Sermon, Sept. 20

rogersappreciationWill you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Today’s Gospel lesson is just one of many places in the Gospels where Jesus tells his followers that following his Way is all about servanthood. He says, I didn’t come to be served, but to serve others. He says, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. He says, When you care for the sick, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, it is as if you are caring for me. He says, I have washed your feet as an example to you, that you should serve each other humbly as I have served you. And he says, Whoever wants to be the greatest and the first, must be least and last, and be the servant of all.

He must have been so fed up with them! He’s just been talking about what’s ahead for him, about the road of suffering he must walk. He knows that speaking out against the unjust and cruel political, economic, and religious status quo is going to get him killed. He is bracing himself for it, and trying to prepare his friends. And they are missing the point so, so profoundly. He’s talking about vulnerability and solidarity and sacrifice and they’re arguing amongst themselves about who’s the BEST disciple.  When he asks them what they’re talking about, there’s this … silence. I know that silence. A child might say, “I don’t want to tell you.” So he schools them – again.

In the way of Christ, greatness is found in servanthood, in loving action in response to the needs of another.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? That’s how our church states this aspect of the Way of Jesus, in our baptismal covenant, the set of five questions outlining the life of faith – faithfulness in worship and study, repentance when we fall away, sharing God’s good news, serving and loving our neighbors, and working for a more just and peaceful world.  We join in these vows every time we celebrate a baptism, and we renew them several times every year. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  – and the people say: I will, with God’s help!…. 

Back at the beginning of the month, all Episcopal churches were invited – called, really – to a Sunday of confession, repentance, and commitment to end racism. We were called into this observance – along with other churches and denominations – as a sign of solidarity and support for the African Methodist Episcopal Church nationwide, following the racially-motivated murder of nine people at a prayer meeting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 7; and also as a sign of our shared commitment, as a denomination, to confronting racism in our society, our institutions, and ourselves.

Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Chair of the House of Deputies, Gay Jennings, wrote a joint letter to the Episcopal Church, in which they write, “‘The Church understands and affirms that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant’ [quoting Resolution C019 of the 78th General Convention]…. Racial reconciliation through prayer, teaching, engagement and action is a top priority of the Episcopal Church in the [years ahead].”

Right now, some of you – I won’t guess the percentage are thinking, Oh, no, another racism sermon. Maybe because you think we shouldn’t really be talking about this in church, maybe because you feel like we’ve done enough talking and it’s time to move on to some action. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this topic for this Sunday, this season, on my own. I already postponed it for two weeks; we were asked to observe this Sunday of prayer and repentance on Sunday the 6th. I wanted to get into the new season together; I wanted to find a Gospel lesson that reinforces this call to costly love of neighbor; I wanted to find something fresh to say.

I’ve preached before about why racism is a sin. I think you’ve heard that before, even if you haven’t been around St. Dunstan’s for long. And I’ve preached before about why racism is an urgent issue here in Madison. I think you’ve heard that before, even if you haven’t been around St. Dunstan’s for long.

If you’re waiting for the sermon in which I offer the one neat trick that will eliminate unsightly racism forever,  well, it’s not gonna happen today. Racism is embedded in our institutions and economy, our media and culture, our minds and souls in ways that will take a couple of generations of hard, persistent, broad-based work to undo. I am just informed enough to know how hard this really is, and just faithful enough to believe we’ve got to try anyway. May God empower and encourage us.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Seek and serve…  What makes it hard for us to find Christ in our neighbors, so that we’re moved to respond with loving service?

A big piece of my perspective on anti-racism work comes from my parents. We’re all shaped by our first families. For me, in particular, that includes the fact that my father is a social psychologist. He’s a scientist who studies the way humans think about difference. The ways we form ingroups and outgroups – the ways we stereotype and judge others – all that stuff. I’m not an expert by any means; I’m just related to one. But I can tell you that if you’d like a deeper understanding of the roots and dynamics of racism, the field of social psychology is one  fruitful path to follow.

Social psychologists tell us that there are a lot of ways in which the structures and habits of our brains contribute to the persistence of racism. I want to introduce you to one of them: the Fundamental Attribution Error. The Fundamental Attribution Error is our habit of explaining our own behavior by looking at the situation, and explaining other people’s behavior as a result of the kind of person they are.

One writer explains it this way: “When we see someone doing something, we tend to think it relates to their personality rather than the situation the person might be in.” That article is called “Why we don’t give each other a break” – the answer? The Fundamental Attribution Error. Here’s what it looks like in practice. You snap at your child and you think, Phew, that wasn’t my best parenting moment, but I’m under so much stress right now. You might feel guilty, but you give yourself a break. Or if it’s a friend, you might do the same: I know his mom is sick right now; he’s stretched pretty thin. But when you see a stranger snap at her child, you think, What a terrible parent.

AND, if there are stereotypes in the mix as well – if that mom snapping at her child belongs to a group about which you carry some preexisting judgments – then you might go farther. You might go from, What a terrible parent, to, They just don’t care about their children. Why do they have so many kids, anyway? My neighborhood school is full of them, and it’s a real problem for the teachers, because they’re so disruptive.

But what if, what if that mom is not so different from you? What if she’s stretched thin because of job- or family-related stress? What if this is her worst parenting moment of the week? Or what if her circumstances are such that she is stretched that thin all the time? What if your heart, instead of closing in judgment,

could open with compassion? …

The Fundamental Attribution Error, that habit of our lazy brains to go for the simplest explanation, makes it harder for us to see Christ in our neighbor. It literally makes it difficult for me to love my neighbor as myself, because I think about self and neighbor differently. It makes us quick to judge, slow to reflect, empathize, understand. And when it’s compounded by stereotypes – when we have learned, willingly or unwillingly, that such and such a group of people is lazy, dirty, violent, dishonest, incompetent –  then our capacity to recognize God in another person is even more limited. We can’t see the divinity of our neighbor, God’s presence in them, if we can’t even fully see their humanity.

I want to tell you a little bit about one of our neighbors. I’ve changed her name, but I do have her permission to share a little bit of her story. Let’s call her Francine. Francine is an African-American woman in her forties. I’ve known Francine for about six months. I met her when she came to the door of the church, with her husband James, looking for some assistance. They needed help with the room fees for the cheap hotel where they were staying.

While I was talking to the hotel manager, Francine looked around the church a little. She found some of the information pages for our conversations on racism, and I think knowing that we had some awareness of those issues opened her up to telling me her story.  We’ve talked a number of times, over the past months. I’ve helped with hotel room charges, when I can, and sometimes when I can’t. We’ve wept and prayed together. And I’ve listened.

Francine and James had moved to Madison from Milwaukee the previous summer. They’ve now been here well over a year. They have two older sons who’ve graduated from college – Francine is really proud of that; she says, My kids didn’t go to jail; they went to college! They have a daughter who’s a college freshman this year. She wants to get her masters’ degree and be a forensic scientist. And their youngest daughter is starting sixth grade.

Francine has worked as a CNA and wants to go back to school. James is a skilled construction worker. He finds work easily, because he’s good. He’s also veteran. They came to Madison because they were hoping for a better life for their kids. They knew what the opportunities and limitations were in Milwaukee, and they thought they could do better. Better neighborhoods, better schools, a better future for their daughters.

With both Francine and James working, plus his veteran’s benefits, they should be able to afford a decent apartment in a safe neighborhood here. They should be able to live a stable life, and build towards that hopeful future for their family.

But here’s the thing. Madison has a housing crisis. Our occupancy rate is incredibly high, thanks to Epic, the university, and other factors. That means it’s a seller’s market for landlords and property managers.  They can be as demanding and as choosy as they like. And they don’t really have to tell you why they say No. They can just say No. Because you don’t look like the kind of tenant they want.

But they won’t say No right away. They’ll let you fill out an application, first. Did you know that you have to pay a fee to apply for an apartment? $20, $25, $30 per adult. One place Francine had to argue with them not to count her 18-year-old daughter as a third adult, so they’d have to pay another $20.

Francine and James have been seeking housing in Madison for fifteen months. And by seeking I don’t mean making a couple of calls a week. I mean pounding the pavement. Calling every possible lead from Craigslist or the paper. Driving around the city, looking for “For Rent” signs. Filling out application after application. Paying hundreds, thousands of dollars in fees. Meeting with property managers, week after week. Keeping in touch with case managers and counselors. Getting the funds and the references set up, only to get another No. Disrupting James’ work schedule and wages, because landlords have to meet him too.

All of this while living in a hotel room, for $70 a night. Almost twice what their rent would be, if they could get into an apartment.

Sure, they could go to the family homeless shelter in town. But they don’t want to. They tried it out. Francine says it was dirty, unsafe, and divides the family. What would you do?

Sure, they could probably find an apartment in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Their case worker keeps pointing them there. Francine says they were offered one last week. But the place had been trashed by the previous tenants, and there’s no reason to think those landlords will fix anything. Francine and James don’t want to live in poorly-maintained low-rent housing. They can afford a better apartment, in a nicer location, and that’s what they want. What would you do?

The bottom line is, they shouldn’t have to settle. They have work. They have income – though if they could get into housing, it would do a heck of a lot to stabilize their financial situation. They have the support and advocacy of the Veteran’s Affairs folks, earned by James’s service to his country. Francine says, “It’s not like we don’t have means. We HAVE means.” But landlords in Madison have lots of applicants to choose from. And it’s easy NOT to choose a poor black family.

When I realized that I wanted to talk about Francine today, I had forgotten that our Old Testament lesson today is the wonderful description of the Resourceful Woman, from the Book of Proverbs. She’s the ideal wife and mother, working hard for the wellbeing of her family. Always busy, always striving for a safe and prosperous future for her children. It’s like cruel mirror for Francine’s story. That’s just what she is, what she does; and yet, her family is not prospering.

Francine believes, and James believes, that a big part of the reason for all those No answers is racism.

What do those landlords see when they look at Francine? … They see a black woman. She doesn’t have very polished speech. Her clothing and hair aren’t at their best; she looks poor. She gets upset easily, emotional.  She’s demanding – she wants to know, are you going to give my family a chance?

The Fundamental Attribution Error means that people read Francine and make assumptions about who and what she is. When in fact she’s in a situation – a long, grinding, heart-wrenching, exhausting situation – in which any of us would struggle. If I were going through what Francine is going through, I’d be unkempt.

I’d be demanding. I’d be emotional. I’d be roaring my frustration, rage, and grief to the world about a system that won’t let me house my kids.

We have a stereotype, a template, of the Poor Black Family. In the stereotype, there’s no father in the picture. The kids have different daddies. There’s a criminal record or two in the family. Nobody’s pursuing higher education. Nobody’s working a skilled job.  It is easy for the landlords looking at Francine and James to see them through that lens, and assume that’s who they are.

Now listen: I want those landlords, I want all of us, to have a lot more compassion towards families that DO match that profile. I’m not saying it’s OK to shut them out either.

But that’s NOT who Francine and James are. And they still can’t catch a break.

I don’t know how to be a servant to Francine and her family. I don’t have an apartment for them, or a solution. Sometimes I can pay for a night at the hotel from my discretionary fund, thanks to the generosity of this parish; sometimes I can’t.  But at least I see her. I see her dignity and her desperation. And I care. I think that matters to her, even when I have nothing to offer but my prayers.

When I talked to Francine this week to ask if it was OK to tell some of her story, she updated me on their ongoing, disheartening search. She wept. And she wondered, again, why the system seems to want her family – her family, which is ready to make it, to be OK, to get ahead! – why the system keeps seeming to push them down and out. She said, “Why would the world want that? I’ve got a real insight into the world now…”

I’ve got a real insight into the world now…

The Fundamental Attribution Error is fascinating and powerful to understand.

You might find that knowing this about yourself – about how your brain works, left to its own devices – helps you think twice and be more understanding of your annoying co-worker, your surly check-out clerk, your unreliable dogsitter.

It’s my hope that knowing this about ourselves might help us think past our received stereotypes and judgments about our neighbors living in poverty, and especially our poor neighbors of color.

What if we take on the discipline of trying to assume that everyone else’s actions and choices are strongly influenced by their situation and circumstances, just like our own? Then I might think about those circumstances, and how it would feel, and what choices I might make, were I standing in those shoes.

Recognizing her circumstances, hearing her story, I might be more prepared to recognize my neighbor’s humanity. To see her as a sister, to see myself in her.

And recognizing her humanity, I might be able to catch a glimpse of her divinity. Of Christ’s image reflected in her face. Of Christ’s heartbreak and outrage in her tears.

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?