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Sermons at First Parish Church

Reflections on Member Expectations: Caring For Each Other

Sunday, November 16, 2008
Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Clives James, the contemporary British Writer, describes the scene in the local parish church one fall:

At the Harvest Festival in church the area behind the pulpit was piled high with tins of fruit for the old age pensioners. We had collected the tinned fruit from door to door. Most of it came from old-age pensioners.

I love this little vignette. I love a church that collects tinned fruit door to door in order to give it away perhaps to some of the very same people who donated it in the first place. I admit it sounds absurd; at some level perhaps it is absurd, in the ways that religious communities are often absurd — not highly efficient except in the service of generosity, humility and acts of kindness in the context of a culture that does not always value generosity, humility, and acts of kindness.

The piles of tinned fruit reminded me of the congregation I served before I came to Groton At that church we had big food giveaway box in the entryway of the church, much like our food collection shelves downstairs — except we never ended up taking the food to the local food pantry. I gave food away to the strangers who came to the church looking for help, of course, but mostly the food got used by the members and friends of the congregation. And while I don’t know exactly who put food in and who took food out, I expect that some of the very same people who brought stuff for the box at the beginning of the month took stuff out at the end of the month when their own grocery money was running out.

For me, the food giveaway box was an important lesson in how a community takes care of one another and it shaped my belief that in a congregation where people are taking care of one another well, the line between the helper and the helped is blurry and faint. The tinned fruit collection and the food giveaway box speak to a truth that we try to embody here at our church as well — the truth that people both need and have the capacity to give, as well as to receive. We need to give tinned fruit to the church, to share something of who we are and what we have, even if it does not feel like we have much to give. And we need to receive tinned fruit back either literally or metaphorically. In a community of faith that is doing its work, the categories of strong and weak, healthy and sick, able or disabled, take on less meaning. We are not only or always any one of these things and in the course of a lifetime, sometimes the course of a single week, we will take our turn with all of them. There are times of abundance and times of impoverishment for all of us and in the midst of it all, the work of the religious community is to practice kindness.

Kindness is the heart of religion. When asked about the essence of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama apparently said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” And Aldous Huxley the novelist, and world religions scholar was interviewed toward the end of his life. The interviewer asked him, “Dr. Huxley, you have studied the great spiritual and religious traditions of the world. What have you learned?” Huxley answered, “It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer (by way of advice) than this: Try to be a just little kinder, just a little kinder. ”

Kindness comes from the word kin. This is, I believe, the core definition of what it means to be kind — to treat others as kin. When we are kind, we treat one another as though we are related. As though we are connected.

As though we mean something to one another, even if we have just met — even if we have never actually met. What does it mean to be kin, to treat our neighbors as ourselves, to desire for our brothers and sisters that which we want for ourselves? Kindness is not the same as being nice; it is stronger than that and more honest. Kindness is the practice of compassion. At the root of kindness is empathy, feeling for the other, as if the other is us and then acting likewise. There is an aspect of kindness that is about being willing to really see one another, to see the struggles and hopes of another person, to see something of their goodness, their inner selves, to know them and with that knowing, to become vulnerable to them in some essential way.

The naturalist writer Scott Russell Sanders says simply that kindness is to feel for another — and that the practice of kindness is not limited to other human beings, of course. Sanders writes:

Once again this spring, the seventy-seventh of her life, my mother put out lint from her clothes dryer for the birds to use in building their nests. “I know how hard it is to make a home from scratch,” she says, “I’ve done it often enough myself.”

About his mother’s actions, Sanders comments: “Acts of kindness, no matter how small, how simple, have echoes; they have reverberations, meanings greater than the act itself.” The pot of soup brought to a sick neighbor, the leaves raked for someone who cannot do it for themselves, the prayers prayed for those who are worried or sick or grieving — these acts of kindness help to create the world as we wish it to be, the allow us to participate in tikkun olam, the repair of the world. In the Jewish mystic creation story we heard this morning, God, the infinite and unfathomable, sets out vessels and fills them with divine light, like pouring soup into bowls. And as the light pours forth a perfect, unbroken world is created, a world without suffering or injustice. But something happens, perhaps because no one makes things perfect the first time, even God, and the vessels shatter and the light scatters, trapped in the broken shards like puzzle pieces tossed to the floor. And so our work, our great and human work, is to find the pieces and remember how they fit together, to rejoin the pieces into that perfect whole that has been forgotten but is not lost and still exists in every piece.

This is why kindness matters. It is also why kindness is often hard and asks us to go beyond what is easy or comfortable. The challenge of kindness usually comes in the form of an invitation to expand our definition of who is like us, of who is kin. The challenge usually involves widening our understanding of who is included in our circle of care, who we mean when we say “we.”

That well known Parable of the Good Samaritan as told in the Gospel of Luke is one of the simplest stories in the New Testament but it is very powerful, and very clear about what it means to be kind, to take care of one another, to treat each other as kin, even when it is difficult.

As the story goes, a lawyer, one of those skeptics in the crowd who was always testing Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish law, asked Jesus: ’Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ The lawyer answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ (Notice Jesus doesn’t say anything about eternal life, he simply says, love your neighbor as yourself and you will live.) But the lawyer has another question. He asks Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ and Jesus answers with a story:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day the Samaritan took out two denarii,gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ The lawyer answered, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

It may help our understanding of the story to remember that the priests governed the huge temple complex in Jerusalem and had a great deal of authority among the Jews. The Levites were their associates and both groups were wealthy and powerful compared to ordinary Jews. Samaritans were an ethnic group who shared a common ancestry with the Jews but the Jews regarded them as gentiles, and the level of hatred between the two groups was violent and brutal. To call someone a Samaritan was a term of deep insult among the Jews. So those who listened to Jesus tell the parable of the Samaritan, would have absolutely expected the third person along that road to be one of them. They must have been shocked, even incensed when the hero of the story turned out to be a hated Samaritan. There was probably no Samaritan in the crowd to hear the story but if there had been, chances are they would have been shocked and incensed as well, and repulsed by the idea of a offering such compassionate help to someone from a category of people they feared and hated. (From Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium.)

So the radical nature of the story is not just that those who were considered outwardly moral and pious, the Priest and the Levite, are the ones who walk by, but that the one who shows compassion and kindness is the Samaritan, the enemy. The story, like most of Jesus’ stories would have been deeply unsettling to those who heard it and full of strange and uncomfortable ideas — the idea, for example, that inclusion in the kingdom of God is based on compassion and nothing more. The idea of taking to heart the message that we are all kin, that each person in need is our neighbor. This was a radical vision of what it meant to be a faithful person, what it meant to be a human being. Indeed, it still is.

To me one of the more interesting aspects of the story of the Good Samaritan is that, as far as we are told, the man who is beset by robbers accepts the help of the Samaritan despite their basic enmity. There is no epilogue that tells us that the man refused the kindness or sent the money back. So the story is as much about accepting help as it is about offering it. I suspect many of us, had we been the man left by the side of the road, would have dragged ourselves to our feet, battered and bleeding, and pretended we were just fine rather than accept such intensive and intimate help from a stranger, much less a stranger about whom we held deeply seated biases. To accept kindness makes us vulnerable. To accept kindness reminds us we are not self-sufficient. In fact, there may even be times when we like the man in the story are helpless and dependent upon our others. This is not a state of being that most of us enjoy, but Jesus reminds us that accepting kindness from whoever offers it is part of what it means to live in the kingdom of God.

I heard a modern day version of the Good Samaritan story from a colleague* — less dramatic perhaps, but it really did happen. It seems that the adult son of a colleague found himself buying a newspaper from a newspaper box on the street in a city near here. It was during the morning rush hour and the man put in his change, took out his newspaper and managed to catch the end of his necktie in the newspaper box when he closed it. I can’t remember the details of why, but his wallet was not in his pocket so he couldn’t save himself by fumbling around for more change with which to open the box. This story happened before the days when everyone had a cell phone so he couldn’t dial for help and save himself that way either. So there he was, stuck and he had to bend way over the box from the waist, kind of drape himself over it really, in order to not strangle himself with his own tie, so he probably looked pretty strange — like maybe he had been on a bender and had passed out on the newspaper box.

Everyone ignored him. All the nicely dressed people walking briskly to work, newspapers and brief cases and coffee cups in hand, just walked on by. After a while he started trying to explain in a loud voice that he wasn’t drunk or dangerous, that he was stuck, that he was a harmless person who was stuck to the newspaper box and could someone please help him. But still no one stopped and in fact people seemed to walk by even faster the louder he talked. I totally appreciate this. I confess that I might well have been one of those priests and Levites who walked on by. I know this because once when we were visiting close friends in Brooklyn we opened the front door of the building to find a man in a similar position as the guy in the newspaper box. He was draped over the waist high rod iron fence in front of the building and completely splayed out on top of the garbage cans behind the fence. We didn’t know if he was asleep, passed out or dead and I was pretty happy not to stick around to find out, relieved to be given the job of taking my friends’ toddler to the bakery around the corner while she called the police and got him some help.

Back on the street, the man stuck in the newspaper box’s version of the Good Samaritan came by in the form of a group of pretty hardcore urban looking teenage boys, who gathered around the newspaper box, speaking in teenager slang, and laughing and pointing at him, but at least noticing him and coming close enough to figure out what was going on. As my colleague tells it, his son got pretty afraid at this point, thinking that the youth were going to mug him or assault him or in some way take advantage of his total helplessness. But what really happened was that the young men set him free. One of them knew just where to bang the box to get it to pop open. They helped him stand up, steadied him till he got over feel dizzy and queasy, handed him back his newspaper, and went on their way. My colleague says that his son was deeply embarrassed after this event, not just because he had spent part of his morning stuck in a newspaper box, but because he had so misjudged those young men; he had expected cruelty, even violence and what he got was compassion and kindness.

Who is our neighbor? Who is our kin? When we say that we will take care of one another, who do we mean? And can we imagine that it matters deeply, not just to us but to the universe that we treat one another with kindness.

Naomi Newman writes:

Though this is hard to believe, the perfect world is all around us,
but broken into jagged pieces, like a puzzle thrown to the floor,
the picture lost, each piece without meaning
until someone puts them back together again.
We are that someone.
There is no one else.
We are the ones who can find the broken pieces,
remember how they fit together and rejoin them.
And we call this the repair of the world…
Then our bowls will be strong enough to hold the light,
and our light gentle enough to fill the bowls.
As we repair the world together…

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Most recently updated 2009-06-06