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Sermon for January 5, 2020: Beanie Babies (The Rev. Kathy Trapani)

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

In the late 1960s, after a failed career as an actor, Ty Warner of LaGrange, Illinois went to work for the Dakin Toy Company. Whatever he may have lacked in acting ability, he made up for it in his ability to sell. At the time, Dakin was the world’s largest manufacturer of plush toys (aka stuffed animals), and Warner was its top sale representative. Some years later, Warner had an idea that would change the course of plush-toy history. At the time, most plush toys were filled with stiff, rigid cotton. Warner wondered about a toy filled with plastic pellets instead, which would make it much floppier and more life-like. He began selling some of his creations on the side, but when Dakin got wind of it they promptly fired him. So, Warner decided to start his own toy company. He called it Ty Inc. And his product, which he launched in 1993, was Beanie Babies. Beanie Babies were hand-sized plush toys filled with (you guessed it) beans (actually, plastic pellets), mostly in the form of different animals. Each one came with a name, a birthday, and an accompanying poem. They even had their own “personality traits.” Some of the first Beanie Babies included Spot the Dog, Squealer the Pig, and Patti the Platypus. These are Prickles the Hedgehog and Freckles the Spotted Leopard. For the record, Warner’s competitors initially told Warner that his toys would never make it. “Everyone called them roadkill,” he later said. “They didn’t get it.”

What they did not know, however, was Ty Warner was a genius marketer and market manipulator. He priced Beanie Babies at $5.00 so that kids could buy them with their own money. But he only sold them to small gift shops and specialty stores and limited the number they could purchase, which gave them an air of exclusivity despite their low price. The strategy also created shortages, which drove up demand and also created a secondary collectors’ market. Then, in 1995, Warner began “retiring” certain Beanie Babies unannounced, which added to the frenzy surrounding them. At a market in Connecticut, for example, fanatical collectors trampled children in order to get their hands on the retired tie-die “Garcia” bear. By 1996, parents were paying $10 to $20 for beanie babies that originally sold for $5, and collectors were paying hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Eventually, however, the bubble burst. Collectors realized that Beanie Babies were not as rare a commodity as they thought (far from it, actually) so they panicked and took to eBay. Selling whatever they had for whatever they could, they flooded and ultimately collapsed the market. And those who thought Beanie Babies were their road to riches were left with nothing more than some very cute toys.

As the parent of a then-eight-year-old daughter, I remember the Beanie Baby craze very well. My daughter loved Beanie Babies! Over time, she acquired dozens of them. But my daughter did not love them because they were in short supply or were collectors’ items or because she thought they might make her rich. She loved them because (1) they were soft, (2) they were cuddly, (3) they were very cute and (4) they were babies.

Let’s face it. There is something undeniably irresistible about babies – even those of other species. Kittens, puppies, goats, elephants – even baby Yoda of Disney’s The Mandalorian, with its big head and pointy ears is all the rage right now. People find him incredibly adorable. Have you ever wondered why? It turns out there is actually a term for it – kindchenschema, or “baby schema”: infants of many mammal species have a set of features such as a disproportionately large head and eyes that we humans are innately drawn to. According to several studies we react toward those features the way we do because we are hard-wired to want to take care of and protect babies which, evolutionarily speaking, increases their chances for survival. “It is our natural parental instinct to protect or at least feel connected to babies,” says Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist. “This automatic, nurturing… response is hard-wired, keeps us connected to our young, and is generalized to the young of other species.”

The problem, as we all know, is that cuteness doesn’t last. Babies grow up. And the adult versions are not nearly as appealing. Lots of people love kittens, for example, but want nothing to do with cats. Baby Easter chicks grow up into noisy chickens. Piglets are pretty cute. Full grown pigs not so much. You get the idea. All babies grow up – even the baby Jesus. You may hear parents of older children say that, when it comes to being a parent, the days are long but the years are short. I wonder sometimes whether Mary is the one who said it first. It has been only twelve days since we oohed and cooed at the manger when we met the baby Jesus, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes, with shepherds and angels all around. Is it any wonder that people poured into churches at Christmas to catch a glimpse of that scene? What’s not to love? He is soft, he is cuddly, he is cute, and he’s a baby. We are hard-wired to be drawn to him.

But in the blink of an eye, Jesus is twelve. He is growing up. Our Gospel story marks the end of Luke’s infancy narrative which began, as you may recall, in the Temple in Jerusalem with Zechariah, the priest and father of John the Baptist. Luke’s is the only story in the canonical gospels about Jesus’ life between his infancy and the beginning of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and John are completely silent on his boyhood. But Luke gives us a transition story. Jesus is not quite an adult, but he is definitely not a baby anymore.

We last saw the Holy Family when Jesus was eight days old. In accordance with the Law of Moses his parents had presented him at the Temple, where they met Anna and Simeon. Then, having accomplished everything that was required of them they returned to Nazareth where, as Luke puts it, “the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Now, they are in Jerusalem for Passover. When the festival is over, they return by caravan to Nazareth. But after a day’s journey Joseph and Mary realize that Jesus is not with them. And, unable to find him among their friends and relatives they go back to Jerusalem to search.

After three days Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. “Child,” Mary says, “why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” “Child.” In Mary’s eyes, that is what Jesus is – a child, a baby. But Jesus knows, as soon will the rest of the world, that he is so much more than that. “Why were you searching for me,” Jesus asks his mother. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” An alternate, and perhaps better translation is, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Jesus understands his purpose even if Mary does not yet – to do the work of God the Father. He is growing into the adult Jesus that God calls him to be, not the Jesus Mary and Joseph might want or expect him to be. But, to borrow from Ty Warner, “they didn’t get it.” Nor will most of the people around him.

The challenge, of course, is that because Jesus is about the Father’s business he was, and is, to most people, far less appealing. The prophet Isaiah describes it this way: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others…” (Isaiah 53:2-3).

No, the adult Jesus on God’s mission is not cute. Neither is the business of God that he was sent to accomplish. It is no wonder that the world will set out to destroy him. They just won’t get it. And why is he so unappealing? It’s not just his looks. It is what he says and does. He challenges the religious and political authorities. He assaults economic, religious and social barriers. He crosses boundaries and subverts conventional wisdom. He asks people to give up what they own and give it to the poor. He says things like “love your enemies,” and does things like turn over the tables of the money changers in the Temple. He teaches hard lessons, demands obedience, and hangs out with all the wrong people. As Mary once sang of him, he scatters the proud, casts down the mighty, and sends the rich away empty. He heals lepers and forgives sinners. He is not what people are expecting or hoping or looking for in a messiah — especially those who are insiders, powerful, wealthy, or comfortable.

But do you know what people really disliked about the adult Jesus? He claimed that there was no scarcity of God’s love. There was no shortage of God’s grace. There was no boundary on God’s kingdom. God wasn’t “retiring” anything in order to create a demand for it. God was not limiting salvation to just the boutiques and specialty shops. Everyone was included. So, for those who thought that their living the “right” way, or believing the right thing, or belonging to the right religion were their road to spiritual riches, everything came crashing down. Because God had flooded the world with love and forgiveness and salvation and grace. It was everywhere and it was for everyone. Sadly, some people, many people, still don’t get this. They don’t want Jesus to grow up. They adore the baby Jesus but the adult Jesus, not so much. But what Luke has given us here is not just a story about Jesus growing up. It is about Mary and Joseph and you and me growing up – into a more adult, more mature, more truthful understanding of who Jesus is and what he is about. And when we contemplate who Jesus is, let us not forget that he is human. Because as a human Jesus is hard-wired to be drawn to people who cannot help or save themselves – in other words, the likes of us. Whatever we look like, whatever we do, however pointy our ears or big our head, he finds us absolutely, irresistibly adorable. And that is very good news!

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