James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Being a bike commuter taught me more about interpersonal dynamics on a macro scale than any class I ever took.
That is to say, cycling to and from work when I was in Atlanta taught me a lot about humanity’s tendency to mistreat, abuse, and disregard those who they perceive to be smaller and weaker, and those whom they perceive to have no power over them. It was the whole, “you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat children, the elderly, and service workers,” but on a larger and more impersonal scale.
You see, when I am on a bike, I am much smaller and more vulnerable than the average driver. If a cyclist collides with a driver, chances are incredibly high that it is the cyclist’s body that will bear the brunt of the impact. Chances are also high that the driver will leave the encounter physically unscathed.
People say judgy things about cyclists all the time. They lament that cyclists don’t stop at red lights or stop signs and don’t always obey all the rules of the road. And in some cases, they’re 100% right. Some cyclists are jerks and outlaws, because some humans are jerks and outlaws. But if someone had a serious prejudice against all cyclists because she had encountered some who were poorly behaved, I would begin to worry about how she treated other groups whose members she had once seen behaving badly. We’re all predisposed to prejudice; the trick, like most things, is to be self-aware about it.
I am always grateful for those who understand how difficult life is for someone else, even when they don’t have to.
For those who are white, but take the time to see the ways that nonwhite people are pre-judged and mistreated. For those who are men, but see and understand and speak up when women are talked over or abused. For straight people who speak up for LGBTQ+ people. For young people who go out of their way to befriend the elderly, and for older people who go out of their way to mentor younger people. For people who do not struggle financially who take the time to understand the plight of those who do struggle, and who advocate for them.
For those who have no personal reason to believe or stand up for or be kind to others, but believe them and stand up for them and are kind to them anyway. For drivers who pull up next to a cyclist at a red light after the cyclist has just been dangerously and harrowingly cut off by another driver and say, “I saw that. I don’t know what’s wrong with that guy. Are you okay?”
It’s pretty easy to care about something that directly affects you or your family and friends. It’s much harder to care when it doesn’t directly affect you.
What’s more, though, caring for those we don’t technically have to care about is also where we find our fullest humanity. This is also, I think, where Jesus was ultimately pushing us with this “kingdom of God” stuff. That the kingdom of God — a better translation is the “reign” or “rule” of God — is where all are heard, believed, and cared for, and where injustice is brought out into the light and corrected. Where we really do care about things, even when we could easily go about our lives not caring.
Because you see, it’s much easier not to care. It can even feel temporarily satisfying to take out our anger on such people — those we perceive to be somehow “lower” than us. It can feel pretty good, even, to yell a cyclist to get off the road (knowing full well that they have the right to be there), or to be rude to a waiter, all because you’ve had a bad day. It may seem sort of harmless, in the grand scheme of things, until we remember that trying to feel better by keeping others down has led to a lot of evil in the world. Any good Southerner and student of history knows that it was poor whites who were the foot soldiers of the KKK; after all, if blacks were not kept down, whom would poor whites have to feel better than?
The urge to be the greatest — or at least to not be the least — is ingrained in us from childhood. Not just “us” Americans, either. Us humans. We learn from an early age that the better and greater you are, the less likely you are to be anyone’s victim. So we beat others down in order to feel better and to send the message that no one better mess with us. If we’re self-sufficient, we think, we won’t be dependent on anyone. That’s the goal.
There’s only one catch: at some point, most of us do become the least, whether by circumstance or, if we’re lucky, by choice. At some point, we all find ourselves dependent on the kindness of others. We all find ourselves hoping that someone who doesn’t have to care will care. Whether it happens because we are part of a hated or outcast group or because we are simply lonely, we all eventually find ourselves hoping that someone who’d doesn’t have to care about our plight will care — that they will stand up for us, call us, show us kindness. We’ve all been there. If you haven’t, it’s incredibly likely that you someday will be.
This is why we are our best selves when we show kindness that we didn’t have to show: because it seems that we’re wired towards self-importance, and kindness breaks that pattern. Kindness moves us from thinking about ourselves and worrying about having enough — enough status, enough money, enough attention — and helps us to think in terms of abundance and whether someone else has enough.
The Gospel lesson today is another relatively familiar one — Jesus predicts that someday soon he will throw himself at the mercy of angry strangers, and be killed, and in three days rise again. The disciples, as you might imagine, really don’t get it, and Mark says in a moment of remarkable candor that they were too afraid to ask him.
Then Jesus overhears the disciples getting into an argument about who’s the greatest among them. They know this Jesus character that they’ve been following is pretty important; he’s quite popular with the crowds. It becomes a natural human question, then, who among them is the handsomest, most popular, most useful, best disciple.
Then Jesus brings a child among them to illustrate his point. Children were, in those days, of quite a low status. They weren’t very useful for working, and they were prone to dying of disease and injury. And Jesus uses the child to say, essentially, the wisdom we discussed at the beginning — “what matters is how you treat people who can’t give you anything in return. Those who have no power over you. Those you could go on about your life not caring about.” And Jesus says the famous line: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
It’s a cute image, Jesus holding a child, but this is about way more than only children. It’s about how we treat anyone who can’t give us anything in return. The Kingdom of God is shown through us when we don’t have to care, but do. When we advocate for those who are burdened by society in ways that we are not. When we show kindness to someone we didn’t have to notice in the first place.
That’s what we try to do here.
Look, today is commitment Sunday, the height of our stewardship season, as we try to figure out how to do God’s work in the world in the new year. You don’t have to care about church. You don’t have to give. As good Lutherans, we believe that God loves you regardless of how much you give or don’t give or how much you show up here or don’t. You are loved because you breathe.
When I ran across New Hampshire this past weekend to raise money for kids to go to summer camp, at our dinner before the race, someone said, “When it gets hard, just remember — you get to do this.” The race could go on without any of us. We would all be loved by God and kids would go to camp regardless of whether any individual person in the room ran that race. But we were the ones who got to do it.
The same is true here. God’s work could go on, easily, without us — without any individual person and without this congregation as a whole. But that’s not the end of the story.
We are here. We get to do this. We get to show up for people and show kindness.
We keep showing up, doing good, and giving of all that we have not so that God will love us, but because God already does. My work here, and my offering each month, is not some sort of divine bribe to get God to love me, and neither is yours.
We do this, not because we have to, but because we get to. And that, my beloved, changes everything. Amen.