When writer Henry James was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, James said something that the boy never forgot. “There are three things that are important in human life,” said Henry James. “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
I’m sure most of you my age or older remember Ann Landers. For almost 50 years, Ann Landers gave advice and offered solutions to peoples’ problems all across the nation – and the rest of us were privileged to open up our newspapers and read her advice –and perhaps even learn something about ourselves in the process. Go on vacation or on a business trip – buy a local newspaper – and chances were very good that Ann Landers would be there.
In Ann Landers’ final column, her daughter, Margo Howard, had this to say about her famous mother, “...she was convinced that if any one thing could serve as a solution to all manner of problems, it was kindness.”
I think you can see where this sermon is going.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew today, we have a truly remarkable word from Jesus. Listen again. “...and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Has anyone ever done anything like that for you? I can remember as a young teenager – before I had my own paper route – I was a paper boy for four and a half years for the Niagara Falls Gazette – I was a substitute paper carrier for someone else. And on one particularly hot day, one of the customers offered me a glass of cold water. And it wasn’t just the water that refreshed me – it was the idea that someone would care enough to offer such a simple gift. I have never forgotten his act of kindness.
Then there was the time when I was a freshman in college – my first week there in fact – I was buying books. Back then you could buy all the books you needed for a semester for less than what one book will cost you today. And wouldn’t you know it – I was $2 and some odd cents short of what I needed. A senior in line behind me handed me what I needed. When I asked her for her name so I could repay her – she told me not to worry about it. [I never did learn her name.] The only thing she asked me to do was to do something like that for someone else if ever the opportunity arose. Today we would call that “Paying if forward.” But I have never forgotten her act of kindness.
“‘A cup of cold water.’ Let me tell you a fascinating, true story. During the course of the second and third centuries a series of plagues hit much of the world.
“It was a time of great church growth. People flocked to the Christian faith because they noted that Christians seemed to be surviving the plagues better than the general population. The reason for this better survival rate was not that God was saving Christians and allowing the pagans to die. No. The reason was that the Christians were taking seriously the command of Jesus to offer a cup of cold water.
“Christians didn’t know how to stop plagues any better than anybody else. But while the pagans pulled away from the dying, the Christians ministered to the dying by giving them food and something to drink. Many of these Christians caring for the sick died in this loving act, but the number of Christian care givers who died was dwarfed by the numbers of ill who recovered. That little bit of food and drink they received from these saints was sometimes just enough to help these ill persons weather the storm.”
We’ve been hearing for many years now the phrase, “Practice random acts of kindness.” I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing to put into practice.
But I would like to take that thought just one step further. You see, when Jesus is talking about “giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple,” he’s not talking about acts of kindnesses as though they were practiced randomly here and there. No. Those early Christians during the plagues? They were not offering random acts of kindness. They were obeying our Lord’s command to “Love one another.” They were offering acts of love and kindness to people they didn’t even know – or perhaps to folks who up until this time had rejected the Good News of Jesus Christ. But the evidence is there. The early church grew as a result of acts of love and kindness shown to others. These early Christians took great risks in ministering to others. And the church grew as a result.
Random acts of kindness are great. But as Christians, random acts don’t go far enough. Now I hope you know that as Christ followers – disciples of Jesus Christ – practicing kindness is not an option. Practicing kindness is not something we do when we feel like it. For us, it is a command. To practice kindness – to have an attitude of kindness – 24/7. I also want to say it is a learned attitude – a learned attitude of the heart – so much so that it becomes by nature something we do – something we are – for others – in the name of Jesus. Showing kindness is a mark of discipleship. In other words – showing kindness is part of what it means to be a servant. By showing kindness we serve others.
So here’s what we can learn from those early Christians:
– When we live our lives in obedience to Christ’s command to love one another
– when our acts of kindness become more than just random occurrences
– when we are quite intentional about the kindnesses we show
do you know what we’re doing?
We are showing the world who Jesus is. We are showing that Jesus makes possible a different way of relating to others. Through acts of love and kindness.
Imagine what that could do to some marriages! Imagine what that might do for your marriage. Or your family. Imagine what it could do for your relationship with your kids – or if you’re a kid – with your parents. You young kids – you teenagers – try it! It’s not going to kill you! Or what about the grouch who lives next door? Or the person you work – or go to school with – or the person who cuts you off in traffic? Simple acts of love and kindness. Not random. But practiced as a way of life.
We live in what sometimes can be an uncaring world. There are folks who know mostly abuse, or rebuke, and rejection. Your acts – perhaps little – or unspectacular – but your acts of kindness – your acts of generosity – might be all it takes to make a difference in someone’s life. As those early Christians modeled for us so well – your acts of kindness may be the only sign of the love of Christ that somebody else is going to know. Put another way, you may be the only light in someone’s darkness.
Do you remember elsewhere where Jesus said, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked and you clothed me; sick, and you visited me; ...Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” The choice is ours.
Sometimes it involves taking risks. Sometimes it’s just a matter of attitude. Let me share with you a story. I’ve shared it with you a couple of times before. Hey! If it’s good once – it’s good two or three or more times.
Once there was a Roman soldier – a Christian named Martin of Tours. One cold winter day as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. Martin had no money, but the beggar was blue and shivering with the cold. So Martin gave him what he had. He took off his soldier’s coat, worn and frayed as it was. He cut it
in two, and gave half of it to the beggar man.
That night Martin had a dream. In it he saw all of the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus in the midst of them; and Jesus was wearing half a Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to him, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?” And Jesus answered softly, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”
Hospitality. A cup of cold water. Half a Roman soldier’s coat. Any act of kindness – done in the name of Jesus – as though it were done for Jesus himself. The early church understood this. The early church took a risk, and practiced kindness to people who were dying of the plague. And the church grew.
I often point out to couples at their marriage ceremony that the love they share is a borrowed love that comes from God. I say that because the Scriptures tell us that we love because God first loved us. God has shown us – God has shown you – the greatest love – the greatest kindness that we could ever be shown through the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we have been shown such mercy and love and kindness, it’s up to us – it’s up to you – it’s up to me – to show Christ’s mercy and love and kindness to others. It’s not always easy. I know that. But let’s show them anyway. Let’s show them who Jesus is by showing them what Jesus is like.