There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
When tucking young children into bed, they may share many ways to stall having to go to sleep. They need a drink of water, another hug, one more book read or another stuffed animal tucked under the covers. But many kids are also afraid of the dark. When when they grow up, the fear usually abates. But night and darkness still have a sense of mystery as compared to a day of sunshine and blue skies where you can see every detail all around you.
It’s no coincidence that Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, is my guess. The symbolism of a nighttime inquiry of Jesus from a religious leader adds to the drama and alludes to the darkness that comes before the enlightenment of learning and new knowledge. I picture Nicodemus stealthily moving in the cover of night to find Jesus to get first hand clarification on the new teachings that are spreading around the area. Questioning the religious leadership was not a common or allowable circumstance. But Nicodemus must have had a thousand questions about the gospel of love and acceptance being taught by Jesus, throwing all the rules the Jewish people held as sacred, right out on their ear. And the fear of the unknown must have been overwhelming as Nicodemus worked to get a better understanding of how his life as a Pharisee would be changing. What a brave move to confront his fears and seek deeper understanding of Jesus!
Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel reading from John are some of the most famous words of the Christian faith shared throughout the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I remember seeing a colorfully wigged man at nationally televised NFL games with a big poster with John 3:16 painted boldly on it (some pretty persistent evangelism if you ask me!) and we used to hear the verse every Sunday at church from the Priest just before the passing of the Peace. It is one of the greatest summaries of our faith. Through love, we are promised eternal life; our earthly lives are not all there is to our existence. Another mystery really, as our human brains can’t even understand what that really means for us.
But as we read the Word, spend time in prayer and listening to God and do his Kingdom work with love in our daily lives, the darkness of our limited imagination begins to be illuminated with the wisdom that comes from a deeper relationship with Christ. Nicodemus knew how to be religious leader before Jesus came along and cast doubts on his way of living. He was brave and went looking for answers. He heard radical things that most likely felt contradictory to what he might have always believed. This reading doesn’t share what Nicodemus did with this new-found knowledge and command for living; but we Christians have access to Jesus’ teaching. We have to keep learning about and practicing our faith to stay out of darkness. Do not be afraid of stepping out in faith; be more afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
God of light, push away our darkness and our fear and show us the way to live faithfully in your love. Teach us your ways and help us walk with you every day in the light of your gifts of grace and mercy. We are not worthy but gratefully accept the gift of eternal life and perfect healing in you, O Great Redeemer! AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 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. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
“At least I’m not like THOSE people.” I’ve said it. I’ve thought it. I’ve meant it.
I can be pretty proud of myself at times. I believe it when I read a news article about my most recent professional accomplishment. When people tell me I’m a great principal, I love that feeling. After meeting our family and chatting with our almost graduated from high school daughter, and compliments about her are given to us as parents, we can get pretty puffed up with pride. When I do something kind for someone else and hear how I have helped them, I can feel pretty darn good about myself. Let’s just go with this…I don’t suffer from a self-image problem or deal with debilitating insecurities.
But today’s lesson from Luke is all about the humility with which we are to approach our life in Christ. The Pharisee does one heck of a job of pumping up and list his accomplishments to an all-knowing and all-seeing God. It’s like he is looking for God to thank him with a big “Atta Boy!” for living a righteous life. And in comparison, the tax-collector, that lowest of the lows in society at the time comes before God with a humble heart and asks for mercy without even raising his eyes toward heaven. Jesus then shares that little nugget at the end about the humbled being exalted, essentially admonishing the bragger and do-gooder for forgetting that God’s gifts come without any strings attached.
To be exalted is to be elevated in status and that is exactly what Jesus tells us to will happen when we live our life in deference to the gifts of grace and mercy. The Pharisee approaches God as if to collect what he deserves…but let’s face the truth here. We can never do enough good and follow enough rules to ever deserve God’s mercy. That’s the coolest and most humbling part of all – all we have to do is ask. And it is done. That’s it.
But make sure you want the elevated status in God’s eyes, rather than search for it in the eyes of others. With a somewhat high profile job in my community which provides a service, people tend to tell me things about myself that I could easily believe if I allowed what others’ think about me to influence my status. I could believe that I have almost magical leadership powers if their interpretations of my leadership are correct. I could also believe the opposite on my worst day as a principal if I let the feelings of others determine my worth. So I try to find a balance – I am my worst critic for sure – but in God’s eyes, I am his creation and therefore must turn to him to be given the gift of grace and mercy.
Today’s parable is a cautionary tale to be wary of puffing up oneself to others and especially to God. He knows all that we are and all that we are not without our need to list off the accomplishments and/or failures. No matter how we are feeling about our worth to ourselves or our family/friends/community, approach God with an open heart to the gift of justification through our humility. And we will be exalted through him.
Lord, we are not worthy to accept your gift of your one and only Son. Yet we know that you intended that gift just for us. Help us to stay humble in our good works and remind ourselves we are deserving of your grace and mercy. For our exaltation is for you and for your alone. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 So he told them this parable: 4 “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Through the wonders of social media and its ability to make miles seem insignificant, I have had the pleasure of keeping up with friends from high school I haven’t seen in almost 30 years. Through FaceBook, I have been able to see pictures of family events, pray for friends in trouble, celebrate new life and laugh at Throwback Thursday posts. I have been able to keep in touch in a way that didn’t even seem possible when we graduated, even with my friends of friends or folks who have the same shared memories of homeroom or after school activities. I also share myself with them, and we have learned more about each other as we have grown into our closer to middle age years than we did in the three years of high school for sure.
One of those folks is a gal whose mom was one of my favorite teachers in high school, my 10th grade English teacher. She was a year behind me in school, so we didn’t run in the same circles (why is that such a big divider in high school and non-existent as a barrier in adulthood???), but I have enjoyed seeing her kids as adults and hearing about her life, especially her life of faith. She married her high school sweetheart, but as those things sometimes do, it didn’t work out for the long run. She remarried a man and through the wonders of electronic media, anyone could see how close they were and she spoke of him with respect and love, sounding grateful to have found her life partner.
A few months ago, tragedy struck this family and her dear husband of not enough years long passed away unexpectedly. As these things happen, I found out from our mutual friends who were posting condolence messages which prompted me to investigate this mystery loss from across the country. I learned he died and was very sad for her, a tragedy and loss that is inexplicable to those of us standing by on the sidelines. But in true form, she began posting status updates that read like chapters in a “Surviving Grief through Faith” book, baring open her soul about her love for her husband and the devastating loss. She told of her husband’s life of finding and living in Christ, alluding to pretty rocky places before giving his life to God. It is touching to read her posts – they are raw, painful to read and yet always filled with the faith that has kept her afloat during this incredibly difficult time.
When I read today’s Gospel reading from Luke about the lost sheep and the lost coin, I immediately thought of her stories about her husband’s journey to faith. A constant thread in her posts has been about how grateful she is that she is able to be confident in her husband’s presence fully with Christ now. She has actually been able to write about that as a celebration, which has been remarkable when you consider how incredibly sad she must be every day without her best friend. But he has been united with God, was lost and then found, and she finds strength in that because his destiny has been fulfilled. She has shared this story with her friends and neighbors (virtual and in the vicinity) to give all the Glory to God. God wants nothing more from us than to walk with him in our lives as a constant companion. These parables make the same point in two different ways. The first is to celebrate the repentance of a sinner – in the presence of some previously identified sinners in the Pharisees. The second is to celebrate the loss of something less important than a human, but something that we ourselves can find. I see these two parables as showing us that God mourns for each lost soul and we should do the same, as if each person is as precious as our belongings and “stuff.” God charges us to go do everything we can, sweep all the hidden corners, shine light into their darkness and keep searching until we find the ones who need to be found. God values us more than any amount of money, but the second parable hits home because we don’t always have the same value of human life as our Lord does, and Jesus’ story brings it to our simple level of human trappings.
My high school friend is celebrating the joyful reunion of her husband with Christ. Can we all do the same under her circumstances? Can we celebrate when we ourselves repent and return to him, knowing that we are bringing joy to our Lord by fulfilling our end of the covenant? How hard are we looking for ways to bring others to Christ?
Forgiving Lord, thank you for celebrating our return to you when we are found and repent. Help us as your followers to bring more people to Christ and to not stop looking until all are found. Help us tell out the Good News in your world. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus Heals the Man with Dropsy
14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
Humility and Hospitality
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
*Warning: This blog post will reference a Broadway musical called “The Book of Mormon.” The play is not the topic of discussion but will be used as a reference point for today’s post.
We saw the “Book of Mormon” yesterday as a family – it was our daughter’s birthday present from June and she has been begging to see this play since about a month after its Broadway debut. We tried to get tickets to see the show in NYC, but then as luck would have it, the traveling version came to Dallas for a two-week run. My very wonderful husband spent almost three hours in the queue online the day the box office opened and scored the tickets. I knew a little about the play, and knew it was irreverent and a bit naughty, but I was just blown away by the brilliant writing and the talent on that stage. GO SEE THIS IF YOU WANT TO LAUGH UNTIL YOUR HEAD HURTS!!!!
One of the great songs – there are many – is a track titled, “Mostly Me.” Here is a link so you can enjoy this song too, although you will not have the hilarious context unless you GO SEE THIS PLAY!
Today’s Gospel reading ties in perfectly with this song! Jesus gives the wedding guests some great advice. His parable is one of both grace and humility. Grace – because we really never deserve the honor of being a child of God. We get this as a free gift in spite of ourselves. And humility – one of my favorite traits to find in others and one I constantly work on having myself – the ability to be humble; or as I like to think, putting others ahead of yourself. Jesus’ advice to the guests who are trying to decide how important they are at the wedding feast as compared to the other guests is to assume that all are important and you are no more special than the rest.
One of the things I loved about the song “Mostly Me,” is that it speaks to that ugly monster that can live inside us when we get too big for our britches. It’s a well written song to which many of us can relate. We may have felt as if our presence saved the day at one point or another, and conversely, we all have been in the presence of someone who really embodied the lyrics of this song to our annoyance as well. God calls us to love one another, just as he loves us (John 13:34), which I interpret to include that we don’t put ourselves before others in order of importance (among other things that very complex yet simple Bible verse is telling us!). The presence of humility in our beliefs about ourselves gives us a schema for lifting up others rather than judging them, living a life of service in our community, helps us show love in the way we interact with others and gives us the chance to really enjoy when we receive grace and forgiveness.
The Book of Mormon as a play is best enjoyed with a great dose of humility for all who are called to spread God’s word. In teaching others about Christ and the gift of everlasting life, Christians will do well to laugh at ourselves and reflect on our place at the feast. Let’s let others sit in the place of honor, for God will surely call us to be with him though we will never really deserve it.
God of grace and mercy, we give thanks that you invite us to join you in the feast of the resurrection. Help us to put others before you and to continually serve you in all we do and say. We look forward to our perfect life with you when our work here is done. We ask this in your Holy Name. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Some Women Accompany Jesus
8 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
I was at the hair salon yesterday. This was one of those LONG appointments where I had several steps of service followed by periods of waiting for the next step. This always means that my hairdresser is serving several clients at once, sometimes with interesting conversations! Yesterday, there was a gal there who is on the same “schedule” as I am and our paths have crossed before. She was reading the newest edition of “People” magazine as she waited for her turn and the cover story was about some of the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing. I only briefly glanced at the cover as she waved it to show our hairdresser – it showed a picture of three beautiful women who had all lost limbs in that terrible tragedy. This other client was incensed and she began a rant about immigration, terrorists and punishment, while sadly noting the ruin of these three ladies’ lives.
When I read today’s Gospel reading in preparation for this blog, I immediately felt the peace that comes from forgiveness. Hear me….I am not a believer in forgetting the crimes that have happened to absolutely innocent victims in our country and around the world. But I am working very hard on forgiveness as a personal choice. As I listened to the conversation in the hair salon yesterday, my internal dialogue (because I learned a long time ago that the hair salon is a dangerous place to engage with strangers who differ from you in beliefs) went in a completely different direction. This client stated that we should strap a bomb to the surviving accused man and set it off, letting him suffer without any medical treatment. That should be his “punishment,” she said.
I couldn’t believe the venom and the malice, but I understand feeling helpless in the face of tragedy. It doesn’t always bring out the best in us, as I saw yesterday and we see every day in our interactions with others. Luke’s Gospel story for today addresses forgiveness in two different ways. One of the ways Jesus shows and teaches about forgiveness is to give grace and mercy to the woman who serves him with the ointment on his feet and using her hair, weeping at the presence of Jesus. Undeserving the Pharisees – yes. The good news is we don’t have to do anything to DESERVE forgiveness. We just get this free gift because of our relationship with Christ.
The second way Jesus teaches about forgiveness is in his conversation with Simon. His message is about forgiving all sins, no matter the debt – no matter the seriousness. This really speaks to me and has, ever since I heard a sermon while visiting a church on our last vacation. Forgiveness isn’t incremental to the sin – it just is forgiveness. I have no idea if the “Boston Bomber” as he is called has sought forgiveness or has any understanding of Christ’s love for each of us. But what I know that I have to do a better job with is forgiving others…no matter what. Not conditional in any way and man, that is HARD to do. I need to do it even when it is not asked of me. I need to do it even when I am hurt, sad or mad. This is not a pansy way of just letting folks walk all over me, but really about bravely approaching my call to follow the Great Commission:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are called to go out in the world and teach others to do what God has commanded. If forgiveness is what is expected of us as we are forgiven (John 13:34 – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”) by God, then love needs to be the lens we use to examine our world and all that we do and is done to us. Wishing pain and misery on our enemies just feels bad, and bad thoughts beget bad thoughts and even bad actions.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is “Be the change you want to see in the world,” by Ghandi. I can’t sit in my comfy house and wish that everyone was kinder and nice to one another, more forgiving and merciful and more full of love for all mankind. I have to go out and fulfill the Great Commission myself, hopefully living out the change I want to see in the world. God forgives us our most grievous sins and our smallest missteps. We should be striving to do the same – even when it’s hard.
Forgiving Father, we come to you not worthy of your grace and mercy. We humbly ask your forgiveness for all our wrongdoing and ask you to send your Holy Spirit to guide us in our work in the world. Send us out to do the work you have given us to do and help us to love one another as you have loved us, unconditionally. We ask all things through our mighty Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.