Sunday, December 11, 2016
A CALL TO PATIENCE
Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.
Once upon a time there was a man who had struggled for year to make a living. Then, learning how to bend fine timber slowly, he developed a business making wooden arches for carriage shafts. After several years, it appeared that he was on his way to becoming a wealthy man. The wealthy man’s neighbor became envious of the man’s success and determined that since he had access to the same lumber, he would begin his own business. The neighbor’s goal was to make twice as many shafts as the wealthy man. Quickly the neighbor cut trees and attempted to form them into shafts, but one after another split. Finally the neighbor went to the wealthy man to ask for advice. “I use the same trees and I have similar equipment. Why am I unsuccessful?” he asked. “You have both skill and fine materials,” the wealthy man told his neighbor. “But it takes a long time to bend the tree. What you lack is patience.”
Patience is a virtue often lacking in our own culture. Professor Susan Eastman has observed: “We all want to make our corner of the world into the promised land, and we want it NOW! The costs of our impatience are enormous, from our gluttony for oil, to our degradation of the environment, to radical inequalities in the distribution of the world’s goods.”
In our New Testament reading for today James issues a call to patience. He views patience as “an alternative to the life of grasping and exploitation” that he condemns in 5:1-6. Speaking like an Old Testament prophet, James lashes out against wealthy landowners: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
The patience James lifts up is a countercultural way of life compared to the way of life of these landowners. It is also a countercultural way to live in our consumptive, fast-paced society. During Advent we focus on preparing for the coming of the Lord. James counsels his brothers and sisters in Christ: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” For followers of Jesus cultivating patience is a key part of our Advent preparations.
James highlights three examples of patience: a farmer, the prophets, and Job. At St. Andrew we have a number of master gardeners, but I am not aware of any farmers. Nonetheless, we all depend on farmers for food.
We moved to Franklin Grove in the summer of 1988. Farmers were enduring the worst drought in 50 years. James speaks of the farmer waiting “for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” In the summer of 1988 Franklin Grove farmers were waiting for any rain to water their precious crops.
I marveled at how calm these farmers seemed to be during this time of drought. The experienced farmers had been through challenging times before. Not even the best soil in the world guaranteed a bountiful harvest each year. In addition to drought, damaging storms, blight, and the like could impact yields. Experienced farmers in our congregation also had a deep understanding that they could plant and cultivate crops, but only God could give the growth. They needed strong hearts, filled with confidence and trust in God, to wait for their crops to bear a harvest each year. They needed especially strong hearts to weather the occasional down year. A farmer without patience simply could not handle the uncertainties of farming.
James highlights the prophets as a second example of patience and suffering. It may seem surprising that James lifts up prophets as exemplars of patience. In fact, prophets often seemed impatient with the people of God, and let them know it. Consider Amos—a classic prophet. Amos hammers away relentlessly with the word of the Lord at those who take advantage of the poor. In Amos 5:11–12 he prophecies: “Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.” Amos does not let up through his whole book until a brief word of hope at the end. It appears that Amos has no patience with injustices perpetrated by the people of God. So in what sense does James view him and other prophets as patient?
What drives Amos and the prophets is a deep trust in God and a confidence that God will ultimately fulfill God’s promises. True prophets were willing to endure persecution and suffering for the sake of proclaiming the word of the Lord. They proclaimed the word of the Lord as the Lord called them to do and were confident that the Lord would fulfill that word, even when current circumstances seemed bleak for themselves or the people of God. They maintained hope, even though they knew they themselves would not likely live to see God’s hopes fulfilled.
James’ third example of patience is Job. James mentions Job in chapter 5, verse 11. It is odd this verse was not included in the New Testament lesson for today. It reads: “Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Job was a man of faith and a man of great wealth, who had an impeccable reputation and was in excellent health. Job seemed to have it all. But in short order, his character was attacked, he lost his property and children, and he was afflicted with loathsome sores from head to foot. His wife and three close friends encouraged him to curse God. But he refused, and through all his suffering he remained faithful to God. He persisted in praying to God. He wanted God to explain to him why his life had taken a turn for the worst. Finally God responded. God’s message was basically: my purposes will not always be clear to human beings; but I remain your God.
The example of Job shows that the privileged are not immune from suffering in this life. No matter how well life seems to be going, all of us at one time or another will need to deal with a measure of suffering. For Job his suffering was an occasion to turn to God in prayer and pursue a closer relationship with God. He refused to give up on his conviction that God was a God of mercy and justice.
The final passage of James, following almost immediately after the verse about Job, focuses on the prayer of faith. James encourages members of the community of faith to pray for one another, especially for those in need of healing. He views fervent, confident prayer, as an essential part of the patience to which followers of Jesus are called. Being faithful in prayer is important at all times. But it is especially vital in the most challenging of times. Advent is an excellent time to refocus ourselves on being faithful in our prayer and devotional life. It is one of the primary ways in which our Lord cultivates patience in us.
I want to clear up
one possible misreading of James’ call to patience. He is not counseling the
poor and victims of oppression and injustice to simply be patient in their
suffering. He is not encouraging them to passively accept their lot in life. As
Susan Eastman clarifies, “exhorting the
`have-nots’ to be patient can be a form of continuing oppression.”
Imagine telling refugees who are being slaughtered or forced from their homes to
be patient. In “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr.
challenged the clergy of
Last night at our All-Church Banquet it occurred to me that we have all the skills and materials we need to fulfill God’s purposes in this place. Now the question is: Do we have the patience to let God bend our wills in the direction of God’s mercy and justice?
In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
 William White, Stories for the Gathering, 148.
 Eastman, “Commentary of James 5:7–10,” Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11.
 Eastman, “Commentary of James 5:7–10,” Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary¬_id=11.