The Very Rev. Tom Callard – October 27, 2019
As you may know, the week before last I was in Germany, in Berlin, visiting my daughter, who is studying over there, who got very sick. And she is much better. I thank you for your concern and your prayers. While I was there, I did what I often do when I’m traveling, which is to visit churches. Believe it or not, I like to visit churches. I don’t know if Berlin is known for its churches, but you definitely notice them- there among the historic buildings and contemporary architecture which is the mix of Berlin since World War II. There are many amazing and historic houses of worship.
The Sunday I was there I dragged my sick daughter to go to church at the Berlin Dome, which is a huge and amazing church that was partially destroyed during World War II. It has been rebuilt in the last 70 years. And for all intents and purposes the Berlin Dome is like the protestant cathedral, even though the seat of the Bishop isn’t there. It serves as a center of worship and ministry for the Lutherans, and it has crypts which contain the remains of kings and royals. And there is a big statue of Martin Luther which you would never see in Lutheran churches here in the U.S. It was a great experience and the music was fantastic. Although our choir I think is bigger and sounded better than theirs did.
And then in another part of Berlin, not too far away, is the Roman Catholic Cathedral, St. Hedwig’s, which was originally opened in 1773. And which was also partially destroyed during World War II, but it also has been rebuilt into a beautiful worship space where you can sense the presence of God very clearly.
So you have these churches in Berlin, these two big churches, and then coming back this week and reading our Gospel, I thought about these churches and what they represent, this big Protestant house of worship, the Berlin Dome, and then not too far away, just up the Spree river, this big Catholic Cathedral, St. Hedwig’s.
In our Gospel today, Jesus uses the word Justified, which is related to Justification, which is the theological concept having to do with whether or not you are right with God. When we are justified we are right with God and righteous in God’s sight. And this is an important Christian concept which goes back to St. Paul, and it is a term that has been used throughout history and I’m sure discussed countless times in these historic protestant and catholic houses of worship in Berlin.
So what Jesus says about justification is that there are these two men who go to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Pharisee is grateful in his prayers that he’s not a Tax Collector or a thief or a rogue or an adulterer. And the Tax Collector, in his prayers, is humble and he presents himself meekly before God. And Jesus says that it is the Tax collector of the two who is the one who is justified before God. So Jesus introduces this concept of justification.
I would say that today in church we don’t really talk much about justification, even though our Christian history contains hundreds of years of discussion about it. When was the last time you were at the coffee hour and someone asked you whether or not you have been justified in the Lord? When was the last time I or someone from the pulpit preached about justification?
Back in the middle of the 1700’s, right around the time these two houses of worship in Berlin were built, the preacher George Whitfield, who was one of the most famous preachers of the time, preached a sermon precisely on this parable we have today. And in his sermon he asked the congregation the question “Surely, you cannot bear the thoughts of returning home unjustified, can you?” because the Pharisee in the parable goes home unjustified.
And Whitfield in his sermon suggests that something could happen to a person who is unjustified after they leave church, and they could get into an accident die. And then they would have to face the afterlife without having been made right with God. And that was a real concern. Whitfield and his community and Christians everywhere were deeply concerned that one needed to be justified before the Lord otherwise their mortal souls would be in danger.
So what I started to think about as I thought about this passage and these two beautiful churches in Berlin, the Protestant and the Catholic, is that Justification is the one thing, or one of the biggest things, that has divided these churches throughout history. The question of how exactly one is justified.
In the most general terms, the people at the Berlin Dome, the protestants, believe that Justification comes through faith, that having your faith in the Lord, with the gift of God’s grace, gives you the righteousness needed to be saved and set well before God. That it is all about faith. That’s certainly what Martin Luther reached and other reformers with him.
And in the most general terms, those at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Catholics, would say instead that justification comes through works, it comes through our deeds and the good things we do and the reception of the Holy Communion and the sacraments, that we become better people who grow in righteousness and holiness and find ourselves saved because of the important things we do, with the help of God, of course. .
So between these two great traditions, symbolized in these two great churches, you have this debate about justification. And it is not a small debate, but a huge, ongoing historical argument which lasts until today. For you still have people in one camp telling those in the other that they are wrong, and those in the other camp telling those in the first that they are wrong. And it goes back and forth. Christians are sometimes very opinionated and assertive in their views.
And meanwhile, if you’re in Berlin and you’re not at the Berlin Dome or at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral or one of these big houses of worship, you notice something. You notice that in a city filled with old, historic churches, that many of these churches are empty. And that a surprising number of old and beautiful churches in Berlin are no longer churches at all.
There was one I went into that had been converted into an art gallery. One had been converted into a restaurant. One was a museum. I went into one church and all the pews had been removed and tables had been set up, and every single day of the week they served food to the hungry. It was like something a lot of churches do, but without anything having to do with church, or religion.
And that, to me, was an amazing realization I had while I was there. That so few people actually still go to church and think about God and things like righteousness and salvation and justification. And I wonder: Could it be that we’ve been so busy arguing between ourselves and among ourselves about things like faith and works, or so busy focused on our own internal dialogue, or so busy trying to attend to all these small and unimportant matters of church, that people out there have just lost interest.
Maybe we are so focused on what’s going on in here and busy wondering about that church over there, and so content and so proud and righteous in our ways, that people have gotten tired of it all and abandoned us so that they can use our spaces for something better, and more worthwhile.
Because so many Christians are not humble. Because so many Christians are not asking for mercy. Because so many Christians are just mirroring what the politicians and others in the world are doing, looking around, pointing fault, judging, condemning others, or sitting in silence as we allow that to happen.
Religion is the most powerful force ever established by humanity. Religion is way more powerful than capitalism and the ability to make money, for at its heart it can turn its back on the love of money. Religion is way more powerful than science and knowledge, for it gives science and knowledge meaning and purpose. It answers questions science can not dream of answering. Religion is way more powerful than sex and drugs and pleasures of the flesh, for it continues to feed us and fill us even when these temporary delights are gone.
But religion can also be evil. And it can be dangerous. And it is destructive. Just look at which of the two in the Gospel today is the bad example. It’s the religious one, the Pharisee. If you tell people you’re a Christian today all sorts of images come up for them, and many of them based on our negative and judgmental messages of hate as Christians following the Gospel of Christ.
If religion leads to us being like the Pharisee in the Gospel, then we must abandon religion and become instead humble tax collectors. For the tax collector has no pretense, and no grounds on which to believe he is right or he is better than others. He just has God. And his plea for God’s mercy. If religion leaves us feeling better than or more important than others, then we must fall like the Tax collector on our knees and focus on us and our way to being set right before God.
If religion just mirrors the political rhetoric out there and the way our political leaders talk about “those people” whoever they are, and condemn and harass and speak ill of the weak and the vulnerable, and the outcast, then we must return our religion to Jesus Christ, and turn back to the question of love.
Even though we may not use that word, even thought we may not think in these terms, I believe that everyone wants to be justified and needs to be justified to God. We want our souls to be set right. We want to be set right with our neighbor. We want the pain in our lives to be met by the love of God. And we want to know in our hearts that all will be well, for all is well in God. Our conflicted political leaders may not say it, our judgmental Christian brothers and sisters may not preach it. But the world needs it. We need love.
I want to go home justified. Yes, George Whitfield. I want to leave here justified. I find that I’m not so much concerned about my mortal soul or my eternal damnation when I die. Maybe that’s not our chief concern today.
But I am, just as people have always been, extremely and profoundly concerned about the chaos and clamor of the storm of lies and inequalities in the world. I want to be justified with the world, and to know how I can make my way through it.
I am extremely concerned about my own judgmental and critical and spiteful nature and how to rid myself of my sin. I am profoundly concerned about doing right with my brother and sister in the world, and I want to approach them well. I want to know that by the end of the service today, that Jesus’s love has set me right.
I think that’s what justification is – the profound presence of Jesus’s love transforming our lives, and I think that’s what church is all about. That’s what religion is all about. Not who’s better than whom but how do we get right with them, with our neighbor, and with God and with our self. And at the end it’s all about Jesus and the ability to come here, to a house of worship, and find him, and feed on him, and focus on him and the transformation power of his love.
May you be transformed today. May our church be transformed. May this Cathedral be transformed. We humbly pray this on our knees to the Lord of Love, that justification may happen now.