Imagine coming to church one Sunday morning, and hearing this sermon tidbit:
“Don't you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, 'Have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with small alms and yet you do not want to do so.'
That sales pitch --thinly disguised as a sermon-- was preached by the Dominican monk John Tetzel back in 1517. Tetzel was the 16th century equivalent of a Paula Michelle White-Cain/Kenneth Copeland/Creflo Dollar. Pope Leo X commissioned Tetzel to sell indulgences to raise money to finish the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. A consummate salesman, Tetzel, composed that famous Renaissance jingle: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." This catchy tune persuaded listeners to pay for indulgences so that the souls of loved ones would be freed to go to heaven.
Indulgences were a part of the theology of forgiveness and restitution common to the church of that age. Indulgences granted remission of the temporal punishment due to sin. By the eve of the Protestant Reformation, it was believed that the living could purchase an indulgence, on behalf of a deceased relative, and by doing so -- shorten their stay in purgatory – a painful place the Catholic Church taught that souls went to, to work off the dross from their souls before being admitted to heaven.
The rest of the story is well known. the monk, Martin Luther, was deeply disturbed by the aggressive marketing tactics of Tetzel and the whole idea of Papal authority in granting indulgences in general. So, on October 31, 1517 -- Luther posted on the door of Wittenberg castle his 95 theses; and called for a debate on indulgences – among other issues. This act became the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation.
Like the church on the eve of the Reformation, Jesus presents us with the unflattering example of the scribes and Pharisees. Do as they say, but don’t do as they do. They love the place of honor at banquets and in the synagogues -- to be greeted with respect in the marketplace – they like to be called rabbi. They made their phylacteries – boxes with scripture verses on them, tied to their foreheads or arms -- big and the fringes long – to show off. They claimed the authority of Moses’ seat -- the right to interpret the law. But they didn’t act like Moses. They didn’t dedicate their lives to freeing God’s people from slavery and oppression. They didn’t sacrifice, endure insults or spend their entire lives making God’s promises real for the people. They instead treated the law as their own play toy, and interpreted it to their own advantage, laying burdens on their shoulders of others, without a thought to lift a finger to help them.
This same spirit of corruption infiltrated the church. Over the centuries it became more detached from the needs of the people. The church used its authority to burden the people, not to free them. And despite all the Protestant Reformation got right, there were still disturbing blind spots that shouldn’t be overlooked. Luther condemned the Knights Revolt and Peasants War of 1525. He sided with the nobility, who in turn protected Luther from the wrath of Rome. John Calvin, who inspired another wing of the reformation that we Presbyterians lay heritage to, had Michael Sevetus, another reformer, put to death. Protestant nobility in many areas of Europe took advantage of the turmoil and enriched themselves by claiming the lands of monasteries and local churches, and in many cases made conditions for the poor even more dire. Innocent people, good people, were put to death regardless of which side of the theological fence they belonged.
How is it that reforms and revolutions all around the world and down through the ages bring in as many problems or often turn out worse than the regime that was replaced? How do we reconcile stories of bloodshed with the mandates of loving our neighbor.
It is a paradox and dilemma. Good, faithful people falling terribly short – convincing themselves that they are right – to devastating consequences. How do we guard ourselves from this downfall? How do we stay right with the Lord? Jesus tells us what we must do in today’s gospel: we must learn humility. Jesus declares: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Humility is the key to keeping ourselves reformed. Humility is so important for us to grasp we are repeating our gospel lesson from last week.
Ted Turner, the American media mogul, once said: if only he had humility, he would be perfect! St. Theresa of Avila, the great reformer of the Catholic Church, observed: “There is more value in a little study of humility and in a single act of it than in all the knowledge in the world." And Augustine said that humility is the foundation of all the other virtues.
Humility seems to be the missing ingredient in our modern-day scribes and Pharisees, in the church structure of the late Middle Ages, and even in some degree in our beloved reformers. Humility shouldn’t be confused with low self-esteem. People with humility don't think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less. People who are humble are not invested in being right and getting their way, especially if it means putting someone else down. Humble people are open to differing points of view and are committed to including everyone in the discussion and making a place for all at the table. Humility opens the door to charge, because it helps us see where we have made mistakes. Humility opens us to new ideas, to different ways of doing things.
It takes a strong ego to be humble. Humility literally means to be of the earth, humilis, and since we were made of the dust of the earth, being humble is being grounded, earthy, you-see-yourself-as you are- warts and all. Humility enables us to treat all people equally and to connect to all people regardless of their status or place in life. Humility opens us up to potential, because we don’t know it all; we need help to grow and change.
As Presbyterians, we hold fast to the belief that the church is semper reformada, always reforming. This is because we are a community in motion, spanning hundreds of years. There are times we have been proud and accomplished as the Pharisees, other times, brought low. We have blind spots. We make mistakes. We sin. We just don’t get it half the time. But we always have the potential to change. We can embrace what we don’t know. We can always take a risk. We can always learn. Grace, with humility, can make it all possible. Humility opens us to new horizons that the Holy Spirit wants to lead us to.
God is calling us to grow, to re-form. To be a vital congregation. Humility is the foundation upon which we move forward. Humility will keep us reformed, and always reforming. Humility keeps us on our toes; gives us the guts to say we got something wrong, we have to try a new way. As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s discover the new reformation the Holy Spirit is brewing in our midst. May we stay humble – ready to change, ready to let go, willing to say this doesn’t work anymore, ready to embrace God’s petition clamoring for us to love justice, practice mercy, and walk humbly with God and each other. amen