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The Lawrence Kristin Mikkelsen Preaching Scholarship at CDSP, established by St. John’s Episcopal Church, Aptos, California, is awarded to a CDSP student who has demonstrated outstanding promise as a preacher and a commitment to social justice and human dignity. The 2016 recipient of the scholarship is Aaron Klinefelter '18, who preached this sermon at St. John's on October 23: 

Holy Spirit, come. Calm our tempest and trouble our waters. Give us eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who came to visit a new church. She was wearing a bold red hat with the words “Make America Great Again” emblazoned across the front. She came up for Eucharist and weeping she took the bread and wine giving thanks and praise for God’s deep and abiding love and forgiveness.

Standing in the back of the nave, sipping on their fair trade coffee in environmentally sustainable recycled, compostable paper cups, several church leaders gathered to whisper gossip about this unexpected visitor. “What was she doing here?” “How could she be supporting him?!” “It’s just deplorable!”

Once upon a time, there was a young man who came to a new church. He was wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. During the Prayers of the People he tearfully called out a lament for the young, unarmed black men who have been shot this last year.

During coffee hour, several seasoned vestry members were discussing his “political statement” and whether or not the church should be supporting this kind of behavior. “We welcome everybody, shouldn’t we just be saying, All Lives Matter?” “He should keep his politics private and not try to indoctrinate others, church is about feeling God’s love.”

One of these scenarios, or both, might make you uncomfortable. The nice thing about being a guest preacher is you get to say outlandish things and then leave. But in all honesty, these little vignettes make me uncomfortable too.

We like to think of ourselves as good people. We’re Episcopalians after all. We’re nice. We welcome everybody, it says so on our signs!

But you and I both know that isn’t always the case. Maybe not here, at St. John’s, but my guess is that you’ve experienced it. You’ve felt the cold shoulder of being the outsider in a place where it was clear that you didn’t belong. You’ve felt the sideways glances of, “What is she doing here?” or “Who does he think he is?”

My hunch is that you’ve felt like you didn’t measure up at some point in your life. Or that your life wasn’t what you thought it should be. Perhaps, it’s that everything you hoped for fell apart and that your dreams didn’t deliver. Or, you might have royally messed up. It could have been a lapse in judgment, desire run amuck, or just a big mistake.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ve responded like the tax collector in today’s gospel, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Or.

Maybe, you’ve been on the other side. Maybe, if you are really honest with yourself, you’ve driven by that homeless guy at the intersection, careful not to make eye contact with him, and thought, “Why doesn’t he get a job?” “I’m glad I’m not like him.”

Maybe, you’ve been scrolling through Facebook and you see that impassioned political post from one of your friends--the friend whose politics are exactly opposite of your own. And you think, “How could they believe that?! They are so ignorant. I’m glad I know what our country really needs.

It is an all too easy trap to fall into. We can become ensnared by the seduction of our own moral superiority--our own righteous uprightness. We can fall prey to that easy temptress: At least I’m not like THEM. 

And, THEM can be anyone. We are amazingly dexterous and efficient in “other-izing” other people. It could be…

Black people
White people
Gay people
Straight people
Church people
Not church people
Episcopalians
Evangelicals
Environmentalists
Oil Companies
Republicans
Democrats
Americans
Foreigners
People who stand during the national anthem
People who kneel during the national anthem
Folks from the other side of the tracks

It doesn’t matter who, when, where, why, or what--we can make “those people” the “others” who we are not and WE are better than.

We can even do this in the parable we read today. Well, at least WE aren’t like that snooty Pharisee! We know it’s not about keeping those arcane religious laws. We know it’s about God’s mercy. We’re enlightened. We might even say, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: Pharisees and religious show offs and super pious Christians.”

But, my sisters and brothers of St. John’s, we might just be missing the point.

It’s not about being right. The Pharisee was doing good things and was even thanking God. The problem was that he was drawing a circle with himself and God on the inside and that no-good tax collector on the outside. He was cutting himself off. Standing alone. He was positioning himself in a place of higher value and honor than the shameful tax collector.

When we say, “Lord, thank you that I’m not like other people,” we make people “OTHER.” And because we’re human we tend to think that we are right, wise, benevolent, kind, compassionate, and reasonable--and those OTHER people aren’t.

This story isn’t about how God likes tax collectors better than Pharisees. It’s about how God has a preferential option for those who put their full faith and trust in God. It’s about relationship with the divine, not a list of religiously approved requirements. Or having the correct political beliefs. Do we lean fully on the mercy of God or do we trust in our own ability to do stuff we think will make God or our priest or our parent or our boss or our spouse or our children happy?

This parable of Jesus we find today in Luke’s gospel is another one in a series of stories where Jesus takes the expected social order and flips it on its head. Jesus up-ends the status quo. He turns the tables on the way things have always been and shows us the surprising, joyous, unexpected, beautiful ways of the Kingdom of God.

Because, in God’s Kingdom, whether we like it or not, there is room for people who wear bold red, Make America Great Again ball caps and people who wear Black Lives Matter t-shirts.

We may well vehemently disagree, and we should, and we will have to struggle together to make our world a better place--even with genuine differences of opinion.

What it does mean is that when we show up at that Eschatological Eucharist (I’m a seminarian, I had to use some big highfalutin word!)--the Great Big Banquet in the Sky--that meal where everyone gets enough and there are seconds to go around, that when it is all said and done there will be those sitting next to us at the table who we did not expect. And if it is going to be like that at the end of all things--we might want to start acting like it now.

The Kingdom of God is like that. It upturns our prejudice and our self-righteousness. It invites us to cry out together, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"