The (Im)Possibility of Christian Kindness

[This sermon was preached at Saint Peter’s Church on March 22, 2015, reflecting on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33. You can hear the audio here.]

So we’ve been going through the fruits of the Spirit these last few weeks, and this Sunday we come to kindness… It feels little bit cliché and even boring honestly to be talking about kindness in Church — I guess because it’s so expected. And everybody tries to claim it!

Pretty much every major world religious tradition says something about the importance of kindness and compassion, such that the Dali Lama can say, “my religion is kindness; kindness is my religion.” And even among non-religious people there is a widespread acknowledgment of the value and desirability of kindness.

This is what’s tricky about kindness: there are some very self-serving reasons for trying to be kind. We could talk about the golden rule. It’s one of the first things we teach children. It’s necessary. It makes sense. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Not only will people probably like you more, but there’s actually studies that have been done, indicating that showing kindness makes you a happier person!

But where does kindness come from? What is true kindness for us as Christians? Does it come from simply trying harder to be kind?

As we’ve made our way through many of the fruits of the spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience — we might sense that Paul is sort of unpacking the components of love, and so we begin to see that these fruits of Spirit, while not an exhaustive list of the virtues of the supernaturally changed life, these fruits can’t be separated from each other. We find that patience, for example — longsuffering — is linked with kindness in at least two other lists in Paul’s letter (2 Corinthians 6:6; Colossians 3:12). So you probably can’t be kind without also being patient.

The Bible talks at length about kindness in the Old Testament, as well, where it’s frequently preceded by the word “show!” So kindness is a practical outworking of love. It’s love in action, we could say. Sometimes the word for kindness is translated “compassion.” And other times you might see the word “loving-kindness” used to describe God’s character.

And in the story of Israel, you see a pattern of growth and development of the people of Israel’s understanding of kindness — both of God’s kindness, and the kindness God expected from them. But we see this kindness most of all, of course, in Jesus, who, looking upon the multitudes of people with all their problems, sicknesses and confusion, was moved with compassion (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 18:27) — a synonym for kindness — compassion is the feeling that prompts kindness, you might say.

But we’re also aware of how easily kindness can be perverted or distorted, and we would probably admit that we’re tempted to do this ourselves — to practice corrupt or counterfeit forms of kindness.

In the culture of the ancient Mediterranean, in which much of the New Testament is imbedded, there was what has been called, usually, an honor-shame system in place. It’s still around in parts of the world today, especially in the East, and we even see traces of in our culture, but not in quite the same way. Since we live in a capitalist society, money is really the ultimate commodity in America, so we’re not quite as tied to the cultural power of honor and shame. Now in parts of Charleston, there is still last name still matters, or where you live, how long you’ve lived here, what business your family is in, that sort of thing. But for most places in the U.S., that’s really not the case anymore. If you’re rich, famous, then you’re in. That’s all it takes. And that’s why today you see that certain celebrities can be very admired while at same time getting away with completely shameless behavior. Maybe the shameless stuff even helps their reputation — helps them make more money!

But in Jesus’s day, rather than money and capital, the most precious possession someone could have was honor. Because whether you could be rich and powerful and admired depended largely on how much honor you had attached to your name. Honor was the most valuable commodity.

You could maybe relate honor and shame culture to what we sometimes associate with the word propriety — do you know and do you do what is proper, what is polite, what is customary, traditional, respectable — especially when it comes to showing hospitality to esteemed guests or in special ceremonies, for example.

The honor shame system wasn’t as prevalent in Jewish culture, but even the Jews had been living under Greek influence for hundreds of years at this point, so one of the other big problems with the Pharisees, in addition to their tendency toward legalism, was that they had bought into this culture of honor and shame, and they would seek the honor of the people by flaunting their piety in public. This is why we see Jesus saying in Mark 12:38-39:

“Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.”

But another important component of the Honor-Shame system was the Patron-client relationship. One of the ways you could gain honor was to do something for someone who had more honor than you: flatter them, serve, host them, give them a gift, and the way the system works of course — and again, this isn’t totally foreign to us — is they would be expected, implicitly, to return the favor by out-honoring you. This was a way to advance yourself.

It’s why you see some Pharisees initially showing respect and deference to Jesus, at least in public, until he wounds their honor. Then they really get upset! In the passage in John right before ours (ch. 11), it says:

47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. 48″If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

At this moment in history, the Romans still perceive that letting the Scribes, the Pharisees and the other Jewish leader have their little enclave of power — this little kingdom within a kingdom — because as long as the people respect, look up to and submit to the authority of the religious leaders, it benefits the imperial security interests of the Romans. But all of that is being challenged by Jesus. And the Pharisees know that if they lose sway with the people, Rome will take away their privileged status as a special religious group in the Empire.

Mark 15:10 – “For [Pilate] knew that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over out of envy.”

And what’s fascinating is that the Church has traditionally said that the sin opposite the virtue or fruit of kindness is envy. Because if kindness is acting for the benefit of others before ourselves, then envy is wanting the benefits enjoyed by others for ourselves.

The moment you take self-interestedness out of the kindness equation, it becomes almost impossible to be kind. Jesus’ is exposing the counterfeit kindness that the world is running on! And he warns us: “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Now how in the world are we supposed to do that? To show true kindness?

In John 12:24-25, Jesus says:

12:24 “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Paul says much the same thing in Galatians 2:

“I am crucified with Christ so that it is not I but Christ that lives in me! This life is no longer ours, but rather is one in which we live by faith in the One who loved us and gave himself for us.”

In the Anglican Common Worship Calendar, it is noted this week that 34 Years ago tomorrow, on a Monday Mass in San Salvador, the Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while celebrating Communion. The day before, on Sunday, he had just preached one of the most provocative sermons speaking out against the poverty, injustice, assassinations and torture that was being propagated by the Revolutionary Party in power during the Salvadorian Civil War. For the three years that he served as Archbishop in El Salvador, Romero lived and worked with the poor of his country. He had opportunities to flee the country, but refused, after being inspired by the death of another Jesuit priest and friend several years earlier who had also been publically criticizing the persecution of the church and of non-violent resistance groups.

Romero was known for his radio broadcasts each week that would announce the most recent reports of disappearances, tortures and murders that he knew about, since the mainstream news was being totally censored by the current military regime. The day before he died, Romero had called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. It is reported that over 250,000 people attended Romero’s funeral, which was interrupted by attacks and riots, leading to the death of as many as 50 people.

To this day, Romero is remembered for his devotion and kindness to the poor and the oppressed of his country during a very dangerous time, and widely considered the Saint of the Americas. Pope Francis announced just last month that the Catholic Church would finally move forward with Romero’s canonization, which is scheduled to take place in May.

I share this story with you all, not just because we’ve come upon the anniversary of Romero’s death, but because it illustrates as well as any the necessity of death and suffering for producing fruit, and growing kindness. It’s very hard for affluent people, like you and me, most of us, to enter the kingdom of God, because there’s comfort and convenience in our lives at every turn. And so we can spend quite a bit of our time successfully avoiding suffering. But here’s the irony: for healthy and wealthy people, especially, suffering is the great teacher!

This is the garden principle, you’ve been hearing about if you’ve been with us these last few weeks: We have to die before we die. And suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our counterfeit kindness in the meantime.

It goes against the very programs of our minds. Not just because there’s pain, but because there’s surrender, and that’s what’s so counterintuitive. You can’t achieve it, you have to let it. It’s like anti-American.

Now, this doesn’t mean we’re all supposed to go looking for martyrdom. Probably our circumstances are different from that of Romero’s. And there’s also a difference between good suffering and bad suffering here. I’m not talking about the suffering of torture, war, sexual abuse, or certain deadly disease, for example — that’s debilitative suffering. And God doesn’t want that for you. But because of human sin, it happens. Which is why Jesus takes on that kind of suffering on the cross, suffering caused by sin, and defeats that sin and suffering — takes it away!

By contrast, the kind of suffering we’re called to on a daily basis is a good suffering. Richard Rohr defines this kind of suffering as basically what we experience anytime we’re not in control. That should sufficiently broaden the definition for us.

Basically, you’re faced with the opportunity to suffer all the time. You’re suffering when you’re getting the kids ready for school or church. You’re suffering at the job you don’t like. You’re suffering when you’re waiting in line or in traffic. The question is, what are you going to do with that suffering? Because you have a choice. We either transmit it, or we let God transform it. See most of the time we transmit it to other people, in the form of criticism, complaining, resentment, or retaliation.

Why was Jesus able to endure and face the bad suffering so well? Because he had already voluntarily embraced a life of good suffering to prepare him for the bad. 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, that’s what we’re commemorating right now in the Season of Lent! That’s what y’all are doing too right, fasting for 40 days?

But seriously, for whatever reason, I don’t think some of us still don’t realize what we’ve signed up for. Some of us still think that because Jesus suffered, died and gave up his life, that we don’t have to. That’s not the gospel. That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

Not to mention, people today are more skeptical than ever and will see right through that sort of self-serving religion. God does give us an abundance of grace, but that grace is given to precisely for loving and suffering.

So, as a church, if we are to be a garden for growing this kind of kindness, how can we do this? What are some of the good suffering practices that we can adopt? I’ll mention a few things before wrapping up:

  1. First, we can stop hiding our problems. Our problems are one our deepest resources for discovering and practicing kindness. And accountability and correction in the spirit of love can be one of the most powerful demonstrations of kindness. It’s not easy kindness, or fun kindness, but it is real kindness, and real Christian friendship, for that matter.
  2. Second, we can accept that fact that church is never going to be full of the people you’d prefer to hang out with. Church isn’t your high school cafeteria, would be another way to say it — where you look around and find the table the cool kids are sitting at and try to sit with them. The whole section in Galatians on the fruit of the Spirit comes right after Paul is basically just talking about serious conflict in the Church. We’re going to have this! We should be brought together who would have very little reason to be in relationship if it weren’t for the cross of Christ. As Tim Keller says, in spite of our many differences and disagreements, as the Church, we’re united by kindness as social incompatibles.
  3. And finally, we can unbusy ourselves.  Busyness kills our capacity for kindness.Look at the way Jesus handles busyness. I don’t we don’t normally think of Jesus as being busy, but he was tempted to be, in that crowds were always following him around and wanting him to do things for them. So what is Jesus’ discipline? He moves, from the city, the desert. From the people, back to God. from service and kindness, to prayer and solitude, constantly practicing this rhythm of rest and engagement, Sabbath and interaction.

Friends, if we don’t learn to die before we die — practicing spiritual disciplines, opening up about our problems, befriending people who we wouldn’t normally befriend, un-busying our schedules — then we’re not going to grow and produce the fruit of the Spirit, we’re not going to be kind, and we’ll go to the grave kicking and screaming.

There’s still good news though. What did we read in Jeremiah 31? The Lord says,

“I will put my Law in their minds, I will write it on their hearts” — that is, on their wills! “They will be my people, and I will be their God.” There’s not going to be new stone tablets, with more commandments. We didn’t keep our end of the covenant, but God says, “I will forgive you, and remember your sin no more.”  God comes in Christ to demonstrate and accomplish his loving kindness once and for all, and God comes by way of the Holy Spirit — to sanctify us! To produce in us the Spirit’s fruit, and especially the fruit of kindness.

So with each of us, may the fruit of kindness continue to blossom and grow. Above all, may we strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, the one by whom may know and receive your loving-kindness, and the one who bids us come and die to that we might have true life. Amen.