Surprising Prophets

Luke 10:1-11

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

—————————————

There’s something about faith that simply has to be lived to be understood. I mean, sometimes the gospel only make sense in the homeless shelter, or on the steps of the capitol, or beside a hospital bed; the places where people cry out for mercy, for bread, for justice, for compassion. Perhaps that’s why Jesus sent his followers out carrying only a simple message: the message that the Kingdom of God has come near.

I read a story this week about a woman who came to understand the gospel in these terms. Sara was working with an organization called No More Deaths along the United States-Mexico border. No More Deaths exists to provide humanitarian aid to asylum seekers crossing the Arizona desert. So, Sara spent the summer handing out bottles of water and granola bars, binding feet, and seeking medical attention for those who had the greatest need. But the most interesting thing about Sara’s experience is how she described the benefit to her faith. She said that she never felt closer to God as when she worked with those men, women, and children who had been forced to leave everything behind in search of a new life for their families. She said, “I don’t think it’s because I am praying more or reading the Bible any more carefully-there is just something about being here and doing this that makes it all seem so real to me.”[I]

Our gospel lesson for today moves in this same current.  Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples, two by two, to do what he had already been doing. But he didn’t pull any punches about the importance or the demands of this task. Jesus said, “I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. Don’t even greet anyone along the way.” In other words, like last weeks lesson, he was calling these shares of the good news to focus solely on the task at hand. So, what was the task? Jesus was sending these out to demonstrate the love of God by healing, teaching, and inviting people to experience the present Kingdom of God. In essence, he was saying, “God’s kingdom is right here on your doorstep, go and share it!”[ii]

But there’s a deeper current flowing here as well. Notice that in this text Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a city and its people welcome you, eat what they set before you. Heal the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘God’s kingdom has come to you.’ [But] whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’”

Isn’t that interesting? Those who welcomed the disciples received the Kingdom and those who declined to host the disciples also received the Kingdom of God. Far too often, I think we tend to view a text like this as exclusive. By exclusive I mean we tend to think that the Kingdom of God is only for those who are worthy. But that’s not the case here. Instead, this text is radically inclusive!

Walter Rauschenbusch understood this deeper undercurrent of the gospel as well. Rauschenbusch was a theologian and a social reformer who’s considered by many to be the voice of the Social Gospel Movement in early 20th-century America. At a young age, Rauschenbusch became pastor of a German Baptist Church in New York City which was located in a part of the city called Hell’s Kitchen, a depressed area in which poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, disease, and crime were rampant. It was precisely in this setting, not within the ivory towers of scholarship, that Rauschenbusch began to develop his theology of the Kingdom of God. Later, he would write, “The kingdom of God is always coming, but we can never say it has arrived. It is always on the way.”[iii]

And that’s the key to all this! The Kingdom of God isn’t complete! As long as those who have much continue to turn a blind eye to those with little or nothing, as long as our society is divided by race, by gender, or by religion, as long as children are being put in cages, the Kingdom will continue to be incomplete.

So, Jesus was speaking just as much to us as he was to the seventy-two, when he said, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.” We are the workers! We are the hands and feet, the heart and voice of Christ in the world today. And a part of our task, an important part of our task, is to invite others to join in this Kingdom work of sharing the love of God with all people. We are to invite others to become fellow harvesters as we move toward a Kingdom that includes all, lifts all, and restores all.

And this is where we reconnect with Mary Oliver and the poem I read earlier. When she wrote, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” she was exposing this same notion of Kingdom. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,” she wrote, “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

The family of things. That’s where all this is leading us today. When we come to realize that Jesus was, and is still, calling all of us into a single family; all people, all creation, into a single family of things; this is how the Kingdom of God advances, how it grows, and how it begins to move toward completion.

My fellow sojourners, as we continue to work toward a just world for all, as we continue to invite and welcome all people into our congregation, and as we continue to do the hard, long work of creation justice, may we do so with joyous hearts. I say joyous, because the light of the Kingdom is beginning to shine through, beginning to break through the darkness, beginning to be lived-out in the world today through us and our fellow harvesters, those who are among us and those who are yet to come.

May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

——————————————-

[i] Christopher Henry The Nearness of the Kingdom (Day1.org) 2007

[ii] Fred Craddock, Luke, 145: “the message to those who accept and to those who reject is the same: ‘The Kingdom of God has come near’”

[iii] Walter Rauschenbusch Theology and the Social Gospel Westminster John Knox Press, 1997 (first published 1917) pg. 227

A Just World for All

A vision of a just world for all people will guide and shape the future work of the United Church of Christ. It’s a vision that the denomination’s General Minister and President and unified Board of Directors are prepared to own as part of a refreshed set of Purpose, Vision and Mission statements. “I can’t even begin to express how proud I am of our beloved United Church of Christ for articulating not just a purpose, vision and mission —but this purpose, vision and mission,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president. “Every week I travel the globe witnessing what it looks like when the United Church of Christ commits itself to love and justice,” Dorhauer said. “I call upon every covenant partner to embrace fully this call to love and justice; and to share with leaders in the church what that expression of love looks like in their ministry setting.”

The UCC purpose statement comes from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.

The vision: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.

The Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all

 In response to this call from the national setting of the United Church of Christ, and with the blessing of the church board, we will be starting a “social action group.” This will not be a committee nor will it be a sub-committee, but rather a group of people passionate about addressing current social issues such as mental health care in Bayfield County, Creation Justice, Immigration, or the rise of opioid addiction in our area, just to name a few. It’s important to note that the work of this group won’t be to set policy for the congregation, rather to do the “spade work” of each of these issues and then bring recommendations to the board. All are welcome to join. The date and time of our first gathering will be announced within the next few weeks. Many Blessings, Pastor Phil

General Synod 32

Report on General Synod 32, Milwaukee Wisconsin, 2019

What is General Synod? General Synod is a gathering of the entire United Church of Christ that happens every two years. Synod is comprised of national staff, the board of directors, our ministry partners, honored guests, and around 800 delegates from across the denomination, of which, I was proudly a member. As a delegate my responsibilities included committee work on two resolutions, bringing these resolutions to the floor during a plenary session for approval, and voting on the issues that were brought before the entire body. (Remember, these are called resolutions and not “laws” or “rules” because the General Synod speaks to the local church not for us. In other words, these resolutions are recommended to the local churches for prayerful consideration, implementation, or action. But it’s the local congregations themselves who finally decide how to most faithfully respond to each resolution within their own context)

The 32nd General Synod passed a number of resolutions. We passed resolutions affirming our opposition to private prisons, religious bigotry in all forms, white supremist ideologies and racism of any kind, all forms of violence, the use of plastic foam products (i.e. Styrofoam), and the growing threat of nuclear war.

We also passed resolutions in support of the Energy Innovative and Carbon Dividend Act, the Green New Deal, an observance of “Break the Silence Sunday” supporting survivors of sexual abuse and assault, (The Break the Silence resolution came from the Wisconsin Conference!), for the protection of immigrants and their families, and to reestablish a relationship with the UCC in Puerto Rico.

The committee I served on considered and passed two resolutions that granted “historically underrepresented group” status (HUG) to the Mental Health Network of the UCC and The Colectivo De UCC Latinx. This status will give each of these groups increased representation by granting them 4 delegates to each General Synod as well as increased exposure across the denomination.

In addition, we passed resolutions of witness to lift awareness of forced global migration, to encourage the use of non-binary gender language in our churches, and to recognize opioid addiction as a local and national health crisis.

Finally, we sent the board of directors two resolutions for consideration and implementation. One to consider the relationship between our autonomy as congregations and our promise to be in covenant with United Church of Christ. This action constitutes the first steps toward creating a denomination wide Manual on Church. The second resolution sent to the board of directors challenges them to create a set of guidelines for the scope and type of materials that might be displayed in the exhibition hall during General Synod.

Now, on a more personal note. This was my first General Synod and I didn’t really know what to expect. But it was a great experience! I was filled by four unique and wonderfully arranged worship services, inspired by some the best preaching I’ve ever heard, educated in workshops on Environmental Justice and alternative vespers worship, and enriched by new and renewed relationships within and beyond the Wisconsin delegation.

I was honored to serve the national setting of the United Church of Christ in this capacity and I thank you for the opportunity. Now, delegates are chosen to serve at two General Synods, therefore, I must conclude by saying, “Kansas City here I come” for General Synod 33 in 2021. Blessings and Shalom, Pastor Phil

Pick Up The Mantle

Luke 9:51-63

A few years back, I decided to expand my culinary expertise. And by that, I mean learn how to cook something more exotic than mac & cheese. So, I learned how to make a pot roast. I kinda followed a recipe, loosely, sort of, but what I created was awesome! The problem was; however, I could never reproduce it. I always used the same ingredients, but it was never the same dish twice.

Discipleship is kind of like that. Today’s text gives us the ingredients necessary to be people of faith, but the end result may vary. But here’s the thing. Unlike cooking this is a good thing. It’s a goo thing because each of us brings something to the mix. We all have unique experiences and perspectives; we all bring the pain and suffering we’ve endured along with our joys and triumphs; and when we take the ingredients Jesus has given us and add it to our uniqueness, we get a wonderful, diverse, person of faith, a person created in the image of the Living God, loved, and ready to share that love.

This past week I attended our UCC General Synod, a gathering of delegates and leaders from across the spectrum of the United Church of Christ. And the consistent theme across all the sermons, across all the business of the national church, within the work of my committee and implicant in our final resolution, and, I would say, even when we marched on and temporally shut down the ICE office in downtown Milwaukee to protest of caging of children and the mistreatment immigrant families seeking asylum in our nation; the consistent theme was, you guessed it! Discipleship! All of these ingredients when combined with our live experiences, constitutes what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in 2019.

And this is where our lives intersect with the life of Jesus. Luke shares a story with us today about Jesus and his disciples as they continue on their journey. A journey of discovery, a journey of faith, a journey that challenged Jesus followers to consider what it means to be a disciple. In the narrative, Jesus invited someone, who had come alongside them, to join their movement. But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” To which Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury the dead. But instead of that, go and spread the Good News of God’s Reign.” Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my household.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for this kind of work.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and think about the implications of these exchanges. Does this seem kinda harsh to anyone else? What in the world is the matter with suspending your journey for a brief moment of mourning for your dead father or to properly say goodbye to your loved ones? These seem like reasonable requests. Right?

But, (you know there’s always a but) But… if we focus our attention on the surface of story, then we are missing the deeper meaning of this passage. Folks, Jesus isn’t some kinda of “meany” here, he isn’t disrespecting grief or family; the deeper point is one of urgency. The need is immediate. Jesus’ earthly existence is nearing its end and he can read the writing on the wall. So, his call to discipleship is immediate, imperative… it’s urgent. And because this is an urgent call to action, Jesus was inviting his closest followers to bring their whole selves to this calling.And the same is true in our context. Our invitation to discipleship is also urgent and we have been invited to bring our whole selves into the mix as well. We have been invited to continue to be and become on an even deeper level, disciples of Jesus.

Wow. You might be saying right now, that’s a little scary. What if I can’t do it? What if my skills aren’t enough? What if I’m not enough? All valid questions, but unnecessary. My friends, we’ve been given the all ingredients we need for success. And like my pot roast, that success will not be the same for all of us. Each of us will pick up the mantle of God’s call to action in a different way, serving God as best we can in our own unique way. That’s what Jesus means by discipleship!

But while your call to discipleship might look different from mine, its’ important to remember that both are valid, both are equal, and both are urgent! Here’s what I mean. Your call to discipleship might not be to preach, but you might excel at sharing the good news through active listening. Your call to discipleship might not be to visit those in prison, but you might liberate your neighbor by driving them to the doctor or to church. Your call to discipleship might not be to march in a protest rally, but you stand against injustice when you provide a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Your call to discipleship might not be to serve as a missionary in a foreign land, but you are the hands and feet of Christ as you serve in the food pantry, (or work at the Second Chance Sale), or when you give of your time and talent and treasure to the myriad of social justice causes we support and act upon. Your call to discipleship might not take you to the cross, but you take up your cross every day as you stand up for those on the outside looking in, the marginalized, the oppressed no matter how unpopular that position might be.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? These things that you already do and the as-of-yet unknown things that you’re going to take on in the future, are possible because of the ingredients that God has already provided. In a nutshell, those ingredients are what the United Church of Christ has identified as the Three Great Loves: Love of Neighbor, Love of Creation, and Love of Children. And when we bring our whole selves to the mix, when we pick up the mantle of God’s love by loving our neighbor, God’s creation, and our children, it’s then, …it’s then, that we begin to create a “Just World for All.”

One final thought this morning. Back in our text, when some Samaritan villagers refused to welcome Jesus into their midst, James and John wanted “to call fire down from heaven to consume them.” Now, first of all, like that was an option! I don’t know, maybe it was, but it seems like they were getting a little pyro happy to me. And Jesus appears to agree. The text says that he “turned and spoke sternly to them.”

Isn’t it interesting. When the disciples wanted to punish people for not welcoming Jesus, he scolded them. I believe he did this because Jesus understood that hate only begets more hate. So, as we go about co-creating this “just world for all” that we are dreaming of, there might be some push-back. Not everyone’s in the same place. But the lesson here is to respond to push-back with grace, respond to negativity with positive energy, respond to hate-filled words with tones of love and compassion and faith. My friends, creating a just world for all means just that: a just world for all people, even those who disagree with us. It won’t be easy, nor will it be quick. But, if we are willing to mix the ingredients that God has provided; if we are able to pick up the mantle of justice; then we will continue to be and become to an even greater extent, disciples of the Living, Loving God. And that, my friends, is the best tasting pot roast you’ll ever eat! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

Gathered & Scattered

John 13 & 20 – Pentecost & Confirmation Sunday

What a beautiful week this has been. After a cool, late spring, this week was fantastic. Yes, there was some rain, there were moments of warmth and some cooler weather. But mostly, it’s been sunny and pleasant. Now, sunny and pleasant, to me anyway, means time spent in the garden …finally. And as I was in my garden this week, and as I was thinking about today’s message, and as I considered the sermon title: Gathered & Scattered, I was struck by the order of the words. Gathered and then scattered. On first blush, I would have put those words in the opposite order; especially when thinking about our faith …right? Don’t we want to seek the scattered and then gather them into the church?

But as I thought about it some more, and as I continued to work the soil, I decided that I like this order. We must gather before we can scatter. Whether it be seeds or knowledge or faith or people. Before we can be disciples, we must gather the tools needed to reach-out beyond ourselves. Before we can scatter the seeds of hope, we must first find hope ourselves. Before we can forgive, we must be willing to forgive others. And before we can scatter the seeds of love, we must first realize that we are loved, unconditionally, loved, by God.

Now, the text that we heard from John 13 this morning is finally inseparable from the John 20 passage that I read earlier, and, indeed, from Pentecost itself. I say this because these texts both invite us not only to “gather” an experience of the Divine through the Spirit, but they show us how to “scatter” that experience beyond ourselves. Yes, In Pentecost the Sprit has come, and the Church was formed, but how do we (including our confirmands, maybe especially our confirmands) make the Church new, fresh, and relevant for our generation and for generations to come?

That’s the big the question posed to the wider Church today. How can we be relevant in people’s lives? Well, there are any number of ways to go here and believe me, there’ve been many a book written, visioning plans formed, and new ministries launched hoping to solve this problem. But I think, sometimes, in order to solve a new problem, we need an old solution. Jesus’ solution? He says, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

My friends, if we would like to see our beloved church continue to grow, and I don’t mean just in numbers, but in spirit, in compassion and grace, in how we live-into our faith; then this New Commandment, “Love each other as I have loved you” must be our bedrock. But notice something here. Jesus doesn’t say, “My new commandment to you is to go out and try to save everyone” He doesn’t say, the Greatest Commandment is to judge those who don’t believe as I do, or speak the language I do, or love the one I think they should love. No. Jesus said, “Love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.” And loving one another, loving one’s neighbor begins, first of all with humility. It begins by understanding that we all fall short in one way or another. Love continues to grow when we decide to meet people right where they’re at. And we gather more and more individuals when we scatter the seeds of love beyond just our own faith community. How? By being inclusive of everyone, consistently faithful, and open to change.

This is where John 20 & John 13 intersect. In this text, like I said before, we have John’s version of Pentecost. “…he breathed on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’” I’ve made this association before. Rhuwa in Hebrew and pneumatos in Greek both mean “Breath, Spirit, & Wind” Three related concepts all encapsulated in a single thought. So, when Jesus breathed on his disciples, he imparted to them the gift of the Spirit; and, in the more familiar Pentecost account in Acts where the flames are accompanied by wind, we see a more demonstrative demonstration of the Breath of God.

You see where I’m going here. All of this harkens back to the second creation narrative in Genesis where God’s own breath becomes humanity’s breath and then, by extension, across the arc of time and space, God’s Breath, Gods’ Spirit, becomes ours. Our very breath contains a bit of the universe, and the expanse of the universe contains a bit of our being, our essence, …our breath

SO, what does all this mean? Well it means that we’re finally, all, interconnected! to my way of thinking anyway, if all things are interconnected then why in the world would we harm, or destroy, or defame? If we are interconnected with the earth, then why would we not take seriously and try to make a difference as the Global climate changes? If we are interconnected with all people, then why would we welcome some and close our hearts and borders to others? Why would we ever exclude anyone on the basis of religion, or race, or gender identity? In a very real way, whenever we exclude anyone, we exclude ourselves …and God.

How do I know this? Because the foundation of this interconnection, the glue that holds it all together, if you will: is Love. God’s Love. God Is love. “Love each other,” Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

Now, to you, the newest members of this congregation. There can be no lesson more important than “Love each other.” This is a wonderful congregation of people that you’ve joined here today; people who live-into that commandment every day in a whole variety of ways. You already know that. But today, the thing you must try to wrap your minds around, is the fact that you are now fully a part of, intrinsically intertwined with, this group of faithful people. And that’s both a joy and a responsibility. It’s a joy because you get to journey with all of these folks through thick and thin, hardship and celebration; they’ll be there for you when you need them, and you for them.

But there’s also a responsibility. In the United Church of Christ, as we learned in confirmation class, we have a saying: “Make the church your own in each generation.” As we move forward, and continue to grow, you will be the leaders of the congregation. You have the skill, the compassion, and the faith to make this congregation, indeed, the whole of the United Church of Christ, your own in this generation and in generations to come, of that I have no doubt.

So, this my invitation to each of you as you live-into the joy and responsibility of this your calling: Be kind. Be generous. Be humble. Be grateful. Be faithful. But above all else, be loving. Love each other, love your neighbor and the earth, and love God with all your being. And this is God’s invitation to each of us here today Gather kindness and scatter generosity; gather humility and scatter gratefulness; gather faith & scatter the seeds of love. Gather Love from each other, and scatter a love for your neighbor and for the earth, and, in the midst of it all, love God with all your being.

May it be so. Amen and Amen

Wisdom Calls

Proverbs 8 – Trinity Sunday

When I was in Seminary, one of the required readings was Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Edwards, he was one of the driving forces behind the “First Great Awakening” in the early 1700’s with his insistence that people recognize and repent of their sin. Now, Edwards was charismatic but to be honest, he was also a little bit scary. You see, the image of God in this famous sermon was not that of a loving God, or even a grandfatherly God, but one that seemed positively sadistic. Edwards depicted God as an angry God who dangled sinners over the fires of hell like someone might dangle a spider over an open flame.[i] Not a very attractive image of God. In fact, I’d say it’s an image that would drive you in the other direction.

But, fortunately, the Biblical view of God is very different. The Bible presents us with a God of love, a God of relationship, a God of community.[ii] Community. That’s an important word especially as we consider our understanding of the Trinity today. But why? Why is viewing God as three persons so important? Well, to begin with, we have to confess that know less about God then we actually do know, in this lifetime anyway. And since we can only imagine God from our limited human capacity to understand, then we must use human images and symbols to envision God. And one of these images, one very important symbol is love.

Now, we know as human beings that love is most fully expressed when there’s a counterpart; a partner or another. So, it should come as no surprise that God, who is actually love itself, has counterparts in the Bible; Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This is central to our faith, because the love it represents is the basis for everything God does; including both creation and salvation. [iii]

Now, recently, I read a book by Richard Rohr called the Divine Dance and the bases of this book, as the title indicates, is to recapture an understanding of God as Trinity by adopting the image of God as engaged in an unending dance. Creator, Christ, and Spirit ever-twirling, ever-dancing, ever-circling one another in the mystery of the Trinity. Rohr begins by reminding us that “…mystery isn’t something that [we] cannot understand.” Rather, that it’s something that [we] can “endlessly understand.” “There’s no point at which [we] can say, ‘I’ve got it!’ Always and forever,” Rohr says, “mystery get you!’” He then says, with this understanding of mystery in mind, that, “Circling around is an apt metaphor for this mystery that we’re trying to apprehend.”[iv] In other words, community among the three-persons of the Godhead and their coactivity, their movement, is both dynamic and fluid.

Rohr goes on to say that, “…this is not some new, trendy theology from America. This is about as traditional as you can get. The very mystical Cappadocian Fathers of fourth-century eastern Turkey eventually developed some highly sophisticated thinking on what we soon called the Trinity. It took three centuries of reflection on the Gospels to have the courage to say it, but they of this land, including Paul of Tarsus before them and Rumi afterward, circled around to the best metaphor they could find: Whatever is going on in God is a flow, and radical relatedness, and perfect communion between three; a circle dance of love.”[v] And here’s the really cool part. “God is not just a dancer; God is the dance itself.”[vi] And God is the dance of life from the very beginning.

This is where we encounter the Wisdom of Proverbs today. God created and continues to create everything from God’s desire to have a relationship with, to extend God’s internal community with, and to include all of God’s creation in …this circle dance of life. In other words, God is not “other-then” but rather around and within all things. Our lesson from Proverbs for today is a beautiful image of all this.  In it, God creates as a master craftsman, as a skilled artist. And like a skilled artist takes delight in a sculpture or a painting, God takes great delight in the whole of creation.[vii] (even mosquitos)

And surprisingly, though it, pre-dates Jesus by several centuries, there is already hint of God having a counterpart. Our lesson describes “Wisdom” as God’s companion in creation. But more than that, Wisdom is God’s counterpart, not only applauding with joy at every aspect of creation but also working with God to make sure everything fits as a “master craftsman.” might. [viii]  I like the way Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “I was right there with him,” Wisdom says, “making sure everything fit. Day after day I was there, with my joyful applause, always enjoying his company, delighted with the world of things and creatures, happily celebrating the human family”.[ix]

But what does all this have to do with us? Well, I suspect that in your everyday conversations the idea of God as Trinity doesn’t come up very often. Am I right? It seems like an abstract concept that only theologians and philosophers like to debate. But I’m going to propose that nothing could be further from the truth. The point of our belief in the Trinity is that God is a God of Love, and not just a Love that cherishes from afar, but a Love that acts for us and among us and within us. God is Love, a Love that reaches out to us and seeks a relationship with us; community with us. My friends, this is an image of God who takes great delight in the beauty of the natural world and takes great delight in the human family. And this is a God, our God, who invites each of us to join in the Divine dance, the ever-fluid, ever-moving, ever-flowing dance of life. A life lived here on earth and beyond this life, eternally, forever circling, with the Wisdom of the Creator, Christ, and Spirit.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen!

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[i] Edwards says, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire

[ii] Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society: The Public Relevance of Theology, 101: The biblical image of God is “God in community, rich in relationships. ‘God is love.’”

[iii] Alan Brehm. God’s Delight. (www.thewakingdreamer.com) 2013

[iv] Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell. The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington: Whitaker House) 2016

[v] Ibid Rohr

[vi] Ibid Rohr

[vii] Pheme Perkins, “Beside the Lord,” The Christian Century (May 17, 1989) 522: “The Lord rejoices in her [Wisdom] as she rejoices in all of creation, including the human race. This image of creation is very different from the mechanical putting-it-together activity that we might regard as part of making something. Creation is shared. It is an object of beauty, order and delight.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 311.

[viii] William P. Brown, “Proverbs 8:22-31,” Interpretation 63 (July 2009) 288: Wisdom is God’s full partner in play, and all creation is hers to enjoy. The world was made for her sake, for her Ibid Rohr God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, 9: “Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation. He does not merely confront it in his transcendence; entering into it, he is also immanent in it.”

[ix] Ibid Brehm

Breaking Chains

Luke 24:50-53 Ascension Sunday, 2019

Every Thanksgiving weekend for the past 18 years, Arapaho and Cheyenne youth in Colorado have led a 180-mile relay from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site to Denver. This annual event opens with a sunrise ceremony honoring the indigenous people who lost their lives at that infamous massacre. Now, if you’re unaware of this historical event, the Sand Creek Massacre was brutal assault carried out by the United States Army under the command of Colonel John Chivington on Nov. 29, 1864 in which over 200 Native American men, women, and children lost their lives.

And while the Sand Creek massacre has been the subject of numerous books, much less attention has been paid to two heroes of this terrible event: Captain Silas Soule and Lt. Joseph Cramer. Now, these men were heroes not because of what they did but rather, because of what they didn’t do! You see, Soule and Cramer rejected the violence and genocide by disobeying their orders that day. They did so by personally refusing to take part in the murder of innocent people and by ordering the men under their command to stand down. The article I read didn’t go into detail about what happened to them, but one can only assume that there were consequences for their actions.[i]

Now, today’s text, as I said before, describes the Ascension, Christ’s departure from the disciples, and his return to God. But the interesting thing here, to me anyway, is the reaction of the disciples. The text tells us that they were “overwhelmed by joy.” What? For the past four weeks we’ve seen his followers grieving, lost, confused at least until they recognized the Risen Christ in their midst; but overwhelmed with joy at his departure? What’s going on here?

Well, a couple of things actually. First, it’s sometimes reasonable, wise even, to break old patterns. Take Soule and Cramer for example. The dominate narrative of the conquest of the West was that the invaders were civilized, and the indigenous people were savages. But Soule and Cramer were able to see through that false narrative and, despite the consequences, took the appropriate action. In a very real way, by breaking the chain of command, they were symbolically breaking chains of ignorance and oppression. Now, the massacre was carried out in spite of their efforts, but perhaps it was the first glimmer of reason in an otherwise dark and utterly merciless time in our history.

Now, as we look at the disciples, and their unexpected response to Jesus’ departure, like Soule and Cramer, there is a reasonableness in breaking the old pattern. The old pattern was to follow Jesus, an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, listen to his teachings and respond to his example. Right? But that only worked for a while. God incarnate, God in bodily form could only be with them for so long. So, in order to mature in their faith, the disciples needed to begin to find joy, along with praise and worship the text tells us, in an unseen God, an ascended God, a God present in Spirit rather than in the flesh.

And the same is true for us. When we proclaim our faith in God as Spirit, we are participating in the present Reign of God in the here and now. We experience, not the absence of the Divine, but a very real and life transforming manifestation of God. The marvel of all this is that if the Spirit of God is walking with us, then there is no place on our journey that God is not there to greet us, heal us, redeem us, or transform us.

Which leads to the second reason to be “overwhelmed by joy” today: Wisdom. There was a certain amount of wisdom, reason one might call it, displayed by Soule and Cramer and reason played a significant role in the disciples newly found pattern of faith as well. And today, as we look at what it means to the be the Church of the 21st century, I believe that reason must inform our faith as well.

You know, one of my favorite platitudes goes like this, “God gave us reason for a reason.” One example of using reason to challenge old patterns can be found in the history of the United Church of Christ. Specifically, in our decision to no longer blindly follow creeds or doctrines. Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, there is value in doctrine. Doctrines, in a Christian context, are commonly held understandings about the core beliefs of the Church. A good example of this is the doctrine of the incarnation. It’s a pretty basic Christian belief that God was bodily present and is now Spiritually present in the world. The problem with doctrine, however, is when it becomes dogmatic. By dogma I mean using my interpretation of doctrine to judge someone else’s concept of God. That’s why in the United Church of Christ we value a diverse theological understanding and a variety of practices of worship. We choose to be theologically inclusive rather than exclusive.

But what about the creeds? Again, in the United Church of Christ, we choose to honor all the creeds as inspired by God and historically important, and this includes our own Statement of Faith. But the old pattern, the chain that was broken here, was using something like the Apostles’ Creed as a litmus test of one’s faith. Instead, we would prefer to hear “testimonies of faith.” In other words, tell me where you’ve encountered God in the world today? Do you see what I’m driving at here? Faith isn’t monolithic. Each person’s experience of God is different, thus, each of our perspectives on life and faith and the divinity vary. And it’s this diversity of thought and belief that adds to the richness and texture of our church.

It’s kind of like sewing a quilt. I mean, what if every block of the quit was solid white? It would be a pretty boring quilt, wouldn’t it? It would still be a quilt, but, I think, it would lack the ability to spark the interest or the passion of the beholder. Well, in the United Church of Christ we’ve chosen to put together the most colorful quilt we could possibility put sew. A quilt that welcomes people of all colors, ages, nationalities, and lifestyles. It’s a quilt that includes people from all sorts of religious backgrounds or no religious background at all. It’s a quilt that is big enough to include blocks from a diversity of contexts and a variety of cultures. And, my friends, it’s a quilt that big enough to include you, and your life experiences, and your beliefs about God. And this colorful quilt would have never been possible if our fore-bearers had not summoned the courage, perhaps even disobeyed an order or two, to do what was right. If we they had not broken the chains that bound the Church to exclusivism, both culturally and as a denomination, then the quilt we have today would be pretty bland, uninspiring.

But it’s not bland and we’re not uninspired! My friends, as we go forth from this place today, reassured by the presence of God through the Spirit and refreshed by the sacrament, my prayer is that we will be reinvigorated in our passion to welcome all people and to serve God; that we will summon our courage to do what is right, breaking the chains that bind humanity: the chains of oppression, the chains of marginalization, the chains of hate-filled rhetoric that lead to violence against people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees, or our brothers and sisters from other religions. And finally, my hope for all of us, as individuals and as a community of faith, is that in our efforts to loosen the bonds of oppression, we will find, and embrace, an ever-deepening connection with the Source of our faith and learning.

This is hope for all of you. This is my prayer! Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Billy J. Stratton, Remembering the U.S. Soldiers Who Refused Orders to Murder Native Americans at Sand Creek. In “The Conversation” (www.sojo.net) 2017

 

Disciples Together

Luke 24:36-49 – Memorial Day Weekend

I read about a man this week who had not seen his family in over 20 years. There had been conflict in the family and decided to leave home and never return. More than 20 years later he had a change of heart and decided to reconcile with his family. He gathered up all his emotional courage and returned home. Now, upon seeing the man at the door, his mother and sisters responded much like the early followers of Jesus when he appeared out of nowhere; startled and fearful. I mean you can understand their reaction, right? This mother and her daughters had not expected to ever see the man again. Their minds must have been reeling. Was it really him? Could he really be back? But finally, their fear gave way to joy, the joy that this son and brother was alive and had returned to them. Throughout their visit the mother and sisters would say to him, “We can’t believe it’s you,” and would touch him and hug him for a sense of verification that it was really him.

Now, in a very real way, that’s how it was with the disciples and Jesus. They had seen Jesus crucified. Many of them had abandoned him in that hour while some had stayed and heard his last breath. Those who had remained removed him from the cross, they felt the cold numbness of his stiff dead body. They had laid him in the tomb and closed it shut. But whether they had remained or left, all of them were grieving. And yet, like the man who returned to his mother and sisters after a 20-year absence, here he was standing before them, flesh and bone, alive and in their presence![I]

But the crux of this story, the brass tacks if you will, comes when we combine the shock and fear and the eventual realization of resurrection, with Jesus’ greeting: “Peace be with you.” Jesus offers these frightened disciples a personal, embodied, unbelievable, incarnational sense of peace. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt connected to God, so in-tune with the divine rhythm, that you actually embodied a sense of inner peace?

Barbara Brown Taylor offered a sermon on this text in which she beautifully describes this embodied experience of Jesus, and the way he drew their attention to his hands and his feet. She poetically recalls the ways the hands and feet of Jesus had been important in his ministry, healing people, breaking bread, traveling around with the good news. Now, wounded and bruised, those same hands and feet were proof to the disciples that, in her words, “…that he had gone through the danger and not around it.”

Through the danger, and not around it. I think we spend a great deal of time and energy trying to find a way around difficult situations, rather than trying to live through them. And who could blame us? Who wants to experience pain or danger, or come face to face with the suffering of other people, or the suffering of the earth? And yet, Taylor says, we bear hope for the world because of the commission Jesus gave the disciples and the whole church all those years ago. We are the Body, and the Image, of the Risen Christ in the world today, “Not our pretty faces and not our sincere eyes but our hands and feet,” she writes, “what we have done with them and where we have gone with them.”[ii]

Our hands and our feet. We are, my friends, the hands and feet of God’s peace in the world today. Far too often I hear Christian media, and I hear in pastoral circles, the articulation of a faith that’s solely based in morality, duty, or a denunciation of the “other” whoever the current “other” may be. The use rules and doctrine build walls that obscure their vision of the poor and the suffering. That’s the “finding a way around danger” that Taylor was talking about. But if we are to take seriously the teaching of Christ and go through the danger, then we must take this idea of being God’s hands and feet, and I would add, God’s heart and voice, seriously as well.

How? Well, we are the hands and feet of peace when we welcome the stranger, when we open our home to the refugee and our heart to the immigrant. We are the hands and feet of peace when we practice justice and promote equality among all people and when we seek to preserve and restore the beauty of nature. We are the hands and feet of peace when we visit the lonely, feed the hungry, house the homeless, or lift-up the downtrodden. We are God’s voice of peace whenever we speak words of kindness and we are God’s heart of peace whenever we participate in acts of compassion.

My friends, “Jesus came to knock down walls and widen the circle of inclusion, rather than draw strict theological and moral lines. It’s not that Jesus had no standards, [of course he did] But his mission was focused on opening God’s [realm] to more and more people.”[iii] And he did that, and continues to do that, by offering the unconditional sense of peace to all people.

You know, a wise friend once told me that there cannot truly be world peace until all people, or at least a vast majority of them, are able to find an inner peace. You see, when we’re out there being God’s hands and feet of peace, it’s not only the other, the one we’re serving, who’s receiving the Peace of Christ, we’re gaining a sense of peace as well. Because peace, inner peace and the ever-widening circles of peace that come as a result of finding inner peace, begin with transformation. The Dalai Lama once said, “Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.”[iv] Although it’s difficult, it’s the only way.

My blessing for each of you, as we depart this place today, is this: “May the Peace of God surround you; may the Peace of Christ uphold you; and may the Peace of the Spirit be within you, now, and forever from now. Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Minerva Carcano The Good News is for Everyone. (www.Day1.org) 1997.

[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor quoted in Love Means Showing Up by Katheryn Matthews (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018

[iii] Henry G Brinton, “A Welcoming Table,” ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2012.

[iv] H.H. the Dalai Lama in Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanb (Bantam Books, 1991)

Imagine

Luke 24 The Walk to Emmaus

They say misery loves company. I think that’s true. In the hospital nursery it’s called “social crying.” One baby starts crying and all the rest follow suit. In the workplace, one person complains, and all the others join in. Yes, there’s more than a grain of truth to the old adage: “misery loves company.”

In the narrative that we have before us today, two disciples shuffle along, keeping each other company, miserable company, but company, nevertheless. They’re immersed in their sadness, they had left everything behind to follow Jesus and now, he was dead. All was lost and they were headed home. Who can blame them for feeling hopeless? But, at the same time, their grief had blinded them, at least temporarily, to the hope of resurrection. Their loss was all they were willing to embrace. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they said. But their faith was foiled by what they considered to be an insufficient evidence of Resurrection.[I]

This is the first point-of-contact with our world that we see in this text; this idea of an “insufficient evidence of resurrection.” What does that mean? Well, I believe in order to get-at the meaning here, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: What does resurrection mean to me? Well, maybe it’s not that simple of a question after all. I mean, is resurrection only an old story about the physical resuscitation of an iterate Rabbi who was executed because he dared challenge the powers-that-be? Or is resurrection something more.

Something more. In ancient Celtic Christianity they often referred to God as “the more.” I like that. I like it because it alludes to the mysterious nature of God of which we can know only bits and pieces. And resurrection is one of these pieces. A piece that by its very nature indicates the presence of God. A Presence that we have come to understand as within, around, and through all of life; even when, maybe especially when, life is difficult. So, resurrection then, is about taking those places in our lives and places in the world around us, those dark and painful, isolating places; it’s about taking those Emmaus Road, misery-loves-company moments, and exposing them to the healing and light and life of the Spirit. How do I know this? I know because in my own life I have experienced Christ; not as some distant event in the past, or some dusty old doctrine, but as a real, Living Presence. A Presence, an Energy, a Consciousness, that is both beyond words and yet as real as the very breath I draw.

And, as you already know, this is where our two Emmaus Road travelers ended up as well. At first, they didn’t recognize Jesus and perhaps they might even have passed right by him if not for a culturally defined expectation to provide hospitality. That’s the second point-of-contact with our world: hospitality. It was the custom, the tradition of people in that day and age to provide hospitality to anyone who darkened their door. And these disciples displayed that expectation of hospitality by not only walking with the stranger but inviting him to share in a meal and stay the night.

Now, as you know, the expectation of hospitality in our time is very different. But I would argue not completely absent. I co-lead a mission trip a number of years ago to the Appalachian Mountain region of North Carolina. Now, we didn’t know what our work detail would be until we arrived. It turned out that our task was to replace a leaky roof on an old house. Luckily, it was a fairly flat roof, so it wasn’t overly difficult for this group of teen-aged kids to move around and work. That is, except for one young girl in particular. Hanna. Hanna was terrified of heights and no matter how much encouragement or coxing she received, scaling that ladder was out-of-the-question. So, as you might imagine, Hanna found herself disconnected from the rest of the group. Yes, she was our ground support, gofer if you will, but that occupied very little of her time. But you know what? Hanna made the best of it. You see, the residents of the house included two little boys and as the week progressed, Hanna filled her day with imaginative ways of befriending them. She playing with them, read to them; Hanna made them feel special, wanted. And this was confirmed on the very last day, when saying our goodbyes, one of the little boys came up to Hanna and whispered something in her ear. Later, as we were on our way home, someone asked Hanna, “What did he whisper?” To which, Hanna shyly smiled, and said, “I love you.”

I shared this story with you today for a couple of reasons. First, I believe Hanna demonstrated what hospitality should look like in our world. She met those two boys right where they were at and she showed them unconditional love. And for the rest of us, it doesn’t matter if we’re listening to a friend vent, or working at the food pantry, or visiting a lonely person, or helping out at the Humane Society; if we can connect with people on a personal level, without hesitation or judgment, and if we can show that person the unconditional love that we have experienced from our creator; then we are practicing hospitality.

That’s the first lesson from Hanna, and the second is this: Hanna was imaginative in her hospitality. When faced with a situation in which she could have pouted or done nothing, she chose to think beyond the pale, coming up with a constructive way to serve in that context. And its imagination that brings us to the third and final point of contact between the Emmaus Road experience way back then and our experience of the Risen Christ here in our time. In the narrative, in spite of their misery-loves-company attitude, and over and above the expectation of hospitality, there must have been some vague memory emerge when Jesus blessed and broke the bread for their meal. Because it was in that moment that they came to understand the true power of resurrection. It was in what we call the sacrament, that “the More” became real to them.

Isn’t that interesting? Jesus only became known through teaching and sacrament. But perhaps we sometimes try to limit what qualifies as teaching or sacrament. Maybe we should consider expanding the concept of teaching and the meaning of sacrament for our time. I mean, is there sacrament, a sacred space or time, beyond the communion table or the baptismal font? Can Divine Wisdom come from many places, many people, from a diverse collection of religious or philosophical texts; might God be revealed through everyday conversations, with everyday people, in our everyday context? Can God come-to-life in new and imaginative ways?

I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I think it would be a worthwhile task to explore them. And maybe, just maybe, if we begin to explore and experience teaching and sacrament in a new way, maybe we will begin to imagine a world where all people live in peace and practice justice; a world where there is no place for greed or hunger or homelessness; maybe we could even imagine a time when all people choose to coexist with nature and each other.

And all of this brings us back around, full circle, to the words of John Lennon; words that I echo still today. “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”

May it be so, for you and for me.

Amen and the people of God said, Amen.

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[i] Alyce McKenzie Saying No to Mrs. Bidemeier (www.patheos.com)2014

Life -Giving Acts

John 21:1-19     Mother’s Day

Today is Mother’s Day. A day set-aside to honor our mothers. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! But, in recent years, I’ve started expanding this celebration to include aunts, grandmas, or any woman who has stepped-up to nurture young people along the way. I started this because it’s become apparent to me that the configuration, the very definition of what it means to “be a family” family has changed, evolved. The “basic family unit” doesn’t always consist of a mom, a dad, 2.3 children, and a golden retriever. In many cases, family doesn’t have anything to do with blood relationships at all. Rather, family often consists of people there for each other through thick and thin. It’s not my place to judge this reality, simply to recognize it and honor it.

So, it’s with this expanded understanding of family that we celebrate Mother’s Day, and, interestingly enough, this broad definition of family also makes its way into the story that we have before us today. This resurrection appearance narrative from the end of John’s Gospel is commonly called the “Breakfast by the Sea.” And, as I indicated before, there’s a whole lot more going here than just breakfast.

First the obvious. Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times in the fear and darkness of Good Friday. But here, in the light of morning, in this intimate seaside setting, Peter is forgiven with a three-fold assurance of restoration. But notice something here, after each reassertion of the question comes a call to action: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter’s charge is to put his love for Jesus into swift, concrete action.

That’s the obvious connection to the rest of John’s narrative, but there’s also a less obvious, more subtle, sub-text as well. This threefold act of forgiveness and subsequent charge to feed and tend humanity isn’t disconnected from the previous story. Let’s look at the sequence of events that led up to Peter’s conversation with Jesus. The disciples had gone back to their livelihood, fishing. Jesus appeared on the beach, but they didn’t recognize him. He gave them a command to “cast their nets into deeper water” and when they complied, the disciples witnessed a miracle of abundance. They recognized Jesus in that moment. He then immediately served them a breakfast of fish and bread.

Lets’ see. Where have we seen a miracle of abundance using fish and loves before? Yep. The feeding of the 5,000. We’re also reminded in our context of communion, right? But it goes even deeper than that! We, like the disciples of old, often miss Jesus in our midst. After we leave worship we go back to our livelihood, we go back to our beach, even when we’ve had a life-changing, perspective-altering experience of the divine, at some point, we must go back to our routine. And you know what, that’s alright.

The deeper lesson here, however, is to incorporate our experience of the divine, our moments of recognition, into our everyday lives. How? By symbolically casting our nets into deeper waters; by loving all of God’s people and by tending the blessing of this beautiful creation. A love, as I said before, that’s expressed through action. How do we know this? Because both of the Greek words interpreted as “love” in today’s text are verbs. Agape, God’s unconditional love, and Phillios, humanity’s love for one another, are both actions words. So, Peter literally says, “Yes Love, you know that I am loving you.” To which Jesus responds in essence, “then go and love my lambs in the same way.” This is important! It’s important because this is our charge as people of faith. We are called and challenged both as individuals and as a community to seek out and incorporate new and innovate ways to love. Which brings us back around, full circle, to this idea of an expanded definition of family.

You know, I was given a glimpse this week of this very thing from a most unexpected source. Manny. I was in the kitchen doing something and Manny was in the living room playing Fortnite with his friends. I think need to pause here for a little explanation before I go on. If you’ve been to our house, you know that the kitchen and the living room are really the same room, so it was easy to hear what he was saying. And when I say playing Fortnite with his friends, you need to understand that he was on his Nintendo Switch with headphones on so he could communicate with the other players. Okay. So, here I am in the kitchen/living room, when I hear Manny say, “Don’t shoot my family!” Now, to a non-gamer like me, that was a little bit disturbing and demanded an explanation. Well, it turns out that Becky and I were not under threat, but rather that Manny considered his friends from school, who were on his team, family.

Isn’t that interesting? The configuration of family can come in countless ways. On the shore of the Tiberius Sea, over two thousand years ago, Jesus served his family breakfast. Not his mother or his brothers, but those who had been with him on the journey. He then sent them out with a charge to treat, dare I say “consider,” all of his lambs, all of his sheep, all of humanity as family.

I mean, what if I were to expand my definition of family to include all of you. That’s not a huge stretch of the imagination. Traditionally, church folks have referred to each other as sister or brother. But what about those beyond our congregation? What if I were to consider a Catholic priest as my brother? Or a Jewish Rabbi? Or a Muslim Imam? Might my perspective on the world change, dare I say for the better? What if I were to consider a woman who’s struggling to feed her four children, four children from four different, broken relationships as my sister? Might I then have more compassion for her situation? What if I were to consider a veteran living on the streets because his untreated PTSD as my brother? Might I then find my voice and demand change? What if I were to consider a lonely woman living out her days lost in the confusion of dementia as my grandmother? Might I be moved to visit her? What if I were to consider all those innocent children being “detained” on our Southern border as my own children? Might I then be moved to demand justice?

Do you see what I’m driving at here? When we consider another person, any person, as family, we’re far less likely to write them off, or to ignore their suffering, or to hate them because their different.

My friends, Jesus is saying to each of us, “do you love me?” And when we love our neighbor, when we love the least of God’s lambs, and when we find a way to love those who society considers unlovable, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and when we act to demonstrate that love; we are answering the call with a resounding, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

This is my prayer for all of us.

Happy Mother’s Day and Amen.