July 17, 2016

Colossians 3:12-17
Psalm 103:1-14
Matthew 18:21-35

“The Fruit of the Spirit is PATIENCE”

Preaching on the Fruit of the Spirit this summer is turning out to be an interesting adventure. Instead of being tied to the lectionary readings, I have been set free to explore a different theme each Sunday… always beginning with some pondering about which Scripture passages to select that will speak to that theme most appropriately.

On the subject of PATIENCE, the fourth fruit of the Spirit, I began by just exploring the definitions. I found that phrase that I shared with the children this morning – “waiting without complaining,” and I found much more.

The Greek word used in Galatians 5:22 about the Fruit of the Spirit is μακροθυμία (macrothumia) which can be translated either as “patience” or “long-suffering.” Just that alternate translation highlights something about what patience is all about, doesn’t it? Long-suffering.

How about this definition? “The quality of being willing to bear adversities, calm endurance of misfortune.”

Or how about this one? “Patience requires endurance, constancy, steadfastness, and perseverance; especially as shown in bearing troubles.”

As I read more, I found that many commentators wanted to separate out different kinds of patience – patience with the circumstances of life (like the patience of someone stuck in traffic, or more seriously, living with a chronic illness); patience with God (like the patience of someone waiting for an answer to prayer, or waiting for some direction in life); or patience with each other (like what I talked about with the children this morning… the patience to forgive each other again and again as God forgives us.)

And of course there are biblical examples of patience for us to follow – Abraham and Sarah patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) waiting for God to fulfill the promise of descendants; Joseph patiently waiting for God to make him a leader of his people; Simeon patiently waiting for God to send the Messiah. And, of course, there is Job. He was so patient when he was afflicted with illness, poverty, and the loss of his whole family and livelihood, that when we manage patience today, people say that we “have the patience of Job.”

We all know that patience is really hard. Some of us get frustrated and angry with we’re caught up in heavy traffic and construction, or when too many people park illegally in our church lot making it difficult for our own programs. Some of us struggle with more significant suffering due to chronic illness, pain, or long-term caregiving that drains all our energy and spirit. And then there is the patience required when you don’t know what is next in life, when there is a big question mark about the future of your relationships, your work, or your calling in life… and you’re just waiting to find out what God has in store for you.

But today I would like to focus on the call to be patient with each other. It’s the patience that just as easily could be called “mercy” or “forgiveness.” It’s the patience that God has for us, and that we are called to “mirror” – that we are called to have for others in our families, communities, and the world.

Listen to these definitions of the patience we are called to enact in our relationships:
“long-tempered, as opposed to short-tempered,”
“slowness in avenging wrongs,”
“the self-restraint which does not hastily retaliate a wrong,”
“waiting sufficient time before expressing anger, avoiding the premature use of force (or retribution) that rises out of improper anger.”

I’m sure that we can all think of times when we reacted in anger to something that was said, or done, or neglected. I am remembering a time when it seemed like someone was attacking my character, and I responded quickly and forcefully to defend myself and demand that they stop. It was not right, I was sure, to be spoken to like that, and I would not put up with it!

But my hasty retort caused injury of its own, and conflict, and brokenness too. And later, I wished that I had been more patient, willing to listen, willing even to suffer a little more, for the sake of the relationship.

I am not suggesting, of course, that God would want us to go on and on with suffering, being abused, or belittled, or continually treated badly. There are times when complaint is appropriate, when demanding that such treatment stop, or walking away from an abusive relationship is required.

But aren’t there also times when taking a deep breath, taking time to listen, and giving someone the benefit of the doubt and a little patience can lead to good things instead of a fight?

One of the readings that I selected for today’s service is from Paul’s letter to the Church at Colossae. He tells these early Christians that because they are Christians (God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved) God has a special way for them to live in relationship with each other that involves patience.

He tells them that they must learn to “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

You see, the patience and mercy we are called to show to others is meant to mirror as closely as possible the patience and mercy that God shows to us.

We can see it in the way that Jesus related to his first disciples with amazing patience. The Gospel of Mark, in particular, reveals the first disciples as often confused, lazy, selfish, and slow to believe. In spite of Jesus’ miracles and words of wisdom, they were focused on themselves and wavered in their belief about who he really was. They argued with each other about who was the greatest, and when it came time to support their leader when he was arrested, tortured, and put to death… they betrayed him, and denied him, and ran away from him.

But Jesus was patient. Jesus was long-suffering. Jesus was slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love like God himself. It’s not that Jesus didn’t correct them or say something when they were getting off track. He cleared the temple. He stopped their arguments about who was greater by inviting them to become servants. And when Peter really got things wrong, Jesus even snapped saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” making it perfectly clear that Peter’s intentions were wrong.

But Jesus was patient, nonetheless, and God is that patient with us also.

The Gospel reading from Matthew makes it most clear. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

But it’s not just a hard thing that we are commanded to do by Jesus – to forgive each other again and again, to be patient and long-suffering without complaint. We are called to be patient with each other because God has first been that patient with us.

Jesus explained it with a parable about a king who had patience with his slave who could not quickly repay a large debt. In fact, the king was so patient that he actually forgave the full amount of the debt, and did not require him to pay it.

But then that same slave, the one who had been forgiven by the king, went out and demanded a smaller debt that was owed to him by another slave. When that slave similarly begged for mercy, he refused, and threw him into prison until he could pay the debt.

When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

And Jesus concluded: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This forgiveness business is serious stuff to God. It’s why we are told to go and work out our conflicts before we come to worship God with pure hearts. It’s why Paul encourages us to forgive each other and make peace before we come to the Table of the Lord for Holy Communion.

But how do we do it? How do we manage the difficult conversations, the humility of apologies, the strength of perseverance, the grace of forgiveness offered in spite of the harm suffered?

One reflection that I read in “Christianity Today” suggested that the best way to learn patience is through experience. Pain and suffering teach us endurance and empathy. The experience of mercy and forgiveness inclines us to be more merciful and forgiving. We gain moral maturity each day precisely because each day brings some difficulty that we must overcome. Like it or not, we persevere, and our patience grows stronger. This is why James tells us to “consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

But we can also be intentional about developing more patience. The same article, by James Spiegel, pointed out that behaviour therapy was a practice once popular among Christians, but today is virtually forgotten. It involved the intentional affliction of oneself with an annoying or tedious task expressly for the purpose of developing patience. A book of exercises from the 1930s prescribed tasks like scattering 50 coins on the floor, and then quietly and slowly picking them up and placing them in a pile, repeating each day with more and more coins. Another suggestion was to take a book of at least 150 pages and turn the pages one by one quietly and slowly, making a pencil mark on each page as you go.

Do these exercises sound ridiculously pointless? That’s the point. Such activities test your patience and, thus, build it. But if you are seeking exercises with more practical value, you might consider building patience through activities such as meditation, study, and prayer. As you study and meditate on Scripture, you not only store valuable knowledge and grow closer to God, you also practice patience.

Prayer is likely the real key though, isn’t it? Because as we know from Galatians 5:22, patience is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is something that we can ask God to help us with, to grow our patience and our ability to forgive. And in the midst of the most difficult situations, in frustration and even suffering, we can pause and ask God for the Spirit’s help to make us patient. Perhaps just in the act of pausing, of breathing, of asking, God can fill us with the Spirit whose fruit is patience, and give us the ability to forgive as we have been forgiven. Amen.