Called To Be Annoying (Reformation Sunday)
When the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the Papacy had a standing army of many thousands, in addition to crusading orders like the Teutonic Knights. So don’t complain when you’re asked to join a committee: at least I’m not asking you to besiege Frankenmuth! In Martin Luther’s day, the Papacy waged wars of conquest across Italy and was as much a political force as spiritual. For instance, many Popes then came from noble families, and often they inserted their nephews into high-ranking church positions to cement their family’s control over the Catholic hierarchy. And likewise, the nobles of Martin Luther’s day also blurred the lines, with spiritual and political leaders often swapping favors and covering up for each other to hold onto power. Thus, in the Reformation, a question faced Martin Luther, John Calvin, and every other Protestant. For a thousand years, Europe’s nobles and churches were staunch allies. If Protestants were rebelling against a Catholic Church they saw as corrupt, what about the nobles who for centuries were intimate allies of that same corrupt religious institution? Did the Protestants’ spiritual revolution against the Catholic Church also necessitate political revolution? Should Protestants duplicate the Papacy’s alliance with secular rulers? Or was there a different way for Church to relate to State? In general, how should Christians relate to their governments?
King David is usually held up as the gold standard of an Old Testament ruler: a mighty warrior, an artful poet, the faithful shepherd boy who slew Goliath, the man who made Jerusalem Israel’s capital, the king from whose lineage would arise the Messiah. If we’re talking Old Testament rulers, while guys like Solomon and Cyrus rank up there, King David is the go-to example used by our spiritual ancestors for good-king-who-believes-in-God. So it’s weird that David screws things up so badly here, right? It’s really weird. To recap, Uriah the Hittite is one of David’s warriors. David spies on Uriah’s wife while she’s bathing. David sleeps with her and gets her pregnant. David tries to cover up his affair by tricking Uriah into thinking the child is his. When that fails, David arranges for Uriah to “accidentally” die on the battlefield. Once Uriah is dead and his wife finishes her ritual mourning, King David marries her, since he did get her pregnant. David is vastly guilty: guilty of murder, sexual coercion, abuse of power, putting his private lust over the well-being of his kingdom. Yet only David’s closest advisors know the truth: the rest of Israel is none the wiser. David quite literally gets away with murder.
Enter Nathan the Prophet, in one of my favorite scenes. Nathan presents King David with a legal case. Kings back then often served as judges, so David listens carefully in order to give a ruling. After hearing Nathan’s story of a rich man abusing a poor man, the Bible literally says, “David burned with anger.” David decrees that the rich man deserves to die and must pay back four times what he stole, not only because of the crime itself but because of how cruel he was in doing it. David sits back on his throne, satisfied in his righteous condemnation of a villain.
But then Nathan bellows, “You are the man!” Or in the KJV, “Thou art the man!” I imagine David’s eyes widen in shock, then narrow in indignant rage, but then his gut churns as he realizes: “Nathan knows what I did to Uriah and his wife.” Nathan proceeds to rattle off all the kindness God showed David: “Thus says the Lord, ‘I blessed your rule, I saved your life, I made you king, I gave you riches, and I would have given more if you needed.’” God has been only good to David thus far. In contrast, Nathan then lists with disgust what David has done with those gifts: “But you have despised God’s will, you have done evil in God’s sight, you murdered Uriah, you stole Uriah’s wife, and you used your kingly power to cover up your crimes.” If you read ahead, David responds to Nathan’s confrontation by repenting, and elsewhere, Psalm 51 is David’s confession to this crime. David judges himself worthy of death. But God spares him that penalty, yet God warns that he won’t escape the consequences of his actions, that bloodshed will haunt David’s household for generations as a result of what he did. Altogether, Nathan confronting David is a powerful image: a lone prophet sent by God to call a mighty king to repentance.
Speaking of repentance, a man enters the confessional booth and says to the priest, “Forgive me father, for I have sinned. I stole a car last night from a kind man.” The priest scolds, “That was very wrong.” “I know, father. Would you accept the car from me?” Shocked, the priest says, “Certainly not! Return the car to the man you stole it from!” “But I already offered him the car, and he wouldn’t take it from me.” “Well, in that case, I suppose you may keep the car for yourself.” “Thank you, father. I’ll take good care of your Mustang.”
So how did Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Reformation leaders figure out how the new Protestant movement would relate to Europe’s kings, who for centuries swapped political and spiritual power back and forth with the Catholic hierarchy? Truthfully, they went back to what Christians had said since the earliest days, a spiritual framework broadly held, even by earlier Catholic thinkers but which the Church of the Reformation era had seemingly forgotten. So hear now the words of Martin Luther the Reformer: “God has ordained two governments: 1) The [Church], by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and 2) The [State], which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace… for the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name.”
Our Reformation ancestors taught that the role of human government is to set minimum standards of life together: organize fire brigades, pay workers the wages they’re owed, fight off invaders, and so on. Sometimes evildoers or natural disaster mean that basic human needs may not be met, so God ordained human governments to forcibly fix such problems, with taxes, armies, judges, and so on. In contrast, the Church’s role is to preach the gospel and our highest ideals, not backed with the threat of force but with appeals to heart and mind. Governments say, “Here’s the minimum we require. Do this, lest we punish you.” But the Church says, “Here is Jesus Christ who saves you, the perfect example of what it means to be human. Though you’ll never reach it, strive to be perfect like him.” Let me give an example of the distinction. The State says, “Do not murder, or else.” The Church says, “Turn the other cheek, and bless those who wrong you, because that is how Christ lived.” I can’t arrest you for not turning the other cheek: I can only preach at you. But governments usually don’t let you get away with murder. Human politics therefore is usually a discussion about what the bare minimums are: debates over the environment, welfare, abortion, war, healthcare, policing, and so on are in essence all discussions of what shall or shall not be baseline requirements in our society. But as the Church, we are not interested in bare minimums: we are meant to have heaven’s perfection always in mind.
Now I’m told our country has an election in two weeks’ time. As a preacher, I’m legally not allowed to say from the pulpit who to vote for. So I won’t, and I never will. Instead, I shall speak to the weeks, months, and years after the election. Whoever wins—whether next year’s president is Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Jo Jorgensen, or heaven help me Kanye West—whoever is president next year… but also whoever serves as our governor, our Senators, our State reps, our school board… our job as Christians… is to be as annoying as possible to them. Nathan the prophet publicly rebuked the greatest king ever known in the Bible until Jesus Christ. So you can criticize whomever we elect as town registrar: it’s okay. Whoever is in office, whether Republican or Democrat, whether they’re on your “team” or not… your job is to annoy—and I mean this literally, so I’m not cussing here—your job is to annoy the literal hell out of them, to remind them of our ideals when mortal power corrupts them as it did King David. It is your heritage and your calling as a Presbyterian to do so. Because our civic leaders? Their job is to uphold whatever our society decides are baseline standards of justice, quality of life, and so on. But each of you is a Christian leader! Your job is to be Nathan the prophet, pointing out that we are all held to a higher standard, that all of us sin and fall short, that every policy and politician could do better and be better. We are to be Nathan to our government’s David.
Today we celebrate Martin Luther the 1500s Reformer, but I’ll end by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. the 1960s civil rights preacher, who summed up the ideas of our Protestant ancestors perfectly. “The church must be reminded that it is [neither] the master [nor] the servant of the state… but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” Our task as Christians is not to excuse the moral failings of our team while attacking the other guys. As the Church of Jesus Christ, our task is to be a prophetic voice, like Nathan screaming to David “Thou art the man!” Human laws set bare minimums of conduct and quality of life. But the Church looks always to the perfection of Jesus Christ, a perfect love and perfect justice that saves our sinful souls and shows us a better way to live.
Therefore, vote in our upcoming election however your conscience leads you, sure. But once our leaders are in office… hold their feet to every fire, never settle for good enough, always demand they be better. That is the role of the Church: to proclaim heaven to a fallen earth, to summon the kings to repentance, to never trade Christlikeness for mortal power, to preach mercy and justice together as revealed by Christ. David was the greatest Old Testament king, yet still Nathan called him out when David abused his power, when he fell short, when he could do better. “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state… but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” May we live up to our God-given calling of never settling for good enough. Amen.