MLK Day Through the Lens of the Wedding at Cana

MLK Day Through the Lens of the Wedding at CanaA sermon preached for Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday and the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany on January 20, 2019 on John 2:1-11 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I wouldn’t choose the Wedding at Cana for a Martin Luther King Jr. service, but it is the text appointed for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, so here we are. All Scripture reveals some aspect of how God works, so as we dig deeply into story, it will help us view the life and witness of Dr. King with a new perspective.

First, we find an underlying issue of justice. Running out of wine was a real crisis for a gathering in the ancient world. The land is dry, the climate, arid, and there was not enough clean water, so people relied on wine and grape juice to remain hydrated. Running out of liquid for people to drink was health risk especially for those who traveled to Cana. They were counting on the hosts of the party to provide not only for their joy at the celebration, but also for their well-being and even their survival in an arid climate.

Wedding celebrations also lasted several days, and most families did not have the kind of resources to pay for food and drink for a large group of people over many days. Therefore, it was customary for the invited guests to bring gifts of food and wine to share the burden of providing for such a large group. Running out of wine was not only embarrassing for the bride and groom, it was shameful for the all of Cana. As a community, they did not provide for the well-being and for the survival of the whole gathering.

Dr. King laid bare the shame of our country, a land of plenty and abundance, allowing its own citizens to go hungry. He believed ending hunger and poverty was essential to achieving freedom and equality for all people. “Let us march on poverty until no American parent has to skip a meal so that their children may eat,” he declared. Like the lack of wine at the Wedding at Cana, King placed the responsibility of ending hunger and poverty on the whole American community. We are responsible to ensure that everyone has their basic needs for survival met.

The second theme in the Wedding at Cana is that God often works through the lowly rather than the powerful. Have you ever heard a wedding story that doesn’t mention the bride? The groom is mentioned in passing, but he doesn’t speak. This wedding story does not even mention the bridal couple’s parents, the hosts of the party, nor any of their town officials or religious leaders. The steward receives a mention—he’s the manager of the party. The steward made sure the food and drink—however much there was—were served in a proper and timely manner, but even he did not know from where this good wine came.

So, who was it who really knew what was going on? Jesus’s mother, and the servants—the working poor. Sounds a bit like the birth story of Jesus in the other Gospels—a story where Mary and the shepherds—the working poor, are privy to angel revelations. Those at the bottom really know what’s going on for they bear the consequences of communal injustice. When there is enough, they get to eat, and when there is scarcity, they are the ones that starve. An abundance of wine at this party, meant the servants were able to partake at the end.

The event that kicked off the Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was powered by people who lived at the bottom. African Americans were 75% of the riders on the bus but living under segregation and Jim Crow laws, they were not allowed to be the drivers. After paying their fare, they had to get off the bus and enter at the back door; often, the driver took off before they had a chance to get back on. It was the seamstresses, domestic workers, nanny’s, factory workers, and other laborers walking everywhere for an entire year that led to the 1956 US Supreme Court Decision, Browder v. Gayle, that declared such segregation unconstitutional.

As we listen to the shepherds and servants in our midst—the working poor, day laborers, nanny’s, home health care workers, minimum wage employees—they will teach us about what God is up to, and how the church can participate. This is the work of the organization, Faith in Texas—believers coming together to listen to those most affected by injustice. Right now we are working on the issue of the lack of affordable housing, which I know affects some members of our congregation.

The third theme the Wedding at Cana reveals is God provides goodness and abundance for all. Jesus wants all the guests to enjoy the goodness and the abundance of wine whether they are aware of how it got there or not. Few people knew the source of the wine, but everyone enjoyed its abundance—that’s how God’s grace and love and generosity work. Jesus shows us that God’s abundance is not earned—it is given; God’s grace is not paid for—it is freely offered; God’s love is not won—it is simply received. Do you know how much wine there is in six stone jars holding twenty to thirty gallons each? I did the math—it’s about 3,200 glasses! That’s the party of lifetime!

Dr. King’s dream for justice and equality did not include inflicting on others the suffering he and people of color endured for centuries in this country. In his Christmas Sermon for Peace in 1967, he said,

I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow, we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say…We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you…But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

The work of God’s justice that we continue today, embodies this abundance to win the heart and conscience of all, a victory for everyone—the party of a lifetime!

Finally, the Wedding at Cana reveals that with Jesus, the best is yet to come. When the steward tasted the good wine Jesus provided, he declared, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus brought goodness and abundance, but he did not do the work alone. In bringing the best, Jesus asked for the participation of others.

• The good wine came because someone noticed and spoke up that there’s a crisis.
• The good wine came because Mary knew that in Jesus, there was another way and she spoke up.
• The good wine came when people got to work and gathered the resources they did have—even if it was only six empty stone jars
• The good wine came when servants did what Jesus said—they filled the jars with water, they brought it to the steward to taste, they served the wine to all the guests.

With Jesus, the best is yet to come. Dr. King also believed that the justice, equality and freedom of the kingdom was yet to come when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He did not mean it was inevitable, but rather, that God’s kingdom would become real when God’s people participated with Jesus and did their part. For the justice of God comes when God’s people notice and speak up when there is a crisis. The equality of God comes when God’s people who know Jesus speak up that there’s another way. The freedom of God comes when God’s people get to work and gather their resources. The abundance of God comes when God’s people do what Jesus says—love your neighbor as yourself, bind up the broken-hearted, free the captive, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and set at liberty those who are oppressed.

With Jesus the best is yet to come—it was true at the Wedding at Cana, it was true during the Civil Rights movement, and it’s true today as we participate in bringing about God’s reign of peace and love. God calls us to pay attention to the underlying issues of justice in our community and the world, to listen to the lowly rather than powerful, and to trust in God’s abundance for all, knowing that with Jesus the best is yet to come.


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Identity and Identification

Identity and IdentificationA Sermon preached for the Baptism of our Lord on January 13, 2018 on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22-17, 21-22, Isaiah 43:1-7 and Acts 8:14-17 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

John the Baptist’s words today tempt us to run screaming in the opposite direction from Jesus. It’s a harsh message—who wants to follow a guy who’s going to separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire? John is not willing to soft-pedal the truth of the coming reign of God in Jesus—he has his winnowing fork in his hands and those things that are not of God, that are not part of salvation, that are not at the heart of God’s love, must go.

It reminds us of other similar images where God transforms us into who God calls us to be—pruning the grape vine that does not bear fruit (John 15) and burning out the impurities in metal in a refiner’s fire (Malachi 3). Redemption can hurt. Transformation into who God wants us to be can involve painful letting go of who we were and what we thought. When we decide to follow Jesus, we must expect the winnowing fork that removes all that gets in the way of the God’s work and preserve the good seed in us that can grow into the fruit of love.

I learned how important it is to allow Jesus to burn away the chaff in my life as a new pastor in Detroit. The ELCA congregations in the early 90’s were formed into a Coalition of urban churches who worked together to grow and learn in struggling urban communities. The big challenge was that all of us were white pastors serving in predominantly African American communities and congregations.

While Detroit of 1990 was different from Richardson of 2019, there are parallels whenever we seek to share the love of God in an increasingly diverse community. We had two African American Lutheran seminary professors who mentored the white pastors using the very winnowing fork mentioned in today’s passage. What assumptions of ourselves, our education, our authority our cultural style did we have to let go of in order to serve faithfully in a multi-racial community? Our professors spoke of the difference between Identity and Identification, one of the most important learnings of my ministry.

As Christians, created by God, we all share the very same Identity—beloved child of God conferred on us in our Baptism, just as it is on Jesus. When he was baptized, “and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” That’s Jesus’s identity and our identity. Beloved child of God. Period. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s true for all believers, and we can even say it’s true for every human being—for we are all created in the image of God. The banner that hangs above the baptismal font confirms this idea with words from Isaiah 43, “I have called you my name, you are mine.” A few verses later, Isaiah records the most direct words of love from God to Israel: “You are precious to me, and honored and I love you.” That’s our Identity.

Our Identifications on the other hand, are those things conferred on us through the particularity of our birth---our cultural or ethnic group, our personality, our language, even our talents or skills. Our identifications are the delivery system through which we express our identity. Jesus entered history and had to take on some identifications in order to become human—he came into the world as a first-century Jewish male, born of a working-class family in an insignificant part of the eastern Mediterranean world. But no matter what his culture, race, class, or gender was—his identity was the same, “you are my Beloved Son with you I am well-pleased.”

When we hold to our common identity as children of God—that we are each a child of God, precious, honored and beloved, then the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, style of worship and expression become a source of celebration and learning. But the temptation for all of us, is to make our identifications our identity—to make our culture, class, skin color, education or income—the source of who we are and therefore the only right way to be in the world. Then those with a different identifications of skin color, language, culture or class become threatening and fear-inducing. We see this happening over and over in ethnic and political conflict in our country and around the globe. Martin Luther called this sin turning in on self. In his ministry, Jesus repeatedly challenged the religious community by including those who were excluded because of their identifications--Gentiles, the poor, disabled, lepers, and so on.

When we make our identifications our identity, Jesus comes to clear the threshing floor and to instill our true, Baptismal identity: Beloved son or daughter, Beloved child of God. Part of St. Luke’s witness in Richardson, is to embody unity in Christ in the midst of diversity—that’s the meaning of our welcome statement—that there’s no human condition or identification that excludes you from our common identity as children of God—All Are Welcome! The apostle's embrace this truth as we see in Acts 8 as the baptize and pray for the Holy Spirit on Samaritans, traditional enemies of Israel.

As white pastors in Detroit, our mentors brought out the winnowing fork to separate our identity as children of God from the identifications of culture and class we clung to. It was painful to come face to face with our assumptions of white privilege—we had to let these cultural identifications burn away like chaff—because they were getting in the way of living out of who we really were—beloved children of God who had a place at the table with all other beloved children of God. We had to let go of being right, having all the authority, being the expert, and even having the music and worship align with our own preferences and identifications. We listened and learned. It was humbling to experience that people in the congregation and community did not dismiss me out of hand because of my identifications; rather, they looked at my heart, they looked for the seed of love given by the Holy Spirit, and I was accepted.

Of course, none of us maintained our true identity as God’s children perfectly. There were times when we made our identifications our identity and we slipped into divided camps based on class, or color, or music preference. But when our focus remained on our common identity as beloved children of God baptized into Christ, our ministry, worship, outreach and Coalition partnerships thrived, and we held special worship services that reflected the diversity represented in our community.

I remember one particular moment when our identity in Christ superseded our identifications. It was a coalition-wide worship service for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One congregation had Laotian members who often didn’t feel a welcomed part of our services as they had limited English and the worship style was difficult to follow. The rest of us did not speak Laotian, but their pastor gave us the phonetic spelling of the second verse for the opening hymn, “Glory to His Name.” The entire congregation sung the second verse in Laotian. I was standing up in the chancel as the Master of Ceremonies and as we sang, I watched the group of Laotian Lutherans singing in the front two pews. They looked up and their faces lit up like Christmas trees as they were surrounded by brown, white, and black Lutherans singing and celebrating in their language, our common Identity as children of God.

That moment was only possible because Jesus cleared the threshing floor, burning away our sin of making our identifications, our identity. The Holy Spirit landed on us in bodily form that day instilling once again our common and only true identity: Beloved son, beloved daughter, beloved child of God, precious, honored and beloved.

I do not mean to say that there’s anything wrong with enjoying and taking pride in our ethnic and cultural heritage. A couple of weeks ago, I visited my Dad in the hospital after he broke his hip. I had just stopped at his house to pick up a few of his favorite things. I walked in the room and I said, “Hey dad, I brought you some herring, hard tack, lefse chips and Ole and Lena fortune cookies!” He said, “oh, that’s great!” The nurse looked at me and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” and I said, “then you’re probably not Swedish!” Our cultural and ethnic heritage can be a source of delight, comfort and joy, but it’s not who we are.

God loves us with a fierce, unflinching, burning love—so much so that God sends Jesus Christ into a human culture and ethnicity so that all of us—no matter our heritage or history—might know beyond a shadow of a doubt, our true identity as a beloved child of God, precious, honored and loved. When we are clear about our Baptismal identity, we open ourselves to being powerful seeds of love in our diverse community. 

People from all over the globe are moving to northern Texas. We can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, succeed in expanding our diversity and growing seeds of love as we follow Christ into our community. I wonder who, in 2019 will light up like a Christmas tree because they felt beloved by this community and heard God say to them, “you are precious to me, and honored and I love you.”


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All I Need to Know About Faith I Learned from the Magi

All I Need to Know about Faith I Learned from the MagiA sermon preached for the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 2019 on Matthew 2:1-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas.

I have borrowed the title for this sermon from the book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.The wise sages who followed a star to find the Christ child remind us that being a Christian is less about reciting a doctrine, and more about a way of life. What do these foreigners from an ancient religion far from Israel and far from us, have to teach us about living as faithful Christians today? If you have not committed to any New Year's resolutions, yet, you might find a couple of ideas here.

Number 1: Pay attention to the creation. The Magi noticed a change in the heavens and it informed their behavior. The sign of a bright star set them on a journey to find the new thing that God was doing—breaking into human history in the form of a baby that would be King and Savior of all, even above their own religion. What does it mean for us today to pay attention to the changing signs in creation? Rising temperatures, melting glaciers, increasing ocean levels, and more extreme storms, beg us to pay attention to how we interact with the creation, calling us to mitigate human effects on the health of our planet.

In 2006 I heard theologian John Dominic Crossan speak and someone asked him about natural disasters. His response was, “God gives justice to the creation.” This sounds radical, but it’s not a new idea. Twelfth century German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, said, “All of creation God gives to humankind to use. If this privilege is misused, God’s justice permits creation to punish humanity.” But she also encouraged: “If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.”

Number 2: Faith is a journey. We need to move out of our comfort zone and traditions and be willing to try something new. The wise men were not kings, but rather Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from Persia, modern day Iran. They had plenty of knowledge and a religion with a rich history dating back as far as 1500 BC. They could have stayed where the were, doing the same old thing. But they had a deep desire for more, for truth, for a Savior. They believed they could foretell the miraculous birth of a divine prophet by reading the stars. So, they left their comfort zone and went on a journey to pursue revelation, to learn truth, to deepen their understanding and experience of God breaking into human life.

What does it mean for us to live a faith as a journey—never satisfied, but instead, always seeking new experiences of God’s Spirit, always looking for signs of God’s love breaking into our everyday, and always willing to grow on a journey where we expect God to challenge and to change us? What new journey might you undertake this year to deepen your relationship with God? After church next week, I am beginning a class with a new curriculum called Rooted which is having a transformational effect in other congregations. The study book includes devotions for 5 days out of the week, as well as a weekly conversation with others on the journey, a service project and time in prayer. It is guaranteed to be a journey like the Magi—one to change, inform and deepen your experience of God coming into the world—your world and your life.

Number 3: Ask for Directions. When the Magi made it to Jerusalem, they still did not know where to find Jesus, so they asked for help. They knew a lot, they could read the stars—they made it a long way on their own, but ultimately, they could not get to where they wanted to go without asking for assistance. I know that asking for directions is difficult for many of us (men) to do, but if the wise men of the Bible can do it, so can you! That’s true both for getting to the right address when we travel (and our GPS isn’t working) and for our life of faith. Asking for help is a sign not of weakness, but of faith and the humility required to open space for God to work anew. There are individual aspects to our faith for sure, but none of us can get where God wants to be without help from others.

For our devotions during our last two Council meetings, we have done something called Dwelling in the Word. It is a style of listening to a Bible passage with each person reflecting on and sharing what they hear God saying. No one is the expert—God gives us amazing insights that arise from each person’s life experience and personality. None of us, including me, have all the answers to our questions of faith or our future in the church—but together—with a spirit of humility and asking for help, God’s direction for our lives and the mission of St. Luke’s will become clearer.

Number 4: Pause for Joy. When the sages saw that the star had stopped, they were “overwhelmed with joy.” Why include such a detail? After a long journey and stopping for directions, you would think they would rush in to see Jesus. But no, the Magi pause, so we can stop with them and experience the joy of God breaking into our human story, anticipating the moment where we see God’s work clearly.

What would it be like to make one of our new year’s resolutions be to “pause for joy?” That’s an experience we can have many times a day: pausing for joy in the moment before we say grace for a meal or taking a moment to watch our child or grandchild sleep. Pausing for joy is snapping a selfie with our best friend or noticing the gift of family being together—whether it’s before starting a favorite show or piling into the car. Pausing for joy is taking in the pinks and blues streaking across the Texas sky at sunset or praying after receiving the body and blood of Christ. In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, after telling the disciples to abide in him as he abides in God, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” God desires us to have joy in Jesus Christ—not that our life is perfect or that everything is working out exactly as we hoped—but that in the midst of life as it is, God keeps breaking into our reality with love, and light, forgiveness and hope, beauty and faith. We can pause and experience joy in God’s presence.

Number 5: Offer gifts. After pausing for joy, the sages entered the house where Mary was, paid him homage and offered their gifts. Imagine these educated, wealthy priests coming to a foreign land, getting on their knees, and publicly worshiping a baby in his poor mother’s arms. How many borders of class, race, culture and social expectation are we willing to cross so that others know that our highest devotion, our allegiance, our worship and our heart belong to Jesus Christ alone? Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “Christianity cannot be bound by ethnicity or nationality. This puts it in essential conflict with any group that wants to domesticate the message for its own ‘patriotic’ purposes.” Jesus came for all nations, all of humanity, all of creation.

Even though God is working salvation out in this grand and cosmic scale, the Magi show us that we need to bring our gifts, our contribution to God’s work of salvation. We may not have gold, frankincense or myrrh, but God has given all of us something to share to build up the kingdom. It may be the gift of financial resources, or it may be time or teaching, administration or accounting, singing or storytelling, leadership or landscaping, computers or carpentry. You may not be physically able to contribute any of these gifts, but no matter your situation, you can offer the most important gift of prayer—prayer for every member, prayer for our mission, for resources, for direction, for deepened faith, and for greater spiritual practices. The sages invite us to our knees in worship and in offering the gift of ourselves to the mission of Christ.

Finally, Number 6: Listen for God. The sages from the East learned from a dream not to share information about Jesus with Herod. We too, can listen to God who speaks to us in a whole variety of ways. In this one story, the wise men notice God’s guidance through creation with the star, the voice of other people in receiving directions, the face of a baby, and now in a dream. How many times do we miss God’s messages to us because we are looking for them in only one way? Throughout Scripture, God speaks through dreams, angels, creation, people, wrestling, hardship, healing, resurrection, hospitality, affirmation, fire, storms, voices, clouds, mountains, foreign powers, metaphors, prophets, teachers, flashes of light, the poor, parables, songs, poetry, inner wisdom, bread, water, pregnancy, children, visions, and I could go on, but you get the point.

Faith is about looking for God-sightings every day and in everything, being open to new ways for the light of Christ and the love of God to shimmer in unexpected places. God can lead us into the next right action when we actively watch for God’s guidance. Because the Magi were open to God, they participated in God’s desire to thwart the evil that Herod devised by going back to their country a different way. Listening for the many ways God speaks enables us to respond daily to how God wants to use us whether it is to thwart evil or to do good.

So, you see, AlI We Really Need to Know about Faith, We Learn from the Magi. Through these six practices, the Magi show us that Christian faith is a way of life. In this new year, as we pay attention to the creation, as we engage in the journey of faith, as we ask for directions and help along the way, as we pause for joy, as we worship Jesus, and share our gifts, as we listen for God in all things and respond, we will experience anew the God who is always with us, the God who saves us with lavish love, and the God who gives us the power and presence of Jesus Christ every single day.

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A God We Cannot Resist: A Baby Wooing Us into Love

A God We Cant ResistA Sermon preached for Christmas Eve for December 24, 2018, St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Perhaps you saw the 2006 movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby with Will Ferrell. Although a complete goofball, Ricky Bobby earned millions as a successful race car driver. In one scene he sits down to dinner with his family and best friend, and Ricky Bobby says grace. He starts out, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…we thank you for this bountiful harvest of Dominoes, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell .…” Later he continues, “Dear 8-pound, 6-ounce newborn baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we’d just like to thank you for all these races I’ve won… Dear tiny Jesus with your golden fleece diapers…”

When his wife criticizes Ricky Bobby for praying to the infant Jesus, reminding him that Jesus grew up, Ricky Bobby says, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus…I like the baby version the best, you hear me?”

Even though it was played for humor, I think Ricky Bobby is on to something. In the frenzy of holiday busyness, have we ever really taken the time to absorb what it means for God to come to us as an 8 lb, 6 oz newborn baby? The God of the cosmos, pressing down into such a minute form, and then coming into the world in the most human of ways, through a young unmarried woman. A newborn infant—so beautiful and innocent, eyes wide with wonder, and so dependent--completely dependent on human care and love for survival. Why would God do this?

Because God knows—no one can resist the draw of newborn baby. God draws near to us in vulnerability to woo us into loving him. God comes in love, through love, because of love, as an infant—God woos into loving him—becoming a God we can’t resist. It isn’t fair is it? Who can turn away from a baby? We’re all drawn to the manger—from the working poor of the shepherds, to the wealthy and wise foreigners following the light that shines over the God of love.

Imagine walking with the shepherds or riding with the sages to the animal shed where angels sing and starlight twinkles. You kneel in the straw and inch forward to see the baby in his young mother’s strong and tender arms. You can’t resist that face—a fresh, holy gift of life. You ask Mary if you can hold her son, and she opens her arms and passes you the bundle of sweet-smelling hope. You hold the Lord God in your arms and marvel at his gaze of wonder, and expectation. God’s gift for you, wrapped in the swaddling cloths of love.

All he needs from you is your love. All those images of God’s judgment melt away, and you remember, you remember that “faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.” Our God comes in tenderness, in infancy, to invite you to be love-drawn rather than fear-driven.* It’s the only response we can imagine in the face of a newborn—to be love-drawn. Jesus gazes up at you, dependent, hoping…you lean over and draw him close, and kiss face of God. 

This is the essence of human community: to hold one another in love and behold the face of God—to be love-drawn rather than fear-driven. Every baby we behold—whether our own child or grandchild, a niece or nephew, a neighbor down the street or a child in our Sunday School, is a sacred reminder that God comes to woo us in love. Today, Jesus still comes in vulnerability, depending on us for his survival, and to share the incarnation of his love.

As we hold the baby Jesus in our arms, we can imagine moving into tomorrow and next year letting go of fear and embracing love. The tiny baby Jesus in “his golden fleece diapers,” comes to you in tenderness, asking you to love him in return, and to keep his grace and love alive in the world.

*The phrase, "love-drawn rather than fear driven" comes from Fr. Richard Rohr


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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.