Monday, January 9, 2023



Matthew 3:13-17

Epiphany 1 / Year A

I went to the outlet mall in Williamsburg on Monday, something I seem to do once or twice a year.  Typically, I only go into a handful of stores.  If you pay attention to what I wear you can easily surmise one of them is the Columbia store.  I went hoping to purchase a hat to wear while hiking because I inadvertently left my old cap in a park in Spain.  Don’t ask.  Sadly, they didn’t have the style I was looking for.

They did have lots of t-shirts and sweatshirts with their company logo on them.  Some are relatively discrete; others are large enough potentially to violate local zoning laws for public advertising.  Who would want to pay good money to become a walking billboard?  Columbia is not the only company which pushes its branding so brazenly.  In fact, most do. 

When I was growing up most clothes contained no visible branding.  I can think of only two: Levis had the little red tag on the side of a rear pocket and Izod had a small crocodile on the front of its shirt.  Each made a statement you had spent a little more money for something of higher quality and/or status.

Back in the day logic dictated our purchases.  We made our decisions based on price and features.  We went for toothpaste with a cavity-fighting additive, for sneakers that could make you run faster and jump higher, and for watches that could take a licking and keep on ticking. 

Retail has changed a lot since then largely because companies have figured out something important, namely, we are spiritual creatures who crave meaning and identity.  Branding is all about infusing a product with both.  It is all about communicating and clearly defining what makes a company, product, or experience distinct and memorable from others.

Years ago, Bishop Lee of the Diocese of Virginia told us he had been contacted by Buick because they had learned from a focus group people associated the same positive traits with their car that they associated with an Episcopal bishop.  Buick wanted to know if he would appear in an ad campaign.  After some thought, he declined.

We consumers tend to be loyal to the brands we choose in part because we identify with the product.  Are you PC or Apple?  Starbucks or Duncan Donuts coffee?  Chick-fil-a or McDonalds?  Bud Lite or Stella Artois?  Wal-Mart or Target?  Ruby Tuesdays or Ruth Chris?  It says something about me that I peruse Columbia and Eddie Bauer stores, but walk right past Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic, and Lucky Jeans.

Chris Grindem, on a blogsite about branding, contends every person is spiritual and draws on this aspect of self to make a wide range of life and purchase decisions.  He also contends individual brands have spirituality which, if advanced, can help consumers connect with the product.  We tend to make spiritual decisions quickly and subconsciously, he says, and they are manifested either as a “Yes” to something or as a “No”.  

After my marriage ended I came to a point where I didn’t want to drive a minivan anymore and traded it in for a pick-up truck.  My “No” to one and “Yes to another had little to with the functionality of transportation.  It was based almost entirely on how I felt about myself and where I was in life.  I wanted my car to reflect this and to reinforce it.

If brand identification is a spiritual endeavor, how do you know when it has crossed over into idolatry; “I cannot be who I am without X”?

The Christian faith tells us the meaning of our lives and our identities are grounded and rooted in our baptisms.  We rise from the water claimed and named as God’s child.  Like Jesus, we are called “Beloved.”  Like Jesus, with us God is pleased.  If asked “Who are you?”, our deepest and most appropriate response should be, “I am beloved and God is pleased with me.”  When all of the products we have purchased have lost their value to us or worn away, God’s love for us will endure beyond all else.

At each baptism I use the chrism oil to trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  This liturgical act is a type of branding and although it cannot be seen with the human eye after the fact, it should be the brand we wear most obvious to everyone we know and meet. 

The writer Evelyn Underhill observed how we humans spend most of our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do.  Our existence, she says, is caught up in craving, clutching, and fussing about things material, political, social, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  We are kept, she says, in a state perpetual unrest.  Underhill writes, “None of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be: and that being, not wanting, having, and doing, is the essence of the spiritual life.”

Underhill is on to something deceptively simple but greatly profound about our identity in God’s eyes: It is not what we want, what we have, or what we do that defines us.  It is who we are and who we are is defined first, foremost, and always by God.  We are God’s children, beloved, and pleasing.  Hearing this, accepting this, and learning this – what Underhill calls “being” – is at the heart of the spiritual life. 

After pondering all of this for a week, I have come to conclude I am not called to wag my finger at brand loyalty.  It is a part of who we are and how we live and move and have our being.  I will caution it can morph into excess.  Some people actually become evangelists for a particular brand; what the bible calls idolatry.  What I am called to lift up is an awareness of our baptismal identity and its meaning for our lives.  You are beloved.  You are pleasing to God.  You are marked.  And you are sealed.