St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Trinity, October 4, 2020
“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love”
YOU NEED TO BE PATIENT!” cries a frustrated young mother to her two-year-old in exasperation. She hears her own mother’s voice years ago shouting the exact same words at her. Along the way, she learned how to really try her mother’s patience, and now her own child is doing it to her. “Give me that!” “Hurry up!” “I don’t have all day!” “What’s your problem? Get it done!” angry voices teach us impatience every day, car horns blaring, impulse buying, car chase scenes, the vicious ascent of young upwardly mobile people to get to the top first. What are sports for? To pay someone else to strive for excellence in our place. Hurry, get up, what are you waiting for….? Go Niners!
When I was a kid they joked about the pace of modern life and called it the Rat Race. Rats in a maze, as in psychological experiments, poking here and there, trying to find the fastest way through the many obstacles toward the waiting cheese. We’re in this for cheese! Some of us are. Others are simply trying to avoid discomfort. That’s about it in modern life, or is it post-modern life: just cheese, that is: pleasure, or else avoidance of pain. Do we learn patience in the heat of the moment, or only how to get where we’re going in the shortest time?
The old word for patience was long-suffering, and I like that. It adds to the idea. Patience is not just holding still with some kind of concentrated magnanimity: the yoga master in a perfect lotus position, fingers beautifully set on her knees, harmony with non-being. I’m not sure what that gets her, but I’m sure it’s doing her some good, or else she’d quit it and buy a Frappuccino. But patience is a learned skill, or grace, or spiritual quality, that comes by suffering over time. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, Cricket. No one gets a life without plenty of it.
It may simply be a longing, for cheese, let’s say, but a longing denied. No cheese today. Or tomorrow. Did you know that the Chinese don’t eat cheese at all? Ever? Their patient waiting must be for some other food then. It’s a pleasure denied, or it’s a source of real pain, but suffering comes with the human life and we get pretty used to it. A little kid has no patience for suffering, usually. One moment he’s fine, his young mind occupied, eyes taking everything in; the next second he feels hunger and lets loose with a wail. No patience at all. Patience is learned. It may as well be learned from childhood. The indulged child is a terror to his parents, and lives miserably, always getting what he wants.
Every list of virtues in the Bible includes patience as one of the traits of good spiritual life. St. Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit produces these fruits, or traits, in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22 St. James, the Lord’s brother, adjoins us to “be patient until the Lord comes again. See how farmers wait for their precious crops to grow. Don't give up hope. The Lord will soon be here… You have heard about Job's endurance. The Lord ended Job's suffering because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” James 5:7-11
St. Peter, who I vote for as the most impatient Apostle, learned the secret of patience. He said, “don’t be surprised by the fiery troubles that are coming to test you. Don’t feel something strange is happening to you: be happy as you share Christ’s sufferings… You shouldn’t suffer for being a … criminal or troublemaker. If you suffer for being a Christian, don’t feel ashamed, but praise God for being called that name.” 1 Peter 4
Smart people of prayer have admonished their younger disciples, “Don’t pray for patience.” This strange lesson is explained by showing the link to that old term Long Suffering. Patience is born from pain. You can’t be patient without an irritant. It might just be an itch, a lower back pain, or tummy growling. You only learn patience by having the load increased. Long suffering means you just take it, in faith, knowing it will someday be over and all joy will be yours. In fact, the best patience is shown in the person who has that joy in the middle of the pain. So it was with our Lord. We are “Looking to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Heb 12:2 The joy got Him through, knowing the reason He was suffering was to save us all, and His Father’s immense glory and love was waiting at the end.
Does patience sound like something you need? You do. And you may be very patient already. The most patient people in the world are a complete secret to us. They aren’t moping around, shouting at us to get it together, writing Dear Abby, or doing drugs. They are smiling, giving to others, doing without in all likelihood, but you’d never know it. Patience bears them along, and their suffering is their own sweet secret.
I mentioned that time is an element of learning patience. Suffering is somehow good for us, but only when we must bear it awhile. I poke you with a pin and Ouch! Your pain is rapid, localized, intense, and over in a minute. By then you’ve asked why I did it and rubbed the spot angrily. No patience resulted from my experiment. In fact, you’re pretty sure I’m out of my mind. (Or I’m a doctor.) Anyway, it doesn’t hurt anymore, does it? But feel that pain slightly, and over a year, or ten, and now you culture patience. It’s that element of time that makes the Christian walk a real hike. We get the faith, happy for the realization, begin to act out our better angels, and then time passes, and passes more. Stuff happens, we get tired, we experience disappointments, and loss, and injury, and evil times, injustice, and then we begin to know how painful life truly is. And we begin to learn long-suffering, patience, bearing one another’s burdens, and what love and forgiveness are for.
A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, once said, “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” Patience is a stillness in the midst of a storm, a kind of quiet knowledge that it’s going to be alright. It’s the wisdom to wait for resolution and not push the river. It’s trust, not in the world – you can’t trust the world except to be the world – but in the unseen God above, who keeps surprising us.
Just don’t pray for patience. You’ll get it anyway, with enough evil doled out daily. Impatience, needing things to resolve quickly, is a sure way to get half-baked solutions that will not bear scrutiny. Moliere wrote: “Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.” True. “Patience is power.” wrote Fulton Sheen, “Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is timing.”
The Proverbs of the Bible used to make me really impatient. Why? So many of them sounded too obvious to me. I wanted a punchline, a surprise, something profoundly deep and I wasn’t hearing it. The wise man does wisely, but the fool is an idiot: so many verses sounded like that to my impatient ear. And: many verses are just about that plain common-sense needlepoint type of saying. The secret of the Proverbs is to read them, hear what they mean, take them in, and wait.
You take a shower pretty often, don’t you? Did you take one the other day? Why do it again? You know all about showers. Why repeat it? Silly question. The world beats us down, weakens our resolve, shakes our faith in what’s right and wrong, addles our judgment. We need to affirm the truth: up is up and down is down. I don’t care that it’s a tautology: it’s true. Feel that comfort deep down: you’re not crazy. Good still means good, no matter what 20 crazy YouTube videos say.
St. Paul uses the word Walk to mean Our lives over time. Walk becomes long trip and we walk in the light, worthy of our calling, “with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Eph 4 That’s today’s Epistle. Lowliness and meekness aren’t stars of the current culture. Humility and gentleness are easier terms to grasp. Humility means seeing yourself, and God, clearly. You know yourself, warts and all, and appreciate the enormous love He has that He chose you to be His special child. Gentleness is tenderheartedness, being able not to act rashly or judgmentally: a great virtue. Then Paul adds our old friend Long-Suffering. Why, after all? What good does patience do? The squeaky wheel gets grease! Doesn’t it? Well, his next character trait is forbearing one another in love. You may have noticed the reciprocal quality of that. One another. We bear with each other. We put up with the other’s annoying quirks, overlook them, turn them into reasons we enjoy your company, and you might even enjoy mine. It turns to love. And so, from humility to love and unity: the church grows by patience.
A church without suffering is trying to sell you something. Some slick preacher, miracle man, Holy Ghost bartender wants to tell you Jesus wants you healthy, rich and happy! You won’t learn anything about the spiritual life that way. Don’t seek suffering either. You get it in spades, anyway. Your cross is custom fitted for you: don’t go shopping for another. We depict Christ on our crucifix because it gives our little pains and sorrows meaning, puts them into context, and lets us know He understands them completely.
The year 2020 was slated to be an amazing year of great new things I heard, last December. It’s brought pandemic, murder hornets, riots, brain eating amoebas, huge wildfires, closed schools, churches and malls, horrible air quality, scandal, and bubonic plague. This month I’ve got my money on flying monkeys. Or just hang it and release the Kraken. We need to laugh about it, or we’ll go crazy.
The Christian life teaches us patience—to get through it and hold onto a better vision, and truer meaning, with loving hearts. The sooner we learn patience, the happier we will be.