8.22.10 Sermon: “The Good Consumer”

Text: Hebrews 12:18-29

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This famous poem by Robert Frost characterizes today’s reading from Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is writing to a community of Jewish Christians that had been around for a couple of generations but was losing some of its zeal, some of its passion. It was a lackluster community of Christians who were not really exemplifying commitment to following Christ. Here, the author of Hebrews is pointing to where two roads are about to diverge, and is inviting them to choose the road less traveled, the one that will make all of the difference.

We, ourselves, are much like the original audience of Hebrews. We too, exist as a church at large where it is easy to have a lackluster approach to faith. It is easy for us to forgo commitment to following Jesus and the difficult task of living together in Christian community, as the Body of Christ. Why is this the case? Why do we so frequently lack not only passion, but cohesion as a community identifiable by conviction of faith and commitment to following Christ?

I want to suggest that one primary reason (though certainly not the only reason) for this revolves around a word found in the last verse of today’s text in Hebrews: consuming. The verse likens God to a consuming fire. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word consume in several different ways: 1) to do away with completely, 2) to spend wastefully, 3) to eat or drink in great quantity, 4) to engage fully, 5) to utilize economic goods, and 6) to waste or burn away.

I will get to talking more specifically about the passage of Hebrews in a little bit, but first I want to focus on the word “consume.” When I first hear this word, I automatically think of the word “consumer.” We live in a consumer-driven society. I don’t need to look much further than my own wallet to see the many receipts that have accumulated there. Among some that I have collected this week: receipts for a new pair of shoes, for a meal from Los Agaves, for a couple of wedding-related purchases, for books, and more. Sometimes I am astonished when I look at the stack of receipts and am struck by how much I consume on a weekly basis. (And my bank account isn’t too fond of it either!) But it’s not just me.

There was a movie that came out a couple of years ago called “What Would Jesus Buy?” This movie is a documentary film that takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to critiquing the commercialization of Christmas in America. The documentary stars the Rev. Billy and his satirical “Church of Stop Shopping”, which challenges the consumer mind-set of our nation. The film opens with these words: “As fall turns to winter across this nation, many millions will converge upon centers of worship, large and small to celebrate and give thanks to a familiar god. He tells us to buy now, and pay later. He tempts us with endless credit as he leads us down the path to eternal debt.” Those opening lines really just say it all. I could go on an endless rant about the problems of our consumer culture, but I think that this fact is already evident. The economic crisis has highlighted our addiction to spending beyond our means. I don’t need to persuade you about how advertisements bombard us with images trying to convince us of things we think we need, or about the great variety of goods that the market provides us with. We can pick and choose from thousands of different things, all catered to our own tastes and desires. We all know that this is the reality of our society. That is not the point of this sermon. What I want to focus on is how our consumer culture affects our life as a community of faith in ways that we may not even be entirely conscious of.

So often, we come to the church as if it is just another thing on the market, competing for our time and investment. So often we ask the question, “what does the church have to offer me in the way of programs and services?” Is it worth my investment of time and money? Sometimes we may even do a subconscious benefit and risk analysis when it comes to participating in the life of the church. “What is the risk of getting involved or giving in this way?” “How will doing this ministry benefit me?” As Christians living in today’s world, we often fall into the temptation of engaging with the community of faith on an ad hoc basis based on individual ‘needs’, rather than as part of a community; we become interested in religious ‘products’ and ‘techniques’ rather than pursuing the deeper meaning and truth of Christianity. And we may not even do these things consciously.

As a youth pastor, this consumer mindset is something that I very much struggle with. My personal gifts are much more in line with leading spiritual formation and in depth Bible study, but more often than not, I feel a bit more like a cruise director or an event planner than a youth pastor (and not a very good event planner at that!). Why is this the case? In part, it is because I am competing for the attention of our youth. The church is treated like just another good on the market, competing for our time, for our investment. I feel the need to make things fun and entertaining, anything I can do to make coming to youth events appealing. It is easy for me to start acting a bit more like a marketer and a bit less like a pastor. How do I even begin to address this problem? It is faulty thinking to treat the church like just another commodity, where we can buy what we want, but leave other aspects sitting on the shelf. The church is not a business; it is not a part of the entertainment industry. The church isn’t ultimately about creating better programs or offering self-help services, even though these are things the church may do. The church is a community of faith, a place where people come together to go on a journey with the person of Jesus Christ.

So now we return to Hebrews. The Hebrews passage begins by reminding its original audience that they have not come to something that can be touched, held, or possessed. They have not come to something tangible. The author of Hebrews contrasts Mt. Sinai with Mt. Zion. Mt. Sinai is where the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. As Moses walked back down the mountain to the people, he offered them something that they could see and touch. He held the tablets containing God’s Law in his hands. Yet Mt. Zion is defined as a place, a kingdom, that cannot be shaken. Listen to v. 22: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering.” Mt. Zion is a place of feasting and celebration. In short, it is a place of community that knows the joy of relationship with God for its own sake, and not for the list of ways that it might meet personal wants or needs. It is about a relationship with the God who asks us to give our whole lives to him. It is about a relationship with the God who is a consuming fire.

So now we are back to this image of God being a consuming fire. This is a powerful image, one that I find to be a bit unsettling to contemplate, as the audience of the letter to the Hebrews found it. This is a scary image for a couple of reasons. First of all, fire burns. If you have ever burned yourself or even touched a hot stove top, you know how painful this can be. It is frightening to think of God in such a way. But perhaps an ever greater reason that the idea of God being a consuming fire is unsettling is because by definition, it infers that God will require our whole selves. There will be nothing that will be kept back or apart. I don’t know about you, but I grapple with that image. What would it mean for God to utterly consume my life, and my whole being? What would that mean for the things that I think I want or need? What will I have to miss out on or give up if I am going to be utterly consumed by God?

But the image of God as a consuming fire is also reassuring. A fire refines, a fire finishes. A few weeks ago when I was on vacation at a family camp with Darick’s family, I spent some time in the craft shop painting a couple of unfinished pieces of pottery. I spent a couple of days painting on the glaze, but when I finished painting, the piecers weren’t finished yet. They had to spend many hours in the kiln, in the fire, in order to finish it. When they came out, they were beautiful and glossy. The refining fire of the kiln was the only way of achieving this final result. Or consider a glass blower or metal worker: in order to do their craft, intense heat is needed to transform a lump of material into a beautiful and well-crafted object. Without a fire, the lump of material will never be able to reach the potential for which it was created.

We in the church, are affected by our surrounding consumer culture. We cannot entirely separate ourselves from it. Our approach to God, to worship, and to discipleship have all been colored by our social context, and in fact, they are not entirely distinguishable from it. We cannot avoid it entirely. Nonetheless, today we still have to ask ourselves whether we are coming to God, seeking him as a commodity to possess, and are we approaching faith as if it is a good to be consumed to fulfill our own wants, or are we recognizing that God is our consuming fire, meant to both purge and transform us wholly, not just in ways that we choose. As the church, we cannot allow ourselves to succumb to the temptation of depicting faith through gimmicks, through anything that is less than inviting and encouraging one another to know and be fully known by God. Christianity is about nothing less than a relationship with God, which is never a commodity. We can never simply pick God off of a sale rack to place on our own shelves, and yet we all face this tendency and temptation at times. Am I saying that capitalism and the free market are bad things? No. They are a part of our culture and through them, we have much. But when the dominant culture we live in begins to color, cloud, and dilute Christianity, we must continually re-evaluate where our own values currently lie.

The original audience of this letter to the Hebrews did not live in a social context all that similar to ours. The values of the surrounding culture do not exactly mirror our own today. Nonetheless, they too, were a community that needed to be challenged to live lives that were more wholly faithful to Jesus Christ. They needed to renew their commitment and passion towards following Jesus on the road of discipleship. In this way, the passage also speaks truth to us. It reminds us that the call to follow Christ is one that demands we give our whole selves to God. When Christianity becomes just another good on the market where we get to pick and choose what we want, we are missing out on the greater joy of following Christ, even when it is down a road we would not expect or choose for ourselves. We are at a place where two roads are diverging. Do we continue down the road of consumer Christianity, where we get to pick and choose what parts of faith we want to take, or do we move down the road less traveled, the one where we allow God to be our consuming fire, transforming and perfecting us as we journey with him? Let’s pick the one that will make all the difference.

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