“Patience and fortitude conquer all things” These are the words of our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century Unitarian minister, lecturer, and pioneer of the transcendentalist movement.
I toyed with the idea of starting this sermon by not starting it. Just standing here, or maybe sitting in the chair to let you all exercise the often extolled virtue of patience.
I probably wouldn’t have the patience to do it…
One of you has nicknamed me “Rev. Vroom Vroom.” Soon after I arrived here in England, another member of this congregation told me I was ‘full of beans.’ That was a total mystery to me and I didn’t know whether to say thanks or be insulted. In the US, the beginning of a sentence “you are full of…” ends no place good. When I finally understood, I couldn’t really disagree.
Action – rather than patient waiting – is often my response when I see things that need doing.
In our story this morning, we heard the tale of a miner who, after inspecting hundreds of thousands of stones finally found his treasurer by hurling one impatiently. Was it his patient years of back-breaking labour that caused his success or his impulsive, impatient gesture?
Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of the period of Advent in the Christian calendar. For Christians, Advent is a time of waiting and preparation in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas. Yes, there are Advent calendars for the kids – often with little surprises or even gifts for each day. But the true meaning of this time is more serious. Advent reminds Christians of waiting for the coming of Christ.
The word Advent comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word parousia – a word that refers not to the birth of Jesus as described in the bible, but the anticipated Second Coming. Advent is symbolic both of the biblical time of waiting as well as the waiting that has continued from biblical times until today for Christ’s return.
The Judeo-Christian tradition is big on waiting. The Jews waited a few thousand years for a promised messiah to arrive. Those who would become Christians concluded he had arrived in Jesus of Nazareth, but the Jews still wait.
The Christians, having concluded the wait was over and the ancient prophesy fulfilled in the person of Jesus, then began a new wait for the second coming of Christ.
That second coming represents the end of this world and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. The dead will rise and all will be judged.
In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus seems to indicate that this end time would arrive soon – sometime in the first century. In the three synoptic Gospels – the ones that closely parallel one another - he is heard to say “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
It reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s 1822 prediction that "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die [a] Unitarian."
Well, I’m still waiting for Jefferson’s prediction to come true and much of Christianity is still waiting for the end time predicted by Jesus to arrive. Certainly, the Christians have waited a lot longer – but that doesn’t make me feel any better!
The word patience comes from a Latin root meaning to suffer or endure. The derivation of patient – one who is in need of medical care – is the same. Patience is about enduring suffering.
Patience is a virtue. It is much extolled as essential for happiness and success.
One particularly trite aphorism tells us “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.” To me, that sounds less like a question of patience than of sanity. How patient are we to be? Should we wait for the egg to show up in our home by itself? Perhaps a chicken will arrive at the front door uninvited, slip through the letter box, and build its nest on the floor…
One of the best-known sections of the Hebrew Scriptures is the book of Job. You heard an excerpt earlier. The basic story is that Job was as good and righteous a man that could be found in the land. One day, Satan came to God with the claim that good people are only good if good things happen to them. He makes the challenge that, given enough hardship, even Job will curse God.
So, God proceeds to send the worst possible misfortunes Job’s way. His animals die, his children die, he is impoverished and disgraced. He breaks out in hideous boils that give him excruciating pain. And then, one of his so-called friends – Eliphaz - comes by to say ‘where’s your patience?’ In other words, you should suffer this agony willingly and faithfully because God is good and it is your place to be faithful and trusting and – just patient.
That’s essentially the moral of the story. Trust God because he knows best. And, of course, God was actually playing with this poor man’s life the whole time!
You may have figured out that it’s not my favourite story...
While patience is extolled in most religions, others thinkers and writiers have decried it as hidden laziness or an unhelpful passivity.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a Unitarian and a Feminist at the turn of the 20th century. Reflecting the struggle for equality between the sexes – a struggle in which she engaged with more action than patience – she declared “There was a time when Patience ceased to be a virtue. It was long ago.”
19th Century British publisher Henry George Bohn declared “He preacheth patience that never knew pain.” Patience can be a virtue urged by those who do not care to see change, upon those who do.
This congregation’s history has been characterized by an approach less patient than most of its peers. Mary Wollstonecraft put forward her views on equality for women long before people were truly ready to hear it. Richard Price was roundly attacked for his published views on individual rights. And today, we remain the only congregation in the country that declares ‘we refuse to marry anyone until we can marry everyone.’
If you’ve ever been in or near a protest, you know the call and response chants that are often used. A friend ridicules the overly patient approach with this satirical protest chant.
What do we want? Moderate change!
When do we want it? In due course!
I do not mean to suggest that patience is not a virtue – only a certain kind of passive acceptance that masquerades as patience. I do know patience as a strength that helps us to endure and allows us to accomplish what action alone could not. Another Unitarian, sixth US President John Quincy Adams, John Quincy Adams advised that “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”
There is a place between smashing the egg and sitting idly waiting for a chicken to arrive unbidden to lay and incubate it!
Poet Maya Angelou offers a wise balance:
Seek patience and passion in equal amounts.
Patience alone will not build the temple.
Passion alone will destroy its walls.
My mind turns to some of those we admire most – ancient and modern. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jesus… I’m sure that other names will come to you.
Each of these people is deserving of our admiration. Each of them saw something that needed attention – something that called out for change.
For each one, the approach they took combined patience and action in a exquisite balance. They were not violent revolutionaries, but leaders with a calm and yet unshakable determination to produce change.
Patience for them was not evidenced in inaction – quiet acceptance of the status quo. Their patience was the fuel for their persistence. It appeared in the constant faith that allowed them to continue their struggle in the face of what seemed to be overwhelming opposition. Theirs was the patience of water that finds a way around the immovable object until it is at last eroded away.
Justice-seeking people – people who dream of a world of love and peace – must find the right balance between faith and impatience, between calm and indignation, between a direct frontal assault and a constant, persistent wearing down of the sources and causes of misery.
Patience and passion together give us the courage and the faith to take another step toward the world we envision.
May it be so.