The Greek philosopher Diogenes was renown for being a man who was content with what he had and what he didn’t have. He was happy to make his home in a clay pot. When Alexander the Great came to Corinth everyone turned out to greet him at a great festival except for Diogenes who decided instead to go sunbathing by the river. And yet it was Diogenes who Alexander had come to meet so when Alexander found him sunbathing, he said to Diogenes, “Ask any favor and I will grant it.” The favor Diogenes asked was for Alexander to move because he was blocking the sun. He didn’t need or want a thing. He was one content man.
Jesus, in this section from the Sermon on the Mount, is calling us to move from anxiety to contentment. He says, “do not be anxious about your life.” But if that is all that He said, it would not have been enough. Telling an anxious person not to be anxious is like telling a drunk not to think about whiskey. If you spend all day trying not to be anxious then you will end up being anxious about how well you did at not being anxious.
So Jesus gives three important points to help us move from anxiety to contentment. The first is to recognize how pointless anxiety really is. He says, “and which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his life span?” Of course you cannot add hours to your life but studies have shown that you can do the opposite. Researchers from Harvard Medical School concluded that high levels of anxiety can reduce your life span by as much as 6 years. Not only does anxiety not help us it actually hurts us. Anxiety is a fool’s errand.
The second thing that Jesus points us to, in order to move us from anxiety to contentment, is our heavenly Father. Our heavenly Father knows our needs even better than we do. Our heavenly Father proves through His care of creation that He is capable of meeting our needs. Jesus assures us that our heavenly Father, because He is our heavenly Father, will certainly care for His children as He cares for birds and flowers.
When Jesus adds the words “O you of little faith” He is not throwing a low blow or being disrespectful. Rather He is telling us something very important. He is telling us that being anxious about our needs reveals a lack of faith. Or to put it another way, being anxious about our needs shows that we are not truly trusting God.
It really comes down to some very basic questions and answers. Is He God or is He not? Does He love you or does He not? Does He have the will and the power to care for you or does He not? If you answered with 3 “yes’s” then you need to move from anxiety to trust. Then once you enter the room of trust, shut the door behind you.
The third thing that Jesus does, to move us from anxiety to contentment, is to give us an awe-inspiring vision. This is ingenious. When you are living for and being part of an incredible dream then you don’t have the time or energy for anxiety about petty things. For example when the first men were landing on the moon you can bet your last dollar that they didn’t have time to worry whether or not they had paid the water bill back home.
And so after Jesus tells us not to worry about our needs because our heavenly Father has that part covered, He gives us our assignment. “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” This is the vision, this is the dream that we are to live for, the vision and dream of God’s kingdom.
Seeking first the kingdom is not just about going to heaven, although it certainly includes it. When the kingdom comes in its fullness it will be a new heaven and a new earth. It will be our inheritance because we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. It is where we will be a kingdom of priests to serve our God. It will be where every wrong is made right and all things will be brought to their perfection by Him through whom all things were made.
Jesus inaugurated it, declaring that it is in our midst. He told us to pray daily that it would come on earth as it is in heaven. It certainly is not here in its fullness, but it is here and we are to live in it now. Jesus tells us to make it our life’s priority to seek it.
Jesus tells us not only to seek the kingdom of God but He adds “and His righteousness.” What does that mean? The righteousness of God is the perfection of God in all His ways. He does not live up to the highest standard, He is the highest standard. And as we seek Him we will also be seeking His righteousness. The closer we grow to God the more godly we become.
But righteousness is also seen in relationship to others. Righteousness is seen when mercy and grace are given. Righteousness is seen when justice is upheld. Righteousness is seen when wickedness is vanquished. Righteousness is seen when the poor and oppressed are protected. So when Jesus tells us to seek God’s righteousness, we are not only to seek to become godly but we are to seek ways to act godly towards others. That is why James gives us such a practical perspective. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit the orphans and widows, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Pure religion is to be godly and to act godly.
But doesn’t this discussion about righteousness and godliness take us in a different direction from the initial discussion about contentment and not being anxious about our needs? Actually no. It brings us full circle because righteousness and contentment are connected. Listen to St. Paul’s advice to Timothy. “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it.”
I also believe that this discussion of contentment fits perfectly for our reason for being here today. Contentment and thanksgiving are equally connected. I wondered this week if it is contentment that produces thanksgiving or if it is thanksgiving that produces contentment and I concluded, “yes.” People who are content are thankful for all the blessings of this life and thankful people are content with what they have, knowing that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”
Contentment and thanksgiving are such life changing virtues to pursue. When you grow in contentment and thankfulness, a peace enters your life that is the kind of peace that the world cannot give. You look around and realize that you are blessed on every side, that there is nothing that you really want, and that all your needs have been met. When your energy is not being drained by anxiety you find a whole new creativity and discover new ways to look at and to appreciate life.
I need to add that there is an implied warning in Jesus’ call. The promise that our needs will be met if we seek first the kingdom also implies that if we don’t then they won’t.
This can be difficult because it seems so counter-intuitive. If I am working hard to provide for my family but it seems that we never quite make ends meet, then it only makes sense that I need to work even harder. Instead of working 6 days a week I need to work 7, in spite of what the commandments say. So I put God on the back burner and work 7 days a week and not only are the ends still not meeting but now I am more exhausted than ever. That is when Dr. Phil steps in and asks me, “So how’s that working out for you?”
Jesus’ answer for me is not that I need to work harder but that I need to take a hard look at my priorities. His promise is that if I will put God first then my needs will be met. But if I don’t put God first then I can work 8 days a week and will still come up short and still have my life will be dominated by anxiety. This implied warning is not a threat. It’s just an explanation of how things work in God’s kingdom.
We come here this morning to worship before we gather with friends and family for our Thanksgiving feast. This is a concrete way to seek first the Kingdom of God, to put Him before food and football. I heard on a news station that many today think that Thanksgiving is about thanking the Indians for feeding those first pilgrims. And while we certainly should be thankful for what those Indians did, they are not the focus of this day. God is. For me, one of the most beautiful prayers in the Prayer Book is the General Thanksgiving of Morning and Evening Prayer. In it we thank God for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life. Then we add, “but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the perspective that we are to have on Thanksgiving day and in fact it is the perspective that we should have every day. We will be praying that prayer together in just a few minutes.
Well it appears to me that Alexander did not get Diogenes’ point about contentment. He pushed himself so hard to grow a giant empire that Alexander died one month shy of his 33rd birthday. Diogenes on the other hand lived to be in his 80’s. It is to our great benefit to hear and apply Jesus’ teaching. There is of course no promise that it will make you live longer but if you heed His words you will live richer. “Do not be anxious about your life….But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Amen and Happy Thanksgiving.