Here are my thoughts for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost. I am again preaching at Mt. Hope.
We were “dog-sitting” for a family friend this past week. This is an experience that most people would really enjoy. Daisy, like the two dogs that we have owned, is very susceptible to thunderstorms. Daisy gets very nervous and paces back and forth when the thunderstorms start rolling in; this is whole lot better than having Sammie (our late 90-pound Labrador/boxer mix) jump on us in bed when the thunder started.
People have been forecasting the weather for centuries. In most cases, they would do so by looking at the behavior of the animals around them.
If you think about it, six weeks after February 2nd is March 16th. And the season of spring starts on or about March 21st. So, whether or not the groundhog sees its shadow or not, we will still have six weeks or so of winter after February 2nd.
But there are times when what we see in nature does help us forecast the weather. It was noted that, in many cases, when it was about to rain ants moved to higher ground, cows lay down, pine cones opened up, and sheep’s’ wool uncurled. Of course, not all animal behavior does a good job of weather forecasting.
And as time passed many proverbs were created to help forecast the weather. We all have probably heard “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” This statement, which compares to Matthew 16: 1 – 3 (“When evening comes you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy for the sky is red and overcast.’), does have some validity. As the sun is setting in the west, the light passes through more of the atmosphere than it does when the sun is at its zenith.
Various particles, such as dust, smoke, or pollution, will cause the shorter wavelengths of sun light (the violets and blues) to scatter, leaving the longer wavelengths (the reds and oranges) behind. Hence, our sunsets are redder.
High pressure is associated with good weather. When the weather in the west is fair, high pressure is approaching and the dust particles are lower to the earth, causing the light to appear even redder than normal; hence the phrase, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” When the high pressure has passed, then what follows must be low pressure. And low pressure generally means clouds, rain or storms. So if the sky is red in the morning, that is where the high pressure is and that means that we can expect some sort of “bad” weather.
Of course, for some of us, we don’t need the sky to tell us when there is low pressure approaching; our knees and shoulders tell us. A drop in barometric pressure often affects people with arthritis or even corns and bunions. And as I mentioned earlier, animals are affected by the drop in pressure as well. There are countless other signs of nature that tell us what the weather will be, if we only look at the signs. (1)
Some years ago, when I was living in Missouri, I heard that a green sky meant the presence of a tornado. Now I am red-green color-blind; that means that I cannot distinguish certain shades of red and green. And a green sky looks like a gray sky to me, so that saying didn’t mean a whole lot to me. One day someone said that the sky was really green and I said that it still didn’t mean anything. To prove my point, I opened the door and looked out to the east. There framed in the doorway, fortunately moving away from the house, was this rather nasty looking funnel cloud. I learned that day not to ignore the signs of nature that are around us.
The Old Testament reading for today (2) reminds us what happens when we ignore the signs around us. Nathan comes to David with a story, a story of the rich and powerful taking from the weak and helpless. David is quite rightly outraged by the behavior of the rich and powerful man who would steal from the weak and helpless man. David misses the point that his behavior is the basis for the story and he is the one who must be judged for his behavior in the same manner that David judged the man in the story. David missed the point that the signs around him were signs of his own actions.
The same can be said for those who followed Jesus that afternoon in Galilee. (3) They are like the wine steward in the wedding at Cana who wondered where the wine came from or the woman at the well who asked where was the living water that Jesus kept telling her about. These people want to know more about Jesus; they need to know more about him. Their question is not limited to temporal time and place; it is a question about ultimate origins.
But it is also a question that hides ulterior motives. And Jesus’ answer is one that would not set well in today’s “seeker-sensitive” churches, where one is not supposed to be tested by the Gospel or the requirements that come from being a follower of Christ. Jesus points out that they are more interested in a “free lunch” than anything else. He tells the crowd that “you came after me because of what happened yesterday (when He feed the multitude). You ate your fill and now you’ve come to see if you can get some more. You really aren’t interested in knowing who I am.”
The people that day were following Jesus but for the wrong reasons. Too many people do the same thing today. Our culture and our society have made an art form out of it. We use Jesus to garner votes for those whose views and goals clash with His clear and simple teachings. We invoke the name of Christ to cover injustice; we invoke the name of Christ to justify immoral policies both at home and on the international stage. (4)
David was also blind to the meaning of the story Nathan told him; his own actions had led to the death of more than one man and he will now have to face the consequence with the loss of his family through public humiliation.
The story about David and the response of the people to Jesus’ miracle reminds us that “we can interpret the appearance of the sky but we cannot interpret the signs of the times.” The signs of these times are especially troubling. People remember Jesus saying “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.” (5) But they also seem to forget that we should not panic and we should be aware of false prophets who proclaim the Second Coming with the outcome of war.
Are the signs of war, poverty, homelessness, and injustice signs of the impending Second Coming? Are we to just stand back and let these things happen in hopes that God will welcome us into his house with open arms and joy? Or are we to do as Jesus commended those who stood on the shores of the Galilee and work for the bread?
This is not work in the sense of employment, gaining food for what we do but rather work carrying forth the gift that the bread represents. It is not the bread (with a lower case “b”) that will sustain our physical life that we seek but the Bread (with a capital “B”) that will sustain our spiritual life. It is the gift of this Bread that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Ephesians.
It is the gift that enables us to be apostles, prophets, evangelist, pastors, and teachers. It is the gift that enables us to do the work of the ministry in whatever form we can do.
It is the life we lead, it is the work that we do in the name of Christ that we will let others know who we are. What we do, how we live our lives is a reflector of what we believe. It is a continuation of those who came before us.
Early Christians were simply referred to as people of “the Way.” They were associated with a particular pattern of life, one that produced a discernible lifestyle. This lifestyle grew out of their faith and their testimony to that faith. To all who saw them, there was no mistaken them for any other group; Christian belief became identified with a certain behavior. Unlike today, it was one that was recognized by believers and non-believers alike.
They became known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the needs of the poor and the outcast. Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation. Their refusal to kill, practice racial discrimination, or bow down before imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.
It is also important that we recognize that they were a community as well as individuals. The first thing that Jesus did when he began His ministry was form a community. To follow Jesus meant sharing in His life and sharing it with others. From the beginning, it was clear that the Kingdom would manifest itself through a common life. (6)
It was as a community that they all gathered there that last night before Calvary. It was as a community in the Upper Room that they came together to share in that Last Supper. It is as a community that we gather together today to share in the bread and juice this day. And though this service will end with each of us going our own way, we leave knowing that we are a community as others have been in the past. And the life that we live as a part of a community will be the sign to others that this community is open to all.
(3) John 6: 24 – 35
(4) Adapted from “Wonder Bread” by Charles Hoffman, The Christian Century, 25 July, 2006
(5) Matthew 24: 6 – 8
(6) Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis (2005)