Who here has ever lost a tooth and been visited by the tooth fairy? How much did you get for your tooth? You see, Seth hasn’t lost a tooth, yet, but I’m curious how much the tooth fairy will bring him. When I was growing up, I usually got a quarter—2 for the molars that had to be pulled.
I heard about a little girl who got $2 from the tooth fairy when she lost her tooth. Now, that’s really a lot of money, I think. And she was always really excited to get it. But one day, when she was visiting with her friend, she found out that her friend got $10 for her tooth. So, when she went home, she asked her mom to call over to her friend’s house and find out which tooth fairy they use so that they could switch.
All of a sudden, $2 wasn’t enough anymore. As soon as she found out her friend got more, she wanted more. We’re going to talk about contentment today. Do you know what it means to be content? It isn’t getting or having everything you want. It’s wanting what you already have.
Did you get to celebrate Thanksgiving with your families this past week? And did you talk about what you’re thankful for? What kinds of things did you list? And have you made your Christmas list yet? What kinds of things are you asking for?
Contentment is being grateful for what you have without necessarily getting what’s on your list.
Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for giving us what we need—family, friends, a place to worship, and especially Jesus. Help us be content with what we have and share with those who don’t have what they need. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Watch just about any commercial, and there is subtext under subtext. They may be advertising a shoe, but what they’re really selling is an experience of transcendence. They’re selling the hope that with this shoe, you’ll finally enjoy running. Exercise will no longer be a drudgery. Your body will be ripped. And with a ripped body, you’ll finally belong. You’ll finally be beautiful. You’ll finally be acceptable—even enviable. You’ll finally be happy.
So, you buy the shoe with these hopes. And what happens? They sit in the closet after the first run because when you got done your knees hurt and your hips hurt and you didn’t go as far as you wanted to. It was a miserable experience, and the image in the mirror didn’t change.
Advertising specializes in discontent. It is no longer about selling you a product—it’s about selling you a false promise, a false hope, an false image—it’s about convincing you that you don’t have what you need, that you won’t be content until you have spent money on their stuff. (Although, those perfume commercials just miss the mark in so many ways.)
Paul says to the Philippians, “I know what it’s like to have everything I could want, and I know what it’s like to barely be surviving. And I’m here to tell you that I’ve learned how to be content, no matter what.” Because, you see, contentment isn’t about having what you want; it’s about wanting what you have.
(Now, what’s ironic about this is that as I’m writing this sermon, I’m also browsing Zillow—the website for homes for sale. Because I want a larger porch and a bigger garage and maybe a nicer basement.) Good grief.
Now, I know that there are people in this room that know what it is like to have very little—to go without—to barely survive. For some, it was a brief moment in life. For others, it’s been a family legacy. And I know that there are people in this room who know what it’s like to have far more than they will ever need or use. For some, it was a brief moment in life. For others, it’s been a family legacy.
But I’m not certain that there are many—if any—in this room who truly know what it is like to be content (myself, included). Unless it was for a very brief moment. Contentment is a spiritual practice. It doesn’t come naturally. And given today’s culture of consumerism, it requires a great deal of practice and perseverance. And for most of us, it may be a fleeting thing, difficult to grasp without being intentionally present to it.
In fact, the devotions from Franciscan priest Richard Rohr have focused on being present this week. He points out that that “the Presence of God is infinite, everywhere, always, and forever. You cannot not be in the presence of God…It is we who are not present to Presence.” He says, “We live in a time with more easily available obstacles to presence than any other period in history.” Of course, he’s talking about the various devices and distractions we carry with us, along with our replaying of the past and our worries for the future.
Being present takes practice. Even if you secluded yourself away from all electronics and advertising and every other possible distraction, you would still have your hands full trying to train your mind not to dwell on what has or has not happened and what might happen in the future.
On Being columnist, Sharon Salzberg, wrote recently about her friend, Cheri Maples, a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh. Cheri was a teacher and practitioner of mindfulness and was interviewed several years ago by Krista Tippett. In September, Cheri was in a horrible bicycle accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down. And though she had so much to grieve, she talked excitedly about the opportunity to play wheelchair sports and continue teaching meditation and continuing to experience the fullness of life. A short time later, she caught a virus that, within 24 hours, had killed her. Even as the virus took over, she said, “I have lived such a good life.”
That’s contentment. That’s gratitude. Contentment and gratitude make it possible for us to engage the world as Jesus had intended—with trust, with generosity, with hope. As Jesus’ death becomes more imminent in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus becomes more insistent about his message. His teaching turns toward grief, lamentation, and a plea for people to open their eyes to what is in front of them.
He is becoming desperate for his followers to understand what is going to happen—what needs to happen. He watches the events unfolding, drawing him closer and closer toward the cross and his death. He teaches about watchfulness—staying awake to recognize the coming of the Son of Man. He teaches about the faithful slave—always prepared to welcome the master. He teaches of the ten bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom and the parable of the talents—making more of what we’ve been given. And then comes this judgment of the nations and the insistence that we are present to his Presence among us—in us.
It is tough to be present when we are forever chasing after that which we don’t have. It’s tough to be content when we are always wanting something more. It is tough to be generous, serving others, when we are certain we don’t have enough.
A recent National Geographic article (thanks Pastor Dave) discussed the happiest places in the world. One of those places is Costa Rica. It’s a little country in Central America, and thanks to a mountainous terrain, the primary economy of agriculture has remained in the hands of families rather than corporations. Because of that, along with a democratic political system, an ecological rating that exceeds all other countries, and a high investment in the education system, the people of Costa Rica are not wealthy, but they are content.
The article shared the story of Alejandro Zuniga who works a produce stand at the local market. He is friendly and outgoing. When other vendors are having tough times, he collects money to help them out. One day, he won the lottery—50 million colones (about $93,000). Everyone expected him to move away, buy a big house, fill it with nice things. But he kept working at the market and playing practical jokes on his friends. And quietly, he dispersed all of the winnings to others until, a year later, he was a poor as he started out. “I couldn’t be happier,” he said.
God has blessed each of us differently—and yet abundantly. Focusing on what we don’t have, we will never be satisfied, never be content, never be generous, never be happy. Focusing on what God has so graciously given us, we can’t help but praise God and share our abundance with the world.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church