Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 30] (Green)
Sunday, October 29th, 2023
DEUT. 34:1-12; PSALM 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 THESS. 2:1-8; MATT. 22:34-46
we were gentle among you
When the Texan theologian Stanley Hauerwas visited Vancouver to do some lectures in the early nineties, he was interviewed by the Vancouver Sun. And he said a few things he was already famous for saying for quite some time. Hauerwas, speaking about his own Church, said to the reporter that “Methodists have one major conviction: God is nice.” “I mean,” he went on to say, “God is dying of niceness. It is just awful. One of the reasons I don’t think much about whether I curse” (Hauerwas is famous for his willingness to drop f-bombs) … “One of the reasons I don’t think much about whether I curse is I’m just not interested in being nice.”
If you think we might get off the hook because we aren’t Methodists, Hauerwas now attends an Episcopal church, hasn’t stopped swearing, nor has he given up on the idea that God isn’t nice and that Christians don’t have to be nice either.
We do need to give him some credit, I think; we can confuse being nice with being Christian. And there are, of course, plenty of times in the Old Testament where God doesn’t appear to be all that nice, and plenty of times in the New Testament where St. Paul doesn’t appear to be that nice—he’s a hardheaded and stubborn man sometimes; and there are plenty of stories in the Gospel where Jesus isn’t particularly nice—Jesus thought nothing of being obstinate and difficult when engaging in an argument; nor did he say particularly nice things about hypocrites or rich people.
I’m with Hauerwas; sometimes we do confuse the niceness of middle-class life in Canada with being Christian. But being nice middle-class people is not the same as being Christian; we are not called to be nice, we are called to be faithful. So let’s not worry too much about being nice, or whether others are nice; let us be faithful to God, and see where that leads us.
I would, however, want to say that part of being faithful is to be gentle. And so I would encourage you to be gentle. In doing so, we would be following St. Paul’s example. As Paul describes his ministry among the Thessalonian Christians, he speaks of the way he conducted himself. He does not speak about how nice he was—though he does speak about how gentle he was. “But we were gentle among you,” he says, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Or as some other early copies of Thessalonians puts it, Paul says “I was a little one among you, like a nurse caring for her own children.”
Whether Paul calls himself gentle, or a little one, doesn’t matter—because as he describes his life in that church he speaks about a gentle sort of vulnerability. “So deeply do we care for you,” he writes, speaking for himself and his companions, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, [our very own souls, our innermost and most tender hearts].” “[W]e are determined to share with you … our own selves because you have become very dear to us.”
This gentleness, this willingness to share his most tender heart with the Thessalonians, it isn’t quite the same as being nice. With St. Paul’s example, we don’t see someone being nice—there is no pretending all is ok, there is no smothering of conflict and an unwillingness to tell the truth—St. Paul tells the truth, the truth of the Gospel, and sometimes exactly what he thinks is going wrong in the church. But he does so, he intends to do so, with gentleness, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”
Caring so deeply that Paul is willing “to share … not only the gospel of God, but also [of his own self, [his very soul, his most innermost and most tender heart] because [the Thessalonians had] become [so] very dear to [him].”
God is not nice at all to Moses in the first reading from Deuteronomy. After all those dusty and thirsty years leading Israel through the desert, God does not let Moses enter the Promised Land. “[Y]ou shall not cross over,” says God to Moses, into the land of plenty that God promised to Israel. After all Moses did, after all Moses suffered for God, after all Moses suffered for his people, this does not sound nice at all.
What had happened, during the wilderness wandering of Israel, was that Moses had disobeyed God. When the Israelites were thirsty, Moses was commanded by God to tell a rock to turn into a spring of water; but Moses, in anger, struck the rock with his staff, and took credit for the whole operation, credit that belonged to God. In a word, Moses didn’t trust God.
And so “the Lord said to Moses … ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’”
And so God keeps God’s word. And in keeping his word, God is not being nice. God does not pretend that Moses had never lost his trust in him and disobeyed him. God does not pretend that he had never said that thing about Moses not entering the promised land. God keeps God’s word; Moses lost trust at an important moment, and there were consequences for Moses to have lost that trust.
But God is still gentle with Moses. God could have kept his word and struck down Moses right away at the waters of Meribah, right when Moses lost trust in God. But God knows Moses face to face; God knows Moses like a friend. And as you read it, you can almost imagine Moses walking hand-in-hand with God up Mount Nebo, where God shows Moses the whole of the land that was promised to his people, where God could show Moses just how far the Israelites had come under Moses’s leadership.
“”This is the land,” says God to Moses, “of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob … I have let you see it with your eyes.” “Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.”
God doesn’t sound that nice, does he; but God certainly sounds gentle in his judgment: of Moses his friend, of the Moses he knew face-to-face.
I’d like to see us, as we grow in our love of God—keeping the summary of the law, to “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind,”—to continue growing in the gentle love of one another, “[loving our] neighbour as [ourselves],”—I’d enjoy seeing us continue to grow in love of God and in love of our neighbour, but not necessarily to grow in niceness.
I don’t care how much you swear. Neither do I want you to pretend nothing is wrong when something is wrong. I most certainly want you to tell the truth. You don’t need to be nice about things. But I would encourage you, us, me—to grow in gentleness. The gentleness of a God who keeps his word, the gentleness of a God who is willing to get to know his servants as though they are friends.
To grow in gentleness, like St. Paul among his beloved Thessalonian Christians, loving with gentleness, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” Caring so deeply that we are willing “to share … not only the gospel of God but also [of our own selves, of our very souls, our innermost and most tender hearts] because [we have] become [so] very dear,” not just to one another, but to our neighbours also.
And we do so, as always, by the grace of the God who, by the Holy Spirit fills our hearts with love, and who by Christ offers the whole of himself to us, for us, and for our salvation; in the name of that very Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: AMEN.
The Revd Cannon Preston Parsons PhD