Pentecost–Lectionary 12 (1 Samuel 14, Mark 4:35-4:1) June 24, 2012
In a fantastic address to the graduating class at Princeton this year, Michael Lewis offered this advice to the students: “Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie.” Michael Lewis is the author of Moneyball, the book about baseball that was made into a Brad Pitt movie last year, and he also ended up, by chance, working on Wall Street. And after making a good chunk of change, he wrote a book about the financial industry’s darker side. He landed on Wall Street because one night at dinner he happened to sit next to the wife of the CEO, and she liked him so much she convinced her husband to give him a job. He shared this story with the class because he wanted to make a point: some of us get lucky, but luck and real accomplishment are not the same thing.
He told this great story about an experiment conducted at Stanford University. Three people were brought into the room to participate in some social research. One was appointed, at random, to be the leader. There was nothing special about this person. No skills that set them apart to lead the group. And what’s more, they had no special duties. They did nothing above what the rest of the group did. It was luck, and only luck, that they were chosen to be the leader.
While the three were sitting at the table, four cookies were placed in front of them and then they were left alone in the room. In almost every case this is what happened: each person ate a cookie. And then the leader, without being asked, without any discussion, grabbed the fourth one for himself and ate it. Clearly, despite having done absolutely nothing to merit it, he felt he deserved that cookie.
Today, our readings give us two examples of leadership. We know from last week that David never aspired to be a leader, and certainly his family didn’t see him as one. He wasn’t even in the group when Jesse was asked by God to anoint one of his sons. But now, in battle for his people, against Goliath, the giant, young David steps up. He believes in his ability to prevail against insurmountable odds. Of course, we know the famous story: David, facing all of Goliath’s weapons and armour, places a rock in his slingshot, takes aim, fires, and kills Goliath with a stone that strikes his forehead.
In many ways, David epitomizes what we desire in a leader. First of all, he doesn’t aspire to be a leader. We rightly question people who seem to hunger for power – it feels like the perks of leadership might mean more to them than leading. Ambition is important – but what is driving that ambition? Do you want to be rich and famous, or do you want to do good for others? Do you want applause, or do you want to use your talents for making the world a better place? In other words: are you willing to share the fourth cookie with someone who needs it more, or do you simply want to enjoy it for yourself?
The other quality David demonstrates is faith; and faith walks hand in hand with optimism. We desire leaders who don’t give up, who keep trying, who look at what’s not working and try, over and over and over again, to fix it. When we face a giant on a battlefield, that is also bravery. It means looking at the fourth cookie and figuring out how to put it to its best use.
In our gospel reading, we also hear about Jesus’s leadership. A storm has come up while the disciples are out in a boat, and Jesus, their leader, is sleeping below. The disciples are afraid, and who wouldn’t be? And they wake Jesus up, and cry for his help. Jesus responds by calming the seas. “Why did you even doubt it would work out?” he asks the disciples. “Have faith.” In this response, Jesus demonstrates a third quality that we value in leadership: calm in the face of panic. We want our leaders to be the reassurance in the storm, the ones who tell us, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out, the seas will calm.” The ones who, when the cookies run out, will distract us from our hungry stomachs and help us focus on finding more.
So three qualities of strong leadership: ambition based on leading, not glory; faith that things will work out; and a calm voice in the midst of the rough-and-tumble of life.
And these are also the same qualities we want in ourselves and in our children, who, let’s be honest, have been given their own fortune’s cookie. It’s easy to forget how good we have it, how straight, compared to most of the other people in the world, the path to success is for us. We live – and our children live – in one of the most affluent countries in the world and one of the most educated. In a democracy that respects our freedom. They go to good schools, and no one pulls them out at Grade 6 to work in a field or babysit their siblings. They don’t worry about shootings in their neighborhood or how to buy food. They get music lessons and soccer practice and tutors if they need them.
So what do we tell them? Too often, we make it about them: as if they have gotten where they are on merit alone. (And, let’s be honest, we often forget this same message for ourselves.) But that’s a mistake, and this is the point that Michael Lewis was making, because ultimately, they got lucky. They had it easy. And they shouldn’t forget that. Every day, all of us need to be grateful for that luck, relatively speaking, compared to the rest of the world. Because remembering this forces us to push harder, to do better, to pay back. It requires that we don’t eat that fourth cookie when we are already stuffed. We share it. We relinquish it. We find that truly hungry person, and quietly, without hope of reward, we give it to them.
The gospel is, then, an inoculation, against stuffing down that fourth cookie. Are we considered special to God? Of course. But special in a way that doesn’t rank us above one another. God isn’t pinning a gold ribbon on me and a silver one on you. We are special to God in that we are accepted for our talents and our failings, in our individuality. And so loved and supported, we are meant to go out and do something with those gifts. The gospel teaches us to be humble, and yet to be confident and optimistic, to be calm when everything else is falling apart.
If we hear that message – really hear it – we don’t need that fourth cookie. In fact, we are fed more by the sharing of it. If we hear the gospel – and I hope this is the message our children hear – then we treat our good fortune as a foundation, a springboard to accomplish something great. And by great, let’s be clear: that doesn’t mean we cure cancer. It means we live life as an outward gesture to other people in thankfulness for what we have already received.
So, watch for the time when you reach too quickly for Fortune’s Cookie and stay your hand. I imagine that every time you do, you will look up and see someone else who needs it more. Amen.