THE EXCELLENT WAY, 5: LOVE IS PATIENT
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016
Genesis 29:16-30; James 5:7-10
“Love is patient…”
1 Corinthians 13:4a
It happened in an airport: in the waiting area by one of the gates. It was one of those terrible days when there’d been bad weather, and a great many flights had been canceled.
Well, those of you who travel know what happens when flights are canceled: there’s a mad rush to re-book on other flights.
At this particular gate, the flight was already full. But there were several passengers, bumped from other flights, who were crowding the desk.
“Please be patient,” said the gate agent. “We’ve got you all on standby. We’ll let you know as soon as something opens up.”
So, the standby passengers all sat down: except for one man, a business executive.
“You know,” he growled, “I was booked in first class on the other flight, the one that was canceled.”
“Yes, I know, sir. Please sit down. Make yourself comfortable. We’ll call you.”
But this guy wouldn’t take “maybe” for an answer. He went on: “I want you to know I’ve got an important meeting back home. It’s of the utmost importance that I get onto this flight.”
“Thank you, sir. We’ll do everything we can.”
But he didn’t sit down. He just stood there and glared at the gate agent. Finally he asked, “Do you know who I am?”
Airline gate agents are people of infinite patience, but this woman had had enough. She had one tool at her disposal: her microphone. She picked it up and said this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a man here who does not know who he is. Would someone please claim him, offer him a seat in the waiting area, and tell him I’ll talk to him when it’s his turn?”
Sheepishly the man made his way to a seat, as the whole waiting area burst into applause.
Why is it that patience is such a challenge for so many of us?
One reason I like this story is that it reminds us of what happens when we lack patience. We forget who we are! We forget that we’re children of a gracious God. We cast aside our highest aspirations of civilized behavior and transform into some kind of Incredible Hulk of irritation and anxiety.
Patience, according to the Apostle Paul, is a gift of the Spirit. In Galatians 5:22-23, he says:
“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
If the Spirit of God is truly dwelling within us, patience is one of those things that’s supposed to come along naturally — that’s supposed to just flow outward from us and bless the lives of others.
Ah, but patience is so often in short supply, isn’t it? Sometimes this fruit of the Spirit appears to be out of season. There are certain places where we can count on it being in short supply: in the fast lane of the Garden State Parkway; in the supermarket Express check-out line (especially if you just have to buy one thing, and it’s ice cream!); and, most of all, in the waiting room at the Division of Motor Vehicles.
In our sermon series, we’ve been working our way slowly — and patiently, I hope — through 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s famous Hymn to Love. We’ve just been looking at some important things that, if they are not accompanied by love, are as nothing: spiritual gifts; prophetic powers; knowledge; faith; self-sacrifice. You can claim one of these virtues, or all of them, but if you don’t have love, they’re worthless!
Now, Paul pivots in his argument and starts reciting a long list of things that love is. We’re going to be occupied, in the coming weeks, going through these one by one. First on the list is: love is patient.
We heard a lesson today from the Hebrew scriptures that’s a prime example of love being patient. It’s the story of Jacob and how he happened to get married.
Now, because he lived in a polygamous society, Jacob had not one wife, but two. At the same time. But that was not his original plan.
Jacob, as you may recall, was a smooth operator: a con man, a trickster. He didn’t always do the right thing. As a young man, he always did the thing that accrued the greatest benefit for himself: even if it meant being devious. The scriptures give Jacob a sort of grudging respect for his cleverness — even if he broke some moral rules on the way to fame and glory.
The most famous example was when he cheated his older brother, Esau, out of his inheritance, by kneeling down beside the deathbed of their blind father, Isaac, wearing his brother’s sheepskin jacket. Isaac felt the wooly coat, thought it was Esau kneeling at his side, and gave Jacob his blessing.
Jacob was about to learn the meaning of the word “patience.”
He had to flee the country, out of fear that Esau would murder him. He made his way to a distant land. He fell in with a shepherd named Laban, who turned out to be even more devious than he was.
When Jacob met Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, he fell madly, passionately head-over-heels in love. He asked Laban for her hand in marriage. But her old man said, “You’ve got to work for me for seven years. After that time, I’ll give you my daughter in marriage.”
Well, seven years later, Laban walks his daughter down the aisle. She’s got a veil over her face. As soon as Jacob hears the words, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” he scoops up his bride and takes her off for the honeymoon.
It’s dark in the bridal suite, very dark — but at the crack of dawn, Jacob looks over and sees that the woman, lying in the bed beside him, is not his beloved Rachel, but her older sister Leah!
The Bible says, “Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful.” There’s a little wry humor in that description. All these many centuries later, that’s still what they say of a woman who’s not all that attractive, at least not in the conventional sense. They say “She has beautiful eyes.” Leah was probably harder to marry off than the gorgeous Rachel — and Laban knew it.
But he was clever: very clever. He never promised to give Rachel to Jacob, after those seven years of work. He just promised to give him his daughter. And Leah was his daughter, sure enough.
“But,” he said to the fuming Jacob, “you’re a fine young man. I think the world of you. I’d be happy to give you Rachel as your second wife: if you work for me for another seven years!”
So, Jacob the con man was well and truly conned, himself. Poetic justice! The wily Laban drove him crazy, but he learned a grudging admiration for the old man’s cleverness. Jacob did put in another seven years herding Laban’s flocks, for which he got to marry Rachel. With the help of both his wives, he produced twelve sons: ten by Leah and two by Rachel. Those twelve strapping boys became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.
It never would have happened, though, had Jacob not possessed and cultivated the spiritual gift of patience. Rachel was the apple of his eye, and he waited fourteen years for her: but along the way he somehow learned to love Leah as well — not to mention all twelve of those boys.
So, that’s our biblical example of patient marital love. But remember what we’ve been saying all along: 1 Corinthians 13 is not specifically about love in marriage. It’s about love in general, with a special focus on love in a deeply conflicted church.
If there’s any love-relationship where patience is an asset, it’s a conflicted community. Kathleen Norris is a Presbyterian elder who spent a good deal of time as a guest in a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. She became a lay member of the Benedictine order. In her book, The Cloister Walk, she tells of a time she asked one of the monks to talk about how they coped with diversity in their community.
It was a real concern. There were monks from all over the world who lived in the Abbey, he explained. Some of them were scholars with Ph.D.s who taught in the university. Others were liturgical musicians. Some took care of the grounds. Others washed pots in the kitchen. Some were talkative. Others would hardly give you the time of day.
“But,” he went on to say, “our biggest problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way.”
Benedictines take vows not only to remain in the order for life. One of their most famous priomises has to do not with time, but with place. It’s called statio, in the Latin: to station themselves in one particular monastery for life. It’s a rare thing for a Benedictine to transfer from one monastic house to another. They commit themselves to getting along with their brothers in that house, come what may: come hell, high water or fried potatoes.
Isn’t that so very true-to-life? The struggles that give us the greatest difficulty, day to day, are rarely matters of weighty theological significance. It’s the little things that cause so much friction in long-term, committed relationships.
Remember what I showed the kids in the children’s sermon — that long piece of wooden molding that’s flexible, and the short piece cut from the same strip that you can’t bend at all? If there’s one thing that’s central to practicing the spiritual gift of patience, it’s knowing the dimension of time. Patience is all about how we regulate ourselves in time. The longer our time-frame, the more extended our perspective, the more flexible we can become. And we are better-equipped to weather the storms life sends us from time to time.
Patience has got to be learned over the course of many years. When you and I came into this life, we had very little in the way of patience. Think about babies and how they respond to their environment. Babies have little awareness of past or future. They live always in the now. I’m hungry: feed me! I’m wet: change me! I’m lonely: comfort me! (And we all know there’s nothing like a baby’s cry to make the parents come running!) You don’t get anywhere with a baby by saying “Just be patient.” Even if they knew the meaning of the word, they’ve got very little awareness of time. Their sense of time is like that tiny strip of molding: no flexibility.
As you and I get older, though, the ability to practice patience increases. If you’ve ever been on a car trip with a preschooler, you know that question that comes up over and over and over again: “Are we there yet?” A child who poses that question every five minutes is gradually learning patience — but at that point in the growth process can only maintain it for a limited time.
Later on in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul will say, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” One of those childish things we must strive to end is impatience. You and I are born impatient. It’s part of our selfish, sinful condition. Wanting to have it all and have it now is no sign of spiritual maturity. It’s a sign of an infantile faith.
Isn’t it curious, though, how the society around us seems to be getting less spiritually mature over time, as one generation succeeds another? Earlier generations understood the necessity and value of waiting. They promoted saving over spending. They knew how to buy an appliance on layaway, rather than putting it on a credit card. They waited for local strawberries to be in season, rather than demanding somebody truck them clear across the country in the middle of January. Sometimes I think that, as a society, we’re regressing, when it comes to this fruit of the Spirit known as patience!
The key, I think, is to try — to the best of our ability — to see things from God’s perspective. Psalm 90 verse 4 says of God, “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” God’s perspective is not so much time as it is eternity. When you think about it from that standpoint, when you line up all your “gotta have it now” desires against the backdrop of eternity, so many of the problems that cause us daily worry and frustration simply disappear, like candle-flames held up to the light of the sun.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest in the early to mid-20th century. He also happened to be a scientist. His specialty was paleontology: he was a priest who dug up dinosaur bones. Teilhard, therefore — more than most people — knew a good deal about the time-frame of God the Creator’s dealings with this planet and all its inhabitants. In a letter he wrote at the time of the First World War, he shared this advice:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are, quite naturally, impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages, we are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability…and that it may take a very long time.”1
Maybe, from the eternal perspective of our Creator, our very lives belong to one of those “stages of instability.” Maybe the trials and sufferings we sometimes experience are, as Jesus himself says, “but the beginning of the birthpangs” (Mark 13:8).
For, my friends, we have in Jesus Christ the bright promise that he is “making all things new.” Not that he has already accomplished this, or has plans to jump-start the transformation someday in the far-off future. Jesus is making all things new: progressive tense. The transformation has already begun. It’s happening now, but very slowly. This world, this universe even, is a work in progress. It’s all heading somewhere. And our lives, and the lives of those we love, are likewise works in progress.
As we love one another — in our church, our friendships, our intimate relationships — the scriptures suggest that we try, as hard as we can, to bring to our committed relationships this practice of patience. It’s the same patience our God shows to us. Can we not therefore strive to offer it to one another?
1. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest, 1914-1919 (London: Collins, 1965), 57.
Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.