Sermon of the Week:
Love is Kind–In Defense of Kindness
Part six of a six-week sermon series about Kindness and the Christian Faith, called Love is Kind.
Special Music: Then I Shall Live
Hymn: We Are One In the Spirit
Keywords: Observation Bias, Inattentional Blindness, Kindness, Paul, Be Good to People, Bruce Reyes-Chow. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Sometimes all you need is a little encouragement,
A little nudge
And you can begin to see something new, something different.
Once I had a professor do a little experiment with his class.
Close your eyes, he said.
And we closed our eyes.
Ok, the goal of this exercise is pretty simple, he continued,
All I want you to do is think of anything,
Anything at all,
Except the color blue…
Anything but the color blue.
The professor said another thing or two, just to keep the instruction going,
But then he said we were done, and he asked us to open our eyes
And to start talking a bit about it.
Who, after I told you not to think about the color blue,
Immediately conjured up an image of something blue in your mind?
Answer: all of us had.
One: the sapphire blue ocean.
Another: a blue toy teddy bear he had as a child.
Me: George Brett in his Baby-Blue Royals Jersey…
Just a little suggestion,
And all of us couldn’t help but think about blue things
Even when the professor asked us not to.
The human mind does this sort of thing, all on its own.
And we go about sifting through all sorts of thoughts and ideas and images
That come to us as we go about our day.
Most of that we just ignore.
Sometimes we focus on some of those thoughts more than others.
We can focus when we need to focus; wander when we are free to wander.
And we human beings are good at detecting patterns and anomalies,
But we can also miss things, obvious things, as we do that,
Things that are right in front of us.
In a famous example,
The Smithsonian Magazine published an article a decade ago
Titled “But Did you See the Gorilla?”
Where they described a video
Where six people were playing basketball,
Three with white t-shirts
And three with black t-shirts
And as they are dribbling and passing and defending the basket
A woman in a gorilla suit walks on camera
Moves to the middle of the screen, thumps her chest
And then walks away…
Only you don’t see any of that when you watch it the first time
Or the second or third time,
Because you’re not expecting it. You’re not looking for it.
It happens right there in front of you, and you miss it.
The researchers then repeated the experiment,
Telling new watchers to look for the gorilla,
And they do, and look, they see her,
But, in watching for her,
They miss other obvious things going on,
Like the background changing color.
This is what makes magicians successful, or not, right
Their ability to guide your observation here, and not there,
So they can palm the quarter or the card or the ball
and make it “re-appear” from behind your ear
or from under the cup
that was clearly empty just a moment ago.
A form of this is what makes marketing and advertising so successful
As we go along with this trend or that worry.
There’s a reason why that blazer looked better on me
in the store than it does at home.
I really wanted to look good in it, and the salesperson said I did…
We don’t need to go too in depth here.
That blazer looks just fine.
A good magic trick can be quite exciting.
Just because we can get a group of people thinking about George Brett
Doesn’t mean that the Royals are going to start doing any better this year
But it helps us to ponder just a little bit, from time to time,
The power of observation on our emotions and our thought process
And how these can impact how we go about living our lives.
We started this sermon series on Kindness with an assertion
That we’re experiencing a Kindness problem.
Not a niceness problem, we said
Not a civility problem,
But a kindness problem.
And then we spent some time talking about what we meant by kindness,
Kindness being the steadfast affirmation of the dignity of everyone we meet
and actions that uphold, enhance, expand, protect, affirm their humanity.
We got that definition from Bruce Reyes-Chow
In his book “In Defense of Kindness,”
Where he says
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.[i]
That book of his, and this topic in general,
Felt rather timely to me,
Given how central Kindness is in holy scripture,
As we’ve discovered these past six weeks,
And how fragile our relationships with our neighbors have felt of late.
But a strange thing has happened to me,
Over these past few weeks.
I wonder if it has happened with any of you.
Ever since I started thinking more concretely about kindness—
Looking for it as I read the bible,
Reflecting on it through books like Bruce’s
Trying to find moments where I can choose kindness in my day to day—
Ever since then,
I have begun to see Kindness as an idea, as something being promoted
All over the place.
On the walk that I take our pups Ryder and Annie on every day
There’s a sign that says ‘choose kindness’ in someone’s yard.
I hadn’t noticed that before.
This week, we went on vacation,
And on the bus from the long-term parking to the airport,
One of the riders wore a “Kindness is Magic” t-shirt.
Actually, when we were at Denver International Airport
And I went looking for a replacement cord to power my laptop
Right there in the middle of the terminal was a kiosk
By an organization called Be Good to People.
With the sign “Kindness Sold Here.”
They had all sorts of hats, shirts, keychains,
With the phrase Be Good to People
And Choose Kindness.
And yeah, it’s more than a bit commercial,
An airport kiosk selling kindness merch
But there indeed it was, right in the middle of the airport
A giant reminder to everyone walking by
That kindness is possible,
That you, good traveler, could make a difference
Not because you bought a shirt
But because you lived up to what the shirt was trying to get you to think about.
I talked to the worker at the Kiosk
And apparently the Be Good to People foundation was started
Because someone had an “unkind experience” in 2008—
It isn’t clear what that kind of experience was—
And she was committed to turning that around.
Seriously, you are not going to believe
How powerful wearing, carrying and sharing the Good is.
Once you experience it, you’ll want more of it.
That’s how they put what they’re trying to do.
And yeah, again, I’m not so sure about commodifying kindness
But they’re on to something about the power of simple suggestion,
How if you can maybe break out of your observation bias just a bit
Or encourage yourself to focus more on whatever is good, whatever is pleasing,
Whatever is honorable, whatever is just
If you can help yourself think about these sorts of things
Then maybe they can become more possible in the world.
If that way to put it
reminded you of anything,
That’s because it is from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.
Paul says, there, the when you can think about those sorts of things
Peace will be with you.
And here we are, today,
Looking at a few other writings that offer a similar take on things.
Maybe you heard it,
Titus urging those who are listening
to insist on good works,
Things that are, as the author puts it,
“excellent and profitable to everyone.”
Or then again that passage of Paul to the Romans,
A passage that I just love,
Urging a similar focus,
regardless of what our gifts are,
or what our calling might be…
teachers, accountants, postal workers, pastors, students,
all of us:
Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.
Love one another with mutual affection
and so on.
Live in harmony with one another.
Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil,
But take thought for what is noble in sight of all.
Insofar as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
This form of writing,
Which we might call ethical exhortation,
Is an encouragement to a way of life
That is rooted in love for our neighbor,
Kindness borne out of a commitment to justice and humility.
Compassion not to get something out of it
But because it is what is right, and true, and good.
Living a life that advocates for the well-being of others
That works to help the hungry find food
The thirsty fresh, clean water
The hurting some measure of healing and
The disjointed some integrity
The outcast some welcome…
These things matter,
Because they are moments where the reality of God’s intended world
Break through our everyday
And, when there are enough of them, real lives are made better.
One of the reasons that we gather, every week
To worship God through prayer and pondering
Through the rhythms of this hour,
is because it helps us practice seeing the world in a new and different way.
Sure, you can experience God wherever you go.
Of course you can. The spirit of God blows where she will.
Church doesn’t have a monopoly on God,
And beware of any church that tries to tell you
that only they know the way
To help you experience the divine.
But what faithful, life-giving, healthy churches do offer
Is a chance to interrupt our daily observation biases
So that we can see more of the reality that unfolds before us,
So that we can see beauty in a world that so often can be ugly
So that we can see hope in a world that has so much despair
So that we can see a purpose for our lives
In serving our neighbor,
in working for justice and for peace and for reconciliation.
And once you start seeing it,
You might see it more and more.
You might help create it, share it, live it,
So that others start seeing it,
And so that others start living it too.
Bruce Reyes-Chow describes how this kind of work
Isn’t as simple as wearing a shirt or putting up a sign
urging people to seek kindness.
But those reminders might help us
See the possibilities for kindness,
And think about what the kind action is, and to go do that.
Bruce ends his book with a comment about Mister Rogers,
And his invitation to be neighbors.
The way Bruce sees it, that refrain “Won’t you be my neighbor”
Requires us to acknowledge the invitation
And join him in the adventure that is to be neighbors,
To be part of the community of humanity.[ii]
That isn’t easy work, Bruce argues.
Kindness is not a journey for the meek and mild.
For those of us who have been steeped in ways of being
That are not kind,
It takes … energy to purge ourselves of patterns and behaviors
that are not kind.
Every day we have to choose to commit to live out kindness that day.
It is a challenge, at least in part,
Because so many people in this world of ours can’t see the value in it.
This world can’t possibly run on Kindness.
It won’t work. Can it?
There’s much more in his book that offers nuance to this question,
More than we could cover in this six week sermon series.
But to the naysayers, Bruce concludes with this:[iii]
They say, “Kindness is weakness.”
I say, “Kindness is strength.”
They say, “Kindness is naivete.”
I say, “Kindness is courage.”
They say, “Kindness is superficial.”
I say, “Kindness has depth.”
They say, “Kindness is passive.”
I say, “Kindness is active.”
They say, “Kindness is complicity.”
I say, “Kindness is justice.”
They say, “Kindness is abdication.”
I say, “Kindness is confrontation.”
They say, “Kindness is abstract.”
I say, “Kindness is personal.”
They say, “Kindness is distraction.”
I say, “Kindness is commitment.”
They say, “Kindness is dumb.”
I say, “I know you are, but what am I?”
(He says he added that one to see if we were actually paying attention)
They say, “Kindness is apathy.”
I say, “Kindness is engagement.”
They say, “Kindness is disingenuous.”
I say, “Kindness is vulnerability.”
They say, “Kindness is futile.”
I say, “Kindness, is transformational.”
They say, “Kindness is convenient.”
I say, “Kindness is a lifestyle.”
They say, “Kindness is a waste of time.”
I say, “Kindness is an abundance of hope.”
They say, “Kindness is impossible.”
I say, “Kindness is imperative.”
They say, “Kindness is dead.”
I say, “Kindness is life.”
There has always been something revolutionary about the Christian Faith,
And this is part of it:
An invitation to see a world
Where shalom is possible.
Not only possible, actually, but alive, real, happening right now,
All around you, if we only have eyes to see it,
If we only have hearts and hands that will do it.
Do not be conformed to this world, said Paul
But be transformed by the renewing of your minds
So that you might discern what is the will of God—
What is good and acceptable and perfect.
We do this by gathering together,
as a church
where we seek to learn the ways of Jesus Christ,
And reminding one another
Of the values of God’s world
encouraging one another do seek after them in our day to day lives.
One of those values is Kindness.
And if we look around,
Maybe we don’t have as much of a Kindness problem as we thought,
Or, better, maybe we might just be part of the solution
Choosing to treat everyone with kindness,
Working so that everyone can live in dignity and wholeness.
So may we nurture our own aptitude for seeing Kindness in the world
And commit to choosing kindness
Every day of our lives, as we follow our savior Jesus Christ
Out into the world.
May it be so.
Cover Image: from Bruce Reyes-Chow’s book, In Defense of Kindness. Find more about it at: https://chalicepress.com/blogs/news/why-were-publishing-in-defense-of-kindness
[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) p. 4.
[ii] ibid. p. 109-110.
[iii] ibid. p. 12-13.