The Old South Church in Boston

III. Speaking to the Skeptic in a Culture of Consumerism

Summer Sermon Series by Lael P. Murphy

August 3, 2003
Luke 12: 13-21

Did you know consumer studies show that teenagers spend an average of $135 every month on apparel and related products, the 71 million Americans ages 25 and younger consuming $46 billion of clothing last year?
Have you realized that over 13% of us eat breakfast in the car, a finding that may well be related to the fact that 61% of adults in the United States were identified as overweight in a recent Surgeon General’s report, a statistic that leads us then to remember that we spend nearly $20 billion a year on weight loss products?

Do we appreciate the psychological implications of the fact that we pop over $100 billion a year in over-the-counter and prescription drugs - medications that provide vital treatment for disease but also pills that promise increased energy, hair growth and sexual stamina?

As citizens of these United States we are surrounded by opportunities to consume, whether it’s french fries or beer, books or television shows, cars or computers.  Inspired by the many images we see on programs like Martha Stewart or MTV, we’re a people saturated by a culture of consumerism, linking, then, not only our individual but also our national identities to our habits of consumption.  Whether it’s compulsive shopping, binging on food or drink or drugs, or sitting for hours in front of a television or computer screen, many people’s lives are defined by what they consume.  With studies finding that we work more hours a week than any generation to come before us, it’s as though we feel due whatever habits of comfort we desire, reminding us, as captured by the Mall of America’s slogan, “There’s a place for fun in your life.”  The ability to consume in these modern days is what often gives us a sense of freedom and renewal.

Of course it wasn’t always this way.  Appreciating the power of our culture it’s interesting to remember that even the word “consumerism” didn’t exist until the 1940’s when government officials recognized the need for policies that would protects the rights of those who purchase products made here and abroad, leading eventually, then, to the existence of “consumption as an economic policy” in 1960.  Prior to these 20th century developments the word “consume” remained based in its Latin root from the thirteen hundreds, a definition showing the word meant “to use up, eat, or waste.”

Indeed, that may well be the just way we need to think again about this word.  With the United Nations recently reporting that 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total consumption it is time for us to admit we use up and even waste much of the world’s resources.  As part of that privileged 20% the report reminds us that each year we consume 45% of all meat and fish on this planet, utilize 58% of the energy produced and 84% of paper products manufactured, making us responsible not only for taking away resources from the millions of men and women in need but also putting a tremendous strain on the environment.  Editors of the web site Overcoming Consumerism say that this choice of lifestyle promotes “a pattern of behavior that helps to destroy our environment, personal financial health, and the common good of individuals and human institutions.”  And so we ask ourselves this morning, What are we doing to God’s creation?  How are we using - or abusing - the great freedoms and resources in our lives?

Asking these questions here today in this house of faith we remember that the culture of consumerism is not just about “things.”  Hardly.  Consumerism is also about attitudes and perspective.  Economist Juliet Schor, senior lecturer at Harvard University and author of The Overspent American, points out that spending has become a social phenomenon as once our basic biological needs were met as Americans consumer trends took on a heightened social meaning.  In such a culture, Schor tells us, old fears are replaced by new ones as the fear of being marginalized by society is replaced by the fear of being shunned by our own particular social group, an idea that - no matter what our class or culture - we can understand as the need to “keep up with the Joneses.”

We also remember another danger, one we’ve been careful to consider these past two weeks.  It’s the danger of assuming an attitude of entitlement, the expectation that nothing should ever go wrong, and that if it does there’s a quick fix or remedy just around the corner - one that should certainly be covered by some type of insurance we’ve spent our money on.  In this environment it’s not just our spending habits that are affected but also our sense of control as we begin to think that we - or the specialist we hire - can control even the forces of nature.  Yielding to this temptation we put ourselves in the place of God, coming to believe that we have an undeniable right to a long and happy life filled with material comforts, health, and ease.

With each of these shifts in attitude - the need to keep up with the Joneses and the sense of entitlement - the powers of consumerism take root in our souls, making even our religious practices a way to feel better about our selves and the world.  We see this in many new age spiritualities and even in more traditional religious circles as more than 1,000 nondenominational churches are founded each year in this country, people clearly searching for meaning and hope.  In a culture of consumerism it’s easy to think we can acquire the faith we need and possess the answers we crave, our desire for God’s presence merely another way to assume we are due comfort and care.  Our worship and prayers in this climate become a way to bargain with God - a phenomenon recently exemplified by the hugely popular book by Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez, where people are led to say boldly to God, “bless me, enlarge my territory, keep your hand on me, and keep me from pain.”  As captured by sociologist Neil Postman the new commandments in a culture like this are radically different from the ten we’ve claimed for centuries.  In such a commercial climate they become words like these: “Thou shalt have no other gods than consumption, thou shalt despise what is old [and seek only what is new], thou shalt seek to amuse thyself continuously, and thou shalt avoid complexity like the ten plagues that afflicted Egypt.”

Oh, what a shift in creed and covenant.  How strange it is to hear the convictions of consumerism laid out so blatantly in religious language.  As Christians trying to live faithfully in this world we need to step back and ask ourselves in matters related to how we spend our time and money, What are we buying?  And just as importantly, What are we buying into? recognizing, then, how our surroundings are dramatically changing our perspectives.  Then, hopefully, we might laugh with the humorist who prays,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray my Cuisinart to keep,
I pray my DVD still works,
and that my job won’t lose its perks.
I pray my health club will not close,
And that my money market grows.
If I go broke before I wake,
I pray my condo they won’t take.

It is from the Talmud we hear these words:  “Who is rich?  He who rejoices in his portion.”  Appreciating the fact that we must take care to provide for today and responsibly plan for the future, we also recognize the need to establish healthy, faithful perspectives on money and things.  Grateful for the incredible advancements in technology and manufacturing that sustain not only our own but many other national economies, we recognize that the sin of the culture and creed of consumerism is that it makes us the center of the universe, allowing us to deny the presence of God and those around us.  The tragedy of this culture is that it places in our hearts what some theologians call the “myth of scarcity,” where we are oblivious to the abundance that surrounds us as we instead strive continuously to accumulate new possessions, better opportunities, more exciting experiences.  In a culture like this, with our basic human needs fulfilled, we, as consumers, are ourselves consumed:  we are consumed by incessant, perpetual desire.  The culture of consumerism becomes a culture of craving, where, as theology professor Mary Jo Leddy states, “we begin to believe that if we just had a little bit more of whatever we would be happy…The objects of our craving may change, but the dissatisfaction will remain.”

“‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”  Then he said, “I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

In this text referred to by commentators as The Parable of the Rich Fool, we see Christ’s reaction to one whose time and attention is consumed by accumulation.  It is a text that challenges us to wonder just where we might be building bigger and bigger barns in our personal and communal lives, raising issues of equity, justice, and Christian caring in a world  filled with the realities of war, hunger, and homelessness.  Remembering, as written in this very same chapter, “where your treasure lies there your heart is also,” we contemplate together just how the culture of consumerism eats away at our Christian convictions, asking, then, whose god we are serving in this nation - a place that holds the world’s largest population of Christians (nearly one hundred and ninety million people).  Again we ask, What are we buying?  What are we buying into?

I can tell you this passage makes me squirm.  I confess its challenges are intimidating.  Sitting in a Starbuck’s just yesterday, refining these words on my laptop computer, I laughed at myself, believe me.  There’s no denying that I’m a consumer, tempted continually to buy and do and be more than I have and am right now.  I like to shop, watch TV, eat junk food, and yes, plan carefully for retirement.  God speaks to me in this parable, challenging me to consider how I hoard, how I continuously consume for my own satisfaction.

But I also recognize in these words how God is changing my life.  For while I like to browse for a bargain I learn to buy only what I need.  While I enjoy television and movies I become aware of my need for silent contemplation and prayer.  While I love to eat and drink I choose to follow a vegetarian and sober lifestyle, aware of the environmental and emotional impacts of doing otherwise.  Through the gentle guidance of God my life as a consumer has changed and it continues to evolve, not out of guilt or fear but because God’s grace has opened my heart to a new way of life.  Oh, I’m still like that rich fool, building barns for my possessions, but Christ is changing me, day-by-day, to see there’s another way.  He comes to me - and to each of us - and says, “If  you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8: 31-32).

We live in a world filled with temptation, attractions that lure us away from God’s merciful teachings and love.  We are surrounded by forces that seek to enslave us - “enslave” is a strong word but it is one that truly captures the influence of these times.  Determined that we can provide for ourselves we abandon the Christian conviction that we must depend on God - for meaning, for grace, for ultimate salvation.  We ignore the promise of Christ who states, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10).  As Paul reminds the Galatians it’s here that we recognize, “For freedom Christ has set us free.   Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 4: 31 - 5: 1).

And so what do we say to the skeptic today?  We say don’t buy it.  Don’t buy into the world’s claims that you can purchase happiness or meaning or peace.  Don’t buy into perspectives that tempt you to feel like a god.  We say there’s a better way to live, one that offers ultimate freedom and peace - but it comes at a price.  It comes at the foot of the cross where we recognize and admit our need for God’s mercy and love, as we confess that we really can’t do it on our own.  This morning we say to the skeptic - we say to our selves - you can stop filling that deep, dark hole in your life and reach out for God.  God is here, in Christ, seeking to fill you with hope and grace.

Let us pray.
Eternal God, God who knows us and loves us still, we bow our heads to you humbly this moment, confessing our never-ending desires.  Help us, we pray, to turn away from the many temptations that face us in this world, and fill us, O God, with your mercy and love.

Luke 12: 13-21

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?  And he said to them, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Then he told them a parable:  “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this:  I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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The Old South Church in Boston
645 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 536-1970