Sermon by Rev. Sarah Goettsch on July 14-15, 2018
From the summer of 1971 through the autumn of 1972, TV newscasts must have seemed unrelenting: millions marching to stop the Vietnam war, prisoners attacked at Attica, the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers, the Manson and Serpico and My Lai trials, guns in Munich, bombs in D.C., and British troops in Derry. Pain and hatred and misery. Where was the harmony, where was the hope? Hope and harmony were beamed into living rooms around the world in the form of TV commercials for Coca-Cola.
The particular ad in 1971 begins with a blonde woman, eyes clear blue, lip-syncing a strange lyric, “I’d like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love.” There is an even weirder second line, about growing apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtledoves, but remember this is 1971, so.
The camera pans across rows of young singers smiling with the rising sun—Spanish, Swedish, Nigerian, Nepalese, dressed in a dashiki, a kimono, a dirndl, a Nehru, a turtleneck. Together they lip-sync, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Each holds a green glass hobble skirt bottle in their right hand, one branded in English script, the next in Arabic, another in Thai. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” they sing, “and keep it company.” The camera pulls up to an aerial view, revealing 200 singers aligned on a green hillside like an open fan, a youth chorus of the world.
“It’s the real thing,” they sing in unity.
The commercial, first aired on July 8, 1971, had been conceptualized an executive who had been searching for a way to rebrand Coke. He wanted “a big basic idea—one that would involve the entire United States market for Coca-Cola,” everyone regardless of race, color, class, or creed. Imagine–in a season of racial division, imperialist deception, and capitalist malaise, the whole world gathered upon a hill sharing a Coke.
My middle son, Jacob, who has a particular love for relics from the past, found this piece of Coca Cola memorabilia at a flea market a few years ago; as you can see, it’s a miniature fridge, which sings/shouts this Coca Cola jingle “It’s the real thing” at you if you open the door or actually so much as jostle it slightly. While at first it was nostalgic and endearing, calling me back to my first memories of Coca Cola commercials, it quickly grew annoying as this particular item is sensitive to movement, that with the slightest bump breaks into song. The boys also delight in sneaking up behind me, opening the door of the little refrigerator so that the jingle blasts into my ears, causing irritated (my word) and amusing (their word) outbursts on my behalf.
There is, however, something about this jingle that hooks you, which is why it’s a jingle. It’s the real thing, Coca Cola, and that seems to be the case for this soft drink which has stood the test of time since the late 19th century, 1886 to be exact. Other soft drinks have come and gone, but Cola Cola remains one of the oldest soft drinks in the world, second only to Dr. Pepper which was invented one year earlier in 1885. Let me be clear, this is not an advertisement or product endorsement, since I never drink soda, rather it is a metaphor, an illustration, if you will, of a thing that we all recognize that makes the claim that it is the real thing. I’m also willing to wager, those of you of a particular age who remember this jingle will find yourselves humming it throughout the remainder of the day–you’re welcome.
The world appears to have changed little since the famous Coca Cola jingle. Swap out names and places, and we discover the same current sense of unrest, disillusionment and agitation. Instead of millions protesting the war in Vietnam, an estimated 7 million people marched on January 21, 2017, protesting the election of Donald Trump and advocating for legislation and policies regarding human rights, women’s rights, immigration reform, healthcare reform, reproductive rights, the natural environment, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, freedom of religion, and workers’ rights. Instead of Watergate, we have the Russian scandal regarding the 2016 election. Instead of terrorism at the Olympics, we have the pervasive threat of terrorism in our streets, movie theaters, airplanes. Instead of the My Lai massacre, we have routine massacres in our schools. Instead of prison riots, we witness the construction of for-profit detention centers, rampant immigration raids on factories and workplaces, the insane ripping apart of children from their parents and an unconstitutional bias against Muslim populated countries, all in the name of patriotism. With a president that attempts to–and in many cases succeeds in–legitimizing these things, among others, we too are wondering where the “real thing” is. What is the “real thing?” And what postures as the “real thing” but is, in the end, a fake?
One can draw an easy parallel between the Herod of long ago mentioned in today’s Gospel and our own country’s version of Herod in the White House today. Herods of this type come and go throughout history, and they share some similarities. Perhaps the most striking similarity is that their obsession with their own human power. Long ago, Herod became intoxicated by his own power and incorrectly concluded that he could silence the word of God if he silenced the mouthpieces of the word of God, in this case, the prophet John. So, a slight backstory. John the Baptist, cousin to Jesus, calls Herod out in today’s Gospel, because Herod has married his sister-in-law Herodias after she divorces his brother Philip. Herod knows he’s done a bad thing, and isn’t above listening to John, because deep down in his gut he knows John is the real thing and that John speaks the truth and that John is a man of God. But then, Herod has a birthday party, and his daughter Salome dances for him and pleases him, which is open to all sorts of creepy biblical interpretation, and Herod finally tells his daughter Salome she can have whatever she wants, just name it. Salome conspires with her mother, who has always resented John, and returns to her father with her demand. “I want John the baptizer’s head on a platter.” And Herod makes good on his promise; John is beheaded in prison and his head is presented to Herodias and Salome on a platter.
So Herod would have been better off had be been a man who thought with his gut, which warned him that John was a godly truth-teller. He would have been better off had he thought with his brain, which warned him against beheading an honored prophet of the people he was attempting to govern. But Herod, like some of our elected leaders today, is not thinking with his gut, or his mind. He is thinking with a less honorable appendage that has gotten men in trouble since David first laid eyes on Bathsheba, i.e. the Stormy Daniels scandal in our time. Surely, Herod must have thought, “Well, at least with John gone, there won’t be anyone to agitate my guilty conscience.”
The thing that Herod didn’t consider is that, although you can easily silence the mouthpieces of God, you can never silence the power of God; God’s power will be made known, despite human efforts to silence it. History shows us this over and over. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor who opposed Adolf Hitler in the second world war, even going to far as to participate in an assassination attempt on the fuhrer’s life, and was hung for it. Oscar Romero was a priest in the Catholic Church in El Salvador and fourth Archbishop in San Salvador. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations, and torture. In 1980, Romero was assassinated by an extreme-right wing death squad while offering mass in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence. Martin Luther King, Jr., American baptist minister and civil rights activist, was assassinated on April 4, 1968, because of his message of nonviolence and civil disobedience. These were all the real thing–rather, they were all mouthpieces of the real thing, they were all heralds of a Gospel message that will not die even if the people do.
The thing about God is that God is the real thing, that persistent–sometimes annoying–voice that will not die, even if people come and go. God is not hindered by human power as manifested in gross displays of executive orders; God is not encumbered by human flexing of muscle. God is more concerned with divine power as expressed in grace, in how we treat one another and this planet, which translates into agencies and people that seek the good for all, especially the vulnerable and weak and marginalized. We know that the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project and JustChurch’s partnership with them is God-pleasing, because this work does not seek to prop up a crown; but rather it seeks to free those unjustly imprisoned, see Isaiah 51, Psalm 102. People and organizations that seek out the ones Jesus sought out point to the real thing.
Our challenge is not to mistake a fake for the real thing. Fake power is easy to recognize–it seeks to divide and destroy; it is insecure and self-serving. True power seeks to heal and harmonize; it lifts up the lowly and lives on the margins. True power, God’s power, cannot be silenced even though God’s people are killed or imprisoned. God’s power pulses throughout the ages and across the continents, it pulses through you and me, since the dawn of time, into our own desperate age, for real grace to break upon us. It is that Coca Cola fridge, which, once that door is opened and once is has been slightly nudged, does not cease in its refrain of “It’s the real thing.” May we be brave agents of that power, who persistently nudge and jostle till God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. Presidents come and go. Churches wax and wane. Prophets are born and prophets are killed. Kingdoms rise and fall. But God’s kingdom, God’s power, does not fade, does not diminish, does not decline, will not be silenced. God’s word of grace is the real thing, and will resonate across the universe when everything else has ceased to be, when God finally absorbs all creation–all races, colors, classes, creeds and orientations–into Godself in one final and eternal act of love. God’s boundless and persistent and endless love for all people is, finally, the only real thing.