The Patience of God

SJF • Proper 11 a • Tobias S Haller BSG
Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.
This past week I came across a phrase from an evangelical Christian writer that made my blood run cold. This is what he said: “When the patience of God has run its course, God reveals himself to be the God of wrath.” Does that bother you? It sure bothers me, for number of reasons.

The first problem is the wrath part. This author says that when you strip away all the superficial niceness of God, what you’ve got left is an angry, wrathful being; that when it comes right down to it, the essence of God is anger and wrath. Well if that’s true, then I think I’ve got the wrong religion. Because I believe that when all is said and done, when all the superficial stuff and human misunderstanding is stripped away, the essential nature of God is not wrath, but love. Indeed, I believe — and I think I’m not alone in this, as this is what the church has taught consistently for thousands of years — that our loving God is only wrathful when he needs to get our attention. Like any loving parent dealing with misbehaving children, God may have to raise his voice once in awhile. The great Anglican author CS Lewis once put it this way, “God whispers to us in our joys but he shouts to us in our pain.”

+ + +

Arthur Sueltz, in his book Life at Close Quarters, tells a wonderful story that bears out this important truth.

A mother was with her six-year-old son in a doctor’s crowded waiting room. As they waited their turn, he began to ask her all kinds of questions. In half an hour he managed to cover almost every subject known to humanity. I can relate to this because that’s just how I was when I was that age. I recall once on a train trip to Washington with my grandmother, talking non-stop to the man across the aisle from us, eventually putting him into what may have been the soundest slumber he had ever known, as I went on an on about the hundreds of tiny egg-beaters that line the human stomach and help us digest our food — or so I was convinced. In any case, this child was similarly chatty. To the wonder of all the others sitting in the room, the mother answered each question carefully and patiently. Inevitably, the youngster got around to asking about God. As the other people listened to his relentless “but how’s” and “but why’s,” it was plain to see from the expressions on their faces that they were wondering: “How does she stand it?” But when she answered her son’s next question, she answered theirs too. “But why,” he asked, “doesn’t God ever get tired and just stop?” “Because,” she replied after a moment’s thought, “God is love; and love never gets tired.”

+ + +

The writer of the Book of Wisdom put it this way, “Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose.” God loves us, and love never gets tired. Love, as Saint Paul put it in that wonderful passage we hear at weddings and funerals, love is patient; it suffers all sorts of wrongs. God in his love holds on to humanity as it kicks and screams like an unruly child, holds on and holds fast until the child’s crying is spent, and she falls asleep safe in those great loving arms. God puts up with things thatnone of us would put up with — including putting up with us.

We see a reflection of this in the parable that Jesus put before the crowds in today’s gospel. The slaves of the master who sowed good seed in his field are ready to go and do a good job of weeding. They are ready to rush right in and start pulling up those weeds. But the patient master tells them to wait, for in their zeal to get rid of all the weeds they might also uproot the good crop of wheat. Harvest time will come soon enough; the weeds will still be weeds, and the wheat will still be wheat — and the master knows how to tell one from the other, and knows as well what he plans to do with each.

This was of course a lesson for the church not to rush to judgment but to leave judgment to God. At the end of time God will separate wheat from weed. And in the meantime, God’s patience, is not to be confused with permissiveness. Jesus is not telling us it’s OK to be a weed if that’s what we’d like to do. It is definitely not in his plan that we should grow and take up space but bear no fruit. No, Jesus wants us all to bear fruit, to be like those rich sheaves of wheat that are carried into the granary. But Jesus is also telling us that the task of separating the good from the bad, the wheat from the weeds, belongs to him and his angels, not to us.

+ + +

God wants us to be patient as he is patient. As the writer of Wisdom said, “You have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope.” And what is patience but a kind of hopeful kindness, a forbearance that puts up with difficulties, that tolerates differences, rather than insisting that everything change right here, right now. Patience suffers many wrongs, in the sure and certain hope that eventually all wrongs will be righted — by the one who has the power to right all wrongs.

Still, patience isn’t easy. You have heard me speak before of the great preacher and Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts Phillips Brooks. He was a close friend of the third rector of this parish, and attended his wedding here as an honored guest. Apparently patience was called for on that day because his carriage got stuck at the train station and he was delayed in arriving for the wedding. (Usually it’s the bride whose late, but in this case it was the Bishop!) Now, in general, Bishop Brooks was noted for his poise and quiet manner. He was a big man, tall and wide, and moved and spoke with great deliberation, floating along like a great iceberg. One day, however, a friend came to call upon him in his Boston office, and found him feverishly pacing the floor like a wild animal in a cage. “What’s the trouble, Bishop?” he asked. Brooks answered, “The trouble is that I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t!”

This is a lesson we can all take to heart. In our impatience, we struggle with eager longing, subjected to futility, as Saint Paul says. We join with all of creation groaning as if in labor pains, like a woman in childbirth waiting anxiously to be set free from bondage so that we can obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. And God, our loving parent, our wise master, or in this case like a caring and knowing midwife, holds us by the hand and says to us, Hush now, keep on breathing, wait a bit longer. It will come; rest a little longer. All shall be well; and you shall see it and know it when it comes. Let the crop grow in peace, weed and wheat, there will be plenty of time to sort things out at the harvest. Be patient with one another, be kindly affectioned one towards another, patient and kind as God is patient and kind.

Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, when we are tempted to say, or shall I say, when we do say — for I’m sure we all have said it at one time or another — “I’ve had it up to here with you” — let us remember that Jesus had up to here [arms outstretched like Christ upon the cross] — with all of us.

To the Lord and Master who sowed his good seed in our hearts, and will one day gather it in to his granary, to the ever-patient, ever-loving God whose righteousness is chiefly shown in kindness, to him be all praise and glory, henceforth and forever more. +