John 10:1-10/Psalm 23
Of all the Jesus’ metaphors in the Bible one of the most enduring and endearing is “The Good Shepherd.” Despite the fact that probably no one here has ever actually herded sheep, we have a deep-seated emotional connection to the idea of a God who takes care of us like a shepherd takes care of his sheep.
As Bill mentioned, this is “Good Shepherd” Sunday. Hence, our texts for today. Here in John, Jesus is the shepherd who calls his sheep by name. The sheep hear his voice; they know his voice. The sheep follow him because he knows them, each and every one. OK. It gets a bit confusing here because Jesus also calls himself the gate through which the sheep enter the sheepfold. But the point is that his sheep come in and out and find good pasture. He cares for his sheep.
Finding pasture, of course, reminds us of that ultimate “Good Shepherd” statement, the 23rd Psalm. Upon hearing these words we have a visceral response of comfort and goodness: “God is my shepherd, I shall not want, who makes me lie down in green pastures, who leads me beside still waters, who restores my soul.” Yes; this is the God we desire to know. This is the God we desire to be known by.
How is Jesus the good shepherd? Well, to get some insight into that, I’d like to change the adjective. Let’s change “good” to “kind.” Jesus is the good shepherd because he is kind to us. This sentiment is expressed in an old gospel song:
A pilgrim was I, and a’wandering,
In the cold night of sin I did roam,
When Jesus the kind Shepherd found me,
And now I am on my way home.
A kind God who comforts, restores, feeds us, relieves us of all want. A God who comes along side and helps, who pays attention to us, who brings us home. This isn’t a mean God, a rude God, a judgmental God. This isn’t a God who treats us badly, who ignores us, who is unkind. This is a gracious God, a loving God – a kind God.
We like this kind of God, a kind God, because we really do like kindness. Kindness, it turns out, is one of the things in life we value most. We really like it when people are kind to us. And we really don’t like it when people are unkind to us. In fact, nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. The unkindness of others has become our universal contemporary complaint. We are prone to recall all of the outrageous “unkindnesses” perpetrated upon us.
“Can you believe the way that guy cut me off?”
“Did you see the rude look that store clerk gave me?”
“She was talking so loud on her cell phone no one else could even think let alone have a conversation!”
Being deprived of kindness really gets our goat.
Yet, we too can be ambivalent when it comes to kindness. The Randy Newman song the choir sang epitomizes our ambivalence:
Bright before me the signs implore me
To help the needy and show them the way
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today.
Face it. We are never as kind as we want to be. We desire, no, expect others to be kind to us, yet often we, too, are unable to live a life guided by kindness.
But this is somewhat understandable. Despite our desire to have people be kind to us, our society doesn’t really seem to value kindness after all. Kindness doesn’t fare too well in the highly competitive, dog-eat-dog world we live in. Often, kindness is not so much seen as a value as it is a weakness, or even worse, a manipulative ploy used by the weak to get there way. D. H. Lawrence once remarked, “All compassion is self-pity.” Many people grow up in our society secretly believing that kindness is a virtue for losers.
Ayn Rand is the darling of free-market libertarians (and some conservative congressmen). She was quite outspoken about her complete disdain for religion, and Christianity in particular, precisely because of its emphasis on kindness and altruism. Kind people are weak people, the worst of society. In an interview in 1953, she said that altruism is evil, that selfishness is a virtue, and that anyone who succumbs to weakness or frailty is unworthy of love. I hear echoes of our current healthcare rhetoric.
I think it’s safe to say a competitive society, one that divides people into winners and losers, breeds unkindness. Kindness is just too risky. Hate and alienation today are more comfortable, more efficient, than the risk of kindness. Better, it seems, the cheap certainties of us-versus-them than the disturbing vulnerabilities of practiced kindness. Despite our professed admiration of kindness, cruelty and aggression win the day. Like the bullied child who bullies others in turn, individuals coerced by circumstances become coercers. Sympathies contract as openheartedness begins to feel too exposed. It’s just too hard to practice kindness in such a world.
Even Christianity seems to wilt under the pressure. As Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.”
There is one arena where kindness still seems to survive – parenting. Certainly the parent/child relationship is an island of kindness in a sea of cruelty, right? Yet even there it can be quite confusing. We want our kids to be kind and at the same time stand up to bullies. We want our kids to get along with other kids but not be taken advantage of. And how do parents, who have to slog it out every day in the tough and self-promoting workplace, turn it off when they get home to their kids. And often we don’t really believe in it ourselves. Dr. Bruce Perry in his insightful book, Born for Love, puts it this way:
[Kindness] is seen as though it’s a health food that doesn’t really taste good, something we pretend to like in hopes of encouraging better behavior in ourselves and our children. We don’t act as though unselfishness could be fun or pleasant…. Somehow, we won’t allow ourselves to believe that helping others could be more than a grim duty.
And so it is: Human kindness is not overflowing.
And yet… all the research – biological, neurological, psychological, sociological, medical – all the research concludes that kindness is one of the greatest sources of human happiness. Feelings of connection and reciprocity are among the greatest pleasures that human beings can possess. People think that they envy other people for their success, money, fame, when in fact it is kindness that is most envied, because it is the strongest indicator of a person’s well-being. Medical practitioners agree: Healthy relationships with friends, partners, and family are more important to healing than pretty much any psychological treatment or medication. The greatest source of joy, it turns out, is relationships based on kindness. Caring about others…is what makes us fully human.
It has been said that one thing all humans have in common is vulnerability. Despite our propensity for posturing and pretention, vulnerability is what we most fundamentally recognize in each other. Kindness, then, is the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, which makes it a very complicated venture. Acts of kindness expose our vulnerability. It shows that we are dependent beings who need each other. The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities, vulnerabilities that we are prone to call weakness or failings when we are afraid. So, yes, kindness is a risky venture, but the rewards can be very satisfying, as you may have experienced yourself on occasion. How can we encourage more kindness in ourselves?
First, let me say, I’m not talking about what might be called “magical kindness.” That’s the wishful kindness expressed in the platitude: “Can’t we all just get along?” This is the magical wishing-away of any anxiety or unhappiness kind of kindness. This is the early childhood kindness of having all our needs met. The baby smiles (a devious trick to get adults to pay attention) and, voila, his needs are met. However, this magical kindness always fails. At some point the baby is disappointed and experiences his first real trauma. But it is from this failure that genuine kindness can emerge, the sort that can accommodate hostility and conflict while delivering the pleasures of mutual enjoyment and exchange. In their book, On Kindness, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor say this:
Parents who fear ambivalence, and who want magical rescuing from it can prevent this authentic kindness from developing; but so, too, can a society that denigrates kindness as weakness, and rewards unkindness. Real kindness is not a magic trick, a conjuring away of every hateful or aggressive impulse in favor of a selfless dedication to others. It is an opening up to others that “enlarges” us, and so gratifies our profoundly social natures.
They go on to say: “To live well, we must be able to imaginatively identify with other people, and allow them to identify with us.”
Developing and practicing kindness is about risking our individual vulnerability to encounter the others in our lives. It’s about fostering trust. It’s about expanding the circle of trust. It’s about engaging in that which truly makes for deep happiness. That’s who Jesus was. That’s who we, his followers, strive to be. May it be so. Amen.