'Gentleness' - Titus 3 v 1 - 8

Titus 3 v 1-8 It’s Sunday July 11th 2021 and it’s 4:35pm in the afternoon as I finally sit down to make a start on this looming sermon. In fact, I was supposed to preach today, so I’ve already cheekily delayed by two weeks due to various other commitments. Thanks, David, for agreeing to step in for me instead! Those of us who were present on the 11th will remember that David did an admirable job on the difficult spiritual fruit of Goodness, including a surprisingly insightful discourse on the human condition re good works from Joey in the 90s sitcom Friends. So, by swapping, I feel I have got off lightly with the spiritual fruit of Gentleness today! You will also notice that July 11th is (was?) the date of the Euro 2020 final that amazingly, England have made it to, along with Italy. Our opponents tonight come to the final unbeaten in at least their last 30 fixtures. You will know the outcome of the match by now, but I do not. Or at least my past self, writing this does not! No doubt there will be much editing of this sermon after today but I’m going to try and finish the draft this evening in time to watch the final! The reason I mention the time and the match will become clearer later. Today we are thinking about the spiritual fruit of Gentleness. Our reading is from one of the lesser known books of the New Testament: the Epistle that Paul wrote to one of his protégés Saint Titus, who was widely understood to become the first bishop of Crete. It is basically a short missive on how to be a good church leader. It is far less known than some of Paul’s other letters, including for instance, the other pastoral Epistles of 1 and 2 Timothy. But the reason it was chosen as our reading is because it contains the imperative to “always be gentle towards everyone”. Gentleness is clearly interrelated to the other Fruits of the Spirit as laid out by Paul in Galatians 5. For instance, it is by being at peace, being patient, being kind, that we can cultivate gentleness and vice versa. But Gentleness is also a distinct quality in its own right. Paul did not include a tautology by accident! So, what do we understand to be Gentleness in this context? In the biblical Greek in which Paul wrote, the word for gentleness is prautes [prow-oo-tes], which also means meekness, humility and modesty. Incidentally, when the bible was translated to Latin the word used was modestia, directly translating to modesty. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) So Paul is saying that those with the Holy Spirit in them will exhibit gentleness, by being humble and modest. This partly is a willingness to serve others, to put others first. This extends into our conversations – we should be more eager to listen than to talk! We can use Jesus as the gold (and unobtainable) standard of gentleness. Jesus proclaims his Gentleness in Matthew 11:29 “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” And when lamenting Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37 he uses the tender imagery of a mother hen gathering her flock: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” And Christ was demonstrably slow to anger: for instance, he did not fly off the handle at the woman who touched his robe without permission, draining him of power. He told her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Mark 5:35 He washed the feet of his disciples to set an example of gentle humility, of servant leadership: John 13:14 - 16 “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.” And Jesus finally showed ultimate humility when allowing himself to be put to death on a cross for us. On rare occasions when Jesus was angry, he was angry at the establishment, those who should have known better – but only those who could take his anger, and at these times his anger had a purpose. It was ultimately the only way he could cut through their arrogance. In some ways we could think of his anger as “tough love”. Gentleness is not mutually exclusive from strength. I remember a 90s advert for the paracetamol based painkiller Panadol Extra. It used a mother elephant’s tenderness to her baby to exemplify that it was possible to be both gentle and strong. Jesus shows a very similar blend of gentleness and strength: Matthew 18:2 - 5 "He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." But then he goes on to say in verse 6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. So when we are gentle we do not have to sacrifice strength, or for that matter, other important things, such as integrity, truth and love. We encounter several of these apparent dichotomies in the nature of God, but when we understand deeper, we see that in fact, these qualities are complementary, and that God could not be perfect without having these qualities in exquisite balance. For example, Justice and Grace, Judgement and Mercy and of course, Truth and Love. In striving to become more gentle, humble and meek, starting with a bit of self-knowledge is useful. If like me, you are a more of a thinking person than a feeling person (in the Myers Briggs sense, at least), you may find that gentleness is not your default way of operating. The thinking person strives for objectivity in all situations. This is no bad thing in itself but gentleness can often be sacrificed at the altar of objectivity in more difficult situations. In which case I would urge you to check yourself when on such fragile ground, deploying as much sensitivity, diplomacy and gentleness in delivering that payload of truth. However, if you are more of a feeling person you may sometimes be too lenient, letting people get away with things in an effort to avoid confrontation. The wrapping of the package might be great, but you compromise on the most important thing - the uncomfortable truth inside. So, I think as I have said before (in fact quoting something David once told me, that stuck with me) it is always beneficial to dance with your shadow. In other words, know yourself first and then actively avoid your default way of being, stepping outside your comfort zone to become more rounded. If you can understand this about yourself, you can also understand this about others too. Having insight into the way others think cultivates the other spiritual fruits beyond gentleness, including kindness and patience. I think my Mum used to often quote Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited “To understand all is to forgive all”. Bearfield is in a time of transition at the moment. Recently there have been a couple of challenging situations within our community, which I am certainly not qualified to comment on in any helpful way here. However, these events have left me feeling that I am simply not yet equipped to deal with some situations. Now and again in life you will encounter circumstances where there is no right answer – you just have to accept that whatever you do will be wrong to some extent and give it to God and move on. However, I think in this context it is even more vital we are extra gentle to each other. As a community, we must acknowledge everyone is emerging from a very difficult 16 months and that no individual or organisation will come out of this period unscathed. We need to manage our expectations of ourselves and each other at this time, take things a bit easy, as we corporately and individually negotiate this uncharted territory. As I come in to finish, you will perhaps notice that this sermon is a bit briefer than my usual ramblings. The reason is I thought I’d decide to practice a bit of gentleness on myself! I suppose in doing this, I want to try and release myself from the self-imposed obligation to spend hours striving for perfection. On the darker side, human attempts perfection are often always tainted with arrogance or driven self loathing – it’s not gentle, in that it is not humble or kind. Perfection cannot be achieved and God is OK with that. In sending his one and only son to die for “a sinful and adulterous generation”, he demonstrated the depths of his love for us. Acceptance of that knowledge should be liberating and not constraining. If you have a similar sort of personally to me this might be what you need to hear right now too. God knows – good enough is OK! This knowledge may paradoxically free you to actually do more. Is it better to limit yourself to just do very few things to a high standard or do lots of things well enough? Where does the healthy balance lie in each case? Thanks for indulging these personal musings – but it’s just to illustrate my last point, which is remember to be gentle on yourself too! It’s now about 7:00 pm. The reason I’ve kept an eye on the time writing this is because I’m trying to give you insight into how long it has taken me to prepare this sermon. I think I’ve spent about 3 hours on it… in the past I have spent 10 hours or more on sermons. Of course, it will take other preachers different time commitment, depending on experience, inspiration, biblical knowledge, gestation periods between sermons, and style etc. Others who chose to serve God in other ways will devote varying lengths of time to other tasks. I think our time is the most precious gift from God. More time can’t really be bought or traded because of course we don’t know how much of it we will all be allotted - individually, or collectively as a race. Our Christian hope continues to an eternity beyond, but in this life, our time is both finite and uncertain. Clearly, writing the occasional sermon is only one of many ways to serve, but the style of preaching I have developed is obviously well within my comfort zone. It leans heavily on facts, objectivity, research and science because I am a thinking person. It’s also pretty introverted and navel-gazing if I’m brutally honest with myself! I’m honoured to play guitar and bass in the worship band but that’s also something I have lived and breathed for 25 years. I think in the medium to long term God is gently prompting me now to step outside my comfort zone. So from now on, rather than preaching, I will be choosing to actively spend more time serving God by looking at more outward facing Kingdom Building. I am hoping to start with mentoring at St Laurence for YFC Wiltshire and will be exploring other more outward facing work. I understand my refocus will leave a few gaps in the preaching rota so I would invite others to contact David if they feel prompted. It’s important and healthy for our community that your voice is heard too! It’s not something I have personally done much of up to now, but I would encourage you to explore ways in which you might step outside your comfort zone. How can you dance with your shadow to become a more rounded person? For instance, might preaching be something God might be asking you to try? Might he want you to try getting involved in our children’s group, youth or outreach? So it’s 7:30 pm now! Just half an hour until kick off! Just time to whip up some fajitas. Come on England! (And please remember whatever happens, to be gentle with our Lions too 😊.)


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