Recently, our church began participating in a small hunger program on Cape Ann. It was started by the Cape Ann Interfaith Commission, (CAIC)and it involves sandwiches. Our overnight homeless shelter on Cape Ann closes in the mornings, and reopens at 5:00 p.m. for dinner. Guests who stay there leave early in the day, and don’t have a place to go for lunch. CAIC, noticing this need, organized local faith communities to provide sandwiches for one day a week, or one day every other week. We decided to try it, and we made our first 26 sandwiches a couple of weeks ago. Our next sandwich making day happens this Sunday, downstairs during Fellowship Hour.
We enjoyed making sandwiches, preparing each bag, deciding on cookies, what to add, what wouldn’t work. We had guidelines to follow, so some of the decisions were already made, but it occurred to us we could pray over each bag, and for the person who would be eating the sandwich. The lunches get delivered on Sunday evening for distribution on Monday morning. When we dropped them off, we stayed to chat with some of the guests and shelter staff.
The Action shelter in Gloucester is a clean, well-lighted place, and the guests uniformly friendly, at least to me. I liked meeting them, hearing some of their stories, how they got there and why. Most of them had simply run out of resources, and were falling through the cracks. Dinner there feels exactly the same way a potluck at church feels, with a significant difference–I had a home and the guests didn’t. And I know, from experience, that many people, now, are not far from homelessness.
There’s a beautiful line in one of this week’s scripture lessons offering a strong antidote to the anxiety and economic insecurity so many of us feel these days. I’m not sure I like the NRSV translation, but here it is from 1 Timothy 6: 6: “of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”
I was struck by the language of contentment, and Paul goes on to explain. Since we bring nothing into this world and take nothing with us, try being satisfied, he suggests, with a sustainable life, “sustenance and shelter,” without yearning after riches, unless they are spiritual riches. “For God,” he notes “richly provides everything for our enjoyment.”
In the Greek, in this passage, godliness can also be translated as piety, living a godly or holy life. And another way to paraphrase the sentence might be, “there’s much to be said for a life of piety and contentment.” For Paul, in this letter at least, contentment is an antidote to the root of all evil: love of money. Contentment is an antidote to the pursuit of wealth, or self-importance. It’s the opposite of greed. What would the practice of contentment look like for our lives?
Perhaps if we’re privileged enough, it would mean noticing the abundance we do have–or being mindful of the fullness of blessings that come to us each day, mindful that we probably do have enough sustenance and shelter for ourselves and families. And then, again, practicing contentment might mean noticing those times of discontent, and trying to understand the real causes of them. Maybe our discontent is driven by external pressures to have and have more? Maybe we can let go of that. I loved Paul’s assertion in this passage–we don’t bring anything into this world, and we can’t take anything out of it. What a relief to know the freedom of letting go of unnecessary habits, or possessions that have become a burden. The whole passage is a directive to think about those riches that do matter: spiritual ones, and put one’s energy and time there, rather than accumulating material treasures.
Maybe practicing contentment also means noticing those who don’t have enough sustenance and shelter to live a sustainable life, those friends who might be eating one of our sandwiches, next Monday morning, and thinking about what to do next. Maybe that person, eating that sandwich, might feel connected for a moment to us, too. Maybe they’ll feel, for a moment, the shelter of our prayers for them.
I learned a beautiful chant from members of Temple Ahavat Achim here on Cape Ann over the High Holidays. Translated it means: Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. And I will add to that a sandwich making prayer: may You help us be a sheltering people, too, content with what we have, sharing our sustenance with a neighbor in need.