November 22, 2017
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. That’s a mouthful. It’s a phrase that is seldom used. Rather, this awful disease that causes the brain to lose control of the body’s muscles is usually known to us as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This disease, notorious for crippling people quickly and severely, was named after one of the greatest baseball players that ever played the game.
Lou Gehrig played for the New York Yankees from 1923 until 1939. They won quite a few world championships during his years. Gehrig was known as the “Iron Horse”. For nearly sixty years, he held the record of 2,130 consecutive games played, (About 14 years of never getting sick, or injured, and playing every day) a record which was thought unbreakable until Cal Ripken did so in 1995. Gehrig was also the first player to have his number retired. He was a tenacious, determined man.
But what was most startling, most memorable, about Lou Gehrig was his farewell speech delivered to a packed house at Yankee Stadium. He was forced to retire due to the onslaught of ALS. Maybe you’re seen the clip. He gets up to the microphone and says, “Fans, for the past two weeks, you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
“Luckiest man on the face of the earth?” People don’t talk like that. At least not after they have gotten news that they have an incurable disease and have to stop playing ball and face an awful end. We can have trouble having contentment in life and we aren’t even facing such a diagnosis.
Tell me – how can someone be so content when their world seems to be crumbling around them? Well, I guess we can become stoic. We can let our heart get so hard and impenetrable that we don’t feel anything – bad, or good. We won’t let sorrow in, but we can’t have joy, either. We construct a cold, empty existence. Such a world, created by our own desire simply to survive is quite bleak and ugly and pointless. That is not contentment.
Sometimes, though, when life is hard, we find contentment in finding someone who has life worse than us. It is a contentment by comparison and we are selective as to who we will join in a comparison. Pastor Kevin Golden at Village Lutheran Church in Ladue, Missouri, tells his own story about finding contentment about self and his shortcomings. When Golden was in college he liked to get together with some of his buddies and play some basketball. The problem he had, though, was he wasn’t any good at basketball. You need soft hands to receive the basketball and shoot or pass. He said that his hands were like bricks. The ball would come and he would fumble it, drop it or lose it.
After one of these games, on his way back to the dorm he had a pity party. Why couldn’t he be better? Why couldn’t he be like some of his buddies who had so many skills? He liked playing but he stunk. He was not content.
After all that moaning and self-loathing, Golden writes, “And then I saw Amy who lived across the hall from me. She had no legs and would walk to and from class on her hands, using flip-flops to protect her palms. Other days she would use a motorized cart to get around campus. I saw Amy and told myself to stop complaining because at least I had legs so I could play basketball.” (Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 27, Part 4, Pg. 70)
Golden has a good thought concerning this – “While there is some wisdom in that insight, that’s not how you find contentment.” Contentment isn’t found when we can locate someone who has life worse than us. No, it has to be much deeper than that!!
St. Paul, in this great word in Philippians writes, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
He sounds like he is the luckiest man in the world!! But he writes it from prison. Paul spent one-quarter of his missionary career in prison – a place that no one would care to live in. John McRay in the magazine Christian History describes prison life in those days, “Roman imprisonment was preceded by being stripped naked and then flogged – a humiliating, painful, and bloody ordeal. The bleeding wounds went untreated as prisoners sat in painful leg or wrist chains. Mutilated, blood stained clothing was not replaced even in the cold of winter. Most cells were dark, especially the inner cells of a prison, like the one Paul and Silas inhabited in Philippi. Unbearable cold, lack of water, cramped quarters, and sickening stench from few toilets made sleeping difficult and waking hours miserable…Because of the miserable conditions, many prisoners begged for a speedy death. Others simply committed suicide.” (John McRay, “Stench, Pain, and Misery: Life in a Roman Prison”, Christian History 47 : 14)
So, from this misery, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) He must have been crazy. How can he say that? Had his heart become immune to feelings, had he become stoic? No!! Did he just look around and see that others had life worse than him and therefore he could be so optimistic? No!! Paul’s secret – Christ. Christ and His love and His strength and His presence brought contentment.
Martin Luther said that when we are belly-button gazing, focused only on self, whether in our own pride, or our own self-pity, we will never find contentment. We will never find contentment if we live in a world of comparison – whether we find others who have it worse than us, or we find others who have it better than us (and then fill our minds with coveting and greed).
Thanksgiving and contentment comes when we truly believe that we are content in Jesus. I saw 90 year-old Wilma Ruggera this week. Wilma has been ill and now seems to be somewhat better. As we spoke of Thanksgiving she mentioned that during a moment in life when things weren’t so good and she was quite discouraged, a dear friend gave her a verse that has encouraged her. Psalm 118:24 is that word. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Wilma thinks of that verse often.
Paul didn’t live in a delusion that his prison was going to become the Ritz-Carlton. No, he would be in a cold, damp, smelly, cramped prison. But he wouldn’t be there alone. God would be there. “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” The suffering he would face could not rob him of Christ. If he was going to die that would not rob him of Christ. Whatever his circumstance, nothing would rob him of Christ.
Our contentment cannot be centered on only what we can see. Our contentment is in Jesus and His love. Our contentment is in Jesus and His faithfulness. Our contentment is in Jesus and His gifts like forgiveness, hope and our eternity with Him. Jesus died for all our sins. Jesus rose for our salvation. Faith in Jesus brings the fullness of life.
This year your dinner table may look quite different than other years. Someone is missing. That makes your full contentment hard. But understand this – their contentment is great. Their joy, being in the presence of their God, is perfect. It will only get better when we will join them around the throne of our Lord and Savior, Jesus.
There are many things that we need in life. Contentment is one of the most enduring. May our God provide that gift for you through Jesus, the one who gives us more than we ever deserve. May your heart truly be content. Amen!!
(I am indebted to Pastor Kevin Golden for the outline of this sermon and a great deal of its content)