Sunday, March 9, 2014


I may not be cut out for classical Lenten preaching
         because I just can't shake my fist at society
         and condemn it.
I can’t judge our contemporary culture
            because it’s made up of vulnerable struggling people
                        just like you and me.
We are all doing the best we can.
But I do feel sad about it.
I feel sad because people are just not as happy
as God wants us to be.
The world is in a bad mood.

People are so irritable, honking their horns at each other,
            complaining to the homeowners association about their neighbors,
            demanding to speak to a sales clerk’s supervisor.
Even in church, we hear carping and griping
            about things not being the way we want them.
Happy people don’t do that sort of thing.
Unhappy people do, and that’s how they spread their unhappiness around.

Our pervasive irritability seems odd,
            since modern technology has invented so many things
                        to keep us happy and entertained.
We are first and foremost consumers.
And consuming is supposed to make us happy.
At least that’s what marketers tell us.

Americans ought to be just giddy.
The average American consumes as much as 32 Kenyans,
                        but the thing that puzzles me is this.
I’ve been to Kenya.
They are poor, dirt poor.
But we aren’t any happier than they are.
In fact, I suspect we may be less happy.

I worry about this in the church
                        because our culture is shaping our religion
                        far more than our religion is shaping our culture.
So naturally, for most Americans in our consumer culture,
                        religion is a service industry and we expect to be served.
We want the church to meet our needs and make us happy.
So churches take surveys and change the prayers, the menu,
                        the service schedule, and the theme of the sermon
                        all to make people happy.

But the harder we try to satisfy ourselves,
                         the more frustrated we are when we discover
                        that we still aren’t happy.
So, irritably,  we try to figure our what’s wrong,
                        what needs fixing, and -- most importantly -- who to blame
                                    for our discontent.
If we aren’t happy, it must be someone’s fault.

Sometimes another religion has a different way of saying
                        something we also believe – but hearing how they put it
                        helps us understand our own religion better.
Buddhism teaches that there are 6 realms of being.
A realm of being is a basic attitude,
                        like a constant mood, a personality type,
                                     a way of being in the world.
One of them is called The Hungry Ghost.

Think of a ghost shaped like Caspar.
Only he’s got an enormous belly that wants to be filled.
But he’s got a tiny little mouth that can’t take in enough.
So he can never have enough -- never enough.
He always feels hungry.

In Psalm 78,  the Israelites in the desert
                        complained that they were hungry
                        so God miraculously produced food for them.
But verse 30 says,
            “They did not stop their craving
                        though the food was still in their mouths.”

50 years ago the richest man in the world
                        was an American oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty.
He once gave an interview, 
           and the last question the journalist asked him was this,
                        “Mr. Getty, you have more money than anyone.
                        But here you are, still wheeling and dealing.
                        How much money do you need? How much is enough?”
J. Paul Getty leaned forward and answered, “A little more. A little more.”

I am not judging us.
I am saying this is a sad life.
We can’t even savor what we have.
We can’t enjoy it.
We guard it.
We are afraid someone might take it away from us.
God wants something better for us that to live and die
                        as hungry ghosts,
                        still craving though the food is still in our mouths.
God wants us enjoy our lives and have a sense of purpose,
                        a feeling that we matter, that we’re not just
                        bottomless pit consumer addicts
                         manipulated by the dealers of the market.

Lent is an exercise is getting free from bondage to our own craving
                        whether the craving is for food, money, love, or spiritual joy.
Lent is an exercise in not trying to get more for ourselves,
                        but instead discovering the joy giving ourselves away.

We all come to God, and we all come to the Church,
                        to get our needs me.
That’s natural.
Starting there is fine,
                        but staying there is a huge problem.

The problem is this paradox.
We can never get our needs met
                        as long as we are  trying to get our needs met.
We are stuck in a double bind like Groucho Marx
                        who said, “I would never join a club
                        that would have somebody like me for a member.”
When we abandon that project  
                        and give ourselves over to God’s mission,
                        our needs suddenly become
                                    far more manageable.
They almost go away.

Our human understanding is trapped in the wrong-headed assumption
                        that we can find peace when we have enough,
                        but enough is always just out of reach.
When we forget our needs and give ourselves to God’s mission,
                        we discover the peace of God
                        that surpasses human understanding.

When Jesus went to the desert to figure out his life,
                        Satan tempted him with all different forms of consumerism.
“Have some material goods, have power, have some fame and glory,
                        have some power.
Surely those are the things that will make you happy.”

But Jesus passed on all those things we strive so hard to get.
He chose the cross instead.
He chose to give his life for us instead of playing the consumer game
                        of “get it while you can.”

Remember when JFK said
                        “Ask not what your country can do for you.   
                        Ask what you can do for your country.”
Before that Winston Churchill said,
                        “We make a living by what we get.
                         We make a life by what we give.”

As long as we live our lives trying to get enough to make us happy,
                        even if it’s enough religion, we only get more miserable,
                                    irritable, and morose.
It’s when we live our lives surrendered to God’s mission,
                        that we discover to our surprise, we have enough.
We already have all we need.

Lent is an opportunity to rethink our lives, to rethink all our relationships,
                        especially our relationship  with the Church.
It is an opportunity to take up our cross, not by suffering but by serving,
                        and discover a happy, meaningful life
                                    has always been right there for the asking.