29 October 2011-10-25
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Boars in the Vineyard
Based on St. Matthew 23: 1-12
By James Semmelroth Darnell
St. Matthew wrote his gospel and Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door at two times in history that were not dissimilar. Matthew’s gospel was likely written in 80-90 AD to a community of Jewish Christians attempting to differentiate themselves from the Jewish Pharisees leadership. They attempted to straddle the line between accepting Jewish law and resisting the legalism of the Pharisees. In this passage we find Jesus railing against the Pharisees, accusing them of not practicing what they preach, pretending to be righteous, exalting themselves, and burdening others. Later in Matthew he really lays into them, calling them hypocrites and says they are “like whitewashed tombs which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.” So much for meek and mild Jesus! Martin Luther was a biblical studies professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany when Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences in 1516. Tetzel sold indulgences (the forgiveness of sins, or time off from purgatory, for a price) in the Saxon region, to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and to help the local archbishop pay off his debt incurred while buying his position. Luther, who was a Catholic monk, initially sent a letter of inquiry to the Archbishop, but would in 1517 post his theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He would rail against the injustice of poor peasants, so afraid of eternal punishment, who contributed their meager earnings, while the Pope very well could have paid for the basilica out of his own treasury. In 1521, standing before the Holy Roman Emperor, asked to recant all his writings, he stated, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason. . . , I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience….Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.” It was for such bold speech, a monk calling to task the Church, that Pope Leo said of Luther and his supporters, “foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard… The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.” The label of a wild board run amok in the Lord’s vineyard has stuck ever since to Dr. Luther. But as Jesus’ speech against the Pharisees illustrates, sometimes righteous anger, and even rage against injustice is perfectly appropriate. Luther raged, yes sometimes like a wild boar, against the hypocrisy of Church elites placing their desires above the wellbeing of peasant believers. And Jesus raged, against the Pharisee elites who paraded their religiosity to the detriment of the poor.
Too often we confuse the Christian message with politeness and nicety. But Jesus doesn’t tell us this, and Luther certainly didn’t. Yes, we are called to be kind, gentle-hearted, and gracious. But, the God of mercy and compassion is also a God of justice. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Shout out! Do not hold back, lift up your voice like a trumpet!” Today on Reformation Sunday, we are reminded to lift up our voices for justice and reform in our society and in our Church. The work of the Reformation found its turning point in the stand of Dr. Martin Luther. But it was fermenting as early as the 1100’s when the Waldensians in Italy were charged as being heretics for encouraging laypeople to interpret the Bible. It continued with the likes of John Calvin in Switzerland, John Knox in Scotland, John Wesley in England, the Puritans and Pilgrims who founded the Congregational Churches that formed part of the UCC, and many others. Among the gifts of the Reformation is the ability to worship and read the Bible in our own languages, the belief in the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ that is the belief the we each have gifts for ministry and each can confess directly to our God, and congregational hymns. But the work of the Reformation is not done, as the Church and our world constantly need reforming. In order to be a viable presence in the world the Church has to be authentic, transparent, and demonstrate that it can rise above the corruption that has so often plagued it. To do this requires continual reformation, for each of us to hold ourselves and the Church accountable to living out Christ’s Good News for each of God’s children.
As we go about this work, it is important to keep perspective. Martin Luther was not a perfect person, and neither are we. Luther was obsessive compulsive, and quite possibly bipolar. He could be crude, and in old age became increasingly obstinate against any who would stand in his way. In his later years, he was quite anti-Semitic. St. Matthew’s gospel also has been used against our Jewish brothers and sisters. Much blood was shed during the Reformation in Europe between Catholics and the emerging Protestants. In acknowledging the Church’s own history and attempting to live into a better future, we would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition at the end of this morning’s passage. After his diatribe against the pridefulness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus says “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” As we go about the work of justice and reformation, trying to live faithfully in Church and society, we must do so with humility. The self-righteousness and hypocrisy of those Jesus and Luther railed against is a risk in our own selves. We can easily become self-righteous and think we, and only we, have it right. Especially as we work for reform and strive to better the Church, it would be easy to boast and be prideful. But Jesus reminds us that is not the way. The real way to go about this reform, to fighting injustice, is by being a servant leader. To do this, we have to let go of our egos, our titles, our pride and selfishness. We have to get down on our knees and wash others’ feet like Jesus did. Robert Greenleaf writes that “”The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” As long as we are putting the care and service of others before ourselves and our own self-satisfaction, we should remain humble. And whatever accomplishments, achievements, and successes we attain, we must remember that it is by the grace of God.
Luther said that Christians are simultaneously sinners and saints. What he meant was that we each, having received the grace of God, are saints, but continue to wrestle with sin. Recognizing that we are not one or the other, but both at the same time should also humble us. It is because we are in such dire need of God’s grace in our lives that we can claim this.
The world and the Church have benefited from the gifts of the Reformation and particularly Dr. Martin Luther. But we also need to acknowledge and repent of its errors, particularly against our Roman Catholic and Jewish brothers and sisters. As we continue this work of the Reformation, Jesus reminds us to do it not with pride or boasting or even great religiosity, but making ourselves servants in the service of others, having deep humility.
In closing, I’d like to share with you a poem written by Dr. Luther, written in 1523. It stands the test of time and I hope it will speak to you today.
From trouble deep I cry to thee,
Lord God, hear thou my crying;
Thy gracious ear, oh, turn to me,
Open to my sighing.
For if thou mean’st to look upon
The wrong and evil that is done,
Who, Lord, can stand before thee?
With thee stands nothing but thy grace
To cover all our failing.
The best life cannot win the race,
Good works are unavailing.
Before thee no one glory can,
And so must tremble every man,
And live by thy grace only. . .
Although our sin be great, God’s grace
Is greater to relieve us;
His hand in helping nothing stays,
The hurt however grievous.
The Shepherd good alone is he,
Who will at last set Israel free,
From all and every trespass.
+Glory be to God. Amen.