Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
December 4, 2016: Second Sunday in Advent
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Community of Longing
There is a songwriter I like who, during his live show, would talk about things in everyday life that troubled him and say, “This bothers me for a philosophical reason.”
By that, he meant that there was a problem or issue that revealed a whole network of power relations that surrounded us and made us a little bit less than human. Things that somehow dehumanized us bit by bit.
And that bothered him, he said, for a philosophical reason. Because we were called to be fully human, and there were things in everyday life that dehumanized us and these things should be opposed and not accepted in our lives.
Just the other day, I had one of those moments where I had something that bothered me for a philosophical reason. I was in Costco. Usually when I visit Costco, it’s this moment of wonder and light. I love going to Costco. I love all their food. Their food tastes good no matter what they make, and the quantities are truly gargantuan. There’s not anything that Costco makes that’s not good.
I love walking in and seeing the incredible TVs. I think to myself and I say sometimes to Claire, “If only we could buy a larger TV with more definition – maybe one of the new ones with some curves, we’d be so happy as a family. We’d all bundle up and watch the TV. It would heal every division and tension.”
But most of all, what I love about Costco are the samples. I am either the world’s best sampler, or the world’s worst sampler, because I sample everything, but I buy nothing.
Years ago, when I lived in Canada, I discovered that it’s an unwritten rule that if you sample something you are immediately placed under obligation to buy. And so many Canadians, when they’re handed a sample, will say, “Oh, no thank you. No thank you. I’m fine.”
I am, on the other hand, an American, and I loved to take all those samples. I once was visiting New York City with some Canadians. I said, “Watch this.” And I sampled some ice cream and then, when asked if I wanted a cone, said, “I’m good.” They were stunned. They looked at me like I had broken some kind of unwritten moral code.
In any event, we were shopping at Costco, and I sampled everything. I had the cheese bread. I had the ham and mashed potatoes. I had calamari.
And then I saw this group of people start run-walking. Kind of trotting in the direction of one sample station. There must have been about 40 people converging on this poor woman who was furiously working with her toaster oven.
Immediately I got intrigued and I asked, “What is it? What is it?” quietly to the person next to me. And I started to run alongside them. “Pigs in a blanket,” he whispered, as he trotted along.
I don’t usually eat pigs in a blanket. But just knowing that they were samples made me start to run with everybody. Then I realized there’s too many of us – it’s going to be like a bank panic. The poor woman could never produce enough samples for the crowd, and someone would be left out.
I immediately saw another sample station that was drawing less attention. So I went over there, and I picked up the sample cup. I said, “What is this?” And I immediately put it in my mouth before she could answer. She said, “Craisins.”
Craisins? Who likes craisins? Who needs to “sample” craisins? There is no mystery in craisins. They are cranberries that have been dried and sweetened to be like tangy little raisins. Who doesn’t know what a craisin tastes like?
I ate three cups.
What is it about samples? They keep me going. They make me feel like royalty. I enjoy them.
There are times I go to Papa Joe’s – another grocery store – just to eat ample samples of chocolate covered pretzels.
I never buy a bag, because know I could only handle the samples. If I bought a whole bag of chocolate covered pretzels, I would eat the entire bag before I got home and my lunch would just sit. And then I would spend the afternoon mired in disgust and self-loathing.
What is it about samples? The whole practice of samples started to bother me for a philosophical reason.
I started to realize that the samples provided at Costco have nothing to do with the product they are demonstrating. They are the way Costco keeps you wanting and needing and desiring what they’re selling.
It doesn’t matter if you buy the calamari you sample. The sample is just enough to stimulate the dopamine in your brain and to keep you wanting and needing and desiring.
Costco is far from alone in this practice. Other corporations do it, too.
I was reading the other day about a Google executive who left the company after he was given responsibility for “persuasion,” which means that his job was to convince consumers to step away from their normal personal interactions and use their apps and search engine. The way to steer the user’s experience was to stimulate the dopamine in their brains. That stimulation is the way persuasion worked.
Corporations do this because we want them to do this. Everybody is implicated. All of us want a sense of having something we don’t possess. We all feel the need for something that we actually don’t need. We all desire something that we did not desire until we see it and suddenly become aware of some kind of lack.
We live in a matrix of desires, wants, and needs. This matrix is a kind of energy field. It locks us in place and implicates every one of us at every layer of our society. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said that capitalism was inherently addictive. By this statement he meant that capitalism created a system in which people are constantly kept in a state of wanting, desiring, and needing.
In this respect, I think he is touching a nerve and approaching the truth. We live in a world in which it seems like there is never any point of satisfaction that we can truly reach. And part of this is that we tend to associate with these material goods symbolic and spiritual values.
We want a bigger TV, and we hope that our family will suddenly find new coalescence around it. We want a new home or a different backyard. And we see ourselves coming together.
We are wanting, needing, desiring beings. And this power is everywhere. It implicates all of us. In the past, we used to think that power operated vertically from the top down and, in moments of revolution, from the bottom up.
But I believe power is like a force field. Each of us is locked in. Each of us is powerless. And yet, each of us contributes by our own desires and our own wants and our own needs to this larger system.
And the problem in all of this is that none of the spiritual and deeper meaning that we seek in our world can be addressed by the materiality that we pursue. And we all know this as the deepest truth that’s as clear to us as the hand before our faces.
Yet we all know that those things are so hard to come by. They lie so much out of our power.
And so the frenetic activity that comes when we go to places where there are samples and other “free” opportunities – this anxiety exists because these products are trying to fulfill a need that they themselves are powerless to fulfill.
For me, the moment of recognition came when I realized that the little paper cups that Costco puts its samples in are exactly the same shape as the cups that hold pills when you go to a hospital.
Am I going to Costco for nourishment, I thought, or am I going to Costco for a little bit of medication? A little bit of medication against the discomfort I feel – the dis-ease I suffer from. I suspect all of us know a little bit of what that feels like.
Today, we have an encouragement from our scriptures, and that encouragement is framed under the word repent.
John the Baptist comes in the Gospel of Matthew and calls us to repentance. “Change the way we think” is what repentance means in the Greek: Metanoia, “to change your mindset.”
This message of repentance is often experienced as a voice from on high, or from an outsider standing in judgment. And certainly, one way to read the Gospel of Matthew today is to see judgment that way. John is out in the wilderness, dressed as an ascetic, calling the people of Judea to repent.
However, repentance requires more than a mere change in mindset. Because the issue is not that we don’t want to be changed. It is rather that we often feel powerless when we try to do so.
Repentance cannot simply be something that comes from outside us. In fact, when it comes from the outside, it only tends to make matters worse.
Rather, repentance is something that each of us can share together.
In this season of Advent, I think repentance looks like this: I realize that no matter what I do or buy, I go through the season longing.
I want more of the joy, and peace, and love that is promised in our Scriptures than I see in my world today.
I want more of the light that shines in the midst of darkness. And I suspect that you want these things too.
I suspect if each of us could step back from the matrix we live in for one moment and think to ourselves “What do we really want? What do we really need? What do we really desire?” I think we’ll come together as a community of longing, and that longing might be enough to hold us together and wait again for the surprising manifestation of Christ in our lives.
At the end of the reading from Matthew today, there’s a key moment where John speaks of Jesus. John says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but there’s another who will come after me, who will baptize you with spirit and fire.”
And by that, he wasn’t meaning so much that there would be destruction in the wake of Jesus, but that transformation through Jesus Christ is possible.
Because, through Jesus Christ, you and I experience new desires, new needs, new love, new wants by being in relation with him.
Because only Jesus can redeem humanity from the inside in the midst of all the things that make us who we are.
And only Jesus comes to live within us so that we might live within him.
So this Advent, take a moment to step back. Take a moment to come together. Take a moment to recognize the desire for the love and joy and peace that comes only when God comes among us as Jesus.
And let us ask God to reframe us, and change us, and make us new again.
The poem I’ve given you for today was written by Theodore Parker Ferris. He was a wonderful rector of Trinity, Copley Square, in Boston.
I found this a few years ago and it doesn’t carry a name, so I entitled it “A Prayer for Advent” in your service leaflet. It gives us an image of what it might mean for us to develop new desires for God, new wants, new needs based on that Christ story that we’re about to rehearse.
This is what it says:
By way of Bethlehem lead us, oh Lord to newness of life. By the innocence of the Christ Child, renew our simple trust.
By the tenderness of Mary, deliver us from cruelty and hardness of heart.
By the patience of Joseph, save us from all rash judgment and ill-tempered action. By the shepherd’s watch, open our eyes to the signs of thy coming.
By the wise men’s journey, keep our searching spirits from fainting.
By the music of the heavenly choir, put to shame the clamor of the earth. By the shining of a star, guide our feet into the way of peace.
This Advent, may you find newness of life. May you recover your innocence through simple trust. May the tenderness of Mary fill your heart and banish any cruelty and hardness that is there. May the patience of Joseph keep you from making any rash judgments and ill-tempered actions. May you have the watchfulness of a shepherd. May you have the wisdom of a wise man who is courageous yet cunning. May the music of the spheres lift your spirits. And may the Christ star lead you. Amen.