Galatians 5:16-26; Colossians 3:12-17
In 2018, our country was repeatedly caught off guard and disillusioned by a steady stream of revelations that high profile and respected male figures had abused their power in all sorts of tragic ways. For women who had been victimized in the past it was both liberating and traumatic, forcing so many to relive, over and over, some of the most awful moments of their lives. For men, there was a lot of fear about how their actions may be construed. For society there was a needed reckoning about what is and absolutely is not acceptable behavior. Then last year a childhood hero for many took center stage and we held our collective national breath hoping we weren’t about to witness another leader fall from his pedestal. When it became clear this man was indeed everything we had always believed him to be, many of us let out a weary sigh of relief and loved him all the more even though he has been gone for over 15 years.
Just out of curiosity, how many of you watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood growing up? Mr. Rogers came into my living room every day. If I remember correctly, he was on right after Captain Kangaroo and right before Sesame Street. Now a confession. Mr. Rogers was okay, but I liked other shows better. I also lived in a warm, loving and safe home and had all the reassurance I needed growing up. Both the documentary and the movie about Mr. Rogers that came out last year, make clear how critically important Mr. Rogers was in the lives of so very many children who didn’t have the safe and caring home environment many of us took for granted.
Mr. Rogers was exceptional in several ways. He understood very early what a powerful medium television could be. He perceived both its potential and was appalled at the way that potential was being abused, already back in the 1960’s. He had a special knack for speaking with children honestly and with respect. He never talked down to kids and kids could just tell this was a man who genuinely loved children, loved them. But by far the trait most often lifted up is Fred Roger’s innate kindness.
It is both interesting and hopeful that Mr. Rogers has emerged as one of the heroes of 2019. That in a world where cruelty, anxiousness, greed, and uncertainty make their loud voices known in all sorts of difficult ways, a man we remember for his radical kindness is lifted up as an example of what we’re missing, what we’re longing for, what we want to be. Kind.
Kindness is perhaps the trait I most appreciate in people. I want to be with people who are kind. That was one of the most important qualities I looked for when I dated. If the guy wasn’t genuinely kind, I genuinely wasn’t interested. It’s also what draws me to any particular church – how kind the people are. When trying to choose a church, either as a pastor or a parishioner, it’s not the programs or the music or the pastor that pull me in. It’s whether or not the congregation seems to have a kind spirit within it. It would be hard for me to put to words how much your kindnesses mean to me, whether I am the recipient or simply the person seeing it happen. One of the wonderful things about being a pastor is that I often do get to see quiet, humble acts of kindness. I believe the grace, love and compassion – the kindness you are able to show others reveals more about the state of your heart than anything else. With that said, we are all a work in progress and will be until our dying days.
I was a little taken aback when I realized I’ve never done a sermon on kindness. In hindsight, this seems like a pretty drastic oversight. There’s enough material on kindness in the Bible to have a whole class on the topic. That word ripples out with many meaningful layers in both the OT and the NT. Many different words can be used interchangeably for kindness. For example, “hesed” is a Hebrew word that translated means: loving kindness, mercy, goodness, grace. There are many Hebrew and Greek words that can be translated as kindness or connected to the idea of kindness. So any translation of the Bible will be working with the concept of kindness much more often than the actual word might appear in scripture. For example, the NIV doesn’t use the word “kindness” nearly as often as the King James translation does. Proverbs 19:22 in the King James reads, “What is desired in a man is kindness…” But the NIV reads, “What a person desires is unfailing love…” Is “unfailing love” another way to say kindness? Yes. Absolutely.
Kindness is also a trait repeatedly ascribed to God. Here are just a few references from the New King James translation.
Psalm 36:7 – “How precious is Your loving kindness, O God! Therefore, the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.”
Isaiah 63:7 – “I will mention the loving kindnesses of the Lord and the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies, according to the multitude of His loving kindness.”
Titus 3:4-6 – “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy, He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior…”.
Interestingly, there is only one direct mention of kindness in the gospels and this is also a description of God. Luke 6:35-36 in the NIV reads, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
This Luke passage makes an assumption entirely appropriate for that time and context. But is offering kindness to our enemies the greatest challenge we face in our daily lives? Certainly, it is difficult to be kind to someone you despise. But I would like to think most of us don’t deal with a lot of enemies on a day to day basis. My biggest challenge any given week is not in being kind to my enemies, it is in trying to be kind to all the different people that populate my days – those who frustrate or irritate me. The person who is thoughtless. The person who wants to be right more than they want to be kind. The person who is disagreeable. The person who is just kind of mean, unkind in my direction. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be kind to the person or people who have the greatest capacity to wound us and who sometimes do. Oh, that’s hard. To be kind to someone who has hurt you.
Our instinctive tendency is to respond in some unfortunate ways. Sometimes we are unkind right back to the offending party. Tensions simmer, hostilities grow. Kindness is left in the rearview mirror and we become as mired in sin as the person or people we feel wronged by. Another temptation is to try and substitute nice for kind. Nice is the anemic and insipid stand-in for kindness. You can be nice on the outside while churning with all kinds of ugliness on the inside. At times nice is all we can manage and nice is better than mean. But nice doesn’t come within throwing range of kindness.
Kindness is always about trying to see and feel from someone else’s perspective. It’s about extending grace. It’s about showing mercy. It’s about forgiving and loving and showing someone you genuinely care.
Paul has much to say on the topic of kindness. It’s one of the fruits of the spirit Lynn read for us earlier. It’s one of the virtues we are to clothe ourselves with according to the Colossians text I read. In Ephesians 4:31-32 Paul writes, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”. And I Corinthians 13:4 – “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
Kindness often gets a bad rap. It’s seen as soft or weak. Kindness isn’t weak. It’s anything but. Kindness is strength. When you are feeling anger and hurt, it takes strength to wrestle with those intense emotions and not deny them, but tame them so they don’t take control. Mr. Rogers has a famous children’s song that gets at this truth. Here are the lyrics:
“What do you do with the mad that you feel,
When you feel so mad you could bite?
When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong…
And nothing you do seems very right?
“What do you do? Do you punch a bag?
Do you pound some clay or some dough?
Do you round up friends for a game of tag?
Or see how fast you go?
“It’s great to be able to stop,
when you’ve planned a thing that’s wrong,
And be able to do something else instead
and think this song:
“I can stop when I want to, can stop when I wish,
I can stop, stop, stop any time.
And what a good feeling to feel like this
and know that the feeling is really mine.
Know that there’s something deep inside
that helps us become what we can.
For a girl can be someday a woman
and a boy can be someday a man.”
I listened to a group of movie critics tenderly discussing the Mr. Roger’s movie. One of the critics referenced this song and acknowledged that while it was written for children, it’s exactly what he needed to hear. Being kind isn’t for the faint-hearted. When you are so mad you could bite, it takes great, great strength to be kind.
Being kind is often courageous. Here I think about how things so often unfold in a school or workplace setting. When you see a classmate or a colleague being picked on or talked about behind their back, the easiest thing to do is to join in with everyone else and pile on. The second easiest thing to do is stay silent or walk away and not say or do anything. The hardest thing to do is to intentionally work at inserting loving kindness into the situation, into the conversation. That takes courage.
Kindness is also powerful because kindness has the capacity to take our hard hearts and make them soft again. This is one of God’s super powers and one he freely bestows on us as well if we’re strong enough to receive the gift. Here’s a special story I came across that really illustrates the power of kindness.
Chris Abani is both a Nigerian and American author. Recalling a time from his childhood, he writes about how it took his mother a year to find a way to fly them out of Nigeria and to safety. In that year they would go from refugee camp to refugee camp and his mother would need to face down soldiers who were trying to recruit her eldest son, a nine year old, into their army. Abani says, “Imagine this five foot two woman standing up to men with guns who want to kill us.”
He continues saying that throughout that year he never saw his mother cry. But when they finally escaped and were in a Lisbon airport awaiting a flight to England, a stranger, a woman, saw Abani’s mother and noticed her threadbare clothes and five hungry-looking children in tow. She approached his mother and asked what had happened. His mother shared her story. And then this woman opened up and emptied her suitcase. She gave Abani’s mother everything she had on her – her clothes and a few toys. And his mother cried.
Years later he asked her about this. Why, as she hadn’t cried at all during such a brutally difficult year what finally prompted tears when a stranger showed her a small act of mercy? She replied, “You know, you can steel your heart against any kind of trouble, any kind of horror. But the simple act of kindness from a complete stranger will unstitch you.” Kindness is powerful.
Kindness is strength. Kindness is courage. Kindness is power. And the human mascot of kindness offered today for this strength, courage and power is the meek and gentle Mr. Rogers. In this Jesus is at work turning our understanding on its head. God tells us in Isaiah, Ephesians, Hebrews and Revelation that he is at work doing a new thing that will totally upset our understanding, a new thing that will turn the world on its head. Jesus breathed life and light into this promise ushering in a new kingdom – an upside-down kingdom. In this here and now kingdom where Hoffnungsau lives and delights, we serve others with joy and with a generous spirit. We work to face our fears so our fears no longer have the power to define us. And we strive to act in kindness towards each other and everyone we meet, thankful for a God whose kindness knows no end. “We love because he first loved us (I John 4:19).” We are able to be kind to ourselves and others because God was first kind to us.
Psalm 117 (New King James) – “Oh praise the Lord, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples! For His merciful kindness is great toward us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!” Amen.