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A Clearer View

(a sermon for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday, based on Matthew 21:1-11)

No doubt you’ve noticed that as part of our makeshift “sanctuary” this morning, we’ve hung up something which I consider to be a “church family heirloom,”  a quilt that was beautifully and lovingly crafted by one of our members, Donna Lee Rust; depicting the very event that we are seeking to remember and in some fashion will recreate this morning: that of our Lord’s “Last Supper.”  

Now, I love this quilt for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s a recreation of one of the most recognized, iconic and recreated paintings of all time, Leonardo DaVinci’s classic painting of The Last Supper, the original of which still can be seen in the place where it was created:  on the wall of a dining hall in a monastery at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, Italy.

Maybe you remember how a few years back, DaVinci’s painting – a mural, actually – was fully retouched, refurbished and renovated.  This was a process that took over 20 years and cost over eight million dollars as a small group of restoration experts painstakingly scraped some 500 years’ worth of grime off this priceless work of art.  And the dirt was just the beginning:  over the years, the painting had also fallen victim to at least nine previous attempts of retouching; near destruction by Napoleon’s troops, who had used the church grounds as a stable; an Allied bombing during the second world war; and this is to say nothing of a huge amount of greasy build-up that emanated from the nearby kitchen!  It took paint and dirt being flaked away a millimeter at a time to get at DaVinci’s original masterpiece, the hope being that The Last Supper would be sharper, more beautiful and intensely colorful than ever before.

And… it was!  At the same time, however, you might remember there were many historians and art critics who began to talk about how this massive restoration project had done more damage than good, and that a great many important details of the painting had been stripped away, leaving nothing more than fragments of DaVinci’s original work.  In fact, as much as 80% of the mural was actually lost in the restoration, with the intervening space being filled in with… watercolors!  So, in other words, what resulted was not so much DaVinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper, as much as it was a lovingly and carefully created, yet ultimately blurred depiction of what it once was! 

Very interesting, indeed; and actually, it seems to me that therein lies something of a parable for what we’re doing here this morning.

I mean, it’s Palm Sunday, right?  Without question one of the most powerful and celebrative days of the church year: a time for hosanna shouting and palm waving, triumphant worship music, and lots and lots of little kids of every shape and size dancing around the sanctuary with palm branches waving as the congregation sings forth its yearly rendition of “The Palms.” (“Join all and sing; His name declare! Let ev’ry voice resound, unite in acclamation!”)  Now, obviously this year our observance of the day is going to be different; but the story we’re telling today is just as powerful as ever, and it carries images indelibly etched into our memory: Jesus calmly riding into the city on the back of a donkey as the crowds cheer and children dance; the people spreading their cloaks on the road before him, all the while cheering: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  And we cheer right along with them, joyful in knowing that our cries of Hosanna this morning  (even the ones cried “remotely!”) are simply a prelude to the louder shouts of Hallelujah next Sunday when we discover the empty tomb and hear the good news that Christ is risen, indeed!

We know the story well, and yet…

…and yet, I dare say like the refurbishing of Da Vinci’s masterwork, our retelling of this incredible story risks blurring a great many of the details.  Like for instance, the fact that Jerusalem, this “whole city in turmoil,” as Matthew describes it, might not have been crying so much for joy on that fateful Palm Sunday as for… rescue.  It’s important to note that “hosanna,” a word that we’ve long associated with joyous proclamation, in the original Hebrew actually means “save us now.”  So in one very important sense, what those people gathered along the streets of Jerusalem were doing that day was crying out for help!  Because they saw Jesus as the one bringing that help, coming “in the name of the Lord” to deliver them from Roman oppression, to resurrect the dominion of King David, and thus revive Israel’s hope and its power… all in all suggesting a different kind of atmosphere that that of unbridled singing and dancing! 

Of course, that’s where the crowd misunderstood: Jesus had not come to resuscitate the rule of David, but to manifest the reign of God, bringing forth a time when every relationship in every setting would embody divine love and justice, when poverty would be replaced with abundance, and where God’s peace would come to all and abide with all; but do you see you easily the details of that particular story become blurred? 

Especially when we consider the details of what happened next.

Painful details… how in just five short days Jesus – the Son of David and God’s own Son, the one who was proclaimed as coming in the name of the Lord – would be literally abandoned by those closest to him; how he was shoved from one “judgment” to the next from the “powers that be” that wanted no part of him and how he was then sentenced to die: but not before being stripped, mocked, ridiculed and beaten without mercy; not before the very instrument of his execution was placed upon his shoulders so he could be forced to carry it through the streets to the outskirts of the city, all accompanied by the sound of hundreds of angry voices jeering him as he staggered by, this the very same crowd who’d only a few short days before had been shouting those joyous hosannas in his direction.  And what about the ringing of the hammer as it strikes upon the nails driven into his wrists and ankles; what about the realization that this one who was born a Savior – the very one who was promised to us as a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) – was now being hung upon a wooden cross, left out in the hot desert sun to die a long, slow and excruciatingly painful death between two common criminals.

That’s the thing about Palm Sunday, you see… once you get a clearer view, the truth of the whole story begins to fall into place… and as they say, it’s not pretty… but it’s necessary.

I think that’s one reason I so love this picture of the “Last Supper,” because it truly does depict that moment just before the events of our Lord’s Passion begin to unfold.  It also serves as a reminder that as tempting as it is for us as Christians to move straight from Palm Sunday Hosannas to Easter Alleluias, there is no avoiding the painful details of the cross.  It’s understandable that we’d want to; even as people of faith we have a hard time understanding why celebration must lead to crucifixion and triumph give way to tragedy.  Why must the suffering and pain of Jesus be real?  Why does there have to be this most horrible, excruciating death?  Truly, it’s the singular question for which all of humanity has for centuries cried out for an answer:  Why must there be the cross?

But you see, as hard as the question is, the answer is simple, really, and clear; it’s for LOVE.

It is love – God’s love – seen and personified in the person of Jesus Christ crucified.  It is a love so great that it brings God’s reign into every heart that ever has torn itself away from God; it is a love that is so deep and so full and so all-encompassing that it lifts you and me up out of our shame and disgrace and saves us with the vindication we need before God, moving us out of the judgment of our mortality and into an eternity with him.  It is a love that Jesus gives freely, willingly and obediently; and it is a love that demands our attention and calls for our devotion!

And ultimately, friends, that’s the reason we’re here today: it’s what has drawn us out of our isolation and fear in these strange and uncertain times; and it’s what brings us, even in a virtual setting, the kind of fellowship and support and hope  that we are so desperately in need of right now. We’re here today for the LOVE of it all… the clarity of life and light that our Lord has given us by his sacrifice on the cross; we’re here to walk with Jesus from the streets of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha, taking our place at the foot of his cross so that we might bear witness to the greatest love that the world has ever known and that we can ever receive.  It’s a gift, beloved… a gift by grace and infinite love, and it’s offered to us here and now by a Savior who is truly “dying to love us.”

It is love, friends, that will give us life in these times; life true, abundant and eternal.  In the words of the old hymn, for “dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. And trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.”

Thanks be to God.  

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2020 in Current Events, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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As Though For the Last Time

(a meditation for Maundy Thursday 2019, based on Luke 22:7-23)

In his introduction of a booklet detailing the preparations and liturgy for an interfaith Passover Celebration, Gabe Huck writes the following: “There is a time when time stands still, motionless.  There is a time in religious life when time becomes eternal, beyond recount, beyond hour divisions.  There is a time when we leave the present to go back in memory, feeling and prayer to the past, to a past that is the very ground of our being.  There is a time when we return to the sources.  Such a time is Passover.”

And, might I add here, such a time is Holy Week, and in particular, Maundy Thursday.

It’s on nights and during services such as these that I am reminded of just how much of what we do in our worship is a matter of history, tradition and even, dare I say it… routine.  Take the way that we “do” communion in the church; that is, how we share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  It is a part of our worship that steeped with ritual rooted in a very specific and appropriate liturgy that dates from the very beginnings of our Christian faith.  From the need for prayerful confession and pardon prior to coming to the table, through the so-called “words of institution” as spoken by Jesus himself, to the very ways that we actually partake of the bread and wine; these are things that happen – and have always happened (!) – just about every time we come to share in the bread and the cup.  With some minor variations, you see, in every church tradition, in every local congregation, in every “where two or more are gathered” amongst the faithful there is a similar sense of continuity and tradition in our communion; to the point where sometimes I fear it risks becoming something commonplace in our life together.

But not tonight.

Tonight, it’s different; tonight is for us that time when time truly “stands still, motionless,” a time when we do “leave the present to go back in memory,” coming together in humble imitation of a Passover Celebration long ago; of a truly holy meal that was the first and in a very real way the last of its kind.

Actually, as Luke records the story, at least leading up to that that fateful night there was nothing particularly unusual about this Passover meal – the seder – which was and is amongst Jews the festive celebration of the Exodus from Egypt and “God’s redemptive liberation of Israel from slavery and spiritual misery,” (from “The Passover Celebration”), a huge feast built upon the remembrance of things past and an expression of true faith.  It was also a celebration largely shared at home amongst family and friends; and so, like everyone else who was in Jerusalem that week, Jesus and his disciples would most definitely have shared in such a table celebration. So of course there would be a great deal of preparation involved and lots of ritual throughout, which is why much s said about Peter and John being sent to find the “man carrying a jar of water,” and going to “the large room upstairs” where “they prepared the Passover meal.”  It was tradition; something that’s still done by faithful Jews the world over.

But this time, you see, it was different.  To begin with, Jesus makes a point of saying how much he’d been looking forward to sharing this Passover meal with them “before I enter my time of suffering,” [The Message] and how it would be the last one they’d eat together until they’d do so together in the Kingdom of God!  “I’ll not drink wine again” until that Kingdom comes.  And then, again after having given thanks and broken the bread according to tradition, Jesus gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Same thing after supper with the cup:  “This cup is the new covenant written in my blood, blood poured out for you.”

Suffering?  A last meal?  A new covenant written in blood? One thing was for certain; this wasn’t the usual liturgy employed at a Passover celebration!  And then there was all of Jesus’ talk about betrayal, and how the Son of Man was going down a path that had already been marked out, “but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!”  You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking at that moment; I mean, it’s not like Jesus hadn’t already spoken of how the Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, but here?  Now?  At the very moment we’re gathering to feast and rejoice at God’s providence and redemptive power for his people Israel, what do you even mean by suggesting  the Son of Man is to be betrayed?  Who would ever… who could ever do something like that?

It was unsettling, to say the very least, and it’s no wonder that as Luke tells the story, almost immediately the disciples start squabbling a bit amongst themselves and then, of course, Peter – good ol’ Peter – offers up his verbal assurance that he would never, ever betray Jesus, even as Jesus predicts that this denial would, in fact, happen not once but three times!  All at once this Passover celebration had become something different, and I have to imagine that in those final moments of that Maundy Thursday evening – though they didn’t yet have a clue as to just how much things were about to change forever, and even less why – somewhere down deep in their hearts the disciples knew that they were all together sharing this sacred meal in the same time-honored way that they’d always done for the last time.

And they could not have possibly articulated this, but I also wonder if when Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them – just before the betrayal; before the denials of one and the desertion of many; before the arrest and the scourging, the jeers and mocking; before the cries for his execution; before they nailed his hands and feet to a wooden cross; before the hours and hours of agonizing pain and suffering as the life drained out of him; before he finally breathed his last; just before everything on earth and heaven shifted forever – I wonder if in that singular moment of “communion” offered to them by their Master and friend Jesus if perhaps time stood still for the disciples, motionless; in anticipation of eternity entering in.

I wonder.

In a few moments, you and I will return to feast at the Lord’s Table, to once again know his presence in broken bread and in a shared cup.  And though tonight we’ll do so in a way different than how we usually share communion in our worship here, nonetheless, we’ll be following a liturgy and tradition that’s been ours for generations as the Church of Jesus Christ.  So in many ways, tonight should be no different than any other time we eat a piece of bread and share a tiny sip of wine from a common cup…

…except tonight it is different.

Tonight we remember the night long ago when this holy meal was shared the first time; how it was given, and what Jesus said about it, and how the disciples responded and what it all meant, especially as we remember everything that was to follow. We remember how praise and celebration gave way to betrayal and desertion; how “hosanna” became “crucify,” and how the claim that “I will never deny you” becomes “I don’t know the man;” and ultimately, we are reminded of how the sins of all humanity are atoned by the sacrifice of the divine.  Tonight, in the bread and the wine, we’ll remember all that happened on that fateful night; but also, if we’re remembering correctly and well,  we’ll also recall how we were there when they crucified our Lord and how, in so many ways, in our weakness, shame and utter humanity, we still are.

There’s nothing routine or commonplace about this meal we’re about to share, beloved.  This is no less than the gift of a holy meal, one that reminds us of whose we are, and what we have been given, now and eternally, by grace and infinite love. So let us come to the table; but not out of a sense of tradition or routine, nor because it’s what’s expected of us.  On this night of nights, let us come to this holy feast with open and willing hearts, ready to receive all that our Lord is so wanting to give to us;  let us approach this table as though we are coming to this meal for the very first time… and also the last.

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Savior.

AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2019 in Communion, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent

 

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When the Stones Shout Out

(a sermon for April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday, based on Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11)

There are just some moments in life for which nothing else will do but loud, joyous, full-throated, totally spontaneous yet wholly intentional, and ultimately unbridled shouts of praise!

The Red Sox win the World Series; the Patriots win the Super Bowl… again (!); or you’re at a concert and you’ve just heard your favorite singer give the most amazing musical performance ever.  Or it’s that moment you suddenly know, without any shadow of any doubt, that you’re in love and you “don’t care who knows it (!),” or it’s what happens when you get the news you’re going to be parents – or grandparents (!) – or maybe it’s that singular, once in a lifetime,  experience of revelation when all at once and maybe just for an instant, everything in your life makes perfect sense!  But whatever it is, understand that more than just a rousing cheer what I’m talking about here is this instinctive, primal, even primordial need and compulsion to cry out for joy!  It’s the praise that emanates from head, heart and soul, and it’s quite literally wired into our DNA:  Theodore J. Wardlaw of Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas writes that even babies know that kind of praise.  “She doesn’t know her own name; she doesn’t know the name of God; she cannot walk and she cannot talk; but she knows even at that early age that – with the beginning of dawn – the only appropriate thing to do is to sing a baby song of praise.”

Actually, scripture is filled with examples of that kind of joyous praise: the Psalmist using every imaginable instrument – from “lute and harp” to “loud clanging cymbals” – in order to proclaim, “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” (150:3-6); Mary reacting to the news of the Christ Child growing in her womb, “’My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” (Luke 1:46-47); or even the awe struck reaction of good ol’ “Doubting” Thomas when he finally understood that the Risen Christ was standing right before him:  “’My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).  Once again, it is in us to praise; but even more than this, as Wardlaw goes on to say, all this seems to suggest “that praise lies beneath everything else as nothing less than the vigorous intentionality of God… because nothing is more appropriate or more timely than praise.”

And that, beloved, is in good part what the “triumphal entry” of Palm Sunday is all about.

Now this account of the Palm Sunday parade along the streets of Jerusalem is one of a handful of stories that appear in all four of the gospels; which tells us, first of all, just how important of an event it was in the telling of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry and most especially in how it figures into everything else that is about to unfold.  This is, at least in a storytelling sense, the true beginning of the Passion story; so it’s significant in that sense alone.  It’s also kind of an unusual story where Jesus is concerned, as it does seem at first glance to be “the one departure from Jesus’ aversion to acclaim.” (Philip Yancey, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”) What with all the Hosanna shouting and the adoring crowds spreading clothes and tree branches across the road, it’s to say the least a unique moment; for “though Jesus usually recoiled from such displays of fanaticism, this time he let them yell.”

In fact, did you notice something about Luke’s version of this story we shared this morning?  For one thing, there’s not a palm or even a “Hosanna” to be found!  In this version, though there is reference made to people “spreading their cloaks on the road,” as well as on the back of the colt on which Jesus was riding (and we do get the account as to circumstances how that colt was acquired), as Luke tells the story you really don’t get any sense that there were palm branches being waved in the air, nor is there any reference to a “happy throng” of children dancing ahead of the approaching Messiah!

And yet, despite the conspicuous absence of, as the song goes, the “green palms and blossoms gay” that was part and parcel of “the festal preparation,” there is no absence of utter joy and unbridled praise, starting from the very moment that Jesus was “approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives” down into the city of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’”   It’s funny, you know; a phrase that we use a lot today would seem to apply in this circumstance: that whole thing appeared to happen organically; but the truth of it that Jesus’ disciples just “did what came naturally,” [Wardlaw] and so did everyone else!   The closer this “triumphal entry” came to the city itself, the more people there were who were moved to join them; and the more people who gathered along the city streets or who followed on behind, or who ran on ahead to lay down their cloaks for a makeshift royal carpet and yes, to wave some palm branches in the air in royal tribute to us, the louder the shouting became!  In that moment of grand celebration and of prophetic fulfillment, “They sensed, somewhere in their guts, that nothing was more appropriate or timely” – or absolutely required at that moment (!) – than for them to burst forth shouts of praise!

And you know what happened next; it was so joyous, so spontaneous and uncontrollable, so filled with praise and thanksgiving unto God and the King who comes in his name, and perhaps most of all,  so very, very loud that immediately the powers that be, that is the gathered Pharisees, had to put a stop to it.  And so they went to Jesus – actually, in the true fashion of Pharisees in every place and time they probably sent a committee (!) – and in the name of all things ordered and correct, they told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” [The Message]  Order them to stop…. Now!

And to this, Jesus simply responds – and I have to imagine it’s with a sad smile and a shake of the head – “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It’s an amazing response; one that affirms that what was happening that morning on those streets of Jerusalem was not only appropriate, it was necessary; this was praise that needed to be expressed, the clear vision of God’s glory being proclaimed with singular and overwhelming intensity!  And that’s how we usually read that verse, isn’t it; that you can tell the “rabble to be quiet” all you want, but you can’t stop the praising.  Tell this crowd to stop its praising, and the very rocks that line the walls of this sacred city of Jerusalem will do it for them!  Don’t you see, you can’t stop it:  no matter what you do, you Pharisees, the shouting will continue and all of creation will keep on singing and praising God’s holy name: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Hosanna in the highest!

And you know, really, that should have been the end of it right there; at this point, the Pharisees should have simply gone home grumbling, the celebration should have continued unabated and there should have been all rejoicing at the coming of God’s Messiah. Or at least that’s how it should have been. But of course, as we know, there was more to it than that.

It’s been pointed out by some biblical scholars that along with the idea that the crowd’s shouting could not possibly have been silenced, Jesus’ words about the stones crying also may well have been a reference to some words of judgment spoken by the prophet Habakkuk that says that going against God would make “the very stones… cry out from the wall… the plaster respond[ing] from the woodwork.” [2:11]. There’s also a passage from the Old Testament Book of Joshua that speaks of a stone serving as a witness to the faithlessness of God’s people [24:27]  So now we have this incredible faith-filled proclamation of God’s providence and salvation, and what does Jesus say to the Pharisees who would shut it all down, and who would condemn Jesus, the very one who comes in the name of God, to death, “even death on a cross?”

He says, even in the silence the stones would shout out… but this time in judgment.

It’s interesting, you know; and as many times as I return to this story and begin my own walk of faith and discipleship on this so-named “holy” week I can scarcely wrap my mind and heart around it: how on Sunday there’s this huge crowd waving palms and shouting their hosannas unto Jesus, the one known to them, proclaimed by them as their Messiah, an yet come Friday morning, the same crowds are angrily calling for his crucifixion.  As many times as we’ve heard the story I can’t even begin to fathom of how Jesus – the one who was and is our teacher, our healer and our friend, the one who has brought light and life into the world – would be betrayed and abandoned and denied by those closest to him; or how he was so angrily – and easily (!) – mocked, beaten and condemned to a horrible death on a cross, a tortuous death reserved for the worst of criminals.  All this, and so much more than this, even as we all stand again at the foot of the cross, remembering his agony and suffering even as he spoke aloud to those who had condemned him, saying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]

It’s the journey we all share – the inevitable movement from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday – but I don’t know about you, but as we draw ever nearer now to the cross there’s a question I cannot help but ask:  Where’s the shouting and praise now?  When did “hosanna in the highest” become “crucify him?” And was I, am I, there “when they crucified my Lord?”  What happens when in my silence the stones shout out?

It’s a somber and difficult question, to be sure; but beloved, it’s an important one as today we consider who Jesus truly is and what even now he offers us.  I hoping you really heard the song we sang during the offertory, about how there “Ain’t No Rock Gonna Shout for Me,” because not only is it a great old spiritual, but the words of the chorus say it all:  “Rocks, keep silent!  Jesus comes to set me free.  Rocks, keep silent! I’m gonna shout in victory!  Rocks, keep silent! Jesus reigns in majesty.  Ain’t no rock gonna shout for me.”  It’s a song that not only reminds us on this day of days who Jesus is and what he came to do, but it also tells us that if we fail to give him our praises, if we turn away from him in his hour of need, if we deny him not only with our words but by our lives then all that will be left is the sound of the stones shouting in our place; each and all bearing witness to our silence amidst sin and despair.

Beloved, on this day of all days, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ we cannot stay silent.  We cannot let our praises go unsung!  Because, if I might quote Theodore Wardlaw’s words one more time, this isn’t “pollyanna praise, it’s not pie-in-the-sky praise, not whistling past the graveyard praise, not something sweet place among us just to make the world more beautiful praise.  It’s praise  that instead gives us vision, that enables us to see the world more clearly,” and it’s praise that reminds us that in the name of the one whose name we praise we are rescued, we are forgiven, we are redeemed and we are made alive, now and forever.

Ain’t no rock gonna shout that for me! How could it ever?

We are not meant to be silent, beloved… we are meant to sing and to shout and to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus our Christ!  It’s as simple and as profound and, as we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, as agonizing as that.

So… let our praises be heard!  And as Paul proclaimed in joy and praise, let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the eart, and every tongue” – every tongue (!) – “should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2019 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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