Sermon of the Week:
Love is Kind–Kindness is Great!
Part one of a six-week sermon series about Kindness and the Christian Faith, called Love is Kind.
Special Music: In Remembrance
Hymn: The King of Love My Shepherd Is
Keywords: Bruce Reyes-Chow, Paul, Billy Bragg, Harry Styles, Kindness, Humanize Everyone. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I’ve known it in my bones longer than I’ve had words to put to it
But we have a kindness problem.
Not exactly a civility problem.
Or a niceness problem.
A kindness problem.
I put words to it last spring,
When we as a nation were elbow deep in some argument or another about the pandemic.
Back then it was just the flu.
It was going to pass by Easter, or shortly thereafter.
Things were lightening up a bit, because it was getting warmer out
and we as a nation were debating things like wearing masks out in public.
And a pastor friend of mine was in a grocery store in his hometown
When someone spat on him.
My friend was wearing a mask
And that simple thing made him a target
Of all this stuff we were feeling at the time
The worry and the dread and the anger
Because we were locked down and locked in and frankly worried about all of that
Worried about getting sick or what would become of our job
Upset because we weren’t seeing our loved ones…
And some people started lashing out over all of that
Particularly people who seemed to be living through all of this differently…
And so my friend went to the grocery store
And he was wearing a mask
And because of that, this guy came up to him and yelled at him and spit in his face.
It was disgusting, sure, and dangerous, frankly
And now, looking back at it a year later, a clear sign of our kindness problem.
That’s one moment when it crystalized for me,
but there are other moments from the last few years…
Maybe you can name some of your own.
So it was a breath of fresh air when a different pastor friend
Wrote a book this year that he called
In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How it Changes our Lives,
And How it Can Save the World.[i]
Bruce Reyes-Chow leads a congregation in Palo Alto California
And has been a wise and thoughtful theologian for the church for a while now
Even before became the youngest person ever elected to be Moderator of our Denomination
The Presbyterian Church USA, back in 2008.
He has written about curating conversations about race and racism, parenting,
and now, gratefully, about kindness.
I’m going to be using his work throughout this sermon series.
This is a timely subject,
Because if I were to ask you to close your eyes
As a thought experiment,
And I asked you think a bit about
two experiences in the past week when you saw kindness,
Someone being kind to another…
And gave you a few seconds to do that,
And then I asked you, conversely,
to think about two experiences where you saw the opposite,
When someone was just awful to someone else…
Which would come easier and quicker to mind?
Bruce Reyes-Chow argues that we see far more examples of the later
Of people being unkind to one another
On social media
Driving around town or on the interstate
At the store or in the park.
Bruce is in California.
I’m here in the Midwest, where “niceness” is almost a virtue.
This question might land differently in Boston or New York
Than it does in Minnesota
But I think Bruce is right: this seems to not be a geographical phenomenon
But something becoming more prevalent throughout our culture.
Let’s start by explaining what we mean by Kindness.
Even though I suggested a moment ago that Kindness might be another word for Nice,
That’s not what we mean.
Being kind isn’t being nice,
In part, that’s because being nice is often not really about being kind at all…
Here’s how Bruce puts it:
While being nice is not a bad thing in general,
Often being nice is an outward action
that is more about not rocking the boat
than about acknowledging the human dignity of others.
Being nice is often about avoiding conflict,
Letting inappropriate actions slide,
Or bottling up words and actions
That ought to be spoken and enacted
To prevent creating an uncomfortable scene.
At its worst, being nice reinforces actions and attitudes
that strip away human dignity.
So if that’s what you are doing, then yes,
I say stop doing that.[ii]
What do you think about this?
Some examples of being nice, but not being kind,
Might be when we say “bless your heart” to someone,
when we let a bully get away with it because its too much work to tell him to knock it off.
Niceness is closer to politeness, which, again, isn’t itself bad in many circumstances
But it isn’t what we’re talking about when we talk about being kind.
Some of the worst things ever said to me were uttered with a niceness to it.
Some of the worst things ever done to my friends, to people I love,
Where done by someone who uttered “I love the sinner, but I also have to hate the sin…”
As if that excused the most dehumanizing sort of response in return.
Ok, fair enough.
But what then do we mean by Kindness?
Turns out, many people have tried to answer that for us.
Aristotle attempted to define kindness as
“helpfulness towards someone in need,
Not in return for anything,
Nor for the advantage of the helper [themself],
but for that of the person helped.”
So, maybe that’s one way to look at it:
Helpfulness for another, not for our sake or advantage, but just for theirs.
Then there was Mark Twain, who took the approach of an author, a novelist,
When he argued that Kindness is a sort of compassion,
“a language where the deaf can hear and the blind can see”
Twain was talking about fulfilling the need of another person,
Seeking out what is good for them.
When I was a teenager,
I remember listening to British punk and folk rocker Billy Bragg,
I had one of his cassettes[iii]
And I’m sure I listened to it a lot
But I can only remember one song he ever sang
I Am the Milkman of Human Kindness,
Inspired by a line of Shakespeare, from Macbeth.
Bragg’s song is just him and his electric guitar
Singing, alone and passionate:
If you’re lonely,
I will call
If you’re poorly,
I will send poetry
I love you
I am the milkman of human kindness
I will leave an extra pint
If you’re sleeping, I will wait
If your bed is wet, I will dry your tears
I love you
I am the milkman of human kindness
I will leave an extra pint
So much more than mere niceness.
Or maybe you’re a Harry Styles fan,
And you know about this Treat People With Kindness campaign.[iv]
He started using that phrase on his debut concert tour in 2017
It was a sort of slogan, often abbreviated TPWK
Treat People with Kindness.
He wrote it on his guitar.
Sold it on pride t-shirts and for GLSEN fundraisers,
Which helps all students, particularly LGBTQ students, have a safe place to learn
And apparently it took off,
So he wrote a song about it, with that title,
Which includes this lyric:
Maybe we can find a place to feel good
And we can treat people with kindness
Find a place to feel good
Given second chances
I don’t need all the answers
Feeling good in my skin
I just keep on dancing
And if we’re here long enough
We’ll see it’s all for us
And we’ll belong
Harry Styles has worked hard
To help vulnerable people feel loved and accepted
To feel good in their skin, as the lyric says
To say that “you’ll belong” just keep on dancing.
This is Harry being kind.
It is so much more than being nice.
It is Styles being warm and empathic and human
And urging us to do the same, to be the same.
What do you think?
How would you define Kindness?
What qualities, emotions, commitments are implied by that word?
Kindness is kinda a big deal
for those of us who follow God on the way of Jesus,
and that is because
“Kindness” is a big deal in the Bible.
We will explore some of this over the rest of this sermon series
And there is a lot to talk about.
For instance, we’ll see that Kindness is considered
One of the Fruit of the Spirit,
Right there next to Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Goodness,
Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.
We’ll talk about that next week.
We’ll also look at how Kindness is something that the Lord Requires of Us.
That’s in the prophet Micah.
We’re actually called not just to be kind, but to LOVE kindness,
Along with seeking justice and walking humbly.
Lots to unpack there.
We’ll see how Kindness is related to the Golden Rule
…you know, where we do unto others as we would have them do to us…
And also how Kindness is a virtue
That tempers and shapes our anger,
Our good anger, I mean,
when we’re angry for the right reasons
And, in the end, we will explore how Kindness
is an essential part of how we live out our lives as Christians
As followers of Jesus Christ.
And, of course, we have today’s reading,
Where the Apostle Paul is writing to believers in Corinth
And now faith, hope, and love abide….these three…
And the greatest of these is Love.
For Christians, we believe that Kindness has something to do with love.
In fact, Paul says as much:
Love is Patient, Love is Kind,
Love is not Envious or Boastful or Arrogant or Rude.
As I mentioned before we read this passage,
Paul didn’t write these words to give us something to reflect about at a wedding,
Though it is often useful and helpful and appropriate in that context.
Paul was writing to a church that was divided,
to a people who were struggling to treat each other well.
Paul founded that church in Corinth.
Spent a year or two getting it going
Introducing people to one another
Sharing meals together
Talking to them about Jesus, his teaching and his resurrection…
And when he had done that for a while, all was good.
Things were going ok. They were a community.
They cared for one another. They had a common purpose.
And so Paul left, and went to do the same in another town.
And after he left,
Other people came by
People who started challenging what Paul had taught the Corinthians.
This made them confused,
And they started breaking off into various factions.
If you start reading First Corinthians from the beginning you see this,
right there in chapter one:
Some groups said they followed the perspective of Apollos, others Cephas, and so on
And there was this growing discord among the community.
Some people were bragging about their faith, their gifts, their skills,
And were claiming that their gifts made them superior to the others.
I’m better than you, because I can speak in tongues and you can’t! For example.
Speaking in tongues was apparently a big deal among the early believers.
It was seen as a spiritual gift, an ecstatic capability to converse about heavenly things…
So, yeah, if you couldn’t do it, if it wasn’t your thing,
maybe you didn’t feel as good as those who could.
Not something that I’ve ever worried about, if I’m honest,
but that’s what was going on in Corinth.
And while that’s not really a modern example that hits home,
There are hints throughout first Corinthians that might be more familiar to us:
-the wealthy taking advantage of or feeling superior to the poor
-those with more education asserting that they were better than those with less
-those who had more faith, could preach better,
could navigate the religious community easier….
saying that their gifts were more important, the most important…
“So listen to me,” they would say,
“ignore the concerns or the perspectives or the views of others
in this Corinthian conflict of ours.”
This is the major thing that Paul is trying to address in this letter
And why, in the chapter just before our reading today,
He starts talking about how there are a variety of gifts that we possess,
But one spirit who gives them to us.
That there are many different ways to serve, but the same Lord that we serve,
And while we are all indeed different,
With different histories and experiences and interests and passions and capabilities
All of us have something to share
All of us have something to contribute.
Not all of us will speak in tongues, Paul says. Thank goodness.
That’s really not something we’re big on these days.
Not all of us will be teachers or preachers or accountants
or plumbers or architects or dentists or lawyers or custodians or cooks or artists.
Ok, Paul didn’t outline all those categories
But that was what he meant: we all have our own jobs, our own skills, our own thing.
And all of them have a role to play, here, in the church, and out in the world too,
To make something good happen.
Our gifts are meant to contribute to the common good.
That was chapter 12.
Then Paul turns to Chapter 13, todays reading, and he starts by asserting
That it doesn’t matter what our skills and gifts are, if they’re not rooted and grounded in love.
I can have faith, so as to move mountains.
I can speak in the tongues of mortals or of angels.
I can give away all my possessions,
But if it is not done out of love…it gains nothing, it is not really serving the purpose of the gifts
WHY you have them in the first place.
Love matters, because love helps orient our skills and our gifts for a purpose,
Namely, out of love for others.
Love helps us use our gifts wisely and true,
And, if you understand that, dear Corinthians,
Dear 21st Century people
Then you wouldn’t feel that your gifts give you superiority over anyone else.
You’d know that your gifts matter, that my gifts matter, but so do theirs.
And the way you’ll end your discord, Corinth, says Paul,
Is to stop jockeying for who is better than whom,
and to start seeing yourself as part of something bigger,
and to use your particular gifts in love.
Bruce Reyes-Chow offers this as a definition of Kindness:
To be kind
Is to accept that each person
is a created and complex human being—
And to treat them as if you believe this to be true.
There’s a lot going on there,
But here’s what he means by that:
First and foremost,
Kindness always sees the other person as a human being,
Not as an object for me to use
Not as someone who is unworthy of being seen as a human
But everyone is a person,
Created in the image of God
Complex and formed by their own personal experiences, good and bad.
If this is true,
Kindness demands that we acknowledge that everyone,
Even our own worst enemy,
Has known the highs and lows of life, just as we all have.
Each person experiences jubilation, disappointment,
Hopelessness, despair, and so on.
And so we refuse to treat other people, when we are being kind,
As anything other than human,
Or as Bruce puts it, “Without stripping them of their humanity.”
Bruce thought about what that might mean for us
Given some of the most contentious kinds of people in modern society
The kinds of people that some of us struggle to exercise kindness toward.
For example, Bruce says, how about The Politician
who stands against everything that I believe in.
“As distasteful and dangerous as their politics may be to me,
If I am kind, I can begin by acknowledging that they too
Are probably carrying sadness and struggle borne of personal tragedy and loss.
To be kind to The Politician means holding them accountable
without denying their personal struggles and experiences.
Or, then there’s the Celebrity
Who we think deserves our criticism for making a bad movie choice,
Committing an error during a crucial game,
Looking disheveled when they are out buying groceries,
Or dating (or not dating) a particular person…
To be kind to The Celebrity means remembering that who the person is in public
Likely does not represent them fully
And that they too carry life experiences, like the rest of us do.
Or The Ideologue, maybe best represented by the tweeter or the facebooker
who sees themselves as the protector of a belief system or political position
and does so intransigently.
To be kind to The Ideologue means remembering that every person behind a screen
Has been formed by life experiences
That may be much like our own
And to practice restraint in our responses to them.
Or maybe The Immigrant, the “other”
Who often bears the brunt of our blame for the faults of our part of the world.
To be kind to the immigrant means acknowledging
And trying to understand the complexity of their experiences:
Their personhood, agency,
Struggles, hardships, opportunities, and joys.
In all these cases, Kindness is accepting other people as human beings,
and treating them as such.
It means never sacrificing that for the sake of being right
It means affirming that the needs of the other person matter
(to bring back Aristotle and Mark Twain and Billy Bragg and even Harry Styles).
It means choosing to remember the humanity of the other person in what we do.
Something like that, I think, was why Paul said that Love itself is Kind.
It is other things too: love is patient and not envious or boastful or insistent on its own way
Or rejoicing in wrongdoing.
But Love is also Kind.
It rejects dehumanizing anyone.
Even our enemies.
Even those seeking to harm us.
Even people we could exercise power over, if we wanted to.
Which, truly, is why Jesus asks us to pray for our enemies, to love even our enemies.
And our neighbor.
And the foreigner.
And certainly our friends and parents and children and partners and even ourselves.
Love is an essential mode of following Jesus
And if you know of someone Jesus told us not to love, I’d like to know,
Because I don’t see it anywhere.
Love is Kind,
Because it treats everyone as worthy of love…
That’s what makes Kindness great.
What makes Love great. The greatest, actually, if you stand with the Apostle Paul.
We’re living in an age where we are tempted to retreat into tribalism, into camps,
Where we love some people and hate others
Where we believe that scarcity of resources means my people must win
and therefore someone must lose.
We’re living in a crisis of Kindness.
Kindness, as we’ll see in the coming weeks,
Isn’t about being nice.
Kindness isn’t weakness.
It’s not inaction, or conflict-avoidance.
Being Kind means actively seeking to preserve and uphold the humanity of others,
resisting actions, ideas, and institutions that rob others of dignity.
It means building relationships and communities where
everyone finds their gifts valued and useful
and where we use what gifts we have so that others may thrive.
Kindness means sharing compassion towards others
While we work for justice and reconciliation and peace.
And if we can nurture Kindness in our lives, and in our communities,
We have a chance to break this cycle of cynicism and despair and division
One act of kindness, of compassion, of love at a time.
So may we pledge to learn about Kindness
And seek to choose kindness
In how we act towards one another
At home, at work, at play, at church,
As we seek to follow Jesus Christ our Savior everyday of our lives.
May it be so.
[i] Reyes Chow, Bruce In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How it Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save the World (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2021)
[ii] Ibid, 9
[iii] It was his album Back to Basics, released in 1987, but containing music from his first three releases. I Am the Milkman of Human Kindness dates back to 1983, from his first album Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy.
[iv] See for instance https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Styles#Treat_People_with_Kindness (accessed June 5, 2021)