Watch Night / New Year’s sermon

Matthew 25:31-46; Ecclesiastes 3:1-13


This Watch Night service is a new thing to me, and maybe to you, too. Pastor Sonja has known of them, primarily as a practice of African American congregations, and she was eager to explore it here.

The history actually began with Moravians in the Czech Republic who first held this service in 1733. A few years later it was picked up by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. His vision was to have one of these each month on the full moon.

Partly this shape was as a covenant renewal, and the “watch” of the service was about watching over relationships with God, a chance to reaffirm that commitment. The basis and title came from Mark’s Gospel: “Watch therefore: for you know not when the master of the house comes, at evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning. What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch” (13:35-37, KJV).

For Wesley’s piety and reforming instinct, Watch Night also provided a religious community alternative to the drunken celebrations common in society, a way to gather in church instead of at the alehouse.

Oh, and this all comes together with another important part of this history that I hadn’t mentioned yet: it’s called Watch Night because it was a vigil, a watch being kept during the night. Specifically, these gatherings mostly would have meant that you would have arrived here at church last evening around 9pm and we would have kept at it until after midnight struck and the New Year began.

Now, I recognize we’re already lower attendance on this Sunday morning because of celebrations last night. And if we would’ve tried to hold church instead of those celebrations, I suspect even fewer of us would’ve been here.

Still, it’s tempting to take the Wesleyan tack and pat ourselves on the back for starting the New Year right by being here in worship and then criticize the late night revelers for neglecting what’s important, being inattentive to the covenant, failing to keep watch. There’s even scriptural precedent for it, like in the letter to the Romans: “salvation is nearer to us now; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (13:11-14)

The counterargument is that I rather like gratifying the desires of the flesh. I cherish those celebrations with family and friends. In that light, we may well agree with the unusual Ecclesiastes perspective struggling to make sense of how we should live. It doesn’t arrive at typical morality like John Wesley pursued. Along the way it barely mentions God, reiterating that we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, since there doesn’t seem to be a larger purpose in life than that.

We might find a bit more answer for life’s intentions than that. But first, especially as we’re here on the 8th day of Christmas, we should be cautious about where we look for godliness, about excluding God from parties and merriness. Indeed, the much larger biblical precedent than abstention is about God’s involvement in and love for this world and its delights. If we get too prudish and suspect we need hang out in some holy place to impress Jesus, then we’ve missed the notification that he didn’t come to the holy people in the holy place, but was born in a barn and celebrated by raucous shepherds.

That trend continues today in our Gospel reading from Matthew, that when we look for Jesus we don’t best look at the pious following religious rules, snooty and too often hypocritical. Instead Jesus says he’s identified in the hungry and thirsty, the ill and imprisoned, the homeless and the stranger. Or as Dorothy Day said in one of our lessons on Christmas Day: “it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, and that my guest is Christ,” but nevertheless store clerks, factory and office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives, soldiers and tramps don’t just remind us of Christ, they are Christ. (I’ll post the whole reading on our Facebook page, in case you were off celebrating amid regular life and not at church last week.)

That continues to shape our caution about where and how we perceive God. Just as godliness can’t de facto be excluded from the delights and merriment, neither do happiness and abundance indicate a sure blessing from God, since Christ promises to be present for and with the hurting and lonely and outcast and all in need.

So as we gather here at a moment of transition, of watch that looks back at our past year and forward into the new, we consider the times—as Ecclesiastes has them of opposites—a time to dance and a time to mourn, a time to plant and to harvest, for war and for peace. We might well notice that in its reluctance to speak about God, Ecclesiastes doesn’t label these as times appointed by God, of God wanting times of war, weeping, hate, or death.

Yet amid these times and seasons we are left to contemplate what we may rightly name as caused by God, of what transpires in our world being labeled with the risky and uncertain term of God’s will, and what more easily may be labeled as the cursed effects of our sin or neglect or disregard. In both, we’re left to consider this past year more fully, to reflect on God’s presence.

To start, the moments we shared together at church fill me with plenty of gratitude, to be here with you and with Sonja, for the new beginnings and continued journey on the Road Ahead.

But it’s not just here, as we’ve recognized. We should look back on times of celebration and the highlights of 2016, the new sights we visited and transformative experiences, the progress we made and the simple joys, the sustenance of daily bread, the possibilities of reconciliation. Those we may consider gifts of God. Maybe recall or jot three of those things now.

On the other hand, I also know there’s a lot of sentiment about being ready to be done with 2016, to put that year behind us, from the small scale of facing illnesses and worries to the societal and global scales of conflict and anger and elections. Recall or jot three of those areas now. With those, in Ecclesiastes’ alternating times, 2016 may be mainly a time we’re ready to be done with and onto something else.

Looking ahead, then, watching out for this coming year, we also know our tasks and projects, we can predict what our work will and should be. We may see that as finding the delights, the celebrations in community, the relationships we need to revitalize us. We may take pleasure in our toil, in roles of finding Christ in our neighbors, in giving food and drink, welcoming and visiting, in responding. We may anticipate the renewed importance of care and support and advocacy in this new year. So I invite you to resolve yourself for three of those things now.

There’s one more aspect of this Watch Night tradition that’s not immediately satisfying or instantly gratifying. This keeping watch is also traditionally about waiting, about fortifying us for what is yet to come.

I mentioned that this is an especially important service in African American congregations, in spite of its European origins.  The strength of that connection arose on December 31, 1862, a day known as “Freedom’s Eve.” On New Year’s Day, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect, and so African American slaves gathered for Watch Night worship services to pray, to hope, to wait, to celebrate as midnight came and, with it, the news of freedom.

But that wasn’t the culmination. As you may know, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation didn’t effectively emancipate or free any slaves. It declared that the slaves in rebel southern states were free, but there was no way to enforce that rule, precisely since those states had withdrawn from the Union. So that New Year’s Eve could have been a moment of disappointment or despair or frustration at the circumstances, but instead it was lived as a delight in the astounding good news even though that had yet to become a full reality. And still 154 years later in African American communities, they’re waiting and hoping for liberation and opportunity that’s still a long time coming, still not achieved, not right.

Maybe that’s some of our sense, too, the proclamation of God’s amazing efforts for freedom and good will, of peace on earth, of joy and celebration and merriment, of love and abundant life. Yet we wait. It is not yet fulfilled. The proclamation goes against too much of the current evidence. So the labors continue with renewed vigor, and we understand ourselves rejoined in the covenant, recommitted to the cause, abiding with hope in God.

Again, since this service was her design and excitement, final words go to Pastor Sonja, with a prayer she shared last midnight which she had found inside one of her father’s Bibles: “Almighty God, who hast promised to restore my soul, enable me now to be quiet and to know that my life rests in Thee. Let Thy healing energy come upon me to give me power over such opposing conditions as fear and worry, to bring me great courage for daily living, beauty to refresh my spirit and a wonderful sense of fellowship with Thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”


Waiting on Good Friday

(a sermon for Easter people)


Before we get too overwhelmed by the depressing, deadly seriousness of this, can I pause and ask: Doesn’t that point of the story seem like an annoying commercial break? They put Jesus there…for now. You can probably picture it, in part because of bad made-for-TV adaptations of the Bible, when we’d find more drama and more value in sticking to the book version. But there’s also the feeling because this break toys with our emotions, like producers and advertisers on television do. It’s not an ending, but leaves you in suspense for what comes next.

That’s in spite of this point in the story of Jesus being presented with so much tragic finality. He’s expired, dead, buried. And yet we can hardly help but hear it as a cliffhanger. As the big stone slams shut, sealing closed that new tomb, we can envision the camera angle panning backward. We know there’s something more to come, even before the screen goes black and switches to ads for cell phones and shampoo and all those other things that try to claim our interest.

Yet unlike the televised word from the sponsors, within the Gospel reading, we don’t have the benefit of distractions to fill the pause. Yes, I said commercials can be beneficial, for passing the time, even for making us believe that other things are more important. Instead, in this reading we’re left with no pleasant disruptions or musical intermissions. Just a long hard pause. From this whole huge reading today, the last words we hear are “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” The next verse would resume “Early on the first day of the week.” So the crucifixion, the death, the burial of Jesus take place before sunset on Friday. It’s not until early Sunday morning (“while it was still dark”) that the time out is finally over and we get back to the story, to wrap it all up with the dramatic conclusion. That’s a terrible, miserable wait, if we were on the edge of our seats, holding our breath for how it would be resolved.

Now, we have seen this movie before. We know what’s coming. We may really like the ending, even if it’s not a surprise. But we don’t get to skip to the end. We have to suffer through the long wait, albeit with all kinds of nice distractions of real-life channel surfing to divert our attention instead to spring weather and yard work and family gatherings and fish fries and spring break vacations and, of course, a basketball game.

I’m not arguing against those other points of life. We believe the God-given-ness in daily details are exactly the reason why Jesus lived and died among us and for us. So it’s not that we should be sitting here quietly in the sanctuary waiting for Easter finally to dawn. Neither should we pretend amnesia. We do indeed wait to celebrate the resurrection, but it’s not like we don’t know that that’s coming. As important as Good Friday is, and central as the cross is for our symbols and the shape of our faith, still if Sunday hadn’t come then we wouldn’t be gathered on this Friday. This dark day can only be called Good in the light of what’s coming. The filled tomb is worth our attention because it will be emptied. We don’t need to ignore those outcomes today, or to act as if we don’t know what comes after the commercial break.

Yet here in this moment, we are confronted with the pause, with a moment for reflection. We might even say it forces us to ponder this part of the story, to face it and accept it. We can’t just quickly skip on to the resolution of a happy ending. We are Easter people always stuck on Good Friday. We believe and trust that we’ll be part of what’s coming, but we don’t have it yet. We’re still waiting.

In the meantime, in these last verses are two characters, one as a guide for us, the other as a model of what not to do. The first is Joseph of Arimathea, who takes the body of Jesus down from the cross. In that, we might notice that he obeys the law. He goes to Pilate and asks for permission. It’s an interesting detail, and an ongoing struggle for us. Pilate, after all, was the one in charge who executed Jesus. We mark him in infamy each time we say in the Creed that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” He himself said he had power to release Jesus, but didn’t do that. And yet Joseph of Arimathea obeys him.

So we Christians who say that Christ is King, that Jesus is Lord, that we have no God but God and not Caesar, not the rulers and powers of our age, we who expect that our citizenship is in heaven and seek to dwell in the kingdom of God, we’ve got this ongoing struggle of how to respond when governments and authorities and society don’t live up to our standards, when they may be corrupt and do the wrong thing.

If we’re picturing this like a modern movie, it’s easy to imagine that when the hero gets killed—when the villain takes out the good guy—it could create an insurrection, a rebellion, an uprising, that all his followers would seize that moment of martyrdom, trying to avenge their fallen leader—what we might call “pulling a Peter.” Yet with the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, doesn’t pick a fight with the bad guys. Surrounded by wrong, he tries to do right. That may guide how we react and interact, in advocacy, or in trying to make bad situations better.

The other character and example for us may be more about our relationship with God in Jesus. Nicodemus first showed up on a Sunday in mid-March. As we were reminded today, he had come to Jesus by night. He was a leader of the Pharisees, a consummate religious insider, but he was in the dark, still questioning, wondering what Jesus was up to, trying to figure out how Jesus was making God’s presence known.

He’s still unenlightened with Jesus’ death. He’s trying to do the right thing and show extraordinary devotion, but he’s got it confused. He’s treating Jesus like a king, but like a dead king. This funeral ceremony that Nicodemus has planned is more lavish than the re-burial of King Richard III, who had to linger half a millennium for the honor. Nicodemus shows up with all kinds of embalming spices and a hundred pounds of ointments. He’s going to bury Jesus, and—by God—it’s going to be in style. It’s ridiculously elaborate.

But it’s also ridiculous because it shows Nicodemus absolutely doesn’t get it. The fool is squandering devotion on the past, while entirely failing to recognize what is yet to come. For him, this is the sad fanfare of the closing credits and not a commercial break before the real excitement resumes.

If we think that’s all she wrote for God’s story of blessing in Jesus, then we’ve got another think coming. We’ve underestimated God’s insistence on righting our wrongs, on persisting through our failures, on loving us beyond hatred, on renovating our brokenness, on showering grace on the tragedies of our sinfulness. We fail even to see that our sinfulness isn’t so much in being evil like Pontius Pilate instead of obedient like Joseph of Arimathea. The rotten core of our sin is that we don’t expect more from God. We misbelieve. We try to spray some air freshener in a tomb and perfume on the dead guy and say, “Oh, doesn’t he look so natural and peaceful.”

Jesus won’t put up with that, though, won’t lay in a casket, dressed up by an undertaker. And he sure won’t just rest in peace. So we’d better reset our expectations and keep our eyes peeled for more to come from him and for us.

There’s a phrase that fits well for this moment, for this long tragic pause, with uncertainty of what comes next and how to deal with it. I learned it at Dan Banda’s funeral last autumn. His mantra was, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But somehow it wasn’t goodbye, not the end. It was tragic and wrong, but the story wasn’t over. There’s more to come.

That seems easy enough to gloss past heading toward Easter morning with this old story. But even more, we should be expecting more of God right now. Because this is Jesus’ story, it is also ours. This message is hardest for us, in moments like for Dan Banda’s son. Josh was in college in upper Michigan when he was told his dad had died suddenly. It’s hard enough to see his own story continuing well after that terrible break. It’s a time when we’d content ourselves with looking back, with getting on with distractions of life. It is a miserable interruption.

Yet that pause is even more unsettling and breathtaking since the move with Jesus from Good Friday toward Easter means that sickness, separation, death, despair, resentment, injustice, the shattering of hopes—these may be terrible fractures and fearsome pauses, but still they are only commas. God in Jesus has more to come.

Waiting with that vision is how this time may be called Good.