Sunday, October 1, 2006

(Life on the Vine: Kindness) Beyond Random Kindness

Life on the Vine: Cultivating kindness in the midst of self-help
1 Chronicles 16:34; Proverbs 21:21; Micah 6:6-8; Zechariah 7:8-10

Did you know there was a world-wide movement
dedicated to spreading kindness around the world?
It started at a conference held in Japan.
Later, in 2000, a world declaration was signed in Singapore,
and there are now officially 18 member countries, including ours,
in the World Kindness Movement.
In a parallel movement in the U.S.,
the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation
was established ten years ago.
It distributes educational materials to schools,
elementary to university.
It produces bookmarks, stickers, and the like,
which you pass out to others and encourage
random acts of kindness to spread everywhere.

There is something truly heart-warming about this,
especially in a world climate of such mean-spiritedness, hostility,
violence, and hatred.
The fact that some people are united, the world over,
to spread kindness,
is amazing, and wonderful,
and may God bless them and multiply their numbers.

But you might expect it from me, if you listen much to my sermons,
that I’m not likely to take any wildly popular movement,
and just jump on the bandwagon,
without giving it some careful and critical reflection.
After all, my job as a preacher is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
and history shows that the Gospel of Jesus Christ often,
perhaps usually,
runs counter to whatever is wildly popular in broader society.
The Gospel is typically counter-cultural.
So maybe we should let the Gospel ask a few questions of this movement.
There might, in fact, be a big difference
between the fruit of the Spirit called kindness,
and “random acts of kindness.”

I do not in any way, disparage people
who simply want to put a smile on a stranger’s face,
when they feed quarters to parking meters that are about to run out,
or pay the toll for the unknown car behind them at the toll booth,
or go into a coffee shop, and buy the next 10 cups of coffee.
And sure, it’s not a bad thing to write an anonymous note
of encouragement and blessing to someone.
There is a selfless element to it all because it’s anonymous.
It cannot be thanked or reciprocated.

But let’s think about the character of God’s kindness, found in scripture.
The “fruit of the Spirit” reflects God’s character, remember?

The Hebrew word most often translated “kindness” is chesed,
also translated “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love.”
Chesed is central to any biblical understanding of love and kindness.
Chesed shows up in verses like 1 Chronicles 16:34
“O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his steadfast love (chesed) endures forever.”
That sentence appears dozens of times in scripture.

And it’s that same word chesed
that is used nearly every time we humans are told to show kindness.
Proverbs 21:21—
“Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness [chesed]
will find life and honor.”
And here’s a prophet’s definition of kindness; Zechariah 7, 9-10—
“Render true judgments, show kindness [chesed]
and mercy to one another;
do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;
and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.”
And of course, Micah 6:8—
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness [chesed],
and to walk humbly with your God?”

So kindness is a lot like “love,” the first fruit of the Spirit.
In love, we see a posture toward people that lays down self
in order to enter into the life of the one we love.
It’s not about how I feel, or what it does for me.
And we might say kindness is simply
love demonstrated in acts of helpfulness to others.

Now, think about the character of God’s love and kindness—
which sacrificially enters into the lives and experiences of others,
is there for the long haul, is bound by covenant—
and contrast that with “random acts of kindness.”

How selfless are these random acts, after all?
By remaining anonymous, and doing these acts to random strangers,
we intentionally keep our distance.
We purposefully do not enter into the experience of the other.
And one of the main reasons we do it,
is it makes us feel good.
Even if the recipient of our kindness sees our face,
and we make a connection,
that connection is momentary, it is superficial,
and we really don’t want to know much more about
what their deeper needs are,
or about how they experience life.
A random act of kindness is little more than helping someone
who did not ask for help, and may not have needed it,
and without connecting on a deeper level,
and then leaving without any further obligation on either party.
It is clean, quick, convenient, and costs little.
It’s the perfect virtue for our modern, Western, do-it-yourself culture.
Isn’t it great to be able to do something good for someone else,
without all the messiness of being in a relationship?

Being independent, self-sufficient, and self-reliant
has to be one of the highest,
if not the highest virtue of American culture.
We all know how agonizingly hard it is to ask for help.
Our culture has drilled it into us.
Asking for help is a sign of weakness.
It means we have failed to be self-sufficient.
In the book, Life on the Vine, Philip Kenneson suggests that our culture
instills in us a prejudice against the giving and receiving of help.
If we offer help, we risk offending the person we want to help,
by implying they are weak or inadequate.
And we don’t like to ask for help, for the same reason.
We wait until things are desperate,
before we reach to someone else for help.
And God help us, if we ever have to be indebted to someone.

But Kenneson makes a rather thought-provoking statement in his book.
He says that healthy human relationships are comprised
of a web of indebtedness to each other.
Being indebted to someone
creates a bond to that person,
a strong reason to stay connected.
When that indebtedness goes both ways,
the relationship is healthy.
And when that mutual debt can just...sit there,
without being paid off immediately,
the bond is strengthened even more.
Kenneson used an illustration,
that if you gave a nice gift to someone you cared about,
and immediately they went out and got a gift of equal value,
and gave it to you, you would wonder why.
It’s an unhealthy sign,
that they are not comfortable being in debt to you,
that they prefer not to be bound
in an ongoing relationship with you.
Someone who pays off all of their relationship debts immediately,
does not know how to receive the gift of kindness,
and probably doesn’t know how to give it either.
But these market-style exchanges of love and kindness,
are the kind our individualistic culture is most comfortable with.
They are the least demanding.
And we eagerly embrace anything that doesn’t jeopardize
our independence, our self-sufficiency, our freedom.
But I would argue that genuine kindness does exactly that.
It jeopardizes our illusion that we are self-sufficient.
It emphasizes that we are bound to each other.

So my challenge to the church this morning is not
that we stop doing kind deeds to strangers.
No, keep that up.
But we need to move beyond...far beyond random acts of kindness.
We need to cultivate the fruit of kindness,
to create the right conditions in our own community of faith,
whereby this fruit of the Spirit can grow and flourish among us.

Maybe one of the best things we can do,
is exactly what we are doing this morning—
worshiping God.
Every day, all day, the world around us is telling us how important it is
to be self-directed and self-sufficient.
So one day a week, for a couple hours,
we get a chance to come to this place and hear a different story.
We hear that it is God who created us, and not we ourselves.
We sing songs of the marvelous grace of Jesus,
by which we are saved.
And if we believe what we sing,
it’s hard to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, isn’t it?
Every Sunday in church we hear a different story.
We are exposed to a different narrative.
I don’t suppose a couple hours once a week
is quite enough to counteract what we hear the rest of the week.
But it’s a start.
And it’s one of many good reasons
to make regular church attendance a priority.
But even better, is to be part of a small community of people of faith
who spend much more time together than just Sunday mornings,
who truly enter into each other’s lives
with self-sacrificing love and kindness,
and help each other internalize the narrative of the Gospel,
so we might stand a fighting chance
of resisting this story our culture feeds us all the time.

And when we do come together to worship,
there is hardly a more powerful ritual
that tells this counter-story of the Gospel of Jesus,
than the ritual of coming to the Lord’s Table.
This table is one that embodies sacrificial love and kindness.
And to partake of the cup and the broken bread
is a powerful antidote to the world’s gospel of self.
It’s an acknowledgment that I desperately need help
from beyond myself.
It’s an act of gratitude to the one who embodied kindness,
even to the death.
It’s an opportunity to not only think about,
but to “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord.

—Phil Kniss, October 1, 2006

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