“Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us: Consumerism
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 14, 2021
4th Sunday in Lent
Matthew 6:19-24; Luke 12:16-20
This morning we continue the Lenten sermon series, “Isms” That Threaten to Undo Us,” and once again, I invite you to join me for Holy Conversations on Zoom tomorrow evening at 6:30 p.m. Our virtual time offers you a chance to speak your truth—without judgment or debate. It is also a sacred space to pray with other believers who are seekers of God’s wisdom. Now, let us turn our attention to the issue of Consumerism. Consumerism is defined as the idea that increasing consumption of goods and services purchased in the market is always a desirable goal and that a person’s wellbeing and happiness depend fundamentally on obtaining consumer goods and material possessions. Of course, purchasing goods and services is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it becomes a problem when it is taken to the extreme, when it puts people in debt, when it harms the environment, when anyone, and especially a Christian, defines happiness and wellbeing by how much they possess.
Billionaire Malcolm Forbes is credited with the oft-quoted phrase, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But the truth of the matter is—he who dies with the most toys—well, he is still dead, which leads us to the wisdom Jesus provides in his story from the Gospel of Luke. While surrounded by a crowd of people, someone urges Jesus to order his brother to give him his share of the family inheritance. Jesus tells him that is not his business and, turning to the people, he warns them of the danger of greed for life is not defined by what you have. Then, Jesus tells the story of the greedy farmer. Commenting on the passage, Eugene Peterson’s has this to say:
The eternal relationships of the soul aren’t improved by bursting barns or new cars or bigger homes. Our deepest happiness isn’t influenced by the quantities of food and drink on the table. The profound realities of life aren’t enlarged by material success in status and money. Jesus called this man “fool” because he remembered the wrong things: He remembered himself…Besides remembering the wrong things, he forgot the essential things. He forgot his neighbors. If his barns were too small, there must have been others who would have been only too glad to share in his surplus. [And] he forgot time. It never occurred to him that time could possibly have an end.
Tracy Chapman’s “Mountains o’ Things,” paints a picture of someone who also forgets the essentials. In the song, the singer dreams of a life of ease with mountains of things, a big expensive car, a sweet lazy life with servants to care for her every need, champagne and caviar—all so that others will look at her with envy and greed. She imagines reveling in their attention for her mountains of things. Then, “Oh they tell me there’s still time to save my soul. They tell me—renounce all those materials gained by exploiting other human beings.” Then, the final verse: “Consume more than you need, this is the dream. Make you pauper or make you queen. I won’t die lonely; I’ll have it all prearranged, a grave that’s deep and wide enough for me and all my mountains o’ things.”
When it comes to possessions, here are a few statistics to consider from an article first printed in 2014, the year in which Americans spent over $57 billion on Black Friday weekend alone, while giving $103 billion to churches for the whole year; that same year, enough K-Cups were thrown out to encircle the earth 12 times. Additionally, nearly 40% of food in America goes to waste, while globally, malnutrition effects 161 million children; despite making up just over 3% of the global population of children, nearly half the world’s toys are in America; we create more electronic waste than any other nation on earth; homes in the U.S. contain more TVs than people, with, on average, each household having three working television sets.[i] Startling as these statistics may seem, they only skirt around the edges of how we are drowning in consumerism, and how our actions are detrimental to God’s wondrous creation, to us, and to generations to come.
Scott and Gabby Dannemiller are former Young Adult Volunteers for the Presbyterian Church USA. Their experience in Guatemala led them to embrace a new spiritual practice—to give up participation in consumer culture. Convinced that there was more to life than working to keep up with societal expectations, they wanted to live missionally in their day-to-day life—to be in the world and not of the world. So, they made a New Year’s resolution in 2013 to stop buying stuff. In the book, The Year Without A Purchase: Our Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting, they share their experience, including goals that guided their journey: To buy only stuff that could be used up within a year, like groceries, gas, and hygiene products (no clothes—they had plenty, already). To fix things that broke, unless the repair cost was greater than the replacement cost. To give gifts as charitable donations or as life experiences with the intent of building connections and making memories by doing things like going to dinner together, visiting the zoo, or traveling to be with family and friends.
Reflecting back on the experience, Scott Dannemiller said that after a couple of months, not shopping simply became his family’s new normal, but he admits it was rough at first. The most humbling part was realizing what they were doing as an experiment, is the reality for most of the people on the planet. For them, three big things came from not purchasing for a year: More time, more energy, and a greater appreciation of the things that matter. Now, his family spends on experiences more than on things. They look more at the function of an item, instead of how it makes them feel. Before making a purchase, they ask questions like, “What value is it going to bring? Will it allow us to have more time or energy for the things that are important?” He admits that they do shop from time to time, but the experience has ruined “shopping as a hobby” for his family.
God has given us endless opportunities and resources: creation filled with beauty and wonder, life, love, a relationship with God and with others, a faith community, and even God’s own Son. God is the Great Giver. As people created in God’s image, we, too, are called to be givers. Sure, there are things we need, things we must consume. But when the perceived chasm between our wants and our needs drives our every action, and leaves our neighbors dying from lack of food, clothing, clean water, housing, medical attention, community—it is time for us to re-think our priorities.
The Gospel of Matthew offers words of wisdom for us to ponder. Hear now these words from The Message:
If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art by Rara Schlitt, used by permission.