This has been quite a summer for weather. We’ve had an incredible heat wave or two, a few really severe thunderstorms, and lots of days where we all keep loading the weather app on our phones to figure out whether we can go to Sholem or Meadowbrook in the next few hours or not. We have access to all kinds of weather information these days. You can zoom the radar right in to your street, you can set text alerts, you can check hourly temperature predictions… All the data you could possibly want, just waiting for you to interpret them.
And it’s not just “the appearance of earth and sky,” as Jesus calls it today, that we can easily get input on interpreting. We also have access to all kinds of other sources which tell us what’s happening around us. Load Twitter, turn on cable TV, google it, and you can get all the signs of the times you can handle. If 1500 flights were cancelled last weekend, when should you get to the airport? If we may be looking at a recession, how much of an emergency fund should you keep on hand?
Nor is being able to interpret the data important only in public arenas. There is also the whole area of interpersonal data, what some have called “emotional intelligence.” Being able to interpret things on that level is a somewhat different skill. If an employee leaves a meeting early with no explanation, the boss has to interpret it. Is the worker challenging his authority and ought to be confronted? Does the staff member’s behavior fit in with a pattern of lack of investment in the mission, or unreliability? Or was there a genuine crisis?
And of course, there’s one more kind of interpretation, the whole area of figuring ourselves out. Interpreting things about our own psyches, what motivates us, why we make the same mistakes over and over. Even those who don't do that formally in therapy, usually do something similar from, say, reading self-help bestsellers or following Instagram influencers.
We’re interpreting all the time, whether it be hard data, or interpersonal behavior, or our own emotional lives. Being good at interpreting what’s going on in all three of those areas helps us make good choices -- about our values, our behavior, our vote. Still, in the ending section of today’s Gospel – which really is two little stories, one about division and the other about his rebuke of the crowds – I think Jesus is suggesting that the list we’ve made so far is one short. Jesus rebukes the crowds in our Gospel for not being able to interpret the unique moment of opportunity he offered, not being able to read the signs of what God was doing right in front of them. The missing ingredient, he suggests, is spiritual interpretation.
My first reaction, when I read about Jesus scolding the crowds here, is to wonder what he expected them to know? What indicators should they have been able to use to recognize what was happening around them on a spiritual level? And the question can be as validly asked of us. If you had to name signs you look for to help you figure out where God is in a situation, what is going on on a spiritual level, what would they be? I don’t mean to be flip, but what are the spiritual equivalents of the Dow Jones industrial average or Doppler radar?
As I pondered that question, I thought of one example from my own life. I’ve learned over the years that one fairly reliable indicator of how I am doing spiritually is how I react to Scripture. I pray the Daily Office regularly, both here in the chancel and wherever I happen to be when the hour for the Office comes up, and sometimes the Bible lessons seem relevant, worth slowing down for and ruminating on. Other days I blow through them like junk mail and can’t remember, half an hour later, what they even were.
It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the difference between those two experiences is mostly caused by me. Where I am, spiritually, strongly influences how meaningful I find the Bible. Now everyone has times of dryness in their spiritual life; those aren’t what I’m talking about. I’m just saying that being able to receive the Word of God as a real Word from God has a lot more to do with the shape my receiving abilities are in, than with the Word of God itself.
That’s one personal indicator in my life. Another is whether I react with impatience in a grocery store line or at a traffic light or with someone who calls the church for help with a power bill. If I feel myself getting negative about small things over which I have no control, that signals me that I am closing myself off to the influence of the Spirit. So that's one more indicator.
I wonder what some of yours are? How do you know when you are on track in your spiritual life? How do you know when you need to take time to rekindle your connection with God? How do you know when you've wandered too far from where, deep down, you really want to be? And there's one more question about spiritual indicators. Because of course the spiritual life is not merely a personal or private thing. All Christian life is corporate. So how do we gauge, for example, what is happening on a spiritual level with a congregation, without confusing that with other external indicators like “attendance is up or down,” or “more or fewer people have pledged this year”? This will be an important issue for you to deal with as you begin discerning your next steps after I retire. Where is Emmanuel spiritually? What does Emmanuel need? How do you know?
Now sometimes it's crashingly obvious what God is up to. One night at a leadership meeting at a parish I used to be rector of, we paused the meeting to pray that God would help us get in touch with the needs of people in our area, and just then a woman in need literally walked in the unlocked door and asked for our help. Doesn't take much skill to figure that one out. But some of the signs of God's action among us, his followers, require much more prayer, thought and discernment.
“When you see a cloud rising in the west,” Jesus told the crowd, “you immediately say it’s going to rain. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say there will be scorching heat. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Using the image of a weather forecast, Jesus reminds the crowds in our Gospel how important it is for them to grasp what’s going on in the unique moment of opportunity he offers, the signs of what God is doing right in front of them. And to us, his contemporary followers, he continues presenting opportunities and signs. Opportunities to hear from him, to rethink our priorities, to act in his name…. signs of his will, of his love, of what he needs me, and you, and your parish, to do.
How much difference will it make whether or not each of you pays attention to God, reads the signs of his involvement and direction, and takes action accordingly? Well, let's put it this way -- enough difference to change the forecast.