Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: September 20

Jesus asked the disciples, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
Why were the disciples thinking about who was the greatest, esp. after Jesus told them about his upcoming trials? Maybe, its something we all do, comparing ourselves with others. I always think of Casius Clay…

“I am the greatest.” He said to the world in 1963.

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.” And eventually he would become one of the greatest boxers of all time.

To reach our goals in life, often we need to pump ourselves up, to consider ourselves the greatest. But we can never do it alone. Even Casius Clay (Mohammed Ali) had trainers and a manager to help.

And if we say it too often, I’m the greatest, then we often lose perspective, and fall into that trap of only thinking about ourselves.
On the final exam in a psychology course taught last spring at the University of Maryland, this was the final question:

Select whether you want 2 points or 6 points added to your final grade. But there's a small catch: If more than 10% of the class selects 6 points, then no one gets any points.

How would you have answered the question?  Well, 20 percent of the students selected 6 points so, true, to his word, the professor gave no extra credit to any of his students.

What was the point? More than just a lesson in self-interest, the course instructor, Dr. Dylan Selterman, explains that the question, originally published in a psychology journal 25 years ago, is intended to illustrate what is called in psychology "the tragedy of the commons." Dr. Selterman explained:

"[The tragedy of the commons is] basically a dilemma between doing what's good for you as an individual versus doing what's best for the group. Now it stands to reason that people behave selfishly. But if too many people behave selfishly, the group will suffer . . . and then everyone in the group individually will suffer."

In the seven years he has put the question on his final exam, Dr. Selterman says that, almost without fail, self-interest trumps the common good. Only one class - his fall 2011 group - has received the extra credit, but he speculates that it may have merely been a fluke. "In behavioral science, nothing is ever 100%," he says.

Dr. Selterman believes that most students select the six-point option by way of a "go big or go home" mentality. Others, he says, may do it out of fear of being slighted.

"The extra credit question is analogous to any public resource in the world that we would all use, like food or water or land. Again, if people are mindful of their own consumption, then it's fine, but if too many people are selfish, then we have now - like in California - water shortages."

Dr. Selterman says he hopes his students at least walk away from his course with a sense "that their actions affect others and vice versa and, going forward, whenever they work in groups or whenever they interact with others in their community, that they carefully consider these things, these mechanisms, and that they work together constructively with others. I would hope that any student who chose six points would, in the future, think twice about the selfish option and think about what's best for the group and - by extension - what's best for them."
Students have asked him to modify the question so only those who choose six points get penalized, but he said that would be missing the point.

"In reality, if too many people overuse a common resource then everyone in the group suffers, not just the selfish ones," he notes. "This is what I want students to learn from the exercise. Their actions affect others, and vice versa." [USA Today, July 17, 2015; ABC News, July 14, 2015.]
Dr. Selterman's final exam is an object lesson in Christian discipleship.

I think of the letter of James and his words of practical Christianity to us, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

We are too often willing to sacrifice the common good for our own self-interest; we measure the severity of a problem solely by its impact on us; we seek how to manipulate the misfortune of others to our own advantage.

Wisdom and understanding go hand in hand with our connection to one another and to the common good. In today's Gospel, Jesus challenges us to seek the greatness of being last, the authority of being the servant to others. It is how we learn compassion; it is how we become responsible adults and contributing members of society; it is how we find meaning and purpose in our lives and advocate for justice for the poor and victimized

Jesus challenges all who would be his disciples to put another's hopes and dreams ahead of our own, to seek to bring forth and affirm the gifts of others for no other reason than the common good, to seek reconciliation and community in all that we say and do.

In doing so, we make the crosses we bear vehicles of resurrection, transforming our homes and hearts in God's reconciliation, peace and compassion. For as Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first or the greatest must be last of all and servant of all.” Amen.

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