Some of you may know the infamous pickle story.
During agriculture day for Leadership Dodge, I stood in Brian Watkins’ field of cucumbers, listening to him talk about farming. But I was very confused. He kept talking about pickles, but I was definitely standing in a field of cucumbers. He picked up a cucumber from the field and held it, but he was still talking about pickles. I became even more confused. Why was he talking about pickles if he was surrounded by cucumbers? Finally it dawned on me. Pickles are pickled cucumbers!
I had much to learn about farming!
And since that day several years ago, I have learned much about farming. As I drive down the road, I can name the different kinds of plants in the field, something I couldn’t have done when we moved here. I enjoy those October days when the harvest of cotton has gone down the road, leaving a trail along the shoulder that looks like freshly fallen snow. My sinuses dread the turning over of the soil that comes from extracting peanuts in November.
I thought of my experience with farming here as I read our scripture from James. He talks about being patient as the farmer is patient. Whether we’re farmers, know a farmer, or just live here, I think we can all relate to James’s metaphor as we continue our sermon series on patience. Let’s hear that scripture now. It comes from chapter 5, beginning with verse 7.
Be patient, therefore, beloved, James says. Be patient like the farmer who waits for “the precious crop from the earth.” Indeed, it is precious. Farmers put their blood, sweat, and tears into their crops. The plants in the field represent a significant investment of funds. I remember going to the Reinke dealership that same ag day in Leadership Dodge and listening as the owner talked about the cost of digging irrigation wells: $80,000 in the north end of the county and $120,000 in the south end of the county.
But farmers make these and other investments because they reap a harvest at the end of the season; hopefully, a profitable one. And I say hopefully because we know farming is a risky business. Farmers do everything they can to ensure a bumper crop, but at the end of the day, they cannot control all the factors at play. They can’t control the weather, whether it will rain enough or too much or too little. They can’t control the heat and the cold, whether or not there will be a hard freeze late in the spring or if the summer will be too hot or too cool. James points to the early and late rains the farmers received in his region of the world, rains that came with some regularity, but even then we know that weather can be unpredictable.
And so farmers do all they can: they take care of the soil, they plant at the right time, they make investments in farming equipment and labor, to do their part in ensuring a good harvest. But there are factors beyond their control. And so, once the seeds are in the soil, they wait for the coming of the fall, monitoring conditions, hoping for the best.
Farmers do all they can to set the right conditions. Then they wait, hoping for the best.
Isn’t that an apt metaphor for life?
We do all we can for our children, say, raising them in the best ways we know how. We make investments in their lives through extracurricular activities, toys and devices at home, and eventually higher education. We do our level best to set them up with every opportunity. We do all we can, but in the end there are factors beyond our control, and so we wait for our children to grow up, monitoring their development, hoping for the best. Parents do all they can to set the right conditions. Then they wait, hoping for the best.
The same can be said of our labors. We do all we can at work, putting in our blood, sweat, and tears, believing that they will pay off. But a teacher cannot force her students to learn; she can only provide the right conditions for learning to occur. A business owner cannot force people to come into her store; she can only provide the right conditions for people to come. We in our work do all we can to set the right conditions. Then we wait, hoping for the best.
We could name many examples, but in so many ways, we set the right conditions and then we wait. Consider all the illness going around town right now. It’s more than COVID: it’s strep, it’s the flu, it’s the common cold, and it’s really hard to tell the difference among them. We can set the right conditions to stay well and still get sick. And once we’re sick, we can set the right conditions for healing by taking proper care of ourselves but so much of being sick involves waiting, hoping for the best.
And not just hoping for the best but having to endure our way through it. We can set the right conditions to help ourselves get better when sick: rest, proper diet, lots of water, but while we do those things there’s nothing else to do but endure until we’re done being sick.
Right now, I’m sure we can all think of things we’re having to endure. Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, some of us have long-term health issues where we do all that we can but much of the time we’re just having to wait, enduring our way through it. Some of us have family disputes or failed friendships that leave us upset, angry, frustrated, and while we do all we can to make things right, most of the time all we can do is wait, endure, hoping for the best. We might have financial difficulties where we’ve done all we can do to set things right and now there’s little to do except to wait, endure, hoping for the best. We might have legal troubles where we’ve done all we can do and there’s little left to do except to wait, endure, hoping for the best. We might have adult children who are making poor choices and all we can do is wait, endure, hoping for the best.
Wait, endure, hoping for the best.
It’s not fun. Like the farmer whose crops are out in the field, who has done all he can to take care of his crops, watching them wither under a draught or slowly drown because of unusually heavy rain or freeze to death at an early September frost, sometimes there’s nothing to do but wait, endure, hoping for the best.
That’s what James continues to talk about in the scripture. He points to the biblical prophets who endured much hardship in their lives. They were ridiculed, ostracized, locked in prisons, thrown down deep wells, forced to purchase property and then lose all the money they had invested, and threatened with torture and death. God called them to preach an uncomfortable message, one the people needed to hear, but one the people could not accept, and so they became angry. In their anger, they acted poorly toward these prophets, who were forced to endure their mistreatment. They were doing everything right and yet they were still suffering. And there was nothing for them to do except to wait, endure.
And so James tells us that endurance is part of the Christian life. He says that those who endure are blessed! But when we’re having to endure something, that’s cold comfort. Sometimes of our sin, sometimes of our poor choices, and sometimes for no good reason at all, suffering, hardship, and trials find their way to us. Like the farmer, we can do everything right, set the exact right conditions, and yet trouble comes and finds us and there’s nothing we can do except wait, enduring until its over.
James says we’re blessed for having to endure. It definitely doesn’t feel that way!
What are we to do in the midst of such hardship? Better put: how do we endure?
Endurance is one way of talking about patience. This is the second sermon in this patience series. Last week, we talked about how we can wait with hope because we know that God will act in our waiting, every time. God always acts in our lives, moving for the good. And so while we’re waiting, while we’re enduring, we can do so in the hope that comes from knowing God will act in our waiting and so we will not have to wait, endure, forever.
Wait with hope is the first answer to how to endure. But James here says that we are to strengthen our heart. He says, “you must also be patient. Strengthen your hearts…” (5:8a) There’s more to do than simply claim the hope that God will act in our waiting. Strengthen your hearts is a call to build up endurance, to build up our stamina, so that we can more easily bear the burden of waiting, enduring until God acts for our good in the fullness of time.
So we can wait with hope, but how do we endure suffering, hardships, and trials, while we wait?
Consider an athlete training for an event. I don’t usually think of myself as an athlete, but right now I’m training for a half marathon on March 5. It’s brutal. The twelve week program my friend shared with me is all about building endurance. At first, I ran twelve miles a week. This past week, I ran 16. Starting today, I’ll be working toward running 19 miles this week. Running longer distances isn’t the issue for me: I turn on an audiobook or podcast or some music and get into the groove, zoning out the rest of the world. It’s the endurance that kills me. The hardest day of the training isn’t Friday when I do my long runs, six miles this past Friday and seven miles this coming Friday. The hardest day is Tuesday, when I’ve already run on Sunday and Monday and have to put in four or four and a half miles after having run six to seven miles in the previous two days. Tuesdays are endurance building days. And those are the hardest.
Isn’t it that way with waiting? That the building of endurance to wait for things is the hardest part? There are things in life, like farming, like parenting, like current illnesses, like family drama and long-term health issues, that must simply be endured. We do all the right things, we set the right conditions, we do all that we can, but then there’s so much that’s out of our control, so all we can do is endure. Like Tuesdays in my running schedule, those things that force us to endure and build up our endurance are the hardest.
But also like an athlete, we can choose to do things that help us build up our endurance, that strengthen our hearts. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. In fact, if we’re waiting well, enduring should be an active process. It’s then, when we’re being active in the waiting, that we discover we are indeed blessed to endure as we find that God is compassionate and merciful in our waiting, just as James says.
Throughout the book of James, strengthen your hearts is James’s way of saying, “stay focused on God.” When we’re actively waiting, staying focused on God is how we build up endurance and discover that compassion and mercy. So how do we stay focused on God, strengthening our hearts? Consider these two ways:
First, as we said last week, we can practice that form of examen where we ask each other what am I most grateful for today and what am I least grateful for today. Finding and celebrating where God is working in our lives, bringing joys and addressing sorrows, is a great way to strengthen our hearts, to build up our endurance. It helps us see where God is active already in our lives, reminding us that God will act in our waiting, giving us hope.
And that’s just one example of practicing spiritual discipline, practices like examen, praying scripture as we have outlined on our website, daily bible reading or devotionals also on our website, singing with worship music in our cars, and coming to church often; anything that connects us to God on a regular basis. We need that regular interaction with God to learn how to endure, how to wait. Strengthening our hearts, building up our endurance, comes first through regular time with God.
Second, strengthening our hearts, building up our endurance, also comes through choosing to focus on the things in life that bring us joy. Sometimes, when we’re having to endure something hard, thinking about what we’re having to endure can take over our lives by causing us only to focus on that thing. Patience asks us to take a step back and survey the landscape of our lives. There’s more to life than enduring the hardships, trials, and suffering that we know. There are things God made us to enjoy, there are cherished relationships God has given us to be enjoyed, there are hobbies God gave us to enjoy. The key word there is enjoy: God has given us this life to enjoy and we, no matter what we’re having to endure, can still find joy in life.
Think of the words of Ecclesiastes. The author, Qoheleth, tells us that life is hard and full of toil and trouble. And so he knows of nothing better for us than to eat, drink, and enjoy the life God has given us. Choosing joy in the midst of hardship, intentionally choosing to engage with the things that bring us joy while we’re having to endure, is one of the best ways to strengthen our hearts.
And so that’s the second of the ways we can strengthen our hearts: intentionally choosing to do things that bring us joy. This, along with regular spiritual practice, are the two ways we can be active while waiting, intentionally strengthening our hearts to endure. And it’s in being active in these two ways that we discover God’s compassion and mercy, for we see how God is with us, calling us to joy, no matter how difficult it is to endure.
This is why I’m training for that half marathon. Running is a hobby that brings me joy. Right now, in my own waiting where I’m having to endure, training for a half marathon is a way of holy distraction, to focus my energies away from focusing on the waiting, the enduring, to something that brings me joy, that God has given me to enjoy. It’s also a time for prayer, for self-reflection, for space apart with God. Running combines both of the intentional ways we’ve said that we can strengthen our hearts so that I am active in the waiting, building up my endurance to run greater distances and run the race of life that is set before me.
As a family, we are also more focused on making time for family and friends, to enjoy their company and find joy in sharing life together. God has given us these cherished relationships in part to bring us joy and to build us up. That’s another holy distraction, a way of finding joy in the midst of enduring. And we continue to practice examen every night at dinner, with the kids leading us in discovering where God is at work in our highs and lows, inspiring that hope that God will act in our waiting.
In these ways, we’re strengthening our hearts, building up our endurance.
That’s what James would have us know today: in the waiting, in the times in our Christian life where we are forced to endure, we should strengthen our hearts by focusing on God through spiritual practice and through enjoying the things of life God has given us.
This morning, consider: what are you waiting for? Where in your life is endurance required? In current conditions of waiting for illness to abate? Finances to improve? In relationships with family and friends? At work? In parenting? With personal or business finances? What are you waiting for? Where in your life is endurance required?
With that thing that you’re waiting for in mind, now ask yourself: how regular are in you spending time with God? In coming to church? What are your spiritual practices?
Then, also ask yourself, what has God given you to enjoy in this life? With patience, take a step back from focusing on the thing you’re waiting for and survey the landscape of your life. Where are there things that bring you joy? Hobbies, relationships, favorite TV programs, hiking or getting outdoors, cooking, gardening, any of a number of things. Now, what are you doing to invest in those things that bring you joy? How are you being intentional about enjoying those things while you wait?
The things that bring us joy are things that God has given us that build us up. This means that things like drinking too much, eating too much, sleeping too much, or anything else that tears us down, is self-destructive, or does harm to others, is not included. Sometimes we can think that things like eating too much will bring us joy because they bring a momentary sense of euphoria. But we know that’s fleeting. Joy isn’t momentary euphoria; it’s a feeling of happy peace that lasts. God has given us things that build us up by causing us to enjoy life. When considering what God has given you to enjoy, the standard is whether or not that thing builds us up or tears us down.
So, with this in mind, let us ask again: whatever you’re having to endure in life right now, what are you doing to invest in those things that bring you joy? How are you engaging regularly in time with God through spiritual practice?
For that investment will strengthen your heart for the waiting, building up endurance. That’s the call this morning: strengthen your hearts. Do so by engaging in spiritual discipline regularly and through doing things that create joy in your life.
Some things in life must be endured. That’s the lesson on patience this morning. We can do all the right things, set the right conditions, but in the end we’re left waiting, hoping for the best, enduring suffering, trials, and hardship. That’s life.
But we’re not without hope and we’re not without recourse. God will act in our waiting, in the fullness of time, just like we saw last week. And while we’re waiting, while we’re enduring, we can strengthen our hearts. There are things we can do. Waiting well means being active in the waiting.
So go find joy this week. Whatever you’re waiting for, wherever you’re having to practice endurance, patience asks you to focus on God through spiritual practice and doing things that bring you joy. So go, pray; eat, drink, and be merry, for God has given you those things to strengthen your heart, so that you may wait, patiently, in peace and hope.
Then we will discover that we who endure are indeed blessed.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.