August 11, 2013

Watching, Waiting—and Worrying


Text: Luke 12:40: “...the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Here we are in the middle of August, in the midst of some of the most pleasant summer days we’ve known for a long while, and all of a sudden this morning it sounds like Advent. It sounds more like winter than summer.

I say that because we have a gospel reading this morning filled with warnings about the coming of the Son of Man and the message of preparation, of keeping ready, about being poised for action.

It’s almost a little disorienting, hearing this message in the summer heat. During the summer we expect to hear the familiar old parables and the story of Jesus’s teaching and healing ministry. But here is a little hint of the apocalypse, a reminder that a day of reckoning is coming, at a time and in a way we can’t predict.

There is an undeniable kind of tension between the gentle assurance of the reading from Hebrews this morning and the dark hints of the gospel reading. The Epistle sets before us that familiar definition of faith; the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction—the Authorized Version goes a step farther, and calls it the evidence—of things not seen. It is a comforting idea, the notion that the thing we believe in somehow sends us a signal from over the horizon of our ability to perceive, to let us know that it is certainly there.

Now of course we are in the business of faith here. We don’t only talk about things that can be proven by means of evidence. Those things are interesting, but we speak here about things that are not necessarily supernatural, but beyond the perception of the natural world.

When we speak of those things we have to be speaking in the language of faith, for the simple reason that there is no direct evidence to support us. There are no “facts of science,” a phrase favored by Professor Pinker, upon which we build our ideas.

But that does not mean we are without assurance; it does not mean we are without conviction. It does not mean we are without evidence; but the evidence we have is a matter of our inward hearts, a matter of the tugs on our moral compass—especially when those are somehow deflections off our chosen path.

There are some people in the Christian community who seem to live with an abundance of that kind of evidence. They are absolutely certain of what they believe, and they are even more certain that they are right. In this way, at least, they are lot like scientists.

I don’t know about you, but just speaking for myself, I am not one of those Christians. I seem to live on a much thinner diet of evidence and conviction. I am a man of faith, but my faith is often a hopeful search for that assurance.

That’s the position from which I read this Gospel. Maybe you do, too. I read Jesus’s warnings here about the swift and sudden coming of the Son of Man and I have to stop and think for a moment about just what it is I’m assured of that will mean.

This summer, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, I’ve spent time with three different families who were grieving the sudden loss of a loved one. Each of them were planning a service at Memorial Church, where I used to work, and my old colleagues there asked me to help out, so I did.

In two of these cases, the time between a very frightening diagnosis and the passing of that loved one was measured in weeks. In a third case there simply was no warning; in the third there was no warning at all. And in each of those cases, as is always true, the suddenness of loss creates a kind of vacuum that only faith can fill.

With each of these families I’ve had the peculiar privilege that falls to people in my role at such a time of seeing their faith put to the hardest of all possible tests. I sat with them at pretty much the moment when any evidence, any assurance, any conviction they had ever found from their own experience of faith would either sustain them—or not.

I don’t think it’s a mark of the excellence with which we do this, this life of discipleship,  that we receive a lot of quiet assurance in faith. I don’t think God distributes the assurance of things hoped for on that scale—the harder you pray, or the more time you spend in church, the more assurance and conviction and evidence you get.

Some of the most faithful people I’ve ever known were people who also struggled with deep and dark doubts. It seems to me that exactly because of that quality they were better, not worse, disciples—if only because they were honest about their struggle.

That is where the worry comes in. Because the fact is we all live with a wall of worry somewhere between us and the horizon of the future. We worry about our parents; we worry about our children; we worry about our jobs; we worry about our health. And all of us live with the inescapable fact of our mortality. That is a kind of background-radiation worry.

Worry is not the sign of poor faith, or even a declining faith. If it is a sign of anything, it’s a sign of our perspective—our focus on the present, the here and now, instead of on the horizon of the future, the place where faith sends its assurances from.

Jesus teaches his listeners that the right posture for us to have toward God, the source and object of our faith, is one of watching and waiting—not for just anything, not just for something interesting, but for the coming of God directly into our lives.

But of course that means that if we are disciples, that is the right way for us to live our lives, period. We’re supposed to live on our toes, or at least on the balls of our feet. We’re supposed to be poised for action. Just like an infielder on the baseball diamond, you can’t be too focused on your worries about what is happening if you’re looking intently for what might happen.

Scientists have lots and lots of evidence to teach us that we are absolutely systematic in the way we discount the future. We are generally terrible at delayed gratification. We are programmed to acquire; we want what we can get now.  It takes a lot to get us to lift up our eyes to even look at the horizon of the future, much less think about it seriously.

So when Jesus offers us this seemingly dark advice about God coming to us like a thief in the night, I hear him speaking to us as someone who knows us very, very well—knows how we are made, knows how we likely we are to lose sight of the future with our resolute focus on the present. I hear a kind of merciful nudge to help us shift the balance away from the worrying and a little more toward the watching and waiting—a little more toward the future, a little more toward the horizon, a little more toward where the assurance God offers comes from. Amen.