Actions speak louder
I’m sure you’re aware that the first debate between Donald Trump Hillary Clinton is tomorrow night. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Actually, it’s not the debate itself I’m not looking forward to, I will probably either find a bar or a friend’s house to watch it at, or if I’m not feeling very social, I’ll listen to it on the radio. What I’m not looking forward to is all of the post-debate analysis, both the ‘professional’ analysis by the media, and the responses by folks on Facebook and Twitter and the proverbial water cooler conversations over the next few days. I’m not looking forward to it because in this election season and with these two candidates, more so than any other election in my lifetime, the negativity and vitriol have been overwhelming. Both sides share the blame here: both candidates, and their supporters, have said things and used language that has virtually guaranteed that there can be no civil exchange of ideas, no reasonable discussion, no conversation about this election unless you’re on the same side. In fact, some of the most upsetting conversations I’ve had this election cycle have been with people who share my views. I’m astonished at how ready they are to paint the other side in broad, negative strokes, how dismissive they are of what I know are real concerns and fears held by millions of Americans. One study by VitalSmarts, an organization that studies how people behave and function in the workplace, found that nine out of ten potential voters said the 2016 elections are more polarizing and controversial than the 2012 elections, and 81% said they avoid political discussions are all costs (see footnote). They also found that one in three of us have been attacked, insulted, or called names for sharing our opinions about this election; one in four have had a political discussion permanently damage a relationship.
The researchers at VitalSmarts wondered what it would take to talk politics without losing friends. Are there reliable ways to both express our views and keep relationships? They started by asking people to describe the voters who support a candidate they oppose. The most common adjectives they used were (in order): angry, uneducated, ignorant, uninformed, racist, white, narrow, and blind. Small wonder these discussions turn into fights! Next, they invited people to participate in an online experiment. They asked 3,500 people about their political opinions, then asked them to watch one of two versions of a video of someone advocating a strong political position opposite of their own - for example, those who said they were in favor of immediate deportation of illegal immigrants watched a 60 second video of someone describing why they thought such a policy would be both immoral and damaging to the economy. In one version of the video, the actor used four simple skills to talk about their position; in the second version, the actor spoke in absolutes and villainized the other point of view. They then asked those who had watched the videos to judge how diplomatic, likable, knowledgeable, and persuasive this person appeared, as well as how willing they would be to continue this conversation.
The results are astonishing. When the actors used the four simple skills, they were:
-five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
-four times more likely to be seen as likable
-three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
-140% more persuasive
-140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
-180% more likely to maintain relationships with others.
When the same actors didn’t use the four skills, observers labeled them as “abrasive,” “unlikeable,” and “ignorant.”
What were those four simple skills? The first is to the “focus on learning.” Frame your conversation as a chance to learn from each other, not to change each other’s minds. Simply being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage. For example, “I know what I think about immigration, but I’m curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?” I actually tried this a few weeks ago with my dad, before reading about this study. We have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum since the late ’80's and more conversations over the years than I can count have ended in yelling and stomping around. It took some effort on my part to not argue or even comment on what he was saying about why he is supporting who he is supporting this year, but in exchange for that effort, I got a deeper sense of where he’s coming from and what his concerns are. Plus, we didn’t have another loud fight.
I haven’t really tried the other three skills, but they sound pretty good to me. The second skill is “Ask for permission” to talk about the sensitive topic. That may sound like, “I’m not wanting a debate, and I’m not trying to change your mind. I just want to understand. I see this issue very differently. Would it be okay if I explained my perspective?” Third is “Show respect.” Others will not engage with you if they on’t feel you respect them. Over-communicate your respect for the other person and his or her opinion: “I value you and your perspective. I want to hear from you. I don’t assume I’m right.” Finally, “Focus on common ground.” Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. If or when the conversations takes a more dramatic turn, look for the great principle governing bother opinions and you’ll likely find a mutual purpose behind your convictions. Say things like: “I want to find the goals we share, and then look at the issue with those goals in mind.”
I suspect these skills might not only help us bridge the chasm of politics these days, but they may well help us in other areas of our lives, other situations where opinions vary and emotions run strong. VitalSmarts calls these skills simple; the skills may be simple, but I know that remembering to use them can be hard. In the heat of the moment, our back is up a bit and we speak without considering too carefully the impact of our words. Our spouse is late home for dinner and we light into them for being rude and inconsiderate. A friend makes a comment about the behavior of children in public which we hear as a criticism of our own kids, and we take offense. Or we are faced with the latest news, a suspected terrorist attack, another report of police using lethal force, the latest remarks made by a politician, I’m sure you have your own list. Before we have thought through the consequences, we spout off about it to our friends, to our co-workers, on Facebook or other social media. Predictably enough, our comments are misconstrued or heard through someone else’s filter, and without intending to, we’ve given offense. I sometimes wonder if the better thing to do, for ourselves, for our relationships, for the sake of community, wouldn’t be to say a lot less.
Jeremiah has gotten to that point in first reading this morning. For most of the book, thirty chapters, Jeremiah has spoken up. To anyone who would listen, even to people who didn’t want to listen, Jeremiah talks and talks and talks. He says he speaks for God, and maybe that’s the case, but after awhile, the people don’t really care. According to Jeremiah, nothing that anyone in Israel, from the king to the priests to the merchants to the shopkeepers to the farmers right on down to the poor, nothing anyone has done has been right in the sight of God. God chose Israel as the nation favored among nations, and in response, Israel failed to do anything that God asked in return. Israel worships the wrong gods in the wrong places in the wrong ways with the wrong prayers and the wrong offerings. The people lie, they connive, they cheat, they steal, they do evil after evil after evil, generation after generation. And you know what? God’s sick of it. Even now, Jeremiah proclaims, God is plotting Israel’s destruction. God is sending pestilence, storms, earthquakes. God is even raising up armies of Israel’s enemies to overthrow them. When God is finished with them, it will be like Israel never existed. The country will cease to be, the people will be scattered like sheep. In a generation or two, no one will even remember the name of its mighty capital Jerusalem and Israel itself will be a vague memory, a rumor.
I’m guessing that for most of Jeremiah’s life, people ignored him the same way we ignore those pamphlet wielding street prophets proclaiming “The end is near!” today. It’s not that we don’t think there are things wrong with the world, ways God is calling us to do better. It’s just we’re on our way to Wegmans, or the kids have to be picked up from soccer, or we’ve got to get to work, or we’re worried about the declining health of our parents. Plus, they look and sound kind of crazy, not the sort of people it would be fun to get to know or to have dinner with. So we do our best to ignore them, we cross to other side of the street, try not to make eye contact.
People did that to Jeremiah, too, until one day one his prophecies starts to come true. The Babylonian army, a huge contingent of well-armed soldiers, sweeps down out of the north and lays siege to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a fortress, a walled city built high up on a hill, easy to defend. In the early days of the siege, there’s still hope that the Babylonians will get tired and pack up and go home - armies have given up before. But as the months wear on, people remember that Jeremiah said this was going to happen, Jeremiah said that God was raising up the nations against them. Then they start to listen to Jeremiah a little closer. Jeremiah tells them that God is going to give Jerusalem into the hand of the king of Babylon and he will take it. Not even the King of Israel will escape, he and all the rest of the people will be taken to Babylon. Israel will cease to be. Resistance is futile. What the nation should do now, Jeremiah says, is give up, cut their loses, surrender to the Babylonians, beg for mercy.
Proclaiming that the end is near during peace time makes you kind of a lunatic, but proclaiming that surrender is the only option when the enemy is at the gates makes you a traitor. You can’t have someone shouting those things on street corners, it scares people, undermines their confidence. The king has Jeremiah arrested and confined to one of the inner courtyards of the palace where at least his ravings won’t be heard by the people. The king asks Jeremiah what was he thinking, proclaiming that the Babylonians are going to win? In response, Jeremiah finally stops talking and does something. His cousin is having some financial trouble, and in order to pay his debts, he wants to sell a field he owns in Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown. In such cases, the option to buy the land goes to relatives first, so at the least the property stays in the family. The option to buy the land falls to Jeremiah. Now, remember, the Babylonians have Jerusalem surrounded and Jeremiah himself is imprisoned. He can’t go check out the land, he’s got to buy it sight unseen. And, he’s spent the last decade proclaiming that Israel is going to be overthrown and the people hauled off into exile. This is hardly the time to be buying real estate. But that is exactly what Jeremiah does, in a very public transaction completed right there in the king’s court in front of the king’s guards and advisors. He has the deed sealed up in a jar, the ancient world’s equivalent of a safe deposit box. And then he says: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
None of this reverses the earlier prophecy of Israel’s destruction. Jeremiah knows the Babylonians are going to win, they’re going to destroy Jerusalem, haul the people off in exile. But Jeremiah knows that’s not going to be the final word, he knows that God will restore Israel, God will bring them back from exile to their homeland. He buys the field in Anathoth to express his hope, to proclaim his faith in God’s power to redeem even the worst things that life brings. Jeremiah somehow knows that words won’t proclaim that message as powerfully as action. Jeremiah proclaims his faith in God, proclaims his reliance on God and God’s promises in a concrete way.
There are opportunities in our lives to have constructive conversations about difficult issues. Remembering to listen more than we speak, to really make an effort to understand where others are coming from, can help us remain connected and build community and work together to bring about the kingdom. There are other times in our lives when it is probably more appropriate for us to talk less and express ourselves through action. Feel strongly about this election? Cast your vote in November. Concerned about poverty? Work in our community garden or volunteer at the food shelf to make life better for those in need in the Hilton Parma community. May God grant us the wisdom and presence of mind to know what to say and how to listen to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. May God grant us the strength to act in ways that express our beliefs and values. May we do our part to build up God’s kingdom in our world today.
*Information about the VitalSmarts study is from this website: https://www.vitalsmarts.com/press/2016/09/how-to-disagree-with-your-friends-about-politics-and-keep-them-too-new-research-shows-your-delivery-matters-more-than-your-position/ Accessed 9/24/2016.
"And his master commended the dishonest manager because he has acted shrewdly...You cannot serve God and wealth." Luke 16: 1-13
I’m curious about your responses to this simple scenario. You go to Best Buy to shop for a new coffee maker. You find a model you’re happy with; it costs $50. You’re about to pick it up and take it to the register when the sales clerk says to you, “You know, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but there’s a special promotion running on this model at another store across town. You can get this exact coffee maker for $40 instead of $50.” The other store is about thirty minutes away. Do you make the drive?
Or consider this variation of that scenario. Instead of a new coffee maker, you go to shop for a new dishwasher. This is a higher ticket item, obviously, but you find a model you’re satisfied with for $500. You’re ready to check out when the sales clerk says to you, “Hey, I’m talking myself out of a commission here, but you should be aware that there’s a special promotion running on this model at another store across town. You can get this exact dishwasher for $485 instead of $500.” Are you more or less likely to drive across town for the discount on the coffee maker or the dishwasher?
Here’s the problem that most of have in evaluating these scenarios and making a wise decision. We look at the percentages: in the case of the coffee maker, we’re ‘saving’ 20% by driving an extra half hour. In the case of the dishwasher, we’re ‘saving’ a measly 3.75% for the same amount of time. In reality, though, what goes in our savings account is not percentages: it’s dollars. With the coffee maker, we save $10; with the dishwasher, we save $15. If we have to choose, it makes financial sense to take the drive for $15 rather than $10, even if somehow it doesn’t feel like that’s smart choice.
We make these kind of decisions all the time, and many of us get them wrong. Consider: economists asked consumers how much they would need to save, in real dollars, to justify spending an extra twenty minutes. For a $10 dollar pen, consumers on average needed to ‘save’ $3.75 to make it worth their spending the extra twenty minutes. For a $30,000 car, they had to ‘save’ $277.83 to make it ‘worth’ their time. Somehow, psychologically we tend to get percentages and dollars confused: $3.75 on a $10 dollar pen seems like a much better deal than $277.83 on a $30,000 car, but they’re both costing us the same 20 minutes of our time.
A final example, one I’m definitely guilty of. We’ll spend hours online searching for the best deal for relatively small ticket items and virtually no time at all looking carefully at our retirement investments. The result is I’ll save 30% on a pair of khackis, resulting in a few extra bucks, but put my savings in a mutual fund that charges .25% more in fees, which over time, costs me thousands of dollars in lost returns. All of this is neatly summed up in the title of a paper by the economist Ofer Azar: “Do Consumers Make Too Much Effort to Save on Cheap Items and Too Little to Save on Expensive Items?” The answer is an overwhelming ‘yes!’
The bad news is that this poor decision making seems to be hardwired in our brains. It’s related to our tendency to think in relative rather than absolute terms. For instance, we’re more likely to notice a drumbeat is loud if we’ve just been listening to violin music. The other day, I picked out a pot of asters that I would have sworn was blue, only to get it home to realize it is in reality a pale sort of purple. It had been tucked in with a bunch of deep purple asters at the store, and I mistakenly interpreted the lighter shade for a different color. Add a little weight to an almost empty suitcase and you’ll notice it; if you add the same weight to a full suitcase, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. We tend to think and evaluate in relative rather than absolute terms.
There is good news, however: correcting this tendency, at least when it comes to financial decisions, is fairly straightforward. When it comes to money, stop looking at relative values and start looking at absolutes. Dollars, not percentages, matter. And the interesting thing is that people lower down on the economic scale seem to understand this more than people who are relatively well-off. When every dollar matters, when each dollar could make the difference between eating and going hungry, you tend to see it for what is is: a dollar, not a percentage or a seemingly better deal. It’s not that poorer people pinch pennies more than folks who are wealthier: it’s that they’re better at it. They understand the value of a dollar in concrete, absolute terms, not as a percentage of something.
Jesus tells the perplexing story we just heard about a rich man and his manager to people who almost certainly were the expert penny pinchers of their day, the folks at the bottom of the economic ladder, the people who knew the real, concrete value of a dollar. They had to know this, because they were poor, really, really poor. Nearly everyone in Jesus’s day was really, really poor. You’ve heard the news stories about the growing gap between the 99 and the 1 percent, how wealth in this country is being consolidated in the hands of the very, very few super rich. I’m not saying it isn’t a problem for us to today, but it was an even bigger problem in Jesus’s day. As Jesus traveled around the countryside, most of the people he talked to were subsistence farmers. You’d lease a bit of land from a landowner, you’d grow your crop, and at the end of the harvest, the landowner or his manager would show up to collect their ‘rent.’ The rents are exorbitant, usually 90% or more of the harvest. If you’re lucky, after you pay the rent, and set aside seed for the following year, you have enough to provide for your family. But you don’t get lucky most years. It’s a brutally hot, dry summer, not enough rain, and the crop yield is lousy, or the locusts swarm through and devastate the fields, or some kind of blight you didn’t spray for causes the fruit to wither on the vine. When the landowner shows up to collect the rent, you don’t have quite enough, and so you beg for a little mercy, beg for a little more time. The landowner makes a great show of his generosity and magnificence and says, “That’s alright, I understand. You can pay me the 20 bushels you owe me next season, but of course, it’ll have to be 30 bushels: I’ve got my own family to feed, a business to run. After all, this isn’t a charity.” A few seasons of this sort of thing, and pretty soon you’re so far behind that there is no chance of ever catching up. All hope that you once had of saving up enough to buy your own plot of land and working for yourself dries up. You come to face the depressing, soul-crushing reality: You’ll live your life the way your parents did before you and their parents before them, breaking your back to barely put food on the table, always wondering if there will be enough to feed your children.
That’s life for the people who first hear this parable firsthand from Jesus. They know the situation well. They can picture the rich man living far off in his big comfortable house overlooking the sea of Galilee. They might get a glimpse of people like him once in a blue moon, at a festival or religious holiday. He’d be dressed in fine robes, surrounded by servants; he’d travel in a covered caravan with his beautiful wives. This guy is so rich his tenants may never have met him face to face. He’s more of an idea than an actual person. It’s hard to hate an idea; in fact, most of them envy the rich man. They dream about what his life must be like, the fancy food he must enjoy, and the parties with famous people, and all that time he has to play golf and go skiing and travel and do whatever he pleases without the pressure of tending to the fields. Deep down inside they dream of somehow becoming rich themselves and enjoying that kind of life for themselves.
They know the manager, too. The manager is not an idea of a person, he is very, very real. The manager shows up randomly throughout the year, acting cheery and asking how things are going. He commiserates with them when the weather is bad, congratulates them when they have a baby, sometimes even manages to remember their birthdays. It’s all fake, though, and it’s all they can do to keep up that inane small talk without punching the guy in the face. He doesn’t care about them, not one bit. The only visit that is real is the one in the fall, after the harvest, when the manager shows up to collect the rent. It’s always more, more than it was last year, more than they can afford, more because the landowner built a new pool this summer and wants to pay it off, more because the manager adds a little commission for himself so he can feed his family. They never have enough to pay it all, and they have to swallow their pride and their bile and do their best to grit their teeth and act grateful when the manager agrees to hold off collecting what they can’t pay until the following year, with the extra tacked on. They don’t envy the manager, or dream about having his job: they just hate him, hate that he lives off of their hard work, hate that he tries to cozy up to them when all he’s really doing is working for the rich man, hate that they’re never sure if he’s taking more off the top than he should. Jesus’s hearers know all about the rich man; they know all about the manager.
Then the story takes a delicious twist: the manager is in trouble! He’s going to lose his job! Maybe he stole something, maybe he was cheating the rich man, maybe he had skimmed too much off the top, who knows, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is he’s out, he’s fired. Jesus’s listeners imagine the tenant farmers raising a glass at the pub to his unlamented memory: it couldn’t happen to more deserving fellow, what do you know, guys, sometimes people do get their just desserts after all.
Then Jesus’s story really takes a turn. The manager calls the tenants in, one by one. He asks them how much they owe his master. One says a hundred jugs of olive oil, and he slashes the bill to fifty. Another says a hundred containers of wheat, and he slashes the bill to eighty. One after another, the tenants come in and the manager cuts their bill. Jesus doesn’t say whether the manager is just taking off what he had added on for his own take, or if he’s removing the interest from past years when the tenants couldn’t pay the full rent, or if maybe he’s got some sort of other calculus in mind. Maybe the manager has figured out who’s more likely to help him after he’s lost his job and he’s trying to butter them up. All of his life, the manager has had to figure out how to keep the rich man happy; now, overnight, he’s got to figure out how to keep everyone else happy. These tenant farmers will hopefully remember what the manager did and they might give him a little something to eat, maybe even find a job for him. Anyway, the rich man is so impressed by the dishonest master for figuring out how to deal with his situation, he commends him.
I imagine Jesus’s original hearers, the subsistence farmers, the fishermen, the shepherds, the peddlers, the craftspeople, heard this story as good news, every way they looked at it. The rich man ends the story with a little less, but he can afford it. The manager is out of a job, good riddance. And the little guys, the tenant farmers, the ones at the bottom of the ladder? They finally catch a break. Their bills got slashed; the dream of someday being free from the rents is once again tantalizingly in reach: just a couple of good growing seasons, and they might be able to pay off everything they owe and buy a little plot land for themselves. True, the manager is going to come around looking for a little handout, a little quid pro quo, but he’s doesn’t have any power or authority anymore. If he shows up on a day when the tenants are feeling good and light-hearted and generous, maybe they’ll ask him to stay for dinner. If not, they’ll send him on his way without feeling too guilty about it.
But as they walk away, I’ll bet they start to think a little. Wait a minute, they think. Did Jesus just say that justice came to the farmers through the dishonest actions of the manager? Is that how justice works? Is that really how God’s kingdom works? Is God sneaky? Does God work the system to God’s own advantage? And if God works that way, maybe I could, too. I loaned my neighbor a measure of grain last year on the condition that he pay me back a measure and a half this year. I mean, it seems like that’s the way the system works. But maybe by buying into that system, I’m no better than the manager or the rich man. Maybe I’ll slash that half measure from my neighbor’s bill and let a little justice prevail for once, help my neighbor out in a pinch. Maybe I can help God’s kingdom break in today, sneak in under the radar. Maybe that little seed of justice will grow into a tree.
How do you hear Jesus’s story today? Is there good news here for you? As I lived with this story this week, I began to hear a bit of good news for myself. I think about the manager. He’s caught in the middle: he’s not a wealthy guy like the landowner. Probably he was born into a poor family, and somehow caught the landowner’s attention at some point, who gave him this job. It’s a lousy job, really. He knows all the tenants hate him. He tries to be friendly because it just seems like the nicer thing to do. He envies the landowner, desperately wants the life that he has, but knows deep down inside he’ll never have it. And here’s the thing: I’ll bet he feels compassion for the tenants. He sees their living conditions, he sees how hard they work, he sees how the system that he’s a part of is rigged against them. He hates the harvest season, hates having to go collect he exorbitant rents, but that’s his job, he and his family have to eat. He wishes there was something he could do for the tenants, someway he could make life better. But the problem is his compassion for the tenants is drowned out, squeezed out of him by the fear he has of being forced to someday live like them. He knows he’d never survive that kind of life, he couldn’t do the back-breaking work. And so he plays his part. He tries to convince himself that the tenants deserve to live that way because they’re lazy, or they lack courage to set out on their own, or they’re too stupid to do anything else, but really, he goes to bed every night feeling ashamed, feeling sick to his stomach.
When the rich man fires him, it’s the most amazing feeling. What should feel like a death sentence instead feels like the chains holding him place are broken. Freed from having to keep his position, freed from having to collect the rent, freed from working for the rich man, the manager can finally do something for all those tenants, take a little pressure off of them, give them a little hope. Jesus ends this story by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Freed from serving wealth, the manager can serve God by making life better for the tenants, for the people no one is trying to help.
Maybe you feel caught in the middle yourself. It would be great to make the world a better place, great to change life for those in need, great to really do something about the big problems of poverty, hunger, racism, you name it. But we’ve all got to have someplace to live, we all have to put food on the table, we all need to provide for our families. That’s alright. Fred Craddock, a preacher I like a lot, says, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to write a note, visit a nursing home, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, and feed the neighbor’s cat.” May we prayerfully consider how best we can serve God, how we can plant seeds of justice, how we can help the kingdom of God sneak in in unexpected ways. May God give us the wisdom to make good decisions, courage to do the right thing, and the strength to do the work set before us. Amen.
The Rev. Paul Frolick has been the priest at St. George's since August 2012.