The Discipline of Gentleness

Sermon for Sunday, March 6, 2022 || Lent 1C || Luke 4:1-13

After a full two years of pandemic, I think we can all relate to Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. After his baptism, he heads from the Jordan River into the desert. He eats nothing, and for nearly six weeks endures the temptations of the devil. The only sustenance he has is the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that Jesus is “full of the Holy Spirit.” I’m reminded of a funny scene in the movie The Fellowship of the Ring. Legolas the elf explains to the hobbits Merry and Pippin about Elvish lembas bread. “One small bite is enough to fill the stomach of a grown man,” Legolas says. “How many did you eat?” Merry asks Pippin after Legolas leaves. Pippin lets out a little burp and says, “Four.”

That’s how full of the Holy Spirit Jesus was when he went into the wilderness. And that fullness did not deplete over time like, say, gasoline over a long car trip. The fullness of the Holy Spirit is not a quantity that gets spent. It doesn’t make sense to think of the Spirit in terms of quantity. Well, last week I had sixteen portions of Spirit, but then I had a really tough day, and now I’m down to twelve. That’s not how the Spirit works. Being full of the Holy Spirit is a quality, not a quantity. The fullness of the Holy Spirit is a description of how the Spirit works. The Holy Spirit is a gift of God, and any one of us can live the reality of the Spirit’s fullness.

St. Paul breaks down the qualities of the Spirit into nine “fruits”:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The fullness of the Holy Spirit manifests in these fruits. This Lent, I’d like to invite us to focus in on a specific one of the fruits of the Spirit – the fruit of gentleness.

Why gentleness? Because the last two years have been so hard. Heck, the last two weeks have been so hard. We have suffered through loss of life on a scale not seen in all our days, and that includes all but the eldest among us. We have worried over the largest invasion of a European country since World War II, with all the dire implications this unconscionable war of aggression contains. We have witnessed weather patterns growing more and more severe. We have endured plague for so long. The overriding emotions of the last two years have been fearfulness and languishing. None of us knows what all these combined stressors are doing to us – to our bodies, our psyches, our souls. None of us can predict what all this means for the wellbeing of our children, some of whom have known no other world than this one torn by disease, war, political strife, and environmental catastrophe.

So I ask again, why the fruit of the Spirit we call gentleness? Because when we are battered and bruised and sore, the best treatment for our bodies is to handle them gently. I’m reminded of another scene from a favorite movie. About two-thirds of the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones has managed to steal the Ark of the Covenant back from the nazis, but the epic chase scene has left Indy bruised all over. In a quiet moment, Indy struggles to take off his shirt, and Marion says, “You’re not the man I knew ten years ago.” Indy says, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage” Marion starts to dab a wet cloth on Indy’s wounds, but he keeps flinching away. Exasperated, Marion asks, “Where doesn’t it hurt?” Indy points to his elbow, his forehead, his eye, and then his lips. Marion kisses him passionately, and the music swells…and then, Indy promptly falls asleep.”

I don’t know about you, but after two years of pandemic, I feel a little bit like Indiana Jones in that scene. And so, this Lent, the Holy Spirit has led me to practice the spiritual discipline of gentleness.

Being gentle with ourselves means setting reasonable expectations and revising them when we find we can’t fulfill them. And then not beating ourselves up when we make those revisions. Being gentle with ourselves means spending more time at rest, more time embracing the renewing wisdom of Sabbath. Being gentle with ourselves means praying for clarity about what most nourishes our souls and then participating in that nourishment.

Being gentle with ourselves can look like any number of stages of a farmer’s field. For some of us, gentleness might manifest by lying fallow for a season. For others, it might look like seeding our soil with new possibilities. For others it might be weeding that which we need to lay aside, or irrigating that which has sprouted anew, or even harvesting the fruits that have, indeed, grown up during these difficult days.

In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, John O’Donohue shares a blessing “For One Who is Exhausted.” Part of it goes like this:

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life. […]

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free. […]

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

I’ll repeat that last line. “Be excessively gentle with yourself.” In this world that’s broken, battered, and bruised, a little gentleness goes a long way. Remember the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I invite you this Lent to make gentleness your spiritual discipline. Be gentle with yourselves. Be gentle with others. Go gently about this tender world. Go gently in the fruitful fullness of the Holy Spirit.

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