Sermon, August 21

I looked at these readings and started thinking about them before taking a week’s vacation. Maybe laying down my priest identity for a while let my anthropologist identity come to the fore, because when I came back to actually write this sermon, I found I wanted to lead you in a bit of a word study. The word is, Nice.

Nice is a very anthropologically interesting word. Its most familiar/common meaning, what you’d probably say if I asked you, is something like agreeable, pleasant, friendly. But Nice is also a word we use to police behavior. To nudge one another towards following cultural and social expectations. Nice comes into play a lot in talk about gender norms – Nice girls don’t dress like that, or talk in a loud voice, or have strong opinions.

Nice comes into play when we talk about tradition and the way things are done. My favorite example comes from the film Bend it Like Beckham, or rather, from a little bonus video on the DVD of the film, in which the director, Gurinder Chadha, cooks several Indian dishes in her own kitchen under the supervision of her very traditional Indian mother and aunt. They disapprove of many of her choices as she cooks, telling her, if you chop the onions that way, “It won’t be nice.”

Nice comes into play when we talk about social order and appropriate behavior. It isn’t nice to make a fuss, to rock the boat, to be disruptive. It isn’t nice to say things that make people feel bad, or uncomfortable, or guilty. It certainly isn’t nice to disrupt business or traffic.

Niceness is very much in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “not nice” is another person’s heroic or prophetic. The Montgomery bus boycott was certainly not nice, in the eyes of the racist white society that it challenged. It was not nice to throw crates of perfectly good tea into Boston Harbor – think of the waste! the environmental impact! – and yet we regard the folks who did that not as punks but as patriots.

Anthropologically speaking, niceness about much more than being polite or friendly. It’s a word we use to maintain boundaries of respectability, police social norms, express disapproval of the inconvenient, messy, or disruptive. Back in 1964, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song called “It isn’t nice.” (By the way, Malvina was born 116 years ago this Tuesday – which means she was in her 60s when she was writing and performing various anthems of the civil rights movement!…)

The song says, “It isn’t nice to block the doorway, it isn’t nice to go to to jail. … There are nicer ways to do it, but the nice ways always fail. It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice, but if that is Freedom’s price, we don’t mind. It isn’t nice to carry banners, or to sit in on the floor, or to shout our cry for freedom at the hotel and the store… It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice, but if that is Freedom’s price, we don’t mind.”

This song, “It isn’t nice” has been stuck in my head this week – in part because this is the “It isn’t nice” Gospel. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, a local place of worship. And a woman comes into the synagogue, who is crippled, bent over, with some disabling illness. And Jesus sees her and calls her over, and lays hands on her and heals her, And she stands up straight – that must have felt so good – and begins to praise God. Not “thank you God” but HALLELUJAH THANK YOU JESUS THANK YOU!

And then… the leader of the synagogue – my brother across the ages – starts to complain about what has happened. Here’s where Niceness comes into it. It isn’t nice to bother the Rabbi while he’s teaching. it isn’t nice to cure on the sabbath and disrupt our orderly worship. It isn’t nice for a woman to start loudly and emotionally praising God in the middle of the men’s nice intellectual conversation about Scripture.

Luke describes the leader as “indignant.” That’s how we feel when niceness is violated. When people do things that aren’t appropriate – respectful – nice. And he uses a word we use when our sense of niceness is violated: “Ought”. He can’t quite say that he’s sorry she was healed, so instead he criticizes how it happened: There are six days on which work ought to be done! She ought to have come on one of those days!

But Jesus “ought”s right back at him, makes one woman’s ailment a matter of historic, cosmic, and ethical significance: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice, you told us once, you told us twice, but if that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.

Now I’m going to tell you something really important. I learned this from a mentor back in the Diocese of New Hampshire, and I think of it often. Here it is: Niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Niceness is not a Christian virtue.

Now, some of the things we think we mean by niceness ARE Christian virtues. Mercy IS a Christian virtue. Compassion. Generosity. But not niceness. My friend in New Hampshire suggested that we work on substituting kindness for niceness. Kindness: a more everyday way of talking about mercy, about compassion, about caring for the welfare of our neighbor.

Kindness and niceness are superficially similar. In some situations the kind action and the nice action may be the same. But in other situations, they might not be. Because kindness is always concerned with the good of the other, full stop. And niceness … wants everyone to feel good, but also wants things to be nice.

Kindness was Jesus healing that woman as soon as he saw her. Niceness is what the synagogue leader wanted: Just come back tomorrow, this isn’t a good time. Niceness bundles up kindness with a bunch of other things – respectability and appropriateness and comfort – that the witness of Scripture tells us God is not very interested in. That, in fact, more often seem to come between us and God, between us and righteousness, than otherwise.

Niceness is not a Christian virtue. Prophets, saints, and Jesus himself have often been told their actions and words weren’t nice. Look at poor Jeremiah, called to prophesy as a young boy. His protest in today’s passage is because he knows he will not be well received. It is not nice for a young man – a boy – to go to his elders, religious and political leaders, and tell them they’re all wrong and that God’s judgment is coming to them. Not nice at all. But it’s what God is doing.

Because, in the vision of our Hebrews text, God is both a God of joy and generosity – of a heavenly city with its streets thronging with a perpetual angel festival, a God who bestows upon us freely the gift of a kingdom that cannot be shaken – and – and – a God who demands our reverence and awe, a God who is indeed a consuming fire. Consuming fires don’t care about nice.

The problem of this Gospel story for us – the story of the woman healed on the Sabbath – is how to read it so that it challenges us, instead of just making us feel smug. It’s too easy for us to read this story and simply think, Well, duh, compassion should win over pious rigidity. The synagogue leader was wrong wrong wrong.

Listen: the Sabbath was the heart of Jewish piety, one of the core practices that set the Jews apart from the society around them. The Sabbath honored God, provided rest for workers, meant time for family and song and prayer and play. Can anybody tell me you wouldn’t love to have one day a week in which you were not allowed to do any work? At all? There is nothing to sneer at about Sabbath observance.

And yet – it’s clear that the synagogue leader is mis-applying his piety. His sense of religious niceness keeps him from fully witnessing another’s pain, and fully rejoicing in another’s freedom. I believe the challenge this story has for us is to pay attention to the places where niceness, a human virtue, might be building a nice white picket fence around our capacity to exercise the holy virtues of mercy, generosity, and justice. Where our “niceness” glasses make it hard for us to see what God is doing. Or… to look at what humans are doing, with God’s eyes. This story asks us, Where might God’s purposes be in tension with our sense of order and propriety? And that should be an uncomfortable question.

My friend L and his teenage son are losing their apartment. They’ve been in this place for five years. He hasn’t always gotten the rent in right on time, but he’s been a good tenant. No trouble. But a new company has bought up his building – has bought up a whole chunk of the southwest side, in fact, about ten blocks south of the Hassett home. This has been one of the few neighborhoods in Madison where folks with lousy credit history could find a place to live. A lot of poor veterans were housed there; L was one of them. Most of the residents were African-American or Latino. For many of these households, losing these apartments means they are at risk of long-term homelessness. There simply may not be anywhere else.

The new company is moving folks along because it has a very different vision for this neighborhood. Madison’s housing crisis means that it can be a very lucrative proposition to turn over rental housing from low-income tenants to young middle-class tenants. Between the university and Epic, demand – and rents – are high. Back in early June there was a story in the Wisconsin State Journal about this new company and its lead investor, and what they’re doing to L’s neighborhood. The article talks about one woman in particular, named Myra. She’s African-American, 62 years old, with some health problems. The head of the company called her situation “heartbreaking,” and said, “She’s like the freakin’ model tenant.” And yet, when her lease was reviewed to see if she could stay, the answer was that she did not meet their new criteria, and would have to move out. The reason given was that her grandchildren act unruly when they visit.

This wasn’t an entirely nice neighborhood, sure. There’s no question in my mind that it’ll be nicer, once the apartments all have new paint, and new appliances, and new young mostly-white tenants with full-time jobs and great credit histories. But will it be kinder?

I was talking with L about losing his home one day, and I was just thinking about him and his son, where they would go, whether they would be OK, but he started talking about his downstairs neighbor, an older lady who lived alone. He said that when his anxiety started to get too high, about money, about taking care of his son, whatever, he would pace, and she would hear him, and call him downstairs, and talk to him, and help him calm down. She’s being moved on too. All of them are. All of the folks who managed to make homes here, to make community here, in spite of peeling paint and late rents and litter.

What’s happening to L’s neighborhood will make it nicer. But it is not kind.

It’s easy to read this Gospel story, this moment that pits kindness against niceness, and feel a little smug. Feel like we’re securely in Jesus’s corner. We know that healing is more important than decorum. That freedom from bondage matters more than an orderly meeting that sticks to the agenda. We can send a contingent to the PRIDE parade, we can have thoughtful conversations about race and poverty. Well and good.

But, friends, the only reason we can feel smug, receiving this story, is that the niceness that matters to this synagogue leader is not the niceness that matters to us. The things that feel right, and orderly, and appropriate, and familiar, and proper, and safe, to him, are different from the things that feel that way to us. But we have those things. We have our nicenesses, too. And when our sense of nice is threatened, we get indignant. We start saying “ought.”

I think that instead of smugness, this Gospel story invites us into ongoing mild discomfort. The discomfort of realizing that our sense of Nice – and we’re Midwesterners; we’re big on Nice! – does not reliably track with God’s priorities. When something disturbs us, makes us uneasy or indignant, in our daily life or in our wider civic scene, this Gospel urges us to ask ourselves: Does it disturb me because it’s unkind? unjust? unloving? unmerciful? God cares about that, and so should we. Or it disturb us because it’s not nice? Because it violates our sense of respectability, order, and appropriateness?

And if after all it is our sense of nice that’s being challenged – then I think it’s incumbent upon us to hold that lightly. Because niceness can lead us astray. What Would Jesus Do? really can be a helpful question – as long as we remember that Jesus of the Gospels was almost unfailingly kind, but rarely bothered with nice.

Far from an invitation to smugness, this Gospel asks us, Where in our lives, in our world, might God’s holy purposes of healing and freeing from bondage be in tension with our sense of order and propriety? And that is an uncomfortable question.