BREAKING FREE FROM OUR “ME”-CENTRIC PRISON

Buckle up. We’re going to talk about some difficult stuff this morning. But I’m going to give away the ending. There is hope, there is a better world waiting if we will come together and commit to it. Our choice.

I’d like to start with an image.

Possibly the strongest prison there is comes without bars or walls, let alone windows. It’s a “me-centric” prison. My world. And everything in it revolves around … me. Happily, there isn’t a prison anywhere that’s escape-proof. But this is a tough one, made all the tougher to escape from because far too often we don’t even recognize that it’s there.

I’m reminded of a movie. It’s called “The Truman Show.” And escape was never possible for Truman until finally, to his shock, he realized he’d been in a prison, an artificial world centered around him his entire life without ever knowing it.

We’ve talked here before about the high cost of cheap. But I’ve come to realize that one reason it is so very difficult to discuss and deal with the subject is that the perceived need to get things cheaply is but one symptom of a much larger issue. And that issue is how we build ourselves, and how indeed our world encourages us to build ourselves me-centric prisons, place ourselves inside and throw away the key.

It is divide and conquer at its simplest and perhaps most profound. If I concentrate on me, I lose all track of you, and of us. I believe that if we can’t as a culture at least begin to address how we have imprisoned ourselves, we will never be able to address how completely the pursuit of “me” and the pursuit of cheap has eaten away at who we are – devoured us spiritually and literally. So this morning I hope at least to begin to put language to that, and urge us all to broaden the discussion … to friends, family, anyone we dare!

A “me-centrism” is something that our culture not only encourages us to embrace but indeed nurtures within us. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Me. All that matters is “Did I win?” And what am I winning? More … and at the lowest possible price.

Consumerism, in all its naked glory, is a powerful and unrelenting force. It is how we end up celebrating Martin Luther King Day by shopping sales! This call to “me” has, I think, far too often overwhelmed the Christian call to love, the Jewish call to justice, the Muslim call to generosity, the Buddhist call to release ourselves from attachment, among so many other calls from so many spiritual leaders to think outside our self-made prisons of “me.”

A world-view of “me” is indeed a prison!

As I struggled to find the words for this morning, I realized that I have been fighting this battle almost my entire life, without ever truly understanding it. In my early teens I stopped celebrating my own birthday. I have not celebrated it since.

Let’s be honest here. That was a rather foolish and unnecessary line in the sand. I have happily and joyfully celebrated the birthdays of friends. They have been wonderful and happy occasions. I see nothing wrong with them. Yet for me, to celebrate my own birthday was somehow to tacitly give in to the “me-centrism” that it felt like the world was trying to push down my throat. To say no to celebrating my birthday was my way of rejecting the “me-centric” world.

In my “maturity,” I believe there are far more constructive and meaningful ways to engage and overcome “me-centrism.” The first, I think, is, as we were advised in the book “All the President’s Men”: to follow the money. Who is making a buck by telling me “You deserve a break today.”? It’s not me, it’s McDonalds. Who is making a buck by telling me, “You deserve a new car, new clothes, a better house, the latest gadget.”? Or most recently, a casino whose ad proclaims, “It’s all about you.” Oh really? I don’t think so. I think that if we are to live the spiritual lives we say we are all called to, it can’t be all about me. So what do we do?

There’s a saying I’ve shared here before that every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want. And the truth of it is, from the time we’re children we are told to vote for ourselves.

One of the most respected consumer magazines, Consumer Reports, is in point of fact a prime example. When we are thinking of buying something, Consumer Reports tells us how well made it is. It will tell us which one’s cheaper. Indeed, Consumer Reports prides itself on labelling which items are the “best buy.” Isn’t that what we need to know? Isn’t that what we want to know? What’s the best buy?

But best buy for whom? Best buy for me! What else is important?

Not asking for hands! This is a metaphorical question, but how many of us consider the history of what we are buying when we vote for ourselves with our dollars? – when we buy a new lamp, or a book, or a new shirt?

History? Yes, history. As I look at a new shirt and like it, do I ask the question, “Was the person who made this shirt I’m about to buy paid a living wage?” Not unless I shop with intent. And if the only way I can get a cheap shirt is from sweatshop labor, or stores that pay their employees so poorly that they have to get food stamps, maybe … just maybe the price of that cheap shirt is too high. If an employer truly can’t afford to pay a decent minimum wage to produce his or her product, maybe the cost of cheap is too high. Maybe I need to shop elsewhere.

As another example, over the past year, the cost of gas has gone way down. And with the plunge in gas prices has come an increase in the sale of cars that don’t get great gas mileage – but they’re so much more powerful! And gas is now so much cheaper! But with climate change, maybe the cost of cheap is too high.

A personal example of wanting to consider history. I’ve only recently discovered the high cost of cheap eggs. We’re now talking about just the past few months! I’d grown up on cheap eggs. I’ve eaten cheap eggs all my life. Eggs are cheap source of high quality protein, right? And several years ago I felt better about it because by paying just a little more I could get what are called “free range” eggs. Trader Joe’s has them. Free Range organic eggs, and just three bucks a dozen. But the truth of it is that chickens have become widgets. I have discovered that “free range” is in fact today a meaningless term. I still like eggs. But today my eggs cost me three to four times what they used to. Between nine and eleven dollars a dozen. For eggs! It’s for what are now called “certified humane” eggs from pastured, not pasteurized, but pastured hens. Hens that freely walk around in the open and actually have a life. Yes, even eggs have a history.

But good grief! Nine to eleven dollars a dozen. For eggs? But you have to ask … well, actually no you don’t have to ask and that’s the thing … but I’m asking: why are eggs from hens that have a life so much more expensive? And it’s not because the farmers are planning to retire soon in the Bahamas. Rather it’s that treating chickens like widgets is so very much cheaper. This is just one example of how animals have become a part of our assembly line food manufacturing. Henry Ford would be proud. I’m not. For me, the cost of cheap is just too high.

So, what in the world are we voting for with our dollar? And one thing to remember is that we are not only voting with every dollar we spend on today’s world, we are also voting for what sort of world our children and their children will live in. And if you’re childless, as I am, you are still voting for what kind of world your friends’ and neighbors’ children will live in.

How will we treat our fellow human beings? How will we treat life that isn’t human? How will we deal with climate change and our environment? These are the sorts of questions that arise as we break free of me-centrism.

As an Interfaither, it seems to me that our spiritual leaders, including not simply those mentioned before but Bahaullah, Black Elk, the Dao and so many others, have consistently attempted to open the door and set us free. And the truth of it is that we have just as consistently refused.

And it’s worth the time to ponder why it is that we’ve refused with such steadfast energy to leave our self-made me-centric prisons.

I’m sure there are many reasons. But I think the biggest one is that it’s so flaming flattering to believe that we are the center of the universe. How dare Jesus, or Hillel, or the Buddha, or Mohammad, or Bahaullah, or anyone else tell us we aren’t!

Obviously, there’s more here than can possibly be crammed into one sermon.
What I would ask of us today is to remember just how interconnected we are. Let us remember that if my success is predicated upon your failure, then my success is an illusion. I firmly believe that he or she who dies with the most toys loses!

Let us commit to building a land where we bind up the broken, rather than ignore them or keep them in tent cities. Let us commit to building a land where there are no captives and no slaves – where my cheap shirt does not depend on your living in squalor. Let us commit to building a land where justice shall indeed roll down like waters.

Let us free ourselves from a “me-centric” worldview and truly embrace each other. We can do that. We can do that. Please join me in hymn # 121 “We’ll Build a Land” and let us commit to it.

Amen.

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