January 8, 2012
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Leanne Walt
Bill and I recently spent some time with a good friend who has two young daughters. Apparently his oldest, who is now 2 ½ is going through the “Mine!” stage. She regularly declares sole and primary ownership over all toys, cupcakes, and even refrigerator magnets in the house and she has taken to hiding some of these items, which she declares to be, “Mine!” in her crib. Even this year’s Christmas card from her grandmother was not safe from the jurisdiction of her “Mine!” Though intended for the entire family, the card was addressed to her and so she took this as a clear indication that this was HER Christmas card - so began her collection of Christmas cards in the far corner of her crib.
My 1 ½ year old nephew is also in the throes of the “Mine!” phase. He is inclined to yell, “Mine!” quite loudly at anyone who picks up his favorite toy football or stuffed Elmo doll, reminding them that he is the rightful, private owner of these playtime enrichments.
The “Mine!” phase is nothing unusual. If you have kids, they probably went through a similar stage, and if they are now grown, hopefully it did prove just to be a passing phase and they no longer take Christmas cards or ornaments to bed with them.
In fact this behavior is so common in children that there is a famous scene in the children’s movie Finding Nemo that is known for its “Mine!”s. In this scene Nemo’s father, a small and beloved clownfish finds himself stranded on a dry dock in the hot sun after being mistakenly swallowed by a pelican. Fortunately, the pelican is quite friendly and tries to help him search for his missing son, Nemo. The bad news is that there on the dock are hundreds of seagulls hovering around wanting to eat this little clownfish. All at once, the seagulls begin swarming him, each one declaring, “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!” The fish barely escapes by jumping into the mouth of the friendly pelican and this ends up being one of the funniest scenes in the movie.
I recently watched a documentary film entitled I Am, by Hollywood movie director Tom Shadyac that explores the phenomenon of the “Mine!”s. Yet, in the film the subject is not approached as an amusing childhood phase, but as a more pervasive and deeply troubling social reality in the U.S.
After making millions directing and producing hit Hollywood films like Ace Ventura, The Nutty Professor, Liar, Liar, and Patch Adams, Tom Shadyac had a terrible bike accident that caused him to seriously reevaluate not only his life, but society more generally. As he faced the possible end of his life, he began to ask himself, “If I am indeed going to die, what do I want to say before I go?” And he began to think about The Inconvenient Truth of the environment, the war in Iraq, poverty, and all of the other ills that plague our country. And he began to wonder if these aren’t the real problems after all, but rather causes of a poison lurking underneath the surface of American society.
So he began a journey around the world with a small film crew to interview religious leaders, historians, and academics asking the questions, “What’s wrong with our world?” and “What can we do about it?”
What he found was that our society functions in a certain way based on the understanding and acceptance of scientific claims, namely Darwin’s emphasis on competition as a means to human survival and the idea that we occupy a reliable and well-behaved universe where separate objects operate separately in time and space. The picture that has emerged from science is that human beings are made out of material stuff and that we work in mechanistic ways. Believing in the laws of competition and scarcity, we operate as self-interested and singular individuals, needing to be significant at someone else’s expense. We establish layers of separation between ourselves and others - the more stuff we have the better, the more layers to protect the stuff we have the better. The more wealth we have the happier we are.
Yet, through his conversations with philosophical, spiritual, and scientific leaders, all evidence began to paint this reality as a lie and instead pointed to an entirely different truth: that our basic nature is not to dominate, but to cooperate; that we actually function better in a state of empathy, compassion, and love, than we do in a state of dominance and competition. As it turns out, when Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, he used the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” only two times and the word “love,” 95 times.
In the documentary, Tom goes to see his father who was one of the founders of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, an organization that provides free cancer treatment for children and families, even for those without health insurance. St. Jude’s is truly an exercise in loving both your neighbor and your enemy, as patients receive treatment regardless of religion, ethnicity, political views, and socio-economic class. So, Tom approaches his father as someone who understands and has lived humanity’s greater call to compassion and service and he sits with him and asks him if he believes that it’s possible for society to live and operate in cooperation with rather than competition with one another.
His father answers by telling him, “There is a church out here that I go to every Sunday and I cry because there is so much love in that church for an hour and a half. Then, people go outside and get into their cars and they drive away. There are blacks, Hispanics, and white people in that church and they give each other the kiss of peace inside, but would they do that in the supermarket, on the street corner? Probably not,” he concludes. Because there is this pervasive perception that, ultimately, we are all separate from one another.
Yet, Tom and others he interviews continue to work to undermine this misperception throughout the rest of the film by suggesting that maybe we can look at achieving a profitability in our lives other than that measured by the financial economy and our place in it. And that maybe we can do this by changing the fundamental question that we ask from, “What do I get out of this?” to, “How am I adding value to my community?”
This film got me thinking about how difficult it is for us as Christians to live out the gospel in a culture that preaches separation and competition, in a culture that teaches us from the time we are toddlers to declare ownership over those things that threaten to be shared by others.
But, it also made me think about how much power we hold as Christians to break down the barriers of separation between members of God’s creation.
In our Wednesday evening Prayer Study, we have been talking quite a bit about how a prayer calls us to action, about how a Christian meditative, contemplative life is not a passive endeavor, but it is one that invites action. And, what’s more, that this action ought to be directed to serving the needs of others, working toward healing and fostering greater love, forgiveness, and peace, in this world because we believe that God is manifest in this world – working within, among, and between us.
When recently asked what is the most important meditation that we can do right now, the Dali Lama responded, “Critical thinking followed by action.” Discern how your gifts might benefit the world and you will discover deep contentment.
The magi saw the same power to herald in a new world and social order through epiphany – or the manifestation of God-in-Christ in the world – and they heard the call to perceive and participate in the glorious work of God. In response to the birth of the Christ child the three wise men ask, “What gifts can I bring?” They did not journey to Bethlehem and approach the manger proclaiming, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” They did not come to lay claim to the Messiah or to steal him away in the dark of the night. They came bearing gifts.
Whether it’s our time, money, or talent, you could say that giving is the beginning of an adventure. It involves a lowering of the guard to let the power of relationship have its way.
The magi respond to God’s initiative of grace by giving – a bold and countercultural gesture as much in their day as it is in ours. For the magi, this surely marked the beginning of an adventure. After they offer their gifts to the Christ child, the magi return home by another road. Perhaps it was a combination of meeting the Christ child and offering their gifts that directed them to change their direction or perhaps they were simply scared of the world’s Herod’s breathing down their back if they were to return home by the same road. Either way, the Christ child, epiphany – the manifestation of God in the world – caused these three wise men to change their direction.
The scene with the flock of seagulls preying on the small, helpless fish in Finding Nemo is so funny because it is so true. But maybe we ought to view it as more disturbing than humorous as we begin to see a little bit of the seagull in ourselves - not behavior that we naturally possess, but constructed and fostered by society - our need to declare ownership over what’s ours and our tendency to separate ourselves from others through individual achievements and private property.
But the truth is, the most important gift we can receive does not belong to you or to me or to my neighbor with the fancy car or to the Hollywood socialites living in the Hills of Beverly. The most important gift we can receive is epiphany – the manifestation of God in the world. And Christ does not belong just to you or to me or to the haves or to the have-nots, but Christ belongs to each one of us. Epiphany – the manifestation of God in the world – is not for us to claim as our own but to share with the world through bearing our gifts for the good and sake of others.
God’s manifest presence in the world calls us to think critically about the world and how we might best share our gifts. The economy of Jesus’ gospel calls us to ask, “How can we add value to our community?” Through talking to our enemies, loving our neighbor, inspiring our youth, eliminating poverty, trying peace, including everyone. Praying. So that we can be a people who herald in the new Jerusalem, who boldly receive Isaiah’s proclamation to, “Arise, shine; for our light has come” long after we leave this place for on Sunday mornings (Isaiah 60:1).
Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 199