Sunday, October 07, 2001

"In Search of ... Contentment"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 7, 2001
Text: 1 Peter 1:3-9

This morning I have some bad news for you and I have some good news. And I want to start with some bad news. And it's bad news that came home to me this past summer, in fact, when I was reading a most provocative article in the Life section of the Toronto Star. So provoking was this article that I actually shared it with the congregation at the Lake Joseph Community Church.

The bad news is, according to this article, that we have within our society an epidemic. When I started to read this I realized it was not an epidemic or a pandemic of AIDS, it was not an upcoming epidemic of the flu or of any other disease. It is what the writer called “an epidemic of disappointment.”

He went on to argue that in our North American society we have the symptoms of this epidemic all around us.

He maintains, and he makes this point over and over again, that we in our society “have disappointment because of unmet expectations.” And he goes on: “Today we suffer from an unparalleled case of inflated hopes and dreams.” And when these two things come together, inflated hopes and dreams and unmet expectations, one has an epidemic, an outbreak of disappointment.

For example, he argues that in the realm of health, we have an unreasonable expectation that we will be healthy all the time. And if there is not something that can provide an immediate cure or quick fix, we become disappointed and disillusioned and the epidemic sets in.

He said, and I thought this was fascinating, since he wrote this article on June 16, not September the 11, that we also have an epidemic of disappointment, because we have set our hopes and dreams on an economy that will continually soar and that will not deflate. (He was writing at a time when people were getting on the bandwagon of saying that we will have 30 years of unprecedented economic growth ahead of us, and that we in North America can get ready for a time that will be almost unprecedented in the history of capitalism). So much for those profits!

There were those that got on the high wave of dreams and hopes that a high-tech utopia would be created that would sustain us and move us into a nirvana, into a promised land. That we could have again a sustained time of continual technological growth where our minds would be continually stretched and expanded. Now, he argued that with these dreams and hopes, with the outrageous beliefs that we have about the future and its prosperity, a period of disappointment is bound to set in. Those of us who have seen the events of September 11th and what has unfolded since can agree with this writer completely.

We often have unrealistic hopes and dreams, and we place our hopes and dreams in things that will not last, rather than things that will. We are continually waiting for something to happen before we can truly be thankful, and have a sense of contentment in our hearts.

Now, there is an upside and a downside to the bad news of this disappointment. The upside, I think, relates to those who have had a great deal in their lives but find that this is all there is and become disconcerted. Just recently I was sitting at a dinner next to a man whose life had really turned around in the last few years. He had become extremely wealthy by selling his business to a conglomerate, and he had made millions of dollars. And he said to me, “You know, Reverend Stirling, one of the things that I'm really struggling with right now is that with all this wealth, with my new home and new car, what am I going to say to my children? What values can I instill in the youth? Because they will see what we have and think that the world is made up of such things. They will believe that natural life and living is borne out of this prosperity, when I realize that we are in fact just fortunate. The question for me is what am I going to say when my children look at all this and say: Iis this all there is?”'"

In deep contrast to that, a woman came into my office recently. This woman had a happy marriage and home 15 years ago. She had lived a fairly prosperous life near this neighbourhood, but her life had slid away from her because of mental illness. Her husband had died; her children didn't want anything more to do with her. In fact, a couple of times this year, she's actually found herself living on the street.
This is a woman full of anxiety and fear. She came into my office crying because she believed that a lottery ticket she had in her purse had been stolen, and that that lottery ticket was finally going to bring her back to the place where she was 15 years before. Here was a woman who had in fact lost everything and is wondering now, "Is this all there is?"

So you see, my friends, the spirit of being discontent can hit us all and at many different levels. I think that's one of the reasons why in literature, for example, this pathos of disappointment is so prevalent, whether it is in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, or Shakespeare's great Hamlet, or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The stories are legend of people who have been touched by this epidemic of disappointment. And I would suggest that on this very day, our nation and our world are very much influenced by having had great hopes and dreams and then finding that they are not being met in the way that they had anticipated. So the question I always ask is: “What, then, is the antidote to this epidemic?”

Now I want to turn to the good news, for this is Thanksgiving. Recently I have been reading one of my favourite poets, the great G.K. Chesterton. Now, Chesterton was a man of great humor, a man who made some mistakes, didn't think much of Puritanical Protestantism and things like that but nevertheless was a great writer.
In the introduction to one of his books, he writes: "Joy is the gigantic secret of Christianity." Let me repeat, "Joy is the gigantic secret of Christianity." And he says one of the things that we've got to get through to our society and of course he was writing early in the last century, is that the Christian faith is, as the writer from 1 Peter put it, "Something that is of an inexpressible joy." That it is marvelous and it is good, but all too often, as Chesterton found, religion and faith are being seen not as the antidote of disillusionment, but as the source of it.

I was reading the story of a young minister who gave his first sermon at a new church. After this rather lengthy sermon, two women sitting next to each other in the pew said to each other: "Well, what do you think of the new minister? What did you think of this sermon?"

And one of the women turned and said, "Well, I can honestly say this is the first time in my life that I have been envious of my feet, for this morning they were asleep."

Well, there are many people who look at faith and religion through those eyes and see it in exactly those negative terms, but Chesterton does not. He turns, rather, in one of his most famous poems, The Happy Man, to describe the source of contentment. He takes us through three very simple but profound stanzas that speak of the power of this. The first of which is as follows:

To teach the grey earth like a child,
To bid the heavens repent,
I only ask from Fate one gift
Of one man well content.

You see Chesterton has gone far and wide and what he found in the England of his days is what I find today. An epidemic of disappointment. He is looking for one man who is well content.

Now one of the problems that we have is our definition of what it means to be content. We think to be content is a natural state. We think it is something that is our prerogative. That somehow we have the right to be content in all things. And by content we mean to have our hopes and dreams fulfilled, to have what our mind's eye desires and seeks. That we are fulfilled when we get what we want and then, in that natural state of contentment, all will be well.

There are gurus out there promoting such things everywhere. They are even within the Christian church, with their prosperity gospel and their belief that somehow contentment is our natural right. Well, my friends, contentment is not our natural right.

On the contrary, we are sinful human beings. We're sinful. And as sinful human beings we tend not to be contented. Rather, we tend to be introverted, introspective, concerned only for our own welfare. We want to accumulate in order to impress others. We want the contentment that comes when we simply find peace with our own hearts no matter what happens in the rest of the world. We are content when we have consumed, when we have achieved, and when we have got everything that our hearts and our minds desire.

Therefore, as sinful human beings, as those who define contentment in such terms, is it any wonder that we become disappointed? For we, in fact, set ourselves up for the fall at the very beginning.

I read recently a wonderful story of Gerta Weissman, a Jewish woman in a concentration camp in World War II. In the camp, the men and the women were separated. The women were forced to live outside, to walk around for hours and hours at a time. And she said that literally a thousand women would walk around the perimeter of the concentration camp.

On one particular very cold and dark day, when many of them were frightened about what the Nazis were going to do to them, the thousand or so women walked around the camp and they saw a crack in the pavement, and out of that crack in the pavement grew a dandelion. And every single one of those women avoided stepping on the dandelion.

Afterwards, they all said, without exception, that that dandelion was the most beautiful thing that God had ever created in that camp. It was the one piece of colour, the one living thing, the one thing that reminded them of how fortunate they were to be alive.

Gerta Weissman said this is one of the great problems with human beings: Sometimes it takes moments like that, moments when you're in that kind of despair, before you actually realize the good that is around you. It's because as sinful human beings, we continually strive for a day of happiness. Continually strive to achieve a day of perfection, only to find that those days simply do not come and therefore we miss, we miss, the dandelion in the cracks of the pavement that are around us.

Chesterton said: "I only ask from Fate the gift of one man well content."

But he goes on,

Him will I find: though when in vain
I search the feast and mart,
The fading flowers of liberty,
The painted masks of art.

You see, there was something that Chesterton realized: One of the problems with humanity in our search for contentment is that we look in all the wrong places.
He says we look, for example, in the feast. In other words, we look to our stomachs; we look to feed ourselves and pleasure ourselves in the hope that the more we consume, the better we are. This is an epidemic in North American society. We are becoming an obese society. We think that the more we eat, the more we consume, the happier we will be. We even talk, do we not, about "comfort food" as if somehow that comfort food is going to make us feel better.
Well, I have been one of the great seekers after this particular milieu! But I know that it actually tends to bring illness, and it brings on age faster. This is the irony, is it not, of gluttony? We have a gluttonous society and we always think that we will find the comfort that we are looking for if we eat.

Chesterton goes on and he says we look for it in the mart. In other words, we look for it in purchasing things. We look for it in consuming. And consuming drives our community. It drives our society. It's our great passion. This is what people get religiously motivated about.

I was reading an article in one of the papers yesterday that said that people are actually going out right now is unprecedented numbers and buying comfort gifts to make themselves feel better in these difficult and awkward times.

My God, 4,700 people have died, the world is on the brink of conflict, and people think they can find comfort in buying a few little tiddly things! How infantile we are as a society! And yet, we think that if that drives us, we will then find contentment. No wonder we are disappointed.

We try to find it, Chesterton said, in the "fading flowers of liberty." In other words, we try and find it in the government that will be able to give us freedom. How many times have I heard people say, "You know, when the next government comes to power, then we will be able to have the society that we look for. When the next government comes in, then we will be able to find justice." How many times do we keep expecting government to be able to bring about a Promised Land for us? There are certain things, my friends, the government can, should, and must do. But, it is not going to be the arbiters of contentment, and it is not going to bring about the Kingdom of God.

He also says there are some who look for it in "the masks of art." In the aesthetic. That if we have the pleasure of the aesthetic around us, then we will be at peace. Then we will be content. Surround ourselves with beauty and all will be well, we say to ourselves.

Now, you see, here is the great danger: In food, God has provided it and it is good. In consuming things and having gifts and lovely things, they are not evil in and of themselves. In government that has the right to promote God's justice on earth, there is righteousness and there is a reason. In art, there is beauty as we found in the music this morning, and there is joy. The problem is when all these things become our goal in finding contentment, we find, as the song that U2 wrote, that I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

Which brings us to my last point, and really brings to an end a series of sermons that began with "Searching for God." Namely the last stanza, one that has meant so much to me over the years. He said:

I only find him at the last,
On one old hill where nod
Golgotha's ghastly trinity
Three persons and one God.

The writer of 1 Peter says: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God of all mercies, who has brought us," he goes on to say, "such indescribable joy." And he says that the joy that he finds, the joys that Christians find, are not just in the things that we see around us, but are in the unseen, in the power and the presence of a living God in our lives.

Now, I know there are many people who have a problem with an unseen God. That reminds me of the story of the minister's son who came home one day after he had been playing and his hands were very dirty and full of soil and his mother came to him and said, "You must wash your hands."

He said, "Why should I wash my hands?"

And she said, "Because in the dirt in your hands there are germs."

And the little boy ran away muttering, "Germs and Jesus, germs and Jesus, that's all I ever hear in this house, and I never see either one of them."

Isn't that great?

Well, my friends, unseen germs can kill you. And an unseen God can save you! You see, my friends, not everything is as it seems, and the power and the message of the Christian gospel is that in this life we have someone who goes with us and that that someone who goes with us, says Peter, "is none other than the risen Christ." A risen Christ who in the midst of our world and into eternity has established a kingdom that is unfading. A kingdom that is imperishable and cannot disappear.

The message of the Christian people is that in the midst of life's woes, in the midst of its disappointment, in the midst as we sit right now, not knowing what's going to happen in Afghanistan, in the midst of uncertainties, the kingdom, the reign of God exists and the reign is triumphant, and the reign can be assured to provide us the guidance and the strength and the nurture that we need.

For we do not find our contentment in penultimate things, but only in ultimate things. And it is those things, the things of God, which really do bring what Chesterton called that mystery, that gigantic secret of joy.

Many years ago, when I was a little lad in England, my mother and father invited a very well known preacher and his wife to come to dinner on a Saturday night. My mother dressed me up in my little shorts and white shirt and patent leather shoes, and a bow tie. I looked just gorgeous. (In fact, there is a photograph that I now have somewhere at home, that actually shows me on that day. I'd like to burn it but Marial won't let me. She reminds me of it just to keep me humble).

Anyway, this minister came and, as was our custom, he said grace. (If I remember, it was very long.) My mother had gone to great lengths to prepare this amazing meal and was most excited about it and told me to be on my best behaviour.
And finally the plate arrived. There was this great big piece of lettuce and in the middle of it, a piece of smoked salmon. I looked at my father, I looked at my mother, I looked at the guests and I had to say what was in my heart. I said, "Is this all there is?"

Well, only once in my life did my father ever remove me physically from a room, and that was the moment. He grabbed me by the shirt and the bow tie and he escorted me to my bedroom, where I stayed for about 45 minutes to an hour. Finally, he came back and brought me back down and sat me at the table, and I looked at all the empty plates and realized that my mother had served my favourite meal in the whole world: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. My father then said to me at the end of the meal, when the minister was gone, "You see, Andrew, you were making a judgement on the appetizer. You weren't ready to wait or be thankful for the real meal."

My friends, we are like that in life. We're always waiting for the real meal to come along, as if somehow then we'll be thankful. And God gives us so much, but we want to wait until the appetizer is gone. Meanwhile God has given us so much, like dandelions, and lettuce and salmon before our eyes, and this very life.

The kingdom of God says, "You must give thanks to the Lord now, while you have this." But always remember: The big meal is yet to come, if only you will believe.

Amen and a Happy Thanksgiving.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.