Holier than Thou

My freshman year of high school, our three feeder Catholic elementary schools merged into one high school. I was exposed to new kids from these different schools. One kid whom for the sake of this sermon we’ll call Hubert, was just human sandpaper to me.

Hubert was awkward. We all wore uniforms, but Hubert somehow managed to wear his wrong. He looked like a 40-year-old man, which is fine if you are a 40-year-old man like I am now… but it was not okay at the age of 15. Hubert wasn’t particularly smart or witty. Hubert just didn’t stand out. He was mostly ignored and occasionally teased.

Another classmate whom I’ll call Raj was Hindu. In the spring, the English teacher invited him to talk of Holi, the spring festival of colors. As he spoke of his faith, I became more and more angry. I couldn’t hear it. I couldn’t accept it.

The next year, Hubert and Raj didn’t attend my high school anymore. They went to the public school. One of the biggest regrets of my life.

One year Hubert and Raj were there, the next year they weren’t. Still, I’m bothered by my actions. Why would I regret that? Why, some 22 years later, am I still thinking about Hubert and Raj? Like the author George Saunders wrote, “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”[1]

I was not kind to them. I was not open to them. Instead of asking questions, I threw judgment at them. I was not as kind as I could have been in high school and even into college. I grew into being kind, or at least kinder. More open than I was.

Meeting Kate, going to college and then seminary… being exposed to people and their stories have all opened me up. Made me kinder. I worship with you to keep working on being kinder. It is the goal of my life to create a kinder self and a kinder world for everyone. Less jerk-Luke and more kind-Luke for God’s sake and the sake of God’s people.

I might not have been the prime reason that Hubert or Raj didn’t come back to my Catholic high school, but I certainly didn’t help them feel welcome. I lacked kindness and openness.

I have spent much of my life like the Pharisee in today’s scripture. I might not be perfect, but at least I’m not Hubert. A “Holier than Thou” attitude, a “I’m better than you” stance is no way to go through life.

Yet this parable Jesus tells today isn’t just about being kind. It’s about stamping out the need to be superior in our comparisons. What Jesus is talking about is radical acceptance of the Other.

The Other is a literary term I learned about in college. The Other is an individual who is perceived by the group as not belonging, as being different in some fundamental way. Any stranger becomes the Other. The group sees itself as the norm and judges those who do not meet that norm.

The Pharisee is confident in his tradition and in his group. “Thank God, I’m not like other people. I’m not evil. I follow the rules.” We are more like this than we care to admit. And it’s painful to admit. It’s hard to see who our rules affect and who becomes victims at the expense of our rules.

Last year, we read the Rev. Stephanie Speller’s book Radical Welcome. She writes that “Radical welcome is the spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices, and power of The Other: the people systemically cast out of or marginalized within a church, a denomination, and/or society.”[2]

Like I did with Hubert and Raj. Like the Pharisee is doing to the tax collector. Like we can do in our community and in our church. Our labels are used not to connect, but to separate. Slowly, I’ve been learning to hear stories not my own. Stories of black folk. Stories of Latinx. Different stories from other faith traditions and cultures. Other styles of Christianity. While I’m not as open as I could be, I’m trying. I try to preach from a place that welcomes in stories and experiences that aren’t necessarily the “normal.” Not white middle class Midwest.

I love our tradition. I came from one tradition, thought I was done with church, and then found you, church. I found this radical expression of faith in the UCC. I found Jesus again when I’d given up on the whole institution. This tradition is my favorite frankly because it’s exposed me to stories of others. It welcomes stories of others. It is easier and more profitable to build barriers of understanding. There are entire news channels dedicated to this proposal. They run 24 hours a day. In between the programs of outrage, there are commercials telling you that you’re not enough: not good enough, too fat, too skinny, wearing the wrong make up, drinking the wrong pop. I get you for one hour a week. It’s hard to counter that. It’s hard to be apart from that. It’s hard not to fall into guilt ridden patterns for that’s not good news. Shouting and shaming is not good news.  So have mercy on me, a sinner. Your pastor.

I pray that what you find here is powerful enough to open your heart to the stories of the Other in our lives. The Other who is poor and doesn’t have stable housing. The Other who doesn’t have ANY housing. The Other who wears different skin. The Other who is middle-aged and illiterate. The Other who bears the image of God just as we do. I pray you find and make peace with the Other you hide from others thinking that if you show it, you’ll be outcast. So you preempt that and outcast yourself because part of you believes what the bullies said about you. I pray you make peace with your inner other and find healing.

New church member Kenzie Armbrust introduced me to an amazing song about welcoming the Other. The first lines of The Plowshare Prayer by Spencer LaJoye are, “Dear blessed creator, dear mother, dear savior
Dear father, dear brother, dear holy other.”[3]

To be open to the other is the core message of the Bible. It is the mission of Jesus. To come amongst us who like to divide up and play petty games of identity and assumption.  Be open to the Other. If someone is telling their story, listen. Don’t just wait for your chance to talk. Take it in. Let it challenge you and change you. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.[4] Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other. Take care of the aged. Nurture the young. Calm the ceaseless noise of the middle aged. Counsel the young 20s wondering about their path in life. Make space for conversation and gathering.

I believe this is that space. We are that place. Here we welcome, love, and serve our neighbor. Every. Single. Neighbor. Even those who will be offended by who we hang out with and who we call blessed children of God. They’re not going to get what we’re about and that’s okay. It’s not new.  For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ Jesus came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.[5]

I yearn for that wisdom. I yearn to break boundaries and continue to have honest and uncomfortable conversations. Have mercy on me, a sinner. Amen.
Amen as Spencer sings, “Amen on Behalf of the last and the least,
on behalf of the anxious, depressed and unseen,
Amen for the workers, the hungry, the houseless,
Amen for the lonely and recently spouseless,

Amen for the queers and their closeted peers

Amen for the bullied who hold in their tears

Amen for the mothers of little Black sons

Amen for the kids who grow up scared of guns

Amen for the addicts, the ashamed and hungover

Amen for the calloused, the wisened, the sober

Amen for the ones who want life to be over

Amen for the leaders who lose their composure

Amen for the parents who just lost their baby

Amen for the chronically ill and disabled

Amen for the children down at the border

Amen for the victims of our law and order.”


Amen for Hubert. Amen for Raj. Amen for the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. Amen for you and for me and the time we share together. Amen for you, your glorious, glorious Other. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] Congratulations, by the way: Some thoughts on kindness. Page 13.

[2] Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirt of Transformation. Page 6.

[3] The Plowshare Prayer by Spencer LaJoye, cited with permission from the artist. https://youtu.be/MhOZv5i7CHY

[4] Hebrews 13:2

[5] Matthew 11:18-19

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