Updated: Jul 29, 2021
So, a man walks into a bar and sees that it is empty, but that the full cash register drawer is open. He is somewhat down on his luck and sorely tempted to pull out some cash. He looks around carefully and, seeing no one, reaches his hand out toward the drawer. Suddenly, he is interrupted by a voice, “God is watching!” He jerks his hand back quickly, looking around again. Seeing no one, he reaches out again, and again hears, “God is watching.” This time he scans the room more carefully and sees a parrot sitting on top of the bar. Very slowly, he reaches out his hand to the cash drawer again – keeping his eye on the parrot- only to have the parrot once again squawk, “God is watching!” Finally, he glares at the parrot and says, “Is that you talking? How can you talk? Do you even have a name”? And the parrot says quite clearly, “My name is John the Baptist.” “John the Baptist,” the man says, “Who names a parrot John the Baptist”? “Well,” says the parrot, “Actually, it’s the same guy who named the Rottweiler ‘God.’”
The idea of God watching us is for me – and I think for most people – a little nerve-wracking. It brings up images of a grumpy authority figure with a ruler in his hand just waiting to smack us for the slightest infraction of the rules. And there seem to be so many rules – how can anyone keep them all straight, much less manage not to slip up every once in a while? It’s scary to think of God knowing our every tiny indiscretion, every loss of temper, and every –heaven forbid! – curse word out of our mouths. And, if that’s not hard enough, our Hebrew Scripture for today adds a new wrinkle: we are asked not only to be responsible for our own sins, but for those of others. This seems like very slippery territory to me. I, for one, have enough to worry about with admitting to and repenting of my own sins without tracking those of others. And I don’t want to shock you, but I have found that most people – myself included – don’t like to be told that they are wrong, much less “sinful.” Julie Peeples suggests, in fact, that “the belief that churches are in the business of judging and condemning [may be one reason] for the decline in church membership in recent decades.” Yet, there it is, right in our lesson from Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked,” God tells the prophet, “‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” So, does this mean that we are biblically mandated to judge one another?
I don’t think so. First of all, that’s not what the passage says. God does not tell Ezekiel to judge or punish his neighbors; God tells the prophet to warn them – because, says God, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” This tells us that God is not about punishment but redemption. God does not make us responsible for one another so that we can make each other feel bad; God connects us in community so that we can help one another avoid sin – and find redemption from it. “A crucial point about faith in God is that the integrity or quality of the believer’s relationship to God is always contingent upon the integrity or quality of the believer’s relationship to others…It may appear that Ezekiel’s call…was…a matter of his receiving a divine command and obeying it, [but the truth is that he could not – and we cannot- fulfill this task] without concern for and attention to the welfare of others.” Ezekiel – like us – is called to be compassionate and caring to his neighbors. Just like God.
That’s why God is watching – not to catch us in a mistake, but to help us to live good lives by following precepts which are, at their core, about human beings living together in the kindest way possible. In this view, God’s law is not a straightjacket designed to keep us separate from the world, but a pathway to guide us to living fruitfully and honorably in it. God’s commandments are not meant to be a burden, but a gift. And God’s law, like God’s word, is not some irrelevant ancient code; it is alive and relevant to our lives today. Think about it; the Ten Commandments certainly still apply as much to us as they did to the ancient Israelites. Be loyal; don’t lie, don’t take things that aren’t yours – be respectful of others, and, above all, love one another, because, as the apostle Paul so clearly puts it, love is the basis for all Christian belief, “the fulfilling of the law” – all of it.
Which makes the reverse true as well – if, in seeking to adhere to a rule that hurts our neighbors, we are not fulfilling what Paul calls the summary of the law. “Law,” says Eleazar Fernandez, “must serve love of God and neighbor, not the other way around…This is the norm by which Christ-followers need to see themselves.” It is, in other words, the bottom line.
And it is why we have Christian community. I have often said that as a former prison psychologist and forensic mental health expert, I have seen much of the worst humanity has to offer – and I still believe that human beings are basically good. I know how easy it is for people to get lost in the fears and concerns of the world around us, but that doesn’t mean we are bad. It simply means we need help. I think most people try desperately to do the right thing, to make sense of their lives in a way that is kind and giving, to live in the light – and I see them looking for somewhere, for something – for some spiritual pathway and community of support and companionship –to help them do it. What our gospel tells us is that this should be that place. Christian communities have been wrestling with trying to be good and loving for two thousand years – and, as a result, we have learned much about how to do that. “What makes us Christian is not whether or not we fight, disagree, or wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these issues.”  Today’s scriptures tell us that we do it through communication and reconciliation, by believing in the power of forgiving one another, and by focusing on redemption rather than rightness. In other words, we do it through love.
My son Nick is a hugger. When he is feeling down, he seeks physical comfort. My husband, who is not as much of a hugger, once saw a television commercial for a “ThunderShirt®” for dogs – a “patented [dog coat that]… applies gentle, constant pressure to calm anxiety, fear, and over excitement,” – and promptly suggested we get one for Nick. The idea of the ThunderShirt® (which is allegedly “backed by science”), is that being held close (but not squeezed) makes the animal (or person) feel safer. I wonder what would happen if we thought of God’s commandments as our own spiritual ThunderShirt®– applying constant, gentle pressure designed not to hurt us, but to comfort us – to guide us – and to remind us of God’s constant presence in our lives. Our scriptures tell us that our God is available to us right here and right now, and that God wants to help us and guide us, and that God wants us to do the same for one another. If you think about it that way, the fact that “God is watching” becomes a very comforting thought indeed. AMEN.
Julie Peeples, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 32.
Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 30.
Eleazar Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 40-42.
Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 46.
Amazon.com product description, https://www.amazon.com/ThunderShirt-Anxiety-Jacket-Heather-Large/dp/B0028QK6EY