Interpreting the Present Time
(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(Luke 12:49-56 – 14 August 2010)
Long before charts and graph, computer data and scientific instruments, weather forecasts were made on the basis of personal observation and passed on through little sayings. For example, take the saying “When the dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass. When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night.” This is based on the fact that if the grass is dry in the morning then it is often due to a strong wind which has evaporated the dew and a strong wind is a well known harbinger of poor weather.
Here is another saying which you may have heard “If a cat washes her face o’er her ear, ‘tis a sign the weather will be fine and clear.” This is based on the fact that cat fur can build up static electric charges when it gets very dry. Thus, during times of low humidity and fair weather, a cat may lick its fur in order to moisten it, since moist fur will shed electric charges and prevent static discharges, which annoy the cat.
Of course, the best known little saying is the one red sky in the night, sailor’s delight, red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. This saying is based on the moisture content or lack of it in the air.
In our gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus quotes two well known weather signs of his day – a large cloud rising in the west which indicates the coming of rain and a south wind which indicates fair weather as such a wind would bring up warm air from the Sinai desert. And he calls his listeners “hypocrites” for being able to use such sayings to predict the weather but for being blind, deaf and dumb when it came to interpreting and predicting the events of history.
This passage from the gospel of Luke echoes a similar one in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus uses that well known saying “red sky at night sailor’s delight, red sky in the morning, sailor’s take warning” to drive home the same point.
These two passages have intrigued and bothered me at the same time.
They have intrigued me because Jesus seemed to think that interpreting the signs of the times, the signs of history was and is a fairly easy activity and they have bothered me because I personally do not find it easy to predict or better put to interpret the events of the present day and consequently, feel myself to be a poor Christian and an even poorer pastor as a result.
Of course, I realize that Jesus was speaking in fairly broad terms. He wasn’t calling for detailed predictions about specific events but rather speaking out of the historic prophetic tradition of the Bible.
The biblical prophets were not fortune tellers; sitting beside their little crystal balls instead they were social commentators who, by looking at the events of their day, extrapolated from the present to speak about the future.
With this proviso let me dare to say a few things about the present times in which we live. And out of the myriad of observations and statements which could be made I will confine myself to three.
Consider, in first instance, that we live in a society which as a whole has abandoned and devalued religious faith and practice. Writing about the English society of his day, whose patterns on church attendance or, better put, lack of attendance we Canadians are mirroring, the poet T. S. Eliot wrote these words, “forgetful you neglect your shrines and churches; the men you are in these times deride what has been done of good.”
It’s not that we have become less spiritual than those who before us. Instead, we have privatized spirituality and divorced it from the institutions of religious faith.
This is not always a bad thing. Church institutions like any institutions can become corrupt. They can lose their way and give lie to the truth which they profess.
But, having written a book on this subject I think I can say with some authority that what passes for spirituality in most people is undisciplined and lazy. Rather than challenging it conforms, rather than demanding effort it substitutes complacency.
In contrast, the great religious traditions demand hard work and great discipline. Contrast, for instance, the “you’re ok, I’m okay” message of most modern spiritual movements, with Jesus’ call to take up his cross and follow him or with his words, “the one who seeks to save his life will lose it, while the one who loses his life for me and for the sake of the gospel will gain it.
Even attending worship for one hour a week is too much effort for most people much less taking time to pray, reflect, study the Bible. They may claim to be spiritual but it is a spirituality which takes no effort and which often simply confirms people in their prejudices and selfishness.
Moreover, modern spirituality is highly individualistic. It does not involve the work of building community. Instead, like the “me” generation which created and gave birth to many of these new spiritual movements, it focuses on “me”, on how I feel, on what I want. And as a consequence many of the groups in society which serve to help others are dying for lack of support and membership.
We have a tradition in Nova Scotia of honouring volunteers who give of their time to make their communities stronger. The event is held annually at the Westin Hotel in Halifax. When I served as MLA I would always attend this event and I was fascinated that every year the majority of individuals who were honoured for serving their community in various organizations were also people who regularly attended church. Their faith, grounded on the historic faith of the Christian church propelled and compelled them to give of their time and money to help others.
Consider, in second instance, that we are living during a time when economic inequalities rather than shrinking are growing. To be sure there are some good changes. The other day a news report indicated that finally some countries in Africa are starting to grow and become prosperous and this prompted one commentator to claim that we can no longer talk about first and third world countries.
And to some degree, this is true. Countries like Brazil, India and China are becoming quite wealthy but truth is that the wealth is not evenly distributed. Instead, even in traditionally developed nations it is concentrated in the hands of a fewer and fewer people.
The CEO of the Hewlett Packard Corporation recently was let go for engaging in some form of sexual harassment and in the fine print at the end of the story it stated that he was given a severance pay as part of his dismissal.
Do you know what it amounted to? It amounted to twenty-five million dollars! This was what this one individual was deemed to be worth; not for working but for agreeing to stop working!
So while the first and third world differences may be eroding between nations they are growing within nations. In the United States, for instance, there are a few with untold riches while many live in substandard conditions. Sailing up the coast of the United States we saw mansion after mansion, each worth millions of dollars and most of them used by their owners for one a few week s during the year as their cottage.
There may not be a first and third world between nations but there is certainly one within nations.
And then consider, in third instance, that we are living in an unsustainable society. Because of our overdependence on fossil fuels we are using up the resources of this planet in a way which deprives our children of enjoying a good lifestyle.
The other day at an announcement of the Nature Trust Society of Nova Scotia, I was talking to a relative of Robin Marshall. Robin as some of you may be aware was for many years the head of the Kings Economic Community Development organization.
Together we got to talking about the unsustainability of our current lifestyles and she shared with me that Robin was so convinced we were headed for economic collapse that he was converting all his savings from stocks and other forms of investment to cash.
As one who is getting older and having to depend on those investments, I pricked up my ears when she told me that not only did Robin believe this to be true but that many of the worlds political and especially religious leaders also did. She mentioned a website whose address where I could find their analysis but unfortunately by the time I got home I could not remember where to find it on the Internet. But it really wasn’t necessary since during my time as Environment Minister I became all too aware of the unsustainability of our modern way of life and was exposed to the writings of such scholars as Thomas Homer-Dixon who compares our present situation with that of the Roman Empire shortly before its collapse with the added proviso that we have fashioned a society which is so interconnected that disruptions effect everyone at a speed which was unheard of in the past. In other words, according to Homer-Dixon and others, when collapse comes there will be no escape and it will happen quickly, in the blink of an eye.
Three observations and they all lead to the same conclusion that as individuals and as a society we are in trouble. We are heading the in the wrong direction. To use biblical terminology, we must repent.
And I am not sharing this to depress you or to discourage you. There are enough things and people in this world trying to do that for you to have to suffer the same when you come to church.
Two weeks ago I had the honour of speaking for a few minutes at the funeral service of Marguerite Mitton. Marguerite was an inspiration to my late wife Cathy and so I spoke on her behalf but I did add a few words of mine own in appreciation for Marguerite’s husband, Harold Mitton who was principal of the Acadia Divinity College when I studied there and also served as my homiletics professor. I will always remember Dr. Mitton sharing with us that in his experience most people found life grindingly hard and therefore we should preach good news, preach a message of hope.
In a strange but profound way a call to repent which is a common theme among this morning scripture passages is a message of hope. Because when God calls us to repent he is not giving up on us but affirming that He believes in us, believes in our ability to recognize that we are walking on wrong pathways, believes that we can change for the better both individually and as a community.
When you give up on someone, say an alcoholic relative, you no longer call of them to change, you believe they cannot or will not. But God never gives up on us, instead God calls us to repent. To repent so that no longer when people look for justice do they find bloodshed or seek righteousness and instead hear a cry of oppression. To repent so that no longer do we ignore the signs of the times, the evidences all around us that we are heading in the wrong direction. To repent so that as the psalmist put it we may have new life and we may be saved. To repent so that our faith may not be in ourselves in the money we make or the wonderful shiny goods we produce but in God. To repent so that by looking to Jesus we may find an example which we can follow with hope and with great joy.
Paul put it like this, “repent and believe in the good news and you will be saved.” The good news is simply this that God loves us and does not give up on us but gives us Jesus as an example of how we should live and the Holy Spirit so that we may, however fitfully and hesitatingly, have the strength to follow that example, so that we may repent and change for the better. And when we do the problems of life no longer seem insurmountable but we find the courage and the strength to fix them and to build a better life for all to enjoy.
Mother Teresa was once asked what she was doing with half a crown of gold and she replied that she was getting ready to build a hospital. “Not even you Mother Teresa can build a hospital with only a half a crown of gold,” a bystander observed. “Ah yes,” she replied “but with half a crown of gold and with God, I can do anything!”
And so my friends can you as well.