We all know the feeling of waiting for that one guy who is always late. That feeling of quiet anger rising as the whole room waits for him to arrive so that the meeting can start. You try to be patient, you try some small talk, but soon the frustrating thoughts creep in… he always does this, God is he clueless, someone should say something to him. The moments drag by…then finally the tardy man arrives two minutes late, holding tea and toast.
St. Paul encourages us tonight to regard others as better than ourselves. Now please keep in mind St. Paul didn’t write these words on his honeymoon. He wrote these words in jail, locked up because he was a Christian. So even in chains he asks us to consider others as better than ourselves…that includes Mr. Tea and Toast.
Why would St. Paul write such a thing? Why not write something like follow the spirit of Christ and always arrive five minutes early so no has to wait for you? The genius of St. Paul was his vision for the long haul. He knew that having the patience to regard others as more important is a short term pain for a long term gain. In other words, patience is a good strategy.
This morning Jesus speaks to us of a heavenly wisdom, personified in a group of (rather human sounding) women before a (rather human sounding) wedding. I admit I am always a little startled when Jesus uses wedding imagery to illustrate the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Yet he does so with notable frequency. For his contemporaries, as for us, there is a familiarity here.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”
When I’m told “be patient,” I squirm. For someone I love notices I’ve been squirming, wondering what will happen, and trying to make something happen. Perhaps we associate patience with being nice or good, yet it usually hurts.
“Be patient,” James writes. Along with the original hearers, I squirm. Be patient like the farmer who waits with a precious crop for the early and late rains to nourish mature growth. The farmer waits not simply for the rains to come but for the crop to survive in the meantime. Insects, weeds, and sun may harm or kill, and the farmer cannot control these.
To be patient is to tolerate or endure discomfort or suffering. The farmer does not know and cannot control what may eat, choke, or scorch the crops. Patience is hard, sometimes excruciating. I have also experienced that “be patient” helps prompt my renewed attention. Perhaps you have too. It is like the psalmist saying: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”[i] Wait patiently by slowing down from squirm to stillness, from noisy chatter to silence. As anxiety lessens, we can see and hear more, including graced surprises. God comes in unexpected ways that may at first confuse us.
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
Jesus is walking southward with his disciples to Jerusalem, a journey he would have made many times… but probably not on this particular route.[i] On this occasion they are walking from Nazareth – which is up north in the Galilee region – through the region of Samaria to get to Jerusalem. It’s 90 miles straight, following the hypotenuse of the triangle. However most Jews, walking from Galilee to Jerusalem, would set off east on a right angle, crossing over the Jordan River, then following the river southwards until cutting back westward over the river to go up to Jerusalem. This turned the 90-mile direct trek-on-foot into 120 miles; however it avoided Samaria.
Samaria was in the center of Palestine, 40 miles from north to south, and 35 miles from east to west. The Jews hated the Samaritans; the Samaritans hated the Jews. The Samaritans were colonists established by the Assyrians in the territory of Israel. The Samaritans claimed that they, too, were among God’s chosen people. But the Samaritans did not go up to Jerusalem to worship; they went up to Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was “bad blood,” sometimes vitriol racism, between these two groups. Samaritans stayed amongst themselves. Jews taking a shortcut through Samaria were easy targets for hatred, sometimes for vindictive robbery.
Sing to the Lord a new song. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing a song we’ve never sung before. Certainly, it may come to us in fragments—a gesture here, a motif there—and sometimes (if we’re feeling particularly confident) we may even begin to think we know how this strange new air goes. Yet this isn’t a song we or the world are used to hearing, and we may often feel ill-trained to sing it; but that’s probably because we are.
As the ear of our prayer adjusts in the fullness of time, we begin to realize that this new song, from our vantage, requires a kind of virtuosity for which we alone lack the dexterity of heart; and we realize we will not learn this song on our own. And still, there comes also a sense, somewhere deep within noisy mystery of ourselves, that we have known this strange song we’ve never sung before.
Sing to the Lord a new song.
In the scriptures, we are consistently called “children of God,” not “adults of God,” but “children of God.” The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 40, is spoken to you, a child of God:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. (Psalm 40:1-2)
The psalmist begins, “I waited patiently upon the Lord.” You will know something about this, when you are having to wait in life. This kind of waiting is not an eager waiting, where you are pirouetting around with great expectation about something wonderful you just can’t wait to happen. It’s not a waiting where you are jumping up and down, because you can hardly wait. This kind of waiting implies suffering, when you are dreading something, or when you are stuck in a seemingly-intractable situation which is imprisoning. You are waiting patiently because you are powerless in-and-of yourself to rise above your insufferable circumstances. The English word “patience” comes from Latin patientia which means, literally, a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, desperately.
The sun is setting. The night has begun. The season of Advent marks the start of the new Church year, and, like the Jewish day that begins once the sun has descended, our year begins with the night season.
Advent is a season of looking ahead. We anticipate the coming of the Lord both in our looking forward to the commemoration of his birth, as well as our hopeful belief in his coming again. It is, therefore, a season of the affirmation of our Christian faith and joy.
But the night is dark. The night is cold, and lonely, and we have not been given leave to rest until the warm embrace of the new dawn. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. Christ gives us the order: “Keep awake.”1 Our Lord gives us this command, to keep watch at the door for his return. He does not even give us the time of his coming back, assuring us only that “about that day or hour no one knows.”1 There is no known end to the tunnel, no hour at which we can punch out and leave our shift at the night watch. We simply must watch, and wait. And lest we think we might have the sweet comfort or stimulating diversion of impermanent things, Christ tells us that “heaven and earth shall pass away.”1 All things will crumble; all things will fade.
One of the debates I see played out amongst my friends each year on social media is what I call the Christmas tree debate. Just when is it acceptable to drag out your Christmas CDs, decorations, and set up your tree in front of the living room picture window? We smile somewhat at this familiar conundrum but it seems each year the debate gets even more heated, perhaps one tier below our concerns about whether Russia interfered with our election process. I read comments from friends who dread hearing ‘Sleigh Ride’ played ad nauseum in supermarkets and shopping malls beginning Thanksgiving Day. And I don’t blame them. When I was home to see my parents a few weeks ago, I shook my head in frustration when a local radio station advertised its seasonal format shift to Christmas music exactly one week prior to Thanksgiving! Many of my friends had pictures of their trees on social media on Thanksgiving, one with the defiant comment: “We put our tree up today! Sorry, not sorry!” And who can blame them? In a world that appears to be immersed in utter chaos, in a climate of hostility to those who think, believe, and act differently, who wouldn’t be parched and thirsting for some Christmas joy?
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week: the palm-waving crowds, the last supper among friends, the betrayals, the scourging, the crucifixion and resurrection. All of those days are full of interpretation and meaning. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous of meaning. Jesus says to his followers,“Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power.”Why the wait? I think God is waiting for us, for you and for me, to say Yes with our own lives: our readiness or at least our willingness to co-operate with God for what God has in mind for our own lives.Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote in his diary just before Pentecost in 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 Say Yes to your own life. God is waiting for us to say Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel of God’s power at work within us and through us.