I had one of those sermon prep weeks I hate. A few weeks ago, when I say that Amanda would be joining us from Room in the Inn, I figured this would be a super easy week to preach. Oliver always likes to gently remind me to give quicker sermons when we have an Outreach group attending, so I knew I would have brevity on my side. And, given the readings so far this summer, I had every reason to assume that at least one of the readings would deal with feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, showing hospitality to those less fortunate or something along those lines. My goal on Outreach Sunday’s is to provide a bit of a lead-in for the speaker from the group that has been chosen by the Outreach Committee. Given those expectations, you might now understand why I was disappointed in our readings. Look at them again. Which one ties into the work of RitI? Now you see my problem.
The problem was exacerbated because I really felt a need to keep you guessing about my sermon. Hey, if you know what I am likely to preach, you may feel you can skip! Lol I had a couple “Will you be preaching on the late spring/early summer difficulties at church, Father? I mean, that’s an easy sermon illustration, right?” I also had a couple “Will you be sticking to Romans? You and Holly both have been focused there the last couple weeks.” Nobody, and I mean not one soul, asked me whether I would consider preaching on Ezekiel this week. In fact, when I asked some probing questions, I learned we rather avoid that difficult passage and that our movie knowledge is less than extensive.
What is a sentinel? I had one brilliant younger member of the congregation rightly guess it was Shane Falco’s team. For those of you who do not get the reference, there was a great football movie called The Replacements that starred Gene Hackman as the coach and Keanu Reeves as the college-star-quarterback-gone-bust who fill in as strike replacements. And while there are redemptive elements to that movie, I do not believe they speak to the message from Ezekiel today. So I ask again, what is a sentinel? Why did the writer choose the word sentinel over the word for watchman? What is the difference conveyed by the word choice?
To take us back in history again, let’s consider when the two were used. Watchman describes the ongoing monitoring, particularly at night, to see if any threats present themselves. Watchmen were deployed in all times, even peace time. Think of men stationed along a city or village wall at night peering and listening in the darkness for sounds of raiders or other threats to the well-being of the community. It was a job of tremendous responsibility. If the watchmen missed the warning signs or, worse, fell asleep while on duty, the community could be harmed or even destroyed. Great trust was placed in the watchmen by the community. True, walls helped make up for human frailties, but many communities did not have the walls. Imagine their vulnerability in a time when there was no electricity, no cell phones, no 24 hour news service warning them of imminent dangers. Why, do you think, did the watchmen long for the morning? Imagine the responsibility of being charged with the safety of your friends, family, and community and possibly failing. That was the challenging aspect for a watchman. That’s why they longed for the light of day and its accompanying safety.
Sentinels, on the other hand, were deployed primarily in times of threat, particularly the threat of an invading army or large band of outlaws. Their job was to assume the threat was real and challenge everyone. A watchman might see Otis the drunk heading out to sleep off the binge and think nothing of it. A sentinel would perceive that Otis might be a threat, a traitor, or be walking into danger and so challenge his presence and intention. The distinction may seem fine to us, but it was a difference in expectation in the Ancient Near East. One worked under a presumed time of peace with only occasional threats; the other worked under a presumed threat with rare times or actions of peace.
The distinction ought to make us wonder a bit more at this passage, if we understand the history of Israel in Ezekiel. The first 32 chapters of Ezekiel deal with God’s judgment of Israel, and chapters 34 to the end deal with the restoration of Israel. Our passage, as you’ve no doubt noted, is from chapter 33. It stands between the judgments of God and His restoration of His people. If we read just a few verses more, we discover that Jerusalem has already fallen. If Jerusalem has already fallen, what need is there of a sentinel? Who is to be warned? From whom do they need to be protected? The invading army has conquered and, in this case, did so as God’s instrument of judgement. So, why the need for a sentinel? It seems akin to closing the barn door after the horses have gotten out.
Our struggle with the passage is likely complicated by the address. Our translators render the Hebrew ben adam as “mortal.” It is hard to read that phrase and not be reminded of God’s inquiry of Cain and Cain’s response that he is not his brother’s keeper in Genesis 4. I think that intentional on the part of the writer. In one sense, God’s address of the writer and prophet as mortal serves as a direct contrast to His own infinite and transcendent glory. But in another sense, the address is used to remind the prophet that he is linked to all humanity just as you and I are linked to all humanity. In a real sense, we are all sons and daughters of Adam. We are all mortal and finite. By virtue of our baptism, we are all on the receiving end of this address. And that complicates things a bit further.
We live in a culture that has forgotten community. We live in a culture that encourages individuals to cut themselves off from one another. Think I am overstating the problem? How many of us grew up knowing our neighbors? How many of us knew that some of our friends’ parents were as likely to thump us if we got lippy or sassy as our parents were to thump our friends if they did the same? How many of us lived in fear that the teacher or principal would call mom or dad to complain about our lack of effort or respect? Loneliness might be our greatest fear or enemy now. I don’t mean to oversimplify things, but we are a culture that is far more isolated. Now we connect via smart phones, sometimes even when we are together, rather than face to face and eye to eye conversations. Social media has replaced chairs and swings on porches. And loneliness is now a greater threat than nearly everything else to our longevity, at least that is what health professionals and sociologists are beginning to teach us.
And the Church has been infected with that loss of community and increase in loneliness. How many members of churches like to pretend they have their act together? How many churches really allow people to be themselves, to really admit their failure, their impotence, their sense of unworth? And heaven help us now with respect to sentinel work in our midst. We are so “me, me, me” that we forget the “us, us, us” and we far more timid about calling out sins. We don’t want to appear judgmental. We live in a mind your own business culture; who wants to be responsible for someone else’s business? Yet here is God in Ezekiel, as He does in other places in Scripture, reminding us that we are our brothers’ keeper. While it is true that Jesus instructs us not to judge the salvation of another soul, He also instructs us how to deal with sin in our midst in a loving, sentinel fashion. Those who doubt what I say need look no further than Matthew’s Gospel lesson today from chapter 18!
There is a phrase in Spiderman which evangelists picked up in the 1990’s – with great power comes great responsibility. Adoption into God’s kingdom is a wonderful, glorious thought. But it comes with tremendous responsibility. His adopted sons and daughters, His princes and princesses, serve rather than be served. His adopted sons and daughters practice humility rather than pride. And his adopted sons and daughters are tasked with naming sin. Now, I get the aversion. We are Episcopalians, not Baptists or Church of Christ. Nobody here wants to be on a street corner proclaiming “repent or die” or “know Jesus or know hell.” And, I think as we see in Matthew 18 today, we do not need to be on a street corner. But neither are we called to accept anything He declares a sin as acceptable in the lives of those around us. Worse, failing to address the sin means their blood is on our hands. If we gently and winsomely and lovingly wrestle with sin in our community, the guilt is on those who reject God. But if we ignore it, it’s our guilt. Tough words, no?
Think of the damage that sin does to a community of faithful Christians or to the honor of God. When we cheat on our taxes, we are stealing. How does the world view tax cheats who claim to be Christian? How do they view God? Who wants to join a community of thieves? When we Christians ignore the plight of homeless or immigrants or whatever marginalized group you want to name, when we work to ostracize them rather than draw them into the loving embrace of our Lord and Savior, how does the world view us and the Lord we serve? Who really wants to join a community of the hard-hearted? Such communities are plentiful in the world around us! When we encourage gossip, how does the world view us and the Lord we serve?
I have been here nearly three years now, so I think I can name how it impacts us at Advent more specifically in love, not in judgment. Look around us again this morning. Where is the next generation? And the one after that? One of our greatest gifts we are gathered to steward are our children, our youth? Why are they not here worshiping with us today? When did we decide that it was ok to miss church for soccer games? To use Sundays for sleeping in and ignoring worship that day or any other day of the week? Why were we ok with lukewarm responses to God’s love with those whom we most treasure, most love? And, for those of you thinking “whew, I get a pass, my kids moved away,” are they active in a Christian faith community where they live? Have you shared with them the importance of your faith in God and Christ? And, where are those their age who moved to Nashville even as yours left. We add 4800 people a month to our population in the city. Are none of them between the ages of 25 and 60? Are none of them visiting us? Are none of them looking for community among us?
It is tough being a son or daughter of God. That’s part of why He calls it a cross and not a martini glass. That’s why He calls us sentinels. Our work is dangerous, often thankless or even rejected, but incredibly important! We want so much to believe that how a person acts and speaks is between only them and God. We want to believe that, but this passage reminds us that such is not true. So does our life together. Loving someone fully means desiring they share in that intimate relationship offered by God. When we sit by silently, not challenging, fearful that they might think us too religious, we are failing them as much as sentinels failed when they refused to challenge those who went about. And what happens when we fail in our jobs as sentinels?
True, our communities may not be attacked in the same was as Ezekiel would have understood such language, but one cannot escape the comparison. Friends and neighbors have drifted away in the darkness. Why? Where have they gone? Has it been clergy failure? Has it been busy lives? Has it been a question of faith? Family members have drifted away, forgetting that the worship of God is THE most important thing we do. Why? The people that you and I claim to hold most dear have, in many instances, turned away from God? Why do we remain silent if we truly care about them? What is it that keeps us from being sentinels?
But in these tough words also is the wonderful reminder of the heart of God. What if the mortal realizes his or her sin? What if the other son or daughter to whom we speak, to whom we love, to whom we strive to be in relationship and community with realizes their sin, what hope do we have for them? Even in this hard passage God reminds us that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. God is not sitting up on His throne sharpening a lightning bolt excited at the prospect that He gets to smite someone. No, indeed. What gives Him pleasure is that the wicked turn back to Him. What causes rejoicing in heaven is the repentance of a sinner and not the destruction of a sinner! Can you imagine! Of course you can! You are here! Each and everyone of us who is gathered here this day is here to give thanks to God for making it possible for us to serve Him, for us to choose life over death! And we recognize each and every time we come before that altar or table that God gave us that possibility of choosing life through His own life and death and resurrection. That is our primary purpose. That is why it is called a Eucharist – I give good thanks!
This sermon today has been a bit challenging. I have noticed the squirming; I have seen the elbow nudging and the eyes. This is an inherently dangerous passage if we forget that the sentinels not only warn about danger but that they also point the way to safety and security. To you, brothers and sisters, has been given the greatest treasure and greatest responsibility in the universe. Each of you gathered here this day understands the need for a Savior. Each of you gathered here this day understands why so many choose to reject God, to scoff at His warnings, and to chase death. That means you are uniquely equipped to speak to and to serve others, lovingly and winsomely, just as others once spoke and served you and drew you into His saving embrace. We call it a Gospel, in part, because it is not dependent upon you or upon me. It is dependent solely upon God. And in His gracious heart, He has not demanded perfection from us or from those to whom we reach in His name. No indeed. When we fail, we need only to repent. We need only to redirect ourselves to Him and to His purposes. And that Lord who reminds us that we are mere mortals forgives us, restores us, and empowers us to be fit sentinels in His kingdom, pointing others to Him and to life. Yes, we name the sins, we do not pretend they are anything other than those things which separate us from God’s love. Of equal importance, however, is the certainty that God has made it possible for all to come into His saving embrace, not just in this life, but for eternity.