beginning revolution again: “the Gospels and advertising,” January 31, 2016

advertising

Responsive Call to Worship
We gather, after a week of having been immersed
in the noise of the words of the world,
to be reminded of the word of God.
So Rolaids asks us, “How do you spell relief?”
And we say, “I am confident of this,
that the one who began a good work among us
will bring it to completion
by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
IBM offers us “solutions for a smart planet.”
And we remember that “creation waits with eager longing
for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19).
Apple urges us to “think different.”
And Paul urges us to “not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
Sony exhorts us to “Make Believe.”
But we know “faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Energizer boasts that “it keeps going and going and going.”
Nor do we “grow weary in doing what is right,
for we will reap at harvest time,
if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).
Nike says, “Just do it.”
And we know what to do too,
“for so the Lord has commanded us, saying,
‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles,
so that you may bring salvation
to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 14:37).
American Express warns, “Don’t leave home without it”,
while Torah affirms, “Blessed shall you be when you come in,
and blessed shall you be when you go out” (Deuteronomy 28:6).
Hallmark wants you to think of them
“when you care enough to send the very best”,
and God so loved the world that God sent the only begotten—
the Son—the Word,
that whosoever lives into that Word will not perish
(John 3:16ish).
The Army proclaims, “Be all that you can be.”
Jesus’ expectation are more specific:
“You are the light of the world”
(Matthew 5:14a).
Maxwell House celebrates what’s “good to the last drop!”
And we know “even if we are being poured out as a libation
over the sacrifice and the offering of our faith,
we are glad and rejoice”
(Philippians 2:17).
Coca-Cola claims, “You can’t beat the real thing.”
But we know all claims of priority
“are only a shadow of what is to come,
but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17).
Verizon asks, “Can you hear me now?”
And Jesus said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
I know that you always hear me,
but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here,
so that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41c-42).
These affirmations brought to you in worship
by the word made scripture
to be made flesh in our living.

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Luke 1:1-4
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account
of the events that have been fulfilled among us,
just as they were handed on to us by those
who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,
I too decided, after investigating everything carefully
from the very first, to write an orderly account for you,
most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth
concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
What is this commercial about?

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
Doesn’t it sometimes feel like life has turned into one big commercial?
With everyone selling something?
And it’s not all necessarily about stuff—
not necessarily materialistic.
I mean, a lot of it is,
but a good chunk of life these days
is people trying to sell other people on ideas and ideologies—
a relationship—
on particular interpretations of history and science—
not to mention on religions and theologies and churches.
Right?

And fundamentally, I think,
when something is commercial in nature,
then it’s not conversational in nature.
It’s not about the give and take of relationship,
but about who has (something) and who does not—
in not just recognition of a basic inequality
(some have, some do not),
but also in some investment in that inequality—
in the benefits of such inequality.
For in a commercial relationship,
that balance of power (or unbalance of power)—
that inequality—
is maintained—is exploited—
in a way that undermines any true affirmation of—
or desire for—or commitment to—equality.

And the shadow side of capitalism—
because even every good thing has a shadow side, right?—
the shadow side—one shadow side of capitalism is happy to affirm
that all are born equal—all are created equal,
but wants little to do with any prioritization of—
let alone any commitment to—
maintaining that equality—
working to extend that equality through life.
capitalism is all about deserving—theoretically deserving—
earning what you get—what you work for—
or not getting what you don’t work for—
which is the polar opposite—it is the polar opposite of grace.

So what do we do when that conversation comes up at church?
And I’m not just talking about what’s our marketing campaign—
though there is that.
It’s a good question.
If we like what we do and who we are,
how do we get the word out—
let people know?
And there are ways to do that.
A lot of them cost money.
The most effective, we’ve said before, does not.
Extensive polling suggests most visitors to a church,
even in our social media saturated times,
indicate they visited that church
because they were asked to by a member.
The most significant reason for visiting a church
has to do with relationship and conversation.

More fundamental to our evangelical heritage than church marketing though,
are the questions raised by the affirmation
that we have something we believe people need.

Integral to our sense of identity
is a basic inequality, right?
And witnessing, as much as we might resist the language—
witnessing and inviting someone to church
are forms of advertising—
you need what we have.

So maybe, we have to postulate,
there’s nothing wrong with this idea of inequality.
And it is indeed embedded in our scripture.
It’s embedded in the very gospels.

Luke begins his gospel flat out saying,
“I decided to write so that you may know the truth”
(Luke 1:3-4).
From the get-go, he is selling a story
he wants us to buy as the truth.
That’s advertising.
You will know the truth and it will set you free (John 8:32).
Not a bad catch phrase, is it?

Mark writes of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God (Mark 1:1).
There are huge claims in that affirmation
of which Mark wants to inform and convince us.
That’s advertising.
Good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10).

Matthew begins “an account of the genealogy
of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham”
(Matthew 1:1)—which sounds a bit more dry!
But also makes huge claims within the context of Matthew’s church
trying to find its identity after being rejected by the Jews.
That’s advertising.
We didn’t leave our heritage; our heritage left us.
Hmmm, that one sound familiar?

And in assertions and claims about Jesus,
Scripture places a fundamental basic inequality
at the very heart of our faith—
in this human—this one—the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
(Colossians 1:19; 2:9).
Yet this is an inequality not perceived.
We hear in the prologue to the gospel of John:
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him (John 1:10).
It’s an inequality certainly not exploited (Philippians 2:6).
So it was in what was perceived as equal relationship,
Jesus offered grace and truth.

We’re going to have to deal with the fact
that inequality is taken for granted in our sacred texts
even while affirming Jesus is not defined by it.

I am also struck by all the confusion—
all the divergent claims—
about whether advertising is all lies,
or whether it’s bottom line truth?
You see that tension laid out in our first two meditations in the bulletin:
with Eugene Peterson, a pastor, teacher, saying,
“The whole advertising world is just intertwined with lies,
appealing to the worst of the instincts we have”,
while William Bernbach, an advertising director, suggests,
“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

I think most people associate advertising with lies more than truth.
HG Wells names advertising “legalized lying,”
while Raymond Chandler explores the consequence of such lying:
“It is pretty obvious that the debasement of the human mind
caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising
is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country.”
Wow. And how true!
Everything we take for granted grants reality a measure of its essence.

I think advertising actually plumbs great truth—
at a very, very deep level of being—
tapping into our sense of needs and desires
waiting to be met.
The assumptions of advertising intersect the truth
of a powerful yearning that is integral to who we are.
We are people who know we’re looking for something.

This intersection with deep truth, however,
corresponds to lies, for the most part,
at less deep levels—
as marketing campaigns attempt to get us
to identify our deep true yearnings with their product—
or their ideology—
to identify what is deep and true
with what, for the most part, is shallow and insignificant—
whether that’s some kind of lotion that will make you thin,
vitamins added that make sugary cereal healthy,
shoes that tone your legs,
hand sanitizer that protects you from MRSA,
or a full head of hair that is evidently the key to fulfilling your life
(that one’s particularly galling!).

Now some commercials, quite cleverly,
embrace the deep truth of our yearning
with an equally deep relevance,
and offer us images of compassion, love, and grace
as deep calls to deep.
Such ads then seek to identify themselves with such depths
and such truth—
depth and truth by association.
Other commercials, much less cleverly, simply seek to identify
the depths of truth with their stuff—
making their ridiculous claims that beer and hair products
are essentially of the depths of human existence.

When we consider something so wrapped up in how we do life—
that’s such a mix of what’s true and what’s false—
what’s of the best of who we are, and what’s of the worst—
when it does seem like life has turned into one big commercial—
when we realize the pervasively invasive ubiquitous reality of advertising,
how do we then live within the system
and yet distinguish ourselves from it—
particularly as people and communities of faith?

It has tended to be
the more conservative churches and christians
who have vocally, publicly, proudly embraced the idea
of confronting and resisting culture.
It’s just so often the parts of culture they identify to confront and resist
seem the wrongs ones to me!

On the other side, we have christian activists
who get so angry at this or that,
railing against the death penalty—
rallying for the rights of the lgbtq community,
and I tend to be more sympathetic—
a/ because as advocates of social justice
they tend to work within the system instead of rejecting it;
and b/ they seem to be less mean—
more for loving grace than rejection.
But still! This one’s so all fired up about this,
and that one about that,
and they insist that you be on board with them—
when it’s the whole shebang!

And, I’m sorry, living in this culture
constitutes a huge challenge for any christian—
who raises a family in this culture—
who plans to retire in this culture—
who benefits from the resources and conveniences of our culture.
For those that critique culture from within culture,
we have to acknowledge some integrity issues—
some log in your own eye kind of why are you talking about that speck stuff going on?

So within our culture, aware of its sin,
how do we distinguish what’s true and what’s false?
How do we confront and resist
without sustaining the inequalities
that create imbalances of power?
Maybe by not looking for power,
but by calling power into question—
by questioning dominant story?

And it’s nothing new—
trying to figure out this idea of being in the world but not of it.
That idea has been around a long time,
and when it was recorded as what would become scripture,
it was not a victory claim (“we have succeeded in this!”),
but a commissioning (“try this!”).

Jesus, in the gospel of John, says of the disciples in prayer,
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them
because they do not belong to the world,
just as I do not belong to the world.
I am not asking you to take them out of the world,
but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
They do not belong to the world,
just as I do not belong to the world.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.
As you have sent me into the world,
so I have sent them into the world”
(John 17:14-18).
Go try this.

And we notice, don’t we,
the movement—contrary to so much religious rhetoric—
the movement is not from within the world
out of the world,
but from out of the world into the world.
“They do not belong to the world
so I have sent them into the world.”

That’s the same flow to Paul’s words
in the epistle to the Romans, isn’t it?
“Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,
so that you may discern what is the will of God—
what is good and acceptable and perfect”
(Romans 12:2).

We are all inescapably in this world,
and are yet charged to somehow step out of it—
to be changed,
in order—in order to live back into the world—in the world,
differently.

So we acknowledge inequality,
but steadfastly refuse (at our best)
to treat it as a function of commerce—
in which inequality is to the benefit of the one who has.
We treat inequality rather as a function of love
in which inequality affords the one who has
the opportunity to benefit another.

That too idealistic?
Too mushy?
Maybe.
But true!

So we do not condemn money—
we don’t condemn capitalism—wealth—out of hand,
but ask what is the goal?
Is it just to make as much money as possible for self and for shareholders—
an ever increasing profit?
That’s what our world says.
That is a poor goal. That is an inadequate goal.
Not unimportant. Nor uncommon.
But as a primary goal, it is unsatisfactory.
That’s what we as the people of God must stand for.
Don’t settle for that.
Make money, fine.
Work hard and make as much as you can. Fine.
Don’t boast about how you earned money
that actually came from mommy and daddy.
That’s annoying.
Don’t pretend you made it without the help—
all the resources on which you relied to make it.
And show us—show us how what you do makes the world a better place,
and, given our Judeo-Christian heritage, specifically,
how it makes the world a better place for the least of these.
Not for you.
How it makes the world a better place.
And until you can,
then your money, however obscenely much of it you’ve made,
means nothing.
It is a loud noise signifying nothing of significance.

We are inescapably in the world—
we are immersed in—surrounded by a lot of insignificant loud,
but in the spirit we are taken out—
we are taken into the presence of God—
we are given a perspective—
some people call it heaven—
not as an escape from the world,
but as a hope for the world—
a promise—
and a commitment—
to live toward the best of who and how we can be,
created in the image of God—
outposts of love in the vast expanse of lonely—
outposts of community amidst the isolated and private—
outposts of interdependence amidst independence’s rhetoric—
outposts of responsibility amidst selfishness.

How?
How do we make the world a better place—
especially, given our heritage, for the least of these?
Lots of different ways.
Partially just by gathering here on a regular basis
as a witness to another way.
And, by the way, let me reiterate,
our witness goes largely unnoticed.
If you are able—if you are able, please park in the lower lot on Sunday morning,
so people driving by will know we gather!
Because when we all park in back, no one knows.
part of what we do is make a witness to our gathering—
to our setting aside this time.

It’s not just about gathering though.
That would be a little too easy.
It is also, of course, about feeding the hungry—
it is also about providing clothes for those who don’t have—
it is also about working for education and justice.
And we do a lot of that too.
There are many ways we participate
in transformative experience.
But here’s my question for you today,
how do you do that?

And if the answer comes slow—
if the answer is indirect—
even if it’s (and maybe especially if it’s),
“Well, I give to Woodbrook,”
then talk to our Service Ministry folks, please.
They’re committed—
more committed than ever—
to connecting people here with possibilities
for experiencing transformative service.

I think what we have here in worship and fellowship is absolutely amazing.
I know of very few places to find what we have here
in worship and in fellowship.
But our challenge—our call:
what happens in worship and in fellowship
is to equip us—prepare us—inspire us—sustain us—
it is to take us out of the world for a glimpse—
to let us hear a haunting song, ours to sing amidst all this noise—
that we might live in the world differently—
making a difference.
If we don’t, you see,
then we’ve got a lot of insignificant noise going on here too,
it’s just in the key of God.

So, fulfill what we do here in your living—
in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

Intro to Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
So the first open canon was a commercial,
at the deepest—most primitive level—
about compassion—about grace and gratitude.
This next one, I think you’ll see,
is about friendship—abundant life?
The companies who made these commercials
(a phone company—a bank)
aren’t saying their products produce or guarantee such truth,
they just want to be associated with it.
So what does it say about our faith,
to which we typically assume the world is so hostile—
the antithesis to so much of our corporate world—
what does it say that our faith
is grounded in that truth—in those virtues—
with which corporations strive to be identified?

For when business reaches deep as they can—
into the best they can name,
they tell our story.
So maybe we need to be a little bit more proud—
a little bit more bold.
We’re the ones telling the story
that is essentially and fundamentally true.
And even banks know it.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
What is this commercial about?

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
He came as a witness to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him,
who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

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