Proper 18, Year A, Calvary Church, Cumberland Furnace & St. James’ Church, Dickson

So 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” (Ezek. 33:7).

In the ancient world, the “lookout” had an important role, to keep watch over the city and to spy out who or what was coming. The crucial role of the sentinel was to alert the people to the approaching enemy, to sound the alarm in time of danger. The watchman was a human “trip-wire,” intended to give the people enough time to prepare for what’s coming.

Lest we think the function is outmoded, societies continue to employ early warning systems, of various sorts. Witness the satellites and planes that tracked the path of Hurricane Laura; witness the sophisticated systems that provide our country warning against missile attack; witness the work of the “Planetary Defense Coordination Office” that uses data from telescopes to warn us about the approach of “near earth objects.” Honestly, I’d never even heard of this agency until I began digging around! You get the idea: all employ “lookouts” of great complexity to help warn us in advance.

The difficulty, however, is that in some cases we seem to be looking for the wrong things, or maybe even looking in the wrong direction. It’s not so much what’s out there that poses the greatest threat, as it is what’s closer to home. Designing an early warning system for a pandemic would be a good thing; early warning of climate change would also be useful. You might think that those systems are already in place, but that getting people and governments to pay attention to them is what is really difficult.

Not only that: what about the deeper problems of the human psyche, the issues that are most interior? When it comes to human sin, there is no early warning system. We’ve been struggling this summer, in our country, with difficult issues that are hard to address adequately, even with a government agency. In regard to problems of the heart and mind, there is no failsafe system in place.

In our reading today, God appoints the prophet Ezekiel as a watchman, a sentinel for the house of Israel. But he’s a curious sort of lookout, because in his day the city of Jerusalem no longer exists, at least as the capital of an independent state. Ezekiel and other leading citizens of Israel are in exile in Babylon. There is no city to warn, but only a scattered group of refugees. The covenant that God had made with the People of Israel has been cancelled out by their own faithlessness. The people’s lament goes up, Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” (Ezek. 33:10). As it says in Psalm 137, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” It seemed impossible, by any possible stretch of the imagination, that there might be a future for the People. “How then can we live?”

It’s at exactly this point that Ezekiel is appointed a watchman by God. It’s too late to warn the city, but Ezekiel is sent to warn the People that the moment of decision has come. God is still looking out for each of them. Each must turn from his or her wickedness in order to live. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11), God tells Ezekiel, and tells him to send the message. “Why will you die, O House of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11). God makes Ezekiel responsible for sounding the warning, a new warning for a new day, as a faithful priest and pastor must sound it.

Our Gospel reading from Matthew sounds a similar note. Here, Jesus makes the disciples responsible for one another, and accountable to each other. We have our own warning system, you might say. The ministry of watchman is still being exercised within the community, as we call each other to repentance and proclaim the forgiveness of sins. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone… Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17).

Today, each of us will have the opportunity to reaffirm our faith, recommitting ourselves to a life of repentance and service. Our Gospel reminds us that the church ought to be a place of accountability, a place where forgiveness is freely shared. All of this is possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our liturgy itself reminds us that, for us, today is the moment of decision of which Ezekiel speaks.

Here in our liturgy, we are dealing with the human heart and mind. The sacraments exist in the face of an intractable human problem, against which (remember) there is no failsafe. We are in the presence of an internal problem rather than an external threat. Just imagine an Arecibo observatory aimed at the human heart! An instrument that could track the course of heart and mind of wayward humanity! Of course, there is no such device, only the pastoral ministry of the church, sounding the warning that the moment of decision is here.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee