Spiritual Disentanglement

Sermon Preached: Lent 2A
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Evanston, Illinois

I’m in the middle of two books right now. The first is an older book – written about 30 years ago by a Jesuit priest, John Kavanaugh . It is called Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance. In it he describes two forms – the commodity form and the personal form. The Commodity Form is one which I daresay is recognizable to each of us in this room. It is the predominant form of our culture, a form which is dominated by the marketplace. Kavanaugh refers to the “commodity-hucksters” – those individuals and corporations that spend their energy and resources convincing us that their product will be everything we need to feel lovable, beautiful, important, powerful, and otherwise worthwhile.[1] What’s more, Kavanaugh writes that these same hucksters convince us that without the very “things” they are selling “We might be ‘found out’ as we really are.[2] We might be rejected and certainly wounded.” He quotes a 1980s Cosmopolitan article which seems to capture the essence of the commodity form: “Clasp a sensuously soft cashmere as tightly as you like. . . . It will never walk out on you.”[3] The Commodity Form works to convince us that we do not need people, we need possessions. And it is only possessions that will give us the comfort and stability we need in our lives. The problem, of course, and we know it all too well, is that the products being sold, never really deliver. That “I love what you do for me” Toyota eventually breaks down leaving you and me, once again, with that feeling of incompleteness. A feeling that we’ve been taught can be filled with the next great thing.

And this is where the other book I am reading comes into the picture. It is called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Its author, Kenda Creasy Dean, has been studying the data from the extensive National Study of Youth and Religion and has reached some conclusions which should be a major wake-up call for all Christians. In the first place, she suggests, that most teens, despite their notoriety for being rebellious, do, in fact, in many areas actually mirror the views of their parents. For churches, this should be great news as we pass our faith from one generation to the next. However, she continues, if this is true, then the lack of commitment churches often find among many teenagers is not due to lack of interest or rebellion on the part of teens, but is, in fact, an indication of the very lack of commitment on the part of the adults whom our younger members are mirroring. Dean asks,

“What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today?”[4]
As I read Kavanaugh’s book and Dean’s book side-by-side, I wonder if the faith we are practicing, if the faith we are preaching, if the faith we are passing on to the next generation has become no different from other commodities being sold: a simple be-good-ism in the name of a nice God who can bail us out when we are in a pinch. Have we sold out to the Commodity Form? Have we become indistinguishable from the rest of the culture? Are our church’s worship services, fellowship events, and opportunities to serve our neighbors just one more in a long set of extracurricular options offered alongside concert series, baseball games, and food drives conducted by the Kiwanis, Rotary, or other civic organization? And if not, how are we showing that by the way we live our lives individually and corporately as Christians?

The Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[5] This passage from Genesis follows on the heels of the story of the Tower of Babel. As that story begins we are told that “the whole earth had one language and the same words . . . and [the people] said to one another, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”[6] Let us make a name for ourselves. Isn’t that the message of the Commodity Form? Isn’t that the promise of our culture yet today – the latest gadget will show people that you are on top of the technology curve – it will show people that you have arrived – you will have made a name for yourself. It seems human nature hasn’t changed all that much in these many centuries. And just as the Tower of Babel came tumbling down and the language of the culture was confused so too do the values of our own culture let us down – time and time again. The new car eventually breaks down, the newest gadget is quickly replaced by the even newer gadget, the pursuit of money, power and prestige only leaves us feeling tired and, as the past several years have showed us, disappointed or even empty-handed. The cultural center – the Commodity Form – cannot hold. Dean in Almost Christian suggests “spiritual disentanglement” as a practice to move us away from the false promises of our culture. And perhaps the season of Lent gives us such an opportunity as we are left standing in the wilderness of Lent, naked before our God.

Lenten Tree at St. Mark's
At our Love Life, Live Lent program on Tuesday evening we began to explore what it might look like to engage in practices which deliberately draw us closer to one another and to God, practices that nurture and grow Godly relationships.[7] We planted this Lenten Tree in the barrenness of the wilderness and we prepared leaves – each leaf representing a practice – a spiritual action – that we might do during this time in the wilderness, actions which by their very nature – collaborative, other-focused, self-giving – offer a counter-cultural alternative to the ways of the world.[8] There are actions for everyone: share a smile with another person, remember to say please and thank you all day, have a screen-free evening - no television, no computer, no Blackberry, iPhone or other gadget - and do something with your household instead.

We have more leaves and sheets with action ideas in the Parlor and I hope that everyone will take a few moments to prepare some leaves and make some commitments to nurture relationships during Lent – commitments to disentangle from the false gods that call out to us. Each Sunday, as the bread and wine, are brought forward, we will bring our completed action leaves forward and hang them on the tree. Because here in this wilderness called Lent our God calls out to us: "Go from your human-constructed country of broken promises and false gods to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . .”

“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.”[9] Will you and I recommit to going to the land that God will show us? Can we afford not to?

Postscript: there is some irony in my posting links to purchasing the two books referenced in this sermon; and yet, isn't this indicative of the challenge of "being church" in the midst of a commodity culture - how do we live in the world of our creation and in the world of God's calling?

1. John F. Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, 2006), 9.
2. Ibid, 9.
3. Ibid, 9.
4. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teens is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press: New York, 2010), 12.
5. Genesis 12:1-2.
6. Creasy Dean, 159.
7. Love Life, Live Lent: Transform Your World began in Birmingham (UK) in 2006 as a campaign to encourage people to mark Lent in a different way. Booklets for individual (children and adults) and family study are available at their website.
8. Our idea for "planting" a Lenten Tree stemmed from the Lenten Tree individual project described in Love Life, Live Lent Family Book: Transform Your World (Church House Publishing: London, 2008), 12-13.
9. Genesis 12:4a.