Stuff: Consuming as if people matter

Published: Monday, 18 December 2017

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at ABC on 17 December 2017. It is the third sermon in a series on ‘Stuff’ and consumption which is loosely based on a booklet and study guide entitled, The End of Greed’, written by Scott Higgins and sponsored by Baptist World Aid.[1]

Walking along High Street, Ashburton this month you can feel bombarded by the constant call to buy stuff.

This morning, we sit four kilometres from the largest shopping centre, not only in Australia but the southern hemisphere. It’s a merchandise mecca. It’s cool. It’s alluring. ‘Chaddy’ seduces us to shop until we drop.[2]

But when we drop to watch sport, we discover that cricket on television is made for selling stuff over and over.

The demise of clothing shops in Ashburton and the rise of online shopping through powerful sites like Amazon,[3] highlights that buying stuff now is as easy as the click of a button from our armchair.[4]

We’ve been thinking, during this Advent, about ‘Stuff’.

 

Tri helped us to think of ‘consuming as if God matters’.

Mark Purser challenged us to ‘consume as if the poor matter’.

This morning we’re thinking about ‘consuming as if people (including the poor) matter’.

Next week Keren is looking at ‘consuming as if the planet matters’.

I want to give some Scripture starters for a theology of shopping that we could put alongside our shopping list.

Good Gifts

In the first pages of the Bible we read:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

-          Genesis 1: 31

Here we see God the creator. God the gift giver. Every day God makes something new and each day ends with the chorus: “And God saw that it was good”. God’s gifts are good. God doesn’t make junk. God doesn’t give junk. In psalm after psalm humankind joins in wonder and praise at the goodness of God’s gift of creation.

Are we giving good gifts this Christmas? Dorothy Sayers reflects on Christ the carpenter when she writes:

“No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever…came out of the carpenter's shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made heaven and earth?”[5]

In the Bible and in our lives, there’s a tension between gifts that are extravagant and expensive and gifts which are functional and frugal. We see lavish giving expressed in Solomon’s temple in which God is given nothing but the best, but at Bethlehem the Prince of Peace is given a stable for his palace and a feeding trough for his bed.

Pleasurable Gifts

“8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food…” 

-          Genesis 2: 8 - 9

God is giving pleasurable gifts in the gift of a garden. Gifts of beauty to admire. Gifts of abundance to behold. Pleasure for the eyes. There’s fragrance to inhale. Fuzzy flowers to touch. Fruit and vegies that taste good. Every season God’s garden gift changes and grows.

How much lasting pleasure will our gifts give this Christmas?

Creative Gifts

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

-          Genesis 1:15

The creative God gives a gift that has to be weeded, pruned and harvested, and with this caretaker work our gifts are cultivated and our skills are nurtured.

There are some children who, rather than getting toys for Christmas, prefer to receive their own kitchen tools—a whisk or a wooden spoon so they can mix and blend and bake and lay on the icing.

Playing with toys is essential but so are gifts that stretch and grow our creativity.

I love those creative ideas about not giving only toys or things but experiences like tickets to an event, a magazine subscription, entry to a workshop, a membership to the zoo or the gallery or the gift of music.[6]

Then there are the creative ‘big hearted’ gifts that Mark introduced us to last week, by which we select a gift for our loved one which is given in their name to children or communities, such as a chicken, some bee hives, or some goats to people in Nepal.[7]

One of the creative gifts I was given as a boy was a Swan Plant.[8] It came with little eggs on the leaves that in a few days turned into these black and yellow caterpillars. These were like eating machines and every day at breakfast we noticed that a few more leaves had been consumed. Then one morning we discovered that one of the caterpillars had died. They each turned into a pupa. Several days later, out from the shiny jade chrysalis emerged a beautiful monarch butterfly. Creative gifts can cause us to wonder.

Personal Gifts

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…

- Genesis 3: 8

God didn’t simply hand the garden over to the caretakers and then disappear. God enjoyed the garden as much as they did. The garden was a place of relationship and encounter, with God coming to these first humans to care and sometimes to confront.

I heard of a woman who throughout her lifetime had cultivated a wonderful garden. But she became blind, and not being able to see and enjoy the beauty of her flowers made her rather depressed.

Her husband devised a way to bring the garden back to her. He took out all the plants that were there for their appearance and he replaced them with plants that had a stunning fragrance.

So, out with the asters and in with the thyme. Out with the pansies and in with the lavender. Out with the rhododendrons and in with the roses, the gardenias, the sweet peas, the stocks, and the carnations.

The blind woman had her garden again and her husband had the joy of giving it to her.

This is the challenge of giving a gift that’s personal and tailored even to our fading senses and fortune.

Freedom of Contentment

Paul writes to Timothy of the freedom of contentment (1 Timothy 6: 6-10)

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

-          1 Timothy 6: 6-10

This word challenges the powerful message of this shopping season, that we need more things to make us content, that if we only update our TV with a bigger screen or get a new phone or buy the latest car we will be happier still.

This Scripture presents a warning that the love of wealth and possessions is a trap, a road to ruin, a dampener to our faith and surprisingly a source of pain.

In the new book about Ron Ham, his daughter Lisa speaks about her Dad’s freedom from a preoccupation with things. Lisa said:

‘Dad faced life with the intensity and awe of a child, even at the age of 86. He marvelled at the first sign of spring, he loved autumn leaves, the sound of magpies singing and the beauty of mountains. He never failed to find pleasure in the simple things in life. He was one of the most non-materialistic people I know. When asked what he wanted for his birthday or Christmas he would invariably reply, “I don’t want any presents, there’s nothing I need.” We would tease him about this but he was genuine.’[9]

The freedom of contentment.

 

Giving with Justice

Paul writes to the church at Corinth:

Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?... For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”

-          1 Corinthians 9: 7, 9.

The principle here is that the worker is worthy of their hire. They deserve wages that are just and fair.

There’s an old grace that goes like this:

Back of the loaf is the snowy flour,

And back of the flour is the mill,

And back of the mill is the wheat and the shower,

And the sun, and the Father’s will.

For mill and flour,

And sun and shower,

We give You thanks, O Lord. Amen.[10]

This grace opens our eyes to all that’s behind the supermarket shelves. It reminds us that when we buy our bread, we can think of the flour, the mill, the miller, the wheat, the farmer, the rain, the sun and ultimately our Creator, our Provider, the Giver of all good gifts.

Paul is encouraging us to think of all the links in the chain from God, to the farmer, the manufacturer and everyone in between, and he’s asking: ‘Is everyone getting a fair go?’[11]

We might like our t-shirt because we got it for a bargain but is it cheap because someone in Bangladesh is being exploited, working long hours, on meagre wages, doing slave labour in poor conditions?

Let’s be thankful for the research that’s going into exploitation and let’s study the ‘Ethical Fashion Guides’ and ‘Ethical Electronics Guide’[12] that help us to purchase from companies that treat their workers fairly.

Giving with Generosity

44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 

-          Acts 2: 44-47

In the first few centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus the early church spread at an explosive rate. One of the reasons for such impressive growth was their radical generosity. Luke gives us a glimpse into their community care:

 

“… they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

 

They cared for one another, and, noticing how their Lord had shown a priority towards the poor, they shared with the poor. They opened up their meals to the hungry. These Christians had a global mission and their generosity funded such mission throughout the world.

Sometimes Christians have adopted the Old Testament principle of tithing, by which they give a tenth of their income to God’s work. That’s a good start but sometimes there’s a tendency to give 10% and then say ‘we’ve paid our dues to God. Now the rest of the money is ours to do with whatever we like’.

But the Biblical idea is that all that we have (100%) is God’s—our money or time, even our children and loved ones. So a giving of one tenth is the floor from which we start to give, and as our income grows, we refrain from increasing our standard of living and we seek to discover ways we can increase our generosity.

Instead of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the Bible asserts:

Giving with Equality

13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.

-          2 Corinthians 8: 13-14

This is upside down Biblical thinking. But it gives hope not only to the church but to our community where there’s unemployment and homelessness and a growing gap between the haves and have nots.

Rather than stashing away more, the challenge is, how can we give to lift the spirits and lift the standards of those who are lacking?

Two brothers were in the flour milling business. One was married with children, the other was single. They were equal partners in the business, and they made an agreement that at the end of each day, they would take any extra flour that had been milled and divide it into equal shares. Each brother would take his share home and put it in his storehouse.

But one day the single brother thought, "Here I am, unmarried with only myself to care for and my brother has a wife to support and children to feed. It isn't fair to divide the flour evenly. My brother should have more of the flour.

So that night, he took some of the flour out of his own storehouse and, so as not to embarrass his brother, he went under the cover of darkness to his brother's storehouse and secretly left the flour.

It just so happened that at that very same time, the other brother thought, "Here I am with the richness of a family. I have a wife. I have children. But my brother has no-one to take care of him when he gets old. It's not fair to divide the flour evenly. My brother should get more.”

So, he too took some of his flour and under the cover of darkness, slipped it into his brother's storehouse.

Every night, unbeknownst to the other, each brother did this, always amazed the next day by the mystery that somehow the level of flour in their storehouses never seemed to diminish.

Until one night, their arms laden with sacks of flour, they met each other in the darkness. They realized what had been happening all along. With tears of loving joy, the two brothers embraced there in the darkness.

May God help us to see every person as our brother and sister, that we might share with such love and joy, generosity and justice.

Prayer

O God, giver of all perfect gifts,

Speak and move us, not only when we worship but when we buy and sell and give and receive.

Lord Jesus Christ, you came into this world as flesh.

You grew and made stuff in your carpenter’s shop.

These things can delight us and give us pleasure.

These things can seduce us and make us want more.

Let your word shape our lives that we may grow in freedom, in justice and in generosity.

Let your word shape our church that we might grow in community, in sharing and equality.

For the sake of Christ and for the wellbeing of other people we pray,

Amen.

 

[1] Scott Higgins, The End of Greed, Baptist World Aid.

[2] Chadstone Shopping Centre, Wikipedia.

[3] Barry Ritholtz, Retailers Still Haven’t Caught Up to Millennials, Bloomberg, 14 December 2017.

[4] Matthew Schneier, ‘The Year in Stuff’, New York Times, 13 December 2017.

[5] Dorothy Sayers, ‘Why Work?’ Creed or Chaos (New York: Harcourt Brace), 1949.

[6] Kresha Faber, ‘31+ Non-Toy Gift Ideas for Children’, Nourishing Joy, 16 October 2017.

[7] The Little Book of Big Hearted Gifts 2017-2018, Baptist World Aid.

[8] Gomphocarpus Physocarpus, Wikipedia.

[9] Geoff Pound, By Gracious Powers (Melbourne: Monounlimited, 2017), 11.

[10] Geoff Pound, Boreham’s Grace, The Official F W Boreham Blogsite, 1 May 2006.

[11] Scott Higgins writes about this in: ‘Why we need a Theology of Shopping’, Baptist World Aid, 27 November 2017.

[12] Behind the Barcode, Ethical Fashion Report and Ethical Electronics Guide, Baptist World Aid. April 2017.