Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - The Kindness of Strangers

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 23, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. This was the sixth message in the series entitled "Living by the Spirit." You can hear a podcast of the sermon on the Cove Presbyterian Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

I’ll tell you, wasn’t last week’s service great, with the music and the puppets and all? Now, we’re going to do that again. But today, we’re coming back to the series we started a little over a month ago, you know, the one dealing living by the Spirit. And as some of y’all know, to this point, we've considered five different topics. Now they haven’t all be what Paul called “fruits of the Spirit,” because during the first message, we looked into the desires of the flesh and how easy it is to misinterpret and misuse the freedom we have in Christ. And then in the second service, we talked about how Christians are called to love and how doing that is both a decision and an obligation. And then, in the third week, we considered how Christian joy is grounded in faith and how it strengthens those who suffer and how it must be shared among believers. And then, in week four, we focused on Christian peace and how God has called us to live in harmony with ourselves and with God and with one another. And then, in the fifth message, we talked about spiritual patience and how it involves humility and love and faith. Now, in a nutshell, that’s what we’ve covered. And this morning, we’re going to tackle gift number five, kindness. As Paul wrote, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, [and] kindness...”

And as I considered how to introduce this idea, the first thing that came to mind was that wonderful line from the movie, A Street Car Named Desire.

Now if you’ve never seen it, I’m telling you it’s well worth watching. But even if you haven’t, that quote, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers,” well, it’s kind of crept into our culture.

Of course, in the Tennessee Williams play, the line is anything but cheerful. I mean, in the scene we saw, Blanche DuBois is being driven to a mental hospital after having a total breakdown, taking her last step into insanity and her complete detachment from reality. Still, her words, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” sort of encapsulates what we’re talking about this morning, you know, how we’re called to show kindness to others, including strangers.

And I’ll tell you something else, I think it also points to a problem that most of us have. You see, I don’t think we live in a society that puts an emphasis on stuff like kindness and benevolence and warmth. I mean, give me a break, even among people who are suppose to be role-models, I believe we see more hostility than peace and more bitterness than forgiveness and certainly more malice than benevolence. My goodness, let’s get real, does anybody here this morning believe we live a good-natured and open-hearted and kind society, much less world? I’ll tell you, I don’t think so. And so, I think this call to kindness, well, I believe it’s really hard for us, both because I don’t think we really know how to do it and even if we do, I doubt that, deep down, most American really want to be all that kind. It’s become a sign of weakness. My gosh, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a time when that old saying, “Good guys finish last” has been more true. But I’ll tell you, for me, that assumption seems proven wrong every morning when I get up and read the news before eating my breakfast.

But you know, whether or not it fits into what we value or respect in others, Paul says the fifth fruit of the Holy Spirit is kindness. And so whether or not we like it or know how to do it or think it’s important, kindness is exactly what we’ve been called to show. But here’s some good news. Even though kind people aren’t necessarily the ones we want to see in front of the parade, I think we have a perfect example of what this kindness business is all about, and it’s right here in the Bible, and it’s been shown by the one who loved us before he laid the foundation of the universe.

You see, first, God defines kindness, just like he defined love and joy and patience. And you know, when we follow the example of his kindness, I believe as sure as I’m standing here we can be kinder to one another. And like I said, this definitive example of kindness is right here in the Bible. And I’ll tell you, when we take a look at what is says, I think there are three lessons that we can learn and apply. I mean, first, I think it’s pretty clear that kindness is a part of who God is, and it must be a part of us too. In other words, by his very nature, God is kind. And like I said, I think we see this in scripture, especially in the stuff written by the Apostle Paul. For example, as he was explaining to the Roman Christians why God had given them the ability to understand and to trust in Jesus Christ, he wrote,  “Now you see both how kind and how hard God can be. He was hard on those who fell, but he was kind to you. And he will keep on being kind to you, if you keep on trusting in his kindness. Otherwise, you will be cut away too.”  [Romans 11:22] You see, God is kind; that’s just who he is. And you know, Paul wrote the same kind of thing in his letter to Titus: “God our Savior showed us how good and kind he is. He saved us because of his mercy, and not because of any good things that we have done. God washed us by the power of the Holy Spirit. He gave us new birth and a fresh beginning. God sent Jesus Christ our Savior to give us his Spirit. Jesus treated us much better than we deserve. He made us acceptable to God and gave us the hope of eternal life.” [Titus 3:4-7]

You see, as both these passages illustrate, God’s kindness was shown by his willingness to treat us better than we deserve and by his desire to save us through Jesus Christ and by his decision to offer us the Holy Spirit so that we can have hope. You see, God can be our example, because kindness is just part of his nature. Of course there’s an obvious problem with trying to use God as an example. I mean, last time I looked, none of us are God. Man, we’re not even close. And when you’re talking about using God as an example of kindness, it gets even worse. I mean, just listen to what Paul said about our ability to be kind, and right here he was quoting the fourteenth Psalm: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.” [Romans 3:10b-12] You see, according to Paul, regardless of who serves as an example, we can’t really show Godlike kindness even if we wanted to. In other words, this would be impossible for us to do without some kind of help. But of course, that’s where the Holy Spirit steps in. You see, this ability to be kind is a fruit of the Spirit. I’ll tell you, God does the heavy lifting for us. And why would he do that? That’s easy, because God is kind. Dah. And he offers an example we can follow. That’s one.

And second, if we’re serious about following the example we find in Scripture, than we’re going to have to decide that we’re going to be kind to everybody, not just to the people we like. Man, we can’t be godly and limit our kindness to a select few. Instead, it needs to flow out to everyone. Because that’s exactly what God did. Just listen to what he wrote to the Ephesians: “But God was merciful! We were dead because of our sins, but God loved us so much that he made us alive with Christ, and God’s wonderful kindness is what saves you. God raised us from death to life with Christ Jesus, and he has given us a place beside Christ in heaven. God did this so that in the future world he could show how truly good and kind he is to us because of what Christ Jesus has done. You were saved by faith in God, who treats us much better than we deserve. This is God’s gift to you, and not anything you have done on your own. It isn’t something you have earned, so there is nothing you can brag about.” [Ephesians 2:5-9] You see, God’s kindness wasn’t given to some and withheld from others. Instead, it covers us all.

And I think that’s something we need to remember as we apply it to our own lives. You see, it’s really not good enough be kind only to people we like, you know, people like us. And it’s not good enough to be helpful only to folks who are helpful to us. And it’s not good enough to treat with respect and dignity and honor only men and women we think deserve it, because remember, God treated us better than we deserve. No, according to Luke, Jesus said, “If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest. Take the yoke I give you. Put it on your shoulders and learn from me. I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest. This yoke is easy to bear, and this burden is light." [Matthew 11:28-30] And I’ll tell you, the Greek word that was translated in this passage “is easy to bear,” well, it the verbal form of the word that Paul used when he wrote about kindness. Following God’s example, we need to decide that we’re going to be kind to everybody. And that’s the second thing Bible can teach us about kindness.

And third, when we’re kind to others, I believe we’re going to see them change. And I’ll tell you, I think that’s really exciting. And you know, we can see the same kind of thing happen with the kindness shown by God. In other words, God was kind in order that people might change. I mean, just listen to what Paul wrote to the Romans: “Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty of doing the very same things. We know that God is right to judge everyone who behaves in this way. Do you really think God won’t punish you, when you behave exactly like the people you accuse? You surely don’t think much of God’s wonderful goodness (or in Greek, “kindness”) or of his patience and willingness to put up with you. Don’t you know that the reason God is good (or “kind’) to you is because he wants you to turn to him?” [Romans 2:1-4] You see, there’s a reason for God’s kindness to us. It was so that we might repent. In other words, so that we might turn from self, from pride and arrogance and hubris, and then turn toward him, toward love and mercy and compassion. That’s his goal, to see people change.

And when we show kindness, I’m telling you, we’re going to see people change too. I mean, not only will they change toward us, they’re also going to change in how they see the faith we share. And I’ll tell you why that’s so important, particularly now. According to research, although almost as many people believe in God as they did in the past, fewer and fewer people are coming into churches to learn about him. As a matter of fact, a whole lot more folks are shuffling from one church to another than are coming in from the outside. And I’ll tell you, I believe a big part of that is how a lot of folks have come to see the church. If you listen to them, the church is just one big old club, where people spend more time talking about one another and judging those on the outside than in showing much love for either God or neighbor. And I’ve got to tell you, to a certain extent, I can see their point. But I’ll tell you something else, I believe a little bit of intentional kindness can change that. And for that reason, I’m not sure we can focus most of our attention on insiders any more. And we may not be able to structure everything just so we feel comfortable. I’m telling you, that may not work in the modern world. Instead, maybe we’ve reached a point where our kindness, our compassion, our attention needs to include both those on the inside and the outside. In other words, maybe we need to spend some of our time and our attention showing folks who may have gotten the wrong idea about our faith by the actions of the church, maybe through our intentional kindness to them we’ll begin to see them open up to the one who couldn’t love them more than he does right now. And I believe that’ll happen, because the Bible shows us that kindness can bring change. And I think that’s our third lesson.

Now, in the movie, A Streetcar Named Desire, the motivation of the man who takes Blanch away may or may not have been kindness; there’s really no way of knowing. But for us, we can decide to be kinder to one another. You see, we can claim the help offered by the Holy Spirit, and we can be kind to everyone, giving all people the opportunity to change their view of us and the one we proclaim. I’m telling you, this is something we can do. And if this our decision and if we do this kind of thing together, for a whole bunch of folks we may have never met, we just might be the stranger that shows them kindness.

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