"God is Watching"

Reverend Gary Gard

Reverend Gary Gard is retired from pastoral ministry and currently fills in as a guest pastor for the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Prescott.                                                                                                     

Before retiring from the pastoral ministry, I pastored a Presbyterian church in Tucson. Annually, fellow clergy and I would gather for retreats in the scenic foothills surrounding Tucson. I want to invite you inside a memory I hold from those times.  To get into that memory with me, picture you and me standing in a lunch buffet line.  As we move slowly from one food section to the next, we come to the fruit section. There’s a sign over a big of bowl of apples. It reads; “Take just one. Remember, God is watching”. We chuckle to ourselves and move along to my favorite food section. Desserts. There before us is a large tray of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Someone has posted another sign. It reads; “Take all you want. God is watching the apples”.

The thought that God is watching, assumes that God is listening. Which assumes that God is present. That idea is fundamental to our Judeo-Christian faith. Believing that God is present in the “every day” of our lives is the foundation stone of every story in Bible. Many within the Jewish community have this, a Mezuzah, mounted at the entrance to their home. As they enter and exit their home, they touch the Mezuzah as a reminder that God is present in the “comings-n-goings” of their lives. Inside each Mezuzah is a tiny scroll inscribed with what is called the, “She-ma” The text from Deuteronomy 6 includes a part of the She-ma.  It reads: --“you shall love your God, -- with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” How do we “love God”? When someone asked Jesus; “Which is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus quoted the She-ma. Immediately, after quoting the She-ma, Jesus said; “and the 2nd commandment ‘is just like it’, you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. “Just like it”.  Those key words describe how we love God. We love God by loving our neighbor, with our heart-n-soul, -just like we love God.    

In both the Hebrew and in the Greek, the word used most often for “love” doesn’t describe an emotional love. It describes a decision love. Before crossing the Jordan into Israel, Joshua cautioned that there would be obstacles after settling the land. They would be tempted. Tempted to worship their leaders as though they were gods. Tempted to worship cultural norms as though they were gods. Tempted to worship wealth as though it was a god. Knowing all these temptations, Joshua declared: “Choose this day whom you will serve, as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord”. That was a decision to love, and to follow God’s leading. That was a decision to believe that God was “watching, listening, --present” --and cared about their decisions. We of the church are descendants of those crossing the Jordan. We have decisions to make. Will we pursue party politics over the values of our faith? Will we pursue personal wealth over the pursuit of others who are simply pursuing life? Will we tell someone that their heart can’t feel love for someone, - because they express love differently than how we express love?   

The Deuteronomist counseled that believing God is present is basic to how we act. Although his book contains 100’s of laws, including the 10 Commandments, he made it clear that laws could be a stumbling block. If misused and misinterpreted, laws could actually create “stone hearts”.  Stone hearts are contrary to the essence of God. Thus, the Deuteronomist wrote: “You shall write these words, laws on your heart”.  “The Lord has set his heart upon you. Therefore, you need to stop being so hard hearted. Remember the Lord is not partial in showing his love. The Lord wants justice for all, --including the orphan, the widow, the foreigner.  “Orphan, widow, and foreigner” are the most frequently-used words used in scripture to describe those living on the margins of society. Job 24 describes some of what was happening to those who were “marginalized”. He writes; -- “they are pushed off the road, they have to glean the fields for their food, they have little to keep them warm in the cold, -or dry in the rain, - they sometimes see their children taken from them as a pledge for the payment of a debt”.  It was not illegal to be on the margins of society, but if you were, there was “hell” pay. That’s why the Deuteronomist wrote “stop being so hard hearted”.                 

Israel was in danger of losing its heart and soul. I believe that our nation is facing that same danger. We treat “Mother Earth” as though she was undeserving of love, by allowing coal mines to discharge their waste into nearby streams. We threaten a mother with separation from her child, by declaring the mother to be an “illegal”. Months ago, at a community meeting here in Prescott, our representative to Congress was asked about his position on illegal immigration. The question put to him was, --Shouldn’t an individual’s circumstances make a difference in how their case is adjudicated?  Pounding his fist on the podium, he responded; The law is the law!!  I can picture God’s eyes shedding a tear. I know mine do.

For most of his life, the apostle Paul was a “law-is-the-law” kind of guy. But, in his letter to a fellow Christian named, Philemon, we hear something different. Paul writes concerning one of Philemon’s run-away slaves who had landed at Paul’s doorstep. Paul wanted Philemon to grant the slave his freedom.  Because of Paul’s status as a leader in the church, Paul could have demanded that Philemon grant Paul’s wish.  Instead, listen to what Paul wrote: “Though I am bold enough to command you, I prefer to appeal to you for the freedom of your slave. I do this for love’s sake.”  Paul laid his heart (God’s heart) upon Philemon, hoping Philemon would examine his own heart. Our hearts are God given, not just to pump blood through our body, but also to help us make decisions right for ourselves and for others.   

Author, Robert Fulghum, describes a time as an elementary school teacher when he stood in front of his class instructing them on the rules of the game; “Wizards, Dwarfs, and Dragons”. At his command, each child was to dash to a corner and huddle with other students wanting to be the same as them. Suddenly, Robert felt a tug on his pant leg. A little girl looked-up and asked, “Mr. Fulghum, where do the *mermaids stand?” Robert looked at her and said, “This game is only for Wizards, Dwarfs, and Dragons”.  Undaunted, the little girl persisted. “But, Mr. Fulghum, I am a mermaid”. Her pleading touched his heart. He made a decision. Setting aside the rules, he boldly proclaimed: “For anyone who may be a mermaid, come, stand by me.”       ~All I Wanted to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten

Our nation is struggling to find a place for the “sparrows” and “mermaids”among us.  In part, this explains why Patty and I love and support the work of the church.  Along with God, we (the church) are in the “heart-n-soul” business. When people choose to “tweet” remarks that are demeaning and divisive, we the church choose to see things differently. We choose to see people’s common worth and common humanity as children of God. When people envision hands building walls, we envision hands holding hands. Every mission project we support, both locally and globally, must pass the “heart-soul-test”. 

Among the programs we support locally, is the Prescott Area Shelter Services. My wife, Patty, was recently visiting with one of the PASS “graduates”.  A woman in her mid 30’s. We’ll call her, “Mary Sparrow”. Life had clipped Mary’s wings. She had weathered some tough times. Eventually, she found herself here in Prescott. --Homeless. -- Afraid. --Hopeless. --Mary’s lips quivered as she cited some of her painful journey. She ended by saying; “the people at PASS saved me. They gave me shelter, connected me to counselors, helped me to find a job. I feel alive again.”  God’s eyes, watching through our church’s eyes, and through the eyes of PASS, helped “Mary Sparrow” fly again.

In our partnership with our denomination’s global missions, we saw an orphan living on the streets in San Paulo, Brazil. Picture an 8-year-old boy, “Jose Sparrow”, living in a cardboard box under an overpass.  We hear his voice, -- “Lady, can you spare some change?”  Our missionary did more than that. She helped change his life.  Jose was taken to a church orphanage.  One day, one of the caregivers said that they were having a tough time getting Jose to sleep. Our missionary offered a suggestion. -- “Give him a piece of bread to hold. Tell him that he can’t eat it until tomorrow morning”.  It worked. Jose slept through the night. Why? Because Jose Sparrow knew that when he woke-up in the morning, he would have something to eat. Before that bread touched his lips, his fears were quieted, his heart was touched. He knew that someone loved him and would stand beside him.

As much as in the times of the Deuteronomist, our world needs what the church has to offer. Heart-n-soul. It’s why Patty and I love and support the church. The church is trying to show the world how to “love our neighbors as ourselves”.  For us, -- that’s loving God.