“DYING OF CONSUMPTION”
A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe
Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, December 24, 2007
I’ve been doing some thinking about college football. Especially the bowl games. When was it, exactly, that the Sugar Bowl became the Nokia Sugar Bowl? And when was, it, exactly, that the Orange Bowl became the Fed-Ex Orange Bowl? Now, NASCAR I understand. Racing cars, bemedaled with stickers for Penzoil and Budweizer. And basketball players as running and jumping billboards. I wonder what it would be like for St. Patrick’s to be thus sponsored. Maybe something like:
St. Patrick’s World of Sleep…
or, Home Depot St. Patrick’s…
or, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Smirnoff….
See, that way we wouldn’t ever have to annoy you with requests for your tithes and offerings. Heck, the advertising would cover staff and building and maybe even throw a little extra into missions. It would just be a matter of including the companies’ logo on our letterhead and the signs on our property. What could it hurt? Just kidding. I think.
Don’t worry – this isn’t going to be just another garden variety sermon on the evils of materialism. First, I don’t think that material is bad. Second, we all need to consume to live. Third, we’re way, WAY past materialism in this culture. Way past. We’re so hooked on happiness-by-accumulation that we’ll do almost anything to get what we want.
Consider the case of nine-year-old Leroy, who was afraid that he wouldn’t get a new bicycle. He went to his mom and demanded one. She responded by saying, “Well, Leroy, we don’t have a lot of money to spend this Christmas. So why don’t you write a letter to Jesus and pray for one?” So later that afternoon, little Leroy sat down and started to compose his letter:
“Dear Jesus, I’ve been a good boy this year and would appreciate a new bicycle. Your friend, Leroy.”
But deep in his heart, Leroy was afraid that his behavior had been so bad that he didn’t really deserve the bike. So he ripped up the letter and decided to give it another try: “Dear Jesus, I’ve been an OK boy this year and I want a new bicycle. Yours truly, Leroy.”
Well, this was better, but was still a little on the optimistic side. So he tore it up and started over: “Dear Jesus, I’ve THOUGHT about being a good boy this year. Can I have a bicycle? Leroy.”
But this, too, went into the trash can. Little Leroy was feeling more and more fearful about getting his new bicycle. So he decided to take a walk to think it over. After about 30 minutes he found himself outside the entrance to a Catholic Church. So he went inside and wandered around for awhile, gazing at the candles and statues. Suddenly, he grabbed a small statue and ran out the door. He went home, hid it under his bed, and wrote another letter to Jesus:
“Dear Jesus, I’ve got your mama. If you ever want to see her again, give me a bike. You know who.”
Now, I do realize that it’s easy to bust on human nature and buying lots of stuff, but just so we don’t get too high and mighty, the American church made all of this possible. You probably don’t remember Charles Finney, but he was a very well-known New England evangelist in the early 1800’s. [Rodney Clapp] His brand of evangelism placed a high priority on the necessity of choice – choosing Christ, inviting Christ into your heart, choosing to forsake old ways, and so on. Finney’s revivalism encouraged rapturous feelings and a self that is open, time and again, to conversion and reconversion.
None of this was lost on the vendors, either. Peddlers were fixtures on the revival circuit, hawking medicinal products on the sidelines that promised a transformation in buyers’ lives. Modern advertising, in fact, grew directly out of this medicine trade. And advertising testimonials drew directly on the “before and after” pattern of evangelical testimony (you know – “Before Jesus I WAS like that, and since Jesus I’m like this”).
In 1875 Karl Barton confessed that his life before his first bottle of Dr. Chase’s nerve pills was a mess. The nerve pills were his salvation and the road to a new, born-again life. So it was this peculiarly American kind of Protestantism, more than any other single influence, that led to the virtual sanctification of consumer choice.
And SO many choices! The New York Times reported that the average American is exposed to 3,500 ads every day. After all, market economies need consumers, don’t they? The omnipresence of advertising has led to what one author [David Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland] calls the “dedifferentiation of consumption.” That’s a mouthful, but all it means is that consumption is all mixed up.
Take a trip to the Reno/Tahoe Airport, for example. You’d expect a ticket counter and aircraft. But a food court? Crafts and CD’s? Massages? In the World Showcase of the EPCOT Center, visitors to Disney World think they’re sampling cultures from around the world; in reality, they’re entering a thinly disguised shopping area. Or go the mall. There, at least you’d expect ads and consumer goods. But flu shots and kiddies’ rides?
The seduction here is that the dedifferentiation of consumption is breaking down the conventional differences between consuming and other activities. Pretty soon, everything will be a matter of consumption. Now, you get to try on new clothes or new perfumes or fresh personalities or different partners. And the church is no different. The holy hedonist is perfectly visible – moving from church to church, denomination to denomination -- even faith to faith – seeking new experiences and new stimuli. They consume sermons, liturgies, choir music and programs without ever stopping long enough to be seriously involved in any of them.
Consumption in our culture is not about materialism. If it were, I wouldn’t be so worried. [Rodney Clapp] What is unique to modern consumerism is the idealization and constant encouragement of insatiability. It is, literally, the deification of dissatisfaction. It’s the myth of Sisyphus in jeans. You see, it seduces you with illusions and promises of happiness or whatever it takes. Heck, it will say anything to keep you dissatisfied with yourself. That is its hold over you.
The problem, of course, is that consumerism fosters a number of values that are antithetical to being a follower of Jesus. Can we simultaneously seek both instant gratification and patience? And what has Bethlehem to do with Mayhem?
There is, of course, a great irony here, for long ago an angel appeared to poor shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior….”
It is the one thing we would not have not chosen….It is the one thing that makes all the difference….
And it is…enough.