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Sermon 10/24: “God Have Mercy On Me, A Sinner”

October 25, 2010

In today’s Gospel from Luke Jesus invites us to overhear the prayers of two different children of God while they share the sacred space of their temple. Much as we share this space every week. Much as we share this space right now.

“God! I thank you that I am not like other people!” says the first, “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector… I thank you that I am not like other people!”

“God!” says the tax collector, “be merciful to me, a sinner!”

“Be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And then Jesus points out that God will exalt the tax collector, one who humbled himself. While the other, who exalted himself, God will humble. The exalted will be humbled. And the humble exalted.

Three years ago, when we were living back in California and I was still a seminarian, I did an internship with Stanford University’s Episcopal chaplaincy program. And on one sunny Saturday, I went up to San Francisco with a bunch of Stanford undergraduates where we joined some other college students from around the San Francisco Bay area for a day-long spiritual retreat. The idea of this retreat was for us to spend 5 hours, from 10 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon on the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood—which is, by reputation and in fact, the toughest neighborhood in the city–known for drug use, drug sales, prostitution, homelessness and crushing poverty.

We were simply to spend the day on our own on the streets, with only a simple map of the area. The retreat’s organizers—Unitarians—who have been coordinating these things for almost twenty years, said that those concerned for personal safety might choose to pair up with another retreatant. But the experience was mostly meant to be a solitary one. The organizers also encouraged us to interact with the neighborhood however we saw fit—we were not there to “play” homeless or to “play” poor. We could strike up conversations with the people we encountered if we so desired. We could walk and walk and walk the streets. We could sit on the curb. We could take a load off in the one, small park.

We should feel free, they said, to spend our time in the Tenderloin as we saw fit. However, they did encourage us strongly to get lunch at one of the two soup kitchens that serve the neighborhood. By doing that, by breaking bread with those who could not afford to supply themselves with a hot meal, they said, we might truly get a sense of what life can be like there.

Having grown up in a fairly urban environment in Washington, DC—long known as the “murder capital of America”—and having attended DC public schools with kids from very poor and often desperate circumstances, and having lived as an adult in tough neighborhoods in New York City, Boston and Connecticut, I thought of myself as well aware of what life can be like in the worst parts of American cities—with the drugs, the violence, the racial tensions, the plain ugliness of the streets.

I’ve been mugged twice—once at gunpoint. And I once reported a guy living across the street from me to the police for selling drugs from his porch. I then endured the guy’s stares after he got busted and released on bail and, it seemed to me, knew I had ratted him out.

So I guess I was skeptical about just how much my eyes were going to be opened by spending a day in the Tenderloin. Still I figured, at the very least, I wanted to be in a position to help the young Stanford students I was working with, to help them process their experience.

Maybe you can see that even before the retreat began I was thanking God that I was not like other people. Thanking God, and, of course, patting myself on the back, that I didn’t need to go on this retreat the way others might need to go on it.

Well. It gets worse.

As I began wandering through the Tenderloin and taking in the sights and sounds and smells, soaking up all the details of life there, I quickly realized that God was humbling me. Because even though I have personally known many people like those in that neighborhood and even though I have lived in neighborhoods like that one, I had never encountered such poverty in the context of a spiritual retreat. Never had I allowed myself to be confronted by such poverty so prayerfully.

I think that I previously imagined these sorts of environments as simply lacking grace, as places where God just wasn’t present. I think I saw them as only as a product of our society’s sinfulness. And so all I saw was injustice and suffering.

But while on this retreat in the Tenderloin, I soon began to recognize how much grace was there. Everywhere. Amidst, intertwined and among the suffering and injustice, grace was everywhere. God was everywhere. I found it overwhelmingly powerful, beautiful in a way I’d never before experienced.

But… but, I must admit, I was soon congratulating myself on the unusual sensitivity of my soul and I was wondering whether others on the retreat were seeing the beauty I encountered. And, of course, as soon as I began thinking in that way, the wondrous overwhelming beauty I’d begun to see and feel… vanished.

As midday approached, I made my way over to one of the soup kitchens where the retreat organizers had recommended we take our lunch. When I found the place, there was already a long line snaking away from the front entrance and down the sidewalk.

The people in the line represented every race, every age. Some were clean and dressed neatly. Others less so. Some were standing alone. Some were grouped in family units. Some appeared camped out sitting amidst all their earthly possessions. There was a long rope keeping the line from spilling too far into the sidewalk. And on the other side of the rope, in a line parallel to the line of those waiting for lunch, stood a cadre of blue-shirted and barrel-chested security guards. The guards were walking down the line giving out tickets, which were to be handed over later to other security guards just before entering the serving line.

As I walked by the soup kitchen that first time, I realized I didn’t quite feel ready to get in the line and take my ticket. Not just yet. So I continued walking and circled around the block. When I came around to the end of the line a second time, I still kept walking.

I circled the block yet again and as I did so I realized I was not going to be getting in that line. And I was not going to be eating in that soup kitchen. Not that day.

I think I said to myself, “I just can’t.”

So I ended up walking over to the San Francisco public library there on the edge of the Tenderloin. And I went down into the little basement café there in the library, and I bought myself a turkey and avocado wrap.

And later, when I joined the other retreatants at the end of the day to talk about our experience, I didn’t exactly lie, but I led the others to believe that I had gotten lunch at a soup kitchen just like everybody else.

What happened? Why couldn’t I bring myself to get lunch at that soup kitchen? I’ve thought about that question a lot since that day in the Tenderloin. And I think the answer is embedded in today’s Gospel.

Simply put, what happened that day revealed just how much work I needed to do—and I always need to do—if I am to humble myself sincerely in the manner that Jesus exhorts us to do in today’s reading from Luke. And that experience also serves as an example for me of God’s power to humble me if I don’t do that important humbling work myself. My inability to get in that line and take a meal with those folks in the Tenderloin devastated me. It laid me low. I was a seminarian. I was on my way to being ordained a priest. Why couldn’t I get in that line?

In that moment, when I passed by that soup kitchen for the last time and decided that I could not bring myself to eat there, I realized just how strongly I wanted to feel superior to others.

Deep in my heart, in a place I didn’t want to admit existed, I was crying out, “God! I thank you that I am not like other people! I thank you that I don’t have to get my lunch at a soup kitchen! I thank you that I am not like those in this line, holding their tickets, waiting for a meal.”

Sometimes, as a Christian, nothing is more humbling than coming face to face with our often deeply rooted lack of humility. And at such times, there is only one thing to do. Having been humbled, we must follow the example of the tax collector in today’s Gospel.

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”


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