In the name of God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we go through autumn, we see the leaves falling and the colors changing. The yards have been aerated and seeded, the spring bulbs are in the ground, and we are reminded that in order to experience the new birth of the spring, things now must fall and return to the earth to bear new life. It’s a good setup for Jesus’ words this morning- “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Which is a direct insult to those who see themselves as the exalted ones. Right after our reading today ends, Jesus really plunges the dagger with a series of woes. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites,” “woe to you blind guides,” and “woe to you…you snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Jesus is pulling no punches.
And let us remind ourselves of what we learned in our Bible studies, that all of these things are happening in the Temple after the Palm Sunday procession. Jesus is in Jerusalem during what we call Holy Week, and he’s doing the best he can to challenge the status quo and upset the authorities of the day. And he attacks them with the thing that we all know hurts the most- he calls them hypocrites. Hypocrite is a Greek word that was used for actors in plays. They want you to think that they are something which, in truth, they are not. They claim to have power, to be spiritual, to be worthy of respect- and Jesus says that they are not.
None of us like to think of ourselves as hypocrites, but aren’t we all a bit? The easy thing to do here is to side with Jesus and say “yeah Jesus, you tell ‘em!” We don’t want to see ourselves as the Scribes and Pharisees, do we? I don’t want to speak for you all, but I know that I’m a hypocrite. I don’t write every letter to our representatives in Congress that should be written, I don’t do prison ministry or work at a soup kitchen as often as I think I should, sometimes I struggle to see the love of God in others whom I’m mad at. If we’re honest with ourselves, we will soon realize that none of us are perfect, none of us are sinless, none of us are innocent of hypocrisy from time to time. Hypocrisy is so attractive because, as Edmund Burke said, “hypocrisy can afford to be magnificent in its promises, for never intending to go beyond promise, it costs nothing.”
And unfortunately, hypocrisy is something known in the church all too well. In our reading from Micah we see the evils and results of hypocrisy run rampant. We Episcopalians don’t really celebrate it, but today is Reformation Sunday. It was wonderful to sing that opening hymn A Mighty Fortress, which is written by Martin Luther and often referred to as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” You all know the story- Martin Luther, was a priest who saw the hypocrisy in Rome. On October 31, 1517 he wrote a letter to Archbishop Albrecht speaking out against the sale of indulgences. Earlier, the Pope needed money, well, not that he needed it, but he didn’t want to use his own wealth, so he wanted to get more money to do renovations to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The plan was to sell indulgences, or get-out-jail for you sins cards. And it worked. Albrecht was deep in debt, so he figured that selling indulgences in Germany would be a good idea as well. As the slogan went “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory into heaven springs.”
Luther saw the hypocrisy in buying forgiveness, the hypocrisy in taxing the poor to pay for things that the rich could, so he wrote a letter that has come to be known as the “95 Theses” and he posted them on the church door. Luther never intended to leave the church, he just hoped to reform the hypocrisy. But the church wasn’t interested in change, and what came next is what historians call the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s motto was ecclesia semper reformands, semper reformanda or “the church is always reformed, always reforming.”
And it brings us to an interesting question about reformations in our own lives. Hypocrisy is all about contradictions. You say this, but you do that. There is another contradiction, a holy (h-o-l-y) contradiction in Jesus’ words- “all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humble is a word that literally means to make low, to submit to, to be oppressed. In Isaiah, when the prophet talks about the mountains and hills being made low, this is the word he uses. And the word “exalt” literally means to raise- in the Bible it is used to say that Christ was lifted up on the cross, it means glorify, to raise children or in the Flood story, it is the world for the ark that rises on the waters. It is a holy contradiction.
How is it that the path to be lifted up goes through going down? This isn’t how things work in our culture. No one climbs the corporate ladder by taking steps down; football teams don’t get to the top of the rankings by losing games; presidential candidates don’t win the nomination by doing poorly in the polls. This doesn’t make much sense. But yet, Jesus says it and as Christians we acknowledge that Jesus speaks to the divine truths in our lives. It didn’t make sense for Luther either- speaking out against the church, having the Pope excommunicate him and the Emperor put out a bounty for his head, once you’re outside the institution it’s a lot harder to reform it. What allows us to be humbled? What allowed Christ to humble himself to the point of death on a cross? What allowed Luther to be cast out of the church? What allows us to embrace these contradictions?
In a word- trust. When we trust in God we are then able to live for God’s kingdom instead of the kingdoms of this world; we are able to be oppressed and rejected. Trust is really what the Reformation was all about. Martin Luther had this trust- it is what allowed him to write “a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” He trusted that God was active in the world. And the question for us this morning is do you trust in God?
There is that wonderful passage in Isaiah where God says “behold, I am doing a new thing; do you perceive it?” For Luther, God was doing a new thing and he had to testify to it. In the Creed we all say “we believe in the Holy Spirit.” We acknowledge that God is somehow active in the world. But do we trust it? Do we live our lives as if it is true?
The questions is- do you believe in continuing revelation? Is there a word from the Lord? Did God finish Creation the book of Genesis and then leave us to run our course? Does God continue to speak to us, to push us, to call us, or not? I can tell you what I think, but that doesn’t matter. You have to answer that question for yourself.
If you say that that there is no continuing revelation, then the Bible contains all truths that we need to know. Everything about God is known as we simply have to follow the instructions. And if the Bible contains the full picture of everything, then we don’t need faith because we have all the data that we need. I think we would all acknowledge that in God, like other people, there are thoughts and dreams that are simply unknowable to the outside world.
The way that we get glimpses into those parts of God are through revelation- revelation in nature, revelation in prayer, revelation in the wisdom and discernment of the Church. Continuing revelation is something that we’ve always struggled with as a church. Do we ordain women, or not? Do we marry same-sex couples, or not? For centuries, the church answered “no” to both of those questions. But now, most of us, realize that God is continuing to give us revelation; revelations that have pushed to reconsider our answers to those questions.
Continuing revelation is a good thing. It means that God is with us, that God’s Spirit is still at work, that God is not done with us, that we can work with God to bring about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. It means there will be contradictions between what we thought was right and where God is calling us to go anew. And I think it makes sense- time is linear for a reason. If God wanted us to live in the past, then we’d live one endless moment in time where nothing new happens, where nothing changes, where nothing gets better. But time does move forward, and as it does we are called to live in each and every present moment listening, watching, feeling for the presence of God to continue to guide us in revelation. I invite you to consider- do you believe in continuing revelation? And if you do, what are you going to do about it?
Martin Luther certainly felt that continuing revelation was in God’s nature. And what we do with that trust in continuing revelation is important. Something has to change if we trust in God’s action in the world. If you have an encounter with God, if you think that God calling you to something and you don’t change, then I would suggest to you that it was not truly an experience of the divine. You cannot perceive a new thing that God is doing and walk away from it. A great preacher once took a line from Socrates- “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and adapted it to the language of faith and said “the uncommitted life is not worth living.” If you trust that God is active in your life, that God seeks to reform this world, then what will you do about it?
The trust that we have in God’s continuing presence with us makes us stewards of this trust, but also stewards of God’s world. St. Teresa of Avila wrote “Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.” We are the vehicles of God’s grace, of God’s love, of God’s continuing revelation in our world. Another famous saint, this time Augustine, said “without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.” Luther got this, in his hymn he wrote “did we in our strength confide, our striving would be losing.” We can’t do it by ourselves, and God won’t do it without us. God continues to work in and amongst us.
In light of God’s continuing grace, continuing promise to be with us, continuing love, we must respond. Martin Luther, in the reformation movement had five things that he proclaimed as central to the reforming effort, one of which was soli Deo gloria, which means “glory to God alone”. Glory is our response to God’s continuing revelation, glory is our response in trust to God, glory is our response of being stewards of God’s bounty.
God is at the center of everything, in whom we live and move and have our being. Being a creature of God makes us part of God’s glory, and all that we do should reflect that glory, or as Jesus put it, that exaltation. Part of the problem we have in Washington is that people forget this. People are used to being called public officials, instead of the older and more accurate term, public servants. They forget that they are working for God’s glory and not their own. If we live in God’s glory we can awake each morning and say “this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it.” It is in God’s glory that we can live for God. It is in God’s glory that we can continually seek God’s reformation for our world, for our lives, and for our souls. In God’s glory we can come to peace with the contradictions between our faith and our world. And it is in God’s glory that we can show forth our thanks.
But coming back to stewardship, and right now I’m focusing on financial stewardship, but there are other kinds. Living in God’s glory, trusting in God’s action in our lives, we have the opportunity to use our financial gifts for God’s glory- and that is the reason why we give. We don’t give for a tax write off, we don’t give to support the church’s budget, we don’t give to feel good about ourselves, we don’t give because our neighbors do; instead, we give to glorify God and what God is continuing to do in our world.
If you trust that God is active, then support God’s work through the church; participate in what God is doing. And I’ve said this before about money, but it is worth repeating. Money is a very powerful tool; but it is not good or bad, just a tool. And with this tool, there are two options- either you have power over your money or it has power over you. And if you want to find out which is true, try to give it away. If you cannot give your money away, then you have lost control of your money and it controls you. And I would encourage you all to give- don’t worry about the percentages, but give in a significant way. A good way to do it is to give 5% to the church and 5% to other charitable causes that you think are worthy. And if you don’t believe in the mission of St. Francis church, then don’t give here- but for God’s sake, and your own, give your money away. And here’s another holy contradiction- when you give to the glory of God, you too will be glorified, because in your giving you express the highest trust in God’s radical love. When you perceive that God is doing a new thing and participate in it, you participate in God’s glory. A good way to put all of this is- if you were put on trial for being a Christian, for trusting in God’s continuing revelation, for participating in God’s glory, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Well, it’s a day of contradictions. The low being lifted up, giving and in turn receiving, and the eternal Creator working with us in new ways each and every day. This Reformation Sunday, let us give thanks for the witness of Martin Luther, let us thank God for God’s continuing revelation in our lives, and let us express our trust in God by giving to and participating in God’s ongoing glory. As Martin Luther concludes his great hymn- “the Spirit and the gifts are ours / through him who with us sideth // God's truth abideth still / his kingdom is forever.”