Archive for March, 2011

A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

9 March 2011

     Yesterday, Starbucks rolled out their new logo – which looks a great deal like their old logo, only without the words “Starbucks Coffee” encircling the mermaid.
     I can’t say I like it. I rather preferred to the old one. I actually rather preferred the one they changed in 1992 when they removed the nipples from the mermaid. I don’t know who they thought those nipples would offend; they certainly never offended me.
     The new logo is larger than the old one, and it is still green … thank God for that.
     The introduction of the new logo coincides with the 40th anniversary of the opening of the first Starbucks store at Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. It also coincides with the introduction of two new products: cocoa cappuccino and some miniature desserts called Starbucks Petites.
     I sent e-mail to Howard Schultz, the CEO, to tell him what I thought. I’m certain he will be captivated. And I expect a response any moment now.
     Starbucks grew from a single store in 1971 to a world-wide empire in the 80s and 90s. Schultz was CEO from 1987 to 2000. The company nearly lost it in 2007 and the board brought Howard Schultz back to revitalize the brand. Howard closed hundreds of under-performing stores to cut costs and implemented changes such as offering customized drinks, free Wi-Fi access and a customer rewards program (such as the gold card which I carry in my wallet).
     And it worked. Starbucks’ profits for 2010 were double their profits for 2009. The Wall Street Journal asked him how he did and he said he went back to basics.
     That is to say, Schultz emphasized those qualities which allowed Starbucks to grow so phenomenally in the past: a good produce, community responsibility, attention to the customer experience, fair treatment (and retention) of employees.
     Certainly not everyone agrees as to just what those basics which prompted Starbucks’ success really are. If Howard thinks it was the logo, I straightened him out on that score.

     Going back to the basics has a certain appeal to everyone.
     In the 1970s, there was a movement in the United States to take public education back to the basics. The “new” emphasis was thought to be on reading, writing and arithmetic. This was thought to be necessary when people discovered that high school graduates could not read, could not write and could not balance a checkbook.
     But not everyone agreed as to what those basics ought to be. Bruce McMenomy probably thought they ought to include the study of classical Greek and Latin. Christe probably thought greater emphasis on science would make a lot of sense. I was teaching college freshmen in the early 70s and I thought that greater high school emphasis on grammar and spelling was warranted.
     There was another parallel movement going on in the 70s which had to do with living.
There were a lot of people, young people in particular, who thought that life had become too complex and that living in “voluntary simplicity” was probably better. A simpler, more self-sufficient, less mass-produced lifestyle was the goal. We read Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine and the Mother Earth News. We grew our own food, preserved a lot of that, raised our own animals, sometimes even built our own shelter. The idea was to get back to the basics.
     Except not everybody agreed on what those basics were and that, in part, is what caused the movement to peter out … that and things like going to law school, becoming an accountant or a stock broker, or a physician.
     Even the Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century can be seen, from a certain perspective, as being an attempt by many in the Church to get back to the basics.
     There was much discussion, for over a hundred years, of “the Church of the New Testament” to which many people wanted to return. The problem with this kind of thinking is that there is not one homogenized uniform church depicted in the New Testament but rather many, with lots of variety.
     Anything a reformer didn’t like about the modern church was declared to an accretion, an after thought, a bolt-on after-market accessory which needed to be stripped away.
     But Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans couldn’t get anywhere near an agreement on what the basics were. Which is why the Reformation failed to produce one new reformed church and produced several hundred, instead.

     The problem with all of the “back to the basics” movements – whether in brewing and vending expensive coffee, or teaching children what they need to know, or living a successful and satisfying life, or reorganizing the church – the problem with all of these is that even people who agree that there ought to be reform can’t seem to agree as to what the basics are to which they ought to return. Bummer!

     So, here we are tonight, standing on the front porch of Lent, peering inside, and perhaps wondering how we’re going to keep this one holy.
     We could always give up chocolate, or alcohol, or cigars but what if there is a better, more profitable approach? What if this year we observed Lent by getting back to the basics? This seems a stellar idea, if only we could agree on what they are.
     And perhaps Holy Mother Church will tell us, which would save a great deal of study, puzzling and debate.
     According to the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a holy Lent includes self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditation on God’s word. Before you sign on, notice that this seemingly adequate list does not include going to church, nor paying your pledge, nor feeding the hungry, nor being part of a Christian community.
     The Catechism in the 1979 Prayer Book makes up for these lapses in the Ash Wednesday liturgy by suggesting that holy living includes bearing witness to Christ, working for reconciliation among people, and being involved in the life, worship and governance of the church. But before you adopt this list as a pledge, note that it doesn’t mention private prayer, nor Bible study nor sacrificial giving.
     The old Offices of Instruction in the 1928 American Prayer Book answered the question “What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church?” by saying “My bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.” That’s not bad at all, maybe better than either of the 1979 models, but it still leaves out a lot which I would want in my list and maybe it leaves out some stuff which you think ought to be in yours.
     Here is a proposal for how to keep a holy Lent this year: spend the next forty days figuring out the basics. This seems a worthy and potentially rewarding endeavour. I’m not suggesting a snap judgment in which you reel off the first few things that come into your head. I am suggesting that you think seriously about what it means to be a Christian, how one goes about that, and how you could do it better.
     This homework will not be graded. Nobody is going to be compelled to share their list of basics nor will be compare one person’s set with another and pronounce which is the best. This strikes me as the kind of pursuit which God loves and which God enjoys fulfilling.
     But be careful! If you do this seriously, if you make this your Lenten discipline for 2011, you may have to actually change something about yourself. Getting closer to God often works like that; it is part of the basics.