Sunday, September 24, 2006

(Life on the Vine: Patience) Moving at the Speed of Love

Life on the Vine: Cultivating patience in the midst of productivity
Ecclesiastes 3:1-14; Psalm 103:8-11

Before I start my sermon, I’m going to need your cooperation—
actually, your compliance.
I need you to do as you’re told.
I don’t think I’ve ever given you orders on how to listen to my sermon,
but I’ve been here ten years now,
so maybe I’ve earned the right to tell you what to do...just one time.

Everyone who is wearing a watch, hold up your watch hand in the air.
Now take off your watch.
And put it deep into your pocket or your purse,
where you can’t see it or hear it beep.
The same goes for cell phones
or any other device that can tell you what time it is.

Now, if one of the ushers could go to that clock on the back wall,
and lift it off its hanger,
and place it on one of those chairs...face down.

Now none of us, including me, will be tracking the time
for the rest of this service.
I’m going to sit down, get a little more comfortable,
because I don’t know exactly how long I’m going to preach,
and I don’t want my legs to wear out.

Everyone feeling good right now? Relaxed?
I see concerned looks on a few faces.
They’re probably Sunday School teachers
who prepared for a full hour of class time.
I’m not too worried. They’ll get over it.

I want to begin my sermon on patience,
by talking about how we think about time.
Our lives are ruled by the clock.
It’s easy to see why.
In an industrialized culture like ours,
it’s important to be productive and efficient.
And we measure productivity by the amount of work done
per unit of time.
Can you imagine how chaotic life would be
without the ability to measure time accurately?
Factories, businesses, schools, offices...could not even function.
Transportation would come to a screeching halt.

And did you know it wasn’t until the Middle Ages,
that people even had a concept for “an hour.”
It wasn’t until the 1700’s, that the “second” was invented.
Now we can scientifically measure time in such small units,
it boggles the mind.

I’ve been to Africa and India several times.
Some of you have been to Latin America.
We all know how differently they relate to time.
And we laugh about it.
They do, too.
They don’t understand our fixation on time,
anymore than we understand their casual view of time.

Church services in Africa start at...sometime after breakfast
whenever the majority of the people can get there.
And they go until...they’re done.
Sometimes many hours later.
We all know exactly how many minutes it takes to drive to church,
don’t we?
And we all know which route is the quickest,
and which route takes 45 seconds longer.
Even Robert Maust, who lives in Keezletown,
knows which of seven possible routes is quickest,
depending on time of day.
But when the only way to get to church is to walk,
and some people walk 10 miles one way,
it makes no sense to time the service,
and make sure it lasts one hour and 15 minutes.

Now, don’t worry.
This morning aside, I do care about the time we allot for our services.
Because it’s a matter of caring about the needs of others:
Parents with small children who wear out quickly.
Sunday School classes who need to have enough time
to both have a lesson and build a sense of community.
I am not anti-clock.

I’m only wondering how our slavish commitment to the clock
might be affecting other commitments we have.
Like our commitment to love,
and to cultivate fruit of the Spirit, like patience.
We need our clocks.
But we also need to think about how they impact our lives.
We can’t deny one result of being so clock conscious
is that we are less patient.

In his book Life on the Vine, Philip Kenneson says that
because we can...most of the time,
move from point A to point B efficiently and on time,
we begin to live with the illusion that we have absolute control
over our own movements,
that we are free and independent to be, to go,
and to do whatever we choose.
So as soon as something or someone gets in our way,
impatience is right there, full force.
And we find ourselves tense and angry.

I drive this stretch of Park Road at least half a dozen times a day.
There is nothing that irks me more than pulling onto Park Rd,
and immediately getting stuck behind a vehicle
driving the speed limit of 25 all the way to Mt. Clinton Pike.
I’m usually in a hurry to get to some appointment on time,
and this driver is single-handedly preventing me.
But this week I did the math.
If that car wasn’t putzing along at 25,
and I was free to push my speed to say, 35,
I would get to the stop sign at Mt. Clinton Pike a whole...
25 seconds earlier.

I’m not alone in this.
We are notoriously impatient whenever we grip a steering wheel.
And usually what’s at stake is at most, a couple minutes.
Why are we like this?
Well, it’s a painful reminder that we really are not ultimately in control.
That we are not always the actors.
Sometimes we are acted upon.

And I think that’s the heart of the matter.
That is why patience is so difficult for us.
It means releasing control over our own lives and freedom.
And that’s why bearing the fruit of patience is so countercultural.
Culture tells us we should be free and independent.
It constantly reinforces the false notion that life is about me.
Patience requires a willingness to actively yield control to another.
Just like God in that respect.

Yes, patience is God’s nature.
Like all the fruit of the Spirit.
Remember what we said the first Sunday?
It’s not our fruit. We don’t produce it.
The fruit of the Spirit is not a reflection on us,
it’s a reflection of the character and mission of God.
And God is a patient God.
God chooses to actively yield control to another, to let go.
We may not think that,
but the writers of scripture knew it.

In the Genesis creation story, we see a God willing to yield.
Simply by creating humans and other life,
God created the possibility for creation to go its own way.
And it did.
And in Psalm 103, the poet says that in the face of our sins,
God is inclined to yield.
“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love...
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
And the apostle Paul, in his great love chapter, 1 Cor. 13,
says that love which is from God,
“does not insist on its own way.”
And when it comes to God’s willingness to yield,
we have no symbol more powerful and poignant than the cross.
The cross stands there to remind us
that the Lord of the universe reigns with long-suffering love,
and with patience, rather than swift vengeance.

If God wanted us to be obedient and faithful,
why wouldn’t God act quickly to correct all our failings?
Why wouldn’t God be known primarily as a whip-cracker,
riding herd on us, keeping us in line?

Philip Kenneson believes there’s an analogy in his own profession,
as a college professor.
He says his biggest temptation as a teacher is to
“jump in and correct every bit of wrong-headedness that arises.”
He said that might be a short-term solution,
and help them get the right answer on a test.
But in the long-term, if his students are to see things differently,
he has to be willing to bring them along slowly,
to allow them to continue to see things as they currently do,
yielding control to them,
so that in time that might be able to see more fully and internally.

I think in the church we fall to the same temptation.
It would be so much more orderly if we all saw things the same way.
If we all picked up the Bible and read it,
and came to the same conclusions.
I believe patience is in order,
even when we stand on solid ground theologically,
even when there is a strong consensus.
Forbearance is a virtue.
Willingness to yield to the other, in Christ,
maintaining the kind of relationship needed
to discern a deeper truth.
But we are so impatient.
We so much desire to maintain control.

We would be wise to follow the counsel of James, chapter 1:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

Now, we are not called to be patient purely for the sake of patience.
God’s patience also has a purpose.
God’s patience is directed toward us,
to lead us toward repentance,
toward change in our way of living.
God is slow to anger. But God does become angry.
God is full of forbearance, but a time of judgement comes.

Our patience, too, should be other-directed.
As a fruit of the Spirit,
Patience is not a psychological tactic to benefit us.
It’s not to lower our blood pressure.
It’s not to enhance our sense of well-being.
It’s not the spiritual equivalent of aromatherapy.
Our patience is for the sake of others.
And most of the time it’s hard,
often it’s grueling,
sometimes it’s painful.

In his book, Kenneson makes a helpful distinction
between being patient and being stoic.
When we try to be stoic, we are trying to keep our own life
from being disturbed by trouble,
trying to find a place of calm in the storm.
But patience is paying a personal price—
whether mere inconvenience, or painful sacrifice—
for the sake of another’s well-being.
As Romans 15 tells us,
“We...ought to put up with the failings of the weak,
not to please ourselves...[but] for the good purpose
of building up the neighbor.”

Let’s face it. Our time is a different thing than God’s time.
We like to live life in the fast lane,
because getting a job done quicker, going somewhere faster,
is always better than slower.
Kind of obvious, isn’t it?

Patience yields time to God.
The preacher, in Ecclesiastes 3, spoke more eloquently on this,
than I could ever hope to.
There is a time for every matter under heaven.
A time to be born, and a time to die,
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up,
a time to weep, and a time to laugh,
and on it goes.
In God’s frame of reference,
there is ample time for all that needs to happen.
And everything will come about in its season.
Not sooner. Not later.
And not based on how much we push things along.
Our toil, in fact, is meaningless, says the preacher in Ecclesiastes.
What gain do we have from our toil?
But God toils.
And God’s work is not bound to our sense of time.
V. 14: “I know that whatever God does endures forever;
nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”

And it doesn’t matter how fast we work.
From our standpoint, God moves pretty slow.
God led his people through the wilderness for 40 years,
just to teach them a lesson in trust.
God worked for many centuries with these same people,
always patient with their failings,
working to form a people
who will proclaim God’s glory to the nations.
God is still working on that project.
And we’re now part of it.

The reason God moves so slow, is that God is love.
God moves at the speed of love.
It’s true—you can’t hurry love.
Love, like patience, means yielding for the sake of the other.
So as long as I’m not in control,
there’s not much I can do to hurry things along, is there?
Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote a book called
Three Mile an Hour God.
He wrote, “God walks slowly because he is love.
If he is not love he would have gone much faster.
Love has its speed...
It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed
to which we are accustomed.”

Isn’t it good to know that God is not in a hurry?
God does not measure our worth
by how much we can accomplish in a short amount of time.
Hard to admit that, since we value productivity so much.
I’m not saying it’s bad to be productive.
I’m far too Mennonite to even let that thought enter my mind.
Productivity is next to godliness for us.

But what if—let’s just imagine—what if
God was less concerned about whether we were productive,
than about whether we love.
What if—just suppose—God greatest desire for us
was that we learned how to love someone sacrificially,
and not that we could do more good works
in a shorter amount of time.

What if we found out—just for the sake of argument—
that God cared less about whether we break last year’s sales record
at the Mennonite Relief Sale,
and that we do a better job serving more food for lower cost,
and have more money to send to MCC,
than God cared about whether we take time to sit and talk with
an elderly person who lives alone,
or get down on eye level with a child
and take seriously what they have to say,
or listen respectfully
to someone who is mentally challenged,
or bother to learn to know the name of one
of the many homeless residents of Harrisonburg,
and are even foolish enough to think
they might have something worthwhile to offer us.

What if we found out—again, just hypothetically—
that these folks who are not being very productive at all
were loved by God as much as you and I,
and also had within them the sacred image of God.

...then what if we found out none of this is hypothetical?
That it’s all a fact.
That it’s what a life of love is about,
that it’s par for the course
when we cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in Christian community?

Patience is yielding our agenda to a higher one.
It is moving at the speed of love.
It is letting go—even painfully so—
and letting things work out in God’s time.
Have no doubt, God is working his purpose out.
Be sure of it.

—Phil Kniss, September 24, 2006

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