Signs of the Times
The Monroe Congregational Church, UCC
Rev. Jennifer Gingras
August 18, 2013
I wonder how ancient people forecasted the weather. When I was young, my father would remind me that to see a herd of cows lying down together meant rain was on its way, even if there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
If you fished for a living, as several of the disciples did, your life depended on learning to interpret the signs of the weather and stay out of the way if they foretold danger. A cloud in a particular location meant something specific. Wind blowing from a certain direction brought with it a predictable weather pattern. Imagine how astounded they would be at the kind of weather forecasting we can do with Doppler radar today!
There are other kinds of interpreting we do just as well, sometimes without even having to think very hard about it. If you’re in the mall and you see them putting up Christmas decorations, well, you know it’s almost time for Halloween… it’s a simple matter of interpretation.
If you are a pediatrician, or a veterinarian, you learn to interpret the signs of illness in patients who can’t verbalize what they’re feeling. We interpret all kinds of things – every day.
When it comes to matters of faith, we might feel a little less confident in our interpretation skills. Applying what we believe in our hearts and souls with what we believe in our minds can become pretty intense. But perhaps a certain amount of discomfort is not a bad thing, after all.
There are many examples of folks who thought they were correctly interpreting the present time and who turned out to be way wrong.
A19th-century group called the Millerites believed their leader had figured the exact day and hour when Christ would return and call them home; so they quit their jobs, sold all their possessions, left behind family members who didn’t see things their way, gathered on a hillside on “The Date”, and waited, and waited...
If interpreting the present time is going to look like that, we would just as soon run screaming in the opposite direction. So most of the time, we don’t say anything at all, even if we’d like to. We keep our faith over here in one box, and the world around us in a completely separate box.
We’re afraid to bring them together, because as they bump up against one another, questions might start shooting out that don’t have an easy answer. It’s easier to keep them separate than to deal with the ambiguity.
Nevertheless, today Jesus confronts us with the uncomfortable question: “why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Why will you not look at the world around you through the lenses of faith?”
Jesus is not requiring that we have the answers figured out before we speak . . . but rather, reminds us that it is our responsibility to raise the questions. We may not be able to persuade anyone around us that faith should be an important factor in the decisions we make and the life we live…but we need to be clear with ourselves that it is important.
Let me give you an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. Already, the press is forecasting who will run for the 2016 Presidential campaign. If this next election is anything like the previous 56, we will all be reminded that we have legitimate differences amongst ourselves over whose economic ideas and policies represent the greatest good for the greatest number, and whose notions of foreign policy will both help keep us safe and make us a better citizen of the world.
Those are important questions, and we need to keep asking them. But there are other important questions, big-picture, structural inquiries that we never seem to raise, questions like:
How many people could we feed, clothe, and shelter – in this country and around the world – with the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend trying to influence how people vote? To say nothing of the fortune spent trying to influence elected officials to vote in favor of special interests rather than representing their own constituents or their own conscience.
Are we moving toward a political system where it’s less a matter of "one person, one vote" than "one dollar, one vote"? These are not simply questions of politics; they are also questions of faith. And don’t even try finding the answer in the Bible, which knows nothing of democracy!
So how do we interpret the present time?
Another issue is private property, land use and the rights of landowners. We hear phrases like "our sacred right to property ownership" or, mention of a landowner’s "God-given rights." Well, I’ve read what the Bible has to say about property rights, and it’s some pretty shocking stuff!
The New Testament ideal seems to be that believers, anyway, hold all things in common and no one owns their own stuff. And when the Old Testament discusses land ownership, it does so in the context of the year of Jubilee, held every 50th year, in which all debts are forgiven, and all land reverts back to its original owner or his descendants. In addition, every seventh year, land owners were to provide a Sabbath for the land, to let it rest, to lie fallow. The Bible envisions a relationship of responsibility between people and the earth, and among the people who use what the earth gives.
How do we balance the rights of individuals with the needs of the community, and the earth itself? These aren’t just economic or ecological questions, they are faith questions.
How do we interpret the present time?
What do we have to say about a world that has become increasingly violent?
A world where fear seems to dictate how we respond to other human beings? Where we have become more interested in revenge and punishment and filling our for-profit industrial prisons than in repentance and restoration? What does our faith have to say about fear, and about what happens when we allow fear to rule us?
How do we interpret the present time?
Jesus was right, wasn’t he? If we raise questions like these we are likely to create division! Division…not only within families, but within the household of faith… and that makes us (makes me!) profoundly uncomfortable. For many of us, church is where we come to be strengthened and comforted. And there is certainly value in that.
But sometimes, church also has to be the place where we come and get a swift kick in the pants, or it isn’t church. Sometimes when Jesus speaks, he doesn’t leave us with peace; he leaves us all stirred up. We tend to see that as a curse, but perhaps we should see it as a gift.
What signs of our present time are waiting for us to interpret in the light of faith? What clouds on the horizon do we need to attend to? What winds are blowing our way, and where will they take us?
The present time that we live in is confused and broken, and desperately needs people with wisdom and courage to interpret what is happening all around us. To ask the right questions, even when we aren’t yet sure of the answers. And guess what my friends? It’s up to us. May God grant us the strength and wisdom whatever we need, for the work Jesus calls us to do. Amen.