Her name was Kristi – she was an incredibly sweet little girl. Always smiling, always happy, always trying incredibly hard to fit in. Desperately reaching out hoping someone, anyone, would be her friend. She was also the kid who didn’t bath regularly, who struggled in school, whose clothes never matched, whose hair was never brushed, who always seemed to get food on her face and clothes when she ate – and I am ashamed to admit that – I could not STAND her.
I was 8 years old and in the second grade when I met Kristi. We were both in Mr. Board’s class. I was fairly popular and was considered the “smart” girl, and Kristi desperately wanted to be my friend. She would ask me for help on a regular basis because I would finish work early and it always took her longer. I wish I could say that I graciously extended my help, but in all honesty, I wanted absolutely NOTHING to do with her. She annoyed me to no end. I wasn’t overtly mean or nasty, I just avoided her as much as I could. I’d go in the other direction if she was coming my way or come up with some reason to extricate myself from a conversation with her. When she would ask for help I would offer up the bare minimum that I possibly could.
Bullying wasn’t really a word that was used regularly when I was in the second grade, but Kristi was bullied. Kids can be mean, and some in my class were very, very mean to Kristi. Although I am not proud of the way I treated her, I can say, that I have never tolerated outright nastiness geared toward anyone, and Kristi was no exception.
One day on the playground some boys were calling her “piggy” and mocking her and making oinking noises because she had a slightly upturned nose, still carried some baby fat, and was visibly dirty that day. It may seem like kids being kids and not all that terrible, but if you could have seen the look on Kristi’s face as they said it, you would think “piggy” the worst insult ever. She tried to smile and laugh it off but at the same time, her eyes were filled with tears and her entire face was flushed with embarrassment.
I will be the first to admit that I was not kind to Kristi but I have always despised injustice, and I got angry. I was righteously indignant on her behalf because although I didn’t want to be friends with her, that was just uncalled for. Sooooo, I chased them down, tackled the ringleader, and sat on his chest until he apologized. I got “walled” for my efforts, which was basically my schools form of recess timeout. You had to sit against the wall and couldn’t do anything for the rest of recess. In my mind – it was worth it.
While I was serving my sentence, Kristi came and sat down next to me, even though she wasn’t in trouble. She looked at me and said – “Thank you for always being nice to me and for sticking up for me Ariel. I know that nobody likes me and nobody wants me around. You are the only one who ever helps me. You are my best friend.”
In that moment, I felt like a royal jackwagon. I may not have tolerated outright bullying, but I wasn’t much better than my classmates and I knew it. Kristi is probably one of the most gracious people I have ever met in my entire life. She knew what people thought of her. She knew they avoided her, talked poorly about her, and endured the bullying with grace and dignity. She continued to smile, she continued to reach out, she continued to work hard and do her best. She never, ever stooped to the level of the rest of us. Not once. And not only that, she saw the best in those very people who were so unkind to her.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus is giving instructions presumably to his disciples and potentially the crowds that have followed him. As he teaches – everything that comes out of his mouth is counter cultural and contrary to what those in his presence are expecting. He tells people to love their enemies, to do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, pray for those who abuse them.
Not the message that a group of oppressed people are expecting to hear. In a culture that was raised up on the Levitical Code which includes and eye for an eye – this message would have been mind blowing. Where is the equity and justice in that? Much like I thought the solution to those who were bullying Kristi was a physical confrontation – so would the citizens of Ancient Palestine.
Jesus’ instructions aren’t mild suggestions. You know – if you feel like it, or if it’s not too much bother, or if you can dig deep and be a good person, do these things… no, no…Jesus COMMANDS it. Love, do good, bless, pray. Turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give the shirt of your back. Do to others as you would have done to you. Unlike me, Kristi always did exactly that.
Jesus goes on to ask – if we are only kind to those who are like us, to those who we like, then what credit is that to us? Communities and groups back then were very insular and liked it that way. If someone was “in” it meant someone else had to be “out”. And all of the laws and guidelines at the time were structured to maintain these social status quos.
Jews were okay -as long as they were like you. Romans were tolerated because as those with the majority of power and authority, they had to be. Gentiles – were totally ostracized and looked down upon by the Jews. We may be oppressed and conquered, but at least we aren’t THOSE guys. Our society today is not much different. There are insiders and there are outsiders – and we like it that way.
By commanding tolerance and acceptance of those who you despise, Jesus was preaching a message of inclusivity and radical hospitality that was countercultural in the extreme.
Rev. David Lose states that: “This command is actually a promise. The promise essentially, that it doesn’t have to be this way. That there is another option. That we can treat others the way we want to be treated. That there is enough, more than enough – love, attention, food, worth, honor, time – to go around. That no matter how hard you play by the rules of the world you’re still trapped in the death and loss that is part and parcel of this world, but that this world isn’t the only one, maybe not even the most real one. And that’s the thing. Jesus isn’t offering a set of simple rules by which to get by or get ahead in this world but is inviting us into a whole other world. A world that is not about measuring and counting and weighing and competing and judging and paying back and hating and all the rest. But instead is about love. Love for those who have loved you. Love for those who haven’t. Love even for those who have hated you.”
In Ancient Palestine, and today, it was and is easy to like and get along with people who are just like us. Who look like us, who act like us, who have the same education we have, who have similar employment status, who live in similar neighborhoods and drive similar cars, who have similar mindsets and viewpoints.
What is hard – is embracing and extending radical hospitality to those who are unlike us. Or those who are unkind to us. Those who annoy us, or gossip about us, or pick fights with us. Our basic human inclination is the fight back. Lash out. Say something cruel or nasty in return. Gossip right back. Or to just avoid. Do the bare minimum you can so that you can extricate yourself from unpleasantness as quickly as possible.
But Jesus tells us this won’t work. He tells us not to judge, or condemn, but to forgive and be generous. To love – and to love everyone. I learned this lesson at 8-years-old. I learned that everyone is deserving of love and friendship and that that truly is a better way. I learned that when you let go of your assumptions about people – amazing relationships can bloom.
From the day that Kristi called me her best-friend on, I tried harder. I helped her in school. I gave her fashion advice – because as an 8-year-old in the 1980’s I clearly had an amazing sense of style. I made my friends include her in our games on the playground. I made sure she had a group to sit with at lunch. In her I found an amazing, fiercely loyal, incredibly kind friend.
Unfortunately, a few months after I embraced the love and friendship that Kristi had been offering to me that entire school year, I moved away from that town. I have no idea what happened to Kristi – but I will always be grateful to her for teaching me about kindness and love.
Who is your Kristi? What individuals or groups of people have you been unkind to? Who have you slandered? Who have you gossiped about? Who have you avoided, or teased, or made fun of behind their back? We ALL do it… but Jesus tells us that there is another way. A better way. And that way is life giving and joy inducing. That way is love.
As we conclude our theme of Radical Hospitality – I encourage each and every one of you to think about your Kristi – and instead of reacting and engaging in the way that you typically would – instead, turn the other cheek… walk the extra mile… make an effort, and choose love.