Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year C – Christ the King Sunday
Luke 23:33-43 – Fruit of the Spirit (Love, Goodness/Generosity, Gentleness)
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – November 24, 2019

Today is the last Sunday in our series on the Fruit of the Spirit and we’re looking at love, generosity, and gentleness. But maybe the best place to start is with love. Early church father Euthymius the Great put it this way: “Have love; for what salt is to food, love is to every virtue.” Love is the seasoning that brings out the full flavor of everything else. The Apostle Paul said that even if we had the greatest gifts, they were worthless without love. Love holds it all together and gives it meaning. I mean, even the Beatles told us “all you need is love!” But what kind of love are we talking about? The love that God shows us is the tender love of a parent. The patient love of someone trying to win our hearts. The fierce love of a protector. And the astonishing, generous, and sacrificial love of a friend who lays down his life for ours.

It’s the love we hear about in Luke’s account of the crucifixion. Jesus, in the throes of a painful death, intercedes on behalf of his enemies. He speaks words of forgiveness, transforming pain into loving compassion. Even then, the criminal, Dismas, asks in his dying breath to be remembered when Jesus enters his kingdom. And in that moment Jesus tells him today he will be with him in paradise. Today. Not in the future or when the divine court has been able to sort through all the wrong this criminal did, but today.

That is the love, welcome, mercy, and new beginning that we receive every moment of every day. That is what the love of God looks like. And it’s a love intertwined with the goodness and gentleness of God. Because it’s through never-ending patience, through the vulnerability of the cross that God shows the shape of God’s love. Through a willingness to relinquish God’s own power, even God’s own self, for the sake of the other. For our sake.

We understand this love of God. We assent to it in our minds. But sometimes understanding it in our hearts is a whole other matter. It can take the course of our lives to really understand that God truly loves us that deeply. As we hear in Colossians, “For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” God was pleased to dwell. God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. God is pleased to love you. God delights in you!

Knowing this incredible love, we are called to share it with others. That can seem nearly impossible in this often hard, harsh world where power, one-upmanship, success, influence, and wealth are the currency of the day. But as we practice love as an action – a conscious choice – we develop in our ability to love less selfishly. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.” In other words, “just do it!”

And this kind of love doesn’t mean we’ll immediately be laying down our physical lives for others. It starts smaller. It’s helping out around the house because you know it’ll make another family member happy. It’s bringing food to someone who is recovering from a hospital stay. It’s checking in on your lonely elderly neighbor. It’s even a moment from Jeopardy’s “Tournament of Champions.” After host Alex Trebek told them he was going in for another round of treatments for his Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, contestant Dhruv Gaur gave up his chances at a right answer, betting $1,995 of his $2,000 during Final Jeopardy to answer “what is we love you Alex.” As J.J. Heller sings, “big love happens in small moments.”

As we experience God’s love and we love others, our heart expands in generosity and goodness. Maybe it starts with loving those close to us, but it doesn’t end there. The truth is that God’s tremendous generosity toward us are far greater than anything we could ever imagine or even desire. Medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich framed it this way: “God of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are sufficient for me… If I were to ask anything less I should always be in want, for in you alone do I have all.” And the stunner is that God does. In coming to dwell with us as a fragile human, living among us, dying, rising, and pouring out the Holy Spirit on us, God has never ceased giving us God’s self. When we begin to recognize that, our hearts turn toward gratitude and thanksgiving. And the more we practice gratitude, the more joy and generosity grow. Thomas Merton understood this when he wrote, “Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience.”

This gratitude, thankfulness, and praise shape our priorities. And as it’s been said, if we want to understand what is really important to us, we should look at our calendars and checkbooks. I give thanks for the many ways you all share your time, talent, and treasure here at Community. Many of you offer of yourselves by serving ministries in addition to juggling work, families, and other activities. Your generosity of spirit continues to encourage and teach me. And your generous gifts enable this church to reach the community with God’s love in beautiful ways, even offering space to other organizations so they can serve people in need. It’s an incredible ripple effect that begins with God’s generosity and goodness, moves our hearts, and touches the lives of those around us.

God’s love doesn’t just spark our gratitude and generosity. It brings out gentleness. This word describes meekness, a gentleness of spirit and a mildness of disposition. It’s the paradox that the Christ we worship as King is the one whose ultimate power and triumph over sin, death, and the devil came through apparent powerlessness. Every time “gentleness” is used in the New Testament, it is describing humility in learning, but also when interacting with others. It is used to give instruction on how to correct other believers in the community when they have gone astray. Paul says after describing the fruit of the Spirit” “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” It is through this gentleness that we show God’s patient love to others and maintain relationships. Isaac the Syrian even went as far as to say, “The beginning of divine wisdom is clemency and gentleness, which arise from greatness of soul and the bearing of infirmities of men.” As we learn how to bear with one another in love, mercy, humble honesty, and forgiveness, we grow in wisdom and compassion.

For an excellent example, I highly recommend you watch “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” about Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers’ soft-spoken ways, affirmation that all are worthy of love, and his ability to hold space for children and adults alike to process their feelings in a positive way is truly remarkable. Grounded in his faith, his ministry was a depiction of love and gentleness that does the soul good when there is so much negativity and bad news surrounding and engulfing us.

In all of this, we remember that while we can try to be aware of these virtues and be open to what God is doing, we are never the ones growing the fruit. That is the work and the gift of the Holy Spirit. So as we travel on this pilgrimage of life, may we celebrate the growth we experience and be gentle with ourselves as we continue to learn. In the words of Jen Abbas de Jong, “May you experience joy…as you are now. May you have peace with yourself…as you are now. May you have patience with yourself…as you are now. May you show kindness to yourself…as you are now. May you seek the goodness in yourself…as you are now. May you renew faithfulness in your life…as you are now. May you show gentleness to yourself…as you are now. May you exhibit self-control in your thoughts toward yourself…as you are now. May you love yourself…as you are now.” Amen.