Homily: Watering The Desert Of Meaning

2017 April 9
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

There’s some speculation that Pepsi had the apology written in advance. This is the apology for the ad a few days ago in which the images of today’s resistance movement are used to sell Pepsi – millennial multicultural people marching together with peace signs, artists, musicians, a Muslim woman in a headscarf – these images used to sell Pepsi. It’s the apology for the ad in which a white model heroically breaks the tension between protestors and a line of police by approaching alone and handing an officer a can of Pepsi – making a mockery of the now famous image of a black protester Ieshia (eye-EE-sha) Evans approaching a line of riot police at a Black Lives Matter protest and extending her arms to be handcuffed. Pepsi blandly apologized for “missing the mark.”


But they didn’t miss the mark. The ad has been viewed over a million times. They posted the ad, pulled the ad, and issued their apology within one day. This was a strategy designed to enhance Pepsi’s brand by appropriating something full of meaning, something meaningful – something that stands in opposition to corporate power, something gritty and real, something human and spiritual and important. And they not only appropriated it, they subverted it. They forced it into the service of values precisely the opposite of its own. This is a classic, time-honored capitalist tradition – resistance gets absorbed, repackaged, and sold back to people. Instantly whenever new meaning is made, it gets monetized. And that, in turn, kills the meaning. This has been going on since the time of Jesus.


Jesus kicks off his big day arriving in Jerusalem with an act of economic terrorism in protest of exactly this kind of subversion of meaning. The very first thing he does there on the day that we’re celebrating as Palm Sunday is go straight to the temple – the heart of Jewish ritual and prayer life. And the text says, “Then Jesus … drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple” (so he actually forcibly kicked people out – the customers too), “and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”


The money-changers were guys who would sit at a little booth in the courtyard of the temple and exchange people’s lowly foreign currency for the Hebrew shekel, which was the currency of the wealthy in Jerusalem. They would charge a steep fee for the exchange and they would also collect a tax for the maintenance of the opulence of the temple. Poor peasants would come from far away as a kind of a pilgrimage to make a ritual sacrifice and pray there. And they basically had no choice if they were going to do the ritual they had come to do. It was pay to play. Pay to pray. They had to buy an animal – like a dove – to sacrifice, and they could only pay for it with the Hebrew shekel and so they had to go to this guy – like a loan shark – and pay up to get the appropriate currency.


The glittery gold of the temple and the fine robes of the priests and the incense and pageantry was all thriving while the peasants were essentially being robbed because they were poor and because they were foreign, hence Jesus railing that the temple had become a “den of thieves.” What was the temple supposed to be instead? Jesus says, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer.’” Where is this written? What is this? It’s written in the book of Isaiah, a Hebrew prophet who lived about 700 years before Jesus. It’s part of a teaching that is downright universalist – Isaiah is saying that even those who are not of the Hebrew people, even foreigners, if they love God and do good, they’ll receive all the same blessings as the sons and daughters of Israel. The end of the passage is: “Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on my altar. For my house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” The temple was meant to be a multicultural space.


What Jesus saw with clear eyes when he approached the temple that day was that by penalizing poor people from foreign regions, the religious authorities were not only ignoring what the temple was supposed to be in Jewish tradition, they were subverting it. In the name of wealth, they were producing an exact inversion of the temple’s meaning. The engine of a market-driven system appropriates and draws into itself the meaning of any institution, initiative, or movement. We see it in that Pepsi ad just like in that temple in Jerusalem. What we are left with is a world that is very busy and very full – full of stuff, products, choices, screens, advertisements and product placements everywhere, brands and images, trinkets, loud and sleepless and relentless noise — a very full world, but a desert of meaning. This is the path that we are on today, in this society. As meaning has been destabilized, our culture is losing its grasp on values outside of market values. All you have to do is read the news to see that it’s true. Everything is for sale.


As a religious community, one of our prime missions – like that of Jesus – is to protect our sources of meaning from the incursion of the marketplace. We need to create spaces that can be safe from subversion. We have to refuse to indenture the sacred to the service of capitalism. How do we do this? How do we regain our equilibrium? How do we hang onto discernment so we can tell the difference between real and not real, meaningful and meaningless? I think the answer to that question has to do with why people come to a religious service like this one. Within the rhythm of the liturgy, we find internal space from the din. We get to clear our heads with handshakes and hugs, we light candles. We slow down and listen to music, like today’s music that feels like it’s from another dimension. [Place Pepsi can on lectern.] We perhaps even find words of comfort and meaning from the pulpit. [People boo. Remove Pepsi can.] “I apologize.” And, for that hour, we wall off anything that might otherwise assault our senses and inject its self-serving meaning into things we hold sacred.


I’d like to suggest that we find other ways too, to step out of the torrent of information fighting for our attention. Find mini-sabbaths from the urgency of our devices, from consuming news and advertisements, let our senses rest, let them wander, let ourselves get bored and not fill every second – it’s so important. Let the dust of our day settle and let ourselves reset the meaning of our lives, our purpose, our intention. And if we do this with some consistency and discipline, we’ll find that we become more able to tell the difference when something we love is coopted. We’ll find that we tolerate it less. And we’ll find that where we’ve created space in our lives, meaning rushes in. It irrigates the arid places in our souls. It waters the desert of meaning in our society. And new flowers bloom.


Please join me in listening to Salve Regina by Arvo Part. We’re going to dim the lights again to make it easier to slow down, breathe, and let it in.

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