Sermon of The Rev. Dr. Helen Jones
Feb. 2, 2014
Micah 6: 1-8
I Corinthians 1: 18-31
Matthew 5: 1-12
Last week the question was “How did Jesus call us?” “How are we to follow Jesus into ministry?”
This week it is Micah’s question. “With what shall I come before the Lord?” In response, Micah, one of four eighth-century prophets, gives us the quintessence of the commandments as he, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah understood them.
With what should I come before the Lord? Not with sacrifices that a nervous populace in a rising hysteria thought might be required by God. What shall we sacrifice to please God they asked—a yearling calf? A thousand sheep? Ten thousand vessels of sacred oil? Maybe a firstborn child? What will appease an angry God? In answer, are the prophet’s words: The Lord has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
What are faithful people to do in complex and anxious times? You already know, for God has told you. Go back to the basics. It’s not that complicated.
And about kindness. The noun is chesed in Hebrew, found 38 times in the OT. Chesed is translated as “mercy” when the reference is to God and God’s people Israel, and translated as “loving-kindness” when it refers to the relations between humans.
What is loving-kindness? Chesed is a term that speaks of covenant and the mutual obligation of partners to one another. What sort of things are kind? For one thing, inclusion is kind. Ben Sanders used to say that inclusion is what the church is all about. (Small example this morning at Early Bird Theologians after the 8:00, when I came in, the circle shifted to pull me in, then jockeyed to be out of my sight line.) Paul reminds the Corinthians about inclusion when they were serving different Eucharistic suppers, the better food and wine to the rich, the lesser to the poor. Or when the well-to-do got to the eucharistic feast before the workers could get there, and started without them. Paul admonishes them, “So, then my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Chesed, loving kindness, is about trust that those with whom we are in covenant will honor our interests as we honor theirs.
Define kindness? The readiness to treat the well-being of the other as a higher value than satisfaction of self. We have recent examples out of current events: a letter to the editor about the young man in a business suit driving the BMW who stopped at 8 am in 8 degrees to change a flat tire for the writer’s daughter and three small granddaughters. Or all those people in Atlanta’s snow who invited stranded strangers to spend the night in their houses. It can be a ride to the doctor or a casserole left at your door. It can come from hospital nurses: one of our congregation says it was their kindnesses that kept her from being traumatized from chemo treatments.
For me, it was coming home one day before the last snow to find my daughter’s beau up on the roof cleaning out our gutters. Since it is way past time that he might be trying to make points with us, I figured it had to be just plain kindness.
We long in these contentious days for a gentle turn of mind.
From the State of Union address and its response, it seems possible that even the President and congress are taking a gentle turn of mind, a phrase used by a Bellarmine professor in a recent CJ article. The professor asks “Is kindness the greatest human value?” The subject kept coming up in his class the week before Thanksgiving. He quotes a Jane Kenyon poem.
The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.
I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.
He continues that Any person in a position of power has the choice to be cruel, or to be kind. And this is not the same as forgiveness. Kindness is simpler than that.
Kindness seems to be one person offering his or her humanity to another person. Justice, in fact, is irrelevant. To love someone who does not deserve it might be the epitome of kindness.
It takes little effort, really, only a gentle turn of mind. I recall, writes the professor, being on a city bus in New Orleans some years ago. Two small girls at the front of the bus were whimpering, at the end of a long cry, perhaps. An old man exiting the bus slipped to each of them a piece of candy—was I the only one who saw?—and they were happy once again.
The old man could have given those girls the stone of nothingness, but no. He had left his house that morning prepared for an act of kindess.
Even the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who prized the intellect, the rational mind, and the gathering of knowledge, commented, “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?”
So when Paul writes to the Corinthians that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, we look about us for reactions to rude or harsh times.
The actor, Ricky Gervais, for instance, decided to play a foolish character named Derek in a new series that he says is about kindness. I watched an episode of Derek online. It is about a kind man working at an eldercare facility. It is a series with something to say about the treatment of the elderly and what it means to grow old and die.
Then, of course, people in this church every day are doing kind things, as Karen Hill says—by themselves, with no one watching. Things that don’t have to be done. Because, she said, people feel it is their home. Or as the old people in Derek’s nursing home say, “because it is our family.”
For Paul, Christian practice was not primarily about individuals but about the community. Even though many Christians would say that being Christian also means being part of a church, we are influenced by the modern Western notion that religion and spirituality are private, individual matters. But for Paul life in Christ was always a communal matter. This was so not simply because “it’s important to be part of a church,” but because his purpose and his passion were to create communities whose life together embodied an alternative to the normal “wisdom of the world.”
Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? Paul asks.
Could it be that God,staring at the destructive dividedness in the world, calls the church to be a community of kindness?
According to Paul, we are members of one body. This family language, my brothers and sisters, implies that members of the community have the same obligations to each other as do biological brothers and sisters. In the urban world of Paul where families had been broken apart & diminished, sometimes lost completely, because of migration to the cities and high death rates, these communities were “new families” in which members had the same responsibility to care for each other that biological families did. These were to be communities of caring and sharing.
Christians are to care for each other as they would family. With a kindness born of the “k-i-n” in kinship and kindred. We are of a kind. The word kindness comes from the word for kinship and the natural affection arising from it.
For family, we show up, we sit with, we go with. Even when we don’t feel like it. We listen. Or should. In community, we try to be the embodiment of God’s presence to each other. Our communal acts are not based on a business model like the wisdom of the world, or an over/under model, but on God’s foolish, expansive, inclusive love. Partly it’s simply about being aware of each other.
We can’t shut out what has happened to us today or yesterday when we walk into this church building. Like family, we bring to our gatherings what joy or slight we have experienced from a friend or colleague or family member, what traumatic air flight we had that day or how we dug out of the snow. We bring here what our bodies have endured just as an actor like Frank Langella describes stepping onto the stage to perform King Lear every night with a different day behind him. He doesn’t advocate trying to do it the same every night, but staying open to what comprises his self that moment, and letting his daily experience change his performance so you are seeing and hearing a different Lear every night. If we are tuned to each other in the same way, we will realize we are meeting a different person each Sunday in the narthex or the pew. We can respond, even today, with an attuned and loving kindness, aware that this person has been through many things since last Sunday or the committee meeting where we last saw them.
Close attention to one another is a form of kindness. We can listen closely to our sisters and brothers. On our really good days, we can hear one another.
With what, then, shall we come before the Lord? With justice, kindness and humility as our agenda, we can come, as a body, before the Lord. We are fortified in this place, in this family of St. Matthews, by what Becca Lambert in this week’s Spirit calls “the safe confines of the familiar.” For her this community has been her “rock,” her “boulder even.” The church is the work of Christ. So isn’t it the important thing that we are known as a community where one can expect kindness, a community of people who love kindness and practice it as a community? So that those who need kindness know they can receive it here? That this community of kindness is, in fact, a place of healing, to which we are invited? Is that, perhaps, what God wants of us?
February 2, 2014