“…Clap Your Hands”

sermon on Acts17:22-31; John14:15-21

 

It strikes me that we’ve got an interesting pairing today. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “if you love me,” and talks about recognizing him. But that sits alongside the reading from Acts that’s about people worshiping some unknown God.

On the one hand, it would seem hard to love something you didn’t know. Like (in a somewhat smaller way) if you’d never tried rhubarb cobbler, could you say you’d recognize it, much less in any possible way that you loved it?

On the other hand, it also seems like if you do know you love something, it shapes things for you. If you love rhubarb cobbler, you’ll want to bake it. You’ll look forward to rhubarb season. You’ll want to share it with others. You’ll choose it over other desserts (or at least in addition to other desserts).

Along with knowing and loving and that shaping our actions, since we’re celebrating our children today and they’re leading us in worship, rather than a typical sermon, I figured we could do this more in the style of a children’s message. So I’ve got a song for you, and we can keep adding stanzas to it. You might know this tune, but we’ll do it with new words from Jesus:

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

If you love me and you know it, well, your faith will surely show it.

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

That verse, besides being close to the original song, might make us say that loving Jesus is a reason for celebration. We clap our hands and rejoice because this is good news. Knowing Jesus and loving Jesus is worth cheering. In fact, it’s not just us; the prophet Isaiah said that even the trees of the field clap their hands (55:12)!

If our hands are in on the action, let’s use another old verse to add our feet. After all, our faith clearly means we put a foot down. When things are unloving and against God’s good will, when meanness or injustice seems to be taking control, we have to stomp it out. So let’s sing:

If you love me and you know it, stomp your feet…

I’m going to ask for your suggestions in just a minute after a couple more I’ve got ready. How about this one: make a cross? A great Bible verse declares, “We love because God first loved us” (1John4:19) and the cross is our go-to place for witnessing that, that Jesus took on our sorrows and sufferings and confronted injustice and even was willing to die because of loving us. Our Gospel reading talks about Jesus going away into death. But the cross also marks that death does not win, that God’s love in resurrection wins. The cross says a lot about God’s love for us, and that prompts our love. So we can sing:

If you love me and you know it, make a cross…

The people in Athens in our reading from Acts weren’t recognizing or knowing who God was, but Paul pointed out the beautiful things about creation and told them God made the whole world around us. So it seems that some of loving God is paying attention to and taking delight in this wonderful world God made. For that, maybe we sing:

If you love me and you know it, look around…

What other verses should we add?

[suggestions included:

…show your heart…

…welcome all…

…make a friend…

…work for peace…

…come along…]

Our reading from Acts is pretty serious about learning and what we reflect on, which is a great message for the end of the Sunday School year, a year spent searching for God and finding that God is very near to us. So let’s sing about our pondering and thinking:

If you love me and you know it, use your brain…

That using your brain is tough to fit into a song. Maybe you’ll need to spend some more time in families or conversations or just remembering for yourself what you learned about God this year.

Almost to conclude, I want to go back to the stunning Gospel reading. It’s one of those that can seem like a tongue-twister but is saying something so astonishing: it says Jesus shows us God, and even when we don’t have Jesus with us, still the Holy Spirit is, and even if we feel like we can’t see the Holy Spirit, still she’s with you, and you are living with the life of Jesus which all leads to the remarkable thing that you can see God because you see each other. Wowee! For that, let’s sing:

If you love me and you know it, you’ll see God…

A closing verse to seal the deal and proclaim our confidence that it’s just as Jesus says:

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

If you love me and you know it, well, your faith will surely show it.

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

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Born and Bred for Love

­­­­­sermon on John3:1-17; Romans4:1-5,13-17; Genesis12:1-4a
There’s so much in these readings that I thought of just opening it up by asking, “So what do you want to talk about?” Why did Nicodemus come and Jesus respond obtusely? There’s being born again and the Spirit blowing, the odd serpent in the wilderness reference and Abram with issues of blessing and historical geography, the protective Psalm and the immensely dense but immensely vital stuff from Romans, which in its regular version describes being reckoned as sin vs. reckoned to you as righteous justification. There is so much, so many ways we could go.

Instead let’s sing a kids’ song. Stand up so you can join in the actions: Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord: (with a right, and a left, right leg, left leg, and the tongue, turn around).* Okay, you can sit back down. In the full version, each action accumulates verse by verse, but the whole sermon time with this kids’ song.

When I was younger and first sang it at camps and retreats, I thought it was about Abraham Lincoln. I hadn’t heard of him having lots of children, so I figured maybe it meant freeing slaves, which also helped break down the too often rigidly racial categories implicit in genetic parent/child relationships. I also realized as a young person that the song was deficient in saying he had many sons but leaving out daughters, so I figured it could be fixed a bit with he “had many kids.”

Those expansions to the song are necessary, since the broad vision from our Bible readings today has Abraham as the ancestor of many, father of nations, whose descendants are more numerous than the stars overhead, in whom all families of the earth will be blessed. Meaning: a lot.

Our Genesis reading is the start of this saga. Even while clinging to this promise from God, Abraham will ponder how in the world he could become the ancestor of many when he and his wife Sarah have no offspring at all. He’ll sleep with Sarah’s servant as part of their conniving toward the promise. He’ll hand Sarah off to sleep with kings (a big risk for the certainty of his bloodline and exactly contradicting a chauvinistic purpose of the Bible’s laws against adultery). When Abraham is 100 years old and considers his flesh as good as dead, and Sarah is laughing incredulously, then they’ll have a son. And then a pair of warped grandsons, one a trickster and the other a buffoon. Then the dozen great-grandsons, each with various idiosyncratic scandals, leading on through the grumbling of 12 tribes of Israel, and the struggles of identity getting passed down through the generations.

Originally these identifications are about being born into the group—family, tribe, nation. And we should be honest: such delineations of our lineage are intentionally exclusive in drawing borders. We first think of connections to whom we’re related, our relatives, of shared DNA, like how for her birthday my grandma is getting a gift on Ancestry.com to trace her (and my) family roots back to Ireland, Scotland, Germany and who knows what else. We expect ethnic origins have ongoing impact and stereotypes, that I’d have trademark Scottish thriftiness and like beer and that I’m skeptical of you Scandinavians. We draw these persisting identities, even as we sketch new boundaries to say I’m an American and I’m a Wisconsinite and I’m a Lutheran and I’m a Minnesota Twins fan and I’m a guy with a beard and these are my people.

Now, you might notice a couple of those involve self-selecting in or out. They aren’t the same kind of familial or tribal or ethnic or national identities, but are groups with more permeable boundaries. The offspring of Abraham and Sarah and getting tied into their family must be more that kind of merry mob. It can’t be just genetics. There must be room for adoption into this heritage, otherwise it wouldn’t be nearly so broad and most of us wouldn’t have a chance. If it were classified as a Jewish lineage or, more precisely, a Canaanite/ Palestinian/ Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern background, most of us would be excluded. From the start, they had to find ways to incorporate others, accommodate refugees, to “naturalize” the aliens (to use parallel terms still fraught with conundrums). So they extended status through distinguishing physical marks and by sharing peculiar practices. The men were circumcised, the defining characteristic of being an Abrahamic insider. They observed the sabbath and didn’t eat pork, a couple more distinctive traits.

The church pressed further, arguing that circumcision couldn’t serve as the brand, nor could it be flagged by national boundaries or religious practice. This needed to be a bigger group, explicitly available to foreigners, outsiders, those unlike “us,” and also very specifically in the early church that women needed to be able to be more centrally definitive. So most every old way of basing it—on patriarchal connections or genetic similarity or any physical characteristic—was gone. That stuff couldn’t count anymore as the basis for God’s family.

Yet it’s fascinating that the Romans reading emphatically connects us to Abraham and Sarah as “ancestors according to the flesh.” It doesn’t say spirit over flesh, but boldly recollects carnal connections. We can’t move it to some imagined higher purpose or purer potential. Indeed, even as it proclaims one big happy family, it rules out any sense of claiming especially pious qualities. It knows our usual motives are for reward, for payment, for what we earn or get out of the deal. It recognizes imperfections and family squabbles in saying the ungodly are included, as well.

In that, it deals with the difficult family conundrum of the will and inheritance, of who gets what and why. Yet rather than qualifications claiming “I should get more because he liked me best, I was the most responsible in caring for him, I’m most like him,” this chooses to spread the inheritance to all. It’s discouraging this is such a hard reading to muddle through (as legal documents tend to be) since at its core it’s plain astonishing. This language of a last will and testament is of God’s bequest to Abraham, and how that also is handed down to you, you who had no reason to be adopted into the family of that promise, who weren’t connected to the tribe, who didn’t bear the ethnic identity, who may not have even bothered to follow the rules or live up to the standards. So much for the northern European Protestant work ethic.

As God’s will and new testament is read, Holden Evening Prayer phrases it, “O Faithful One, you promised to Sarah and Abraham kindness forevermore.” The Word of promise became flesh in them, and it carries down to you. And no amount of legal bickering could dislodge you from your guaranteed inheritance. With Romans’ play on words, it isn’t based on your belief or trust, but that you’ve been written into God’s Charitable Trust. Quite simply, you and this enormous family of yours have been blessed with God’s goodness and entrusted with the earth itself, without so much as a wagging finger not to squander it. (Though we might notice amid our adoption as God’s children a couple chapters later on confiding that creation groans with eager longing for us actually to act like the children we’re revealed to be becoming.)

That moves us from language of death to birth and new life. For that we turn to the conversation portrayed in the Gospel. Nicodemus’ confusion has continued to cascade through the generations and made people think that spiritual rebirth disassociates us from these bodies. Yet when Jesus talks about the Spirit and about heavenly things, he isn’t pointing elsewhere, separated from the reality we know. Think with Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done on earth as in heaven:” this is about God’s way, God’s intents and purposes and about spreading them here and now. Jesus is striving to connect Nicodemus and all of us into that life. He wants it so dearly he moves deeper and more intimately than the language of adoption or inheritance and calls it a new birth. He declares that you are born not just into Abraham and Sarah’s family of promise and trust but into God’s own family. Simultaneously countering centuries of too much masculinity, these are delightfully rich images of a mother God, who carries you in her womb, who labors to bring you to life, who nurses and nurtures you in love.

This mothering God so loved the world that she gave her firstborn Son, the Son who was born into human flesh and had a human mother as well as this compassionate heavenly Mother, a Son who became flesh and dwelt among us—who, to bring the heaven-ish purposes to life among us, was sustained by an umbilical cord, entered this world through a birth canal, and nursed on breast milk, at the same time (again, in intimate maternal language from John 1:18) that he was held close to the bosom of God and was a Mama’s boy to the end. That is what Jesus is bringing to birth in you, as well. You are born of God and, in that, share the eternal life. In your flesh is the genetics of God. You are born and bred with the love of God, the blessing that extends beyond the confines of family, tribe, and nation to all the world and all creation.

 

* sort of like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DiBZmz8CDE

 

Romans.   Nick’s Redone Version

1What can we say was found by our human ancestor Abraham? 2If Abraham became good by what he did,   then he’d have reason for pride. But he doesn’t have that in God’s presence, 3since it says in the Bible, “Abraham trusted God, and that’s why he was counted as good.” 4You do things for what you earn; that’s  what counts. And it’s not thought of as charity but as what’s owed. 5But what counts in becoming good—even without doing anything!—is the trust of the one who can count even the ungodly as good.

13See, the promise of inheriting the world didn’t come to Abraham and his descendants through rules but through trusting goodness. 14If we became heirs through rules, trust would be emptied and the promise  nullified. 15Rules mean punishment, but if there are no rules then they can’t be broken. 16So our inheritance comes through trusting, accomplished by charity, and the promise is enacted for all the descendants, not only those who follow the rules but for all through the trust of Abraham, since he is the ancestor of all, 17just as the Bible says, “I’m making you the ancestor of many peoples” in the presence of the trustworthy God who enlivens the dead and calls things that aren’t to be.

 

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sermon for Animal Sunday

(Job39:1-12,126-30; Psalm104:14-23,31; 1Corinthians1:10-23; Luke12:5-6,22-31)
(http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/united-states-ecumenical/wisdom-series-canimals)
 
For a couple decades, Dave Rhoads, an emeritus professor from the Chicago seminary, has been among the most important inventors and instigators for this ecological edge in Lutheran churches. (He’s also a friend of Joyce Anderson’s from her church in Racine.)
Fitting this Animal Sunday, Dave tells of a dream where he was going to receive communion and found himself next to a snake, and then a person next in line, and then a raccoon with its paws extended, then a bird at communion eating bread crumbs.*
Perhaps that’s an image to keep in mind for this day, and is among the reasons we ourselves are receiving communion each Sunday of this season, even without bears and turtles lined up with us, still a reminder that we are in communion with all creation—not just with wheat and grape, but with pollinators and soil microbes and deer along the roadsides that lead to markets and grazing blackbirds and sunshine and rain and so much more.
But if you’re still feeling that we’re a mainly human contingent gathered in church this morning, then you may yet turn your faithful attention to the words we have from Psalm 104. This is no Isaian (65:25) “peaceable kingdom,” where the wolf lays down with the lamb and the lion eats straw like an ox. No, in Psalm 104 the lion still eats ox like a lion. Those young lions lurk and prowl at night to find their food, food given to them by God, just as the grass is given for cattle and grain for us. It may not be a utopian dream in Psalm 104, but it very much is a faithful “topian” vision. It’s not a “utopia” (literally meaning “no place” or “not a place”) but is firmly rooted in place, in the actual topography of our lives amid this world. With that, the Psalm sees God not only as some distant goal, but as fully engaged and caring about these different and disagreeing creatures here and now. So the lions still get to be carnivores. And humans get wine. (Though, for full disclosure we’re not the only ones who enjoy alcohol; cedar waxwings eat fruit that has hung on trees too long and fermented, until they can even get so tipsy they can’t quite fly on course. Though it’s not that birds need a DUI patrolling squad car—an absurd notion, but which we’ll reflect on more later.)
Anyway, just as we heard in another beautiful and expansive selection in Job that portrays members of creation far from humans, Psalm 104 also nicely attends to distinct habitats as blessing from God for biodiversity, the varieties of life. God grows trees for birds. God created night for nocturnal animals. From our Darwinian understanding of natural selection we may question which direction this actually proceeds, but nevertheless Psalm 104 is onto something in its attention to specific habitats with the thriving of species.
Among that, I especially have been enjoying what we read from verse 18, “the stony cliffs are a refuge for the badgers.” Instead of “badger,” other translations use the odd animal terms “coneys” or “hyrax.” So I sent a note this week to one of my Old Testament professors, Diane Jacobson, who worked on this translation for our hymnals. Since it relates to our own shared habitat, I asked her, “can the Wisconsin Badger fans amid my congregation claim blessing with the appearance of these badgers?” She replied that was, “remarkably insightful and clearly part of original authorial intent.” So there you have it, a special divine nod to Bucky.
Whether it’s as playful as that or not, I also love Diane’s translation in verse 22, where the night ends and the sun rises and, as she phrases it, the lions “lay themselves down” in their dens. It seems a poetic reflection of that old bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep.” Though we’re awake at different times and eat different things and rest in different places, still the echo in that verse ties our lives to the lives of lions, refusing to let them be too separate from us. We can see other animals as our siblings, as part of this vast family.
But that may confront us with the Gospel reading, which seems to play family favorites. Last week I’d said that our God doesn’t care “exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.” This would seem to be yet another example of why I should read ahead to the next week’s lesson and actually pay attention to what Jesus says before I open my big mouth. Or maybe it’s an example of the interplay of Scripture, how it doesn’t all say the same exact thing, but does disagree or is in situational dialogue with itself. So last week’s readings portrayed God’s delight in cavorting with Leviathan the sea monster, though it was harmful to humans. But today Jesus promises that “you are of more value than many sparrows” or flowers of the field or ravens. One reading seems to say humans are just one among many, amid the mix of this grand family of creatures, and the other says you are most valuable.
So what would make Jesus say we are more highly valued by God than sparrows? We certainly can’t say you’re cuter than a tiger cub or more precious than pandas. It may be claimed that, just as we feel special kinship looking into the face of a chimpanzee, that we’re valued because we are more like God, though I’m particularly reluctant to make that argument. Indeed, as categories of creature or Creator, we’d have to confess we’re more like chinchillas or alligators or poinsettia plants or moon rocks than like God.
Instead, might the value be by body mass, that big creatures get more attention than little ones? That’s often our human tendency, to count and notice the plight of megafauna like elephants or polar bears or whales, but to be less invested in smaller creatures.
Or maybe lifespan gives us more value, where mayflies only last for a day, or rabbits breed three times per year and are mature at four months old, or why Jesus mentions sparrows, that typically live only to 4 years or so in the wild, just as Aldo Leopold noticed chickadee mortality rates were more than 50% after a single winter.
Or maybe another factor in our value and associated with our lifespan is our place in the food chain, that it takes a lot of mosquitoes to feed one bat, or rabbits to feed a hawk, that there are fewer snakes than mice and fewer mice than grasshoppers. Or in your case, that it takes a lot of salmon, who ate even more herring or crayfish, which had to eat scads of larvae or plankton.
To try on a completely different version, though, of why God would value us differently than lilies or sparrows, it might be because of what we’re capable of, or what our potential is. This is true in both negative and positive ways. To return to the absurd drunk flying cedar waxwings, they don’t need police to pull them over for imbibing too much fermented fruit because they won’t do much harm that way, whereas we need laws about drinking and driving because we are all too liable to harm others.
Or, in an apparently more benign perspective, what we cause in getting this bread and wine here today may be terribly destructive. That process may be destroying other life and interrupting cycles of well-being and altering the habitats that other animals depend on. Fields may be covered in pesticides and insecticides that help our grain and grapes to grow, but harm other life and, we’re learning, will even wreck the health of the soil. It’s still a fairly new thing to think of healthy dirt. More, our roads not only bear risk for the deer standing alongside them, but also carry vehicles that are polluting the air and changing the climate of the planet, even for those animals that live far, far away from direct human presence.
And there are those birds of the air that Jesus mentions. My life may be of more value than many sparrows (and our habits benefit house sparrows and crows and seagulls). But I wonder about trading the value of my life, what it would be not to count myself more than, for example, an extinct passenger pigeon. I wonder what I’d trade to be able to see flocks that block out the sun all day. Or to see an auk or 12 foot tall great moa of New Zealand or a Carolina parakeet that was exterminated for the benefit of making hats or an ivory-billed woodpecker that simply didn’t have enough old forests.
Or if I wouldn’t actually trade my life for a bird’s, what would I sacrifice? We figured out how to make do without DDT in order for bald eagles again to soar over our Wisconsin lakes and figured it may be okay that cranes cause crop damage. But what else of my life would I change or give up for the wellbeing of another creature?
That question may be the reason we hear the assigned reading from 1st Corinthians today. There’s nothing very natural or animal-ish in there, but maybe it is the guidance from Jesus that we as faithful humans have a spot in creation not only to cause harm but to ask what we may sacrifice for others (or for “otters”), following the way of the cross that doesn’t try to claim my own life is more valuable for being hoarded, but finds the worth in community of God’s blessing.
Perhaps that’s a perspective of our value, in assessing what can go wrong, and also in figuring how to do better. We’re valued because God strives so much to redeem you. Weighing whether comfort and convenience, our worries in life of what we eat or wear, that this is not worth the loss of life, I’m offering the last word to Aldo Leopold. From his speech at Wyalusing State Park, this is for “the funeral of a species,” on a monument to the passenger pigeon:
We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that [humans] are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us…a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures;…of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.…
These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact [and this potential], rather than in [synthetic] nylon or [computers or nuclear] bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.**
 
** found in A Sand County Almanac
 
(PRAYERS)
Rejoicing with all creation, let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need.
God of all creation, with all creation we join in praise. And as Francis of Assisi preached your word to the birds, we pray you open our ears to hear other creatures preaching you to us. We also give thanks for these favorite animals in our household or larger family of earth now (PAUSE) Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray today as one among many, as one species surrounded by millions. So we think of those who are close, like the chickens and chickadees, crows, raccoons, and coyotes, and those farther away and more foreign to us, in jungles and deserts, on mountains and in the depths of seas. In all of this, we ask your blessing on these creatures and sustenance in their habitats. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We give thanks for political movements that care for creation, for 100 years of the National Park Service, for the Endangered Species Act, the Department of Natural Resources, for nations working together on climate change, for organizations that motivate us to take up this challenge. Expand our hearts and strengthen us for sacrificial love. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
We pray for the health of creatures who are at risk, for snow leopards and orcas, rhinocersoses and manatees, for karner blue butterflies and kirtland’s warbler, for those suffering from too much rain–for farmers, those with flooded homes, and creatures around there. For all these places of concern, for animals as well as the people we worry about and which we name now, silent or aloud (PAUSE). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Celebrating the beauty of creation’s habitats, we also celebrate the beauty of these quilts that surround us today. We praise you for the blessing of hardworking and deeply caring hands that have made them, and pray for all the places around this world where people will receive them from Lutheran World Relief. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
In the promise that you chose us and, in the fullness of time, will gather all things on earth into your embrace, bring us with all creation around your throne in eternal praise. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Gather all these prayers and whatever else you see we need as we join together with these concluding words:
Jesus Christ, teach us to empathize with Earth. Make our spirits sensitive to the cries of creation, for justice from the land, the seas, and the skies. Jesus Christ, make our faith sensitive to the longing groans of the Spirit in creation. Jesus Christ, make our hearts sensitive to the songs of our kin, celebrations from the sea, the forest, and the air. Christ, teach us to care. Amen
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Is Jesus Divisive?

sermon on Luke12:49-56; Hebrews11:29-12:2
I’ve been practically giddy all week about this Bible reading.

Which I know sounds odd since this won’t rank among anybody’s favorites. But I relish the chance to struggle with Scripture, to wrestle with it until it releases a blessing for us.

In contrast, a month ago we heard the Good Samaritan, which is both so familiar and also almost self-explanatory. Be nice to each other, including some new people—it seems to say—or accept help from unexpected sources. You almost inherently can understand that, and barely would need a preacher.

With this passage, however, you’re left with two choices. Either you can claim that the Bible and religion are filled with too much nastiness and try to ignore and reject the whole spiel, or else you can hear these hard words, face the confusing dilemma, and exclaim, “Aha! This is why we pay Pastor Nick the big bucks!” So now we’ll see if you’re getting your money’s worth.

That comes with the immediate disclaimer that I don’t have a definite answer or resolution for you, but do have several possibilities to try on.

First, we may hear these words from Jesus simply as descriptive: there are divisions on earth. We may even find that on occasion to be a good thing: night and day, the weekend, our atmosphere separating air from outer space.

Other times, we sense division not necessarily as beneficial, but still at least as reality. Across the globe, we don’t all speak the same language. We don’t have the same skills or interests. And while Jesus may be indicating the individual differences or denominational disparities or interfaith turmoil that religion has caused, of arguments and separations in our families on up, still, stepping back from emotion, we are at a point in history where we might be able to recognize that there are real reasons we wouldn’t all have the same understanding of God, that our unique circumstances and upbringings and lot in life play a role.

That’s a fundamental distinction already in Jesus’ words. He was part of the monotheistic Jewish faith, but where they’d said the only, the sole, the mono- connection with God was in the Temple, Jesus was relocating the divine, taking away the hierarchy that made some closer to God and pushed others out of the perimeter. Simply by proclaiming the undoing of a central authority and enacting radical welcome with unconditional grace, Jesus was causing division and disrupting the old system.

That may point us toward a next step of reflection. Beyond description, is this word from Jesus prescriptive? Does he seek to cause divisions?

I have to say, this is mainly what makes this passage uncomfortable for me. This version from Luke, where Jesus says he brings division, is a notch gentler than Matthew’s version, where he says he brings a sword. But still, when Jesus declares he has not come to bring peace on earth, that disappointment is the exact opposite of why I usually turn to Jesus and what I expect from him. Some of the first things that grabbed me about Christianity when I was in middle school were words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” These shaped my passion for nonviolence and even pacifism, to be against war and militarism and the death penalty. But here, Jesus seems to reverse his core message of love and healing and life, and—indeed—peace!

But that very reversal is the cue that we need to struggle with these words. Certainly there are some who employ this sort of message to reinforce violence or oppression or division or use of force. But the fact that they have to turn repeatedly to this passage or to an apparently angry Jesus cleansing the Temple or a single line about swords at the Garden of Gethsemane says that these hard passages are the exception and not the rule of Jesus.

So I would argue—and will argue—that Jesus isn’t stoking fires of hatred and fanning the flames that make us burn against each other. This isn’t a sort of division that lets me see myself as good and other races or religions as bad, much less worth-less and able to be excluded or exterminated or deported. Those have been dangerous precedents in history and are dangerous in our midst today. Such divisions are accusingly satanic, not godly or from Jesus. That is not God’s mission or intention for our world, and it must be resisted.

But that very resistance begins to illuminate another side of these words from Jesus. It’s not general divisiveness he promotes, as if desiring any and all animosity. But there are specific faithful distinctions that we would foster, that Jesus would back, when he’s prompting change and upset against tranquil apathy at the status quo. Such “peace” he may well be against. Amid plenty of divisions, we should readily and boldly proclaim, “I’m not that sort of Christian. We are not that kind of people.” We want to declare proudly and vitally that we are anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-bullying and anti-oppression and anti-poverty. We are anti-terrorism but simultaneously anti-anti-Muslim and anti-anti-immigrant (if you can handle important uses of a double-negative) and anti-anti-gay. We know these divisions and know where we must stand for justice. Sure, we can work to heal the splits and repair the breach with other people, and that may be among our more vital tasks in these days, but that doesn’t permit us to ignore the divides or to pretend that compromise plain and simple is always the right thing.

That’s hard enough when we’d prefer not to have to keep struggling amid society. We don’t want to feel like a voice in the wilderness, crying out. We don’t want every election to feel like a doomsday scenario or for every click of news to be filled with despair. But beyond those larger fears and frustrations, we also know this more intimately. We know divisions in families, conversations that cause consternation, the topics that somehow are off the table for discussion. We know those family fractures that are fueled by even kind and faithful views.

Such values may arise from stuff that seems like a big deal, like arguing faith’s perspectives on health care. Or that your beliefs mean you’re called to love Iranians and Russians, and—yes—even terrorists, and all those with whom you disagree. That’s not a fun conversation. Or it may be more personal, like around parenting styles or medical decisions or financial choices. Or it may seem smaller, like that you’d choose to be here today, that you intentionally give away some of your income, that you do the silly thing of saying a prayer in times of need. We may not be persecuted or our lives at risk for what we believe, but among your family and friends and coworkers—besides the broader culture—clinging to your beliefs is still apt to cause divisions. Jesus may have been envisioning that result simply because of what matters to you.

It’s already a relief that Jesus recognizes and names the brokenness we’re bound to face. It’s good news that my family isn’t the only one God knows with some dysfunction. But beyond just naming the reality, we do need more. Clearly, this involves difficult decisions to weigh and really requires endurance and patience to persist. So we need support. We need this community. We need the great cloud of witnesses, those saints throughout history that our Hebrews reading held up for us. We need examples of those who have willingly or unwillingly suffered and were mocked and continued through blood and sweat and tears, and conquered somehow in death, even as the loss appeared to be overwhelmingly futile. It’s a stunning Bible passage, making us ask if it’s worth it, even while motivating us to carry on. We’re caught up in something we can’t quite explain and may not always like, yet know we must proceed.

And that brings us to a final part of the reflection. We should always remember that Jesus is up to something particular. With him, it is not just a description of everyday life, but a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, a new order, for new life. He begins by saying he’s bringing fire to earth and wished it were already kindled, and his stress while awaiting his baptism. These are lines about his death. He isn’t kindling a fire to start fights among others or to give us permission to take up the sword against those we don’t like. He’s inviting that division against himself, recognizing that he’s the one who’s going to get burned, the one who will be plunged into death. This makes the Bible passage about him.

But that also makes it about you, doesn’t it? See, you’ve been baptized into Christ as well. Your baptism joins you to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life, but also joins you to his passion and death. Amid the communion of saints, you are brought into this Jesus way, this Jesus vision, this Jesus practice for encountering the world, and striving both against it and yet simultaneously on its behalf.

That means the fire is spreading. Jesus kindled it against himself, but also in you. It’s remarkable that the one other place these words for division and fire happen together is on Pentecost (Acts 2:3), when divided tongues of flame appeared on the followers of Jesus, filling them with diverse gifts and sending them across the world. Among those believers, this word for division also became a word for sharing—that they divided among themselves the cup of the new testament in Jesus’ blood at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17) and divided their possessions to distribute as any had need (Acts 2:45).

In this community of Jesus, then, we no longer recognize the world’s old, rotten divisions of haves and have-nots, of rich versus poor, of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, successful or failure, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the worthy and the unworthy. In this community of Jesus, those divisions are cast out because finally, this is where we anticipate reconciliation will have the last word, since neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to divide us or separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

Hymn: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW #400)

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Maundy Meditation

(John13:1-17, 31b-25 )
There is so much to sort through in Holy Week: the confusing move from festival parade to betrayal, or going through death to new life as the darn-near inexplicable mystery of our faith. That—plus love!—is just plain lot to absorb, with so much central to us in this week.

It’s interesting to look at it by proportions: the Gospel of Luke has more than 5 of 24 chapters set in this week. For Matthew it’s 8 of 28. Nearly 40% of Mark’s story is told between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The Gospel of John starts the story of Jesus “in the beginning,” at the birth of creation, and yet almost half the book takes place in one week, with about six chapters spent on this Maundy Thursday evening alone.

Now, we’ve tried to fit a lot for you into this evening: remembering that little children lead us. We’ve eaten together, the night of the Last Supper as an obvious time to share a meal. We told the Passover story, since Jesus was sharing that special meal and redefining it. But we also notice how that further increases the complexity; the Exodus meal provides the defining narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, but tonight becomes a background footnote for our gathering.

So how do we consider all of this? How do we fit it in? Can we begin to comprehend so much that is deep, complex, challenging, rewarding? Probably the most apparent answer is no, we don’t. We can’t. We could consider much more on freedom from slavery and ancient festivals and the practice of footwashing and political dynamics of Jesus’ arrest in the garden—which may or may not be more worthwhile than discussing menu options of communion bread or historical dilemmas of determining if we’re doing it right and who’s in. Overall there’s just lots to grasp.

Similar to the observance that the ancient creeds spend a lot of time on controversial details and miss out on the main point of what Jesus was up to, you came here this evening not to debate and deliberate details, not to learn history or try to repeat the past.

You’re here tonight for love, to be loved and striving to love in return. You’re here because we always need practice at this, never have it resolved permanently or perfectly, because it is the hardest, most complex thing in the world, even if it can feel so natural.

In this way, it’s no surprise that attendance dwindled since Sunday—either contrasting the crowds for the palm parade with Jesus only having his close disciples around him on Thursday, or comparing our fun and vibrant protest service with this group tonight. It’s not about being entertained or getting caught up in the hysteria; you understand being commanded to love means taking community seriously, is about acting as a neighbor, a citizen of earth, about engaging your gifts, taking a risk, asking what’s best for others.

Recognizing that loving can be exhausting and frustrating and sometimes draining of life, you also gather here to be loved, with Jesus who gives himself to you whole-heartedly, with all his life and all he has. We may question if that can fit in one night, or one Holy Week, or even in one life. But sharing it at this service, absorbing it with a bite of bread is a start.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW 659)

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Chicken Citizens of Heaven

sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent
(Philippians3:17-4:1; Luke13:31-35; Genesis15:1-12,17-18)

For three of the required merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, I had to do tasks like learning about types of government and organizations like Unicef and Amnesty International, reading the Constitution and a newspaper, examining how security, climate, and economy affect current events, reading historic speeches and writing to elected officials, discussing the importance of taxes and volunteering for a charity, attending a school board meeting or court session and multicultural events celebrating various heritages. These were aspects, then, of Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World.

That’s a good list, and we might go far to continue engaging such practices. However, besides community, nation, and world, today we have an additional “citizenship” in front of us: the reading from Philippians declared that we share Citizenship in Heaven. It’s a great phrase that Paul uses, and beneficial for us to spend some time examining and pondering what it means and—in the words of the Scout merit badges—“what it takes, the rights, duties, and obligations of a responsible and active good citizen.”

Perhaps one of the first important things to note is that your citizenship in heaven is not about location exclusively. Just as you simultaneously serve as a citizen of the community, nation, and world, your citizenship in heaven is also an overlapping category. That’s worth saying to counter a belief that would claim faith is mainly about going someplace else. When that becomes the case, then how you live here doesn’t really matter, much less what happens to others. Why bother to care for the earth if you’re destined to fly away to heaven?

So if this being a citizen of heaven isn’t about ending up elsewhere, not just for after you die, but is about engaging life here and now, rather than location maybe we think about it in terms of loyalty or values or practice. Along those lines, we might well say that heavenly citizenship is exactly what leads our children to be guiding us with “change for change” and concern for water resources around here, and in Michigan, and internationally. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

That also highlights another factor. If heaven were mostly about where you went when you died, then that’s a fairly inactive enterprise. If it’s about later, for the time being, you can just passively wait for it to happen. Perhaps it’s possible to be uninvolved, a citizen without laboring at it; indeed from voter turnouts and factual awareness of issues and time spent working on our democracy, we know there is all too much apathy and lack of involvement for our more typical types of citizenship.

Yet this citizenship of heaven as Paul envisions it is entirely active and engaged. It’s not just for later but for now, and it makes a difference for your life. In fact, this is so dynamically involved that it’s got the “energy of dynamite.” That is the actual Greek phrase in our text; our words energy and dynamite come from these words that are more blandly translated in our version as “power that enables.” Sure, that’s already saying something pretty great, that Jesus is enabling your citizenship, that he activates your capabilities and triggers your powers. But it conveys the whole experience for us so much more dramatically with those explosive original words: Jesus is changing you to be an active heavenly citizen. To live into this role, he’s not just recommending concern or repeating obligations. No, he is filling you with the energy of dynamite. Wow!

You might wonder just how thunderously grand or motivationally invigorating this could be, though, if in our first reading Abraham was brought into his role of citizenship by sleeping through it. Well, we’ll explain some of that with the peculiarities and mysteries of faith, with the paradox of Jesus.

But it doesn’t need to be a category unto itself. If you consider yourself a citizen of Madison, you have to trust a sign that would tell you you’re crossing into Middleton. You’d trust flags hanging around to convey that you are in your nation of the United States. You may consider yourself an engaged citizen of this world though you haven’t tasted the water of Flint or traveled to villages receiving wells or maybe even know the source that delivers to your own tap.

So it was with Abraham. Even asleep he came into his role as a heavenly citizen because of trust. In language that resonates throughout scripture but nevertheless may sound antiquated in our ears, he reckoned it was right. There wasn’t proof. In fact, just the opposite: he was asking about an heir, about having a child. God promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars overhead and the sands of the beach. But no proof. Not even a downpayment or head start on that solution. Even if they’d had ultrasounds, Sarah wouldn’t’ve had anything to show. All they could do was trust, even in spite of the evidence. They reckoned it was right.

This is, perhaps, among the difficult things about this heavenly citizenship, that it is somehow not dependent on the statistical quantifications or factual evaluations to which we’re accustomed. It turns out—just the reverse—that this is more usually found under the sign of its opposite. We may glimpse some of that with Abraham, that his deliberation and acceptance came while he was unconscious and unaware, and that Sarah encountered this serious matter with a laugh which she came to embody and birth. We could see it in this declaration of a mighty and multitudinous nation which was for generations unpopulated, in slavery, and without a homeland.

Yet, as always, the center of this faithful understanding comes to us in Jesus. The energy of dynamite that is unleashing transformative change on our world is embodied in Jesus whose way of life is so much about dying. It’s even striking in the imagery he uses for us today, of fox and hen. A couple weeks ago a red fox had trotted through the parking lot here and I posted on Facebook, excited about it, thinking how it had habitat in our prairie. But Emily Wixson was quick to reply in concern for our chickens. We know in a fight who is going to win. Yet in contrast with typical images of control and power and what it takes to be in charge, Jesus picks the wrong part. He claims to be a chicken.

And he calls King Herod a fox. Now, the first impression would be that the fox is going to kill the chicken, that if there’s a competition between them, between this political ruler and Jesus, that Jesus is going to lose every time. And, indeed, we know that’s exactly what’s going to happen: Jesus is going to die at the hands of the authorities.

Yet there’s also maybe a hidden twist in Jesus calling Herod foxy, so to speak. In our Old Testament portrayals, foxes show up when places are deserted or abandoned. Their realm is amid desolation. So maybe when Herod thinks he’s so in charge, Jesus is playfully suggesting that this rule is not so grandiose or powerful as he may think, and that indeed the chicken’s time has come home to roost.

This is the question or the challenge for those of us who trust Jesus, who trust his vision for the world and trust our lives under his caring wings, those of us who seek to live faithfully as citizens of his heaven. The way of love that Jesus revealed and embodied does not seem to be the winning way. It sure seems that the violent and ruthless and powerful and deceptive are able to win control. Even if you are held under the protective wings of this chicken Jesus, that may seem of little value if foxes can show up and again rip you to shreds.

But Jesus’ words to the fox Herod are not to give into to those appearances, not so quickly to try to claim glory and triumph and victory. “On the third day,” Jesus says. That third day makes all the difference for this chicken way of love, this heavenly citizenship that is dedicated in giving itself for the life of this world. “On the third day,” Jesus says, “I finish my work.” As we say again today in words of the ancient creed, it is on that third day that he rose again. On that day, Easter. On that day, resurrection. On that day, death is invalidated—it has lost its strength. The energy of dynamite is no longer with the foxes with the fiercest gnashing teeth. The energy of dynamite, the fullness of God’s investment and power is in our abilities to love, to gather under warm wings and to cradling bosoms and to nurturing hearts. It is not in taking life away but in giving life for each other.

Two last words from Philippians. One is “conformed.” On Transfiguration two weeks ago, we mentioned the Greek word “metamorphosis,” on taking on a different form. This word is “symmorph,” just like “conformed” meaning to take on the same form. This sort of conformity is good news as you are being transformed to be the same shape as Jesus. Look at his pierced hands as he gave up his life on a cross, but also those hands that bleed no more, where the injury cannot hurt, where death has no power because life reigns. As he gives you the energy of dynamite, it is so that your life may be given away for the sake of this world he so loves, and that his work may be finished, complete in you.

That is a word of hope. The other is a word of challenge for us in these days. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, over the capital city, the seats of power, the place of the foxes. He laments knowing it deals in death. And it is that place of foxes that he loves and wants to gather under his wing like the mother hen. In our own environment, the culture much too malicious in these days, it is vital to know that Paul’s word for citizenship is exactly what becomes our word “politics.” When politics is embodied only as a bad word, an ugly thing, you are called and invited to trust and live into the politics of heaven.

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Baptism of Our Lord (and last sermon for St. Stephen’s)

­sermon on Luke3:15-17,21-22; Isaiah43:1-7; Acts8:14-17

 

You called me here to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, so let’s start this sermon by seeing how well I’ve done (though that’s a scary thought!): what do you need for baptism?

With this, I want to teach you one final word: adiaphora. Adiaphora is a Greek word that means “matters of indifference.” You can almost hear in “adiaphora” the word “different;” it’s a word for when differences don’t matter.

Even if you didn’t know it, Lutherans are pretty good at living with adiaphora, with things that don’t make a lick of difference in the big sense. There are many, in lots of categories, but this morning we’re going to focus on baptism. For example, often babies wear white gowns to be baptized, which goes back to earliest ancient traditions of putting on new clothes, symbolizing new life, freshness and purity put on in Christ. But babies don’t need white gowns to be baptized. For that matter, we mostly baptize babies, because we consider it a good thing to have this assurance of God’s love always with you, but any age is fine and good.

For more adiaphora, we say it’s best in a Sunday worship service, the day of resurrection, when we’re together as the Body of Christ, but it could be another time in a private service. We mostly use special flowing fonts of water, but that’s not special holy water. In our understanding, it’s just plain water, so any water would do. It could be in big splashes or a dunking or just a few drops. It could be lake water, or from the Jordan River or a hospital sink, or (you’re no longer surprised that I would say this) water from a toilet bowl. Even if you’d prefer something more pious feeling than a tyke getting a swirly in the jon, in the overall theological sense it still “counts” as a baptism. Our preferences are largely adiaphora that don’t really matter.

There are more parts of the baptism: we process around the sanctuary, we light candles, kids give blankets, Rebecca calligraphs certificates, we read words from hymnals, we stand up and sit down. Our oil for anointing is from Palestinians in the Holy Land with frankincense ointment in it. We may consider any of those nice touches, or extra bits of symbolism and meaning.

But when we boil it down, none of that is necessary. It’s adiaphora. It doesn’t make a difference. In the end, what do we need for a baptism? Water and words (generally “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” though in our Acts reading it seems to have just been in the “name of the Lord Jesus.”) Oh—and of course somebody to speak those words from God.

And that person has sometimes, over these past 11 years, been me. Some of those I’ve gotten to baptize, to offer God’s words to, will be coming in from Sunday School in a few minutes. To be qualified as a baptizer, I don’t have any superpowers. Clearly I’m not any holier. It’s not even really having special authority; nurses baptize in emergencies. Family members have done it. But you’ve had me here, called and hired me, to be one you could turn to and expect that I would speak God’s promise to you and for you.

But that also comes around to highlight a peculiarity in this Gospel reading. Let’s see how well you were paying attention: Who baptized Jesus? It’s kind of a trick question, because of the verses the lectionary skips. Here’s the whole thing. So in Luke’s peculiar version, John the (so-called) Baptist isn’t told of baptizing Jesus. Luke doesn’t even give John the title of “the Baptist.” Although on the 4th Sunday of Advent we heard the story of their mothers meeting, of Mary and Elizabeth, and a child leaping in the womb, nevertheless in Luke there’s no story about John and Jesus meeting each other face-to-face. By the time Jesus appears on the scene, John is already gone, shut up in prison, on death row. Luke inserts that mention of incarceration, and only then goes on to tell about Jesus being baptized.

Yet we said that a baptism requires a baptizer. That’s not optional, not adiaphora. Jesus didn’t and couldn’t baptize himself. In Matthew’s Gospel, John argues and keeps protesting that Jesus should baptize him instead, but Jesus says, ‘Just do it.’ So why not here? Why, of four Gospels, does only Luke describe Jesus’ baptism in this way (or not describe it, we might say)? Well, I’m going to give you a couple possibilities, then try one more thought.

First, it could be that Luke is trying to downplay John’s role. We talked about that last month, how John was so popular and such a big deal with a huge following that crowds were even wondering or presuming if he were the Messiah. Jesus, then, almost could take a back seat. Imagine a concert where the opening band is a bigger draw than the main act. It would take some extra publicity and showmanship and staging to hype the other. Some figure that’s the situation here, trying to accentuate Jesus and downplay John’s persona by giving him a smaller role.

Another possibility I was reading this week is that Luke wanted to highlight the difference between John and Jesus, marking the end of one era and start of something totally new. Rather than being an intern who shared office space with John, in this case it is a clear division of different roles: John prepared, Jesus fulfilled. John was the era of prophecy, and Jesus came to reign as king. Having John out of the way may help clarify that distinction.

John’s discussion about baptisms may also accentuate these differences. He says he baptizes with water for repentance, a washing of renewal. It’s an understanding that you’ve made a mess and want to clean it up. Having done wrong you desire a sign of being able to start fresh. John seems to figure his baptism is still a chance to say you’re sorry and that you’ll try harder, but soon it’ll be too late and there will be no way to stop the punishment. Expecting this radical difference, John says Jesus will come with power and the fire will be unquenchable.

For that, I think we’d say John was wrong. That’s another point of this break in Luke. Jesus is not John, nor even what John expected. Later in the Gospel is a passage where from prison John sends investigators to ask Jesus if he’s really the one, since he didn’t come with unquenchable burning, but with unquenchable love, not to destroy but to create anew and to reinvigorate and revitalize, not to kill but to give life.

(To be fair, we could hear that in John’s words. Maybe instead of blanket assaults of destruction it’s the view of surgical incisions, with Jesus replacing all that is evil in you with his goodness, burning away the ugly corrosion of your sin to leave you gleaming and pure and valuable, exchanging your selfishness with holy gifts to share, even taking away your death to fill you with life. That’s actually a strong view of what the Holy Spirit it up to in your baptism, so maybe we should give John the benefit of the doubt and get past our own violent preconceptions of a vengeful God.)

Along that track of what God is accomplishing through your baptism and in your life, I want to try that one more thought on John being gone by the time when Jesus starts his ministry and things really get rolling: Today I can relate to John the Baptist no longer being on the scene, even if he did do the baptism yet being out of the picture when so much more good stuff was going to come from Jesus. With God’s blessing among you, it’s the assurance that the best is not in the past. It can feel confining that I’ll be shut off and away from you in these moments to come. It’s not quite with the sense of John in prison, but there will be that separation and inaccessibility. Just as John heard about Jesus through others’ reports, as you continue forward I’ll be off receiving messages of the amazing things for life and renewal that God is accomplishing in and through you.

With all of that, once more I want to tell you there’s nothing wrong here at St. Stephen’s that I’m running away from, and nobody is making me leave. It just was a time, and a new opportunity, and a decision, and always with the expectation that God is working for the good in our lives wherever we are. Yet for the hurt and sorrows and worries and brokenness that remain as I go, for missing your lives, I apologize and trust that forgiveness and redemption are, as always, at work among us.

That’s the heart of this faith we proclaim and share. Trusting and believing that, as we have together for these past years, I also once more want to say how good it has been share with you as the body of Christ. As I’ve gotten to be in this role, two words I most frequently have found myself using are “honor and privilege.” It has been an honor and privilege to serve as your pastor, striving in this role to convey the love and blessing of the God who created you and redeems you, sharing that promise and that new reality.

This indicates one more distinction for us from the baptism of Jesus in Luke, where the heavens were opened and God’s voice thundered to speak the promise. We don’t look to the sky, but repeat that message, listening for God speaking through other voices. You need a preacher to tell you you are God’s beloved child. That is not among adiaphora. It’s not optional, and it does very much matter for your lives. We need to speak the promise to each other, otherwise we won’t hear it and know it and trust it. And this message itself is essential, necessary, the furthest thing from adiaphora.

Finally, then, I want to turn to our words from Isaiah. They are so astoundingly chock full of good news and promise that I almost ignored Luke entirely, wanting to stop our day’s Bible readings after even just one verse from Isaiah. Here it comes again, one last bit one last time. Even as I prepare to depart, I get to proclaim a message that abides and remains with you forever, speaking from God for you:

“Now, thus says the LORD, who created you and formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, says the LORD. [Troubles] shall not overwhelm you or consume you, because you are precious in my sight, and I love you.” This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

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