Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 10th September 2017
Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Matthew 18:15-20
As we worship this morning, our hearts and prayers are with the next group of people who are in the way of the devastation that is Hurricane Irma. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the people of Barbuda, Turks & Caicos and the other small islands. But having visited the Florida Keys on two occasions, I know what even a small storm surge can do there.
But thank goodness for warnings. Our ability to spot and predict the direction and size of hurricanes, as with many volcanic eruptions, means that it is possible to issue detailed warnings of impending disaster and for people to be moved to safety. Any loss of life is a disaster for loved ones, but we give thanks for those whose scientific knowledge and disaster planning minimises the risk to life and limb.
There’s a word in our Old Testament reading for the meteorologists and volcanologists who offer such warnings: sentinels. Sentinels are watchmen and women, people who stand guard to warn and to prevent a surprise attack. Early warnings are vital in military strategy: needless to say the eyes of sentinels are trained towards North Korea at the moment.
Weathermen and watchtowers are modern day sentinels. But in the Book of Ezekiel, it is neither scientist or soldier who is appointed a sentinel, but the prophet himself. God says, “See, mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the House of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, give them a warning from me.” The prophet in the Old Testament is appointed to issue warnings from God, warnings about repentance and death, invitations to turn away from sin and back to God. Ezekiel is called to bring God’s word in the form of a warning that will summon people from death to life.
God’s word at the end of the reading makes God’s purposes clear, “say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, 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…” The prophet’s task is to call people to turn their lives around.
And of course the question that follows from that is whether you or I are called to be sentinels like that? Is it my role to call you to repentance, to stand on the battlements and see the compromise and failure of God’s people in this parish and to speak God’s word of repentance into those situations? And is it the role of the People of God to act in such a way towards the world around us? I imagine that our thoughts turn to those well-meaning but depressing figures who stand with sandwich boards our who harangue people with megaphones in central London; people who probably put far more people off than they attract. Am I, are we, to act like that? Is part of the calling of the preacher and the people?
I don’t think we have the luxury of ducking that issue, if I’m honest, but it presents huge challenges. We live in a culture where ‘live and let live’ is the watchword. Perhaps for fear of being accused (and probably rightly) of hypocrisy or maybe in a natural avoidance of conflict, it’s easy to duck the challenge of acting as a sentinel in the way Ezekiel is called to act.
Yet think for a moment of the consequence of such an avoidance. Imagine a world where we saw the consequence of sin – broken, damaged lives and fractured communities, a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – it’s not difficult to imagine really is it? – imagine simply sitting back and avoiding attending to the cause of that brokenness. Could we really allow a failure of nerve to deter us from saying and doing the right thing, even at the cause of being unpopular.
Remember that God’s call to Ezekiel is primarily a call to life. The naming of sin for what it is a warning but first and foremost it is about life. If the sentinel is there to call a warning, it is also an invitation to a better world and a better way of living.
This week has seen two examples of that in the national church. The first concerns a small, but serious, concern about so-called ‘fixed odds betting terminals’ where, along with others, Christians have seen these high-stakes slot machines as a serious threat to the wellbeing of those already trapped in poverty and debt. Having seen the damage, and it’s good to remember that the clergy of the Church of England still live in the communities they serve and have first-hand experience of the problems caused, having seen the damage these machines do in already poverty-ridden communities, Christians have taken the lead in calling on the Chancellor to ban them. Surprise, surprise the betting industry are lobbying hard to prevent that happening. Opposition is real.
The second has been the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury concerning the economy. As part of a panel investigating the nature of the UK economy, Archbishop Justin has written in the Financial Times about how the UK economy is broken, and how parts of the country are in decline while other parts (the part we live in being a prime example) flourish. He notes the gross and growing inequalities, with public sector workers having faced real terms pay cuts between 2010 and 2015 and continuing to do so, while the median salary for FT100 directors has risen by 47% in the same time scale. Whose economy is it, he asks, and he calls for a new economic model. Headline figures simply do not reflect people’s experiences, he says, and calls for (and offers a model) for an economy based on the common good. This is deeply uncomfortable, maybe particularly for people in communities like ours, who have been (in general) the winners in the economic model we live in. The sentinel warns of the dangers ahead. What should be our response, in our city offices, in our financial priorities, in our discipleship?
It’s here that Ezekiel’s message offers hope as well as challenge. It’s hopeful because repentance offers us the possibility that we can change course, even after sin has held sway in our lives and communities. The Gospel says that we are not slaves to sin, that change is possible, and that we are free to choose a new and better way.
So perhaps for us as a church and for me as your pastor the invitation to call others to repentance is a hopeful one. Standing as we do with the role of a sentinel, we can look upon the coming danger and warn, we can look upon the threat and call one another to life.
That’s the way of Jesus too, as we see in the difficult reading from Matthew we heard about dealing with conflict in community. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone…” The goal here is that we take local decision and local action to call one another to life. How easy it is to ignore difficulty and conflict and to take the easy solution of pretending everything is OK when it isn’t. But that is not the gospel way. The Gospel way, with all the potential of conflict it involves, is to call the other to life, to call the sinner to repentance. That is why Jesus ends this reading with the famous line about “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ Jesus is with us in these moments of conflict and sin, just as he is with is in comforting, intimate moments of prayer.
Brothers and sisters, we are called to be sentinels, to help one another into deeper life in Jesus Christ, on the lookout for the dangers that hold us back from fullness of life, ready to speak in order to build and heal a world where sin and brokenness are present. That is the way that leads to life but, because we are Christians, it involves walking the way of the Cross. In the words of a famous prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”