Monday, October 26, 2015

Sermon for October 25, 2015

In Plenty, Do Not Forget

“Keep and live out the entire commandment that I’m commanding you today so that you’ll live and prosper and enter and own the land that God promised to your ancestors. Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that God would know what you were made of, whether you would keep the commandments or not. God put you through hard times. God made you go hungry. Then God fed you … so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread alone; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth … It’s paramount that you keep the commandments of God, your God. God is about to bring you into a good land, a land with brooks and rivers, springs and lakes, streams out of the hills and through the valleys. It’s a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs and pomegranates, of olives, oil, and honey. It’s a land where you’ll never go hungry … It’s a land where you’ll get iron out of rocks and mine copper from the hills. After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land God has given you. Make sure you don’t forget God, your God … Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget God, your God”
Deuteronomy 8, selected verses

I have to admit a guilty pleasure: I love junk mail. And I love those live demos at the home show where they sell overpriced vegetable peelers and miracle window cleaning fluid. And I love NPR fundraising. Actually it’s worse than that. I love the infomercials that air during the late night hours when sleepless television watchers are most vulnerable to being talked into buying questionable goods from the friendly-looking hucksters. I want to be as excited as the customers on the infomercial who are about to find out all the versatile uses for the No!No! Home Hair Removal System instead of sleeping peacefully (Or Magic Bullet. Or Shake Weight. Or Pajama Jeans). The hosts of infomercials are hilarious … and terrifying … due to their Silly Putty grins and their desperation to unleash the shoddiest products in the universe upon the compromised late-night consumers of the world.

A read a story of a Seattle mom who has spent thousands of dollars buying more than 50 infomercial products in the last year alone. Her stash includes the Ninja Blender, the George Foreman Grill, and the Snuggie. Her infomercial infatuation began while working the overnight shift as a home care aide. Watching infomercials helped her stay awake. They promised a better and easier life. Trapped in a tough job, she was hungry to buy in to that dream, always wondering if the product could match its promise.

There is actually a term for people who cannot stop buying stuff. It’s called Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD and it affects 15-30 million people in the United States.  Like any addictive behavior, it can be so easy for us to pursue and accumulate more of what we don't really want. Whether it’s infomercials, alcohol, drugs, sex, food, prestige, career achievement, power, wealth – whatever – as long as we are never satisfied, we will continue to seek more, while our real needs are never fully met.

I think addiction, in one form or another, characterizes every aspect of our society. And, I think consumerism is a bit of an addiction. The desire to accumulate and use reflects a culture that does not always support deeper forms of meaning and purpose in our lives. We fill our empty, lonely, vulnerable places by consuming more. Consuming puts a buffer between us and the awareness of our emotions. Consuming numbs us so that we are out of touch with what we feel. The evidence is overwhelming that people who are characterized by materialistic attitudes and values actually experience lower well-being, lower happiness, more depression, more anxiety, and more anger than people who aren't materialistic.

By the way, our country’s market economy backs up our tendency to numb life through consumption. Market Ideology is dead set against the practice of transformation. Market Ideology insists on stinginess towards others (no free lunch); self-centeredness (you are entitled); vengeance against those who disrupt our privilege; anxiety over scarcity; and the compulsion to hoard resources. Market ideology can cause us to treat other people as competitors, or threats, or rivals.

From the spiritual side, there is one glaring issue with consumerism: where abundance prevails, when faced with the intoxicating allure of economic prosperity, we may forget God. It’s hard to be grateful when we are tempted to create classes of haves and have-nots through building warehouses of abundance at the expense of those who suffer.

Consider the warnings in our reading from Deuteronomy. Centuries after the death of Moses, let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC, a group of wise teachers see that the people of Israel have not been distinctive in their faithfulness.  The people of Israel face conquest and demise by foreign armies. The political system is corrupt. The rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor. Resources have been plundered. The people are about to be banished from the Promised Land. The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel. They indict the current political and social order by pointing to Moses and using his story as a way to comment on current crises. Their history book calls a fractured nation to remember their past, to remember the promises of God, and to remember the promises Israel made.

The teachers want people to remember what it was like for their ancestors who stood on the brink of the Promised Land. It was a land rich with resources. There was plenty of food for everyone. No one was be hungry. Everyone had a roof over their families’ heads. Everyone was satisfied. It was a time to give thanks. In today’s story from Deuteronomy, Moses says, “After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land God has given you.” In a place of plenty, do not forget.

If you say a table blessing at your home, when do you do it? In our home, we say grace before the meal. Here, Moses says to give thanks after eating. Why? Because it is often easier to turn to God when we are hungry rather than after finishing an abundant meal. In many ways, we have a much greater need for a reminder about God after eating than before the meal.  In a place of plenty, do not forget.

The ancient Sages knew that life in covenant with God alters one’s heart, mind, and spirit. Let’s call it Covenantal Economics. Covenantal Economics wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, sharing our resources, and living for more than just ourselves. It’s a system that contradicts the Market Ideology, which encourage self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good.  One of the most dangerous times for us to ignore our covenants is when we live in times of plenty. Do you know what makes it worse? When we live in times of plenty and privilege and feel like we are the have-nots; when we have so much, but feel upset because we don’t have so much more; when we see what others have and fail to be grateful because we envy them. In a place of plenty, do not forget.

Covenantal Economics provides a vantage point for critiquing every system of this world that falls short of what God intends. God stands in judgment of human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, and gross economic exploitation. When we keep resources to ourselves, when we hoard, when we take at the expense of another’s survival, we keep from God. And what we give to the least of those among us, we give to God.

I get restless when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world.  As people of faith, we realize that what human beings want is not necessarily what they need for the sake of life.

Covenant Economics acknowledges that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for our neighbor.

Covenant Economics recognizes that consumerism can destroy relationships and work against the mutual support God desires among people.

Covenant Economics affirms that God promises a world where there is enough for everyone, if only we would learn how to use and share what God has given for the sake of all.

Covenant Economics is based on the idea that in plenty, we do not forget. We provide counsel, food, clothing, shelter, and money for people in need. We respect human dignity. We advocate for public and private policies that address the causes of poverty. And we support organizations that help low-income people to obtain more sufficient, sustainable livelihoods.

Self absorption can really get in the way of gratitude. When we fill our emptiness and loneliness by consuming more, we can become preoccupied with meeting our personal needs. When people feel grateful, they begin to focus at least some of their attention on the needs of other people.

I think about this when it comes to our life together at CCC. As some of you know, we are in a period of financial concern. Our income is down. We have run deficit budgets for years, and it’s caught up to us. Our Trustees have asked Boards to cut their spending, which also affects our mission giving to the UCC. I am glad the Trustees take our budget seriously, and I really appreciate their prayerful work. They are being good Trustees.  And I want to remind us, we are also a rich church. I was at the Potomac Association Fall meeting yesterday and I saw the annual budgets and giving levels of all of the UCC churches in the D.C. Metro area. Let me just say, 4/5 of those churches would love to have our budget. There are faithful congregations doing God’s work with a lot, lot less than what we have. CCC has a robust budget, sound investments, a great building, generous givers, dedicated volunteers, a loving community, and a committed staff of ministers and professionals. Thank God! Praise God! In a place of plenty, do not forget!

We have so much to be grateful for. Gratitude is a response to joy. We have a God who loves us enough to send us a Savior. We are nurtured by God and given a place in God’s family. We give thanks because no purchase from an infomercial will ever be as good as what God has already given.

If you don’t know how to be grateful, here are a few ideas: Give thanks for your parents – for giving birth to you, because if there is no them, there would not be you. Give thanks for your family, your friends, and your companions in this life. Give thanks when you are able to see the colors of life, for each time you can hear the trickle of rain, for the voices of your loved ones, for the harmonious chords of music. Give thanks each time you can feel the texture of your clothes, the breeze of the wind, and the hands of your loved ones. Give thanks when you smell scented candles and beautiful flowers in your garden. Give thanks when you can savor the sweetness of fruits, the saltiness of seawater, the bitterness of a lemon, or the spiciness of chili. Give thanks for your heart that pumps blood to all the parts of your body every second since you were born. Give thanks for the ability to think, to store memories, and to create new solutions. Give thanks for the teachers in your life who passed down knowledge and wisdom to you. Give thanks for the tears that help express your deepest emotions. Give thanks for the disappointment that help you know the things that matter to you most. Give thanks for your fears that expose opportunities for growth. Give thanks for certain pains that help you become stronger. Give thanks for sadness that helps you appreciate the spectrum of human emotions. Give thanks for happiness when you can soak in the beauty of life. Give thanks for the sunrise. Give thanks for rain that waters and nurtures the earth. Give thanks for pets who love us unconditionally. Give thanks for the Internet – for connecting you and others despite the physical space between you. Give thanks for D.C. traffic, because you still have an easy commute compared to others in our world. Give thanks for mobile phones, and computers, and blogs, and iTunes.  Give thanks for your home, and your bed, and your soul mate who understands everything you are going through right now. Give thanks for your best friends for being there whenever you need them, and your enemies for helping you uncover your growing edges so you can become a better person. Give thanks for your mistakes, and your heartbreaks, for your laughter and for love, for life’s challenges, and for life itself – for giving you the chance to experience all that you’re experiencing, and will be experiencing in times to come.

And last but not least don’t forget to give thanks for the most important thing.

Give thanks for … you.

Give thanks because God loves you with an everlasting love and promises to never leave you and never forsake you.

Give thanks because absolutely nothing, not even death itself, can keep you from the love of God.

Give thanks.

In a place of plenty, do not forget.

The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 1, by Walter Brueggemann, p. 322.
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thompson.

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