No More Waiting for Godot
Texts: I Thessalonians 5:9-11; II Thessalonians 3:6-13
(After the Thessalonians text is read, a large, dead shrub is set on top of the pulpit. Gary Charles as Estragon walks down one aisle and stops on the chancel. He gazes upon the large dead shrub sitting on top of the organ. Meanwhile, Gregg Korbon as Vladimir walks down the other aisle and climbs the opposite stairs onto the other end of the chancel. Gregg and Gary then perform this short scene from Samuel Beckett’s, Waiting for Godot.)
Estragon: Charming spot. (He turns and looks at the dead bush.) Inspiring prospects. (He turns to Vladimir.) Let’s go.
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot?
Estragon: (despairingly) Ah! (Pause) You’re sure it was here?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. (They look at the dead bush.) Do you see any others?
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.
Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A _____ . What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?
Estragon: He should be here.
Vladimir: He didn’t say for sure he’d come.
Estragon: And if he doesn’t come?
Vladimir: We’ll come back to-morrow.
Estragon: And then the day after to-morrow.
Estragon: And so on.
Vladimir: The point is —
Estragon: Until he comes.
Vladimir: You’re merciless.
Estragon: We came here yesterday.
Vladimir: Ah no, there you’re mistaken.
Estragon: What did we do yesterday?
Vladimir: What did we do yesterday?
Vladimir: Why . . . (Angrily) Nothing is certain when you’re about.
Estragon: In my opinion we were here.
Vladimir: (looking around) You recognize the place?
Estragon: I didn’t say that.
Estragon: That makes no difference?
Vladimir: All the same . . . that tree . . . (turning toward the congregation) that bog . . .
Estragon: You’re sure it was this evening?
Estragon: That we were to wait?
Vladimir: He said Saturday. (Pause) I think.
Estragon: You think.
Vladimir: I must have made a note of it. (He fumbles in his pockets, bursting with miscellaneous rubbish.)
Estragon: (very insidious) But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday?
(Pause.) Or Monday? (Pause.) Or Friday?
Vladimir: (looking wildly about him, as though the date was inscribed in the landscape.) It’s not possible!
Estragon: Or Thursday!
Vladimir: What’ll we do?
Estragon: If he came yesterday and we weren’t here you may be sure he won’t come again to-day.
Vladimir: But you say we were here yesterday.
Estragon: I may be mistaken. (Pause.) Let’s stop talking for a minute, do you mind?
(The scene ends. Gregg exits to the congregation and Gary moves to the pulpit and offers a prayer for illumination.)
For two long, often entertaining, sometimes excruciating, hours, Estragon and Vladimir await the arrival of Godot. As the audience, we wait with them and we wait and we wait. These two men talk about going. They prepare to leave, are ready to move on, but they never go. Sounding like the chorus in an ancient Greek drama, Estragon says, “Let’s go” and Vladimir responds, “We can’t.” Estragon asks, “Why not?” and Vladimir answers, “We’re waiting for Godot.” It is as if these two men are stuck in emotional fly paper. They are trapped. They just cannot move.
Estragon and Vladimir talk incessantly about yesterday and tomorrow. It is the present that is missing in their conversation. Through the course of the play, we never meet a person named Godot; we meet a problem named Godot. For Samuel Beckett, the playwright, Godot is whomever or whatever obscures the present by keeping people fixated on the past or intoxicated with the future.
With each exchange, Beckett exposes two men with no time, no inclination to enjoy today, because they are caught up in yesterday and obsessed with tomorrow. Written long before the arrival of Covid-19, Estragon and Vladimir could be the international spokespersons for this deadly pandemic that has not only claimed far too many lives but has made all our careful planning for the future and all our romantic fixating on the past almost laughable. In Beckett’s play, Estragon and Vladimir would not see Godot if he stood next to them and stared them in the face; they are much too fixed on whether he has already come and they missed him or if he ever will come and whether they are waiting in the right place. Not long into the play, you feel an almost uncontrollable urge to rush the stage, shake these two men and tell them, “For God’s sake, get on with your lives!”
The Apostle Paul sounds a similar plea to the church he started in Thessalonica. Paul’s words sound autocratic and a far cry from any grace-filled gospel. He warns believers in Christ to: “Keep away from any . . . who live undisciplined lives.” “Don’t let anyone eat if he refuses to work,” and “if anyone refuses to obey . . . have nothing to do with him.”
Far too often Paul’s words are taken out of context and delivered uncritically from pulpits and political podiums. “No work, no food” is not an anti-welfare tirade from the 1st century, it is a commentary on how Christ expects us to live as his disciples. Faithful communities of Christ refuse to focus idly on the past, standing frozen in time like Estragon and Vladimir beside the dead bush, as if our faith were a noose around our necks, rather than a lamp unto our feet.
The best way to wait for Christ, writes Paul, is not to gaze in the rearview mirror or to rub a crystal ball trying to predict the future; it is to work tirelessly, and yet joyfully, to manifest God’s reign on earth, right here, right now. “Do not be weary in well-doing” is not yet one more demand from the church on our already overbooked lives. It is an invitation to join the One who stands beside us even as we sing, we pray, we preach.
An old friend of mine, the late Father Walter Burghardt said this more eloquently than I: “We do not do the work of Christ so that Christ will return a day sooner. No, when we do the work of Christ, we discover Christ is already here. Christ comes to you in every human person who crosses your path, haunts your eye, beats your ear.”
Father Burghardt closes this sermon with same urgency as Paul: “Good Friends: Today’s liturgy is not a parish pool – put a dollar in a basket and guess when Christ is coming again. Today’s liturgy commits you to act as if Christ were already here – because he is” (from a sermon preached by Walter Burghardt in February, 1995 at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia).
As you and I approach another season of Advent, that season of restless waiting, Beckett’s play is a suiting parody of church life in America today, as you and I wait for Jesus to arrive to tell us how we should live, as if he has not already told us, as if he does not now stare at us in the faces of those from whom we avert our eyes.
Paul, and in many ways, Beckett, begs us not to let the past so immobilize us or the future so captivate us that we miss seeing Christ in our midst. And where is it that we find Christ among us? The Christian faith is filled with great and ponderous questions, but this is not one of them. We find Christ “in the least of these [our] my brothers and sisters.” We find Christ when we refuse to see the church as a spiritual cocoon to provide salve for our wounds while we ignore the gaping wounds of the world. We find Christ when we venture out to places and to people that society says are “God-forsaken” because we know better. We find Christ when we work tirelessly for justice for all in a political atmosphere of intimidation and fear. We find Christ when we do not ignore slurs made about someone’s race or sexual orientation, gender or nation of origin.
We find Christ by not becoming the church of Vladimir and Estragon, sealing ourselves off in a senseless, spiritual merry-go-round, keeping a safe distance from the world for whom Christ died and by God’s resurrecting power, for whom Christ lives. We find Christ not by turning the church into a spiritual museum, waiting for Christ to arrive, just as Vladimir and Estragon await Godot who never comes.
Over these past difficult months in my life, I have learned in ways I thought I already knew but clearly didn’t that you and I find Christ by singing songs of joy and gladness even when joy and gladness seem light-years away, by singing songs of mercy and justice, even when mercy and justice seem miles far beyond reach, by singing songs of hope for all creation, even when the world seems to be a “God-forsaken place,” because, in Christ, we know that this is a world that God does not forsake and neither shall we.
Even when Paul barked such harsh sounding words at the Thessalonian church, he knew that “Christ is risen.” Christ is here! The work of Christ awaits us NOW!
For Christ’s sake and guided by God’s tender mercy, let’s get on with it!