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What about the Signs?

Luke 21:25-36; Selections from Paula Coelho The Alchemist and The Zahir

Sunday November 28th, 2021

By Rev. Jackie Hibbard

When I was a kid, I was really freaked out by the scripture we read today. It is still not highly ranked in my list of go-to scripture readings. The picture I had in my mind of the chaos was not a happy scene and I thought I shouldn’t go to sleep in case I missed Jesus coming back. But then I noticed that the sun kept rising and setting, the days went on and we are all still here and if it didn’t happen in the years following Jesus’ death (after all that is a generation) I must be safe.

But still, it scared me.

Today, I have had to sit with this scripture for the last few weeks. Ask what it is I am to make of it. What is Jesus saying? Why? I read and re-read. I sat in meditation. I prayed for direction. I read some commentaries. I read it again in lectio divina style. One of the commentaries shared the quote by Paolo Coelho from his novel The Zahir and I remembered one of my favorite books of Coelho’s, The Alchemist and all the signs the boy follows in that novel. I re-read The Alchemist for like the 10th time. And as Peter Kleinman is so often reminding me, stories have a way of grabbing our attention and shedding light on truth and life in a way that is inviting, thought provoking and accessible.

So here are maybe some random thoughts and reflections from the scripture and the other readings today. Maybe they will make some sense or help you and us on this spiritual life path we are on together and separately. It is all intertwined – my path, your path, humanity’s path.

Signs …

What are they? When do we see them? What is the purpose?

How many signs have you seen today?

If you drove here, you likely saw a lot of signs. Stop signs, street name signs, store name signs, the church signs, for sale signs, for rent signs. We could go on, right?

Signs give direction, they tell us where we are, they tell us what to do or what not to do. There are warning signs too – indicating a problem or potential problem – to get our attention. In healthcare we talk about signs and symptoms – of disease, of how a system is or isn’t working, of dying. The check engine light in our vehicle is a sign. There is sign language for those with hearing impairment.

According to Wikipedia, The main purpose of signs is to communicate, to convey information designed to assist the receiver with decision-making based on the information provided.

Humans through the ages have looked to the heavens for signs. The sun, the moon, the stars, the weather. These signs helped people know when to plant crops, when to move, when to harvest, when to take cover. When I was a kid, I remember learning the adage – Red in the morning, sailors take warning. Red at night, sailors delight. Signs about whether or not the day was to be good or difficult weather-wise. The wise men in the East followed a sign – a star to find where Jesus, the King of the Jews was born – and Herod was so shaken by this, he made decisions out of his fear. Signs have power.

Remember Hansel & Gretel? In the story as they walk through the forest, Hansel drops breadcrumbs along the way so that they can find their way home. I also think about cairns – those piles of stones that help hikers find their way on a path. I believe that God leaves us signs too – divine breadcrumbs if you will, to follow. Maybe they are subtle, maybe obvious, but we still must pay attention. To be alert. To make choices.

Are there signs you’ve noticed in your life that have helped you make a decision? Did you pay attention or listen? How did those signs show up?

I’ve had times in my life when I didn’t pay attention to the signs and dismissed them. I’ve also had times when I’ve paid attention and followed where the signs led me, and my life literally changed or sent me in a new direction that I didn’t expect and certainly didn’t plan.

Paolo Coelho in both of these novels says that signs are God’s language and that we need to pay attention, so we know what step(s) to take.

We can personalize this and think about signs that have guided you in your life. And if we were in the 9am service, I’d invite you to pause and share stories with your neighbor about those times when you did or didn’t follow the signs. Maybe you want to do that together later.

We can also think more globally about signs. Like how the earth and the climate are giving us signs of distress. Rising temperatures, droughts, flooding, increasing catastrophic storms, pollution, ozone depletion, melting ice, declining water levels in our rivers. These signs are pointing to disaster here on Earth – are we paying attention?

In this scripture Jesus is imploring us to pay attention. To make changes. To do something. To lead and follow. To create. To find new solutions.

Perhaps it was divine boulders in our path that led this congregation to do the gun surrender event in June - I’m pretty sure the signs were bigger than breadcrumbs. But we noticed and did something new and courageous. Who knows what might be next for us.

Something else that grabbed my attention in this scripture passage is the phrase - stand up & raise your heads for your redemption is drawing near.

The definition of Redemption from Merriam-Webster Dictionary – the act of making something better or more acceptable; The act of saving from sin or evil or suffering

Again we can look at redemption personally or globally.

When we follow the signs and messages left for us literally, symbolically or figuratively, - when we pay attention, stand up – redemption happens. In the Alchemist each time the boy followed the signs he knew were pointing him in the direction of his Personal Legend, he was saved from suffering in his old way, and his life was better for it. In my own life, I can think of time after time when I followed the signs, listening, paying attention and standing up and taking a chance and I was redeemed from suffering and found a better path that was more fulfilling. And … it can feel chaotic and scary. And it can be painful or hard to leave the familiar ways, to make different choices, to forge a new path. The way of Jesus can be counter cultural, it can feel dangerous or chaotic and yet we are called.

In the global context, as we see the signs in nature that our planet is suffering and we humans are damaging it, what are we to do so that redemption is possible? How do we make the world better, more acceptable and save it from sin, evil and suffering? Listen to the scientists, the indigenous wisdom, to the children and youth.

We can also see that people are suffering. Our systems are oppressive and hurt the least among us. Be alert, stand up and make some changes so that redemption for everyone who is suffering becomes possible. Why should some have plenty of food to eat and water to drink, but not all? Why should some have access to healthcare, but not everyone? Why do some live in safe conditions while others are unhoused or live in fear? Why do some get a good education, but others don’t get any or receive something second rate? Pay attention to the signs – make decisions so you can act, make some changes, make redemption possible for those who are suffering.

What are we to do? Ask questions. Speak up. March. Write our lawmakers & demand change. Pray. Share your gifts. Be on the frontlines. Let’s not faint from fear and foreboding but instead be alert. Act. Stand up. Join movements so that we can help redemption be possible. It’s not only up to God – redemption is a co-active process.

I/we are being called to pay more attention. Does the redemption of humanity rest on our action? Be on guard … watch, listen, pay attention. Be alert at all times – it is urgent Jesus says.

Follow the signs. For yourself and for humanity. Not out of fear or obligation, but from hope, empathy, love and compassion. As Paolo Coelho says in The Alchemist, “The future belongs to God, and it is only God who reveals it, under extraordinary circumstances. … The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better. Forget about the future, and live each day according to the teachings, confident that God loves their children.”

Pay attention to the signs. They are leading and calling all the time, urgently asking each of us to improve ourselves and the world one moment at a time. Will you follow the signs?

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