Sunday, December 8, 2013

Spend Less

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  This is part two in our series on the Advent Conspiracy.

I want you to think of your favorite Christmas memories.  Do you have something in mind?  I’m willing to bet that most of them have nothing to do with a gift you received, even if you think back to when you were a child.  There may have been a bike you received, or some other special gift stood out, but most of our favorite memories are about times we have spent with family and friends doing things together.  In fact, if I asked you to write down 5-10 things you received for Christmas last year, I bet that few of us would actually be able to complete the list.  According to a recent poll, 62% of people claim that spending time with family is the most important thing to do at Christmas, compared with only 2% who said it was about receiving presents, and yet what do our Christmas celebrations seem to be about, what does a large portion of our time at Christmas seem to be about?  To presents.  We are constantly told that Christmas is all about the gift giving, that it’s all about the mall, and buying as many things as we can because if we don’t then our loved ones won’t really be happy, and they won’t think we love them, and our children end up in counseling because we didn’t get them whatever the hottest gift is this year, and it will all be our fault.  Even though we know these things are not true, year after year we keep doing the same things.

I have been talking about the Advent Conspiracy in churches now for four years and their four pillars which are to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all.  Next week I’ll tell the story of why and how I can across this program, but every year I get one of three responses.  The first is that I don’t understand Christmas or have negative feelings about Christmas and because of that I want to ruin it for everyone else; I am a Grinch who wants to kill Christmas.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I love Christmas.  I listen to Christmas music in July, we have special sheets and dishes and glassware for Christmas, and last year our house was named best decorated house in Melrose, more than 5200 lights, yes I am that neighbor.  This is not about saying no to Christmas, but instead about saying yes to a doing Christmas differently.

The second response I get is people saying that while others may have a problem, they like the way they celebrate Christmas just fine, thank you very much.  And if that is the case with you fantastic.  This is not me telling you how you have to do things.  I can’t say I have it all figured out. I’m not standing up here to shame you, make you feel guilty, say you are doing it wrong, or that this is the only right way to celebrate Christmas nor is this about us changing how we celebrate so that we can go out and tell others how wrong their celebrations are.  If you went out and shopped on Black Friday you’re not going to be kicked out or told you are not welcome, this is simply to ask the question what do we want from Christmas, what do we expect from our stuff, and asking what should Christmas morning look like and what it all means to us.

The third response I get almost always comes after Christmas, and that’s from people who thank me, who say that these ideas fundamentally changed their Christmas experience and they are better for it, that they actually enjoyed Christmas, including giving and receiving presents, but they moved past superficial things to a more meaningful experience that allowed them to soak up and in the memories and the moments of the season.  And I can say that this is true for Linda and myself as well, that we do Christmas very differently now than we did before, and yes Santa still comes to our house, but we are more conscious about what we are doing and why, we don’t just fly through the season on autopilot hoping to just make it through.

But I did get a new question this year, and that is why is this called the Advent Conspiracy, what are we conspiring about, and that’s a really good question.  Normally when we talk about conspiracies, there are several words that come along with it, like theory.  We just witnessed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories that surround that event.  We must also throw out something like crazy, or nutcase, thinking of those who hold conspiracy theories because many of them seem to us to be coo-coo for Coco Puffs.  By definition a conspiracy takes place when a group of people gather together to do something illegal, wrongful or subversive, usually they are seeking to challenge something or someone that is in control or has control over others.  The sense of conspiracy we are using here is not about doing something illegal or wrongful, but instead about being subversive, about going against the popular culture, which is true for how we might practice Christmas today and it was certainly true for the first Christmas, in which God conspired, God subverted the prominent culture and paradigm.
Nearly all the appellations that we give to Jesus, son of God, prince of peace, Lord, King of kings, Savior, all these were also titles that were given to Caesar Augustus.  Christ is not a name, it’s a title, so technically we shouldn’t be saying Jesus Christ, but instead Jesus the Christ, Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, and Messiah means the anointed one.  Well who was it that was anointed?  It was the King.  How did Saul become king?  He was anointed.  How did David become the king?  He was anointed?  How did Solomon become the king?  He was anointed.  That is why the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with oil is so important beyond just the surface telling of the story.  Because first she bows down to him, she kneels at his feet, which means that she is doing what?  She’s worshipping him, and then she anoints him with oil, just as the kings are anointed with oil.  Jesus literally becomes the messiah, the anointed one, in that moment.

But Caesar Augustus says, and this is stamped on Roman coins, that salvation comes through Augustus.  But the Christian messages stands in contrast to Rome and what the empire is proclaiming.  These are treasonous actions and statements.  This is a conspiracy to subvert the story line of Rome.  There can only be one son of God, there can only be one prince of peace, there can only be one Lord, one King of kings, one savior.  Rome says it’s Caesar Augustus and the Christians say it is Christ.  When the Magi show up to see Herod the Great, what do they ask him?  Where is it that we can find the king of the Jews?  Well Herod is the king of the Jews, that is who they are talking to.  That is his official roman title.  He is the king of the Jews, so who is this other person they are talking about?  To make the proclamations that the early Christians make is a political statement, with life and death consequences, for them.  To proclaim Jesus as Lord today is still a political statement, it is to proclaim where our allegiance lies.  It does not lie with a country, or a flag or an economic system, it does not lie in a political party, it does not even lie in the type of car you drive, to proclaim Jesus as Lord is to make your allegiance to God first and foremost and everything else is totally secondary to that.  You cannot serve two masters Jesus says, so we can either pledge our allegiance to God or we can pledge allegiance to something else.

In the Roman world everyone had to participate in the public religion.  If you didn’t you were considered not just a trouble maker but a very threat to the empire and to the stability of society.  One of the reasons that the early Christian communities got into trouble with the authorities, besides for the fact that the refused to proclaim Caesar as lord, was because they also refused to participate in public worship and public rites.  This is a threat to the empire, and so these people must be punished, must be made an example of, they are a threat, they are not patriotic, they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.  We still have public and civil religions.  I often hear similar things about the advent conspiracy, that stores are dependent upon us going out and buying things at Christmas, that this is when they make their money that keeps them afloat.  What about all the employees who work for these stores, what about all the people who make these products?  You have to go shop because you have a duty to support them, to support our economy, our economy would not be successful without us going out and shopping at Christmas, and besides little Jimmy and Sally need a new toy, they need it, and if you don’t get it not only are you a bad parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, distant friend, but you’re not American.  We are surrounded by little Caesars, and I’m not talking about the pizza place, but we’re surrounded by little Caesars that want us to bow down to them, to follow them, to worship them, to participate in their form of salvation, to participate, in the words of Greg Holder who is one of the co-founders of the Advent Conspiracy, in the “kingdom of could I have just one more,” which stands in contrast and opposition to the kingdom of God.  That is what we are conspiring against.

 One of the major problems with the kingdom of could I have just one more is that you cannot scale happiness.  If I have one brownie and I think, hey that was really good, if I have another it will make me even happier, and so we have two, and it does make us happier, and then we think, you know it’s the holidays and I deserve this, and besides calories don’t count during the holidays, and so we have three, and we’re satisfied, and but maybe just one more, and so we have a fourth, and now we’re not really happier, and in fact maybe we’re getting a little sick, and maybe we have another, and pretty soon we’re in an advertisement for Alka Seltzer saying “I can’t believe I at the whole thing.” (1972)  Happiness through things is an inverted curve, there is only so far you can go until you start moving back down and the things don’t make you more happy anymore, they instead make you more miserable.  And yet what we are inundated with every year is to buy and buy and buy; we say we’re not going to and yet we do.

Americans spent 57.4 billion dollars over Thanksgiving weekend.  45 million people shopped on Thanksgiving night, up 10 million from last year.  Walmart did do 10 million individual transactions in 4 hours on Thanksgiving Day night.  139 million shopped over the weekend, spending on average $407.  I know that was none of you because you were all out worshiping fully right?  According to the National Retail Federation, this year Americans will spend a total 602.1 billion dollars on holiday shopping.  They estimate that the average shopper with spend $737.95 on gifts this year, including $130 on presents for themselves, and we’ll spend an additional $1800 on other items like Christmas trees, cards, food and travel, for a total of around $2600, and we put a large portion of this on our credit cards so that we spend the rest of the year paying off, at large interest rates, things we don’t remember we got and may not even have any more.

Having stores proclaim Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, is not going to solve the problem or address the fundamental issues.  There is no war on Christmas, because first of all Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25 and then ends on Epiphany, which is January 6th, so if we truly want to say there is a war on something, it’s a war on Advent, because the moment when we should start proclaiming Merry Christmas is the very moment we stop.  And the second is that it is not a corporation’s job to proclaim the Christian message.  The great commission does not say, “Go out and shop at Walmart and make sure they tell people Merry Christmas.”  It says to go make disciples of Christ, go out and proclaim the good news, the gospel message, that Christ has come and that salvation is found in him.  Walmart is not the saving place, that’s what Caesar Augustus also said.  Jesus Christ is the savior.  Rev Frederick Schmidt perhaps put it best when we said, “if we really believed in the life-changing nature of Christmas, then we wouldn’t be unhinged by the commercial blather.  We would look straight through it.  We would realize that the debate about commercialism and Christmas isn’t the issue at all.  The real issue is the inability of the culture to grasp the nature of Christmas itself.”  Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Christ, the word made flesh, God made flesh, who dwelt amongst us, who became like us.  It’s about recognizing that hope, peace, love and joy, the themes of Advent cannot be found in things, they can only be found in Christ.  It’s about recognizing that Caesar is not God, that Jesus is God, and that we are called to proclaim and to work towards bringing about the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of could I have just one more.

Paul writes in Galatians 2, “In the fullness of time,”  I love that phrase, and it’s one we can’t understand when we are rushing, rushing and rushing, “In the fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ so you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God.”  And Paul implores us not to become slaves again, to find the freedom in Christ, don’t bind yourselves to the things of the world, but free yourself through Christ.  “If there is any encouragement in Christ,” Paul write in his letter to the Philippians, “any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord, to the glory of God the father.”  Christmas is not about worrying about who is saying Merry Christmas or not, but instead Christmas is about choosing to live like Christ and proclaiming Jesus to the world, that the savior has come and that this is good news for all.

We are called to make straight the paths in the wilderness, to prepare the way, not to clutter it up with gifts and trappings, but to prepare for the coming of the one, who will in the words we heard from John the Baptist this morning, “baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” or as Paul wrote to the Romans that we heard, “the root of Jesse shall come,” that is Jesus, an ancestor of David, whose father was Jesse.  “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the gentiles; in him the Gentiles,” that’s us by the way, “shall hope.’  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  And when we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive what? Power.  And to begin a passage we are going to come back to much more next week from Isaiah, which is also the first passage that Jesus preaches on, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” and not just that the Spirit is there, but that the Spirit calls us to something, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because it has anointed me to preach good news,” to whom? “to the poor,” The Spirit has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,  recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.”

This year we will spend $602 billion dollars on Christmas, and I really wonder what Jesus thinks of that, because how much of that money is being spent to proclaim good news that the kingdom of God has come near, and how much is spent on the worship of little Caesars and the kingdom of can I have one more?  “ Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” the prophet Isaiah asks.  “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.”  This is not about saying no to Christmas, it’s about conspiring to say yes to Christmas differently.  It’s not about doing away with giving, because giving is important, we give at Christmas because the magi came bearing gifts, we give because the shepherds gave of themselves in coming and worshipping a child who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  We give because God first gave to us, but this year let’s  conspire together to subvert the Caesars of the world and the kingdom of can I have just one more by spending less so that we can give more which is where we move next week.  Let us conspire together to say that Jesus is Lord and savior, and that we are not going to proclaim just as Jesus did that the kingdom of God has come near. May it be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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