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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Gospel of Consumption

Pentecost 10C, 2010

Luke 12:13-21

Once there was a man, or so the story goes, who was determined to take it with him. He loved money, and didn’t want to leave it behind. So instead of putting his money in the bank, he started stashing it under the shingles of the roof of his house, in a spot directly over his bed. The plan was that when he died, as he ascended from his deathbed to heaven, he would grab the cash and take it with him.

His family, for numerous reasons, argued against the plan to no avail. Finally the man took sick and lay at death’s door. His family gathered around the bed as he breathed his last. When the man stopped breathing, his not-so grieving widow turned to their son and said, “Quick, Junior: get a ladder, go up on the roof, and see if the money’s still there!” Junior ran from the room, a loud clattering was heard on the roof, and, a few minutes later, he returned to the bedroom. “Momma, it’s all there – every dollar.”

“That old fool,” responded the widow, “I told him and told him, but he wouldn’t listen. He went the other way.”

A man comes to Jesus and asks him to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother. Any of you who have been through a family argument about an estate, as I have, know how ugly they can be. To all of you I say, write an absolutely ironclad will, and make sure everyone knows what it says before you die.

Jesus refuses to be triangled into the argument, and then warns his listeners about the dangers of greed. By the way, Jesus talks sixteen times more often in the Gospels about money, possessions, and greed than he does about sex. You wouldn’t know that from the emphasis Christians put on those two issues, would you? Jesus knew that far more people go to hell because of money than because of sex.

To illustrate the dangers of wealth and greed – the two are connected, because no one gets wealthy or stays wealthy without being greedy – Jesus tells a parable. A farmer’s land produced far more than he or his family needed, so he decided to build bigger and bigger barns and silos to hold the abundance. Then, his 401k filled to the brim, the man relaxed, knowing that he could coast for the rest of his life. But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

Or so reads the translation in the New Revised Standard Version. Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia Farm in South Georgia, holder of a doctorate in New Testament Greek, and author of the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, said that the Greek in this verse literally reads You fool! Tonight they are requiring your soul. Who are they? Jordan said they are the things the man has stored up. We don’t own great possessions: they own us.

Joel Chandler Harris, in his Uncle Remus stories, told the tale of the time when Br’er Fox created a Tar Baby to catch Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Rabbit came down the road one day and found the Tar Baby sitting silent by the road, smiling at him. Br’er Rabbit tried to engage the Tar Baby in conversation, but the Tar Baby wouldn’t answer. Furious, Br’er Rabbit kicked the Tar Baby, and became stuck. He kicked with his other foot, and got more stuck. And so on, and so on, until Br’er Fox had Br’er Rabbit caught.

Jesus knew that possessions are a Tar Baby – the more we have, the more we’re stuck to them. We don’t own a house – the house owns us. We don’t own a boat, or a car – they own us. They require more and more of us. You have to take care of them, improve them, use them, store them, insure them. And then we need a new one, a bigger one, a faster one. Insert your own Tar Baby here: shoes, clothes, electronic equipment, musical equipment, books, toys, computers, smart phones . . . you get the picture.

An article in the May/June 2008 edition of Orion magazine gave a startling history of how American manufacturers and government leaders developed a plan in the 1920’s and 30’s to actually increase the levels of dissatisfaction in the lives of American citizens, so they would buy more and more things they didn’t need. The rapid growth of the industrial revolution had, by the early years of the 20th Century, made it possible for farms to produce all the food the country needed, for American industry to produce all the durable goods the country needed – note what I said – needed­ -- such that the number of hours people needed to work could be reduced significantly. In 1926 Secretary of Labor James J. Davis calculated that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days work a week.[1] Kellogg company president Lewis Brown and owner W.K. Kellogg noted that if the company ran “four six-hour shifts . . . instead of three eight-hour shifts, this will give work and paychecks to the heads of three hundred more families in Battle Creek.”[2] Kelloggs raised the hourly wage to compensate for the fewer hours, hired more people, and profits boomed. Employees and their families had more time together. A bill was introduced in Congress calling for a thirty hour work week, which would have brought employment in the depression to hundreds of thousands more people.

In response, leaders of General Motors, DuPont, General Foods, the big steel companies, and other corporations formed the National Association of Manufacturers, and instigated a campaign they called “The American Way.” Their purpose was to foster what one industrial consultant called “the gospel of consumption”—the notion that people could be convinced that however much they have, it isn’t enough.[3] Mass market advertising grew, not to convince people to buy real necessities, but to transform non-necessities into must-haves. When Franklin Roosevelt named his famous “Four Freedoms” in 1941, he added to the freedoms of speech and religion and freedom from fear the very interesting phrase freedom from want. Not freedom from need -- but from want. Listen to the pundits and politicians: “The American Way” often turns out to be our divine right not to have what we need, but whatever we want. This is not accidental, friends – it is a well-orchestrated collusion between business and government to keep us addicted.

Jesus says, Fool, this night they are requiring your soul. So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God. So what would it take for us, as disciples of the poor carpenter of Nazareth, to live an unaddicted life?

We don’t have time today to explore all the ways to simplify and focus our lives, and go through economic and material detoxification. But just as addicts have found it is easier to get clean with a friend and a group, I want to suggest that the church should be the place where we help each other become rich in God, and not the things of this world. When we talk, let’s not talk about boats and cars and houses and clothes and things – but about love and grace and mercy and God. Can we help each other focus on those things?

When we come to the Table this morning, let’s focus on this simple and amazing gift the poor carpenter gave us. He doesn’t give us caviar in a jeweled goblet: he gives us bread and wine. He gives us himself. He gives us each other. He gives us love, and forgiveness, and eternity. Why do we spend so much time and energy – and money – chasing what we can’t take with us, when we have all this that lasts forever, for free?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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