Howard C. Wilkinson - "A Strange Building Project" (January 17, 1965)
|A little while ago
|as Rick Burtz was reading our morning scripture lesson,
|it being a portion of the 23rd chapter of Matthew's gospel.
|I wonder if you were marveling,
|as I have been for some time.
|At the way Jesus denounced the scribes
|and Pharisees of his day without using profanities.
|It is only because the words
|of scripture are so familiar to us.
|And because we tend to think of Jesus
|as being the meek and mild Galalion,
|that we are not shocked.
|By the absolutely blistering language,
|which the prince of peace used in addressing
|the scribes and Pharisees.
|To the woman caught
|in defenseless sin and found in open shame.
|Jesus spoke tenderly,
|Assuring her that he did not condemn her.
|And he bade her to go and sin no more.
|To a dying robber who deserved the crucifixion
|he was getting, Jesus took time out
|from his own undeserved agony to speak a promise
|of paradise to come.
|He comforted an officer in the Roman army of occupation.
|He wept at the tomb of a dead friend.
|And he brought kindness in hope
|to the heart of a despised tax collector
|by a reckless act of public acceptance.
|It therefore is so very arresting.
|When in reading the record of the words and actions of Jesus
|we come across his words to the public leaders
|of morality and religion describes in Pharisees.
|While we read no soothing words
|of kindness to them at all.
|Instead of the soft word.
|He heaped linguistic fire and brimstone upon their heads.
|Again and again, Jesus stormed at them, 'woe to you
|scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.'
|Indeed, In the 23rd chapter of Matthew,
|we find in the space of less than 20 verses,
|that our Lord called them hypocrites five times.
|He called them blind five times and then top these epithets
|by calling them also fools, white wash tombs, Serpens
|and a brute of Vipers.
|When I suppose I were to stand up here today
|in this honored pulpit and talk to you folks like that.
|The very least that you would do
|if I did this would be to demand an explanation
|for all this bycuperation.
|So let's ask the same of these words of Jesus.
|What had the describes in Pharisees done
|to deserve such an unrelenting tongue lashing
|from the son of God?
|Were they criminals, law breakers, wife, beaters, rapists?
|No, they were not robbers,
|like the man who were crucified beside Jesus.
|They were not adulterers like the woman
|who had been dragged to his feet.
|They were not slave traders and they were not spies.
|Well, what kind of people were they?
|According to the biblical scholars
|of every major religion today,
|the Pharisees were in their time and in the terms
|of the standards of public morality,
|the best men of their day.
|Consequently, it is indeed strange
|that Jesus would have reserve for them
|is most acid denunciations.
|And it is still more strange when we notice what it
|was that brought forth the severest of all his severe words.
|When he pronounced the final woe
|of seven in the 23rd chapter, he added the insult.
|You serpents, you brod of Vipers.
|And then he explained why he called them such ugly names.
|What they were doing that so aroused
|the wrath of Christ was building
|the tombs of the prophets.
|Here are the very words of Jesus, "woe to use scribes
|"and Pharisees hypocrites.
|"For you build the tombs
|"of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous."
|Now what, let us ask
|in all fairness was, so iniquitous about that?
|The prophets were men of God who courageously spoke out
|for the right and they declared the will of God
|in the open face of the sun, even when it was unpopular
|to do so.
|In some instances, they were honored while they lived.
|But more often they died in disrepute,
|if not in actual persecution.
|Now the Pharisees proposed to honor these men of God,
|they were busy building tombs for their bones to rest in
|and giving them such belated praise as might be possible.
|Whereas generations, before these Pharisees had been perhaps
|unmindful of the injustices that had been perpetrated
|upon the prophets and probably many of the contemporaries
|of these Pharisees, likewise were heatless.
|The Pharisees of Jesus day were mindful of history sins
|and they wanted to correct them.
|Well, I think we ought to pause long enough here to say
|that these actions up to this point
|have much to commend them.
|There certainly is nothing wrong with correcting
|the outrages of history per se.
|And we cannot find fault with any sincere attempt
|to honor the prophets and martyrs
|who lived and died among people
|who failed to appreciate them.
|Indeed, one of the tragic facts of human existence
|is that all too often, an unselfish person lives
|and dies heroically
|but nobody on earth ever any attention to his heroism.
|Over and over, it happens that injustice crucifies justice
|and on earth, the crime is not corrected.
|And perhaps not even noticed.
|I am perfectly certain
|that Jesus did not intend to criticize the practice
|of calling attention to the noble
|and faithful witness of deceased great men
|because he used this very tool himself to win acceptance
|of his message when he was teaching and preaching.
|Chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews recounts at length
|the accomplishments of the prophets
|and other great men of the past.
|And then the author uses this recital
|of their deeds to spur his readers
|onto a life of faith and of high adventure for God.
|So we have to conclude
|that when our Lord castigate the Pharisees
|for building the tombs to the prophets, he had in mind
|their motives and their words
|rather than the building project itself.
|Now this brings us to take a close look
|at their words and their motives.
|The Pharisees were not content to build the tombs
|of the prophets.
|And to explain that the prophets were unjustly
|killed by unjust men.
|They were not willing to leave anything indeed
|to the imagination
|of the spectators who watched this building project.
|The Pharisees told the people
|exactly what they wanted them to conclude.
|They said, "If we had lived
|"in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part
|"with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.
|That's what they wanted them to conclude.
|Oh no, of course not.
|They certainly wouldn't have done that.
|They wouldn't have killed a mere prophet.
|They were plotting to crucify the very son of God.
|And so it becomes not only clear, but very understandable
|that Jesus would have reserved for them,
|His most stinging, chastisement
|the scribes and Pharisees were in very truth, hypocrites.
|They were evil men
|with guilt written all over their black hearts.
|They sought to soothe their consciences on the one hand
|and make themselves appear outwardly righteous.
|On the other hand, one
|in the same time by building the tombs
|of the prophets who were safely dead and by making it appear
|that they themselves were in the tradition of the prophets
|all the while laying schemes to kill that greatest
|of all prophets Jesus Christ.
|Well, if this were an isolated event in history
|with no modern parallels
|we would not be discussing it here this morning
|in this university service of worship.
|If those ancient Jewish leaders were the last men on earth
|to be guilty of this type of subterfuge,
|we could leave the incident to the department of history
|or to the department of religion for academic study.
|But it is not, so.
|It is sad but true that this strange building project
|is going forward in our time,
|on many continents of the earth.
|There are people today who are building tombs
|for dead prophets as a cover-up for their persecution
|of the living prophets.
|And let me remind you of something here that happened
|during the last World War to give point to this.
|As Hitler spread his army and his agents across Germany
|and all of Europe, he demand complete submission
|to his tyranny in every country and in every area of life
|he made it clear that the penalty for resistance
|would be the concentration camp or death.
|The only freedom he was willing to approve was the freedom
|of every person to agree with him.
|This was enforced in brutal fashion by the army
|the SS guards, the agents of the Gestapo.
|Who was supported
|by a steady stream
|of scientifically developed propaganda brainwashing.
|In the United States, there was almost
|unanimous denunciation of this Hitler tyranny,
|by the leaders of education leaders of religion
|the leaders of government and the government
|of the United States are organized to combat this menace
|in Europe, by a military enterprise
|under the command of general Eisenhower.
|While all of this was going on,
|reports were filtering out of Europe
|through the underground of great courage,
|On the part of European church
|who are willing to defy Hitler
|at the risk of their lives.
|Many of these people were killed.
|One whose writings are very popular today
|was Dietrich who was martyred.
|Many hundreds more were crammed
|into very inhuman concentration,
|never knowing at what moment the executioner
|might come for them.
|One was pastor Martin Nee Muller
|who was spared almost miraculously who preached
|in this very pulpit a year and a half ago.
|And who is now one
|of the presidents of the world council of churches.
|This great man was pastor of a church at Berlin
|very early in the Hitler regime.
|He outspokenly called for obedience
|to God rather than to any man.
|He was thrown into a concentration camp where he rotted
|until the wars end.
|In spite of the fact that he knew he would be released
|if only he would support Adolf Hitler.
|Incidentally, his associate pastor was the father
|of Hans Hilabra, who is one of the professors now
|in our divinity school.
|Well Nee Muller and Bon Heffa of course were not
|the only two outspoken voices, voices of protest in Europe.
|There was count Vangalan,
|the Bishop of Munster who steadfastly resisted,
|Archbishop Graber of Freeberg issued a very
|bold letter of protest.
|Had it read in all the churches of his archdiocese.
|Patriarch Gabrelo of the Serbian Orthodox church
|in Yugoslavia was such an effective resistor
|that he was imprisoned.
|Then there was Cardinal van Roy and Belgium
|who resisted the nausea tyranny to the very end.
|He even issued in order to the effect
|that no one who appeared at church wearing a Nazi uniform
|could be admitted to the service.
|Archbishop Dejong of Utract joined forces with Protestants
|in Holland form a very effective Christian resistance.
|He directed that any church member who cooperated
|with the specifically pagan practices of the Nazi ideology
|should have the sacraments refused to him.
|What time would fail us to tell of others
|of Lutheran Bishop Bargrove, who was called Quizling's thorn
|in the flesh in Norway,
|of Dr. Howcoke, professor of theology at the university
|of Copenhagen, and many, many other saints.
|And Martys who in our time stood firmly in Europe
|against the darkness of NAZI tyranny.
|Many of whom paid the Supreme sacrifice.
|These Christians and others like them
|gave the modern world a shining example
|of courage to the death.
|And they serve notice that the boldness
|of the prophets is not entirely a virtue
|of the ancient past.
|This is all very good.
|What troubled me at the time
|all this was going on was the fact
|that some churchmen in America,
|were rejoicing so greatly
|in the bravery of the church under Hitler
|that they apparently didn't have time to notice
|the evils in America, which needed their attention.
|Some of them had time to write articles
|and to preach sermons
|about the Christians who were attacking evils in Europe
|but they did not write articles
|nor preach sermons against the movement in America
|which sought to make all of us hate the Germans.
|And they seemed unable to confess the sins of America
|which made it possible for Hitler to overthrow democracy
|in Germany and seize the reigns of power.
|At that time
|this would've been very unpopular to preach in America.
|It was safer to build the tombs of the European prophets.
|During the war, the doctrine
|of military necessity was conceived and spread in America.
|It went like this.
|Winning the war is a necessity.
|So that whatever appears to be a contribution
|to winning must be allowed.
|Morale is one of the ingredients of victory.
|And so whatever promotes morale must be tolerated.
|This was as closed a system
|of moral tyranny as NAZIism was in Europe.
|And by means of it, some Americans justified everything.
|Hatred, revenge lies, adultery, prostitution.
|You can name the list.
|Where was the voice
|and the influence of those American churchmen
|when this doctrine was preached
|and practiced in our own land?
|Too often their voice and energy were preoccupied
|with building tombs for overseas prophets.
|Up until the second world war Albert Einstein had
|expressed little regard for the Christian Church
|but during the war, he issued some amazing statements
|of admiration for the church.
|At that time, he was living in America and it has to be said
|to the eternal shame of the Christian Church
|in this nation, that he had to make it clear
|that it was not the American church, which converted him.
|It was the church in Europe.
|No, my friends, it is one thing to build the tombs
|of the prophets and adorn the monuments
|of the righteous at a safe distance.
|But it is another thing to stand
|with the courage was theirs against the evils,
|which are ours.
|It's hard on a man's soul to boast of the heroism
|and martyrdom of those distant promise either
|in history or in geography,
|because it is very easy then to boast of their courage
|and feel that we have thus paid our proper
|for respects to bravery.
|So what then, can we ask of those churchmen in Birmingham
|and Montgomery, Alabama, And of Philadelphia, Mississippi
|and of little rock in St. Augustine,
|who currently are thanking God in public prayers
|for the courage of the white me missionaries
|who have recently become the butchered martyrs
|in the Belgian Congo, or we need not ask them
|if this heartless massacre took place,
|or we know that it did.
|We do not need to ask them about the devotion
|of those faithful missionaries, or we already know
|that they lovingly poured out the last full measure
|of their devotion.
|Someone needs to ask them about the reason
|why these massacres took place.
|The white missionaries had lived and worked
|among the Congolese for many years.
|Some of my own friends were a among them.
|During all of this time,
|there was no butchering of the white missionaries.
|Then came the communists with their schemes,
|and with true reports of little rock and Philadelphia
|of bombed Negro churches in America,
|and of discrimination
|against black men by American white men.
|Well, the communists, no doubt exaggerated.
|Used these events
|to whip up some of the Congolese into a fanatical
|revolutionary force, which was willing to follow
|the wicked schemes of the communists.
|It was then that the butchering of the white missionaries
|from America took place.
|But there's little reason to suppose that the massacre
|could have happened.
|Had it not been possible for the communist
|to recite so many sorry, incidents from American life.
|Therefore when churchmen in this region, boast
|of the heroic martyrdom of the missionaries in the Congo
|someone must ask them, where was your voice?
|When the police dogs tore at the flesh
|of teenage American girls, whose only crime
|was that they took the United States constitution
|and the Christian religion, seriously.
|Someone must ask Where was your Christian in influence,
|when the bulldozers pushed dirt over the graves
|of three young Americans who were murdered simply
|because they were seeking to aid American citizens
|to exercise the right to vote?
|What were you doing while these and other dramas
|of cruelty were being acted out, thus furnishing
|the communist schemers with fuel for a great Congo bonfire?
|Woe be unto the man who has to answer
|that he gave the consent of silence while being too busy
|in building the tomb of some profit safely dead
|or safely distant.
|In similar fashion, we see how some citizens
|of our land may make a great fuss over the founding fathers,
|and the leaders of the American revolution.
|But apparently have no interest at all,
|in applying the principles of our revolutionary forefathers
|to the contemporary issues in this land of the free
|and the home of the brave.
|They want to enshrine the founding fathers
|and create the impression
|that they are their proper descendants.
|They form groups to honor our revolutionary
|and Aedence and to establish themselves
|as their true sons and daughters.
|They're not willing to allow history to judge
|whether they are the true sons
|and daughters of the founding fathers.
|They want to lay verbal claim to the prize now.
|Whatever historians may write later.
|The judgment of Jesus and the judgment
|of history is that the Pherases
|these were not the sons of the prophets.
|They were the sons of their fathers who killed the prophets.
|There is an important difference between a true son
|of the prophets and a false son of the prophets.
|But the difference is subtle.
|The all new way to be a true son
|of the prophets is to be a prophet.
|The late Dr. Albert Russell, who was Dean
|of our divinity school once was invited
|to Massachusetts to speak at the founding
|of a society of Quaker descendants.
|He wanted to know what it was
|about their Quaker ancestors, which they admired.
|He was told that they fed and clothed the poor
|that they helped the underprivileged
|that they were a powerful influence for peace
|and brotherhood, and that they sought to establish justice
|and honesty within a frame of love for all men.
|That sounded pretty good to Dean Russell.
|He replied that there was still a great need
|for men like that now.
|And while he would be happy to come
|and help them to form a society of Quakers.
|He wouldn't be interested
|in helping them to establish a society
|of quaker descendants.
|Building the tombs of the prophets is a fine
|and commendable enterprise, unless it becomes a substitute
|for honest Christian living in the present.
|But if it is a substitute
|then it becomes a subterfuge and it falls under all the woes
|which our Lord Jesus Christ pronounced upon it.
|It becomes a very strange and hypocritical building project.
|The life and the heroic death
|of the prophets, the martyrs, the saints
|and the founding fathers can be a powerful stimulus to us,
|us to emulate their devotion.
|This will happen if we honestly say,
|with a great American that we hear highly resolved
|that these dead shall not have died in vain.
|Almighty God our heavenly father, who has called us
|to great and heroic living,
|we now offer unto thee our hearts and lives in dedication,
|whatever the cost.
|And we pray that we may have the thy spirit
|and strength to meet the challenge of our day.
|And now may the peace of God
|which passes all understanding,
|keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge
|of God and in the love and service of Jesus Christ.
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