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Do All the Good You Can with What You Have

Straighten Up and Do All You Can with What You HaveA shared sermon with the Rev. Dan Anderson-Little for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 13:10-17 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas upon our return from studying Spanish and meeting with churches in Colombia, South America.

Linda
So, what’s up with this religious leader in the synagogue? The bent-over woman has been healed and she starts praising God, which is the response every religious leader dreams of! But he’s not very excited—in fact, he’s pretty put off by the whole event. Given the amazing healing this bent-over woman has experienced, his response seems harsh and uncaring.

But the issue with the leader of the synagogue is not that he doesn’t care; the fact of the matter is that he cares a lot. He is responsible for running an entire religious organization— he cares so much about his synagogue that he has adopted certain ways of doing things: he follows procedures, he is mindful of the rules—there is a time and place for everything. No doubt, he has committees, officers and budgets—without all of this, community life at the synagogue would be chaos. We understand how he feels, do we not?

But this leader is burdened by more than the efficient operation of the synagogue. He is also hampered by too many needs and demands, and too little time and too few resources. There are always beggars at the gate, widows in need, travelers seeking food and shelter, people who are crippled, diseased and poor struggling to eat. And in the face of such enormous need, the leader wonders how can one synagogue make a difference in the face of all those who need healing and help? There are only so many resources, so many days in the week, so many programs one synagogue can do.

These issues have caused him to focus on limitations: what his community does not have, what they cannot do, who they cannot help, and on this particular day, what cannot happen on the Sabbath. When he focuses on what he cannot do with what he does not have on a day when nothing is supposed to happen, the ruler can only see what is not possible. And so for 18 years, this bent-over woman has remained…bent over.
Jesus walked into that synagogue that day as much for that ruler as he did for the bent-over woman. She is bent-over physically and desperately needs Jesus healing touch and the freedom that healing brings, especially for the chance to be upright for the first time in 18 years. But the synagogue ruler is bent-over spiritually, paralyzed by a fear that accompanies limitations—the false belief that if we cannot do everything we want, if we can’t address every need that we are aware of, then why bother. His preoccupation with the procedures of his religious community and his fear that what help they can offer is never enough, has caused him to no longer see possibility as Jesus does—that every person is a daughter or son of Abraham—an heir to God’s promise, deserving of healing and wholeness.

Jesus sees the bent-over woman and immediately sees the opportunity for her to be standing straight with a vision much greater than the floor in front of her. Even though it is the day of rest and refraining from work, Jesus calls her to him to give her the healing and hope he envisions for her: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” Healing is not simply an end to illness—it is liberation to a new life—a life lived in God’s embrace! Jesus places his hands on her, touching her with love, offering her mercy, acceptance, and peace. For Jesus, Sabbath is much more than following rules to show how much we love God; rather, Sabbath is living in the freedom and peace of how much God loves us.

Instead of ascribing to limitations, Jesus creates openings; instead of seeing what he doesn’t have, Jesus looks at what God can provide; instead of seeing what cannot happen, Jesus uses his resources to make something new happen.

Dan
As you know, Linda and I were in Colombia over the past few weeks. Colombia is a country a little more than twice the size of Texas. It has 50 million citizens and over the past five decades has endured a civil war and the scourge of narco-trafficking. While it has a reputation of being a violent place, the war is now over, and the drug cartels have lost most of their power. We found a country that is working to be more peaceful and is modernizing at a dizzying rate. Colombia has a growing middle and professional class. It is a fascinating, beautiful country populated by warm and caring people. But like all places, Colombia also has tremendous needs. While the standard of living is increasing, there is still a high rate of poverty, in both the cities and the rural areas. While the war is over, there are still long-standing resentments and challenges as the country comes back together. And recently Colombia has been inundated by refugees from neighboring Venezuela—people who are escaping the collapse of their country’s society and economy.

It would be easy for anyone to imagine that in the face of such need, that churches—especially Protestant churches in a predominantly Catholic country—would just give up. Why bother trying to make a difference when resources are so few and the need is so great? We wouldn’t blame churches in Colombia if they kept their heads down and just took care of what was necessary—if they followed procedures and rules to keep the church going. But that is not what we found in Colombia. What we discovered is that Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Colombia are doing the very thing that Jesus did in this morning’s story. These small, seemingly insignificant congregations don’t just see needs—they see possibilities. The church in Colombia sees daughters and sons of Abraham—heirs to God’s promise, deserving of healing and wholeness. And while the resources of these churches are few, they respond in ways that change lives and bring hope.

One afternoon in Bogota, we met with Lutheran Bishop Atahualpa Hernandez. He told us about some of the outreach that the Lutheran Church of Colombia is doing. Now mind you, this is a denomination of 25 congregations in the whole country! We wondered what difference such a small church could make. Bishop Hernandez told us that in the rural areas where there are Lutheran churches, areas that were hardest hit by the civil war and where is there is a great need to bring people together in hope and trust, the Lutheran Church knows that it is called to be a witness to the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ. They host dialogues, help heal deep spiritual wounds, and show people how to live in peace.

The Presbyterian Church in Colombia is also very small and like the Lutherans, they are having a great impact. Bogota is a city of 8 million people, and in the entire city, there are three Presbyterian churches. All three churches have a particular outreach—one to Venezuelan immigrants, one that promotes peace in the aftermath of the civil war, and the other has a huge outreach to the poor families in their community. These are small congregations that struggle week in and week out to keep the church alive—but that does not limit their vision—rather it increases their reliance on God’s power. And these churches are making a profound difference in Colombia. We want to share a video with you about la Iglesia Presiteriana de Bethania.

This is the church with the outreach to children and families. I had the opportunity to preach at the Betania church in Spanish three weeks ago, and Linda and I returned another day to see their outreach program. The video is in Spanish, but there are subtitles. It moves along pretty quickly so you may not catch everything that is said. I will give a short summary of the video at the end and Linda will post it at the St. Luke’s Facebook page so you can go back and view it later. The power of this video is that it shows what can happen when a small group of people with limited resources can do when they view the world as Jesus does and when they rely on God’s power to change the world.

Watch Video

Linda
Jesus calls us to follow him in looking at the possibilities of what God can do with what we have.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said it this way:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

On the cross, Jesus has freed us from all that bends us over and limits our vision of what is possible. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can join our sisters and brothers of Colombia in participating with Jesus in the amazing work God can do with all the people and all the resources we have right here, right now.

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A New Look at Martha and Mary

A New Look at Mary and MarthaA message given for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 10:38-42 on July 21, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I apologize for the late postings--I have had computer trouble.

Women do not get a whole lot of PR in the Bible, so you would think I would be excited to have a Bible passage all about women—you would think. But there are a lot of issues with this passage making it a difficult one, especially for women.

What a bummer that one of the few passages where a woman actually speaks, she is complaining about another woman, her own sister, no less—really Luke? This is the one conversation that women had with Jesus that you felt compelled to record? Women were part of Jesus’ discipleship group doing important work, albeit in the background, like making sure they were fed, clothed, and had water. But no doubt they also prayed and listened and questioned Jesus as well, and of all the conversations that happened with women, this was the best Luke could do?
This passage also seems to set up dualism as if discipleship is a binary system—Mary’s good, Martha’s bad, listening to Jesus is good, service is bad, Mary’s silence is good, Martha’s assertiveness is bad, prayer is good, busy-ness is bad. But is that where this story is really going? Is this conversation really about a hierarchy of gifts and styles of discipleship?

I want us to turn this story around. Instead of dismissing Martha, let us see what she is doing right. The most significant aspect about Martha in this passage is that she is portrayed as the head of the household—not her brother Lazarus as in the Gospel of John.

Jesus and his disciples entered the village and verse 38 says, “Martha welcomed him into her home.” It doesn’t say, “Martha and Mary welcomed him”—it says, “Martha.” Martha’s the one in charge here, and she is offering this sacred gift of hospitality—a place to stay, to wash up, to rest, to be fed, cared for, and nourished. Hospitality was a crucial social obligation in the first century because without it, travelers would go hungry, and come to harm with now here to stay.

You know immediately when you are the home of someone who has the gift of hospitality. My mom had this gift—and she had a way of making everyone feel special. She thought of everything: decorations with a coordinating centerpiece and napkins, a detailed menu, delicious food, several sets of dishes so she could pick just the right one, guest towels in the bathroom, candles everywhere, my sisters and I learned to ‘serve a plate from the left and take it away from the right.’ From the moment you walked in the door for a dinner party, you knew my mom had the gift of hospitality.

I bet the same was true for Martha. I know she had water to wash the feet of Jesus and the disciples when the arrived, she had clean, folded towels at the ready, and then she escorted them to the sitting area. She had already collected water early that morning, had a fire already stoked, and had probably already ground the flour for bread. But she still had a lot of work to do.
Guess who did not have the gift of hospitality? Mary. I bet Mary loved learning and reading, ideas and stories, going to Temple and prayer. If she could have had a bat mitzvah (which did not start for girls in the Jewish tradition until 1922), she would have knocked it out of the park, but setting the table and kneading the bread? How tedious. And who cares if the silverware is lined up just so or if the towels are clean or folded, or if the bread is a little burnt? She just wants to get through dinner and get back to more interesting things like the ideas of this new rabbi, Jesus. Maybe after supper, he would have time to read the new prayer she wrote.

Martha and Mary have different spiritual gifts and different ways of serving. And they are both essential if Jesus’ gospel movement is going to thrive. It needed men and women who attended to spiritual issues and those who attended to temporal needs. The gospel movement needed both Marthas and Marys then, and it needs both Marthas and Marys now.

Then what is going on in this story if it is not to elevate Mary’s style of discipleship over Martha’s? The answer lies, not in Martha’s actions (which were essential—if she had not put out a spread, Mary would never have had the chance to listen to Jesus and everyone would have gone hungry)—rather the issue of this story lies in Martha’s attitude. Martha is mad because she feels burdened and unappreciated. Perhaps Martha decided that if she had a little more help with the preparations, she too, would have a chance to listen to Jesus’ new ideas.

We don’t always behave our best when we think our sister, brother, neighbor or fellow church member is being selfish instead of noticing when we so obviously could use help. So, Martha triangles Jesus and asks him to whip Mary into shape. I think there are two deeper messages behind Jesus’s comment about Martha being “worried and distracted by many things.”

First, Jesus real point is that Martha’s public resentment and frustration diminishes her own beautiful gift of hospitality which she is working so hard to share. How many times do we work hard to offer what we are good at in our homes, with our family, at work, or in church—and then our own resentment or anger at others gets in the way of people receiving what we are offering? If we can see ourselves in Martha, whether we are male or female, then Jesus invites us into better self-care, and the practice of asking for the help we need before resentment and anger set in.

How different this story would have been if Martha could have pulled Mary aside, and said, “it really is wonderful to hear all Jesus has to say. I would love to hear it, too. It would mean so much if you could help me for 15 minutes and then while the bread bakes, I would have a chance to sit down with you and listen too.”

Second, Martha wants Mary to have the same spiritual gift as she does, rather than accepting Mary for who she is and the spiritual gift she brings. Jesus says, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things,” and Martha’s thinking to herself, “yes, I am, I would like Mary to take up some of this worry and distraction! I would like Mary to do more of what I do! People are so annoying! It’s like they have a mind of their own. It’s like God made them unique, like their own person who is different from me with a different way of being and of serving—it’s so frustrating!” Jesus says to Martha, “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be take away from her.”

There is need of only one thing: be who YOU are, serve with YOUR gift—that’s what Mary is doing—stop telling Mary what her important work is, what her way of serving is, what her experience is. You, do YOU, Martha. And let Mary, be Mary.”

Luke included this difficult passage because he already experienced in the early church how challenging it can be to joyfully serve out of our own gift without resentment and control, while serving side by side with someone else offering a completely different gift or way of being. Our Colossians passage says that through Jesus, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha frees us from this comparison and control, and Jesus’ victory over death gives us peace over the fear that the gift we have to offer is better or is not enough in comparison to the person next to us. We are all reconciled to Christ and all the riches of God’s love are already ours no matter what our gifts are, freeing us to be ourselves and to serve with joy, and with love, and with self-care.

This church is blessed with a whole lot of Marthas and Marys and we need everyone for this ministry flourish. We have people who offer prayers, run the altar guild, teach, take care of the property, lead on Council, who are redesigning the website, offer music, are chairing new ministry teams, and the list goes on and on. The Christian Church would not have made it to 2019 without a whole lot of Marthas doing a whole lot of work and whole lot of Marys listening to Jesus and praying. It is false dichotomy to split the two because discipleship means we actively participate in the kingdom work AND we pray and deepen our relationship with Jesus. Both are necessary and our service lead us back to self-care and prayer and our prayer leads us back to service we are physically able to do, and back and forth again and again.

We are a community of gifts and the more we each joyfully serve with what God has given us, the more we can joyfully welcome others with new gifts to serve alongside us. Like Martha and Mary, you have a gift that matters to Jesus, that matters to us and that makes a difference in this church. Through Jesus we are freed to serve joyfully, accepting ourselves and each other’s talents with the same hospitable welcome that Christ gives to all of us.

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Playing Mad Libs with the Parable of The Good Samaritan

Mad Libs and The Good SamaritanA "Discussion Sermon" on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37 on July 14, 2019 at St.  Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

We began with a game of Mad Libs where members of the congregation made suggestions to fill in the following blanks in this order

  • Hotel or motel around here: Motel 6
  • Cost of lodging for 2 nights: $150
  • Typical kind of car: Chevy SUV
  • Respected Religious Leader doing important task: The Pope on his way to bless people
  • Respected Religious Leader doing important task: Dalai Lama on his way to pray
  • Someone who would be considered a hated religious enemy: Muslim terrorist

Listen again to a story that Jesus tells:

A man was hiking along Preston Road to get from Dallas to Plano and he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Now by chance The Pope was going down the road on the way to bless people; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

So likewise, Dalai Lama on his way to pray when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Muslim terrorist, while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them.

Then he put him in his own Chevy SUV, brought him to the Motel 6, where he was staying and took care of him.

The next day, he took out $150 and gave it to the front desk clerk and said, ‘Take care of him, and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responded, “the one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

How do you feel when you hear the story this way?

What is shocking when you hear the story this way?

Discussion:

The religious people do not show compassion—they follow their religion so closely, it has become about doing religion right, rather than doing the right thing.

The “enemy” becomes the role model. The “Good Samaritan” is not someone who does a simple kind deed, but our enemy--someone whom we fear, who threatens our life, our sense of well-being, our security—who does a kind and just deed.

The lawyer cannot even say, “the Samaritan” but “'the one' who showed him mercy." How can we build a relationship with those we fear or hate if we cannot even say their name or nationality?

We need to look for GOOD in the “enemy”— he or she is a complex human being like we are

  • Are we willing to help “them”--whoever "them" may be? 
  • Are we willing to receive help from “them? Stop treating people as “other”
    Labels—everyone in the parable has a label –the Priest, Levite, Jewish, Samaritan 
  • The man in the ditch has no label—he is a man, a human being

Go and DO likewise—what matters in this story is what we DO

  • This is not a Doctrine of The Neighbor---it is a behavior toward the neighbor who is a human being in need 
  • The first action is to COME NEAR him and see his need

Sometimes that human being in the ditch is us

  • Who has come near to us in our time of need?
  • Sometimes our help comes from an unlikely people

Gospel:

God has come near to us in Jesus the Christ. Our salvation comes from an enemy of the state, who was killed like a criminal but who rose from the dead. Like the Good Samaritan, Jesus promises to come back and pay our final debt— so that all our sin is forgiven, all our wounds healed, and all our debts paid. We hear in this parable, a veiled autobiography of Jesus who comes near to all of us to save us and promises to return to make sure everything is set right, and all is healed. 

 Until he returns, Jesus calls us not to fear the "other" as an enemy, but to see him, the risen Christ.

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The Who, The What, and The How of Discipleship in Jesus' Reign of Justice and Love

The Who The What and The How of DiscipleshipMessage for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost on Luke 9:51-62, 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, and Galatians 5:1,13-25 on June 30, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Usually loving and wise, today we hear an incongruous, harsh, non sequitur Jesus. With his face set toward the cross in Jerusalem, Jesus’ strange responses to three would-be disciples offer the Who, the What and the How of discipleship in his reign of justice and love.

First, the Who. To this would-be disciple Jesus says, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

Comfort is important to us—we like clothes of soft fabrics, leather couches, TV screens bigger than my first car, and deep recliners. We like our beer cold, our wine smooth, and our AC on high in the Texas heat.

When it comes to where we lay our head at night—we can have beds that recline, foam toppers, down comforters, orthopedic, egg crate, or neck support pillows; we can choose from Sealy, Simmons, Serta, Sterns and Foster, and Sleep Number beds. But Jesus says, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head—following me will be uncomfortable, life will be uncertain, and events will be unpredictable. You are taking a risk, plans will change; you cannot sit in your La-Z-Boy and pretend to be in charge.”

Jesus asks, “Who are going to trust when discipleship gets really uncomfortable? You must trust God enough to be comfortable inside even when you are miserable on the outside. You have to be ready to let go and let God, even in the face of death, trusting that God is control and up to something even bigger.”

I had an experience this past week of how hard it is to REALLY trust God. Dan left on Tuesday to visit his brother Ben in Phoenix and then drive to Utah to climb its highest mountain, King’s Peak. Dan has done a fair amount of hiking, but his would be his biggest climb. Dan promised he would be smart and stay safe, but he would be out of cell-range from Friday lunch to this afternoon until around 4. I have an average amount of worry, as wives and moms go, except when I was in chemo for breast cancer eleven years ago. Back then, I had high anxiety about the safety of my family because I experienced that bad things really do happen, and can happen to the people I love.

When one of us flies without the other, Dan and I have no drama good-byes at the airport drop-off. But this past Tuesday, fresh scars across my chest (from the recent removal of my implants), a 13,527’ mountain in his near-future with no cell contact for 2 ½ days, I jumped out of the car, ran up, grabbed Dan by the collar and with tears streaming down my face, said, “promise you’ll come back to me, I can’t live without you!”

He promised again to be safe, hugged me and off he went, but then I had to deal with my triggered anxiety. This is what Jesus is really getting at—Who am I going to trust?

I have a comfy couch, a new TV, smooth wine, a foam topper on my bed and lots of pillows, but none of that really helps me with this anxiety. Peace is available to me, but am I available for the peace that Jesus is ready to give me? Am I available for the comfort that comes only from trusting God and following Jesus even when it’s hard? Can I be comfortable on the inside when I am uncomfortable on the outside?

I prayed and have prayed every day. I asked God for help, I did the deep breath prayers I have taught you and tried to focus on doing just one thing at a time. When Friday came, and we talked the last time, I was able to tell Dan to have a great time and to enjoy God’s creation.

The only true comfort we have is in WHO we trust—God in Jesus Christ, no matter where we lay our head and whether our loved ones are home with us or not. “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8). The prophet Isaiah says it this way: “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.” (Isaiah 26:3 RSV)

As it turns out that the top of the King’s Peak has too much snow so they could not attempt the summit. Dan was back in cell range yesterday! I said, “Awesome! I mean, oh, I’m so sorry that did not work out for you!”

Second, the What: To another would-be disciples who wanted to first bury his father, Jesus sounds particularly harsh, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Certainly Jesus, who wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and raised him from the dead, is not devoid of compassion when it comes to experiencing grief. He is not suggesting that we give up our practices of burial.

There were specific rituals of burial, however, required by the Temple, and it was so important that they were done properly and completely that those involved were relieved of daily morning and evening prayers. Until completed, the one responsible for burial was considered ritually unclean. If this man followed Jesus without burying his father, he would forever be unclean, that is, never be able to enter the Temple, nor participate in its worship life. He would be like a tax collector, a sinner and a leper, and forced to stand outside the gate, excluded from the religious community.

And that is the very point Jesus is making. The ministry of the Temple should be focused on including the tax collector, the sinner and the leper. When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead” he is pushing his followers to ask the question of their Temple, “What? What are you focused on? What are the priorities of this religious institution and are they fulfilling God priorities of justice for the poor, healing for sick, care for the widows, welcome for the stranger, and love for the outcast?”

Jesus judges the religious institution for allowing ritual regulations to replace real righteousness. If the worship inside the temple does not lead you into that kind of mission outside the temple, then what are you focused on? You are not serving the God of Israel that Jesus embodies; instead, you have made an idol of worship, rules and the institution itself.

What matters is that our rituals, our prayers, our songs, our worship, energize us to follow Jesus out the door, to carry on the work of the kingdom of God. Galatians tells us that “for freedom Christ has set us free”—free to love and serve our neighbor.

Three, the How: Another would-be follower wanted to say farewell to his family and to him Jesus said, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." This disciple not only sounds like a good son, we hear Elisha do this very thing in our first reading from 1 Kings. We have all heard “hindsight is 20/20” and "those who cannot remember the past are condemned …to repeat it." So, what’s up?

Jesus uses a farming metaphor—a plow in Jesus’ time was most likely made of a single blade that cut into the ground that was attached to a T-handle that the farmer would hold. This blade was strapped to mule or ox and the farmer would both steer the animal and cut the furrow holding the handle attached to the blade of the plow.

In order to cut a straight furrow, the farmer must keep his eyes straight ahead, exactly on the edge of the field where he wants to end up. The second the farmer looks back, looks away, gets distracted or does not have his undivided attention on his destination across the field, the animal walks whichever way he looks, and he ends up with a wavy, crooked furrow. Wavy, crooked furrows make for bad farming and a poor harvest because patches of land go unused, watering is difficult, and the results not as fruitful. But with straight furrows, everything else that you do becomes easier—watering, irrigation, drainage, and harvesting.

The most successful farmer always keeps her eyes on the future—her eyes are always locked on her destination on edge of the field when she plows—and that future arrival is what determines her plowing in the present moment---not the past, not the last harvest, not how much debt she carries, not whether she feels worthy to be a farmer. She keeps her eyes on the future point across the field, and the more focused she is on that point while plowing, the straighter the furrows, the more abundant the harvest.

Jesus knows the problem with looking back is that we use the past to limit us and shut down possibilities. “If only I hadn’t done that. What are they going to think of me now?” We turn one mistake or rejection into a personal belief— “I don’t deserve to be loved,” or “God couldn’t possibly use me” or whatever story you are living inside your head. That plows a crooked self-identity that does not bear as rich a harvest.

Jesus is defining HOW we go about following him as disciples—we are defined not by our past, but by our future—a future that is secured beyond the cross, in his resurrection!

In the kingdom, we don’t live from the past forward, BUT, like someone holding a plow, we live from the future point, back to the present. Jesus invites us to keep our eyes always focused on the future destination God has for us—resurrection with Christ—which determines the straight path we walk today, risen with Christ, beloved child of God, disciple of Jesus, the Savior of the World.

Today, our enigmatic Jesus gives us: Who we trust—not our comforts, but God alone; What we do—our rituals always energize our kingdom work in serving others with love; And How we do it—keeping our eyes on Jesus and our future in the risen Christ, so we can bear the fruit of justice and love as disciples in the present! 

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