We finish our series on Dr. Seuss this morning with the Grinch Who Stole Christmas: a story well-known and well-loved, though I’m sure several of you thought it’s just too early.
I agree, to a certain extent. The Christmas season continues to creep into our fall – decorations are hung around stores as soon as Halloween’s are taken down – and church is one of the few places where you can be sure that you won’t hear about Santa Claus in November. Advent begins next week, and that season, as well, is not a celebration of Christmas, but a month of preparation in which we ready ourselves for God’s coming here on earth. We don’t begin celebrating Christmas, really, until the 24th – and then our celebration really begins.
But this week, we are entering what I think might be the most hypocritical weekend of the year. Thanksgiving weekend. The week that begins with us showering praises over the many blessings in our lives, emphasizing spending time with our family, preparing an abundance of food that we enjoy together or serving others on the most volunteered-on day of the year and, 12 hours later, ends with us trampling over each other because we need more. The average shopper spends over $400 on Black Friday.
From Abundance to scarcity, before the leftovers are eaten.
We give nice “lip service” to gratitude on Thanksgiving, but I think our actions on Black Friday – and the rest of the month of December, really – speak much louder.
What consumes most of your attention? The most time? The most energy? Is it things, or is it people? Often our jobs cause us to focus on people, but is our focus then so we can earn more to get other things?
A couple more questions: are we more concerned with owning, or being? About making more money, or improving in our relationships?
Simply put, we live in a materialistic culture. We are defined by “busyness,” and our society is much more interested in material things than spiritual things. As a whole, we are captive to our seemingly unquenchable thirst for more. We see this in advertisements that surround us – whenever we stare at a screen or open a magazine or drive down the highway, we see campaigns trying to convince us that what we have isn’t enough.
And we have overwhelmingly bought into it. We look for the technology that will make our lives easier, the clothes that will make us look more professional, the stuff that we think will make us happier.
Money – and the things it buys – cannot produce happiness. In fact, we’ve all heard of lottery winners whose lives have actually, in terrible irony, become worse once they receive their fortunes.
Now, this is nothing new. I’m seeing a lot of nods out here, as we’re all thinking about people we know who are too interested in “stuff.” But it’s not just about hoarders, or the best technology, or keeping up with the Joneses. A love of money, a flourishing of materialism, is actually much more sadistic, much more sinful, than us just thinking about and pointing fingers at other people. It has reordered values. It has disordered our priorities.
We’ve used things to become more and more independent and ostensibly self-sufficient. We turn our faces towards televisions and entertainment when we used to spend evenings with each other. We move farther away from families and, in turn, lose our support systems. Where we used to depend on others to help us throughout the day – with childcare, or chores, or processes of daily life – we now consider dependence a negative thing. It’s a burden.
When we no longer need others, we no longer pay attention to others, either. We don’t listen to what others need. We become more arrogant in society: if we don’t need anything, then no one else should, either. Materialism, our capitalist economy, It has contributed to a greater division between rich and poor, in contrast to a society in which all feel welcome and equally represented. The reign of God, the kingdom of God that Jesus talks about throughout our gospels, is in direct contrast to our love of money.
And there’s a lot of struggle in our society to obtain the necessities to keep going. There are too many people who are struggling, hurting, unable to thrive in our nation. Over 15 million children – more than 20% of the children in the nation – live in houses that are food-insecure. When they pray for their daily bread, it’s because they’re not sure it’ll be there. At the same time, about 40% of food in this nation never gets eaten. And that’s a conservative estimate – others push that up to 50%.
There is a sick, in my opinion sinful, irony in blaming others for being in need.
Hear again what Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy this morning:
7 because the Lord your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land where you will eat food without any shortage—you won’t lack a thing there—a land where stone is hard as iron and where you will mine copper from the hills. 10 You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God in the wonderful land that he’s given you.
Moses begins with Thanksgiving: gratitude for the many blessings that will be coming in the Israelites’ lives. Beautiful, tasty food, strong materials and clean water. Their needs are covered. But notice what warnings come directly after: Don’t forget the Lord.
Moses recognizes that, as we need less, it’s easy to forget God. Don’t forget the one who brought you to where you are. Don’t be deluded enough to think you did everything on your own, that you’re completely independent. Even if you are prosperous, God has given you the gifts that you have used well. Your strength, your community, your intelligence, all come from God. No man is an island.
Our stuff doesn’t define us.
This is something the Grinch didn’t understand – not at first, anyway. He thought that if he could just take all the things away from the Whos – their toys and their trees and the roast beast – he could take away their happiness.
It was quarter past dawn...
All the things the Grinch had taken were accouterments, mere symbols of the important and lasting values that the Whos held dear.
He stared down at Who-ville!
Gift-giving itself isn’t inherently bad. Giving things to others isn’t inherently sinful. But notice: for the Whos the focus wasn’t on receiving the gifts, but on the spirit of the season. Gifts had been purchased to give to others in celebration of their community. And the community was not something the Grinch could stuff up the chimney on Christmas Eve. The community still existed, even if their gifts didn’t. It was this tacit but visible rejection of materialistic values that ultimately enabled the Grinch to draw closer to a truer understanding of the importance of Christmas.
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
So as we enter this holiday season, the week that begins with gratitude for what we have and ends with yearning for what we don’t, challenge yourself. Challenge yourself to consider how you would celebrate if all the stuff disappeared up the chimney. Challenge yourself to re-think gift giving this year.
Glennon Doyle Melton, writer of the blog Momastery, offers an alternative to standard holiday gift-giving. Instead of piles of stuff under the tree, instead of focusing on things that everyone’s excited about for about 12 hours before it’s forgotten again, consider giving four: one gift you want, one gift the world needs, one gift to wear, one gift to read.
One gift you want: recognize the interests of your loved one. Prove that you’ve paid attention to them, to what they love, and give appropriately.
One gift the world needs: My friends, the world is calling out in desperate need. People are starving, others are sick, some go without education, or family to call their own. Christmas is when we celebrate that God came into our world and pulled those the world ignored into our line of vision. Who can you support this year? How can you give to make the world better? Buy a flock of chicks through the Heifer project to give food to a family in Bangladesh. AloeTree is an organization that sells kid’s clothes and toys to help combat child trafficking. Church World Service has a catalog of alternative gifts so that you can give to those you love and change the world at the same time.
One gift to wear: I think that’s simple enough, don’t you?
One gift to read: I’ll admit, I don’t read as much as I used to. I’m too busy. Rather, I think I’m too busy. But I always seem to have time for Netflix. Reading opens our minds, can make us more aware of others’ struggles, can broaden our worldview. Reading is known to reduce stress and help us unplug in this eternally-connected world. And unplugging can help us feel less frantic, less rushed, less worried about comparing ourselves to others.
We’ll have some gift suggestions in the bulletin starting next week.
It’s easy to rail against culture as the church – and frankly, there’s a little too much negative press about Christians complaining about “what the world has come to.” It’s easy to do. We know our culture is too materialistic, too greedy. To Grinch-y. Instead, I challenge you to re-define this year’s gift-giving. Don’t ignore gratitude once the turkey’s been eaten. Keep your community in mind this holiday season. Depend on others. Sing together. Take a step back and focus on the abundance, not the scarcity, in your life.
It’s not our stuff that defines us. It’s not our stuff that should define the holidays, either. Happy Thanksgiving.
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