Try a Little Tenderness

Sermon preached Holy Thursday, April 2, 2015

One of the most popular bands during my early teen years was a band with the unique name “Three Dog Night.”  Three Dog Night had a remarkable string of hit songs from 1969-1974, late elementary into early high school for me.  The band took its name from a story about aboriginal Australians who were said to have slept with one dog near on cool nights, two dogs near on cold nights, and a cold to freezing night was a “three dog night.”  Some years Maundy Thursday has been a three dog night for us, but not this year. The group’s name may have come from the cold, but in the late 60s to early 70s this band was hot.

One of the group’s first hit songs was a tune called “Try a Little Tenderness.”  It was a re-make of a song Otis Redding had made popular in the mid-1960s.  I found out, though, that the song is actually much older than Otis Redding.  In 1933, the famous singer Bing Crosby recorded a version of the tune, though if you know Otis Redding and Bing Crosby you can hardly imagine a greater stylistic difference.

If you ever heard Otis Redding’s version of the song, just recalling its title can bring the melodic urgency of his singing to mind.  Oh she may be weary, women they do get wearyand when she gets weary, try a little tenderness.

In the church, we are remembering a week where weariness plays a significant role.  Jesus has sparred with religious leaders.  Death hangs heavy over these days.  Betrayal is in the air by Thursday night.  Jesus’s disciples still don’t understand all that he is about.  In a little while, Jesus will ask his disciples to watch and pray with him and they will be unable.  They fall asleep. Oh, they all may be weary.  Disciples, they do get weary.  Jesus may be weary, too… and Jesus tries a little tenderness.

Jesus tries a little tenderness tonight.  Tonight we remember a basin and a towel.  Tonight we remember a table, food and friends.  There is the tenderness of foot washing.  Weary feet are soothed and cleansed.  Friends dip bread together in sharing a meal.  After the meal, tender acts of sharing happen – a little more bread, a little more wine.

As we remember these stories of that Thursday long ago, it may be a good time to remember the importance, as we follow Jesus, of a little tenderness.

I think of the words from a very different tradition, words of Buddha from The DhammapadaAll beings tremble before violence.  All fear death.  All love life.  See yourself in others, then whom can you hurt?  What harm can you do? (The Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom, p. 36 – chapter 10).  Try a little tenderness.

We need not go searching for distant sources of encouragement toward tenderness.  Beyond the tenderness of this Thursday in the story of Jesus, we find a number of important New Testament references to gentleness and tenderness.  In Ephesians, chapter 4, Paul writes: I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love (4:1-2).  The author of James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you?”  His answer, Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom (3:13).  The Greek word used for “gentleness” connotes a quality of character a person cultivates with wisdom.  There is a strength in this gentleness.

In the chapter that begins with the admonition to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, the writer ends with these words: Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (4:31-32)  The quality of tender-heartedness is something that a person cultivates in themselves with the whole of their being.  The Greek word here connotes a whole person response.  The word is related to the word translated in other parts of the New Testament as “compassion.”  In the culture of the time, this kind of tenderness and compassion was considered something of a divine quality.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus says in Luke, “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”

Surrounded by basin and towel and table and food and friends, tonight is a night to remember, as followers of Jesus, to try a little tenderness.  In a world that can be cold and callous, that can turn away from the hurts and sorrows while being enamored with success, try a little tenderness.  Let it be a quality that seeps into and exudes out of every part of our hearts and minds and souls.  Try a little tenderness.

In a sermon entitled “Growing Up,” writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) wrote about a brief conversation between the novelist Henry James, known for his long sentences and subtle and complex characterizations, and his nephew, Billy, son of Henry’s famous philosopher brother William James.  Henry told Billy: “There are three things that are important in human life.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  The third is to be kind.”

Buechner went on to comment.  Be kind because although kindness is not by a long shot the same thing as holiness, kindness is one of the doors that holiness enters the world through, enters us through – not just gently kind but sometimes fiercely kind [I happen to think this is all part of tenderness and that gentleness can be strong and fierce].  Be kind enough to yourselves not just to play it safe with your lives for your own sakes but to spend at least part of your lives like drunken sailors – for God’s sake… and thus to come truly alive.  Be kind enough to others to listen, beneath all the words they speak, for that usually unspoken hunger for holiness which I believe is part of even the unlikeliest of us because by listening to it and cherishing it maybe we can help bring it to birth both in them and in ourselves. (The Clown in the Belfry, 147)

Try a little tenderness.

In a little bit, we are going to share in some tenderness, share bread and juice, share in hand washing.  We do that because we do get weary, and we need to be refreshed.  The sadness of the world wears on us.  The sadness of our lives wears on us.  We share tenderness, as well, to strengthen ourselves to continue to grow in love, gentleness, tenderness, kindness, and beauty.  Just as there are sadnesses in the world, there is beauty and courage and laughter and love, and we want these to grow.   After that sharing, we are going to hear the story of Jesus’ last day, and it is a difficult story.  As we hear it, continue to remember that before the cruelty of his death, Jesus extended tenderness.  In a world that would treat him so cruelly, leave him so alone to face his suffering, Jesus extended basin, towel, food – tenderness.

And as we hear the story, where cruelty and death seem so powerful, remember that in the end, tenderness triumphs.

Try a little tenderness.  Amen.