Mark 6: 30-34
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told them all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourself and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.
I'm not by any means a devotee of "Thought for the Day", but quite often I just happen to turn on Radio 4, and there it is. And sometimes it's an absolute gem. A couple of weeks ago, I dropped in halfway through a reflection by Akhandadhi Das, a Hindu theologian. He was exploring the difficulties that may come from lifting Covid restrictions, as some want to dive headfirst into freedom (at last!), while others remain anxious about too close contact, and others still are continuing to wear face coverings in certain situations, as a mark of consideration for those around them. He raised the worrying prospect that to mask or not to mask might become a source of confusion and division; and then, right at the end of his three minutes, he landed on the theme that has run like a thread through the past year and a bit: kindness. And what he said stuck with me, like an arrow that hits the mark.
He said: "If you have to choose between being right and being kind, be kind."
You and I might want to respond by saying something like - "Following Jesus Christ gives us the way to be right and be kind." But I think any honest, humble examination of the story of the Church, while rejoicing in the immense range and quality of kindness in that story, would have to admit that, when push comes to shove, Christians have often insisted they are right, at the expense of kindness. From the huge aggressions and injustices which scar our history, to the astonishing damage that can be caused by just one person who is prepared to trample many others under foot to get their way, because they're convinced they are right, we see what happens when kindness is sidelined. And further, the global climate crisis we are facing is, from one perspective, the result of our collective failure to be kind to the creation of which we are part.
And of course, what the pandemic has shown us is that nothing trumps compassion, nothing should take precedence over a generous spirit, nothing beats simple, unspectacular, consistent kindness.
So here we are in Chapter 6 of Mark's Gospel, with Jesus and his disciples, as their mission to plant the Kingdom gathers momentum, and they are pursued by crowds of people who are desperate for healing and hope. And Jesus' first thought is to ensure that his friends have a chance to breathe and to be refreshed. "Come away", he says, "to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Often in ministry, lay or ordained, we make Jesus into a hard taskmaster, and forget that he said, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Crosses there will be to carry, but we are not called to Christian masochism. Jesus' kindness to his weary disciples is a challenge to us - to learn how to be kind to ourselves.
His second thought is for the people - "because they were like sheep without a shepherd". They draw out of him, as his first response (which is God's first response to all of us in our need): compassion, kindness. He will feed them in body, mind and spirit, and then send them home. He will go up the mountain, alone, to pray, and then astonish his friends by coming to them over the lake and calming the wind so that they can reach the other side. And on the other side there will be more people in need, more healing, more compassion. The first thing Jesus offers people is kindness. We might want to offer people "The Gospel" as a neat package; but Jesus starts by expressing, without reservation, the kindness of God.
Let me press the point. This kindness is not an add-on, an afterthought - and it's not conditional, not an "I might be kind to you" sort of thing. This kindness is the unveiling of the motherly, fatherly heart of God towards his creatures. And while we may want to insist on repentance, on the necessity of turning back to God if we are to be able to receive his love, what we see in every encounter of Jesus - with great crowds, with groups of followers, and with random individuals - is in the first place: genuine interest, a deep understanding, and a warm, heartfelt acceptance. And this kindly attention to people in all their frailty and need is what changes lives, drives away fear, instils courage and hope.
The tough bit is this: insofar as you and I kid ourselves that we're self-sufficient, and fetishize our own idea of health and strength and wisdom, we will not be in a place to receive this kindness. This is where all the tickers of right-religion boxes fall foul of Jesus. This is why the Pharisee leaves the temple as far from God as ever, while the tax-collector discovers a mercy beyond his imagining. And here, in this Gospel story, Jesus offers God's kindness to his disciples and to the crowds that follow him, because they are "weary, worn and sad". Life is tough for them, and there can be no pretence of being in control, of being on top of things. They are in a place of dependency. And so are we: if we can only see it, every breath we take is a miracle, a fragment of grace that doesn't happen because of our own strength or wisdom.
God waits for us to let him be kind to us. And then he waits - as long as it takes - for us to learn to choose being kind ahead of being right.