Patience is a Virtue…(which I sadly lack)
sermon on Luke 13:1-9 by Jan Coates, 7th March 2010


Today’s world provides instant gratification, but does it provide what we really need – the time to appreciate what we have and realise what we may lose?


This is only the second year in my life that I have paid any attention to the season of Lent. In previous years, if I was actually attending a church, it was just another season like the one before and the one after – no real differentiation. We were probably told it was Lent, and we were supposed to ‘give something up’ but I usually didn’t bother. One year, I did give something up – I gave up going to church. Last year, I was too apprehensive about becoming a member here to really take in what the reality of the Lenten season is all about. This year, the reality has hit home, and in a lot of ways hit home pretty hard. The parable about the fruit tree that Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel has certainly contributed to the punch.

Patience is a virtue – which you sadly lack’ was, and probably still is, one of the things my mother often said to me. I particularly hate wasting time waiting for someone or something. So I sympathise with the owner of this property. If something isn’t living up to expectations, then it should go. The space should be given over to something worthwhile. In a time and place where the farming is basically subsistence farming, there is no place for something that isn’t producing a viable crop. Enough time has been wasted. Three years is long enough for the tree to produce fruit, it hasn’t, so axe it. No more time can be spent waiting for the tree to come good. Move on, get the next thing and hope that will provide the satisfaction desired.

Today’s world is so hurried that I suspect patience is a very scarce commodity. It seems like everyone wants instant gratification. Gone are the days of scrimping and saving for that special ‘something’: a treat, a holiday, a new piece of furniture, a new car or even a new house. We buy everything on credit – have now, pay later. Only a few weeks ago I was discussing with friends the merits and dangers of the ‘Interest Free’ schemes that are being spruiked by almost every retail store imaginable. It’s great, though; to have what you want the minute you decide you want it, isn’t it? And if it proves not to give the satisfaction you desire, we are also the ‘throw away’ society. Simply discard it, and move on to the next thing you want.

The gardener in the parable pleads for the life of the tree. ‘Let’s not give up yet, let’s try something else, give it a bit of TLC and see what happens.’ he says to the owner. ‘If it doesn’t come good, we’ll get rid of it, but let’s give it another chance’. We don’t know the outcome – that is where the story ends. I even checked that we hadn’t been cut short by the lectionary, that there wasn’t a bit more of the story in the next verses. There isn’t. This is all we get. The question, like so many, goes unanswered. Does the tree survive? We’ll never know.

This parable raises two questions for me: Should something be destroyed just because we’ve lost patience with it, or should we give it one more chance, even when it means that we need to put some effort into doing something to promote the chances of it succeeding? Should we make decisions in the heat of our impatience, based on what may be ill-considered judgments, letting our emotions run riot when cool logic is required?

Despite my impatience, even I know there is a glimmer of truth in that statement ‘the best things in life are worth waiting for’. Some of the best things I’ve ever had have been things I have had to wait to get – although the waiting was never done patiently. I’m very prone to destroying things through my impatience, though. I push too hard – and whatever I’m pushing breaks. In my impatience, I lose sight of the overall picture – I forget to ‘reframe’ – and focus on one small part to the detriment of the rest. Often when I realise that I have left so much out, I simply don’t have the energy to finish the job, not properly anyway. Sometimes, in a fit of temper brought on by my impatience, I deliberately destroy something that I later regret losing. Of course, by then it is too late.

It could well be said that right now, the tree in the parable represents the South Yarra Community Baptist Church. At this point in time, we aren’t exactly being fruitful. We are in need of TLC of the best kind. Theories may well abound about what to do, but is anyone actually doing anything, even just putting their theories out in the open for discussion? The hosts are trying – and everyone has been very supportive of their efforts. Will we survive? That depends a lot on how much we want to, and how much effort we are prepared to put in to ensure that survival. How much time do we have? We need patience to ensure everyone is ready, but we also need to be aware that the longer it takes, the harder it can be to move on.

The wanting to move on needs to be tempered with patience to ensure we don’t go in a direction that destroys instead of saves what we have. We need to look at the whole picture, no matter how painful it may be for some of us, and try to discern the path that God wants us to take. We need to listen to the voice of God, whoever he chooses to speak to us through. We must be open to the concept that the way may well be found in the least likely places, and that we just might not like what we get.

I look for instant answers, and make bad judgements. I don’t always think things through clearly or logically. I jump at the first thing that comes along that I think will solve the problem. I don’t have the patience to sit quietly and wait for God’s word to come to me. But I’m learning. I’m learning that it isn’t just up to me: that we’re all involved: that my actions have consequences beyond my own life. That what I say and do reflects on, and impacts this place and you people. I’m learning that judging others for their input, or lack thereof, is a pointless, energy-wasting task – largely because I don’t always know the whole story, and I’m often wrong. At the same time though, I know I need to have the courage to speak up for what I believe in – just like the gardener. I also need to listen to others, like the owner of the land – to be open to suggestions, and giving other people’s ideas a chance to bear fruit. And, like both the owner and the gardener, I have to be prepared to admit I was wrong, and try something else.

As a church, we can’t afford to take the quick and easy options, no matter how tempting they might be. We need to tread carefully, reigning in the enthusiasm to a degree, and curbing the impatience. We need to create a vision of where we want to be, and decide on the plan of action we need to achieve it. We need to be like the gardener – ready to give something a try, ready to put in some effort, ready to hope in a successful outcome. Perhaps more than anything, though, we need to listen to the ‘owner’ here – the one who has more patience and wisdom than any other being. Is it all about what we want? No, not really. It’s nice to think that God would like us to be here, and that we have something that is worthwhile. The question that is maybe more important than any other, is ‘Are we after a better outcome for ourselves, or for Christ’?

God rarely, if ever, gives the answers to our questions the minute we ask them. Sometimes it’s because we aren’t asking the right questions. Sometimes we don’t understand the answer we are given, so assume there was no answer. Sometimes, there really isn’t an answer. Sometimes we just need to wait until God is ready to give us the answer, and be prepared to accept that it may not have been the kind of answer we expected.

We have choices to make at individual level, and at congregational level. Are we going to let our church fade into the mists of history, or are we going to make a concerted effort to ‘loosen the soil and keep up the fertilizer’ in the hope that we will get a crop next year? To put it bluntly – will you give up hope? Will you consign South Yarra to the axe? Or will you put in all the effort you can – physically, financially and emotionally – to keep our church alive? Each of us can only do so much. Our future is as certain as that of the tree in the parable: we simply don’t know.

Sometimes, I wonder if that isn’t the whole point anyway – that we don’t know and may never know. I wonder if the outcome is that important after all. Personally, I don’t like that idea much in this case, because I don’t want to lose what we have here. I love South Yarra for the liturgy, the people, but more than anything because here I feel God is present with us in our worship, at the table, and goes with us into our everyday life. But there are more important things in life than buildings and words. We can hope that we will survive and flourish; we can work toward that goal. We can pray that God will guide us. In the end, though, it’s not really up to us to do anything, except seek God’s will, and obey it. Maybe we’ll be called to give all this up, and move elsewhere. Maybe we’ll become too big for this building and still have to move. Maybe that’s not even what the question is. Maybe we just need to patient, knowing that no matter what, we are loved and cherished by God, and that should be enough to sustain us.