Friendliness and kindness
Given on Sunday 18th July 2010 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
Over the years I have preached for many associations, clubs and societies, from Moose to Masons via Lions, Rotarians, Soroptomists and Townswomen’s Guilds. But never before for Oddfellows. So I am grateful for the invitation to help you celebrate the Oddfellows’ second centenary this year: as the official website puts it: ‘two hundred years of making friends and helping people’.
I have enjoyed browsing the website and discovering what makes the Oddfellows different from other Friendly Societies. Visit the official website of the Friendly Society movement, www.friendlysocieties.co.uk, and you discover that most are very different from yourselves. That website begins: Welcome to the fascinating world of Friendly Societies, one of the oldest types of financial services operations around. Friendly Societies offer members a wide range of affordable savings, investments, insurances, pensions and specialist annuities, to provide help when needed; for the nice things in life, or for more trying times. And that’s all very good. But as I understand it, it is not what you are primarily about.
If I am right, you are far more about friendship than finance, far more about kindness than capital. And I’m glad of that, because the New Testament has little to say about money (except often to warn of the dangers of loving it too much) but it has a great deal to say about friendship and kindness.
Let me give you a few examples. If you are invited out for a meal, or a friend bids you in for supper, and the food is good and you really enjoy yourself, no doubt when you get home you reach for notepaper or postcard on which to pen a word of thanks. But I wonder what words you use with which to compliment your hosts. A marvellous meal, perhaps; a super evening; a splendid dinner? Well, the word used on occasions like that in the lands of the Mediterranean at the time of Jesus was ‘kind’. A good bottle of wine, for example, of a good vintage: they wouldn't say it was fruity and robust, or had a good velvet nose and a long finish. They said it was kind; in Greek, chrestos. You can find just such a remark in St Luke's Gospel, Chapter 5, when Jesus comments ‘No one after drinking old wine wants new; for he says “the old wine is chrestos, kind.”’
Jesus uses the same word in a different way in St Matthew's Gospel (11: 28-39): ‘Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy; and I will give you rest .... for my yoke is chrestos, kind’ – in the sense of easy to bear. In other words, Christ's yoke does not chafe or irritate. It is comfortable and well-designed. You can imagine Jesus running a finger over a yoke recently made in his father's carpenter's shop, and displaying it to a potential customer: ‘Look at the finish’, he would say. ‘It's smooth and beautifully balanced. This yoke is chrestos, it's kind. Your oxen will pull well with this one.’
St Paul also used the word, as when he wrote to the Corinthians, who were a pretty turbulent lot, ‘Make no mistake: bad company is the ruin of good manners.’ Again, the word is chrestos: your kindness, your good manners, are being corrupted by the company you keep. And then to the Christians at Ephesus: ‘Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another.’
Above all, the Bible speaks constantly of the kindness of God. In fact it sees kindness as being a natural attribute of God's, but one which men and women often lack. Kindness is not seen as something we are born with, like hair or freckles, but as something which comes from God. True, men and women may often exhibit kindness apart from God, and the world would be a pretty horrid place if that were not so. Sometimes, like wild flowers, kindness blooms in some very strange places. For example, in the trenches of France in the First World War, some astonishing acts of kindness were performed by troops towards their enemies. In this often cruel and heartless world of ours, there are still a great many acts of kindness glowing like beacons in the dark. And this should not surprise us, for men and women - all men and women - are made in the image of God, and sometimes the kindness of God is reflected in the most unlikely of people on the most unlikely of occasions.
But the biblical testimony is that kindness only becomes a characteristic of people, a quality that is inherent in their lives and all that they say and do, when it is regularly practised. Its natural home ought to be the Church – and would that it were so more often more – but it can be found in any club, association or society which is not about self-interest and gain but about friendship and caring. So it is good to be able to celebrate with you today 200 years of friendship and kindness in and from the Oddfellows. I know that you have no official religious affiliation, and that you welcome to your membership those of all religions and none. That is right and proper, and long may it continue. But remember this, too, that kindness is of God, and it is one of the fruits of the Spirit for which we should always pray and always strive. And when you practise kindness, in your Society and outside it, you are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven. So I conclude with an old rhyme, written for Church members many years ago. I have amended it slightly so that it applies to you too:
Let me be a little kinder; let me be a little blinder
To the faults of those about me; let me praise a little more.
Let me be, when I am weary, just a little bit more cheery;
Let me serve a little better those whom I am striving for.
Let me be a little braver, when temptation bids me waver;
Let me strive a little harder to be all that I should be.
Let me be a little meeker with the brother who is weaker;
Let me think more of my neighbour and a little less of me.
Let me be a bit more prayerful, let me be a bit more careful
Of my daily love and welcome to the stranger at the door;
Let me be both kind and thoughtful even when I find folk awful:
Help me trust you, Lord, and serve you; help me love you more and more.