Urgent Advent

Sermon preached December 19, 2010

Texts: James 5:7-10

This morning I want to begin with two items from this past week’s newspaper, and I have a power point slide for one. A postal worker in the small town of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, eight miles north of Milwaukee, was arrested at the North Shore Post Office last Thursday for wearing an unsanctioned uniform while making his rounds. That is, no uniform at all. The 52-year-old man allegedly walked into an office building to deliver mail wearing only a smile. According to Whitefish Bay Now, which cites a town police report, the man has since admitted the nude delivery, saying “he was sorry and it was a stupid thing to do.” The Associated Press reports that the postman was hoping to cheer up a woman working at the office, who he said seemed stressed. The AP also says the woman “dared him to do it,” but Whitefish Bay Now says the woman has denied encouraging the delivery of any sort of special package. Still, she says she doesn’t believe he intended any harm. Slide please. Oh, this is the second story. Here we have the cartoon Non sequitur which appeared in Friday’s newspaper. The caption reads “The Modern Iconoclast.” We have a scene of people frantically scurrying around, fearfully shouting, and in the midst of them is the odd looking man carrying a sign that reads, “Calm Down, Things Will Work Out.” It is often that same man in other cartoons who carries a message of doom and gloom, “The End is Near.” It says something about our time that this cartoon makes sense to us.
Advent is drawing to a close. It will end Friday when we celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve (worship services at 4 and 10 – invite a friend). This Advent we have been working with the theme “waiting for God.” It is a thought-provoking theme, really, as we believe God is always present in our lives, moment by moment influencing us toward our good and the good of the world. But God’s influence is often quiet, and sometimes the pattern for that influence takes some time to discern – so we “wait for God.” We wait for God and are ready for the unexpected. We wait for God and are open to the unusual. In this final Advent sermon I want to say that we wait for God with an attitude that can be described as urgent patience.
I came across this phrase “urgent patience” in a book by Bob Johansen called Leaders Make the Future. Johansen argues that among the enduring leadership skills needed in a changing world – a violent, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – is the skill of urgent patience. He took the idea from Bill Walsh, successful coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Urgent patience means understanding when we need to take on new challenges, when we need to get moving, and when we need to be more patient, persistent, steady. (15-16)
There is a time and a place in our lives, in our church, in our world for a calm, steady presence. There is also a time and place for urgency. Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, a recognized expert on leadership and change, writes in response to the question “What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change?” – they did not create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction (Kotter, A Sense of Urgency, viii). Yet Kotter also recognizes that urgency can be false. With a false sense of urgency, an organization does have a great deal of energized action, but it’s driven by anxiety, anger, and frustration, and not a focused determination to win (x).
Urgency and patience are both important at the right time as we seek to be God’s people, as we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ, yet both have their shadow sides. Patience can edge over into complacency and passivity. “Calm down” may often be good advice, but things won’t necessarily be all right unless we act. Urgency can edge into panic, frenetic activity, frantic activity, impulsiveness. The mailman in Whitefish Bay probably wishes he had been a little more patient and a little less urgent.
As God’s people, as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to live in the balance and tension of urgent patience. It is right there in the New Testament. James encourages disciples of Jesus to “be patient…. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.” But the author also adds a sense of urgency – “the coming of the Lord is near.” God is up to something – always active in the work of renewal, and we need to be ready to follow this active, adventuresome God. And any good farmer knows that it does not help just to wait for the rain to get a decent crop – you have to till the soil and plant the seeds and tend the weeds. James even seems to think this urgent patience lends itself to certain behaviors – strengthening the heart, not grumbling against one another.
While the modern iconoclast with his sign “Calm Down. Things Will Work Out,” may not have it exactly right, may not quite capture urgent patience, this attitude of urgent patience is deeply needed in our world, and it is often hard to locate.
As I think about our national life, I wonder if we are lacking in this sense of urgent patience. Two years ago, we elected a President promising hope and change. Two years later, we sweep that President’s party out of power. And if the complex problems of healthcare and budgets and environmental concerns and energy are not solved in the next two years, will we do another about face? I cannot help but wonder if we have lost something of the balance of urgent patience in our national life. The problems we face require some urgent action, require forward movement, but many are complex enough that the solutions require long-term patience along with urgency. Could Christians develop this Advent attitude deeply enough to share it with others and be a leaven in our national life?
But the church is not immune from its own imbalance when it comes to urgent patience. Dan Dick is a United Methodist minister who works for the UMC in Wisconsin. Prior to that he worked for a national United Methodist agency. About a year ago he wrote the following on his blog: We’re old. We’re dying. We’re decaying. We’re declining. We’re ineffective. We’re irrelevant. Doesn’t that motivate you to do better? Come on, be honest. Don’t such messages just fill you with energy, vigor, passion and hope? Sure they do, otherwise why would we dwell so constantly upon them? Why waste time envisioning ourselves as God is calling us to be when we can wallow in all the things we aren’t? Doom-and-gloomers eat this stuff up. The United Methodist Church will be gone in 40 years. The average age of United Methodists is 104. We’re closing 24,000 churches every year. It’s like crack. Once we taste the bad news, we simply can’t get enough of it. He is writing tongue in cheek, but he is not far off the mark in depicting what we hear. The United Methodist Church is declining in membership in the U.S., and our members are older than the average U.S. population. We are closing churches – in many communities where there is no longer any school or hardware store or maybe even post office. We have issues to be concerned about – there is need for some urgency. But are we too often edging into the frantic, the panicked, the frenetic? Our issues require action, but thoughtful, well-considered action and a willingness to try things that may take time to develop. How ironic that we who should know urgent patience well seem to be missing it.
This congregation is part of the trend in our denomination. In 1984 we had just over 1,000 members, today we have about 600. Worship attendance that year averaged 350, now we are closer to 200. We should feel a sense of urgency in seeking ways to turn this trend around. I believe we feel that. We know our situation. Yet we, too, need to be thoughtful, reflective, patient as we try out ideas, as we seek to be faithful to who we are and to who God is inviting us to be. We will need to let go of some things along the way. We will try some things that don’t work. Some things we will need to give sufficient time – early and late rains. Together we need to figure out when to welcome new challenges and when to be more patient.
Urgent patience is needed in our personal lives, as well. In every life, there are moments of significant decision. We may be faced with a health crisis. We may confront an economic hardship. Our relationships may hit crisis points. Our spiritual lives may have moments of crisis. These may require urgent attention. Often, however, the urgent action is only a first step on a much longer road to change. Changing health habits and becoming healthier is a long journey, requiring patience, even when it begins in an urgent moment. Repairing a torn personal relationship takes time and patience, even if it begins with a crisis point. Some social scientists theorize that it takes 10,000 hours of practice at something to become an expert. We shape our lives in response to God’s Spirit over the whole of our lives – urgent patience.
It is Advent, even if only for a few more days. Jesus is near, always near. Change is needed in our lives, in our church, in our world. Strengthen your hearts. Let go of the grumbling. May we be urgent when we need to be in following our adventuresome God, but may our urgency never be without patience, and my our patience never become complacency. And if you ever get the urge to deliver the mail naked, be a lot more patient. Amen.