Sermon – The Revd. Dr. Ruth Gouldbourne, Co-Minister, Bloomsbury Baptist Church
During this service, we have affirmed, with joy and delight that, in Jesus, we are accepted by God as who we are, LGBT or straight. And we have affirmed that this acceptance is God’s gift of love to us made flesh and blood in Jesus, and in this we rejoice and celebrate.
And we have confessed our failure to love whole-heartedly and without prejudice, and the times when we trip up and hurt others and damage our selves and spoil the world. And we can dare to do this because we are not caught up in confessing what is not sin – but that must not and does not blind us to what is sinful within us and among us – and the freedom and possibility into which we are released as we dare to trust the gift of forgiveness and the healing it brings.
And we have been challenged to think about just how we love – how far we dare to love, what limits we might want to put on our loving.
And we have heard Scripture; love one another as I have loved you; words that echo and tease and question the roots of ourselves and leave us nowhere to hide.
And it is all pretty huge and demanding and overwhelming.
How do we do it? What would it look like, what shape can it take – and how on earth do we live it out in a world in which we are hated, attacked, condemned, questioned and looked at sideways. Loving, being loved is at the heart of why we are here; the right – the need, the call to love and be loved as we truly are is what the organisation is about. And in a few moments, we will share bread and wine – the gift of love beyond our imagining, our deserving, our capacity to name. And it is a call – a call to us to live in this love, to live out this love, to dare to name this love in ways that change the world.
Sometimes it can be hard to listen to Paul – he can sound so black and white, so hard-edged and dogmatic. And at other times he can be so complex and his sentences can be so long that we are not really able to follow him, and the subtleties of his arguments can be lost without technical language and careful elucidation.
And then he says this;
Be kind and compassionate to one another.
See, kindness we can manage. Kindness we can grasp. We know what it feels like, when somebody is kind. And we know – usually we know very clearly and without having to ask hard questions and study texts and take all the circumstances into account – what it takes to be kind; how to do it.
Be kind; it’s about paying attention to the other, it’s about meeting them. It’s about choosing to smile and not frown, it’s about picking up the dropped pen at work, and opening the door when the buggy is getting in the way and offering a steadying arm on the escalators and it’s about buying a cup of coffee when somebody’s wallet has been stolen and making the phone call when somebody is stranded and needs help finding a hotel room. It’s usually small, and it’s often practical, and it doesn’t take studying or justifying.
And it changes the world. That’s what Paul says, anyway.
These verses we have heard come at the end of one of Paul’s powerful descriptions of how we are to live as the people of God; and indeed it is more than a list of instructions about how to do the people of God thing. The section actually starts with these words a few verses earlier; put on the new self created to be like God – to live the life of God in true righteousness and holiness. And then he goes on to outline all that is to be put off as a result – anger and falsehood and stealing and bearing false witness – and sums the whole thing up with “Be kind”.
To be kind is to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
And just in case we were in any doubt, he goes on to make the link quite explicit; be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
To be kind is to live like Jesus, it is to live the life and love of God.
And that’s the way round that it is. Not – we must love like Jesus loves ands then we will be kind…. That gets back to being huge and unmanageable. Be kind and we are living like Jesus.
Now of course, Jesus didn’t go around like a wimp or a doormat; he turned the money changers out of the temple, he challenged the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he was angry – or compassionate – it’s the same word – at the exclusion heaped on the leper who was so unsure of his place in the love of God that he almost didn’t dare ask for his health. The kindness, the compassion of Jesus wasn’t acquiescent in the face of injustice and oppression. So this “be kind” isn’t about being compliant to injustice, prejudice, hatred and harm. Indeed, it is absolutely the opposite of that; kindness, compassion, forgiveness – this life of Jesus lived out through and among us – it is about a fullness of being human that is rich, accepting and transformative.
Kindness too often is seen as small, weak, feeble. The idea perhaps of turning the other cheek, not letting somebody get to you, being a doormat and putting up with it.
But it is so far from that – at least in the gospels and in Paul’s description. Take that idea of turning the other cheek…
Strike you on the left cheek, turn the other cheek – demands treating as equal, acknowledging humanity and presence
Take your cloak, give him your shirt; in a culture where to cause another to be naked is to be shamed, this is about saying this is where your actions lead, this is the truth of what you are doing – but doing without diminishing or harming – and also without compromising or denying one-self.
Carrying a pack a second mile; the soldier can, by law demand a mile’s load bearing – but cannot, by law, demand more. So, going the extra mile is both kind – and challenging, exposing the oppression and denying its power.
All of these actions are kind; they do not damage or injure the other. But neither do they give into or condone oppression and hatred. They are playful, teasing, questioning, opening up possibilities. Confrontational – possibly; but also kind. It doesn’t diminish the other, it doesn’t condemn or violate the other – and nor does it allow the other to remain caught into the domination system of prejudice and scapegoating. It confronts an oppressor with the reality of their position while at the same time undermining it.
It is fundamentally the position that Jesus adopted when confronted with those who tried to tell him who he was and how he should be; he refused their definitions, and challenged them to see him as he was – love for them. And when they killed him, he did not strike back. But nor did he stay dead. He was raised and he came to them, and continues to come to them – and to us, and says – I love you, and there is nothing that will change that.
And Paul says – be kind and compassionate; be imitators of God.
This is kindness, the action, the activity of love that comes not from anxiety to placate, nor anger to dominate and make the other like us; it is rooted, as Paul makes clear, in knowing who we are in Jesus. He did not allow the other to dominate, but neither did he try to force the other to be like him, to dominate the other, or justify, protect himself by obliterating the other. He was kind, out of love and strength, not fear or distress. And as he was to those around him, so he is today – to us and others. And so– we forgive because, as we are forgiven; forgiven not to carry on as we have been, but to live like God in true righteousness and holiness. The attitude – the actions – that we offer to others come out of who we are, not who others want us to be, or try to make us. It is rooted in the compassion we know we have received as those who are held in the love of God, forgiven, renewed and recreated to be the life of God in the world.
It isn’t easy of course. It isn’t just summed up in gentle deeds gently done. To be called to love as Jesus loves is to be called to a cross, as the gospel reading makes clear. But this is a cross that we can carry, we can bear, because it is not about killing who we are before God, but about daring to confront those around us with the truth we have heard, seen, touched and tasted, so that they too can become their new selves. And such a cross is not our death, but is resurrection.
Be kind. It is possible. It is manageable. It may even be playful. It is not so huge that it overwhelms us and sends us back into our safe secure place where we are in control. It is step by step, it is act by act, it is communion by communion. And it comes from knowing who we are – what we have affirmed through the service; those who are accepted, those who are forgiven, those who are challenged, those who are loved.
Thanks be to God.