Last week, we joined the entire community of Williamsburg in performing acts of kindness. When we issued the charge two weeks ago to go out and perform three acts of kindness, the reactions were pretty wide-ranging at Hickory Neck. Several parishioners addressed me with concern, “I have to do three? Can’t I just do one act before next Sunday?” Other parishioners took on the challenge with gusto – with several parishioners plotting out what they were going to do before they even got back to the parking lot. While other parishioners noted during the week and the days afterwards how shockingly easy the challenge was. “I felt silly writing down my acts of kindness. I mean, I do acts of kindness every week,” shared one parishioner.
I am not sure which perspective was predominant, but I can tell you that Hickory Neck performed over 100 acts of kindness that week. There were some simple acts: holding doors for strangers, paying people compliments, and writing thank you notes. Some were a little more labor intensive: volunteering at a food pantry, helping out at your child’s school, going through your closet to donate clothes. Others showed some real effort: listening to a stranger who seemed to need a friend, making Valentines for the whole class – even the kids you do not like, visiting someone in the hospital – even though you hate hospitals.
Now I know several parishioners who thought our challenge was a bit silly or who felt uncomfortable with the idea of drawing attention to our own good works. Surely we should just be doing acts of kindness every week. But for those of you who jumped in with both feet, my hope is that you got a tiny glimpse into what can happen when you start living out kindness more intentionally: your whole way of being starts to shift. When you do acts of kindness, the more opportunities for additional kindness seem to appear. The more you think about kindness, the more you start to notice kindness all around you. And the more you engage in kindness, the more your whole demeanor shifts – from one of staying in your lane, attending to your daily routine, to lifting up you head and noticing how you can shift the community around you.
That seismic shift is what Jesus is talking about in Luke’s gospel today. Many of us hear the instructions from Jesus as a list of commands or a checklist of duties: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you; do not judge, do not condemn, forgive, and give. If we look at today as a list of commands from Jesus, then we might as well consider this week as Week Two of an acts of kindness challenge – except this time, Jesus asks us to do acts of kindness for those to whom showing kindness is the hardest. When we read Jesus’ words like a weighty list of to-do items, this gospel feels just that – full of weight and guilt with no promise of hope or encouragement. And part of what Jesus is saying is just that: showing kindness is actually pretty hard when we show kindness to those who are hardest to love. We do not mind showing kindness to friends, and we do not even really mind showing kindness to strangers. But asking us to show kindness to those who we actively dislike or to those who have hurt us? Now Jesus is pushing us way out of our comfort zones!
At the beginning of February, the Greater Williamsburg area kicked off a commitment to becoming a community of kindness with a rallying event. The former Mayor of Anaheim, California, Tom Tait, who had run on a campaign of kindness, was the keynote speaker. Mayor Tait talked about his time on City Council in Anaheim, how part of his work felt like a game of whack-a-mole. Each month, some crisis or community problem would arise – violence in the community, the prevalence of drugs, problems in the public schools. And the City Council’s response felt like trying to whack at the problem to temporarily knock the problem out. But those solutions never really made a deep impact. What Mayor Tait saw was all those problems were like symptoms – symptoms of a city that was facing an internal sickness. The only way to heal the internal sickness was to commit as a city to transform its entire way of operating. Mayor Tait believed transformation would occur by committing to kindness. To many, the idea sounded a little too pie-in-the-sky. But once elected, Mayor Tait was forced to try to live out the reality of kindness. With every decision, every major action, the community wondered together what would reflect kindness. And slowly, the illness in the system began to heal. Kindness was not a Band-Aid, but a system-altering antidote to a host of problems.
In a lot of ways, that is what Jesus is talking about today. Yes, the things Jesus is talking about are commands – a list of ways to be kind, even to the persons to whom being kind is most difficult. But Jesus is not just talking about commands. As one scholar describes, “Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world. A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you. Love for those who haven’t. Love even for those who have hated you. That love gets expressed in all kinds of creative ways, but often come through by caring – extending care and compassion and help and comfort to those in need – and forgiveness – not paying back but instead releasing one’s claim on another and opening up a future where a relationship of …love is still possible.”[i]
What Jesus is doing is trying to, “inculcate, and illustrate, an attitude of heart, a lightness of spirit in the face of all that the world can throw at you.” We are to assume this new way of being because “that’s what God is like. God is generous to all people, generous…to a fault: [God] provides good things for all to enjoy, the undeserving as well as the deserving. [God] is astonishingly merciful…” As N. T. Wright adds, “…this list of instructions is all about which God you believe in – and about the way of life that follows as a result.”[ii] When we take Jesus seriously, and embrace this new way of being, the way of kindness that leads to love, life can be “exuberant, different, astonishing. People [will] stare.”[iii]
In a lot of ways, what Jesus does to today is saying, “I see your week of kindness, and I raise you to life of loving-kindness.” In other words, keep going. Now, fortunately for us, Hickory Neck has set up the perfect set of circumstances for you to try on this new life of loving-kindness. Tonight, we open our doors to strangers. Tonight, we open our doors to some people we will find easy to love, and some people that will make us uncomfortable. Tonight, we open our doors to some late nights, really early mornings, and hard labor. But tonight, we also open our doors to a new way of being – a way of opening ourselves to live exuberantly, differently, astonishingly – to live like God.
Now I know one week (or even the one shift or duty you signed up for at the Winter Shelter, or even the financial contribution you made) may not change the world necessarily. Jesus is talking about a seismic change in the way we live our lives every day. But the Winter Shelter is a pretty good start. And the good news for you, is Lent is coming, and we’ve set up all kinds of tools for you to embrace this way of loving-kindness. Instead of a week of kindness, we have a whole 40-day kindness challenge. We have a devotional set of readings that reflect on kindness, story, and scripture for forty days. We will be studying kindness in scripture. Hickory Neck has assembled the tools to help you not just try simple deeds for a week, or not just try the hard stuff of relationship with the homeless for a week – but instead to try on a new way of being – to take on the way of God. Part of what Hickory Neck is all about is empowering discipleship – empowering you to go out into the world and live as faithful witnesses of Christ. This is what discipleship is all about. And Hickory Neck is here to help – to walk with you, to lift you up when you fall, to hold your hand in the hard parts, and to revel in the joy of watching love win. We cannot wait to enter in to this most sacred time of loving-kindness with you! Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Epiphany 7 C: Command or Promise?” February 22, 2019, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2019/02/epiphany-7-c-command-or-promise/ on February 22, 2019.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 73-74.
[iii] Wright, 74.