[Worship Note: We had a fantastic Sunday morning! The worship service included three Beatles songs by our church rock band: "And I Love Her," "Can't Buy Me Love," and "All My Loving." I was especially excited that two members of our youth group formed the rhythm section of the rock band. As if that wasn't enough, David K., our immensely talented Jazz pianist played a gorgeous rendition of "My Funny Valentine."]
“I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.”
On this Valentine’s Day it is not at all fitting, actually, to begin my sermon about love by introducing two abstract concepts, one from theology and the other from introductory physics. Bear with me.
The first concept I want to introduce is the concept of voluntary and involuntary associations. This idea was developed by James Luther Adams, the most important Unitarian theologian of the 20th Century. Adams wrote that all of our relationships are based either in freedom and choice, our voluntary associations, or that they are based in circumstances largely beyond our control and our choosing, our involuntary associations.
To make the distinction between voluntary and involuntary associations clear, I am going to invite you to open up your wallet. (Relax. It isn’t time for the offertory yet.) If your wallet is at all like mine, it may include: A drivers license, a credit card, a gym membership card, a student ID, a “rewards” card from this store or another, a membership to Costco or Sam’s or the ACLU or the Sierra Club, a library card, a punch card from a coffee shop. All of these things speak to our voluntary associations. You can cancel your credit card or your gym membership with a simple phone call. You can toss out your CVS card. You can stop going to the coffee shop. You can choose not renew your membership with the ACLU.
Some of our associations are voluntary but speak to a stronger connection. Without running afoul of the law you could voluntarily give up your drivers license by moving to another state but that is a lot harder than cancelling your gym membership. Other associations are involuntary. You didn’t choose your nationality or your race, your nationality, your sexual orientation, or your gender. Those are involuntary.
I think we can improve on James Luther Adams’ concept of voluntary and involuntary associations by turning to a second concept. In physics there is an idea known as escape velocity. Escape velocity refers to the speed at which an object of a certain mass needs to move to escape the gravitational pull of a second object that keeps the first in its orbit. I can jump as high as I can but gravity still brings me back down to earth. But, if I jumped with tremendous force I could sail off into space. To imagine escape velocity, think of a space shuttle launch and the size of those booster rockets that are needed to send an object into space. Then imagine a moon landing and how you don’t need a giant booster rocket to leave the moon. The escape velocity of the Earth is much larger than the escape velocity of the moon, just as we might say that the escape velocity of being a United States citizen is much greater than the escape velocity of being a member of 24-Hour Fitness.
Trust me, this is going somewhere. But before I get to love I want to talk to you for just a short amount of time about economics. What caused Borders and Barnes & Noble to put a lot of independent book stores out of business? And what caused Amazon.com to hurt the bottom line of Borders and Barnes & Noble? Why have Lowe’s and Home Depot put thousands of independent hardware stores out of business? Why did Blockbuster kill the mom and pop video store and why is Netflix putting Blockbuster out of business and why is video-on-demand posing a threat to Netflix?
In attempting to answer these questions you could offer a number of business responses. You could say that the reason is competition on price, better selection, or greater convenience for the customer. And, if you responded in this way, you would be only partially correct.
The answer I would give is escape velocity. Let me explain what I mean by that. Out of all of the voluntary associations we have, our voluntary relationships as consumers and as customers have the lowest escape velocities. Case in point, a few years ago one of the cell phone service providers launched an advertising campaign which insisted that the advantage of their service was that you wouldn’t have to sign a contract. The message was: The best part of our service is that you can stop using it at any time.
One natural trajectory of this sermon would be to stay on this path and talk about ethical consumption, about the moral dimension of what we buy and how we spend money. When I wrote the paragraph that mentioned Home Depot I immediately recalled a song by folk singer named David Wilcox. In this song he sings,
You go first to that age-old place,Rather than talk only about our identities as consumers, I instead want to talk about situations where holding the identity of a consumer is detrimental. I want to say that our identities as consumers lead us into voluntary associations that have the lowest escape velocity of any of our relationships. Fifteen minutes or less can save you hundreds on car insurance, but this attitude and this approach would be profoundly wrong to apply to other areas of our lives.
To that old wooden door that you have to close behind you
To the wide-board wooden floor, worn down soft
To the real thing, a good advice, quality at a fair price
I’m sure there’s stuff you’ll have to find at Paty’s, Lowe’s, or Sears,
But go to East Asheville Hardware
Go to East Asheville Hardware before it disappears.
If you want to have a lousy Valentine’s Day, here is one way that is sure to work. Sit down with your loved one and tell that person, “Honey, we need to make some changes in our service-delivery agreement. I’ve been out getting other bids and I need you to match what they are offering.”
You don’t look at your children and ask whether they are competing on price as compared to your neighbors’ children. You don’t upgrade your family dog to the newest model every two years. You don’t upgrade your wife or your husband to the newest model every two years.
Partnering, parenting, friendship—these are all voluntary associations, voluntary relationships. But, they are relationships where the behaviors and attitudes that we demonstrate as consumers are extremely inappropriate. I promised myself that I would never use Tiger Woods as a sermon illustration, but now I am going to break that promise. Shortly after the Tiger Woods scandal broke there was a news report that lawyers from both sides were renegotiating the prenuptial agreement between Tiger and Elin. If you have enough money lots of things are for sale, but even then you can’t buy love. You can’t buy love.
And, if you can’t buy love, one wonders what else is not for sale. Or, to turn the question slightly: if acting like a consumer is harmful in our family relationships, what other relationships are harmed by the consumer mentality?
Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to argue that acting like a consumer is a bad thing. There are plenty of times when we ought to act like a consumer… like when we go to the store. Everybody here consumes. It is a part of who we are. There is nothing wrong with that. But, I would argue that our humanity is lessened when our identity as a consumer starts to define who we are when we are not at the store. Our humanity is diminished when our consumer identity creeps and seeps into other parts of our being. Our humanity is cheapened when we act like consumers within the context of a relationship where we have no business (no pun intended) acting like a consumer.
Last month I had a conversation with one of the leaders of our church and we briefly discussed this idea. I brought up the subject of education. After all, at many prestigious private colleges and universities tuition, room, and board can run as much a $50,000 each year. In our conversation we did decide that a consumer approach was not entirely misguided. After all, students do have a right to insist that their professors are competent in their respective fields. But, there is also a difference between being a student and being a customer. In the classroom the customer is not always right.
If money were no obstacle, you could purchase individual tutoring from Nobel Prize laureates, but you can’t buy intelligence.
You can buy books, but not wisdom.
You can buy art, but not taste.
Compassion is not for sale. Empathy cannot be bought. Understanding cannot be purchased.
And, with regard to religion, you can travel to the great religious places on earth, to the Holy Land, Rome, Athens, Nepal and the Taj Mahal. You can visit Notre Dame and St. Paul’s Cathedral and Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia and not profit from those travels spiritually or theologically.
So, we have established that there are times when having the attitude of a consumer is helpful and that there are times when having the attitude of a consumer is detrimental. We have established that the same attitude you bring into negotiations with a car salesperson may not be very helpful in a discussion with your romantic partner.
So, I ask you this question: Is it ever helpful to approach the church with the attitude of a consumer? Should you ever think of yourself as a customer here? I cannot answer that question definitively, but I am hard-pressed to think of even a single instance in which it is helpful. I can, however, think of many instances where it is harmful and destructive.
Let me make a couple of things clear. A church is a voluntary association. We are all here because we have freely chosen to be here. Religiously speaking, Congress has made no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof. But remember, not all voluntary associations are created equally. Marriage is a voluntary association. Joining the cheese of the month club is a voluntary association. One carries a bit more gravitas than the other. It is very, very easy to join and leave the cheese of the month club. Joining a church is not a marriage, but it certainly is not the cheese of the month club. In fact, one Unitarian Universalist church in the Midwest chooses to interpret membership using the analogy of marriage. They tell their members that membership is, in fact, “till death do us part.”
Part of me thinks that this is a bit overly grandiose, but I don’t reject it completely. Our relationships that we have as consumers have the lowest escape velocities of any of our relationships. But, committed relationships require that we abide with discomfort and disappointment at times. It is natural and it is a part of growth. With a partner or a spouse we talk about “for richer and poorer, good times and bad, in sickness and in health.” Every relationship has high points and hardship. Healthy relationships have the capacity to persevere through difficulty. Their “escape velocity” is not small.
Last week I talked about the movements of consolation and desolation in our spiritual lives. Church doesn’t always make us feel good, nor should it. The authentic religious life contains moments immeasurably sublime and moments that are painful and uncomfortable. Church is a place where we face the pain of the world. Church is a place where we take a fearless moral inventory and dare to take an unflinching look at ourselves, to own up to our imperfections, to admit our mistakes, and to confess our failings. It is not easy but it is good for us. Of course, there are also the times when we celebrate our joys, feel the spirit move, laugh heartily, embrace, and grow in kinship. The times for rejoicing, celebrating, fellowshipping, and smiling until our faces hurt can even outweigh the more challenging parts, but both are necessary.
We are not in the instant gratification business because that gratification turns out to be awfully cheap. There are dry spells and challenging times and the consumer mentality is not helpful during those times. At church, as in the classroom, the customer is not always right. This is not to say that I am always right. I am frequently wrong. It is to say that being wrong or being right has nothing do with being a consumer or a customer.
There are a myriad of ways in which the consumer model completely fails to account for what happens in our church community. A few weeks ago I received a communication from someone who had been involved here a long time ago. This person has come to church functions perhaps a half-dozen times over the last 15 years. This person wanted to make a pledge. It was a pledge of $100 per month to start but it would increase after a few months. This person wasn’t interested in attending or participating in our programs. The person just wanted us to be here and to do good work in the world. I have to confess that in an ideal world I would want for this person to come every Sunday and take part in our programming. I told this person that our door was always open. But the point I want to make is that there is no real business model that accounts for this person’s gift. Love does account for it.
As a church we are about those things that cannot be bought. Haggling over price and trying to get the best deal is antithetical to what we are about. We are not in the business of instant gratification. Real growth only happens through discipline, learning, and building relationships. We talk about generosity because there is no way to put a price on the church, and trying to put a price on what we do together is impossible.
Love cannot be bought. Haggling over a price and trying to get the best deal is antithetical to what love is about. Love is not about instant gratification. We grow in love by practicing love, by learning about our beloved, and by working over years to build the relationship. Love makes us generous because there is no way to put a price on love.