Jesus in the Age of the Selfie
A Sermon by Dave Skidmore
Preached at Universalist National Memorial Church
January 31, 2016
Good morning. My topic this morning is Jesus and narcissism. But before I get started — I know you all are waiting for my thoughts — I need to tweet a photo to my followers. They’d be disappointed if I didn’t. Now I need to send the tweet. What did you say your name is? Doesn’t matter. I’ll just say, “me and my liturgist.”
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As our little skit illustrated, we all love to laugh at narcissists – preening politicians, self-involved actors, vain and pompous newscasters, glittering celebrities more famous for being famous than for any accomplishment. In fiction – not so much in reality – they are somehow loveable despite being blithely unaware of their failings. Middle-aged and older people here this morning might remember the TV anchorman Ted Baxter in the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
It seems self-evident that we live in an age of narcissism. Donald Trump. The Kardashians. Millions of people who spend countless hours posting pictures of themselves – and their dinner – on Facebook and sending tweets about their every thought. But, to those prone to complain about “kids these days” I would point out that the parents of the Selfie-generation were dubbed the “Me Generation” – otherwise known as the Baby Boomers. It seems obvious that narcissism as a human character trait is not new. It is at least as old as the ancient Greek myth that gave it its name.
According to the American Psychological Association manual, a narcissist is someone who exhibits “an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity,” a “need for admiration or adulation,” and a “lack of empathy.” This morning, I am using the term “narcissism” much more broadly – not just as a term for a diagnosable mental condition but as a synonym for the more garden-variety qualities of self-centeredness and selfishness. In other words – qualities that most of us fall prey to from time to time. After all, most people who take a selfie or twitter a tweet (or is it tweet a twitter?) aren’t narcissists in the clinical sense. In the words of the cartoon character Pogo of the 1950s and ‘60s – “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
If you’ve ever had the experience of conversing with a toddler, you will realize that we all start life as little narcissists. If you spend any time at all with a 3 year-old, you will soon realize they are all about themselves. And they are kind of grandiose. After all, more 3-year-olds than adults sleep in Superman and Wonder Woman pajamas – or at least I hope so. But we grow out of our self-centeredness, albeit perhaps imperfectly. When my daughter was a little girl (she is 25 now) I would pick her up after school sometimes. I’d always ask her, “What did you do in school today?” and she would chat away. Then one day, when she was 6, a new thought occurred to her. When she was finished telling me about her day, she paused, and then asked, “What did you do at work today?” (Try explaining a day in a typical job in the Washington bureaucracy in terms understandable to a 6 year-old. “Well, sweetie, I talked on the telephone, I typed on my computer, I read things, and I sat in meetings.”) It sounds like we don’t do any real work! In any case, for my daughter, that question was a first step away from childish self-centeredness toward interest in someone else and the wider world. (By the way, she is a registered nurse now and I can’t think of any profession more caring and giving than nursing.)
Growing out of childish self-centeredness takes more than one step. It takes many steps, over the course of a lifetime. As an illustration, perhaps it might help to share why I chose this sermon topic and explain why I have long thought about the subject. My own epiphany about the pitfalls of obsessive, unbalanced self-focus came after I went through a divorce many (more than 20) years ago. As is not uncommon I guess, I kept to myself for a time, brooding about what I perceived as wrongs done to me and about my own failings. It was not productive self-reflection, at least not at first. But somehow I eventually realized that I needed to turn outward. Around that time, in a self-help book whose name escapes me, I read the Myth of Narcissus. It struck me then, as it does now.
Ovid’s telling of the myth suggests the consequences are dire when we fail to move beyond self-centeredness.
Narcissus was a youth of great beauty and a hunter. Many youths and many maidens sought his heart – but none ever touched it. He was cold and proud. A nymph named Echo saw him and fell in love. She had a peculiar quality. She could only repeat the last words she heard. One day, Narcissus is separated from his fellow hunters and calls, ‘Is anyone here?’ Echo replies, ‘Here!’ She emerges from the woods, but he runs from her and says, ‘May I die before I give you power over me.’ She repeats, ‘I give you power over me.’ He spurns her just has he spurned the others who sought his affection. She pines for him and wastes away and becomes nothing but a voice. One of the youths or maidens he scorned prays, ‘So may he himself love, and not gain the thing he loves.’ The goddess Nemesis hears the prayer. One day, while hunting, Narcissus grows thirsty and lies down by a clear pool of water to drink. And he is smitten by the beautiful form he sees, which is, of course, his own reflection. He is unable to tear himself away from his own reflection, even though he comes to realize it is himself. He starves and wastes away and, just before he dies, says to himself, ‘Farewell.’ Echo replies, ‘Farewell.’
The bleak truth the myth illustrates, I think, is that when we get too caught up in ourselves, find ourselves unable to empathize with or relate to others, we metaphorically waste away. We starve for lack of emotional and spiritual nourishment. What we experience is like a death.
Now I’d like to connect the Greek myth to our readings this morning and some other Bible passages. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That is in what is known as the Parable of the Good Shepherd. There are a lot of interpretations of that parable, but I cite it only to point out that Jesus asserts that he – or, to my mind, his teachings – offer “life … abundantly.” So what is the essence of Jesus’s life-giving teachings? They are summarized in our opening words this morning. When a lawyer asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is, he replies, “You shall love … God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” As many of you know, Jesus here is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible – a passage known as the Sh’ma. Observant Jews recite it twice daily – before bed and on rising. These words are that important! And, traditionally, they are written on a piece of parchment, a mezuzah, and enclosed in a small case and nailed to the doorpost – as a reminder. Marsha and I have one on our front door.
Jesus added a second commandment to the greatest and first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I find the juxtaposition telling. Loving God comes first; loving your neighbor comes second. Why should loving God be more important than loving your neighbor? God, after all, is all-powerful, all-knowing, and eternal. You would think God does not need our love. I don’t know about that – but I do know that we need to love God – if we are to be saved from our self-involvement. That’s why Jesus called it the first and greatest commandment. It is what breaks the bonds of our self-centeredness. Loving God – or, if you prefer a metaphor that isn’t anthropomorphic “embracing the universe or embracing life” – with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind is what makes fulfilling Jesus’s second commandment – loving our neighbors as ourselves – at least a possibility. Otherwise, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is just an unachievable admonition.
The story of the Great Commandment is in three of the gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. A reasonable follow-up question is, “Who is my neighbor.” The version in Luke addresses it with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Briefly, a man is beaten by robbers and left for dead. Two members of society’s elite – a priest and a Levite – pass him by. A Samaritan – a member of group who was looked down on by society – helps him. The parable’s point is that “neighbor” should be construed very broadly. Today, I think, Jesus would say your neighbors include not just people across the street or across town but also people fleeing war in the Middle East and violence in Central America.
So, our neighbors can be considered all of humankind. What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? What does it mean to turn away from selfishness? The gospels point to some answers – and some of them seem pretty scary. There are the Beatitudes that Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount – the meek shall inherit the earth, the kingdom of heaven is for the poor in spirit. Then there is the story about the young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor and “then come, follow me.”
So does that mean to have “life … abundantly” we must strive for the opposite of narcissism – that we must pursue self-abnegation? I don’t know about you, but I’m not so attracted to being meek and poor. Fortunately, Jesus admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself,” other passages in scripture, and the Myth of Narcissus itself, seem to say that self-abnegation is not at all the answer.
First, Jesus did not say, “Love your neighbor, not yourself.” In fact, if you parse the sentence, you must love yourself in order to love your neighbor “as yourself.” But neither did he say, “love your neighbor with all your heart, soul, and mind.” That kind of devotion is reserved for God. Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners they are the light of the world and he tells them to put their light on a lampstand and not to hide it under a bushel basket. Superficially, putting your light on a lamp stand sounds a little narcissistic.
I think Jesus here is warning against what some call “negative narcissism.” If positive narcissism is an exaggerated sense of self worth – “I’m the greatest!” – then negative narcissism is an exaggerated sense of worthlessness – that harshly critical voice in the back of your head. Either way, the focus is inward, on yourself, not outward, on God and your neighbor. The myth itself, in the figure of the nymph Echo, warns of the danger of giving away your power and your own authentic voice.
This morning’s reading from Jeremiah also warns us not to think too little of ourselves. I did not pick it especially for this sermon; it is one of the prescribed readings for this week in the lectionary – as is the love-is-patient reading from First Corinthians. (Or should I say, “One Corinthians.”) The Jeremiah reading is about God’s call to one of the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Jeremiah is the prophet who warned the people of Jerusalem about their idolatrous ways in the years before the Babylonians conquered the city and destroyed its temple. When God tells Jeremiah he had been appointed a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah does not reply, “Yes. I really am pretty special, aren’t I?” He replies, “I am only a boy.” But God tells him not to say that. And, as Jeremiah tells the story, God touched his mouth and said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” To me, this passage points to the fact that it is Jeremiah’s relationship with God that enables him put his light on a lamp stand rather than under a bushel basket.
There are other Bible passages that support the contention that loving God and loving our neighbors is not about self-abnegation. We are not supposed to become like Echo – giving up our voice, our agency in the world, our selfhood. There is the story about the woman who poured costly ointment on Jesus’s head. The disciples scold her and point out that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But, Jesus admonishes the disciples and tells them, “You always have the poor with you.” In Luke, the story of Mary and Martha comes immediately after the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus visits the two sisters. Martha busies herself with all the tasks one would expect are necessary when someone distinguished is visiting your house. Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and listens. Martha, aggrieved, complains to Jesus that she is doing all the work. But Jesus tells her that her sister Mary has “chosen the better part” – in other words Mary didn’t let herself get distracted by tasks; instead she took time to be spiritually nourished.
What about today’s well-known reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians? When I re-read it in preparation for this sermon, I saw passages that resonated with the Narcissus myth and also the balance between self and others that I think Jesus was speaking about when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It warns that neither self-aggrandizement nor self-abnegation are what love is about. Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” He adds, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
And Paul describes what love is and isn’t, powerfully and lyrically. It is patient and kind and rejoices in the truth. It is not envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful. It does not insist on its own way or rejoice in wrongdoing. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – and never ends.
It is no wonder that this is one of the most popular readings, if not the most popular, for weddings. But Paul is not writing here about romantic love – though his words certainly apply to romantic love at its best. He is writing about agape – the love of God and neighbor. The kind of love we are exhorted to in the Great Commandment.
Paul writes about love in the context of the journey we all are called to take as human beings. Throughout our lives, we are called to grow out of childish self-centeredness and into agape – to grow into love of God and love of neighbors. Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” And he writes, “for now we see in a mirror, dimly.” In other words, when our focus, like Narcissus, is on our own reflection, at best we see dimly. We do not see others and we do not even truly see ourselves. Only when we put an end to our childish ways do we turn away from the mirror and “see face to face.” Then, Paul declares, “I will know fully even as I have been fully known.”
The Narcissus myth is bleak and without hope. Neither Narcissus nor Echo can change their natures or escape their fate – oblivion. But Paul and Jesus offer hope and healing to those who, like Pogo, have come to realize that they have met the enemy and he is us. The answer: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind – and your neighbor as yourself.
I’d like to conclude by inviting you to think of a time, or even a moment, when you were in that space – and you could truly say you loved God (or, if you prefer, the universe or life). If you could connect more often to that larger force outside yourself, what would it mean for your relationships? To your family? To your friends? To your neighbors? To your co-workers? To strangers you encounter along the way? To people you will never meet? Let us think on that today.
Amen and may it be so.