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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 30, 2018

 Are You a Joy to Be With?

Ephesians 4:22-32; Mark 9:38-50

            April 9, 1865 is an unforgettable day in American history.  It is the day associated with “Appomattox Court House.”  On April 9, 1865 Robert E. Lee gave up his commission in the army of the Confederate States, and also surrendered for the whole Confederacy.  Lee did not know it, but he had five more years in which to live.  He wanted the time, however long it was, to count for something good.  He passed up a number of appealing business opportunities, and finally accepted the presidency of a struggling college, deeply damaged by the war that had raged for so many years.  From 1865 to 1870, Lee did everything he could to strengthen that college.  With his death in 1870, Washington College changed its name to “Washington and Lee.”  When Lee was serving as President, one day a prospective student entered his office, and said, “I want to sign up as a student in the school, but I’d like to see a list of the school’s rules and regulations.”  Lee said, “Son, we do not have any rules or regulations in print.”  He said, “You mean to tell me this school has no rules?”  “No,” he said, “I didn’t say that.  In fact, we have one rule.”  He said, “What is that?”  Lee replied, “Our only rule is kindness.”

            Henry James was a man of great intellectual substance in American life.  If you have ever read one of his novels, or seen one of his plays, you know what a profound thinker he was.  Before his brother’s son, William, went off to Harvard College, Henry James, who could be incredibly difficult to understand, said something incredibly clear and simple.  He said, “Willy, there are three things that are important in life.  The first is this: be kind.  And the second one, Willy, is this: be kind.  And the third one: always be kind.”

            U.S. News and World Report, is no longer as a magazine with a printed edition, but exists now online. A poll taken by them found that eighty-nine percent of Americans think that “incivility is a serious problem in our country.”  The study concludes, “It is impossible to ignore the growing rudeness, even harshness, in American life.  We live in a culture too often known for its coarseness, rather than its kindness.”  Among many other things, we are told in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that “the fruit of the spirit is kindness.”  That is to say, when the Holy Spirit dwells in a community, or in a person, the fruit of that indwelling produces kindness.  Fred Buechner said, “While kindness is not holiness, it is often one of the doors through which holiness enters this world.”  Kindness can cost so little, and it can mean so very much!  So I love it when in the Book of Ephesians, the author concludes the passage Bella read this morning, and says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you.”

            In the midst of the same passage on kindness, Paul has a number of statements that say, “put away.”  I love that term!  There are certain things, attitudes and actions, that we should simply “put away” because they are of no use to us.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander, together will all malice,” he says.  Then Paul adds: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion that it may impart grace to those who hear.”  That is the point of living, which is why I am asking today: “Are you a joy to be with?”  That is, do you bless the lives of those who share life with you?”  In Ephesians, Paul does not say, “Do all these things so that God will love you.”  No, Paul says, “God loves you.”  In Ephesians 2:8, Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  It is in the light of this grace, that given the love and mercy of God, that people who see life rightly want to respond with kindness, and want to add to this world and to the lives of those they share it with, joy and delight, peace and pleasure.  Part of the key of this is to keep these words of Paul front and foremost in our minds and upon our hearts, “Be ye kind, one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

            I love the young man who worked in the produce department at the supermarket.  A woman came into the store, and said, “Would you cut a head of lettuce in half for me, because a whole head is just too much.”  The young man had never been asked this before.  He said, “You know, I think it’s priced like it is whole for a reason.”  But the woman was incredibly persistent.  He said, “I just don’t feel the freedom to do this.  No one has ever asked me to do this before.”  So finally, she said, “Take me to the manager!  I want to talk to him.”  So the young man was walking into the manager’s office with a head of lettuce in his hand, and said, “Some ornery, stupid old lady wants me to cut this thing in half!”  He did not realize it, but could tell by the look on the manager’s face, that the woman had followed him right into the room as he said this.  He turned around, and said, “Thankfully, this lovely lady is willing to take the second half!”  Later that day the manager commended him for his quick thinking.  He said, “You were really fast on your feet.  Tell me, where is home for you?”  He said, “I’m from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women.”  The manager glared at him.  He said, “My wife was born in Toronto.”  He said, “What hockey team did she play for?”

            There is a lovely Japanese proverb that says, “One kind word can warm three winter months.”  There was a well-known, indeed revered, college president in the life of this nation, who earlier in the twentieth century had a sign on the hallway that led into his office.  The sign said, “Kindness is spoken here.”  Wouldn’t it be lovely if that sentiment found itself into every home, and every family, and every church, and every workplace in this land?  “Kindness is spoken here.” 

            I think so often of Jesus, of the words that He spoke to us, and of the life that he lived.  We have been studying Grace and Gratitude on Wednesday nights.  Every night downstairs we sing a verse of John Calvin’s hymn.  I love these words that Calvin wrote about Jesus: “Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness, no harshness hast Thou, and no bitterness.”  Think about how Jesus treated people!  Remember in John’s Gospel, when a group of men find a woman, apparently caught in the very act of adultery?  Do you remember how Jesus handled it?  John tells us that Jesus drew with His finger in the dirt.  Then Jesus said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”  And one by one these men walked away.  Jesus looked at her, and said, “Do none of them condemn you?  Then neither do I condemn you.  Go, and do not sin again.”  I think every day of my life of the incredible words which Jesus spoke.  The older I get the more they are my favorite words of Jesus: “Be wise as serpents, be harmless as doves.”  I think of how Jesus responded when He was betrayed, and whipped and beaten, and spit on, and still from the cross, Jesus could say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

            Most of all, though, I have to say, I think about how unfailingly kind and gracious, as well as forgiving, Jesus has been to me.  I don’t mind telling you, I have not gotten what I deserved in this life.  God has been so much more gracious than what I have earned or deserved, because Jesus is unfailingly full of kindness and compassion, and always way more interested in our future than Jesus is in dwelling upon our past.  Friends, it is the heart of the Gospel, and I hope you know how incredible this great good news is!  To the Romans, Paul says, “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for our sins.”  The only reason I am here is because Jesus has been so incredibly kind and unfailingly gracious to me.  Do you know of that grace and that kindness in your own life? 

            There is a poet named C.R. Gibson who wrote these incredible words:

I have wept in the night

At my shortness of sight

That to others’ needs made me blind,

But I have never yet

Had a twinge of regret

For being a little too kind.

            Ralph Waldo Emerson put it so powerfully: “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

            Big people never have big heads.  I think small people, ironically, often have big heads.  But big people always have big hearts.  I remember reading a few years ago Joseph J. Ellis’ magnificent biography of George Washington, called, His Excellency.  George Washington stood six foot four.  Alexander Hamilton was a littler shorter than average, and was five foot five.  Hamilton always regarded Washington as large, not physically, but in stature and in character.  Ellis tells about a day after Washington had ceased serving his two full terms as President, and a group of men were out on a ride in the Virginia countryside.  One of them, in jumping a stone fence, caught a few of the stones, that caught a few more of the stones, and left a gaping hole in the wall of a neighbor.  Washington wanted to stop right then, and fix the wall, but his friends said, “No, we won’t be able to get home before dark, if we do that right now.”  So they went on to finish the ride.  Another neighbor, on his way riding back to his place, came upon Washington at that hole in the wall.  Washington was on his knees, and he was mending, fixing, the stone wall which had been broken.  His friend said, “General, you are too big a man to be doing a thing like that.”  He said, “No, I am just the right size.”

            We are never so “right in size” as when we are “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other as God in Christ has forgiven us.”  Mark Twain said once, “Kindness is a language that even the deaf can hear, and the blind can read.”  One of the best teachers I have ever had was a Scot by the name of George Hendry.  I still remember how he looked.  He was tall, skinny, had a huge chin, and not a hair upon the top of his head.  He was one of the most brilliant men I had ever been able to learn from as a student.  He taught a course called “The Doctrine of God.”  It was really an introductory course for me in the philosophical roots for most theological claims.  It was swimming in the deep end of the pool!  But one time, in the middle of a lecture, I still remember Dr. Hendry’s words – I have shared them with you before.  He screwed up his face, as only he could, and said, “When I was a young man, I was impressed with clever people.  But now that I’m an old man, I’m impressed with kind people.”  Are you a joy to those with whom you share life?  “Be kind, one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  That, dear friends, is Jesus’ call!

                                                                                    Amen.

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