This season marks my 6th as a season ticket holder to the Minnesota Opera. I love the music, I love the soaring melodies, I love the staging, I love the drama, I love the costumes. I love to sit and watch art in action. And, I love how uncomplicated most of the characters are. The thing about opera, especially the older and traditional operas, is that the characters fit stereotypes to a tee. Many of the characters are over the top in how they portray whatever traits and actions are needed to fill out the scene. Some are hilarious and others are incredibly easy to despise. Rarely is there ambiguity, in that you know what you are getting with an opera character very early on.
And as I was reading today’s scripture, I could not help but see it as an opera. The two characters are just as obvious and over the top. I could see the scene being played out while reading it. The curtain opens and the light falls upon the Pharisee. He is dressed in the finery his position as a religious elite would require – fine robes over-flowing with opulence. He is in prayer, thanking God for making him such a wonderful person. If this were an opera, the lyrics of his prayer would be just as over the top as we find in the Bible: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers…” The audience would, undoubtedly, laugh. What a ridiculous character this Pharisee is! Someone so convinced of his supreme value and worth that his prayer to God is simply a recitation of why he thinks he is so wonderful.
After the silly, selfish, even funny prayer of the Pharisee, the spotlight would shift to another person at the back to the stage, one we didn’t notice before because he was in the shadows. The light would be dim, his clothes would likely be more subdued. His body language would show his humbleness, humility, his need for God. The melody he would sing would be gentler, quieter, less opulent, less grand. Maybe even played in a minor key. “Have mercy on me God, for I am a sinner.” That would be all. And the audience would automatically know that we had found our unlikely hero. Yes, indeed this scripture could easily play out as an opera where the characters are not burdened by duplicitousness. We know what we are getting.
There are plenty of times in the Bible that Jesus is frank and straightforward with his lessons. This is one of them – there is no wondering here who Jesus is highlighting as someone whose example should be followed. There is no wondering what it is that Jesus is trying to teach. Setting aside the assumptions people have about a Pharisee or a tax collector – it is clear Jesus is saying humility and honesty about a need for God that is the way to go.
I worry, sometimes, that call to be humble can be misunderstood, though. So often, people in my position, behind a pulpit, wearing the fancy robe, has said that God only loves those who are steeped in humility. That God wants us to be self-defacing, to say we are no good, not valuable, have no worth. I have heard clergy say that people are nothing and that any moment of self-worth, or positive self-esteem is a sin against God. So, I want to be clear that I don’t think to humble ourselves means to say we have no personal value. To be humble is not to be self-defacing.
When we come before God, whether it is in prayer, worship, meditation, or holy conversations – to be humble means to be honest. To be true to who we are. To not put on a show – of either fake righteousness or fake humility – but to simply be open with our humanity. This spring, during Lent, a group of us here at the church read a book by Barbara Brown Taylor together entitled: An Alter in the World. Amongst other things, she talked about our need to be fully human before God. She described it like this – that the most authentic way to pray to God is to stand in front of a mirror, fully naked, with the lights turned up. To see ourselves just as God sees us. Because, God knows us. God knows all of our scars. God knows the parts of us we would rather not see or acknowledge. God knows us inside and out, our souls and our bodies. And, we are created in the image of God. Our imperfect selves are perfect reflections of God.
It can be hard, sometimes even feel impossible, to be so incredibly humble and vulnerable. So, we are often like the Pharisee – trying to cover up those parts of ourselves that we would rather God didn’t see. Thinking about it, it’s almost funny – that we think we can hide a part of who we are from God. That if we can dazzle God with a recitation of all the good we have done in the world, and the ways we are not like the ‘bad’ people, that somehow God won’t notice our fears. Our sins. Our scars. God won’t notice the grudges we are holding on to, and the prejudices we contend with. What would it be like, if we let that go? What would it be like if we decided to simply stand naked before God and say, “here I am.”
You know what I think? I think it would open us up to tremendous new possibilities. I think to be fully aware of who we are, all of the good and all of the bad, would allow us to put aside any of those masks we choose to wear, and say to God, “Here I am, lead me.” Then maybe, just maybe, we would not be so tempted to argue with what God is calling us to. Maybe, just maybe, we will stop fighting against our better angels, and fully embrace who we are as God’s beloved. And, maybe, just maybe, we will finally be able to see our neighbors as beloved expressions of God’s image – just as imperfect and perfect as we are.
Imagine the possibilities of what could happen to our lives, both individually and as a community, when we stop trying to pretend God doesn’t see us just as we are. God sees our fears, and wants to help us overcome them. But if we aren’t willing to acknowledge those fears, then how can we hear God’s voice speaking to us? God sees our pain and wants to be a balm for our wounds. But if we aren’t willing to acknowledge that pain, how can we hear God’s voice speaking to us? God sees our sins and the times when we fall short of our better selves. But if we aren’t willing to acknowledge those sins, then how can we hear God’s voice speaking to us?
Just imagine the possibilities of what can happen when we humble ourselves before God and listen for God’s voice. Because, while there is very little I am certain of, I am certain that God’s love for us is completely beyond our understanding. God’s love for us is bigger than anything we can admit too. But I also think we can only truly experience that love and grace when we are completely honest with ourselves and honest with God. In today’s scripture, the tax collector – who was operating within the laws, but outside of the religious laws of his Jewish faith – knew and acknowledged that he had fallen short of his understanding of what God required of him. But, in prayer, he didn’t try to cover that up. He didn’t spend his time reminding God of the good that he had done in his life. Instead, he was just simple and honest and called on God to show him grace and love. Was his life dramatically changed in that moment? Did his humility before God cause him to hear God’s call to change his ways? I don’t know, but I imagine it was a much more likely scenario than anything the Pharisee heard from God.
There is so much in our lives that we should be proud of. There are moments when we are truly and completely who we are supposed to be. There are times when we show kindness when it is not deserved and offer forgiveness even when it is not expected. We should be proud. Those moments make God’s heart soar. And there are moments when we fall short of who we can be. There are moments when we give into anger, prejudice, and silence in the face of injustice. And, when we are able to acknowledge those moments and seek God – then that too makes God’s heart soar.
Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we stand naked in front of a mirror while we pray. Well, that very well might be too much for most of us here – but we can bare our souls fully when we pray. We can set aside the hard work of trying, in vain, to conceal the parts of our lives that we don’t want to God know about – and just let God in. Let in God’s love. Let in God’s grace. Let in God’s mercy. It is there for us, always and in every way. It is the true gift of God. Just imagine the new possibilities for our lives when we can fully experience God’s presence. Amen.