Growing in Christ

Kousa dogwood 2018
A sermon for June 17, 2018.  The scripture readings are Ezekiel 17:22-24Psalm 92:1-4,11-142 Corinthians 5:6-17,  Mark 4:26-34

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you like or notice gardens, you will have noticed that we are heading into “boom time.” The Kousa dogwood outside has put on its show and is winding down, but the clematis exploding in purple and the hydrangeas are making their blue and white snowballs. All over the place—in the church garden, in Carl Schurz and Central Park, along sidewalks, on door stoops, and window boxes things are climbing, stretching, creeping, blooming, and making fruit. It’s a season of growth.

In the church, too, we’re heading into a season of growth. The great celebrations of Easter and Pentecost are behind us, and so through the summer and into the fall, the scriptures invite us to think about the Kingdom of God—that commonwealth or realm of God that has as its very nature to grow, and grow, and grow.

Growth runs through our scriptures today. In Ezekiel, God plants a tree as a symbol and reminder that God tends and cares for all his creatures, no matter what may come: storm, drought, or disaster. Both Ezekiel and the Psalm reminds us that those who allow God to do the planting–who let God be the Master Gardener—all those will flourish and bear fruit and live fresh, new lives season after season, even into old age. The Epistle, too, is about spiritual growth as St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that death and life are part of a cycle: Christ went through death in order for new life to come. Just like a plant that dies so that seed can create new life, Christ died giving us seeds for eternal life.
Today’s Gospel comes in the form of a parable, or several parables—those stories that allow us to identify with various characters as the wear the story again and again. Because of this, whenever we read or hear a parable, there’s an invitation for us to step inside and try on some of the different characters and attitudes. Which one speaks to us today? Which one fits best? Which one challenges or offers comfort?

For example, in today’s story, you may identify with the sower, the one who plants seeds and hopes for the best. Whether seeds or seedlings, the hope is that there will be growth. It may be an idea or a practice or a project that you’re just beginning. You do a little to get it started, but then it’s out of your hands. It may be taken out of your hands, or other things may grow to overshadow your project—maybe there is the equivalent of a storm, or maybe the birds in your world eat up the seeds you’ve sown. But if you’re the sower, you make an initial investment and then over time, you have to manage your relationship to the seeds you’ve planted. How much will you try to control? How much will you let go? When will you ask for help?

On the other hand, you might hear today’s Gospel and identity a little with the seed. Perhaps you feel like you’ve been placed in a certain place—a family, a relationship, a workplace, a social situation. Where you’ve been placed might be fertile ground with lots of resources and room for growth. Or, it might be a rocky place, full of challenges and rough spots.

Or maybe you’re just trying your best to put down roots somewhere, trying to find something that will stay still long enough to enjoy the sun, to absorb the rain, to find the energy and life within yourself to grow, to expand, to become.

For a number of reasons, one can feel like the seed—waiting on outside forces and trusting God. One can feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed. But it’s those times that it’s especially important to remember that built into every seed–deep down–is the capacity to grow into something useful and beautiful.

The birds, too, play a part in the parable. The birds take shade. They find rest and refuge. Someone else has done the major planting and much of the growing, but one day, the birds too, might be called upon to add just the right component to God’s unfolding kingdom.

Jesus tells these parables to help us understand what he calls the Kingdom of God. This “Kingdom of God” is not so much a literal place as it is EVERY PLACE–, every place where God’s intention is allowed to take root and grow. The kingdom is full of mystery—it grows at its own rate. Some parts can be planned, laid out, and organized. But other areas of the kingdom are up to God’s own good grace—we have to let go.

Given the political currents in our country and in many other places of the world, it might feel like in every direction seeds are trampled and growing things are poisoned or torn down. But with faith, we can also see God’s movement and growth in the hidden places. We see what initially looks only like pain and misery. We see disease and violence and poverty. We see a terribly distorted version of the world God has created. But then, with eyes of faith, we look closer. We can begin to see the seeds for compassion, for sharing, for sacrifice, and for healing.

Thinking about the scriptures today, I remember someone with good “eyes of faith.” About fifteen years ago, I went with a group from the Diocese of New York on a mission trip to Honduras. Our task was to help the congregation there build some new, simple church pews, and also to build friendships and relationships with Christians who live very different lives from ours.

One of the people who went with us was a then-70-year old woman named Kathy. Since Kathy wasn’t sure how much of the construction or the climbing of hills she could do, she asked if she could primarily help with the cooking. And so, that’s what she did. She helped with the cooking, spoke almost no Spanish but was able to communicate with other women in the kitchen who spoke no English, and things went well.

The week went along nicely. Most of us noticed that the people from the congregation who were handy really didn’t need our help at all, and were really being gracious to allow us to help them with a project they clearly could handle. But Kathy—there in the kitchen, saw something else. She noticed how easily and quickly the women moved in the kitchen and she began to wonder what they might do if they had a larger, commercial oven.

Kathy asked the priest about this, and the priest asked the women in Spanish, and they didn’t even pause before they replied, “Oh, we’d start a business and bake things and take them to the market to sell them. Kathy was able to see a possibility, something that could grow. When Kathy went home, she got her church to start raising money. Our church added some, and the church in Honduras bought an oven and began a business.
Those who see with faith will see all kinds of possibilities, and the vision never dims. It is as Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. Everything old has passed away, and the new has come alive.”

Today we baptize Milo and Leon who are just beginning to grow. They are like little seeds, full of potential and wonder, beauty and love. In baptism we add water. With Holy Oil we add nourishment. And with our prayers, we lift them into God’s love so that the light of Christ will shine fully in their lives.

And just a word or two for those who are more comfortable listening in Spanish:

El Evangelio de hoy nos enseña acerca del crecimiento. Al igual que los plantadores, a veces echamos semillas y confiamos en Dios para el crecimiento. Al igual que las semillas, a veces nos sentimos desamparados y pequeños, pero debemos recordar que nuestra naturaleza es crecer.

Hoy bautizamos a Milo y Leon que recién están comenzando a crecer. Son como pequeñas semillas, llenas de potencial y maravilla, belleza y amor. En el bautismo, agregamos agua. Con el Chrisma agregamos alimento. Y con nuestras oraciones, los elevamos al amor de Dios para que la luz de Cristo brille por completo en sus vidas.

Friends, the kingdom of God grows around us and within us. May God continue to grow us in faith and love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Dangers of the Eucharist

HTNC 2018A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 3, 2018.  The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, and John 6:47-58.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This morning, weather permitting, some churches will be taking the Holy Sacrament and leaving church.  They’ll be leaving the church building and walking through the neighborhood.  A few churches did this on Thursday and others do it today in a celebration of Corpus Christi Day, carrying the Blessed Sacrament out into the world, for all to adore and celebrate.

When I was first ordained, I served at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the practice there on Corpus Christi is to move through Times Square and then back into the church.  Every year, we would end up with ten, twenty, maybe fifty people following us back into church.  A part of it felt absolutely medieval, but another part felt like exactly the right kind of expression for a church in Times Square.

I still remember the rector of another parish hearing about the outdoor procession and getting very upset about it He was offended, he wrote in a newsletter article.  He felt that this walking through Times Square with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood was a “dangerous practice,” since the Sacrament might easily be defiled, disparaged, or misunderstood.

Christian history reminds us of conflicts between Christians and often—mixed up in the politics and the power plays—there were differences in belief around the Eucharist (the Greek word for “thanksgiving”) or Holy Communion.  The extreme Protestant view (Baptists, some Presbyterians and others) would hold that the bread and wine (whether fermented or unfermented) are symbols and reminders of the loving meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the Last Supper.  The extreme Catholic view, which many call “Transubstantiation” holds that through the words of the priest, the bread and wine substantially and objectively become the body and blood of Christ.  Each Mass is (what some have called) an “unbloody sacrifice.”

Those of you who know the Anglican tradition or are used to the Episcopal way of viewing things will not be surprised to know that the Anglican view (of which the Episcopal Church is a part) is somewhere in the middle.  Our church’s official belief is in the Real Presence, though we don’t specific or demand that one understand the mystery of the Real Presence in exactly the same way.

Anglicans often recall the words of John Donne(1572–1631): “He was the Word that spake it;  He took the bread and brake it; And what that Word did make it; I do believe and take it”  (Divine Poems. On the Sacrament.)

In addition to historical conflicts and modern-day differences, the Holy Eucharist brings danger also when we take it seriously.  It can be dangerous because it can change our lives.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel puts it, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. They who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” And that’s where the danger really begins.
We can think about what it means to “abide in Christ,” to take the Body of Christ into our bodies by noting what our Book of Common Prayer says about the Eucharist.  Way in the back of the Prayer Book is a section call simply “The Catechism,” and in the part about the Holy Eucharist, the Catechism outlines what it calls “the benefits of the Eucharist.”

“The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our unions with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”

And hidden within each of these benefits, there are dangers and possibilities.

When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are forgiven. We are forgiven again. Our sins are washed away at Baptism, but the ongoing accumulation of sin in our life meets its match in Holy Communion. Saint Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, … that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” This is dangerous medicine, then, for anything or anyone who might be interested in keeping us in sin. The devil will not look on such medicine as innocuous or harmless, nor will his minions. And so, the Eucharist helps us. Like good medicine, it increases our resistance level. Like vitamins, it strengthens us.

The second benefit according to the Catechism has to do with strengthening our union with Christ and with one another. In a culture that suggests we should live only for ourselves, that we try to obtain all that we can for ourselves with little regard for others; in a culture that in any way lifts up people like the Kardashians as important, relevant or meaningful—- the unifying work of the Blessed Sacrament is dangerous stuff.
In Communion we are reminded that we need each other. The common cup and common bread underline that we are not so different from one another as we are sometimes led to believe. Barriers of race and class and education, differences of national origin, or sexual orientation or marriage status are dissolved in the common chalice. They are diluted by the cleansing water of the Holy Spirit. And the blood of Christ, which is to say the blood of God our Creator, restores us into once again being fully human even as it fills us with what is fully divine.

Finally, the Body and Blood of Christ, this holy Sacrament, gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Mindful of the present, grateful for the reality of here-and-now, we are made aware in the Eucharist that we are also living toward a great feast that has no ending.

On Memorial Day our country paused to remember those who have died in service for us, for freedom and for the opportunities that this country symbolizes.  Danger and promise are all wrapped up in the idea of service, but we honor those who have died for our country, just as we honor those who have died for Christ by stepping through fear and danger and holding on to faith.

Strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ, let the danger begin. Let us risk blasphemy, as Jesus did, as we try to show the Body of Christ to the world. Let us risk being misunderstood, as Jesus did, as we go out of our way to feed the hungry, to lift up the poor, to release those held in captivity. And let us risk the danger of faith, as our Savior Jesus did, taking up our cross daily and following him wherever he leads.

Jesus says, “They who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day …. They who eat this bread will live for ever.” May we live into these words, both dangerous and delicious.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

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Dancing with God the Holy Trinity

Trinity Shield ChoirA sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 6:1-8Psalm 29Romans 8:12-17, and John 3:1-17

Listen to the sermon HERE

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Older translations used other terms, with Jesus saying that no one could see the kingdom of God unless the person was “born again” or “born anew.” Nicodemus asks him, “How can this be? How can someone be born when they are old? How can that happen?”

Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what he has tried to explain to his friends, to the people at Cana, to the woman at the well, to the tax collectors and the religious officials. Jesus tries to explain to Nicodemus what he had tried to explain to his disciples again and again and again: that one must be open to the spirit. One must be open to the cleansing of baptismal waters. One must be open to God as God moves and makes his way among us. For God has SO loved the world, that God has come into it. God was born in the world, that we might be born again and born to eternal life. To be born again, to be born anew, to be born from above– has to do with our being open to God however and whenever God comes to us.

The way that God calls us, the way that God meets us, can change over time. For the person who grows spiritually, the way we perceive God and the ways in which we meet God should change over time. A child who is loved by her parents may easily understand God as a parent. Learning to love the stories of Jesus, we may come to know God most powerfully through Jesus. Listening to God through the whole of life, the ups and downs, and all of the mysteries—we may become more attune to God as Spirit.

The early church spoke of the Holy Trinity as having to do with God’s indwelling, with God’s mutual outpouring and movement into. The Trinity was understood as a dynamic: the Father always pouring love and light and energy into the Son, the Son always pouring himself into the Spirit, and the Spirit moving back into and around the Father and the Son. The word that theologians used to describe this continual activity of God is very close to the Greek work for dance, and so it became a popular way of speaking of the Trinity as a kind of dance of love.

With God there’s always dancing. And we can never be quite sure where God may lead. Many of us probably have examples of God’s dancing us into strange places, but I think of a particular story today about God’s leading the dance. And it involves a church and a person.  The person is named Sara. And the church is called St. Gregory’s.

Sara Miles was 46 years old.  A former war correspondent then working as a journalist—if asked, she would have described herself as a secular intellectual.  She had seen religion and religious people coopted on both sides of war and misery.  But in her book, Take this Bread, Miles writes about how one day walked into the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco.  She gradually drew closer to what was going on in that place. And in receiving Communion, she began to connect the bread of heaven with the bread needed to feed the world.  And so, she got busy, became a Christian, and founded a food ministry that continues to operate from St. Gregory’s.

But there’s an interesting aspect to St.  Gregory’s that helped Sara Miles join God’s dance in that place.  The Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa is a church that was founded to try to reclaim the sense of wonder and celebration of the early church, and a famous part of their liturgy includes dancing.  Dancing is so much a part of the church, that when they built their own church, they did it with the particular idea of making room for dancing, for crowds and crowds of people to dance around the altar and with each other.

As amazing as that may sound, when one walks into St. Gregory’s, one feels like one is being invited to join a dance that has begun long before. On the walls and all around the inside of the church’s rotunda, there are pictures of the faithful—faithful saints of every age, class, custom, and condition—88 saints—and they’re all dancing.

Dancing together are Sojourner Truth, Miriam, Origen, Malcolm X, Elizabeth I, Iqbal Masih, and Teresa of Avila. One of the longest-named holy people in from the Anglican Tradition is Samuel Joseph Isaac Schereschewski, a missionary who went to China to share the Gospel.  But arriving there, he became ill with a disease that left him paralyzed, so his plans changed.  Rather than give up, he stayed, and worked slowly and painstakingly at translating the Bible into Chinese, which he did.  As he put it, “except for the illness and the wheelchair,” he could never have accomplished that particular work.  And so, Schereschewski is pictured there, too, in his wheelchair, holding on to Ella Fitzgerald on his left and Pope John XXIII on the right.

Was Sara Miles inspired to begin a food ministry by the dancing saints?  Or by the dance of God?  Or by a mixture of those things and others?  Yes, would be my answer.

St. Gregory’s has saints dancing. We have saints around us as too—both in the windows and in the pews.  But on the edge of our pews, we have a reminder that God is dancing and inviting us to join in.

On the edge of each pew at Holy Trinity there is a carved a “shield of the Holy Trinity.” Most of the ones we see in our church just have a design, but if you come up into the choir area, you’ll see pews with words added.  They’re words in Latin, so they might also look a little like symbols.

But the Holy Trinity shield, popular in the Middle Ages, labels each of the circular points with a person of the Trinity:  Pater (Father), Filius (Son), and Sanctus Spiritus (Holy Spirit).  In the middle is the Latin word Deus, for God, and connecting each of the outer circles is a line in which is written, “Non est”, or “is not.”  This shield is a reminder that God is movement, God is dance, God is never standing still—the Father is not the Son, is not the Holy Spirit.  But each of the other circles, (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) “est” or IS God.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  The shield, whether with words or without words, is a little like those spinners that kids play with—a blur of action and energy, with direction that’s hard for us to predict.

God invites us to join in this dance of love—the love of God that overflows into all of creation. It doesn’t matter if we feel a little awkward. It doesn’t matter if we don’t think we know the steps or that we might stumble and fall occasionally. We’ll learn the steps. We’ll lean on each other, and we’ll continue to grow stronger in God’s love even as we invite others to join us.

May we, like Nicodemus— like all the matriarchs and patriarchs, saints and martyrs—may we be born from above. May we be open to God in whatever way God reveals, and may we have the faith to join the dance of God’s eternal love.

In the name of the Holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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Washed into Holiness

Jesus BaptismA sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 20, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 2:1-21,  Romans 8:22-27Psalm 104:25-35, 37, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Listen to the sermon HERE

Some years ago I was at a Quiet Day (a mini-retreat) with a small group of people.  It was in late Lent, and Bishop Allen Shin (then, a priest and simply “Father Allen Shin,” or “Allen”) was leading the retreat. Near the end of the day, we were brought together and seated at a big table, like we were going to share a big meal—except there was no food.  Instead, there was just a clear, glass pitcher of water and a small bowl of salt.

Father Shin explained that during the day we had shared various stories.  We had been reminded of the stories Jesus told.  And in our meditations and prayers during the day, we had been guided by those stories and the ways they resonated in our lives.

Now, he explained, each of us would be invited to pass around the pitcher and the bowl of salt.  Each was to take a pinch of the salt, add it to the pitcher of water, and first, to share a “sad story.”  In other words, we were invited to share a story that had made us sad, or scared us, or hurt us.

We went around the room and did just that.  One person spoke of loss through death.  Another talked about her business going bankrupt.

Once we had gone around with a sad story, the Father Shin then asked us to go around again.  This time, we were to take a pinch of salt, toss it into the water, and tell a joyful story—a story that made us happy, or filled us with hope, or showed us a quick insight into the love of God.  Those stories flowed more freely and before long the room was filled with a different mood. There was laughter.  There were a few tears again, and there was gladness. When the bowl of salt and the pitcher of water came back to the priest, he very quietly stood up.  He placed a stole around his neck and invited us to stand and to pray.  He led us in old and ancient words:

O God, … who rulest the raging of the fierce enemy; who dost mightily fight against the wickedness of thy foes; … we beseech thee graciously to behold this creature of salt and water, mercifully shine upon it, hallow it with the dew of thy lovingkindness: that wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, with the invocation of thy holy Name, all haunting of the unclean spirit may be driven away; far thence let the fear of the venomous serpent be cast; and wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, there let the presence of the Holy Spirit be vouchsafed to all of us who shall ask for thy mercy.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

At the conclusion of the prayer the Father Shin looked at us and said, “Your stories—your stories of sadness and of joy, your tears and your laughter, have all been used by the Holy Spirit to make this water holy.  This water will be used at our next baptism.  It will be used to splash people with as a reminder of their baptism.  And some of it will go in the small trough at the entrance of the church, where it will be used quietly by those who dip their finger in and make the sign of the cross with it.  Remember that the Holy Spirit uses US to make water and the world holy.”

The Holy Spirit uses US to make water and the world holy.”
The salt is made holy.  The water is made holy.  We are made holy.

Since its discovery in primeval times, salt has been used for its curative and preventive qualities.  Just as it keeps away bad things from invading food, so salt was early on thought to help in warding off bad spirits.  The Early Church used salt when a candidate began the catechumenate, the process toward baptism.  In some places it is still used around baptism and is known by the wonderful word, “exsufflation,” which included blowing the catechumen’s face, as well as putting salt on the tongue.

As salt is put on the tongue, the priest says, “Satisfy him or her with the Bread of Heaven that he or she may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.”  Salt on the tongue symbolizes the prayer of the church that the faith that is infused at Baptism will be kept strong, distinct, and keep its edge, mindful of Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt. 5:13).

The theological word for God making us holy is a word we don’t hear much: sanctification.  But it’s a word that is still promised and made complete in God by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is like a woodworker who slowly, lovingly, carefully sands the edges off a rough piece of wood, eventually revealing the wood’s truest beauty and purpose.  Sanctification is like a cook who adds a little of this, has a taste; adds a little of that; has a taste; and on and on, until the food is just right.  Sanctification is like the slow, patient work of water that carves its way through rock over years, over decades, over centuries.

Sanctification happens as our stories—the sad, the happy, the embarrassing, the horrible, the sentimental, the mundane—our individual and unique stories are brought into the story of God’s saving grace for the world.  The story of God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus, of his dying and rising again, of his living out what love can look like—this becomes mixed up with our story, so that as we grow towards God, it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.

On the Day of Pentecost, the predominant image of the Holy Spirit’s blast into the world is through fire and flame, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles.  But also, we remember how at Jesus’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit was present.  At our Baptism, the Holy Spirit made her grand entrance into our lives, and so the bursts of flame or the rekindling of the flame within us are refreshers and jump starts to faithful living.

In just a few minutes, Skylar is going to be baptized.  Even though she’s only turning one year old today, she will soon have stories that she will bring to the baptismal font with her.  For now, her mother carries those stories, as well as her godparents and family. And in reaffirming our Baptismal Vows, we recall our stories and offer them for cleansing and sanctification.  One day, Skylar will add her own stories: both the sad ones and the happy ones.

With the Holy Spirit and with the story that is, and is to be Skylar, holiness will begin weaving her tale—extending the action, thickening the plot, adding characters, and developing new themes of love and faithfulness.

We and Skylar return to the baptismal font.  We can return every time we walk in a church, but we can return in our prayers, as well, to claim again and again “I am baptized.  I belong to God and God is making me holy.”

May God continue to draw us into the story of salvation, so that we may never forget that the Holy Spirit uses us to make the water (and the world) holy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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Jesus Prays

christ-in-gethsemane-pA sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 1:15-17, 21-26Psalm 11 John 5:9-13, and John 17:6-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

For many of us today, our hearts are heavy, but our hearts are full.  Our beloved parishioner Jackie Albert had a stroke on Wednesday, and so we are sad. And yet, especially in the last few of her 95 years, she has insisted that nature be allowed to take its course and–should her health fail–she should be allowed to die peacefully and without a lot of drama. As we await her death to this physical world, we are sad and our hearts are heavy.  But we also have very full hearts—much fuller hearts for having known and loved Jackie than we might have had otherwise. We give great thanks for her spirit, her feistiness, all the children and families she touched in her years of teaching, her love for her church and all those who went in or out of this place, and for all she has meant to so many.

Today can also be a complicated day as the card shops, florists, and restaurants remind us that it is Mother’s Day.  Many rejoice and treasure this day, and that is good.  But for others, the day brings sadness as distance is felt more strongly, grief more intense, and some notice the disconnect between an idealized relationship and the ones we sometimes struggle with, this side of heaven.

Wherever you may be this morning, our scriptures have something to say.  The scriptures acknowledge the world as it is today, but also remind us of what we already have that will lead us into tomorrow.

In the reading from Acts, the disciples are just beginning to re-organize themselves after the betrayal of Jesus by one of their own—Judas—and the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In that Jesus appeared among them for some time after the resurrection, and then seemed to ascend to the Father, the disciples have somehow themselves been brought to new life and are ready to move out in God’s will. They choose Matthias and they move out in faith.

The disciples can go forward—just like we can move forward through any difficulty, any fear, any grief, any pain—because they remember the words of Jesus.  They remember Jesus’s words, they repeat them, and through prayer and worship and celebrating the Sacred Meal, they feel Christ’s presence among them.

The Gospel for today comes from a portion of John’s Gospel in which Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for the life ahead, for life without him. Jesus knows that their faith will be tested. It will be hard to keep faith in his teachings when he is gone.

Bishop N.T. Wright, (Retired Bishop of Durham, England) suggests a contemporary way of reimagining Jesus’s words.  Imagine a young mother, he says, who is about to leave her children in the care of her parents, the grandparents of the child.  The mother makes a careful list, reminding the grandparents of the children’s favorite food, their sleeping habits, their play schedule, and all the other things that go into caring for the children.
One can imagine a mother in that situation giving detailed instructions as to how each child should be looked after, not because she didn’t trust her parents to look after them but because she did.” (John for Everyone, p. 94)

Jesus prays for his disciples and friends. He asks God to protect his friends and followers, and all “those who will believe through the word.” Jesus doesn’t ask God to take us out of the world—he knows that it is through people like us that the world can be changed—but he does ask God to protect us from evil, to keep an eye on us, to look out for us, to keep us close.

Jesus prays for us. This means everything. It means that there is a link between us and God, even when we might feel like we haven’t really done our part, or when we feel like we might have messed up that link. That Jesus prays for us means that when we have a tough decision to make, it means we don’t make it alone—he prays for us. It means that even as we try to figure out what it means to be a person of faith and integrity in relationships, at work, in social settings… Jesus prays for us, and is pulling for us to figure it out, and make our way through.

Jesus prays for us and it’s his love that carries the weight of the prayer. It’s his love for us that keeps that prayer in the presence of the Father. When we add our love, then there’s even more in the conversation. It’s through the asking, the answering, and the silences in-between, that prayer words.

Jesus prays for us, and with his spirit we can pray for each other and for ourselves. The prayer moves through a kind of frequency that is based on love– or even when it’s not quite love, but simply friendship, or concern, or regard—it serves as the medium through which prayer moves.

In the 80’s and 90’s studies were done on prayer. Often these were done where a person was not told they were being prayed for, or the person praying might have no relationship with the person being prayed for. Sometimes such prayer experiments were done using things other than people. The results, as you might expect, were inconclusive, at best. But some are doing newer studies, not so much trying to prove causation, but exploring the possibilities of prayer, of there being some connection between two people, and whether that connection can affect a person or both people, for good.

If we are like the disciples in the Book of Acts, standing and gazing into heaven, looking for Christ, we’ll probably be looking a long time. But if we look inward through prayer, if we seek to meet him prayerfully in the Sacraments, and if we prayerfully look in one another for the risen Christ, then the clouds may come and go, the devil may act as deliveryman for all sorts of things, God is God, and God’s “the steadfast love endures for ever.”

When Jesus spoke the words in today’s Gospel, I think his heart was probably heavy, as he anticipated leaving the people he loved.  But his heart was also full, as he gave thanks for his time among his friends and family.  The humanity of Jesus shows us how we can be most loving.  But the divinity of Jesus reminds us that God comes into us to make us holy—not only so that we might more completely recognize God, but also that we might gradually become more like God.

Thanks be to God that Christ prays for us and prays within us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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The Cross that Conveys Christ’s Love

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2018. The scripture readings are Acts 10:44-48Psalm 981 John 5:1-6, and John 15:9-17.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Listen to the entire service (1hr, 20min) HERE

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who was traveling on business in a part of Asia where there were not very many Christians.  In a major city, he began to look for a gift for his wife, and passing by a jewelry story, he saw several crosses. He thought what an interesting thing it might be for his wife to have a cross from a place in which crosses were rare.  And so, the man went into the shop and asked the salesman if he might see one of the crosses.  The salesman looked at him with a blank look and answered, “Certainly, Sir.  What kind are you interested in: a plain one or one with the little man on it?”

“A plain one or one with a little man on it” could sum up a whole perspective of opinion—not only about art history, but also about theology.  In the Eastern Church during the 8th and 9th centuries, Christians argued over whether it was appropriate to picture Jesus on the cross, fearing the sin of idolatry. Again during the 16th century, Protestant mobs often replaced crucifixes (the cross with the man on it: Jesus) with a plain cross, believing that the so-called “plain” cross was more appropriate.

Martin Luther, credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation, never forbade images.  In fact, in the City Church of Wittenburg, where Luther often preached, one of the altarpieces shows Luther preaching and pointing to a crucifix.  Luther’s own words make his acceptance clear, but also help us, I think.  Luther said, “God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart.  For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging upon a cross takes form in my heart … If it is not a sin, but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” (“Against the Heavenly Prophets,” trans. Bernhard Erling in Luther’s Works, Vol 40, 98-99.)

Our own church has a mixture of images. The cross on the main altar is a plain cross, with a ring around it, what is often called a “Celtic cross.”  It became popular in Ireland and Britain in the early middle ages and it reminds us, as Anglicans, of our church’s roots in that part of the world.  But in the stained glass window over the organ, the Crucifixion is obvious and the body of Jesus on the cross is unmistakable.  We also have the crucifix up high over the pulpit and we now have a new image of a cross with Jesus on it, with the new icon in the chapel. I don’t know about you, but I think I need all the various crosses I can get to remind me of Jesus and as I swerve and sway in following him, the cross marks the way for my return to balance and faithfulness.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  We could pause there and think about exactly what that means.  To love as Jesus loved is to speak to the stranger and welcome the outcast.  It’s to notice the ignored and to stand up for what’s right.  To love like Jesus is to offer healing, to reserve judgment, and to show mercy—always and everywhere to show mercy.  And in case we’re still not sure exactly what all of this means, Jesus continues: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Sometimes we might need an empty cross.  Spare and strong, the empty cross reminds us of the victory of Christ on the cross.  He is not there because he has arisen.  I have a friend who used to always see himself as the victim in just about every possible situation.  Finally a wise friend of his said, “You know, you have a lot more say in things than you are admitting.  Why don’t you get off the cross—we need the wood.” The Christian hope involves an empty cross because through it God has worked a wonder, opening the way to eternal life for all.

But other times, many of us need a cross with Jesus on it, reminding us of the cost of his way of love.  The new crucifix in our chapel is “Franciscan” not only because it shows St. Francis of Assisi at the bottom, venerating Jesus. But it is also Franciscan in tone because Christ is alive on the cross, strong and alert, with purpose and intention, and even there, teaching us, loving us, and imploring us to love more.  The result is the same: resurrection and ascension into the fullness of God’s presence, but the cross with the body of Jesus on it reminds us of embodied faith.

We can sometimes live in in our heads.  We can pray in our heads and follow Jesus in our heads.  But reflecting on the Body of Christ in a crucifix can work like a mirror to remind us that we, too, have bodies, and our bodies are capable of prayer, action, service, and love.

This is what the writer of First John is point to when he says in today’s Epistle that Christ “is the one who came by water and blood,… not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” Water might represent our baptism that refreshing and cleanses and renews and enlivens.  But that’s not all of Jesus.  He also comes giving and serving and sacrificing, eventually even offering his body and blood in the mystery of crucifixion. He shows us the way—a way of water and blood.

On the cross, Jesus says to the onlookers, “Love one another.”  To his mother Mary and his friend John, he says, “Love one another.” To us, whether we are far away or very close, he says, “Love one another.”

Trying to love one another, aiming to love another, praying to love one another, we can pray with Francis, “Both here and in your church throughout the whole world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

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The Way of Christ

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A brief sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter offered at the Community Eucharist at The Church of the Holy Trinity on April 29, 2018.

The key scripture the sermon reflects upon is  Acts 8:26-40.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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The Good Shepherd

Watanabe-Good-ShepherdA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 4:5-12Psalm 231 John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18

Listen to the Gospel &  sermon HERE

There’s an old preacher’s story about a priest who was traveling with members of his parish in the Holy Land. Like some priests (certainly none around here), this priest loved to talk. While going through Israel, this priest like to tell his parish about what they had seen, what they were seeing and about what they were about to see.

The priest had particular information about sheep and shepherds. He told the people on the tour bus to be on the lookout for sheep and shepherds. “Notice how the shepherd always leads the sheep,” he said. “The shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow.”

But as the tour bus rounded a curve, there just beside the road was a flock of sheep and a man who was walking behind them. He looked determined and seemed almost to be driving the sheep. The priest was outraged. Here he had been carefully explaining to his people what they should see, and here was something that just didn’t fit. He asked the bus driver to stop the bus, they all got out and he ran up to the man and said to him, “Sir, I’ve just been telling my friends here that the shepherd always leads the sheep, and then we look out and we see you walking behind them. What’s going on?” The man looked at the priest and said, “No, you’re absolutely right. The shepherd does always walk in front and leads the sheep. I’m not the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”

One moral of the story is to “Be careful who you follow.”

There’s a lot of sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible. Sometimes it might not exactly resonate with us, most of us being urban people.  After all, when is the last time you identified with a sheep? (I don’t mean, “when have you identified as a black sheep”—that’s something else.)

As odd as the image of people as sheep might be for us, it would have been a familiar image for many of the people Jesus taught and talked with.  People who heard the prophets, and especially those who listened to Jesus preach all through Galilee knew that sheep tended to move along sometimes following a shepherd, but other times finding themselves having wandered off entirely. Sometimes the sheep would wander into danger and by the time they realized they were in danger, it was almost too late.

Jesus was not the only charismatic teacher and healer who could be followed. Biblical and historical scholars tell us that during the time of Jesus, there were many who claimed to be messiahs, who claimed to prophesy the future, who claimed to be magical, and even a few who claimed to heal. Who, then should we follow?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of one way that we can always tell. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I lay down my life for them and I give them eternal life. They shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus is saying that if we stay close to him—through prayer and silence, through involvement at some level with other people of faith, by making sure we spend some time occasionally getting out of ourselves and helping others—we will recognize the voice of Jesus, we will feel the presence of the one who never forgets our name.

There are so many who would have us follow them—whether it’s a political leader, a boss, a colleague, or a neighbor. It might be advertiser, sports figures, or the leading voices in academics or the arts— there are many, many possibilities asking us to follow. But as Christians, we recall that we are named at baptism, and God whispers that name again and again, inviting us closer, inviting us to a life of love.

Today’s epistle connects words with action as the writer of 1 John reminds us,

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and look for evidence of resurrection in our lives, may we indeed “hear his voice, know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”

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Saved by Food

holy-trinity-icon-smA sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018. The scriptures are Acts 3:12-19Psalm 41 John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36b-48

Listen to the sermon HERE

How many times has food saved the day?

You’re at a business meeting or an interview and the tension in the air is so thick that it’s like a fog.  But then the food comes, and one of the dishes reminds someone of a restaurant she visited. It’s in your hometown and you’ve been there, and so you begin to talk in a new way.

Or, you’re seated at a wedding reception—you know you’ll be in your assigned seat for at least four hours—and you’ve just happened to have been placed between two people whose politics and religion could not be more different, and yet they’ve decided that this is the perfect time for one to convert the other—with you in-between.  But then a dish comes and reminds one person of the way his grandmother cooked.  And the other agrees, and the tone changes.

On a date, meeting the in-laws, settling a deal, or grieving the loss of a loved one—food often introduces some very mysterious, almost-mystical element into the mix.  Food has saved the day.  At least that day.

Food saves the day in our Gospel reading.  Sometimes we read scripture so formally that we forget the words reflect conversations and situations involving real people—people who got nervous, or got scared, or felt emboldened and confident, or felt self-conscious and unsure of themselves.  They are human.  And when Jesus is on earth, he interacts in very human ways.

Food does just that in today’s Gospel.

It is soon after the Resurrection.  The disciples are terrified at the sight of Jesus. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus begins to try to reason with them, “Would a ghost have flesh and bones like I do?” But they still can’t quite take it all in. So there in the midst of the fear, the silence, the remorsefulness and regret, the weirdness and awkwardness of it all, Jesus asks for food.  They give him a piece of broiled fish and he eats it “in their presence,” right there with them, beside them, among them. With the conversation that comes around that shared fish, the disciples begin to see Jesus as their friend come back to life. They see him as the Son of God, come to share a message of love. They see him as the Messiah, who opens the way to eternal life with God. All of this—the opening of their eyes, their hearts, their minds, their future— is made possible over the sharing of a simple meal.

People are hungry. Physical hunger continues to be a reality all around the globe, and close to home, here in our city.  We do a little right here to help with that—the Saturday neighborhood supper, the Tuesday Senior Lunch, the hosting of Community Sustainable Agriculture, and other work (informal and organized) with food pantries and other programs.  Many of us do what we can to acknowledge hunger and try to do something to alleviate the problem.

But people are hungry and starving in other ways, as well.  Spiritual hunger also gnaws at people, sometimes to the extent that they settle for the spiritual equivalent of fast food— easy answers and fundamentalist thinking. The sophisticated in our culture hunger as well, but sometimes settle for a diet of cynicism, of busyness and compulsion, of reliance on other things to cover up the hunger pangs.

It would be overly simplistic for me to suggest that a simple faith in Jesus immediately fills the stomach—and simple faith in God does not necessarily fill the kind of hunger that results in despair, or violence, or suicide. But faith can feed.  Faith in the God who has raised Jesus from the dead can begin to give strength, to nourish, and to refresh. For many, such faith does feed, and it even enables us to offer the bread of heaven to others.

In today’s Gospel, the conversation around a broiled fish symbolizes the way that Jesus feeds us.

He feeds us intellectually. I know that many in this country and in Western Europe think that Christianity is anything but intellectual, but that is usually because of their own lack of knowledge about Christianity. Some of the greatest minds in history were led to ask penetrating questions and seek answers by their yearning for God. Yes, in some places, organized religion has stood in the way of this, but not everywhere, and not always. Jesus said,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22). Jesus feeds us intellectually, urging us to make connections between his teachings and our lives, between his commandments, and our own culture, between his relationships with people and the relationships we are called to make.

Jesus also feeds us socially. Through programs, through volunteer efforts, through agencies and missionaries of the church, we offer literal food to the hungry. But as those of you who volunteer with the meals through Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center or other agencies know, when you help to feed others, you also are fed. You are strengthened and nurtured. If you think of it, much of our community happens around food, whether it’s the breakfast at Midnight Express after the 8 AM service on Sundays, the coffee hour and receptions, the newcomers’ receptions, first Sunday potlucks after the 6 PM service, or casual social gatherings. We are changed a little bit over food, we’re more relaxed, we’re more ourselves. With other Christians, Christ especially appears in new ways in the breaking of bread.

And finally, we’re fed by Jesus Christ mysteriously and spiritually in the Communion of bread and wine, the sacrament of his body and blood. The Collect for the Day asks that God would open “the eyes of our faith,” and that’s what happens over time with Holy Communion. As we place ourselves before God, as we allow God to feed us with this little bit of bread and wine, our hearts grow more open to God’s presence, to God’s purpose, and to God’s love.

We have a wonderful reminder of “the eyes of our faith” being opened up through the mystery of food in the Holy Trinity icon, in our Memorial Chapel. As many of you recall, the icon refers to the appearance of three strangers who meet Abraham and Sarah in the 18thchapter of Genesis. God appears to Abraham in the form of three people—angels, they become in tradition. Abraham and Sarah entertain these angels—they make them sit down, and give them food. The three speak as one and they announce that Sarah will give birth to a child.

Our icon follows the famous one painted in the 15th century by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev. It shows the trinity of angels at table.  The original only shows the three, as if Abraham and Sarah have stepped out to the kitchen. Our icon includes them off to the sides.  By tradition, the angels represent God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The three are in conversation, as though enjoying each other’s company, completely at rest and at home. Sometimes in these paintings and icons, there’s something else in the picture.  There’s food on the table.  Food is the centerpiece without being the center, but it calms and focuses and allows God to be present in the midst of fear, in the midst of doubt, in the midst of confusion, and in the midst of hope.

The sharing of food can bring about all kinds of changes. It can open up conversation. It can bring back memories. Food can link us with our ancestors, even as taste buds pave the way to new friendships. It can bring healing. It can bring transformation.

The Holy Eucharist is food from heaven, the Body and Blood of Christ, given for us to share and become one—one people, one body with Christ, one creation with God the Almighty.

May God continue to change us through food. May Jesus continue to feed us physically, communally, and spiritually.  And may our eyes, hearts and hands be opened, so that we might receive the good God would give us and, in turn, share what we have with a hungry world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Faithful doubt

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“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Rembrandt, 1634.

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 4:32-35, Acts 4:32-351 John 1:1-2:2John 20:19-31.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Though the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of New York is up on 110th Street and Amsterdam, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; I’ve met a few people who were mistaken and thought our cathedral was in midtown, diagonal to, and a couple of blocks north from St. Patrick’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral.  They mean St. Thomas Church, of course.

St. Thomas, at 53rd and Fifth, is a massive building in French High Gothic style. (If you want to go to England for a subway fare rather than a airplane fare, it’s a great place to go for Choral Evensong some afternoon.) When you go in, the first thing you see is an enormous reredos over the High Altar. It’s made up of a multitude of saints, and just over the altar is a carving of St. Thomas and Jesus, St. Thomas (as one architectural explanation puts it), “kneeling before Christ, his doubt gone.”

As beautiful as that church is, and as faithful as its many ministries are, I wonder if the building itself doesn’t in some ways apologize for St. Thomas a little too quickly? For me, anyway, the great power of St. Thomas’s witness, is that he doubts, and the story of his doubt has been handed down through the ages.

We hear about Thomas in several places in the Bible. Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really. Some have supposed that he may have been the twin brother of Matthew. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when they hear the news their friend Lazarus is dead, it’s Thomas who wants to go with Jesus. Sensing danger and not knowing what’s ahead, Thomas nonetheless has the faith to say, “Let us go with the Lord, so that we may die with him.”

When Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples, he talks about going down a road and to a place where the disciples will not be able to follow. But it is a place they know. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” But Jesus affirms that by knowing him, they know his destination since as Jesus says to them, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Thomas is with the disciples when they are fishing and Jesus appears to them. This occurs in chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, a part of the Gospel that many biblical scholars think was added on to the original Gospel. The chronology is confusing and it’s unclear whether fishing expedition and the Easter fish-fry happened before or after the story we have in today’s Gospel.

Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself. The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire.

A more recent poet & priest, (Thomas Troeger) has put it this way:

 

These things did Thomas hold for real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of blood and bone.
His brittle certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And, in believing, still receive
the Christ who held His raw palms out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus. Thomas’s faith came more stubbornly, and had to take into consideration more information. His faith was different from theirs—what appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, it was simply HIS faith. It was his way of faith. A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. The shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus then offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination.

In Rembrandt’s great painting of Thomas and Jesus, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Jesus stands showing the wound in his side. The disciples are amazed and look on with wonder, and Thomas stands back in surprise, in shock. It is Caravaggio’s painting that is much more explicit—darker, more intimate, more shocking really, because in it, Thomas actually places his finger in the wound. As in the Gospel of John itself, some believe without signs, some need signs.

St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism. It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for one (if not more) suspicion eventually has led to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to be near us.

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