"The Virtue of a Gentle Spirit"

Proper 20.B.21
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

When our daughter, Hannah, was little, one of our favorite places to visit was the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. The museum had a fabulous preschool play area—and I took our daughter there whenever time would allow. On one excursion, Hannah, who was about two years old at the time, was playing in a sandbox, enjoying collecting the sand in a tin cup and pouring it into various containers. All was calm and blissful. Then, another little girl entered the picture—also, about two years old. This little girl spied the tin cup, and wanted it for herself. Hannah was using the cup and said “No.” And so the little girl grabbed the cup and promptly bopped Hannah over the head with her newly won prize. And so commenced my child’s first foray into the rough and tumble world of toddler covetousness.

In the epistle lesson for today we are told: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.” It’s a pretty damning summation of human nature. And, to a certain degree it’s true.

Contrast this with what James says a bit earlier in his letter about those who are wise and understanding: “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”

Gentleness is a virtue which gets decidedly short shrift in the world in which we live. Over the past several years we have become a deeply divided nation and a ferociously contentious people. We slap labels on individuals, or groups of people with whom we disagree—or dislike. Character assassination has become a favorite pastime on social media platforms; and the shows we watch, more often than not, are filled with violence, bloodshed and mayhem. Strength and “greatness” are concepts too often associated with displays of military might and power. If we are hit, I dare say, a good percentage of our population would respond “hit back harder.”

Here are words of wisdom from none other than Mr. Rogers (who, for those of you who may not be aware, was also an ordained Presbyterian minister). He writes: ‘Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It’s something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength with other words like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess.” What Fred Rogers is speaking of is a strength, born of gentleness. It is wisdom in its finest form.

What makes gentleness a strength? To begin, “gentleness” is a strength because it remains constant and clear-minded across all manner of situations. Think about it. There’s nothing strong about a person who is quick to lose his or her temper and resort to aggression and violence through words and action. (If you need a visual, call to mind the current epidemic of unruly passengers on airlines). This is anything but strength. It is, in fact, a display of profound weakness. A gentle response stands counter to the expectations of a quick tempered, blame-fueled culture where we take out our frustrations by criticizing others, shirking responsibility and fearing and fighting anyone or any way of life to which we don’t subscribe.

But gentleness—now, this is something different. A spirit of gentleness involves being down to earth; it is evidence of humility—knowing oneself. A gentle spirit is able to forgive, has a supportive demeanor and is oriented to the other. What’s more, gentle people seem to be empathetic and grounded with their emotions. They offer deep tenderness to others and possess a high degree of openness and receptivity. A gentle spirit is neither defensive nor succumbs to rage.

In a sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suggests that those who want to lead good lives must simultaneously blend “markedly strong opposites” within themselves. He says: “We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove,...a tough mind and a tender heart.”
Soft minded people fear change, King argued, and hard-hearted people never really learn to love. But if you can combine a tough mind—being incisive and realistic, along with a tender heart (one in which our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom) then we might discover how to embrace the world with grace and mercy.

All of this is to say that a gentle spirit is neither passive nor weak. Done rightly, gentleness is deeply proactive, responsive and clear. Here, think of Dr. King’s emphasis upon nonviolent protests: sitting at a store counter and being spat upon; marching from Selma to Montgomery and being beaten by sticks; refusing to sit at the back of the busy and finding oneself in jail. In other words, one can be gentle without being a pushover.

In fact, choosing to act with gentleness as opposed to violence and anger is an act of rebellion—it stands counter-cultural to the world in which we live. In the days of the early church, Christians marched into the coliseum—not cowering in fear, but singing the praises of their God. They didn’t resort to violence, they died for their faith. And in so doing they won hundreds of thousands of converts. Why? Because people saw something in these followers of Jesus that caused them to pause and consider that perhaps….perhaps there is a possibility of a better life than one consumed by anger, fear, greed and hatred. Imagine what a vision of hope that must have been—an invitation for something finer in life than merely a scenario where the opponent with the most power, money and firearms prevails. An expansive hope which extending beyond the limited power of this world.

Twenty-five years ago, in the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, a beleaguered father spied his two year old daughter bang my child upon the head with a tin cup. Appalled and aggrieved he rushed to the sandbox, and commenced to explain to his child that this was not the way to obtain what she wanted and had her apologize to Hannah and hand back the cup. Within minutes the fracas was forgotten and two little girls were playing together on a climbing structure, neither one the worse for wear. That’s a vision of hope.

In the gospel lesson for today Jesus confronts the disciples, who are arguing amongst themselves as to who is the greatest. He says to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He turns their concept of greatness on its head. In essence, what he says is that greatness is determined by service and sacrifice, by humility and honor by truthfulness and faithfulness. The true meaning of greatness comes from gentleness, born of wisdom and is a greatness that comes from a God whose name is Love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.