Rev. Jane Dunning
“Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
So much of Jesus teaching was about our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. As he opens this story with these words, we are given a clue to what will follow. Throughout his teaching, Jesus repeats, again and again, that his mission is to save sinners and to bring the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast words of hope and words of promise.
This parable shows an unexpected contrast between two characters. One is upper class and an icon of respectability and of faith. The other is an outcast, considered to be a thief and a traitor. Who is the hero here? Whose prayer will be heard? Who will be restored to a loving relationship with God?
Let us set the stage…
We are standing in the temple in Jerusalem. It is a huge and beautiful structure. Its splendor inspires awe and wonder, as would be appropriate for worship of the One God of Israel.
There are people already gathered in the temple. Two characters walk in.
The first is a Pharisee.
Pharisees were members of the religious leadership and highly respected in the community. They took the ancient laws seriously and devoted themselves to prayer and to the observance of these laws. They held great power in society and were highly regarded by the people of the day.
Scholars tell us that it was the custom to pray out loud in the temple, before God and before others…
The Pharisee stood apart, where he would be seen, and held his hands up, as was the custom, and prayed:
“I fast, even beyond what the Law asks. I give tithes, not just a tenth of my agricultural products, but of all my resources.”
This character that Jesus described seemed to think that he is the reason for all the good things that have happened for him. The entire prayer was a recital of what he, this man, had done. There is no acknowledgement of his need for God in his life. His prayer seemed to focus on him.
He is reminding God of his deeds and his virtues.
Can’t you just see him standing there, with his chest puffed up with pride and self-righteousness?
Can’t you hear him proclaiming his worthiness?
The second character in the story is a tax collector, thoroughly despised by the people.
The Jews at that time were living under the rule of the conquering Roman government who collected heavy taxes from the people. Tax collectors were thought to use that as a license to steal. They became a symbol of a repressive system. They were treated as outcasts and traitors.
The poor tax collector did not pretend to be other than he was. Can you see him? He was bent over in humility, and did not even look up as he prayed. His prayer was a simple repetition of the ancient words, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He probably spoke softly, not wanting to call attention to himself…
He knew he was despised by people and wanted to be where no one would look scornfully at him. And he was so ashamed that he could not even lift his hands or eyes up to God in his prayers, as was the custom. He felt his own shame and was beating his breast at his unworthiness. He was crying out to God to be merciful to him, an unworthy sinner.
The tax collector’s prayer was one of humility and repentance for what he had done. He could not look up because the weight of his sins laid heavy on his head. His prayer was very short:
“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Can you hear him repeating this ancient prayer again and again, perhaps even listing those sins he had committed.
And his prayer was answered by God.
If we pray like the Pharisee, because we think it is our duty or because we want be seen as righteous, our prayers will be rejected because they lack the honesty and humility to acknowledge that we need the mercy of God. Those are not prayers. They are expressions of pride. There is no compassion for others, only thoughts of self-congratulation that he is not as others are…
When we confess our sins with a completely open heart, God hears these and is reconciled to us. God hears the prayers of those who ask for mercy rather than those who expect it because they have ‘earned’ it. He accepts those seeking mercy and forgiveness into communion with Him, as part of His kingdom. The greater the sin, the greater the repentance and the greater the mercy.
More than once, Jesus has said that he came to save sinners, to help them find reconciliation with our loving God.
When we come before God in prayer, we need to remember we are there to offer thanks for the many blessings that God has given us, and to ask for mercy and forgiveness for our flaws and our failings. We must also forgive the failings of others.
Jesus is telling us that if we pray with grateful hearts and rely on the mercy of God for mercy in spite of our faults and our sins, our prayers will be answered.
Jesus promises that when we turn our thoughts to God, when we return to Him, again, and again, and again, He will have mercy on us, and we will be restored and forgiven.
That is the promise that touched the sorrow-filled heart of a despised tax collector and led him to crying out, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
And this man went to his home justified. Amen.
Rev. Jane R. Dunning
The words, “fear not” appear more than 300 times in the bible. As God, or God’s messenger, approaches a human, these two words often the first form of address. We are a fearful, anxious, worrisome part of God’s creation. The list of human phobias is long and complex, but many psychologists say these are all derived from 5 essential human fears...
Fear of extinction, which includes the fear of death... That panicky feeling when you look over the edge of a high building is an example. This is a primal fear that we share with most of God’s creatures
Fear of mutilation, or serious bodily harm, fear of anything that would harm our body or its function. Again, this is a primary fear for our survival. Fear of separation can be fear of abandonment, rejection, loss of connection with others. This can be fear of being unwanted, not respected, or not valued. This can be fear of the loss someone we love. Fear of loss of autonomy, fear of being paralyzed, restricted, fear of loss of control.And number five is one they call fear of “ego death.” This is the fear of humiliation, of shame, of anything which causes profound self- disapproval, loss of any sense of self-worth. This is what we see when our young people are the victims of bullying... Sadly this is often the cause of suicide.
These are the five basic human fears, and all other types of “phobias” can be placed under these five...
And how does fear affect us? First of all there is the primary reaction of fight or flight. To this, currently doctors are adding the word “freeze.” As they work with those who have suffered a traumatic event, they find that some people react by totally freezing... unable to cope in any way.
Fear makes us selfish... Our basic reaction is to think only of ourselves and those close to us. This can be a form of emotional freezing... It makes us unable to interact with those around us. Fear makes us unresponsive... our mind is frozen and we cannot face the situation in any kind of creative way. We cling to old patterns and old reactions... another form of freezing. This form of mental freezing makes us short-sighted and unable to find a way out of the current situation.
In the passage from Luke’s gospel we have a member of the crowd asking Jesus to make sure that he gets his share of the family inheritance. This could be tied to a basic survival fear of not having enough to sustain life, but Jesus refuses to become embroiled in what is clearly a family argument about money, not about survival.
Jesus tells the story of the rich man who had everything anyone could want for his survival and for the future... Oh, he said I will build bigger barns and store more goods, I will make more money, have more things, just for the pleasure of knowing I have them...
Jesus says “Take care. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
Fear of not having enough for survival is a valid and an important fear, but when the response to that fear becomes the accumulation of wealth and possessions as an end to itself, it has become greed...
If normal fears can freeze us and cause us to become self-absorbed at a time of crisis, Greed will do this even more so. Greed focuses only on the self. The accumulation of wealth becomes more important than anything else, and Greed will not allow for any focus on the needs of others. Greed is not aware of the needs of the community, and Greed is not able to function well with others. Let greed rule your life and it becomes the god that you worship, the golden calf that you cherish.
'And God says, to the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
“For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions...”
We can be rich in money or property but if we focus with greed on those riches, we will not be able to make the connections with others that our spirit needs to thrive. If we keep a clenched fist to protect what we have, we will never be able to reach out with open hands to others and include them in our lives..
We have a choice. We can live our lives with fear and a clenched fist, or we can take the risk of opening our hand and reaching out to embrace the world around us.
I am beginning to realize that my contacts with those I meet along my journey add a vast wealth of richness to my life. Perhaps this is what life is all about... Those very special connections that we form, even day by day, enrich our lives beyond belief.
For each of us, may God help us to engage the world around us and to celebrate the connections, even when they are difficult. Help us to be fully present and to live in the moment, and help us to more fully love and appreciate our neighbor.
I want to close with a little piece by Australian commentator, Michael Leunig. He draws isolated little boxes, scattered across the page, each holding a tiny figure. The walls on the boxes are high, so that none of the tiny people can see the others... Each tiny person is totally isolated.
Then he writes the following:
Dear Lord, help us to choose love.
Rev. Jane R. Dunning
The seventy returned with joy…
What is Joy? What feeling does that bring to mind?
French philosopher and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offers this definition:
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Where have I seen joy?
I have seen it in the eyes of my giggly grandchildren when we spend time together.
I have seen it in the eyes of friends and strangers when there is a warm and loving greeting.
I have seen it in the embrace of friends and family when a loved one comes home at last.
It is a warmth that overflows, and a sense of peace deep within..
It is the feeling gratitude for the unexpected blessings that brighten our day
It is the feeling of being truly blessed…
True joy is far deeper than just the happiness of the moment…
True joy is a sign that the Kingdom of God has come near.
The word used in the original Greek gospel is “chara”
The Greek word “chara” means the deep-down sense of well-being that abides in the heart of the person who knows all is well between himself and the Lord, which is then expressed by love for others…
Jesus sent out the seventy, two by two, into the surrounding villages to be bearers of his message of Gods abiding Love…
He blesses them and sends them with just the clothes on their backs and the company of each other. They have no change of clothing, no supplies, not even an extra pair of sandals… They have no publicity, no audio system, no loudspeakers, none of today’s fancy paraphernalia.
They carry nothing but the presence of God as they go out on their mission.
Just two by two, out into the world. Wherever they go, they are to say, The Kingdom of God has come near.”
Jesus has come to know these men, and they have felt the deep calling to follow him, to learn from him, to let him into their hearts and their deepest longings.
He knows their gifts and empowers them to take these gifts to spread the word of God’s love, Gods healing, and Gods peace.
They have a found, within themselves, a deep calling to proclaim the gospel, the good news, and they are now taking the first steps of that journey…
I believe strongly that each of us has been given our own personal gifts, gifts that are our strength, those gifts which will bring blessing to those we meet along the way.
For many years, I was a teacher, first in Kindergarten, then in First Grade… I loved the job, I loved the kids, and thought that this was the best fit for me.
When I started teaching, back in 1988, there were no ordained women in the Episcopal Church. In fact, there were no women or girls on the altar, no girl acolytes, no girl crucifers. Women were only serving behind the scenes, serving as the altar guild, choir, and ushers… Never on the altar.
On July 28, 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in Philadelphia, without the official approval of the church, and there was much furor and controversy. Two years later, in 1976, General Convention approved the ordination of women. Now it was official.
Later this month, we will celebrate 45 years since these eleven women were ordained to the priesthood…
This change had a significant impact on the church. It has also had an impact on my life personally, on my sense of who I was and where God was calling me. Fifteen years later, I was ordained deacon and then priest.
As I look back on my life I am amazed at the opportunities I have been given and the amazing joy that I known in my ministry..
Each of us has a calling to ministry. Sometimes it may take years to discover the ministry that brings us the deepest satisfaction, that brings us joy.
God calls each of us out to be bearers of God’s love and healing power, using our gifts in service to others, in whatever way fits our strengths and brings us joy. As Jesus sent the seventy out into the countryside in witness to Gods Love, so we are called to follow… not alone, but in twos or threes or even more…
May God bless each of us in our ministry, and like the seventy, may your journey bring you joy.
May you find joy, in the words of the poet, John O’Donohue:
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.
As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace….
Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.
May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.”
Note: John O'Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings
The Rev. Jane R. Dunning, Priest Associate
As Jesus begins his ministry, he asks certain people to follow him. Some of these disciples have known him for years and have been part of his community.
Some may have already felt the power of his teachings and felt deeply drawn to what Jesus has to say, to his presence, to his vision. There was a strong certainty in their hearts that this was the call for them, above any other. They get up, leave what they are doing, and follow him. This decision will change their lives.
At the time of our baptism we make certain promises, When we abide by these promises we set the structure of our lives. These will become the guideposts and the trail markers for our future.
As a part of this Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. When we live out these promises, they shape who we become and where our lives will lead us.
Over the years, the focus on worship in this parish has been to reach out beyond the comfortable walls of the church and find ways to serve the surrounding community. The question then becomes “How do we decide as a community where and how to serve.”
This is a question we must also answer in our personal lives. What am I called to do? What is my vocation? What is my passion? Where can I focus my personal life in such a way that it brings me joy and fulfillment and still serves the community around me.
Some choose to be stay at home parents, building a loving family that will be a blessing to the community, Some serve as storekeepers, hairdressers, grocers, serving their community with thoughtfulness and courtesy. Some choose to be fishermen as perhaps their fathers were, some choose to teachers, educating our young people. Some choose to be doctors or nurses serving the health of their towns and villages.
Some choose to be artists or musicians adding to the beauty that surrounds our lives, some choose to be carpenters, or plumbers, or electricians adding their skills to our buildings and our homes.
Some choose to serve in the military, wanting to serve and protect our nation.
Each of these represents an individual vocation, a response to serve others unique to each individual. Hopefully it will be a fulfilling and life-giving choice and we will find joy in the life that we choose, and hopefully we will fulfill the promises made so many years ago to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.
And some choose to be firefighters, or EMTs, paramedics, or police, responding to the emergencies that arise in our communities, responding to a crisis situation with all the training behind them, facing danger to protect our buildings and above all, our lives.
From January of 2016 to January of 2017 Franklin County suffered four fatal fires. The first one was in Orange where two little girls were killed. The second was here in Greenfield where two adults and child were killed. The third fire was in Erving where firefighters were unable to save the baby in the next room. The fourth fire was in Warwick where a mother and four of her five children were killed. Those responding to each of these fires were neighbors who were first responders, fire fighters, ambulance personnel, police, and representatives of the state fire marshall. These tragedies took a huge emotional toll on those who responded. Debriefings were held for those who were present to help ease the stress caused by each tragedy. We celebrate our first responders today, and offer our thanks and God’s blessing.
As Jesus is preparing to leave the disciples, he sends them out to spread his message of love and forgiveness in his name. He tells them to stay until they receive Holy Spirit, and he blesses them. In the years that they had been together these disciples had been changed and with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost they would be able to go out into the world and change the world with the message of God’s great love for all people.
The disciples have heard the call and followed that call on a journey unlike any other.
When we follow the call in our lives, that nudge from the Holy Spirit, (sometimes more like a shove) pushes us to become more fully ourselves and when we use that passion to serve the community around us, we will be changed, and the path that our life takes will be a journey unlike any other.
You each have the gifts that are uniquely yours. Now, like the disciples, go out into the world and share them. Reach out to others with Love. Go out into the world to serve.
You are unique, you are loved, and you are blessed. Whatever your age, your condition, whatever you think your limits might be, there is a calling for you to be kind, to be caring, and to reach out to others... Go out into the world in love, and may God go with you.
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