May 6, This is my commandment

This is my commandment

John 15:9-17

 

Years ago, I was employed for a summer between one school year in college and the next working in a tall office building in downtown Wilmington, Delaware for a nationally known bank. I got the job by answering an ad in the local newspaper. It was a job in customer service in the credit card division of the bank.

My job that summer was to sit in a cubicle and answer phone calls from credit card customers with Visa and Mastercard accounts issued by that particular bank. As it happened, the bank had just acquired a large bank in Texas and so I was mostly talking to Texans all day.

I think the acquisition of the Texas bank was why they were hiring more customer service people there in Wilmington that summer. In case you aren’t aware, many banks that issue credit cards are headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware, my hometown, because of the Delaware laws that favor banks and allow those banks to charge high rates of interest – at least that was true at the time.   

Anyway, every day I sat in my cubicle at my computer terminal and answered phone call after phone call from credit card customers with account problems. Sometimes it was something simple – a simple mistake or misunderstanding related to their account, sometimes it was a sob story of how they wanted to pay the minimum payment but couldn’t, or how a divorce or death had left them with debts they didn’t even know they had, and every once in a while, it was a fraud case or an account that was already in collections and we were supposed to keep the customer on the line and then very carefully hand them over to the fraud division or the collection division. Some things we could fix on the spot, but sometimes we had to fill out forms with requests to be evaluated and handled by someone else in some other cubicle.

What I liked about the job was being able to fix people’s problems; what I didn’t like was not being able to fix their problems. The best cases were the ones where the person had a fresh problem – they were calling in for the first time and I was getting the first shot at untangling their mess.

The worst cases were the ones where the person was calling in for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, and not only was the situation not resolved, but the person was thoroughly frustrated, and because of the passage of time, the problem was worse – maybe additional penalties had been issued, or something that should have been left alone had been changed while the thing that should have been changed had been left alone.

To add to that frustration, when customers called, they could never get the same customer service representative two times in a row, because every call was assigned to the next available representative, so the customer had to start all over again, explaining their problem and hoping against all hope that this time, it would be fixed.

Now mind you, this was early in my working experience, and while I had had some jobs before that, I had never really had a supervisor in the way that a corporate structure has layers of supervisors and managers over the workers.

I didn’t particularly mind having a supervisor, but I soon realized that sometimes the person higher up on the ladder doesn’t really care about the challenges and concerns of those on the lower rungs, and that some supervisors care more about pleasing their bosses than they care about empowering their workers.

And here was my problem: It seemed to me that it only made sense to stay with a customer on the phone until you had solved their problem – especially with those customers who had called multiple times and had not gotten satisfaction. This was reinforced over and over by customers I dealt with who started out angry and finally settled into gratitude when they realized that I was actually going to help them get the situation straightened out. So, that was my philosophy: work with them until the problem is solved.

My supervisor, on the other hand, wanted us to get our call times down – to decrease the time we spent with each customer on the phone to the absolute minimum time possible. Somewhere in the corporate structure someone had issued a memo, perhaps, that said that the best indicator of efficiency and productivity was how many calls a customer service representative could take in an hour; that more calls must mean more productivity. So – shorter times on each call; more calls per hour, better stats for the department.

Most of my co-workers learned to do that – to do what we were told to do  – because the customer service representatives with the fastest call rates got the best evaluations, the highest praise. No matter that a fast call rate is simply a measure of how quickly you can get the customer off the phone, not how effective you are at solving problems.

But I kept plugging along. If a minute or a minute and a half was considered excellent, my five minutes or ten minutes or even fifteen minutes with one customer wasn’t going to earn me any accolades from my supervisor. But for a while I was kind of oblivious to that as an issue. I felt I was doing good work, but eventually I was told I wasn’t measuring up.

“You have to get more efficient with your time. You have to get your call rate up by spending less time on each call,” my supervisor told me. “But I’m getting things done for the customers. I get problems solved,” was my response. “I understand what you are saying, but your numbers aren’t helping this department,” she replied. “But if I don’t solve the problem then the person will just call back,” I said. “That’s not what this is about. This is about your call times. Take more calls,” she responded. “I am telling you: less time on each call, more calls.”

The supervisor didn’t say, “This is my commandment,” but she might as well have. My statement, “If I take more time I can actually help the customer,” wasn’t of interest. “That’s not what this is about,” she said, “I need you to take more calls. Take…more…calls.”

It’s probably a good thing I was only there for the summer because once it dawned on me (once it broke through my youthful naivete) that the company had a culture that wasn’t really interested in helping its customers, but rather in passing the buck, I kind of lost heart.

This is my commandment (is essentially what my supervisor was telling me) - Take more calls. Not, “help these people,” but “take more calls.” I don’t know if way down at the root of things that this was the company’s intent, but when you are talking credit cards, the less you help people, the more interest and penalties and fees they are going to pay. And once you have them on the hook – especially with big balances – it’s awfully hard for them to walk away, no matter how bad the service is.

Listen, you in the cubicle, this is my commandment: Take more calls and take less time on each call. I didn’t respond so well to that. And maybe that’s because the commandment not only seemed demanding, but wrongheaded, and I don’t respond well to that combination.

In the scripture text for this morning, from these middle verses of the 15th chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus gives a clear and demanding commandment to his disciples. “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

It’s not a suggestion. It’s not a piece of advice. It is a commandment – he says as much. But it’s an easier pill to swallow than a commandment to take more calls, to shuffle through more customers, because this one – this commandment – speaks to something we intuitively know is right: we know it’s right for us to love one another.

If it’s true that we intuitively know that it is wrong to trap someone with credit card debt at a high rate of interest, and then throw every obstacle you can into their way as they try to organize the chaos, then we also intuitively know that it is right to help them, to treat them with respect, to humanize rather than dehumanize them. Taking advantage of others is, of course, wrong; making things better for them is right.

Now that summer when I talked to Texans everyday about their credit card problems, I didn’t come to love them in the way that you might love your friend or your child or your kindly neighbor. A lot of the people I talked to on the phone, were unpleasant, unhappy – as people with problems and complaints often are. But after a while I learned to listen past the frustration in order to hear the yearning: Will you please help me?

No one asked, “Will you please love me?” but helping the helpless, solving the thorny problem, taking the time to listen and to care: I think that counts as love. I think it can come across as love and it certainly has the positive effect that love can have.

The work I did that summer was actually not all that pleasant and only infrequently rewarding, but it seems clear to me now… (even though the possibility I am about to name seems far-fetched) it seems clear to me now, that if my supervisor had commanded me to love the people I was talking with instead of trying to get rid of the people I was talking with, that it certainly would have made the work more meaningful, more rewarding, and even more sustainable, not to mention more ethical, more compassionate, and more right.

I feel like recently I have been repeatedly talking in my sermons about the importance of actions. Not just ideas or intentions, but actions. It’s not just what you think or what you hope for, but it’s how you live in the world; it’s the fruit you bear, that really counts toward the kingdom of God. And I think this scripture falls right along in that line: love may have a feeling component to it – in fact, it often does -- but love is actually much more visible and measurable in terms of how you live and act toward others.

Again, in these verses, Jesus brings up the example of fruit: I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last... But he also talks about friendship – pointing to the person who would lay down their life for their friends as the person who is the example of love. You can focus on the sacrifice part of that and say that that is the measure of true love, but why not also focus on the friendship aspect?

Jesus calls his disciples his friends. Even as he is commanding them to love one another, he is reminding them that love isn’t forced – rather it’s formed. Love is formed in the crucible of friendship – friendship of the sort where people are together, in mutually beneficial ways, in the context of kindness, in appreciation and respect for each other, in trust and knowledge of each other.

That is, as we come into close and supportive and caring relationship with each other, the fruit of that relationship is loving action. Do feelings follow along with that? Sure, but the love that Jesus is talking about isn’t “love at first sight.” It is love formed by friendship. And friendship is formed by kindness and presence and sacrifice and doing what is right by that other person, over and over and over again.  What do you need? Here, let me help you. In that spirit, is it too ridiculous to say that maybe love and friendship could even begin by spending fifteen minutes instead of just a minute and a half with the frustrated Texan calling in on the telephone?

On Wednesday of this past week, the “Story People” quote of the day was offered from the perspective of a child reflecting on their mother, perhaps many years past their childhood – when I read it, I thought of it as primarily a nod toward Mother’s Day which is coming up soon enough – but the quote had the words “commandment” and “love” in it, so I paid attention with this Sunday in mind.

The quote went like this: “I asked her why she never told us about the Ten Commandments and she said she wasn’t ever that good with numbers so she loved everything as best she could. And I remember thinking who needs all those rules anyway with a mother like her around.”

Now there may be some devoted disciples among us who might cringe at the idea that one wouldn’t worry about the ten commandments because you are “not so good with numbers,” but who can argue with the commitment to love everything – and everyone – as best you can? This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.

And another little quote from Story People: “One day, I decided to help wherever I could and it was almost like magic because I was exactly what the world needed everywhere I went.” I like that thought too. Maybe that’s really what I set out to do that summer: to help wherever I could, and there were days then, that I was exactly what the world needed on every call I took. No supervisor was going to make me take more calls by spending less time. No – that commandment wasn’t for me. And it wouldn’t be for you either.

Loving others, making friends, bearing fruit: that’s more what I want to be about. That’s more what we want to be about.

 

Let us pray:

 

God of love and mercy,

 

Your son, Jesus, has said to us,

“I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.”

 

And we understand, O God, that this is because

what he knows, we now know,

and what he aims for, we aim for,

and what he does, we wish to do.

 

So, we take his commandment to love one another,

not as an act of force,

but as an invitation to be formed.

 

We want to abide in your love, O God,

and we want to bear your good fruit,

and we want to make friends in this world.

 

May it be so,

as we seek to live in the Spirit of Christ,

the one in whose name we pray.

 

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

May 6, 2018