To boldly go where no one has gone before. Anyone familiar with that phrase? I think that the Star Trek series perfectly captures our spirit of exploration, of seeking out new knowledge, new experiences, new places, new people. I doubt that all of you have that wandering spirit all the time, but I think that we all have it on occasion.
There was an episode of the Next Generation series that I found quite fascinating. The episode is from the Third season of the Next Generation, “Booby Trap.” The Enterprise was puttering around the Universe as usual and they ran into an ancient wreck in the midst of an asteroid belt. They poked around a little bit, downloads a few fragmentary files, and then tried to warp out of there, but to their surprise they couldn’t. Almost every ounce of energy they expended in one direction was being opposed by an equal force. As they investigated more and more they found themselves stuck in the midst of an ancient minefield: all their systems were being fed back to them and if they fired their weapons or made one wrong move they would set off every charge in the asteroid belt, which would destroy them. If they stayed put, then eventually their resources and their power would drain and they would be stranded without hope of rescue.
They put their heads together and put the computer into overdrive to come up with a solution, and in the end there were two solutions. The first was the program the computer to take them out with no human input at all. The computer didn’t give it much of a chance, but it was better than nothing. The second solution was to give the engines enough of a jolt to get them moving, and then drift out completely under manual control, applying just a little bit of thruster here and there to keep them on course. In the end, they chose the second option and Captain Picard himself took the helm to steer them out. In the end, they were willing to have faith that one person could lead them out.
The story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is pretty straightforward. They say what they’re expected to say in the culture of their day and both are pretty much stating the obvious. The Pharisee is able to go beyond the minimum required for ritual purity: some Pharisees of that time made it a point to undertake a stricter regimen of piety such as this one. This one is fasting more than required (he’s only required to fast on Yom Kippur, which is once a year) and he tithes on everything he has rather than everything he’s earned. It is curious that the tax collector made it to Jerusalem in the first place: he would have had to undergo some purification rituals in order to be able to make the trip. The Pharisee makes a fairly common prayer for Jews of his day: thank God you’ve made me who I am and not like the heathens. The thing that’s missing from this prayer is God’s role in all this. The Pharisee isn’t asking God for anything; he thinks that things are the best they possibly can be, and other than placement, God doesn’t have to do anything else.
The tax collector knows he’s on thin ice. He’s an outcast among his own people, and this is probably the only time he’s going to be able to come up to Jerusalem. The nature of his job renders him ritually impure, and there may be a little shame on his part that he’s where he is. His people consider him a cheat and a traitor, and he has a lot of money, his money doesn’t really buy him much. He could have stayed home and not gone to Jerusalem at all, but he had enough faith to make the huge effort just to get there He knows that God is going to have to bring him out of his state, and he puts himself in God’s hands. And this is what makes him worthy, this is what justifies him.
I don’t think that many of us actually give thanks that we’re not like other people, at least I hope that we aren’t making that prayer. I don’t know about you all, but I know that God has to do a lot of work on me yet. We come here knowing that we’re sinners, that we’re not perfect, and we’re called to put ourselves in God’s hands and take up the task of being the presence of Christ in the world. It can be like putting yourself in the middle of a minefield.
How do we get out of the minefield of our sinfulness, our fear, our inadequacy? We put the controls in the hands of the great Captain. We come forward to say “Amen” to the Body and Blood of Christ so that our Savior’s sure hand can be guiding us in our lives. We can’t just sit back and let it happen or stay still: we have to little push now and then to keep moving. We are also called to have faith that although we may be navigating a frightening set of circumstances, although we may think that one false turn will blow us up, if we recognize who we are and what we are, put ourselves in the hands of the one who loves us and cleanses us, and we give those little pushes to keep moving, we too can come out of the galactic minefield into the clear.