What Holds You?

The Rev. Tom Baker
St. Stephen’s, Horseshoe Bend, Ark.
October 16, 2011
Year A Proper 24
Matthew 22:15-22

A few days ago my niece posted a picture on Facebook. On the right side, there were different logos of corporations, like Apple, McDonald’s, Nike, Izod, and Verizon. On the lefthand side, there were pictures of different kinds of leaves. The test was to see how many logos you could name compared to how many trees you could identify by just looking at their leaves. Needless to say, I knew without hesitation each corporation’s logo. Driving down the highway, if you see the Golden Arches, you know a McDonald’s is ahead. And it’s probably true that more people know Cap’n Crunch than they do Captain Courageous.

Right now in our country people are getting involved with Occupy Wall Street. I’m not going to get involved in the politics of this movement, but I do want to comment about what may be the deeper meaning underneath these protests. People are getting tired of corporations defining who they are. Let’s face it; in today’s world you are what you eat, and we – we consume products. We consume products because we’ve been told they will make life easier, better, and more fulfilling. Driving a Cadillac means your well-off. Wearing clothes from the latest designer means your with the “in” crowd. Showing off your new iPhone 4S, which you got by camping out in front of the store overnight, proves you’re a valued member of our electronic age.

There was a time when we valued people who told their community which tree a leaf came from and how it could be used for comfort, healing, even prayer. We, however, live in a different world. Imagine if Jesus stood up today in our temple this morning and held up a coin: one side would represent consumerism and the other technology. These are the emperors of our times. Corporations tell us that it’s what kind of car is in our garage or the clothes we wear make us who we are. Technology has told us that we are nothing unless we have a 3D TV in our house or the latest, fastest, smart phone in our pocket. Half a billion people are on Facebook and those people who aren’t on Facebook are seen as out of touch and behind the times. In our culture, who we are is defined by what we have.

This is exactly the kind of thing Jesus is warning us about today. New research has told us that the combination of consumerism and information technology has created a hole within us. All our stuff can’t fill that hole and help us explore the big questions of life like: Who am I, What’s really important to us? Where are we going? Mental illness, addiction, loneliness, and unhappiness are more common than ever.

That’s why Jesus is looking at you and I, right in the eye, and asking us to whom do we belong? Of course, we say without blinking, we are children of God. ‘Oh, really,’ Jesus asks. ‘How many hours do you spend watching TV as compared to being in prayer? Where do you spend your money?’ ‘Seems to me,” Jesus says, ‘the income at Nike is much larger than many countries that are poor and needy.’ ‘Look at this coin again,’ Jesus challenges us, ‘who are you really following – your greed or your God?’

Please remember when Jesus talks about greed he isn’t talking only about money. Jesus wants us to look, really look, at how we spend our energy and what we value. Did you know that right now there are 68,000 storage facilities in our country? This means there is close to two billion square feet of personal storage space in the U.S. Our need to have more and more things, we think, will make us feel protected, valuable, and worthy. All of us desperately believe that by surrounding ourselves with things or technology we will feel good, and be safe. Watch TV for five minutes and you’ll soon see an advertisement for a product that is quarantined to make you look, feel, or be better. For Jesus, true greed is when we become centered on ourselves and not one another or God. We allow corporations and technology to define who we are and what we need.

My father taught us that what’s most important in your life is the amount of money in your bank account. He was, after all, a child of the Depression and he was trying to protect us. So whenever my sister and brother go off to Europe again, buy their vacation house on the beach, drive their new Mercedes, I feel a tug in my gut and begin to feel less-than – as if I somehow failed or that I’m not good enough. I don’t think I’m alone. In our culture we all judge each other by what we have and not by who we are. We get so wrapped up in the coin we forget who is standing right next to us. We become individuals trying to obtain more and more things instead of becoming a community concerned about one another.

Now it may sound as if I’m going to suggest we all sell everything we own throw away all our gadgets and become a commune living off the land. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Jesus didn’t come to change the world but to change our hearts. Did you notice that Jesus says, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s. We aren’t going to change our consumer society overnight nor are we going to throw away all our technology.

What we can do is change our allegiance.

We must claim that we are not consumers but Children of God. That what we have is not as nearly as important as who we really are. Our faith has a rich history of people who lived simply, like St Francis. Francis, and others, found that by having fewer things made life much easier. They stopped consuming and started being contemplative. I know when I say that word,” contemplative” we get images of serene monks sitting still, eyes closed, cut off from the world, in deep prayer. This is certainly one kind of contemplation. Yet, genuine contemplation is about awareness – it’s about knowing deep down and seeing who you really are. It’s about discovering that your value is not rooted in being a consumer, which is a passive lifestyle. No. Jesus calls to LIVE and be actively connected to God and others. Contemplation is about realizing and celebrating that we all are God’s people and we all must be concerned with one another.

Oh, that shinny gold coin is sure tempting and nice to own. But the minute you put it in your pocket that coin begins to own you. Jesus asks – who do you belong to? Are we a member of the corporation who’s all wrapped up in buying and selling? Are we more concerned about getting a new phone then serving our neighbor? Or are we a community – the living, loving people of God!

When Jesus taught this lesson about the coin the Gospel says the “people were amazed, left him, and went away.” They knew Jesus would never be wrapped up in what the society thinks is important. The Jesus they met in the temple is the very essence of life itself. They knew that when Jesus held that coin, and all that power and glory it represented, it would never hold him. And in the end not even death itself could hold Jesus who is full of life. So the next time you open your wallet, your purse, your pocket, remember: you are holding the coin; it does not hold you.