A Watching Adjustment
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, December 6th, 2020
It was the most money I had ever made. Home from college, I spent eight hours each day sitting in an 8’ by 8’ hut at a D.C. military base. My job was to watch for a spike on an electrical panel and to push the red button whenever I saw one. On a typical eight-hour day, I pushed that button about 6 times. Meanwhile, I just sat back and watched.
It was the most mind-numbing work I have ever done. I had no idea why I was watching and I had no interest at all in that for which I watched. When the eight-hour shift was finally over, I was both thrilled and depressed; thrilled that I could finally leave my claustrophobic cubby hole and depressed that I would have to spend the next day on the same boring, uninspiring, inexplicable, senseless watch.
Many, many, years later now, I know all sorts of people who are on the watch. Some are watching for an effective and available vaccine. Some are watching for the time of political transition finally to be over. Some are watching for racial tensions to decrease and racial sensitivity to increase across the land. Some watch for what Santa will leave them under the tree, while others watch the market, hoping it will stay bullish.
I know far fewer people on the watch for what God is doing or is about to do. I run into more and more people for whom watching for God has about as much meaning for them as my watching for the occasional spike on the electrical panel in my summer job. They are on the watch, but not watching for anything church related, certainly not for any seasonal silly stories or sappy songs that we sing this time of year.
Lest anyone think that I am judging these people as misguided or as somehow less than deserving of God’s love or mine, I am not. For, honestly, sometimes I am envious of them. They are clear about what they believe and what they have no intention of believing. They see no reason to spend any time watching for anything fruitful to come from faith or watching for how any time spent in church can be other than a colossal waste of time.
After years in ministry, I am still wrestling with how best to have good conversations with these folks. For whenever I do, I find that they have much to teach me and their questions often sharpen my own thinking. Some of my church leader friends treat these church dropouts, or never drop-ins, with the callous conclusion, “better off without them.”
I do not share their conclusion. On the contrary, when I think of those who have no use for church, and often, no use for faith, I think mostly of how I have failed to love as Christ has loved me, how I have failed to communicate the gospel to them on my watch, not to mention all whom I have failed who never even “dropped in.”
So, on this second Sunday of Advent, I am praying for “a watching adjustment” not just for me, but also for the church. Because that for which we watch makes a huge difference in what we see, who we see, in what we do, and what we leave undone.
In Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist is described as a bit of a wild man, but he is a wild man on the watch. He is not watching for a new best buddy or a new colleague or a new mentor. He is watching not for what he can do to change the world, but for the One who is coming who will, who does, change the world, changes our world. He is watching for the One who makes life worth living in every season, in every economy, at every age. It is no coincidence that because John was looking for a Messiah that he was able to see the Messiah not floating down from heaven, but kneeling down, dripping wet, in the Jordan river.
Fresh out of seminary, I was on anything but a Messiah-watch. Instead, I was on the watch for what the church and I could do for God. I was watching not for the Messiah but how we could be Messiah-like. And, all too often, we failed miserably. I watched as good people acted in ways that did not even border on good. I watched while well intentioned pastors, like myself, said things that left people angry or annoyed or confused, and for good reason. I watched all the ways that we hurt each other in church, all the ways that we wall off others who annoy us in church, all the ways we refuse to listen to voices other than our own in church.
I watched not only how we often treat each other in church, but how we treat our most treasured gift, the Bible. If we give it much thought at all, we treat it as if it were Aladdin’s lamp, something magical that when rubbed produces a divine genie who grants us our wildest dreams. Or, we treat the Bible as something to be believed and not questioned. I have lamented how we have failed to teach that the Bible was written by critical thinkers and is to be read by critical thinkers in order to create a new community of critical thinkers. As a result, I have watched bright, inquisitive youth and adults experience the Bible like my mind-numbing experience one summer.
I get it, then, why many people never open the Bible as adults, never study the Bible critically, never consider it possible that the Bible is a window into the heart and mind of God. I get it when people walk into the church, walk out of the church and never bother to look back. And, I get why many people never even walk in.
There is a reason why every Presbyterian worship service includes a community prayer of confession. It is a public and private time for all of us to ask God’s forgiveness when we watch for, settle for, anything less than being the redemptive, loving, watchful body of Christ.
But on this Second Sunday of Advent, for all its failings, I cannot describe the church as a bag full of worthless wind, and for all its mistakes, I cannot describe the church’s faith as mere fantasy. I have known the church at its most compassionate and courageous best, in serious and critical conversation with the biblical story, and I have been sustained in my own faith by your faith and your faithfulness, by the ways you have taught me how to watch for God.
Some years back, I made a new friend. She was a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, but even more, she was a marvelous poet. Like John the Baptist, Ann Weems was a person on the watch for God breaking into our world. She writes:
Our God is the One who comes to us
in a burning bush,
in an angel’s song,
in a newborn child.
Our God is the One who cannot be found
locked in the church,
not even in the sanctuary.
Our God will be where God will be
with no constraints,
Our God lives where our God lives,
and destruction has no power
and even death cannot stop
Our God will be born where God will be born,
but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us.
When God is ready
God will come
even to a godforsaken place
like a stable in Bethlehem
Watch . . .
for you know not when
Watch, that you might be found
I wish that I could persuade every person to join me on the God watch, every person who will not darken the door of Cove’s sanctuary or any sanctuary when they are reopened, who will not ZOOM into worship in this Advent season or any season to join me on the God watch, to join me in praying for “a watching adjustment.” I wish I could persuade those on the outside not looking in to join me not in an 8’ x 8’ hut pushing meaningless buttons like the Great Oz behind the curtain, but to watch with me for all the signs of Christ’s light shining in the darkness, of God’s grace-filled, in-breaking splendor tearing down every wall of hate in the world.
In the end though faith is not about me and it is not about you. It is about God coming to me and coming to you, as Ann says so beautifully:
Watch, that you might be found
In this candle-lit season, amid the deep, deep, darkness around us that is the “watching adjustment” for which we can all pray.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!