Philippians 4. 1-9
Only the loved can be gentle.
I hadn’t been in Midland, all that long, when one of the long=time members died. Funeral at the church. Interment – committal – at the cemetery. And afterward, a reception back at the fellowship hall. But it was what happened after that, back in the worship area, I best remember. One of the granddaughters had gotten there before me. She was alone. Standing at the back of the church. Just looking out across the pews. She’d grown up in the congregation. Now, she belonged to another. She and her family. I went over and stood with her. Making conversation, I asked if it was like she remembered. She didn’t say anything, for a moment. Just kept looking. Then she said, “I’d forgotten … forgotten just how ge3ntle this church was.” At first, I wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or bad. That was the first time – the only time – I’d ever heard anyone describe a church, like that. Gentle! It stayed with me, through the years. It sounded right. Peaceful. Easy. Especially at that moment in time.
Most of the time, churches, congregations, are more … well, more obnoxious. Loud. In your face. The message hard and harsh, difficult and demanding. And gentle churches are few, far between. But when you get down to it, there’s no better way of describing the gospel, of explaining good news! And then, there is was, again, this morning, after all these years. Philippians. Chapter four. Verse five. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone!”
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone!”
Gentleness! It’s not a word we, often, use here in West Texas. We’re stronger than that. Prouder. We’re a master-of-fate, captain-of-soul, people! And gentleness has nothing to do with it Picking ourselves up by our bootstraps! Taking the bull by the horns! We’re rough! We’re rugged! But gentle? It sounds weak. Timid. Delicate. More snowflake, than red-blooded! “I’d forgotten,” she said, “forgotten how gentle this church was.” And you could tell she meant it. By the look in her eyes. By the sound of her voice.
But through the generations, we’ve been taught – trained, actually – to look for god in the exception and not the rule. Looking … listening for god … in the kingdom … and the power … and the glory … We’re so much like Elijah, standing at the mouth of the cave, squinting into the heart of the earthquake … and the whirlwind … and the fire … But god was never there. We were there when it rained for forty days and forty nights. We were there when the sea was divided. We were there when Goliath fell. And most of the time, gentleness had nothing to do with it! Gentleness didn’t have anything at all to do with it!
I think that’s why the Second Coming is so important to us. The first coming – with its turning the other and its going the extra and its doing unto – was just too gentle! There was no fire! No smoke! And so, we looked ahead to when gentleness wouldn’t be so important! So necessary! But here, the church is encouraged, is exhorted, to let their gentleness – our gentleness – be known to everyone!
Truth is, gentleness is a luxury that only the strong can afford. It takes confidence and courage to be gentle! Certainty and conviction! A person can be gentle only when they have nothing to prove! Nothing to prove to anyone! Not to god! Not to yourself! Not to others! It’s like the passage we read, a couple Sundays ago. From back in the first chapter. “Not exploiting equality with God … Emptying himself … Taking the form of a slave … Being born in human likeness … Humbling himself … Becoming obedient … Dying … Dying even on a cross.” That’s not weakness, but strength! Not foolishness, but wisdom! That’s gentleness!
You don’t have to shout to be strong! You don’t have to scream! You don’t have to rant! You don’t have to rave! You don’t have to belittle and berate! But only the strong can be truly gentle. Truth is, this is what faith looks like! Real faith! Honest-to-god faith! Bottom-line, it’s grace! Bottom-line, it’s charity! Bottom-line, it’s love! And the only thing tough about it is its tenacity! Its persistence! Gentleness doesn’t happen when life gets easy. Gentleness doesn’t happen when trials and tribulations fade away. When the changes and chances of life vanish. Gentleness is, simply, what happens when we are loved! Loved totally and completely! Loved without limit and without measure! Gentleness is what happens when someone gets up from the table, takes off their outer robe, and ties a towel around his waist! With a basin and pitcher, gets down on his knees, and washes the feet of his friends. Washes the feet of the one who would betray him. Washes the feet of the one who would deny they ever knew him. Washes the feet that would abandon him. Gentleness is what happens when someone loves us more than their own life. And none of it … none of it is a sign of weakness, but of power!
Of a power that created the universe! Of a power that saved it! Of a power that raised it from the dust! That makes that universe new, forever! The strength of our arm doesn’t do it. Neither does the sweat of our brow. It comes, solely, through the grace and mercy of god! Through god’s forgiveness and love! Let me repeat that. Gentleness isn’t a choice. And it’s not a decision. It’s what happens when god loves us! Loves us enough to die with us! Enough to die for us! There are no threats of outer darkness. No warnings of weeping or gnashing of teeth. And there is no fire. Gentleness is a baby in a manger. Gentleness is a man – a god – hanging from a cross. “I’d forgotten how gentle this church was,” she said. But maybe … maybe, my friends, it was that she’d forgotten just how gentle god could be …