Sunday, February 20, 2000

Happiness is a Gentle Spirit

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 2:1-12

Happiness is…

A first grader walking to Number 1 School in Rochester the other day carefully climbed his way over drifts and piles and puddles. He had learned in Sunday School, at Asbury First UMC, to pray. He was late and worried that the bell would ring. So he swung into a little trot, and prayed, "Dear God, please help me to get to school on time." No sooner had he utteredthis petition than he fell face down into the snow. No Floridian, he stoutly stood, dusted off his cheeks and pulled snow from his neck. Trotting forward, he prayed again, "Dear God, please help me to get to school on time…but please don’t SHOVE."

Does that story remind you of someone? Of a particular voice,a point of view, an angle of vision from our time? Of a non-religious (Paul would have said ‘uncircumcised’) voice? Vox dei?

Except you become as little children you will not see thekingdom of God.

Last weekend, within hours of his last comic strip’spublication, drawn by one hand for 50 years, Charles Schulz died. Hischaracters, his imaginative reality, had ended, and so did his very life. Itmakes you wonder doesn’t it, about what is real? Is what is actual, what isreal (Aristotle)? Or, is what is spirit, what is real (Plato)? Does history comefirst, then theology (Mark)? Or does theology come first, then history (John)?And who is more real, now as then, the artist or his imaginative world? I amcoming home with this, be careful: On which do you base your life—spirit orflesh?

My friend Phil’s son was about five years old when they hada conversation about God after church. After a while, Phil said, "Well,Dan, we don’t know much about God, do we?" The son thought for a minuteand said, "No, only old preachers do." But old preachers don’t knoweverything either.

Which is it: Where there is life there is hope? Or, wherethere is hope there is life?

Which is it: Where there is life there is happiness? Or,where there is happiness there is life?

An underrated kid, with a kite stuck in a tree, forever onthe losing baseball team, whose best friend still carries a blanket-GOOD GRIEF!His creator, Mr. Schulz flunked Latin, English, algebra and physics.

In this world, all the loves are unrequited and all thebaseball games are lost and all the test scores are D- and the Great Pumpkinnever comes and yet, there is a horizon of happiness, a luminous presence, agentle breeze blowing, perhaps like that which drew the paralytic to Jesus to behealed.

This popular artist, no religious leader, evoked a sense ofhappiness with a gentle spirit.

Home Remedies

Today’s lesson presents us to Jesus at home. As far as Iknow, this is the only passage in which Jesus speaks to us from his living room.He is at home and, in a strikingly memorable manner, his home is invaded, firstby those who want to hear and then by a few who want to heal. Gently, through anopening in the roof, these friends lower a paralytic to Jesus’ side.

There follows an odd conversation. Perhaps everyconversation, like every sermon, is odd in its own way. In this one, a requestfor healing of the body is met, first, with a response that heals the spirit.Jesus sees the faith of the friends, and the illness of the paralytic. And heoffers his word, "My son, your sins are forgiven, your insides are madeclean, your soul is healed, your spirit is made gentle." Leaning off thecouch, Jesus moves first toward the spirit, the heart of the man, the inside ofthe cup.

And then, in dispute, almost as an afterthought, and to provea point, he again asserts his power to bring a miraculous external healing,"rise, take up your pallet, and walk." But this is done, he remindsus, only to show the power that Jesus has on earth to bring, what we might calltoday a kind of spiritual remedy. Call it a psychic freedom from the past. Callit a readiness again to lift the chin for each day. Call it leaving church thismorning feeling happy and able to look others in the eye and say,"hey". Call it a new lease on spiritual life. Call it, as we do today,a gentling of the spirit that brings happiness, Jesus is bringing an innerpeace, the home remedy of Mark 2.

I am not sure that anyone finally can name thistransformation. But we know it when we see it and we know it when we feel it.And its author is Jesus Christ, and Him Crucified. There is a gentle breezeblowing.


(Here is a story about a nurse named Rory.)

She bounced into the room carried along by what you couldquickly see was confidence in her self and her work. "And how are we todayin this wee little room? Faith and begorrah, and sorry for your troubles"she sang, adjusting catheter and intravenous. Her head and voice attended to thespirit, while her arms and hands attended to the body. Red hair flashing andeyes bright, she maneuvered around pastor and family. She felt the brow, andsmoothed back the hair. She caressed forearm and shoulder. She slightly huggedand patted. All this, while she took a temperature. I tell you, it made youconsider the advantages of being sick.

"Are you Irish?" I asked. She paused from thesteady breathless encouragement she gave her patient, the gentle strengtheningwe at the bedside so envied, and, I could see, controlled her tongue. That toois a kind of gentling. She did not say, in answer to such a lame question,"Well, let’s see, I have bright red hair, my nametag says Rory Flanagan,I attend St Patrick’s church, can’t you see I’m Chinese?" No, rathershe said, "Yes, happy to be so, and so glad you have come to the hospital.Please have a prayer with us and then you will need to leave."


Jesus heals the inner man. Jesus heals the inner woman. Jesusmeets us at home today to give us a true happiness carried along by a gentlespirit.

With Isaiah, Jesus teaches us about "good tidings forthe gentle." (Isaiah 61:5)

With David, Jesus repeats that "the gentle shall inheritthe earth." (Psalm 37:11)

In Matthew, Jesus commands, "take my yoke upon you for Iam gentle and humble in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls." (Matthew11:29)

As Paul said to Titus, "be gentle." (Titus 3:2)

And to the Corinthians, "I entreat you by the gentlenessof Christ".

And to the same Corinthian band, "Shall I come to youwith a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?"

And to the Galatians, remember? "The fruit of the spiritis gentleness".

James says, "learn the gentleness of wisdom." (James1:21)

Peter says, "give an account of your hope withgentleness."


Still, you may feel like Longfellow did one snowy winterafter the holidays:

I heard the bells last Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men

But then in grief I hung my head

There is no peace on earth, I said

For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men

Ours is a violent world, one the consequences of realfreedom. And our very brief particular slice of history has produced its ownforms of violence, always connected, somehow, to the freedom to choose which Godhas given us, and without which life would not have the potential for happiness.


Let others chronicle the march of violence. You are here aspeople excited by spirit, a gentle spirit at that.

Such a spirit could not ever be confined to one institution,or one denomination, or one church, or one religion. Jesus says, "Whoeveris not against me is for me." Let us try to keep first words first.

Paul said, "When I was a child, I thought, reasoned andacted like a child, but I became a man, I gave up childish ways." But thatis a second word, always in the shadow of the first, which is, Jesus’ word:"you must become as little children"

St. Ignatius acclaimed the importance of spiritual exercise.But that is a second word, always in the shadow of the first, which is that ofSt Francis, ‘Lord make me an instrument of your peace."

Calvin emphasized the value of sanctity and perseverance. Butthat is a second word, always in the shadow of the first, which is Luther’s,"By faith alone".

Likewise, and our Methodists in Cleveland might recall it,Whitefield acclaimed the importance of Scripture and strict theology and thesovereignty of God. But that is a second word, always in the shadow of thefirst, which is Wesley’s first, "I felt my heart strangely warmed"and last, "the best of all is that God is with us."

Raymond Carver

For some years one of our neighbors was Raymond Carver, amuch-acclaimed writer, now deceased. His writing was important and popular. Butthat was always a second word. The first was that happiness that at the end ofhis life he found in a gentle spirit. As a sometime teacher, I have loved andremembered one story, of a very earnest PhD candidate who came to the universityto study with the great Carver. When other classes were fighting tooth and nailabout post-structuralism and deconstructionism and theorists and humanistsviolently argued, Carver simply led his own classes in a very free ranging,impressionistic, and maybe a little idiosyncratic study of books he liked.Toward the middle of the semester, the PhD candidate, frustrated by Carver’sgentleness, raised his voice: "This class is called Form and Theory of theShort Story, but all we do is sit around and talk about books. Where is the formand where is the theory?

Carver was quiet and seemed hurt. Then he said, "That isa good question…I guess I’d say that the point here is that we read goodbooks and discuss them and then you form your own theory."


A few years ago, I called on the pastor of a vital church. Onone hand, I was impressed by the challenges of his life: the time demands, theclose personal brushes with sin and death, difficulties both crisis and chronic,an apportionment rising more surely than death and taxes, his own aging. Twoyears later Rev. Vogel suffered a nearly fatal and permanently disabling stroke.On the other hand, I was impressed by the painting behind his desk. The paintingshowed a Sunday School teacher training children. Under his feet, there was aquestion, "Where are the gentle people?"

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