As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
You have told us what is good, O Lord, and what you require of us–to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you, our God. Help us with your grace and courage to be just, kind, and humble. Amen.
Good morning. It is always a joy for me to be with you in worship, Cathedral community and along with Dean Hollerith, to welcome our guests. I pray that you feel God’s love and kindness for you in this place.
From the poem, “Compassion” by Miller Williams:
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down where the spirit meets the bone.1
And from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s last book before her death, entitled Fascism: A Warning:
The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness. It is a coming together across the ideological spectrum of people who want to make their countries better. We should remember that the heroes we cherish–Lincoln, King, Gandhi, Mandela–spoke to the best within us. The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.2
The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.
This is the second sermon in a series that takes its inspiration from one of the most compelling passages in all the Bible, written 800 years before the birth of Jesus by the prophet Micah:
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
We at Washington National Cathedral and in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington are part of a larger effort among Christians across the country dedicating ourselves to Micah’s call to be just, kind, and humble. And we’re doing so with particular intention in these last weeks before the midterm elections because October is arguably the month when, as a nation, we are our most polarized. We are bombarded with billions of dollars worth in political advertising intended to inflame our differences, exploit our worst fears, dehumanize those with whom we disagree, make false promises, and simplify the complex problems we face that require a unified nation to address.
The idea behind the Micah 6:8 pledge is for Christians to do whatever we can to narrow the gap between us and to tone down the rhetoric of public discourse. Imagine what would happen if all Christians committed ourselves to be just, kind and humble in all our relationships? If we all committed to show up in the places where people are treated unfairly, adding our voices and our resources to the efforts that make for a better world, and doing so with kindness and humility, especially with those who do not share our point of view?
In fairness, political advertising, social media, and the more divisive forces that can dominate public discourse advertising don’t create polarization–they amplify what already exists. The seeds of societal polarization lie within every human community, and–let’s be honest–within each of us. For years the seeds may lie fallow, and we may not realize that they’re there. But when they are watered with fear and resentment, they grow and threaten to choke everything around them.
I doubt that I’m the only person in this Cathedral concerned about how those seeds have been methodically cultivated in our country. What we all have trouble recognizing, myself included, is how we contribute to the social conditions we lament through our actions and speech, or what we choose not to do or say.
Hence, the need to look to ourselves and our own behavior, which the Micah 6:8 pledge invites us to do, and commit ourselves, daily, to our highest ideals as human beings. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, this isn’t optional. It is what is required to follow in His way of love.
In the words of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, “True spiritual action (as opposed to reaction) demands our own ongoing and radical transformation. It often requires us to change sides so we can be where pain is. It even requires a new identity, as Jesus exemplified in his great self-emptying. It feels like weakness, but it finally changes things in very creative, patient, and humble ways.”3
I’ve given you all in the Cathedral a small card with the Micah 6:8 pledge, and it is also printed on the back of your bulletin. Will you read it with me?
I pledge to strive to follow Micah 6:8 in all aspects of my life:
- To act justly and pursue justice by standing with and speaking out for those who are vulnerable, mistreated, in need or exploited
- To practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom I disagree;
- To act with humility, surrendering my will to God’s will, acknowledging that I may not always be right and should listen more and speak less.
Today our focus is on Micah’s exhortation to kindness, and our pledge to practice kindness and mercy in every interaction, even with those with whom we disagree.
In the spirit of a Twelve-Step moral inventory, I invite us all, myself included, to take stock–not only of our actions, but our speech. How does kindness inform what we do and how we do it? How do we talk to one another? Even more telling, how do we talk about one another? When we aren’t kind when speaking to or about another, what rationale do we give? We’ve all been influenced, consciously or not, by the increasing coarseness, intolerance, and cruelty that is now normative in human discourse, especially across lines of difference.
I’m not suggesting that we don’t call out egregious behavior, only that we guard against becoming the mirror image of that which we rightfully critique, or worse, imagine that the righteousness of our position justifies or rationalizes similar behavior on our part.
You may remember the story that Jesus told about a man who began his prayer by thanking God that he was not like other people, listing all the miserable sinners not at all like him. God was not impressed.
-The wise response to intolerance is not more intolerance or self-righteousness.
-The crops we’ll harvest depend on the seeds we sow.
The British comedian Tony Hendra once tried to describe to his spiritual mentor, a gentle Benedictine monk named Father Joe, the function of satire–humor told at the expense of another person.
Father Joe seemed confused. “Satire always divides people up into two groups?”
“Yes,” Tony replied.
“Is that a good thing?”
“It’s the way the world works, Father Joe. People think in teams. We’re good; you’re evil; we’re right; you’re wrong. we’re smart; you’re dumb. Most humor works that way, even the most basic jokes. The English tell Irish jokes. Americans tell Polish jokes, because the Poles have been stereotyped as stupid.”
“Oh tell me a Polish joke,” Father Joe said.
“Okay. What has an IQ of two hundred and twelve?”
“Well, I don’t know, dear.”
Father Joe gazed up expectantly. “Is there a joke coming?”
“That’s it. The entire city of Warsaw has a combined IQ of two hundred twelve.”
“Oh,” Father Joe protested, “but the Poles are a rather sensitive people. Tragic and poetic and long-suffering. Look at Chopin. Or the Holy Father.”
“Okay, Chopin and John Paul the Second are not Polish jokes. But the dynamic holds for jokes about politicians, opposing political parties, or blondes, or the French.”
Father Joe looked puzzled. “To say that people are stupid when they’re not–isn’t that cruel?“ He was silent for a moment. “You see, dear, I think there are two types of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two types of people…and those who don’t.”4
What type of person do you and I want to be?
If we are Jesus followers, what type of person does he call us to be?
“The godly,” writes the Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, “are those who never talk destructively about another person–in anger, in spite, in vengefulness–and who can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world.” She goes on: “The holy ones are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”5
Is the ecology of humankind safe with us? If we’re honest–or speaking for myself, if I’m honest–not always. I can do better. Perhaps you can, too.
Now there is a temptation–an understandable one in polarized, divisive climates–to take the opposite approach and remain silent, on the assumption that saying or doing nothing is a form of kindness. In families and communities, the list can get quite long of all the things that we don’t talk about.
But is avoidance kind? And kind to whom?
Sociologist and author Brené Brown argues in her book, Dare to Lead, that clarity is kindness. Not speaking; not engaging is a deliberate effort not to be clear. And to be unclear–or to pretend that you aren’t clear when you are–while it may avoid tension, is in the end, Brown maintains, unkind.
I remember in 2003, when The Episcopal Church took its most public position to date on inclusion by officially the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered man, as bishop. The convention that made that momentous decision–and it was a big deal–took place in Minneapolis, where I was serving as a priest. One of my mentors at the time was a Lutheran pastor of a large church whose ministries I admired and sought to emulate. Shortly after the convention, he said to me, not realizing my position, or the make-up of the congregation I served, “I’m sympathetic to the cause. I really am. But The Episcopal Church is making a big mistake. We (meaning his church) are going to lay low on this issue. It’s far too divisive to take a stand on.”
To myself, I wondered what he would say to the gay and lesbian members of his church. But all I said was, “Someday, you may thank us.”
I believe that it is possible to be kind and also clear about what we believe and stand for in a contentious, even polarized climate. But it requires great care and intentionality. Here we can take inspiration from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Bishop Curry is never hesitant to speak the truth as he sees it. Yet he is among the most universally beloved religious leaders in the world, because he treats those who don’t share his view with kindness and humility, and he never stops searching for common ground across differences.
Bishop Curry calls his approach to engaging the work of justice as standing and kneeling at the same time. He stands in his convictions, speaking as clearly as he can what he believes and why. And he kneels before those who disagree with him, honoring them as beloved children of God, respecting their point of view, and being willing to truly listen in a spirit of humility.
“If we all do that and engage each other,” he says, “kneeling in real humility before each other and before God, and yet being honest and up front and clear about what we stand for, the fact that we have knelt before each other creates the space where we can stand together with our differences.”
If we don’t show up and don’t speak up in a contentious, polarized time, as tempting as that is, it is an abdication of moral ground. Yet how we act; how we speak, matters. It matters that we show up where Jesus calls us, standing firm in what we believe to be right and true and just, and yet stay in loving relationship with those who differ, refusing to meet intolerance with more intolerance, but with love.
In closing, let me say one more word about kindness, drawing inspiration from the story we just heard of Jesus’ interactions with the two blind men who yelled at him, asking for mercy, and with the crowd who tried to silence them. Last week, Bishop Robinson said from this pulpit that doing the work of justice invariably leads us to kindness, which for many is true. I believe the reverse is also true, that when we choose the path of proximate kindness, that is, daring to show up where people are hurting, where people are bearing the brunt of social inequity and injustice, when we get close and offer our kindness there, we will be moved to act with justice.
And when we show up, all of us together, our differences matter less. They just do.
We saw an example of this last Wednesday, October 5th, when the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, and the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, held a joint press conference in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Both men praised the other, and the branches of government they represent, for their collaborative efforts to address the devastation Hurricane Ian caused in Florida.
Two men on opposite ends of the chasm that divides us went out of their way to be kind to one another, and more importantly, to the people with whom they spoke who had lost so much. We need more of this, because the challenges before us as a nation, just like the Hurricane recovery effort, requires all of us.
Human beings have an innate capacity to care for one another, and not merely those of our own tribe. Alongside these seeds of human polarization are also seeds of empathy. And when we water and cultivate those seeds, a different kind of world is possible.
And it is possible. Think of it: No one is dividing the people in need of emergency shelter in Florida or elsewhere according to political parties, or only restoring electricity to people who agree with them on certain issues. Those of us writing checks to support relief efforts in Florida or elsewhere aren’t insisting that our money only goes to those who share our worldview.
Think of what we are capable of when we decide to show up–all of us–where love is needed. And keep the Micah pledge before you.
May Jesus help us all to be just, kind and humble. Amen.
1Miller Williams, “Compassion” in The Ways We Touch, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) 55.
2Madeleine Albirght, Fascism: A Warning, (HarperCollins, Kindle ed.), xx
3Richard Rohr, “Jesus is Our Reference Point”
4Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul, (New York: Random House, 2004.)
5Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 24.