From Jailbird to Freebird: The Prison of Selfishness

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.

We have all become like one who is unclean. (Isaiah 63:17-64:1-9)
He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Luke 17:11-19)

Our first song this morning comes from country singer Toby Keith. I Wanna Talk About Me is the title track of Keith’s second album released in 2001. This song went to number one on the billboard charts and goes kind of like this.

[Verse] We talk about your work how your boss is a jerk
We talk about your church and your head when it hurts
We talk about the troubles
you’ve been having with your brother
About your daddy and your mother
and your crazy ex-lover
We talk about your friends
and the places that you’ve been
We talk about your skin and the dimples on your chin
The polish on your toes and the run in your hose
And God knows we’re gonna talk about your clothes You know talking about you makes me smile
But every once in awhile

[Chorus] I wanna talk about me
Wanna talk about I, Wanna talk about number one
Oh my me my, What I think, what I like, what I know,
what I want, what I see
I like talking about you you you you, usually,
but occasionally, I wanna talk about me
I wanna talk about me

Hi, my name is Candace and I am a long-time inmate in the prison of selfishness. Now, I come by my selfishness fairly honestly. I am the baby of my family – the last of five kids and if you’re not familiar with that position in the family – as the baby you get your way, a lot.

There was an early ’90s TV show that showed this phenomenon fairly well. In Dinosaurs, the youngest of the family – Baby Sinclair – was famously spoiled and regularly interjected, “I’m the baby! Gotta love me!” That was my life – getting away with everything, blaming the big brother and generally getting my way on everything. That trend continued into my teens, twenties and even my thirties. When I was in seminary, I’d go drinking with one of my classmates who suffered the same malady and we’d commiserate about our lives. After awhile, when she would get wound up in crying over her own troubles, I’d say: “But, enough about you. Let’s talk about me.” After a time spelling out my troubles, she’d say the same thing: “Enough about you, let’s talk about me.” The prison of selfishness is hard to break out of … but over the years I have been working on digging my way out of this prison of selfishness – though the going has been slow.

I spent a lot of time living in Atlanta where there are many homeless and hungry people wandering the street. As a selfish person, these people make me uncomfortable.

I certainly know that I’m just a few paychecks away from their exact situation, but when one of them asks me for money, I recoil. It’s simply a reflex. I don’t even want to recognize their existence much less give them money.

I have improved in recent years, but I still find myself reluctant to give money to those who ask on the street. A few weekends ago I was in Asheville and a woman approached me and Rebecca and asked for money. My habitual reflex kicked in – I averted my eyes and began to walk away. Rebecca stopped and gave the woman a five dollar bill. I was filled with shame as the door of my prison of selfishness slammed in my face. The recriminations began in my brain: “How can you lead a group of people in community and still be such an awful example? How can you still be so selfish and dare to preach generosity to others?” I beat myself up pretty good over it.

So, just like the 12 steps that recovering addicts follow – those of us addicted to selfishness must first admit that we have a problem. Jubilants, your pastor is a selfish person – locked away in a prison of selfishness. I admit this problem in the hope that this community will be the key that frees me from selfishness – that frees me from only wanting to talk about me, about I, about number one … and transforms me into a free bird who wants to talk about you, and us.

[Verse] We talk about your dreams
and we talk about your schemes
your high school team and your moisturizer cream
We talk about your nanna up in Muncie, Indiana
We talk about your grandma down in Alabama
We talk about your guys of every shape and size
The ones that you despise and the ones you idolize
We talk about your heart,
bout your brains and your smarts
And your medical charts and when you start
You know talking about you makes me grin
But every now and then

[Chorus] I wanna talk about me
Wanna talk about I, Wanna talk about number one
Oh my me my, What I think, what I like, what I know,
what I want, what I see
I like talking about you you you you, usually,
but occasionally, I wanna talk about me
I wanna talk about me

In our passage from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, we read an ode to selfishness.

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.

This section of the book of Isaiah is known as Third Isaiah and was probably written after the Hebrews returned to Israel after their exile in Babylon. They are faced with the arduous task of not only rebuilding their decimated kingdom but rebuilding their own lives in a place where they are now foreigners. Whereas the tone had been hopeful in the chapters that make up Second Isaiah, the tone here is one of despair – and one of selfishness. The heart of the people have been hardened. They no longer fear God, they don’t even call on the Holy anymore. Instead, they have become “like one who is unclean.” Even their righteous deeds are like filthy cloth.

This is what selfishness does to us. Just because we may be selfish doesn’t mean we can’t do good things in this world – but it does mean the people may suspect those actions – and wonder what is our real motivation. Truly selfish people rarely act without expecting something in return. So, our selfishness can taint even our most grand acts of kindness.

Often selfishness can spring from a deep source of insecurity – and insecurity not only that there will not be enough to go around, so you’d better get all you can now. No, selfishness springs from a deeper place that says there is not enough of you to go around – that what you really lack is the ability to be whole – to be the person that God has called you to be. We feel that we are not good enough to do good in the world – that our brokenness somehow disqualifies us from serving in this world. In our selfishness, we feel rejected – not just by society – but by God. It feels safer to stay inside of our prison of selfishness that says we have to take care of ourselves or more of us will be broken than to step outside of our prison and claim the wholeness God offers.

The author of Third Isaiah understands this, writing that God became angry and the people sinned – becoming selfish and looking out only for themselves. That perception of God as angry led the people to imprison themselves in selfishness – where they are afraid to call out to the Holy because they are ashamed that even their good work will be viewed with suspicion.

It is this self-absorption that locks us away in our prison – unable to even fathom calling the Holy for a little bail money. It is this self-absorption that separates us from God – not God’s anger or God’s absence. We remove ourselves from God’s presence when insist on talking about me – and never about you. This is the essence of salvation. It’s not about keeping rules or believing the right dogma. As Philip Gulley and Jim Mulholland write in their book If Grace is True, salvation is about “denying the self and practicing mercy.”

This is what makes both parties in this song selfish. They both want to talk about themselves … but they never think to talk about “us.” This is finally what saves the Hebrew people from this bout of selfishness. “We are all your people” they say – ostensibly reminding God of this fact – but in reality, it is this knowledge – that we are all God’s people that frees us from the prison of selfishness.

God doesn’t have to come down from the heavens to tell us this. All we have to do is look around this world and begin to really see others – and really see their needs – and step outside of our “oh, my, me, my” world and realize we are all God’s people. The truth is, we are all broken people, trying to live into the wholeness God offers. That should not make us selfish – hiding for fear of being found out. Instead, it should make us grateful that despite our brokenness, God continues to use us in amazing and Holy ways. It is the gratitude of knowing that we have been created by the Holy, for the Holy, and for each other, that can make us truly free birds.

Breathe deeply.

You you you you you you you you you you you you you
I wanna talk about me

[Chorus] I wanna talk about me
Wanna talk about I, Wanna talk about number one
Oh my me my, What I think, what I like, what I know,
what I want, what I see
I like talking about you you you you, usually,
but occasionally, I wanna talk about me
I wanna talk about me Oh me

Pamela Purse yelled, “Ladies first,”
Pushing in front of the ice cream line.
Pamela Purse yelled, “Ladies first,”
Grabbing the ketchup at dinnertime.
Climbing on the morning bus
She’d shove right by all of us
And there’d be a tiff or a fight or a fuss
When Pamela Purse yelled, “Ladies first.”

Pamela Purse screamed, “Ladies first,”
When we went off on our jungle trip.
Pamela Purse said her thirst was worse
And guzzled our water, every sip.
And when we got grabbed by that wild savage band,
Who tied us together and made us all stand
In a long line in front of the King of the land-
A cannibal known as Fry-‘Em-Up Dan,
Who sat on his throne in a bib so grand
With a lick of his lips and a fork in his hand,
As he tried to decide who’d be first in the pan-
From back of the line, in that shrill voice of hers,
Pamela Purse yelled, “Ladies first.”

Writer and poet Shel Silverstein knows the true price of selfishness – it can eat us alive.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song is from singer songwriter Jimmy Buffett. He’s famous for such songs as Cheeseburger in Paradise and Margaritaville. This song, however, made its appearance on a 2004 children’s album called “Thanks and Giving All Year Long” that also featured songs from Sheryl Crow and Kermit the Frog, to name a couple. This is called “Attitude of Gratitude” and it goes like this:

Bully in the playground Where am I gonna play
Found a better playground Half a block away
Made a little song up Called a little rhyme
An Attitude of Gratitude will do it every time

[Chorus] An Attitude of Gratitude
When stuff has got you down
Can get you sastisfatude and Turn your world around
An Attitude of Gratitude Hooray for what’s o.k
Say thank you with emphatitude
and it’s a brand new day

In our Jesus story, we find our guy on the road traveling through the region between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem and the cross that awaited him. Along the way, he meets ten lepers who ask Jesus to have mercy on them and heal them.

Which is actually a really odd way to start this particular story. It’s not that the lepers want to be healed – but it’s odd where these lepers live. It’s like Luke doesn’t really know his geography here because Samaria and Galilee border one another. There really is no “region between” the two places. It’s like talking about the “region between” Columbia and West Columbia. There is no such thing – one area flows into the other. Either you’re in one, or you’re in the other, but never between the two.

Perhaps Luke knows more than he’s letting on though. The lot in life for lepers at this time was to live in that “in between” to live in the “region between” being accepted by society and being accepted by the outcasts.

The lepers were in that “no man’s land” – proper society had no use for them, and they were even outcast among the outcasts. They had to walk around and announce their presence – letting everyone know that they were unclean – so they would not spread their disease.

Our prison of selfishness, too, resides in this middle place – this “region between.” When we are imprisoned in selfishness we can’t fully belong to our community – which is a place where we all work together for the common good – and we can’t quite be outside the community because our selfishness makes us unclean – just like that leper. Once people see our selfishness, we are cast into this “region between” where we are unclean – unfit for community – but also cast out by the outcasts.

But, Jubilants, it is in this “region between” – this “no man’s land” – where Jesus does his best miracles. When we meet Jesus in this prison of selfishness – we are ripe for healing – for salvation from our self-absorption. All we have to do is ask.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Say that with me: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Isn’t that our cry every day – whether we’re in the prison of selfishness, or any other prison we’ve explored during this Via Negativa? “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” All we’re looking for is a way out of this “no man’s land” into the New Jerusalem where abundant life awaits us whenever we take the time to actually see it.

This seeing is what makes that tenth leper turn on his heel and return to thank Jesus for his miracle. He, like the other nine, didn’t start out being grateful. Actually, these lepers were probably a bit put off by Jesus when he tells them: “Go and show yourselves to the priest.”

Jesus – the big law buster of his time – actually tells the lepers to follow the law. The priests were the health inspectors of their time. No one could be declared clean – and allowed out of that “region between” – without their blessing. So, Jesus tells them – go see the priest, and you can imagine on the way they grumbled. “We asked for healing and he tells us to go see the priest. What good with that do? He’ll just see our sores and send us away like always.”

But, this time was different. This time, as they approached the temple, their bodies began to heal. Sores disappeared and they were made clean. Imagine their happiness! Imagine their delight that they were once again able to enter society as clean, healed people.

Only one of them, however, was so moved by his healing that he turned around and ran back to Jesus to say thank you. The nine others may have been made clean – but it was only this tenth leper who was made whole. Jesus tells him: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” But the Greek used here means much more than that – the words Jesus speaks connote wholeness.

The man is not just healed of his physical affliction – but his gratitude over his healing has made him whole. That attitude of gratitude brought him satisfatitude and turned his world around. He said thank you with emphatitude – and it was a brand new day for him.

Breathe deeply.

Now daddy’s in the doghouse Mama’s up a tree
But I’ve got Abulita looking after me
Made myself a sandwich A little P & J
An Attitude of Gratitude can chase the clouds away

[Chorus] An Attitude of Gratitude
that’s what it’s all about
That No-hope-to-be-had-atude is sure to wear you out
An Attitude of Gratitude Hooray for what’s o.k.
Say thank you with emphatitude
and it’s a brand new day

I often wonder if Jesus was surprised by this leper’s spontaneous outpouring of gratitude. Jesus healed so many people in his ministry, but this is the only recorded incident of someone actually saying thank you. At some point, you’d think Jesus would get a bit annoyed with people always taking and taking from him without even an ounce of gratitude.

But, Jesus understands that most people hold that No-hope-to-be-had-atude that locks them way in the prison of selfishness.

Jesus gets it that habitually selfish people don’t really see miracles, even if they are performed right in front of their eyes. Good fortune may delight them – but it still does not move them to gratitude. The difference for the tenth leper is not just in seeing the miracle as his body healed – but this leper fully realized that every moment holds the chance for a miracle. This is the key to busting us out of the prison of selfishness – to recognize the miracle of every moment – and be thankful.

The holidays are always a time when we pause to think about what we’re thankful for – but Jesus encourages us to carry that attitude of gratitude with us in every moment – because it is the key that unlocks that prison of selfishness.

Our faith in this fact – that miracles occur every moment if we’re only willing to stop and take notice – that makes us whole and draws us out of our selfish nature. If miracles are happening all around – then that means there is enough to go around. That means we don’t have to get ours before the miracles run out – because, Jubilants, the miracles never run out. This is the abundance that the Holy promises us – an abundance of miracles, an abundance of love, of grace, of peace, and mercy. It’s ours for the taking – and more importantly – ours for the giving.

How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if when you see people in need you saw the chance to witness a miracle instead of a chance to avoid helping them? How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if you saw the face of a friend in a stranger instead of the face of an enemy, or someone who simply wants to take from you? How would it change the way you lived if instead of seeing God as judgmental, you saw God as a loving parent, ready to give you the best without question? How would it change the way you lived if you saw yourself as a beloved child of God instead of a broken, selfish, brat who deserves to be locked away for life?

Jubilants, we are not made for wrath – but for worship. We are not made for selfishness, but for gratitude. We are made to praise the Holy, to praise all of creation and to tend to it with generosity and openness. This is the faith that makes us whole – this is the key that makes us free birds – and opens our hearts to gratitude.

Earlier this month, we gave out $10 to anyone who wanted to take part in our Give it Away project – donating that $10 to anyone we saw in need. After that weekend in Asheville that confirmed my residency in the prison of selfishness – Wanda and I saw a homeless vet by the side of the exit ramp in Camden begging for money. We circled back and stopped. I walked up to the man – and handed him $10.

I shook his hand and we talked for a few minutes about his life – the meds he takes and how it sometimes makes him dizzy. He was grateful for the money, and grateful for the conversation and human contact.

I was grateful for his kindness. Jubilants, I can see light at the end of my tunnel out of my prison of selfishness.

Breathe deeply.

[Bridge] Everything’s a dollar a dollar twenty-five
Haven’t got a dollar but I’m glad to be alive
I stole a look at Janey she stole a look at me
An Attitude of Gratitude is absolutely free

They say this is the showdown
They say it’s us or them
They just can’t see that us and them
are relatives and friends
I made a little song up put it on the charts
Says come on people everybody open up your heart

[Chorus] An Attitude of Gratitude
when pushes come to shove
Eliminates combatatude and changes fear to love
An Attitude of Gratitude Hooray for what’s o.k.
Say thank you with emphatitude
and it’s a brand new day

Oh, Yeah!