Which path are we on?
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November 9, Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27):
Joshua 24:1-3a,14-25 & Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
Other Texts: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, By Chip Heath, Dan Heath
Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, By Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir
To listen to earlier homilies click here
Draft text of the homily, please don’t cite without permission.
Clocky is a robotic alarm clock invented by a student at MIT.
It has wheels on it, so that when it goes off, instead of just sitting there and beeping, it rolls off the nightstand and moves randomly around the room so that you have to chase it down.
It’s a high-tech upgrade to a trick I learned in college, which was, if I wanted to be sure I was up, I put the alarm all the way across the room so that I had to get out of bed to turn it off.
Clock sounds like a nightmare to me, but in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard researchers and brothers Chip and Dan Heath, use Clocky to explain the two sides of our brains.
Not right and left, but rational and emotional.
One side that knows it should get up at 5:45 and go for a run, spend time in prayer, and not have those extra cookies at night.
Other side just loves being in those warm covers, in a cozy bed, and doesn’t care about calories and long-term consequences because it “knows” that chocolate and cheap carbs makes you feel really, REALLY good right now!
The Heath brothers, and other organizational researchers have begun using the metaphor of the rider and the elephant to describe this phenomena.
The ancients described it as a charioteer and an unruly team of horses, or the rudder of a ship being blown by strong winds.
The struggle between our rational side and our emotional side is nothing new, but this particular image is striking.
Imagine a rider sitting atop an elephant.
The rider has hold of the reins and appears to be in control, except that anytime the rider and the elephant disagree about which way to go, guess who’s going to lose.
You’ve experienced this.
You’ve made a resolution.
You’ve tried to change a habit.
And then skipped the gym.
Ate the whole bag of cheetos.
Or decided that retail therapy was actually cheaper than “real” therapy.
That’s the elephant ignoring the rider and doing what it wants.
Now, the elephant isn’t all instant gratification either. It is also the side that enables us to protect those dear to us from harm.
That enables you to stand up for yourself and others even when it’s scary.
That encourages us to be more generous, and more faithful, than our rational brains think possible.
The rider isn’t alway right, either.
The rider’s consistently overthinks.
Gets stuck in over-analysis.
And then can’t decide what to do.
And on a daily basis our riders just simply get exhausted.
One crucial element to change that researchers have recognized is that “self-control is an exhaustible resource.”
It doesn’t take long for the Rider to wear out.
The more choices we have to make, the fewer we make well.
The more self-control we have to exert, the weaker our self-control becomes.
In another recent, fascinating work on the economics and psychology of scarcity, researchers have discovered that living with scarcity, whether it is poverty, or restrictive dieting, or any other lack, actually reduces our cognitive ability—our ability to make sound decisions.
They write: “Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.” (Scarcity, p. 13)
Living with scarcity reduces anyone’s bandwidth. It is simply exhausting. It wears our riders out. And our elephants begins to obsess over making sure we have enough for right now, instead of trusting that there will be more later.
So if we know that our capacity for really sound judgement is limited, and that our emotional sides need to be motivated by positive experiences. What are we to do?
In their book, the Heath brothers describe three tactics to making change easier: direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path.
Our rational riders have to have clear directions.
Our emotional elephants have to be motivated in the direction of generosity and health.
And we can do an awful lot to help this along by making the path toward the desired goal as easy as possible.
You’ve done this if you’ve ever started a diet by throwing out all of the junk food in your house.
Or if you’ve ever put your alarm clock across the room.
We face hundreds of thousands of paths every day. Lane markers on roads, stop signs and stop lights encourage us to drive in (more or less) predictable ways.
Retailers shape our buying pathways. It’s why the milk is always at the back, so that you have walk past all that other yummy goodness. And why the candy and gum are right there at the check out.
It’s why online retailers developed things like 1-click ordering, and why our phones blink and buzz and ping every time someone some where posts another grumpy cat meme on our facebook page (and if you don’t know what that is, just be grateful).
They are shaping the path, making it easier for us to satisfy the cravings of our elephants, and exhausting our riders.
What does any of this have to do with sheep and goats?
Well, here’s what stood out for me in the gospel this week:
The sheep and the goats are both seemingly unaware of their actions and completely surprised: “when was it that we did, or didn’t do these things?”
True, Jesus doesn’t say “every time you saw me hungry, or thirsty,” he simply says “you saw me,” and then you did or didn’t do something. Yet, I wonder: Does this mean that every single time the sheep saw some one hungry or thirsty they did something? Or does this mean that if I even once walk past someone who is hungry, or forget to call up someone who is sick, that I end up with the goats. The feeling I often have at the end of this parable is: I really hope he grades on a curve. Because if it’s all or nothing we’re all in trouble.
This week, however, I heard something new as well. I started to wonder: if both the sheep and the goats react the same way, then maybe it’s not about the individuals, maybe there’s also something about the situations.
What is it about the goats that prevents them from feeding the hungry, tending the sick, visiting the prisoners, and how can they be so unaware that they’re failing?
What is it about the sheep that makes is so easy for them? So easy that they don’t even know they’re doing it?
It can’t just be the determination of one group and the willful ignorance of another.
There’s something about situation…the path…
The goats are highly focused on Jesus, they expect him to come. They’re so intently focused on one very particular instance of him that they miss all the rest.
And I wonder if they’re also distracted by too many other paths, too many other choices.
And I wonder if they are somehow protected from the suffering of the world, if the paths they have shaped (or have been shaped for them) aren’t paths of privilege where they don’t have to see the hungry, and where they can “assume” that “someone else is taking care of that.”
The sheep seem to be more interested in “seeking and serving Christ in all persons.” In seeing Christ everywhere…
Maybe they’ve shaped communities where those in need are encountered, where their voices are sought out, where the marginalized are seen as neighbors to be tended rather than strangers to be shunned.
The sheep also seem to be living more fully into the reign of God, maybe they’ve created communities and systems where hungry are always fed, the naked are always clothed, where there is no scarcity because everyone has enough.
The parable is about behavior and choices, but I don’t think it’s a litmus test for who’s in and who’s out.
Don’t forget: something really significant happens between the time Jesus tells this parable and the future event he’s describing…his death and resurrection…the event that forgives us for all that we have done and left undone.
And because of that the parable is, in a way, even more challenging.
Of course we need to individually respond to those in need, but the deeper challenge that Jesus is inviting us into is shaping pathways for ourselves, and for others—for our communities, our states, our nations—so that we can live in this world confident that the least among us are always cared for and respected and given voice and heard in the same way the very privileged are.
Our challenge as a community of faith is: how do we shape the path for ourselves and others, in our daily practices, in our weekly gatherings, in all of our conversations and collaborations…how do we take the abundance of what we know and experience here and take it into every conversation and gathering in the world. How do we create communities and economies and systems of governance that ensure that the the hungry are always fed. The naked are always clothed—the sick are always tended and treated with care and compassion.
This is the invitation and the challenge in the gospel.
This is the hope to which we are called.