Black Friday and the operating system we live by

IMG_2061Have you been shopping till you drop, making the most of the Black Friday Deals? My inbox has been bombarded by adverts for money-saving deals form all sorts of companies. I confess to being a bit of a Black Friday grump so any email headed Black Friday is likely to get deleted straight away. Black Friday is a scheme by retailers in the United States who have had to endure a day of closure for Thanksgiving and so in order to lure people back into shops and online baskets after the shutdown they offer heavily discounted products, as if they’d forget they were there! This means nothing over here, because we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it has become a major retail event over the past few years and walking through Queensgate over the last few days, many people have realized the money to be saved. For shops I’m not sure it is such a good deal as they have to discount heavily at what is their peak trading period.

Black Friday is a festival of consumerism. The driving ethos is that having is good, and the more you have the better. Consumerism is a distortion of what trading is really about. It takes what should be the exchange of goods we need and turns this into stuff. What consumerism wants is for us to crave the latest thing and because this is only sustainable if we keep craving it will be by definition insatiable: it only works if our craving makes the very thing we have just purchased obsolete. It is a constant chasing of the wind. And it becomes an addiction. The purchases trigger serotonin in the brain, the reward chemical, and we like this, so when we don’t get the trigger the serotonin level drops and we get depressed. Shopping really can become a fix.

Consumerism becomes an enslavement, a treadmill we just wish we could get off. The money expert Martin Lewis tapped into this in a broadcast circulating online this week. During this the audience showed their delight as he said this Christmas only give meaningful presents and dump the giving escalation, where we try to keep up with others and just feel the more we spend the more we are giving value. He was arguing that giving can become far from virtuous and generous because it can become about how we are seen rather than the person receiving and this is toxic.

Behind all of this there is a delusion. Shopping becomes for us a sign of life and therefore the opposite of death – the dead don’t shop. So acquiring more and more becomes a denial of death, a way of trying to push death to the margins, even off the page. Through it we show our prowess and our vitality. And trying to cheat death, even with a credit card, is a timeless and ultimately foolhardy pursuit. Some things may make us happy for a moment, but that moment passes as the gloss wears off and we get bored because something else has come along. Death will not be defeated by things, not even gadgets (and I like gadgets); they quite simply can’t meet the overwhelming force against them!

Today our church calendar gives us an antidote to this existential delusion. Rather than shopping as a distraction therapy from mortality, we are invited to stare mortality in the face and place our trust in the victory of Jesus Christ, through his cross and resurrection. Only the one who has embraced death and risen from it can offer any hope to a world gripped by the horror and ultimate finality of death. Today we celebrate Christ as Lord and King, as the one who is the ultimate source and goal of all that we are, the one who is to be the operating system driving us and shaping how we live rather than just consuming and empty craving. That is why our gospel reading gave us Jesus standing before Pilate, talking of his Kingdom not being of this world, and looking towards the cross and resurrection to come (John 18:33b-37).

Our first reading reflected this further (Revelation 1:4b-8). The refrain at the beginning and the end of that passage was that God is, was and is to come. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Consumerism distracts us with shiny things, with gadgets and stuff. It has built into it an assumption of obsolescence, that we will need to replace the very things we crave for in a never-ending craving. This is the challenge which Eve Poole explores in her book ‘Buying God’. We defeat consumerism by living differently, living with a different, fuller hope and trusting in the power of God, in and through Jesus Christ, to save us, to give life a deeper purpose than just stuff and passing the time. Only through Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, can we find this.

This is radical thinking. It is radical in two ways. Firstly it is radical because it takes us back to core of what it is to be human, to be created, to be loved and a place in God’s purpose. Secondly it is radical because it challenges some of the fallacies of the way our world lives, the way our economic towers are built. The endless pursuit of growth and greed, of profit and wanting more all the time; never being satiated and content with the blessing that we have. The word radical has been linked to extremists and troublemakers. Certainly this is not conformist and for those who want us to endlessly be wanting it is troublemaking. But as the Letter to Timothy reminds us, there is great godliness in contentment with enough. It goes on to talk of the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, and that evil is not just what we might do to others, but also what this endless craving does to us.

This morning we are baptising a young man from a very different background to most of those who are baptized here. Growing up as a Muslim, travelling in unbelievable hardship to arrive here and converting to Christianity, he has gone through a major shift of thinking. Looking at the words of the baptism service with him is to be reminded just what it is we proclaim and for a Muslim this is earth shifting. ‘Do you turn to Christ, do you repent of your sins and do you come to Christ the Way the Truth and the Life’ – these are three radical questions through which we make statements about who is at the centre of our lives. It is not us, our cravings, or anyone else, it is Jesus Christ, who is Lord and King of all. We say that we aim to live the teachings of Jesus, to live what he said. When we proclaim that Christ died and rose again, we challenge a direct claim of the Qur’an, which says that Jesus did not die and if he did not die he cannot rise from the dead (Sura 4:157-158). We stand alongside people of other faiths in this city to build the common good, but there are differences and at times they touch the foundations of what we believe, what guides and shapes us.

So this morning we will not only baptize one who has recently joined our congregation, we are also challenged with the fundamental basis on which we live our lives. Who is our ultimate hope and goal? Who is the one who gives us hope and purpose? This has sharp edges and for a Muslim it brings far reaching consequences. As we celebrate Christ the King, we affirm directly and clearly that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; he is our operating system, and we aim to live his teachings in the hope that comes through his death and resurrection.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Christ the King, Sunday 25th November 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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