Turn back the clock to the 3rd Sunday in Advent when we considered John the Baptist and how he becomes disillusioned as he sits in prison. Do you remember how he expects a Messiah taking a winnowing fork to the evil weeds of society and swinging an ax at the root of every “tree” not bearing good fruit? When he baptizes Jesus this is what he expects his cousin to do. John envisions the a Clint Eastwood-like figure who will ride into town, take out the thugs, beat down the henchmen, and best the oppressive cattle baron, restoring law, order, and decency to the oppressed citizens.
In this morning’s first reading we hear a competing vision from a prophet who lives 500 years before Jesus and John. Isaiah envisions the Messiah to be servant figure who is filled with God’s Spirit. This Messiah will “faithfully bring forth justice” for “all nations”. So here is the first difference between John and Isaiah’s visions: John believes the Messiah will side with us (the good) against them (the bad) whereas Isaiah understands the Messiah will be for everyone, bringing health and wholeness to all.
Here is the second difference. John says the Messiah will come with a winnowing fork and an ax: tools for judgment, punishment, and destruction. Isaiah foresees something very different:
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.
This evocative image is one of my favorite poetic descriptions in the entire bible. A bruised reed is something damaged, hurt, wounded. In its fragile condition it is in dire need of healing and care. A dimly burning wick is near exhaustion. It has given its all and has no more to give. Its work has drained it of its energy. It needs to be revived with new oil, new purpose, new life.
Perhaps the best word to describe Isaiah’s Messianic servant it is gentle. The servant will be gentle with the bruised and exhausted.
Bernard, the 12th century saint who founded the Cistercian monastic order, had to learn gentleness before his movement could attain any level of success. In the beginning Bernard believes his followers need to live austere lives in harsh conditions. Those who put themselves under his guidance find Bernard to be extremely severe and rigid in his expectations. The confession of even the slightest failure is meet with strictness and repercussions. Bernard expects perfection of his followers and tolerates nothing less. He breaks the bruised reeds and quenches the dimly burning wicks.
Then God comes to him in a holy vision and, as Bernard reports it, he is infused with “a gentle, kind, amiable, and tender spirit.” It transforms him and changes how he approaches the task of leading his order. His instruction becomes marked with kindness and consideration. He wraps his followers in his arms and leads them forward, not as a demanding figure, but with tremendous compassion and encouragement. The order begins to attract new converts and grows by the hundreds as Bernard becomes renowned for guiding followers to holiness and faithfulness.
Perhaps the first place you can begin to extend God’s gentleness is to yourself. Some of us experience God to be much like Bernard was early in his project. We hold ourselves to an impossible standard and define ourselves based on our sins and short-comings. We operate under the misguided assumption things that bring us joy and pleasure must be wrong. For some, God is the God of dreary old Germanic hymns, not the God of the joyous sound of a Jazz Band.
How would your life be different if you began to know yourself first and foremost to be a beloved child of God? Every parent knows a child needs correction and discipline, but this is not the primary function of the relationship. Parents nurture. Parents guide. Parents encourage. Parents cheer. Parents rejoice. Parents caress. Parents marvel. This is how God relates to you. And when you are like a bruised reed or like a dimly burning wick, always remember you are never more valuable to God than when you are vulnerable.
Because gentleness is the mark of how God relates to us then it must be a trait of how we relate to one another. Francis de Sales, the 17th Century Roman Catholic bishop of Geneva, talked often about what he called “little virtues.” “Occasions for practicing courage, magnanimity, and great generosity are rare,” he said. These are the big virtues. “But gentleness, moderation, honesty, and humility are some of the virtues by which every action in our life should be colored.”
Sadly, this week we witnessed another example of what gentleness does not look like as four Chicago young people viciously attacked and humiliated a mentally disabled youth. And because the assault was broadcast on Facebook Live for 30 minutes, technology has given us a window into a world we would rather not see. There is no denying this heinousness is a part of the fabric of our society, but it is only a part.
Far less sensational yet having a far greater impact are the countless expressions of the little virtues we see all around us all the time. I think of Bill Peachy at Friday evening’s Epiphany service inviting a visitor who did not want to receive communion to come to the altar rail to receive a blessing. His was an act of gentleness. I think about the joy on our children’s faces when they come into the Parish Hall in route to the Nursery. The Nursery is not a space without rules to be sure, but they experience it primarily as a gentle place where they are loved. I think of how a dozen or so of us gathered at Panera just before Christmas to spend time with Peggy Moore who was back in town for lunch. We made it a priority to lift up the spirits of a bruised reed and in the process found the oil replenished in our own dimly burning lamps.
Francis de Sales was known for encouraging people with these words: “Let us be what we are and be that well.” I like this. I don’t have to be you and you don’t have to be me. We don’t have to measure ourselves against the gifts and talents of others. All you need to do is be the best you possible. All I need to do is be the best me I can possibly be. And de Sale would remind us, to be the best you possible is to infuse those little virtues into everything you do. Lets start with gentleness. Keep an eye out for a bruised reed and for a dimly burning wick. This is a place to begin. And don’t lose sight of yourself, of your bruises and the ways in which you are spent. Be good at being gentle with others and with yourself.