Convince Me that Patience is a Virtue

October 12, 2014

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

We are spending the fall on the fruiting Spirit. The text that we are using is from one of Paul’s letters to the people at Galatia. Paul could have been advising Occupy or the New Sanctuary Movement or Judson Memorial Church. How do you know what is from God? Which God is it from? Whose got the right God? Plus what do we put on the flyer or in the Digital Fountain or the Board report? What dare we say about the eternal this morning?

Paul argues that you can tell whether the Spirit is good by its fruits. If the fruits are division or violence or gossip or dissipation, then the Spirit that got it all going is wrong. If the fruits of the Spirit are love, or kindness, or patience or gentleness or self-control, then something delicious is cooking on your stove.

I don’t know about you but I find Paul a little cloying here. A little holier than thou. The kind of guy that you might not want at your dinner party or to be around for long, so small might he make you feel. So many virtues are only for the high and mighty. So many virtues are beyond our personal budgets. Plus, on our subject today, he is in direct contradiction to what Jesus actually said about time. Patience advises you to wait. Patience actually is the ability to wait. Jesus says the time is now, the commonwealth of God is nigh. Paul and Jesus are also not on the same page about what kind of people are spirited. Jesus often says that the poor, the bruised and the wounded are God’s favorites. Paul seems to think that the noble are more filled with the Spirit than the ignoble or the harmed. Paul sounds like he forgot what oppression really means or that when we translate the word for poor in the gospels, it translates not as the poor who are responsible for their own poverty but as the oppressed poor, whose poverty somebody else caused.

When we come to the Spirit, we often come confused. While we may believe with all our hearts that God is still speaking, we sure wish God would get on message. And then we have to realize that even Paul and Jesus were rarely in tune. Paul was building a movement; Jesus was announcing one. Paul had all the issues a community organizer faces. Jesus was killed too soon to face them.

That’s why I hope you will convince me about this matter of patience. Is it really a virtue? Can spirited people not also enjoy impatience? Is impatience as much of a sign of the spirit as patience? And is it not possible or likely that we late Christians, unlike the early ones, are left with an impatient patience and a patient impatience as the Spirit’s signs?

Let me give you some dilemmas to add to your own. (What is the plural of dilemma?) When people tell us to wait for justice, they are often protecting the status quo and not the Spirit. You’ve heard them. The time is not now, it is later. When we can get the police union off our back in St. Louis. Or the right about to be deported family willing to take sanctuary? Or the right restaurant worker to take the enormous risk of walking off the job because the conditions aren’t safe or if they are cruel? Moral Mondays will come in New York when we can find a leader with Star Power. Otherwise we need to wait. And wait. And wait. And fill out a new grant proposal to justify our expensive delays. Whenever you hear the words “too soon” when it comes to repair of the multiple injuries of multiple people over multiple centuries, watch out. The fruit of the spirit may be at stake.

Or listen to Zach Moseley, our facility manager, who just became a father – hooray – describe why he has to delay longer-term problems on behalf of the shorter term ones. He often says in a staff meeting, “Some things things just have to get done done.” I daresay you have some delayed maintenance of your own.

As you know one of my favorite people is William Sloane Coffin Junior. When Warren, my husband wrote his biography, the hardest part was finding the right title. He finally came up with A HOLY IMPATIENCE. Bill didn’t have much capacity to wait. He was not a patient man. As a result he put Spirit into a lot of people who were delaying and delayed.

Of course we wish for patience for those morons who beep their horns when the driver ahead of them doesn’t rush to make the green light, so they can rush to make the green light, so everybody can rush to make the green light, so everybody can get to their own personal Godot a few minutes sooner. We wish for patience when the tickets we want require a line around the corner. We wish for patience whenever we are in a conversation with someone who is just plain hyper and causing us to become hyper by their hyper invading our own hyper.

Patience is a virtue when we choose it as a form of relaxation or calm or non-chalance or directed energy. It is not a virtue when someone above us is telling us to wait for him or her to get ready to arrange the restoration of creation.

To understand patience we need a more Christian understanding of time. We also need to sophisticate our social analysis of why so many of us feel so hurried so much of the time. Let me give you some hints about both.

First, the Christian understanding of time is quite complex. It works on an axis that we call the already but not yet. By already, we mean that the time is now, the Spirit is here. Why rush? By not yet, we mean that the time that is then or coming is fulfillment of the now. Then, all will set at the welcome table. Now we sit at the welcome table – and so do the poor, the injured, and the dominated. We all sit spiritually now at the table. And then we will all get a plate too. We understand time as beginning in a sacred creation, moving through a desacralized creation, and culminating in a resacralized creation. Our psalms sing this song: Orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. Our days are the second verse, the middle verse of the hymn. They too are sacred, desacralized – hear the horns beeping – and resacrazlied, regularly, daily. They too begin in the morning orientation, the afternoon’s disorientation, the evenings’ reorientation. We are in the middle time, the singers of the middle verse. We are – like the people of Galatia way back then – people in between things. We also live in a story of that understands time as the already but not yet. When we are in the already part of our story, we are deeply patient. When we are in the not yet of our story, we are deeply impatient. We rarely beep our horns because we are the people who see green lights everywhere.

Nathan Schneider, the theologian of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy, one with great urgency, the other with great patience is the author of “Killing the Buddha.” A public intellectual, Schneider has a lot of respect for anarchy. He thinks the anarchy movement is all about doing what you can, now, and leaving the rest alone. I like that. In fact one of my big beefs about the patience people is that they are just as likely to tell you to live in the now as not – and then do nothing to make your now bearable. Schneider defines his despair as when people tell stories about what somebody else has to do. Hear the beep. Move so I can move. Or that canny despair many of us have which comes out as “I would a if I could a but I couldn’t so I didn’t.’. Schneider defines his hope as when people tell stories about what they can do. He tells us that storytellers – about Occupy, about the fruits of the Spirit, about the already and not yet – are the keys to our hope and its impatience for justice. I think he is right.

Our story is that we are in the already but the not yet. In the already we have abundant patience. In the not yet, we have abundant impatience.

Is there one way you can practice this theology in your own life? Yes, there is. Always look for the Spirit in the oppressed poor, who may also be people with decent apartments or good bank accounts. Follow the injury. Bring the touch of Spirit to the injury. From there tell a story about what the injured and you can do together. Moral Mondays will come to New York City when the injured lead those who want them to have more patience. Sanctuary will come to New York City when a hero emerges from the harm of immigration – and we impatiently follow that energy. In our places of greater power, we need to be careful to tell other people to wait. In our own places of injury, we need to hurry up and get to our story of what we can do, now, in the blessed now.

Switching to as now, as in the now, as I can get. I was a little jealous of Warren for having heard the young violinist practice on her balcony above our apartment. He had heard her several times and often spoke of being transported by the beauty of her music. He imagines that she is a high schooler and that some times she comes outside to practice. I had never heard her. In fact, I wasn’t even sure that she existed. I thought Warren was making up a good story. Then last night, we had the windows open and were eating dinner. A chord pierced the air. We think it was Brahms but aren’t sure. She followed with a duet, a kind of bluesy thing, that allowed the moment to gather its strength. She went to something else and then something else and then something else. Our dinner got cold. We didn’t experience patience. And we did not experience impatience. Instead we experienced the Spirit piercing the second verse, the in between time, showing us its stuff. Do I think the violinist was God? Or that music is God? No, I don’t. But I do think that the seam between the already and the not yet will be sewn this way. It will come when you thought the whole story was made up. It will come as a surprise. It will come in the now, changing the then for you. It will not come through your efforts or my efforts but from a far off balcony, one very close to your kitchen and extremely close to your dinner plate. You will forget about eating for a while. You will return to whatever is next, full in a different way than you imagined full before. Amen.

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