WHY DO YOU NOT KNOW HOW TO INTERPRET THE PRESENT TIME?
(preached at the parish of St Margaret of Scotland, Burnaby)
Canadians love to talk about the weather. We even have a weather channel on TV! And many times a day, we are subjected to weather experts who predict what the day will be like. We both love and hate it when they are wrong.
We hate it when we get to the lake with our light summer clothing, ready for a day in the hot sun, and instead it pours rain on our heads and we sit there shivering without even a jacket to keep us warm – because we trusted the expert.
We love it, though, when their mistakes reveal that even the experts can be wrong – that the future isn’t under their control. And perhaps we love it because when they’re wrong we are reminded that we have to be adaptable and resourceful because the future isn’t as predictable as some want to say it is.
We live in the era of the know-it-all – from the weather person to the stock market analyst to the medical profession. As we reflect on the recent era of AIDS and SARS and Norwalk and measles, and the reappearance of TB and various superbugs, we might look back and smile at the confident prediction of the U.S. Surgeon-General Dr. William H Stewart, who, in 1969, appeared before the US Congress and said “We can now close the books on infectious diseases!” We might remember also that, until the 1950’s, doctors were recommending smoking as therapeutic.
In our time, many are full of anxiety and desperate for guarantees and assurances, mostly expressed in the way we view our retirement funds and insurance policies and our expectations of the Government. We look to the stock market as our scripture, and to the banks and the economists as our temples, prophets and priests.
But the experts don’t always know what they’re talking about. Sometimes we might wonder if they ever do! Respected economist and stock market expert Irving Fisher was quoted as saying: “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” It sounded great – very reassuring. The unfortunate thing is, he said this in October 1929 – three days prior to the collapse of the NY stock exchange and the beginning of the Great Depression!
“Houston, we have a problem . . .” The most brilliant and intricately planned projects can go off the rails, and many things are beyond our control or our ability to predict or explain. No one is infallible – not even the Pope.
Have you ever noticed that the Bible is full of questions — questions that are often not given an answer – like it understands its purpose to be beyond the scope of its pages – to be discovered in an ongoing debate, dialogue and process of discovery?
In the history of the desert monks, there is an account of the famous Abba Antony asking Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” and Abba Joseph replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: “I do not know.”
Believers know that God is not predictable, that we aren’t given certainties, we are given faith. Jesus used the example of fire, which is unpredictable and can be very destructive but also brings great possibilities.
The modern era promoted an attitude which suggests we are masters of our fate, in control of our destiny. It promised answers, formulas, and gave predictions. Instead of having to face the emptiness of unknowing and vulnerability (which is after all the realm of faith), it’s like the world tries to offer us something tangible, something we can grasp. We live in an era that demands certainties, predictable formulas, guaranteed outcomes, dividends upon any kind of investment we make.
Even religious people are not immune from that tendency to want the sure thing – the inside track – to harness the wind, as it were. Despite direct warning from scripture, from the mouth of Jesus, not to waste time predicting the end of the world (e.g. Matthew 24:36: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only God in heaven…”), many religious people have been peculiarly prone to wanting to know or to provide the answers instead of being satisfied with wrestling with the questions.
We all know how persistent and annoying Jehovah Witnesses can be – always knocking on your door at precisely the wrong time (and by that I mean any time), but they’re equally determined to predict the end of things. They first predicted Doomsday in 1914. When nothing happened, they revised their prophecy to 1915, then 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994. If they’ve revised it again, we don’t know, because no one is listening to them any more. Their door-knocking campaign continues unabated, however.
Ironically, people are now predicting the end of the Church and of Christianity, and you could see evidence for that if you chose. We may even agree that Christianity as we have known it is passing away, along with the idea that we somehow own or control God, but as people of faith we trust that with God nothing is impossible – even the resurrection of the Church.
“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?” I don’t believe Jesus is demanding that we able to foretell the future. Scripture makes it clear that we are not to be able to predict the future; rather, we are to remain open to the idea that God remains active, that strange and unexpected things can happen – that nothing is a sure thing.
I think that in the modern era we’ve become used to a lot of false assurances. We’ve been led to believe that someone always knows what’s going on and has it under control – that there is always going to be an answer or at least someone who will look after things. It’s a secular version of faith. One way or another, so the mythology goes, we can figure it out and get it under control. So people are frustrated and angry when we in the Church can’t seem to come up with programs and analyses and plans that would solve the problems we face.
In an era that says knowledge is power, and certainty is bliss, how can not knowing be a virtue, an asset? How can we resist that powerful urge to be “in the know,” to have exactly the right answer for everything? How can we let go of that tendency to want simplistic answers to complicated questions and instant explanations for profound mysteries, to which great minds have dedicated entire lives?
A more faithful approach is reflected in the poetic work of Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved … and try to love the questions themselves … Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
To dare to be open to the questions – the open-endedness of things – is to put ourselves in a place where we can be open to the Spirit of God, which blows wherever it wills, like the wind. As Bob Dylan said: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” The answers are much more elusive than might first appear.
Jesus speaks of being under great stress during a turbulent time, and how some people choose to respond. People in our churches are stressed – they’re grieving and demoralized – many have already bailed while the rest of us (the remnant) are experiencing the loss not only of family and former friends – the loss not only of some of our churches — we are grieving the loss of an entire way of life and the place of Christianity in that way of life – the loss not just of individual churches but of the Church itself, which seems now to be despised and rejected. We grieve the loss of a sense of community that was familiar and safe, but even worse, the loss even of the sense that there is a God, or that life has a deeper meaning and purpose.
We don’t know what’s happened, and nobody has any satisfactory answers. We seem to be on the edge of disaster. We’re in the midst of some kind of paradigm shift, and much like a space ship trying to break through into earth’s atmosphere, there’s a lot of friction and fire and the appearance that things are falling apart.
We have seen the parting of the ways that Jesus speaks of in today’s Gospel: children who have abandoned the values and practices of their parents; people turning on those who profess religious beliefs; attempts to create a secular society which excludes any reminders of God and hostile toward people of faith.
Many parishes now find themselves teetering on the brink, or perhaps lying inert and unconscious by the side of the road, robbed of our influence, stripped of our former glory, like the man robbed by thieves in the Good Samaritan story.
What are the times telling us? How do we respond? We can’t do anything about the past, so what do we do about the future?
We may not know for sure but in faith we believe that a path is always open to us and it’s up to us to look for the potential new way, unlike the record executive from the Decca Record company who in 1962 predicted “The Beatles have no future in show business.” Talk about a failure to see potential!
I am beginning to think that maybe this turning of the tables – this reversal of fortune – may in the end be a good thing for the Church. The MAP program revealed we hardly knew each other and didn’t relate much – a lesson that adversity is often the catalyst that brings people together and perhaps closer to God into the bargain.
I offer you the example of St Margaret of Scotland:
Part of a small remnant of Saxon royals, who, in a time of persecution and danger, a time of confusion and rapid changes, moved north and joined forces with people in Scotland – eventually entered into a marriage – and numerous good things came of that union. She became more and more faithful to God, and had a powerful influence, not just on the people she chose to join, but on the entire community and nation.
I am here today to extend to you a hand of fellowship – to say to you that you are Welcome to join us at St John’s and to carry on being faithful Anglicans together – that together we can be a stronger and more diversified parish – that together we can write a new chapter in the story of Anglicans in this part of the world.
As we’ve been considering possibilities for St Margaret’s and St/ John’s, we’ve been searching for the right model or metaphor – marriage? Adoption? Merger? The one that appeals to me lately is that of the Good Samaritan – which describes how there was help for a wounded person from an unexpected source. Maybe Saint Margaret herself has already provided an important part of the analogy.
Today’s Gospel seems to say: Don’t shy away from the difficult stuff – don’t disappear when the going gets tough – don’t be deflected by a bit of criticism or opposition or apparent failure. The author of Hebrews offers examples of many people who stood steadfast in the face of horrific oppression, persecution, and suffering. To people experiencing persecution – the loss of social status, removal from their homes, imprisonment and even torture – the author of Hebrews offers examples of people from the past who persisted through much greater trials. He their suffering in perspective. It doesn’t negate or dismiss the legitimate sufferings of the present, whether you’re suffering social sanctions, or church closure, but it does help us see that eventually there will be a tomorrow.
We may not be able to foresee the future, but we are meant to shape the future by faithful action in the present – believing that serving God is important – that our lives make a difference – that we are building toward something greater than ourselves.
Where are we headed – honestly, I do not know. But whatever this is
that’s going on – better to face it together, living the questions, open to the movement of the Spirit in faith.
Teresa of Avila once prayed:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God alone is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Whoever has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
In spite of the confusion of the present moment – in spite of the tendency to fear and disintegration and just giving up — let us choose to do the most faithful thing we can. Choose life!
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Isaiah 5:1-7 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted. They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance. But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Hebrews 11:29-12:2 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Luke 12:49-56 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 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?