Sermon preached at Evensong on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity 2023

'Let your gentleness be known to everyone.'

The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 27th August 2023 at 3.00 PM

Words from this afternoon’s Psalm, 139:

If I climb up into heaven, thou art there:
   if I go down to hell, thou art there also.
Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee,
   but the night is as clear as the day.

Over recent days the media has been inundated by pictures of a fresh-faced young nurse, smiling straight into the camera as she holds aloft a sweet little baby.

Who could have guessed that this was the face of the worst baby killer in modern British history?

The actions of former neonatal nurse Lucy Letby (born January 1990) have dominated the news in this country and has spread around the world.

She is the infamous serial killer who attacked at least thirteen infants in her care between June 2015 and June 2016, killing seven of them.

At the conclusion of her trial, which lasted from last October to this month (August 2023), Letby was found guilty of murdering seven infants and attempting to murder six others during the twelve-month period.

Her methods included injecting her victims with air or insulin, overfeeding them, and physically assaulting them.

Letby is the most prolific serial killer of children in modern British history. A few days ago, she was sentenced to life imprisonment with a whole life order.

This whole sorry saga reminds me, when back in the 1980s, I was a priest in Shrewsbury, and often visited the hospital there.

Memories of the Ockenden review into maternity care came flooding back, a report which formally uncovered a pattern of repeated and appalling serious harm done to mothers and babies.

One of the most disappointing and deeply worrying themes, both then and now, was a systematic lack of kindness, gentleness, and compassion.

Recent events have been heart-breaking to read and a terrible inditement upon those who should have held kindness and compassion at the very centre of their professional work.

As a society, we’ve learnt over recent months that when terrible suffering is inflicted upon innocent babies, the vast majority of us become motivated to try and make society a better place.

In many ways it reminds us that we are a fundamentally nurturant species with gentleness and kindness holding a special place at the heart of our human nature. By being gentle and kind we not only help others, but we help ourselves.

It was the kindly Saint Francis de Sales who reminded us that ‘Nothing is so strong as gentleness; nothing is so gentle as real strength.’

Indeed, over coming months hospital administrators will need to re-learn how gentleness and strength can coexist.

And yet there are still some who think that gentleness means weakness, and strength is needed to secure your reputation.

Indeed, today there are still too many institutions who put their reputations ahead of the public they serve.

Perhaps all too often, we associate strength—with ability, or even violence and aggression. But strength, in fact, comes in many forms. And gentleness is one of them.

Many of us know first-hand, that it can take a lot of strength to be gentle. Indeed, a gentle person is almost invariably—calm and rational.

A gentle person is aware of the needs of others and is open to new experiences and ideas.

From Holy Scripture we learn that following the Christian way of life involves living a life that encompasses gentleness and peace; tenderness and mercy—and all bound together by love.

St Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone.’ (Philippians 4: 5)

Church communities, on the whole, tend to be known for their tenderness.

He also writes to Timothy, ‘Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.’ (1 Timothy 6: 11)

Indeed, as we recall the story of Jesus’ passion we inevitably become powerfully struck by the theme of the gentleness of Jesus Christ.

It’s a robust gentleness, a gentleness combined with steel but gentleness none the less. And so, we come to see that gentleness is sensitive in nature, while strength cultivates resilience, confidence, and assertiveness.

The qualities of both strength and gentleness are most effective when used together to balance each other out.

Our vocation as the Church is very much about being a community of mercy—even as we face together issues on which we might disagree one with another. 

It’s in such conversations that we really should be gentle one with another—and bear with one another—and help one another.

But above all, the vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy—in the ordinary and extraordinary details of our lives: in the way we greet each another; in the ways we offer hospitality; in the time we give to listening; in the friendship we extend to others; in the way we model our lives on Christ;

‘By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.’

So, we are the Church. We are called into being by Christ, who was born, crucified and rose again. The gentle, risen Lord. We are called to reflect his love in a world of violence, hurt, hunger, and confusion.

As Christians we’re called to reflect this gentle strength in all we do: in our work and in our leisure, in our actions and in our character, in our words and in our deeds.

When I stand back and think about this, and about the people I know who model for me the depths of spiritual life, I am struck by their gentleness.

Their eyes somehow communicate the residue of solitary battles with angels, the costs of caring for others, the deaths of ambition and ego, and the peace that comes from having very little left to lose in this life.

They are gentle because they have honestly faced the struggles given to them and have learned the hard way that personal survival is not the point.

Their care is gentle because their status/ their standing in the world—is no longer really at stake.

But then we must look at ourselves.

I’m pretty sure no-one here would put up their hand and say I oppose gentleness. But the question is do we actually embody gentleness in our day to day lives?

Jesus himself said, ‘I am gentle and lowly in heart.’ (Matthew 11: 29)

We know a fair bit about his beliefs and convictions, but when he really reveals his heart, his core being, he describes his deepest self in terms of being gentle and lowly.

The point is gentleness isn’t a strategy that he resorts to now and then. Gentleness ‘is who he is’ at the most profound level of his being.

So, as we attempt to draw our lives closer to his we need to fully understand the sort of gentleness that Christ himself embodied.

To this end, the insight of St Augustine can be extremely helpful. When he talks about gentleness, he reminds us that we shouldn’t see it as a passive or timid thing that can be preserved by a sort of generic kindness.

He says, don’t imagine that you’re gentle with your servant when you don’t beat him, or that you’re gentle with your son when you don’t discipline him, or that you’re gentle with your neighbour when you don’t rebuke him.

This is not real gentleness, it is feebleness.

Take delight in what is good, but amend what is bad. Love the person, but not the error in the person.

What he’s saying is that true gentleness is more than just a matter of behaviour.

It flows from an inner gentleness, a gentle way of seeing. What we see here is that—true gentleness is more than mild behaviour, more than mere timidity.

It is a state of mind that mirrors the nature of God, and so taps into His infinite power.

This is why the truly gentle have been known to perform miracles.

Ultimately, God’s message is that he loves us and wants us to respond to him in the same manner. He doesn’t threaten us, and he doesn’t use harsh laws and regulations to control us.

Instead, He proved his immeasurable love for us by sending his Son to be born for us and to suffer and die in our place.

During this coming week let us make a special effort to be gentle people, for Jesus calls us to accept freely the burden of following him and in his gentleness, we find our peace.

As St Paul says: ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near’.