Sermon preached June 29, 2014
Texts: Matthew 10:40-42
I don’t know why I have never thought of it before, but this Sunday’s sermon has an all-purpose sermon title – “Something.” It answers the question – “What are you going to preach about?” – something. It gives people a good response to the sermon – “Wasn’t that sermon something?!”
It even provides multiple musical options. Some of you were probably expecting this:
The Beatles, “Something” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FX92FJ-lwXI&feature=kp
Some may have been expecting this:
James Taylor, “Something in the Way She Moves” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoevtZiVR4k&feature=kp
But I am guessing that not many of you, at least until yesterday, were thinking about this:
Lee Ann Womack: “Something Worth Leaving Behind” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awjH_CqOgX0&feature=kp
“If I will love then I will find I have touched another life, and that’s something worth leaving behind.” These words were referred to yesterday as we celebrated the life of J Adamec, who died tragically and suddenly this last week at age 45. The words are meant for all of us. Touching the lives of others with kindness, that’s what these few short verses from the Gospel of Matthew are about.
To be sure, the verses in Matthew have a narrower function and meaning. They are meant to be words of comfort to the early disciples of Jesus who often experienced hardships for following Jesus. Think of how powerful such words could be to a beleaguered disciple – “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” God is measuring the lives of others by how they treat you! What encouragement. That last phrase about giving a cup of cold water to “one of these little ones” is a word about how the disciples are to treat the newest people who have joined them on the spiritual journey with Jesus.
Yet Matthew’s words cannot be contained within that context alone. Kindness is intended to be the way in which disciples of Jesus are treated. Kindness is meant to characterize the community of the followers of Jesus. Such kindness cannot be contained, but inevitably spills over into all of life. And if God’s Spirit may be at work in surprising ways, through surprising people, shouldn’t all be welcomed, shouldn’t all be received, shouldn’t small acts of kindness be extended to all?
A few years ago, I came across this rather amazing statement from theologian Robert Neville. Christianity is first and foremost about being kind. Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity…. Being kind… is an ideal that often has been ignored within Christianity or seriously distorted…. Christians believe that communities of kindness are the human ideal because of the nature of God. (Robert Cummings Neville, Symbols of Jesus, xviii, xix) Neville goes on to describe some of what kindness entails: Some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases. They include being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent…. To be kind is also to be courteous, an extremely important and difficult virtue in a society as multifarious as ours. (Neville, Symbols of Jesus, xviii, xix)
Is that all there really is to Christianity, kindness? That’s not what Neville is saying. Christianity is about more than kindness, but it is never about less than kindness and kindness is central to the meaning of our faith. Christianity is about God, but about a God who acts toward us with lovingkindness. Christianity is about Jesus, but about a Jesus who lives kindness, teaches kindness, embodies kindness. If our understandings of God and Jesus don’t help us cultivate kindness, if our live together in the church doesn’t, help us cultivate and grow in kindness, then we need to examine what is wrong.
But doesn’t kindness seem sort of ho-hum, sort of weak, sort of unexciting? And who doesn’t like kindness? The words of Mother Teresa could be found almost anywhere – “be kind to each other.” (No Greater Love). The words of author George Saunders could be put on bumper stickers: “err in the direction of kindness” (Congratulations, By the Way). Who would object to any of this?
Yet the world is often an unkind place. We live in a world where, according to Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, “kindly behavior is looked upon with suspicion; public espousals of kindness are dismissed as moralistic and sentimental” (On Kindness, 7). “Kindness,” they write, “has become our forbidden pleasure” (5)
If we often sing the praises of kindness, yet also disparage it, and don’t consistently live it out, what gets in our way? Let me suggest three things, and they are probably not the only three things that get in the way of our kindness.
When we see certain people having trouble, sometimes we simply think they are getting their comeuppance. Why be kind to jerks? In our movies we often find those characters who we hope don’t succeed because they are not very nice people. In “The Help,” for instance, we aren’t too disappointed when some of the rude white women, who treat their African-American housekeepers so poorly, seem to get their comeuppance. In fact, we rather like it. It seems easier to wish people who behave poorly will get a taste of their own medicine than to find a way to weave kindness together with accountability. Brene Brown has asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if we could be kinder, but firmer?” (The Gifts of Imperfection, 17)
Another thing that gets in the way of kindness is our perception that kindness is inherently weak. Again, I take some cues from Brene Brown. Kindness does entail some vulnerability, which Brown defines as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (Daring Greatly, 34). When we are kind, we open ourselves to the hurt and pain of others. Brown writes, “love is a form of vulnerability [and] vulnerability is life’s great dare. It’s life asking, “Are you all in?... Answering yes… is not weakness: It’s courage beyond measure. It’s daring greatly.” (Daring Greatly, 43) We don’t want to be weak, but can we shift from thinking of kindness as weakness to see kindness as an adventure, as courageous?
Finally, kindness, because it entails vulnerability, does open us up to the pain of others and the pain of the world. Phillips and Taylor write: In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness, 5). It is not easy to open ourselves to the pain of others and the pain of the world, but kindness is often a response to such pain, hurt, disappointment, suffering. Kindness is more than the kind word offered, or smile given, when we greet someone. It takes us to difficult places. As George Saunders writes, “kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything” George Saunders, Congratulations, By The Way).
Meeting all these obstacles to kindness requires courage. It might be just as true to say that Christianity is about courage as to say it is about kindness. Christian faith is about the courage to be kind, and about the courage to receive kindness from God and others.
But one last problem with kindness. Kindness don’t feed the bulldog. Kindness seems so small. It strikes us as so small and ineffective when matched up against the massive problems of the world. The world is so full of deep struggles, profound suffering, systemic issues and difficulties. What good is kindness among all this?
Kindness is more than an interpersonal quality. It has social dimensions. While these can be complicated, it does not mean they are non-existent. Robert Neville: Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists. Whether a social welfare system is ultimately kind if it creates a long-term dependent class of people is a debatable point at this stage, and how to amend it to make it more kind is also debatable (Symbols of Jesus, xviii). We can debate the social meaning of kindness, but embodying kindness remains our goal. And as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum notes, the kindness of love matters for justice. Respect grounded in the idea of human dignity will prove impotent to include all citizens on terms of equality unless it is nourished by imaginative engagement with the lives of others and by an inner grasp of their full and equal humanity…. The type of imaginative engagement society needs… is nourished by love. Love, then, matters for justice. (Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions, 380).
Kindness may seem small, but “the quality of human life on our planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another” in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Sojourners, July 2014). Even small kindnesses, a warm welcome, a cold cup of water, a smile, a hug, being with someone in their moment of grief or triumph, can make a significant difference in the world. Kindness participates in the “butterfly effect.” It seems that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in South America may make a difference for the course of a tornado in North America. It is not the only factor, but one influencing factor. The world needs more of the butterfly wings of kindness.
One of my favorite stories, and the one I will end with today, about the great effect of small things is the story inspired by the late naturalist Loren Eisley. A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a boy who was reaching down, picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean. As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing?” The boy looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean”. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the man. “The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, “It made a difference for that one.” (see Loren Eisley, The Star Thrower)
In our complicated, competitive world, kindness can seem so small, so weak, so vulnerable. Kindness can seem to take us to hazardous places. Yet kindness makes all the difference in the world. The God of Jesus Christ is a God whose character is lovingkindness. God grant us the courage and sense of adventure to live more kindly, and when we do, we will live lives that have something worth leaving behind – and isn’t that something! Amen.
Quotes and Questions for Reflection
Christianity is first and foremost about being kind. Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity…. Being kind… is an ideal that often has been ignored within Christianity or seriously distorted…. Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists… but some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases. They include being generous, sympathetic, willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy, and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent…. To be kind is also to be courteous, an extremely important and difficult virtue in a society as multifarious as ours…. Christians believe that communities of kindness are the human ideal because of the nature of God.
Robert Cummings Neville, Symbols of Jesus
What do you think of Neville’s statement that “Christianity is first and foremost about being kind”?
How true to these identified obstacles to kindness ring to you?:
· Some people are just getting their comeuppance
· Kindness opens us up to pain (see Phillips and Taylor below)
· Kindness often makes one appear weak
How do we work with such obstacles?
In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable.
Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness
Empathy requires some vulnerability… but it’s worth it.
Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
Kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything.
George Saunders, Congratulations, By The Way
Respect grounded in the idea of human dignity will prove impotent to include all citizens on terms of equality unless it is nourished by imaginative engagement with the lives of others and by an inner grasp of their full and equal humanity…. The type of imaginative engagement society needs… is nourished by love. Love, then, matters for justice.
Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions
Be kind to each other: It is better to commit faults with gentleness than to work miracles with unkindness.
Mother Teresa, No Greater Love
The quality of human life on our planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Sojourners, July 2014
Err in the direction of kindness.
George Saunders, Congratulations, By The Way
If I will love then I will find
I have touched another life
And that’s something
Something worth leaving behind.
Brett Beavers and Tom Douglas, “Something Worth Leaving Behind”
(sung by Lee Ann Womack)