Tag Archives: consumerism

Clearing the Way

(Click here to listen to the better than written version.)

Today we are taking a look at the triumphal entry and the significance of Jesus’ first action as an openly declared messiah. In Jesus’ time the temple leadership in Jerusalem was focused strictly on survival and preserving the faith from the unclean and oppressive Romans. The chief priests had reached an accommodation of sorts with the Roman leadership through their appointed king Herod and the governor Pontius Pilate. The leaders of the temple were operating in ways that protected their understanding of the Jewish religious identity and as a happy byproduct kept them on top. The reality is that while we vilify these men, they would be insulted by accusations of wrongdoing. They were operating from what they thought were the best possible motives, and that blinded them to how they were putting obstacles between others and God. Their focus on survival opened the doors to all kinds of abuses and these men in their fear began to treat access to God as a commodity to be bought and sold pushing those with less ability to pay to the margins and eventually out the door. Survival of the institutional identity became the top priority of the temple leadership and the covenant of relationship slowly became a commercial contract of legal obligations. Into that situation Jesus came into Jerusalem in the manner prescribed for the prophesied Messiah:

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” Matthew 21:6-16

Up to this point in his ministry, Jesus had publicly kept it quiet about whether or not he was the messiah, even going so far as to tell his disciples to keep that fact hidden. Jesus knew what was going to happen when the disciples told the owner of the animals “The lord is going to ride into town on these guys.” The response was probably something along the lines of “Sure, go ahead. Pardon me as a take a quick step over this way.” Did a little nonchalant walk until he got around a corner then sprinted for town yelling: “The messiah’s coming! The messiah’s coming!” With that kind of word of mouth Jerusalem, already full to bursting for Passover, showed up to see what would happen. It came as no surprise that the Messiah would go to the temple first. Everybody followed along to see what would happen, and instead of Jesus and a couple followers showing up; Jesus and several thousand others showed up. I want you to briefly put yourself in the place of the moneychangers in the temple and picture Jesus showing up with thousands of people who were shouting things like “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Listen to the rumble of the crowd as Jesus stomps up to your table with a scowl of pure righteous anger on his face and flips your table over, then directs you to the exit. How much resistance would you put up in the face of that crowd?  I know for a fact Jesus wouldn’t have had to tell me twice.

What was Jesus doing here though? Jesus committed his prophetic act by riding in on a donkey and the people of Israel responded. Even though Jesus was one more in a long line of self-proclaimed Messiahs the people of Israel knew somehow this time would be different. They were definitely not disappointed at first. Jesus went straight to the temple and cleared the outer courts that had been converted into a market for “pure” animals that were fit for sacrifice, with a currency that had to be converted at ruinous rates, and a place to pay the temple tax that went to Rome. The chief priests and scribes had set this up in the court of the gentiles where people from other lands could bring supplications to God. By their actions they had driven out the gentiles, cutting them off from access to God. The Jewish people had been called to bless the nations, and here the priests were cutting the nations off and fleecing their own people. Jesus was not amused.

When Jesus drove out the money making machine that had attached itself to the temple he was reasserting God’s priorities for his people. God’s people weren’t put on earth just to survive, but to spread the word about the God who is. Israel continued to focus inward, not carrying the blessing of knowing God to the nations and after repeated attempts to get Israel back on track through the prophets God came to demonstrate the way to extend the covenant to all of humanity. Jesus cleared the way for gentiles, women, and the poor to approach God again, and with the outer courts reopened they came. Jesus had mercy on those who came even though they were sick and gave them the healing they needed, mind, body and soul.  Those whom the leaders of the temple deemed worthless received the favor of God. The sinners, outcasts, losers, foreigners, broken, and poor were welcomed by the messiah and the people holding the reins of power saw their cash flow take a huge hit. Is it any wonder that the scribes and chief priests were indignant?

The chief priests and scribes had set themselves up as God’s gatekeepers. This system made faith into a commercial enterprise in which the people who had more were given greater access to God and the people with less were given less or denied access. The hurdles that were enforced created great distances between God and his people and between those who were wealthy and those who were not. People would scrimp and save so that they could show their devotion to God and renew their covenant with a clean, unblemished, animal only to find that the moneychangers shorted you, giving you not quite enough to get the animals you needed. Eventually the obligations became too great a burden and slowly but steadily people lost hope.

We face similar challenges in that we also can get caught up in the God bling and feel pressured to display our loyalty with the purchase of Jesus junk. We live in a society which teaches that our identity is bound up in external things, and that our value is determined by what we have or produce. There are whole industries coming up with the latest and greatest Christian stuff so that we can display the Jesus brand. In a consumer culture it becomes very easy to see faith as a cafeteria in which we pick and choose based on what we want to feed us. Jesus saw these obstacles and was filled with a righteous anger and decided right there that nothing could get in the way of everyone’s access to God, not even the survival of the religious system or national identity.

Survival and identity were at the core of this conflict and Jesus in throwing over the tables and driving out the religious peddlers was making a declaration of identity based on who God is and what God wants. God wants his people to love him and their neighbors. The identity of God’s people is shown not in our God bling, but in our godly actions, in our care for our neighbor, in our sacrifice for the kingdom, in our pursuit of God, and in our obedience to the voice of God. Jesus cleared the way for all to approach God, no matter what condition they are found in, and Jesus’ call on the people of God is to bring people to him, not create more barriers based on class, race, or any other prejudice. When Jesus cleared the temple of those who sought to control access to God, people poured in to worship, hear God’s words and were given forgiveness and healing.

As followers of Jesus we have a call on us to clear the way for others to approach God. We have a call to turn over the tables of judgment on which we weigh others’ worth, and instead weigh everyone by their value in God’s eyes. This seems nearly impossible to me, who was raised in the “me” culture of the 80s in which I was taught to weigh others’ value based on what they could do for me. That attitude penetrated into my relationship with God and the church in subtle and sly ways that were easily rationalized. At times I feel a sense of kinship with the chief priests, because I get that same urge to determine who should have access to God. I have that same urge to decide who belongs and who doesn’t; and I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t behave that way. Every so often Jesus comes into my heart and flips over the tables of self-interest and directs me to his mercy, his lordship, his ways of being and doing what is right. When we welcome Jesus in, his first priority is to remove the things and attitudes we build to try to control access to God so that we can be refined in the fire of God’s love. Someday that fire will have burned away everything in me that is a hindrance to the love of God; that day has not yet come, but it will. Until then I must pay attention to God’s voice and work on clearing the way so that I and others can approach God.

During our time of open worship I invite you to join me in confession, asking Jesus to come into us, his temple and to drive out and overturn those things that hinder ourselves and others from approaching the God who loved the world so much that he gave up everything to be born into it, lived as a regular guy, demonstrated what it meant to teach, lead and love, gave up his life for everyone, returned from the dead to usher in the new covenant, and gave all people direct access to God through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray.

<Open Worship>

Lord, teach us to be as merciful as you have been to us. Help us to tear down the barriers we put up to protect ourselves, our power, and access to you. Help us to forgive generously and love all those you have created in your image. Jesus, lead us in the paths of righteousness for your namesake and help us to follow your example. Spirit, give us courage, wisdom, and a fresh cleansing fire to spur us on to greater acts of love and mercy. Amen.


Thanksgiving and Being Content

This week we get to experience one of the great cognitive dissonances of American life. On Thursday we gather together to celebrate and give thanks for all that God has provided, and then we chuck it all out the window and are plunged in to the feeding frenzy of Black Friday. How strange is it that we can plunge from thanksgiving to discontent in less than a day? What would change about our Christmas season if we kept our mind focused on being thankful for what God has already done and don’t get caught up in the hype of the latest and greatest? How can we alleviate the worry that comes from allowing our expectations to be dictated by our culture? To help answer some of these questions I want to tell you the story of a guy named Saul, he was a citizen of the greatest empire of his time, not only that, but he was from a good family, was one of God’s chosen people, and got the best education. He was a real up and comer who was apprenticed to one of the leaders of his people and had his political enemies literally on the run! But it all fell apart on him when he ran into Jesus. Saul was blinded, cared for and healed by his political enemies, then driven into a vagabond life after changing his name. He travelled from place to place, spreading the gospel, but often had to do odd jobs like tent making to cover his expenses. Paul was in and out of jail, had his life threatened and was repeatedly assaulted, eventually having to appeal to the highest court for protection against his own people. Paul went from riches to rags, the greatest fear of our culture, and wrote these words of encouragement to the church in Philippi.

6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:6-13)

If there was anyone who could have had worries back then, the Philippian church could top our list. Philippi was one of the most honored cities in the Roman Empire and had very close ties to Rome. The cult of emperor worship held deep sway and the fledgling Christian church had issues of conflicting allegiance that made it hard to survive in the city. It seemed like the key to peace and security for this fledgling church was to pay lip service to Caesar and keep their religion private. Paul warns them that the key to peace and security was not to accommodate the culture of idolatry, but to thank God and pray. This would lead to a sense of peace, that was not understandable (by them or us), but was puzzlingly visible. God’s peace protects us from many things. What would it look like if we had a sense of God’s peace on Black Friday? There is a false religion at work in our society that drives our culture. This religion is of course consumerism and its god is “the Market”. The tenets of this religion are that who we are is defined by what we have, that we deserve to have the latest and greatest and that if we don’t have the latest and greatest we are less valuable. If you listen carefully you will hear various people using the same language to describe the market that we use to describe God. Consumerism is a religion and system based on lies, covetousness, and greed. The consumer culture tells us that we are shaped by our purchases, and we have fallen for that lie. Just walk into any Christian bookstore and tell me otherwise. Friends, Christian stuff does not necessarily make for a Christian life. If we have to have a fish stamped on everything we own to prove we are Christians I have some questions about whether we are living a Christian themed American life rather than a Christian life in America. Paul tells us not to worry about the things our culture tells us we need to live “the good life”, but to trust God to give us the life that is best for us to live. During Open Worship we reflected on Query 13 from the NWYM Faith and Practice. “Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?” (http://nwfriends.org/what-friends-believe/the-queries/#Living) This query helps us to ask ourselves how we are doing with living lives marked by simplicity, and gets to the essence of what Quakers mean when they say the word simplicity. Often when we hear the word simplicity it evokes images of lists of what we can and cannot do or have. Quaker simplicity is not at all about things, it is about focus. It is about filtering out anything that distracts us from purposes God has called us to. The testimony of simplicity is a call to be content with what God gives to accomplish the calls that have been placed in us.

The average American is exposed to between five and seven thousand ads every day, and each one of those ads is designed to generate discontent, to tell you that you are not complete if you don’t have or use their product. In six months there will be a cooler, newer igadget better than all the rest, a stronger mutual fund that outperforms them all, a new distraction, shinier and more enthralling than the last. There will be no end to this idolatrous cycle. These ads also encourage us to compare ourselves to others who are billed as more attractive, healthier, happier, and wealthier than ourselves. Is it really surprising that we live in a discontent society? I would like to invite you to a little thought experiment to assist with the process of dealing with the deluge. Got your thinking caps on? This is what I want you to do: Don’t think at all about giraffes.

This image used under creative commons license from: http://www.freenaturepictures.com/baby-giraffe-pictures.php

Paul also knew that the quickest way to get someone to focus on something was to tell them not to while waving it around in their faces. “Do”s are much more effective than “Don’t”s in helping people change their thinking. Paul is not telling us to ignore what is going on around us, but to give our attention to what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. Paul also knew that no culture is totally sunk in depravity. The Torah teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of the everlasting God and gives examples of God’s words coming from sources external to God’s people. There are two extremes at work in our culture: naïve optimism and cynical pessimism one side looks at the society around them and only sees what is negative this of course distorts their understanding and soon their gatherings resemble fortresses built to protect them from anything on the “evil” outside. The other side sees things getting better all the time and sees humanity as on a path to becoming better. Evil things are anomalies that crop up occasionally and are nothing to worry about. As much as it would be easier for us if either of those distortions were true, the reality is that life is much messier than that, and the truth is found only in sifting through the lies that exist beside it, and what is honorable can be found under the same roof as the deepest shame. In asking us to think about what is true and noble, etc. Paul is not asking us to deny the unpleasant reality of evil in the world; he is just asking us not to give it the power that comes from paying attention to it. This is the purpose of the Quaker testimony of simplicity: To deny the power of anything that distracts our focus from God.

It is not going to be easy to go against the flow of our culture. When I worked in a stock brokerage firm in Philadelphia, I saw many people who were very wealthy and it wasn’t enough for them. They constantly tried to find ways to increase their holdings and could never be content with what they had. This discontent was displayed most obviously whenever a problem arose and they felt like they were falling behind. I also have a friend back east that grew up in poverty. This person decided that the solution to all of their problems was to make more money. They didn’t have enough, but thought that more money and things would fix their brokenness. This seemed to work out well as they climbed the economic ladder; cutting ties to anyone they thought would “bring them down”. Eventually they climbed out of poverty, but they were still discontent because what they finally had still wasn’t enough. Fear of slipping back drove them to disconnect even more and focus entirely on acquisition. This eventually led to marital troubles when their spouse felt called to a helping profession. In both of these cases the problem wasn’t in the things or money itself, but was in the people’s focus on things or money. If we want the God of peace to be with us we will need to put in some sweat equity in retraining our minds and bodies to keep our focus on track. We will need to practice, fail a few times, lose our focus a time or two…hundred, get back up and try again. We must keep on doing what we have learned helps us refocus our attention on Jesus so that we can hold to our faith regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Speaking of circumstances, Paul appreciated the fact that the Philippians were concerned about how he was faring in his imprisonment. In Roman prisons they didn’t provide food or anything you might need, you were dependent on friends and family to bring you food and clothing. So the Philippians were rightly concerned that Paul may not have been getting what he needed to sustain himself. In our text for today Paul gives thanks to God that they have the concern, but that the secret to being content is not to focus on your circumstances. The secret to being content was to focus on the real presence of Jesus in our lives. No matter what we come up against, no matter what heights or depths, wealth or poverty our circumstances travel through, when we see Jesus as the source of our strength in all situations there is nothing we cannot do. God has given us all that we need to live a Christian life. This Thursday: be thankful, and this Friday: be content. It might be hard, but we can do all things through him who gives us strength.