Scripture: Ephesians 4:25--5:2
We are now 9 days into August. To the dismay of many students and teachers and the joy of many parents school will be starting back very soon. I have a nephew that will be starting kindergarten next week. And with the start of school comes another set of school rules to be learned and obeyed. I trust that many of you still remember some of those school rules that were printed up on a bulletin board. I’m thinking particularly about elementary school, not so much high school where the rules are don’t do drugs, don’t bring weapons on school grounds, or don’t lock Brian in his locker. (Maybe that last one is just me.) School rules in elementary school are almost always in the positive as opposed to the negative. Think back, what are some of those rules or ways to behave? (Give time for folks to respond.)
All of these rules or ways to behave in school are usually pretty simple, simple ways of living with one another. Be Kind. Be Nice. Share. Tell the truth. Hold hands. Making sure that everyone has a safe environment in which to learn. They are ways of living in community. We don’t just teach our kids how to read and write in school, but we also teach them how to live in the world. And at the heart of what we ask our children to be is to be kind. It is simple. Be kind. And it is at the core of what the writer of this letter to the Ephesians is asking that community too. Be kind. I considered just standing up today and saying be kind and then sitting down. It is that easy. But we all know its not. It’s not that easy to be kind otherwise we all would be. Otherwise the writer wouldn’t spend so much time on it. We as adults fail over and over to live up to what we teach our children in Kindergarten. I’m not even sure we value it at all. We believe what Julia said in the 80s and 90s sitcom “Designing Women”--the Dolores Street folks can tell you I quote from this show a lot--she said in response to someone saying “the meek shall inherit the earth...” “Yes but they wont’ keep it for very long.”
Nancy Lamott a cabaret singer who died of ovarian cancer in the mid-90s sang a song that went a little like this:
So many things we can’t control
so many hurts that happen everyday
so many heartaches that pierce the soul
so much pain that will never go away
How do we make it better?
How do we make through? What can we do when there’s nothing we can do?
We can be kind
We can take care of each other
We can remember that deep down inside we all need the same things
And maybe we’ll find
If we are there for each other
That together we’ll weather
Whatever tomorrow may bring
Nobody really wants to fight
Nobody really wants to go to war
If everyone wants to make thing right?
What are we always fighting for?
(Click here for a sample)
We are not kind. We are not nice. Instead most of the time we are self-preserving. And self-preserving and kindness do not always go together. Self-preservation does not help us live in community very well. It does usually help us from getting hurt. Self-preservation also makes sure that we stay on top. It makes sure that we always win, that we are always right, that we always have the most power. But always winning, always being right, always having the most power doesn’t always make us the best neighbors. Our nation’s wars have been about maintaining our status, showing our strength. While at times they may have been cloaked and even on occasion appropriately understood as a protection of our freedoms, they have been a way of staying on top, saying to other people and other nations that we will make our own decisions. Often in direct disregard for the nations and peoples that we are in battle against. Whether necessary or not, war is never nice. War is never kind. Last year I was visiting family in Florida. My 3 year old nephew was in trouble for hitting his sister, and so my sister, his aunt, proceeded to slap his hand all the while saying “William we do not hit.” But apparently we do. We say don’t hit, be nice, be kind, and yet what we do is something else.
Our healthcare debate right now in the country is largely about self-preservation. Everyone thinks quality healthcare for all is a good idea. I even think most people would agree that it’s cost is over-inflated. What people don’t agree on is who should have to pay for it and who should control it. I don’t want anyone telling me who my doctor will be or what medical treatment I should be allowed to have. I want to be able to make my own decisions. And I’m really pretty happy with the medical care I receive now. Those of us who receive quality healthcare and have decent health insurance see no need for reform. But what about the person who has lost her job, his health insurance? The person who can’t afford health insurance at all. The person who would lose a days wages in order to just go to the doctor. What about that person? To which most people say “Well yes that person needs affordable healthcare.” The rub comes when I am asked to help pay for it. Why should I help pay for someone else’s healthcare? Why should taxpayers have to shoulder the cost of the system? Has anyone seen the recent Reese’s peanut butter cups commercials? It shows the two peanut butter cups and then these word’s begin to scroll onto the screen. “Sharing is a nice gesture...stupid but nice.” We tell our children to share, but we aren’t necessarily looking to share as adults. Not if it is going to cost me some of my well earned income.
Now so far this sounds like a pretty good socialist, democratic sermon right. I actually am feeling pretty good about myself. I’m a pacifist, I don’t believe war is ever just. And I do think that as a taxpayer I should shoulder part of the load for better healthcare for all. I think we should have a single taxpayer system. I am nice, I do share, I am kind.
But here are some ways that I can’t be let off the hook. Tell the truth. What the writer of Ephesians says is to speak the truth in love. We tell our children to not tell lies. But sometimes I don’t do that. I am afraid of what the other person will say or do if I tell the truth. They will be mad at me. It will hurt their feelings. To be honest though, me not telling the truth is often about my own fear and less about the well being of the person I am in relationship with. I don’t want to get hurt. My ego might get bruised. Truth telling isn’t about being mean, it isn’t about telling someone yes your butt does look big in those jeans. It isn’t always about being right. It’s about saying words that someone is ready to hear and needs to hear. It is about speaking truth to power, even when it might cost me something, a job, money, security, a relationship. Speaking truth in love is about doing and saying that which builds up and deepens community rather than tears it down. And sometimes I just don’t do this, and sometimes I really like to be right. And I imagine I am not alone in this situation.
We tell our children to hold hands. We sing the hymn
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
And yet we aren’t really known by our love are we? We aren’t really known by our Christian unity? Brad Pitt was recently interviewed by Parade magazine. He was asked about his religious beliefs. In the article he talks about being raised by conservative Southern Baptists. He was taught that Christianity was about a list of dos and donts. Don’t go to rock concerts. Don’t drink. Don’t use profanity. He remarked that people try and tell him that Christianity is about more than that, but that he doesn’t really believe them because that is not his experience. Despite our best efforts we don’t always convey a spirit of unity. We don’t hold hands. To be honest, I don’t want to hold hands with Southern Baptists, I don’t want to hold hands with folks who think that who I am and what I believe are wrong. I don’t want to hold hands with Pat Robertson. Because sometimes they are mean.
All of these ways of misbehaving that are listed in the letter to the Ephesians are ways of shoring ourselves up so that we don’t get hurt. Malice, slander, wrangling. They are the armor with which we gird ourselves so that we can escape injury in living. Because when we are kind, when we are generous, when we speak truth in love, when we care about the well-being of the community, we make ourselves vulnerable. And when we are vulnerable there is a real chance that we will be hurt, or that we will hurt someone else. When we love there is a real chance that love will not be offered in return. When I offer my hand to Pat Robertson there is a real chance that it will be rejected or quite possibly bitten. So we suit up, we put on an armor to protect our fragile bodies and egos.
And what we are being invited to do is to disarm, to take off the protective gear. And I say invited because we are not being commanded to do anything in Ephesians. We are not being asked to follow the 10 commandments. We are being invited to act like God. To act like the loving Creator. We are being asked to be kind, to be tender-hearted, and then we are being asked to forgive. Say your sorry. Which might be the most important part. Because when we get hurt which we will that is when we are truly being invited to behave like the Divine. That is when we can extend or receive forgiveness. Did you hear me? We have to give AND receive forgiveness. When we love there is a real risk that we will injure also. When we are standing along side of instead of above there is the chance that we will fail to love adequately as well. In the Broadway musical Wicked, that has been playing at the Orpheum theater in San Francisco now for a while, at the end of the show the two lead characters sing a song called “For Good” which is all about how the two have benefitted from knowing and being friends with the other. And at one point Elphaba sings “just to clear the air I ask forgiveness for the things I’ve done you blame me for,” to which Glenda sings “but then I guess we know there’s blame to share...” The greatest gift that has been extended to us is grace, forgiveness. The great gift we offer to the world and to each other is forgiveness. Do you remember that shooting at the Amish school a few years ago? Even before the bodies of those dear children had grown cold, the community, the mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, had already begun to offer words of forgiveness to the shooter and the shooters family. We must forgive, we must love, we must be kind. It’s that simple.
And maybe we’ll find
true peace of mind
if we always remember
we can be kind.