By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 11:28-30
When I was little I had a small pet turtle. One day, while playing with my turtle I turned it over and suddenly noticed that the markings on its belly had changed. That seemed odd to me so I asked my mother about it. My mother was never a good liar; it didn’t take much for her true confession to tumble out. This was not my turtle. It was a replacement turtle. A couple of weeks before, my pre-school cousin Susie had visited. She had picked up my turtle and, not understanding how soft and vulnerable its underbelly was, she had crushed him. My parents hoped they could simply replace my turtle and I would never be the wiser. That experience, however, reinforced my parents’ frequent reminders to me about being careful and being gentle. It is easy for things to be broken. My parents fostered an awareness in me that fireflies and flowers, butterflies and turtles are living things and that life can be very fragile. Life requires gentleness. We all teach that to our children. Yet, as we grow bigger and stronger and wiser, sometimes we begin to forget the value of gentleness.
It’s tough to be gentle in a world that has become so harsh and aggressive. Perhaps you tuned in to watch the Commander in Chief forum – the first of its kind – on Wednesday evening. I don’t know if the timing had anything to do with the 15th anniversary of 9/11 or not but those in the audience – active service men and women and veterans – clearly have borne the ongoing burden of that fateful day 15 years ago that launched our nation into its longest running war.
In much of our culture today, gentleness has become a forgotten and neglected virtue. The harshness of our world extends far beyond military offenses. We have become a culture often lacking in simple courtesy; eager to caste dispersions and blame on others; suspicious and fearful of those who are different. Being gentle doesn’t come very easily to us, I’m afraid… and perhaps it never has. I know my little cousin Susie wasn’t trying to destroy my turtle. She was too young to anticipate the results of her forceful actions. And yet, she crushed the life out of my pet turtle. Far from any battlefield and a world away from places like Aleppo, Nairobi or South Sudan; even within our community – our schools, our businesses, our churches and our homes, we frequently do violence to one another’s spirits with words we blurt out in the heat of the moment, with little regard for their destructive results. We might want community, but what we often get is conflict. Bullying is not limited to grade schools. We live in a bullying world awash in suspicion, intimidation, competition, and condemnation.
Religion is not immune to our increasingly aggressive culture. And yet Jesus was pretty clear about what it meant to be his follower, his disciple. He was pretty clear that the lifestyle to which he calls us is one in which sheer might does not make right. Jesus had a lot to say about gentleness.
Now, most of us would name ourselves as disciples of Jesus and, if we do, it’s important for us to realize what it means to be a disciple. Our English word “disciple” comes from the Greek word mathetes which means “one who learns.” If we are disciples of Jesus, it means we learn from Jesus; we learn from what he said and did; and we learn, quite simply, from the example of how he lived.
The gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as one who is like a new Moses; a superior Moses. Like Moses, Jesus ascends a mountain and from that mountain he delivers God’s Word to the people in what we often refer to as The Sermon on the Mount. It begins with a collection of blessings, beatitudes, and among them is this one: “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.”[i] In English, we sometimes translate that word as “meek,” but I don’t think “meek” quite captures the sentiment of our Lord. Most of us think of meekness as weakness. But the gentleness Jesus upholds can only spring from a place of inner peace, security, and deep trust in God. Interestingly enough, this beatitude was nothing new or original. A psalmist centuries before had written, “But the meek shall inherit the earth.”[ii]
In the 11th chapter of Matthew, where we find the gospel words I shared this morning, Jesus is delivering the Word of God once again. As the rabbi, our teacher, he tells us what he is like and what he wants us to be like as his disciples or students. Jesus issues this invitation. “Come to me,” he says to the people who have been gathering around him, watching him as he performs miracles and listening to him as he preaches. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” That teaching is consistent with what Jesus has been doing and saying since his ministry began. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in another place in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, in order that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5.43-45). Jesus knows that it’s not brute strength and force that are going to get everything straightened out in the world. Gentleness is what the world needs. That’s why Jesus promises that those who are gentle will inherit the earth. While Rome and other armies were fighting to claim more territory, wielding the sword and trampling under foot whatever stood in their path, Jesus speaks the reassurance, the promise, that the gentle will inherit the earth… not the armies or the tyrants, not the strong and mighty, but the gentle, humble ones. Disciples of Jesus are those who follow his example of gentleness.
Now, we have to realize that when Jesus speaks of his yoke being easy, he isn’t promoting a religion for lazy people who don’t want to work on their relationship with God or other people. That’s not what Jesus means when he says his yoke is easy. Nor does Jesus imply that gentleness means we’ll never have to endure the stress or pain of confrontation or conflict. Sometimes there is no avoiding confrontation. Gentleness is not to be confused with naiveté, weakness or cowardice.
But Jesus is telling us that, when our hearts are humble and gentle, then Jesus will be working in us, with us and through us. When we’re willing to allow God to lead and guide us, rather than pushing ourselves and our own interests to the front of the line, then we’ll be working cooperatively with God. Jesus never had a problem holding anyone accountable. And Jesus and the early apostles encourage us to hold one another accountable for our words and actions. But in God’s family, it’s never right to make things harder for someone else solely for the purpose of making things easier for ourselves.
Ultimately, the way in which we live with one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ, ought to make it easy for people to recognize God’s grace through us. Not a cheap, simplistic grace that ignores what needs changing. But a powerful and transformative grace that gently nurtures us into becoming the people God wants us to be. Furthermore, how we respond to the world can be a proclamation of the teaching of our Lord. When we practice a persistent gentleness even in the face of aggression it becomes a witness to our faith in the one whose actions we seek to emulate. Jesus does more than teach us what to do and say; Jesus reveals how we are to live in a world so often embroiled in conflict and violence.
My father was a man of gentleness. When I was in high school, I remember him coming home one afternoon. He chatted with my mom about his day while she prepared dinner. He’d gone to visit a church member. It was a sunny, summer day and the man’s adolescent son was outside with friends playing on the sidewalk. My dad stopped to see what they were doing. They had magnifying glasses and they were training those magnifying glasses on ants on the sidewalk to burn them up. My dad sat down next to them and asked them what they thought it might feel like to be those ants. Without scolding them, my dad gently reminded them that those ants were living creatures, God’s creatures. They abandoned their magnifying glasses. As a teen at the time overhearing the story I thought to myself, “They’re ants. Nobody likes ants.” Yet, there are often times now, years after his death, when I am in a situation that makes me angry – and sometimes rightfully so – and I think, “Well, I’ll show them…” but then I remember my dad and his steady, consistent gentleness. I can imagine him sitting on that sidewalk with those boys providing a lesson in gentleness.
Friends, I think our world is desperate for some gentleness. I think that when I watch the news. I think that when I listen to our political leaders. I think that when I read some of the things people rashly and thoughtlessly post on social media. I think that when I hear parents tell me that they are every bit as scared that their kid will bully as they are about them being bullied.
So, how will things ever change? How can the world become a kinder, gentler place? Well, it can begin with us; by our practicing gentleness toward one another. You’ll notice I used the word practice. Because sometimes we get confused thinking that church is the place where everything should be working perfectly already, right? But, that’s not really very realistic. We might be working toward perfection, but most of us have a ways to go. But we can keep making progress if church becomes the place where we talk to one another, instead of about one another. Church is the place where we ought to be able to talk about the impact our words and decisions have on one another. Not to grumble behind one another’s backs; but to sit down face to face and strive to resolve our differences and tackle our challenges with gentleness and humility. Not to ignore our concerns; but to face them head on with gentleness and humility.
I confess to you that, after 22 years of preaching, I often go back to old sermons to look for stories or illustrations I’ve used in the past. I have preached this passage from Matthew before and when I went back to look at an old sermon, this is the illustration I found.
If you were around, you might recall the acceptance speech given at the Republican National Convention by George H.W. Bush on August 18, 1988 in which he framed the picture of national prosperity in this way: “It means teaching troubled children through your presence that there's such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it's soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.” Now, here’s where things turn remarkable relevant. In my prior sermon, following that quote of Bush, I referenced a March, 1990, magazine interview with Donald Trump conducted by New York Daily News reporter, Glenn Plaskin over a period of four months. One of their topics: the presidency and leadership of George H.W. Bush. And here was Trump’s reply to Plaskin: “I like George Bush very much… but I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.”
Well friends, it’s 2016 and we’re still here and here’s my take on things: I think that if our world does not get any kinder or gentler, we are all at jeopardy, in danger of crushing the life out of one another. Violence begets nothing but more violence. But that is not the way it needs to be and that is most certainly not the way Jesus wants it to be. Jesus, our gentle and humble Savior, invited us to a way of living that follows his gentle and humble example. He invites us to surrender our lives to him so that we can be people whose lifestyles reflect his life and whose words and actions result in gentler families, gentler schools, gentler businesses, a gentler community, a gentler nation, and a gentler world.
[i] Matthew 5:5. Note: the Greek praus is often translated “meek” but can also be translated “gentle.” I feel our cultural understanding of gentleness is closer to Jesus’ meaning.
[ii] Psalm 37:11.
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