the rest and the contentment, that is to be had neither in things nor in money, neither in alcohol nor in substances (nor even in shoes), but that we human beings find in God and only in God.

More Sermons