Sermon #44 (29th November 2020 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
This Sunday is the first in Advent and so today we’re pondering a classic Advent theme – waiting. I’ve called today’s service ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ – it’s a question you can take several ways – but one way I definitely don’t mean it is the way we’d usually say it, in the rhetorical sense, to try and gee someone up or hurry them along: ‘get on with it, what are you waiting for?!’ Today’s service, by contrast, is much more about the virtues of slowing down & embracing the wait.
Let me begin with some words by Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Shelley Page, who writes:
‘We actually do quite a bit of waiting over the course of our lives. There’s the everyday waiting in the supermarket check-out line. Then there’s what I call the serious waiting: waiting for medical test results, or for a new job after months of unemployment; waiting for a precious child to be born or adopted; waiting to see if we’re accepted for college or a training program or promotion; waiting for health to return after illness or injury; waiting, waiting, waiting. These times of waiting can be rich times of anticipation or tense times of apprehension. We sometimes rail against the interminable wait, filled with anxiety, tension and impatience. Understandably so. Waiting can feel stressful or painful as we hope for the best but anticipate the worst. But I ask you to consider the possibility that waiting itself is a spiritual practice, a pregnant moment or series of moments in your life full of potential for growth and insight.’
What are you waiting for? I imagine, for each of us, there are many different sorts of waiting going on in our lives right now. Waiting for a phone call or an email from a loved one, maybe? As in Shelley Page’s list, waiting to hear about the results of a test or a scan or a job application? With varying degrees of seriousness these all come under the heading of ‘everyday waiting’. If we’re thinking about waiting as a spiritual practice, as Shelley Page suggests, then this sort of thing – right down to the micro-level of waiting for a watched pot to boil, or traffic lights to change – is a good place to start to strengthen our spiritual muscles and consciously practice patience. Especially as they’re often situations where we can’t do anything much to hurry things along. There’s a simple quote I like on this from the Zen teacher, Taigen Dan Leighton, who writes:
‘Learning patience is a matter of finding peace and balance with the unresolved or unsatisfactory when there is nothing that can be done except to wait it out.’
There’s another quote that I find helpful which underlines the importance of patience in small things as a way of building up our endurance for when we need it in more challenging scenarios. These words are from the writer Mike Riddell, who says:
‘Patience is something that is chosen; it is an active and intentional waiting which grows from an attitude of trust towards the essential goodness of life. And it is a craft which must be learned through practice. It seems to me that every time I learn to extend my patience a little further, some new event will come along which stretches me just that bit more than I am prepared to go. I suspect that is the only way to develop patience — similar to athletes who incrementally increase their performances.’
As well as these commonplace forms of waiting, I can’t avoid mentioning the one big source of waiting that is particular to this moment in time and which affects us all: the global pandemic. In this year when Covid-19 has brought so many aspects of our everyday lives to a halt, I guess most of us are waiting and hoping for the return of some sort of ‘normality’. There’s lots wrapped up in that, of course – some are waiting for restrictions to be lifted, and chomping at the bit to be allowed to resume their activities ASAP – while others are waiting for a vaccine and won’t be back in circulation until they feel safe enough, regardless of what’s allowed. Whichever way you look at it, this year has been – for many of us – a real test of endurance. Perhaps something more than everyday patience is required in situations like this one.
Think of it like this, perhaps: Another way of understanding ‘what are you waiting for?’ is in the sense of ‘what are you doing it for?’ – or ‘why are you waiting?’ – what’s the purpose of it? There’s a famous phrase that kept coming to mind while I was thinking about this matter – except I could only half-remember it – ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’, that’s the actual quote, attributed to the famously gloomy-but-influential Friedrich Nietzsche. I mis-remembered it as more like ‘one who has a why to wait can bear almost any waiting’. But I think the made-up version is probably true too! And you can see it all around us at the moment as people are making tremendous sacrifices for the sake of a greater good; the why of protecting the most vulnerable provides a vision which enables us to wait, even when waiting – for social contact, for freedom to travel, for ‘normality’ – is tremendously hard. There was a meme – the sort of memorable image that circulates on social media – a meme that went round online back in the spring and it consisted of a very simple calligraphy haiku, which went: “We isolate now / So when we gather again / No one is missing.” Quite powerful. Perhaps remembering such beautiful, simple, statements of purpose can help to make our waiting meaningful, and strengthen our sense of endurance, during these difficult times.
There’s an even grander sort of waiting I could mention too – waiting for a better world to come – or at least for some of the building blocks of a more loving and just world to come into being, to become reality. I guess each of us has our own pet causes we particularly care about, changes we’d dearly like to see. This too is a kind of longing look to the far horizon for a sense of light and hope – very Advent-y imagery, of course – as we look towards Christmas, anticipating the birth of Jesus, those metaphors of ‘the light of the world’, and the return of the light with the turning year. And it ties in with images we often speak of here – the Beloved Community – the Kingdom of God – this ideal hope of how things might be, one day – the way of being in the world we sometimes taste glimpses of, when people are truly loving and just in their ways of relating to each other. Holding this image of the future we are waiting for – longing for – may help galvanise us to take some of small steps now which nudge the Universe in the direction of greater Love and Justice. To pick up on the metaphor from our reading: to plant the seeds which may one day bear fruit.
So I’ll ask again: What are you waiting for? Tuning in to your longings like this can be instructive. I put a short quote from M.J. Ryan in the email that went out on the mailing list. She wrote: ‘Being made to wait helps us figure out what we truly want and what really matters to us… Remembering that some things are worth waiting for helps us decide what it is that is worth the wait, and to prize it truly when we do receive it.’
There are different flavours of waiting too: sometimes we’re eagerly anticipating something we want, an outcome we desire; other times we feel a real aversion to an outcome we dread. As one who spends a lot of time online: there are days when I’m constantly hitting refresh and wishing that a hoped-for email will arrive and other days when I’m a bit scared to look at my inbox. But it’s not just anticipation or aversion; a lot of the time there’s a more neutral form which we might think of as ‘curious waiting’ – a ‘wait and see’ approach – wondering how it’ll turn out.
As well as that distinction between desire, dread, and a more neutral kind of waiting, it can feel different depending on the likelihood of the thing we’re waiting for to come about. The thing we’re waiting for might be highly uncertain or it might be close to a dead cert. You might have heard of the phrase ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ which refers to the horrible situation where your braced for an almost-inevitable bad thing coming. Or the thing we’re waiting for might be an outside possibility which, nonetheless, grips our imagination. Another distinction we might make is between passive and active waiting. Sometimes a situation is – or seems to be – out of our hands, determined by forces that are largely beyond our control, and in such situations it would seem that all we can do is passively await our fate. But, perhaps more often than we think, there is a possibility for active waiting, where we can make at least some small effort to tip the balance and bring about the future we want to see.
As I close I’d like to share some wisdom from Henri Nouwen, who wrote: ‘The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer.” Waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, tasting it to the full, and letting the seeds that are sown in the ground on which we stand grow into strong plants. Waiting patiently always means paying attention to what is happening right before our eyes and seeing there the first rays of God’s glorious coming.’
So in this season of Advent – and the longer season of waiting we may still find ourselves in – may we choose such a path of active waiting, and orient ourselves towards Hope – planting little seeds, wherever we can, to help grow the future world of Love and Justice we want to see. Amen.
Sermon by Jane Blackall
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