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Desire and Circumstance

Desire and Circumstance

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 18, 2022

Desire and Circumstance

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

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 the 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 [home after a date with politician Bill Kelley].  (“Wait,” she yelled after the ferry, “I lost my Choo!”)  There was the strappy red number by designer Manolo Blahnik that (in Season 3, episode 17) she lost when mugged at gunpoint.  (But “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 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?  Probably close to her $40,000 / year salary as a freelance journalist, and probably a not-insubstantial portion of her, what(?), 450 square foot Upper East Side studio.

In today’s lesson from 1 Timothy, Paul doesn’t write about shoes (at least not exactly); 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 teaching 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 having more money, or (even) 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 can come to contentment by having less?  In his brief but wise book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, the early-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 if infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have…. [But] the way to be rich is not by increasing wealth, but by diminishing desires…. This is the art of contentment: … not so much by adding to what we would have… but by subtracting from our desire, so as to make our desire and our circumstance even and equal. (2,II)

Though Burroughs wrote in the early 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 is the result of 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.  And our things weigh us down; they burden us and do not make us happy because they can’t.  But how to come to that place of “subtraction” of which Burroughs speaks, that place in which we will have subtracted enough from our desire “so as to make our desire and our circumstance even and equal” and thereby find contentment?

I thought Burroughs solution might be to offer something similar to Marie Kondo’s decluttering philosophy—like, if it doesn’t “spark joy,” get rid of it.  But while a Marie Kondo-like decluttering could be an important step toward contentment—and, God knows, the rectory basement could use some Marie Kondo-like decluttering—Burroughs’ solution “to make our desire and our circumstance even and equal” and thereby find contentment is at once more brazen and more nuanced.  Burroughs says that the best way to get out from under the burden of our things, our stuff, is to take on yet another burden: “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] to load and burden your heart with your sin.”  Burroughs anticipates our confusion:

“How is this?”… you will say…. “This is a strange way… to get 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 “make our desire and circumstance equal” and thereby find contentment, his urging us “to load and burden your heart with your sin,” may seem paradoxical, even offensive, to our 21st century ears.  But Burroughs’ counsel is consistent with addiction recovery programs: we take on the additional burden, say, of going to meetings; we admit our need for help; we admit there is a “higher power”; we “get alone and examine our hearts”; we ask for forgiveness, that our “shortcomings” be “removed,” and so on.  Ultimately big-picture-wise what Burroughs recommends is not dissimilar to what recovery programs recommend, which is: if we would find contentment (or healing or freedom) the way forward is to replace one affliction with another: to replace one affliction that has no cure—we will never find contentment in having “more,” be it things or money, or alcohol or drugs—the way to contentment is replace one affliction which has no cure with another that does have a cure.  For the admission of sins there is a cure.  For once we have “loaded our souls with the charge of our sins” (to use Burroughs’ language), or once we have “turned our will and our lives over to the care of God” (to use twelve-step language), then there is the possibility of forgiveness, then there is the possibility of our shortcomings being removed.  Just as Jesus changed water into wine, Burroughs says, so can God change our afflictions into mercies, our spiritual poverty into spiritual riches.  Having replaced one burden that cannot be cured with another that can, our new “burden” of faith can cure us.

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.”  And though I may seem to have dissed her, for those who seek contentment I invite you to consider doing a Marie Kondo-like decluttering, as material possessions do weigh us down; without our realizing it our things (even including shoes!) can become a burden to us spiritually.  And for those who desire to take the next step, who truly want to turbo-charge their journey toward finding contentment, I invite you to do as Burroughs suggested: to replace any affliction that cannot be cured—those afflictions that we try to cure with “more”—with an affliction that can be cured, which is: to consider our own fallenness and brokenness and to place the ways in which we have fallen short into God’s caring hands.  And there discover the riches, the healing, the wholeness, the freedom, the happiness and contentment, that we humans can find only in God.

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