For the past few weeks, each Sunday we’ve been hearing a snippet from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke. It was early in Jesus’ ministry; he was gaining a reputation as a traveling teacher and healer. On this day, the people gathered on the flat place. They wanted to touch him. There was healing power coming out of him, and they didn’t want to miss that. The people were longing to hear a word of hope, so Jesus tells them the truth.
He tells them they are blessed, and for every blessing he pronounces, he mentions the other side: Blessed are you who are poor, but woe to you who are rich. Blessed are you who are weeping now, for one day you will laugh. Woe to you who are laughing now…
Today our scripture features this same sermon from Jesus, except today, we’re hearing the version from Matthew. In this account, Jesus doesn’t meet the crowd where they all stand on level ground. He climbs a mountain, then he sits down and begins to teach.
All through the Gospel of Matthew, the writer wants us to associate Jesus with Moses. This is meant to make us think of Moses going up the mountain to receive and deliver the teaching from God. But it does make me wonder whether all the crowds followed Jesus to the summit, and how did that work, since surely some of the people couldn’t walk? Did they help each other? Did they arrange a kind of relay system, where some stayed at the bottom and those who could make it to the top dispatched runners to go down and repeat what they heard? (I don’t know!)
However. I am guessing two things are true about this crowd. First, I imagine these people have experienced actual suffering. They know there is horror and cruelty in the world. They know what it is to feel pain then get up in the morning. Second, I believe these people managed to show up and follow Jesus because something in them is desperate for a word of hope. Tell us what we need to hear, come on, Jesus.
And I’m guessing these two things are true about this crowd at the mountain, because I know these things are true about us. You and I know, we have come here hungry for the Gospel.
So the people got ready to hear Jesus hand down instructions for them to follow, and the thing is, he just doesn’t. He does not tell them to become poor in spirit. He does not tell them to begin mourning, or become meek, or go out and hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are not projects we must accomplish or virtues we must acquire.
Instead he tells them: Blessed are you. Blessed is the kindness you have always carried in your being…
Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are you when people persecute you for my sake, he tells them.
And maybe there was somebody in the crowd who wanted to answer back: “Thank you, Jesus. But have you seen the world? It is reeling from human rights violations, and environmental destruction, and poverty. There is still slavery in the world. Tell us what we need to know about evil. We don’t need your watercolor observations of a spring afternoon. We need you to help us! Tell us what we need to do about salvation.”
What Jesus tells them is: Blessed are you. Blessed is your kindness. As though, your kindness could diminish the evil in the world. As though, if you have come here seeking salvation, you need to see, we are always saving each other’s lives. “No, Jesus. We’re talking about heaven!” we’d shout back. “Yeah, so am I,” he’d say. Behold.
And I don’t think anybody who came to the mountain that day was expecting to have their kindness blessed, but that’s what happened to them.
Now I know, kindness is something we often confuse with “being nice” but it’s not that at all. Our kindness comes from our sorrow. Kindness comes from what you find in your soul when you get called on to give an answer to the horror and hell of the world. When this moment comes, being nice doesn’t cut it. Kindness is something more.
A few summers ago, I read a distressing article about the destruction of Syria and the doctors forced to work in secret because hospitals had been commandeered by the state to carry out acts of violence. Back in two thousand eleven, at the beginning of the insurrection, the government positioned snipers on the roof of the hospital to shoot protestors and people who are sick and wounded trying to get inside.
Ambulances were targets for snipers, so drivers would cover the ambulances in mud to disguise them. Doctors were forced to work with few resources in make-shift rooms; they donated their own blood to patients. To help them, doctors from other parts of the world would provide step-by-step surgical instructions by texting or by video calls.
It is extraordinary how this network of doctors saves the lives of Syrian women, and men, and children. At the same time, these doctors experience regular rounds of anguish as they often cannot save lives. A barrel bomb landed on a home and fatally injured five young siblings. Upon arriving at one of the safe medical sites, the doctor could tell there was no way to save these children; all he could do was hope their suffering would end quickly.
Soon thereafter, this doctor found himself being honored for his work with this international network. He was invited to have lunch at Buckingham Palace. There the Queen of England turned to him and asked how things were going in Syria. What happened next mystifies me because it was both entirely inadequate and strangely exactly right.
The doctor did not know what to say when the Queen asked about Syria. How can you begin to explain the immensity of horror at a royal luncheon? So he went with the answer, “Absolutely dreadful.” She asked him to elaborate, but he had no words. The doctor’s lower lip began to quiver. Seeing this, the Queen sent for the corgis. The doctor and the Queen spent the rest of the lunch petting the fluffy, little dogs. At the end she said, “That’s much better than talking, isn’t it?”1Taub, Ben. “The Shadow Doctors” in The New Yorker, June 27, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/27/syrias-war-on-doctors
Now I know. The Queen’s answer to the doctor does nothing to help the people in Syria. Imagine one day you’re standing beside five children dying from a bomb; another day you’re getting nuzzled by the corgis. There is something utterly offensive about this juxtaposition! But there’s also something more going on. There is the insistence to encounter unspeakable horror, then answer horror with tenderness. And even when this is not enough, because how could it ever be enough, please don’t let us miss this decision.
This decision is the place where the world is changed. And you don’t have to be a doctor in Syria or the Queen of England. The truth is this: there are people who offer kindness to people they don’t even know, to people who will never pay them back. I can tell you this has happened to me, and I’m pretty sure it’s happened to you.
Somehow, somewhere, the kindness of a stranger is what made the difference.
-When I was lost in a city I didn’t know.
-When your car broke down on the highway.
-When the four-year-old completely lost her mind in the middle of the cereal aisle.
Then somebody we didn’t know was there and they were kind. And see if we’re alive at all, it’s because we’re always saving each other’s lives.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye was on her honeymoon in Columbia, when at the end of the first week, she and her new husband were robbed. Here they were with nothing —no money, no passports. She describes a man approaching them on the street and saying in Spanish, “What’s wrong?” When they told him, he simply said, “I’m very sorry this happened.” Her husband went to hitchhike to the city to get help. She sat down in a plaza, and this poem was born. I’d like to share it with you. She writes this:
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.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
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 gaze at 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 everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.2https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/11/10/naomi-shihab-nye-kindness/
Now Jesus saw them on the mountain —people who had seen the horror of the world, people who had come to him hungry for the truth. So he told them: Blessed are the kind, for they will save your life. Blessed is the kindness you carry in your being; you have the kindness the world is aching for, you always have.
He told them, Blessed are you. Amen.