Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Cultivating Patience

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Michigan
on Sunday, December 12th. (Advent 3A)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

There is a story told about a concert given by the Polish composer and pianist Ignace Paderewski. Everyone in the audience sat quietly waiting for the music to begin – everyone, that is, except a certain nine year old boy. Having grown restless sitting still waiting, the boy slipped away from his family and made his way onto the stage. He walked to the piano with the blithe innocence which young children are known for, and plopped himself down and began playing chopsticks.

The crowd, apparently not expecting an opening act, shouted for the boy to get off the stage. Paderewski heard the commotion from backstage, threw his coat on, and hurried out to the boy. But rather than throw the kid off the stage, he reached around him and began playing a countermelody to the boy’s “chopsticks.” All the while he played, the composer whispered encouragement to the young boy: “keep going…don’t quit…don’t stop.”

Continue reading Cultivating Patience
I suspect that we might know something about the boy’s impatience. Perhaps we have children, or know children, or remember growing up ourselves: we’re familiar with the impatience of youth. And especially at this time of year, with December the 25th seeming so far off, we might see youthful patience beginning to fray at the edges a bit.

As adults, we know some of the frustration of waiting, too. True, these days we get immediate news updates from around the world, we give ourselves instant gratification by buying on credit, and we don’t even have to wait for produce to be in season to enjoy it. Day to day there seem to be few incentives for learning patience.

But on a deeper level, we know we need it. Our bodies and minds don’t always behave the way we want them to as we grow older or when we are sick. Our coworkers, friends, or spouses make demands on us, let us down or leave. Perhaps we are upset with one direction or another that our nation has headed; certainly we are dissatisfied with continued famine and strife and poverty and injustice in so much of our world. Echoing the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans, we know what it is to “groan inwardly” as we await God’s deliverance of a good world gone wrong. In waiting, we know at bottom that we need patience to endure.

Advent, of course, is a time of waiting and learning patience, and we see this reflected clearly in the lessons for today.

The Christian hope has been, since the beginning, that Jesus would return at the end of the age and fulfill God’s work of deliverance and restoration. It’s this sort of renewal that we heard about in Isaiah today. The prophet had a vision of a world transfigured by God, where creation will rejoice, people will be healed, and grief will be put to flight.

At first, the church had thought that Jesus’ return and God’s final deliverance would be fairly swift, only a short time after Jesus had returned to the Father at the ascension. But months wore on into years and decades, and still their Lord had not returned. Naturally people wondered just how long he would wait.

This morning we also heard part of the letter of James, probably one of the earliest writings in the New Testament. Even in this early writing the author is dealing with the question of how to live in the time in-between Jesus’ ascension and his return.

James recognizes the tension of something begun but not yet complete, and counsels his hearers to be patient. He uses the image of a farmer cultivating a crop and then waiting for it to grow. Those of us who garden know that a good bit of our task is sitting back and letting sun, soil, and water do their work. There is only so much of our toil that will bring the plant to maturity, and constantly fiddling around with it will not help. I’ve lost enough plants to know.

So the task that James sets for us is to be as patient as we can, trusting that God is at work, sometimes despite appearances. We might look around in the meantime for small signs of growth: a small shoot here, a tiny bud there, maybe even the odd blossom in the desert.

But as we look around for these signs of growth, we would do well to keep in mind the lesson of John the Baptist, too. In today’s gospel lesson, John sends some of his disciples to Jesus with an odd question. Hearing this section in isolation from the gospel, we might not catch the strangeness of what he asks Jesus. If we move back in the story to when John was in the wilderness baptizing, he said that one was coming who would surpass him, and he recognized that Jesus was the one. In other words, John got it, John was on board with Jesus before almost anyone else.

Yet here he is asking if Jesus is the one, or are they to wait for another. Why this late shaking of John’s confidence?

Well, we would do well to remember just how John spoke of Jesus. We heard it last week: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John, stuck in prison, is looking at Jesus and asking “so where’s the unquenchable fire?”

John was right that Jesus is Messiah who was and is to come, but he was wrong about what kind of Messiah Jesus was and is. John thought that Jesus’ ministry would be one of harsh judgment against the unrighteous, and dramatic deliverance of the righteous. He would use fire to separate the wheat from the chaff and everything would be set right once and for all.

But looking at Jesus’ ministry, you can understand John’s confusion. Sure, Jesus denounced some authority figures. But he also spent an awful lot of time with tax collectors, prostitutes, the lame, the sick, the unclean, and maybe worst of all, Gentiles. To John, these people might seem like an awful lot of unburned chaff. When was Messiah going to get down to work?

But in fact Jesus was at work, preaching a Kingdom that incorporated people as unlikely as tax collectors and prostitutes and Gentiles. Jesus’ response to John -- that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed -- declares to John and all of us that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He is Messiah, but he is not bringing fiery judgment the way John thought. Even this one whom Jesus called the greatest among those born of women failed to grasp Jesus’ mission because he had not grasped the depth of God’s patience.

That patience allows the Kingdom of God to grow. It includes the unlikely, it sees sinners made righteous, and it brings healing, reconciliation, and new life to a world which desperately needs it. And since this kingdom is God’s, not ours, we would do well to try to grasp God’s patience too. I wonder if learning patience might not be one of our chief vocations as Christians in this life?

Finally, we must note that patience is not complacency. Even as we are called to be patient as God is patient, we are also called to join in the work of God’s kingdom. We do this in whatever small ways we can manage, to begin to nourish and encourage this new life that began in Jesus, and, one day, will rejoice to behold him again.
Which is to say that I don’t think we are just to sit in the audience waiting for the show to start. Like the nine-year-old boy at the concert, we should not fear to make our way to the piano and begin to bang out our own tune in the meantime. As Christians, we play Jesus’ songs of justice and love and reconciliation as best we can, trusting that God’s Spirit, will play the countermelody of the Kingdom. As we do that, we may chance to hear a still small voice encouraging us us: “keep going…don’t quit…don’t stop.” Even so, we confess that the songs are not of our own composition, and we are only the opening act for the One who is to come. Amen.

[1] Today in the Word, Jan, 1992, p.8.

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Blogger Nightprowlkitty said...

I was searching the internet on ways to cultivate patience and your entry showed up. I like how you counsel both the difficult waiting as well as the action of expressing yourself (as the little boy did), keeping in mind you are only the "opening act." Although patience is one of the hardest qualities to cultivate, it is also a source of great strength, being able to abide in the moment with full awareness and faith. Thank you for writing about this in such a sensitive manner.

Thursday, April 28, 2005 8:09:00 PM  

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