By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 16:19-31
I can tell you that, when I was a young adult in seminary, Luke was my favorite gospel. But perhaps I should also mention that, in that season of my life – aside from my twin bed, a dresser, and an old family rocking chair – I could fit all of my worldly belongings in the hatch of my Pontiac T-1000, including my 1960’s Smith Corona typewriter that had served my father well in his seminary days two decades prior. Now, just to be clear about my age, there were computers when I went to seminary. They were just beyond my budget. Today, however, I wouldn’t stand much chance of success if I tried to pack up my life into the hatch of my Honda Fit.
Luke has long been referred to as the gospel of the least, the last, and the lost. It is a gospel for the down-trodden and it directs some pretty harsh words toward the wealthy. Now, while few of us in the sanctuary this morning would consider ourselves wealthy, in 2011 Pew Research revealed that 88% of Americans qualified as either upper-middle income or high income when viewed on a global scale and that very fact ought to give us reason to approach this parable with humility, or even some nervous apprehension. We’re blessed to live in a prosperous nation and it’s very easy for us to forget that even things as basic as three meals a day, a refrigerator, clean water, or a bed to crawl into at day’s end is beyond the reach of many people… refugees from the Middle East; victims of tribal warfare on the African continent, victims of political oppression in Central and Southern American.
Now, before I break open this parable and we dig down into the meat of it, it’s helpful for me to review a little of last week’s sermon which was also a story from Luke’s gospel. Last Sunday, I preached the scripture about Jesus healing ten lepers. I shared the story of the puppy Britt and I had found in the street and I pointed out that that story elevates another theme, a related theme, in Luke’s gospel: mercy. I noted the fact that acts of mercy (such as Jesus healing those lepers) are the outward expression of compassion (a feeling deep in our guts; a kind of visceral reaction to the suffering of another). And last week I spoke of generosity as the outward expression of inward feelings of gratitude for the mercy God has shown us.
So let me repeat that, succinctly, one more time: Our God is a merciful God who responds to our needs because God feels compassion for us. And the compassionate mercy of God in our lives should evoke feelings of gratitude expressed through generosity toward others.
But that is not what occurs in this morning’s parable. It is the story of a rich man and a poor man. Now, the rich man is clothed in purple robes. Purple was a very expensive dye worn only by royalty and the wealthy. Furthermore, this man gorges himself at a sumptuous feast on a daily basis. He appears to live a life of indulgence, gluttony and ease. The parable’s second character is a poor man whose name is Lazarus. It might interest you to know that, among Jesus’ many parables, this is the only instance in which a character is given a proper name. And, his name is significant. It gives a foreshadowing of what's to come. His name means "God Helps."
Now Lazarus is a street person. Our English translation is inadequate when we are told he “lay” at the rich man’s gates. In fact, Lazarus was dumped at the gate. The Greek verb means, “to throw or let go of something without caring where it falls.”[i] Thus Lazarus is, most likely, lame and someone has deposited him in this location with about as much regard as I give when I toss a bag of trash into a dumpster. Now, it’s important for us to realize that the label “poor” was utilized somewhat differently in the ancient Mediterranean world. In Jesus’ culture, the vast majority of people would have been designated poor by strict economic standards; they were peasants. But, according to Bruce Malina, a bible scholar and cultural anthropologist, the “poor” were, more specifically, those unable to maintain their “place” in society.[ii] Remember that the Mediterranean world is a communal culture and things like disease isolated people and removed them from their place in society thus removing them from their support structure. Now, that is not to say that pure economic suffering was insignificant; it was most certainly a concern and a focus of Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and healing. But it is also to say that the suffering of Lazarus – as the parable notes – goes far beyond economics. His skin has open sores and the fact that he is dropped at the gate indicates he was likely lame. Lazarus is – in every regard – a person desperate for mercy. Someone ought to have felt compassion for him and acted out that compassion through tangible acts of mercy. And yet, there he lies: desperate, hungry and alone.
As the parable continues, both men soon die. That would come as no surprise. After all, living on the street takes years off your life. And, over-indulgence, regularly gorging oneself on rich, fatty foods, is a heart attack waiting to happen. This rich man’s lifestyle brings to mind our modern cliché about “partying like a rock star.”
But what awaits each man in death is the “zinger” of the parable, one might say. The rich man finds himself in Hades being tormented by fire. The poor man, however, is whisked away to the bosom of Abraham. His physical posture is described so as to reflect the position of greatest honor at a banquet, just to the right of the host. This is quite the turn of events. And, the rich man is, understandably, distressed. Before death, he lived a life of ease, where others catered to his every want and need. Apparently in death, he still expects to be catered to. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to be his water boy and cool his parched tongue. And, if that can’t happen, then send Lazarus as his errand boy to warn his siblings of the wrath to come.
Our parable presents a disturbing role reversal. Because the rich man had it easy in his earthly life, he faces an eternity of painful suffering. And, because Lazarus spent his earthly life in want and suffering, death brings him eternal comfort and consolation. So what are we – my fellow Americans deemed wealthy on the global stage – what are we to make of this very unsettling story?
Well, perhaps you’ve noticed that I have yet to address the presence of our parable’s third character, Abraham. Father Abraham was Judaism’s great patriarch. In fact, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims through the centuries, the status as Abraham’s heirs is a treasured role. And yet, as the apostle Paul so frequently reminds, it is not an identity to be taken for granted or assumed. It is not simple genetics that cement our place in the family. And, like Paul, Luke’s gospel also drives that message home. Early in Luke, John the Baptist lays the foundation for Jesus’ ministry as he calls his followers to a baptism of repentance; a kind of repentance clearly disregarded by the rich man and his siblings. John proclaims: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John’s audience then wants to know what should they do. And John spells it out for them with very clear and direct examples: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”[iii] John wraps up his sermon by making this comment on the impending ministry of Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[iv]
And so we arrive at this morning’s parable with a merciless rich man who now finds himself exactly where John warned: in agony in the fiery flames of Hades. During their life together on this earth, the rich man had every opportunity to show mercy to Lazarus; to share from his own bounty as John the Baptist taught. The rich man clearly knew Lazarus was there for now he recognizes him by sight far off in the bosom of Abraham. He even knew his name. And yet, even now, he expresses no regret for his failure to feel compassion and demonstrate mercy. He implores Father Abraham for mercy for himself; but he sure wasn’t very interested in the virtue of mercy when Lazarus laid lame, hungry and covered with sores just outside his gate.
Friends; our God is a merciful God who responds to our needs because God feels compassion for us.
Susannah Heschel, daughter of the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, summarized the instruction she learned from her father Abraham, “Religion evokes obligation and the certainty that something is asked of us, that there are ends which are in need of us. God is not only a power we depend on; He is a God who demands. God poses a challenge to go beyond ourselves.”[v]
This is the Word of our Lord who is merciful and gracious; who sent us Moses and the prophets and even a Savior who rose from the dead to remind and to convince us of the need for compassion and mercy, for gratitude and generous sharing.
[i] The Greek verb is ballo and this definition is provided by BibleWorks software.
[ii] See The New Testament World; Insights from Cultural Anthropology by Bruce Malina. Westminster John Knox Press; 2001. Malina notes that “poor” was not generally used as a class or economic designation. Judging by the way it is used in many scriptures, being “poor” is “the result of some unfortunate turn of events or some untoward circumstances. Poor persons seem to be those who cannot maintain their inherited status due to circumstances that befall them…” (p. 100). “In this context, rich and poor really refer to the greedy and the socially ill-fated.”
[iii] Luke 3:7-17
[iv] See also Luke 13:28. For more on this understanding of Abrahamic status, see Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by David deSilva; Intervarsity Press; 2000; pp. 202ff, Redefining Descent from Abraham.
[v] Taken from Pleading, Cursing, Praising: Conversing with God through the Psalms by Irene Nowell. Liturgical Press; 2013; p. 7.
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 17:11-19
Years ago, when my husband, Britt, and I were living in Dayton, Ohio, we were driving down a road on the west side of town when suddenly, in the middle of the road, was a puppy. The little guy had collapsed in the road. His head was slumped over a stale, crisp leaf which had fallen off a tree months before. He appeared to be attempting to eat the leaf. Britt and I seemed to gasp in unison and Britt stopped and walked toward the puppy. He was a pitiful sight. He was so undernourished that his skeletal frame was visible all over. He was deformed – swayback, flat feet and misshapen legs. He was filthy and his smell made me sick to my stomach. Nevertheless, he was such a pathetic little thing that something stirred even deeper in my gut: a feeling of compassion.
I scooped him into my SUV and headed to the local animal rescue shelter. It was a no-kill shelter where the animals are kept for as long as it takes for them to be adopted. Even the shelter workers cringed when I entered the door with that little guy. They examined him announcing that he was dehydrated and severely malnourished and very close to death. None of which was news to me. They gave him some subcutaneous fluids and then proceeded to explain that there was no room at their facility for this puppy. I had two options, I could take him to one of several shelters in the area which would give him a limited time for adoption and then euthanize or Britt and I could become his foster parents until he recovered enough to be put up for adoption. So, home we went with worming medication and instructions to feed him a ¼ c. of dog food every two to three hours for the next three or four days. Before his meal, he received a bath which made him a little easier on the nose. A member of my congregation was regional manager for a local pet store chain and was happy to contribute to the cause by loaning out a kennel. The shelter had emphasized that part of the pup’s deformities could be corrected with nutrition and exercise. That first weekend life revolved around that pathetic little puppy. His kennel was in our finished basement. Every couple hours, we released him from the kennel and put him in the backyard to do his business. We stood and waited while he, in a weary and wobbly fashion, meandered around the back yard. When he did business, he was greatly praised then we headed inside for a meal and a drink. The flight of stairs to the main floor was encouraged for exercise. Nevertheless it could take up to five minutes of coaxing and praising to entice him up those stairs. It was such a huge effort for him, all I wanted to do was lift him up and carry him to his dish. Once he made it to the top of the stairs there was, again a great deal of praise and a dish of food and water waiting in the kitchen. After he ate and drank, he wobbled back down the stairs to his kennel where he fell into an exhausted heap and slept until we awakened him three hours later to begin this whole procedure again.
As it turned out, we wound up fostering that little pup for two months. Now, two months is too long to simply be addressed by “hey puppy” – especially when there was already one puppy and two dogs in the house. So, we named the little guy Elos, an adaptation of the Greek word for mercy. We suspected, and the shelter affirmed, that Elos would not have survived much longer. Without our intervention, Elos would have likely been dead within a day – a victim of starvation, dehydration and exposure. Only mercy saved him. He looked hideous, he smelled disgusting and he was too weak to demonstrate any interest in anyone or anything. Elos needed mercy and mercy was what he got. A warm house, a soft blanket, nutritious food, cool clean water, affection, training and exercise all were his for the next two months and Elos thrived on them. His body weight doubled in those two months. His bones and muscles strengthened and some of those skeletal deformities did correct themselves. And he grew to be the happiest puppy you could ever see. He had a zest for life and was full of orneriness. His wobbling turned into bouncing. Elos seemed to bounce with glee wherever he went. He loved to roll around on the floor with our Doberman puppy and they took turns chasing one another around the dining room table and the backyard. We dubbed our Dobe his “physical therapist,” a relationship encouraged by the vet for its beneficial effects physically, mentally and socially. Elos especially loved to drag throw rugs and other items around the house. But, his greatest delight was over-turning water dishes – the fuller, the better. Little Elos was a puppy so much in need of mercy. Mercy not only spared his life, but made him whole. And his joyful bounce, playful antics, and generous affection were the canine version of gratitude.
Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen says that a ministry community – that is, a church – is characterized by gratitude and compassion.[i] In other words, a ministering community is one in which the mercy of God is recognized and acknowledged through outward expressions of gratitude. Throughout the Old Testament, “mercy” is lifted up as a primary attribute of God; it is integral to God’s identity. In the Book of Exodus, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to get the commandments from the Lord. There on the mountain, God appears to Moses and announces himself with these descriptive words: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…”[ii] Mercy is the outward manifestation of God’s compassion for his people. In our gospels, Jesus reveals that same compassion; a compassion demonstrated by his acts of mercy. In Luke’s gospel, the Virgin Mary proclaims the coming of Jesus as a fulfillment of God’s promised mercy to his people. Jesus – who he is and what he does – is the expression of God’s eternal mercy in the face of human suffering and need. As I felt compassion deep in my gut when I looked at that sad little puppy near death; Jesus feels compassion (a gut-wrenching response) when he looks upon us in our need.
This morning’s gospel is a story of ten lepers who cry out to Jesus for mercy. Being a leper involved more than a painful skin condition. To be a leper meant one was considered unclean and therefore exiled from community. Lepers were cast out – cast out of their families and villages; forbidden to enter the Temple for worship. These ten lepers know the reality of their condition so they cry out to Jesus from a distance, begging for his mercy. And Jesus sees them; he sees their sorrowful condition and their suffering stirs compassion within Jesus. Jesus shows them mercy. He instructs these lepers to go and show themselves to the priest. Only the priest could pronounce a clean bill of health and allow re-admittance to home and village and Temple. As they go on their way, they experience healing; they see it happen. It is a radical transformation of their life and yet, only one of those ten turn around and go back to express gratitude to Jesus. He falls at Jesus’ feet. His action is described with a word that means most literally “to descend from a higher place to a lower place.” The word also describes a posture of worship. This one leper humbles himself before Jesus he thanks Jesus and worships him.
Friends, today after our worship, we will celebrate the success of our brick campaign. This beautiful sanctuary was built in 1869. For almost 150 years, people have stepped through the doors into this sanctuary to worship and give God praise and we do so because God’s mercy has changed our lives. God’s mercy gave us life. God’s mercy gave us Jesus as Lord and Savior. God’s mercy places his Spirit within us to sustain us and guide us. God’s mercy is the reason for our gratitude and generosity. Just as mercy is the outward manifestation of God’s compassion, generosity is the outward manifestation of our gratitude for all that God has done for us. Ultimately, generosity is not the result of wealth or even wise management of resources… although both of those things can contribute to generosity. But, more than anything else, generosity is the outward expression of gratitude; a spiritual practice, a spiritual response to our recognition of the incredible difference God’s mercy has made in our lives. As thankful as I am for the contributions so many of you made to our brick campaign, today is not really about celebrating us. Today is about giving thanks for what God has done for us; for the mercy he has shown; for the blessings he’s bestowed.
And if we can interpret the celebration of this day in that way, it changes us; it saves us. 10 lepers were cleansed of their leprosy; but only the one who returns thanks to Jesus – only the one who humbly kneels and gives praise – only over that one does Jesus proclaim salvation; a healing and wholeness; a restoration of our relationship with God and with others.
Friends, our celebration today is really about seeing and giving thanks for all that God has done for us as individuals and as a congregation.
One of my favorite movies is the 1991 film What About Bob that starred Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss. Murray plays Bob, a character in great psychological distress. He is referred for treatment to Dreyfuss’ character, Dr. Marvin, a distinguished psychiatrist who takes himself a little too seriously. At Bob’s initial appointment he learns that the doctor is headed out of town for an extended vacation with family. Unable to wait for his return, Bob persuades the answering service to disclose the doctor’s location. Bob boards the bus and shows up on the doorstep of Dr. Marvin’s lakeside vacation home. Bob quickly ingratiates himself to Marvin’s wife and children. My favorite scene takes place one evening over a lovely and simple home-cooked meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. Bob eats in gregarious fashion, lavishing compliments on Marvin’s wife. As he chews, he seems to enter a euphoric state – throwing his head back, closing his eyes, and mmm, mmm-ing his way through the meal. His simple behavior infuriates Marvin who cannot see what Bob sees so clearly: the blessings of good home cooking, a family that loves you, and a quaint cottage by the lake with fresh air and plenty of trees. Bob is humble and simple and gushes with gratitude for the mercy Marvin’s wife and children show him.
Friends, it is easy to take the blessings of life for granted. It is easy, like those other nine lepers, to take what we can get and go merrily on our way. Yet the real joy in life comes when we humble ourselves; when we see what God has done for us and give thanks for the compassionate mercy of God; and when our gratitude is made manifest through generosity. That is true salvation; that is the mm, mm-goodness of our God.
[i] The focus of chapter 9 in Nouwen’s book Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. Harper Press; 2006.
[ii] Exodus 34:6
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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