Shine, Jesus, Shine
Luke 9:28-36

Today we’re at the fifth Sunday following the Epiphany, this little season of the church year that begins with the Magi following one star in dark sky, leads us through story after story about Jesus’ earthly ministry, and lands us here—this year it’s in the gospel of Luke, chapter 9—on a special Sunday called Transfiguration Sunday.  One commentator claims this is the most difficult passage to preach all year long—I’m not sure I completely agree with that, but I will say: this is a pretty strange story.

Immediately following Luke’s version of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus decides to take a hike up a mountain to pray.  This isn’t unusual; we read in the gospels incidence after incidence of Jesus escaping the crowds for some quiet time.  That day he took three of his disciples with him: Peter, James and John, and when they got up to the top of the hill, Jesus began to pray.

My guess is that Peter, James, and John were maybe not quite as holy as Jesus, because they got bored and were about to fall asleep when they noticed that Jesus began to look a little different.  His face changed, the text says, and his clothes began to sparkle until they appeared “dazzling white.”  If that wasn’t enough, all of the sudden Moses and Elijah appeared with him and began talking business, conversation about Jesus’ next stop: Jerusalem, and these strange mentions of his departure.

Transfiguration, Donald Jackson with contributions from Aidan Hart, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Transfiguration, Donald Jackson with contributions from Aidan Hart, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Good thing they hadn’t fallen completely asleep, because Peter, James and John witnessed the whole glowing event, and Peter—because that’s how Peter was—got really enthusiastic.  It isn’t everyday that your friend starts glowing and heroes of your faith suddenly show up, after all.  In his enthusiasm Peter suggested that the group construct three dwellings, monuments maybe: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, just to mark this special occasion.

This suggestion might seem a bit of a strange reaction to us, but it probably recalls the Jewish festival of booths, instruction requiring devout Jews to travel to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, where they’d build little booths and stay in them for seven days to remember God’s provision while the Israelites wandered in the desert.  It could have been that, or it could have just been Peter’s first, sleepy response to seeing Jesus in a whole new way: shiny and glowing, and hanging out with the patriarchs of their faith: let’s build a monument!

You can’t blame Peter for getting excited.  All this time, with all the teaching and healing and preaching Jesus had done, you’d think the disciples would have understood that Jesus wasn’t especially interested in fame or power or political office.  If they had understood who he was and what he came to teach them, they would have known that Jesus would think Peter’s idea of building a dwelling or a monument or anything that diluted the stark challenge of his message…completely missed the point.  Though the pronouns in the original Greek text are a bit confusing, I think Luke probably meant Peter when, immediately after Peter’s suggestion, Luke writes, essentially: “he didn’t know what he was saying.”

It was the height of misunderstanding, of completely missing the point, of shielding his eyes from the light and choosing to see Jesus, not as Jesus had been teaching them, but as he preferred: a shiny, glowing, magical political savior.  A superhero.

I was called to pastor my former congregation in Washington, DC, when the church was in the middle of a large renovation and construction project.  Before I’d arrived, church volunteers had spent countless hours cleaning out closets and file cabinets, store rooms and Sunday School classrooms, throwing away decades of accumulated junk, packing away salvageable items and sending them to storage, and uncovering some real treasures.  I assure you, you would be surprised at what you will find in long-untouched church storage closets.

One of the many interesting finds became a large and eclectic collection of framed paintings of Jesus.  They were hanging in classrooms; stashed away in dusty corners; salvaged from the back of closets.  I think they didn’t throw any of them away because, well, are you even allowed to throw away pictures of Jesus?

When the construction finished and the unpacking began, the staff began to take note of all of this Jesus art, so we started collecting all the paintings we found and propped them up all along the walls in the church library.  When it was all said and done, there had to be nearing 50 paintings of Jesus all in one place.  There were many copies of that one—you know that one I’m talking about—with Jesus standing on a hillside, hair blowing in the wind, baby lamb draped over his shoulders.  Or Jesus sitting on a rock, surrounded by beatific children staring up at him in awe.  And there were several of that one—you know the one I mean—with the darker and more dramatic background, a glowing halo behind Jesus’ head, where his blond hair is flowing and his blue eyes staring off into the distance thoughtfully.  There were at least two copies of the Jesus that looks sort of like Bob Marley laughing, and my favorite: a giant Jesus with a picture of the United Nations behind him.

(We also found a black velvet painting of a snarling Doberman pinscher, but that probably doesn’t relate to my point here.)

With the slight exception of the Bob Marley version of Jesus, which likely got closest to more of his real Middle Eastern skin tone, all of the pictures of Jesus we had were someone who looked like a nice, white, middle class American you might see in a television commercial.  And in every painting, without exception, Jesus looked thoughtful, mild, kind, happy, and almost always: glowing.

Standing in the church library surveying all those pictures of Jesus collected in one place, I recall thinking: we must really like this kind of Jesus.  The kind of Jesus that looks familiar; a Jesus who’s kind and thoughtful; a soft, almost benign Jesus; and certainly, definitely, we love a shiny Jesus.  There’s no doubt about it.  In fact, it’s one of our favorite things to do, isn’t it?  To make Jesus into just who we’d like him to be.

Up there on the top of the mountain that day, Peter, James, and John, did, too.

Mark Throntveit, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, points out that on this Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, we’re presented with a Jesus on top of a mountain, glowing like a magical fairytale prince.  And today is the very last Sunday before we begin the season of Lent, at the end of which we’ll encounter Jesus on the top of a mountain again, crucified and dead, hanging on the cross in utter darkness.

I mean, which Jesus would you prefer?  We can’t be too hard on Peter, James, and John…because you and I do the same exact thing: we make Jesus into who we wish he would be.

As we stand here looking out over Lent, beginning this week on Ash Wednesday, it might be good to look hard at the shiny Jesus and decide whether we have the courage to hear the voice of God (booming with exasperation I imagine) that Peter and James and John did when the shine around Jesus started to fade and a dark cloud covered the mountain, “Stop it! This is my Son; listen to him!”

As the somber reflection of Lent begins this week, we’ll be asked whether we will turn with Jesus and head back down that mountain, toward Jerusalem, where crucifixion awaits.  Because the way Jesus invites us to live is not shiny and fun. It makes us look hard at what we value and asks us to put our lives on the line for what is really important; it’s difficult, full of sacrifice, and it flies right in the face of what the world considers success.

Last year a few days before Ash Wednesday, Time magazine published an article about the season of Lent.  The article claimed that more people show up to church on Ash Wednesday than any other day of the year, including Easter and Christmas, and that the practice of fasting or giving something up for Lent is common and widely observed.  Curious about why we do this, the reporter went to the top and investigated what Pope Francis thought we should be giving up for Lent.  The Pope didn’t talk about giving up chocolate, or carbs, or alcohol for Lent.  Instead, he suggested during Lent we give up…indifference.  “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt,” he said.

Describing the phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Pope Francis writes that “whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades…. We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”[1]

It’s easy to understand why Peter, James, and John were so taken with a shiny Jesus, because we like it when Jesus is shiny, too.  It’s more exciting.  It’s considerably easier.  It’s much more fun.  Make no mistake, we’re headed for glory—healing, hope, resurrection.  We are people who insist that out of death comes life, always.  And maybe when we get there, Jesus will look shiny. But the way there is not a trip to Disneyland.

On this Transfiguration Sunday, as you and I stand on a mountain with Jesus, glowing, and look toward Lent, toward that other mountain ahead of us, hear again the words of Jesus—words he spoke just before they’d climbed the mountain that day: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

The not-so-shiny word of God for the people of God: thanks be to God?

Amen.

[1] http://time.com/3714056/pope-francis-lent-2015-fasting/

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Let There Be Peace on Earth?

Philippians 1:3-11

Advent 2

“Our prayers are with the victims, their families, and the first responders in San Bernardino.”

“Thoughts and prayers are with #SanBernardino.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families, and brave first responders.”

“Please keep the victims of #SanBernardino California in your prayers.”

ny-daily-newsPerhaps channeling mine and maybe your anger, impatience, horror, and disgust with the empty platitudes of politicians who not only are on the payroll of the National Rifle Association, but who with their words effectively render impotent for most Americans the hope we as people of faith look for when we offer to God the carnage and violence of our country, the front page of the Daily News Thursday read: GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.

This week our country—almost numb with the statistic of more than one mass shooting per day now in 2015—seems to finally be making some progress toward sanity. Yesterday, for the first time since 1920, the NY Times editorial board printed a column on the front page, above the fold: “It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.”

An editorial on the front page of the NY Times might just be an indication that something is changing, but even as someone who uses words for a living, I want to say to everyone opining on the matter, even the NY Times editorial board: don’t give me your thoughts and prayers anymore. I’m sick of them, and I sometimes wonder whether anything can ever change at all. The words of the prophet Jeremiah keep echoing in my mind: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”

This second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of peace, we are still waiting in the dark. Waiting for hope to be born, looking for light in the darkness, longing for peace in our violence-ravaged country and in our own hurting lives. Ironically, on this Sunday, the lectionary offers us a little passage from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi, in which he extends to them…you guessed it: his thoughts and prayers. “I am constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you…it is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart….”

Paul had a long and very affectionate relationship with the church at Philippi, as he did with the Thessalonian church we discussed last week, so maybe as he sat in the darkness of a prison cell and discouragement threatened to overwhelm him, he sat down to write.

You might recall that Paul went to Philippi initially for the express purpose of preaching in the synagogue there and founding a new community of followers of The Way. His choice of the city of Philippi was strategic; it was a leading city and the first stop on the famous and well-traveled Via Egnatia.

Paul probably arrived in the city of Philippi on his second missionary journey, but he didn’t find a synagogue there. Instead, he found himself down by the riverside, where he encountered a group of women praying. One of them was named Lydia, a successful dealer in purple cloth who opened her home to Paul and his associate Silas. They worked from this base to build a little community in Philippi, until they crossed the political powers that be in the town and ended up in jail there.

Harkening back to Sunday School lessons, you might recall that it was in that jail in Philippi that Paul and Silas kept their spirits up by singing and praying, until an earthquake shook the gates of their prison cell open.

And though they managed to break out of jail, Paul and Silas knew that their message was too onerous for the authorities in Philippi, and anyway, the little church they’d started was growing and thriving. So they went along their way, continuing their work across Asia Minor.

But it seemed like controversy followed Paul wherever he went. He insisted on preaching a gospel that was an affront to both Jews and Gentiles, particularly those who held political power, and so he ended up in jail again. It was from this next prison cell that scholars think Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi, sending…his thoughts and prayers.

I wonder if the church at Philippi, receiving this letter from Paul with an awareness that he was in jail again, their own livelihoods and even lives in danger, and this gospel they’d banked their lives on not really seeming to be changing much of anything…I wonder if they cracked open the wax seal on that scroll, carefully unrolled it, read Paul’s opening words we heard this morning, and then started to think to themselves: I am so sick of his thoughts and prayers. We are a community under siege. Paul himself is writing us from jail! What good to us are thoughts and prayers, when all we see around us is violence and death, and when all we long for…is peace?

You’ll notice, however, that unlike many of our leaders, who seem content to tweet benign messages that basically translate to no meaningful action whatsoever, the Apostle Paul does not stop with thoughts and prayers. Before he even gets into the meat of this letter, right here in this introductory passage, he lays out straight that all of this love and all of these prayers better well be creating a community in which tenacious commitment to the transformation of the world would “overflow,” he says…you must become people from whom a “harvest of righteousness” will go beyond their community, and impact in meaningful ways the world around them.

Paul, I’d think, is the perfect person to address the despair of well meaning people of faith—our own despair—because he is writing from the prison cell in which he is sitting because a powerful political machine is determined to stop the message of radical love he insists must come to be. Even from prison, Paul is unwilling to stop at thoughts and prayers, and has taken action that challenged the status quo and demanded something different.

He was writing to say that he expected the same from the little community in Philippi…and why wouldn’t he? Moving beyond thoughts and prayers to changing the world is exactly what Jesus did. And having had his own life changed by this message of love…watching communities transformed by the power of Jesus’ gospel, Paul keeps insisting that we must keep going. We must keep going, even when all we can see around us is a gathering darkness. Because we are Advent people who will wait and hope and work…until peace is born in us…and in our world.

This week it came to my attention that today, December 6, 2015, is exactly 150 years since the official ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. You’ll recall that amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

We commonly laud other anniversaries ending slavery in the US, but all of them are only part of a longer narrative that led, finally, to this day 150 years ago.

The push among people of faith and conviction for an end to slavery began in the early years of the 19th century, and by the 1850s a young senator from Illinois was making impassioned speeches denouncing the moral legitimacy of the institution of slavery. By the time Lincoln became president, the country was in social and political turmoil, resulting in eleven states seceding from the Union and forming their own country. In an attempt to get them back in line, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which some don’t realize only abolished slavery in the Confederate states—not in the Union states. At conflict within him Lincoln felt the pressure of trying to hold a fraying country together and moving decisively to end the enslavement of black Americans.

But after his reelection in November of 1864, Lincoln was finally fed up with the glacial progress of change and fired with the conviction that, “[i]f slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,”[1] and he threw his support behind the 13th Amendment, which finally passed through both houses of congress on January 31, 1865. President Lincoln then signed a Joint Resolution submitting the proposed 13th Amendment to the states.

That was a great day, too, but recall that an amendment to the Constitution needs the ratification of three-fourths of the states in the union.

Lincoln and so many others worked tirelessly to get those signatures so that slavery would be ended officially and finally by the Constitution, but predictably there arose from many corners objections to the amendment. Still, on December 6, 1865, enough signatures were secured and the 13th Amendment was added, finally, to the United States Constitution.

Years and years and years of work from so many brought that country to that day, but Abraham Lincoln, the president who worked tirelessly and at great personal risk, never saw it happen. He was assassinated almost 8 months before that day. Espousing a radical, unpopular message of love and justice and peace is going to take more than thoughts and prayers; sometimes it will take even our lives.

Thank you for your thoughts and prayers, but God isn’t fixing this. It’s up to us to act with courage as people of faith to change this mess we’ve created. St. Teresa of Avila wrote:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

…Christ has no body but yours.

With that in mind I think on this Sunday it’s only right to cling to more than Paul’s thoughts and prayers and hang onto the stern direction he gave to the beleaguered church at Corinth: “So we do not lose heart…because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”

Will there be peace on earth?  Can there be peace on earth?

I don’t know yet, because you and I are even now writing the answer to the question. If God’s reign of peace will ever come to be on this earth, we’ve got to do more than offer our thoughts and prayers. God’s reign of peace will come to be when The Prince of Peace is born…in us.

 

Amen.

[1] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VII, “Letter to Albert G. Hodges” (April 4, 1864), p. 281.

Poetry Corner

Wow, this is so beautiful.  Blessed Advent, friends.

candle-704022_960_720

 

 

 

 

O anitphon for our fears

by Marin Tirabassi

O Emmanuel, hailed by clueless Gabriel,
who thinks we can
shake off being afraid,

Come to us in our fear.

We fear the past and the future.
We fear those who are unlike us
in any way,
and we fear family members
who should not hurt us but do.

We fear chemo and COPD,
and any kind of mental illness diagnosis.

We fear heroin.

We fear small spaces and high ones,
food and poverty and bullies,
dirt and death,
dangerous work places, joblessness,
retirement
and being asked to play.

We fear forgetting people,
being forgotten,
not being able to retrieve a name.

We fear labor and delivery
and the impossible responsibility
of being a parent.

We fear naming autism,
claiming a gender identity,
or a recovery or a religious faith,
not to speak of falling in love,
being late,
or enjoying solitude.

We fear for our children,
and for our parents.

We fear terrorism, injustice, war,
and global warming,
guns in the hands of those who are unstable,
and guns in the hands of police,
and we correctly fear angels who invite us
to choose to make a difference.

Come to us in all our fears,
Emmanuel,
so they do not define us. Amen

For some time I’ve been of the conviction that cultivating diverse communities of faith is critical to living the gospel.

Some tell me creating a diverse community is just not a reality for their church; the community surrounding the church is too homogenous. I think that claim is flatly untrue. The bottom line is that creating diverse communities is an option for all of us, because each human is distinct and unique.

It’s a natural human instinct to gravitate toward people who seem most like us, but learning to value and cultivate diversity in our faith communities is worth the time and effort. That’s not to say creating a diverse community is easy.

In fact, to create a healthy culture of diversity within a congregation, the system must be trained to tolerate a higher level of discomfort as stasis. That is, members of diverse communities tolerate a little more discomfort than they would if they were members of a community where everyone shares a similar life situation, where everyone looks and thinks in generally the same way.

In its best expression healthy congregational diversity can work to create a culture in which people are constantly being invited to stretch and grow, to enlarge their view of the world, and to consistently expand their understanding of the kingdom of God. The realization that God’s love for the whole world extends beyond my own safe and limited view of the world is a transformative gift, a critical part of ongoing discipleship. And when diversity is valued and managed well, it’s indicative of a high level of trust in a congregation.

But like most things in life, there’s a downside to diversity. While true diversity in a community is hard to establish, it may be even harder to nurture in healthy ways. Like so many aspects of our life together, diversity takes careful tending, or we can easily veer off into unhealthy expressions of an ideal we want to model for the world.

Here’s what can happen in a community that claims diversity but doesn’t tend it faithfully: we create a culture of accommodation.

You’ve seen this before. We claim we are a church that values diversity and welcomes everyone. We just throw open the doors and invite all the members of our community to participate, contribute and lead. In addition to working in beautiful concert with our Baptist polity, this approach to congregational life can enrich our worship, deepen our relationships and take the work of transformation to newer and deeper levels than we’ve ever experienced before.

But then someone begins behaving badly. Undermining behavior, destructive gossip, inability or unwillingness to communicate openly — there are any number of descriptive phrases for the kind of behavior that harms communities.

And when we who value diversity experience such behavior, we often mistakenly move aside and allow room for such destructive engagement.

Why?

Because we claim to value diversity, and someone who values diversity makes room for everyone, right?

Wrong. Ignoring bad behavior to the detriment of the community is not cultivating healthy diversity; it’s creating a culture of accommodation, a sort of “anything goes” approach to our shared life. And this is not healthy diversity; it’s not really healthy anything. It is rather a fear-fueled toleration of dysfunction that will not only strip us of the benefits of healthy diversity, but can in fact cripple our entire congregation.

When a church makes the commitment to cultivating diversity the whole community must be on guard for signs of the slide into a culture of accommodation. And when we begin to notice we’re tolerating destructive behavior because we’re afraid to say anything, we need to take a moment to remember who we are and what we intend to create together, and then exercise the discipline of community.

Remember when you got in trouble as a little kid for hitting your sister? If you grew up in my house, a parent would pull you aside and say something like, “We don’t behave this way in our family.” In much the same way, the exercise of the discipline of community reminds us who we are and what we intend to do together, and it protects the whole community from destructive behavior.

No one said building and tending the community of Christ would be easy, but careful attention to how we order our life together is critical for the witness of the church in this world. Now more than ever the world needs to see examples of diverse, loving, healthy, faithful communities.

We owe it to each other and we owe it to the God we serve to reject a culture of accommodation, to practice the discipline of community, and to make the church a true and transformative witness to the world.

This column appeared first over at Baptist News Global.

 

Live As If You Believe
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

candle-704022_960_720Theologian Frederick Beuchner writes: “In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen….  The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment….[1]

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and Advent begins in the dark.

Today is the first Sunday of the new church year, with the light of day waning far too early and all of us huddled inside with glowing lamps, trying to push away the darkness.  And the darkness outside mirrors the darkness we carry inside—in these weeks leading to Christmas the two converge: the darkness of winter and the darkness of doubt, of fear, of insecurity—all of the very hardest parts of what it means to be a human being on this earth.

Into this darkness we declare that something new is coming, and so during Advent, we wait. We wait in the darkness, we wait in the absence, we wait in the silence.  We wait for what we believe is right up ahead of us, on its way.

Like the shepherds who sat on a Galilean hillside in the darkest, inky black of night, we’re waiting for something.  We can’t see it; we can’t hear it, but we’re stubborn in our insistence: it’s on the way.  We are people who will look back and remember what happened to the shepherds when, in their darkness and silence, faint notes echoed over the hills, lilting voices carried on the wind, ears perked up in the silence and they heard the sound…of angels singing.

We’re listening for that—something like that.  In the meantime, though, we wait.  And while we sit here, in the darkness and in the silence, waiting, we do the very hard work—perhaps the hardest work—of living in anticipation of the in-breaking of God.

Each week in Advent we start worship with the lighting of a candle—one new candle, one little light in the darkness, representing something we cling to—desperately, sometimes—as we wait.

This week it’s hope.

And I don’t know about you, but I need a measure of hope today, because sometimes I find it hard to live as if I believe—believe that the kingdom of God is coming to be in this world, believe that love wins in the end, believe that we can learn to do right by each other once and for all.

For me, that hit home hard this week when I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my sister and her family in Colorado Springs.  You’ll know if you watched the news this week that on Friday a gunman shot and killed three and injured nine in a shopping mall, a mile and a half from my sister’s house, at a Planned Parenthood right next to the grocery store where she shops regularly.

How long, O Lord?  Will the darkness finally overcome us?  How can we live as if we believe the light is coming with so much evil about to overtake us?

On this first Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of hope, the lectionary assigns a little passage from the first book of Thessalonians.  At first glance, it doesn’t seem to fit this theme of waiting for something new to be born; instead, it kind of reads like a love letter.

I swear I am not a fan of Nicholas Sparks’.  It was just a moment of weakness several years ago—I had a very unusual free afternoon, the weather was dismal, and I decided I’d let go of control, give up making a plan, go to the movie theater by myself, and watch whatever happened to be playing.  To my chagrin, the only thing playing in my timeframe was the Nicholas’ Sparks movie The Notebook, but I ducked in anyway.  What would it hurt?

Two hours later, red-eyed, my face streaked with tears, I stumbled out of the movie theater, and ran straight into member of my church.  At that moment, I acuired a reputation as a hopeless romantic, Nicholas Sparks’ fan.

I’m telling you, this is a charge that is flatly untrue.

Still, you have to admit, there’s something about a love story that gets to most of us in our weaker moments…the perfect gift, the perfect story, the perfect love letter.

So if you’re a hopeless romantic like most of the rest of us, you will love the passage assigned for our reading today from the book of 1 Thessalonians.  The passage is about as perfect a love letter as you can imagine, beginning sort of with a “how do I love you? Let me count the ways…” and ending with a pledge to eternal love forever and ever.  It is a love letter, from a pastor to his people, the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonian Christians.

You remember that the Apostle Paul set out to plant churches all over Asia Minor, spreading the gospel message into strategic cities, planting little churches that would help advance the message of Jesus.  The town where the Thessalonian church took root was a strategic, seaport city with a population of about 60,000 people.  Trade was brisk through the city, and there were people there from all over the world.

The worship of idols was the order of the day, and what made the Christians strange was not that they followed Jesus, but that they claimed to be followers of only one God.  Because of that strange belief, Paul had been driven out of town and the Thessalonian church pressed in on every side, facing persecution and rejection in their families and in their communities.  Paul, who had a special affection for the Christians in that little church, sent his student Timothy to visit them, and Timothy returned to Paul with reports of abiding faith and love within the church there, good news for Paul to hear.  These Thessalonian Christians were living as if they believed, creating the kind of community Paul envisioned the church growing into, and he was deeply missing his friends there.

And so Paul sat down to write them a letter, a little piece of which we heard today, Paul’s love letter to the church.  Today’s passage is unusual because Paul uses a rare form of Greek called the optative mood, an arrangement of language that communicates wishing, or hoping.  His words have almost a wistful tone to them.

Given all that these Christians had been through, Paul is wishing for them that they would increase in love for each other…and for all, he writes.  He knew that if these Christians could manage to live believing in the middle of incredible hardship, persecution on every side, and rejection all around them, then their love for each other would increase and abound, and the love they managed to put into action would change the world.

Paul speaks with a wistful longing, because he must have known then what we know now: that it’s hard to live as if you believe that love can change the world.  Why? Because black teenagers are shot by police in the middle of the road, and climate change is making the poorest among us poorer, and children don’t have enough to eat, and anyone can pull out a gun a mile and a half from my sister’s house and kill whomever he feels like killing.  That’s why.

Violence and death and injustice keep breaking in all around us, interrupting our Thanksgiving holidays and the insulated lives we’ve built to ignore the pain.  But today is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent begins in the dark.  This is the season where we live as if we believe that the promise of God will be the interruption that surprises us, born again in us, echoing Paul’s deep yearning for love to increase and abound in you and me and all of us so that the world God wishes we would build will actually come to be.

It’s Advent.  And Advent begins in the dark.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I probably am a sucker for a good love story.  One of my favorites I heard on an episode of Radiolab, the story of Alan Lundgard and Emilie Gassio.  Two twenty-one year old art students, they were living the dream in a loft in Brooklyn, studying art and basking in the glow of young love.  They’d met at a party only nine months before, and had, as Alan describes, “a moment.”  On the program he waxes poetic about Emilie’s “iridescent” eyes, and when the interviewer says, “So you knew in that moment that this was more than just a thing,” Alan breaks in and says, “Oh yes, it was more than a thing…it was THE thing.”

One day on her way to class, Emilie is involved in a traffic accident—she’s on her bike and she’s hit by a huge truck, in ICU, clinging to life.  Alan calls Emilie’s parents to hurry to the city, where all three of them keep vigil around Emilie’s bed, her parents splitting the daytime hours and Alan staying every night, all night long.

For weeks they waited for her to recover, with few signs of hope.  Finally, the doctors deemed Emilie medically stable but completely unresponsive.  Against Alan’s urgent insistence, her parents agreed she was probably not getting better, so they made plans to transport her to a nursing home in their hometown, where she’d likely live the rest of her life.

But Alan thought there was hope—in the middle of what seemed to be complete desolation, he insisted: she’s in there; she just can’t get out.  “You have to give her a chance, you have to give her a chance,” he begged.  Because Emilie had sustained some hearing loss in childhood and worn hearing aids before the accident, and because the doctors thought she’d lost her vision as a result of the accident, Alan, in a desperate attempt to prove to the doctors and to Emilie’s parents that Emilie could get better, tried something he’d read about in the story of Helen Keller.  One night, deep in the darkness, he traced out on her arm the words: “I love you.”  She immediately awoke and responded.

Alan had proof that what he’d hoped was true.  But the doctors and Emilie’s parents still weren’t sure.  So Alan tried putting in her hearing aids and turning them on.  When that happened, when she could finally hear, suddenly everything changed.  “Just by hearing his voice…,” Emilie said, “I came back.”[2]

Like the Apostle Paul, we should be people who live wishing for the world we know God intends, living as if we believe it can come to be…it is coming to be.  We should never become so complacent that we accept a world in which children are starving, where power struggles and harm of neighbor are the order of the day, where we are diminished in our aggressive exploitation of those among us who are weak and vulnerable.  This is not the world God imagines for us, but it is the world we’ve come to expect.

Not anymore. We have rested on our laurels long enough; we have risked the balm of complacency for far longer than is healthy or right.  But Advent is here, and while Advent begins in the dark, we live these days expecting something to change.

So our invitation today, the first Sunday of Advent, is to live as if we believe.  Live with the vigilance of a neighbor who knows the wellbeing of the other is critical to the health of this whole world.  Live with the expectation that love, not violence, is about to shatter our status quo.  Live believing God’s way is coming.

Advent is here.  Our watching and waiting and bringing into being God’s perfect dream of a just world…well, it has now begun.  And so, we live in hope:

Come to our trembling,
Helpless Child.
Come to our littleness,
Little Child,
Be born unto us
Who have kept the faltering vigil.
Be given, be born,
Be ours again.
Come forth from your holy haven,
Come away from your perfect shrine,
Come to our wind-racked souls
From the flawless tent,
Sweet Child.
Be born, little Child,
In our unholy hearts.[3]

O Little Child of Bethlehem…be born in us today.

Amen

[1] from Whistling in the Dark, p. 2-3.

[2] http://www.radiolab.org/story/110206-finding-emilie/

[3] Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C. [late Abbess of the Colettine Poor Clare monastery in Roswell, New Mexico]Amen.

Who Do You Love?
Matthew 6:19-34

do-not-worry-about-tomorrowI have a friend who is one of those guys who intentionally lives his life care-free and unfettered. At age 35, he is not married; he has no children. Though he’s very well-educated he doesn’t go in for the boring old traditional rat race the rest of us run day in and day out. Instead, he works to take care of what he needs and spends the rest of his time surfing or hunting or gardening or traveling. It’s a way of life that allows for lots of flexibility and spontaneity.

To be able to live the way he does, my friend is always looking for unusual work and living opportunities that might allow him this freedom he values so much. Recently, a family friend inherited a long-neglected house from a distant relative and had to find a quick solution to get it up to code before the city condemned the building. The first call he made was to my friend Jake, who now lives in the dilapidated house for free in exchange for fixing it up.

Sounds like a great deal for Jake, but let me tell you: you or I might not ever want to live in this house. You can see the ground through the floorboards; the house is inhabited by myriad critters—and not just little ones; and because of its age and disrepair it has certain, well, quirks…like leaking plumbing requiring one to run downstairs and turn on the water before running back upstairs to flush the toilet then running back downstairs, quick, to turn off the water again. As I mentioned, most of us might not share Jake’s enthusiasm about his good fortune in finding such a living situation.

But Jake is young and unencumbered! He doesn’t have a family to worry about or many large expenses to handle. He has hours and hours of free time on his hands. This situation might not work for the average person, but for Jake…well, it’s just fine.

The day that Jesus got up to preach and said something like what we read this morning in our Gospel lesson, he was certainly received with puzzled expressions from listeners thinking about responsibilities and expenses and budgets and feeding and clothing their families. These famous teachings of Jesus are so jarring that even a casual, cultural Christian will find at least some paraphrase of, “don’t worry about tomorrow—tomorrow has enough worries of its own” or “don’t worry about what you will eat or drink” or “do not store up treasures on earth” familiar.

And they are so familiar to us that one either repeats the words piously with no real intention of ever taking them seriously, or dismisses them altogether as the wishful thinking of a man who, like my friend Jake, did not have a family to feed or very many obligations to the community hanging over his head or any real pressing material needs to speak of at all.

There Jesus was, golden boy of Nazareth, traveling the countryside with his trusty group of disciples, sleeping wherever they could, depending on the kindness of friends and strangers alike, and viewing each day as a whole new adventure in finding what they needed to survive. It all sounded just a little exciting to not worry about where your next meal was coming from—for someone like Jesus!

Of course he could sit up at the top of the rise and say things like, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” What did he know about financial obligations, about hungry mouths to feed, about the volatile economy that could pull the rug right out from under you with no notice whatsoever? Good for him that he could be so footloose. But there’s no way Jesus’ words have any real, modern day relevance for the rest of us!

It’s true: there are a lot of hard, challenging words assembled in these few chapters in the middle of Matthew, part of the gospels we often call The Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps some of the hardest come up in today’s passage. Many scholars would say that the verses we heard today, from Matthew chapter 6, are the heart of Jesus’ teachings on material wealth—that is, how and why and how much we acquire possessions and money. Jesus talks a lot about that sort of thing all throughout the New Testament, but it’s here in these verses that he pulls no punches.

In Matthew’s account, these teachings of Jesus come solidly within the second half of The Sermon on the Mount. So let’s remember what comes before them: The Beatitudes, a reminder to be salt and light in the world, teachings on divorce and adultery, instruction to love your enemy, warnings against showing off your piety in front of everyone. Then, at the beginning of this little section, Jesus lays it out straight: don’t store up treasures on earth, don’t even think you can serve two masters, God and money…because you can’t.

It’s right then, right in the middle of our passage today, that Jesus uses a little word that has great meaning—almost like the hidden key to unlocking the meaning of the text. It’s right there at the beginning of verse 25, the word “therefore.” And “therefore” means something like: “in light of everything you have just heard me say…”, or “because of all this…” or something like that. It’s like Jesus is saying in The Sermon on the Mount: “I am unfolding the wonder and potential of a brand new order of life, the Kingdom of God, and describing the upside down way of living it offers. Embrace it. Give your life to it. Open your heart to take it on as your mission and vision. Live it, to change the world. And, therefore, once you decide this way is the way for you…well, then, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…”.

See what Jesus is doing here? He’s not really talking about our material possessions or what we wear or if we’re thirsty. In fact, he’s saying that those questions are not the questions we should even be asking. Instead, if you choose to live in this new way—this Kingdom of God way—the question suddenly becomes totally different. The question is not “what do you have?” but “who do you love?”. Questions about possessions are inconsequential; the really urgent question is where your heart is.

Wait a minute.

Are we hearing right? Jesus was a single, unencumbered man who is not bound by responsibilities, right? What could he know about how much we worry? If he did, he wouldn’t say such strange things.

They scratched their heads back then on the hillside of Galilee. And we find Jesus’ words deeply baffling as well. After all, we are Americans. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We live in the society of the little guy making good. We’ve been taught from early on that material security is critical, and that if we work hard enough we can make it happen by force of will! And more, material comfort is a sign of good character—well, maybe we wouldn’t come straight out and say it that way—but you know we all think along those lines. It’s the American way.

But…it’s not God’s way. This passage gives us a glimpse of the sharp contrast between the way God views the world and the way we tend to view the world. While God acts with lavish goodness to all of creation, we tend to live life only seeing the limits.

It may not surprise you when I point out today that we don’t tend to think the way God does. This economy of God is characterized by abundance, and this theology of abundance is just too scary for us. Rather, we like to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. You and I are continuously grasping—we must try to have what it is we need, and not just what we need but also what we want. If I don’t grasp it, someone else will, after all.

The abundant model of unclenching fists and spreading the blessing of God around was very threatening for the folks sitting on the hill listening to Jesus that day; they, like us, could not imagine that security would be found anywhere other than grasping desperately to keep what they had…and to get more.

But that’s not God’s way; that’s a theology of scarcity. And in a theology of scarcity fists are closed, grasping continuously at what is readily available. And in a theology of scarcity distinctions start to arise, like classicism, differentiation between the haves and the have nots, the abuse of power for personal gain.

That’s exactly why Jesus changes the question altogether, pulling his listeners away from worry about material possessions and instead pushing us toward the question of where we place our highest allegiances, is because asking the question of who we love had nothing to do with an inventory of our possessions. In fact, the two might very well stand at odds. The kind of love Jesus was talking about here is the love that goes all out, with abandon. True and deep love, commitment…it requires a ceding of control—just opening up our hands and giving up any illusion that we can predict or control or manufacture our lives. This love demands utter trust and full surrender and it is risky, oh is it so very risky. The kind of love Jesus is talking about asks us to look deeply and ask: who rules our hearts? How are our priorities ordered? To what do we offer our deepest devotion and highest commitment?

What Jesus was talking about when he was going on and on about lilies and birds was not a single man’s carefree approach to vaguely irresponsible living. No, what Jesus meant was that when we change the question to ask instead who we love, we will soon find ourselves free from greed and fear—those qualities that fuel and preoccupy materialistic angst. Because the kind of love Jesus is talking about is one that turns it all over, gives it all away—not just materially but at the core of who we are—everything, utterly surrendered to God.

refugee welcome signPerhaps you’d agree that the news we are seeing lately is rather ironic, given the fact that we’re just on the edge of a season of Thanksgiving. You have been watching, as I have, the declarations of American leaders all over our country this week: “We don’t want Syrian refugees here—taking away our things and risking the safety of our communities because they’re terrorists! Keep them away.”

I’d like to say, in the name of the one who asked us to consider who we love, to the 31 governors of US States that have declared Syrian refugees unwelcome, and 289 members of the United States House of Representatives, who voted Thursday to approve a bill effectively blocking Syrian refugees from finding safety in our country: shame on you.

The rhetoric these and other leaders are engaging in is fear mongering of the highest order, despicable in a way that’s hard to put into words. But this week I read a reflection on Facebook that managed to do it. Hear what Lorelle Saxena had to say:

“There is no reason, not one single reason, why I deserve shelter, food, stability, safety, health, or your regard any more than any given Syrian refugee. Not one reason. My home, my education, my business; the way I look, the way I talk; the fact that I come home to a safe, whole, healthy family every day–every one of those things is a privilege that I fell into by the random circumstance of being born in this country to parents who valued academic achievement. I, or you, could have just as easily been born in Syria, or Burkina Faso, or Afghanistan. Do you really think that you’re a different kind of human being than the refugees? Do you think your privilege is earned?

I know: you’ve worked hard for what you have. I have, too. But have we worked harder than the refugees worked for the lives that were destroyed? Do we love our children more than they do; would we grieve harder if a civil war took them away from us? And how long do you believe it would take for a bomb to destroy everything safe about your life?

Compared to most people in the world, you and I are rich with privilege, much of it just because we were lucky enough to be born in a country fat with it. I woke up early this morning and made organic, whole-grain muffins for my son, then dressed him in warm clothes, put sunscreen on his little face, strapped and buckled him into his bike seat and rode along peaceful streets to deliver him at his warm, nurturing preschool. There were so many levels on which I was able to protect him. Every breath of this morning was a privilege. Meanwhile millions of children who months ago had bedrooms and dinner tables and doctors and schools are sleeping directly on the ground, their parents unable to secure shelter or food for them, much less healthcare or education.

And no, that is not your fault. But that’s not the same as it not being our responsibility. We have everything we need and then so much on top of that, and we can choose to exemplify to our own children one of two courses of action: we can open our clutched fists and share with our fellow humans all the abundance that exists here–or we can hoard it, greedy and bloated and fearful.

…[T]here is no such thing as “our own.” Every human is our own. Every hungry child, grieving mother, frightened husband, weary grandmother is our own. Nobody gets to pretend our world is a different world from the world that creates civil wars and bombs and hunger. We are all toeing this same precarious, shifting tightrope of a life. Anyone can fall at any time. All there is to catch us is each other.”

Who do you love?

That’s the question. Not, what do you have, but who do you love?

While you and I and the people on the mountain that day with Jesus often don’t have the first clue how to even begin changing the questions of our lives, we do know what this kind of love looks like. In fact, we have experienced a love like this. It’s God’s love. The kind of love that would sacrifice everything, go to the ends of the earth for me. For you.

And because God has loved us with abandon, we don’t have to worry. In fact, because God loves us like this we have the utter freedom to completely change the question, to refuse to live our lives shackled to things, to live out with freedom and joy the kind of love that God has lavished on us.

Never mind what’s for lunch, and don’t worry about what you wore to church today. Open your arms; unclench those fists and ask the most important question: who do you love?

The way you live your life will be your answer.

Amen.

The task and challenge of putting words to the rhythm of our corporate life is an honor and a privilege.  And sometimes, many times this year, in fact, that task is so difficult.  Sundays come with a stunning regularity, and Sundays like this past Sunday–that come on the heels of terror and fear and pain in our world–offer the special challenge of finding words to express the grief and pain and fear and bewilderment, to call on God to comfort and save us.  This past Sunday, our congregation paused for silence, joined our voices in song, and prayed together.  Here are the words to a prayer we heard in worship, inspired by the prayer Pope Francis prayed at the 9/11 Memorial on his recent visit to New York City.

O God of love, compassion and healing, look on us, people of many different perspectives and traditions, faiths, even, who gather today in this place, desperately in need of your presence.

O God of peace, turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred and who justify killing in the name of religion. We pray for our righteous and peace loving Muslim brothers and sisters around the world, for we know how it feels when our faith is used as justification for terror, perverted into ideology we do not recognize or endorse. Bring your peace to our violent world; peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth.

O God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude and pervasiveness of these tragedies, we seek your light and guidance as we confront this evil.  We pray for the people Beirut and Baghdad and Paris today; grant that all of us whose lives were spared may live so that the lives lost may not have been lost in vain.

O God, whose light will banish the darkness, comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope, and give us wisdom and courage to work tirelessly for a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all.

Amen.12250104_10153717500871798_4163911948356223248_n

I recall the first time that I realized doctors did not know the solution to every medical problem.  My thinking had been: when you have a scary, life threatening medical emergency, you go to see a medical professional, who will fix things.  It was sobering the first time I realized that may not be the case.

I’ve been thinking about that moment of realization these last few days as I, along with the rest of the world, have been watching horrific acts of terror played out all over the world.  How will we fix this?  Surely our politicians know how to get us to a place of peaceful exchange, to right again this world that has become so desperately un-righted?

I’ve been watching, and I’m having the same sort of sinking feeling I had the first time I realized doctors can’t fix every medical problem.

The reasons political engagement seems like a long shot to keep people from killing each other are many, including the realization that the conflicts that have led to recent acts of terror are intensely complicated, generations long, and happening in cultures we don’t understand—far, far away.

I don’t think politicians can save us here, because the political response to the terror we’ve seen in these recent days is force.  And more violence and intimidation, fear and killing can only, in its best expression hold a tenuous peace in place until someone throws the next match into the powder keg, and at worst widen the distance between those who can’t agree, wider and wider and wider until we lose all hope for any productive conversation or reconciliation.

And I don’t think politicians alone are going to be able to help us come together to solve the issues that divide us, because I hear already the vehement rhetoric of politicians even in our country, using recent acts of terror as excuses to inflict pain on those most vulnerable: immigrants running from the experience of terror in their everyday lives.

No, while there are many working to broker peace through political means, I think we’d better realize that it will take a lot more than political maneuvering to get us to a better world.  It’s going to take all of us, not just politicians, to change the tide of hatred, violence, and injustice in the world.

Sound overwhelming to you?  It does to me, too.  I couldn’t solve a medical crisis—I’m not a doctor.  I’m sure I can’t solve a political crisis—I’m not a diplomat.

But I am a person of faith.  And if you are, too, then in the wake of terror and fear and violence and death, knowing we don’t have the answers to solve the problems we face, I think we might begin to try to remember together the things that we know about what we believe.

Love WinsFor example, as people of faith we have long been advocates of a narrative that does not conform to the readily accepted narrative of the world.  This is an important time to embrace with all the courage we can muster, the conviction that the kingdom of God is coming to be right here and now.  We can be part of that emergence by rejecting terror—on a large scale and on an individual scale—and living in radical and life-giving relationship with each other: in our families, in our communities of faith, in our neighborhoods, anywhere we have power to enact life-giving relationship.

And we believe as people of faith that we are called to welcome the stranger.  Taken in, loved, and cared for by God ourselves, it is our holy responsibility and even our honor to make room in our countries, at our tables, in our hearts, for those who struggle to build lives we long for, too—lives of peace and safety, with enough to eat and good work to do and a future for our children.  We can be part of healing the world by actively welcoming the stranger, and speaking up when voices of exclusion and fear ring loud and convincing.

And we believe, with the audacity of people who have been radically loved by God, that love will conquer hate.  Love will conquer hate.  We hang onto that conviction with every part of who we are, because the minute we give in to the fear and violence, hatred and death all around us, we become part of the problem.

Terror around the world can flash across our television screens and ring in our ears, causing us to throw our hands up in despair when we realize politicians cannot fix what is so, so broken.  We can take in the terror and act in fear.  Many do.  But we are people of faith, and as such we take in instead the conviction that God’s kingdom is coming to be; the commitment to welcome the stranger; and the assurance that love will always have the final word.

Pastor and writer Eugene Peterson writes: “All the water in the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside.  Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us.”

What can we do with the desperation we feel as we look around at our broken world?  We can take in the divine mandate to be God’s people in the world, and live as if we really believe it.

 

This column appeared first over at Baptist News Global.

Beloved Community: In Pictures

Continuing the celebration this week: here are a few pictures from Sunday’s 85th celebration.  You can see in these pictures the wonderful spirit present, and the incredible dedication and hard work put in by planning committees, lay volunteers, staff, and friends…a wonderful, shared expression of all we can do and be when we work together. #OneRiverside!80th-Birthday-0004 80th-Birthday-0006 80th-Birthday-0010 80th-Birthday-0022 80th-Birthday-0031 80th-Birthday-0050 80th-Birthday-0061 80th-Birthday-0144 80th-Birthday-0146 80th-Birthday-0149 80th-Birthday-0167 80th-Birthday-0195 80th-Birthday-0198 80th-Birthday-0207 80th-Birthday-0214 80th-Birthday-0216 80th-Birthday-0219 80th-Birthday-0221 80th-Birthday-0232 80th-Birthday-0240 80th-Birthday-0248 80th-Birthday-0254 80th-Birthday-0267 80th-Birthday-0273 80th-Birthday-0301 80th-Birthday-0308 80th-Birthday-0317 80th-Birthday-0332 80th-Birthday-0334 80th-Birthday-0352 80th-Birthday-0363 80th-Birthday-0385 80th-Birthday-0391 80th-Birthday-0401 80th-Birthday-0411 80th-Birthday-0418-2 80th-Birthday-0425 80th-Birthday-0440 80th-Birthday-0445 80th-Birthday-0449 80th-Birthday-0453 80th-Birthday-0472 80th-Birthday-0478

Anniversary Prayer

Sovereign, Creator, Mother and Father of life: With thanks beyond our ability to speak, with hope that fills even this sanctuary, with joy for each of our 85 years, with forgiveness for some of the scenes these stones have witnessed and joy for the words and acts that make these stones shout Amen, hear our prayer.

Riverside ChurchFor this congregation: Look upon us with compassion for the fools we have been, the betrayals we have perpetrated in the name of our petty truths, misguided perceptions, jaded and small jealousies. Thank you for your mercy; now please continue to heal and reconcile us so we may embrace one another and show the future what your salvation looks like in this beloved community.

Accept the bold words and acts of justice these 85 years that carry the name Riverside as payments on the principle of this debt you have already, in Christ, redeemed. Stir us to serve our friends in need and to work for change so that their need is diminished. Remind us we too, are they.

Hear our prayer for our world as Dr. Fosdick wrote and generations have sung: “Cure our warring madness,” and heal the wounds of violence, save our children everywhere from harm, shelter the homeless and the refugee. Let compassion flow freely from those blessed with more than is needed so that victims of the many forms of disaster may simply have enough.

Set us straight God, our path clear, your love our north star, grace our dear and close companion, justice in our backpack, joy and wonder for refreshment. We’ve come so far, we have so far to go. Let the carillon ring over the city for decades to come. Grant us wisdom and courage to belong, to believe, to become, beyond “weak resignation” that we may face this hour, these days.

Amen

This beautiful prayer was offered by my colleague Rev. Michael Livingston on the 85th anniversary of The Riverside Church in the City of New York.  It is posted here with his permission.

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