Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness

Sermon: Not-So-Random Acts of Kindness

Text: Micah 6:1-8

Date: January 29, 2017

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

It’s a nightmare scenario: You are being sued, and called into court to defend yourself. You arrive in the courtroom, and instead of seeing the jury box full of ordinary Kitsap County citizens, the courtroom has expanded to an immensity capable of seating the hills and mountains as the jury. Mt. Ranier is the lead juror, the fore-mountain. Why hills and mountains in the jury? Because you are being sued by God for Breach of Covenant.

Yikes, right? In Micah’s prophecy, God first makes a brief case for God’s own faithfulness to the covenant—speaking in shorthand about liberating God’s people from slavery, sending competent men and women to lead them, turning curses into blessings, bringing them into the promised land.

We don’t get a summary of the people’s lack of faithfulness in these brief verses. If you turn back a few pages you can find some colorful descriptions of why God is accusing the people of a breach of covenant. A sampling: powerful people covet fields and seize them, rob people of their inheritance, oppress the poor. They fill their mouths with empty falsehoods, hate good, love evil, abhor justice, declare war on people who have nothing to put in their mouths. Furthermore, they worship false gods, silence true prophets, and pay false preachers a pretty penny for a soothing word. The catalogue of offenses is lengthy.

Had the prophet been speaking in this century, he might point to the mountains and hills witnessing the trial who had been scarred by the kind of mining that blows the tops off mountains to get to coal and other minerals buried within—the equivalent of the courtroom witness in the wheelchair wearing a neck brace and cast. Or point to the hills that have been clearcut for their trees and have lost their topsoil and wildlife as a result. The Israelites might not have made much of an impact on their hills and mountains, but we have. Woe is us, if nature is called to witness and judge our breach of covenant!

In the divine lawsuit, the people seem to realize that they can’t offer much of a defense. When the people speak in the text, they jump right into asking what they can possibly do to make things right with God. They put the question into the framework of the old sacrifice system, which had developed as a ritual way of demonstrating repentance and attempting to get back into the good graces of God. The sacrificial prescriptions for making amends for sin are spelled out in the old holiness scriptures.

There is some hyperbole in the people’s offer: Shall I give thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, even my firstborn child? It’s hard to say whether this reflects a sincere understanding of the gravity of their breach of covenant or whether it has a sarcastic flavor. Perhaps it’s an expression of frustration—how can humans possibly get right with God, how can we know how to be faithful when God’s so big and we’re so small? The people’s question hints at perceiving the impossibility of sinful, flawed people ever getting it right, ever being judged faithful. The people might want the judge to acknowledge it simply can’t be done; they feel ready to throw their hands up in the air and say that righteousness can’t be known, much less performed.

If this were a courtroom movie, this is where the underdog lawyer would step up and make a closing argument so brilliant that all those who witness it would be agog. “God 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?” Bam! Case closed! As my NRSV footnote on Micah 6:8 puts it, “In a single sentence the prophet sums up the legal, ethical, and covenantal requirements of religion.”

I suspect the Israelites might have wished the prophet had said something about the thousands of sacrificial rams or the 10,000 rivers of oil being the thing that would square things up with God—even though it would have been a steep price, it was something quantifiable, countable. This “doing justice” thing is endless and difficult to define. The concept of justice is tricky from a human point of view. Just look at two successive Saturdays of marching in Washington D.C.: One of hundreds of thousands, some of whom had “My body, my choice” or “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” signs; another of tens of thousands carrying signs reading “Choose Life” who believe just as fervently that outlawing abortion would do justice for the unborn and protect women who feel pressured into ending unplanned pregnancies. Which is the side of justice?

Which side of this interminable argument is God’s side? Depends on who you ask, right? Many people on both sides of this particular fence claim faith in the same God as a piece of the motivation for persuading the law of the land to line up with their belief.

It’s very important that we continue to do justice in our personal lives and that we seek justice in systems of all kinds. It’s important that we try in all things to walk with God. Walk HUMBLY with God—which means that we need to be cautious about claiming we know the mind of God. One of my commentaries says that the Hebrew word translated “humbly” might be understood as “carefully” or “circumspectly.” We have to be careful about claiming we know what God wants—even when we’re pretty sure, based on the revelation of scripture, tradition and Spirit–that God is love, that God uplifts the lowly, feeds the hungry, brings down the mighty from their thrones, and so forth. Walking humbly means acknowledging that God is ultimately unknowable from a human point of view. It means committing to the lifelong task of discernment and listening to Spirit and to other people.

The image of a tightrope came to me the other day. “Do Justice” and “Walk Humbly with your God” are at either end of the pole the tightrope walker holds to keep their balance. The tightrope itself I am calling “Love Kindness.” No matter what we are doing, from phoning legislators to shopping for groceries or greeting our families at the breakfast table, kindness is the way it can be done. I love one of the Dalai Lama’s sayings: “Be kind whenever possible. It’s always possible.” That would make a good addition to a liturgy. Even low church people know what to say when someone says, “The Lord be with you…” [“And also with you.”] Try it with the kindness saying. I say, “Be kind whenever possible.” You say, “It’s always possible.” Say it as if you believe it.

In our current worship series, we have been going over a few Christian practices meant to alleviate “Spiritual Affective Disorder”—getting out of the spiritual doldrums. So far we’ve hit on lighting candles, singing and listening to encouraging music, and tuning into humor and joy. The practice recommended this week is doing acts of kindness, both for people we know and for strangers. There’s a whole movement in this country built around doing random acts of kindness. It’s something that uplifts the spirit whether one is on the giving or receiving end. Acts of kindness are not necessarily big, dramatic things; they are as small as smiles, words of thanks, nods of approval, buying a Real Change paper. Poet William Wordsworth once wrote, “The best portion of a good man’s life/ his little nameless, unremarkable acts/of kindness and love.”

Acts of kindness weave together the strands of community. A friendly hello is as swift and fleeting as the strand of a spider’s web, but taken together, these webs of kindness hold humanity together. It’s been many years since I read it, but I was remembering E.B. White’s classic story Charlotte’s Web as I was meditating on kindness this week. Charlotte the spider befriends the pig Wilbur, and promises to do what she can to try to save his life when they learned he is headed for the slaughterhouse. She weaves several webs with words in them, knowing that humans often believe what is in print, and may see a word in a web as a kind of divine intervention. Four successive webs read, “SOME PIG,” “TERRIFIC,” “RADIANT,” and “HUMBLE.” [There’s that word again.]

Here’s a clip from an animated version of Charlotte’s Web. While you watch and listen, meditate on acts of kindness as strands of what weaves us together as humans. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7y9iV-9llg

Sweet lyric: “Sometimes when somebody loves you/ Miracles somehow appear/ And there in the warp and the woof is the proof of it/ Charlotte’s web.” Frederick Buechner also used the metaphor of a web we weave, writing, “As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference or hostility toward the people we meet, we are setting the great spider web atremble. The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.”[1] The Christian’s web, like Charlotte’s, will be affirming. But it won’t be just random; it will be disciplined, regular in its casting out patient strands of love.

Many, if not most, of acts of kindness are fragile, fleeting, invisible. Occasionally an act of kindness serves as someone’s miracle, making visible not just the ties that bind us as humans but the great Love beyond us that is being woven into Creation. Just as rain can make an otherwise nearly invisible spider web glitter and shine like a work of art, grace can fall on the most ordinary act of kindness and light it up. What we weave in the shadowed hush of anonymity, working away while others rest, can make visible the unseen work of the God who is Love.

Like this: Several years ago a group of computer sales people from Milwaukee went to a regional sales convention in Chicago. The meeting was supposed to finish in time for them to catch a train home in time for dinner with their families, but it ran overtime, as meetings do. The sales force raced to the train station, tickets in hand, trying to get the train they had promised their spouses they would be on. As they raced through the terminal, one person inadvertently kicked over a table supporting a basket of apples. Without stopping, all the men reached the train and boarded it with a sigh of relief.

All but one. He paused, got in touch with his feelings, and experienced a twinge of compunction for the boy whose apple stand had been overturned. He waved goodbye to his co-workers and returned to the terminal. He was glad he did; he noticed on return that the youngster running the stand was blind. The salesman gathered up the apples and saw that some of them were quite bruised. He reached into his wallet and said to the boy, “Here, please take this ten dollars for the damage we did. I hope it won’t spoil your day.” As he started to walk away, the bewildered boy called after him, “Are you Jesus?”

The man stopped in his tracks. And he wondered.[2]

God has told us, O mortals, what is good. And what does the Lord require of us but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God? Do justice with passion, persistence, and humility. Make walking with God your life’s work. And in all things, kindness. “Be kind whenever possible…It’s always possible.”

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[1] Buechner, Frederick quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, ed. New York: Touchstone, 1996, p. 261

[2] Manning, Brennan “The Salesman and the Apple” World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers William Bausch, ed. Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1999, p. 282

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