“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
My sermon of October 23, 2022 at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
We continue today on our three week exploration of that amazing summation of God’s will for us given by the prophet Micah, to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Last week we began with doing justice, and as we looked at the scriptural record, the prophetic witness and the teaching of Christ and others, we arrived at the point of defining justice as the upholding of human dignity. Acting and speaking to establish and protect and dignity of all people is how we are a just people in God’s eyes. Today we come to the second of the three admonitions, to love kindness.
When we speak of kindness, does someone in your life come automatically to mind? We know kindness when we see it, it’s compassionate and generous, it builds people up, increasing joy and lessening hurt. If someone says “well, I was actually being kind” we know that’s suspect, don’t we? Kindness doesn’t need an apology and it’s easily recognized because of the fruit it bears in life.
It makes sense that we build our understanding of kindness on the justice we defined last week, the upholding of human dignity. Kindness is justice in action. It comes from a place of seeing the intrinsic value and worth of a person, and acting on it. It’s going to look like courtesy and compassion and it will be evidence of our just view of people. You’ve known kind people; kind people are the folks who practice the welcome and hospitality that the prophets said God expected to see among the people. Kind folks are quick to share, quick to compliment, slow to turn away, slow to judge and more curious than condemning. Many English translations have the word mercy in place of kind, and that works too… the merciful overlook the little things, give the benefit of the doubt, forgive, and lend a hand when they can.
According to the English dictionaries I perused this week, Kindness is the quality of being generous, helpful and caring for other people… the Hebrew for kindness in Micha’s writing is chesed, a love and generosity between people, ultimately modeled on God’s covenantal love. Though it’s never an easy task to fully render an ancient Hebrew word into English today, with all of its nuances, there’s no hidden messaging or major traps here… it’s talking about deliberate, chosen kindness.
We really see this in Jesus, don’t we?
- Jesus saw people’s value and honored it with compassion and time, like with the woman who snuck up to touch his garment in Mark 5 and Jesus stopped to talk with her,
- Jesus saw people’s potential and invested in it, like when he saw short-statured Zacchaeus up in a tree top in Luke 19 and didn’t laugh, but said, “I’m coming to your house!”,
- Jesus saw people confused and in need and didn’t judge them for it, like the crowds who were directionless as sheep without a shepherd at the end of Matthew 9,
- Jesus saw people in all their human complexity and refused to discard them, as when someone caught in adultery in John 8 was dragged before him and he chose not to judge, but to rescue.
Kindness changes lives for the better! Kindness creates possibilities and opens opportunities.
You know the familiar passage from St. Paul… “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22-25
Kindness is the fruit we bear in our lives which plants seeds in other lives. You know that’s the difference between fruits and vegetables, right? In general, fruits have seeds in them while vegetables don’t. Besides a few troublemakers like tomatoes, the rule generally holds. Kindness is a way of life that can be contagious and can multiply.
Things like kindness, the fruit born in our lives by the work and presence of the Spirit, can be powerful in reach and implication. I spent some time this week looking back at a powerful chain of kindness in action which is still blessing people today. Perhaps you know the story of Father Trevor Huddlestone an Anglican Priest in South Africa who bitterly opposed Apartheid. He would doff his hat in respect to a young Desmond Tutu’s mother, and because of his example of kindness Desmond decides he must follow the same path into the priesthood. The story of Fr. Huddlestone’s kindness varies slightly from source to source, but his kindness paves the way for an Archbishop Tutu to become the force he was against Apartheid, fighting for the dignity of all people, leading in reconciliation, and especially being outspoken in upholding the dignity of LGBTQ folks. His example and life continue to bless us, today.
Kindness is not meek and mild. Kindness is powerful, active and challenging for our world!
Exploring the call to love kindness from Micah, we might ask ourselves:
- What fruit of kindness am I cultivating in my life with intention?
- Who has been compassionate, generous and caring for me, and how can I pass that along?
- Who is in need of my compassion, generosity and care?
- What might be getting in the way of my kindness? What am I loving instead?
- Earlier and later in Galatians 5 St. Paul does give a list of things that get in the way… self-indulgence, biting and devouring each other, sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry, sorcery, fights, strife, jealousy, anger, argument, divisions, choosing sides against each other, envy, drunkenness, conceit and competition. I’m not sure about you, but sorcery isn’t a struggle for me… but anger? Envy? Being argumentative? Being selfish? Yeah, there are things in my own heart which would fight against kindness.
Too often, it seems, that kindness is the first thing to be sacrificed on the altar of our political, economic, social or religious competitions. Kindness is left behind in the dust cloud of our angers, divisions and biting at one another.
Kindness is a choice, like choosing justice. It’s a calling; it’s the way we live. It’s who we were meant to be. Remember when St. Paul told the church in Ephesus in the middle of Ephesians 2, “we’re made for this, made for goodness, made to be doing good.” (That was my paraphrase!) We just have to move over all the other stuff that has gotten in the way, and then follow God on the world changing path of kindness. May God’s Spirit give us the wisdom, courage and opportunity to be wildly kind!
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
This is my sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2022, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church as we celebrate our annual Homecoming . Our theme is Being a Good Neighbor and our scripture readings in worship are Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 8, Romans 12:1-8 and Luke 10:25-37. We’re focusing on the Micah and Luke passages.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family and friends, everyone who has gathered for worship and celebration this morning! It is so good to be together.
I want to begin with a word of gratitude for the last year, mine and Teresa’s first year with you. Thank you for welcoming us and adopting us into the St. Timothy’s family. We are so happy to be here with you. Thank you for all you do, for serving on the Vestry, for leading and serving in various ministries around the church and neighborhood, for consoling one another, praying for one another and keeping tabs on one another through the best and the most difficult days. Thank you for showing up, smiling, even if behind those masks, in person and on Zoom, for reading in worship, for lending us your voices, and for sharing encouragements all along the way. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And as we gather to celebrate this Homecoming Sunday and think on the year gone and to regroup for the year to come, it’s the perfect time to hear Jesus tell a story, that familiar and yet never-gets-old story of being a good neighbor.
A Good Story
The story begins with a question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” I know we often read eternal life as simply “personal salvation” or we hear the question as “how do I get saved,” but I’d invite you to expand your hearing of that question: “What must I do to really live… to live in a way that matters, to live in view of and in step with things which are eternal?” Because the answer is not all that individualistic or only about getting saved and going to heaven when we die… the answer from Jesus is both individual and communal, about the now and the then.
Jesus turns the question back on the asker and asks “what do you think?” And we really so often know the right answer don’t we? We aren’t dumb. We know what is right and what is good, we know how to live as in step with things eternal: we embrace our God in love, and we embrace our neighbor in love. The answer given to Jesus is a reflection of scripture, and it’s a really good expression of what Micah said: do justice, show kindness and humbly walk with God. The same understanding of what is right and good must have been on your minds as well here at St. Timothy’s when you crafted our mission as a church: to live in love, walk by faith and serve our community.
The story could have stopped there, right? I mean, that’s good stuff… in church we would say, “that preaches!” Love God and love others! Done. But wait… I don’t like all my neighbors! In fact, if we’re honest we’re pretty good at not liking a lot of people around us! In the text Jesus has to deal with the perfectly human follow-up question to loving one’s God and loving one’s neighbor….. yeah, but Jesus, you don’t mean that neighbor over there do you? I mean really, who is my neighbor? If you want to avoid anything, make it a philosophical or rhetorical question, right?
But Jesus is ready, as Jesus always is, to help us past some of these very human foibles we carry in our hearts. He tells the story that many of us are super familiar with by now. The phrase “Good Samaritan” is part of the English language and we use it to means someone who is helpful in the moment, right? In the story Jesus tells of a person who falls victim to some the rougher aspects of this life, beaten down, robbed and left in an undignified ditch. He’s passed over and passed by by folks who should know better, religious folks, good folks. But when our neighbors are dirty, hurt and complicated, it’s easy to look away isn’t it? When stopping to help and to be with our messiest neighbors means that we may also get a bit dirty, and maybe we’ll have to spend some time in that same undignified ditch, it’s all too easy to move along and find another neighbor to love. And so we come to the point of the story from Jesus: the question is not who is my neighbor, the question is will I be a neighbor? We will you be the neighbor? Will we be the good neighbors that the world around us so desperately needs?
Being Good Neighbors
The invitation from Jesus is to go and do likewise. We’re sent to be neighbors to the world around us. It’s an invitation to embrace the role of neighbor, not looking away, not ignoring or seeking an easier road, but seeing those around us and loving them, caring about them and even lending a hand when things get rough and dirty.
As we move into this next year, from now until next Homecoming Sunday, let’s explore the ways that we can be the best neighbors! It starts right here right now in that very pew, or at home on that very couch where you’re sitting. The people you see right now, or will see soon and visit with today… love them, see them, and make a promise to yourself that you won’t look away.
As you go through the coming week and the coming months, going to school, to classes, to work, coming to church services, going to the grocery store, on vacations, walking down your street and going about the routines of daily life, love the people you see, care for them and let your heart wrap around them even in the messiness and struggle in which we often find them.
The Samaritan in the story that Jesus told paid a price for seeing that neighbor and loving that neighbor. Money changed hands. The way Jesus tells the story it also sounds like that Samaritan had every national, ethnic, racial and religious reason to pass on by… but instead they tore down the barriers that might divide and the paid the bill for meeting someone else’s needs. And being a neighbor sometimes will come with a price tag, and the question of whether we are willing to pay with our money, time and energy.
But why? Why should we have to be the neighbor? Why should we have to humble ourselves and get dirty? Why shouldn’t we look away? Why shouldn’t we hurry past like the priest and the religious folks in the story? Why not just lower our heads and watch out for ourselves? Because we want to have that life too, right? Back to the question that started this off… we want that life of meaning, that life in step with things eternal, we want the kind of life that carries us through hard times and the ditches in which we find ourselves. Because sometimes we need a neighbor, too.
As we continue to emerge from the years of pandemic separation, and we try to make things familiar again in life and figure out what really living means, as we work to build back lives of purpose and joy and eternal’ness, to build up our church family and grow it with folks joyfully learning of God’s love and life, we’ll do that in the neighborhoods in which God has placed us and with the many neighbors with whom God has placed us. Together is how we find life. Together is how we love. Together is how we really live. Amen, amen and amen. ~ Rev. Todd
Let’s go a little deeper…
Join me in another post “A Starting Place for Being a Good Neighbor” for some practical reflection on being a good neighbor based on the Micah passage and the call to embrace justice, kindness and humility!
Ok, I want to be a good neighbor, but where do I start? Let’s try using the Micah 6:6-8 passage as a framework for being a good neighbor: embracing justice, doing kindness and growing our humility.
“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
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 and to walk humbly with your God?”
Let’s look a little deeper…
Two of those requirements seem to express life with our neighbors: 1) advocating and acting for justice, and 2) crafting a life of kindness in our words and actions. Can we look around and explore what justice means for our neighbors? What are our opportunities to advocate for all people to have the same opportunities and to be treated with the same respect and dignity which we enjoy or demand for ourselves? Today’s culture wars in our society often seem predicated on winning and losing, as if dignity and respect were limited commodities which we either give away or keep. In truth, those are limitless commodities which we can share and give away without losing a bit of our own.
The third requirement, that of humility, seems rooted in our time with God and the intentionality we have for growing into the people God has called us to be. We need to make sure that we are filling our hearts with good things so that the fruit of our words and actions are good. (Luke 6:43-45) But remember, we aren’t putting on capes and becoming super heroes flying around and saving the world! We’re just people, fashioned and empowered by God’s love and grace, doing what we can to make little bit of difference for the people around us, sharing the kind of life that is really living.
Justice: what is right?
What are some ways we can advocate or uplift the cause of justice in our neighbors’ lives? The perfect place to begin is in prayer, but then we have to make sure that our prayer includes asking God to help us to act; prayer should lead to action. We can write to our political representatives to encourage them to uphold someone’s dignity or to protect our neighbors’ needs for justice. We can sign petitions and advocate for other’s rights. We can be voice for the marginalized and a voice of welcome for those who are being excluded. We can make sure that in our own language and choices we practice welcome, inclusion and uphold respect and dignity for all people.
Kindness: sharing joy.
What about kindness? Is there a need in your neighborhood you could help meet? Who do you know who needs a hand with something? Is there some litter that could picked up, someone struggling who could use an encouraging word, a note or a visit? Remember that kindness is sharing the joy that God has poured into our lives, not what someone has deserved or earned. We can be intentional about kindness; kindness is a choice and a lifestyle.
Humility: time with God.
And there’s our walk with God. How are we making time to be with God in prayer, meditation, study and conversation? How are we seeking God? There are many ways to grow our faith and our experience of God. We can read and study scripture and other supporting books and devotionals. We can spend time in quiet meditation or going for a walk with God, walking down the street or on a wooded path. We can immerse ourselves in music and praise. We can find a spiritual director or friend to help us go deeper in prayer and listening for God.
Making a plan.
What’s keeping us from sitting and prayerfully and choosing an issue of justice, an act of kindness and a practice of spending time with God on which to focus for the week? Imagine the intentionality of choosing an issue of injustice to confront in ourselves and our society, a concrete way we intend to be kind to the people around us, and a practice of growing our faith, and then placing reminders around for us in the coming week. What could we accomplish? How much better would the world be for each person in it who actively embraces justice, kindness and humble growth?
Here’s how this might look, choosing intentions for a week or even a month, developing habits and embracing our place in community as a good neighbor:
- Justice: One group of people who so often get treated as political pawns and not as human beings are the poor souls seeking asylum in our country. I’m going to learn about the situations they are fleeing from in their home countries, and learn about the groups local and national who are helping them, and I’m going to see how I can be involved in supporting these most vulnerable of neighbors.
- Kindness: When I go for my neighborhood walks I’m going to take gloves and a trash bag and get all the litter I can carry! And if there’s a neighbor outside they are going to get a big smile and greeting from me. I hope to greet and get to know a neighbor I currently don’t know.
- God Time: I’m going to start every day with a five minute quiet time, using my phone to set a timer, to just sit and sip my coffee and read and meditate on Psalm 42.
What would your intentions look like?
Galatians 5:22 & 23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
I have to admit that this passage from St. Paul has been a favorite of mine my whole life. It’s not that I have in some way mastered it or think that I’m a great example of it, but it reminds me to raise my expectations for myself, and even for you. I’ve been accused of having a “thin skin” when someone’s rudeness or naughty behavior will be hurt or disappoint me, but I don’t want to let my expectations slip! I’m a textbook Gen-X in some respects, and I always struggle to keep a high level of pessimism and cynicism at bay.
If you want to go and see the list that St. Paul has of the “sinful fruits” (Galatians 6:13-26) you’ll find many of the things we’ve identified and renounced as incivility throughout our exploration of scripture: rage, discord, selfishness, divisiveness. But I’ve never spent a lot of time on the sinful fruits; I know them too well. My imagination is better fed on the fruit of expecting and identifying God in action in me or in you. I want to dwell on those moments when our goodness shines. I like seeing our patience surprise someone, our kindness meet a need, our self-control end a conflict, our love warm a soul, our joy become infectious, and our peace break down barriers and make us a family.
The fruit are a strong reminder that civility is not just what we don’t say, but what we do say. Our faith and spirituality are the same in respect to renouncing some things and embracing some things. Renouncing and letting go of some things can be seen as a bit passive, simply making sure that some things are absent from our lives. Choosing to embrace other things that we wish to manifest in our lives can be a bit more active, even aggressive.
This morning I’m meditating on these on these things that I can embrace, things against which I will never find a law or an obstacle outside of my own heart. I’m going to include a photo with this blog, a six foot goose that my wife and I hand-made and painted for an arts festival a few summers ago. In Celtic spirituality the Holy Spirit is sometimes pictured as a wild goose, and I want God’s presence today in my life to be a goose, to be flamboyant and noisy, aggressive and loud. I want God’s presence in me to take flight.