I read this week about a psychological experiment that was conducted in 2003 and dubbed “the cookie experiment.” “The experiment was about power and about how power affects entitlement.
“In the cookie experiment three participants were asked to discuss various political issues and make policy recommendations. One of the three participants was given the role of “judge” and asked to assign points rating the quality of the recommendations made by the other two participants. This placed one individual, the judge, in a “high power” position relative to the other two.
“About thirty minutes into the discussion the experimenter brought the three participants five cookies on a plate. And the number of cookies was carefully chosen.
"Five cookies. Three people. Someone wasn’t getting a second cookie. Who would that be?
"What the researchers observed was that the person in the high-power position was significantly more likely to take a second cookie compared to the other two participants. In addition, the person in the high-power position was more likely to eat with their mouth open and to leave more crumbs on the table.
“Power affects us. Power tempts us to take more cookies for ourselves. And power tempts us to leave messes for others to clean up.”(1)
I’m thinking about the dynamics of power, and about the not so very flattering picture of our very human tendency and temptation to think of ourselves first. We seem to be hard wired to fulfill our own needs before the needs of others, thinking of what can I get rather than what can I give.
Jesus puts it in the context of religious leaders who say one thing and do another. He talks about their power play of sitting in the best seats at the table or the congregation,, of using fancy titles and pious practices to get respect and the best. In other words, using positions of power to take and not give.
Turning this dynamic on its head, Jesus instructs his disciples to see themselves not as deserving the best, but as using their power with humility to serve others. He tells them to be about giving, not getting, for “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”(Matthew 23:11-12) That’s quite a challenging message, perhaps more today in the midst of our individualistic, materialistic society than it was 2000 years ago.
Now, you and I, we probably don’t think of ourselves in positions of power most days. Most of us are not in great positions of power in our work lives, or in the social strata of communities. As a matter of fact, in the greater scheme of things, most days we feel like the humble ones. We work hard just to get by. We aren’t the shakers and movers, not in positions of leadership. You and I, we don’t have much authority over anything, at least that’s how it feels to me.
But I think there’s a deeper message here, and it’s one that’s very relevant to each one of us in our little church community.
Let’s go back to the cookies. In our little community, we know all about cookies, don’t we? In our little community, who get’s the cookies? Who gives and who gets?
We have some wonderful examples of sharing our cookies. There are the cookies we bake for our outreach projects. That’s an easy one...we bake, they eat. Many of us bake pies and work together to cook and serve a meal at the church suppers. In that case, we give of our time and our talent, not only to feed other but also to give to the church. And some of us give cookies for coffee hour so that others can have something to eat.
But the best example that I think illustrates how we share our cookies is when we have a potluck meal. Everyone brings something to share. Everyone gives of themselves and everyone gets served. In other words, we serve each other. Everyone gives and everyone gets.
With a potluck, we share our cookies. Everyone serves, everyone gets served, everyone has enough.
I think the same is true of our communion service...no matter if we partake in our seats or we come up to be served. No one gets more, everyone is served, we take turns serving one another. That’s how God sets the table and invites us to the meal. No power-plays, no hierarchy. Everyone serves, everyone gets served, everyone has enough.
We use big glass jar to teach our children about making an offering each week. They are learning that coming to church is about God’s love, and we are to share that love with others. Our big glass jar is an object lesson taught through the feeling the coins in their hands, the sound of pennies dropping into a big glass jar, the spiritual discipline of doing this every time you come to church. Seeing the jar fill up week after week, and learning that if everyone gives, there’s more in the jar than any one of us could give alone. Everyone gives, everyone gets and we have more than enough to serve others in Jesus’ name.
And now, let’s turn to one more example of our congregational “plate of cookies.” The offering plate. Every year, at this time of year, we turn to our role as stewards of this place and all that God has given us to care for. In a sense, this is the moment when God turns to us and asks us, “Who get’s the cookies?” How will use what you have—your treasures, your talents, your time—these are your positions of power—how do we share them, as Jesus says, not to get, but to give.
That’s right. Our positions of power.
Each one of us is asked by God to give of ourselves, to see ourselves as serving – the servant -of others. We are to pray and think about the power that we have to serve others, no matter what position we’re in. That is stewardship. Everyone has something to give, everyone shares in the responsibility for caring for all that God has given us from the building, to the beloved community, to the world around us, near and far, that so desperately needs our care.
So that everyone serves, everyone gets served, everyone has enough.
(1) Richard Beck, “The Politics of Exalting the Humble,” http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-exalting-the-humble-matthew-231-12/