September 25, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
Micah 6:8; 2 Samuel 9: 1-7
When it comes to having empathy and showing kindness to others, logic would say that the people easiest for us to be compassionate toward are ones going through a hardship we have experienced. But a study done by the Kellogg and Wharton Schools of Business says the opposite is true. Their findings discovered that “people who endured a hardship are less likely to show compassion for someone struggling with that same hardship, compared with people with no experience in that particular situation.”
One of the studies included people who did Polar Bear Plunges to raise money for ALS—diving into a frozen lake or body of water. They interviewed people right before they took a plunge and right after to ask how they felt about people who bailed out on doing a plunge at the last minute. Folks who were asked before taking their own plunge showed greater sympathy than people asked after taking the plunge themselves.
They found that the more removed people get from their own struggles, the more they tend to credit their own resolve or ability to survive something versus crediting others who showed them kindness and helped them get through a rough time.
Now in any season this is concerning information, but in a time of division this is downright alarming. If an empathy gap can exist when life is good, how much wider must it get when there is strife?
I was in Nashville, TN meeting with a covenant group of UM pastors. Several talked about how the divisions within our churches make it is easy to feel they have failed as pastors. One of them said, “I thought I should resign last year. As I watched social media posts by many of our members during Covid, and the vitriol and shaming that was often communicated, I thought, ‘These are people who listened to me preach every Sunday. I must be doing a terrible job!”
Jamil Zaki, in his book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, says, “If (empathy) is a trait, then there’s nothing we can do to become more empathetic over time. And if it’s a reflex, there’s nothing we can do to change how much we feel for one another in the moment. This is all well and good when empathy comes naturally: for instance, among our family, friends and tribe. But it’s bad news for modern times. It means that whenever we fail to empathize, we’ve hit the limits of our circuitry. We must simply stand by and watch as our world becomes more callous and disconnected.”
Well, we are certainly living in a time when kindness seems in short supply. From divisive rhetoric, to violence, to wars, to occasional stories of utter disregard for human needs, there is a hunger for kindness in our world today. But I doubt this is new to modern times. We can see as far back as the prophet Micah, who perhaps took a scan of events happening around him, felt the need to remind people, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
We are using this verse to guide us in thinking about what it means to live our faith in divided times. Last week we started with doing justice. We continue today thinking about what it means to be kind.
Kindness in the Bible is the most important description of the character of God. Just look at a few verses:
“Answer me, Lord, for your lovingkindness is good.” (Psalm 69:16)
“How precious is your lovingkindness, O God.” (Psalm 36: 7)
“For his lovingkindness is great toward us.” (Psalm 117:2)
“He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:7)
The word for kindness in the Old Testament is Hesed. It is a multifaceted word with many ways it can be defined, but the most frequent is kindness. That is the basic meaning of hesed. But hesed is not just an emotion. It is not describing a feeling, but action on behalf of someone in need. What does the Lord require of us? Action on behalf of people in need.
Our willingness to practice hesed, to show people the kindness of God, could be the greatest hope for our world right now. So I want to consider a story from the life of King David that helps us think about what it means to demonstrate kindness. This is a story that is not so well known in the Bible. David has recently established his authority as king over all the tribes of Israel. He’s sitting in his palace at the banquet table one day when he asks this question: “Is there anyone still left of the House of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”
This is a fascinating question for David to ask. Saul was his predecessor who was insanely jealous of David and tried to have him killed. In my daily Bible readings, I am going through these stories right now and it's like Game of Thrones. Saul keeps trying to hunt down David to kill him. But David’s best friend is Saul’s son, Jonathan. In fact, I just read this verse the other morning. This is David speaking: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (2 Sam. 1:26)
Makes you wonder what the nature of that relationship was! Regardless, there is clearly a close friendship between Jonathan and David, but Jonathan’s father wants to kill David, and the nation is divided as to whom they will follow. So if someone asks what was the relationship between the House of David and the House of Saul you’d have to say, “It’s complicated!”
After Saul and Jonathan die in battle, and David eventually secures the throne, how strange is it for David to ask, “Is there anyone in the House of Saul to whom I can show kindness?” Saul tried to kill David, yet David’s asking who in Saul’s family can he show kindness toward.
David’s servant tells him that Jonathan had a son who was crippled in both feet. Now we learned about this son a few chapters earlier in 2 Samuel 4:4: “Jonathan son of Saul had a son who was lame in both feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel. His nurse picked him up and fled, but as she hurried to leave, he fell and became disabled. His name was Mephibosheth.”
He was lame for no fault of his own. He had been an heir to royalty. But as we learn in our reading today, he lived in a place called Lo-Debar. That was a desolate place known to be a home to misfits. When Mephibosheth comes before David he says, “What is your servant that you should notice a dead dog like me?” (v.8)
This is how he thinks of himself. Something underserving happened to him: he was dropped as a child. His father and grandfather died. He’s no longer royalty. And he lives in a desolate place. But now he will learn something surprising, David the king wants to show him kindness. And we learn from this an important lesson: Kindness is most powerful when it’s least expected.
Many of you have probably seen this already as this story made the news rounds last month. At the recent Little League playoffs, teams from Texas and Oklahoma were playing for a chance to go the World Series, but something happened that really changed the game. Take a look (show video).
That was an act that was not expected in that moment. And if you think about it, some people could say that what that batter did cost them the game. The pitcher was out of it. He probably would have had a hard time recovering, but because an opponent said, “Hang in there. Keep going. Bring us your best.” He did, and his team won. I guess it comes down to what winning means.
Is winning about how well we do or is winning about what we can do for others? King David could have said, “I won. I defeated Saul.” But instead, he asked who in Saul’s House can I show kindness to? Who among my opponents can I help? And he ends up helping someone reclaim his true identity.
Mephibosheth has been a grandson of the king. He was royalty. But then his grandfather and father were both killed. To make matters worse someone dropped him causing permanent injury, an injury that at the time caused a person to be discarded. So he was living in a desolate place with other discarded people. His trauma in life had robbed him of his royal identity. Trauma can do that.
There is a book I recommend to you called Good and Beautiful and Kind, by Rich Villodas. He’s a pastor in New York City. This book came out of the division and strife he saw in his own congregation over the past few years. If you have felt divided from family or people you love, you will probably find this book helpful. In it he quotes Berne Brown who says “vulnerability is the greatest tragedy of trauma.” (p60) Her point is that hurts in life tend to harden us making it more difficult to show kindness. It’s a reminder that our nature is not to hurt and wound and divide. That’s behavior that often comes from unhealed trauma that’s happened to us.
And sometimes the key to changing the pattern of trauma and its effects in our lives can be simple acts of kindness; kindness that is unexpected, even undeserved. How might it change our response to people if we believed that everyone’s true identity is royalty? Not the hurt or division they sow, but that they are children of the king? They are children of God. How might treating people that way awaken in them their true identity?
Interestingly, the name Mephibosheth means “dispeller of shame.” But Mephibosheth couldn’t dispel his shame by himself. He needed help. It took someone else to help make that possible. That’s what David did. And just what exactly did David do? He made room at his table. That’s what kindness looked like. Kindness looks like making room for others.
Are there people for whom you can make room? And what might that look like? Maybe it would be literally inviting someone to your home to sit at a table with you and share a meal. Maybe it would look like a conversation to hear their thoughts and listen. Maybe it would look like helping them in some way even though they might not deserve it. Remember, kindness is shown because kindness is needed.
Over the last couple years I participated with a few pastors around the city in a study by the Polis Center at IUPUI. It's called the Religion and Urban Culture study. One of the leaders is a member of St. Luke’s, David Bodenhamer, who led the Polis Center for more than 30 years. Every quarter they printed position papers telling about community of faith in the city. In April they did a story on Englewood Christian Church and told its history. This church found many years ago that when they have differences and can at least talk about them, then there is hope for their future.
It tells about one member who, during a period of transformation in the church some years ago, became distressed over the direction of the church. The pastor of the church said, “In his mind what we were doing didn’t make any sense. He said, ‘I would leave (the church) but (then think) I’ve never been in a church that loved like this.’ And that has been mostly the message here—that we can get a bunch of stuff wrong, but what we can’t get wrong is loving each other. We can’t get that wrong. And we’ve gotten that right enough times that it’s given grace for some of the other stuff.” (Responsive Congregations, April 2022)
The Apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthians, a church-going through all kinds of turmoil, to “make love your aim.” (1 Cor. 14:1 RSV) Think about that. Paul didn’t say, “make right thinking your aim.” “Make good behavior your aim.” He didn’t even say “make biblical authority” your aim. He said make love your aim. Paul would agree with the former pastor of Englewood, you can’t get wrong loving each other.
So let me close with a story that happened exactly fifty years ago. It was a national election year and George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, was running for president until an assassin's bullet left George Wallace a paraplegic in Walter Reed Hospital. Another candidate that year was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. She stood for everything Wallace didn’t: integration; rights for women, refugees, Native Americans and the working poor.
No one was more shocked than George Wallace when she walked in his room to visit him. They had little in common except their humanity and they were both United Methodists. She took George Wallace’s hand to pray with him. And when the nurse came to end the visit, George Wallace wouldn’t let go of her hand.
Shirley Chisholm’s staff was not pleased with her for making that visit, but she told them, “Sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something he has not seen.”
She finished by saying, “You always have to be optimistic that people can change, and that you can change, and that one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world.” (Good News Magazine, “Bright Light in Montgomery” Sept-Oct 2021, p20)