TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Luke 12:56.
I have to confess that my sympathies here are with Jesus’ audience. I have never had much success interpreting the present time. The “signs” of the time have always seemed contradictory to me. While I was growing up in the late 60s and 70s, hard won gains for women and people of color seemed to point to a brighter future even as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union threatened thermonuclear doom. Ultimately, the Soviet threat evaporated while a more conservative Supreme Court began the work of dismantling affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act and protections for reproductive rights-a job the current Supreme Court is poised to complete. Fascism, once thought to have died with Francisco Franco, is on the rise globally and has commandeered one of our nation’s two major parties. Russia has re-emerged under Vladimir Putin as an empire hungry to expand. The future of democracy and human rights is at stake. Nevertheless, if the direst predictions of climate scientists are accurate and the paralysis of world leaders in addressing them persists or the superpower proxy wars turn nuclear, none of that will matter.
Yet as I write these lines, the United States Congress is poised to approve a bill addressing climate change in a significant way. Voters in the state of Kansas overwhelmingly defeated an attempt to role back women’s reproductive rights and the House Committee Investigating the insurrection of January 6, 2020 is slowly but surely chipping away at the pervasiveness of the “big lie” of the stolen election. In spite of efforts by reactionary forces to turn back the clock, time marches on. The sight of interracial couples walking down the street holding hands, a sight never seen in my childhood, is so common today as not to merit a second glance. Same sex couples, who throughout most of my life have had to live in the shadows, now live openly as families and are increasingly gaining acceptance. As dark as the future sometimes seems, today is in many respects a better day than the one on which I was born. That is not to say that tomorrow will be brighter still. Many once great civilizations have fallen into ruin, leaving in their wake ages of barbarism and violence. The jury is out on the future of our current global order. So, on balance, I cannot say where the signs of the times are pointing.
Or perhaps my way of reading the signs of the time is all wrong. Maybe Jesus is not directing our speculative gaze into the future at all. After all, Jesus has warned us more than once against trying to cobble together from scriptural passages and current events God’s timeline for bringing the world to its end and ushering in the reign of God-as though there were such a timeline. Jesus himself denied having such knowledge. That alone should cast more than doubt about anyone who claims to have “cracked the biblical end times code.”
These warnings should also caution us against becoming too shrill and bombastic in our declarations about what God wills or where God is taking us or what constitutes progress toward God’s coming reign. Can we be so sure that “saving American democracy” is God’s priority? What if God means to dissolve the whole world order, the United States included, to make way for something new? Can we be so certain that our frantic efforts to turn around the steady decline in church membership and support is consistent with God’s intent for God’s church? Could it be that God, not secularization or any of the other culprits we blame, is responsible for the modern church’s decreasing numbers, loss of prestige and influence? Could it be that God is looking for a small, poor and marginalized church that has only the Word to sustain it-which is, of course, all that it ever really had to begin with. Perhaps the signs of the times are meant make us aware of how little we understand our own time, how incomplete is our comprehension of what God is doing and how careful and humble we ought to be in speaking those fearful words, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Still, Jesus does assure us that God is at work in the messiness of human life bringing into existence something new. Jesus tells us that what often seem like death throes are in fact birth pangs. Before its birth as a people, Israel was incubated four hundred years in slavery. Before its return to and rebirth in the promised land, the people of Israel languished for seventy years in exile. Jesus lay for three days in the darkness of a sealed tomb-which might better be characterized a womb. As it turns out, God does God’s best work in the dark. That is good news for people like me who are in the dark about most things most of the time!
In the final analysis, the cross and the resurrection are key to interpreting the present time. Birth does not happen without pain, rending of flesh and bloodshed. The new creation implies the death of the old. The new heaven and earth is pushing its way into the old, but the old is not going down without a fight. To welcome the new creation, one must be willing to relinquish one’s hold on the old. Even the intimate ties of family must give way to the embrace of God’s reign. The temptation to do just the opposite is more powerful for those of us who have known mainly the comforts, privilege and influence this world affords. We who cling desperately to what we deem ours by right and imagine God’s future reign as nothing more than an eternal continuation of our past benefits are bound to be sorely disappointed. The signs of the times should serve as a warning to us that our attachment to wealth, power, blood, soil, nation or whatever else we deem eternal is bound for dissolution. Hell might be nothing more or less than one’s realization that one’s life has been wasted on a whole lot of what doesn’t matter.
Perhaps that is what the “signs” are intended to remind us. The events of our day, random, threatening and chaotic as they might be, are nevertheless given meaning by the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the biblical narrative bearing witness to it. In Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection we are invited to see in our lives and experiences signs of God birthing a new thing in the midst of an old and tired world. We may not know all that God is up to, but we know that God is at work for our redemption in the midst of our messy existence. We have no idea exactly what that will look like, how it will emerge or when it will reach completion. Yet, whatever it turns out to be, it is sure to be more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. That isn’t all we might like to know. But it is enough.
The following poem by Alli Warren invites us to interpret the present time. Though she suggests that events, great or small, are bearers of meaning and significance, she leaves much for us readers to supply. Her poem functions in many respects the way Jesus’ parables function, seeking not to answer our questions, but rather to solicit from us better questions.
Something is Coming Toward us
Flaunting in the atrium, ostentatious at the gates
I saw a shooting star thru a window on Alcatraz Ave
& cladding struck up against those who demand
We stomach the stick and tend the commode
They’re selling trees in the paint store! trees in the paint store
Datebook chips in the soft skin of our wrists
On NBC, CNN, and NPR broken windows are weeping
We’ll have 35 apples and shrieking in the thickets
Aloft in the air golden and golden the dial among the mounds
So much is stunted in understanding of what a light can be
They storm the scrimmage line and clear-cut bran and germ
We want the petal unto itself, the unalterable vessel
The arc end of the precipice grows 1.9% annually
What was popular music like before the crisis?
Source: I Love It Though, (c. 2017 by Alli Warren; pub. by Nightboat Books). Alli Warren is an Ameican poet and author. She was born in Los Angeles and now lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Her writing has been published in many venues, including Harpers, Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail and Feminist Formations. You can find out more about Alli Warren and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
2 thoughts on “Interpreting the Times”
Well that was good food for thought for this coming Sunday. I confess, though, I’m still wrestling with Jesus saying he wants to set fire to the earth. I know what he’s saying—but living in a state where wildfires are a constant danger, that bell rings a little more ominously.
Thanks for your comment, Steve-and yes, I can see how you might want to duck that metaphor in your sermon!