(a sermon for September 4, 2016, the 16th Sunday After Pentecost, based on James 5:7-12)
Somewhere in a box of personal keepsakes, I have this small wooden plaque that my mother bought for me while she was on a trip to Florida with my grandmother in the fall of 1977. It reads simply, “Lord, give me patience… and I want it right now!”
Now this may not seem like much of a keepsake to you, but let me put this little gift in its proper historical context: in the fall of 1977, I was an entering freshman at the University of Maine, and I was having, shall we say, adjustment issues as regards college life! I’m this 18 year-old kid, it’s my first real experience being away from home, I’ve lived this reasonably sheltered existence my whole life, and now here I am suddenly swept up in this strange new world with little or no clue as to what to do about it! And I’m having problems with class registration, I can’t find anything on campus, and because of overcrowding at the university that year, I’m in my third dorm room in my second dormitory, and it’s not even the end of September! And the kicker is that my current roommates are two guys from Greenwich Village who have filled the dorm room with drug paraphernalia and marijuana plants growing on the windowsill! To say the least, I was wholly out of my element; and I was miserable.
So by now I’m homesick, discouraged and quite frankly, pretty fed up with this whole notion of post-secondary education! I’d call my parents – collect, of course – to cry on their shoulders; and they did what good parents ought to do under the circumstances: they’d reassure me, tell me to be patient and hang in there, and eventually things would get better. Looking back I know it was good advice but at the time all I kept saying was, “I don’t want to be patient, I want this fixed!”
My parents were right, of course, and in the end one of the most important lessons I learned that first year was about patience: hence, the plaque… which hung on the wall of at least two more dorm rooms that year, and then in the off-campus apartment where I lived through the rest of my years at Maine. It was a good reminder not to let myself become quite so impatient for some patience!
Would you not agree that for most of us, patience is a rare commodity? It’s just so hard to wait! (It’s no accident that the Latin root of our word patience, patior, actually means “to suffer!”) But understand I’m talking about more than your basic “garden variety” tests of patience: waiting for an appointment at the doctor’s office; or standing in an interminably long line at Market Basket! What I’m speaking of here is the kind of patience required for dealing with those challenges in life that don’t unfold as we expect them to, or get resolved as quickly and expediently as we had been anticipating. It’s the patience we need when people don’t (and won’t) react or respond to us the way we want them to. It’s the patience that gets tested again and again when everything except what we want to see happen for us in our lives, happens in spades! Friends, these are the moments when even the most steadfast among us will turn our gaze toward heaven and cry out in utter anguish, “Lord, give me patience… and I want it right now!”
And it does seem like a perfectly reasonable request of God(!); I mean, don’t we all have this desire to have things be fixed and resolved sooner rather than later; aren’t we all just wanting to “git r done?” It’s simply a proactive stance of life, which just seems the smart way to go; faithful, even. But then here comes this morning’s reading from James, where we find out that true wisdom, not to mention an authentic faith, is rooted in… that’s right, being patient; and moreover, living patiently! It’s there in the very first verse we shared: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
Actually, the Epistle of James has a rather unique place in the canon of scripture, and in particular the New Testament. Elsewhere, as in the letters of Paul, you get deep exploration of some of the major theological themes of our faith: sin and atonement, grace and salvation, and so on. But James, in five brief chapters, cuts right through the ideas and ideals of faith to get to real life; our real lives. It’s “practical Christianity,” if you will, and it covers everything from being “doers of the word” (1:22) to “tam[ing] the tongue” (3:8); it’s about living our faith with authenticity in and through all the challenges of life and living. And what that means is that if as a follower of Christ you are truly waiting on “coming of the Lord,” than you will need to be patient, and “strengthen your heart” in doing so.
The question, however, is how are we to be patient when we know how very difficult patience can be! Well, in our reading today James lifts up three examples of how our patience is tested, and how in faith, we need to respond. What we have here, actually, are three “mini-parables.” The first is that of a farmer waiting “for the precious crop from the earth;” as The Message it, “patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work.” The farmer, you see, represents the patience needed to face all of the uncontrollable circumstances of our lives. After all, whoever plants a garden, large or small, will tell you that there’s only so much you can do for what you’re growing. You plant your seeds, of course; you water and fertilize the soil, but in the end, you have to wait! You have no other choice than to wait for the shoots to pop out of the ground and the plants to grow!
Well, likewise, there is just so much in our life that is equally “out of our control:” we cannot predict how the world turns, nor can we determine what’s going to happen to us or to the people we love. The hard truth is that sometimes, try as we may, we can’t fix it, and at some point we will have to come to the understanding that the best and only thing we can do in those situations is be patient and wait. But just as the farmer’s crop “receives the early and the late rains,” so that the harvest may come in due time; so also we must be patient and stand firm, says James, “for the coming of the Lord is near.”
In other words, all the worrying and thinking and pondering and grumbling and complaining in the world ultimately won’t change a thing; and in fact, can only serve to weaken us and make things worse in the process! So be patient, James tells us, because just as a farmer must stay confident that God is working, we need to stay steady and strong as God works for the good in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Which brings us to James’ second example; which is that of the prophets “who spoke in the name of the Lord.” This represents the patience we need in the face of people who are unchangeable. Anybody here know someone like that? Maybe you live with somebody like that! The truth is that we all encounter people who try our patience simply by their, well, steadfastness (of course, when it’s me, it’s being steadfast; when it’s them, it’s being stubborn, but that’s another story!). The prophet serves as an example of living patiently with those kind of people; because biblically speaking, the prophet’s job was to bring God’s Word and to change people’s hearts, but the reality was that more often than not, at least initially, nobody changed!
I always think of Jeremiah in this regard: preaching God’s Word from the time he was a youth; and yet in his lifetime, his words were pretty much unheeded, the hearts of the people remained hard and unyielding, and Jeremiah was constantly being arrested and beaten for his trouble. But here’s the thing: he kept doing it; he was faithful to God’s calling and God’s plan for his life… no matter what!
Likewise, when you and I are trying to be faithful in our dealings with others, what we have to say and the priorities we’ve set for ourselves and for our lives are not automatically going to be received with great joy and acceptance; the truth is that some people are going to be slow to come around, and some won’t come around at all! But, says James, no matter what, you be patient; you “keep on keeping on,” because “we call blessed those who showed endurance.”
What’s interesting here is that the Greek word James uses for patience in this instance is makrothumos, which means, literally, “long heat;” that is, taking a long time to heat up. In other words, it might take a while to bring others to the place where they need to be; it might even seem like it’s never going to happen at all! But that doesn’t mean you stop “bringing the heat,” so to speak; because in speaking “in the name of the Lord,” perseverance is a blessing: for them and for us!
This brings us to the third example, that of Job, who represents for us the patience we need when we face problems that are unexplainable! In the Old Testament, of course, Job is the poster child for “When Bad Things Happen to Good People:” in the course of just two days, he loses his wealth, his children are killed, he gets an incurable and painful disease, and he loses all his fair-weather friends; even his wife tells him just to curse God and get it over with! But perhaps the worst part of it all is that Job never, ever finds out why this happened to him!
The fact is, sometimes stuff happens, problems come around, suffering is ours and most often, we never, ever (at least in this life) get a clear sense of why! Are there those who do seem to be born to suffer? Why does one person survive the ravages of disease but it takes the life of another? How is it that someone ends up in the way of an oncoming car at the wrong moment? Is it something random, or is there a reason?
The fact is, we don’t know – such is the reality of this life – but amongst all of life’s many joys and its pain, what we do have is the strength and comfort and hope that God gives us for the patience and perseverance we need, because, says James, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful,” or to quote the Message translation again, “God cares, cares right down to the last detail”
What’s at the heart of all this is that come what may, what the Lord brings about in our lives, in our relationships, and in the course of all of our dreams and visions is compassion and mercy. This is God’s purpose for us, and it is our enduring blessing. Whatever sufferings are ours in this life, whatever struggles we have in standing firm in “waiting upon the Lord,”we need to be patient and know that the Lord is working in and through it all. That’s why James closes out this exhortation on patience with the admonition to “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no,’ no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” Because if we start letting ourselves be dragged down the pathway of impatience and defeatism and bitterness and anger in this life, we will be living out of condemnation.
But when we live out of an authentic faith – when we know and understand that history is ever and always “his story” and that God is in charge, then we will have all the patience we need.
.The fact is, there are still times I find myself thinking back to that plaque my mother gave me all those years ago; and that’s because there’s always some kind of situation or struggle that comes up that just seems to be never-ending and make me wonder if I’ll ever get to the age where I don’t have to be worried about this stuff anymore! There are more than a few occasions where I’ll still be praying – and fervently (!)– for that virtue of patience, and pronto!
I suspect that you can say the same; perhaps even today… and so for all of us who in a multitude of ways are indeed waiting on “the coming of the Lord,” we can rejoice that in fact the prayer is already answered, that God is in charge of our world and our lives, and that in all of our day to day challenges, struggles and yes, joys, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
Let us embrace that gift, and may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry