“An Inconvenient Truth”*
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 30, 2016: Reformation Sunday
Amos 5:18-24 & Colossians 3:1-11
I want to talk about an inconvenient truth today. The inconvenient truth I want to talk about today is that the Apostolic tradition of Christianity, the passing of faith from one generation to another, comes to us today in both beautiful and broken ways. To say it in another way, the faith that was proclaimed to us, that we received, in which we are standing and by which we are constantly being saved, the beauty of the Gospel, came into our possession through very sinful, very fallen human beings. Those who came before us, our mothers and fathers in faith, were imperfect vessels containing the very perfect truth of God’s love. Like us, they occupied a world stacked with pervasive power dynamics, lethal economic conditions, and mind-numbing politics that fall short of the glory of God. And yet, in God’s great power and endless love for the world, we have still received the good news of the Gospel. That is an inconvenient truth because for all the beauty, goodness, mercy, and love that Christianity brings into the world, it is brought by human beings who are often nasty, destructive, and apathetic.
Martin Luther, the man who started the Protestant Reformation in 1517, was first and foremost a pastor, and a good one at that. Written accounts of his sermons and lectures portray Luther as a compassionate soul, and James Kay of Princeton Seminary says that Luther did some his most holy work behind ordinary pulpits. In a sermon from 1539 on the gospel of John, Luther reaches out to tormented people who lived in constant fear of God’s judgment. As all pastors are called to do, Luther comforted his flock from the pulpit that day, and he did so by paraphrasing John 3:16 as if Christ was speaking directly to them: “The judgement is past; the Father and I condemn no one. For I am the pledge and the certain token, yes, the gift and the present, to show you that God is not angry with us.” This is a beautiful and simple act of pastoral care. The people in Luther’s congregation were victims of inexplicable diseases and plagues, grinding poverty, war and famine. They were people without hope; it was easy to imagine that God was angry with them. So Luther offers them grace, mercy, but above all hope, in the precious name of Jesus Christ.
Now four years later, in 1543, this same messenger of hope, this same pastor of tormented souls, penned one of the most monstrous and acidic anti-Jewish attacks ever written, titled, “On The Jews and Their Lies.” The 65,000-word treatise can be distilled down into seven points. Luther suggests that synagogues and schools be burned, that Jews be refused housing among Christians, that Jewish writings be prohibited and burned, that rabbis be silenced, that liberties for Jews be denied, that Jews be stripped of all wealth and property, and that they be made to work only as manual laborers. Luther goes on to say that Jews who pray, praise God, teach the faith to others, or even utter the name of God in public should be put to death immediately. This anti-semitic rant goes on, page after page, to the point that any modern reader very easily becomes numbed by shock only after a few chapters. How can a man who proclaims to stand in the faith of Jesus Christ, who has been called to preach the life-giving word of God be inciting his readers to murder and maybe even genocide?
You may be wondering how such a monstrous piece of anti-Jewish propaganda has survived the centuries. Why was it not burned and destroyed with fire? Well, the Lutheran editors and translators insisted it be included in an English translation of Luther’s works. But this is not because the editors and translators were careless. In fact, they expressed deep concern of how it would be received by modern readers. Their concern was justified because Luther’s religious sanction of violence against Jews was primary reading for those who constructed and carried out the Holocaust in Germany. But they courageously decided to not protect Luther’s reputation by throwing this acid in the garbage where it belonged. Instead, they faced up to an inconvenient truth. They decided that they were not going to lie to cover up the truth, but rather lay open this part of Luther’s theology so that future generations might learn from it.
When Luther began his push to Reform the church in 1517, he imagined a church of Jesus Christ free from defamation, free from persecution, free from anything that did not square with the Gospel. He pushed back against the church’s sale of forgiveness; he pushed back against church leaders who were wealthy only because they had stolen from the poor; he pushed back against practices of the church that limited access to God. Luther was a champion of the poor and underserved at the start of his ministry, calling the church to strip itself of all material and worldly wealth and be a church of the margins. But 25 or so years into his crusade, Luther could no longer imagine a world that had a place for both Christians and Jews. He could no longer imagine, or believe, that Jews and Christians were spiritual siblings, worshippers of the same God. He could no longer imagine any Christian extending the Great Commandment to any Jewish brother or sister, even though the Great Commandment came to Christians from the Jewish faith. This is an inconvenient truth because Luther’s anti-semitism lives in tension with his reforms, with his stubborn reliance on grace, with his push to publish bibles in the common language, all of which paved the way for our expression of faith today.
Jacques Bossuet was a bishop during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Bossuet, like Luther, was a renowned preacher, and his three-point sermon is a style that many preachers use to this day. But more than his style of preaching and his ability to relate to his congregation, Bossuet was known to be fearless. He politely put firmly, Sunday after Sunday, preached to the nobility of France that their chief duty was to care for the poor with compassion and justice. In 1662 Bossuet was called to the court of Louis XIV to be the preacher in the royal chapel during Lent. Famine strangled most of France in the early part of that year and many Parisians were reduced to begging. Yet the French court kept to its routines of grand parties and extreme excess. That Lent, Bossuet strategically preached the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to the King and his court. In contrast to his rich, spoiled listeners, who were always calling out for more and more, Bossuet urged the court “to hear the faint voices of the real poor.” Bossuet said, “Monsieur's, they die of starvation…on your estates, at your chateaus, in the villages and the fields, and in the neighborhoods of your mansions. No one goes to their aid. And all they desire is some crumbs from your table.”
On Good Friday of Holy Week, after throwing the book at the royal court all throughout Lent, Bossuet preached on the cross. The royal chapel was covered with paintings of Jesus on the cross, so Bossuet implored his listeners: “Fix your eyes on Jesus and allow yourselves to be touched by the sight of his wounds. But I, monsieur's, have another painting to propose to you…a living painting…a speaking painting. These are the poor, my brothers. See in the poor Jesus Christ abandoned, Jesus Christ forsaken, Jesus Christ scorned.” And then, turning to the King, Bossuet said, “Sire, when such wretchedness increases, it is necessary to extend mercy. Sire, Jesus dying on the cross commands you to help the poor of your kingdom.” Did Bossuet’s preaching do any good? A few of the king’s mistresses became nuns, but the King had had enough of Bossuet and skipped worship on Easter Sunday.
But by 1682, two decades after his Lenten series on social justice, Bossuet had changed his tune. Now, instead of calling the King on his excess and blindness to the needs of France, Bossuet was proclaiming Louis XIV as a new savior. And why? Because the King was calling for the persecution, arrest, and execution of all French protestants. The result of Bossuet’s change was that it gave moral and religious sanction to what we call today ‘crimes against humanity.’ One million French protestants, about 15% of the French population, were stripped of their long-held rights of assembly, property, and worship with the stroke of a pen. Their churches were leveled to the ground, and Protestant girls were taken from their homes and forced by the government to convert to Catholicism. And even though it was illegal for anyone to leave the country, Protestants fled from France in secret, decimating the working middle class that propped up the French economy. In hindsight, the crown’s persecution of French protestants destroyed the very things that strengthen and guide a civilized society.
Bossuet, like Luther, lacked theological imagination. He could not imagine a country in which Protestants and Catholics could live together peacefully as children of God or as fellow citizens. He could not imagine a country where churches were as different as the people worshipping in them. He could not imagine that Christ was big enough to unify all the differences among his people. Bossuet could not fathom local leadership, that religious minorities deserved equal protection under the law, or that differences in belief and practice could exist together, in peace, under the broad tent of God’s amazing love. This is an inconvenient truth because Bossuet was bold on behalf of the poor and needy, a messenger of the true message of the Gospel, but believed that he and his followers were the only true messengers of the Gospel. This is an inconvenient truth because Bossuet believed that Christ could only be found, worshipped, and served in one brand of Christianity, his, and everyone else had to convert, wallow away in prison, or die.
So what about you and me? What about this Presbyterian tradition that we cling to and the Reformed heritage that gives expression to our life as followers of Jesus Christ?
We must, as the Apostle Paul says, not lie to ourselves or one another about the history and traditions that brought us to today and we must confront the inconvenient truths about ourselves, about the faith we proclaim, and about the Church that we call home. We must confess that we are like Luther and Bossuet, capable of so much good and so much destruction. We must not lie about the fact that Christ’s message of perfect love has come to us today through the imperfect vessels of our ancestors. We must not lie and imagine that we are immune to hypocrisy, injustice, racism, or all the other ‘isms’ that corrupt the lives of God’s people. We must not lie about our inaction and complacency when God’s people are denied life, denied peace, or denied the dignity given to all by God. We must not lie about the various ways that the Church has morally and religiously sanctioned genocide, political corruption, and greed in the secular world, and we must not lie about the ways the Church has itself taken part in genocide, corruption, and greed. We must not lie to ourselves about the ways we prevent the waters of God’s justice from rolling down like an ever-flowing stream. If we are honest with ourselves about the darkness of our lives, we will be laid open to the healing power of God.
We must also not lie about the place our faith has in the world. The polls and the research want us to believe that Christianity is on its ways out, that people of faith are ignorant and unrealistic. Well, we don’t believe in a God of polls and research; we believe in a God of resurrection. And if God can raise Jesus from the dead, if God can endure the pain and suffering of death and come out on the other side alive, God can and will raise us, too. God will raise us up because we possess the antidote to anger…peace. God will raise us up because we possess the antidote to wrath…justice. God will raise us up because we possess the antidote to malice…love. And God will raise us up because we have the antidote to slander and abusive language…a belief in the sacred worth of all life. And because God will raise us up, and is raising us up each and every day, we can boldly face up to the inconvenient truth that we are sinful human beings in possession a great treasure. The powers of darkness and evil no longer have any power over us; the old has been stripped away and we have been clothed in a new way of life. This means that we can and must set out minds on the things of God, and live and work and witness to the love of God and the abundant life God desires for us all. God is not done with us, my brothers and sister, with the Church, or with this world!
My brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Reformation Sunday, consider the gift of faith that has come to you through long generations, and commit to constant reformation…of your faith, of your witness to Jesus Christ, and to this church as a part of Christ’s body on earth. By constant reformation, with a continued renewal of our minds and bodies, the God of our faith will be glorified and the good news of Christ’s gospel will stretch to the ends of the earth. And the good news of the Gospel is this: in Jesus Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, initiated or not, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, male or female, worthy or not, because all are one in Jesus Christ. All are one in Christ Jesus. Now that, people of God, is an inconvenient truth. Thanks be to God! Amen.
*James F. Kay is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Hoiletics and Liturgics and Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Kay’s recent Convocation Address at Princeton Theological Seminary of the same name inspired this sermon for Reformation Sunday 2016. Without Dr. Kay’s excellent scholarship, these stories about Luther and Bossuet would likely be unknown in the Church. Much of this sermon was gleaned from Dr. Kay’s address; any errors are strictly my own. You may watch Dr. Kay’s address here.