Skunks and Sinners


The Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

October 27, 2019

Texts: Amos 5: 14-24; Luke 18: 9-14

        When I lived in Connecticut, I had a good friend who was quite an accomplished woods person; that is, she could hike for days, set up her own camp, and then break it down and there never would have been a trace of her even being there. She went by the nickname Marty––she hated her real name of Martha; she said it conjured up images of Martha Washington and that stuffy period. Yuk! Her father had been a biologist; she had married a professor of forestry at Yale. We used to go for hikes with our children. Although I love the woods, I’m basically a city person. I used to marvel at her ability to navigate the woods, to figure out where she was, and how to get us back out again. 

       One day we were out in the Guilford woods and she stopped suddenly. “Guys!” she called to her children and mine. “Come back here!” She realized what I would later smell––that there was a family of skunks in the area. Like many other forest animals, skunks tend to be nocturnal crea-tures. But Marty noted that the droppings were fresh, which meant they were likely to be about. She warned us to tread carefully because we did not want to get skunked. I don’t know if any of you have been skunked. You smell putrid for weeks. My dog got skunked once. He really smelled awful.

         There are actually eleven species of skunks, two of which are in Indonesia and the Philippines, and the rest spread throughout the Americas, from Canada to South America. Skunks are extremely reluctant to use their one weapon of protection––their ability to shower their attackers with that putrid, foul odor. Most predators do not go after skunks. It’s as if they have been taught from birth to stay away from them. What did my dog know? He was a city dog. Skunks really don’t want to call attention to themselves. They just want to be left alone to waddle about, foraging for, and raising their young. Like many other animals, skunks only attack when really backed into a corner.

       So what is it about skunks that make us use that attri-bute of animal quality when we talk about a person? How many times have you heard or even said “He’s––or she’s––a skunk.” Skunks are certainly not devious little animals, just quiet ones, though they will hiss and growl like a cat if as a first warning before letting go of the ultimate weapon. People usually don’t even do that––sometimes we just cut in on someone in the most cruelly unimaginable way without warning. How many times have you felt cut to the bone by something that someone said totally out of the blue?

         Although skunks have an excellent sense of hearing and smell, believe it or not, they have very poor vision, not being able to see much further than ten feet. We sinners, too, often lack vision and the ability to see the pain we cause ourselves and others. Our English word “sin” comes from Germanic roots, and is connected to a word that means “to be truly the one (who transgresses)” or does something wrong against his or her neighbor or member of the clan. Originally, to do something wrong against someone outside of the family or clan was not considered a sin. 

        To go to war against someone was to take on someone outside of the group, the clan. It explains why, in addition to the Lord’s command, that the conquering Israelite tribes felt no compunction to wipe out a city, every man, woman, and child. Today we consider that barbaric, but it was part of the idea that the land had to be purified of all foreign influence that the Lord worshiped by the ancient Israelites command-ed. The bloody wars in Joshua reflect conquest.

         The prophets expanded on the idea of who constituted part of the family. Jesus was even more inclusive with his parables and healings of those not part of Israel. By the time the Gospels were written, redacted, and assembled, Paul had already spread the Gospel to the Gentiles, Jerusalem had been destroyed. The church now included everyone. Jew and Gentile. 

        Exclusivism raises its ugly head from time to time, how-ever, through our narrow concept of sin. I once went to a Unitarian church and heard the song “Amazing Grace” with a change in the words from “such a wretch” to “such a one.”  “Unitarians are not wretches,” I was told. Ah, but we are just that. Wretches. As the old confession says, “For we have sinned against thee in thought, word, and deed.”  

        We don’t use the word “sin” very often in our day and age because it has an unpleasant ring to it as if by using another word like “wrongdoing” or even “faults” will wipe away the idea that we sin, that we willfully close our eyes to the pain we cause others through our actions or our words or that there is something inherent in us that makes us close our eyes. We don’t like to think about that. It’s distasteful, putrid, much like the skunk’s odor.

      But we have more than mere faults. We have sin and that sin probably begins with the idea that we are the center of the universe. It’s hard not to think that because we are the referent through which we filter reality. So we are caught in a tension between how we actually see the world and how we ought to see the world. 

         This parable is often preached as a lesson about humility. The early Church Fathers, such as St. John Chryso-stom and Augustine used this text as a lesson not to be prideful and pretentious. They held the Pharisee as a man who was arrogant, even as he was offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God because that prayer was boastful, indeed narcissistic: “I thank you hat I am not like other men. . . . ” Where have we heard this before?

         The word humility comes from the Latin word humilitas, not only meaning humble, but also grounded, from the earth. The old word for earth, humus, has the same root as humility.

        But humility does not mean groveling. It means recog-nizing our limitations, intellectual and spiritual. A recent university study indicates that people who are intellectually humble, that is, who recognize they may not know all the answers are far more open to people of differing religious and ethnic backgrounds. 

         Humility is about knowing one’s reality, developing resilience, and enabling us to recognize in others what we also see in ourselves. As spiritual writer Mary Margaret Funk put it, humility “is standing in the truth of being.” 

        Saint Teresa of Avila put it this way: “it is about walking in the truth of who we are . . . accepting our weaknesses and limitations as well as our strengths and talents.” Humility can enable us to be forces for social change. It is counter-cultural. Rather than being self-promoting, humility enables us to work together, to be cooperative for the good of all. 

        It means seeing the world through the eyes of another, not easy to do, but I think that is what Jesus is telling us we need to do in this parable. It’s not just acknowledging our limitations, it’s actually saying that we need to move into another’s place to experience forgiveness and reconciliation with God and with each other. 

        It means dropping our old exclusivist ways of looking at the world whether our boundaries are those or religion, class, education, where we live, and the rest of it. It means crossing over to be the other, not an easy thing to do. But Jesus didn’t tell us it would be easy, only necessary. The question remains for us how we cross those boundaries.

       So, is a sinner a skunk? Only in the odor left––the poor maligned skunk just wants to take care of her litter, and not get hit by a passing car. 

       Let us pray: Indeed, O God who hears our confession and who forgives us our deepest sins, we ask that you hear our silent confession and give us the grace to be more like the Jesus who came to show us the way and the Christ we follow. Amen.