Sermon for 21st Sunday after Pentecost - October 14 2018

Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
October 14, 2018
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

I like to read a lot, but sometimes I don’t have time to read all the interesting things I find on the internet – items that Facebook friends have linked to, items mentioned in articles in the newspaper, and so on – and when I find something I want to read but don’t have time to read now, I often save them in a phone app called Pocket.

So.  The other day I was listening to an article – because Pocket now has an audio function and I can listen while sorting laundry or clearing the kitchen or whatever – and that article opened a whole new perspective for me on the Gospel lesson for today.

I bet you’re wondering what I found.

Well, the article – written by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic back in June 2017, talked about a couple studies done by a psychiatrist and a neurologist, the one looking at behavior and the other at the brain.  What they found was that people in positions of power are, actually, less sympathetic or empathetic to others, than people not in power.

Now you hear that, you may be saying to yourself, you know, that makes sense.  You probably don’t have to think very hard to come up with a list of folks in power, who don’t seem to care what others think – whether it’s a movie producer who preys on starlets, or a politician who won’t meet with constituents, or a boss who doesn’t make room for an employee’s problems, or whoever.

But the interesting points are why and how this happens.

According to Useem’s article, “Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, … after [two decades] … of lab and field experiments [found that] … Subjects under the influence of power … acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury — becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”[1]

In related work, “Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. … Obhi studies brains.  And when he put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.  Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.”[2]

Useem goes on to note that “Other experiments have shown that powerful people do worse at identifying what someone in a picture is feeling, or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.”

What happens is this:  the less powerful mirror the emotions and thinking of the more powerful, and the more powerful are clueless about the less powerful – they can’t read a room, they can’t empathize, they can’t see things from someone else’s perspective, and they can’t understand opposition.

Obhi also found that asking powerful people to make an effort to understand another, didn’t yield more empathetic results – especially if they were in a position of power for a lengthy period of time.

Being obtuse is not necessarily a bad thing at all times, thank goodness; sometimes one needs to act from strength in order to accomplish a given goal, such that at times, stopping and listening and considering and rethinking and seeking approval can be counterproductive – for example, when the admiral sends the seal team out to perform a mission, there is no room for hesitation.

How does this relate to today’s Gospel?

The rich young man was shocked and dismayed to hear Jesus say he should sell everything and give to the poor.  He was fine with the rituals, he was fine with the commandments, but to give up his wealth? To give up his power that the wealth made possible?  That’s a place he was not ready to go.

Perhaps now we can understand better what Jesus was getting at when he said that it was harder for a rich person to get into heaven – it’s not that the rich are bad, per se, but their brains may be damaged, and so they may think they deserve the good things in life but can’t empathize enough with those around them to be open to the grace God offers.

So we should perhaps, keep them in our prayers, that their minds may be opened to the ways of yielding and giving up power, and they, too, can reap the rewards of depending on God and not themselves, for what they truly need – to walk the ways of justice and mercy, of loving and giving, and of seeing the world and other people from God’s point of view.

Because God in Jesus chose the path of powerlessness.  In that weakness he was open to those most in need, and in that weakness he even accepted death, which opened the door to eternity for all who are willing to see it from God’s point of view.

But what about us?  What if we’re not rich or powerful?  Does that mean we have it made?  Is it easier for us to enter eternal life than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle?

Or are there other things – if not money or possessions or power – maybe ideas, or assumptions or anger or fear – might these things keep us from entering into eternal life?

Remember what Jesus said to the disciples: no one who has left house or family or fields for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold of what they left … with persecutions …  Oh wait, that’s a tough one.  Do we want to be persecuted?  Or alternatively, should we seek to be persecuted?  Do we define ourselves as persecuted?  And some of course are persecuted – does that give someone a leg up?

I think the main danger we face is not persecution – or seeking it – but no, the main danger we face is ever thinking we’ve got it made, because we aren’t rich or powerful, or because we follow all the commandments, and do all the right things, and even come to church most Sundays. 

Nothing we can do or avoid doing will open the door to eternal life; only God can open that door.  And we need God to open that door for us, because what we most desire is through that door, even if we don’t fully grasp what that even means. 

That’s why the first commandment is Love God.  It’s not an “or else” command, it’s now a demand of power; it’s just the first step, and one we will always trip on, but it’s still necessary.  And the second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We’re going to trip on that one, too.  We can’t do these things without opening our hearts to the love of God that we receive, poured out like water, shining like beams of sunlight in our hearts and minds and spirits.  God is sending; and choosing to receive and to reflect this love to everyone around us is all we can do in response, because that is how the love of God works.  We can’t help ourselves!

It’s true, we can’t help ourselves, but with God, all things are possible.


[1] Jerry Useem, “Power Causes Brain Damage, in The Atlantic, June 18, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

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