Matthew 23:1-12Given on November 5, 2017
In Raleigh, NC there is one of the best Children’s Museums I have ever seen. To this day, you can ask my older son, who hasn’t been there since he was 4, about the Marbles Museum and his eyes will light up with the passion that only a child’s eyes can possess and he will list off his favorite ten exhibits at the museum. It is a large place with whole floors dedicated to one subject or another. Science, mathematics, a little bit of history, and all of it is completely hands one. Children can see the magic of static electricity raising their hair or check out their shadows as they are frozen against a lighted wall, or see how meteorologists use a green screen and the magic of chromakey to stand in front of a weather map and seemingly not be in the way. But, hands down, the best part of the museum for him was a large pendulum that sits in the dead center of museum, in an atrium that is several stories tall and where there is space for kids (and quite a few adults) to swing the pendulum as far as they can and watching it sale from one side of the room to the other as the friction in the air and the gravity pulling it down cause its arc to grow smaller and smaller until it is once against at a rest 90 degrees with the ground. The line that formed to use that thing would amaze you.
The story of our faith has been one in which religion has swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. At its inception, a group of ragtag disciples, who had followed this revolutionary guy all around first century Palestine began to take his message of love and grace and power in weakness, and a world that had been completely turned on its head just because of his presence, to the masses of people who were still living their lives in quiet desperation. Because they had been told early on to keep as few possessions as they could and to give away everything they had to the poor, the earliest followers of the way had little to no wealth, so much so that they would gather everything they had in a collective and allow any who had lacked the basic necessities of life to take as they needed while leaving the rest for those who would come after them. We are told that the most meteoric expansion of what would become Christianity came as the disciples were living in Jerusalem and spending the whole of their days in prayer and worship and inviting others to join with them, to share all they had, to break bread as a singular group, and to live in community with one another. That simple formula of just trying to take care of folks basic needs, of welcoming each one to the table as a brother and a sister, and of giving everything else up to God, caused an explosion of membership within the church “as day-to-day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” And this was a formula that worked, stretching from Jerusalem to Rome, from Corinth to Thessalonica, from the church in Philippi to the church in Ephesus. Of course with greater numbers comes a larger measure of power and authority. By the beginning of the second century of the common era, the church had begun to gain more powerful converts, had begun to gain some degree of stability and wealth and needed to figure out something to do with this. In the midst of this shift, rich benefactors and new adherents to the gospel of Jesus Christ begun to build houses to contain church leaders. In these houses worship would be held, the Eucharist celebrated, and bread broken in a space that was big enough to handle the increase in membership. These houses of worship began to grow in size and ornateness and when the conversion of Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church was able to celebrate both a degree of permanence that had been threatened by Imperial forces and a degree of power that came from having the emperor as one of their numbers. But because we all know the truism that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” the church began to use its power and clout to grow in wealth, to push other groups, like Jews, out of places of authority, and to increasingly place ultimate trust, not in the God of Abraham and Sarah, or Isaac and Rebecca and Leah, and in Christ, but rather in the things of Caesar. It was then that the pendulum began to course to the other side of the historical divide. In Egypt, in Rome, in Jerusalem, many of the faithful began to reject the modern trappings of this world and headed out into the desert to dwell in quiet contemplation of God with little more than morsels of bread in their stomachs and without anyone within miles of them. The writings of desert fathers like Paul of Thebes, Anthony the Great, and Pachomius, came from the silent seclusion and meditation that can only take place in the quiet of the moment when all one’s needs, wants, and desires have been turned towards the God of salvation. This worked for many for a time until the pendulum of history cast towards the other side again and the church began to see its place in the world and not as wholly opposed to the world. Thinkers like St. Francis of Assisi, who began his devotion to God by leaving all his material wealth (and even clothing) behind while communing within the natural world in an extreme state of undress, were thrust back into the world after rereading Matthew 10 in which Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to preach to the masses, not just remain in quiet contemplation. Time and again, throughout the history of our faith the church has swung from one side of the arc of history only to have the pendulum swing back across to the other side. So it is that 500 years and 4 days ago, a portly monk named Martin Luther, who had, with many in the faith, long grown tired of the corrupting power of the church to sell forgiveness from sins for oneself or a dead loved one, or to create aristocracies of power by selling of positions of authority to the rich and powerful instead of the faithful and devout, or the repression of the people through the reliance on clerical power, finally reached his breaking point and nailed a list of 95 theses on the front door of the church in Wittenberg, thus erupting the capital C Church in the fires of dissension and Reformation.
We sit in this place in the direct lineage of those earliest Reformers. Martin Luther inspired a whole tradition of believers who bear his name. Our tree branched off of them by way of John Calvin and John Knox, persons, all, who sought to lead the church to a more faithful rendering of the healing and grace-filled message of Christ. Persons, all, who wished to bring a more democratic governance into Western Europe and equality among the people. Persons, all, who wished to lean solely on the grace of God, of the gift of Faith, and the spirit that moved through the words of Holy Scripture. Persons, all, who wanted everyone from the King to the pauper to feel and know that love of God in ways that were equal. Persons, all, who wanted to level out the church, to take the clergy down off the throne of power and invite all the masses to experience the love, the power, the majesty of God just where they were, with no need for an intermediary to translate the word, or offer absolution from sin, or tell people how they had to think or act, but rather allow people to explore their worlds, to explore their own souls, to experience life without boundaries. More than a Reformation as it would come to be called, it was a revolution—a revolution that cost people their lives and splintered the church and altered the course of human history forever and ever and brought us to this place today. And it is how we tell our story. How we view our world. How we engage with one another. How we find hope. Within the Reformed tradition, both the understanding of the world as imperfect, as sinful, as broken help us to understand how it is that we can mess things up so much, so often. And yet, deep within each of us, remains the image of God, the spirit of God, to power of God to strive to make it better. Our story tells of the fall of humankind into a sinful morass through the tale Adam and Eve that sits at the beginning of the Bible, with both characters shown created in an innocence and complete relationship with God. Of their fall from grace and our shared fall, as well. Of the debilitating nature of sinfulness of fallenness to dramatically impact our relationship with the world and with one another. But our story is also one of redemption, of reconciliation, of grace. It is a story of a baby that slips into creation in an obscure town, in an obscure country no bigger than the size of a postage stamp, in a time in which the people were experiencing the suffocating feeling of dwelling in darkness and seeing no light. Ours is a story of that same baby growing up to proclaim sight to the blind and release to the captives, to offer freedom to the oppressed and the to declare the year of God’s favor for all those with ears to hear and eyes to see. Ours is a story in which that person, that beloved child of God declared his allegiance to God and his love for the world by offering his body as a living sacrifice for all. Ours is a story in which he gathered around table as we will do in a few moments and said all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, come, be fed, drink, this is my body, this is my blood, and it is for all of you. Because here at this table there is no prince and no pauper, there is no king and no criminal, there is no woman or man, slave or free, Jew or Greek, black or white, because all have been made one in Christ Jesus. And that was the message that was at the heart of the Reformation 500 years ago and that remains the message this morning. A unity, an equality, a hope that all people might one day come together again in the mighty power of God. A belief that because all of us are fallen, we might all view one another as redeemed. A belief that we might all leave our burdens at the foot of the cross, but also that we might go out and invite others to come back here and do the same. A belief that we are all called to the Great Feast of Heaven with Christ as the host. A belief that God truly calls all the children home. May we, like all those who came before us, take this message into a world in need of knowing of Christ again and anew, of his love and redemption, of his grace and hope. And may we gain strength for the journey here at the table where Christ calls us not servants but friends and where we are all equal in the eyes of God. And glory be to God in the highest and on earth, peace, amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, Amen.