“No one can serve two masters for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”
There probably isn’t anybody in this room that needs to be told that as Americans we lead very privileged lives. “Welcome to the world, America,” was a phrase many of us heard in the wake on 9/11. It reflected the view that America and its citizens are largely insulated from grim realities that are the stuff of daily life for billions who share the planet. I thought about that the other day as I drove down Somerville Avenue. There’s a string of gas stations along the avenue and I couldn’t help notice that gas prices had risen about thirty cents since I bought gas the previous week. I thought, “Welcome to the revolution, America;” that the effects of popular revolutions that we’ve all been reading about have finally come to our shores.
Last Thursday morning the price of a barrel of crude oil had risen to about $104. Reports link the chaos in Libya directly to this precipitous rise in the price of crude. It turns out that even though Libya produces only a fraction of the world’s petroleum output its crude is sweet crude, as opposed to sour crude. I didn’t know that crude comes in flavors. Apparently there is sweet and sour crude. Sweet crude contains less sulphur and is easier to refine. European refineries prefer sweet crude. That preference has set off a bidding war among oil traders and so we are going to pay more for gas in the short term.
Some people see a silver lining in all of this in that it will possibly get us back on track with efforts to become more energy efficient. Energy conservation and efficiency suffer when prices are low. In other words, this is really good news; we only think it’s bad.
Talking about paying more for gasoline to fuel our vehicles as hardship may seems insensitive, even arrogant. In terms of the mind boggling scope of global deprivation, misapprehension about how much it’s going to cost us to drive seems proof of just how out of touch we are with most of the world. My brothers Tom, Curtis, and David Vryhof, as well as some members of this worshipping community, can tell you any number of stories about what they have seen and what they will see when they visit Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Tanzania is affected by soaring oil costs. But in light of the fact that the country has exactly one paved road any sense of apprehension fades before life and death issues far more serious for Tanzanians. Among them are almost universal poverty, lack of education and clean drinking water, unimaginable rates of infant and child mortality not to mention the social and economic havoc created by the HIV epidemic that ravages the country’s population and has made prospects for economic development even more remote as it annihilates the country’s intelligentsia and economic elites. People in Tanzania are forced to deal with more pressing realities.
I doubt very much that rising oil prices are figuring very high for the people of Christchurch, New Zealand as the search continued last week for the injured and the dead. That of course says nothing about the tens of thousands of Haitians who have seen efforts to rebuild and rehabilitate their country producing little in the way of tangible results. Needless to say, you could probably add to my list and our lists could conceivably run on and on. But, still I think we need to look at our own situation, at least as part of a larger issue, in the context of our faith and in the context of this morning’s gospel.
We heard this morning a small section of a much larger collection of Jesus sayings that we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” Matthew devotes three whole chapters to these teachings. They form something of a linchpin in his gospel. In a sense, they constitute Jesus’ keynote address on the new age of the kingdom of God. The beginning of our passage “No one can serve two masters” seems to be a pre-requisite to the freedom from worry about material things promised in the succeeding passage. I think that what Jesus is saying to us is a loud and clear wake-up call.
I wonder how the crowds who followed Jesus and listened to him heard his counsel not to worry about their material needs. These were very poor materially-deprived people. Remember, the economic and social conditions of Jesus’ times were desperate. There was widespread poverty, as well as a downward economic spiral. Downward mobility carried with it many people, including an entire class of once prosperous Galilean and Judean peasant farmers, now being evicted from their land and transformed into homeless iterant beggars. Hearing words like don’t worry about what you are going to eat or drink or whether you were going to have something to wear targeted the very things that these people were possibly most lacking.
I’ve been wondering how Jesus would have phrased his teaching for American society in 2011. Don’t worry about whether you are driving a Land Rover, or a BMW, or a Mercedes like your neighbors; don’t worry if your T-shirt has the right designer label; don’t worry if your summer home doesn’t have an unobstructed view of the beach; don’t worry if don’t have the latest version of I-phone, I-pod, or the very latest apps. Just a few things that many people in this country will tell you they lack and need.
I don’t mean to sound flip or sarcastic because one of the greatest lessons I have learned since I came to this community is that poverty comes in lots of different forms. There is real material poverty. I’ve already alluded to that. But there are other kinds of poverty and this country is in some sense a very poor country and our poverty is driving us further and further from that vision of freedom that Jesus promised us in his Sermon on the Mount. I think that some of our poverty is in the form of a disease that is in a very real sense killing us and the rest of the world. The “dis-ease” that I alluded to earlier: consumerism.
“Consumerism identifies a lifestyle in which a large number of individuals obtain more than is needed, more than is necessary for fulfillment, and more than the planet can sustain. Because consumerism intensifies pollution and resource depletion leading to an immense degradation of God’s earth and creation, this lifestyle is at the heart of what we as American Christians are called to question and confront. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Since World War II, we’ve seen the most massive experiment that’s ever been undertaken in programming the psyche of a civilization. And it has worked. The advertising culture has succeeded in creating an identity based on consumption — a sense that our significance in life depends upon what we consume.
Victor Lebow, a retail analyst who promoted consumption as necessary to our economy in the postwar period, was clear about this. He said, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.” That is an exact quote.
Most of us in the U.S. have trouble separating our sense of spiritual identity from our cultural identity. Advertisers consciously blend the two to make it seem as though our spiritual needs can be met in our consumption. Christmas, Jesus’ birthday celebration, is the major consumer holiday. Easter, Jesus’ resurrection, becomes a promotion vehicle for clothes and chocolates. By placing things above God and human community, consumerism deadens our consciousness and thickens our senses. I think it’s why economist are expressing concern that rising oil prices will force consumers to forego or delay purchases on non-essential goods and services. The very things that now fuel the America’s economy and are necessary for sustained economic recovery.
Television spreads with incredible efficiency the idea that we humans are the most important thing in the world. That not only should all our wants be gratified but that as Americans we have earned the right to have our wants gratified.
The ideology of TV is very much against both an ecological worldview and a religious worldview. In the Christian worldview we’re not at the center of everything. God is the center of things: God and God’s creation, of which we’re a small, wonderful, privileged part. John 10:10 reminds us that Jesus, not overconsumption, is the way to “abundant life.”
The reprogramming of our psyches is so pervasive that we do not see the effects. They are just accepted, like the air we breathe. Advertising creates a lethal addiction.
Overconsumption is not a matter of taste but of survival. We’re prey to a mass psychology that is leading us to our own ruin. Instead of worshipping God, we are worshipping our own creations in a way that is destroying the rest of God’s creation. We are not and cannot live into the freedom that Jesus promises unless we begin to rid ourselves of this plague. Salvation through consumerism is not going to work for us. We have Jesus’ promise on that. As his followers we are called to oppose it in all its forms and manifestations.
As Thomas Berry has observed: “To assist the human by deteriorating the natural world cannot lead to a sustainable community. The only sustainable community is one that fits the human economy into the ever-renewing economy of the planet. The human system, in its every aspect, is a subsystem of the Earth’s system, whether we are speaking of economics or physical well-being or rules of law.” In essence, our Christian faith, human flourishing and planetary prosperity are intimately linked. “No one can serve two masters for a slave with either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and wealth.
Many of the ideas on how consumerism can function as religion are taken from Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change. I have quoted and paraphrased thoughts from his book in my sermon.
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