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Made to Worship: What Do We Tell the Children?

(a sermon for September 23, 2018, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Proverbs 3:1-12 and Matthew 19:13-15)

It is, at least from my perspective, by far the most unpredictable part of our worship service.

I’m referring, of course, to our weekly “Ministry with the Children,” also known in many churches as the “Children’s Sermon;” and while, as I’m sure you are very much aware, as a pastor I’ve always enjoyed that part of the service and can’t imagine it not being a part of our worship, I have also learned that you have to come into this time with our churches’ children expecting the unexpected!

Oh, yes, many has been the time when I had a perfectly good, reasonably well-prepared message planned, but that wasn’t what the kids wanted to talk about that day!  And then there were countless moments when one random comment or question from one random kid completely undoes anything and everything you were trying to get across!  For instance, there was the time, years ago, when during advent I was trying to talk to the children about “preparing the way” for the coming of the Lord only to be wholly derailed by the little redheaded sparkplug who announced to the entire congregation that his whole family had helped to put up a Christmas tree, that is, everybody except for his father who, said the little boy, was “just sitting around drinking a beer!”  Oh, and did I mention his Dad, one of the Deacons of that church, was right there slinking in the pew amid the riotous laughter?  Suffice to say from there on, nobody was hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah!

On the other hand, I can tell you of “holy moments” that came about because of the unpredictability of a children’s ministry:  like the day, again years ago, the little boy shared with us all that his Mom and Dad were getting a divorce; something that none of us, myself included, knew about up until that moment but which allowed for the whole church to embrace that family with much needed love and prayer.  Or like how we were able, on the children’s level, to faithfully deal with the loss of some much beloved members of our church family, or to respond to the aftermath of 9/11.  Or simply those incredible days when you discover that despite your best efforts, a solid biblical truth got through to those kids in a way you could have never planned for; and moreover, it turned out that they remembered it, even years later as adults!  And that certainly makes all the ever-present potential of derailment worthwhile for me!

What’s interesting, you know, is that while the idea of including children in the life of the church is as old as the church itself (indeed, from that very moment in our gospel reading when Jesus rebuked his all-too proper disciples for trying to scurry the children away from him!), having a children’s “sermon,” per se, hasn’t always been a part of the landscape of our worship. There are actually a lot of theories I could offer for that:  one may be that because “back in the day” a lot of churches kept the hours of Sunday School and Morning Worship separate and children were not necessarily encouraged to come to worship until they were of a certain age!  Even in a couple of the churches I served where worship happened at the same hour as Sunday School there was often a distinction made between Sunday School and “big church” with it being a red letter day when they would be allowed in worship!

Over the past few decades, however, I think we’ve come to understand how important it is for children to have both the opportunity to learn about God and the experience of worship together with their families; and that’s where a children’s ministry has become a fairly regular part of our time together.  And thank the Lord for it!  I think you’ll agree with me when I say that having the kids we have here, ministering unto them even as they minister unto us, is a good part of what gives our life together here at East Church its vitality and its purpose.  It’s so often said that they are the future of the church; well, let me just repeat what I truly believe and have said quite often myself: that these kids are not just our future, they are our present, and we would do well to remember that!

I don’t have to tell you that these days across the church spectrum the whole concept of Sunday School, children’s ministries and even including children’s sermons in the liturgy of our worship has fallen on difficult times; sadly, a lot of churches have come to the point, what with dwindling numbers and budget cuts, where they’ve been forced to give up on it altogether.  And you know the reasons: some of it comes down to how busy families have become in these days; the reasons for which include economics and the necessity for two income families, the preponderance of Sunday sports and other activities, the fact that there’s so much competition for time and attention out there, and on and on it goes.  But it’s more than that; quite frankly, oftentimes things like Sunday School and children’s worship has just ceased to be a priority in the lives of families, an even at times, the church itself.

That’s pretty sad, and ultimately tragic, especially when one considers that most people who discover their Christian faith will do when they’re children and as they’re growing up!  Or, to put this another way, consider the words of Wilbert M. Van Dyk of the Reformed Church of America:  “The church must attend to the spiritual nurture of its children.  A congregation that neglects to ‘feed the lambs’ fails in a critical responsibility that Christ has laid on his church.  That’s a pretty sobering assessment, but it speaks to a great truth and an even greater responsibility:  we need to understand, you and me sitting in these pews, that right here is one of the most important places our children have to come and learn about a God who loves them completely, just as they are; this is where they will build a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ; this is where they will begin to be inspired and led by God’s Holy Spirit.  This is where the lifelong journey of faith and service begins.

But let me just add here that this Christian nurture isn’t wholly the responsibility of the families of these young people; it in fact, belongs to each one of us here. As we have been saying throughout this sermon series, you and I are “made to worship.”  But understand that our worshipping together every Sunday is not simply for our own benefit; it also holds great implications for those who are around us, most especially for the youngest members of our church family.  Each and every one of us in this room are responsible for the spiritual upbringing of the children of this church.  It’s part of the responsibility we took on at the time of their baptism; it’s what we promise to do as people of faith and disciples of Jesus Christ!  And things like Sunday School, children’s sermons, Christmas pageants and even a few silly songs are a part of that!

So what do we tell the children… about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about faith?  Well, in the words of our Old Testament reading today, we want their hearts to keep God’s commandments “so [they] will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.” And in that, we do want them to grow up with some understanding of scripture, so that they might have some reverence for God’s Word and begin to have a sense of how the Bible speaks to them in their lives.  We want to tell them all about what it means to live life as a believer, and how to stand strong in God’s love and his peace and his strength and his joy in whatever challenges come their way.  We want them to know the joy of being part of the church, the Body of Christ, both here at East Church and in other communities of faith wherever they happen to go in their lives and living.  And we want them, in whatever path they follow on their journeys of faith, to ever and always be about the work of God’s kingdom.

Mostly, however, we want to tell them they are ever and always loved beyond measure and unconditionally.  John Claypool, in his book Stories Jesus Still Tells, writes about trying to put his four-year-old to bed while she took three trips to the bathroom, asked for a drink of water, wanted another story and all the rest of the stalls that go with bedtime for a preschooler (it was part of what we in our family used to refer to as “zoo time!”).  Claypool wrote that finally, he thought he’d gotten his daughter settled down to sleep, but no… soon enough here was his daughter standing at the living room door.  “‘Laura, what do you want me to do?’ he asked with more irritation in his voice than he wanted to betray.  She padded into the room and grabbed his arm.  ‘Nothing, Daddy.  I just want to be close to you.’” (quoted from Mike Yaconnelli’s book “Getting Fired for the Glory of God.”)

I cannot convey to you often or strongly enough just how very important our ministry with the children is here at East Church, and I cannot stress enough how crucial it is that each one of us here share in that ministry through Sunday School, in the Youth Group or in special events like the Christmas pageant.  But may I say to you now that as children of God and disciples of Christ – and, in that, the hands and heart of Jesus himself – the best thing you can be doing is simply to “be close” to these children; to teach them your faith and show them the love of the Lord simply by who you are!

That might be the best by-product of our Christian worship, and the most shining example of a thankful heart I could name for you today.

So let us love, nurture and enable our children in the name of Jesus Christ.  And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on September 23, 2018 in Ministry, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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Made to Worship: The Possibilities of Prayer

(a sermon for September 16, 2018, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Ephesians 3:14-21 and Matthew 7:7-12)

The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther said it:  “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”  And to this I would add that nowhere is this proven true more than in our time of worship together.

Actually, it’s so much a part of our routine here on a Sunday morning that it might just escape our notice how often we do pray during our service of worship.  There’s the “prayer of invocation” at the beginning of the service in which we quite literally invoke the name and presence of God on our time together, there’s the “pastoral prayer” in which I lead you in our prayers of joy, concern and intercession for one another, the church and the world, and of course, we almost always repeat the Lord’s Prayer together; but then, we also say a prayer to dedicate our offerings to the glory of God and the work of the church, we pray a simple prayer of thanksgiving with the kids following the children’s message, and I always need to ask that “the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts” be acceptable in God’s sight as I stand up here to start the sermon!  This is to say nothing of the additional prayers we say during communion or when there’s a baptism happening; and I should also add that it can well be said that so much of the rest of what we do here – the songs we sing, the times of laughter, tears and silence we share, and most especially the reading and proclamation of holy scripture – each in its own way includes and encourages an attitude of prayer!

All of this is to suggest to you this morning that everything we do here in our worship in fact constitutes a discipline of prayer; truly, without prayer at the center of it our gathering together – while communal and social in nature, inspirational and maybe even entertaining (!) – isn’t really worship at all! A discipline of prayer, you see, is what makes this time we share all about God, as opposed to all about us!  Moreover, prayer is essential to the Christian life and an imperative for the work of the church; it would not only be arrogant of us, but also foolhardy to think that we should do anything – in and out of worship – without first discerning the presence and guidance of God in that endeavor.  Prayer is, as Martin Luther suggested, akin to our very breathing as people of faith: it is what gives us life, it’s what invigorates us for standing firm in what we believe as God’s people and it’s what strengthens us for true discipleship in Jesus’ name. Indeed, if it is true that we are “made to worship,” than it is also true that we are made to pray.

Of course, none of this is to say that we are to adhere to some rigid interpretation of what that “discipline of prayer” looks like; the truth is there are as many “styles” of prayerful worship as there are traditions of faith, from the very liturgical “high church” approach to the order of service to a more deeply contemplative mixture of word and silence.  Quite often even the ways we hold ourselves in prayer varies widely from church to church and even person to person!

Some years ago, Lisa and I attended a week-long pastor’s conference out in California together with hundreds of other clergy-types and their spouses from throughout the country and across the denominational spectrum; and honestly our shared worship was one of the highlights of that experience.  But I will say it was different, in that we all had our own ways to worship and pray; in fact, I have to confess something to you: that one day while we were supposed to be deep in the spirit of prayer I kind of… well, looked up to check out what everyone else was doing!  (I know… but I was curious and wanted to see!) And it was an amazing thing to see: a few of my colleagues were in what one might consider  “reverent” posture – hands folded, eyes closed, head bowed – and yet there were many whose eyes and hands were lifted heavenward, their whole bodies swaying back and forth as they prayed.  Others were embracing one another, arm in arm with tablemates who perhaps up till that moment had been perfect strangers; and then there were a few who purposefully had gone off by themselves seeking some “blessed quietness” amidst the crowd, so to speak to God one on one!  And then there was the young man from the so-called “emergent church” tradition who had taken off both of his shoes and was walking around in bare feet – yup, his bare feet (!) – because, as I learned later on, he felt that when the church is at prayer, the sanctuary – whatever form it happens to take, be it cathedral or banquet hall – is holy ground, and so he was hearkening back to the Lord’s words to Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) And here we all were, gathered together as the Body of Christ in that place, praying as one to the same God we loved and who loves us beyond measure!

The point is, there are as many styles of Christian prayer as there are people in this room, and then some; and that in the end, the words we say, the liturgy we use, or the stance we take in our prayers is of lesser importance than the place of God in that prayer.  And so it is with our worship together: whether the words we say come to us courtesy of a unison prayer printed in the bulletin, or if those petitions come directly from “the eloquence of a silent heart,” the bottom line is that as we worship, you and I need to be bringing ourselves and our lives wholly and completely to the Lord in the spirit of prayer.

Actually, there’s a wonderful quote from one E.M. Bounds, who was a 19th century Methodist pastor and prolific writer, on this matter of prayer that for me says it all:  Prayer, he wrote, “puts God in the matter with commanding force.”  Those words might have been written over 100 years ago, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s cutting edge Christian thought!  It’s a message that Christians today needs to hear (!); and, might I add, a truth that you and I at East Church would do well to embrace as our own, that whether it’s worship, fellowship or service we are always to put “God in the matter with commanding force.” And to do so begins with prayer.

Prayer spells the difference between trying to do things by our own strength and putting our lives and living in the power of God’s graceful and providential heart.  That is not to say that the Lord does not respond to our petitions and our persistence; that’s central to our gospel reading this morning:  “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”   After all, as Jesus himself said, what parent, when their child asks for bread, will give a stone?  God does answer prayer, beloved; with God, blessings abound, strength and peace are abundant, and miracles can and do happen; but first we must give our prayer to God!  What we’re talking about here is a difference in attitude; it’s moving from focusing wholly on ourselves and our own abilities to get things done, to focusing on God and his unlimited resources for our lives and for his kingdom in our midst.

E.M. Bounds again:  “How vast are the possibilities of prayer!  How wide is its reach!  What great things are accomplished by this divinely appointed means of grace!  It lays its hand on Almighty God and moves him to do what he would not otherwise do if prayer was not offered.  It brings things to pass which would never otherwise occur.”

It sounds incredible when you hear it that way!  And yes, God sometimes says “no.”  Sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered, but the reality may be that God is responding to our need in a way we couldn’t even begin to comprehend when we said our prayer in the first place; it is true what they say about God working in mysterious ways! And also… oftentimes the response to our prayers is less about adjusting the situation we’re in than it is adjusting us for the situation!  But the point that Bounds makes here is that God does work; and the first step for God to work as God will work is for us to come to God in prayer.  It does seem to me, friends, that what with all the challenges we face in the church – and the world – in these times that the first and best thing we can do is to embrace all the many possibilities that prayer opens up before us and to truly let God act on those matters with God’s own commanding force!

I ask you today, wouldn’t it be great if our lives as persons and as a people could transcend the kind of concerns that always conspire to try and hold us back; you know what I’m talking about: the concerns, the fears, the “what if” questions that always seem to accompany boldness and risk?  Wouldn’t it be something if the decisions we make and the priorities we set for ourselves come about because of prayerful consideration, trusting in God to provide for us amidst our concerns?  Do you remember how just a very few years ago, every computer or laptop would claim that their PC’s are “Pentium Powered?”  That was the end-all be-all claim that that computer could accomplish… anything!  So, how would it be, then, if you and I were to make the claim that we are truly “God powered?”  We also could accomplish anything!

In the end, you see, prayer is not about the words we say, nor how we say them.  It’s the open heart attitude that we bring to God that makes all the difference; it’s loving God and trusting God to lead us to the place we should be with all power.  Indeed, as Paul said to the Christians at Ephesus, “for this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name… and I pray that you may have the power to comprehend… what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

It’s true:  after all, isn’t he the one who promises us the presence of his son, our Savior Jesus, both in times of trial and rejoicing, and who offers up his Spirit so that we might always have a sense of his presence and power as we go?  It’s our gift, beloved, one that is filled with possibilities; all we really need to is accept that gift with love and gratitude… to pray.

So let us pray with thanksgiving to the God who comes with commanding force into our hearts and lives and world.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Made to Worship: In Tune With Holiness

(a sermon for September 9, 2018, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost; first of a series, based on  Exodus 19:1-8, 16-19 and 1 Peter 2:4-10)

It’s now three months after crossing the Red Sea, and the Hebrews have found themselves at the base of Mt. Sinai, setting up camp in the wilderness desert there in front of the mountain.  And headed up the mountain itself is Moses, who is in the process of going to meet God; but in fact, God calls down to him from the mountain and says to tell this to the people of Israel:  “You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.  If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure… a holy nation.” (The Message) 

That’s the message from the mountain, and you gotta know that down in the desert, the people are more than willing to say yes to that; and yet, as we find out just a little bit later, when God comes to them in “a thick cloud on the mountain” and there’s a blast of a trumpet,” with smoke billowing and the very mountain itself shuddering for the sheer power of it, “everyone in the camp trembled.”  You see, as we read it in the book of Exodus, Moses brought the people out of their camp so that they could meet God; but what the people got was an experience of the holy unlike anything they’d ever known before, a palpable encounter that not only reminded them of what God had done up till that point but which also served to reassure them as to what God had promised yet to do!

I don’t know about you, friends, but when I hear a Bible story like that, I’m convinced:  much of the problem with us 21st century people of God is that all too often we have totally lost any sense of the holy!

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, author, preacher and currently president of Princeton Seminary, has written that “since we are creatures made in the image of God, we all yearn to find holiness.  It just comes in our wiring; it’s part of what it means to be human.

“When we go too long without [encountering] anything transcendent,” Barnes goes on to say, “or anything that inspires us, or anything that compels us to bend our knees in reverence and awe, our souls begin to whither inside us.”  And while it is possible to walk around in this life for a long time with withered, dried out souls, we’ll never be really, fully alive in such a state.  No, Barnes says, “we have to find holiness… it is living water for our parched souls.  We have to have it to be really alive.”

Actually, I think I would have to say that – setting aside all the social and communal aspects of what we do here aside – what Barnes is talking about is ultimately this is the main reason that we all come to church, isn’t it?  After all, most of us here are aware that in God, there is something, someone much bigger than ourselves, and we come to this place, this temple of God, in the fervent hope that in and through our worship we can somehow experience that “awesomeness” of the divine for ourselves, perchance have that transcendent moment in which our souls come alive.  And oftentimes it happens, too:  in a hymn or through prayer; in those nearly indiscernible ways that the Holy Spirit moves through our liturgies of Word and Sacrament; to say nothing of our very human mixture of silence and laughter and tears in which the Divine interacts.  What happens here every Sunday morning at least has the potential of being a holy experience!

What concerns me, though, is how often – to quote Craig Barnes again – “we encounter the holy and we try to domesticate it into something unholy that we can manage.”  It’s hard enough to get a sense of the holy these days, given all the competing voices that clamor for our attention in this life, but then we take what we know is holy and, to put it in secular terms, we market it, we program it, we try to make it user friendly by putting into a mold that we can embrace, and then we put God’s name on it even though inevitably, it all ends up looking more like our plans and preferences rather than those of God!

To put it another way, oftentimes we forget what it is we’re doing here:  I love the story that Marva Dawn, a Lutheran pastor and author, tells about how one day in her church a man came through the line to announce to her in no uncertain terms that he did not care for the hymns they’d sung in worship that day.  And to this, Marva Dawn simply responded by saying, “That’s okay; we weren’t singing them to you!”  (I wish I’d thought of that!) Well, this is so often the problem: we try to make the experience of holiness fit us rather than the other way around!

Holiness, you see, can’t be made to fit into our pockets; it can’t be contained within an hour or so on a Sunday morning; and it can’t be tailored so that each one of us leaves here assured of feeling all warm and fuzzy inside!  The fact is, holiness defies our human attempts to contain it, and that’s because the experience of holiness is about God, not us!  Let me tell you something here this morning that I hope that you already know but that I’m truly afraid gets lost from time to time:  our worship is about meeting God at the edge of the holy mountain, and it’s about letting God breathe life back into our dry, parched souls so that we might truly live.  True worship is about remembering who God is and who we are; it’s about you and I remembering the past so that we might move to the future; it’s about affirming that the same God who has always carried us on eagles’ wings will continue to carry us home; and it’s about you and me, individually and collectively and as the CHURCH truly embracing the role of God’s “treasured possession,” becoming “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” through our own obedience to God.

That, as I’ve said, is true worship; and friends, the thing is, what that’s going to involve is the shaking of the mountains around us and the trembling of our own hearts within us!   But may I just say right now, if that’s what it’s going to take to give us a true experience of the holy; if that’s what will bring us closer to God’s presence and purpose for our lives, then I think it’s worth some fear and trembling.

I think that the point of the Exodus story is that the God of holiness and righteousness is asking of each one of us to bring that holiness and righteousness into our lives and living, and to be honest, I think that the very thought of that ought to be causing us to tremble, even us here at East Church! For you see, as God’s people what makes us a “a treasured possession out of all the people” – what The Message refers to as God’s “special treasure” – is not based on how many people we have sitting in the pews, how great our time of worship happens to be or how much money we make on a bean supper.  Ultimately, it has to do with our faithfulness and obedience to God; this is what makes us, in the words of our epistle reading from 1 Peter, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

At the end of the day, folks, it’s what we do, how we live that matters.  Like the Hebrew people before us, we too are called to obey God’s voice and keep his covenant; to do “everything that the Lord has spoken.”  That means we are to adhere to God’s laws and precepts over the worldly and all-too-human standards that so often rule the day (it’s no accident, by the way, that right after the scene from Exodus we’ve shared today, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and brings the people the ten commandments); but, lest we think that this is exclusively Old Testament thinking, as Christians forgiven and saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, we need to remember that there is the added element of taking on Christ’s holiness as our own:  in short, if we are truly, as 1 Peter puts it, to be “built into a spiritual… offer[ing] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” then we need to work at loving one another as Christ has loved us; to ourselves be the kind of spiritual house that God intends us to be.

What that means, friends, is that we have to do more than talk a good game here: we have to model the love of Christ, beginning in our relationships with each other and expanded to include the community as a whole. Friends, believe me when I say to you that we cannot be “a holy nation,” in this church or anywhere else, and might I add, we will never become the people God wants us to be if we allow ourselves to be consumed with words and actions that hurt and divide, rather than that which creates an atmosphere for healing and unity. To live in holiness and righteousness as God calls us to live can never happen in tandem with treating those around us – all those around us, whether they happen to agree with us or not – with any less compassion, care and respect than that shown unto others by Jesus; and we all would do well to remember that.

But the good news today is that we can remember that; for truly, as our scripture today tells us, remembering comes in the experience of holiness; and the experience of holiness begins in “the act and attitude” of worship.  As the song (and the name of this sermon series!) suggests, you and I are “made to worship” so that we will always remember what God has done and be wholly aware of what even at this moment God is doing in our midst!    And when what we do here as a church is centered on that – when what you and I do here as persons of faith is centered on that – then everything else that we hope and pray for will follow; even the fear and trembling we experience cannot help but become glory in the light of God almighty.

Now if that imagery seems a little too dramatic to you, then think of it this way: anyone here has ever had much to do with music, particularly with musical instruments has probably seen one of these.  It’s what’s known as a “tuning fork,” and its primary purpose is to offer a true tone (a concert A – 440) by which other instruments, primarily pianos, can be tuned.  It’s an ingenious piece of hardware that is actually and delightfully very low-tech: you strike the fork, it makes this tone, and based on that pitch, piano tuners can begin the laborious task of making sure every note on the piano relates properly and harmonically to one another.  But here’s the beauty part: if we were place put 50 grand pianos side by side in this sanctuary, as long as those pianos were each in tune with this single tone emanating from this tuning fork, all those pianos would automatically be in accord with each other!  And while it might be a little crowded in here for all the pianos playing, what a sound that would make when those pianos are in concert with one another!

Well, folks, God has given us that tuning fork, and Christ is the single note to which each one of us is tuned; he is the one standard that keeps us at perfect pitch always.  When we are in tune with the holiness of Jesus Christ, we have what we need to let all our melodies and harmonies soar; we can serve God with gladness and in unity, using all the many and varied gifts we’re given to play any given song that’s before us.  But friends, here’s the thing:  as any musician will tell you, before you start to play you’ve first got to be in tune; and so it is for you and me as God’s people.  You and I are made to worship, but even more than this, we need to worship to be in tune with the holiness of God!

And it starts, friends, by standing at the edge of the mountain; embracing this sacred moment of worship that we share here this morning, opening our hearts that God might breathe life into our souls and give to each of us an experience of the holy; so that, in turn, each one of us can move into the future, wherever that might lead us, doing “everything that the Lord has spoken.”

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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