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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Coca-Cola and Christ

Texts:  Jeremiah 23.1-6; Luke 1.68-79; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43

Today is the festival of Christ the King.  It is the last Sunday, and the last word, of the Christian year.  It serves to remind us that, in the end, God will be sovereign over all things. The English mystic, Julian of Norwich, captured the essence of that affirmation when she said, 'all will be well and all things shall be well'.  Now . . .  if you pause to reflect for a moment, you'll realise how laughably audacious that message appears to be.  In the middle of economic meltdown, wars and rumours of wars, in the middle of horrific poverty and environmental crisis . . . 'all shall be well and all things shall be well'?

Please, tell me if I'm wrong, but I would have thought that it was not God who was directing the fate of the world, but multi-national corporations like Coca-cola.  And I'm being absolutely serious here.  The Coca-cola Company is amongst the most powerful forces in the world today.  It owns and controls more subsidiary food and drink companies than any other.  It employs more people and has a greater cash-flow than many governments.  But what is more significant is the power Coca-cola has over people's hearts and minds.  You see, Coke was the first to create not just a product, but a need.  None of us actually need Coca-cola.  It's a sugary soft-drink with almost no nutritional value at all.  But if you go into the poorest village of India and ask people what you can do for them on a hot day, they are more than likely to ask for a Coke.  Before Coke came along, industries would create products to fulfil the needs of already-existing markets.  But with Coke, something quite new came into being.  Through the power of advertising, Coke actually began to produce the markets themselves.  To create needs that weren't there before.  The need for a sugary cola drink.  A tailor-made product to fulfil a tailor-made need.

Coca-cola's advertising is very, very effective.  It is omniscient.  It is everywhere.  If you're a young person these days, it's almost impossible to feel like you're having a good time unless you have a coke in hand.  Coke is the symbol of youthfulness and vitality.  It's also the symbol of western freedom.  I can do anything I want.  I can be anything that I want.  The Coca-cola market-researchers are very, very clever.  In the last few years they have even tried to tap into the renewed interest in things spiritual.  They present Coke as the pathway into other worlds, the elixir of the gods which can keep you forever young and deliver you from the boredom and tedium of everyday life.  With Coke, life can be an adventure with mystery and intrigue.

The Coca-cola company has used its power very subtly.  But the effects are devastating.  The people of Mexico City are very poor.  They have difficulty finding the money to buy enough food to maintain a good standard of health.  Yet they drink more Coca-cola than the whole of Australia put together.  Why?  Because they have been brainwashed by advertising.  I might be hungry, but if I'm drinking Coke, things can't be too bad.  Note, also, that the Coke company has a rather appalling record when it comes to labour policy.  Most of its operations these days are in the two-thirds world.  Impoverished workers are paid pittance to produce the sugary stuff.  They are hired and fired at will, with little or no compensation or redundancy measures in place.  Workers will therefore do pretty much anything for the company in order to keep their jobs.  Consider, too, that the Coke Company  is a large contributor to the environmental crisis that we now find ourselves in.  Huge tracts of rainforest have been removed, in some of the world's poorest countries, to make way for sugar plantations which supply the Coke juggernaut.  Clearing the forests has led to climate change, an extreme shortage of both land and firewood for subsistence farmers, water shortages, and the kind of landslides that regularly occur in places where land-clearing has become extreme.

Add to all that the capacity of Coca-cola to silence its western critics.  Not by the crude means you can get away with in the two-thirds world.  But by throwing around the sponsorship dollar.  An example.  The United Methodist Church in the United States, a church whose rhetoric for social justice is very impressive, tends not to say anything about Coca-cola because Coke contributes a very large sum of money to the running of one of its principal seminary at Emory University in Atlanta.  Now, if the church can be so easily pacified, governments even more so.

In a world run by companies like Coca-cola, where is the sovereignty of God.  How can all things be well, when the world is so obviously coming to grief?  Well, the very same questions were being asked on a hill outside Jerusalem, a little over 2000 years ago.  There, on a Roman cross, hung the man many had hoped would turn things around for the Jewish people.  He had been hailed as the Messiah, the chosen one of God, who would rescue the people from domination and poverty at the hands of the Roman invaders.  But now that particular dream lay in tatters.  There he hung, between earth and heaven, bleeding from the nails in his hands and the scourge of the whip.  Where was God at this moment?  Where was the power of God?  Why didn't God come down from heaven and nuke all those whom had put Jesus up there?  Why didn't God take back the world from the powers of darkness by mounting a counter-invasion?  Why didn't God make things right?

The words of Jesus on the cross give some clues as to why God didn't, and why God doesn't, do such things.  When the soldiers nail him there, Jesus says 'Father, forgive them.  They don't know what they're doing'.   God, you see, is not in the habit of forcing people to do what they are not inclined to do.  God is the maker of that most treasured of human qualities - freedom.  The capacity to do good, or to do evil.  The capacity to love or to hate.  The capacity to create good things, or to destroy.  The trouble with freedom is that all things can very easily come to grief.  And they did for Jesus.  When God created human freedom, God knew that God himself would eventually be caught up in what human beings do.  That God would eventually be nailed to a cross.  But he did it anyway.  And he did it out of love.  Out of love, God is willing to submit to our freedom.  Out of love, God is willing to forgive, and to suffer the consequences of our foolishness.  Out of love, God is crucified with the poor of India, and the disappeared of Pinochet's Chile, and the murdered priests of El Salvador.  And, out of love, God is willing to forgive them all.

You see, the power of God to be sovereign in the world is very different to that of Coca-cola or any of the other multinational powerbrokers.  And it is different to the power currently being wielded by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania over other councils of the church.  God's reign of peace will come, not as a result of forceful or manipulative practices, but by the subtle and pervasive power of love.  The power of passive resistance.  The power of martyrdom and of prayer.  Christ himself is the trail-blazer in this regard.  He loved the poor.  He healed the sick.  He was a veritable presence of God for the little ones of his time.  And when he was crucified, he did not remain that way.  Somehow he rose to new life.  Not life as it had been, life in the shadow of death.  But life in all its fullness.  Life lived in the peace and communion of God.  The rumour of God, then, has never been put down.  It remains the strongest power in the world.  It whispers in the ears of political leaders.  It challenges the bullying practices of companies like Coca-cola and the Uniting Church.  It beckons to us each time we come to the place of dread, when we realise that life according to the vision of the advertisers is not all its cracked up to be.  One day, we believe, the rumour will cease to be a rumour.  That which has whispered in our hearts will be proclaimed from the rooftops.  Everyone will know that Jesus is the king.  And his glory will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.

This homily was recently adapted from a sermon first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in 1998.

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