Friday, December 16, 2022

Patience in the Darkness

“Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” May I speak to you in the name of the G-d who [+] creates, redeems and sustains us? AMEN.


It is rare that preachers choose the Epistle as the lesson on which to focus their sermons. It’s even more rare that we hear from the Letter from James. And yet, today’s lesson emphasizing patience is tailor made for the Advent season of waiting and watching, reflecting and repenting. And I think there is something important in this lesson that we need to hear today.


Biblical scholars are not sure who wrote the Letter from James or when. The James in whose name the letter was written suggests it came from James, the brother of Jesus. He was the leader of the Jerusalem community of Jesus followers in the years following the execution of his brother, Jesus, by the Romans. If that is the case, this letter would have been written prior to 70 CE because thereafter the Romans would destroy the Second Temple in Jerusalem and expel all of the residents it had not killed.


Like a Time Capsule


The letter from James is like a time capsule from the early Jesus movement. It decidedly reflects the thinking of a Hebraic community like that from which Jesus came. At a basic level, it is much more reflective of the religion of Jesus than the religion about Jesus which Paul would create that would later come to be called Christianity.


Not surprisingly, given its Hebrew audience, James’ letter is more focused on conduct rather than belief. Its teachings are moral, not dogmatic. It is this epistle from which the focus on orthopraxy, right conduct – as opposed to orthodoxy, right belief - comes. It is true that orthopraxy has always been an important part of the Christian tradition historically. Think Social Gospel. Think liberation theology. But it has always been the minority view vis-à-vis orthodoxy with its focus on right beliefs.


Perhaps the best known line from the letter from James is the assertion that “Faith without works is dead.” It was this ongoing concern for the way one lived their faith as opposed to the contents of one’s belief system that would cause later Christian  theologians to consider removing James from the Christian scriptures.


Valuable Counsel to Any Community

Fortunately, the church resisted that tendency. The counsel that the writer of James offers us in this passage today is incredibly valuable especially during this Advent season: Be patient….strengthen your hearts….do not grumble or judge one another….emulate the prophets who were willing to endure suffering in patience. These are words that would prove valuable to any community. But they are particularly on point to those Christian communities which observe the season of Advent.

This Sunday is the third Sunday of Advent. It is the time when we Christians are called to wait, to watch, to reflect, to repent. Every human culture has some observance of this practice of waiting in the growing darkness for the return of light to our darkened world. This year that will occur 10 days from now on the winter solstice.


The Christian tradition is to light an additional candle each week as that time grows near, each candle reflecting our increasing hopefulness for new light, new life, and a new year. It is hardly surprising that when the Christian church had to choose a date on which to mark the birth of Jesus, it chose one which roughly corresponded with the winter solstice. The hymn we will sing when the Christmas season finally arrives on the night of December 24 recognizes that connection:



            Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!

            Hail the Sun of Righteousness!

            Light and life to all He brings

            Risen with healing in His wings


But it is important that we do not leap ahead to Christmas much as we may want to. This period of Advent is critical to our tradition. We absolutely need these four weeks of reflection. It is essential to the health of our souls both individually and collectively. So it makes sense that a reading advising us to exercise patience would be chosen for this Sunday midway through that season.


James had good reasons to repeatedly admonish his community to be patient. They were living in a very tense time in a Jerusalem whose Temple would be destroyed by the Romans shortly and whose Judean population, including this Jesus community formed around James, would soon be dispersed from the city. The ability to exercise patience in the face of oppression was the difference between survival and extinction. 

 We Don’t Come By It Readily

That said, patience is hardly the most observable trait among human beings. I can relate to that personally. I am not a terribly patient man perhaps with the exception of the feral kittens I labor to domesticate (though they may say differently if asked). For them and for some of my students who came to me with challenges to their learning over my years of teaching, I have on occasion demonstrated the patience of Job. But for everyone else - starting with myself - not so much.

So my record in exercising patience is mixed on a good day. My guess is that may well be true for many of you as well in the various aspects of your lives where patience is required from everyday parenting to simply being present in your work places, not to mention enduring family gatherings at holidays. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the realms of our evermore contentious social media and the world of politics.

At some level it’s not terribly surprising that few of us are particularly adept at exercising patience. We are, after all, products of a consumerist culture that has taught us that we are somehow entitled to instant gratification of everything from curing our headaches to always having it our way at fast food joints. The notion that we should ever be uncomfortable even for a second is unthinkable for us well trained consumers.            


Even the constraint on launching into Christmas celebrations until December 24 seems like a punishment to some of us. And that hardly begins to touch Advent’s call to thoughtfully reflect on those aspects of our lives which are dying, things that no longer serve us of which we must let go, and finding the patience required to wait for the new world which is surely coming but which we can’t yet see. 

The idea of patiently waiting is almost counterintuitive to us. And that’s precisely what makes Advent a countercultural observance.  And yet, here we are, observing the third Sunday of Advent with two more weeks of waiting, watching, reflecting and repenting to go.


So What Is It We Need to Reflect Upon?

So what is it that we need to reflect upon? What demands our patient, thoughtful consideration? We might begin with our own lives. What are the behaviors in which we have engaged for years which no longer serve us? What relationships have increasingly become less and less life-giving and more and more a drain on our systems? What patterns of consumption – from binge watching streaming programming to compulsive shopping to overeating and drinking – have become problematic for us? And as we reflect on those patterns, we may ask ourselves what internal demons might we be seeking to escape in those behaviors? If we are to start a new year of life in a world that is changing, what might we need to let go of to get there?

Secondly, what might our church need to reflect upon? What does it tell us when those who are leaving the pews of every religious tradition, describing themselves as none-of-the above, outpace those who are entering them? What might we need to reconsider in the way we talk about our faith, the ways we practice our faith, about the values that animate that faith?


In the larger view, we have much to consider. We live in difficult times. While most of us are not in immediate fear of losing our homes, invading armies or starving to death in the near future – thanks be to G-d! -  many around the world are.


Yet, we are a people who have done our best to ignore the increasingly unavoidable evidence of human caused climate change even as the waves of refugees it is creating around the world are just beginning to arrive on our shores and the waves of debris from once luxurious beachside residences lie in piles around the foundations of those structures. Our economy has become highly unpredictable and many who once felt secure no longer are.  An entire generation of our children are swallowed up in debt simply to pay for their educations that we refused to cover.  And the instability of our democratic system of self-governance has prompted many of us to wonder if our country will hold together for much longer or go the way of the dinosaurs.


Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr said in his meditation this week, “I think we must be honest that we are at the downside of the curve. All indices suggest that we are at the end of the dominance of the United States, western civilization, even Christianity. The question for us becomes: What will we do about it?”    


Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times

Clearly we have much to wrestle with this Advent season. It is essential to note that none of these problems arose overnight. And they will take time for us to address them. They will require us to take them seriously and our willingness to commit ourselves to doing whatever is necessary to address them. In short, they will require our patient, thoughtful presence.


And that is precisely what our lesson from James today is calling us to engage. Listen again to its wisdom: Be patient…do not grumble against one another….don’t judge one another….pray for the suffering….anoint the sick…. own up to your sins and confess them to one another…pray for one another. These are the mechanics of a healthy spiritual community and they are all behaviors that are within our individual and collective control. And I believe that if we are going to endure this time of trying and testing in which we live, it will be precisely because the communities in which we are grounded have given us the strength to do so.

I close with a prayer adapted from St. Augustine’s Prayerbook. Let us pray:

O Jesus, Our Brother: Help us to find the patience to follow the path to which you call us. Let our confidence not rest in our own understanding but in your guiding hand; let our desires not be for our own comfort, but for the wholeness of all Creation; for your Way is our hope and our joy now and forevermore. Amen.  


[You can listen to the sermon at this link starting at 18:45 ]



Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?  - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)

  © Harry Coverston, 2022