September 27, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Ezra 5:1-13, Hebrews 13:1-3

By Whose Authority… The People and the Place, Third in a Series

This past June, I attended General Synod, the national gathering for the United Church of Christ. I went to a worship service led by Bishop Yvette Flunder. At one point, her preaching crescendoed to this spectacular pair of questions: “Who do you fear? and Who do you serve?” It was a Hollywood moment. (Know what I mean?) A rising swell where you felt like the whole crowd could chant the answer in unison: Who do you fear? Nobody! Who do you serve? Jesus Christ. You better believe we know the right answer!

Only thing was, Bishop Flunder asked the questions a second time. This time, she held the silence for a whole long minute. “Who do you fear?” And the people in the room began thinking of actual people in our lives, people whom we fear disappointing, people who judge so harshly or who need so much. Then Bishop Flunder asked, “Who do you serve?” We began thinking of actual people we know. A mother sitting near me shifted her baby on her lap.

There’s the Hollywood proclamation: “I fear no one! I serve Christ!” Then there’s the truth of everyday: Really, Who do I fear? Who do I serve? Whose authority do I trust? Who do I believe? Who do I believe in… Sit with these questions for a whole long minute. See how they shape our conscience.

This morning, we continue our worship series on Ezra-Nehemiah, and the story we hear has one of these Hollywood moments; you feel the orchestra swell and the camera hold the shot.

But before this moment, let me set up the scene. You might remember the people saw the foundation of the temple being laid, and out of the crowd rose a great shout. Well, there were neighboring peoples who opposed the rebuilding of the temple. They persuaded King Artaxerxes to put a stop to the construction. And he did. The project was abandoned until King Darius took the throne.

Now by this time the Jewish prophets had been stirring up truth and trouble. Once again Zerubabbel and Jeshua gathered their people and set out to work building the house of the LORD. This is when some of the leaders from the other nations confronted the people working on the temple: “Who gave you a decree to build this?” they demanded. “What are the names of the men building this house?” It is chilling how they ask this.

But the builders say: “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth rebuilding the house that was built many years ago…” You want to know who authorized this building? That would be God of heaven and earth, and no thank you we will not be giving you our names. But King Darius should really check because King Cyrus signed off on this building. Sure enough, King Darius found that in the records and allowed the temple building to continue.

It’s a great and gleeful moment when the men working on the temple silence their accusers with this triumphant response: “No, we will not stop building. God authorized this work!” It’s hard not to cheer for them… But sit with this story for a whole long minute, see something more is happening.

What makes the Jewish builders listen to their prophets instead of the king? What makes them risk angering these other nations by working on the temple? Why do they keep showing up for work? God commissioned this temple. This truth means something more than just, “We’re allowed to be here, so there.” Building this temple is an act of conscience these unnamed men are exercising every day.

Most significant acts of conscience take practice every day. When the civil rights marchers were being attacked, do you know how they refused to retaliate, how they took violence hurled at them and turned it into peace? Well, they practiced. They proved that courageous acts of conscience come from a deeper commitment, from the way we live when nobody’s watching, from the questions we are made to answer in our own hearts.

In just a few minutes, we’ll get to hear Ed share with us a reflection from his experience at Oxford. During his sharing, I invite you to listen for everyday acts of conscience. One problem with our criminal justice system is that it dehumanizes the people it touches—the people who work for it and the people locked up inside it. God does not call us by number, God calls us beloved. So if you are part of this system, you will face this question of conscience every day: Do I believe the Bureau of Prisons? or Do I believe God?

Sisters and brothers, who do you fear? And who do you mean to fear? Who do you serve? And who do you mean to serve? Who do we trust? Who do we follow? Every time we remember those who are locked up, it is Christ who we are serving. Every time we take the risk of welcoming a stranger, watch out for those angels getting welcomed too because you know what they always say,“Do not be afraid.”

Blessed are the brave choices and the hard questions. Blessed is the word Ed shares and our listening in love. Amen.

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