Reforming the Heart
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
October 29, 2017
Text: Matthew 21: 23-32
This year has seen an enormous increase of travel to Germany. All you have to do is type in Reformation 500 and more websites than anyone can count pop up offering everything from touching the doors at Wittenberg to visiting the places where Martin Luther did this or that. In addition to websites such as “Religious Travel” the German government is pushing visiting Reformation sites as well.
In the not so distant past when Catholics and Protestants thought the other would be spending eternity in a very warm place, the Reformation was always “celebrated.” Now even U.S. Catholic Magazine, hardly like its decidedly more liberal counterpart National Catholic Reporter, notes that Luther has been given a bad rap by traditionalists in the church, that is, the Roman Catholic Church.
Rather, these magazines and many other Roman Catholic sources now tell us, Martin Luther did not divide the unity of the medieval church; it had already been divided in many significant ways, and even more, as one Catholic commentator wrote, “The Reformation both precipitated the end of medieval Catholicism and sparked reforms that are the foundation to modern Catholicism.”
We have all come a long way from the time my Catholic friend, who lived next door to me when I was in junior high, said she would pray for my soul. At that point in the 1950s, she believed anyone who wasn’t Catholic was doomed, and my Southern Baptist pastor was no better as he excoriated Catholics as being idol-worshipers. Remember all those statutes of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, not to mention any patron saint after whom the church was named? And, on top of all that, Catholics prayed to Mary! Fortunately, most of the anti-Catholic diatribe on the part of Protestants has also diminished.
Luther himself did not use the word Protestant. In fact, his hope was to actually reform the Church and its practices of indulgences; however, like many who begin something with the hope of one goal, he found himself propelled into change by the politics of the day as German princes and others sought to free themselves from the authority and power of the Holy Roman Empire.
The origin of the word Protestant comes from a document issued to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V by six German princes and 14 imperial “Free Cities” when at the Diet of Speyer in 1529 he reversed concessions he made to them three years earlier. They protested and thus became protestors or Protestants.
Like the man with two sons, Europe found itself divided between those who promised one thing and did another or who refused to adhere to certain authorities but then followed through anyway. The parable is about a kind of reformation, a reformation of the heart which leads to a change in behavior.
Ancient commentators on this passage compared the second son, the one who promised to go and work in the vineyard but did not do so to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees because Jesus was addressing the elders and chief priests the day after he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In some sense, one could see this parable as an attack on hypocrisy; the chief priests and elders said one thing but did another whereas those who were considered sinners repented.
In this parable found only in Matthew, Jesus challenged the religious leaders and establishment of his day. Not a shrinking violet, the text has Jesus concluding his parable with the statement, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.” The self-righteous pious men of that day must not have only been shocked but absolutely furious.
We certainly have our own version of self-right-eousness today and a calling out of its destructiveness. The speeches by Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain this past week could be considered an equivalent of moral calling out. And, it seems that the result for each of these two men will be a kind of figurative crucifixion.
Wednesday’s New York Times printed the speech in its entirety. It takes on what has become the “new normal,” the compromise of moral authority, the pattern of petty attacks on the slightest provocation, the coarseness of our political speech, just to name a few. But Flake said more noting that our complicity through silence in the face of this undermining of what our democracy has meant for the last 200 years, will create a generation that will ask us: where were you when all this happened?
The week before John McCain spoke at the National Constitution Center, reminding us that we “live in a nation of ideals, not blood and soil,” a clear and pointed reference to the white nationalists embraced by those who would destroy the fabric of our Nation. They and their supporters, including those at the very top of our political establishment, are the equivalents of the chief priests and elders. Telling neo-Nazis that they are also “good people” demeans the very meaning of the word “good” and even the bottom of society knows that.
Repentance–the word is metanoia in the Greek text of the New Testament, and means a total turning around, a reformation of the heart to change one’s pattern of behavior. This is clearly what is needed in our Nation today. And such repentance needs to be expressed by our political leadership who are supposed to carry moral authority, something terribly lacking today.
Repentance means not giving former industry officials the power to change our environmental standards by opening up rivers and streams to accept coal waste. So, just like the chemical spill in January 2015, the state that voted for a man who would con-taminate their drinking water again, can look forward to such a result. There is a deep part of me that thinks they’re getting what they voted for. I know it sounds terrible but when there is such total disregard for human health by an administration that panders to corporate interests and harms all of us, I am angry.
There is a great deal of truth in the saying attributed to Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki, “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that we cannot eat money.”
Repentance also means admitting when you make a mistake. Just this past week the Passaic County Prosecutor’s office refused to release two men whose old murder conviction had been taken up by the Innocence Project. Ralph Lee, Jr., and Eric Kelley have been in jail since 1993 for a brutal murder as a consequence of a botched robbery attempt. The DNA matches a man who was released from jail just weeks before this murder but the Passaic County Prosecutor refuses to accept the possibility that they imprisoned the wrong men for more than 23 years and stalled Judge Joseph Portelli’s ruling to let the men out on bail while awaiting a new trial. The prosecutor is also no different from the chief priests and the elders.
What counts in this parable is obedience to God’s will not just words. As Eliza Doolittle sings in My Fair Lady, “Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words.” Albeit this part of the lyric is from another context when Eliza is telling Freddy “If you’re in love, show me!” the same can be said of political speech and religious speech as well. We hear some on the religious right talking of the love of God and at the same time spewing hateful speech toward immigrants and other nonwhites, not to mention the LGBTQ communities.
What we are now getting from all these self-righteous so-called leaders is nothing but words. Out of one side of his administration, Trump calls opioid use a national emergency and out of the other side Jeff Sessions calls for a crackdown on drug users, encouraging his underlings in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and police officials to seek the maximum sentences possible for drug use.
On one side of his mouth, Trump calls for pro-family policies and at the same time, families are being torn apart by ramped up immigration raids. And the attack on women’s health care is so blatant, eliminating service centers providing basic services including OBGYN care. As Jesus said, the tax collectors, the hated symbols of Roman authority and oppression, and the prostitutes, examples of the most despised group of women, would enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of the hypocrites who spew forth pious platitudes.
Jeff Flake has decided not to run for another term in the Senate. It is not difficult to understand why. Politics has changed over the last fifteen to twenty years since he first was elected to Congress. Running for office takes a great deal of energy. I know that. Although I was only a town council member in my former state of Connecticut, I know how much it took to take on a political establishment.
Over the past 500 years since Luther nailed those proposed items for discussion on the church door, much has changed in the world of Christendom, some good, some not so good. The Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, has reached out to the dissenters, acknowledging that there is much to learn about how to be church. There is active dialogue and Protestants are this dialogue is seen by Rome as a sign of God’s active grace.
It would seem that if there can be civil discourse between some parts of the Christian world and even between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, that we should be able to have some form of civil discourse in our social and political world as well. The elders and chief priests of our political system should remember that it is in discourse that we discover both our weaknesses and our strengths and find common ground for developing a society that reflects the ideals of our past and hope for the future.
Let us come to God in prayer: You have created us with minds and hearts to learn to build rather than destroy. Help us to create a reformation of the heart so we follow more closely the life of our model, Jesus of Nazareth, in whose name we pray. Amen.