In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”. What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time? Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” On October 20 we talked about the unusual and difficult-to-quantify virtue of meekness. Scriptures included Matthew 5:1-12 and Psalm 37:1-11.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below
There is a lot to love about the 1987 film The Princess Bride. One of the plot lines involves a mob boss named Vizzini seeking to escape the Dread Pirate Roberts. Every time Vizzini thinks he’s outsmarted his foe, he finds himself surprised at Roberts agility and resourcefulness. At each turn, he utters the word, “Inconceivable!” Finally, he is corrected by the swordsmith Inigo Montoya, who points out, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Montoya is correct, of course. “Inconceivable” means that something is impossible even to imagine. Anything that is truly and utterly inconceivable would by definition be unimaginable by the human mind. Vizzini ought to have used words like, “surprising”, or “unlikely” or “improbable”, but although such might have been more accurate, the dialogue would have suffered.
We do that a lot, don’t we? We use words that don’t mean what we think that they mean. Part of that is because English is a funny language. I mean, why in the world should “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing when “active” and “inactive” are opposites?
I bring this up because we are thinking about the ways that the scripture calls us as Christians to treat each other. A few weeks ago we read from Colossians 3:12, wherein the Apostle Paul instructs the church to “put on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” in our dealings with one another. Today, I’d like us to consider what it would mean to clothe ourselves in “meekness”. How would you define that word?
I checked a few dictionaries earlier this week and came across these definitions: “quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on…” “enduring injury with patience and without resentment…” “deficient in spirit and courage…” or “not violent or strong…”
Is that what we’re supposed to do and be in the world? Come to church and be NICE. Don’t make any waves. Be polite. Make sure to use your manners and say “yes, please” and “no, thank you”? Is that what it’s all about? Is that what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? How can that even make sense?
Science fiction author Robert Heilin read the Beatitudes and quipped, “The meek do inherit the earth, but they tend to inherit very small plots – about six feet by three.” That’s what the world thinks about people who are “meek”. A person who is meek is mousy, or timid, or weak. Meekness is related to being ineffectual and powerless. Meekness is thought to be a liability or a character flaw, and not something to which we ought to aspire.
We keep using that word. I do not think it means what we think it means.
The word that is translated as “meek” in Colossians and in Matthew comes from the Greek praos. It’s a word that was sometimes used to describe the behavior of the best horses – strong, mighty, and ready for battle BUT responsive to the command of the rider. Sailors would refer to a “meek” breeze as one that was powerful enough to move the ship in the right direction without driving the boat off course or capsizing it. A further use of the word can be traced to the idea of an appropriate dosage of medicine.
I hope you get what I’m saying here: a horse that is harnessed and hitched correctly can be very useful and productive; a horse that is stampeding out of control is a danger to the entire community. Similarly, a good stiff breeze will carry cargo across the sea, while a typhoon will lift boats out of the water. The right amount of medicine will save your life; too much will kill you. Praos is about having a great deal of power under the appropriate control.
In fact, Aristotle said that this word was best understood as being between two extremes of getting angry without any reason at all and never getting angry at anything. Praos is having the energy and the passion to get worked up at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason – and expressing it appropriately.
If we understand “meekness” in that way, then maybe you are not surprised when I tell you that there are two people in the bible who are called “meek”: Moses and Jesus. In fact, Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was the meekest man on the face of the earth. Moses, the man who went in to Pharaoh and led the people out of Egypt; the man who threw the tablets down in anger at the sight of the golden calf… he was “the meekest man in the world.”
And Jesus, who fashioned a cord into a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple; the man who called the religious leaders of his day “whitewashed tombs” and “hypocrites” turned around and said to those who would follow him, “come to me all you who are heavy-laden and I will give you rest…take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly of heart…”
I think that we can agree that neither Moses nor Jesus was a soft, pushover, spineless person; and yet each was described as being “meek”. In an effort for us to understand our calling to wear “meekness” in our dealings with each other, let’s take a little time and look at the 37th Psalm, which I believe Jesus clearly had in mind when he blessed the meek.
Psalm 37 is attributed to David, and comes from the perspective of his old age. The heart of this Psalm is offering advice to the community of faith as to how to live in confusing and conflicting times. Psalm 37 is a lesson in meekness, and I’d like to draw out at least three themes from the verses we’ve considered this morning.
The Psalm contains clear instructions to make sure that we keep our focus. When we experience pain, or discomfort, or endure some evil, it’s easy to get rattled. Those connected to the psalmist had gone through some sort of an attack or experienced injustice. His clear word to them was “don’t worry about what those other people are doing: keep your eyes on God and what God is about.”
Of course, that’s difficult to do, particularly in an age of social media. When someone wrongs me, it can be amplified by Facebook or Twitter; if someone seeks to diminish you, it’s frustrating for you to see that person posting photos of their perfect life, perfect child, or fantastic job. Psalm 37 says that we can’t afford to be sidetracked by what someone else is doing. “Fret not because of the wicked…”, he writes.
Instead, we are to keep our focus on living for God and caring about the things that God puts in front of us. A dear friend of mine refers to this as “keeping my side of the street clean”. When someone wrongs me or angers me or frustrates me, often the only thing that I can do is to make sure that I’m continually working to keep myself in line, making sure that I’m becoming the best person I can be. If I get obsessed with how many “likes” his social media posts have or the kinds of things that are coming her way, then I can lose track of who I am supposed to be. Meekness is focusing on living the life that God has put in front of me right now.
As we move ahead with focus, however, we have to realize that we ourselves are still in the process of being shaped and framed. One of the most misinterpreted verses of the Bible, in my opinion, is Psalm 37:4, which reads “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” I’ve heard from people, “Dave, I’ve prayed and I’ve prayed, but God still hasn’t given me that job that I want (or that boy or that girl or that new baby or that whatever). I’m trusting in God, but I’m not getting what I want. What’s wrong?”
The way of meekness teaches us to submit all of who we are to the Lord. As I learn to be meek, I ask God not only to give me a focus, but to frame my life. My relationship with the Lord is not about wandering through my own hopes and dreams thinking about what would look nice, but rather learning how to hope and dream for the right things. This is what I mean by asking God to “frame” me in meekness.
Years ago I visited in the home of a couple who’d been married for nearly sixty years. He had been through an enormous number of health challenges, and his strength was nearly gone. He barely had the strength to swallow, and yet the doctors were clear: “you have to eat.” He didn’t want to. He was ready to die – but he was afraid of the effect that would have on his wife. I went to their home and she said, “I’m going to make that stew you like so much. You need to eat it, honey.”
I followed her to the kitchen and I watched her crooked fingers chop and dice. I knew that the arthritis was so bad that it was more than the onions that were bringing tears to her eyes. She said, “Dave, this is so hard to make, but he loves it, and I need him to eat. I am not ready to lose him. And so I will do this.”
Later, I was in the living room when she brought out a bowl of stew. He took it gratefully and began to work on it. Each bite was difficult, and every swallow a test. When his wife stepped out of the room he said , “Pastor, I have to be honest with you. I’ve had so many different medicines over the years that I can’t even taste any food any more. This is the hardest thing I’ve done all day. But I love her, and if this is what makes her happy, this is what I can do.”
For years, that holy conversation has been a window for me on what it means to allow God to frame the desires of my heart. If all we read in the Psalm is “God will give you the desires of your heart”, we are short-changing ourselves. It begins with that focus on God, that trust in God’s presence and care. As I focus on God, I can pray that God will teach me to want the right things. I remember as a young husband that I went home praying that I would want the kind of love I’d seen that day far more than I wanted fancy vacations or extravagant adventure or eternal youthfulness. Meekness is about allowing the Lord to frame or transform our desire.
And another thing that we can learn from this Psalm is the importance of taking the long view. We focus on God’s intentions, and we ask God to frame our desire; we are also called to follow in God’s way habitually. “Commit your way to the Lord” is how the Psalmist puts it. It’s not a one and done deal – it’s a lifetime of realizing that we are simply a part of a chain of events bigger than we are. We see some challenge of the present, some obstacle in the path, and we think that everything is lost and that we are finished. This is an incomplete view.
Luis Espinal was a Jesuit priest who fought for the rights of the poor and marginalized in Bolivia in the 1970’s. He stood up to both the corrupt government and the cocaine cartels. Not surprisingly, he was murdered. Shortly before his death, however, he published a meditation that speaks about the importance of following Christ in meekness for the long haul. Listen:
There are Christians who have hysterical reactions
As if the world had slipped out of God’s hands.
They are violent, as if they were risking everything.
But we believe in history.
The world is not a roll of the dice on its way toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen!
Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph.
With our bodies still in the breach, our souls in tension;
We cry our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.
Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are the definitive smile for humankind.
What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death, Because you, our love, will not die! We march behind you on the road to the future.
You are with us. You are our immortality!
Take away the sadness from our faces; We are not in a game of chance! You have the last word!
Beyond the crushing of our bones,
Now has begun the eternal “Alleluia!” From the thousands of openings in our wounded bodies and souls, there now arises a triumphal song!
So teach us to give voice to your new life throughout the world, because you dry the tears of the oppressed forever, and death will disappear.
As Psalm 37 teaches, meekness prepares us for life together. I was thinking earlier this week about one of the perks of my job is hearing people rehearse music. I sit in my little room there and people come in here and practice all kinds of things: saxophone, organ, piano, guitar, drums, and voice. As I thought about the power and the discipline of meekness, I was reminded of the scene on a stage just before the symphony starts to play. All the musicians are blowing into their instruments, running up and down the scales, and it seems random and chaotic. It’s irritating and loud. Then the first violin stands and plays an “A” note and everyone in the orchestra makes sure that their instruments are, in fact, in tune. Then, when everyone is aligned, the conductor steps out and lifts his or her baton and all the power of every instrument is there, focused, framed, and ready to follow the conductor’s leading. That’s when music happens.
To think of meekness as being weakness is, well, inconceivable. Let us remain focused on God’s call in our lives; let us commit to asking God to frame our desires, and let us follow where God in Christ would lead us. If we are able to do that, then we will, in meekness, be strong enough to carry the hope of Christ into the world that needs it. Thanks be to God for that hope! Amen.