Joshua 3:7-17, Matthew 23:1-12
A lot of people sat on the edges of their seats when game 6 of the World Series went 11 innings. It ended in an upset with the Cardinals scoring in the bottom to take it 10-9. The Cards followed up in a much less interesting seventh game to win their 11th title. But, even as many in the country had their eyes on baseball this weekend, another professional sport has held the attention of others: the NBA. Embroiled in a lockout, players and owners remain in a standoff, both sides hoping that the other will flinch first. In the center of the conflict is how to divide the league’s revenues: the owners want a 50-50 split. The players want a 52.5 take. At their last collective bargaining agreement, players were guaranteed 57 percent. According to NBA players, going down from their 57% to 53%, would transfer $1.1 billion from them to owners over six years. The difference between 50 percent and 52.5 percent totals about $100 million. We are talking huge sums of money, even if the percentage points are not very wide. Because the two sides can’t come to an agreement, games have been canceled for November creating a loss of $350 million, twice the amount of the difference between what the owners and players want.
We seem to live in a world in which immense sums of money are tossed around all the time. Whether it’s Congress discussing the deficit, tax rates and breaks, infrastructure costs, energy costs, foreclosure costs, unemployment costs, war costs, or sports costs, regular people - people like you and me - (we) talk about hundreds of millions of dollars, even billions of dollars as though we can in any way conceive of what this really means. People have become used to having little while moving in a world with a great deal of money.
We live in a time of deep conflict - I don’t mean Conservative-Liberal conflict. I mean, we live in a time when we are constantly told conflicting messages: to be afraid because there isn’t enough to go around and then to live immersed in excess. Too little. Too much. Too little money. Money everywhere. Not enough food. Too much food. Food insecurity. Gas too high to buy, but still too many cars on the roads. Too many people on the planet (7 billion now, I hear). All around us are messages of too little and too much. Because we focus on the too little, we forget that excess is everywhere; it takes force to resist it, to try to live humbly and simply. Sometimes that force comes from the outside in unexpected and unpleasant ways. We are forced to live more humbly because we don’t have enough money. We sell our car. We sell our house (or we try to). We let go off cable. We don’t have a microwave. We make the decisions because circumstances dictate that they are necessary. Yet, sometimes external forces aren’t enough; despite not having enough, we still spend and spend, whether out of wants or due to needs. That is how many of us wind up in deep debt. Other times, we yearn for a more simple and humble life. We try through the force of will to live in ways that deeply resist a culture that continually promotes “more, more, more.” Choosing no cable. Growing our own food. Eating simple, whole foods. Living in smaller houses or condos. Shopping at Goodwill. Using the library. Investing in a local economy. Tying ourselves to a neighborhood. Whether or not we personally choose simplicity, our culture is steeped in a cycle of boom and bust, excess and deprivation. All around us is too little and too much.
This is not new. Throughout history, too much and too little have resided next to each other. When they rub up against each other too much and the friction grows too hot, change occurs. Excess gives way to reformation. Prophets rise. The people revolt. New worlds are made. Jesus ushered in one such time. With his life, death, and resurrection, a whole new way of living in the world was introduced. Author and teacher Phyllis Tickle says that every 500 years, the world and the Church have a giant rummage sale. We let go of conventions, traditions, and institutions that have been the backbone of our world. We get rid of the stuff we no longer need, we keep the stuff that works, and we make something new. Five hundred years after Jesus was born, the Roman Empire fell (at least the Western part did) and a new world order was established. in 1054, the Church split into Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholicism, and political and social structures in those regions reflected that split. Five hundred years later, the Byzantine Empire fell and the Protestant Reformation occurred. We are now 500 years after that. We are living during one of the world’s giant rummage sale, and our culture is feeling the shocks of change. That is why our cycles of boom and bust and our lifestyles of excess and deprivation are being felt so acutely right now. The little is way to little, and the too much is way too much. They can no longer exist in any form of harmony together. Something must give way.
Today is Reformation Sunday on the Church calendar. On October 31, - on the eve of All Saints Day - in 1517 in Wittenburg, Germany, a priest by the name of Martin Luther nailed what has become known as the Ninety-five Theses to the door of Castle Church. While the specifics of his complaint centered around the selling of indulgences - or pardons for sins - Luther’s larger complaint concerned what he believed to be a gross perversion of the gospel as a whole. A gospel of grace had become a mockery. God’s free gift of grace was being peddled by the very institution set aside to safeguard the gospel. Pope Leo X in Rome had mired the church in an outlandishly expensive renovation of St Peter’s Basilica, and pressure filtered down to various regions to put in their share of money to pay for it. This resulted in widespread corruption, the buying and selling of high rank within the church, and the selling of indulgences - letters of forgiveness - for sins. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses is now considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This act changed history. We have been the beneficiaries of this change for 500 years.
For 500 years, the Protestant Church has grown and expanded. In the United States, Protestantism has become the civil religion of the country. As our country prospered, so did Protestantism. But, no longer. This rummage sale in which we live has us tossing out long held traditions and ways of doing things. This has been necessitated by a rising tide of complaints that the Church has become staid, hypocritical, hyper-critical, and irrelevant. We could just as easily hear today Jesus’ complaints of his own religious world. Just as Jesus castigated the religiously pious for their public displays, the same is happening today. Regularly on television we see televangelists in large megachurches decrying the immorality of others while they lead their own corrupt lives. Mainline denominations have become torn apart over sexual ethics while not protecting the laity from sexual predation from many clergy. We have become ensconced in debates about peripheral issues while neglecting the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized - whom the prophets and Jesus called widows and orphans. We are more preoccupied with church structure than with spreading the gospel and bringing people into the presence of the Divine. The Roman Catholic Church continues to make moral pronouncements and denouncements about others without getting its own priesthood in order. Local congregations that for so long existed because they maintained the de facto way of live have found themselves floundering as more and more Americans don’t live the same way - don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas or his Resurrection at Easter, that don’t care about Pentecost or the Trinity or the Resurrection. Because we haven’t had to know our story - it simply was a part of the fabric of our culture - we now don’t know how to live it in this increasingly secular and diverse world.
Jesus, though, tells us how to live through this rummage sale. Martin Luther understood how. John Wesley, Methodism's founder, did as well. Be humble. Be humble. Be less preoccupied with your own status and your own well being and your own self and your kind and your own way of living than you are about the least of these. For those who are the least among us, hear these words as comforting ones God. God sees your plight. God knows the wealthy and the powerful, including the Church, do not honor you well. But, God does. Jesus says that the Church will not find its power and its authority in large basilicas. It will not find its redemption is renovated worship spaces. Christians do not find salvation in public acts of religious piety, of shouting “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14) or “Lord, Lord with malice in their hearts.” Christians find redemption because God gives it. It is that simple. God saves us. The Church finds its power in living the gospel, in returning to the Word so powerful that the ark of covenant stopped the waters of the Jordan. When Jesus decries the use of larger phylactaries, he, in essence, is telling us to live out the wrapping of ourselves in the Law, not simply to do the ritual act. That is where we find our power, by wrapping ourselves in God's saving instruction and to have it inscribed in and on all that we and all that we are. This same instruction stops the waters of the Jordan. This same instruction will change the forces of our world today. Our Old Testament and our gospel lesson tell us that no sum of money, no matter how large, can compare to the vastness and the power of our God. Both scriptures tell us that God’s glory is magnificent and that our proper response to it is humility and service. God claims us. That is good news. But, when God claims us, God puts a claim on us. God forgives. God redeems. God loves. God also sends us to be servants in a broken world. To be voices of peace when there is no peace. To show by our lives and not through empty words that we follow the Lord. To seek not places of honor at banquets, but to eat with the poor in solidarity and in love. Hear these words one more time, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themsleves will be exalted.” This is the Gospel of our Lord. Thanks be to God.
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