He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
– Cinderella –
I’m standing at the taps behind the bar, pouring a Wicked Weed Napoleon Complex. I’m anxious about a friend going through relationship trauma, frustrated about my horrible 5 mile run earlier that day, and still coming down from a nasty phone call that left me irritated and hurt. Oh and also the beer line is giving us super foamy pours and that is annoying as hell. Fortunately there was a real hero sitting up at the bar, and he leaned over the counter and donated this enthusiastic command –
“Hey, sweetie, cheer up! I hate to see you without a smile on your face!”
There’s really nothing that makes you as dedicated to your unhappiness as someone telling you to be happy. Literally any other conversation starter would have had better results. The obvious one being “hey, how’s your day going?” but also “good to see you again!” or “wow, pretty cold outside today” or “this hamburger is overcooked” or “I’m planning on robbing this establishment so down on your hands and knees.” As soon as I get scolded about being happier, I get distinctly unhappier.
Nobody likes being told what to do. Nobody likes being preached at.
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.
This week’s lectionary text felt appropriate for our time and place in the world. I got a little excited when it came through my Vanderbilt Lectionary feed – oh boy. Do justice! Love kindness! Walk humbly with your God! These are words for today! This is what America needs to hear about right now and damnit I will be the one to tell them.
I got very excited to tell you all to be more just and love kindness more.
I got really excited to lean over the bar and holler “hey sweetie, be more kind! I hate to see you being so mean!”
I didn’t see the text and think, “aha! How can I do more justice and love more kindness in my life?” I didn’t see the text and feel conviction for the places that I practice injustice or apathy, and I didn’t feel the burden of my own casual unkindness or meanness. I saw the text and my first thought was “how can I use this text to keep others in line.”
I heard the text for you first, before I heard the text for myself.
It’s a lot easier to tell people to be kind than to be kind to them. It is so much simpler to see Scripture as a set of admonitions for the Other than to sit humbly and seriously with what the text has to say to our own souls. And certainly the text has things to say to the Other, and the prophetic witness of Christianity and pastors and priests and neighbors shouldn’t be silent in the face of injustice and cruelty and unkindness.
But what if, what if, what if before we opened our mouths to explain to our sisters and brothers how they could be kinder – what if, first, we were kind.
What if we assumed that the text speaks first and foremost to us, that the priority of Scripture is always the pressing demand that we, I, me, do justice and love kindness and walk humbly? What if before I step forward towards my community to demand that they obey, I take those admonitions seriously for myself?
Humans are sensitive to preaching. We become defensive, protective, sensing that our sacred space is being attacked and conquered and so we draw our swords to protect ourselves.
But nothing disarms protective gear and topples walls like kindness. Nothing can sneak through armed guards and around barbed wire like kindness.
There’s certainly a danger in prioritizing kindness. It can degenerate into being nice and not making waves, and we’re “nice” because we’re scared of what would happen if we said hard truths or rocked the boat. When we love kindness without doing justice, it turns into watered down pleasantness and cheerfulness that costs us nothing and produces no change in the world around us. But when we do justice without loving kindness, all of our preaching and giving our bodies to the flames and prophesying is a clanging gong and a resounding cymbal.
We learn to love by being loved. We learn to be kind when someone is kind to us. Which God knew when God didn’t just tell us to love each other, but decided to come and love us, in person.
God did not just instruct us to love, God practiced love.
God didn’t sit up on a throne bellowing at us to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly, even though if anyone has the right to sit on a throne and issue commands it’s the Divine. But God gave up God’s Divine right to sit far away and instead God joined us, not just tell us to do justice and love kindness, but to actually do justice and love kindness. God practiced love.
We love, not because He told us to love. We love, not because He explained to us that love was important.
We love because He first loved us.
Do justice. Love kindness. And walk humbly with the Lord your God.