Text: 1 Timothy 6:6-16 (p934 in the pew bibles)
Good evening and happy Thanksgiving!
Of all our civil holidays, Thanksgiving Day is probably my favorite. I love the crisp autumn air, the wonderful food, the visits from family and friends, and our little Parish tradition of celebrating the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, on the night before. I love that while the turkey is brining in preparation for tomorrow’s feast, we are worshipping the Lord and feasting on the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. And I love that this is one of the two civil holidays that our American edition of the Book of Common Prayer includes among the great Feasts and Fasts of the Church.
Our Prayer Book gives us five sets of readings to help us remember what we have to be thankful for, to whom we give those thanks, and our duties before the Lord as thankful people. We have, of course, our Epistle and Gospel tonight. But we also have two sets of readings each for Morning and Evening Prayer in additional to a special collection of Psalms Verses to use instead of the Venite. If you’re confused as to which set of readings to use in the Daily Offices tomorrow, just pick a set and go with it! It’s one of those times when the Prayer Book gives us additional options, and we’d do best not to overthink it.
Tonight I’m breaking with my own usual Thanksgiving Eve practice, and preaching from one of the Evening Prayer texts: our alternate New Testament reading for tomorrow’s Evening Prayer. Please turn in your bibles to 1 Timothy 6:6, which can be found in your Pew Bibles on page 934:
Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
Contentment is indeed a significant part of being thankful. It may seem ironic that our Scripture reading on our culture’s biggest feast day would talk about contentment! Yet, the purpose of this and the rest of Scripture is not to advocate an austere life. Rather, the Old Testament liturgical and civil year have mandated feasts as well as mandated fasts. This is a pattern that the church also adopted. We have both feast days and fast days as Christians so that we would learn to be content in all things. Feasting at appropriate times is as much of a spiritual discipline as fasting at appropriate times. The key is to feast with thanksgiving to God. We feast as an expression of our thanksgiving to God, remembering from whom it is that we receive the gifts that we use in our feasting. We brought nothing into this world, and we take nothing out of it. Everything is a gift from God.
When I was newly returned to my Anglican roots, my grandmother gave me an old book by an Episcopal priest in which the Rule of St. Benedict was summarized and adapted for ordinary folk. In it, the traditional vows of Stability, Conversatio (described as a life of “repentance”), and Obedience were discussed and applied as virtues for non-monastic Christians. Stability is essentially a form of holy contentment. We’re not always looking for the next best thing. We’re not looking to treat relationships and vocations as disposable. No, we are content to live as God has called us. As the author writes, “To accept one’s life as it is given is to being to find freedom.”
Commenting on our passage, 17th century Anglican divine John Trapp writes, “True piety has true plenty, and is never without a well-contenting sufficiency, a full sufficiency.” That is, godly contentment leads to a truly fulfilling life.
By contrast, St. Paul describes greed and wickedness in stark terms. Verse 9:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
In the King James Version, the beginning of verse 10 is rendered, “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” Some have interpreted the grammar in the King James as implying that the chief evil or the root of humanity’s problem is greed. But St. Paul isn’t quite making as universal a statement as that. He’s not talking about unfallen humanity. Rather he’s talking about a trap that even Christians can fall into. St. Paul says here that greed will seduce us away from faith by putting our desires and appetites in the driver’s seat. He says that greed is self-destructive.
Classical philosophy, both pagan and Christian sees the chief difference between humans and beasts as one of reason. Animals only have appetite and instinct. Humans have reason to govern our appetites and desires. I think of my puppy who is so food and snack driven that the first thing he does in the morning or when I get home from work is whine for his meal. And when we’re serving it, he whines as if he’s unsure of whether he’ll get it or not. So, the first thing we trained him on was to sit when his bowl is put down and to wait for permission to eat. That way he wouldn’t bowl people over in his eagerness to eat when he grows. Yet, even then, he gobbles his food so quickly that he sometimes makes himself sick!
When we are greedy and have a disordered love of riches, food, or possessions, we are just like my silly little dog. That is why Christians traditionally say grace before meals. Before we feed our appetites, we give thanks to God. We pray before we feed. That’s why we practice the discipline of generosity and giving. Indeed, this is a good time of year, when we are feasting, to make sure to give to those less fortunate and to give for the spread of God’s kingdom.
St. Paul says that the greedy “Pierce themselves with many pangs.” John Trap, that 17th century Anglican priest, sees Paul making a wordplay rooted in the Hebrew word for covetousness. He writes:
They have galled and gored themselves. The covetous person has their name in Hebrew from a word that signifies sometimes to pierce or wound. They who will be rich take no more rest than one upon a rack or a bed of thorns: when they grasp earthly things most greedily, they embrace nothing but smoke, which wrings tears from their eyes and vanishes into nothing. They have three vultures always feeding on their heart: Care in getting, fear in keeping, grief in spending and parting with what they have. So they are in hell ahead of time.
What a sad state of affairs! The problem isn’t, of course, having wealth. Many of the Old Testament saints had wealth. The problem is how we approach the wealth that we have. Do we use it as a blessing for others and for the Kingdom of God, or do we let it imprison us? I’m thankful for the generosity of wealthy Christians in this parish and throughout the world that enables us to do what we need to do as a Church. But greed is very sneaky. It’s hard to see when it has hold of you. And it can happen regardless of your income level.
St. Paul, of course, shows us a better way.Verse 11:
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in the testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time – he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
The Lord Jesus is our King, our Sovereign. This is what it means when we call him the Christ, the Messiah. He is the promised King, not only of Israel, but of the whole world. We belong to him. All that we have belongs to him. And thus how can we be anything but thankful? So St. Paul tells us to pursue the things that our Lord values: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. These things are the antidote to greed.
Our Lord modeled this for us. He uniquely and perfectly lived the life that St. Paul is commending to the man (and woman) of God, because he was the unique and perfect Man of God. Yet he did more than give us a good example. He did humbled himself and lived this life for our sakes, for our salvation. As St. Paul notes elsewhere, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Jesus became one of us, living and dying for us, so that we would have true and eternal riches. He became one of us so that we would be united to him, and through him be united to the Father. When we keep that in mind, we can be both content and godly. We can be a thankful people who don’t hold greedily to those gifts that he has given us. That is why we begin our Thanksgiving holiday with the Eucharist. That’s why we celebrate the Sacrament of our unity with Christ. That is why we Feast tonight on Christ’s Body and Blood, humbly coming to his Table, feeding upon him by faith with thanksgiving.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.