Rev. Pamela Shepherd
Luke 18:9-14

I really struggled with the sermon this week. This reading from the Gospel of Luke kept turning and turning and turning in my hands. I would see part of it: Jesus’ clear teaching about how wrong it is and how destructive to have contempt for anyone; how our contempt for another person, culture, religion (or any version of our religion) puts us outside the mercy of God. That’s clear.

But then I would think about this tax collector who is so sure he is a worm. And I would think of all the people already told by our culture that we are not worthy, not whole, not important, not capable, not beloved, and I wonder if this breast-beating thing is really healthy for us and for our religion.

Then I’d rev up in my mind a good feminist sermon: how the central sin for men is pride, but for women it’s not pride—it’s sloth—that sense we carry of ourselves that we don’t matter much; that we are lowly and unimportant; that we can stay small and live small lives.

That’ll preach. But then I remembered a conversation with a parent of teenager in our church. They’d gone to celebrate the high holy days at a local synagogue—days of prayer and repentance—and the teen said that this was something we lack in our church. I do things wrong, this teen said. I need a way to repent and start over.

Yet those of us a good bit older may remember all too well the prayer of confession in every Sunday service, and especially before Communion: O Lord I am not worthy… I am not worthy… I am not worthy…

And since a lot of us were already being told from our culture that message, I’m not worthy; our sense of unworthiness gets ironed in. So it was “Progressive” of us to drop the weekly confession of our sins and demand that we are not evil people; to claim we are God’s People, fully beloved and fully worthy to enter into Communion with God.

And then, there is the historical reality that a lot of the priests and ministers and pastors hearing our confession and offering us God’s absolution are also sometimes shamelessly, recklessly, and even criminally living against our religion’s instructions. They are not holding themselves to the rules and the rites they feel free to enforce on the rest of us.

I met a guy like that at seminary. You probably all could come up with at least one good example. This guy was a Catholic priest who was also a closeted gay man. On Friday and Saturday nights he put on black leather and went out to find anonymous sex partners. On Sundays he dressed in a fancy white robe and decided from the front of the church, who could receive or not receive Communion: who was worthy enough to touch God.

This man denied the Eucharist to women and men who’d divorced and remarried, to people who had not come to confession that week, to out and honest gay Catholics who would not lie about their lives. This man believed he had the power to do that: to decide who could and could not receive God.

So what’s my message this morning? Sometimes the message you need to hear depends on who you are. Or what’s happening right now in your own life. If you are someone who has contempt for others, although you may not use that word—maybe you think you would like to “educate” others so that they will think and worship and believe the things you do–well Jesus’ message is clear, in case that’s you: Stop being contemptuous of others, of anyone, if you want to be fully with God.

And if you are someone who thinks you deserve contempt, who thinks of yourself as less than human, who thinks you are unworthy, ask God for mercy now and stop that; you are insulting a Creation of God.

The truth is—well here’s my truth anyway—the world is not neatly divided between pompous hypocrites and those who think they’re worms. Most people I know, we go back and forth on it. We lurch between hypocrisy and self-denigration and despair. I have seen it in myself and I could see that broken Priest did. Should I have responded to his story with contempt? Or with mercy, like our merciful God?

Like every person in this room I get things wrong a lot. I fail to be the person I most want to be. I fail to live up to serving the world fully at rest in Christ’s Heart. So my young friend in the church is dead right—I do need repentance and I do need confession—I need some ritual way to start over.

In my own prayer life I do that every day. But what does it mean that I haven’t taught that here? That I haven’t made it part of what we do together? Was I giving the message to that one teen and to you, that you are the only one who ever fails? Whoever needs to repent and start over?

So the sermon goes in circles this morning. This is the best I’ve got. Oh, and I found this old Hasidic story from the Jewish Tradition:

According to Rabbi Bunim of P’shiskha, Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”

But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

I think the trick to living as a healthy, happy human is to find ways to keep ourselves right-sized: For me the Universe was made. I am but dust and ashes.

Professor Alyce McKenzie of Perkins School of Theology writes, True humility contributes to the dynamic of faith allowing the power of God to work through us. Nothing can be allowed to interfere with genuine humility. Not the arrogance that assumes that we are to be placed above others. Not the self-loathing that presumes to denigrate a human being, in this case, ourselves, who is made in the image of God. This parable is a freeze frame, a slice of life. Sooner or later the preacher closes the bible, says, “Here ends the lesson,” and the listeners go out into the world to love and serve our neighbors, divested of both arrogance and shame. (

Be kind. Be kind. It is that simple. Contempt for any part of God’s Creation separates us completely from God.