Sermon delivered at St Helier Church evening Taize style service, inspired by a recent post of Richard Beck’s on Experimental Theology.
“Be patient then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.” James 5:7
“Be patient then, brothers and sisters”. This section of James’ letter is something of a case study in patience. Be patient about the weather, be patient about each other, be patient about suffering and persecution and be patient in prayer – patient with God.
But there are different kinds of patience and there is a different way of looking at the world through patient eyes.
Some people talk about a patience that says; "Just put up with it. Just put up with the injustice you see all around. Just put up with the pain and suffering of this world. Just put up with the fact that tonight over twenty thousand children will not wake up in the morning because in this world of plenty they could not afford to buy any food. Just put up with the fact that we spend more on the weapons of war than on all the schools and hospitals on the planet combined. Just put up with it because it’s all going to burn up anyway. Just put up with it because God is more interested in souls in heaven than bodies on Earth.” In this view, patience in this life is a logical, resigned, acceptance of the way things are and will always be – broken, fallen and ultimately frustrating. But this is not a Christian view.
There is the view of the recently departed politician who said “I am extraordinarily patient, provided I get my own way in the end.” But hers was not a Christian view either.
There’s another kind of patience that says; “God is in control. God is mighty. God is strong. God is all-powerful. God can fix anything and the only reason that he doesn’t is something to do with us not understanding his mysterious ways or his hidden timings.” In this view our job is to wait patiently for God to fix this mess, and to fix us, and most importantly to fix them – because they really have it coming to them don’t they? In this view humans are just spectators in a Samuel Beckett-like drama, in which the absent lead character carries all the plot. I think its possible to say that this is a Biblical view, as in you can find some of this thought in various parts of scripture, but I would again say that this too is not a Christian view.
The modern world of business, of advertisers, of express painkillers, fast food, instant music and 24 hour access to debt finance, is one stripped of patience. We sometimes see this even in the church. One in which the unstrained cravings of the ego, become the acceptable strivings of progress. One in which no gratification must be delayed. One in which a whole economy is built upon desire and in which patience can be an insurrectionary act of defiance.
But what James seems to be alluding to, and what we see in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is first and foremost a God who is patient. Because if, as John says; God is love – and as Paul says; love is patient, then perhaps we need a different understanding of patience. One that arises from a renewed vision of God.
Jack Caputo writes of the love of God as a “weak force in the world” – this is not a statement about how weak or strong God actually might be, but more a statement about how God seems to operate. And it’s based on an understanding of how love operates. Love beckons. Love beguiles the heart. Love attracts us in a myriad gentle and mysterious ways. Love does not force, coerce or overpower with greater might or strength of will.
Think for a moment about the beauty of a sunset – we’ve had quite a few marvellous ones lately. Does anyone have to force you to watch a sunset? Or can you ever force someone to stop what they are doing to just absorb the sublime beauty of heaven’s watercolours? No, the beauty of a sunset is very powerful, but its allure is not a coercive force. It doesn’t push you. It draws you. Its something that breaks your heart, it melts you and it moves you.
And maybe the love of God is like the beauty of a sunset. Maybe the life of Jesus is like the beauty of a thousand setting suns and ten thousand more heart-breaking dawns. Maybe we get a hint of that beauty in the good we see in people too. And maybe God is patiently filling the creation, and our own lives, with such moments of beauty that, little by little, our iceberg hearts might melt.
James says be patient. Just as a farmer cannot rush the growing seed, by fretting and worrying about it, and she certainly cannot force the fruit to ripen.
James says do not grumble against one another – but just as God is infinitely patient with us, then so might we look on at each other’s slow encounters with transforming beauty.
James says be patient in our sufferings, as God is patient in all the suffering of creation.
James says be patient in prayer. Prayer can so often be viewed as a coercive exchange. “I have done this Lord now you do that.” James is very careful not to make prayer for the sick a one man celebrity ministry. Lots of people gather round and share patience in community. So all might be transformed by the beauty of God working in the sick person.
James says be patient with each others sins, confessing to one another and speaking forgiveness to one another – a beautiful enactment of the life of Jesus in our community.
Finally James says be patient with those who have “wandered” from Jesus…
In our evangelism perhaps we need to learn patience from the patient love of God. So often we rush people to a deadline, often with verses that say "today, if you hear his voice…" or "now is the day of salvation…" But if Gregory of Nazianzus is right, then God doesn’t seem to work from this timetable of mortal urgency. God seems to be in the business of melting heats, through the attractive beauty of his gentle love. It’s so easy to be impatient with the work God is doing in others. Easy too to have a patient regard for the timberwork blocking our own clear vision. But if the weak force of God’s beguiling love is drawing the whole of creation up into communion… And if love wins in the end through the slow, non-coercive, unwinding of sin… And if love is infinitely and gratuitously patient then perhaps, just perhaps, patience might be our holy response to the grace of God.