Sermons

Practicing a Passionate Patience; Rev. Dee Ledger, February 20, 2022

Did you know that a sloth, despite its name, is not lazy?  These animals move around so slowly that algae and other plant-life actually grow on their fur.  Living high up in the tropical forests of Central and South America, sloths eat mostly leaves, a low-calorie diet. But they often take several days to fully digest their food because their metabolism is so incredibly slow.  Sloths only move about 41 yards on any given day and come down out to the trees about once a week to relieve themselves.  Those of you who are constantly up in the middle of the night might envy the sloth in this unique bathroom behavior.

Sloths are not lazy despite their unfortunate association with one of the 7 deadly sins.  “Sloth,” in reference to the sin, actually means something more like spiritual indifference, rather than the kind of laziness that finds you napping in the middle of the afternoon or your kid refusing to exert himself beyond the necessary living requirements. In this, I believe sloths (the mammal) got a bad rap.  Instead, the animal sloths show that they are well-adjusted to their surroundings.  Over many generations since the time of the dinosaurs, the sloths have adapted biologically and ideally to their environment.

And what about you?  How have you adapted mentally or physically to your surroundings and to your season of life?  Are you becoming, or have you become perhaps too well-adjusted, too jaded, or even spiritually indifferent over time?  Can one ever be too well-adjusted?

For some of us, adaptation comes fairly easily.  For others, adjusting takes time, time that we may feel we lack. Our circumstances change; we move, change careers, or retire; our health changes or our families wax or wane– all of which call upon hidden resources and new ways of moving in our surroundings.

“Do not fret,” the psalmist says.  And then he says it again.  And then once more, “Do not fret,” as if we might have missed the point.  As if the psalmist knows that we humans tend to worry, as if our default mode is to ruminate over past injury and to agitate ourselves over useless comparisons with our various adversaries, whether they be the ones who cut us off in mid-sentence or the ones who cut us off in traffic.

The psalmist, like a good counselor, shows concern for our mental well-being by implicitly asking where exactly we have placed our energy.  In the psalm—did you notice?–the psalmist tells us not to worry so much about what is or isn’t presently happening with our enemies, adversaries, those wrongdoers, and those who prosper through ill-gotten gains.  They will all fade like the grass; they will wither like the parsley and sage that you accidentally left in a bag at the back of the refrigerator. The psalmist essentially asks why tie yourself in knots about such as these?

Did you know that “fret” means “to consume or wear away gradually”?  It means to experience anxiety, but it also means “to damage or diminish by continued friction.”[1]  The psalmist alerts us to a danger: the danger of wearing away our energy, our reserves, our resources, by worrying about what that other guy, gal, or group is doing.

Where exactly is your mental energy these days?  Has it been consumed by how you have been misaligned or misjudged, misunderstood or even mistaken for another?  In this life- season, has your energy been exhausted with fretting?  Are you spiritually wearing away from a worry that has less to do with you, and more to do with the response of others? Have you unwittingly cast yourself as a perpetual victim or perpetually powerless in your life?

Pop-singer John Mayer sings,

Me and all my friends
We’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There’s no way we ever could

Now we see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it.”[2]

The Church, at its best, teaches that we *do* have the means to rise and help heal it.

Sometimes, like Mayer, we might describe our life circumstances in such a way that shows our impatience.  We may be impatient with the pace of recovery in the pandemic or our own recovery; we are impatient with our health such as it may or may not be; impatient with coworkers who may be more or less responsive; we get snappish and petty with family; perhaps we’d like to speed up our metabolism at will.  “Alexa,” we might demand, “make these [pounds, problems, people, and pebbles in my shoe] go away.”

We can find it difficult to wait without worrying, obsessing or fretting about a future that hasn’t yet unfolded.  Or perhaps we choose to live at a pace that is completely at odds with the events going on around us or even those God-given passions within us.  Unlike the sloth, we can live perpetually maladjusted to our environment, forgetting to pace ourselves, and forgetting to place our mental energy where it belongs– with God.

In today’s psalm, the psalmist urges patience.  Oh, this is where I get antsy and ironically impatient with the psalmist; what about you?  “Be still,” the psalmist advises, “wait patiently for the Lord.” But in a heartbeat, I protest, “we’ve been waiting a long time for peace, for terrorists to have a change of heart, for guns to turn into farming implements, and for our country to invest more in education and kids than the latest destructive technique or political filibuster.”  To a younger generation, John Mayer sings, “We keep waiting, waiting for the world to change,” and together we cry out, “How long, Lord?”[3]

The danger in waiting too long is that our God-given passions can dissipate or morph into something more damaging to our psyche and/or the beloved community.  “What happens to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes writes, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?/ Or fester like a sore—then run?”  So, how can we wait with both passion and patience, we might ask?  Certainly,  for the African American psyche, Langston Hughes showed how waiting too long can be destructive, but it can also be destructive to the larger Church that too often counseled patience and waiting on God in the face of injustice without honoring the holy passion that demanded change.

Today, in our reading, the psalmist doesn’t think we should spend our precious time on this earth obsessing over what our enemies did or did not do, but to refocus ourselves on what God is doing—providing security, vindicating our cause, and acting even now to fulfill the yearnings of our hearts.

And yet that doesn’t mean we should sit on our hands and leave problems to unseen others.  Most of us harmfully cling to our own impatience, our own personal wrongs, our frustration with the way things should be or could be for us or for those we love.  At the same time, we are quite capable of becoming too comfortable, spiritually indifferent to the wrongs done to others, without harnessing the passions that would help us to act with the conviction that God can indeed move mountains. When the people choose to move,  patience must accompany passion and grow legs.

Someone once said that “patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to have a good attitude while waiting.”   I might add it is the ability to wait while still remaining passionate.

How can we remain passionate about Jesus and the Church in these times of waiting?  How can we not succumb to the dangers of spiritual indifference, the kind of sloth that is maladapted to its surroundings, the indifference that is out-of-touch and out-of-sync with a Church and a community who are truly powerful entities for change? In other words, how can we rise above our own perception of powerlessness?

To a generation tired of waiting, Mayer sings,

It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance

So we keep waiting (Waiting)
Waiting on the world to change
.”[4]

In an interview with The Advocate, John Mayer explained his song:

“It’s saying, ‘Well, I’ll just watch American Idol because I know that if I were engaged in changing anything for the better, or the better as I see it, it would go unnoticed or be completely ineffective.’ A lot of people have that feeling.”[5]

Friends, a lot of people have that feeling—both before and during this pandemic.  Mayer wrote his song in 2006.  Here’s the thing: we can’t change anything when we feel powerless or, like Mayer says, stand at a distance from it.  At what distance are you from the desires of your heart, or the changes that you wish to see both within and beyond the church?  These require human investment of not simply financial resources, but human closeness with people and the opportunities themselves.

Certainly, the psalmist asks us to examine how we might expend our energy more wisely as we intentionally draw closer to those causes and ideals and holy truths that will still move our hearts and our feet.  And if our spirits are no longer moved by anyone or anything or we do not wish to expend any energy beyond the barest minimum, then we might ask why that is and what we might do about it, even as we re-emerge slowly from this pandemic with patience and perseverance alongside friends and Jesus who are waiting for us too.

Amen.

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/fret

[2] https://genius.com/John-mayer-waiting-on-the-world-to-change-lyrics

[3] The song is the first single released from John Mayer’s 2006 studio album, Continuum. It won the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance at the 49th Grammy Awards. https://genius.com/John-mayer-waiting-on-the-world-to-change-lyrics

[4] https://genius.com/John-mayer-waiting-on-the-world-to-change-lyrics

[5] https://genius.com/John-mayer-waiting-on-the-world-to-change-lyrics