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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Prophetic Patience

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: justice, prophet, patience, prophetic, refugee

December 10, 2022    Vigil Mass for The Third  Sunday of Advent

The Mission Church of Saint Columban    Karlsruhe, Germany

Text: James 5:10: “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved,
take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” 

There is an uncomfortable tension in the readings for the Third Sunday in Advent, something like the effect of pushing all the way down on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. We hear words of anticipation and then words of patience, words that stoke our expectation and then call us to quietude. Be patient, we are told; and then in nearly the next line, the promised Messiah is already here. It is a funny kind of message to hear, pushing and pulling, in this city named for the idea of restfulness. 

On the rare occasions it appears in our lectionary, the Letter of James is always worth careful study, and sometimes the cause of confusion. Here is the Advent advice we get from James this evening: “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” 

Now, in the debate over the authorship of the letter of James, I am in the camp of those who come down against the idea that the pen was held by the hand of James the Just, the brother of Jesus. It’s clear that this is a letter written to an audience of Jewish Christians, people who still thought of themselves as part of the synagogue community and who were trying to find a way of staying Jewish while being Christian. But the Greek of the letter is too polished, and some of the internal evidence of the letter seems to date it after the time that James is thought to have been killed, at least if we believe the account given by the ancient historian Josephus.

What we can be sure of is that this author had a very clear of what prophets were, and what their purpose was in the history of the Jewish people. And that is what makes this teaching just a little strange. “Patience” is not a word generally associated with prophets.

When we think today about being prophetic, we think about being impatient for change. When we talk these days about the church’s prophetic mission, we don’t mean planning quiet, contemplative liturgies or singing comfort-and-joy hymns. Prophets have a purpose, and the purpose is realigning a world that has gotten off track, at various points along our journey, with the plan of God.

Prophets mean business, and usually the business is change—sometimes disruptive change. Because sometimes things have gotten into such a fix that disruption is the only chance God has to get a hearing again.

It is certainly true that prophets have a solid record of suffering for their purpose. It is not easy, and certainly not well-compensated, the profession of prophet. It involves frequent relocation, incurring the anger of the authorities, anguished prayer, and a lot of questioning looks. The folks who are voted most popular in the class do not tend to end up as successes in the prophecy field.

But patience—hmm. Prophets rarely see the change they are impatient for. Jonah is an exception, and he is so confused by his success in Nineveh that he gets angry. I suppose you could say prophets have no choice but to be patient, but they are not, on the whole, patient people.

John the Baptist is a prophet. He certainly fits the usual model: He eats poorly, dresses poorly, and has gotten the authorities so angry that he’s been thrown into prison. And even after his encounter with Jesus, he is still a little impatient. His question reflects that impatience—are you the one, or should we look for another? Because, you know, we are looking, and we are not going to stop looking. We need the change that God is bringing, and we need it now. 

We are in the same place, really. More and more each day we see the misalignment between God’s hope for us, Christ’s teaching to us, and the way we treat each other, the way our societies function. We are impatient to find some way of resolving the tension, of realigning the course of our lives with the covenant of our baptism.

Some people—a lot of people—around us can’t bear that growing tension. For them, even being impatient is too hopeful. Their chosen option is despair. A week ago today I was in Sweden, where among other things I attended a symposium on the theme of  “Existential Public Health.” That just about sums up the predicament so many of our neighbors, so many of our coworkers, find themselves struggling with. Hope itself seems impossible to hold on to. And if that is the case, why be impatient for a hoped-for change?

But then there’s us. At the very center of our faith is the call to Christians to be a people of hope. When we give that up, when we surrender to the cynicism around us, we have failed our covenant promise. But as long as we hold onto it, then we, each one of us, are called to be prophets. Because each one of us is meant to be bearers of Christ’s transforming love—a love that changes whatever it touches.

Every single person who encounters Jesus in the gospels comes away profoundly changed. Every one. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and hardest and least likely of all, the poor have good news brought to them. Some of them follow. Some of them don’t. 

But absolutely every one of them is changed in some way. The encounter with the profound love that is God in Christ strips back all the outer layers and reveals the character beneath. Even Judas is transformed by that encounter. 

And now—well, now, it’s Advent. Christ is coming again, and the encounter will be with us. We are impatient for change—God knows we need change—but are we prepared for what it will reveal in us? 

We feel so small—weak hands, feeble knees, fearful heart—what could possibly be expected of us? 

This past week I spent two days at an annual gathering organized by the UNHCR, the refugee agency of the U.N. We learned that this year, the world set a record for the number of human beings who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. More than at any previous time in human history, more than after the Second World War, more than after all the wars of the twentieth century; today one hundred and three million people have been forced from their homes. And nearly half of those sisters and brothers of ours, forty-five percent, are children.

We are impatient for change. We want to be prophets, speaking and acting to realign this world with the real hope of God. But what can we do against the sheer size of the problem? Who are we to raise our voices when the forces of injustice seem so overwhelming?

And yet, you know, there are people around us acting. There are people around us not just praying for change, but living out the idea of hope. 

Here in Karlsruhe, the Freundeskreis Asyl Karlsruhe has been working for thirty-five years to provide counseling, language training, legal assistance, and migration support to refugees in the city. Have we?

For some years, the Free Evangelical Church here in Karlsruhe hosted a Summer Initiative for Refugees, gathering personal care items needed by refugees here and bringing them to the places refugees have been housed here. Did we?

The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology has a Coordination Office for Refugees, the whole premise of which is that young people here as refugees can learn and grow and make a contribution. Do we see them in the same way? Do they even know we’re here?

Would anyone know, from watching us here, that we have met with the Christ who has been risen and have been transformed by knowing him?

At the end of last year, even before this miserable war in Ukraine began, nearly one million nine hundred thousand refugees were living in Baden–Württemberg. We know there are voices among us who are impatient with their presence, impatient with the idea of having to care for those who are here seeking safety or fleeting the onslaught of war. In parts of Germany, accommodations where refugees were living have been burned to the ground by arsonsists so impatient with the idea of the idea of these people among us. 

So where shall we stand? What witness will we offer? Will we be like the innkeeper, who turned away that poor little family, far from home? Or will be be like the innkeeper who took in that wounded and beaten man the Samaritan brought as a guest?

“Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!’”

Lord strengthen us,
make us firm in our resolve to follow you;
speak courage into our fearful hearts,
and make us strong to be impatient
to do the work of your justice
in our time and place. Amen.