Patience and waiting – Fourth Sunday after Trinity 2011

Back in the late 1950s the Chinese leader Mao Zedong was anxious to increase food production in China. His aims were laudable but his expertise wasn’t adequate. Among other radical changes, he decided to exterminate the sparrows and other birds who ate their share of the grain crops. Unfortunately this allowed the insect population to soar and the resulting famine killed 20 million people. I tell this story because it seems such an apt illustration of a fact of life in today’s Gospel: namely, than the world is a tangled mixture of good and bad, and that it is hard, if not impossible, to uproot the bad without doing even worse damage. It’s not that we can’t distinguish wheat from tares, good from bad: but they seem to occur together. So life, the world, is a mixed bag. The Church is not an assembly of the perfect but a school for sinners. And perhaps even the individual person shares the same character: “There’s so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill becomes any one of us to talk about the rest of us”.

So we need to be patient, in the same way that God is patient. “Putting up” with the way things are, however untidy or unsatisfactory that may be, actually shows that we trust God to bring in his good harvest at the right time. Paul talks about “enduring the sufferings of this present time” as we wait with hope and patience for the final flowering of God’s purpose, when the creation will be set free from futility and imperfection and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. The creation will be what it is meant to be because the human race will have become its true self. A glorious hope, to sustain us as we patiently put up with present unsatisfactoriness.

 

You can see instantly the problem with this, I expect. Is it not rather defeatist? The tares are in the field and all we can do is wait and leave it to God? Is that not the way to have the whole crop ruined? Who was it said, that “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”? We can’t make the world perfect, we can’t make ourselves perfect, but can we do nothing at all? I came across a picture on the internet, an iconic photo by Kevin Carter showing a vulture waiting for a starving African child to die, and someone had given it the title “Patience”. Can anyone, let alone a believer, see such suffering and simply say, “That’s just the way it is”? John Bell of the Iona Community doesn’t think so. He has a hymn called “Heaven shall not wait”:

Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience,
the scorned to smile,
the despised to find a friend:
Jesus is Lord; he has championed the unwanted;
in him injustice confronts its timely end.

Scripture sees the patience of God, as he waits for the unfolding of his plans in creation, as a merciful patience in which he awaits human repentance. That is, we have a measure of freedom in which to choose to work together with God, to choose good rather than evil, to be children of the evil one or children of God. The fact that we are unsatisfied with the way things are, that we see good, and don’t know how it is to be achieved in the world or in us, is evidence for God’s Spirit disturbing us and making us long for the fulfillment of his good purpose. The uncomfortable truth is, we are most disturbed when our own comfort is threatened, and not disturbed enough by the suffering of others. We find it quite easy to be patient when others are in trouble, not so easy to bear our own misfortunes with fortitude. We could do with being rather more disturbed by God’s Spirit.

If we try in our arrogance to make the world perfect, or ourselves perfect, we will likely be disappointed. The kingdom comes in God’s good time. But we can pray for its coming, and look for its coming, and seek to do God’s will, in our patient working to relieve the suffering of others. It is both in our actions and in our patience that the children of God are revealed.

Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs,
when earth has passed and we reach another shore
Jesus is Lord; in our present imperfection;
his power and love are for now and then for evermore.    (John Bell)

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