The Marketplace Is A False God

Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter May 8, 2016

There is a presidential primary this coming Tuesday in West Virginia where one of the historic economic drivers is coal. Coal mining, coal processing, chemical plants, coal trains, and all the businesses that are dependent upon coal companies and their employees—they are all concerned about regulation of the coal industry that might diminish the use of coal.

My maternal grandfather was a coal miner in West Virginia. After learning civil engineering in the Navy during the First World War, he landed a job with the Cannelton Coal Company just outside of Montgomery. He and my grandmother lived and raised their family in a company-owned house, were paid in company printed script, which could only be spent in company-owned stores. As a mining engineer, he traced the seams of coal and directed the miners to where and how deep to dig. He was frequently in the mines where tunnel collapses and explosions were part of the cost of doing business.

The coal marketplace is being called into question as we learn about the effects of burning high sulphur coal in our power plants. One need only look at the sea of choking humanity in places like Beijing to know the concern. Here in Dayton as we have some of the highest rates of child respiratory problems in the US. Some say that it’s just part of the cost of doing business.

Twenty-five years ago I hiked part of the Appalachian Trail through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One evening after supper at the Lake of the Clouds Hut near the peak of Mt. Washington, a resident science instructor warned us against drinking water from what appeared to be a pristine mountain lake. It was so polluted from Ohio Valley coal-burning power plant emissions, carried there by the prevailing winds, that the Lake was acidic. He demonstrated by making a battery from lake water that powered a light bulb.

So what does coal have to do with faith? Nothing and everything: nothing in the sense that coal is rarely mentioned in the Bible—everything, in that God’s grandest desires are that we be free of anything that enslaves us and that we worship only God.

One of the earliest revelations of God was that he wanted us to be free. The people of God were enslaved in Egypt under Pharaoh. God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go and led them out of slavery into freedom. Slaves are a form of cheap labor. Some are caught up in formal systems of slavery while others are trapped by geography, education, economic conditions, drugs, underwater mortgages and so on.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes an event that took place in Philippi near the middle of the first Century of the Common Era.

“One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you* a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities.”

Paul and his companions were thrown into prison, because they had interfered with the girl’s owner’s ability to make money off of her fortune-telling. Her slavery and her demon-possession were the cost of doing business.

Later in the Book of Acts, Paul again caused a great disturbance. “A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

Jesus said that we can worship God or mammon. Mammon means money. We cannot worship both at the same time. It’s like trying to serve two masters simultaneously. Which one do we obey when the values of one are directly opposite the values of the other? God wants us to be free. God wants us to worship him. But we cannot do either if we’re putting all our energy into serving Pharaoh, the coal company, the demon, the goddess, the marketplace.

Today is Mother’s Day. Motherhood ideally has to do with love, mercy, nurture, caregiving. It is a selfless endeavor as anyone knows who has had to change a foul diaper at 3 am or clean a crib for a toddler with the stomach flu. Clothes washing, dirty dishes, house cleaning, cooking, shopping—and as many mothers know in this economy—after a full day’s work in the marketplace, these tasks still await.

I was surprised to discover that the founder of Mother’s Day in the United States was right there with St. Paul as a “disturber of the peace.” The modern holiday of Mother’s Day was first celebrated in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother at St Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Her campaign to make “Mother’s Day” a recognized holiday in the United States began in 1905, the year her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Ann Jarvis had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides during the Civil War, and created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues. Anna Jarvis wanted to honor her mother by continuing the work she started and to set aside a day to honor all mothers, because she believed that they were “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world”. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day, held on the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday to honor mothers.

Although Jarvis was successful in founding Mother’s Day, she became resentful of the commercialization of the holiday. By the early 1920s, Hallmark Cards and other companies had started selling Mother’s Day cards. “Hallmark Holiday” is now used to describe a holiday that is perceived to exist primarily for commercial purposes, rather than to commemorate a traditionally or historically significant event. (We’ll talk about Christmas in December.) Jarvis believed that the companies had misinterpreted and exploited the idea of Mother’s Day, and that the emphasis of the holiday was on sentiment, not profit. As a result, she organized boycotts of Mother’s Day. Jarvis argued that people should appreciate and honor their mothers through handwritten letters expressing their love and gratitude, instead of buying gifts and pre-made cards. She protested at a candy makers’ convention in Philadelphia in 1923, and at a meeting of American War Mothers in 1925. By this time, carnations had become associated with Mother’s Day, and the selling of carnations by the American War Mothers to raise money angered Jarvis, who was arrested for disturbing the peace.

Anna Jarvis would be shocked to discover how far away from carnations and greeting cards we have come in the monetizing of Mother’s Day.

The farthest thing from my mind this morning is to try to make anyone feel badly about having spent some money to celebrate his or her mother. What I do want to encourage you to do is explore and name those forces, principalities, powers, economic systems that continuously try to re-enslave us, exploit our labor, demand our devotion, and leave us empty. Even after escaping from Egypt, many of the Israelites could still hear Pharaoh’s siren song calling them to return. Pharaoh’s name today is consumerism.

God’s answer to Pharaoh is two-fold. Have no other gods. Serve God/not money. And keep holy the Sabbath. Take a day off from the rat race. Worship the creator, tell your mom or other friends and relatives how much you love them and what they mean to you, plant a flower, make a card, play some music, and dance. For that’s what God’s people do when they are free. After emerging from the Red Sea, entering into freedom, Moses’ sister, Miriam, danced.

“Dance, dance, wherever you may be, I am the lord of the dance, said he. And I lead you all, wherever you may be. And I lead you all in the dance, said he.”