A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 21, 2014
Matthew 16:1-3 NLT
Reading from “A Sharp Lookout,” Signs and Seasons, by John Burroughs
This is the time of the year—with the approach of fall this week—when some people study the signs of the natural world in order to predict the weather of the coming months. Permit me to elaborate. When I was a boy, there were certain members of the community—usually the older members of the community—who, in the fall of the year, would predict the kind of winter we were going to have by observing the signs of nature. For instance, the number of morning fogs in the month of August predicted the number of snowfalls to be expected that winter. The height of bees’ nests, the size of the brown and black rings on the wooly worms, and other such natural phenomena also predicted how mild or how cold and harsh the upcoming winter would be. Maybe some of you can recall various natural signs or predictors that were spoken of in the community of your upbringing.
Of course, for years the recognized expert for observing the signs of nature and predicting the weather around these parts was Helen Lane, the lady we knew as the “Crab Orchard Woman.” Someone even wrote that Helen Lane put Crossville and Crab Orchard on the map because of her newspaper column and weather predictions based on her observations of the natural world.
Observing the signs of nature in order to make predictions is age-old. Even in Jesus’ day, folk had learned to observe the natural signs around them and make predictions about the weather. The words of Jesus that I read from Matthew have been made into a little rhyme that we are all familiar with:
Red sky at night, sailor’s delight;
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.
In another place Jesus noted that when they saw a cloud building up in the west, they knew it was going to rain. And when they observed a wind start to blow from the south, it was going to be hot (Luke 13:54-56).
About a year ago, I discovered the writings of early naturalist John Burroughs, who is considered one of America’s first great nature writers. Burroughs was a native New Yorker, who lived in the Catskill Mountains, and was a close observer of the natural world. Burroughs counted among his circle of friends Walt Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. Among Burroughs’ rivals was another naturalist, John Muir. Burroughs and Muir had opposing philosophies and preferences regarding the natural world. Burroughs’ first major book to be published after he gave up his day job of being a bank examiner to devote his life to farming and nature writing was Signs and Seasons. Burroughs is important because of the impact his writings had on the rise of the conservation movement, “his belief in the oneness of creation,” and his emphasis upon “treasuring ‘one’s own landscape.’”1 In the passage I read to you, Burroughs, likewise, discusses observing the sky in order to predict upcoming weather.
But the important point I want to stress from Burroughs’ nature writings are the words “observe” and “observation” that keep cropping up in his writings again and again. Burroughs wrote, “the place to observe nature is where you are; . . . . The good observer of nature holds his eye long and firmly to the point. . . “2 I could read passage after passage where Burroughs talks about observation from many different angles. Suffice it to say, as I have learned in my naturalist studies at Tremont in the Smokies, one of the most important tools of the naturalist is keen observation. We can learn so much if we cultivate a keen observation of the natural world. And by the same token, we miss out on so much when we fail to observe the miracles and inter-connectedness of the natural world around us. And for various reasons, the beginning of autumn is a good time to be reminded of that.
However, when Jesus spoke about observing the signs of the sky, he had another, deeper motive in mind. According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus was more concerned with his hearers being present in the moment and observing the spiritual signs right before their very eyes. One who was seeking to show them the way and nature of God was in their very midst, but they could not see it. They wanted Jesus to perform some miraculous sign to show them that he was really authentic. But if they only had eyes to see and ears to hear the signs around them, Jesus contended, they would already be convinced.
Perhaps Jesus was also concerned with the observation of religious and political signs of the times. In Jesus’ day, there was an unholy alliance between the political powers (the mighty Roman Empire) and the religious powers (the religious elite who had control of the Temple and synagogues). The truth is, mixing religious fervor with political power can produce a volatile situation. It did in Jesus’ day, and we see such every day in the news.
It is a basic fact of life that those who excel in life, those who are successful in life, are keen observers of the signs of the times. Successful inventors and entrepreneurs are those who are keen observers of life and discerners of the signs of the present moment. People who are successful in investing in the stock market are able to discern the cutting edge of change and observe the signs of the times. Successful authors are people who are able to discern the signs of the times and what people are longing to read. Prominent philosophers and theologians are those who are able to observe and discern the signs of the times and connect to the present moment in a relevant way with philosophical and theological thought. Best-loved poets, like Mary Oliver, who wrote, “It is what I was born for—to look, to listen,” are able to keenly observe life and the natural world and convey meaningful images in the words they write. You get the picture.
And so, the point being is how important it is for us to cultivate a keen observation of the signs all around us: how important to observe the signs of life, the natural world, religious thought, political movements, technological changes, and so on, so that we are not caught off-guard, fumbling in the dark, or left behind as the world moves on or is undergoing upheaval or unprecedented change.
As I think about these things, I have more questions than answers. For instance, as we observe the signs of religious terrorism around the world, what does this mean for the future of America and the sacrifices we will be called upon to make? As we observe the signs of the stock market that just keeps rising and rising, what does it mean for our financial security and how we should be prepared for an unexpected drop or change in the market and investments? As we observe the signs of change in American churches and American religious makeup in general, how do we as a traditional congregation need to change or at least be flexible in order to keep up with society’s perceptions of what church worship services and programs should be?
The point is, Jesus understood it. Naturalists like John Burroughs understood it. Contemporary poet Mary Oliver understands it. One of the most important lessons we can learn in life is to be awake, be alert, be a keen observer of what is seen, felt, and going on in the world around us. In other words, may we cultivate the habit and the ability of observing and reading the signs of the times. Amen.
1John Burroughs, Signs and Seasons. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008. P. xii.
2Burroughs, pp. 3, 9.