The Abilene Paradox is a phenomenon in which a group of people collectively make a decision that none of them, individually, is particularly happy about. The paradox was first described by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in 1974, and the name comes from the example he provides in which a family decides together to go on a long drive to Abilene, Texas, when, individually, none of them actually wants to go. Let’s bring it a little closer to home. It’s Thanksgiving morning and your in-laws are visiting. You, thinking that your father-in-law looks a little bored, suggest that you make the long trek down to the Ben Franklin Parkway to watch the 6abc Thanksgiving Day Parade. This is not what you want to do. You want to stay in your jammies for as long as possible, only rising from your coffee and your couch for a quick shave before heading over to church. But your father-in-law smiles and says, “Sure! I’m game.” Your mother-in-law says she’d love to go, and your husband nods and starts hunting through the closet for the thermos.
What you don’t know is that your father-in-law only agreed to go because he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings, your mother-in-law’s back is actually bothering her a bit, and your husband is secretly rolling his eyes as he digs around in the closet. But because none of you spoke up, the group decides to go, and later when you’re all grumpy and finally admit to each other that what you really wanted was to come to Mass instead, no one can understand how you all decided to go in the first place. Behold – the Abilene Paradox.
It’s kind of like when a group of ten lepers, upon hearing that Jesus is passing by, decides to follow the rules and keep their distance. They cry out to him, they call his name, they beg for healing, but they don’t budge an inch. “We should stay back here,” one says. “Right,” replies another. And the whole group mm-hmm’s and nods their heads even though all of them are secretly wishing they had decided to forget the rules just this once and run up to him. But the group thinks that’s a bad idea, and so they all stand still.
Remember that life for a leper during the time of the Gospels was about as bleak as life can possibly get. If it is difficult for you to imagine a world where someone could be exiled and treated so heartlessly simply because of a mysterious disease they had unwillingly contracted, think back only a very few years to the anxious meanness of the AIDS crisis. It was this same kind of comprehensive cruelty that lepers faced once they were declared ritually impure by their priests. In a world where germ theory was unknown and treatment for skin diseases ineffective, the only option for lepers was exile. They lost their livelihoods, their families, their sense of self-worth. They were treated with equal parts fear and disgust and lived their whole lives in total exclusion, slaves to the tyranny of their disease.
And then along comes Jesus – this man who seems to be able to heal almost anything. He’s healed a leper before, our group of ten has heard that, and when they hear that he is passing through their little town on his way to Jerusalem, they make their move. Cautiously. Keeping their distance, they call out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And they stand still, every cell in their body longing to throw themselves at his feet, but standing still, and waiting.
When he tells them to go to the priests, they know that something is in the works. He wouldn’t ask them to go to the priests unless he thought that there was something to show them, some change, some healing. And as they go, Luke tells us, they were made clean. I wonder what that looked like. Did one of them just happen to look down at her hands and see that her skin was suddenly spotless? Did one of them look up at his companion and see a familiar face that was unfamiliarly whole? What happened when they saw that they had been healed? I can only imagine the cries of elation and leaps of joy that erupted in the middle of that dusty road.
But when they settle down, one of them says that they should continue on. And another says that he agrees. And a third nods. What they don’t know is that they’re only agreeing to go because they’re trying to be good and follow the rules. What they really want to do is run and jump and laugh and skip and then sprint at full speed back into the village, careening around each corner and finally sliding and skidding to a full stop at the feet of Jesus. This is what they want to do, and this time, one of them does. He breaks away, runs back to Jesus, praising God all the while at the top of his lungs. And when he finds him, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet, looks up, and, from the bottom of his bursting, happy heart, he says thank you.
Today, we have come together to enact a paradox of our own. This is the Thanksgiving Paradox. This is the day when a group of people decides together to give thanks, even though individually, we might not feel like it much. Today, instead of the group limiting our ability for true joy, the group strengthens us to do something we sometimes have a hard time doing on our own. For who of us wakes up every single Thanksgiving morning overflowing with gratitude? Maybe we’re feeling more fearful than grateful this morning, more lonely or frustrated or tired.
But here is the paradox – if you put together a group of not-quite-overflowing-with-gratitude individuals, and invite them to be thankful, suddenly, they can be. The group expectation of joy and thankfulness can transcend any personal reluctance any of us might have. When we come together and sing these cherished Thanksgiving hymns, when we hear these lessons where we are reminded of God’s great goodness, when we say Happy Thanksgiving! with a smile and a nod, suddenly, we find ourselves transformed. Suddenly, we find ourselves grateful, ready to throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet, hearts bursting and happy.
This is the power of what we do every week here at Saint Mark’s, every day, in fact. We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, to thank God for his wondrous works, to lift up our prayers, so that we can, in this holy group, be transformed. So that when we go forth from this place, we will register everything we see as gift and cry out in a loud voice, thank you, thank you! So that when we go forth from this place, we will look for those people who are on the outside looking in and call out to them – sister! brother! – and reach out a hand. So that when we go forth from this place, we will dare to even break some of society’s rules if it means proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. This kind of group – this congregation, this communion – creates Thanksgiving, and that gratitude changes the world – bringing about light where there is only darkness, hope where there is only despair, joy where there is only fear. So, you faithful congregation, it’s Thanksgiving morning. Do you feel like giving thanks to God? Maybe allowing your life to be healed, blessed, and utterly transformed in the process? I thought so. Me too.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
23 November 2017, Thanksgiving Day
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia