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Advent 1B: 12/03/2017

Posted 3:43 PM by
Sermon, Advent 1B                                                                       Jeffrey B. MacKnight
3 December 2017                                                                       St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

The other day on my computer opening screen appeared this pop-up:  “Tap here to ask when winter ends.”

I usually ignore this kind of uninvited detritus that shows up on computer screens.  But this question gave me pause.  If it’s December 3 and I’m asking when winter ends, I am focused on some point in the future…skipping over the next few months in my mind and heart, rushing to get somewhere where I’m not now: somewhere else

Maybe that’s indicative of the world we live in – always pushing us to focus on something that’s not where we are – something new to achieve, to desire, to try to get, to own – something we don’t have now.  That’s what drives a consumer economy (golly, I hate being defined as a consumer).  Whatever it is you have, you want something else. 

As Advent begins, we take up the Gospel of Mark this year.  But we don’t start at the beginning; we start towards the end, in Mark 13.  That’s the chapter where Jesus speaks of strange things that will happen in the end times, when “heaven and earth will pass away” as we know them.  But that’s not really Mark’s focus – he only gives it a few sentences.  I believe Jesus is saying – Yes there will be a future, and it will be God’s future.  Beyond that, it’s pretty mysterious.  Don’t try to figure it all out in advance, and definitely don’t stop living today as you pine for something out there! 

Jesus gives us an image – almost a parable – to illustrate.  “See this fig tree? Learn its lesson: its branch becomes tender – tender – it puts forth leaves, and then you know that summer is near.  You’ll know when you need to know, when the signs tell you.”  

But if, like my computer pop-up, we are asking about the end of winter now, when winter is still coming, we’re going to miss the next few months, with all their possibilities, their times of activity, times of quiet, the feel of a cold wind, the precious moments with a friend in front of a crackling fire.  Don’t give away what is ours here and now for what may be in the future. 

We often say Advent is about waiting, about being expectant, and there is truth in that.  But that doesn’t mean we stop living in the moment we have right now. I remember over the years, when any of us say we can’t wait until x or y or z, my wise mother-in-law would say: don’t wish away your life. 

Instead, focus – truly focus – on the here and now: this day, this hour, this place, this room, this body I inhabit, these people I live with and love, these leaves on the front walk, this dog I am walking, this page of this book, this dish I am washing….  What’s hardest for me about this is when the present moment is difficult or anxious or downright painful.  While we certainly don’t want to prolong the hard times, the sad times, we do need to acknowledge them and experience them.  Be awake!  Be alert! Jesus says.  Don’t wish away your life! 

William Martin is a Christian who uses the Eastern wisdom of Tao Te Ching. He speaks plainly to this issue of dwelling in the present: 

“The first question is, “What time is it?”
The second question is, “Where are you?”
The only correct answer to the first is, “Now!”
The only correct answer to the second is, “Here!” 

St. Paul in First Corinthians points to this same spiritual wisdom: “In every way you have been enriched in [Christ], …so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Again, the emphasis is on the present moment – now.  Imagine, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift! Now, just as I am, I am not lacking.  I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of energy focusing on what I lack: patience, serenity, stamina, charisma, wisdom – on how I’m just not enough, not sufficient, lacking.  But St. Paul says “No!  You really have all that you need.  God has made you whole, complete, enough, right now.  And Paul goes on to say that God will sustain us for as long as it takes, and we need not worry about those strange “end times,” the final judgment that can sound so scary:  “He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

So, what is Advent about – this strange season the church says is quiet and contemplative, while the world is going bonkers getting ready for Christmas?  It’s not a time to beat ourselves up for running around, for not managing to be all quiet and spiritual. It’s an invitation to live in the now – neither obsessing about the past nor agonizing about the future.  So try this: be where you are.  If you are driving in the car, be there: look around, observe the trees, your own thoughts.  If you are Christmas shopping, reflect on what you are doing, whom you are shopping for, on your relationship with that person.  Give thanks for that person in your life. 

And try monitoring your anxiety (without compounding it).  Am I worrying about something right now?  What is it, really?  What am I afraid of?  Is it a rational fear?  Can I act on my concerns?  What’s the worst that could happen?  Could I live with that? 

I’ve often wished to rush through the present, to get to some future I’ve identified as “better.”  When our kids were teenagers, there were times I thought, “Oh, if we could just get past this stage!”  But if we had, we would have missed so many beautiful moments with them – their discovery of their passions, their heartaches, their growth into young adults.  No, I would not have wanted to miss those things.  And likewise, I do not want to miss what this day, Sunday, December 3, 2017, has to offer – what God offers me today. 

So I’m going to try to stay awake, aware, and alert this day, neither dwelling on the past nor fretting about the future.  I’m not going to “tap and ask when winter ends,” because I want to live fully through this winter, and every season I’m given thereafter.  I truly believe that is what Jesus calls us to do.  When we read of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, we see how present he was in each moment, whether he was in a small group, or in a crowd, or off by himself to pray.  This Advent, let us follow his example. 

 


 

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Creation Season 2017: Spring

Posted 3:08 PM by
Sermon, Creation – Spring                                                            Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Proper 23A                                                                                 St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda
15 October 2017

(Sung….)

I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now,
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments that cost a pretty sum.
Pray hold me excused; I cannot come. 

“I’m too busy.” Oh, it’s so easy to get into that mindset!  Not one more thing!  There are always other things I need to do.  I’m already tired.  I’m behind at work.  The house is a mess and needs cleaning.  And none of us has enough family time. 

It’s true we need to be careful about how much we take on in life – we can end up spinning like a whirling dervish all the time.  Which are the flowers and which are the weeds?  We should choose our activities and commitments with some care.  Last week, I spoke of winter as a time of fallowness, of waiting – there is a time for that. 

But some opportunities come along and feel like an invitation to something important.  Instead of just brushing them off, they demand a real decision: is this a good opportunity?  Would it do me good to do this?  Could God be calling me to do this? 

Last July – I ran across an announcement for a lecture up in Catonsville near Baltimore – not exactly convenient.  But I had heard the lecturer, Amy-Jill Levine, before and knew she was fascinating – she is a Jew who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt.  I decided to go, and found myself re-energized to study Jesus in his Jewish context. I’ve been reading her books these last two months, and our Wednesday Bible Study group is using the New Testament she edited for our study of Mark’s Gospel.  Levine has given my faith a boost.

Now let’s look more closely at Jesus’ parable. It seems natural to assume that the king who held a wedding feast for his son represents God.  There’s very troubling language of violence and retribution attributed to this king.  But all the stuff about violence was probably added to the parable after Jesus’ time – I don’t believe God sends troops, destroys people, and burns cities when we don’t come to God’s parties.  That sounds much more like humans being vengeful – and in fact it reflects historical fact 40 years after Jesus told this parable, when the city of Jerusalem was burned to the ground by the Romans. 

Rather, we see God inviting us to be God’s guests at the great banquet of creation, the feast of life.  God makes everything ready; God clothes the earth in “the beauteous garb of spring” as we would put flowers on the table for a special meal.  God sends out the invitations – to all of us – and then God waits.  There’s no coercion involved – no troops will be sent, no cities burned if we don’t come. We don’t have to accept the invitation. God just waits on us. 

I am by nature a cautious person.  I’m sure many times that has prevented me from saying yes to an invitation or an opportunity that seemed risky to me.  I’ve lived by what I call the principle of least regret: given a choice to make, which one am I least likely to regret later?  That’s a safe approach, but not always adventuresome. 

If I had my life to live over, I think I’d try to be a little less cautious, a little more spontaneous, more adventurous, more open to what God might be inviting me to do. 

One think I do know – I don’t regret the times I’ve taken a chance, struck out into unknown territory.  Leslie and I just celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary this week.  (And they said it would never last!)  The decision to marry is one of the greatest adventures in life, and perhaps among the riskiest.  Who can really know if two people can continue as partners over so many years, so many changes?  We know the rate of separation and divorce is high.  People get hurt all the time in intimate relationships.  What makes us strike out into the unknown and make lavish promises “till death do us part”? 

I think it is the sense of possibility, the sense that something new and wonderful has a chance of being born and growing. There is every risk of failure. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s an invitation to try.  Now, it goes without saying that Leslie was taking a much greater chance on marrying me than I was taking with her.  Her grandmother, when she learned that I was a priest, said, “Oh Leslie, don’t marry a priest – there’ll be no end to the trouble!”  And she was right.  But there has also been no end to the joy and adventure and satisfaction. 

Obviously, our wedding was in the fall.  But our engagement – the time of invitation, the time of decision – was in the spring, that season of newness, of possibility, of excitement and growth and opportunity.  “’Tis the spring of souls today” as the Easter hymn puts it.  It is no mystery why we celebrate Easter in the spring – when else would we?  New life and resurrection are the bywords of the season. 

So, on this October Sunday, we transport ourselves – for the moment – into the mindset of Spring: we consider new possibilities with an open mind.  We try to separate the weeds from the flowers.  We wait for God’s invitation to the great feast, and pray we don’t miss it.  The good news is that God invites everybody in: the slaves were sent out into the streets to gather everybody – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  At this moment, you may see yourself as a pretty good person, worthy of entrance.  Or you may be thinking you’ve really messed up, and God wouldn’t want you.  But actually, it doesn’t depend on you. The invitation depends on God, and God is inviting you in.  It’s the invitation of a lifetime!  Don’t miss it!  

 

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Creation Season 2017- Winter

Posted 8:15 PM by
Sermon – Creation: Winter                                                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
8 October 2017                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A Texas A & M student decided that he would raise chickens on his wheat farm. He bought a bunch of chicks, and when he planted them, they died. So, he bought some more chicks and planted them a little deeper, and they died. So, he called up his Agriculture instructor at A & M, and explained his problem. The instructor disgustedly said, "You fool, you know I need a soil sample before we can find the problem." 

That’s pretty much my experience planting things.  My brother and I once got seedlings and planted a whole strawberry patch, looking forward to a big crop of juicy sweet berries.  None came up.  We later learned we planted the shoots upside down. 

Jesus was a better gardener.  He said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

This is perhaps the simplest, but most difficult truth Jesus tried to convey.  The image is simple: a seed, some soil, time…and new life. So far, so good.  Then we add the part about dying. We’d rather do without that bit.  We don’t want to believe that it’s true.  We don’t want to have to die in order for new life to arise. 

And so, day to day, we tend to just keep going, at all costs.  No time for stopping, for dying!  We keep on keeping on.  We stay busy, we don’t stop.  Rest and sleep are for wimps!  Idle hours are wasteful, even somehow shameful!  Dogs may sleep when they are tired.  But humans fret and drink Red Bull.  In all of God’s Creation, only humans are so driven, and feel guilty for idleness, for not producing. 

In Nebraska, where I grew up, winter wheat was a major crop.  It was planted in the fall, and then it rested, in the dark cold earth, all winter long.  Then, lo and behold, in the spring it came up, the most vivid, fresh pale green you can imagine!  It took patience, but all that winter rest and idleness was not for naught: the yield was tremendous. 

My spiritual guru Richard Rohr writes of the Christian path of descent – we must go down into darkness before we can rise to new heights.  This is not what the world teaches!  This is not what we want to hear!  But it is the pattern Jesus sets forth for us: in his teachings, and finally in his own life.  Rohr says we must encounter true darkness, failure, and disappointment in our lives, before we can rise into a more mature spiritual place.  He says there is no way around it. 

These are the winters of our life, when we have to stop doing, because it won’t work anymore.  We have to wait in the dark, feel the cold, and watch for an opening, a point of light, toward which we can stumble.  We meet God at that point, I am quite sure.  And with God’s help, we build something new.

This descent often comes to us as a major loss: of a spouse, a friend…God forbid, even a child.  It can be a major failure that we must confront.  The death of a relationship, or a marriage, or a job. Or maybe, just a point in life where we realize, with all our striving, there’s still an emptiness.  All the trappings of success are just not enough. 

For some, we might call this a midlife crisis.  It may mean a change of career or lifestyle.  It will mean a reordering of values, priorities.  It will mean a new humility, because we now know we can be brought low.  We’ve encountered death. It also means a new compassion for other humans at their hour of need, their point of weakness…because we’ve been there. 

Last Sunday nine of us gathered to discuss a book about dealing with loss and resilience: Option B by Sheryl Sandberg.  We all agreed, it’s not a great book.  Sorry, Sheryl!  But it led to a great discussion – an honest sharing of our times of loss, of desperation even – the winter of our lives.  Many of us had lost dear loved ones, or a treasured way of life that was ended.  The tender compassion in the room – among some who had only just met each other! – was palpable.  We all knew we needed each other’s love to carry on.  We opened the hatch and went back down into dark places, yet somehow we were buoyed up.  We weren’t “staying busy” or doing productive work, but God was working in us.  We faced death, but we glimpsed new life beyond it.  We shared hope. 

Yesterday, I was doing an autumn thing: cleaning the leaves out of the gutters.  There were many leaves; there will be many more.  It was a beautiful, sun-dappled afternoon.  All those leaves were fresh and new and green last spring!  Now they are brown, and they need to be moved aside so that the rains can come and wash the world clean, the rivulets running down the roof, through the gutters and the downspouts back into Mother Earth.  Full circle.

Life is like that.  We must accept it as a whole: winter with summer; bad with good, love with loss, death with life.  There is the path of ascent; there is then the path of descent.  There is the tilling and the planting, the nurturing and the watering, the reaping and the harvest celebration.  Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain…

This is the pattern imbedded in God’s Creation, and laid out for us in the life and death of our Lord Jesus.  Seeds buried.  Life rising.  Love blossoming.  Winter returning. 

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.         
(Hymnal 204)


 

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Creation Season 2017- Autumn

Posted 8:12 PM by
Sermon, Proper 21A                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight
1 October 2017                                                                           St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

First, a bit of advice. 

If at first you don’t succeed,  …try shortstop!

That has little to do with today’s scriptures, but the playoffs are nearly here, and I really thought it was funny. 

Today we begin Creation Season, and this year we are focusing on the four seasons.  We begin with Fall – Autumn – whatever you like to call it.  For me, there’s a poignancy to Autumn: many memories of starting new school years and new church years, getting ready and wondering how they’ll go.  There’s also the dying part – the dying of the summer, the leaves coloring spectacularly and flinging themselves to the ground like some dramatic prima donna in an opera, only there are millions and millions of them, everywhere, reminding us that the natural world is shutting down – for a while. 

Autumn, I think, points to transitions in our own lives – when one season is ending and we don’t know quite what the next will bring.  Sometimes it feels like dying – when the kids first go off to school, or when they leave home, or a good friend dies, or we’ve chosen to leave a job or activity or relationship that’s been important to us.  And it’s much worse if we didn’t choose: if we’ve been laid off our job our forced to quit something for some reason.  I know we’re all thinking of the folks in the Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands – they’ve lost so much - that’s a real death experience.  Not to mention in Mexico and Texas and Florida.  It can feel like a death, even though we know rationally that there will be something new, a new season, perhaps after a fallow time of rest.  For many of us, Autumn summons up a lot of history. 

As such, it may be a good time to stop and consider our lives, re-examine how we live, and see if there are changes we’d like to make. 

Jesus told a parable today about aligning our actions with our words…  Two sons told to go work in Dad’s vineyard.  Jesus’ parable illustrates how easy it is to say one thing and do another.  Actually both sons are guilty of this – neither one does what he says he will do.  Of course, one of them seems more virtuous, because he ends up following his father’s direction even after he refused at first.  But the disconnect is there in both. 

We could talk more about these two sons, and their words and their behavior, but generally we can all agree that it’s best to do what you say you’ll do.  I can still go back to occasions when I haven’t done what I promised to do…and feel the hot shame of that.  Maybe you can, too. 

But that’s kind of a scolding approach to the parable.  More often than not, Jesus is not trying to scold us.  His real goal, I believe, is to call us to live a richer, fuller, more satisfying life.  He called it abundant life, eternal life, fullness of life.  So another approach to this parable, which appeals to me more, is to flip it over and talk about the things we say we’ll do in life – for our own good – and don’t necessarily follow through on.  I’m talking about the resolutions we make to treat ourselves better, to be kinder to ourselves, to have a bit more fun in life, to enjoy our families and friends more.  (I’m not really talking about resolutions to lose weight and get in shape, good those they may be for us.  That gets back to the realm of scolding.) 

I’ll start.  I’ve been thinking and saying for a couple of years now that I really am going to get back to regular piano playing again – I know it brings me joy and a kind of serenity that’s rare.  Other life demands had crowded out the piano for me, and I wanted to get back to it. 

And yet, I have not done it.  I have no good excuses.  I’m not so busy that I couldn’t make time to play at least a little every day.  But I have not.  So why the disconnect?  Why don’t I do what I say I’ll do?  Why can’t I give myself and honest YES?  Maybe preaching this sermon will give me the push I need to get on with it.  I hope so.  You can help me by asking how the piano is going….

I believe we are experiencing an Autumn in the life of our parish as well – here at St. Dunstan’s.  Churches go through cycles, and we are a smaller congregation now than we were for many years.  That means we’ve had to make changes in our life together – how we do things with fewer people.  We miss the old crowds on Sundays.  Churches are going through this all over – it’s a pattern in many American churches.  It sometimes feels like a little death – the death of the way it was.  We wonder what the Winter will be like.  It’s all the more important to gather together and keep warm – keep the home-fires burning – during this time of change. 

I have been thinking about the year coming up – 2018 – which will be our 60th anniversary year as a congregation in Bethesda.  How will we reflect on that marker?  How will we celebrate this milestone?  Are there things we say we are, that we haven’t followed through on?  Are there disconnects between what we say and what we do?  These are all good questions for us to consider.  I can sense Jesus prodding us gently to do that. 

We should also ponder our hopes and dreams for St. Dunstan’s.  What do we want our future to look like?  What are we willing to do – to invest – to help make that future a reality?  What can we give an honest YES to?  And also - What would we like our surrounding community to know about St. Dunstan’s?  And how will we tell them? 

Jesus always has a way of gently calling us to reflect on how we live, and notice the disconnects that may be there – the disconnects between what we say and what we do, between how we live and how we really want to live.  Maybe Autumn is a good time to do that, as old things are passing away and new things are yet to come.  Sometimes we need a little nudge to move in the direction that’s best for us – move to a place where we might be more joyful, more connected to others, and more of a gift to the world around us.  There’s no shame in change, in letting go of what is old, and making room for what is new.  Jesus’ whole life was about that, culminating in a very painful death, followed by a most glorious resurrection.  That is the source of all our hope. 

So I hope this can be a season of honest reflection for us, and openness to change.  If at first you don’t succeed, …try shortstop! 

 

 

 


 

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Sermon: 09/10/2017

Posted 5:22 PM by
Sermon, Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard                          Jeffrey B. MacKnight
10 September 2017                                                                    St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A Minimum Wage?

Welcome home to St. Dunstan’s for a new season of worship, learning, and serving God!  From old-timers to newcomers, we are glad you are gathered here today.  Make it a habit! 

We pause to remember and pray for our neighbors in the Caribbean and Florida who are reeling from Hurricane Irma at this moment.  And we can’t forget the Texans and Louisianians trying to put their lives back together after Harvey.  Here’s an opportunity for us who are safe to be extra generous in giving. 

Now.  Do your remember your first real job?  I’ll bet you do.  What was the hourly wage you received at your first job?  I remember well: when I was in 8th grade, I worked after school in a printer’s shop for $1.25 per hour.  It was a low wage even then, but I liked earning my own money.  I saved up and bought my first 10 speed bicycle.  Of course, I didn’t have to pay for food, clothing, and shelter on that wage.  Now I can’t imagine trying to support even a small family on …

Our scriptures today give us two different perspectives on working and wages.  The Hebrew scripture tells the story of the First Passover – the great act of God that freed the Hebrews from bondage – slavery  - in Egypt.  Enslavement, whether in ancient Egypt or early America, means working for no wages – zero.  God responded against this, with plagues becoming more and more awful until Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go.  That liberation from oppression, called Passover, became the touchstone of the Jewish faith – the key referent. 

Then we have a parable from Jesus – one of the most controversial ones, in my experience.  A vineyard owner went out to hire laborers to work in his vineyard.  He hired some at 9 a.m., some more at noon, more at 3 p.m. and finally the last at 5 p.m.  He promised the first hired one denarius – the usual daily wage for a laborer or a soldier.  Scholars tell us this wage was roughly the minimum required to support a household at subsistence level. Others, hired later, were promised “whatever is right.”  That sounds like it provides license for miserliness by the owner!  But in this case, no.    

In the evening, at quitting time, the owner paid all the same – one denarius, a day’s wages. 

The first hired got exactly what was agreed upon.  And they grumbled like crazy, because others who worked less got the same pay.  We don’t know why those others weren’t hired earlier in the day.  But we do know that if they didn’t bring home a day’s pay, their families probably wouldn’t have any supper – people were that poor. 

When the early hires complained, the owner responded with some questions:
I am doing you no wrong, did you not agree with me for one denarius?
Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? 
Or are you envious because I am generous? 

We understand their frustration – it seems unfair to those who worked all day “in the scorching heat.”  But they got all that they expected.  And those who worked part-time (though we assume they wanted full time work) were able to feed their families. 

So let’s consider the owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable.  He fascinates me.  First, I’ve always had a secret desire to be a vineyard owner.  We have friends in France who have one, and it’s idyllic.  I think of the Dennis Quaid character in “The Parent Trap.”  Gorgeous Napa Valley spread.  And think of the wine!  All you want; no driving home! 

So the vineyard owner was fortunate, very fortunate indeed.  He had plenty.  And what’s great is, he knew it.  I infer from the story that he was a man of gratitude, and probably lots of wine-induced joy!  He was running a business, yes; but he seemed to care about the workers as people.  He didn’t put maximizing profits first.  He was, in a word, generous. 

I think we can learn from this guy.  We here are more like vineyard owners than day-laborers.  We have enough, and then some.  We can, as a rule, afford to be generous.  And I believe that is Jesus’ teaching for us.  Enjoy the life you are given!  Be filled with gratitude at the beauty and abundance and joy that come your way!  And then find ways to be generous, to help others find some of that same abundance and joy. 

In five words, easy to remember, Jesus said:

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

As we come off of Labor Day into a new Fall season, and consider the meaning and value of work, we are hosting a community forum tomorrow night here at St. Dunstan’s, on the issue of the $15 minimum wage proposal before the Montgomery County Council.  We’ll have councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich here to argue all sides of this issue, plus time to discuss and ask questions.  Please come, and bring a neighbor. 

In 1200 BCE, God showed the Hebrews that God would walk with them, out of bondage in Egypt into a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus invites us to consider the value of human labor, from the lowliest job to the loftiest.  In the language of economics, Jesus invites us to consider the relationship between labor and capital, not in abstract, impersonal terms, but in the most personal human terms of a man hoping for work, and a family hoping for supper.  God invites us to a life filled with gratitude, and to be generous in all that we do.  Let us go forth, and love our neighbors.  AMEN.  

 


 

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Sermon 8/13/2017

Posted 4:53 PM by
Sermon, Proper 14A                                                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
13 August 2017                                                                          St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

A lady went to the doctor and said, “Doctor! Doctor! Help me — I'm shrinking! I'm shrinking!” The doctor replied, “Madam, you'll just have to be a little patient.” 

Well, that’s not far off our story of Jesus, Peter, and walking on water – only it’s Peter crying, “Lord! Lord!  – I’m sinking!  I’m sinking!”  

Be a little patient, Peter!  Peter is so eager to show off in front of Jesus and everybody.  None of the other disciples thought it was their place to try to imitate Jesus’ water-walking abilities.  But Peter was proud, and probably insecure in his relationship with Jesus.  Maybe he wanted to show that he was the #1 disciple – the best, compared to all the others.  

My wise mother-in-law Nan often says, “Comparisons are odious.”  She’s so right.  When it comes to comparing people, or comparing ourselves to others, it usually leads to unhappiness, disappointment (as in Peter’s case)…and sometimes even violence and destruction.  

In the continuing saga of Jacob and his family, we meet his children this Sunday – 12 sons and one daughter (Dinah).  Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel.  Now, Leah was fertile and bore children.  Rachel was not, so she gave her handmaid to Jacob as a surrogate to bear children who would be Rachel’s to raise.   (This is the story that is the basis for the current dystopic novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.  The U.S. is suffering from depopulation, so men dub themselves “Sons of Jacob” and enslave and rape women as “handmaids” to bear their children. Lovely.)

Jacob’s family story is filled with comparisons, jealousies, and rivalries. Rachel envies her sister’s fecundity, and seeks a child through her handmaid.  (You may recall that the same thing happened with Abraham and Sarah, Jacob’s grandparents.  After Sarah’s handmaid gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah treated her abominably.)  

Later, jealousy, rivalry, and hatred arise among Jacob’s twelve sons. Finally, Rachel gave birth! She had a son Joseph, whom Jacob loved above all his other sons, and the others knew it.  Their jealousy of Joseph (and his arrogant remarks to them) filled them with such rage that they decided to kill Joseph.  In the end, they relented and sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt instead.  (Is this really what we mean by “biblical family values”?)  

Comparison and competition don’t serve these folks very well – they bring untold anger, heartache, and breakdown of relationships.  Joseph is nearly killed; his brothers are shamed by their behavior; Jacob is deprived of his beloved son.  Still, this is the great saga of the Hebrew partriarchs, so all is made to serve the grand plot of the story, that is, to move the Hebrew people to Egypt, where they would eventually become enslaved, and finally liberated under Moses.  

So, why do we devote so much energy in life to comparisons?  Why talk ourselves up and run other people down?  What does this say about us?  I believe it’s all rooted in our insecurity about who we are, our value, and our place in the world.  And that’s a spiritual problem.  If we really believe we are made in God’s image, and loved unconditionally, we don’t have to prop ourselves up with worldly accolades.  We don’t have to run others down to look good.  We can rest peacefully in the love of God, as a baby rests peacefully in the arms of an adoring mother or father, never doubting that she is loved more than anything.  

At this point in the sermon, I had a low-key, soft illustration of how we compare ourselves to each other.  But instead, I must say something about the horrible events in Charlottesville yesterday.  What a scene: vile signs, police in riot gear, yet uncontrolled violence as opposing groups beat each other. Armed militia groups in full camo were in the middle of the crowds.  White supremacists, including KKK members, were marching supposedly in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a proponent of slavery.  Fourteen people were injured in the fighting, with one woman killed and 19 hurt by a murderous driver in a car.  One man marching was quoted, “They are pulling up southern culture, white culture, Christian culture by the roots….” As a Christian, I must stand up and say this is not Christian culture – this is not Christian culture! - this is its opposite. God doesn’t have favorite races, or skin colors, or nationalities. God doesn’t romanticize the enslavement of millions in the Old South. In addition to pure hatred and bigotry, this is a deep case of the odiousness of comparison, of envy, of jealousy.  Whenever men and women attack and tear down others in order to build up their own group, they are straying far away from the teachings of Jesus.  As a white person, I must raise my voice against this, lest anyone think that, by my silence, I agree.  

Whenever we tolerate bigotry by our silence – in a neighbor’s trash-talk across the fence, a politician’s rhetoric, or even that cranky old uncle at the family dinner table – we are part of the problem.  America is now on notice that racism and prejudice are alive and well and living among us.  The LGBTQ community is now under attack in the military.  Immigrants have been vilified, as if we are not all immigrants!  Only our clear, vocal proclamation that God loves every human being, that the dignity and equality of every human being must be upheld and protected, can bring our country back toward its highest self, its highest calling as a nation that welcomes diversity.  If that’s not what the church stands for, then we stand for nothing.  We have a long way to go.  

The disciple Peter was insecure in his identity as God’s beloved, so he tried to prove himself and act like Jesus.  Jacob’s sons were insecure in their father’s love, and tried to eliminate their competition from little brother Joseph.  Many Americans seem to feel so insecure in their identity and their worth that they lash out against the nearest target.  But if we can find our rest in God, in God’s declaration that we are created good, we are loved beyond measure, even with our faults and our failures, then we won’t need to compare and compete.  We won’t need to run others down to try to build ourselves up. Why can’t we be content with who we are, as finite, imperfect, but treasured human beings, made lovingly in the image of God?  Why can’t we look for God in each other – in black and brown faces, in gay and trans faces, in young and old faces?  Why can’t we walk in love, as Christ loves us?  


 

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Sermon: 08/06/2017

Posted 4:49 PM by
Sermon, Proper 13A                                                                      Jeffrey B. MacKnight
6 August 2017                                                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

“When it was evening…”  That’s a little detail often overlooked in the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  The day was over; Jesus had been preaching.  The people were captivated! Now, night was falling. Where would they all find something for supper?  Strange things can happen in the nighttime.  All the people sat down on the green grass, and something unexpected happened – a little became a lot, with the blessing of Jesus.  Hungry people were satisfied.  Weak people were strengthened.  Hmm.  

Almost two millennia earlier, we see Jacob.  He is beside himself with fear of his brother Esau, whom Jacob cheated out of his father’s blessing – his birthright - as a young man.  Haven’t we all cheated somebody out of something?  In a sense, Jacob has been running from that ever since.  Now Esau has caught up with him, and Jacob is terrified.  

Jacob tries to protect his household from Esau’s approaching army of men.  Jacob has two wives (we heard about Leah and Rachel last week), two maids, eleven children, plus flocks and herds and possessions.  He is not a poor man.  He sends them all across the Jabbok River hoping they’ll be safe – not a lot of protection, but then, what else can he do?  Then, “Jacob was left alone,” the scripture says.  Alone.  Jacob is finally stripped bare, without defenses, to face his life: his past transgressions, his present danger, his uncertain future.  

Nighttime is when we often feel the most alone – with our thoughts, our anxieties, our old well-worn worries ….  Sometime sleep won’t come, so we take pills to help.  When we get to sleep, we may be afflicted by what I call “tumultuous dreams” – not exactly nightmares, but unsettling dreams nonetheless.  When we wake from these, we may feel more exhausted than rested, like we’ve been working – or wrestling – all night.  

Jacob was alone: it was night; he fell asleep…or did he?  Was it all a dream?  We don’t know….  The story only tells us he wrestled a man until daybreak.  Who was this man?  It doesn’t say, but it seems pretty clear this man was from God – and that makes him an angel.  (Most angels don’t have gauzy gowns and fluffy wings. This one must have been pretty strong.)  

Jacob is persistent; he won’t stop wrestling.  Finally, the angel has had enough.  “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  Jacob responds with impressive strength: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  

“What is your name?” asks the man/angel.

“Jacob.”  

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  

Fast-forward again to Jesus and his disciples – 

It is evening after a long day.  The disciples struggle with the problem of a very hungry crowd of people; they want to escape, avoid the situation.  They are still learning about this man Jesus.  “Send the crowds away, Lord….”    Jesus forces them to face their fears and anxieties: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  But they wrestle with him: “But Jesus, we don’t have what it takes…there are only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish!”  

There are times – often nighttimes – when we have to face the situation: our anxieties about our own capacities, our fears of external forces.   God does not allow us to turn and run any longer.  And so we wrestle.  And it’s in the wrestling that we can experience God’s presence in a new way.  It may be a mixed experience – God is not a granter of wishes and dispenser of chocolate kisses!  Life is often hard, challenging, difficult.  God is not a rescuer, but a sustainer, a companion.  

We may end up with a limp, a scar….but also a blessing….  Maybe even the abundance of a great feast, enough to share with a hungry world around us.  

I just read a little book by Kent HarufOur Souls at Night.

A sweet novella about an old woman, a widow, who makes a strange proposition to an old man, a widower, who lives around the corner: that he come and spend nights in her bed – just to talk.  (Really.)  She was lonely.  She was tired of sleeping alone.  So he comes over, every evening.  

Soon, wonderful conversations are happening in the nighttime, and both people are happier….  Much happier.  There is no pretense.  They talk about their lives, their spouses, their children, their jobs, all the things that weren’t right, the disappointments as well as the happy times.  And together, acknowledging the scars and limps they carried, they find a blessing.  They find a new happiness in the moment, in the day that is given.  

I wonder if we might be able to find more joy in our lives if we took a few chances -  took some chances to get closer to people, to be honest with people, to share our lives more deeply…maybe even talk far into the night…wrestle a bit, even.  Who knows what might happen.  Maybe if we could acknowledge how hunger we are for connection, for honesty, we might find the food that satisfies.  We might find that others – our friends, our spouses -  are hungry for that real connection too.  We might find, in retrospect,  that we’ve encountered a bit of God during the dark hours.  We might find that our scars are acknowledged, that our limp is not so bad. That in fact others are limping too – we all are.  We might find a certain blessing to be had.  

So this evening, when darkness falls, and it is eventide, acknowledge your deep hunger, and ask God to feed you, to fill you.  Open up, and see what might happen to your soul at night.  Be ready to wrestle with a God who will not let you go.  Be prepared to come away with a bit of a limp, but also a blessing on your life – your one, real, imperfect, human life.  AMEN.  


 

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Proper 10: 07/16/2017

Posted 1:52 PM by
Sermon, Proper 10A                                                                     Jeffrey B. MacKnight
16 July 2017                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Last week I went to get blood drawn for routine tests for a physical exam.  It had to be fasting since the night before, and my appointment wasn’t until 1:30 p.m.  I was famished!  I went to the lab at the doctor’s office and had 3 tubes of blood drawn.  My daughter Maggie went with me. 

Next thing – Maggie heard an announcement on the P.A. system: “Code blue in the lab!”  I woke up flat on my back in the hallway while 6 staff people looked down at me, took my blood pressure, and raised my feet.  My doctor was there, smiling when I asked him, “Who are you?” 

This mildly embarrassing, but rather hilarious, incident points to a simple truth:  we all need sustenance, nourishment, to survive and thrive….  While a few people fast voluntarily for spiritual reasons, in general, hunger is not a helpful state to be in: when we are really hungry, we can’t learn, we can’t grow, we can’t communicate or function very well.  In extreme cases, we pass out.  I have a new respect for people who suffer from hunger.  We need to do all we can to stop it – especially in East Africa where famine looms yet again. 

Jesus tells a parable about seed sown, by God presumably.  Lots of seed is sown, but it needs nourishment, water or it won’t grow.  Jesus tells us it can fall:

  • On the Path – birds come and ate them up
  • On the Rocks – no depth, scorched by the sun
  • Among Thorns – it is choked
  • On Good soil – it takes root, grows, and bears fruit – a hundredfold!

We as God’s people need to be fed, or we’ll “pass out” before we can do God’s work in this world, before we can help someone who is struggling, feed someone who’s hungry, or speak out when somebody is getting a raw deal….  So, how do we get fed spiritually in this crazy world?  What keeps us going?  What inspires us and gives us strength? 

Spiritual food doesn’t come from the grocery store…it comes in other ways. Traditionally, we think of studying scripture, meditation, communion with nature, inspiring sermons (like this one!), and of course bread and wine, humbly received at the altar, through which Christ himself feeds us.  These are solid, time-honored sources of nourishment for our souls. 

But there are other sources of nourishment that are more active and outward-looking….we can be fed spiritually not just saying our prayers, but out in the world, in action, seeing and doing God’s work in a variety of ways. 

This last week at St. Dunstan’s, I’ve been fed as I have tried to feed others at special moments in life: a burial, and a wedding.  As the church we have much to say, much to offer at these moments of inflection in life.  At weddings and funerals, the church is filled with people who may not know God very much, and we have an opportunity to share what we know and believe. 

I’m also thrilled to report the success of our community-wide meeting on refugee policy and prospects last Thursday night.  Kelly Gauger of the State Department Refugee office gave a riveting account of the fast-changing administration policies and court decisions, as her office tries to help as many people as possible.   All 44 of us in the room on a hot July night were energized to find ways to support refugees desperate to find a safe place to live and work.  Two-thirds of the group were from outside St. Dunstan’s: churches, synagogues, and civic groups.  This shows that St. Dunstan’s can make a real impact in our neighborhood, in Bethesda, and in Washington.  I felt fed, renewed, and energized at the end of the evening. 

Back to Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds: it’s humbling, but in this parable, we are the dirt…the soil in which God plants.  We need to be the best soil we can be for God to plant God’s word…

We need to bring our best selves to church to hear and receive that word…our most open, expectant selves, our most hopeful selves, ready to be fed, enlightened, inspired, and challenged by that word.  Then we also need to be alert to see God at work in the world, and hear God’s call to us to take action when things aren’t right.  That might mean calling a Senator to advocate for poor people, working at a soup kitchen, raising money for transitional housing, standing with a disabled person or a transgender person, or finding a refugee a home.  We need to be the fertile soil in which God can sow the seeds of life. 

We don’t control God’s planting….  The good news is that God scatters seed widely, profligately, prodigiously, lavishly, even wastefully.  There is plenty!  We just need to be open, receptive, fertile, and ready…and we need to get the food we need, spiritual food as well as physical food, so that we are strong and ready to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world.  We need to get fed ourselves, so that nobody will have to announce, “Code blue in the lab!” for us.  AMEN.  


 

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Proper 7: 06/25/2017

Posted 2:54 PM by
Sermon, Proper 7A                                                                       Jeffrey B. MacKnight
25 June 2017                                                                              St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

 

Jesus said, I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword. 

When was the last time you hesitated to raise a subject because you knew it could cause conflict?  The other night I was out in the yard, chatting with neighbors, when a young mom expressed her negative views about having her young son vaccinated.  I don’t agree, but I didn’t speak up, because I didn’t think it was my business, and I’m not that well informed.  My kids are way past that! 

But on other issues, I feel I must speak up and speak out.  One of these is health care for all people.  I like to point out that Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is the first recorded instance of health insurance.  The Samaritan agreed to pay what was needed, for a perfect stranger.  Why?  Because human dignity requires it. 

I know that not everybody agrees with me on this, but at this critical moment in our nation’s political battles over healthcare, I feel compelled to speak.  I believe this is a Gospel imperative, and the U.S. is cruel in the way we allocate healthcare.  For years, St. Dunstan’s has paid copays for medicine people need to live – insulin and syringes, HIV medications. I’m tired of this.  It is beneath dignity for human beings to have to beg for these necessities.  Ours is the only wealthy nation I know that requires human beings to grovel for basic care, for medicine.  Children’s care is on the line in Congress right now too.  How is it that some children – like our well-insured kids – should get great care, and others get little or none?  Where is the justice in that?  This is not a partisan political issue for me.  It is an issue of humanity, of compassion, of justice.  It’s very much a religious issue, because Jesus said so. 

Jesus said, I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword.

Now, I don’t speak lightly of what Jesus said we must do, and I don’t like it when others take liberties in that way.  Jesus preached a unified vision of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. So, we should ask:  what exactly are these Kingdom values that Jesus would not compromise?  Notably, although many religious folks focus on it almost exclusively, sexual morality was not high on Jesus’ list of moral issues.  He spoke little about that, only to affirm that we should keep our marriage vows.  And I’m all for that. 

Jesus was a compassionate person – he reached out when people were suffering.  And he knew that compassion translated into common life, into the Kingdom, is justice.  The more I study the Gospel texts, the more I see that Jesus’ primary concern was justice, particularly for the weakest in society.  Everybody deserved a decent life, a decent share of the earth’s resources.  If sick people didn’t get care, there was no justice.  If the poor were in misery, there was no justice.  If children and orphans and widows were destitute, there was no justice.  If peasants were buried in debt and defrauded of their land through foreclosure (which they were), there was no justice.  If the rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer, there was no justice.  Economic justice is a religious issue…very much so. 

In Jesus’ time, the Roman occupiers took a huge portion of the production of the land and people through taxation – to support the Roman elite, infrastructure, and military.  Maybe Jesus didn’t expect any better from them.  But the Jewish leaders in occupied Palestine were answerable to Yahweh, the God of Israel.  These priests of the Temple claimed devotion to a God who cared for poor people, sick people, weak people – their own people – Jewish people!  Yet they collaborated with the Roman government to ensure their own comfortable lives. 

I’m reading a history of the USSR from Krushchev in the 1950’s up to Putin’s new Russian dictatorship.  One theme that comes through is how the middle and upper management – the “elite” – were rewarded by the system.  There were perks such as cars and chauffeurs, deluxe apartments, dachas in the country, which were provided by the Kremlin – as long as these bureaucrats toed the party line and didn’t question the exploitation of masses.  From first century Palestine to twentieth century Moscow – it seems there is nothing new under the sun. 

No wonder Jesus symbolically upset the Temple courtyard, where a brisk business of buying and selling sacrificial animals was taking place.  (We’ll look at that sacrificial system in more detail next week – watch for Trail Notes in Thursday’s Trailblazer.)  The Temple had become a machine to extract money from the poor and create a very comfortable lifestyle for the priests and bureaucrats.  Surely this was not what God wanted. 

A few weeks ago, I visited England to spend time with a friend Ray. I had a cut on my finger that became infected, so Ray took me to the local NHS walk-in clinic.  I signed in – a foreigner! – and waited about 30 minutes until I was called.  The nurse quickly dealt with my need and sent me on my way, without charging a cent.  Ray is receiving excellent care for his cancer as well, all without worrying about catastrophic medical expenses and possible bankruptcy, on top of the stress of having a serious illness.  How I wish the U.S. had a system like that.  I know it’s not perfect…nothing is.  But it is fair and generous.  It is compassionate.  It is just. 

Jesus said, I have come, not to bring peace, but a sword.  Sometimes, when it’s important, we have to speak up for what we believe is right.  AMEN.  


 

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Easter 7A- 05/28/2017

Posted 2:50 PM by
Sermon, Easter 7A, Sunday after Ascension                               Jeffrey B. MacKnight
28 May 2017                                                                             St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda

One day in the Garden of Eden, God comes to Adam and Eve and tells them God has two gifts — one for each of them. The first, God says, is, well, the ability to pee standing up. Adam starts jumping up and down excitedly and loudly declares that he wants it. Eve, listening to him jabbering on and on about it, rolls her eyes and asks God what God has in mind for her. "Brains," says God.

That’s the kind of story that would put a smile on our daughter Maggie’s face – she’s a strong young woman with views.  Just what we hoped she’d be. 

I still remember like it was yesterday the day my wife Leslie and I took Maggie to Dulles airport to fly to Edinburgh, Scotland to begin veterinary school there.  That was 4 years ago now.  I knew it was the right thing for Maggie – a wonderful opportunity for her to pursue her life-long dream.  That made it the right thing for Leslie and me, too.  But I still was overwhelmed by the sadness of so much separation in the coming years.  Standing in that soaring, iconic airport terminal, outside the security barrier, my eyes brimmed with tears – I was far from the strong, stoic father image that’s common in our culture.  I just didn’t want to let her go. 

Perhaps that’s how the disciples felt about Jesus when he set out for a different kind of ascension, when he had to end his time walking the earth with him.  Maybe they had some understanding of why this had to happen, why this was the best thing for the spread of Jesus’ good news; maybe not.  But I don’t doubt it was a sad, painful parting.

Jesus’ ascension from earth into heaven is a way of describing the end of Jesus’ appearances on earth, and his return to his Father God.  Jesus had prepared his disciples, his followers, as well as he could.  He had trained them to go out and preach, teach, and heal in his name.   They knew his vision for the Gospel to spread beyond Palestine into Asia Minor, Rome – to the ends of the earth.  But were they ready?  I’m sure they would have loved to stay with Jesus, listen to him teach, and enjoy the warm bonds of fellowship they had formed.  But that was not to be.  The times, they were a-changing. 

St. Dunstan’s congregation is in a similar place, I think.  Like the disciples – we are a scrappy band of folks, with lots of opinions, but a common bond of devotion to Christ and his ministry in this place.  We cherish the traditions we’ve enjoyed here, the good times of the past – and rightly so.  We have much to cherish and be thankful for. 

In particular, I sorely miss the band of founding members of our church, who worked and sacrificed for decades here.  When I arrived, they were elders, and they amazed me because their support was unwavering, but they did not try to control the parish.  They wanted it to change and flourish, not be shackled to some image of the past.  That was a remarkable combination: steadfast support and good humor, along with a willing “letting go” of the reins.  I think of them often, and give thanks for their faithfulness and friendship.  On this Memorial Day, I remember them. 

But – and there’s always a “but” – I’m not sure Jesus will let us stay the way we once were.  It’s a new world, and people are not flocking into the churches as they once did.  They still need to hear about the love and forgiveness of Jesus – that hasn’t changed.  But fewer folks are coming through these doors.  So Jesus is leading us out – out onto the sidewalks, the streets, the shops, the schools, the offices and workplaces – to be Christians in the world. 

Our “inner circle” as a congregation is smaller than it once was, but our impact in our neighborhood, in the city, and even in other parts of the world is as strong as ever!  Thousands of people encounter St. Dunstan’s through children’s programs, musical events here, and outreach projects, in addition to those in worship and fellowship and formation.  Many of those will never come to worship with us, but still we are offering a Gospel of hospitality, of open discussion and inquiry, of beauty and art.  Many of us are involved in refugee ministry now – I’m amazed how many are going to the Orthodox church this Saturday to support refugees in the camps.  Today we make sandwiches for hungry Washingtonians, as we do every month.  We are working more with neighboring congregations.  St. Dunstan’s is a small but mighty church!   

It’s hard to let go of the way things used to be…just as it was hard for the disciples to let go of Jesus’ physical presence with them.  But they had no choice…and frankly, we have no choice.  As a parish priest, I was much more comfortable when thoughtful worship, creative programs, and pastoral care was enough to build up a congregation.  I would love to go back to those days.  But we can’t.  The world moves on; the church moves on, into new forms that we probably can’t even imagine.  God will sustain God’s Church the way God chooses.  We cannot control what that Church will be like, no matter how hard we try to hold on. 

Over the last four years, Leslie and I have learned to let go. We’ve had to trust. Maggie has grown and changed, and she will become the young woman and dedicated vet that she needs to become.  The strain and stress of letting go, of change, will be worthwhile. 

And so it is with the Church.  After 33 years of ordained ministry, I understand Jesus more and more, and I can predict the future of the Church less and less.  But a future there will be.  We need to be like the wonderful founders of St. Dunstan’s, who supported this lovely community at every turn, yet set it free to become what God would make of it.  Each of us is a member of this body, the Body of Christ, which comes into being as Jesus’ human body ascends into the heavens.  Each of us has a call, a ministry to do.  Maybe you know what God is calling you to do, and you are firmly engaged.  If you are unsure, I’d be glad to talk with you about your call. 

What I know is this: together we can be the hands and feet of Christ.  Together, we are stronger than we are alone.  Together, we can navigate the uncertain road that lies ahead of us, certain only that God is with us and that God is love. 

 


 

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