When I was a kid, I was fascinated by shipwrecks.
I even had a favorite: RMS Titanic, sunk April 15, 1912. Now, just as a point of pride: I should note that I fell in love with the Titanic years before that horrible movie came out in the 1990s. In fact, when it did come out, I was that annoying guy in the theatre who kept pointing out all the things they got wrong. And now that the movie’s popularity has faded, I can finally talk about my love for the Titanic once again without sounding like a 13 year old girl.
What continues to fascinate me about that ship is the sheer modern arrogance that went into its production (and ultimately led to its sinking): they thought they could build a ship that was unsinkable. Boy, were they wrong! If there’s only one line of the Titanic movie that I appreciated, it was the one from the scene where the main character, upon learning that the ship had struck an iceberg and was about to sink, exclaimed, “But it can’t sink!” and the ship’s designer replies, “It’s made of iron; I assure you it can!”
With the benefit of hindsight, just about everyone can see how arrogant it was to claim that anything made of 52,000 tons of steel was unsinkable. It’s almost asking for trouble. Yet, this outrageous claim was totally consistent with the spirit of the age in which the Titanic was built. Historians sometimes call that period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “the Gilded Age” or “the Progressive Era”. It was a time when modern people put a lot of faith in their ability to figure things out. They thought that science and technology would eventually solve every human problem. There was one point during that time when the government considered closing the patent office, because they assumed that people had already invented everything that could be invented. In the church, there were several “modern” theologians who even believed that we would one day eliminate the problem of sin in humanity through education and discipline. All of this is the same kind of arrogance that went into the construction (and subsequent destruction) of the Titanic.
This human arrogance finally did cool down during the 20th century, but it took two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the dropping of the atomic bomb to convince us otherwise. We thought that science and technology would solve all of our problems, but then we dedicated that knowledge to destruction and violence. We went in with the intention of improving life, but ended up destroying life by the millions (when it comes to nuclear weapons, we developed the ability to destroy all life on planet Earth). To use the Titanic as a symbol: we modern humans thought that, with enough dedication and know-how, we could build the unsinkable ship, but we ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic.
That’s the story of the 20th century, but what about us? How does this modern attitude affect us, personally? Well, even though we’ve seen its folly, we have yet to fully recover from our addiction to that modern ideal of “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” (a phrase I’ve borrowed from an album by the rock band Four Non Blondes). The modern mind, for all the good it has brought us, is rather myopic: its vision is too narrow. To the modern mind, only that which can be observed and measured is real. You can’t measure mystery, so (to the modern mind) mystery isn’t real (it’s just a question we haven’t answered yet). You can’t measure wonder, so wonder isn’t real. You can’t measure love, so love isn’t real. You can’t measure God, so God isn’t real.
Modern people keep trying to measure things like happiness, goodness, and quality of life, but they run up against a wall time and time again because there’s no universally recognized way to measure those things. In fact, there’s only one numerical unit that modern people have come up with to measure happiness, and it’s not a very good one, but that hasn’t stopped us from using it. Do you want to guess what it is? Money. People try to measure happiness with money: Bigger houses, better gadgets, faster cars, and more money – Bigger, better, faster, more! We even compete, fight, and kill one another in this so-called “pursuit of happiness.”
Modern people measure “quality of life” in terms of production and consumption. Those who perform the most useful tasks earn the most money and spend that money on things that are supposed to make them happy. Does it work?
If it did, then people like the Hiltons and the Kardashians would be the most serene and happy people on the earth, but we know for a fact that we can make whole seasons of “reality” TV shows just by pointing a camera at these people and showing the world how miserable they are… even with all their money.
On the flip side of this equation, the modern world counts people with disabilities or mental illness as having the least quality of life, simply because they don’t produce and consume resources at the same rate as others. Our twisted culture looks at those who do not participate in the monetary economy as people whose lives are without value. Some people in the past have even argued that pteople who cannot produce and consume should be killed as an act of mercy. They simply cannot comprehend the dignity of a human life that does not rely on producing and consuming.
But if that was true, then how could we explain the sheer joy we see on people’s faces at the Togetherness Group? What explanation is there for the vibrancy of worship that pastors and laypeople alike experience whenever they visit North Church?
We are a living testimony that there is something more to life than producing and consuming in this capitalist economy. Money is not the measure of happiness or a meaningful life.
The modern world, with its obsession with taking and consuming resources, has a lot in common with Adam and Eve, humanity’s earliest ancestors in the book of Genesis. According to that story, Adam and Eve were made in God’s image. God formed them from the dust and breathed the breath of life into their bodies. But they wanted more. They wanted to “be like God,” as the story says. So, what did they do? They took the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They lusted after power and control, thinking that would make them more like God. But it didn’t work, did it? The result of their grasping after power was exile from paradise and death in the wilderness.
I think their story has been the story of the entire human race: we grasp after power and control, but end up causing death. In our day, this grasping after power has taken the form of this obsession with money and all things “bigger, better, faster, and more.” We are only re-enacting in our lives the story of Adam and Eve from the book of Genesis. Our grasping after power has not led to greater happiness.
But the Gospel, the Christian story, presents us with another way of living, another way of “being like God,” as Adam and Eve tried to do. St. Paul, in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Philippians, lays out for us the story of Jesus and compares it to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. Like Adam, Paul says that Jesus was “in the form (or image) of God”. But, unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Another translation of this word exploited could be “grasped,” just like Adam and Eve “grasped” the fruit that they thought would make them powerful. Adam and Eve grasped in order to be like God; Jesus was like God but did not grasp.
Adam and Eve tried to become masters of their own destiny. But Jesus took “the form of a slave”. Adam and Eve filled themselves with the fruit of the tree; Jesus, according to Paul, “emptied himself.” Adam and Eve sought life and were trapped by death; Jesus embraced death and received new life. Adam and Eve exalted themselves and were cast out of paradise; Jesus humbled himself and was given “the name that is above every name.”
The Gospel of Jesus presents us with a fundamentally different way of being human in the world. The Christian life is not a life that can be measured in terms of “bigger, better, faster, more.” We do not depend on production and consumption to give our lives value. We find ourselves called by God, not to the center of the halls of power, but to edges of society. We stand in solidarity with the poor and oppressed peoples of the earth and discover their God-given dignity, which cannot be measured by human standards.
We are called to follow the same path as Jesus: the way of crucifixion to an old way of life and resurrection to a new one. When we give up our “inalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness” (by this world’s standards), we discover that joy is a gift given freely to those who serve Christ in their brothers and sisters.
Here at North Church, we have stumbled across this Gospel truth as we live and serve with our neighbors who are disabled or have a mental illness. We have here something of the mystery of Christ that cannot be measured in terms of money or power.
I would say that this way of life is actually a lifeboat with room enough to rescue anyone who wants to get off the sinking shipwreck of modern life.
God has given us this gift, not just to grasp it and keep it for ourselves, but to share it with the rest of God’s people in the world. Our neighbors in the community and our brothers and sisters in the Church desperately need what we have here. Let’s share it with them; let’s move over and make room in the lifeboat for anyone who might need or want a seat.
2 thoughts on “Going Down With the Ship: Modern Life and the Way of the Cross”
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Today’s sermon (link to Pr. Barrett’s blog)
May God grant us all the ability to live this simple and profound truth.