Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
January 29, 2022
Good Things Come to Those Who Wait?
Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12
About fifty years ago, a psychologist at Stanford named Dr. Walter Mischel devised an experiment to examine the relationship between self-control and success. The results shaped research and changed teaching and parenting for decades. The experiment involved – marshmallows. Maybe you are familiar with it. A young child, 4-5 years old, is seated at a table in an otherwise empty room, and the researcher places a single marshmallow on the table in front of them. The child can choose to eat the marshmallow right away, but if they wait 15 minutes without eating it, they will be rewarded with TWO marshmallows. Then the scientist leaves the room. The kid stares at the marshmallow. Do they eat it? Can they wait? Can they trust that the scientist was telling the truth and will return with another?
As you might imagine, some kids don’t wait. I don’t know if I could have. But those who did, who could distract themselves by singing or playing with their hands or turning around in their chair – those who resisted eating the marshmallow performed better on almost every marker of success years later than the kids who ate it right away. Higher test scores. Less likely to use drugs. Managed stress better. More advanced degrees. Turns out self-control is an important ingredient for success – if a child can delay gratification, and work hard without an immediate reward, it pays off in the long run. As the old Heinz 57 commercial goes… it appears that good things come to those who wait.
Now, because I am almost certain I would have eaten the marshmallow immediately, I’m relieved to learn that things are not always what they seem.
This experiment laid the groundwork for more recent scholarship about the importance of grit, stick-to-itiveness, and a growth mindset for achievement. We know that hard work and self-control are crucial skills for all of us to learn. But we know now also that they can be learned. Your ability to resist a treat at age 4 does not necessarily pre-determine your long-term outcomes. In fact, Dr. Mischel’s experiment has suffered from the problem of replicability. The initial group of kids were from affluent families who worked or taught or were enrolled at Stanford, kids from the Stanford day care. In every way, they were set up for success. When the experiment was run in larger, more diverse groups of children, with kids of different races and from a variety of incomes, the ability to wait is half as likely to predict success than in the original experiment. When scientists control for variables like income, academic achievement of parents, and other factors, the impact of a child’s self-control on future outcomes decreases even more.
Think about it: kids in families that are food-insecure, where every meal is not guaranteed, know that if you see food, you eat it. Kids in families where adults can’t always be relied on to deliver on promises for future treats know to eat the treat in front of them. Turns out, it’s a lot easier to wait to eat if you aren’t hungry to begin with.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Three weeks ago, Tyre Nichols was brutally beaten by police at a routine traffic stop, and three days later he died from his injuries. There is a lot of hunger and thirst for righteousness on the streets of Memphis this weekend, on the streets of Baltimore, and across our country. When will we be filled? Turns out, it is a lot easier to wait if you aren’t really hungry to begin with.
Blessed are those who grieve, Jesus says, for they will be comforted. Many, many people are grieving the death of Tyre, just as we grieve the deaths of William Brown, Jr, and Deonta Dorsey, and so many others. When will their families be comforted? Why must they wait?
People came to Jesus and crowded around him for healing. Scripture tells us from across Galilee, people suffering from every malady, illness and injury, have flocked to him so that he can make them well. They are poor, and desperate, living hand to mouth in an occupied land. Why does Jesus offer these blessings only in the future tense? Why must they wait? If God is loving, and just, and powerful, why must we wait for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream? Why can we not be filled with righteousness and find comfort in our grief right here, right now, today?
Grief does not feel like a blessing. On Friday, I was with my family, hugging my cousins after they buried their mama. There was nothing I could say that would lessen their pain, or to fill the void of her absence. Words offer little comfort. But it does help to be together.
What is Christ talking about here? Why is this unsatisfying list of blessings so crucial to Christ’s ministry that Matthew puts it front and center, right at the beginning of this sermon that forms the core of his gospel?
This scene tells us who Christ is and what he came to accomplish. He was a teacher, a preacher, and a healer. He came to bring about these blessings, because in and through him, the reign of God is near. Isn’t that what John says, Get ready, the kingdom is coming near? Jesus is calling us to realize that when we follow his call as disciples, we find ourselves blessed. Show mercy, and you will receive it, he says. Share love, and it comes back tenfold. Hunger and work for justice and righteousness, and God will bring it about through our efforts.
It might look like Rome is in charge. It might look like violence and division and cruelty and military might rule the day … but things are not always what they seem. Because Christ came to testify to the truth that God is in charge. Christ calls us to open our eyes, and see that the reign of God is here, within you and me and the community we create. And when we do that, when we work with God to create it and live it, uplifting the poor, building peace, seeking justice, acting with mercy and kindness, we don’t have to wait for these blessings. We experience them. Here, and now.
I love the message’s version of the gospel of John: God’s word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Christ knew what it was like to be us. He knew what it felt like to wait. He and his people endured the brutality of militarized police. He loved and lost. He grieved. He suffered. He taught and healed wounds wrought by violence and division. He knew the pain of living in a world that is broken but loved by God and destined ultimately for wholeness, healing, and joy. He knew that in and through him God’s work was begun, but not complete – and so it is true for us, as we exist in this in-between space, where the reign of God is here but not fully realized. And so we trust his promise that good things will come to those who wait, and work, and seek them.
Yesterday was Holocaust remembrance day, so I want to share with you that Walter Mischel, the Stanford psychologist, is Jewish. He was born in Austria. He was a child, just 8 years old, when Nazi Germany annexed his country. He remembers moving quickly from sitting in the front row of his classroom, to the back row, to standing in the back, to no longer being allowed to go to school at all. His family survived because they were able to flee to Brooklyn, where they were able to scrape by but only through hard work, and struggle. He talks about learning from his Yiddish grandmother the importance of sitzfleisch: continuing to work, regardless of the obstacles –today, we would call it grit.
This childhood experience of overcoming trauma shaped his research, and drove his inquiry into what builds grit in children, how self control and delayed gratification can set kids up for success.
And I can’t help but wonder if this is what Christ is seeking to instill in his disciples, too. Grit, sitzfleisch, stick-to-itiveness. A willingness to continue to work, to delay gratification, to keep on showing mercy, and loving kindness, and walking humbly – despite all obstacles. Even when the fury of Rome or the Memphis police is unleashed on you. Continuing to work for reform even when it seems that the system is so broken it needs to be scrapped completely. Hungering and thirsting and striving for justice, and holding fast to love, and mercy, because that is how we find the blessing of God’s love, and mercy all around us.
Lucky for us, this patience, this self-control, and stick-to-itiveness doesn’t have to be something we have from the start – it’s a skill that can be learned, cultivated. One marshmallow at a time, one day at a time. Choosing to find the blessing each day in loving kindness. Seeking mercy. And trusting Christ’s promise that the reign of God is near, if only we have the courage to see it. If only we have the courage to be it. May it be so.