Sermon from July 8, 2018

I Have Made You a Sentinel: Give Them Warning
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 8, 2018   Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 120 & 123; Ezekiel 33:1-11; Mark 6:1-16

Last week we heard the Apostle Paul say, “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy, for…those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”

Ezekiel would add another word to the prophecy agenda besides upbuilding, encouraging and consoling.  God spoke to Ezekiel saying, “You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.”  According to Ezekiel, one of our highest moral callings is to speak and act prophetically when we see our nation doing wrong and trouble coming.

God says through Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”  Warning and saving need to be added to the prophet’s role along with upbuilding, encouraging and consoling.

Jesus called himself a prophet in today’s passage.  He sent his disciples to act as prophets.  Jesus added healing people and building beloved community to the traditional agenda.  First and foremost, Jesus echoed John the Baptist’s prophetic call to “Repent because the realm of God is at hand.”

The word repent sounds like it has to do with warning and saving, and in fact it has been interpreted by most churches as meaning to turn away from our individual sins so that we may win salvation in heaven.  But Jesus taught that the realm of God is on earth, within and among us, and the word repent is about much more than good behavior.

The Greek word translated as repent is metanoia.  Metanoia in the New Testament means that we undergo spiritual transformation until we evolve into the heart and mind of Christ, a level of consciousness that can see the oneness of all creatures and creation and know God is in them all and can love them all.

Metanoia leads us to have universal compassion, it makes us want to do prophetic upbuilding, encouraging, consoling and healing.  People who practice metanoia continuously practice mindfulness, turning their hearts and minds to the Spirit present in each moment.  They fill with light.  Beloved community forms around them.

A fellow pastor once described attending a national clergy gathering with William Sloane Coffin.  He said that within fifteen minutes Bill had that crowd of strangers leaning in around the piano singing and feeling like family.  The Mahatma Gandhi had the heart and mind of Christ as much as anyone ever has.  Often you see people around Gandhi not just laughing, but doubled over.  People flocked to be part of the beloved community of his ashram and daily meditations and marches.

Metanoia makes prophets of us all.  Jesus cultivated the quality of metanoia in his disciples, and then he sent them out warning and saving, upbuilding and encouraging, consoling and healing and creating beloved communities wherever hearts and homes were open to them.

All this sounds wholesome and harmless to us, and yet no sooner are the disciples on the road than the Gospel narrative informs us that King Herod is alarmed by this spreading movement and fears that Jesus is John the Baptist reincarnated.  Herod had arrested and executed John and now Jesus and his followers were saying and doing exactly what John the Baptist did.

Two chapters farther on Jesus will tell the disciples that he will be killed as John was.  He will tell them to take up their cross and follow him.  This was shocking in the Roman era because the cross was used as a punishment primarily for rebels and enemies of the state.  It is shocking to us today because we have the perception that the church is about individual moral reform and comfort and salvation—so why would a church ever look rebellious?

William Wilberforce was a 25-year-old member of British Parliament in 1784 when he underwent a spiritual awakening.  He felt that to be serious about following Christ required withdrawing from involvement in politics.  He consulted a mentor, the Pastor John Newton who was the former slave trader who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.  Newton told him that the opposite was true, that to follow Christ meant to transform yourself and then seek to transform the world.

Wilberforce took up the prophet’s mantle with passion.  He led the decades-long effort in Parliament to abolish slavery in the British Empire at a time when 80% of the economy was dependent on the slave trade.  He was reviled, ridiculed and defeated over and over, but he learned on his deathbed that the final law abolishing slavery was assured of passage.

Twenty years after Wilberforce died the American former slave, Frederick Douglass, gave his famous Fourth of July speech on July 5, 1852.  In it Douglass praised Wilberforce and the British churches.  He said, “There, the church, true to its mission of ameliorating, elevating and improving the condition of [humankind], came forward promptly, bound up the wounds of the West Indian slave, and restored him to his liberty. There, the question of emancipation was a high religious question. It was demanded in the name of humanity, and according to the law of the living God.”

Douglass saw the opposite happening in America, saying that the “church regards religion simply as a form of worship, an empty ceremony, and not a vital principle, requiring active benevolence, justice, love, and good will towards [all].”  Douglass said that a church that encourages “obedience to a law forbidding…acts of mercy is a curse, not a blessing to [humankind].”

Frederick Douglass was a licensed minister and popular preacher, but he said he would rather be an atheist than be associated with churches that have “neither principles of right action nor bowels of compassion.”

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. matched Douglass in eloquence a hundred years later.  His “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” recalled those first followers of Christ who went out to try to establish the realm of God on earth.  King said, “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning.”

Those words were prophetic in their intention to be warning and saving.  They were also prophetic in that they have come true.  The church today has lost its authentic ring, forfeited the loyalty of millions and been widely dismissed as irrelevant.

Bill Coffin said, “Socrates had it wrong; it is not the unexamined but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living.”  Bill said, “In contrast to many a preacher today, Jesus knew that ‘Love your enemies’ didn’t mean ‘Don’t make any.’”  And Bill said, “Of course the church is conservative for it has so much to conserve.  But let it conserve a vision of the world’s destiny and not the structures of the world’s past.  Let the Church in remembering Christ remember that it is conserving the most uprooting, the most revolutionary force in all human history.”

Coffin believed as King believed as Douglass believed as Wilberforce believed as John Newton believed as Jesus and his disciples and the Hebrew prophets believed that we as a church are called not just to transform ourselves but also to go out and transform the world.

What about us?  What do we believe?  Someone commented on our Future Directions Statement saying, “I think we need to be careful about our political agenda so that we are welcoming to all, even those with different political beliefs.”

Our Statement on being Welcoming and Inclusive agrees, saying, “We dream that we will be known as a welcoming and accepting place to which anyone in our community who needs spiritual, personal or material support will turn.”

Our Statement on Mission and Social Action agrees we should be welcoming to all, too, saying, “We appreciate…townspeople knowing they can count on the church to be here for them.”  But then it goes on to say, “We dream of being a force, not just a presence, trying to make a difference in the world, responding to social wrongs, threats and destructive forces.”

Our Statement on Conversations about Important Matters says, “We want to be able to consider big questions and controversial issues, sharing with healthy communication, where we can disagree and still get along. We want to stand consistently with our ideals while listening humbly, openly and with fairness and compassion to others with differing views.”

We have confirmed that these statements accurately reflect the spirit of our congregation.  We want to be all that a prophetic church can be.  We envision a beloved community here that is upbuilding, encouraging, consoling and healing for all, and we also envision a church fulfilling Ezekiel’s calling to be a sentinel, warning and saving a nation gone astray and a world gone wrong.

Not only can we be both, we must be both.  We cannot truly be an upbuilding and healing community for all if we stand by and watch as the world around us is wounded and torn apart.  Those wounds and divisions cannot be held forever outside our doors, and by silently acquiescing to such a world we share responsibility for the damage it does, as God said through Ezekiel.  And what good does it do a church to make a last stand for God’s realm behind its doors if it keeps silent as its children’s world descends into ever deeper fear and hate?  America’s churches have already done that far too long, and they grow ever weaker as that unloving world grows ever stronger.

“I have made you a sentinel: give them warning.” We do not have to solve everything, we need only to pursue love and strive to use what gifts we have in prophetic ways to transform the world.  We do not have to be the way, the truth and the life, we have a higher power who does that whose yoke is easy and burden light, who came that we may have life and have it abundantly, who taught us to love as he loved us so that his joy may be in us and be complete.  All Christ calls us to do is our small part using the Spirit’s vast power.

Let us pray together in silence in this faith, asking the Holy Spirit to show us what our part may be and to give us the power to do it…

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