For about two years now, I have been playing disc golf. It is a game that is played in many ways like your more typical golf… with a tee pad and the aim of getting your ball or disc into the hole in as few strokes as possible.
As I have grown in my ability to play, I have picked up drivers, midrange discs and putters. They each have their own purpose – they fly in different ways, and you use different discs for different sorts of shots.
But I’m still not very good at the game. I bogey and double bogey more than I like to admit. And unlike golf – there is no handicap on the disc golf course… although for a while, we played with something called “Katie-par…” meaning I got an extra stroke on every hole =)
Most of the time, I’m comfortable with my lack of skill. I do the best I can in any given moment.
But there are those days… and I’m sure that any of you who play games or sports has had them… when nothing seems to go right. Every shot is off. I lose sight of the fact that I’m still learning the game and expect perfection from myself. I get frustrated and that frustration only makes me more prone to miss the next shot, which in turn makes me more frustrated and angry. There was actually a hole this last weekend where I hit four trees in a row, on four consecutive shots before I got to the basket. There is nothing worse than when those beautiful trees become obstacles, and I have to admit, sometimes my temper gets the best of me. I want to be good at the game, and I want to be good, NOW!
Patience is not a virtue that comes easily to us. We come with short fuses. We are personally invested in our work and our play and we want to see the results of our efforts. But when things start to fall apart, instead of taking the long view – we begin to lose hope, we begin to get angry, and often we behave in ways that are far from Christian.
This morning, we revisit a familiar biblical story about two brothers… Jacob and Esau. Esau is the older of the two – a rough and tumble sort of guy who thinks with his gut. Jacob on the other hand, is quietly clever… a mamma’s boy who uses his wit to often trick his older brother and gain the upper hand.
Now, as we might remember the stories… Jacob uses these skills to steal his birthright from the older brother and also a deathbed blessing from his father.
Esau is furious at the outcome of these events. Everything has just been taken from him. This isn’t the kind of frustration that comes from missing a few shots on the golf course – this is the kind of existential angst that comes from having your very identity called into question. As we heard in the scriptures from this morning – Esau seethed in anger against Jacob… he brooded, “The time for mourning my father’s death is close. And then I’ll kill my brother Jacob.”
It was the last straw. Esau just couldn’t take it anymore and he snapped. And Jacob had to flee for his life, far off to the land of his uncle, Laban.
Now, most of the time, when we visit these stories, our attention stays with Jacob. We follow him to Paddan Aram where he works for seven years for the hand of his beloved Rachel… and then for seven more years when he is tricked into marrying Leah instead. We follow his story as he spends time increasing the flocks and in turning tricking his uncle Laban and ends up with the best of the flocks and the herds and a huge family of wealth and power.
We could point to Jacob and talk about his patience. About how in spite of being cheated by his uncle, he stuck to his promises and waited for God’s blessings. We could talk about how his persistence and trust led to his success.
But this summer, we are taking a different look at these stories. And so instead, I want us to look back to the land of Canaan and at the son who was left behind.
This fruit of the spirit, patience, is often translated as longsuffering. It is the gift of being able to endure in spite of the circumstances that have come against you. It is a hopeful fortitude that reminds us that there is light at the end of the tunnel… that if we trust and wait, the outcome we are praying for will come to pass.
Barclay’s commentary says that patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.
Patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t.
Now, out on the disc golf course… that would mean that patience is not picking up my disk and chucking it at the nearest tree out of frustration for them being in the way. Patience is seeking an opening, waiting for the anger to pass, breathing deeply, and finding a way forward. Patience is remembering that this inconvenience, this obstacle, will not last forever.
If patience is the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong but doesn’t… then I think the person who actually exemplifies the spirit of patience is not Jacob, but his older brother, Esau.
The first way that Esau is patient is that he doesn’t strike out immediately in anger when his brother cheats him. If we followed their story from the time they were just children, I’m sure that there was more than just these two instances of trickery. And yet, up until this point, up until the moment that Jacob steals away his blessing, Esau has managed to not let it get to him. But this last time we hear about… well, this is the last straw. He has just had everything taken away from him and Esau is pissed off… and yet even in the midst of his anger… we might even say righteous anger… he has enough control to wait.
Many people in today’s world who had something like this done to them would immediately grab the nearest weapon and seek out their brother. But Esau waits. He thinks. He knows that there are some things that are more important at the moment… namely, the fact that his father is dying.
Now, if part of being patient is being slow to anger… I want to say that Esau has this only partially right. He became angry, all right. But he did not allow that anger to consume him in an instant. He thought about others. He allowed his anger to be placed on the back burner.
When we find ourselves in situations of great frustration and anger, I think patience is taking just a moment to breathe and to pray. Patience is asking for God to come into this situation and remind us of the things that are truly important in the moment, and to let that anger move out of the way, if necessary.
The second way that Esau helps us to understand what patience is comes from the way he lives his life after Jacob flees.
He acts not out of spite, but in all things tries to follow his father’s wishes. When he hears that Jacob was sent away with the command not to marry a Canaanite woman, then Esau himself, seeks out a woman that would please his father. He seeks out his half-uncle Ishmael… and marries one of his daughters.
And that is all we hear about his life for the next 14 years.
Not once does Esau plot and plan and come looking for his brother. Not once does he try to live out that statement of anger that his brother would die. No, he moves on with his own life. He carves out the best possible future for himself. In spite of the situation that he finds himself in, he endures. That is longsuffering. That is patience.
Making the most of our given situations is a very hard thing to do. We like to sit and stew and wish that things were different. We breed anger and resentment in our hearts. And we spend too much time looking into the past, instead of living into our new futures.
I have spent many mornings talking with the pastor from the Lutheran church . As many of you know, his wife, has a degenerative condition and as time goes on, her body will continue to fail. But as I have talked with Pastor, he also tells me about the patience and peace that his wife has. She knows that God will heal her… sheknows that God has already healed her… but she is patient and she knows that that her time of healing may not come in this lifetime. But, her diagnosis is not an obstacle to living the best possible life that she can today. She has a hopeful fortitude that keeps her going, day by day.
Finally, Esau teaches us about patience through the forgiveness of his heart. Do you remember back to that definition of patience… as the grace of a person who could revenge a wrong, but doesn’t? That is Esau.
Had Esau been the wrong kind of patient… the kind of patient that waits for the right opportunity and moment to strike back… then his opportunity would have come when Jacob returned to the land of his father.
And Jacob knows it. Jacob trembles with fear at the thought of the anger of his brother. He sends messengers ahead to let Esau know they are coming… it’s almost as if he is saying – I’m here… let’s get this over with.
Jacob divides up his great wealth and sends it over the river in waves as a gift to soothe his brother’s anger. He sends his wives and children over – in essence saying – all that I have is yours if you want it.
Had Esau been the wrong kind of patient… the revengeful kind of patient… he would have destroyed those gifts. Those four hundred men standing with him on the other side of the river would have taken the flocks, killed his wives and children and come rushing over the river to kill the trickster brother.
But Esau was a man of great patience. He put his anger on the backburner of his soul, and allowed God to let forgiveness replace the hatred. When Esau was given the chance to revenge the wrong that was made upon his life, he instead ran to his brother, fell into his arms and wept.
And to all of those gifts – the flocks and the wealth that Jacob sent over… Esau didn’t take them out of righteous indignation. He didn’t say – it’s about time that I got my birthright and my power and wealth back… no – he looked his brother square in the eye and he said, “I have enough, brother… keep what you have for yourself.”
The past was forgiven. All that mattered now was their futures. The future of two brothers who were reunited at long last.
It is difficult to forgive. And it will take time to forgive. But when we fail to do so, we carry around with us a burden that is often too heavy to bear.
Let us instead seek God’s patience. The kind of patience that our Master has for us… the kind of patience that allows us to come back to him time and time and time again – after a million wrongs have been committed and greets us with open arms and tears of joy. Our reading from the second letter of Peter this morning reminds us that God’s patience is our salvation… God’s gracious spirit that chooses not to revenge the wrongs we have committed. God’s gracious spirit that waits until we finally turn back towards her. Amen and Amen.