MY NEW FAVOURITE MARTIAN- Homily for the 17th Sunday of Pentecost September 28, 2014

Science fiction takes people to the stars and beyond, prodding our imaginations and creating opportunities to consider new realities.

But when you were watching Star Trek or Star Wars or ET, seeing all the different shapes, sizes and colours of aliens, did you ever get the sense that there was an important theological message being conveyed?

Jenna Avery wrote in an online article: “The beauty of Science Fiction is that it allows us to stand outside the experience of our own culture and look back to face otherwise emotionally-charged and complex questions in a more neutral manner. When we can be separate enough — by looking at how we might fictionally treat an alien race, for instance — we see things with new eyes.”

The Pope said this week that he would be willing to baptise aliens if they came to the Vatican, asking “who are we to close doors” to anyone – even Martians? He said that the Church is a place of “open doors.” “When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way.’ Who are we to close doors?”

I have a little trouble getting the movie Mars Attacks out of my mind, but as we ponder whether we might be willing to open the doors to aliens, we might also consider today’s Gospel, in which Jesus is confronted and challenged by the officials of the Temple in Jerusalem.

These gate-keepers can be seen in any institution or organization and certainly in any parish. They are the ones who believe it is their right and responsibility to safeguard the institution from outsiders – the ones who see themselves as the true representatives, the epitome of what the organization is all about – and really, it’s all about them. In this case the outsider is Jesus, and this is the great irony in this passage: the Temple clerics supposedly are servants of God but they don’t know anything about God — God comes calling in the person of Christ, and they want to shut the door in his face.

In much the same manner as the people of Israel challenged Moses in the wilderness, they immediately question his right to do what he’s doing. They raise a question of authority, because people like this always like to assume that they are the ultimate authority, whether they have any official authority, genuine calling, real insight or not.

The warning in this passage is that sometimes we can think our personal authority is greater than God’s authority. God in the person of Jesus presents himself in the Temple and the priests refuse to understand and embrace what he is about simply because he threatens their place of prominence and influence, so they try to get clever with him to trap him up in theological debate. This is another ironic bit, like Job trying to argue theology with God. Therefore they look all the more foolish when they cannot answer the simple question Jesus poses in response to their challenge.

The Temple officials give a safe, conventional, politically astute answer because they don’t want to lose their position of prominence. A few years ago a priest of the Church of England announced that he had lost all faith in God and was now an atheist. In a TV interview, he was challenged about the hypocrisy of continuing in the role of priest and Rector of a parish when he had no faith and could no longer in any real way represent the mission and purpose of the Church. The interview revealed that although the priest had abandoned all vestiges of Christianity he had miraculously retained his belief in the right to live in a Church Rectory and to draw a church salary and pension.

The role of religious leaders is not about blocking new life; it is not about consolidating their place of influence; it’s not about playing safe. Not even the Pope believes he has the right to behave that way.

The Temple officers are a caricature and they are meant to warn the would-be faithful of any generation how easily we can becoming self-serving and suspicious of change or new ideas, to the point where we become oblivious to the direction and purpose of the One we are supposed to serve.

There is a powerful and painful metaphor here: the Temple was the spiritual heart of Judaism and the heart was closed. On a personal and individual level this is the story of our spirituality when the ego has taken up primary residence in the temple of our own being, and how difficult it is for us to receive the Gospel of Christ and become like Jesus.

Like the Temple officers, you can get so familiar with the church, and with playing certain roles, that you forget what the church is all about.

Isaac Asimov said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction — its essence — has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that the Bible is meant to open up people’s imaginations and vision. Yet in our day it is being treated like Science Fiction, even by people who are officials of the Church.

In our particular society, God is an alien, and the Church is an alien, just as Jesus was an alien to the gatekeepers of the Temple. The Gospel is foreign to our way of life, because it challenges probably most of the assumptions and expectations we have about what constitutes a meaningful life.

This new pope has taken the name of Francis, which is unprecedented, and it refers to his intention to become a church that cares about those outside the doors – the poor, the marginalized — even people of other religions:

In May 2013, Francis said that God “has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! … Even the atheists, Everyone!”

Because God is the creator of all that is, and not just of this planet, then it may be that extra-terrestrials — people from other galaxies and planets — might one day not be considered non-entities or aliens but fellow creatures of God, perhaps even brothers and sisters in Christ.

The new Pope has chosen the name of Francis (whose festival we celebrate this week, on October 4) because it sends a signal not only to the Church but to the world, of a desire to embark on a new path, or re-discover an old path, to find the heart of the Christian faith, to wake up to the magnitude of Christ’s vision and challenge, and to take the dare to follow as faithfully as possible in the footsteps of Jesus.

There’s a new book out entitled When Saint Francis Saved the Church and according to some scholars, that title is not an exaggeration. Theologian Hans Kung said recently “a church in the spirit of Francis means a church of humanity, dialogue, brotherhood and sisterhood, hospitality for nonconformists; it means the unpretentious service of its leaders and social solidarity, a community that does not exclude new religious forces and ideas from the church but rather allows them to flourish.”

It may seem ridiculous to consider the possibility of baptizing Martians, but it speaks of choosing to relate differently to the universe – with more of a sense of openness and awe and humility, more of a sense of ourselves in a larger scheme of things, and not as the centre of the universe.

As we read through the Bible, have you ever noticed how often the way of God causes contention, confusion and conflict?

Jesus was constantly provoking the people of that era (and ours) to look beyond their doors, to resist wanting to associate only with people who are exactly the same as we are; reaching out to people who were considered alien like Romans and Samaritans and Canaanites, showing mercy and understanding to those the gatekeepers had shunned, like prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterers, thieves, lepers, and the poor.

The Gospel warns us against using the church as a vehicle for our own glorification. In the parable Jesus gave in response to the challenge of the Temple officials, he was speaking of people who choose to be in the temple, who on the surface say Yes to God, but refuse to do the work they are supposed to do. A person who says No because he/she recognizes the magnitude of the task, but then later takes up the challenge, is much more useful to God than those who are only pretending.

Why are the tax collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom? Because they weren’t arrogant like the Pharisees – they didn’t take it for granted that they were just automatically in, regardless of how they treated others. The tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom because they accepted the presence of God in the person of Jesus. They were going in because the doors of their hearts and minds were open and they operated with humility and gratitude rather than arrogance and entitlement. They were going in to the kingdom because they didn’t think in terms of being superior to anyone else.

Jesus is always pointing out the tendency to think only of ourselves – to be oblivious to or indifferent toward others – and he always seems to expand people’s sense of context – to make them aware of what’s going on around them. Who knows, the person next to you might be an alien!

You’ve all heard the line: “Is the Pope Catholic?” The real answer is: Not necessarily. The word catholic means “universal” and is a reminder to the Church that our vision needs to be unlimited in expanse, our arms open to the strangest of strangers and our imagination always open to new possibilities.

The Ven. Grant Rodgers+

RCL-appointed readings:

Exodus 17:1-7 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”
But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Philippians 2:1-13 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Matthew 21:23-32 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.