August 14 2022
Blessed be the Name of God
“…dumb as a bag of hammers.” In Sara Gruen’s wonderful book, Water for Elephants, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth is about to acquire an elephant. The Benzini Brothers’ operation is a traveling circus, going from place to place by train car, during the Great Depression. This circus is one of many that populated the land in those days and as one might expect, from time to time, or even more frequently than that, a circus would fail. When this happened, it was common for surviving circuses to “pick over the remains,” seeking additions to their own offerings—animals and animal acts, performers of various kinds—whatever they could find and acquire to bolster their own prospects for success. Anything to attract more “rubes,” as the public was called by the circus folks.
The elephant about to join the Benzini organization was named Rosie and she was being introduced to Arthur, the road manager for the outfit. Arthur was more than eager to add Rosie to the show in the big top—the Benzini Brothers didn’t have an elephant and this addition was surely going to improve there place in the competitive and modestly lucrative circus world. When Arthur asked about Rosie’s abilities, however, he was not reassured by the man selling her. Arthur pressed
on saying, “Tell me more. Is she a rogue?” “Naw,” says the man, “just dumb as a bag of hammers.” [p. 127]
“…dumb as a bag of hammers.” A sharp turn of phrase and fully descriptive of something not so very good. I’m glad Jesus didn’t have that figure of speech at hand in today’s gospel.
In our reading this morning, Luke, the evangelist, has placed side-by-side ,two unrelated sayings of Jesus and it’s the second one that’s of particular interest. [I’ve told you before, I picture Luke collecting his stories about Jesus on small scraps of paper that he stuffs into the pockets of his blue jeans, taking them out one by one, and writing them down in whatever order. Today’s passage would be a good instance of that Lucan practice.]
Following Jesus’ tirade at the beginning of our reading, he went on to observe, “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?” [Luke 12. 54-56] It’s at this point that Jesus might have added, “You’re as dumb as a bag of hammers.”
Jesus is surely scolding his hearers, that is to say, he is surely scolding us, but there’s more here than merely an exercise in discipline. What we see here, dressed as if scolding, is really language of deep concern, even love. In an odd way, we might even hear this as encouragement.
“…why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” The “present time” is always the “present time,” no matter when it happens. Its content will change but it’s “presence” will not. It’s always right here, right now, “the present time.”
We, you and I, for a good while now, have been talking with each other about the meantime. That’s where we’ve been for quite a while. In the meantime. That is our “present time.” We’ve done right well but we are still awaiting whatever comes next. We can’t help but wonder what “next” will be like!
Seems like the gospel text this morning has particular relevance. It is time to read the signs!
“Reading the signs.” This is a prophetic task. Reading the signs. The great prophets, from Isaiah and Amos to Martin Luther King Jr, anticipated the future by being mindful of the present, what Jesus calls “the present time.”
So, what about the present time? Where do you look? If you listen to National Public Radio, for example, like I used do from time to time, what do you learn. Well, of course, it varies from day to day but the basic content is almost predictable—something about war or wars somewhere; something about government, often governmental failure or stubbornness or stupidity; something about athletic malfeasance or misconduct; something about the earth’s endangerment; something
about racial or ethnic unrest, hostility, even savagery; something about famine and neglect. As a steady diet, this all leads to malnourishment and a hunger for something else, something different, something better, something flavorful and satisfying.
For Jesus and his first hearers, “the present time” was full of expectations that the end was at hand. Jesus may well have been admonishing his hearers to know that, that the end was coming, and that it was time to get there respective houses set right. I don’t know that you and I hear this passage in the same way, with the same assumptions, but perhaps we should.
I find it very difficult to read the paper or listen to the news. I find it painful, maddening, sorrowful yet sometimes necessary. This is the world I live in; this is the “present time.” But this reality forces me back to the text. There’s more to what Jesus is saying than simply our being, as it were, “dumb as a bag of hammers.” He’s also wondering if we are looking in the right place. Clouds in the west, it’s going to rain. South wind blowing, scorching heat. Where do you look to interpret “the present time”? The newspapers? Public Radio? Some news channel? Crystal ball?
Turned out our elephant friend Rosie wasn’t dumb at all. Turned out that Rosie had been trained by a Polish trainer and did right well when addressed in her native language. The circus veterinarian, Jacob Jankowski, raised in a Polish household, spoke to Rosie gently and firmly and she heard and responded as she had been taught. Rosie got it right
when the right things were done, when she was given what for her was clarity.
What are the signs of our time? Where do we look for clarity? Indeed! And what about us? Might we be, in some small but purposeful measure, useful to God, a sign or suggestion of what is possible in love and charity, in generosity and service? Forty years ago, William Least Heat-Moon spoke about his “numbing sense that life inevitably creeps toward the absurd.” [Blue Highways, 1999/1982, p.17] Surely not!
Though we don’t talk about it much, we moderns, we do still say in our creed that Jesus, the crucified and risen one, will come again at the resolution of all things. I am certain that this is true. I am certain that in God’s good time, everything and everyone will be gathered up into the resolution of God—and when we speak of Jesus’ coming again, that is precisely what we mean. The great consummation, the “time,” if it be “time,” when God’s meaning, God’s pattern, God’s most pleasing expectation will be in place, the great consummation will place us completely in God, and God will be all in all.
By saying this, I don’t intend this to be fanciful talk. I am clear and certain about this, as clear and certain as I am about my love for this wonderful woman. God’s good intentions will win, and we will see it happen, one way or the other.
So back to where we look to read the “present time.” I know of the harsh realities, even the dangers that surround us—and if not us, then someone, someones, somewhere, likely nearby. But I also know, as you
know, of kindness, healing, beauty, generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation deep inside, under the surface of the news. Please, pleases look there to ‘interpret the present time.
These are the signs of the true future, the future towards which God calls us every moment, providing us grace and direction for our travels. And this strategy is no more naïve than being satisfied with the news. How naïve it would be to believe that war, harm, neglect, distrust and all of their nephews and cousins are all there are. Surely we know better. We are not “as dumb as a bag of hammers.”
I’m not urging some simple-minded innocence, some avoidance of the newsworthy realities of life. Quite the contrary. I’m urging us to stare into the face of them; to stand over against them; to work and pray for their resolution. What we know to be true about the present and the future we must exemplify in our lives, over against the sorrow and the pity. Magnify the kindness, the beauty, the healing and generosity, the forgiveness and reconciliation, and magnify these between individuals, institutions and systems, as you have access. Make a difference for God’s future, my dear friends, knowing that in God’s good time, all manner of thing will be well—and in the meantime [and you know what I’m going to say], we dare not be “as dumb as a bag of hammers!”
Blessed be the Name of God