Spinning Gold from Straw - Sermon #05 - Heroic Patience
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • April 02, 2017 • Nigel Berry, Family Life & Staff Pastor
Let’s begin our time together like this - pretend we’re hanging out, just the two of us. If you don’t like me, pretend I’m Julius Buzzard. Everybody likes Julius Buzzard. Now, pretend that we still have about a half an hour together and I’m going to ask you one question: Will you please tell me your life story.
What would you say? Where would you start? Do you need 30 minutes or would you need 30 days? How well do you know your story? Would paint me a picture of an ideal you or the real you?
A few weeks ago I was asked to share my life story to a couple of new friends and I was immediately struck by the difficulty of that request because, as I understand it, my life story is REALLY big! So what parts to I tell? Do I try to condense it to facts? Where I was born, what town I grew up in? How many siblings, what schools, hobbies, and important people to include? That’s probably a good fly-by but there’s so much more to me than you could scan on my Facebook profile. I didn’t have time to share the myriad of stories that formed my foundational understandings of family dynamics, dating expectations, the role of Christian faith in my life, or my beliefs about communities that were different than mine. Because I didn’t have time to talk about those, I didn’t have time to talk about the stories and encounters and experiences I’ve had that changed my ideas and assumptions about things both important and trivial. I didn’t tell the stories about how I engineered a bobsled out of a stolen park slide or how I had to repaint my bedroom walls because in my adolescent wisdom and ingenuity, I would kill spiders with a flamethrower.
I also couldn’t cram in my milestone stories like my first kiss, my first breakup, my first Holy Spirit encounter, or the first time I drove a car all alone.
Not all my stories are good. Most of them, honestly aren’t all that entertaining or fascinating to anyone but me. Yet they come together to form me. I don’t know who I am apart from my stories. We’re inseparable. The down side of sharing our stories is that all the space in-between our milestones is often seen as “dead space”, a gap where nothing too important or formational happens. Yet it is often in those story gaps where so much of our development and growth occurs, unknown and often unimagined by the listener.
Indeed as we reflect on the sweeping narrative of the Christian Bible, we often miss such gaps and exclude the wonder from our narratives. Here’s a few examples of this:
Abraham waited almost 25 years after God’s receiving God’s promise until he became a father.
We read that Moses led his people to the “promised land” but we often skip over the part where they wandered in a desert for 40 years. If I had escaped Egyptian slavery as an infant, I would still be a nomad today. I honestly might not believe we would ever settle in a place that we’re being guided towards. It might as well be wishful thinking.
David was anointed king at a young age (10, maybe?) and did not become king over Judah for 15 years after that. Seven more years until he would crowned king over a united Israel.
Even Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he was 30 years old. That means that out of 89 chapters in the Gospel stories of Jesus, less than 6 of those chapters detail the first thirty-years of his story. 83 chapters cover a span of 3 years.
Luke offers 16 verses to the first 14 years of Paul’s ministry but then dedicates 16 chapters to his next 10 years - seemingly revealing that Paul’s most noteworthy accomplishments were in the latter half of his ministry.
And these are just a few of many stories that have long gaps. I won’t expand on how long Noah must have spent building a giant boat or how strongly Esther wrestled with her fate as she spent 12 months in “beauty preparation”, nor will we have time sit fully with Israel’s 70 years of exile.
Upset the Equilibrium
Patience is one of the most common components to the Story of God yet is often distanced from our familiarity. And its this idea of patience, of those “in-between” seasons that mold us into both the people that we’ve become and the people that we are becoming.
We’ve been working through the book of James this Lenten season in our “Straw to Gold” series and as we find ourselves in the fifth and final chapter of James this morning, I hope to move with you this morning as we talk around a kind of patience that is sacred, that is unique, that is heroic, even. Our hope has been that, through this series we might conceive and experience new pathways towards personal transformation so that we reflect the character of God more and more, leading lives which will flow into a love of justice and action.
And so our morning text reads like this:
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
Analyzing the Discrepancy
These themes of waiting may be overlooked for a couple of reasons, with the first being that many of were not taught the important role that imagination plays as we read and wrestle with the scriptures and second, that we might just be afraid to imagine those themes because waiting - of patience - of just being present are inherently uncomfortable for most of us. Finally we may also get caught up in the end results, being overly concerned with the destination or the achievement which threatens to downplay the important steps leading towards that moment.
This may be the point at which we seek to offer James a slight… sermon edit. We do not live in a society where patience is welcomed, championed, let along embraced. We hold a double standard with patience, often appreciating it when others are patient with us yet dreading the moments when patience may be asked of us.
We’re taught to expect fast in our culture. We expect fast phones, fast replies to texts or e-mails, and we expect fast food to be available in every town. Garrison, MN boasts a 2010 population of 210 people and even it has a McDonalds. There is literally nothing else in Garrison that would compel you to eat quickly yet our expectations haven’t let us down.
Have you ever had that moment where you try to show someone a picture on your phone and the picture loads REALLY REALLY slowly and you want to crawl under a rock? Or the reverse and you’re thinking, “Bro - you need an upgrade. Is that thing like, a few months old now?”
Being patient in our culture often feels unreasonable. But the early church had a very different understanding of the role patience must play in the lives of the followers of Jesus.
Elsa Tamez’s commentary on the use of patience in the book of James is helpful in distinguishing the passive and submissive form of patience from something far more radical and inviting. “In contrast to a form of patience which encourages resignation and passive submission to circumstances, James calls for a militant patience, that is, a very active and heroic patience, one that watches for the propitious moment… Here, to be patient means to persevere, to resist, to be constant, unbreakable, immovable.”
In 2001, aka “High School”, the first season of Genndy Tartakovsky’s cartoon Samurai Jack premiered on the Cartoon Network. The entire storyline is based on exactly this form of patience. In the pilot episode, a young samurai spends his life training to rid the world of a great and supernatural evil. He nearly saves the day when the villain casts the hero into time portal, sending him to the future that our villain has created in his absence. The samurai’s quest then is to find a way back to the past so that he can prevent the world he finds himself in from ever becoming reality.
Jack did not travel back in time in Season 1, season 2, season 3, or season 4. At the end of the fourth season, the director, overwhelmed by his newest project, Star Wars: Clone Wars, abandoned the series leaving Samurai Jack in limbo until this year where a fifth and final season is currently rolling out.
I was familiar with the series but had only seen an episode or two until I read an interview with Tartakovsky last month. It wasn’t the show’s general popularity and critics favor that compelled me to watch it but it was the sheer intrigue of the situation. What would compel a man to finish a 13-year old cartoon? Tartakovsky described in his interview that in addition to be constantly pestered to finish it by his fans, he noticed a shift in storytelling in cartoons where series which allow their audience to grow with the characters and see them develop overtime has gained tremendous popularity. A couple of examples in the Harry Potter book series which started in 1997, J.J. Abram’s LOST series that premiered on ABC in 2004, 2010’s Adventure Time cartoon which premiered on Cartoon Network’. But he reflected that the show is more popular now than when it first aired and I’m not sure if that is because story tellers have tapped into this core idea that time tells a better story than one-off events or if its because society is developing a more articulated desire for transformation. Perhaps both?
Anyways, I’m about halfway through season 4 and I am enamored. I’m sucked in. There is so much tension knowing that each episode will not bring ultimate satisfaction but that there is still a persistent hope that I can’t shake.
And I think this is what James is inviting us into.
His letter set his readers on their own quests. Quests to discover joy in the midst of trials. Quests to be fully obedient, following Jesus with their everything and not just posing to be popular or to gain something for their selfish desires. They were given a quest to not pick favorite - particularly choosing those with money and prestige over those who lacked money and prestige. They were given a quest to control their mouths - using their words to build people up instead of tearing them down.
And, if we could approach this letter with the same level of curiosity, we might want to know how it played out. What kind of church did they become? Did they overcome their obstacles? Did they fail and fall apart? If each year was a season of episodes, which season did most of their development happen?
James highlights the close link between faith and works in his letter - recognizing that there are not seasons of faith and seasons of action but that the two dance together in an endless song.
We’re called to this dance as well. A heroic and active dance!
The constant demands of my children in this season include watching Moana every. Single. Day; eating bottomless piles of sugar, and family dance parties. A few nights ago my wife pulled up the music video to Justin Timberlake’s song “Can’t Stop That Feeling” and we found ourselves completely enthralled watching our 2 year old and our 4 year old imitating the myriad of dance moves from the video. It was hilarious! And I’ll unabashedly confess that my children have far more gifts at dancing than I’ll ever have. But I realized that my insecurities around dance revolve around the fact that I never learned how to move. I didn’t watch anything with dancing when I was younger. My family didn’t dance. Sometimes we would clap at my church to worship music when we were feeling particularly rowdy…
But, like in any dance, it takes time to learn the moves. Heroic patience in all things is a tenant of the Christian faith because it is in those seasons which we are being strengthened and developed.
Disclosing the Clue to Resolution
When I started working in ministry I was very much the ideal candidate for any youth ministry job - I had a bachelor’s degree in youth ministry from a respected program, I’d interned at a mega-church for 6 months, and had a great line of references from parents, professors, and peers. My pedigree was top-notch and I recall my eagerness to show off my new found skills in teaching and in leading a youth group. Perhaps more than that, I was ready to fulfill the encouraging words from my friends and family - that I was going to be GREAT youth pastor and that God had clearly marked me for youth work. I entered my first job with full confidence that the church and the community was going to be transformed.
And after receiving an unexpected and scathing review at my 1-year mark, I did everything that I could think of at the time to “fix” my church’s unhappiness. The youth ministry wasn’t growing fast enough. There wasn’t enough outreach and because there wasn’t enough outreach, I was essentially at fault for the church’s equally slow growth. I let the “wrong” kind of kids come to youth group. And because I reported to the senior pastor, a youth elder, and a youth committee, I couldn’t please one supervisor without upsetting another. I was doomed from the start and after 19 months, I found myself collecting severance pay and wondering how I was going to pay for my wife’s graduate studies that were to start in 6 months. The lease on our apartment was also up in a few months and we were hoping to move - which is challenging while income is tight.
And this was my first battle with depression as Tina and I entered into one of the most painful seasons of our lives. Our church community was the only local community that we had, and our relationships were mostly tied to my employment. Tina and I felt alone. We were angry. We were so, so sad. And I was scared. Undergirding these emotions was the feeling that I was lost. My identity had been tied to a “youth pastor” title. Who was I if I didn’t work in this field? What did it say about my identity when I got fired from the thing I was supposed to be really good at? I spent every day for almost 2 years asking myself “why”? What did I do wrong? Why me? I was the first of my college friends to be hired and then the first to be fired. What was I supposed to learn from all this, or more urgently, how could we avoid being hurt again?
What manifested through this season was the awareness that God not only desires to use us but that God also desires to develop us. I thought for sure that my development was more or less accomplished. That’s what my 4 years of college was for. And I wasn’t wrong. University certainly developed me a lot, but there was so much more to go!
I had major issues with my identity. My identity was in my work which was deeply problematic for following Jesus. But in as much as I thought too highly of my vocation, I simultaneously thought too lowly about myself. It may be fair to have described me as gentle but spineless. At the end of the day I didn’t believe that my voice mattered. I had this false notion that putting others first and pursuing humility meant erasing myself. I didn’t believe that apart from the things that I did that I mattered.
In hindsight, leaving such things undeveloped would have been disastrous for me. And, at the time, I didn’t know these things about myself and if you had pointed them out, I probably wouldn’t have taken your observations all that seriously. But ten years on, I can see the value of that painful season. I am a better me today because of what I went through.
If you’re wondering how my story progressed to today, God blessed me with an amazing, full-time job five months after being fired (and one month before Tina’s grad program started!), cleaning toilets.
I took a job as a housekeeping manager at a nursing home up in Fenton, MI. It would have been close to the bottom of jobs I would have intentionally chosen but working as a manager helped me to grow a spine and to find my voice. I found joy and meaning in my work but my identity became grounded in Christ during that season. Furthermore, my compassion for those who have been hurt by the church and those who struggle with mental illness had sprouted and grown.
Experiencing the Gospel
I’ve had many seasons in my life where some of my greatest transformation happened in the gaps. Some seasons were more painful than others and I had varying degrees of awareness for each of them but looking back, the active exercise of patience redeemed the tensions that I’ve wrestled through and it offers me encouragement as I wrestle with my tensions of today.
A large part of the Gospel’s good news is that our God is a god of redemption. And the redemption isn’t just what happens at the end, redemption is a process. It is a process in which we are actively being developed.
And some seasons of development are more painful than others but God is always at work. For indeed God exercises a heroic patience with humanity as we are still
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 18)
There is a unique picture of the Church that James and Paul have painted for us, that as Jesus people, we might possess a different lens on seasons of struggle and stagnation. And not only that we may possess such a lens but also offer that lens as hope and encouragement to others.
The scriptures do not invite us into a “whoa is me” posture but rather a call to action.
A call to choose “joy” over despair (James 1:2)
A call to practice “embrace” over favoritism (James 2)
A call to “engage” over observation (James 2:14-17)
Anticipating the Consequences
Initially this may not strike some people as difficult. Looking for, finding, and embracing joy in politics rights now is an unusual posture to take in a country where national allegiances are pledged to political parties instead of a king and His Kingdom.
A deeper exploration of our favoritism exposes our prejudices. It may lead to uncomfortable confessions and a reality that is more gray than black and white. Its a reality where we experience tension between our brokenness and our redemption and we choose to hold it before God and the Church instead of canceling or ignoring it.
Peacefully engaging to produce change can also create new labels like activist, radical, and even “thug”.
James encouragement to stand firm may initially strike us as taking a posture of inactivity. But if you’ve ever stood up in a small boat or canoe before, you can appreciate how much work is involved in standing still. It is sincere work not to tip too much to the right or overcorrect too much to the left. Either extreme with regards to balance plunges you into the water. And it is in a similar vein that we’re encourage to stand firm in our patience.
One such extreme would plunge us into Inaction. This might manifest as despair, apathy, or laziness.
The other extreme would might be characterized as Aggression: manifesting in violence, harsh language, and passive-aggressive moves like withholding love.
And this is why a sacred patience is heroic. There is risk when we choose to hold the tension rather than diving into the water. But there is a hope of transformation whereby we reflect the image of God more and more each and every day.
There may be a few things worth considering as we wrestle with the implications of this text.
1. Re-Engage Wonder
Yet moving on and going forward in that season required a small degree of wonder.
As an adult, I’ve seen that wonder tends to be primarily tied to two things: childhood and idealism, with the common thread being that neither has been crushed yet. My wonder, my dreaming, my imagination took a blow when I lost that ministry job. I thought, “Man, I was so naive.” But slowly, the wonder began to emerge again. I wondered if we might find a church that fit where Tina and I were at? I wondered if I could work with kids again? I wondered if a church would hire me and whether any good could come of it? And with each wondering question, I discovered room for action.
2. Identify and Share a “Story Gap” in your life story
Where is a gap in your story that doesn’t make the bullet points but where you experienced transformation and growth? Share that story with someone over lunch today at Potbelly’s, in your church LifeGroup, or e-mail your story to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If we go slower, others may feel inconvenienced, awkward, or disrespected. They may extend us their pity or their frustration.
If we express joy in difficult seasons, people may doubt our authenticity.
If we “groan” about things we feel but can’t find the right words to express what we’re feeling, the world may see us as inarticulate or dumb.
If we dare to see life where others see barrenness, we may be labeled crazy or idealistic. We may be ignored. We may not be taken seriously.
What conditions have we placed on God for our trust?