A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 27, 2012.
Psalm 104:31-35; Romans 8:22-27
I have a theory. Is it all right if I run it by you? My theory is this... that the more stuff we have, the more impatient we become. O-k-a-y. That’s going to take a little more explanation, isn’t it? I can do that. Or, at least I can try.
The more we have, the more privileged we become. The more privileged we become, the more entitled we feel. The more entitled we feel, the more we think something is owed to us (which I guess is a bit redundant, because that’s pretty much what entitlement is), and when we feel that something is owed to us, we want it and we want it now. After all, we deserve it. And that, for the most part, makes us an impatient, entitled, privileged people.
If you’ve tried to pray this week and ask forgiveness for your sins, and you’ve had difficulty putting a finger on specifically what your sins are, that might be a good place to start, right there.
Do you mind if I stay with this for a moment? Life has its spaces, those times and places when our inner selves tell us we need to slow down the pace. Or, as Walter Hagen once said, we need to stop and smell the roses. But, as we accumulate more stuff, we fill in those spaces, to the point that all our stuff begins to take all our time. It’s like having a closet, and the more stuff we accumulate the more we throw into the closet... until there comes that point in time when there’s just no more room. We think our lives are fulfilled, when in reality they’re not fulfilled as much as they’re simply filled.
An example: how many electronic devices do you have that require charging? You’ve got your cell phone, some have iPads. Do you have a digital camera? Count that. Rechargeable batteries? Yes, those too. I have two computers, one in my office and one at home. Both use a wireless mouse, which means they operate off batteries that I have to recharge on a regular basis. In fact, I had to do so during the final preparations of this sermon. There are times when I’m so busy it becomes a downright inconvenience to have to charge one of those things. I’ve got to go, wherever it is I’m going, and I want to take my electronic device, or devices, with me. I discover that I’ve only got about 16% battery left. What am I going to do?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that you should get rid of all these things. I’ve got them too, and frankly, I’m not sure what I would do without them, I’ve gotten so dependent on them. But it does, I think, prove my point. We’ve developed lifestyles that are always on the go, and any semblance of patience on our part has gone out the window. Ever since the advent of the microwave oven, it seems, we’ve come to expect things to happen instantly.
Another example... Used to be, you’d take a picture with your camera hoping you got the exposure correct and didn’t shake too much when you pushed the button. When the roll was fully exposed, you’d take it to the developer. Only when you had the finished prints in your hands did you know whether your effort had been successful. Now, once you take the picture, you can look immediately at the LCD screen on the back of your camera and see the picture you’ve just made. If it doesn’t suit, you can, with the push of a button, send it to the trash bin, as it’s called, and take another picture until you get it the way you want it.
That’s how our lives are now, aren’t they? Instant this, instant that, and above all, instant gratification. We don’t feel like we have to be patient about anything because everything comes to us at once.
I thought of all this when I read Paul’s words once again. Paul is showing some impatience of his own, it seems, a lack of comfort that comes with living in his own skin. He says the “whole creation” feels as he does, as if the world he inhabits, like a woman about to give birth, is in “labor pains.”
Why would he use such imagery?
Paul recognizes that he, and the people to whom he is writing this epistle we call Romans, are the first generation of believers in Christ, or, as he puts it, “the first fruits of the Spirit.” He says that he, and others like him, “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” He’s talking about this life and then the life to come. Now, he is like a woman in labor. This life is providing him the kind of pain that comes from knowing there is something far greater awaiting him when he goes through that portal of what we call death. One day he will find the redemption of his body, but now he is impatiently living through the pain of knowing only this present world.
And then he mentions the word hope. It’s almost as if the labor pains this world experiences is the womb or incubator for hope.
Unless you’ve really been out of touch and haven’t noted the news this week, you are aware that the residents of Joplin, Missouri commemorated the first anniversary of the devastating tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed most of the town. Wednesday’s newspaper included a story and picture of some of the residents breaking ground for a new school. One woman is talking to the man next to her and laughing. I thought to myself that a year ago she wasn’t in such high spirits. Like all her fellow Joplin inhabitants, she was mourning their collective loss.
What a difference a year makes!? Yes, indeed. But it takes more than time to heal such wounds. It takes patience and it takes hope.
It may be something of the way the disciples felt as they waited for Pentecost. Jesus has told them to stay in Jerusalem. Soon, he says, things will begin to explode in their very midst. If they will wait patiently, the day will come when the church is given birth, they will receive their marching orders, and the kingdom will start to be revealed in the world.
Well, we know what happened... fire and wind and all manner of unexplainable occurrences. And once the dust settled, the Jesus followers literally ran to all four corners of the globe telling what their Lord and Master had done for them.
Every time I think of this, I am reminded of April 3, 1974. If you’ve heard me tell this story before, please don’t interrupt me; I want to hear it again. It’s another tornado story, if you don’t mind. This time it ripped through Louisville, Kentucky on a Wednesday afternoon during rush hour. I saw the yellow skies and heard the “train” coming through the trees as I took our daughter Emily, who was just over ten months old, to safety in our neighbors’ basement. The funnel cloud came within a block or two of our apartment, headed toward the seminary campus, jumped over the childcare center, went down the hill to Grinstead Avenue, turned right and obliterated every home on the north side of the street as it moved east.
I wasn’t there to witness it myself, but this is what I was told... There was an eerie silence once the tornado had come through and done its devastating work. Then, the students who were on campus, began emerging from the buildings, and ran like ants down the hill toward the homes to check on the residents. Ever since, that has been an image for me of what happened to the early believers in Jesus.
The wind and fire of the Spirit came through, and no sooner had things settled down than they began fanning out into their world telling anyone who would listen what had happened, what they had seen and heard and experienced. The church had been given birth and it was time for an announcement!
Things have changed, though, haven’t they? Since then, we’ve become an impatient people who want things now and aren’t willing to wait to see how the Spirit of God, who can be eternally patient, is going to work things out.
John Killinger, who I would hardly characterize as an alarmist or nay-sayer, puts it pretty bluntly. “It is not a God-pointed culture,” he says. “It is a confused, agnostic culture. It is a scientific, technological culture. Look at our skylines today. For centuries after the advent of Christendom, the church was the dominant feature of any skyline. Cathedrals soared above all the other buildings, pointing people to the heavens.”1
John has always been a traveler, and loves to visit Europe especially. He tells of how, when he and his family spent a year in Paris, where he pastored the American Church, they would go on picnics to Chartres, one of the great cathedral towns of France. They would pull off the road a few miles before they arrived, where they could see the spires of the towering church in the distance. They would eat their meal there, imagining what it was like to be pilgrims in the Middle Ages.
“In that kind of world,” John says, “it was not hard to believe. Everyone believed and worshiped. But things have changed. Today it is the banks and insurance buildings that dominate the skylines. The very architecture of cities bespeaks the secularization of our culture. God is no longer the supreme value in the life of the culture. God is an option, not a requirement. Now everyone believes in money and insurance, but not everyone believes in God.”2
It’s easy to give up in despair. I’ve been tempted to do the same myself, especially when we come to worship and are confronted by empty pews. But, I’ve come to the conclusion, at least for now, that if God can be patient, maybe I can too.
One of my all-time favorite stories originated in an article years ago in the Atlantic Monthly about a little burro that was employed on a western cattle ranch to gentle the wild steers. This is the way it would work... a steer, bucking and convulsing like a raging sailor, was haltered to the little burro, and the two, tied together, were turned loose onto the desert range. They would be seen disappearing over the horizon, the large steer tossing the poor burro about like a streamer in the wind, not unlike those utilized by our children this morning at the beginning of worship. They would sometimes be gone for days.
Eventually, the two animals would return, and when they did the little burro would inevitably be in the lead, trotting along for home with the steer submissively following in tow. Somewhere, out on that vast range, the steer would become exhausted from its strenuous attempts to rid itself of the burro. It was, at that point, that the burro would become master and leader and would guide the way home.
“Thus it is with the kingdom and its heroes in the long plan of God. The battle is to the determined, not the outraged, the committed, not the dramatic.”3
I’m not suggesting that on this day of Pentecost we conjure up a lot of wind and fire and demonstrations of bizarre and miraculous things. I’m too much of a realist to think that’s going to happen. And besides, if and when such things do occur, they come from God and not from us. What I do want to plant in your heart, however, especially when you, like the Apostle Paul, feel as if you are in labor pains due to your impatience that things aren’t working out the way you would like, is that following Jesus calls for a lot of patience. Being committed to Christ through this church requires a lot of patience. Looking at the world in which we live and wishing it were somehow different – and better – and not giving up, calls for a lot of patience.
So as we celebrate the birth of the church, let’s pray for a re-birth right here, in this place and in our hearts. And then, let’s patiently go out into the world in which we live, the world that groans while waiting for the Spirit of God to come, and be the presence of Christ.
Holy Spirit, come... come into our hearts, show us the way to follow Jesus and be true children of our heavenly Father. Come, Spirit, come, claim us and make us your own as we wait patiently for your guidance in our hearts. Amen.
1John Killinger, “What You Are Missing When You Don’t Pray” (unpublished sermon, John 8, 19881).
3John Killinger, Christ in the Seasons of Ministry (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1984), p. 30.