Sermon preached September 23, 2012
Text: James 3:13-18; Mark 9:30-37
Water. This summer I had a couple of profound experiences with water. 2:45 am June 20 the phone at our house rang. That is usually not good news. It wasn’t. The Red Cross was calling to see if we would open our church as an emergency shelter because the rains had been pouring so hard that residents of Fond Du Lac and other areas were being evacuated. On my way to the church in the dark, I drove along Skyline Parkway, and just a couple of blocks from here were some cones around what looked like a deep hole with light shining out of it. Having a small car I navigated around the cones to get to the church. Later I realized I had driven right by that car that had sunk into the sink hole on Skyline. It was probably not the smartest thing I have ever done. Later that morning a couple who were at the church asked if anyone could take them down to CHUM. I agreed to do so. The rain was still falling hard, and driving downtown I could see how some avenues had become rivers, and how pavement had been torn loose. Few of us will forget what we witnessed June 20 and after here in Duluth.
Later in the summer, as part of our vacation we visited Niagara Falls. They are an amazing sight to see. We signed up for a tour, and as part of our tour, we were driven up river from the falls, toward Lake Ontario. A few miles north of the falls, at a much more serene place in the Niagara River, our driver told us that thousands of years ago, this was where the falls were located. The falls have gradually moved down stream to their current location, and the current rate of the movement of the falls is about 1 foot per year. Water falling over rock wears away at it year after year. It happens even when the water is flowing gently.
Gentleness. The American Heritage Dictionary defines gentle this way: considerate or kindly in disposition, amiable and tender. I have become impressed in more recent years by how often “gentleness” is mentioned in the New Testament, including in our readings for today. In James we read: Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
The image of Jesus is Mark 9 is an image of gentleness, along with an image of strength. The disciples argue about greatness. Jesus tells them that the greatest are those who serve. Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. Gentleness.
I have become convinced that gentleness is a hallmark of the Christian life, of the Jesus way. Someone has written: “gentleness is a vital dimension of the kingdom of God” (John Swinton, Living Gently in a Violent World, 19). What does that mean for us who want to be on the Jesus way?
We need to know that gentleness is not weakness. The gentle Jesus welcoming children is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross. It will take deep strength to keep integrity in the midst of all that will be happening. There is remarkable strength in the gentleness of Jesus. Gentleness is the strength of a flowing stream. In the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching we find these words: The softest thing in the world overcomes the hardest thing in the world. (#43, translated by Stephen Mitchell). Another translation of that same text reads: The softest, most pliable thing in the world runs roughshod over the firmest thing in the world (tr. Robert G. Hendricks).
What does gentle strength look like? There could be a book in this, but I have just a few minutes. Let me quickly identify five dimensions of the gentleness of the Jesus way.
Gentleness means smoothing over rough edges. Who of us does not have some rough places in our lives – impatience, anger, less compassion than we would like, some pattern of behavior that is not life-giving? In a speech given the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Bobby Kennedy said: let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Some of that “savageness” rests inside us. We have rough edges that need smoothing inside our lives – we need some self-monitoring and self-discipline.
I have been thinking about the need for self-monitoring and self-discipline lately in regard to free speech and freedom of expression. I believe strongly in free speech and freedom of expression. I also think people need to think a bit about how they want to express their viewpoint. Is it helpful to criticize radical Islam by making an awful film trashing the prophet Mohammed? A woman named Pamela Geller is taking out ads in a few New York subway stations that will read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” Is equating Islam with savagery really helpful? The violent response of some Muslims to the wretched film, “Innocence of the Muslims” is another example of expression run amok. An offensive film is no justification at all for violence and killing. On another front, is the best use of free speech the publication of topless photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge?
Gentleness encourages some self-restraint, self-examination, self-discipline so that rough edges in our lives can be smoothed over, making more gentle our lives and our world.
Gentleness means openness to others. Children in Jesus’ day were not given a lot of attention in the society. They were marginalized. Jesus takes time for them. Jesus embraces them. Gentleness means openness to others. We keep the possibility of friendship open with those who are different from us and those on the margins. We are able to say to others, in the words of Josef Pieper: “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world” (quoted in Living Gently in a Violent World, 20). Let’s try it with a neighbor. It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in this world. Might such gentleness affect how we think about the constitutional amendments we have to vote on this fall – on marriage and on voter identification?
Gentleness as openness to others also means be willing to learn from others. I was so pleased that we held an event called “Respectful Conversations” here. It provided a structure for people to talk about the marriage amendment in a respectful way. The goal was to open and soften hearts rather than to change minds. The process can be used with other issues. Gentleness.
Gentleness entails compassion for others. When we get to know others, we may encounter suffering, and gentleness moves us to do what we can to help those who suffer. We want to make more gentle the life of this world.
Gentleness involves engaging conflict well. Gentle people will disagree with one another. James cautions us about conflict, but his words are about conflict gone awry. Engaging conflict well is a part of gentleness. I am pleased that our denomination supports an organization called JustPeace. It is a center for mediation and conflict transformation and it offers wonderful guidance for working with differences and conflicts. It starts by suggesting building strong relationships as a context for dealing with differences, relationships where we listen well and share lovingly. We cultivate in ourselves God’s love. We use processes for conversation that help us understand each other better – processes like respectful conversations or circle processes. I am going to post the JustPeace web site when I post my sermon (www.justpeaceumc.org).
Finally, gentleness has to do with recognizing that we need to give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. I am going to explore some of this more next week in a sermon whose title will be: “It’s All About Not About You.” Here’s what I need to say this morning. In our lives, we want to leave something worthwhile behind. There is this song by Lee Ann Womack with the lyrics: I’ll probably never hold the brush that paints a masterpiece/I’ll probably never find the pen that writes a symphony/But if I will love then I will find/I’ve touched another life and that’s something/Something worth leaving behind. When we live life with that kind of gentleness, we not only leave something worthwhile behind, we give God something God can use in God’s work of building a newer world.
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes no me but the one who sent me.
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling us to live gently. Try a little tenderness – a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. Amen.