Costly Signaling

A young springbok stotting (or pronking, or pronging).*

A young springbok stotting (or pronking, or pronging).*

You know that I love to share great words with you from the pulpit.  Here’s a new one: “stotting.”  Yes, “stotting,” from the verb, “to stot.”  If the word is unfamiliar to you, maybe you know one of its synonyms: “pronking” or “pronging”.  Stotting, or pronking, or pronging, is a behavior exhibited by quadrupeds, “particularly gazelles, in which they spring into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously. Usually, the legs are held in a relatively stiff position and the back may be arched with the head pointing downward.”*  It’s that marvelous spring-loaded bounce that we’ve seen gazelles make on nature documentaries when they leap into action.

There are lots of theories about why gazelles may stot, or pronk, or prong.  I think they probably do it because they can.  (I would.). But one theory is that stotting (or pronking, or pronging) is a development of an evolutionary biological system of signaling that facilitates a certain type of communication within and across various species.  For a gazelle, stotting, or pronking, or pronging might be an honest signal of the state of the animal’s health and strength.  On the one hand it’s an honest signal to would-be predators that the pronking gazelle is fast and fit, and perhaps not worth the trouble of chasing.  On the other hand, a young male gazelle who pronks may be sending an honest signal to young female gazelles (or other male gazelles, for all I know) that he is fast and fit, and definitely worth the trouble of chasing.

The point is that in gazelles, if this behavior can rightly be seen as signaling behavior, it seems to be of value because the signal is honest.  You see a young gazelle stotting, or pronking, or pronging, and what you see is what you get.

The theory that suggests that such behavior is at its root a kind of signaling, also sees a similar kind of signaling at work in certain religious traditions.  To this way of thinking, the ancient custom of male circumcision, or the somewhat less ancient custom of snake handling are both examples of signaling within religious communities.  In these examples, it may be that the chief characteristic of the signal is that it is costly, in that it comes with either sacrifice, or risk, or both.  Such costly signals may demonstrate loyalty, and contribute to a sense of shared trust and solidarity within religious groups, the theory goes.  But if there is any insight at all in reading religious signals this way, it seems to me that the signals need to be honest, too.  If you are going to talk the talk, you need to pronk the pronk.

Jesus is adept at deploying costly signals.  In the single paragraph of Luke’s Gospel we just heard, Jesus deployed three costly signals as challenges to the large crowd that’s following him around.  It may be that Jesus suspected that many people in that crowd were only there for the music.  And so he turned to them, and threw down three gauntlets, in the form of three costly signals.

One.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers, and sisters, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Two.  “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Three.  “None of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

As signals go, these three seem custom-made to help most would-be followers decide that Jesus is not worth chasing.  As for those who decide that Jesus is worth the chase... well, we can’t say that he didn’t warn us with his costly signals.

But first, we have to ask whether or not these signals are honest.  And I think we can affirm that his costly signals are also honest signals.

First.  When it comes to his family, we know that Jesus repeatedly gave them short shrift.  The only account we have of his childhood tells us that Mary and Joseph felt the sting of his independence from them when they found him in the temple, after he’d be missing three days.

Second.  The Cross speaks for itself, since it caused Jesus to fall three times under its weight, and it was the instrument of his execution.

Third.  As for possessions, well... the story of Jesus’ life and ministry make no mention whatsoever of things he might have owned.  He never had a house that we know of.  There’s no mention of him carrying so much as a bag with him (and he told his disciples not to, either).  It’s not clear that he even owned a blanket to sleep beneath or a pillow on which to lay his head.

So it seems fair to say that if these three challenges are signals, they are honest signals from Jesus.

Back when the church was strong and the marketplace was weak(er), the church, too, was adept at deploying costly signals.  Make your confession every week.  Don’t eat meat on Fridays.  Father knows best.  (These kinds of things.)  These signals became deeply problematic for the church because it turned out that although they were costly, they were not really honest signals.  Confession became a means of control, not real pardon.  Fish Fridays didn’t often deepen anyone’s faith.  And much of the time Father did not know best.

Nowadays, we live in a world that is increasingly defined by its signals, on all sides, particularly in the marketplace.  Our lives are constantly manipulated by advertisers who deal in signals all day long.  Our communications have been shaped more by short bursts of signals than by reasoned discourse, dialogue, or discussion.  The clothes we wear, the ways we travel, the places and things we eat, the ink we use to decorate our bodies are all signals - and designed to be such.  “Everyone is signaling all the time.”**

Strangely (and dangerously) we have become unusually accepting of dishonest signals:  Smoking is sexy.  Joining a gym will make you fit.  A “happy meal” can be purchased at a counter and eaten in the car.  Indeed, we are subject to a steady stream of dishonest signals that encourage us to believe that money can buy happiness; politics is about winning, not compromise; we can win all wars; and all the trash we are creating is no big deal.  And since it’s easier than ever to choose the signals we like, and tune out the signals we don’t like, well, it’s also easier than ever to convince ourselves that dishonest signals are really honest, since we seldom put them to the test.

Jesus, often forgotten about, comes pronking into our lives with his Cross.  Admittedly, the weight of it keeps the stotting to a minimum, and soon sees him on the ground, but still....

And we are confronted (on Homecoming Sunday, which, frankly, ought to offer a much easier Gospel to preach on ), with the costliness and honesty of the Cross, of the all-encompassing nature of the call to follow Jesus, and of the clear suggestion that we have ordered our lives around all the wrong things, because we have, indeed ordered our lives around things.

But, if this Gospel message speaks to you (and I hope it does), then maybe it’s because, costly as his signals are, Jesus’ signals are also deeply honest.  It’s as if he knows that we’ve been knocked down ourselves by crosses of different shapes and sizes.  It’s as if he knows that we are starting to get sick and tired of all the dishonest signals out there.  It’s as if he knows we want to be something more than consumers doing the bidding of a marketplace.  It’s as if he knows what we have always suspected - that we were made for love.

And Jesus refuses to send us dishonest signals.  Which is why the signals he sends look and sound so costly to us.  And of the three signals in this morning’s Gospel passage, one is far more important than the others.  Yes, the Cross is the costliest signal of them all.  But its reward is commensurate with its cost: that is to say everything.  The Cross costs everything.  And the Cross gains everything.  Everything that matters, that is.  Which is to say, love.

Look, there are a lot of signals out there to choose from.  Everyone is signaling all the time.  Including God, it would seem.  For an hour or so each week, why not come stotting in here with Jesus?

It turns out that the word “stot” is “a common Scots and Northern English verb meaning ‘bounce’ or ‘walk with a bounce.’”  And pronking “comes from the Afrikaans verb pronk-, which means ‘show off’ or ‘strut’, and is a cognate of the English verb ‘prance.’”***. Now, in a place like this, I have to be careful about encouraging anyone (myself included) to prance or strut.  Let’s leave that to the Mummers!

But something about the idea of a church that bounces, seems alright to me.  Especially since something that bounces always has the possibility of bouncing home, like a prodigal child, like one who was lost but now is found, like someone who’s been at the shore all summer!

If everyone is signaling all the time, why shouldn’t Jesus be signaling us too?  I believe his signals are both costly and honest, and they are meant to show us the truth in a world that would mostly rather convince us to buy something, using whatever signals it takes.  But Jesus’ signals always come with the living memory that when he was taken down from the Cross and laid in his grave, dead, as dead can be… Jesus came pronking up from death to bring light where there had only been darkness, hope where there had been only despair, and life where there had only been death…not because of his family ties and connections, not because of his wealth and possessions, not because death doesn’t happen.  But because his signals are both costly and honest.  And God’s power, made perfect in weakness, overcomes cross and grave, transcends all family ties, and depends on no wealth or possessions.

And God is signaling to us, that it’s not only gazelles who can go bouncing, or stotting, or pronging through the challenges of life.  By God’s grace, we can, too, if we’ll take up our Cross and follow him, pronking as we go.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Sunday, 8 September 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


**Jane Coaston in The NY Times, 8/8/17

*** Alas, this information is not provided in the Oxford English Dictionary, which includes an entry for “stot,” but not one for “pronk.”  It comes from Wikipedia.

Posted on September 8, 2019 .