Monday, August 23, 2010

Holy Impatience

J. Barry Vaughn. St. Alban's Episcopal Church. Aug. 22, 2010.

Patience, we are told, is a virtue. And so it is. When a slow driver gets in the fast lane on I 65 and we want to tailgate him or her, then we need to be patient; when the employee at a fast food place (who, after all, is only making minimum wage) gets our order wrong then it’s better to be patient than to yell at him or insist on seeing the manager; and we really need patience our computer malfunctions and we call support and have to press 1 for English and then choose from 1 to 5 for the next level and then between 1 and 9 for the next level and then enter our social security number and our birthday and our mother’s maiden name and the birthdates of our children and so on and so on… If you still have some patience left at the end of a process like that, then I will personally nominate you for sainthood.

I’m especially impatient. You will never convince me that elevators don’t speed up if you press the up or down button more than once. When the electronic voice at the other end of a phone call asks me to state the purpose of my call in a few words, I always ask for a real human being.

But there are times when patience is not a virtue.

In 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a series of demonstrations in downtown Birmingham. Today his goals seem reasonable, but in 1963 they were considered too much, too soon and too fast. They were deemed dangerous and extreme. King sought the integration of public facilities such as lunch counters, drinking fountains, and rest rooms and insisted that department stores begin to hire black sales clerks. Charles Carpenter, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, and 7 other religious leaders issued a statement asking King to postpone his protest. They had a point and there was some justification for their appeal to King: Birmingham’s newly elected mayor, Albert Boutwell, was a reasonable man and there was reason to think that he would work with Birmingham’s civic leaders and with King to achieve at least some of the goals that King sought. So Carpenter and his colleagues urged King to be patient. After all, he was trying to overturn a system that had been in place for generations. Why couldn’t he wait just a little longer?

One of the things that fascinated me about my freshman year in college was the vast collection of causes that my fellow students were involved in. Now keep in mind that this was way back in 1974 when the earth was cooling. The causes then were somewhat different from the causes today. There would always be a table or two outside the freshman dining hall asking us to sign up for a fast to raise awareness of world hunger. Another would urge us to support the boycott of South African business that upheld the system of apartheid. Another would ask us to sign a petition to eliminate nuclear weapons. A few of my more conservative classmates became disgusted with the daily array of liberal causes they encountered and formed a group called “Students for a perfect world now” and from time to time they would also set up a table outside the dining hall.

But sometimes what seems like wild-eyed idealism in one generation can seem like simple decency in the next generation. We take for granted the goals that King sought in 1963, but Carpenter and Birmingham’s other religious leaders urged him to wait just a little longer. King replied to Carpenter and the other religious leaders in his famous essay, “Letter from Birmingham jail.” And King’s reply took the wind out of Carpenter’s sails.

For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." …. “justice too long delayed is justice denied." We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.

Several years ago Rabbi Milton Graffman, who also signed the letter to King urging him to wait, came and talked to my students at Samford about why he had counseled King to be patient for a little longer. He was very persuasive. But after Rabbi Graffman left, I asked my students who had been right – King or Graffman. My students were all white, middle class kids, but they all said that King had been right and Graffman had been wrong. They said that if King had waited, things would never have changed.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus encounters a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. He is so moved by her situation that he speaks to her, lays his hands on her, and heals her without even being asked to do so. And when Jesus healed the woman, a leader of the synagogue blew up at him. Much like the religious leaders in Birmingham in 1963 the leader of the synagogue wanted Jesus to wait; he wanted the woman to be patient. After all, she had been crippled for 18 years. Why couldn’t she be patient and wait just a few hours until the end of the Sabbath?

In a way, the leader of the synagogue was correct. Surely it was not asking too much for Jesus to observe the Sabbath code and do no unnecessary work on the holy day. Was it asking too much for the unnamed woman who had suffered for 18 years to suffer for only a few more hours?

Perhaps Dr. King could also have heeded Birmingham’s religious leaders in 1963 and postponed his demonstrations. Surely black people who had waited 300 years for the end of slavery and then waited another century for basic civil rights could wait just a little longer.

But sometimes patience becomes not a virtue but a vice. There comes a time when we have been patient enough; when justice has been delayed too long. Sometimes it is right and good and perhaps even holy to be impatient with injustice, to feel a righteous anger with the evil in the world.

Jesus told the leader of the synagogue that the woman (who had been afflicted for 18 years) had suffered long enough. The end of the Sabbath was only a few hours away, but even that was too long for Jesus. God’s will is for human life to flourish; the Bible calls it abundant life. One of the church fathers said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”

We need to be impatient for the sake of justice, for the sake of God. We need to be impatient with hungry and poverty and homelessness. We need to be angry with barriers to the abundant life that God desires for us.

I still smile when I remember the students who started the “Society for a perfect world now”. They had a good point. The evils and injustices of the world cannot be corrected in a single grand gesture. It takes time and hard work and even patience and today’s gains can be wiped out in a moment. We seldom move forward in a straight line and it is usually a matter of two steps forward, then one step backward.

The sorrows and ills of the world are too much for any one of us to cure. There is too much power in the wrong hands and too little in the right hands. But the Good Samaritan was not asked to care for every traveler who had been robbed and beat up and left for dead; he only had to care for the one whom he saw beside the road to Jericho. God does not ask us to feed every hungry child, house every homeless person, comfort every broken heart; God only asks us to use our resources to the best of ability, to respond generously to the needs we know about; God asks us to be faithful, not perfect.

My fellow freshman did not quite get it right. A perfect world now is never possible but a better world is always possible. Let us all commit ourselves to a holy impatience and a righteous anger when we see injustice and cruelty, and let us all re-commit ourselves to making not a perfect world because that is not in the power of humans to accomplish. Rather, let us commit ourselves to the small steps and little improvements that are in our power to do which will create a better world.