Adapted from a previous sermon series at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas
and inspired and using ideas and content from the Rev. Chris B. Herring
preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church of Saint Louis. Original citation lost.
So, on a sermon about GENTLENESS,
I want to start, of course, with a story about Steven Seagal.
Before Steven Seagal became an actor, if you can call him that,
starring in action movies like Under Siege and Above the Law,
He claims to have had a working relationship with the CIA[i].
He told the story to David Letterman,
And as he tells it, he was at an international airport
undercover, see, on a stakeout, posing as an airport employee,
when a woman approached him with a pet carrier containing her dog.
She was distressed, and she babbled something
about having to take care of some business somewhere.
And she asked Steven,
who was at an information desk or something staffing it to help fliers
she asked him if he could look after her dog for an hour or so.
Not knowing what to say and not wanting to blow his cover, he agreed.
A few minutes after she left, he noticed that the dog was…well, not moving.
He checked, and to his dismay, that dog was d-e-a-d dead! Deceased.
He immediately called the other CIA agents.
Now, they couldn’t afford to cause a scene
by telling the woman that her dog was dead,
so they plotted to replace the dog, a Bichon
with an identical breed at a nearby pet shop,
put the old collar on her, no one would know the difference.
That way, when she came back and saw her dog
she’d be happy and not cause a fuss.
So the woman returned, and they opened the cage and the dog ran to her.
And she took look at her dog, And then she SCREAMED,
fainted right there in the airport.
So much for not causing a scene…
When she came to, she apologized
and explained that she was shocked, you know, and overjoyed.
She thought her dog was DEAD when she left,
and well, now her dog was alive!
The business she left to go take care of: the arrangements for her dog’s burial.
The moral of the story:
Sometimes we think that we’re doing the right thing when we’re not.[ii]
Sometimes we do wrong out of ignorance.
Sometimes out of pressure.
Sometimes out of fear.
Sometimes, its hard to do the right thing, isn’t it.
But, as often, the challenge is discerning in the first place
between the right thing and the wrong thing.
And I think that’s exactly where today’s Fruit of the Spirit,
the Fruit of GENTLENESS
might be able to help us,
as we try to put our faith into action, to live out our faith
when the rubber hits the road, if you will…
I’ve mentioned before that the inspiration for this sermon series
came from a similar set of sermons my father did many years ago
and there was a story then that he told
about a time when I was a little child
and my folks had a birthday party for me.
My mom was so excited apparently, maybe not as much as I was,
but really excited to celebrate my birthday. That’s my mom.
Our parties were nothing fancy, but the standards were there:
snacks, a bunch of friends, a banner hanging on the wall, birthday cake.
She’d organize various kinds of contests—I can’t remember them in detail,
but pin the tail on the donkey was a big one,
maybe a water-balloon toss on a hot June day.
And she’d often buy little presents
to give to my friends who came to the celebration.
If you won one of the games, you know, you could go over to that prize table
where the toys or candy or whatever were displayed
and pick out the one you wanted.
And there were more than enough gifts to go around,
so no one ever left without one, Mom made sure about that,
but, see, some kids got to choose before others, right
and so some of the kids were left with whatever it was that
nobody else much wanted, the not-as-good goodies.
Thinking over the nine fruit of the Spirit that Paul offers in Galatians, I wonder,
if they were all laid out on a table—
love, peace, joy
patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—
I wonder, which would you choose?
Wouldn’t this eighth fruit, wouldn’t GENTLENESS
be the one most likely left over after all the others had been chosen?
It seems to me that, among these traits of a spirit-filled life,
GENTLENESS may be the one that few in our society,
people of faith like us among them too,
may be the one that few of us really desire very much.
I mean, its okay to be soft and cuddly and accommodating
in some situations and places.
But to be as a general rule DOCILE and a SOFT TOUCH,
to telegraph vulnerability wherever we are—
that hardly seems to be a REALISTIC stance
in the rough and tumble world where we live.
Some politicans and political parties,
and I’d argue in a way both of our major political parties at times,
some more than others,
go out of their way to argue that GENTLENESS is the root of our problems
and that their idea of TOUGHNESS, however they formulate it,
is what is called for.
Instead, it is far better, we think, to be ASSERTIVE
to take control of situations to get what we want
to never apologize or back down
speak loudly, and carry a big stick,
Who wants to be known as GENTLE?
Moreover, our openness to this fruit of GENTLENESS
is unlikely to grow
when we start examining with a critical eye this word that Paul chooses,
like we’ve been doing with the other fruit of the spirit.
The King James Version decided to render this word
And why not?
The same Greek root word used by Paul for this fruit called GENTLENESS
is used in Matthew, when Jesus preaches his sermon on the mount.
“Blessed are the MEEK, for they will inherit the earth.”
Right there in the Beatitudes, where Jesus is talking about
the very values of the Kingdom he has come to proclaim…
Meek. Gentle. Same Greek root word…
But, lets be honest, who wants to be MEEK, anyway?
Ok, but often we find that when our instincts butt up against a biblical teaching,
say a word from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount
or maybe these various FRUIT that stands up against
the machismo and toughness of our world
and one which, maybe, we ourselves struggle with
when we think about the fragility of our communities
and how we think maybe gentleness means
we’re just capitulating to be sitting ducks
we know that we need, in these moments, to stop
and listen very carefully
and consider what God might actually be trying to say to us.
If it is true that this quality, as some scholars argue,
might be “one of the great essentials of the Christian life”,[iii]
then I think none of us should be too quick to leave this fruit
lying on the prize table for someone else to take instead.
Sounds to me like it may be vital for our Christian Life too….
But maybe it is that our initial aversion, if we can call it that,
is simply a lack of understanding of what this Biblical concept really means…
We have often found during this sermon series that
the Fruit of the Spirit have a different and deeper meaning for Paul
than what we might originally suspect,
and that is more true for this particular fruit than for any of the others.
The fact is, GENTLENESS does NOT imply being a pushover, a doormat,
a passive pawn who allows anyone and everyone to walk down his or her back.
MEEKNESS does not mean failing to EVER take a stand.
It does not mean a FAILURE to ever push the boundaries.
THAT should be obvious when we remember two people
in the Bible are described as being meek:
Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Jesus himself….
Moses—the most prominent figure in the entire Old Testament.
–The one who, from the comfort of the Pharaoh’s mansion,
saw an Egyptian beating a fellow Hebrew and responded
–The one who, after having been called and equipped by God,
leaves the SAFETY and SECURITY
of his father-in-law’s house in Midean,
where he had fled, you might remember,
and returned to Egypt to fulfill the task given him by God
to free God’s people from slavery,
CONFRONTING the Pharaoh again and again
as God sent plague after plague on the Egyptians.
–Moses was the one who led the nation across the Red Sea
and later DARES to go up the mountain, to do what?
To meet God face to face, and to receive the 10 commandments.
Do you remember how, in an ANGRY outburst,
Moses broke the two tables of the covenant he had just been given,
when we came down that mountain
and saw first hand his people wavering, their making of a golden calf?
Moses would later BOLDLY LEAD his nation to the promised land,
even as he would not set foot in it…
THIS? THIS is the man of whom Numbers says
“Now the man Moses was very MEEK,
more than all men who were on the face of the earth.”?[iv]
No one else in the Hebrew Bible is described with that term.
And Jesus—the central figure of the New Testament.
–The one who courageously spoke the word of God,
–DEFIANTLY broke religious laws in order to heal people,
–who PUBLICLY pointed out the hypocrisy and sin
of the power structure of his day—
both within the religious order and the order of the state…
–Jesus, who PROVOKED the authorities by riding into the capitol on a donkey
as Passover was about to begin
cloaks on the ground in a way that made claim to be KING,
–Jesus, who THREW the money changers out of the temple,
and proclaimed that in his crucifixion he would draw all people to himself.
THIS is the man who names himself GENTLE in offering to share his yoke
with others, “for I am GENTLE and humble in heart…”
THIS is the man about whom Paul talks of being
filled with “MEEKNESS and GENTLENESS.”[v]
No other person in the New Testament is described in quite those terms…
So it is that Paul lists gentleness among the Spirit’s fruit,
and urges his readers—urges you and me—
to live out THIS quality in our relationships with others.
Today I’ve read a familiar passage from Ephesians,
in which the Pauline author
talks about the one body and the one Spirit and the one God of us all…
Paul says in Ephesians that to build unity,
we need humbleness and GENTLENESS and patience and love.
That’s another way of saying we need to be like Christ,
who was all these things…
But, if Gentleness does NOT mean spinelessness, passivity,
submissiveness, then what does it mean?
What do the Biblical writers want us to understand
about being gentle, or being meek?
Just WHAT in the WORLD would our life LOOK LIKE,
if we were able to live out, however imperfect,
this quality of Moses and of Christ?
This passage in Ephesians, actually, does us a good service
and points us in a helpful direction.
You may have noticed how both of our scripture readings this morning
closely tie together GENTLENESS on the one hand,
and HUMILITY on the other.
Jesus says: “I am GENTLE and HUMBLE in heart.”
Ephesians urges: “…live a life worthy of the calling
to which you have been called, with all HUMILITY and GENTLENESS…”
So lets think a bit about humility.
Humility BEGINS in knowing who we are, and whose we are.
Humility begins in knowing that we are mere creatures in this VAST cosmos,
made from dust, finite, truly a tiny speck in the scope of the entire universe.
But we have been GIVEN breath and life,
and indeed, the possibility of NEW life,
by the God of Moses, the one we have come to know through Jesus,
the one who calls us to discipleship through Christ.
Our Worth. Our Value. Our Abilities. All that we have and are…
WE didn’t create that.
GOD gives us that…
And, in the fullest sense, we believe that GOD, the one who created us
calls us to follow Christ, to be a part of Christ’s body,
that we might have hope and find direction and be filled with purpose.
Contrary to how it may seem
in our mad scramble to provide meaning and security and merit for ourselves,
it is God’s calling of us that makes us who we are,
that opens us to abundant life,
that bestows on us our significance.
We are dependent on God
for that which we cannot possibly give ourselves.
THAT realization is the stuff of humility.
To realize we belong to God, not to ourselves.
Moses CERTAINLY understood that dependency,
from his call at the burning bush to the time of his death,
beholding the promised land he would never get to walk through…
Certainly Jesus understood that relationship,
at least from the time of his baptism to his death and his resurrection.
Both knew their origins IN God, their call FROM God,
AND their dependence ON God.
To be honest, I don’t know which is more rejected in our time:
This notion of Humility, or what we think of as meekness.
We are often far LESS than humble people.
Too frequently we forget who we are,
we are far too impressed with ourselves
and what we KNOW and have DONE and DESERVE and DESIRE.
But discipleship is rooted in humility,
in an attitude which not only acknowledges our need before God,
but which also sees ourselves as no better than the other human beings
with whom we share this journey.
Humility causes the GENTLE person to RECOGNIZE
just how hard it is to do what Ephesians wants from us, to
“maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”
in our communities.
Difficult, because though we all sin and fall short of the glory of God,
we usually believe OURSELVES to be more correct than the other guy…
Difficult because we all come from different backgrounds
and experiences and learnings.
Difficult, really, because living the life of faith,
is itself the most rigorous task than any of us could possibly accept….
But Humility teaches us about a gentle spirit:
When we are in a dispute with someone,
though we are to be bold to state our case,
to be filled with GENTLENESS is to recognize
that others have a right to their opinions, too.
A gentle spirit listens, perhaps more than he or she speaks.
(Boy, I don’t know about you, but that’s a hard one for me…)
The gentle spirit acknowledges the right of others
to have their own views and to advocate for them.
A gentle spirit “does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful…”
To echo Paul in First Corinthians…
Fair enough. But there’s more to GENTLENESS than all of that.
Consider what William Barclay says
when he looked at GENTLENESS in Paul’s list
and reminded us what the philosopher Aristotle had to say.
Aristotle would have been well known, a part of the worldview of
the Greek-speaking gentiles, and even many of the Jewish converts,
to whom Paul was writing.
This renowned teacher, who lived about three centuries before Jesus,
thought that each virtue was the mean between two extremes.
You might have learned this as the Golden Mean in your philosophy 101 courses.
Now, Aristotle taught that GENTLENESS is the happy medium
between excessive anger, and extreme passivity.
So Barclay quotes Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics,
saying that the person who is GENTLE is the one who feels anger
(now this is a mouthful)…“on the right grounds,
against the right persons,
and in the right manner,
and at the right moment,
AND for the right length of time.”
Barclay attempts to summarize it for us:
The GENTLE person “is the one who is ALWAYS angry at the right time,
and NEVER angry at the WRONG time.”
When is the RIGHT time to be angry?
When is it the WRONG time? Talk about a doozy?
Well, that’s why sometimes its hard to know when to replace the dead dog
or just to leave it alone in the cage.
Its the responsibility of each of us to work it out,
but I think we certainly get pointers from the life of Moses and Jesus.
Both displayed a RIGHTEOUS anger…and a FORGIVING love.
Both Moses and Jesus
express their anger at something specific:
HARM or INJURY or INJUSTICE done to others,
rather than at some affront to themselves.
MOSES: known for standing up to a Taskmaster who beat a slave
a RULER who OPPRESSED God’s people
a NATION who strayed from the love of God
and started turning in on itself and its weakest citizens
JESUS: whose anger was reserved
…for those who valued RITUAL
at the expense of people’s hurt and suffering
…who used their positions to EXPLOIT those who came to worship God,
…who TALKED of honoring God with their mouths,
but who discounted God by their actions.
Never, ever did Jesus become angry at some deed done against him,
not even, for instance, as personal a rejection as Peter’s betrayal,
but offered instead a calm understanding…Father, forgive them,
that helped a sinful people grow toward God…
THIS is why I do not believe God would have ANY of us
be passive in the face of real abuse,
and why the examples of Moses and Jesus point us
toward being ANGRY at injustices done to others,
to God’s people in OUR time and place
who are OPPRESSED or EXCLUDED
or SHACKLED or BROKEN or in need of HEALING,
rather than when folk do US wrong in some non-abusive way…
The fruit of GENTLENESS, then, rooted in humility,
would encourage us to seek both PEACE and JUSTICE
for those who live in the community.
It would allow us to seek to be RECONCILERS,
even among those who have treated us unfairly,
and to be INSTIGATORS too,
speaking truth to the powers of our day so that all God’s people
might know God’s peace.
Such GENTLENESS seems, to me at any rate,
to be exactly what Jesus and Moses were all about…
very much a part of our calling as Christians,
of those who want to live in the unity of the Spirit.
As I think about it…
I am struck by how much DISCERNMENT and COMMITMENT
and SELF-CONTROL, which we will talk about next Sunday,
is necessary to bear this fruit of Gentleness.
Always angry at the right time. Never angry at the wrong time.
Putting our faith into action, hopeful to be doing real good in the world,
Rather than the folly of replacing a dead dog with a new one….
It seems to me THAT is as great a challenge as ANY
which have been presented to us in Paul’s list of spirit-filled traits.
Maybe, after thinking about it,
We might still be tempted to leave gentleness on the prize table…
not so much because we don’t understand it,
but because, after getting it,
we’re worried that the effort it would take seems simply too great…
But, that is EXACTLY Paul’s point, of course,
in naming Gentleness as a fruit of the spirit.
It is a GIFT to us, something possible if we allow God to work in our lives.
God throws a party for us, and offers us so many gifts on God’s party table,
that we can grab one of each.
Let us open our arms, our hearts, our souls.
Let us receive all that the spirit has to offer.
And may we allow the spirit to harvest the blessings of God in our life,
and in the life of the world….
[ii] Cited in Gregory L. Tolle, Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit: Series V, Cycle C (Lima, Ohio: CSS publishing, 2006), 60-61.
[iii] Citation lost, but believed to be William Barclay.
[iv] Numbers 12:3
[v] 2 Corinthians 10:1
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