Sermon: Why We Need “Other People”

The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “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.”

Luke 18.11-12

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and inspires our time together.

Good morning.

Lately, I have been challenging myself to get back into reading regularly. I initially fell in love with reading when I was in college because books exposed me to a more expansive, more challenging expression of Christianity. One of the books I was happy to pick up and read recently has helped to paint a broader picture of one of the faith heroes that looms large in my mind – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. The book entitled Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu was written by one of Desmond Tutu’s students, the Very Rev’d. Michael Battle, Herbert Thompson Professor of Church and Society and Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at the General Theological Seminary in New York City. I picked up this book because I find myself longing for “reconciliation” as I look at the shape of the world around us, a need to reconnect what has been torn apart by sin and hatred.

Dr. Battle reflects on the theology and spirituality of Desmond Tutu, focusing on how he was able to bring together a deeply divided society. I was fascinated to learn that Desmond Tutu’s actions were deeply sacramental and Eucharistic and reflected our call to community grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While many other theologians were attempting to utilize secular and political language to combat the Apartheid regime, Archbishop Tutu used the language of the Church – words like “reconciliation,” “grace,” “love,” and “peace.” Words that are our birthright as the holy people of God.

Reflecting on the sacramental presence of the church in a hurting, deeply divided world, Dr. Battle describes the Church as “an icon of the community of the saints for the world.”[1] Our calling is to reflect down here the diversity and the unity of that Heavenly City. Desmond Tutu himself says, “We are set to be the Church of God, to declare that despite all appearances to the contrary, this is God’s world and that God, our God, is in charge… In a setting that claims we are made for alienation, separation, dividedness, hostility and war; we must as the church of God proclaim that we are made for togetherness, for fellowship, for community, for oneness, for friendship, and peace.”[2]

As hard as that may be, that is who we are deep in our DNA as the holy, baptized people of God. We aren’t holy because we are so good or because we follow all the rules. We are holy only inasmuch as the presence of the Risen Christ still animates our common life and sanctifies us to that higher, nobler calling. Our task is to strive to grow tall enough to wear the crown of glory that God places over our heads in the waters of baptism. The New Testament calls this “growing into the full stature of Jesus Christ.” Popular church language calls this Christian or Spiritual Formation.[3] It is very true that we become part of the Body of Christ in the transformative waters of Holy Baptism, and it is also true that we spend our whole lives living more and more into the truth of this calling.

That’s why God calls us into community. It’s why we promise in our baptism to “continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.” Because it is in the crush of community, in the regular interactions with people from different ideological perspectives, different racial and ethnic identities, different classes and life experiences, the very people we might be tempted to look down upon or make up  and replay stories about that we feel the “sanctifying tedium,” “blessed boredom,” and “glorious agitation” of life in community.[4] We are called into this holy community called the Church because, as Sister Joan Chittister rightly names, “Holiness is not something that happens in a vacuum.”[5]

Archbishop Tutu tells a story about a man who was a staunch churchgoer and a deeply committed Christian. He supported most of the activities of his local church. And then for no apparent reason he stopped attending church and became just a hanger on. His minister visited him one wintry evening. He found him sitting before a splendid fire with red glowing coals, radiating a lovely warmth around the room. The minister sat quietly with his former parishioner gazing into the fire. Then he stooped and with the tongs, removed one of those red glowing goals from the fire and put it on the pavement. The inevitable happened. That glowing coal gradually lost its heart, and turned in a while into a grey lump of cold ashes. The minister did not say a word. He got up and walked away. On the following Sunday, the old man turned up in church. “A solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms.”[6]

When we try to go it alone, when we make the sum-total of our spirituality about our own personal salvation, when we forget our radical, waterborne connection with one another we miss the whole point of Christianity altogether. When Jesus called the disciples, he called together a diverse group of people – religious zealots, fishermen, tax collectors – all to prove a point that what we need most is one another, different though we might be.

So when the Pharisee in today’s Gospel lesson stands in the temple naming how much better he is than “thieves, rogues, and adulterers,” he misses the whole point of religion. Sure, he might check off all the right religious boxes, but he misses the spirit behind the letter of the law – community and connection. True humility, true religion, is not found in bragging about all the things we do right; rather, it is found in knowing deep down on the inside that each of us is still a work in progress, that we all stand in need of conversion and transformation, that every last one of us has places of woundedness and roughness that we have yet to hand over to God to be healed.

This is why church is important – because we are a giant recovery group of broken people supporting one another as we deal with the long-term effects of sin. The time, talent, and treasure that we offer this community doesn’t go away into a vacuum, it goes to support people being trained in healing and pastoral ministries visiting and caring for sick and homebound parishioners, youth stepping into the new awkwardness of a centuries-old faith in the midst of a rapidly changing world, and adults discerning calls to holy orders. Your time, talent, and treasure helps to form apostles who are sent out of these doors every Sunday to bear witness to the Risen Lord in the breaking of bread at the Kansas City Community Kitchen; or in our prison ministries; or at some of our partner schools; or in board rooms, community and civic organizations, and offices around this city.

Your support makes a difference in the lives of all types of people. That’s why I use the word “recovery group.” In the words of Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday, “when a church functions more like a recovery group than a religious organization… all sorts of people show up.”  Probably the people the Pharisee is glad he is not one of, but in truth the type of people we all are. Broken. Damaged. Hurt by life. Deeply skeptical. Tempted towards snark and cynicism over constructive conversation and authentic relationship. Seeking refuge in the presence of a loving, mysterious God. Evans continues, “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable… We might just create sanctuary.”

That uncomfortably safe, vulnerably holy space is what we should strive to be as the Church, as we welcome all sorts and conditions of people to sit next to us, to become our friends, and to help us to grow more fully into the Body of Christ we claim to be.

Not only would that be “sanctuary,” but that would be the very definition of the Kingdom of God.


[1] Michael Battle. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu, revised and updated (The Pilgrim Press: Cleveland, 2009), 115.

[2] Desmond Tutu, “Charge Delivered to the Special Synod of the Diocese of Cape Town,” St. Thomas’s Church, Rondebosch, October 3, 1987.

[3] Ephesians 4.13

[4] Joan Chittister, O.S.B. The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (Crossroad: New York, 2010), 27.

[5] Chittister. The Rule of Benedict, 25.

[6] Desmond Tutu, “My Search for God,” St. Mary’s Jubilee Lenten Talks – St. Alban’s, Ferreiastown. April, 5.1979.

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