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Kindness

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 21

Text: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

The other morning, someone close to me, who is not part of this community, woke up to a great sorrow. Between the early morning time I had called to see if I could drop something by, and the time I arrived at her place a few towns away, she had received news that one of her son’s closest friends was killed in a car accident just hours before. I showed up a few minutes after she had hung up the phone. She was clearly shaken when she came out to the driveway to meet me. The two families, parents and children alike, had been very close for many years. They had all just had dinner together less than a week ago. As I arrived at their house, neither she, nor her husband who also came out to join us in the driveway, had not even begun to process the news. They were still in their pajamas. It’s that terrifying call you hope you never get, that you hope no one ever gets, even though you know such calls happen and such tragic moments come up in our lives, in our families and in our communities.

I stayed with them for a bit as she wondered whether her own son, who wasn’t home at the time, had heard the news, and how he would find out. Would he hear it on Facebook? Could she and her husband go and meet him where he was so he could hear the news from them in person?

I asked a question or two, said how sorry I was, but I didn’t say much. If my job has taught me one thing all these years of showing up at moments like that, less is more. What you don’t say is usually far more important than what you do say. Just being there, just being a silent presence for someone else, is so often the best one can do. The time had come for me to go so they could sort out the rest of their morning. I added one more “I’m so sorry” before leaving with that all-too-familiar feeling of helplessness – helplessness in the face of an enormous weight of suffering that had barely begun to press down upon them, let alone the kid’s family, let alone their whole community.

As I was driving home, I was reminded of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. I’ve shared it with some of you before. It’s called “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho 
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans 
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, 
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.  
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth. 

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and  purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

That sorrow I encountered the other morning was surely one that would “catch the thread of all sorrows.” But the reason I thought of the poem was because I knew that couple would soon be showering nothing but kindness upon kindness upon their friends, and their own son and his friends. I know that kindness is what would see them through that long tunnel of grief.

I wonder what stories this story conjured for you, what moments you’ve woken up with sorrow, and spoken to it until your voice has caught the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. I also wonder what were those acts of kindness at the time that assured you that sorrow wasn’t the only, deepest thing!

It must be something like this deepest of kindnesses that provokes Paul’s gushing expression of gratitude in his letter to the early church in Thessalonica. Paul had been to visit them once before. He heard something about a lack of faith, perhaps even a loss of faith in the way of Jesus – that is what Christianity was called back then, simply “the way.” And yet clearly he knew of their perseverance as well. For he says, “how can we thank God enough for you?” He is moved by their faithfulness and seemingly by their kindness towards one another.

Especially when our sorrows run deep, or even when our joys our overflowing, it’s something like this “how can we thank you enough” experience of gratitude that offers needed respite from the constancy of our grief in hard times. I’ve often wondered if the thanks is really for the call, or the meal on a doorstep, or the card in the mail - I guess it is – but I’m curious about whether it’s also the opportunity to lift one’s sunken heart, to raise one’s head to something good. At hard times, our psyches need these simple breaks from our pain, like water in the desert. When we’ve known great loss or bad news, our only response is – Oh No. No. No. Please. Not this. Not now. Not her or him. Not that poor family who lost an 18 year old son this week. When despair becomes our default, it’s often only that “tender gravity of kindness” that prompts a different kind of response, a different way of being, centered in that other deepest place, where kindness meets gratitude, and gratitude sometimes meets awe, and awe sometimes touches upon the presence of something larger than us. If we are lucky, we even come to recognize that the something larger holds us in a love so deep and so real. We might eventually be able to hear and newly understand that post-Good Friday, Easter Sunday message that the worst thing is never the last thing, and that God’s love is stronger than death. But it’s just those things that I would never say in that driveway the other morning. The pain was too immediate. Just kindness at first. Less is more.

After all, as Paul wrote in a different letter to the early church in Corinth, love is patient. And love is kind. Our letter for today is first of all the letters. This first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest text in the New Testament, written less than twenty years after Jesus died. Our passage for today is ultimately a benediction – a well wishing or a blessing upon that community. As with our benedictions at the end of church, it comes at a moment of transition before we are sent from here, back out to the world. As one scholar notes: This passage also “effects a transition” – from a celebration of intimate Christian friendship between Paul and the nascent church to their training in Christian living with one another. In the training that follows our passage, Paul offers instructions especially about places where he thought they might be faltering.

From celebration to training! I promise I picked this passage before I read that line. The fact is that this is exactly our course here today, as we celebrate the ongoing and extraordinary kindnesses and indeed friendships of our pastoral care teams, and as we look ahead to next Sunday when we will offer some simple training to any of you who would like to share in this ministry, which includes four teams who for one week a month, respond to a list of concerns or joys they get via email by sending cards, or delivering a meal or offering a ride to a fellow church member. It's a concrete expression of Christian love for one another. Many of you have been recipients of these kindnesses, in hard times and good.

When we wonder, as we’ve been doing in recent weeks, what it means to be part of a spiritual and religious community like this one, I would hope that sharing mutual love and kindness and yes, even patience would be part of it. The patience is needed when we blow it, when we say too much or perhaps even too little. The patience comes with our collective training, whether we sign up for the teams or not. Here’s that transition again, and pastoral care team members and captains, take particular note! First the celebration: how can we thank God enough for you, for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you! And I would add joy when we need it most, joy or just plain kindness when our sorrows run deep. And then the blessing: may God make you increase and abound in love for another and for all. Just as we abound in love for you.” If you are wondering if this is a pitch to join the teams, you got me! But I promise, it’s not for us – its for you that I would hope you would consider this or some other acts of kindness to those you know who are hurting and even to those you don’t know.

One more brief story. Yesterday, we had a yard sale down the street. I assure you it was not my idea. It was Nancy’s belated birthday present – a Climate March benefit yard sale. I was just happy for the chance to purge our place of unneeded stuff. I was surprised that we made a few hundred bucks. Later in the day, we were driving through Boston and came upon a young guy at a stop light under an overpass with a sign that read, “struggling but keeping the faith.” There was something in his face that conveyed an earnest pain and perseverance. We had a lot of unexpected cash on us from the yard sale. Nancy was driving but she pulled out a $20 and gave it to me to pass over to him. I looked at her like she was crazy at first but then I waved it out the passenger window. The guy came up and took the folded bill. As the light changed he saw what it was. His face lit up with a huge smile, and he put his hand over his heart. I caught at least three thank you’s that seemed inspired less by the cash than by the compassionate gesture. My wife – crazy yard sales and other wacky ideas but one of the kindest people I know!

A note or a card, a bill instead of loose change, a meal on the doorstep, that tender gravity of just showing up for someone. How can we thank God enough for all the countless random acts we share with one another? Some of you I know have written hundreds of notes to parishioners over the years. Some of you have baked countless rounds of soups over the years! Some of you have given countless rides! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much, and this is me passing it along from those I talk to, to whom those simple acts meant so much.

How can we thank God enough? We can’t, which is why we come here to worship each week, for here is where we can at least try to sign and pray our thanks to God for every blessing we encounter, even in the midst of great sorrow, for the gifts that we have in one another, the gifts we can share and the gifts we can receive.

And may God still make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all! Indeed, on this day of the Climate March in New York, may God inspire us to acts of kindness and generosity in the face of whatever storms that may be coming our way. May God help us to be just that kind of spiritual and religious community that fosters such deep and abiding kindness that it can repair people’s faith in the human spirit and in God. May God help us to be such a community of faith that can size up the entire cloth of human suffering, one thread at a time, and may we together learn that tender gravity of kindness, to one another and to all. Amen.

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