Central United Methodist Church
“What’s The Weather?”
Luke 12: 49 – 56
Pastor David L. Haley
August 15th, 2010
“I’ve come to start a fire on this earth — how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up —how I long for it to be finished! Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront!
From now on, when you find five in a house, it will be —
Three against two, and two against three;
Father against son, and son against father;
Mother against daughter, and daughter against mother;
Mother-in-law against bride, and bride against mother-in-law.”
Then he turned to the crowd: “When you see clouds coming in from the west, you say, “Storm’s coming’ — and you’re right. And when the wind comes out of the south, you say, “This’ll be a hot one’ — and you’re right. Frauds! You know how to tell a change in the weather, so don’t tell me you can’t tell a change in the season, the God-season we’re in right now.” – Luke 12: 49 – 56, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson
What’s the weather? Anyone heard? Unfortunately, we know: It’s HOT and HUMID! After all, it is summer in Chicago. We’ve had our milder summers, but this has not been one of them.
No matter the time of year, though the weather is never the same, our fascination with it is. Anyone here NOT talking about the heat wave that has gripped the Midwest, the country, and much of the world, recently? Ever hear of something called global warming? HELLO?
Apart from how the Cubs are doing (not good), the weather is our stock conversational primer. Small talk drops dead – bring up the weather. Stuck between floors in an elevator with strangers? Complain about the weather.
Whenever I think of this, I think back years ago, when international phone calls were expensive, and therefore usually short, and a friend of mine was traveling in South Africa. He called home to Toronto, Ontario, and got his dad, who spent the first several minutes of an expensive phone call talking about the weather. “Dad, please!” interrupted my friend. “I didn’t call to talk about the weather!”
Now that technology and air travel have made the earth a global community, flooding in Iowa or a tornado in Wichita, or for that matter a heat wave in Russia or flooding in Pakistan, are as much of local conversations as what happens in Chicago. And who hasn’t been stuck in some airport because of the weather, not there but across the country or around the world?
Thanks to technology, we can now not only speculate about the weather, we can get amazingly technical about it. When I worked as a firefighter, and was therefore one of those who would have to deal with whatever an approaching storm would bring, we would monitor the weather radar on the computer, watching those big red blotches as they bore down upon us, waiting for the front to hit and the alarm to ring. In fact, I still do this, although the only thing that worries me now is whether this is going to be the one when the basement floods again.
Here in Chicago, we don’t have to rely on the technology, we have our own weather guru: WGN’s Tom Skilling, “Chicago’s Most Trusted Meteorologist.” You know what I like about Tom Skilling? He absolutely loves the weather, good or bad, and shares that enthusiasm with us. For example, on Friday he had this to say:
“Another hot one today with lake breezes tempering readings at area beaches a bit. A new record for most consecutive 80-degree plus days over 140 years of official observations goes into the books today — 43 consecutive days 80 or higher. Summer’s been nearly 6 deg warmer than a year ago.” (Doesn’t that sound like Tom Skilling?)
Perhaps it’s our timeless, universal fascination with weather which is why – in today’s Gospel – Jesus resorts to the weather to try and shake his listeners (and Us?) out of our slumber, and read the signs of the times.
Remember, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and we know what will happen there. In this text, Jesus is seized with urgency, that what’s going to happen will happen, and “let’s get on with it.” “I’ve come to start a fire on this earth — how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up — how I long for it to be finished!”
Contrary to those of us who only want to see Jesus as Mr. Nice Guy, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” Jesus voices not only urgency, but the coming conflict and division that would arise because of him: “Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront!”
If we were to list the ten hardest sayings of the Gospels, this would undoubtedly be on the list. The statements that Jesus came to bring fire, a distressful baptism, and division, even among families, are hardly welcome words for any congregation. We are far happier with Jesus as peacemaker than as home breaker. (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C.)
Perhaps it was the foreboding knowledge of what it would cost him, which led Jesus to see things with urgency and clarity. And, because of his perspective, to express frustration with the complacency and confusion of others, including those who would be his followers. And so he resorts to an image we understand: the weather.
“When you see clouds coming in from the west, you say, “Storm’s coming’ — and you’re right. And when the wind comes out of the south, you say, “This’ll be a hot one’ — and you’re right. Frauds! You know how to tell a change in the weather, so don’t tell me you can’t tell a change in the season, the God-season we’re in right now.”
Throughout history, knowing how to read the weather was more than small talk, as it was also for the people of ancient Palestine. Rains from the west could trigger catastrophic and instantaneous flash floods. Winds across the Sea of Galilee could whip up waves. Venturing into the searing wilderness of the Negev without the right preparation or provisions was something you would only do once. Planting or harvesting crops at the wrong time, with either not enough rain or too much rain, could lead to crop failure, impoverishment, even starvation. Death at the hands of fickle, freakish weather was always a possibility. So knowing how to interpret the weather was a life-and-death skill.
But it was not the weather in the skies Jesus was talking about, it was the weather among themselves they were not getting. The “weather” in their midst was the spiritually charged atmosphere created by Jesus’ words and presence. It was as though they were standing in the middle of a cloudburst and wondering why they were getting wet. “Read the signs, people, it’s decision time, time to lead, to follow, or get out of the way.”
As the modern followers of Jesus, how are we doing? Do we feel Jesus’ urgency, are we reading the signs of the times, do we get what “God-season” we’re in right now? Across the church, as in our church, that’s what we’re desperately trying to figure out right now.
The Northshore Cluster of United Methodist Clergy – of which I am a member – meets every month or so to read a book and discuss it. In September, we’re reading Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence. Her premise is that about every 500 years, the church has to throw a giant rummage sale, to throw out and get rid of everything that we no longer need, all those things that no longer work anymore. The last one was the Reformation of the Church in the 16th century, and the next one is the one we’re going through right now: it is a Great Emergence of those churches or forms of churches that will survive. Because, given how we are alienating and losing the younger generations, there is some question as to whether the Church – both Catholic and Protestant, both mainline and evangelical – will survive, at least in it’s current form.
For example, just this past week there was an article in the Wall Street Journal by a 27 year-old evangelical Christian, Brett McCracken, expressing concern about how many of his peers are leaving the established church.
But he also laments the effort by some churches to rehabilitate Christianity’s image by resorting to ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity,” by trying to be more culturally savvy, by quoting Stephen Colbert or Lady Gaga, or by giving the pastor a metrosexual makeover, with skinny jeans and an $80 haircut.
He then quotes church historian David Wells (my first professor of church history), from his book, The Courage to Be Protestant, who says:
“The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.”
McCracken concludes by saying: “If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.” (Brett McCracken, “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity,” The Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2010.
Perhaps it was a search for such reality that led novelist Anne Rice, known for her vampire novels, to announce on her Facebook page on Wednesday, July 28th, that she was officially renouncing Christianity. Rice posted: “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out.” She continued:
“I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
A few minutes later, she followed with a second post:
“As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”
Is Anne Rice accurately reading the signs of the times, rejecting the form of the church as it is often presented and characterized, but embracing the radical, the compassionate, Jesus the Christ? All I can say is, it’s about time.
But enough about the church. How about us? How are we doing at reading the weather in our own lives? Quite likely, this morning, some of us – maybe many of us – are weathering some storm.
Some storms are unexpected. Sometimes, we cannot predict or prevent what will happen to us: the automobile that runs a red light and slams into us, the violence of another school–shooting, the randomness of cardiac arrhythmia, the eruption of malignant cells into cancer, the biochemically-induced descent into mental illness.
Other storms that blow into our lives are more predictable, sometimes self–produced. We might even see them on the horizon but pretend they’re not there. We may even know how we might avoid them, but hold on to the unhealthiness or unhappiness that hastens their approach. Among these more predictable storms might be such things as a growing dependence on alcohol or drugs; a dissolving, disintegrating marriage; a child who has become rebellious or dangerous; a rising mountain of debt, or a gaping emptiness inside our soul.
Can we read the weather in our own lives? Are there thunderstorms approaching, heavy rains on the horizon, the roar of an approaching tornado, the slipperiness of an ice storm? Do we think we can ride out the approaching hurricane? Can we read the signs of what is bearing down upon us, enough to feel the urgency, admit our helplessness to God, and get help?
Today, Jesus is asking us, “What’s the weather?” He’s asking us, as surely as he did his followers then, whether we can discern the “God-season” of our times and of our lives, and not sink into complacency, but act with clarity and urgency.
Gino Izzi is a senior meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Romeoville, which is responsible for the weather forecasts for northern Illinois and northwest Indiana. Izzi, 32, says his most memorable day occurred during the historic Midwest tornado outbreak May 4-10, 2003, when more than 400 tornadoes were reported.
“The first day of the outbreak I was working, and we had 28 people who lost their lives in the area of responsibility of the office I was working in. We had 12 tornadoes, including one on the ground for over 200 miles.
“The next day we went out doing surveys. That was the day I made the connection that what I’m doing actually does save lives. It’s not just watching storms and having fun.
“I was introduced to a county sheriff in Pierce City (Mo.), where they lost, I think, six or seven people in that city alone. He’s a big, burly rural-type sheriff, southern Missouri. He grabbed my hand and he was crying, telling me, ‘Son, just so you know, the warnings you put out saved so many lives yesterday.’ That’s something I’ll never forget.” (William Hageman, “Storm Watch,” The Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2010)
What’s the weather? It’s not just watching storms and having fun; it’s about saving lives, maybe even our own. That’s something we should all never forget.
I want to acknowledge my dependence in this sermon to the lectionary preaching material supplied by Leonard Sweet in his August 19, 2001 sermon, “Storm Warnings,” in Homilectics, August 2001, Group Publishing.