One day, when I was walking over by the canal, I noticed a handful of people looking up into the sky,
They were oohing and aahing.
A huge Bald Eagle flying in low circles above them.
Bald Eagles are magnificent creatures! Of course, for Americans, Bald Eagles are more of a symbol than an actual bird, so when you have a close encounter with one you feel oddly privileged – as if you have had a brush, not only with a very big bird of prey, but also with a certain kind of flying majesty – a stern manly, pride-on-the-wing.
When I walked up, I noticed that one guy – an old timer I’d seen around here and there – wasn’t looking at the Eagle at all. Following his gaze I caught a glimpse of a dark shadow just under the surface of the water.
“It’s a cormorant,” the old man said to me. “That guy” he indicated the Bald Eagle with a flick of his head “is playing a waiting game. Eventually the cormorant will get tired, and then, he’ll come in for the kill.”
I remember thinking: this is what lunchtime looks like for a Bald Eagle. They can’t go to the kitchen and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There is no Supermarket for Bald Eagles. In order to just exist as a living thing in the world, this Bald Eagle was obliged to enact an elaborate dance of life and death. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The cormorant would eventually tire out and reluctantly succumb to the other, more powerful bird’s overwhelming demand to live.
Of course it is absurd to think of a Bald Eagle or a fox, or a deer or a porcupine going to get food in a grocery store.
The only context for such a silly idea is in Saturday morning cartoons or illustrated children’s books.
This may be the first time in history that the idea has been considered from a pulpit!
But the sheer absurdity of a possum or a grass snake trying to negotiate the shelves of a grocery store, drive home, use a can opener, or heat something up on a stove top – the utter silly-ness of these flights of fancy can clue us into a basic and important fact about our lives that we forget, even though it is right in front of us.
We forget this – that all the things that make up human life – things, like grocery stores, hot dogs, electricity, cast iron skillets, automobiles, suspension bridges, chicken coops and phillips-head screwdrivers – all of these things and ten billion others – are things that we humans have added to the world for our own benefit.
While we can rightly congratulate ourselves for being astonishingly ingenious creatures who just keep coming up with cool stuff (like the accessory I recently got for my grill that is half spatula and half tongs!), we make a mistake when we live our lives with the smug assumption that the way we have made things is actually the way things are.
It is not.
Creation did not spring into being complete with cans of spaghetti-o’s stocked on the shelves (only 1.79 for a 22 oz can for a limited time).
There is nothing in our genetic make-up that requires us to hold a thirty-year fixed mortgage.
If cars didn’t exist, we could still get from place to place, it would just take longer.
If cat litter didn’t exist, cats, I regret to say, would still poop.
Wild animals remind us that if civilization ceased to exist tomorrow, we humans could, theoretically at least, still survive.
It would be hard, and you and I probably wouldn’t last long – but humanity itself would probably adapt and survive because we’re pretty smart, we have wits, opposable thumbs, and the things that we really need – food, water and shelter – actually are part of the way things are.
Food, water, shelter… and…
God gave us all that we need to survive.
All the rest of it – depending on how you look at it – is either stuff, or icing.
And yet we all, inevitably, find ourselves ensnared in the confusing made-up details that prop up our made-up lives in this made-up world.
Our economy – the complex system that we depend upon to provide goods and services – requires us to keep spending money so that it – the economy – remains viable. We willingly comply, calling ourselves consumers, which, in a functional way, is exactly what we are reduced to – creatures that perpetually consume almost for its own sake. It does not matter so much what is true, or good. Our beliefs. Our spirit. Our religion. None of this matters that much, unless it can be packaged, marketed and consumed.
It doesn’t take genius to figure out that all of this does not bode well for our spiritual well being.
But at the same time I can imagine that some of you are raising objections…
Is Reverend Mark suggesting that we all go back to the stone age?
I’m pretty confident that asking us all to go back to the stone age would not go over well – and it would certainly be counter-productive right now, during pledge season.
That said, I do think it’s important – necessary in the era of climate crisis – that we find our way, as people of faith, to see beyond our own noses – to cultivate a way of life that is not hemmed in by the assumptions of the world that we have constructed… a life that is truly open to the possibility of divine mystery.
In the passage from the Epistle to the Phillipians that Carol read for us this morning, the apostle Paul offers some helpful advice. One cannot help but wonder if Paul foresaw the barrage of fakeness we endure in 2023, when he said:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Can you imagine what would happen to our economy if the American people actually took this advice?
Our culture practically insists that we do everything for selfish ambition and conceit. Why? Because selfish ambition and conceit is profitable!
Humility is not marketable. Neither is the suggestion that we “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This is not the kind of ad copy you see on facebook or in high-gloss magazines.
It doesn’t sell well.
And that, of course, is precisely why Paul suggested it. Humility is not about being shy.
It’s not about putting yourself down.
It’s about being able to see, recognize, and avoid the distractions of vanity.
If Saint Paul were alive today, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk would be doing their best to shut him up because his beliefs – formative, early Christian beliefs – sought to undermine the motivations that are at the very core of what has become the global capitalist economy.
And Paul does not stop there.
He goes on to say:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
- Imitate Jesus. This is a familiar sentiment in the New Testament. But what was Christ Jesus’ mind like, and how do we imitate it?
Paul tells us.
He tells us in one of the most beautiful, powerful, and influential passages in all of the Epistles:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
To have the same mind as Christ Jesus, Paul says, is to empty yourself.
There is no perfume you can buy, no pilates DVD, no fancy car, no investment property. None of these things will help you to imitate the mind of Christ Jesus
Because Jesus did not consume.
He emptied himself.
Paul tells us that Christ Jesus knowingly allowed his divine nature to be clothed in human form. And not just human form, but the most degraded human form that, ultimately, died the inglorious death of a criminal. This, according to Paul, is the ultimate act of humility.
The word for “empty” in Ancient Greek was “Kenos.” The word Kenosis – which meant “to empty oneself” became a theological strain of Christianity that grew out of this passage from Phillipians.
To be like Christ Jesus, was to “empty oneself.”
This act of Kenosis or “emptying oneself” became a spiritual practice in which a person purged their worldly attachments in order to make their soul ready to accept God.
There is a strong mystical side to all of this, right? It is a monumental act of faith to surrender oneself entirely so that one’s outward form, like the silhouette of the dove on the cover of this morning’s bulletin, would be recognizable, but it would become a vessel to be filled entirely with the Divine.
I come away from all this with an awareness that the pursuit of material wealth – the compulsion to define oneself by what one owns is the path that leads to spiritual dissatisfaction. In this morning’s passage, our religion affirms that at some point in our crazy lives, the core assertion – what we bring to God – must not be what we have, but who we are.
There is evidence aplenty, from all religions, of people who have chosen this path – this leap into the unknown, this movement away from the “to have” world into the “to be” world.
It is not an easy path.
As we move through our lives, let us try to see beyond our own noses.
Let us try to see the world, not as we have made it, but how it is.
Can we empty ourselves, that we may be filled with God’s love.
We may not ever fully succeed, but the attempt will certainly bring us closer to our friend Jesus.