It’s been a while since I was in the pulpit, so I might be a bit rusty. Therefore, please be patient with me! Not only am I asking you to be patient with my reentry, but also with the topic of the day. Talking about patience as a virtue in the middle of the busiest season of the year, might not seem the wisest thing to do. But here we are. We have this word from James who asks us to be patient until the coming of the Lord.
We hear this word when the world around us is rushing about getting ready for the holidays. There are gifts to purchase, meals to plan, and parties to attend. Some of us have family members needing to be picked up at the airport. That’s one of my tasks for tomorrow since Brett is flying to Metro Airport a few hours before I have to be back for the Council meeting. Some of you might be getting ready to head out of town to visit family or friends. In the midst of all this rushing about, James the Lord’s Brother whispers: “Be patient, therefore beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”
Be patient like the farmer, who waits for the early and later rains, before harvesting the grain. James’s audience would have known that in Palestine, rain only comes twice a year, so you have to work around that schedule. That takes a lot of patience.
James might appeal to their knowledge of Palestinian farming practices, but he might also be drawing on the current experience of his community, which seems to have been scattered abroad. While we don’t know for sure who wrote the letter, the traditional view is that this is the brother of Jesus. If that’s true, this letter could have gone out to Jewish Christians who were displaced during the Jewish Wars that took place in the 60s and led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. If this is the case then we can understand why James encourages the community not only to be patient but to endure, to stand fast in their faith in spite of their suffering. Yes, be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord and the coming of God’s realm.
The word we hear in this final chapter of James’ letter is rooted in the opening lines of the letter, where James writes: “After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing” (Jms. 1:3-4 CEB). Patience, according to James, involves endurance that leads to maturity.
There’s something else that’s going on behind this word of encouragement to be patient. Right before this word, James issues a harsh rebuke of the wealthy: “Pay attention,” he writes, “you wealthy people! Weep and moan over the miseries coming upon you.” (Jms 5:1 CEB). After he issues this rebuke, he speaks to a community that’s mainly composed of the poor, the laborer, and perhaps the slave. His community might have been driven from their homes by the Roman Legions, making them refugees. These conditions put them at the mercy of wealthy landowners who exploited them. Once again, James calls for patience, because the realm of God is coming. Be patient, endure, stand fast in your faith, because things are about to change.
James’ call for patience doesn’t mean that the church is supposed to wait passively until things change. Remember the farmer James spoke of? The key to patience is timing. Farmers don’t just sow a bit of seed and sit back doing nothing. I’m not a farmer, but I do know that there is a lot of work goes on between planting and harvesting. There’s weeding to be done. There are critters to be dealt with. And unless you are doing dry farming, there’s watering to be done.
Bishop Fulton Sheen, a name that might ring a bell for some, said something fitting in this regard. Sheen was a well-known Catholic leader from the middle of the 20th century, who said: “Patience is power. Patience is not absence of action; rather it is ‘timing.’ It waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the ‘right way.’” Yes, timing is everything!
My return from the sabbatical isn’t quite the same thing as the coming of the Lord. But I’m assuming that during the sabbatical season, you didn’t sit your hands doing nothing until I returned. While I was out on my own “River Crossings” adventure, you gathered for worship; you attended workshops; you hosted SOS; you participated in Bible studies; you cared for one another. You also reflected on the meaning of “river crossings” and thought about the future, just as I thought about the future. You marked the time by following the example of Joshua. Mike Barnes led you in a ritual of placing stones in the circle marking each week’s progress. I got to participate in laying the final stone of this monument, marking my return. With my return, after the beginning of the year, we’ll begin some important conversations about the future. But that will take patience to get there.
We’re not in the same position as James’ community. We don’t as a congregation suffer exploitation like they did. We’re not landless farmhands or refugees. But, his word of wisdom concerning patience is still relevant.
When I read this passage and thought about its message, fishing came to mind. Now, you may wonder how fishing relates to this passage since James doesn’t say anything about going fishing. Besides, if you know me, you know I’m not a fisherman. I did catch a fish once, back when I was around eight years old. I’ve tried a couple of other times to reel one in, but with no success. If Brett was here, he could tell you that he’s in the same boat as I am. But, during my time away, I read some books and stories about river crossings and some of those stories talked about going fishing.
One of those stories became a movie. Norman McLean’s A River Run’s Through It begins:
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman. [Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Kindle]
I don’t know if this is true, but if you read the story or watch the movie, you know that it takes patience and skill to bring in a catch.
During my travels, as I drove from Portland to Klamath Falls in October, I stopped at Collier State Park. It’s a favorite spot of mine. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I walked down to where Spring Creek enters the Williamson River. It was early fall. The trees were starting to turn. There was a bit of a nip in the air, but it was still comfortable. When I arrived at the edge of the river, I spotted a man out in the middle of the river casting his fly to catch some of the trout that inhabits that river as it makes it way down to Klamath Lake. I’m not a fisherman, but I admire the patience it takes to wade into a cold river in the fall of the year and cast a line hoping to catch that prized trout.
“Be patient, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” Remember that patience is about timing. There is a former rain and a latter rain. The season of Advent reminds us that we live between these two rains. In James’ theology, the community was living between the first and second coming. The first coming involved the incarnation, and in our Advent journey, we tend to focus on preparing to celebrate that first coming. We look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. But that’s only part of the story. Many of the readings for the season of Advent, focus our attention on the future coming of God’s reign.
In this passage, James counsels us to engage in patient action as we live between two ages. One of the words James gives to the “beloved” as they wait patiently for the coming of the Lord: Don’t “grumble against one another, so that you will not be judged.” In other words, don’t act in ways that destroy the community. Instead, let us stand together in the joy of the Lord, who has come, and who will come, and who is with us through the Spirit as we continue the journey of faith. May we not only endure but may we grow in maturity of faith, as we journey into God’s future for us.
Remember, as Bishop Sheen put it: “Patience is Power.”