Sermon Illustrations on Gentleness
Christian Maturity and Gentleness
Compassion is expressed in gentleness. When I think of persons I know who model for me the depths of spiritual life, I am struck by their gentleness. Their eyes communicate the residue of solitary battles with angels, the costs of caring for others, the deaths of ambition and ego, and the peace that comes from having very little left to lose in this life.
They are gentle because they have honestly faced the struggles given to them and have learned the hard way that personal survival is not the point. Their care is gentle because their self-aggrandizement is no longer at stake. There is nothing in it for them. Their vulnerability has been stretched to clear-eyed sensitivity to others and truly selfless love.
Gentleness: The Indespensable Trait of True Christians
One of Christianity’s most brilliant theologians, Jonathan Edwards, taught us that gentleness—he called it “a lamblike, dovelike spirit”—is not an optional extra but instead is “the true and distinguishing disposition of the hearts of Christians.” In other words, gentleness is the most Christian way we can be. I wonder what we think of that. Certainly, none of us oppose gentleness. But do we esteem gentleness? Have we moved all our chips onto the gentleness square, as if our very future depends on how gentle we prove to be?
To the degree that we have renounced pushiness and embraced gentleness, we are making the real Jesus visible in our world today—which is success, no matter what else might happen to us. Jesus himself said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). And here is why that’s amazing. We know a lot about Jesus, because he told us a lot about himself.
We know about his beliefs and convictions, his mission and miracles, his death and resurrection and second coming. But the one and only time he opened up his chest—so to speak, to reveal his heart, his core being, who he is and always will be way down deep—how did Jesus describe his deepest self? “Gentle and lowly.”
Therefore, gentleness isn’t a strategy he resorts to now and then. It isn’t one card he can lay down on the table. Gentleness is just who he is at the most profound level of his being. Here, then, is what we would never believe if Jesus hadn’t told us. We have parachuted into a universe where gentleness is the ultimate reality—now and forever. No wonder that the true followers of Jesus stand out for their gentleness.
The Good Shepherd Leads
In his excellent study of the famous Biblical passage on shepherds, (The Good Shepherd: A Thousand Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament), scholar Ken Bailey provides context to the 23rd Psalm:
The good shepherd “leads me”; he does not “drive me.” There is a marked difference. In Egypt where there is no open pasture land I have often seen shepherds driving their sheep from behind with sticks. But in the open wilderness of the Holy Land the shepherd walks slowly ahead of his sheep and either plays his own ten-second tune on a pipe or (more often) sings his own unique “call.”
The sheep appear to be attracted primarily by the voice of the shepherd, which they know and are eager to follow. It is common practice for a number of shepherds to gather at midday around a spring or well, where the sheep mingle, drink and rest. At any time one of the shepherds can decide to leave, and on giving his call all his sheep will immediately separate themselves from the mixed flocks and follow their shepherd wherever he leads them.
Taken from The Good Shepherd: A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament by Kenneth E. Bailey, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.41-42, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Principle to Persuasive Christian Communication
In a statement created by Christian leaders across the world, the Lausanne Willowbank Report calls for church leaders to return to the humility and servanthood that Jesus manifested in His earthly ministry:
We believe that the principal key to persuasive Christian communication is to be found in the communicators themselves and what kind of people they are. . . . We desire to see . . . “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1). . . . There is the humility to take the trouble to understand and appreciate the culture of those to whom we go.
It is the desire which leads naturally into that true dialogue “whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand.” . . . We repent of the ignorance which assumes that we have all the answers and that our only role is to teach. We have very much to learn. We repent also of judgmental attitudes.
We know that we should never condemn or despise another culture, but rather respect it. We advocate neither the arrogance which imposes our culture on others, nor the syncretism which mixes the gospel with cultural elements incompatible with it, but rather a humble sharing of the good news—made possible by the mutual respect of a genuine friendship.
“Willowbank Report: Gospel and Culture,” Lausanne Occasional Papers 2 (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978), pp. 15-16.
Hearing the Confessions of the Poor
Angela’s Ashes took the publishing world by storm when it was released in September 1996. It won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in the category of Biography/Autobiography. It was also a massive commercial success, eventually selling over 10 million copies across the globe. It tells the story of Frank “Frankie” McCourt, born 1930 into the severe, brutal conditions of the Great Depression in Limerick, Ireland. One particular story from the book is quite compelling.
Frankie is a small boy when his mother gives birth to a new child. His grandparents have given the family $5 to buy milk for the new baby. Unfortunately, McCourt’s father, an alcoholic, takes the money to go on a bender. Frankie’s mother sends the boy to find their father and bring him home.
He is unsuccessful in his attempt to find his father. But in his search, he comes upon a man, drunk and asleep with an entire plate of fish and chips lying in front of him. Frankie is famished, and, giving in to temptation, brings the food outside and stuffs himself with the unsuspecting and unconscious patron’s meal.
Afterwards, the boy feels pangs of guilt and regret, and decides to go to confession and receive penance for his sins. Frank enters a Dominican church and confesses to the priest. The priest gently prods him, asking why he stole the man’s meal.
You can imagine the emotions rushing through the boy as he explains how the cupboards were completely empty, that his father had spent their only money on alcohol and the deep hunger he experienced as he came upon the meal. The priest was silent for a moment. Frankie expects a verbal lashing from the priest. Instead, he responds with a gentle word of compassion. This is McCourt’s retelling of the moment:
I wonder if the priest is asleep because he’s very quiet till he says, My child, I sit here, I hear the sins of the poor, I assign the penance. I bestow the absolution. I should be on my knees washing their feet.… Go. Pray for me. He blesses me in Latin, talks to himself in English and I wonder what I did to him.
Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (New York: Scribner, 1996), 185.
An Unexpected Friendship
Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.
Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:
“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.
Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.
When Words Fail
Ronald Rohlheiser tells a true story of a Jewish boy named Mordechai who could not be coaxed into going to school. When he turned six years old, his mother forced him to go, but the process was miserable for both mother and son. The boy cried, kicking and screaming the entire way. Once he had been dropped off, the mother began her return home, only to find Mordechai already there, having run home immediately after getting dropped off.
Each day, the mother would drag the boy to school, and each day he would fight her tooth and nail, then run back home as soon as he could. At this point, the parents resorted to the usual carrots and sticks, bribes, and threats that most parents resort to when no other meaningful path presented itself.
Finally, they decided to visit their rabbi, hoping he might have some deeper wisdom to offer. To their relief, the rabbi was happy to help, telling the parents that if the boy wouldn’t respond to their words, to “bring him to me.”
The parents brought the boy to the rabbi’s study. The rabbi didn’t say a word. Instead, he simply picked the boy up and held him in his arms, close to his heart. He did this for a long period of time, until finally, he set the boy down. This connection was all the boy needed to have the courage to go to school. And go to school he did, Mordechai would grow up to become a great rabbi and scholar. Ultimately, when words fail, a silent embrace may be all that is needed.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source material from Ronald Rolheiser, Our One Great Act of Fidelity: Waiting for Christ in the Eucharist
One thing we often do as human beings is take for granted how our physical presence can impact those around us. Do you remember how big your parents seemed when you were a kid? They were massive! Over time of course, things change; we grow up and we become the big humans.
I (Stu) am about 6’3 and surprisingly enough, my children are not quite so tall. My wife reminds me that when I begin to lose my temper, I can be a bit scary for a child whose only a few feet tall. When I’m at my best as a parent, and one of my kids is beginning to struggle, the best thing I can do is kneel down on their level and speak to them in a soft gentle voice.
This is what God did when He sent Jesus to be among us. I think we all know what it’s like to think of God as this massive cosmic force we need to be constantly in fear and trembling towards (think Isaiah 6), but God didn’t want that to be the final word towards His creation. God wanted us to know him primarily as the one who loves. And the way God did that was by “stooping down,” coming to us on our level, not as a mighty king or grand emperor, but as a common man
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Wise as Serpents
In his excellent Apprentice Series books on Discipleship, author Jame Bryan Smith details a conversation he once had with Dallas Willard:
Dallas Willard once quoted this verse [Mt 10:16, “be as wise as serpents, and innocent as doves”] and then asked me, “What is the ‘wisdom of the serpent’?” I had actually never thought about it ….“Well, have you ever seen a snake chase someone?” I answered no. He said, “That is because the wisdom of the serpent is to wait until someone comes to them.”
Of course, we are not trying to kill or bite anyone, which is why Jesus ads being harmless as doves. Doves are about as harmless as you can get. They are even symbols of peace. When we combine the wisdom of the serpent and gentleness of the dove, we have found the right approach to evangelism.
Frank Laubach waited nearly a year before speaking to the people he had come to evangelize in the Philippines. He simply did his work faithfully and kept his mind on things above. In time the Muslim leaders told the people, “Go spend time with that man. He knows God.” He waited and was gentle. He also respected the people and cared for them by teaching them how to read. Laubach was a man of hope, and from that hope sprang faith and love.
Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com