Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Mark 1: 14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
And, They Left
There is a social scientist named Paul Piff who studies kindness. More specifically, he studies what kind of things can induce cooperation and kindness between people instead of inducing selfishness and greed. He has a particular interest in the ways that having money affects people's behavior. For example, he cited the numerous studies that show a trend for the last 60 or 70 years of people with lower household incomes giving a larger portion of their incomes to charity. He and his colleagues design tests to try to figure out why. I'd like to describe a couple of his experiments.
Have you ever heard the common assertion that people with fancy cars are more likely to be rude drivers? They created an experiment to see if that was true. He and his colleagues live and work in Berkeley, California. There is a law that states that a driver must stop for people standing and waiting at cross walks. They had people hiding in bushes and behind telephone poles next to cross walks. Their job was to identify the makes of cars that drove by. They also had other people planted in the cross walk, waiting to cross. After studying who stopped for the pedestrians and who didn't, they found that a full 50 percent of people who drove the fanciest cars didn't stop. What's more, they found that every single driver whose car was in the "least expensive" category stopped like they were supposed to. Every single one.
They had another study where they brought in people who of varying levels of wealth and gave each of them what amounted to $10. Each participant was told that they could keep the $10 or share a portion of it with an anonymous stranger. The people running the experiment kept track of if and how much each participant was willing to share. They found that people who made below $25,000 a year (some of them made as little as $15,000 a year) gave 44% more of their money to the stranger than the people who made $150-200,000 a year.
One of the more entertaining experiments they developed was to see if they could 1) make someone who wasn't necessarily rich feel privileged in a situation and 2) observe if that feeling of privilege affected how they would behave in a situation. They brought out the ultimate game of greed and conflict: Monopoly. Then, they rigged the game. With one hundred pairs of players, they set up the game where, by the flip of a coin, one player would be assigned the role of the rich player and the other, the poor player. The rich player got twice as much money and got to roll two dice at a time instead of one, which meant that they got to move around the board much faster and much more often than the poor player. They also got the much-coveted Rolls-Royce playing piece to drive around. The poor player had to use the shoe.
Over the course of these one hundred rigged games of Monopoly, a pattern emerged. The rich players would begin to show signs of dominance and power during the game. Granted, this is pretty common behavior in Monopoly. It does not bring out the best in people. But, the researchers found that it was more than just competitiveness that was at play here. The rich players were so affected by the power they had in the game that it literally affected how they would move the little car on the board. They would begin to smack the car on the board, accentuating their speedy movement through the game with a whack... whack... whack of their fancy car. They would start to taunt their opponents and create increasingly loud and pushy celebrations. What's more is that this devolution of behavior hadn't occurred in the process of a regular, sometimes hours long fiasco that a regular monopoly game can be. All of this sass and bragging and strutting would happen only 15 minutes into a heavily rigged game. All it took was fifteen minutes for such measly power to go to someone's head.
When the researchers came in and asked the players to talk about their experience playing the game, the results were fascinating. The designated rich players, people who ostensibly knew that the game had been rigged in their favor, never seemed to credit their privileged starting position as the reason they won. They talked about their wise hotel building strategies and methods for choosing which property they bought. They would talk about their skill, and a couple lucky rolls of the dice that helped them out. Very few acknowledged how much their privilege worked in their favor. Remarkably few said, "Well, I started out in a much better position. It would have been really hard for me not to win." You see, they saw the game was rigged but still thought they had done something great to deserve their win.
Now, before I go any further, I should note that Paul Piff doesn't come up with all these studies to make rich people look bad. He really wants to try to figure out what factors help people act generously towards their neighbors and what factors influence people into acting more selfishly. I think he has some interesting theories as to why having money affects our levels of compassion. In the radio show I listened to about his studies, Piff points out that people with more money often live in bigger homes, homes where they have their own bedrooms and lots of space. They may choose to buy homes with more property, thereby physically separating them from their neighbors. He said that people with more money are more likely to drive their own cars instead of driving with others to work, or, if they live in urban areas, taking the bus or train or walking. And, at work, they may be in managerial positions, where they oversee others' work. They may be less likely to work closely on a team or in a crowded room of cubicles or on an assembly line. In short, Paul Piff thinks that money lets you be alone.
While a certain amount of solitary time is necessary for humans, the kind of aloneness that money enables may end up isolating people from one another. When you have more power and more control, you don't have to pay as close attention to the needs and wants of the people around you. You don't have to be as cooperative. You don't have to really think about all the ethical implications of your actions because you don't necessarily regularly interact with the people your actions affect. Now, I should be clear: It's not that being wealthy makes you terrible. And, it's not like poor people never display these self-tendencies. Piff is very clear that selfish patterns of behavior are just part of being human. There is a whole host of aspects of our lives that affect how generous and compassionate we are: how we were raised, our gender, our faith, the social groups we belong to. But, even with all that, we shouldn't forget that how much money we have, and how much that money insulates us from the needs of others, affects us, too.
I got to thinking about our relationships with the money and stuff we have when I reread the call stories of Simon and Andrew and James and John. As I read them in preparation for this sermon, I was struck by just how much Jesus asked of them. These were four young men with jobs, not fancy jobs, but, jobs and family responsibilities. They maybe didn't have a lot of cash, but they had nets and maybe boats and all the gear you would need to make a living. Isn't it shocking, then, that all Jesus had to say was, "follow me. I will make you fish for people instead" and they dropped all they had and followed him. This is an awfully generous sacrifice for a guy they just met.
Were these four men among those generous low-income people who were willing to share 44% more with a stranger? Were they the people in the simple cars who always stop for grad students in cross walk? Were they people who had been taught that money wasn't as important as connections to others, and Jesus was offering them an incredible new kind of connection? Or, maybe they were tired playing a game that they knew was rigged against them. Instead of continuing to play like the people in Piff's study, they were willing to bet everything they had on the vision Jesus set before them just to see how a new kind of game would play out? Reading their story, which is supposed to strike us as miraculous, I had to ask myself, what would be the thing Jesus could say to me to get me to drop my nets, to generously give away all that I have in order to make his vision real. If I'm honest, I don't really know.
Paul Piff said that isolated wealthy people can relearn some of their lost empathy if they are given little reminders of the needs of other. In one of his studies where people from a variety of income levels were shown a 46 second video about child poverty. This short video was an empathy nudge. After watching it, the wealthy people in the study became just as willing to share their time helping a stranger in need as the poorer people. Maybe I'm like these isolate rich people who need a nudge. Maybe you need a nudge from God, too. What has been pushing you a little closer to following Jesus this week? What has given you a little bump in empathy? Maybe you aren't ready to throw down your nets yet, but you just might be more willing to share a couple bucks. It's a start. But, remember, we will still be invited to go fishing.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources to write this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.