On third Sundays we offer a more contemplative service that concludes with prayers offered at 4 different prayer stations. Instead of a sermon, I offer a brief reflection.
By Ellen Sims
Jesus didn’t expect his followers to predict the future, but he did expect them to be able to “interpret the present time.” (Luke 12:56). We can’t always predict the weather (although “thanks” to global warming from now on we can expect increasingly more days of “scorching heat” (vs. 55). But Jesus expected his followers to discern the meaning of what is happening at present. Making meaning is a religious task.
I hadn’t thought about this passage in such literal terms before, but our study of climate change has helped me consider that today’s Jesus followers ARE being charged with knowing the political, social, religious, and environmental climate and being able to interpret what is happening in order to extrapolate from the signs a course of action. Jesus is not expecting that our family members will necessarily all agree on government policies and the solutions to current social and ecological problems. In fact, Jesus hyperbolically declares he is itching to bring division rather than peace. His exaggerated rhetoric here about setting father against son, mother against daughter, one part of the family against the other prepares us to counting the cost of discipleship again. Carefully avoiding controversy can be cowardly and can make us complicit in injustice. That’s not the way of Jesus.
Of course, Jesus, who blessed the peacemakers, is not aiming to cause disharmony in homes. But sometimes division is an unintended consequence of going against the tide and taking a courageous stance. Following Jesus then and now can disrupt the status quo, can ruffle feathers, can strain relationships.
I would bet that if I were to ask for a show of hands of those who have lost a friend or damaged a family relationship because you held different opinions on “the signs of the times,” most of you would acknowledge it has happened to you. We want to offer unconditional love and be humble about our limited perspectives. But we also need to speak out at times, about the times.
Jesus speaks vehemently in this passage. He admits he is feeling the stress of the times. He is like someone outside on a sweltering summer day in Mobile, Alabama, who hears a distant rumble and is ready for that downpour to relieve the tension in the atmosphere and to take the temperature down a notch. Jesus is poised for the thunderstorm. He knows how to read the signs. We know how to read the signs. There is thunder off in the distance. We hold our breath in times like these hoping the economy doesn’t crash, and foreign allies do not become enemies, and marginalized people do not lose rights, and that—-dear God, the latest concern on my heart—-that people with mental health issues do not become the scapegoats for gun violence. It’s telling that Jesus used the metaphor of reading signs of changes in the natural world (in the clouds, winds, temperature) to comment on the changes of the times. The changes in our natural world today likewise signal to us that our priorities are awry.
The signs Jesus observed symbolized the terrible injustice from the Roman invaders in his homeland. Although he was not preaching armed revolution, he was pushing the people toward a nonviolent but potentially dangerous challenge to the Powers That Be. But first his followers needed to observe the signs of the times, to make meaning of the chaos in their little part of the empire, and then he had to ask them to count the cost of discipleship and consider the risk of losing friends and family.
Friends, we see signs of authoritarianism and disregard for the poor, the foreigner, the sick, the oceans and land and endangered species. As Dr. Lee Johnson, my professor for New Testament and exegesis often encouraged, we would do well to read the Gospels by seeing ourselves and our culture in the role of the Roman occupiers. We are more accustomed to identifying with the occupied Jewish peasants who were the primary audience of Jesus, but the United States is more like the Roman Empire of our day. We can’t hear what the Gospels have to say to us until we hear those parables and sayings of Jesus as imperial Rome would have heard them. Consider it our duty to repent from our imperialism. And to interpret the times.
Below I also share a description of two of our four prayer stations. I’ve included the post-it note prayers for our planet that were written during that time and placed on a globe. We thank Lella Lowe for her powerful presentation on Climate Reality and based on her Al Gore’s Climate Reality Training and shared with our 9:30 class. This class has been reading and discussing Jim Antal’s challenging book Climate Church, Climate World.
1. Praying with Postcards
Some teachers in El Paso have requested postcards be sent to their elementary schools to help their students realize people care about them and “there is plenty of good in our world.” They explain, “We think concrete messages of support would help us calm some fears.” Prayerfully consider what the children in El Paso and Dayton experienced last week. Many are grieving loved ones killed or injured, and surely all feel the world is a more dangerous place than they had imagined. Prayer can be experienced by imagining the anguish or fear of others as you hold them lovingly in your heart and trust in God’s great compassion. Then write a brief note on the back of one of the postcards provided. You might draft your message on paper before writing on the postcard. Sign your name or the name of our church. Leave the cards in the basket provided.
2. Praying for our Planet
Compose a brief prayer for God’s good earth by writing a word, phrase, or sentence and tape it to the globe. Or compose a prayer of intercession on behalf of our planet by simply writing the name of a particular species or feature of the earth that is endangered or ecologically vulnerable.
Below are some of the prayers that worshipers placed on the globe yesterday at the 2nd prayer station:
Earth, we’re sorry. Hold on, please. –Humans
Gratitude for air, breath, and spirit today.
Strength for the journey
God, heal the damage done.
Save the rainforest
May the polar bear have enough food to live
To God: please help us wake up
To be loved and cared for–not bought, sold, used, owned