11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection May 3, 2020
"Be Kind to One Another" - by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with the famous lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”
I recall using this quote in a long-ago sermon but I don’t remember the context. Many of us probably read our way through A Tale of Two Cities sometime in high school. I don’t know if it’s still widely read in today’s classrooms.
I bring up Dickens to point out that every age is as he describes the age he was writing about. We always seem to be living in “the best of times … the worst of times.” We’re now struggling to get through this current “worst of times.”
There aren’t many of us who enjoy forced isolation. There aren’t many of us who like our present perilous situation. None of us want to get infected with the virulent corona-virus responsible for so much suffering and death. We do the best we can to keep safe.
If this is the “worst of times” how might it be the “best of times”? Even though it may be hard to discern, we live in a time pregnant with promise. We’re pregnant with the possibility of being kind to each other. We’re pregnant with the possibility of reaching out with compassion and care. We’re pregnant with the possibility of praying for the sick, the dying and those on the “front lines” of health care and societal maintenance.
This morning (April 27), I saw my sanitation workers coming to collect my garbage. I ran out (still in bathrobe and slippers!) to hand them a $20 bill in thanksgiving for hauling away the detritus from my home. A small thing, to be sure, but I felt moved to do it. The present moment challenges us to help each other.
Human nature being what it is, many will use the present crisis as a time of blaming those people for our current pandemic. They are the ones to blame. Yet do we not all share blame?
We share blame because we’re all in this world together. Much as we want to figure out who is at fault for our current crisis, the answer is that our lifestyles make global pandemics inevitable. We are deeply tied to each other.
As I preached this past Sunday (April 26): “Prophets help us remember that my well-being is directly linked to your well-being and to the well-being of all people and all creatures. The prophets first plunge us into a bath of judgment, a cauldron of cleansing if you will, but then we come out the other side with hope.”
Our current communal crisis presents us with abundant opportunities to be kind to each other. It’s a good time to hear what our brother Paul notes in Ephesians 4:31-32: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
The Contemporary English Translation of this passage reads thus: “Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don't yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.”
If we could all just focus on not being rude to each other; what a change that would bring to our current crisis! I also need to play attention to this admonition since I’m at times rude to telemarketers!
The Scottish Scripture scholar, William Barclay, writes that the word for bitterness in Paul’s Greek implies “long-standing resentment, the spirit which refuses to be reconciled.” Barclay continues: “So many of us have a way of nursing our anger to keep it warm, of brooding over the insults and the injuries we have received.”
It’s human nature to be hurt and wounded from the experience of life. Life is hard on all of us. Many are painfully struggling now because of lost jobs and horrific unemployment. It might be helpful to hear this advice from the author, Kathleen Norris: “Life is easier to take than you think; all that is necessary is to accept the impossible, do without the indispensable, and bear the intolerable.”
I’ve mentioned before my experience in 1966 at the Berlin Wall. The Wall was erected in August of 1961 between East and West Berlin. Many of us who are of a certain age will recall the electrifying speech given by President Kennedy at the Berlin Wall five months before he was assassinated. Three years later I was at the Wall myself. It was a chilling experience to look across the Wall and know that people were being killed trying to cross it. I was delighted when the Wall came down in November of 1989.
In Christ Jesus, the walls separating us are being dismantled, the divisions between people are being healed. The Holy Spirit continues to do this work and will continue this healing work until all divisions are ended, all walls are dismantled and everyone is transformed into One People of God. This will, of necessity, include ALL people, regardless of religion, race, sexual identity, economic status, political ideology, or any other means of dividing humanity. In the end, there will only be US. There will not longer be any THEM.
In a retreat I attended long ago in New Mexico, the spiritual writer and lecturer Richard Rohr said: “We have no notion of the nature of God until we are in need of mercy and forgiveness.” Is this not a time when we stand in need of mercy and forgiveness? And, as Jesus taught, we must extend mercy to others if we expect mercy ourselves. Mercy, I believe, is another name for kindness.
When Paul challenges us to “be kind to one another,” I believe he’s summing our task as disciples. The Greek word Paul uses for “kindness” is chrestos. This Greek word is obviously very close to the Greek word Christos which means “anointed one.”
So, according to Paul, our Christos calls us to chrestos. Christ embodies kindness. Christ calls us to live lives of kindness. As Barclay sums up his commentary on Ephesians 4:31-32: “In one sentence, Paul lays down the law of personal relationships – that we should treat others as Jesus Christ has treated us.”
Paul also challenges us to be “tender-hearted.” I believe Paul was arguing that we should feel tenderness for everyone, including ourselves. Tenderness is the ability to express warm and loving feelings towards others. Tenderness is what Paul calls us to in imitation of our tender-hearted Christ, always filled with compassion, with tenderness, for everyone because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Especially in our challenging times, we can each ask if we live lives of tenderness. Or do we instead reveal anger-generated meanness?
Truth be told, in my many decades of ministry, I’ve grown deeply weary of mean-spirited, angry, people. And anger roils us in our present crisis. Death stalks many, especially those of us elderly, health-compromised, and the poor among us.
Our leaders have, frankly, not been very helpful in this growing pandemic. Many of them have spent inordinate amounts of time seeking someone other than themselves to blame. If we could all just admit WE ARE ALL TO BLAME, then maybe we could move to a helpful place and join hands, seeking a way out of our present quagmire. My God, we find it so easy to blame. I believe blaming is our true original sin!
Our present age is a good time to heed Paul’s words: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Paul sets before us the highest possible standard. Let me add Paul’s next verse: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” Talk about a real challenge! We are to act as God acts?
And how does God act? With brutal harshness and vengeance or with abiding, all-encompassing Love? This is a choice we make. It cannot be a both/and choice. It’s an either/or choice. God protect us from believers who cynically embrace a God of death and disaster!
I mentioned in a recent sermon, a church sign I saw in my neighborhood: “Chicago, are you ready yet to repent?” I reject any God who brings suffering and death to people. Our current plague is not a punishment from God. It cannot be. God keep us safe from anyone who preaches or teaches otherwise!
And what’s the only way we can truly imitate God? To live in love. As Wayne Muller reminds us in Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood: “Our task is not to learn how to be loving; the love within us is already full and alive. Our (task) … is to melt the fear and the armor that imprisons our hearts. Then our impulses to be generous and kind blossom easily within us.”
I end this reflection with something from the Sufi tradition. The Sufis are those who follow the mystical dimension of Islam. Here is a teaching from them: “Past the seeker as he prayed came the cripple and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them, the seeker went down into deep prayer and cried: ‘Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such hurt people and do nothing about them?’ And out of a long silence, God said: ‘I did do something. I made you.’” What better time to be kind to one another!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor