Archives For Materialism

I preached the local high school’s baccalaureate service yesterday afternoon.

There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd, but that just makes it like a normal Sunday service for me. The text I preached was from Genesis 12 and 15, the call of Abram:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; And Abram journeyed on by stages and…the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless,  The Lord brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then God said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’

I don’t have the text of the sermon in a way that won’t elicit snarky comments about grammatical mistakes etc, so you’ll just have to listen to it below. If you subscribe by email, you may have to click on the link here.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor and my social media is flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags, but I’ve grown weary of the Christmas ‘tradition’ of bemoaning the commercialization of the season and criticizing others (usually referring to non-Christians) for being so materialistic about Christmas.

I mean, I’ve got my own gripes with Black Friday and Xmas music in late September but is there anything more cliche than surveying the wrapping paper debris on the curb and the pine needles on the floor and lamenting that we’ve missed the meaning of Christmas?

As cliche as such pious hand-wringing is, I’m not so sure it’s truly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

Since Trinity is its own ‘economy’ (economy is a Greek NT term for ‘community’ or ‘household’) of constant gift and exchange, then I wonder…

Perhaps the best way for believers in the Trinity to celebrate Christmas is the old fashioned materialist route of giving actual things to those we love.

Specifically, what I think is problematic about decrying the materialism of Xmas is that it implies there’s a deeper ‘spiritual’ truth to Christmas that we’re missing.

But Christians don’t believe in abstract spiritual truths. We believe in Jesus.

And here’s the thing:

The Incarnation- what we celebrate these 12 Days of Christmas- is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christmas is when Christians celebrate that God took human (material) flesh and lived a life just like ours amid all the material stuff of everyday life. He made things (carpenter) and presumably gave some of those things to people. He drank wine, ate bread and fish, and partied with sinners.

To say nothing of the magi who brought the baby Jesus their resolutions to lead lives of justice and compassion…sike….they brought him stuff.

Expensive stuff too.

The incarnation shows us that God is the most materialistic One of all of us because it’s by incarnation that God takes the material stuff of life to get up close and uncomfortably personal to all of us.

Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas so what’s wrong with us having passed Christmas the very same way?

Sure enough, at this point, many of the unimaginative and painfully literal among you will point out the gross overabundance with which many of us mark the season and how little that has to do with a Savior born into poverty.

I don’t argue with that. I’m only suggesting that the Heifer Project (gifts you’ll never see given for people you’ll never know) isn’t necessarily the only or even the best way to celebrate the incarnation.

If Jesus is Emmanuel- God with us- then giving sincere material gifts of love and friendship that highlight or accentuate our withness our connection to someone else just might be the most theologically cogent way of marking his birth.

In other words, instead of cows and chickens maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas was to give your wife those earrings you know she’s wanted for a long, long time but hadn’t bought herself or the Playstation your boys have wanted for several years running.

Maybe materialism is exactly what we need to ‘reclaim’ about our understanding of Christmas.

ADIP-465_copy__14891_zoomIn his book on ethics, one of my muses, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe, has these dynamite words for Labor Day:

timothy-radcliffe

“You shall not steal. Certainly the most misunderstood of all the commandments. It has nothing to do with property and its so-called rights. What ‘You shall not steal’ refers to is stealing men. Taking away their freedom to enslave them.

It is curious irony that in the name of this commandment we have built up a whole theory of the sacredness of possessions, of objects.

A theory that has led to the wholesale enslavement of men- the very thing the commandment in fact denounces.

The slavery of men is, together with violence, the great characteristic of the idolatrous society.

And so the commandments go on to complete the picture of the society that worships the work of men’s hands, where justice is perverted (‘You shall not bear false witness’) and the weak are the victims of rapacity and covetousness.

The idolatrous society thus presents two faces: on the one hand it is a religious society with great respect for the traditional ways; it will be a society in which patriotism is highly valued and in which there is much concern for the country’s heritage. On the other hand, it will also be a society of institutionalized violence in which brutality and injustice is either hidden or given a mask of legality.

It is important to see that any society may become idolatrous in this way, that in fact every society betrays a built-in tendency to worship the work of men’s hands.

In any society men are liable to find their identity simply in what they themselves have achieved.

The rejection of this is the beginning of the discovery of Yahweh.”