Sermon for the Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Even throwaway bits of comedy “The Simpsons” can be such deadly satire as to be uncomfortable to watch. In one episode, Homer has become critical of all organized religion. He walks into the local convenience store, the Kwik-E-Mart, and strikes up a conversation with Apu, the manager, who is a Hindu. Homer asks about Apu’s religious observance and Apu points out a shrine to the Hindu god Ganesha, depicted with an elephant’s head and four human arms. Homer walks over to it. He produces a peanut and gestures toward the statue: “Hey Ganesha, wanna peanut?” His anger kindled, Apu utters the unlikely demand, “Please do not offer my god a peanut.”
Of course Homer’s gesture was an insult. The suggestion that a deity could be moved in any way by a petty token doesn’t just degrade the deity, but also those who would worship it. And yet that’s just the kind of attitude that an awful lot of Christians show toward God. We may not be quite as brazen as Luke’s Pharisee, but deep down at one time or another most of us succumb to the tempting belief that by acts of personal piety or self-denial, we can curry favor with God. Some Christians take this to the point of obsession, making the pursuit of some definition of purity the center of their spiritual lives.
In the forum, we’ve been studying the evolution of the concept of worship in our own tradition. The earliest concept seems to be one of transaction. Sacrifice these animals, get these blessings. That seems to be the concept under which Cain and Abel labored. Both were trying to curry favor with God by making sacrifices, and as you might recall, it ended badly. But very early on, even later in the book of Genesis, we see our ancestors wrestling with the concept. In the watershed story of the binding of Isaac, we see an evolution to the idea that we worship because of who God is, and who we are, expressing our feelings of duty, gratitude, hope, and trust, which are rooted in humility, replacing the notion that we can get a handle on God.
Can you imagine encountering God enthroned in heaven, in infinite power and incomprehensible glory, and trotting up to the throne proudly holding up your list of accomplishments? Every gift, every sacrifice, every good work? In all seriousness, though, at one time or another most of us have hoped to impress God with a spiritual resume padded with virtuous deeds and thoughts. Who are we kidding? Like the original audience of this parable, we like nothing more than thinking we’ve finally got a handle on God, but our very best efforts are peanuts compared to the love and mercy of God.
On the other hand, how much better is the tax collector, really? “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” he said. He did not follow that up by saying, “I’ll try not to sin so much.” Nor does Jesus address the man’s sin; he focuses on his attitude. Yes, it’s indeed good that he humbled himself and asked for God’s mercy, and indeed he did go down to his home justified. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector wasn’t even trying to do the right thing before he went to the Temple and there’s no indication in the text that he’s going to repent. For all we know, he may have a daily habit of committing the same sins and coming to the Temple every day seeking mercy with the same words. If he does though, he goes down to his home justified each time.
God calls us to repent. To become better people, which requires that we find the humility to accept that God, and God alone, defines what “better” means. God calls us to change our ways and turn away from sin. But name one person who has not sinned again after repenting. Repentance is good for us, for our selves, for our relationships with God and with other people. But repentance is still something that we choose to do or not to do and that is reason enough to accept that our repentance will not save us. Observing a moral code won’t save us, either. God has chosen to forgive us, and to save us, unilaterally and unconditionally. God’s salvation is so much greater than any of our notions of morality. God’s forgiveness is bigger and swifter than any sin.
And so we resist. We are accustomed to a world of commodities where the more plentiful a thing is, the less it is worth. How can grace be precious if there is so much of it? What can forgiveness be worth if we don’t earn it with agonizing work? We are offended by the thought that God could be so utterly amoral. If the most despicable people can get into heaven, why do we want to be there? Just what kind of an operation is God running, anyway?
It takes great humility to give God the benefit of the doubt. But this humility at least can set us in the right direction, away from the false god that the prideful Homer Simpson within each of us might design, keeping count of how many peanuts each of us has offered. Which might feel good until we realize we can never supply enough peanuts. Humility sets us free from delusion, which is ultimately degrading. It is the key to becoming better people, and finding a sense of security and peace.
Why settle for peanuts when you can have the infinite grace and unconditional love of God?
Jesus is calling us into relationship with a God who is the most extravagant giver of life and love and mercy. This is a God whose love we can sing of as “so deep, so high, so broad.” This is a God whose love is so bewildering as to inspire love and charity and worship. To have even an inkling about who God is will leave us in slack-jawed awe.
Jesus taught astonishing things about the one true God, but no one understood. We mocked him, tortured him and killed him. Then, before anyone caught on to what happened, he had already saved us all.