January 20, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The past few weeks, I have been preaching not only on the words of the Bible but on the words of my great-niece Leona but because we had a week off for snow, I need to remind you of what she said, so here is the story again.
On December 28th, my sister’s five year old granddaughter, Leona climbed into my sister’s bed and declared, “In three more days, it will be a new year.”
My sister Wendy nodded, “That’s right. In three days it will be 2019.”
Leona contemplated this fact for a moment and then declared, “It will be a new year but I am still five and I’m still brave and strong and kind and a little bit silly.”
I heard in Leona’s statement a description of the Christian life — that those who follow Christ will find that no matter the season of the year or the number on the calendar, they are able to be brave, strong, kind, and a little bit silly because of Christ — and so in the first week of my sermon series I preached on the paralyzing effects of fear and how Christ gives us the courage to be brave, and two weeks ago I preached about how Christ’s presence helps us to be strong, to persist in faith and endure difficulties. Today, I will be talking about her third characteristic, which is kindness — in Christ, we are kind.
The scripture reading is from Luke 6:31-36 which begins with what we have come to call the Golden Rule. I am going to read however, from Eugene Peterson’s Message translation because it gives us a fresh way of hearing these familiar words:
“Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.
“I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind.”
You know, it used to be easier to be kind. There was a time, not so long ago when even ordinary Christians not only took it for granted that kindness was one of the virtues of faith but also were able to practice kindness without a lot of effort. They helped out neighbors, held doors open for one another, taught their children to share, refrained from malicious gossip, and if they didn’t have something nice to say, they generally managed to keep their mouths shut, at least publicly. It was understood that to be a good Christian required being a kind person, and even outside of the church, society at large agreed that kindness was a valuable social virtue. Now certainly, even in those more civil times, there were still people who clothed themselves in kindness on Sundays while dishing out doses of meanness and spite to others on Monday through Saturday, but the very fact that they felt they had to pretend to be kind when among fellow Christians shows how foundational the ideal of kindness was seen to be to the Christian character.
In today’s world, however, kindness is less and less valued and is consequently becoming increasingly rare. Even Christians appear short on kindness; they spend more of their time asserting their opinions and arguing over doctrine than working to show compassion to their neighbors. In a 2007 study, nearly 90% of Americans aged 16–29 said that Christians are too judgmental and described Christians as “[People who] like to hear themselves talk. [Christians] are arrogant about their beliefs,” the respondents said, “but they never bother figuring out what other people actually think. They don’t seem to be very compassionate, especially when they feel strongly about something.” 1 Following a cultural shift away from kindness, many Christians as well now place a higher value on being right than on being compassionate, on being assertive than on being gentle, and on scoring points over showing mercy. What was once a central assumption about the character of any good Christian — that that person would be kind — is no longer assumed or even sought in the contemporary church or in the culture at large.
This may sound like I’m just being a curmudgeon, that I’m just growling about how “in my day, people knew how to be nice to one another and these darn kids today are so rude and selfish, and my parents wouldn’t have let me get away with that when I was their age,” and all the other things old people say about the younger generation when they look at the past through rose colored glasses, but I’m really not just grousing. I’m stating what I suspect we all feel, which is that kindness is in shorter supply today that it was even just twenty years ago. But the reason, I would argue, that it is in shorter supply today is that the kindness we were practicing in the good old days that we thought was Christian kindness was in fact, just ordinary everyday kindness, the kindness that Jesus says, even run of the mill sinners can manage. I think that it is not our ability to be kind that has changed; it is the nature of the community in which we are called to act out our kindness that has changed and that has made the practice of kindness much more challenging. It literally used to be easier to be kind.
You see, it turns out that kindness in and of itself isn’t really that extraordinary of a virtue because it is part of our genetic makeup. Darwin argued that human beings are prone toward kindness to the others in their community because kindness provides an evolutionary advantage to animals that live in society with one another. Kindness strengthens the bonds of family and community, encourages the sharing of resources, and aids in the survival of the next generation by providing offspring with a secure network of caring people in which to grow. Kindness is the glue that holds us together as a social species. Because of this, some scientists argue, the impulse to kindness is hard wired into the human brain. As a social species, we need one another to flourish and so for human beings, “survival of the fittest” means that the most fit among us — the ones whose genes are most likely to survive — are those who are most kind to their neighbors because then their neighbors are more likely to reciprocate and help them in return. That means that if you are proud of yourself for teaching your children to share with their siblings and pay attention to the needs of those around them, it turns out you were just following an instinctual impulse.
The problem is that the tendency toward kindness evolved in a time when the communities in which people lived were small. The members of their family and their immediate community were often one and the same, and though you might know that there were other groups out there, for the most part you tried to avoid interacting with them. As civilization expanded, however, people’s contacts with one another increased, social networks grew bigger, and we had to grapple with the question of who constitutes our community. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” he is saying, “Tell me who is in my community so that I will know who it is that requires my kindness.” The lawyer was following his instinctual impulse to demonstrate kindness to those with whom he had a mutually reciprocal relationship, trusting that his kindness would ultimately bounce back and benefit him and his family. Like the lawyer, we too find it easier to be kind to those we know are our neighbors. Think, for example of how much easier it is to suppress your road rage when you are driving down Main St. Alfred than it is if you are driving in a city where no one knows you. No matter how frustrated you might feel by the slow car in front of you on Main Street, you won’t blast your horn and flip them the finger because it is very possible they will recognize you! As long as the communities by which we identify ourselves are generally small, homogeneous, and familiar, the kindness we are called upon to show one another provides clear benefits to our social well being and as such, kindness is easier to do.
When those communities, however, become larger, more diverse, and more distant from us both physically and emotionally, kindness is harder to show. The benefits to being kind aren’t as obvious, and the costs to not being kind appear much less. In other words, science concurs with what Jesus said to the listening crowd: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
The ordinary person is hardwired to show kindness to those around them so even members of the mob can make great neighbors. But what happens when your community — your daily interactions through cable TV, through your News Apps on your phone, through Facebook and Twitter, include people who don’t live next door to you, people who are different from you in color, in sexuality, in political party, in religion, people whose faces you cannot even see but who you know only as usernames on Twitter? This is the world in which we live today, in which the size of our community has been pushed to dimensions that our poor primate brains are not equipped to handle. And so kindness has become a scarcer commodity, uncertainly valued, and poorly practiced, and yet what has not changed is the fact that no matter how challenging it is now to practice kindness, we know deep down that we still need it. We despair at its loss in our society because we know in our hearts and can feel in our weary bones that no matter how hard it is to be kind in this noisy diverse world, kindness continues to be the only glue that is capable of holding this tumultuous, hurting, confused society together. We have to figure out how to bring kindness back into our world.
Jessica Walsh is a well known graphic designer from New York City who has 92,000 followers on Twitter. Even those who have never tweeted in their lives know from the news that Twitter can be a brutal place, where people feel free to comment, criticize, or cut others open without restraint and the more well known you are, the more vulnerable you are to abuse on Twitter. Walsh had a number of outspoken critics on her twitter feed, most of whom she was able to shrug off, but there was one woman whose constant barrage of negative comments really hurt. It was a fellow designer whose work Walsh admired and Walsh couldn’t understand what she had done to deserve such condemnation. Walsh finally decided that she would contact her twitter troll directly, but rather than confronting her and demanding justice, Walsh would approach her with deliberate kindness.
“What would happen,” Walsh wrote on her blog, “if I was nice to her? What would happen if I invited her out to dinner? How would that make me feel to sit across from the girl who has said such horrible things about me?…”
“The task of emailing this woman who has hated on me publicly,” Walsh said, “was not something I looked forward to. I must have moved it to the bottom of my to-do list ten times before I finally worked up the courage to write her. I decided … [to] approach her gently, and not make her feel attacked… [so I wrote,] ‘Hey Andrea, I hope you are well! A friend of mine pointed me to your website and I think you have some nice projects. I’d love to grab a coffee and chat about things, let me know if you have any availability next week! Many warm greetings…. Jessica Walsh.’
‘The next few hours,” she said, “were a waiting game. All kinds of illogical thoughts crossed my mind: Does she know what I am up to? What if she tweets my email? I must have clicked “refresh” 500 times that day on my inbox. Then I received a response.
“Hey Jessica,” [the email said.] “It’s a huge honor to hear from you! Thanks so much for reaching out. I am so honored that you like my work. I am a huge fan of your work as well. I’d love to meet up and chat. Andrea.”
“Wait, what?,” Walsh thought. “Is the girl who has tweeted such mean, hateful remarks suddenly telling me she loves my work? I quickly opened a browser tab and went through her Twitter [account]. All of the negative things she wrote about me were gone. She must have [immediately] deleted them.
“…I met up with her for drinks the next day [and] … it was clear she had no idea that I knew what she had tweeted. She also seemed to genuinely like my work, which was surprising. She talked about projects she liked that I’ve done, asked numerous questions about my career, and even referenced an interview of mine that she read. I was pretty shocked, I really didn’t expect her to say all these things after what she tweeted…. It was clear this girl didn’t actually hate me, and my kindness towards her seemed to eliminate any anger she once had. I lost an enemy that day, and maybe even gained a future collaborator, as I do really like her work.’” 2
The faceless world of Twitter enabled Andrea to lash out at Walsh but Walsh’s deliberate and intentional kindness broke through that facelessness and drew Andrea into community with her. Kindness is still the glue that can hold us together.
The innate kindness with which evolution equipped us is no longer enough to keep up with our expanding world nor can we evolve fast enough to help us to deal with the challenges of the global diversity in which we now find ourselves. As Christians, however, we are blessed to have a resource that is more dependable than our human brains: Jesus’s kindness is deeper than any we are capable of on our own. The kindness we practiced as Christians when the world was small should still be the same kindness we practice today when our world has become so large as to feel overwhelming, because that kindness comes not from ourselves but from Christ. No matter how challenging it feels, we know that we can be kind because our kindness is the kindness of Christ who pours our compassion on all people, the sinner and the saint, the Jew and the Samaritan, the stranger and the friend, male and female, slave and free, Black and White, refugee from a far away country and the neighbor we share coffee with at the Terra Cotta. Jesus says, “These are all your family because they are the children of God, part of your community. Follow me and I will give you the ability to pour out kindness on them all.”
And so, in 2019, when we long to berate the opinions of those who belong to a different political party than we do, when we want to turn away from the migrant who makes us uncomfortable, when we are tempted to type nasty things on our social media accounts, when we feel like mocking those who are different from ourselves, or even when we are just so tired of it all that we are afraid we no longer are capable of being kind, we will sink our souls deep into the mercy of Christ and we will be kind because he will give us the strength we need; he will give us the love we require, and he will give us the courage to forge on. No matter what the world looks like in the days and years ahead, and no matter who our neighbor turns out to be; we are the disciples of Christ, and will still be strong, and we will still be brave, and we will still and always will be kind.
1. The Barna Research Group and The Fermi Project, “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity,” September 2007. Details of the study can be found in the book unChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007).