In the early 70s two psychologists at Princeton University did a fascinating experiment. They called all the students at Princeton Seminary and scheduled them to come into their office. When they came in, the seminarians were given some tests, and they were asked to prepare a little talk. Half of them were asked to prepare a talk on the rather bland topic of employment at the seminary. The other half were asked to prepare a mini-sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan. You’ll recall that the story of the Good Samaritan is about helping strangers in need. This will become very relevant in a moment.
When their preparation time was up, each seminarian was asked to walk to a separate building. They were told that when they arrived at the other building, they’d give their talk and be evaluated on it. This is where things get really fun. These are the kinds of experiments you could get away with 50 years ago, but they’re not allowed anymore.
Because to get to the other building the seminarian had to walk through an alleyway, and lying in the alleyway was a person (played by an actor) who was coughing and moaning and clearly distressed and in need of some kind of care. And just to ratchet up the stakes a little bit more, the alley was only four-feet wide, so the seminarian would literally have to step over this person in order pass by to get to the other building. It’s almost a little sadistic, right? What are they going to do?!
Well, I’m sorry to report to you that only 40% of the seminarians (training to be ministers) stopped to help the person lying in the alley. The other 60% literally stepped right over them. And get this, there was no significant difference between those giving a talk about jobs in the seminary and those preaching on the Good Samaritan. 60% of those preaching on the Good Samaritan (a story about not abandoning an injured stranger) stepped right over the injured stranger without offering any help. The content of the preparation they did made no difference.
So, what did make a difference? What’s the difference between those who stopped and those who didn’t? Well, the psychologists had given them all kinds of spiritual personality tests as a part of the experiment. And they couldn’t find any correlation between how the seminarians believed or what they believed in and whether they stopped to help or not. So, beliefs and personality traits made no difference. What else could it be?
Well, there was one other diabolical little wrinkle in the experiment. Before the psychologists set the seminarians off down the narrow alleyway, they told them one of three things. Some of the seminarians were told, “It’s time for you to walk over to the other building now, you should have plenty of time to get there.” This was called the “low-hurry” condition. Some were told, “They’re ready for you now, please go right over.” This was called the “intermediate-hurry” condition. And some were told, “Oh, you’re late. They were expecting you a few minutes ago. You better get over there!” This was called the “high-hurry” condition.
And don’t you already know where this is going to end up? You know, right? It wasn’t what they believed in. It wasn’t how they believed. It wasn’t even the content of the values that they espoused and that they were actively thinking about that made the difference. It all came down to that ubiquitous and tedious ticking of the clock—how much of a hurry they thought they were in. 63% of those who had plenty of time stopped to help. But that dropped down to only 45% of those who were expected right now. And for those who believed they were late and in a rush, only one in ten stopped to help.
Jesus, in our scripture reading this morning, has been going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee and he’s had all sorts of trouble. He’s gotten into arguments with the religious authorities and even his own family thinks he’s lost it. He’s had particular trouble in the synagogues where he’s aroused a lot of anger from some of his detractors by healing on the Sabbath day. But now Jesus seems to have caught a bit of a break. A man, a leader of the synagogue, a man of such unusual significance that his name is actually recorded in the text—Jairus—has fallen down at Jesus’ feet and is begging him urgently to heal his dying daughter. What a change in fortune. What an opportunity for the mission!
As they make their way to Jairus’ house, a woman, a woman with a gynecological condition which was considered to be ritually unclean, which would have excluded her from the synagogue and from the life of her community, a woman who had been socially and spiritually marginalized and who had suffered physically without relief for 12 long years, a woman who had been bankrupted by her medical bills, a woman of such little importance and consequence that her name is not remembered at all touches Jesus’ robe as he passes by her in the crowd, and she is immediately healed. Jesus’ power has flowed into her, the healing she hoped for has miraculously occurred, it’s the happiest ending imaginable, and there is no reason for Jesus to interrupt his urgent trip to save the beloved little daughter of Jairus, the local dignitary, whose name has been remembered for thousands of years.
And yet even though Jairus must have been desperately anxious and rushing Jesus along as fast as he could, and even though there was no physical need that required Jesus to delay, and even though she was just an unclean nobody, Jesus performed the miracle of making time for her.
“Who touched my clothes? Who was it?” The disciples think he’s nuts. “What do you mean who touched you? It’s a crowd! Literally everybody is touching you! Let’s keep going.” Can you imagine the state that Jairus (understandably—his daughter is on the verge of death) the state that Jairus must have been in as Jesus stopped and started talking about his clothes? Can you imagine the pressure just to step over her and keep going?
The text doesn’t remember her name, which is all the more unfortunate because Jesus stops the crowd, in part, just to know her, to learn her name. Jesus could have let her sneak off unnamed and once again unnoticed. He had every reason just to let her fade into the background and to rush past her. He even could have made himself feel good about it—about being able to help her without needing to slow down. Isn’t that the modern ideal? But Jesus makes the time to know who she is, to look her in the eyes, to speak with her, and to remind this outcast woman that she was a human being, a child of God, and that she mattered to him.
Speaking of reminding people who have been thrown out that they are indeed God’s beloved children, we should all note that today the 51st annual Pride Parade is being held in NYC, and today is our denomination’s, the United Church of Christ’s, National Open & Affirming Sunday, which celebrates the incredible ministry of the more than 1,500 churches within the UCC who have passed an Open & Affirming resolution upholding the full humanity and the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and leadership of the church. Glen Ridge Congregational Church has not passed an Open & Affirming resolution, but to those of you who are a part of our church and who are LGBTQ, allow me to remind you that God loves you just as you are and that you are an important and valued part of this community, not despite your sexual orientation, not despite your gender identity—you are valued and loved because of who you are.
Author Steven Pressfield’s Principle of Priority simply states: “(a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.” Jesus makes a decision about importance and urgency on his way to Jairus’ daughter. Jesus shows us that nothing is more important than intimate human connection—nothing. Nothing is more important than making time for someone, for taking the time to let someone who has been pushed aside take the center of your attention and concern. Nothing is more important than addressing the specific needs of someone who has been told that they do not belong. Jesus shows us that a kind word, a human connection, and a welcome into community are more important to him than just rushing by. Jesus makes time. And where he makes time, he makes relationships.
On Wednesday we held a powerful community gathering here in our sanctuary—Jeb Burke’s Celebration of Life. There were hundreds of people here in person in the church and hundreds more watching online. This was in part because Jeb was taken away from us too soon—he was only 61-years old. But it was also more than that. I heard story after story after story about Jeb from some of you, and from his family, and from many of the hundreds of people gathered in this sanctuary on Wednesday, and they said that Jeb Burke was so special to them because he was a person who knew how to make time for others. He had hundreds of friends and he made time for all of them. I heard from a man who said that even though he wasn’t Jeb’s oldest friend, or the friend who lived closest by, or the one who got to see him most often, Jeb would still send him text messages just to say good morning and to brighten his day. He told me this with tears in his eyes. It meant so much to him that he had a friend who was made the time for him. Jeb, I learned, lived with a philosophy of owning each day as a new opportunity to live the best day of your life. And he filled his days as much as he could with being there for other people, brightening their lives, and making time for anyone who needed it. And so Jeb Burke leaves behind him a beautiful legacy—we remember a man who was never in too much of a rush to offer his love.
More than half of the seminarians in the low-hurry group, who were told that they had plenty of time, stopped to help. But in the intermediate-hurry group, who were told they were expected right now, less than half stopped to help. And only 10% of those in the high-hurry group, who believed they were late and in a rush, stopped to help.
Beloved, in the 50 years since these seminarians were experimented on, our world has only gotten itself busier and in a bigger rush. Many of us have plenty of everything we need, except for one thing: We live in a time famine. We’re over scheduled, over worked, over committed. Our day-to-day lives are drifting deeper and deeper into the chaos of the high-hurry existence all the time. Rushing is a constant state. And it is cutting us off from what should be our biggest priority—one another.
When we live overwhelmed lives, in which we don’t feel like we are in control of our time, Jesus and the psychologists tell us, it is difficult for us to find the time for human compassion and connection. If only being a Christian were all about avoiding sin! Wouldn’t that be easy? Who has time for any funny business nowadays anyway? But instead, being a Christian is actually about making time for what is most important and actually doing it. And how often do we really make the time?
As we rush from urgency to urgency, let’s keep in mind that there is something that is always more important—a core human value of connection to God and to neighbor, and through them to our true selves—to the lives we want to actually live, to the legacy we want to actually leave behind. Jesus was getting at this when he said to Satan in the desert, “One cannot live by bread alone.” We must make the time for that which is most important even it if takes some urgent “bread off the table.” You have God’s permission to be less good at just about anything in your life if it gives you the time and the energy to be a better friend.
Beloved, let’s remember that our allegiance is not to the clock or to the to-do list or to any other worldly thing. Our allegiance is to God. And our calling is to one another. It’s not a calling to go whooshing past one another, maybe making things better, but never making a connection. We are called not just to cure, but to heal, to pay attention, to smile, to touch, to connect, to learn a new name, to slow down, to claw back from our taskmaster world the minutes, the hours, and the days for the most important endeavor we will ever undertake—our love for one another.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations