This Sunday, my wife Mariah and I had a pulpit exchange. That means that I preached at her church (Church of Peace United Church of Christ in Rock Island, Illinois) and she preached here. Her sermon in below. Also she uses a poem in the sermon. Due to copyright, we can’t reprint that here, but there’s a link where you can read the poem.
I love the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye.
Recently, I heard an interview in which she described something dreadful that happened on her honeymoon. She and her husband got married in Texas, and they planned to spend three months traveling around South America. At the end of the first week, they were in a little town in Colombia when they were robbed. An old man nearby was killed in the attack, and Nye and her husband had everything stolen—their wallets, their money, their passports. She managed to hang onto a little notebook that fit in her back pocket.
If you have ever been robbed then you know, what really gets stolen is so much more than your stuff. It could be your sense of being okay in the world; it could be all our hard work to not blame ourselves. (It is so easy to blame yourself for getting robbed!) Now here in one horrifying moment, the poet and her partner lost their bearings, and their plans, and their things, but they kept their lives.
In the moments right after the robbery, they found themselves wondering what just happened, and what do we do now, and this is when a man approached them. As Nye put it, he looked at them “and saw their disarray, and he was simply kind.” He was simply kind. He asked what happened then listened to their explanation. Then he said in Spanish, “I’m very sorry.”
Naomi Shihab Nye and her husband made a new plan. He went to hitchhike to a larger city to see about getting travelers checks. She went and sat down at a table in the plaza. Here she was utterly alone, newly-robbed, entirely at the mercy of strangers (or the mercy of God). This is when she heard a voice speaking a poem to her; all she could do was write it down.
Now it could be the poem came from the trauma of getting robbed. Or maybe the poem came from the stranger who looked at her. Either way, she and her husband survived, although an old man did not, and the world was given a poem and another day to try again.
Today our Gospel story begins with Jesus and the disciples setting out on a journey. Just as they’re heading out, a rich man comes up and falls down at Jesus’ feet. “Good teacher. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Just real quick. I know you’re on your way out. Just lemme ask. So eternal life. How do I get that?”
Now I don’t about you, already, I have like six questions for this man. Jesus starts by asking, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Okay. So we’re starting to get a sense for how this going to go…
Jesus continues, “You know the commandments,” and hearing this, the man lights up! “Oh yes! I’ve been keeping the commandments since I was a child! So we’re good. That’s all I need right?”
Oh my friends, I look at what this rich man is doing, and I see myself. In high school, I was obsessed with grades. I’d like to believe I have overcome that, and I think I have, but I recognize the same obsession in the rich man. I can hear what he’s really saying:
“Come on Jesus, I need some hard evidence that I’m on the right track. Just give me the gold star— I need it man. Just give me the blessed assurance that I’m getting into heaven. Just real quick before your journey, I’m getting an A plus, right?”
So what happened next, the rich man never saw coming. Jesus looked at him. And loved him. And asked him for his life. Jesus said: “You’re only missing one thing. Go, sell everything you have, give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”
The man was shocked. He turned and went away grieving. Jesus looked at him, and loved him, and saw him go, and that’s the last thing we hear about the rich man.
If you’re feeling disturbed by this, I am too. So are the disciples. Next Jesus looks at them says, “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.”
Okay. Then who can be saved?
Jesus answers, “Only God can save.”
Yeah, but that’s not what we asked! That’s the answer to the question “Who saves?” We want to know, “Who can be saved?” What about us?
Now the disciples are starting to sound like the rich man. Jesus looked at them, and loved them, and you have to wonder, what did he see…
You have to wonder whether we would want Jesus to look at us. It’s scary because you know what he’ll see. You know he’ll see our naivety and our foolishness, all the ways we are insecure and afraid, all our greed. Jesus will look right at us and see our deepest shame, and what if that’s not even all?
The real risk is that Christ will see our grace.
It’s not our fault. We didn’t do anything to get the grace of God. It comes imbued in our being. It’s how God made us and loves us, and it’s still there. In each of us, we carry the potential for world-changing compassion, and what I need to tell you is that Jesus can see it.
Our mercy is chillingly exposed. The writer of Hebrews describes this by saying, “Before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:13).
I wonder if mercy is what Jesus saw in the rich man, if this is why he asked the rich man for his life, because Jesus saw a flicker of light in this man. Because maybe he would say yes.
It is terrifying to be seen, truly seen, then loved, then invited to do the impossible. All the grades you’ve gotten, all the money you’ve earned, the accomplishments you’ve achieved —why don’t you give it all up, and help the poor, and follow me, is what Jesus is asking us to do. Like he really thinks we might say yes! Because we could you know; we could give in to the grace of God.
This is what Jesus sees —it’s not just our shame or our sorrow. The threat is that Christ can see our grace. If sorrow is our deepest power, then kindness is the other deepest power. And once Jesus sees our compassion, we can’t pretend it’s not there.
We could forgive someone, or find ourselves forgiven. We could go beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt; we could lead with mercy and make decisions based on compassion. We could notice and name the grace we see in each other. No wonder this is scary! We could even approach a stranger who is in shock on the side of the road, and we could be simply kind.
I will tell you, I really believe this is how the world is changed. If you’ve ever had your life saved by a stranger —and honestly, who among us hasn’t— then you know, there is nothing more powerful than mercy. Hurt and hate might have their day, but the change they cause doesn’t have the staying power. The kingdom of God is already underway; and eternal life? Ask the grieving ones, they’ll tell you, it is already here.
You want to see how the world is being meaningfully transformed, just look for the compassion. The moral arc of the universe is long… Look for the compassion.
Naomi Shihab Nye and her husband got robbed on their honeymoon in Columbia. When they were standing on the street wondering what to do next, a man they didn’t know approached them, and looked at them, and he was simply kind. He noticed their God-made grace, and they saw his. Then Nye’s husband went to hitchhike to get help, and she sat down in the plaza and wrote a poem that keeps on echoing through the world helping turn it toward love.
This is “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye: