The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

God, I Thank You That I am Just Like Other People—A Sermon on Righteousness and Contempt

Grace and peace from God our Creator, Hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.

Sometimes, the Gospel for the week is looking right at us. This week is one of those weeks. The first sentence: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” Right there, it’s us he means. It’s a straight up trap, because if you think it’s you, well, you’re right, and if you don’t, well, congratulations, it is. Because either you are the self-righteous who hold others with contempt, or, you’re the self-righteous who hold “the self-righteous who hold others with contempt” with contempt! Long story short, the author of this Gospel is saying, “listen up, y’all. This one’s for you.”

So now that we know this parable is straight up targeting us, what is it? Well, it’s a classic Jesus construction: there’s a Pharisee and a tax collector. Pharisees are regarded as being the most religious, most righteous, best ever dudes. Tax collectors are regarded as basically the opposite. To be a tax collector means that you are shaking down your neighbors for their cash all the time, and running off with it to Caesar, and none of it is every really trickling-down back into your community. So nobody likes you.

You’re probably thinking “well, I don’t want to be the tax collector in this scenario, so, am I the pharisee?" The Pharisee seems okay. He’s at the temple, and he’s praying: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” I am literally the best at being a religious person, thanks for making me so amazing, you’re the best, God. We can hear the problem with this prayer, right? It’s like, so un-self-aware.

So, if we’re this Pharisee, “what are our own versions of this Pharisee’s prayer? Who are we grateful not to be?”[1]

This is so easy.

We are all human, and so we are all very excellent at comparing ourselves to everyone we encounter—for better and for worse—deciding whether we envy that person or would rather die than be that person.

We do this on seemingly unimportant scales all the time, right? Like with our majors; we can’t believe someone could possibly be getting a degree in that. Or with our professional sports affiliations; even if our team loses, at least we didn’t lose as badly as those guys. This year, the very obvious not-even-elephant in the room is the election. “God, I thank you that I am not like those terrible voters for that other party.” Woo—had that thought like 47 times today.

And recently, I had terribly self-righteous thoughts about InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. They are the nation’s largest Christian campus ministry organization—there’s a chapter here are UC Davis—and so they are home to many of your peers. A few weeks ago, they made a choice I disagree with. Any of their employees who support marriage equality and other protections for LGBTQ Americans are no longer welcome. They are supposed to notify their supervisors of their disagreement with the organization’s policies on sexuality, and transition out of their jobs next month.

It is part of our work as Christians to speak up about oppressive situations and systems in our midst, and to do our best to end them. It is understandable that these employees probably do not want to work for an organization whose ideals they don’t support, but this also removes entirely the possibility of discussion and compassion and maybe eventual change on the subject. This decision proclaims to all the students on 667 campuses around the country where InterVarsity is present that their pro-LGBTQ stances—and their LGBTQ identities—are not welcome.

I confess to you today, friends, that when I think about this I say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other Christians.” While this, momentarily, makes me feel righteous and excellent, it is not the point. There are plenty of things going on in the ELCA and the Episcopal church that we lament and that we confess and that we must work to change. We are not exempt from bad policies because we are not exempt from sin.

We know, because Martin Luther wrote about it a heck of a lot, that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. This is great, because it means that one wrong move doesn’t ruin everything. The thing about being simultaneously saint and sinner is that we’re always uncomfortable. We’re always giving ourselves a pat on the back, and then feeling like that wasn’t the right move.

Some people don’t like Christians because they think we’re hypocrites. They think that, if we call ourselves Christians, we are all set and do everything perfectly and are never mean and always drive the speed limit and never say a swear word and always volunteer to do the dishes and never buy anything expensive because we’re donating all our money to charity. I think these folks have it upside down. Christians are not perfect—far from it. We know so! At the start of every service, what’s the first thing we do? You can cheat and look at the bulletin. Confession!

We begin our evening together by confessing our sin. We say, to God and to one another, that we have failed. We have messed up. We have done things wrong and we have known they were wrong even as we did them. And we have not done something right and known it was the right thing even as we didn’t do it. We have stood idly by as a situation we had the power to change went on, badly, without our intervention. We know it! And so we say it.

“We confess that we have turned from you and given ourselves into the power of sin. We are truly sorry and humbly repent. In your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things we have done and things we have failed to do.”

Every week, we say those words (or some like them). “Confessing our sins as a group helps us know that we are not alone in falling short.” [2]

Part of the power vested in me—mine because I wear this stole, this vestment—by my ordination is the power to declare to you the forgiveness of all your sin. I am not the one who forgives you, that’s not the power I have. God forgives you, and I am entrusted with the responsibility of reminding you.

When I was serving my internship during seminary in Colorado, I had the privilege of getting to know the chaplain at the nearby women’s prison. She told me about the way she mediated conflict between the women, by insisting that as they told their side of the argument with someone, her name had to be followed by “precious child of God” as a reminder of everyone’s belovedness. For example: “I am so tired of listening to Donald Trump, precious child of God, as he insults so many beautiful groups of Americans.” This to say, dear ones, that “we are all created in God’s image,” but “those other people, those people we are secretly glad we are not—they are created in God’s image, too.” [3]

Wherever you find yourself in this parable, wherever you find yourself in the story of God, you are beloved. You, precious child of God, are forgiven. You are justified. You are a sinner and you are a saint. And so is everyone else. God, I thank you that I am just like other people: messy, joyous, awkward, clever, ambitious, righteous, forgetful, silly, beloved. Amen!

Listen, I Will Tell You A Mystery--A Sermon on Death and Hamilton

Saints and Squirrels—A Sermon for Francis