Proper 25C Sermon (1989)

Proper 25 (October 23-29)
Text: Luke 18:9-14


I have a confession to make: I’m a “Trekkie,” a Trekkie from way back to the original Star Trek television series. No, I haven’t gone quite as far as going to Star Trek conventions, dressed up like Mr. Spock, but I am an avid watcher of the show. And I’ve even come to like the new TV show better than the original. It’s about the only show on television that I can’t miss; if I’m not going to be home, I tape it.

I tell you this because last night’s episode is one that has ended up reshaping this sermon. Last night’s episode posed a challenge to religion; it called into question the wisdom of believing in gods. But what is even more bazaar is that I began to see a similar challenge from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel lesson. I think that Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector poses a challenge to religion as well. Hard to believe? Well, this is somewhat of a radical sermon, but I think it fits a radical text, one in which Jesus calls into the question the person who is religious. So please stick with me and see if you agree.

First, I need to tell you about last night’s Star Trek (“Who Watches the Watchers?”; Season 3, Episode 4 in The Next Generation series, first aired the week of Oct. 16-22, 1989). What happened is this: the Enterprise gets a distress call from a group of anthropologists, who are covertly studying a planet. The people who naturally inhabit this planet are only at about a Bronze Age level of development. Through a series of accidents, these primitive people see the crew of the Enterprise do what appears to them as miraculous deeds. They believe the crew members, especially Captain Picard, to be gods. The damage done, Captain Picard wants to minimize the interference they make on this peoples’ development. Captain Picard wonders: Won’t their belief in gods now develop into a religion? And, given our own human history, isn’t there a good chance that their religion could degenerate into things like inquisitions, Holy Wars, chaos! What a mess! Their inadvertent interference threatens to send these poor people, in the words of Captain Picard, “back into the Dark Ages of superstition, and ignorance, and fear.”

Wow! That’s strong language! Why were the writers of this Star Trek episode so difficult on religion? I think that they summed it up well through a line of one of their characters: ‘The problem with believing in a supernatural being,’ she says, ‘is trying to determine what he wants.’

And the problem with this show for me is that I think they’re right. How do we know what God wants? The danger that always exists, when faced with such an important question, is that we end up ourselves being the judge of what God wants. Aren’t our human religions, after all, attempts to say what it is God wants. But how is it that we can know what God wants? Should we, in the name of religion, presume to know what God wants?

I say that the answer we get from Jesus Christ is a definite “No; we must never presume to know what God wants.” That, for instance, is why he tells a parable such as the one about the Pharisee and the tax collector. These two figures appear to be a contrast between a religious person and one who isn’t. The Pharisees represented the best of Jesus’ times. They were those who were most serious about the practice of their Jewish religion. Our Pharisee is quick to point out that, when it comes to religious observances such as fasting and tithing, he does more than usual. And he give thanks to God that he is not like those irreverent criminals and evildoers — you know, people like that tax collector. And that tax collector did represent the worst of Jesus’ times. So, in choosing the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus began with what appeared to be a contrast between a religious person and an out-and-out sinner.

But, in the end, what is the contrast that Jesus has made? What is the contrast that matters, so that it is the tax collector who is justified? The contrast that Jesus paints for us is one of how these two men approached God. It is a contrast between a person who presumes to know what God wants and a person who doesn’t. And the person who presumes to know what God wants happens to also be the religious person, the Pharisee. Yes, the Pharisee pronounced judgment on himself, while the tax collector proved the wiser: he called on God to be both his judge and his defender. “God be merciful to me,” he says.

I repeat: Should we, even in the name of religion, presume to know what God wants? No, we must never presume. In fact, isn’t that the very definition of what sin is? Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the garden? When Eve backed away from eating the forbidden fruit, for fear of mortal threat, the snake slithered up and suggested that instead of death, she would “know like God.” Notice the temptation: “To know like God.” Yes, I think that the very definition of sin might be said to presume to know what God wants. And, like the Pharisee, especially in the name of religion, I think we presume all the time.

Wow! So where does that put us? What does that say to the Christian religion? I think that it says that, as a religion, Christianity isn’t much different. Those who see themselves as practicing the Christian religion have done those very things that Captain Picard feared for the people he faced; the Christian religion has degenerated into inquisitions, Holy Wars, chaos. Just to show you how insidious this thing can be: what is often one of our first reactions to Jesus’ parable? Isn’t it always tempting to look at that Pharisee and shake our heads in disgust? “Those Jews,” we say, “they have so many rules — so many rules that they can obey and look good. We Christians — we Lutherans especially! — stress God’s grace. We stress humility.” But do you see? That does the same thing as the Pharisee: It’s like praying, “Lord God, I give you thanks that I’m a Christian, not stuck up like those other religions.” In other words, we can so easily end up bragging about being humble.

No, as a religion, Christianity hasn’t been much different. But at the heart of what we try to do is something a bit different: there is the message that what we must look to is not the Christian religion per se. What we must look to is Christ. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that we preach the cross of Christ, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Be honest: On a human scale of values, doesn’t a hung-up-to-die Jesus appear as weak and foolish? And so might we not say that the cross is God’s way of saying that we cannot presume to know what he wants? With the cross God judges all our human judgements. On the cross God makes it clear once and for all that we can never presume to know what God knows. Being brought before the cross brings us before God more in the manner of the tax collector. We become located in the presence of the crucified Christ where we may know who we are — frightened, inept, unsmart, mortal. But we also meet and know who God is: a God of mercy and forgiveness, who offers to give us his strength and his smarts for daily service in Christ’s name.

What we’ve been trying to get to is that there is a sense in which the Christian faith poses a challenge to religious activity. We’ve peeled back the layers to find what is at the core of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ came to give us not so much a new religion as simply a new relationship with God. He gives us a relationship which always begins at the foot of the cross, so that we might not presume to know what God knows. Instead, we might know in a personal way the God whose love and mercy is also poured out on that same cross. There, we find a strength and mercy to simply serve God and one another with a new humility.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Howell, MI, October 22, 1989

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