Proper 10: July 12, 2020



If, somehow, I was given the power to make one decree, write one rule for everyone, it would be…I should note, this is not the first time I’ve said this, and it won’t be the last: Everyone must work in the service industry for at least a year. Two would be better. I mean, for me, all told, it is probably a decade, but split up and I…do not want to do the math.

I might be willing to show some flexibility on what counts as the service industry. I’m really thinking about retail and food service because that’s where my experience was, but the overall goal is to put everyone in a position, for at least a year, where the quality of their day is dependent on the moods and whims of customers.

These kinds of jobs teach under-valued skills, like how to apologize for something over which you have no control, like when someone’s favorite product gets discontinued, or the kitchen burned your order and had to start over. They teach you how to multi-task, either by keeping multiple tasks, products, or orders in your head, or by forcing you to learn a system to quickly write them down and reference as needed.

They teach you how to ask for help, and how to communicate to other staff who don’t have time to talk to you, or who can’t turn around or put something down. Honestly, the simple habit of calling “behind you” whenever I walk behind someone has saved me so much grief. It may be the only good thing to come out of my time working at Chili’s. Seriously, that place was the worst. I lasted six weeks, and by the time I left, again, after six weeks, I had been there longer than most.

Most importantly though, they teach you about what Psychologists call the Pygmalion Effect.

I expect most, if not all, of us have heard of self-fulfilling prophecies, but just in case, a self-fulfilling prophecy is something where the fact that you believe something will happen leads you to take steps that cause it to happen. There are also self-negating prophecies, where the belief that something is inevitable causes you to stop doing the things that would cause it. You are certain you will pass a test, or ace a job interview, so you do not study or prepare.

I recently read a story about a gas station clerk in a small town, not unlike Romney. One day, someone new walked in, picked up a few items, and got to the counter. As she walked up to the clerk, she smiled and said “Hi, I’m Betty. I just moved here! What’s this town like?” The clerk smiled back, introduced himself, and said “Welcome Betty! Before I answer, what was it like where you lived before here?” Betty answers “It was great! My neighbors were wonderful. We had cookouts together, I even got us a permit to close the street for a block party twice a year.” The clerk, Steve, says “Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun, well, I think you’ll find a lot of the same here!”

The next day, another new customer walks in. He picks up a few things, and looking down at the floor, shuffles up to the counter. Steve, our clerk, greets him, saying “Hi, I’m Steve. Are you new in town or just passing through?” The customer looks up, a little surprised, and says “Oh, I’m Joe. I just moved here. What can you tell me about the town?” Steve says, “Well Joe, before I answer, what did you think of wherever you just left?” Joe looks back at the floor and says, “I don’t know really, it was pretty quiet, I didn’t really talk to anyone, everyone kind of just left everyone else alone.” Steve, who is wiser than most think, says, “Well, Joe, I think you’ll find more of the same here.”

The Pygmalion Effect is a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy applied to other people. The term comes from educational research that showed that teacher’s expectations of student performance shaped and reinforced student performance, or, more plainly, when a teacher thought a student was likely to do well, that teacher would be more encouraging of success and more forgiving of mistakes, and, as a result, that student was likely to actually do better. In contrast, if a teacher believed a student would do poorly, the teacher would often be less encouraging, less forgiving, and the student would sink to the teacher’s lower expectation.

We have heard the saying “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” The Pygmalion effect is just the research-backed version.

It is like what Steve saw in Betty and Joe. Betty expected people to talk to her, and so she started conversations and engaged people. Joe did not. Betty created situations where people would be friendly and build relationships. Joe did not. Joe might even miss people trying to talk to him.

When you work in customer service, every interaction with a customer is a case study for the Pygmalion Effect. Not just on the observational level, like with our gas station clerk, Steve, but as a participant.

Nearly every customer I would interact with over a shift, whether it was food service or retail, would, more likely than not, get what they expected. I did not try to treat them differently, at least, not most of the time. Most of the time I tried not to let the angry or hostile customers get to me, tried to look past the rudeness, but look, true confession, when a customer asked me to go look for something in the back, their attitude had a lot to do with how hard I was willing to look. I’m not saying I’m proud of this. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but I am saying that anyone who says it doesn’t make a difference, is lying, and we can’t get better until we’re honest about where we are.  

And yes, it does go both ways, and the employee who comes in after having a bad day and can’t let go of it in front of the customers…that person’s day is, most likely going to get worse because on either side of this equation, the normal, human reflex is to assume whatever is about to happen is going to be like whatever happened last. We expect the next person to treat us as good or as badly as the last, at least until we start to learn to break the cycle…and that takes time.

It takes time to learn, as an employee, how to reset yourself after a bad interaction. And, while I think that’s an important skill to learn, I think the corollary is even more important: it takes time working at the whims of customers to learn how to be a better customer, and thus, how to be a better person.

This week, I have been wondering how old Esau and Jacob were when Esau traded his birthright for some red lentil stew. I wonder what it was like, growing up, for Jacob and Esau. I wonder about their age because I kept coming back to two sentences from earlier in this passage.

The first is God’s response to Rebekah’s prayer: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

This is some powerful stuff. The first clause, “Two nations are in your womb” is already disturbing even as it carries a promise that both boys will survive. It is disturbing because we have already started to set them apart, to place them in competition. The next clause, “two peoples born of you shall be divided” is not even new information, but just confirms the worst interpretation. Then we get specific: one will be stronger than the other, which…I mean, ok, and “the elder shall serve the younger.” This final clause does two things: first, it sets up a role reversal. The Biblical model of inheritance was not like Feudal European primogeniture, with everything left to the oldest male child, but still the oldest son inherited more, a double share. This is made even more significant for this family, where the birthright is not just the double share of Isaac’s material goods; the text strongly suggests this is also a double share in God’s promise to this family’s future.

This story, where Esau trades this birthright for a meal is our first story about these brothers. We do not see how they grew up, but I wonder how much they knew about this prophesied destiny of theirs. The text tells us their parents, Isaac and Rebekah played favorites, with Isaac preferring Esau and Rebekah preferring Jacob.

Now, this may be true of men everywhere, but I particularly noticed, when I lived in Northern Ireland: married men there would talk a lot about how they were in charge in their house, how they were the head of the household, and their wives and children answered to them, and they made the big decisions.

The thing is, in many cases, I had met their wives, and so I knew that…just was not true. To whatever extent these men actually believed they ran their household and made their own decisions, I knew that was the extent their wives allowed them to think they had autonomy.

I think Rebekah and Isaac’s relationship may have functioned the same way—and, as you read more of their story, you can start to see why, with Rebekah even openly tricking Isaac into giving his deathbed blessing to Jacob instead of Esau.

So, I wonder, how much these brothers grew up hearing that Jacob would be in charge. How much that took on a sense of the inevitable so that now, as young adults, or at least adolescents, Jacob saw nothing wrong in extorting his brother, and perhaps when Esau said “I am about to die, of what use to me is a birthright” there was an unspoken “you’re going to get it anyway” there as well.

I wonder if this was not a long running joke. Imagine coming home hungry and your sibling saying “Sure, I’ll give you some food…in exchange for a million dollars.” Would you ever expect your sibling to try to collect?

What if your mother was always telling you that you wouldn’t amount to much, but your twin brother (remember, Jacob was younger only by seconds) was going to do great, and you’ll end up serving him. Not working with, not being taken care of, but serving.

I wonder how old they were in this story, because I wonder if they had ever had the time to learn more than their parents’ model of conflicted relationship between them, if they had been able to develop a relationship with each other outside their parents’ expectations.

For those of us who are not parents, or who grew up without siblings, our story from Matthew offers something similar. This is one of those parables most of us know. It is another self-fulfilling prophecy, another example of the Pygmalion effect.

Think about it.

How many of you are farmers, or gardeners?

You all know the importance of the soil, and the quality of the soil.

At first, this parable is reaffirming that: the seed that falls on the good soil bears harvest. The seed that falls on the path is eaten, in the rocks struggles to build deep roots, and in the weeds gets starved for sunlight and nutrients.

This is straightforward for any agricultural community. So much so that it is honestly a little odd that each of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, include both this parable and the explanation of it.

Jesus’ parables are not that simple, they are not that straightforward. They are meant to make you think.

This parable with the explanation seems to say that you need to spread the word widely, tell everyone you can about the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

OK, I am standing here in this pulpit.

The challenge of this text is the need to go further. In the parable, the sower scatters the seed and then…leaves it to its fate. The sower sees some seed has fallen on the path, and thinks “well, the birds are getting that.” The sower sees some seed has fallen amidst the rocks and thinks, well, how sad, it will sprout, but…that is it. The sower sees some falls among the weeds and, again, gives up on it. The sower sees some seed lands on good soil, and thinks “finally, I got lucky. This will bear harvest.”

I wish you were here in the room with me today so I could ask the farmers and gardeners among you if this is how you plant?

I do not think it is.

You work to improve the soil, whatever condition the soil is in. You work to move seeds off the path, out of the rocks. You work to clear the weeds…though, hopefully not with Roundup. You put up scarecrows and netting to keep away the birds, deer, rabbits, and squirrels. I think you don’t succeed as much as you’d like…I’ve talked to you, so I know at least some of you don’t get perfect results, but you try.

I think any first century farmer or gardener, and, given what we know about the economy of first century Galilee, that’s most of who Jesus was talking to, would have known that too. The disciples…they included a bunch of fishers, so maybe they did not, but they would still work to repair their nets.

If we accept this parable as written and explained, if we just take the surface value, we are left with the Pygmalion effect. We are left thinking that some people are fertile soil, and some people…are not. And whatever we might tell ourselves about not treating them differently…we do. We do it all the time. We might think people do not notice, but they do.

I was nicer to the customers who were nicer to me. I was more likely to be rude to a customer who was rude to me. Betty is going to find and make friends in her new town because she creates opportunities to do so, while Joe will have a harder time doing that because he…does not.

This is why everyone should work in the service industry: we need to learn this truth about ourselves so that we can then learn to be better customers, and, for the self-interested, being a better customer will get you better service.

We need to learn how to talk to the Bettys, who make it easy, and the Joes who do not. Sometimes the person we think is rude or unfriendly just is not that hopeful that people will not be rude and unfriendly. When the pattern turns negative, we need to learn the skills to break that pattern.

I do not think Jesus is telling us to give up on the infertile soil. Jesus is telling us to improve the soil and is telling us which soil needs the most effort not so that we can shy away, not to give us permission to give up, but to tell us where to start.

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