The Reverend Luther Zeigler
August 28, 2016 – 15C Pentecost
Many people will tell you that one of the most thought-provoking commencement addresses ever given was delivered by the late novelist David Foster Wallace in 2005 at Kenyon College. Wallace began his address with a little parable: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
“The immediate point of the fish story,” as Wallace explains, “is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see” because they are so close to us and so taken-for-granted. For fish, that reality may well be water. For human beings, that reality, Wallace argues, is egocentrism, or the fact that all of our experience of the world is filtered through the lens of “the self,” which often gives us a distorted sense of our own importance and of what really matters.
The basic biological and theological truth is that human beings are hard-wired, at some fundamentally subconscious level, to look out for ourselves, to promote our own interests, to view the world from our particular perspective. In Wallace’s arrestingly frank language: “While most of us would never admit it in public, my deepest belief is that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting. . . . Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, and real.”
When we are around infants and toddlers, we see this egocentrism in all its unvarnished glory. A one-year-old is concerned only about his or her own desires and wants and needs, and views others merely as instruments for getting what he or she wants. As St. Augustine in his Confessions memorably observed: Witness “the actions of a child who begs tearfully for objects that would harm him if given, gets into a tantrum when his parents will not comply with his whims, and tries to hurt many people who know better by hitting out at them as hard as his strength allows, simply because they will not immediately fall in with his wishes or obey his commands, which would of course damage him if carried out.”
We forgive these tendencies in a child, of course, saying that infants do not yet know any better, and this wisdom is grounded in the truths of developmental psychology, which teach us that an awareness of others and the capacity to see beyond one’s own agency is something that takes time and learning to develop in a person. And as we mature, we are taught the basics of playing nicely with others: we learn (or so we like to think) not to be selfish, to be considerate of others, to see another’s point of view, and so on.
But both Wallace and Augustine (if for different reasons) would insist that polite, social manners of this sort, while a step in the right direction, seriously underestimate the insidious and relentless power of egocentrism, the subconscious drive to put me and my interests first. Even as adults, most of us have a hard time consistently ridding ourselves of selfishness. We don’t like to admit it, but we more often than not revert, usually without even being aware of it, to a basic self-centeredness in the choices we make. Its as if we’re in the grip of a power that is always putting our self in the center.
Christians, of course, identify this power as sin, and classically, the particular sin of egocentrism is hubris or pride. And, of the seven deadly sins, pride is at the foundation of human brokenness. As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity: "Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison to pride: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind." Or, in a more secular voice, Benjamin Franklin once put it this way: "In reality there is, perhaps no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive and will every now and then peep out and show itself; and even when I imagine that I have completely overcome it, it turns out I’m just proud of my humility.”
In a nutshell: the classical Christian view is that “pride goeth before the Fall.” Meaning: left to our own devices, human beings have an inevitable tendency to revert to a focus on our selves, to overestimate our own importance, even sometimes thinking we can be like God, having dominion and power over our destinies; and, such thinking almost always leads to our undoing.
Which brings us to today’s gospel teaching, two little stories about banquets. In the human realm, Jesus observes, guests at a banquet always seem to be clamoring for the seats of honor, to sit at the head table, in a place of prominence. That is because the impulse that organizes the human banquet is pride, the urgent need of the self to be seen and heard and fed. By contrast, the divine banquet is organized not by pride, but by humility, a relentless need to ensure that everyone is invited to the table, an impulse to make room for the other, even if that means giving up one’s own seat. With human banquets, there is a constant anxiety around scarcity, a worry that the food and wine will run out, that inevitably leads us to want to exclude the other so that we can keep what is ours. In the divine banquet, there is a confidence in the abundance of God’s gifts that liberates us from worrying about our own needs so that we might lift up others and share what we have.
The paradox in all this, of course, is that it is only through humbling our selves, by setting our own interests aside, that we experience the grace of God’s abundance. Our truest self, it turns out, is the self that serves the other, not the self that insists that it must be served. Or, as Jesus puts it, the governing rule at the divine banquet table is: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In a very basic sense, the mystery of the Incarnation revolves around this paradox. In Jesus Christ, God became one of us in order to reveal a completely different way of being human: a humanity grounded in humility rather than pride. God in Christ became a self that gives as opposed to a self that grabs. And among the gifts that God gave us is the freedom to choose which of these selves we want to be: the giving self or the grabbing self.
In one of the most recognized lines in all of literature, Shakespeare’s Hamlet famously soliloquized: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The longer I live, and the more I study and pray on Jesus’ life, however, the more I’m convinced that the real question for our lives is a little different: to give or to grab, that is the question. And if we are to follow Jesus, there is but one answer to that question.
Let me close by paraphrasing David Foster Wallace, who, though not a Christian, nevertheless had sound theological instincts when he concluded his commencement speech with this advice to Kenyon’s graduating class:
You can, if you want, Wallace told these young people, choose to operate on the default setting of egocentrism, and the world will not discourage this, because “the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom for many: The freedom to be lords of our own tiny kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom is alluring indeed.
“But, of course,” Wallace continued, “there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, it involves being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad small and unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” And although Wallace didn’t say it, he could have added: That is the freedom of living the life of Christ. Amen.