The way the wind blows

August 15, 2010

(Hebrews 11.29 – 12.2; Luke 12, 49 – 56)

My mother’s Kentish ancestors were all fishermen or farmers (ag.labs. as they appeared in the censuses) so as a family we inherited a good deal of ‘weather lore’ from them. Some of it was fairly well-known: “Red at night, shepherds’ delight; red in the morning, shepherds’ warning”. Other saying were less commonplace: “If the cows are lying down, then it will rain” and “Mares’ tails and mackerel sky” (cloud formations) mean wind & rain is coming.

Like the peasants in first century Galilee, my ancestors lived close to nature. Being able to read these signs and forecast the weather was important to them. Failure to do so could mean loss of livelihood, and sometimes even loss of life. Forecasting weather conditions was something they took seriously.

That’s not the case for us. Very few people in our society now work in agriculture or fishing. The weather very rarely affects our ability to make a living, or threatens our lives. We rely on so called ‘scientific forecasting’ to predict the weather,  but only so that we know whether it’s a good idea to plan a barbecue or whether we need to take an umbrella when we walk. I usually consult three different online weather forecasts if I want to know what the weather’s going to be like on a certain day – and often, they’re all wrong. Weather forecasting in this country is so unreliable that it’s become something of a national joke! It’s not something we take seriously.

Much more important to us in the sort of society we live in now is the ability to forecast the way financial markets and political systems and social systems are going to behave. We have a great many ‘experts’ who give advice to institutions and governments about that – though sometimes it seems to be as inexact a science as weather forecasting!

And it has always been important, in our own society and in previous ones, to be able to read people, to understand what is happening in the social and religious world. Yet, we often don’t seem to make much effort to do that. This is what Jesus was criticising his hearers for in our gospel reading today. He called them ‘hypocrites’, which seems strange to us. But in its original meaning it meant a play actor – so what he was saying was, “You take reading the weather seriously, but you don’t take your faith seriously – you’re just playing at it, instead of using the wisdom you have to understand what is going on.”

This passage from Luke’s gospel is a very difficult one for any Christian congregation to accept. We are much happier with the passages that proclaim Jesus as the Prince of Peace and have him praying that all his followers may be one, than we are with him saying he comes to bring fire on the earth, and divisions within families rather than peace.

The people who heard Jesus had ideas about what the coming of the Messiah would bring, based on their scriptures and tradition. Inevitably their ideas were based on only part of the scriptures, the ones that promised peace and prosperity to God’s chosen people; and being human, they probably hoped that the time of peace and prosperity would arrive soon, and without much effort on their own part.

In some ways, Jesus was what they expected – but in other ways he wasn’t. He came to bring peace – but also judgement; reconciliation – but also division. His followers were to undergo baptism – but also the cross. The call to discipleship needed to transcend all other loyalties, even the very important loyalties to family and nation. Inevitably, relationships were going to fracture along the divide between the old age and the new.

In these sayings, Jesus is reflecting passages from the book of Micah which predict just such family division at the End Times. Anyone who followed the progress of Jesus’ ministry could have seen how his words and his actions divided faithful Jews and split families. Some thought he was a true prophet – others regarded him as a charlatan and blasphemer; others were just afraid that his words and actions could been seen as a challenge to the Roman occupiers and their allies among the priestly caste, and bring repression and reprisals down on people who just wanted a quiet life.

The Early Church had exactly the same experience. The Christian mission divided synagogues, and caused civil unrest in Roman cities with a significant Jewish population, leading to fears that the Jews’ special privileges might be withdrawn. Then the Christian community itself became divided over the terms on which Gentile converts should be admitted to full membership.

So this passage reflects both the experience of Jesus and his disciples, and of the Early Church, and tells us that, like them,  we should not expect faith to be an easy ride. The passage from Hebrews reinforces that. The full passage lists the experiences of the faithful of Israel from the creation through to the martyrs of the Maccabean period, and it’s a gory story! Hebrews tells its hearers to expect no different.

And so it has been throughout the Church’s history, as faithful Christians have struggled to work out how to live the life of the Kingdom in the midst of civil society. Do you co-operate or oppose civil governments? Do you live quietly and practise your faith, or do you make a fuss about what is wrong, and risk martyrdom? Do you serve in the forces of the state or remain pacifist? How should a Christian  state treat those who don’t share the dominant faith? How much influence should Christians have over the shape of civil law?

And what of us? How do we read the signs of the times, and what do they tell us about which way the wind is blowing for our faith?   The Bible tells us about the past, and sets before us models of how to cope, but we need to lift our eyes from the Bible and look around us to read the signs of our time. Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, was reported as saying we should do theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Perhaps we should add to that nowadays, we have to do theology sitting in front of the television and connected to the internet as well.

Because one of the ‘signs for the times’ we have to take account of is the revolution in communications with the advent of television and the internet, which has had a far greater impact than either the invention of printing or the radio and phone. We are now living in not in a local community or a national one, but in a global one. We can have instant communication with people of different backgrounds, who we would probably never have got to know before this revolution. For instance, while the General Synod debate on women bishops was being broadcast at the beginning of last month, I was listening to a live feed of the debates while having conversations with people from all over the country from different sides of the debate on Twitter. I wouldn’t have been able to hear the debate once, let alone exchange opinions with so different many people.

This revolution also means that churches have to be much more aware of the impact their words and actions might have on public perception of their faith. The media are hungry for news, and will naturally tend to publicise disasters and disagreements more than signs of unity and community service. Much publicised  items, like the instances of child abuse by clergy, and the C of E priest on the South Coast who performed hundreds of  ‘sham’ marriages do the image of the Church a lot of damage. So, as part of our work of building the kingdom, we have to work at our PR skills, and on ways to gain favourable publicity for the good work we do. Equally, we have to learn to be honest when things go wrong, and to apologise where necessary; and explain that disagreements within faith communities are not a new thing, and need not, if we follow Christ’s pattern, lead to acrimonious splits. Today’s reading from Luke is not a justification for using force to deal with division in the church – on the contrary, it tells us that to deal with it we have to follow Christ’s path of sacrificial love.

Better education, access to libraries and cheaper books and the internet have all led to better educated congregations – which is a challenge to those of us who lead worship and preach! The days when the preacher stood ‘six foot above contradiction’ are long gone. But the standards people have come to expect from television and computers mean we constantly need to think about new ways of nurturing people in the faith, and providing opportunities for them to learn and grow and worship, using picture and film and activity as well as words.

But, alongside that, we have to cope with widespread lack of knowledge about the Bible and Christian history in the secular world. Christianity is still taught in religious education in schools, but alongside other faiths, and as church membership has dropped, so people no longer have the background of Sunday School and home to support it. A good many people would not now have the faintest idea who the writer of Hebrews was referring to in his list of heroes and martyrs of the faith. The more obscure biblical names may be coming back into fashion – but apart from Noah’s Ark  and the Christmas story, most Bible stories are unknown. This is a challenge to our mission strategies and to our nurture of new Christians.

We also live in times when people have much more choice in religion. They are aware of the major world religions in a way they were not 50 years ago, and conversions to other major faiths are much more common. People within the Christian community are also much less bound by family tradition, and may change denomination more than once during their lives, as their needs change and their pattern of faith develops.

This means that there are now friendships, family connections  and common opinions across denominations in a way that there weren’t previously, so that ecumenism works on a personal level as well as an institutional one. Congregations may have a mixed heritage, with people from many denominations sharing in worship and learning and  you may find yourself agreeing with people in other denominations on issues such as interpretation of the bible, music in worship, mission strategies, the role of women in church leadership and human sexuality, and disagreeing with other members, and maybe the leaders in your own denomination. This particular ‘sign of the times’ has great significance for the way churches will work and develop in the future, I believe.

Religious belief and practice was once treated with respect in the community at large. Now there is widespread indifference and ignorance; but another significant ‘sign of the times’ is the rise of more widespread and vocal criticism of organised religion, and opposition to its role in education and the caring professions. This opposition is fed by  news of the actions of extremists from different faiths, and propagates half truths  about the beliefs of adherents of the major faiths. Major challenges come from these quarters especially on the commitment of faith communities to race, gender and sexual equality, which are becoming core values of the secular state, and on faith’s relation to scientific knowledge and new techniques arising from this knowledge.  The need for confident lay Christians, well-educated in their faith, and also educated in science and ethics, ready and able to defend their belief in a reasonable manner has never been greater.

All these ‘signs of the times’ can become rather discouraging and depressing. So it is good that, after rehearsing the trials and tribulations of former times, Hebrews ends with a message of encouragement. However difficult things are, it assures us, we are not alone. In everything we do, we are surrounded by and encouraged forward by the communion of saints, who have run the race before us and know how it feels. More than that, our faith gives us strength to overcome our human limitations and to follow our pioneer and Saviour, Jesus, who came through the worst times, and was raised to be with God in glory for ever. He read the signs of his times, accepted the cross and overcame it; his Spirit allows us too read the signs of our time, and live faithfully through them, so that, no matter which way the wind blows, we can be assured of heavenly joy at the finish.

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