THE EXCELLENT WAY, 6: LOVE IS KIND
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 14, 2016; Non-lectionary sermon
Hosea 11:1-9; Ephesians 4:17-32

“Love…is kind”
1 Corinthians 13:4

It was a beautiful day yesterday: one of those sunny September days with a cool breeze. Perfect day for a Seafood Festival — were it not for the pipe bomb exploding down the coast in Seaside Park.

I wasn’t here when it all went down. I was in Albany, making a presentation at a Synod commission meeting. I saw news of the Seaside bombing on my phone, just as I was leaving to come home. A couple hours later, I was on the New York Thruway, when Claire called and told me the police had sent everyone home from the Seafood Festival (a security precaution).

We don’t know yet who built the Seaside bomb. Nor do we know for sure what their motive was. But it’s a chilling thought, that this could well be the work of a terrorist — “self-radicalized” or otherwise. In New York and other major cities, they deal with that kind of threat all the time — as, indeed, we saw on the news last night, with the bomb that went off in a dumpster in Chelsea — but it’s not something we’re used to in our little corner of the world.

What sort of person builds a bomb like that, and hides it where innocent people will be passing by? Do they picture in their minds the bloody bodies of their victims? Do they imagine with delight the cries of the wounded, the tears of the bereaved?

Thank God this particular incident in Seaside turned out to be a scare, and nothing more. But we all know it could so easily have been different. The 29 people injured in Chelsea were not so lucky.

*****

There’s so much hatred in the world. And it’s alarming to imagine ourselves as the objects of such hatred — just for living where we live, just for being who we are.

When I decided to start preaching through 1 Corinthians 13 — the famous “love chapter” from that letter — I did not imagine that, when we go to the phrase “love is kind,” that the opposite of kindness would be so much on our minds, as it is today.

Maybe it’s an act of defiance to go ahead, this morning, and preach on that fragment of verse 4 anyway — to talk about kindness in spite of it all. Maybe it’s a declaration that the twisted minds of those who do such terrible things have no power over us, as Christians.

Sometimes the best way to counter darkness is by stubbornly and persistently raising up the light of Jesus Christ. And so, that’s what I propose to do today.

*****

One aspect of this light is kindness.

Now, kindness is something everyone’s in favor of — in the abstract. I’ve yet to meet a single person who doesn’t believe kindness is a virtue worthy of imitation. Polls have been conducted, asking people if they would describe themselves as kind. Nearly everyone says yes. (No surprise there: who wants to be described as unkind?)

Yet, I’m not sure, when most people use the word, they get anywhere near to exploring its deep richness of meaning. Instead, they understand it to be pretty much a synonym for the word “nice.”

Nice people: isn’t that what we all want to be? Aren’t those the sort of people with whom we want to surround ourselves? We all want to live in nice neighborhoods, in nice communities. When we socialize, we want to spend time with other nice people. When someone encounters us out and about, and we exchange neighborly greetings, we want that person to go away from the encounter thinking, “Now isn’t that a nice person!”

“Nice” — the way most people use the word — is just another word for “likable.”

I don’t know anywhere in the Bible where Jesus, or the apostle Paul, or any of the patriarchs or matriarchs or prophets, offers the encouragement to “Be nice.” It’s not in the Ten Commandments. You’ll find it nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul doesn’t include it in the lists of ethical instructions with which he wraps up his letters — as he does in today’s New Testament lesson from Ephesians chapter 4.

The word he uses in that passage is “kind.” He says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

This is a much, much richer concept than niceness. Niceness — meaning likability — has more to do with what other people think of us than with anything we actually do for others. It’s a spiritual popularity contest.

*****

One of my favorite musicians is the Quaker folksinger, Carrie Newcomer. This past April, Carrie’s alma mater, Goshen College in Indiana, invited her back to give the commencement address. She challenged the graduates of that Christian college to go out into the world and do three things: to “be true, be kind and to pay attention.”

As Carrie examined the concept of kindness, and what that word means, she did so by comparing it to love. Here’s something she said:

“We talk a lot about love. We talk about love in songs, movies, in spiritual community. Love is big, it’s so big and so wide. Sometimes you just can’t get your arms around love. But kindness is love in human size. It’s the country cousin to love. Kindness brings soup when you’re sick, it hangs out in the kitchen washing dishes when no one asked it to, it opens the door when your hands are full, and stops everything to listen to your story. It is not flashy or fancy or likely to make it to the front page. It’s a small practice and so humble, it’s easy to forget how profoundly powerful it is. Kindness lightens and softens our days. It reframes the world and expresses love on a human scale.”1

I think you’ll agree, this goes way beyond the concept of niceness.

*****

In preparing this message today, I did a little research into the English word, “kindness,” and I learned something very interesting. It comes from the Germanic root, cyne, which is also related to our modern English word, “kin.” Our kinfolk, of course, are the people we’re closest to: our families, or maybe the sort of close friends we consider family — those people our parents taught us to address as “aunt” or “uncle,” even though we aren’t related.

It’s true — isn’t it? —that we interact differently with our kinfolk than we do anyone else. If any of our kin are sick, or in need, we consider it our obligation to help out. And they would do the same for us. We know that. No questions asked. (If we have to ask the question, then maybe they’re not our kin, even if they do happen to be blood-relations.)

Well, maybe when Paul says “love is kind,” or when he encourages the Ephesians to “be kind to one another,” he’s advising them to treat each other like kin: to draw the circle of inclusion a little larger, so it includes them. Now this is an extraordinary thing, because he’s not talking about families here (at least, not in the conventional sense). He’s talking about church. He’s saying to those Ephesians, “Yes, I know you’re not related to one another, but treat each other as though you are.”

Back in the Gospels, Jesus has some remarkable — even shocking — things to say about family. In Luke chapter 14, verse 26, he offers this saying, which has to qualify as one of his most baffling — even disturbing — teachings: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Most of us hear that passage and we say, “That’s harsh. Are you sure it was Jesus who said that?”

Yes indeed, it was Jesus who said that. And by that saying I believe he means something like this: “The kingdom of God, this reign or rule that I’m bringing into the world, is profoundly disturbing. It overturns all the other social hierarchies we’re part of. I’m calling you, my friends, to a new way of life: of imitating the love of God as you see it flowing outward from me. All other human loves are but a pale reflection of that great and all-empowering love.”

There’s another scene in the Gospels when Jesus is hanging on the cross, slowly dying. He looks down and sees Mary his mother, looking up at him with a grieving and horror-struck expression. Now, standing beside Mary is a disciple John doesn’t name. He just calls him “the disciple whom he loved.” Lots of Bible scholars think this man may be John himself.

Jesus looks at his mother and says to her, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he turns to the disciple and says, “Here is your mother.”

“And from that hour,” John tells us, “the disciple took her into his own home.”

Do you see what’s happening here? It’s the flip side of Jesus’ disturbing teaching about hating “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.” In that other passage he’s saying, “You are kin to me in a way you aren’t even kin to your own family.” In this passage, as he forces a sort of mutual adoption between Mary and this beloved disciple, he’s saying, “You two are now kin to one another according to a bond stronger than any blood relationship.”

That bond, that connection, is kindness — what Carrie Newcomer calls the “country cousin” of love.

*****

There’s something else Carrie says in that commencement address that’s too good not to share. It’s an example of kindness from her own childhood:

“When I was a little girl, I went to visit my grandmother Newcomer. Her yard looked like the Garden of Eden and she had planted flowers all round her front porch. I loved my grandmother, and I decided to pick her a bouquet. I remember my mother’s horrified face as I held out that bouquet of flowers, bulbs and all. My grandmother did not skip a beat. She just said, ‘Oh Carrie, what a beautiful bouquet. Thank you. And now, I will teach you how to plant bulbs.’ Which she did. She did not yell at me, or shame me. She took me by the hand and taught me something very important about how to tend to growing things — like flowers, like relationships, like a child. And to this day, whenever I get my hands in the dirt, whenever I put a bouquet of flowers on the front table, I think of her and that small kindness.”

Now, Carrie’s grandmother could have gotten upset when she saw that her flowers had been pulled up from the garden, bulbs and all. To her, though, there was something more important than the flowers. It was the living relationship with someone she considered kin. That relationship demanded kindness, and not shaming.

One way of defining kindness is to say it’s treating others like they are family — even if they aren’t, in a technical sense.

*****

This morning we’ve baptized two lovely little girls, Breanna and Elysium. They have their own families, of course, but today the circle of their kinship has been drawn a little wider. They now belong to a congregation as well. As their parents are true to their promises, and bring them to the church in the years to come for instruction in the faith, may they find here not just an institution filled with people who are nice to them, but a true community where they may experience genuine kindness.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, as our next hymn affirms. Wider than the boundaries we lay down to separate us from others. Wider than the paltry communication skills we bring to our human relationships. Wider than our doubts, and — yes, in these days of terrorism — even our fears.

The kindness of God that you and I come to know in Jesus Christ is wider than anything we can imagine. We have, in our own way, received that kindness from him. Now, let us share it with one another in his name.

Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.