KINDNESS, GOODNESS, JOY

TEXT: John 16:20-22; Isaiah 35

At home I have a Gary Larson T-shirt with a title that says "God at his computer." In the picture is a stereotyped God...the old man with long beard...sitting in front of a monitor and keyboard. Pictured on the monitor is a regular guy walking along the street beside a tall building. Suspended from a window above the man's head is a grand piano on a string. God is watching this with his finger poised above a button on his keyboard that says "Smite."

I have that T-shirt because I can relate. There have been periods in my life where for years at a time I felt like that poor guy, walking along minding my own business while God was about to press the Smite button. It was so bad for awhile that I began to be afraid of anything good happening. I was so cynical I thought that was just God's way of buttering me up before the piano dropped on my head. A good thing happening seemed to me an almost certain sign that horrible trouble was just around the corner.

As I studied the three fruit of the Spirit that we are looking at this morning...kindness, goodness, and joy...I discovered that my T-shirt represents a sure and certain block to any of these three virtues, most especially joy. What I learned this week as I delved into these three words is that each of them is dependent on an attitude of hope, and thinking that God was just waiting for the first opportunity to smite me was definitely not a hopeful attitude.

The first in our trio of hopeful words is translated as "kindness." In Greek it is chrestotes and the list of meanings included "excellent, useful, good, orderly, healthy, worthy, honest," and other like-words. But the description of how it is used in the Bible and in Greek culture was much more interesting.

In the Bible, the word is used mostly in reference to God, but in secular Greek culture, the word was almost never used for a deity. To the Greek stoics, this kindness, this chrestotes, was a weakness, a flaw, something unworthy of God. To the Christians it was the ultimate expression of God's love.

Why the difference? Because this word doesn't just mean any old kindness. Chrestotes refers specifically to the kind and loving acts which God bestows on the ungrateful, the selfish, the sinner. It is the act that responds to evil with grace, that turns the other cheek, goes the second mile, gives the shirt and the cloak, that offers forgiveness even to those who have nailed you to a cross.

To the Greek Stoics, compassion was a sign of weakness, and being compassionate toward the undeserving was lower yet. That was being soft with evil, and they would have none of it. They would not worship a God who would not simply step up to the plate and obliterate the wicked. There are modern Stoics, both inside and outside the church. For them it is simple. Do wrong, get punished. Leniency just encourages more bad behavior.

But to the early Christians, who were able to see all people as sinners in need of God's blessing, this became not a weakness but the most incredible show of strength. To say that God is kind is to say that God forgives, that God loves so extravagantly that even those who have violated God's will can be accepted back home as the Father in the parable welcomes the prodigal. When we realize our own failings we understand the power of forgiveness. It is a gift to those who don't deserve it.

This sort of kindness to the undeserving is a proclamation of hope. Returning good in the face of evil makes the announcement that evil ultimately has no power. Good is the stronger, and good will prevail in the end. It also proclaims that even amidst this terrible evil, God has seen a spark of light. No matter how twisted a human being may become, by virtue of being human, they are created in the image of God. God is in there somewhere, and a gift of kindness has the chance of making it a little more visible than it was before.

Because this sort of kindness is an attribute of God, it is one of the fruits of our association with the Spirit of God. That is, as we spend time with God and experience the kindness of God in the midst of our own sins and failures, we begin to become kind ourselves. We begin to understand that turning the other cheek is not a capitulation to evil but a triumph over it, and that offering kindness to those not deserving of it is a radical act of hope in the salvation of God and the basic goodness of humanity. If you really want to proclaim your belief in the Creation account in Genesis, give up the evolution/creationist debate and simply return evil with good. Act out your belief that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Kindness primarily refers to specific actions and those actions spring from the second hopeful word for today, which is "goodness" or as the NRSV translates it, "generosity." The Greek word is agathos and again it is a forward-looking word. In Scripture, kindness is the expression of God's goodness, and the particular goodness that is meant is the good that leads toward salvation.

That is an important thing to pay attention to. The Bible defines "good" as something that leads to salvation. That may or may not coincide with what I call "good" in my day to day life. I call Moose Tracks ice cream in a waffle cone "good," although I'm not sure it leads to my salvation except by hastening the day I will meet my Maker.

This is a poor analogy, I know, but God is good in the way that broccoli is good. Good in the Bible doesn't mean "feels good." It means "good for you." More than that it means "good for your soul," "good for the Kingdom of God," "good for the things that ultimately matter." When we sing the words in Amazing Grace, "the Lord has promised good to me, his Word my hope secures," it does not mean that nothing that we consider "bad" will happen to us. You don't have to live very long to find out that's not true. It does mean that God has promised to use everything that happens to us for the good of our soul, if we are willing to let go of the resentments and give the experience over to God.

Again this goodness, which is characteristic of God, is available to us as we grow in the Spirit of God. It doesn't just magically appear, it is grown from seed to plant to bud to flower as we remain planted in the soil of God's love. The more we spend time with the God who is good, the more we tend toward goodness ourselves. It is a fruit of the Spirit, and again it is an expression of hope. To proclaim that something is good which seems at the time to be dreadfully bad is not delirium. It is an expression of hopeful trust that God will use even this in a way that leads to salvation...for us, for someone else, for the world. That is why the terrible, awful, gut-wrenching day Jesus died on the cross came to be called "Good Friday."

And if we can manage to express even a bit of God's goodness and kindness, if we can pull out of ourselves for even a moment or two and act for the sake of others, to be willing to sacrifice a bit of our own pleasure in order to make the world a better place, then we can begin to reap one of the biggest payoffs that Christian life has to offer...joy. Chara is the word, and it is described as a joy that is expectant of something more, or a future joy experienced as joy in the present.

Joy is that tremendous feeling of well-being that has absolutely nothing to do with what is happening to you. Joy is what you see on the faces of people of faith when they die...not because they are particularly pleased with the pains and indignities of death, but because they are confident of what is coming. Joy is what there was in Steve McCusker when he woke up from donating his kidney to a friend and said, "This is so cool." I don't think the pain of major surgery was cool. I don't think being laid up in the hospital was cool. I think it was future joy experienced as joy in the present...it was knowing that a friend now had a chance at life that he didn't a few hours before.

Joy strains beyond itself. It is hopeful. Joy cannot come when we are expecting God to push the smite button. When we live like that, as I have done from time to time, there is no joy even when things are going well. There is only fear of a future evil. Joy is the opposite of that. It is fully expecting that God will bless our lives with kindness and goodness...that is that God will return good to us in spite of our sins and that the sort of good we will receive will lead toward salvation for us, for others, and for the world.

When the fruit of joy has grown in our lives, we are unstoppable, because it no longer matters what happens to us. The tragedies of life will still hit us as before, but our attitude toward them and our response to them will be oh, so different. I think it is captured in a story I read the other day in a religious newsletter that I get called "Context." It relates a story told by Grinnell College professor Kathleen Roberts Skerritt.

"During the last year I lived in Canada, an elderly Anglican priest along with his wife were clubbed to death in their bed by three local boys in the dark before dawn. It was devastating. On the day of the funeral, the congregation at the cathedral was huge, raw, dangerous in its distress, and sullen in its disbelief. But if Anglicans can do anything, we can do liturgy. The procession, the music, the readings, the sermon, the Eucharist-all gathered up that furious, heart-broken energy and transformed it. At one point, I looked over to see a middle-aged man, in a professional suit, with his eyes shut and his mouth wide open, singing as if his life depended on it. It was the image of that man-wailing out one of the loveliest of Anglican hymns-that struck my heart that day. Later I learned that he was the son of the murdered priest and his wife."

That is what the fruit of the Spirit will do for you. It won't keep you from tragedy, illness, or heartbreak. But it will allow you to care more for the good than the comfortable, to bring a breath of kindness into the evil places that never see it, and to sing songs of hope even when hope seems most surely gone. So the slaves sang for their lives of the sweet chariot that would take them home. So the rural poor and the city mill workers who came to the early Methodist camp meetings sang for their lives of that land that is fairer than day and by faith we shall see it afar. It wasn't easy then and it isn't easy now, but joy is still the song we sing as if our lives depended on it. They do. Amen.

Sermon 2004 Anne Robertson


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