Sentinel, Do Not Fret
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 6, 2020 Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 37:1-9; Matthew 6:5-6, 24, 27-34
[You can watch a video recording of this sermon at the end of this text and you can see the entire On Line Service by clicking here. This is the third in a series of three teachings on this topic in the August 2nd service.]
I have been away from the church for the past month for a much-needed time of vacation and retreat. I will report what I did on my summer vacation before this sermon is over, but I find the world I am returning to has become even more troubled than when I left.
Many of us are concerned about the McLanes after the loss of their home to fire. We are concerned about students and teachers as schools reopen. We are concerned about people who are struggling financially with winter approaching. We are concerned about the mental and physical health of those we love. On top of that, we are in the final two months of an election that many feel will mean life or death for both our democracy and the conditions needed for survival on earth.
It is difficult not to get swept up in emotional turmoil, but over and over the scriptures say do not fret, do not be afraid, do not let your heart be troubled. “Peace,” Jesus says, and breathes the Holy Spirit into his agitated disciples.
It is crucial that we find a way to return to being centered and calm in the midst of agitation. God and the world need us not to fret for one simple reason: so that we can be completely available to the Holy Spirit.
Remember that after Jesus said, “Peace” and breathed the Spirit into his disciples, he sent them out into the world to do its work.
The Spirit of life has been evolving this miraculously complex, beautiful planet for billions of years. It has been evolving human consciousness toward the heart and mind of Christ for thousands of years and evolving human society toward the realm of God on earth, societies whose highest laws are the Golden Rule, love of neighbor and compassion for the hurting and vulnerable. We have come so far and are so close! Imagine how the Spirit of life feels to see it all at risk.
The ultimate purpose of our existence is to serve the Spirit’s drive to create better conditions for the life of all we can. That is why we have the gifts we have, and why we feel moved to love what we love.
Right now the Spirit needs us to listen carefully to its guidance and to lean on its strength and to work as one to save all the progress that it has made and help humanity make the evolutionary leap we must to survive.
We each are called to serve in our own way, in our own place, within our own limits and abilities, but no matter how small that may be or how little we feel we have to contribute, the Spirit needs us all.
Ezekiel tells us that the Spirit needs us to be a sentinel, watching for danger, crying out when we see it, warning the world around us when it has departed from goodness. Ezekiel says that we are as guilty as those doing the evil if we remain silent about it.
This is a heavy burden. It means that we need to upset people, including sometimes people we would rather not upset. As Rep. John Lewis said, we need to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.
Like a sentinel, we cannot put this off. The sentinel has to respond when danger is at hand. All that the sentinel loves, life itself, is at stake. If you listen to the Spirit within you, you will know what you need to do.
I imagine that this may make you uncomfortable, maybe anxious, maybe angry, maybe depressed, even as we still hear echoing the call not to fret. How can we hold both of these together, the call to act in the world and the call to be at peace in our hearts?
Jesus taught us how to live a Spirit-filled life of inner peace while taking on the troubles of the world—working to heal the hurting, protect the vulnerable and overturn powerful systemic wrongs. Today’s scriptures are just a few examples from just one chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.
The first is the foundational passage for the Christian contemplative tradition. It is called “prayer in secret.” I said I would tell you what I did on my summer vacation. I cut, split and stacked my firewood, I helped Christina weed and harvest in the garden, I took walks and wrote poems, I reconnected with friends and family, but the main thing I did was “go into [my] room and shut the door and pray” in secret. I practiced contemplative forms of prayer five times a day for a total of two hours or more. It was transformative.
Few people feel they have the time or calling to do this, but right now we all have a calling to get still enough to hear what the Spirit is asking us to do. We each need to find our own technique. I recommend Centering Prayer and Welcoming Practice, but you may also find gardening or walking in the woods or knitting or a spiritual conversation with a soul friend can help you let go of your own thoughts so you can hear the Spirit’s.
Jesus offers more advice. He says no one can serve two masters, we have to choose between God and mammon, between the realm of justice, compassion and love and the realm of fearful and closed-hearted selfishness.
Sometimes we have an even harder choice to make—a choice between what is good and what is best. Caution can be good, enlightened self-interest can be good, doing good can be good, but not when the Spirit is calling us to do more, to take risks and lay down our lives for our neighbor out of Christ-like love.
Jesus says we need to be totally free to serve God in those moments, and he asks us to live in trust. He says, “Strive first for the realm of God and its right and sacred way, and all these other things you need will be given to you as well.”
One day a young girl climbed into a tree and got so far that she suddenly felt terrified and couldn’t get back down. She cried out to her father and he came running. He grabbed the stepladder but it was not quite high enough to reach her and lift her to safety. He said to her, “You are going to have to let go and reach down to me,” but she was too scared. He said, “Look at me. Don’t look down, don’t look anywhere else, look in my eyes and reach one hand toward me. That’s all you have to do.”
In an instant she was in his loving arms, and then safe on the ground, and soon she was back doing her calling as a little girl, playing and bringing light and joy into the world.
Remember this in the crucial, hard months ahead. The Spirit of life is with you always, ready to comfort, strengthen and guide you in the work to which it calls you.
So dear sentinels, do not fret.
Let us pray in silence, practicing praying in secret in the room of our heart where the Spirit is waiting for us now…