Sunday, December 1, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "From Consuming to Sharing"

Isaiah 58:6-12

6 Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? 7 Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? 8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.” If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; 10 if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon. 11 The Lord will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry. 12 They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets. (Common English Bible)

“A Place at the Table: An Advent in Solidarity with the Poor,” Week One

The pope’s image was broadcast out from Rome over his home country of Argentina: the simple white cassock, the white skullcap, and the one piece of ostentatiousness this current pope had—his signet ring on his right fourth finger.  It was his first exclusive interview for Argentinian media since he had stopped being Father Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and had become Pope Francis.  And in this interview, he made one of the most eloquent calls for dignity through employment I have ever heard because he linked my generation with my precedecessors:

Today we are living in (an) unjust international system in which “King Money” is at the center.  It’s a throwaway culture that discards young people as well as its older people.  In some European countries, without mentioning names, there is youth unemployment of 40% and higher.  A whole generation of young people does not have the dignity that is brought on by work.  A people that cares neither for its youth nor for its old people has no future.  Young people take society into the future, while the older generation gives society its memory, its wisdom.

It meant a lot to me personally to hear Francis say this, because honestly, I think this is what we have in a lot of ways here—a lot of folks either very young or old, who live day-to-day, getting by on not a lot of money, and so often, whether by our political leaders or by uncaring businesses or even by each other, we are treated like a means instead of an end, and we have been replaced as the ‘end’ by money itself—money is seen as more valuable than we are.  And that is sinful.

Another new liturgical season, another sermon series, right?  Well, pretty much, but this liturgical season—called Advent—is relatively short, only four weeks long, and unique in that it is largely a waiting game as we count down the days to Christmas (which, let’s be honest, how many of us started doing after Halloween?).  But even though Advent is a time of festiveness in our culture, with Christmas carols on the radio station and gingerbread this and peppermint mocha that, Advent actually began as a penitential season—a season in which we were meant to follow the exhortation of John the Baptist as he foretold Christ, telling us to repent and believe in the coming Messiah.  One of the most prominent spiritual disciplines of penitence is fasting, and so for this Advent, I chose a source of sermon series material you may be familiar with.  If you remember my “Advent Conspiracy” sermon series two years ago, about trying to find Christ within the crass consumerism of Christmas, well, one of the Advent Conspiracy authors, Pastor Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston Texas, has written a sequel called “A Place at the Table,” in which he details fasting as a spiritual discipline.  Though the book is actually written for Lent, the season when we are supposed to give something meaningful up, I have shanghaied it for Advent because I think that the holiday season is probably when our charitable goodwill is often on the front burner, and I wanted to be able to speak to that here.  So, we begin this four-week series with its first installment, duly named after the first chapter of Pastor Chris’s book, the chapter entitled “From Consuming to Sharing,” in which he writes in part:

Freedom.  It is a beautiful gift.  As Christians, we know that Jesus came to free us from the law and the oppression that comes with religious regulations…(and) as Americans, we unapologetically make a spectacle of our freedom.

I have come to believe, however, that our Western understanding of freedom is not at all what Jesus came to bring us.  We have allowed our love of freedom to become an excuse to live a life marked by self-absorbed consumerism…as we obsess over the newest technology and the latest fashions, we find the majority of our income is spent on what we love most—ourselves—while the world is hurting:

-One billion people lack access to clean water, at 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation.
-According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die due to extreme poverty…every day.
-Out of 2.2 billion children in the world, 1 billion live in poverty.
-The wealthiest nation on earth has the widest gap between the rich and poor of any industrialized nation.

As Christians who are called to love the least of these, we need to realize that poverty is not just a problem, it is our problem.

Pastor Chris goes on to cite part of the passage from Isaiah 58 that we just read—and I have to think that he did it for close the same reasons that Pope Francis had when he spoke out in that inaugural interview in Argentina: our spirituality must always have a worthy ends, not merely a means.  And just as money cannot be an end in and of itself, neither too can any given spiritual discipline.  In other words, what matters isn’t the discipline itself, but how it brings you closer to God and to Jesus Christ.  Even fasting—the discipline Pastor Chris is extolling here—must have an ends, and that ends is to amplify our Christian calling to be concerned about the welfare of the poor, something that, like I said, we are called to do especially during the holiday season and the climate of year-end charitable giving, but also something that, judging by the news reports of that MMA cagefight at Wal-Mart that made the national news, something that we also, frankly, kinda suck at (can I say “suck at” in a sermon?  Oh well.  The gauntlet has been laid down.).

But I want to ask all of you this question, and I beg you to answer yourselves honestly: how often do you view other people as a ‘means’ for you instead of an end?  How often do you size someone up, even someone you just met (or especially someone you just met), and think to yourself, “what can they do for me?” or “how are they useful to me?”  And if you deem them useless to whatever goals you have set out for yourself, how does that affect your treatment of that person, either for better or for (what I suspect may be more frequently) for worse?

Now—and full disclosure, here’s the part where I lay the pastoral guilt trip on ya, and thick—how would you size up a baby boy born to impoverished parents in what is basically a barn?  And I’m being brutally honest here, would you think that the birth of this baby boy is cause for unrestrained celebration, or would you be more concerned with exactly how much of your tax money is going to that kid’s WIC aid because his teenaged mom got knocked up and her carpenter boyfriend can’t even obtain shelter for the two of them when they travel?

In other words, how would you view the birth of Jesus, knowing nothing about Him that you now know—about Him being the Son of God, the Messiah, our Lord and Savior and all of that—how would you react in what is basically a blind taste test?

And yes, you can say, “Well, jeez, Pastor Eric, of course I wouldn’t view the Prince of Peace as a burden on society, after all, He freaking saves society,” but one, that’s a pretty impossible standard to hold to any other child who has been born before or since, but two, are we really about to say that we’ll be fine with God incarnate being born into poverty as long as we get something out of this?  Are we really okay with being that selfish in our relationship with God?

So let’s step back from this mentality.  Let’s try fasting from the mentality of treating people in accordance with their perceived usefulness to us, that would be a good fast to start with this Advent.  Let’s try to adhere to the fast the Lord tells Isaiah that He wants for a change!

And the fast that Isaiah says the Lord wants is pretty straightforward, no biggie: setting free the enslaved, released wicked oppression, sharing our food, offering our shelter, giving away our clothes, that’s simple enough, no?  Totally something you can put on tomorrow’s to-do list and have it knocked out by lunchtime, in between having coffee and dropping off the dry cleaning.

Of course it isn’t, though.  And it was never meant to be.  But Isaiah also says that God gives us the tools to do so: as verse 11 says, the Lord will guide us and provide for you, even rescue you as we go about this amazing, incredible, soul-sized work of fashioning a spirituality that actually makes a difference in peoples’ lives.  God has got your back in all of this!

And more than anything else, the holiday season of Advent is about trusting in God’s providence, because God is basically saying to us, “I know, it’s not good.  There’s evil and hurt and pain and sinfulness all around you, but if you hang on just a few more weeks, I’m going to send to you my Son, and He can and will deliver you from all of this mess around you.”

So for this Advent, I would ask you to remove, as much as is possible, your trust from your holiday consumer needs and put that trust back into your relationship with God.  We have let the holiday season become about our love of money—we are no different from ol’ Ebenezer himself when Jacob/Bob Marley comes to pay him a visit (I told y’all about my mom mixing up the two when she read A Christmas Carol to me as a kid, right?  That joke never gets old.).  So let’s work on fasting from our love and trust in our money as well, as an act of empathy and solidarity with the people who never had or have much money to begin with, which I know includes many of us here today.  It’s like what John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” except this time, it’s “Ask not what some rando can do for you, ask what you can do for that rando.”  It’s the season of giving after all, right?

And, in mine eyes, one of the greatest lessons of Jesus’ birth to that unwed teenage mother and her blue-collar boyfriend/husband-to-be is that the rando you’re asked to do something for could easily be Jesus Christ Himself.  It is why He says in the Gospels, “What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”  And it is why we must take seriously the nature of Christian charity in the face of holiday consumerism: it is radical, it is countercultural, and in a way, it is profoundly untraditional.  But it is right that we should do so.  Let that be enough.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 1, 2013

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