Yesterday morning, Brandon and I were walking through the farmer’s market downtown when suddenly before us was a man holding a gigantic sign. As people passed by, averting their gaze, he shouted out condemnations and warnings.
“Don’t return to church,” he said as I crossed his path, “Return to the Lord!”
Most of you haven’t met my husband because he is not a churchy person. He had some bad experiences with the church as a younger man and they have forever left an impression upon him. In many ways, he left the church because of people like the man who stood shouting in the middle of the street.
I don’t doubt for one second the sincerity or faithfulness of that man.
I don’t doubt that he is standing there in the street out of an honest desire to bring people to Jesus Christ and to share the message with salvation with them.
But today we are going to talk about not only the message, but the method for how we share God’s saving power with others, and how we should respond when that message falls on hostile ears.
For most of this summer, we have used various biblical characters to exemplify the fruits of the spirit that God has given for ministry. From the healing powers of Peter to the patience of Esau, these ancestors of our faith have been witnesses of how God equips us for ministry.
Today, we are going to learn from example what NOT to do.
As Andrea and Noah just shared with us, the prophet Elisha is a man of God, but he is also a very human being.
In a moment of frustration and embarrassment he lashes out at a group of young boys.
Every time I hear this story, I am reminded that this kind of conflict and tension between grumpy old men and rude young boys is timeless.
From Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace to the character of Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood, in Gran Torino we catch a glimpse of Elisha’s mindset in this story. Like Eastwood’s character, Elisha is overcome by recent grief, which only complicates his violent response.
But we also have seen the impertinence of those who jeer the elderly, mock the disabled or anyone different from them. Sometimes we try to excuse the behaviors, thinking that boys will be boys, but bullying in any form, at any age, is inexcusable and it hurts.
As I shared with the children, sometimes our first instinct to bullying or frustration is to push back – through words or actions.
And so many of us has let a curse slip out of our mouths in a moment of anger or pain.
Elisha is only human and that kind of response is understandable.
Yet, Elisha is also filled with the Spirit of God and he is new to the whole business of being a prophet. Just days before, his mentor Elijah had been carried away up into the heavens and the mantle of God had been left to HIM.
And Elisha doesn’t quite have this power of God figured out yet. He doesn’t understand, like the prophet Nathan did last week, that his ability has tremendous power to harm as well as help.
Aristotle once said that a person who displayed gentleness would be angry, “only on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”
Elisha let his anger get the better of him.
He might have been hurt because he had been teased, but these were children and rather than an “eye for an eye” – his curce called out bears from the woods and killed those children on the spot.
We can look firmly at his actions and state without a doubt they were anything BUT gentle.
The same Spirit of God filled the first disciples when they were sent out on their first steps of ministry. Jesus called them and gave them this charge in Matthew 10 and Luke 9:
“Go to the lost, confused people right here in this neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons…”
Along the way, they were sure to encounter their share of hostile glances and threats. He tells them to not be naïve, because “some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation – just because you believe in me.”
So Jesus also added these instructions. Knowing that they were still new to this work of God, he told them:
“When you knock on a door, be courteous in your greeting. If they welcome you, be gentle in your conversation. If they don’t welcome you, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”
We imagine they might have followed his advice and performed much better than Elisha had with this power of God within them… yet by the end of the chapter in Luke’s gospel the disciples have already forgotten that Spirit of Gentleness.
When a town will not welcome them, James and John turn and ask Jesus if they can call down fire from heaven to destroy the people.
Again, we discover rash, arrogant, and excessive behavior, which Jesus quietly rebukes and they move on.
So, what is gentleness and how are we supposed to live it out in our lives.
The The Full Life Study Bible defines gentleness as “restraint coupled with strength and courage.”
Aristotle says that it is halfway between excessive anger and indifference.
It is the kind of restraint that Nathan showed when he confronted David in our text from last week, the same that Paul tries to emulate as he writes to the Corinthians. He asks them: “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit.” (1 Cor 4:21).
He could be angry. He could be harsh. As a teacher, he probably knew something about discipline… but he wanted them to repent and transform their lives not out of fear… but out of the love and gentleness that was shown to them.
Maybe that is why I am so troubled by the good and faithful folks who stand in the middle of the street at places like the farmer’s market, shouting out dire warnings at all who might walk by. Because I believe that change comes when we approach one another with a spirit of gentleness and not fear.
In John Wesley’s writing, we see that gentleness in his command to “do no harm.” As our former, Bishop Reuben Job reflected on that command, he writes: “I have found that when this first simple rule was remembered, it often saved me from uttering a wrong word or considering a wrong response.”
He adds, “this simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done.”
Maybe that is the key. Gentleness invites us to take a step back and to determine proper response.
And I think that if we are faithful to the scriptures we will find that gentleness should be our response to the world.
In Luke, chapter 9, the disciples remember times when the power of God was unleashed on the people and on communities unwilling to repent or upon people who don’t appear to be on their team. They think that they might be justified in doing the same.
Maybe, they are even thinking back to the horrific mauling of those children by the prophet Elisha.
But “vengeance is mine” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35).
And as Paul encourages us,
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21)
Jesus responds to the anger and pain of the disciples and gently rebukes them and in doing so, he shows us how we should respond when threatened or encountering injustice.
He is aware of the power of the Spirit that lives within him and he uses it to be gentle to those in need of transformation.
As Stanley Horton writes, “The broken reed He would not crush but would fully restore. The flickering wick of a lamp He would not put out but would cause it to burn brightly again… [Jesus] gently takes the sinner and makes him whole.” (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/top/fruit8_gentleness.cfm)
That man who stood there in the farmer’s market is correct in naming that there will be a time of judgment. After all, our God is great. God is strong and mighty and I truly hope that there will come a day when all things are made right and justice comes to those who have harmed and destroyed on this planet.
But I also know that only God knows how to unleash that power “on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”
And so the spirit of gentleness we are called to embody is to take a step back and allow that work to be God’s.
Elisha tried to be the judge, jury, and executioner when he encountered wrong in this world.
Instead, God’s spirit calls us to embody gentleness by remembering that we are all sinners.
We are all broken.
We are all filled with the power to lash out or shut out.
And way the message of God’s good news of saving grace is shared is just as important as the message itself.
For my husband, the words shouted out in the street did not open up new possibilities for God’s grace to enter, but probably closed him off even more.
As we live out a spirit of gentleness in this world, let us instead do no harm and in gentleness and love give God time to transform the lives we encounter.