Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church, Sabbath, February 6, 2016
Texts: 1 Kings 19:1-8 and Matthew 7:7-14
Katrina gave me a book for Christmas: Humans of New York. It's a collection of portraits and very short stories. One picture that calls me back repeatedly shows a man with one weird eye. It's not obvious to me just what is wrong with his eye, but clearly it's “different.”
Here is the story that goes with the photo:
I had just lost the sight in my right eye. It was terribly disorienting. It was hard to walk. I bumped into things. I bumped into a girl out in front of an ice cream shop and knocked her ice cream cone to the sidewalk.
She hollered at me. “What? Are you blind or something?”
I felt really bad. I'm sorry, I said. Really sorry. Actually I am blind. I didn't mean to bump into you. Let me buy you another cone.
Then she was sorry for hollering at me and protested, “No. That's all right. You don't have to.”
We walked into the shop and she ordered her cone.
“I heard the whole thing.” the clerk said. “Ice cream is free.”
Stuff happens in this world. People go blind. People bump into each other and ice cream cones get knocked to the ground. People misunderstand and get angry and holler. That's life. That's plain, ordinary, regular vanilla life. That's the way it goes.
Then someone apologizes and explains. Ah, that makes things better.
Then someone offers to buy a replacement cone. That makes things even better. It brings life back to even.
Then someone offers free ice cream and the universe is better than it was before. Not just better than it was when the cone flew out of her hand and hit the sidewalk. Better than when she bought the cone. Better than when she had her first lick.
That act of kindness by the shop clerk made the universe better than when she first imagined the pleasure of an ice cream cone.
The apology was sincere, certainly. But it was also required. If the blind man had failed to apologize he would have been a jerk. Sure, he didn't mean to bump into the girl with the cone. Still, he did. He owed her something. He owed her an apology.
And he owed her more. He owed her a replacement for her lost ice cream. So he did the right thing and brought his little piece of the universe back to even.
Then the shopkeeper offered free ice cream. It was not an obligation. He owed neither the girl nor the blind man. It was a gift. It was a pure act of kindness.
And the entire universe was made a little better, a little sweeter, a little more beautiful. That shopkeeper was cooperating in the deepest desire of God.
One of the most famous passages in the teachings of Jesus was featured in our New Testament reading this morning.
Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks will find. For the person who knocks, the door will be opened.
These are wildly optimistic words. What was Jesus thinking? He went on to explain the basis for this hopeful declaration.
What mom or dad among you, if the kids ask for bread will instead give them a stone? And if your kids asks for a salmon, will you give them a rattlesnake?
If you, ordinary mortals with the ordinary frailties and dysfunctions of humanity—if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask?
If you want to understand God look into your own heart as a parent. What would you not do for your kids? Just this week I was visiting with a couple of single guys. We were talking theology—what is God like. I suggested they imagine God as the father they wished they had had. “Don't imagine God as your father,” I said. “Imagine God as the father you would aim to be if you had kids.” Their faces lit up. They are good men. They know the kind of dads they would aim to be.
And that is what God is like. God delights in doing good for his children.
Because that is what God is like, Jesus argues, that is what you should be like. Since God is so generous and kind, you, too, should be generous and kind. What does this divine kindness look like?
Therefore whatever you wish people would do for you, that is what you should do for them. This is the moral core of everything the ancient prophets have written.
We are to do for others what we wish they would do for us because that is what God is like. God is generous. God delights in doing good for his children. And God is highly pleased when we do good for his children. When we practice acts of kindness we are bringing great pleasure to the heart of God. And when we have come to know God deeply, we take pleasure with God in doing acts of kindness. We know the pleasure of God in our own pleasure in doing good.
I am not talking about grand, heroic actions. I'm not talking about running into burning buildings. I'm not talking about tackling a gunman. I'm talking about cultivating the habit of doing little acts of kindness.
Karin often prays in the morning, asking God to show her someone that needs a kindness that day. And, she tells me, it seems that when she prays that prayer, opportunities present themselves.
A driver ends up in the wrong lane and needs someone to all him to turn across two lanes to get where he needs to go.
Someone in front of you in the grocery line is a few dollars short and is trying to figure out which item can wait for another day.
The woman waiting your table today at lunch is working Saturdays only because her kid is sick and her insurance deductible is more than she makes in a month. So she's working extra shifts. And you double or triple her tip. It won't break your budget. You won't even remember doing it. But she will.
We can cultivate an eye for opportunities to perform small acts of kindness. And in so doing enter a deeper, richer communion with God.
Jesus does not stop with simply directing us to show kindness. He warns against failing to show kindness.
Go through the narrow gate. Wide is the gate and broad the path that heads toward destruction. Hordes of people rush that direction. But narrow is the gate and skinny the path that leads to life. Only the elite find it.
What does it mean to be a Christian, to live the Christ life? It means to do to others as you would have them do to you. It means to speak of others as you would have them speak of you.
It means ultimately joining God in regarding every human as kin.
We show kindness—the obligation of kinship—to every human. And as we do, we find ourselves partnering with God.
Our Old Testament reading today recounted a favorite story.
The prophet Elijah had done a heroic, daring exploit for God. The next day was payback time. Wicked Queen Jezebel was going to kill him. So he ran for his life. A couple of days into the run, he finally runs out of gas. He lies down exhausted physically, utterly spent emotionally.
He prays, “God let me die” and sinks into a deep sleep.
Sometime later, an angel wakes him up. To his astonishment, Elijah sees some food cooking over a fire and a jug of water. He eats the food, drains the jug of water and collapses back into sleep.
Hours later, an angel wakes him again. And again there is food on the campfire and water in a jug.
Elijah eats and drinks.
And in the strength of that food continues his run.
Years ago I read a book by a guy named Peter Jenkins, called Walk Across America. Fairly early in his walk he was in West Virginia or in the mountains of Virginia. He had gotten sick. It was cold and raining. He was miserable and exhausted. He was walking up a hill that went forever. And ever and ever. He was hungry. He was out of food and could hardly wait to get to the next town to resupply.
A car came up beside him. The driver rolled down his window and greeted him. And offered him a ride. Peter writes how tempting it was. He could see the warm air wafting out of the window. He could see the happy, comfortable people in the car. But the whole point of the project was to walk all the way. If he took this ride, why not just take rides the whole way. He had to say no. But it was hard. Finally, he thanked the driver and said no thanks.
The van started up got a hundred yards up the road and then stopped and backed up. When he came even with Peter the driver rolled down his window again and extended his arm. In his hand a big apple.
Peter took the apple. The car drove off.
Peter took a bite of the apple. It was heaven.
Peter writes how that simple act transformed that afternoon. It became a metaphor for the kindness he encountered over and over and over again as he hiked 4000 miles down the east coast then west across America.
It wasn't much in the great scheme of things. It was an apple. But that cold, hungry day on a lonely mountain road in Virginia it gave his legs and his soul new wings.
A simple act of kindness.
God give us the wisdom and the initiative to show kindness this week.