Sermon of the Week:
Love is Kind–Kindness and Conflict
Part four of a six-week sermon series about Kindness and the Christian Faith, called Love is Kind.
Special Music: How Great Thou Art
Hymn: Awake My Soul and With The Sun
Keywords: Sermon the the Plain, Love Enemies, Fulguhm, Conflict, Tom and Jerry, Kindness. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Some of you know that my father is also a Presbyterian Pastor.
Anything that I do well as a preacher or a minster is thanks,
at least in part, to him.
When I was a kid, we used to live in a manse,
Which is just a special word for a church owned house where the pastor lives.
There aren’t that many manses now-a-days, for a lot of reasons,
but we lived in a few and I was always thankful to live in them.
The churches my dad served were usually pretty small,
And while they might not offer a strong salary
A manse was a good way to balance that,
And along with our denomination’s Board of Pension health care
And my mom working as a teacher
We had a safe and secure childhood.
Because we lived in a manse, we’d often host committee meetings or session,
Which is the governing board of our churches,
And so we tried to keep everything neat and tidy,
Which wasn’t always so easy for three young and messy boys.
I was thinking this week about those houses,
For two reasons.
Memory is so odd and fickle.
I’m sure I have some details off and not quite right.
I remember that we had some dishes my grandmother liked to collect
Hanging on the walls
Along with some art.
We had a little bookshelf in the living room
And often a magazine or a book on a side table,
all appropriate stuff, if a church member would come over.
I think that was where I first saw this little book by Robert Fulguhm
That was titled
ALL I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN.
It was published when I was eleven,
And contained several short essays where Fulghum tried to describe
How adult life could be improved if we just remembered
the basic lessons of kindergarten,
things like sharing,
cleaning up after ourselves,
living a balanced life, you know, not just work, and learning,
but also some recess, too.
And, interestingly, importantly, for this series,
Fulghum argues, we learn in Kindergarten how to be kind to one another.
That’s the first essay, at any rate.
There are many others, looking at a host of topics and people.
It is an appealing thought, returning to basics, even if it is trite and simplistic:
Getting back to what we learned as children,
As if we, somewhere along the way,
lost all that innocence when we grew up.
That might be true.
That is true, in some respects.
And those values are good values to remember, right:
Getting along, sharing, listening to one another, doing things together.
But it also, at the same time,
paints a far too rosy picture of childhood, I think.
The other thing I remember, about that house that I grew up in,
Is that I learned about conflict in that house.
It’s not what it sounds like.
My parents were, and are, loving caring parents,
Good partners in their marriage, wise guides and counsel to their boys.
But I learned all about conflict like most kids my age did,
Watching after-school and Saturday-morning cartoons.
With MAYBE the exception of the Care Bears,
all of these shows were about conflict.
(But who really watched the Care Bears)?
Some problem came up.
It had to be solved.
Someone was determined to stop you from fixing things.
You regularly had justice or necessity on your side
Along with powerful weapons or muscles or skill
And over the next 30 minutes or so you worked your way out of it
By conquering or outsmarting or defeating anything along the way.
This was particularly true with the Bugs Bunny
and Tom and Jerry cartoons
That were my favorite.
They were good fun. Mindless entertainment.
And one lesson in conflict after another,
Usually with the moral of the story being:
Do whatever you need to do to come out on top;
Drop an anvil, light that dynamite,
use that knife or shotgun or booby trap…
WHO CARES what happens to the person you’re up against.
Conflict is about winning, not about transformation.
Not about growth. Not about our collective situation getting better.
Of course, this isn’t unique to my childhood or my generation,
And it wasn’t just a message we find in cartoons.
We clearly see it in music, movies, theatre, great works of literature,
though, depending on what you read or listen to or watch,
this moral is often held in tension with Fulgham’s kind of message,
with other ways of choosing how to live,
of other ways of understanding power and success:
a different approach to how we relate to one another
a life of collaboration, compassion, empathy, maybe even kindness.
The best, most profound works of art of every generation
help us work though this tension:
How ought we to live? How do we resolve conflict, scarcity, oppression?
My friends gently roll their eyes every time
I talk about the musical Les Miserables, for example,
In part because it is somewhat cliché,
And I’m always tempted to break out into singing
Which is dangerous because I’m out of tune and pitchy and all the rest,
But I don’t really care, to be honest.
As it is a really good example, for me, of this tension,
The struggle between adopting a philosophy of power used to dominate and win
Or a philosophy of using the power you have
to heal and to mend and to sacrifice for the common good.
What about you? When did you learn about conflict?
About power? About sharing or about winning?
We’re shifting just a little bit in this sermon series on Kindness.
We started by exploring what kindness is, and what it is not.
We affirmed that Kindness is
a resolute affirmation of the dignity of other people
All other people
Just because they are people
And treating them as such
And not because we will benefit, or get something out of it,
But just because people deserve to be treated with dignity.
If that is what Kindness is,
Then we note that Kindness is not the same thing as niceness.
Niceness often understood as adopting a posture of civility or gentleness
or even deference, not rocking the boat.
These are often conflated, perhaps,
because Kindness requires that we treat others with respect,
And that often is paired with niceness.
It is not that being nice is bad. Niceness is often good.
But Niceness doesn’t have to be kind.
In fact, it often is not,
and often calls for niceness
provide cover for injustice, or bullying,
or all sorts of behavior that harms the dignity of the people involved.
Instead, with the Apostle Paul, we affirmed that Love is Patient, Love is Kind,
Love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but it rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, hopes all things,
Love never ends.
Kindness affirms that every person deserves basic respect and dignity,
Which impacts what you can do, and can’t do, right
You can’t treat other people as a means to just some end
You can’t ignore their humanity
just because they don’t vote like you
Or look like you
Or do what you want them to do,
Just because they come from another country
Or have a different religion
Or are attracted to other people in ways you don’t understand.
All people deserve basic respect and dignity.
Jesus’ life was devoted to sharing this love, this kindness,
Particularly to those who were denied it by powerful people.
Kindness, we then explored, is therefore one aspect of the Christian life
That we call the fruit of the spirit,
Things like joy, peace, goodness, gentleness, self-control,
and Kindness too,
And we are called to help others see that that fruit is good and pleasant
and oh so lovely,
not something special that only we get to enjoy, as people of faith,
but something intended for all.
Last week, we talked about the prophet Micah
And how God ties together the doing of justice
The loving of kindness
And the act of humble walking,
Three legs of a stool, so to speak, so that if you remove any one of the three
Justice or kindness or humility,
The chair tumbles over and we no longer are sitting upright.
Kindness alone is not enough.
Treat others with dignity,
While also seeking their welfare and the welfare of all…a just society
And do so while guided not by our individual desires alone
But God’s vision for the world. Humility.
This week and next week we’re going to confront
the things we hear that urge us to abandon kindness,
either because it doesn’t work,
or because it is weak,
or because others may not be kind, and therefore will take advantage of us,
or because we don’t know how to fit kindness into other feelings we have
feelings like anger or righteous-indignation.
Next week, we’ll look at two wonderful scriptural stories about the latter:
Paul, and his strange teaching to be angry, but not to sin, whatever that means
Along with the story in Genesis about Jacob wrestling with God all night long
A struggle that left him with a messed up hip, a new name,
and the self-understanding that wrestling with these hard, difficulty, messy things in our life
Is a good thing, a human thing, a God thing.
But today we turn to Luke, and his telling of Jesus’ sermon on the plain.
Did you hear the echoes, when I read it, to the Sermon on the Mount?
We read from that last week,
from the Beatitudes in the Gospel According to Matthew,
where Jesus goes up to a high place,
like Moses, to offer wisdom about the realm of God.
Here, in Luke, Jesus stands “on a level place,”
not nearly as exciting, maybe,
but with his own blessings and woes to share,
as only Luke can describe it.
If you read the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew 5, 6, and 7,
And then the Sermon on the Plain, you see the clear similarities,
Along with what Luke leaves out, or what Matthew puts in,
Depending on how you look at it.
Scholars are divided over whether this was one sermon,
And Matthew and Luke got the details a bit different,
Or if Jesus had a stump speech,
a message he delivered in several different places,
that might differ here and there depending on the crowd.
We’re looking at Luke’s teachings here about conflict:
Turn the other cheek,
Go the extra mile,
Give your cloak as well as your shirt…
And it sounds familiar.
We see this both in Matthew and in Luke,
Though here in Luke you have much more language
about the people pressing this sort of situation:
They are the enemy, sinners, abusers, haters.
I SAY TO YOU THAT LISTEN
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
DO GOOD TO THOSE THAT HATE YOU
BLESS THOSE THAT CURSE YOU.
LOVE YOUR ENEMIES, DO GOOD, LEND…
YOUR REWARD WILL BE GREAT,
AND YOU WILL BE CHILDREN OF THE MOST HIGH.
FOR GOD IS KIND TO THE UNGRATEFUL AND THE WICKED.
BE MERCIFUL, JUST AS YOUR FATHER IS MERCIFUL.
The sermon on the plain.
We need to pause here
And be crystal clear about something.
Sometimes the powerful and the abusive and the shameless
twist good ideas and ideals
and use them to cement their power and sustain their abuse.
To those who are oppressed, hurting, poor, taken advantage of,
It is so easy for the oppressor to say to them:
Hey, just turn the other cheek
Go the extra mile…
God wants you to.
These passages, whether in Matthew or here in Luke,
Were NEVER meant to support THAT sort of reading.
But it is really, really easy
If you are in an abusive relationship, for example,
Or if you are experiencing systemic racism
Or, on this Pride Sunday, if you are denied your full dignity and humanity
Because of whom you love or how you identify yourself,
To hear this passage as a call to suck it up
To not rock the boat,
to not stand up for justice,
to endure suffering.
But how can that be?
We’ve seen how important justice is to God, to Jesus,
and therefore to those of us who want to be disciples.
How can that be,
When Jesus just pronounced blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping,
And woe to the rich, the full, the laughing, those spoken well of….?
These passages, whether in Matthew or here in Luke,
Were NEVER meant to support that sort of reading
And there are a few things to say that can help clarify this:
First, those who do not take this Jesus’ teaching to heart,
But who use it, instead, to oppress and dominate others,
They are PRECISELY the people who Jesus rejects here,
precisely who most need to pay close attention to what Jesus is saying.
Jesus rebukes injustice.
Jesus rejects racism and intolerance and sectarianism.
But he also links this to the golden rule,
The rule of just reciprocity:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
So: would you endure racism, homophobia, enmity, oppression,
Is that what you want others to do unto you?
Or can we instead say that these not part of God’s just society?
Therefore this call to a different way of engaging
those we are in conflict with—
love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you…
it must mean something else.
It doesn’t mean just let the abuser abuse.
The evil-doer do evil.
It means do not RETURN evil back for evil.
Do not PERPETUATE hate
Do not ABUSE your abuser.
Can you see the difference there?
If the only way we understand conflict
is to engage with all the weapons at our disposal until they are vanquished….
Conflict and heartache and oppression will be all that we know.
This isn’t a cartoon.
Tom and Jerry don’t just re-appear in the next episode,
as if no harm had been done, and we’re ready for the next caper.
Elmer Fudd doesn’t just start his escapades as if bygones were bygones.
In this world, we get the Hatfields and the McCoys
We get the slow distrust of our neighbor.
There must be another way.
And there is.
In this world in which we live,
It is a false choice
between returning evil with evil,
Between seeking to destroy those who are doing us harm,
On the one hand,
And just letting them get away with it, on the other.
Jesus shows a third way, a different way,
A way we might call the way of kindness:
Where you treat everyone, your family, your tribe, your neighbor,
The stranger, the foreigner, the antagonist, the enemy,
With dignity and with humanity.
And so you pray for them.
You bless them.
You engage them with understanding…
But you do so also with Justice and Humility, as we learned last week,
Seeking God’s good world,
A world where reconciliation is possible
where justice requires both restitution and rehabilitation,
requires change and growth
a world where peace isn’t just compromise,
but a shared and lived hope, and commitment,
that tomorrow will be free from violence,
and that everyone will have what they need to thrive.
When Jesus was preaching this message on the plain, or on the mountain,
these were very specific teachings at a very specific time,
When the struggle against imperial Rome required something other than
Returning violence with violence.
It required nonviolent resistance.
It required a compassion for everyday Gentiles
While still seeking their own safety.
It required a savior who showed all of us
That love not only can win, but will win,
And that God can change the reality on the ground,
When we follow with faithful hearts.
There have been hints to this all throughout the Bible,
And certainly in the Psalm reading for today…
Where the Psalmist marvels at how God is Slow to Anger
Abounding in Steadfast Love
How God removes our transgressions from us,
With compassion, and kindness, and love.
And here, in Luke, we see this very affirmation,
Where God is Kind to all, sinner and saint,
Friend and foe: not because God wants sin to abound,
But because all creatures are beloved
And God seeks to make all things new, to make things right
For those suffering, and for those who are causing that suffering.
So too, for us, God wants us to model this kindness
In our conflict, neither return evil for evil, nor let evil triumph.
Find a third way: overcome evil with the good.
Next week we’ll celebrate communion,
The gift of the Lord’s supper.
There’s been some news about communion this week,
With the Roman Catholic Church debating whether to rewrite their policy
And to tell some prominent people, politicians and others,
That they aren’t welcome if they end up at a different place
In the complex public policy debate that is abortion and reproductive choice.
There’s too much going on there for me to get into today,
And, generally, we are Presbyterian, not Roman Catholic,
And what they do isn’t really for us to worry about,
we need to do our best to do church the best way we can.
Here, we have an open table:
All who are hungry are welcome: sinner and saint,
Those with a strong faith, and those who aren’t sure at all
Those who are privileged and powerful,
and those whom the world has pushed to the margins.
If Judas was offered the last supper with Jesus,
Then everyone is welcome at Jesus’ table.
Jesus did not return Judas’ evil with evil.
He turned Judas’ evil into good,
And through standing firmly on justice,
And because of that (among other things):
Jesus offers salvation to the world.
So may we, my friends, seek to understand
How Kindness doesn’t avoid conflict
And how Kindness doesn’t engage in conflict as if to destroy our opponent
But, instead, Kindness seeks a third way, the way of Jesus the Christ
And through that way, may we find hope for a true end
to our own conflicts, very real conflicts,
through God’s reconciliation, and peace, and justice.
May it be so.