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Is There Hope?

(a sermon for April 1, 2018,  Easter Sunday; based on 1 Peter 1:3-9 and John 20:1-18)

Somewhere in the midst of all the busyness of this past week I did the math and discovered that as of this morning I have had the joy and privilege of standing in a pulpit somewhere and preaching the gospel on 34 (!) Easter Sundays!  Now, not only did that suddenly make me profoundly aware of the passage of time, it also got me to thinking about how no matter what I happen to plan or do for today, there will always be much about our Easter Sunday worship and celebration that’s “a given.”

For instance, it’s usually a given there’s going to be some kind of sunrise service in the “wee hours” of the morning (some years more “wee” than others!) when we’ll huddle together in the cold and try to reach the high notes of “Up From the Grave He Arose!”  I also know that there’s going to be plenty of joy and exuberance in our worshipping together; that there will be lots of upbeat music and inspired hymn-singing; and a great many “alleluias” shouted and sung throughout the day.  Also it’s pretty much a given that come Easter Sunday there will be beautiful and fragrant flowers spread throughout the sanctuary; that there will be a whole bunch of children running around in their new clothes, having perhaps already partaken of Easter candy and yet very ready to go out and hunt for some eggs after church!

But perhaps the best “given” of all is that you’re all here, and that’s a wonderful thing indeed; because what better day for us all to come together to worship and praise God than this one?  Because this is the Day of Resurrection;  and everything about it, from choir anthems to unison prayers to the fellowship we share, just bursts forth with triumphant joy!   Christ is risen indeed, and that shatters the commonplace of our lives; truly, worship becomes celebration!  In the best possible sense, friends, so much about our coming together today has to do with raucous, noisy, triumphant celebration; and praise God for it!

Which makes it all the more interesting that as we finally settle in to hearing the gospel reading for this Easter Sunday, what we encounter there is not so much an air of triumphant celebration as it is the darkness just before the dawn, an atmosphere of what the Old Testament often refers to as a “deep, crushing silence,” and also, it’s important to note… a lingering sense of hopelessness!

For you see, it’s important to realize that there were no trumpets blaring early on that morning “while it was still dark;” nothing at all victorious about Mary Magdalene drawing near to the tomb where Jesus has been buried.  All Mary knew in that moment was the enveloping quiet and the heaviness of her heart and soul.  This was, in every sense of the word, a funeral processional, a silent walk of death; for Jesus of Nazareth was gone.

Remember, Mary had been there with Jesus from the very beginnings of his ministry, and she’d seen and experienced it all: bodies healed, eyes given sight, countless lives made new simply because of his presence.  She’d seen the throngs of people clamoring around him to glean even the smallest bit of his teaching; and yes, she’d also seen the rulers and leaders who were perplexed and threatened by him.  And later on, with the other women beside her, she’d stood by helplessly as Jesus hung on the cross to die; and it was then that her own heart was broken.

Only a few days before, there’d been so much rejoicing, so much praising and so much hope; it had seemed like every one of their hopes for life, for living, and forever had come to fruition in this man who had become their master, teacher and friend.  But that was all over because now Jesus was dead; and not just dead, mind you, but crucified, hastily brought down from that tool of execution and placed in a borrowed tomb without even the dignity of a proper burial.  Whatever else was going on deep within Mary’s soul as she approached the tomb, one thing was for certain: any kind of hope she’d ever had was gone forever.  All that remained now was to anoint Jesus’ body with burial spices and that would be the end of it.

The truth is, I suspect that there are probably some of us here today who can understand that kind of hopelessness; who know what it means to have sadness, disappointment and emptiness be the prominent emotions of life and living.  As the late Rev. Dr. William Self once wrote, “We all have our days when we stand with our dreams in shambles around our feet.  Our children go astray.  We get the pink slip from our employer, or worse still, the test comes back from the lab as positive.”  These are the times when everything we’ve ever wanted, worked on, sacrificed over and hoped for simply, in whatever circumstance and for whatever reason… falls apart!  It doesn’t matter how good, or how faithful you’ve been in your life and it has nothing to do with what’s fair or just!  As Self concludes, “If you have blood in your veins and skin on your bones, you will have some darkness.”  And sometimes in that place of darkness, all you think of to ask is, “Is there any hope at all?”

Well, that’s what happened to Mary Magdalene.  What’s interesting is that as John tells this story, even after Mary had discovered that “the stone had been removed from the tomb;” even after Simon Peter and “the other disciple” ran to investigate and saw “the linen wrappings lying there;” even after that other disciple “saw and believed;” and even when she herself “bent over to look into the tomb” to find “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying,” all this time Mary is still weeping!  But this we can understand as well; for hopelessness is not something that is so easily disposed of, especially when it goes hand in hand with death.  We all know about the fragility of human life, and of death’s irretrievable finality; and so we also understand that at some point that reality of it must be accepted.

So it just follows that as she was sitting there in the garden, Mary’s heart had to have been reeling from grief and loss.  Remember, at this point she’s still wondering if in the night someone had come and stolen Jesus’ body, which would have been the final indignity to be heaped upon this man that she loved; so there would most certainly have been some panic and even anger mingled in with the grief!  There was no way that Mary would even begin to comprehend or even entertain the notion that this was anything more than what it appeared; any potential evidence to the contrary, Mary was not about to pin her hopes on an empty tomb!

But here’s the thing: though Mary was still weeping, though the disciples had gone home to ponder what they may have seen at the empty tomb, and though as far as all of creation was concerned death was still the one hard and fast reality of life, something amazing had already happened: death had been vanquished forever!  The tomb was empty, for Jesus had risen from the dead; and by his resurrection, God gave his people not only the gift of new life in the present, but also the promise of salvation and an eternal home.  In this moment when any and all hope seemed to be gone forever, now in the risen Christ there is hope unending!  It’s truly redemption and salvation on a cosmic scale; but even in that moment of victory there is still one thing that remains.

Mary.

In looking at this text, David Lose makes the very interesting point that “the space between ‘woman’ and ‘Mary’ is perhaps the distance between the cross and resurrection.”  Remember that at first, “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’” and Mary, supposing him to be the gardener (and perhaps even thinking him complicit in the robbery of Jesus’ grave), fails to recognize him even when they’re standing face to face.  It’s only when Jesus calls Mary by her name that she recognizes him as “Rabbouni,” that is, her beloved Lord and teacher.  It’s the fact that Jesus knows Mary and reaches out to her personally that ends up making all the difference in her belief and understanding of what’s taken place.  As Lose puts it, “Known, [Mary] knows.  Seen, she can see.  Loved, she loves… and then [she] goes and tells [the others] what she has seen, known and loved.”

And once again on this Day of Resurrection, we rightly proclaim it a wonder, a miracle, and a sure cause for celebration with songs of triumph and shouts of joy; and that it is!  But it’s also an affirmation of how God always works, isn’t it?  In the end, you see, it’s not in pursuing God’s favor that we earn righteousness or that we’re given salvation; it’s that God pursued us in the person of Jesus Christ, that he went to the cross and died for us, and that then was raised from the dead so that by grace we could be given life abundant and eternal.    Moreover, it’s not mere wishful thinking, nor the passing hopes and dreams that we build up for ourselves that offers us security for the living of these days; it’s rather the unending hope that comes in knowing that in our most difficult and seemingly hopeless situations God is working specifically and directly on our behalf, yours and mine; bringing much needed light into our darkness.  And it’s not – and this is important, friends (!) – merely a one-time only historical event that happened some 2,000 years ago; but rather it’s the divine experience of rebirth that happens again and again in the hearts of those who have been named and claimed by the one, as 1 Peter proclaims it, who “by his great mercy… has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”  Beloved, the good news of Easter is that there’s always hope; because Jesus is risen from the dead; and because Jesus is alive, so are we, now and forever!

I said to you earlier that as a pastor I’ve been in the pulpit for 34 Easter Sundays; what I didn’t say is that there was, in fact, one particular and very memorable Easter that I wasn’t.  As I’m sure I’ve shared with some of you before, that was the year that I had to undergo emergency back surgery: I’d had some spinal disc issues that were causing me incredible pain and were getting much worse during Holy Week; moreover, the doctors were concerned for complications and even possible paralysis if something wasn’t done soon.  So I was told that if I had a “Plan B” for worship on Easter Sunday morning, I’d better put it into action because my surgery was being scheduled for the same hour as Sunrise Service the next morning!

And I’ll be honest; even in the pain I was in, for this particular pastor, that was a hard thing (I’ll let you in on a little secret; we clergy types can be a little possessive about our Sunday morning worship, especially on Easter!).  But I really didn’t have a choice; and so while I was under the knife Lisa and Jake, along with a layperson from the church, took care of the sunrise service; and our choir director, who was in seminary at the time, learned how to preach an Easter sermon on the fly!  Everything went fine, for the church and for me, as it did for the next few weeks as I recovered; and I mention it to you this morning because along the way I did learn something that I shared with everyone who asked me: that “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” whether I show up for worship or not!

But it also served as a good reminder that Easter cannot and will not be contained… by a day, by a service, an certainly not by a pastor… or anybody else!  It can’t be hemmed in by any of the limits or boundaries we set upon it, and it won’t be diminished by our doubts!  Friends, Easter won’t be over when in a few moments we pronounce a Benediction, nor will it be finished later today after dinner is done and the family’s all gone home for the evening.  It won’t even be over when you get up tomorrow on “Easter Monday” and return to the busyness of a new week and all the challenges it will bring.  Easter continues…today, tomorrow and in every day that comes; and resurrection happens for you and for me as we move through this new and abundant life that our Lord has given us.  Christ is risen, beloved, and by the power of his resurrection we are given all the hope we need to live full, empowered and purpose driven lives.

It’s Resurrection Day, beloved, and the future is wide open; so let us rejoice and be glad in all the possibilities before, and of this life that God has given us…

… for Christ is risen!  He is Risen Indeed!

Alleluia, thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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We Were There

His name was Alan, and he’d been a member of our church for many years; at least he’d been there since before I was pastor. I had come to ask him if he might consider becoming a deacon.  And after a long, long silence, he looked at me and with a tone of voice I’m still not sure was half-joking or wholly serious, he answered, “Well, I’m very honored… but I’m not sure you want someone like me to be a Deacon.”

Not sure of how I should respond, I asked him how that could be, and he said, “You see, in my last church, I once walked out of a Passion Play.  I’d been given the part of Pilate, and the most important thing I had to do as Pilate was to send Jesus to be crucified – but I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it!  I knew it was just a play, and this was just a part I was supposed to play, but to think that this man Pilate could have sentenced God’s own Son to death… to that kind of a death, that was too much.  It literally hurt to think about it!

“Maybe it hit too close to home, I don’t know,” Alan went on, “but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words… but I didn’t want any part of it… so I just walked out, and left them all high and stranded.”

Now, being the pastor, I probably said something benign like, “that’s OK, Alan; you can still be a Deacon…”  But what I still wish to this day I’d said was, “YES!    You really understand, don’t you?  You totally get what happened!  It’s like YOU WERE THERE!”

You see, the truth is that we all tend to gloss over this part of the story.  If we attend to it at all, as we usually do about now, our habit is nonetheless to keep a safe and polite distance. After all, we say to ourselves, it’s an ancient narrative, something that happened in a place a world away 2,000 years ago and long before any of us were around; it really doesn’t have any direct relevance to today’s world.  Moreover, it’s also a horrific story; the violence that’s depicted there is heinous and unthinkable, and the ending is tragic! And after Palm Sunday last week and coming up on Easter now, it’s really not the kind of uplifting story we want to hear about now.  And besides, we may even conclude, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, does it?  This crucifixion story has nothing to do with how we live our lives here and now; the bottom line? We weren’t there!

Of course, if we had been there, it’d been different:

We wouldn’t have fallen away like the spineless disciples; and we certainly wouldn’t have denied knowing Jesus, like Peter;

And we wouldn’t have been shouting with the rest of the crowd to crucify him; I’d like to think we’d be the ones who were out there still crying out for all we’re worth, “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

And I know we wouldn’t have stood idly by and watched the powers-that-be and their thug soldiers beat Jesus and mock him.  We’d have done everything we could to save him, or if we couldn’t do that, then at least we’d gone with him….

But, of course, that’s not really worth thinking about because we weren’t there!

Or were we?

We need to remember that ultimately, what we remember this week is not about an isolated travesty of justice and faithlessness on the part of a very few people in the rather smallish city of Jerusalem during a Passover celebration some 2,000 years ago.  Historically speaking, this is how it all unfolded, but in every other way, what happened is not that small. What we remember tonight is about human sin.  It’s about the kind of atrocities that humanity is capable of, and how quickly and easily even the most seemingly innocent among us are drawn in.

It’s about death; yes, the death of a man on a cross, a man who was the Son of God.  But it’s also about our death, yours and mine, the death we have earned, the death we greatly deserve.

It’s about Jesus, yes; but in a very real way, it’s about you and me; about our hearts and our propensity to go against them time after time after time.

And it’s about all those times when we say and do all the things which we know we should not do, even if it’s denying Jesus.  Even if it’s joining with the mob when they shout “Crucify him.” Even if it’s cheering when Pilate gives the order.

There is one difference between us and the disciples, however.  You remember how during supper when Jesus said to them, one of you will betray me, and the disciples all answer, “Is it I?  Could it be me?  Not me, Lord…?” Here’s the difference: we don’t have to ask; we already know.

When we have the chance to speak our faith or to act on it, but like Peter, choose instead to keep mum about it, in some small way or another, we deny him.

When we take the path of least resistance, like so many of the disciples, or put ourselves and our personal gain over God, like Judas, we betray him.

When we persist, again and again, in walking our own road rather than the way of the cross, we crucify him.

We were there.  We are there.

And the reason that we’re here tonight is because there is grace that comes in knowing it, confessing it, and above all, in accepting his gift of pardon and salvation for our part in it.

Remember, Jesus went to the cross not to condemn us, but to save us. So as we draw nearer to the cross, let us be honest about it and remember who we are… and above all, let us remember who Jesus is.

Amen.

c. 2013 and 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2018 in Holy Week, Jesus, Reflections, Sermon

 

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FAQ’s of Faith: Why the Cross?

(a sermon for  March 25, 2018,  Palm Sunday; sixth in a series, based on on Mark 11:1-11 and 15:6-20)

The story goes that the circus had come to town, and there was this little boy who really, really wanted to be there.  The only problem was this was happening on a Sunday and the boy’s mother, who was very much of the old school and had always insisted upon the proper observance of the Lord’s Day, was reluctant to let him go.  But the boy was relentless in his pleading, and finally she gave in; allowing him, just this once, to “break the Sabbath” and go see this circus.  Well; after the show was over and the young boy returned home, his mother asked what he’d thought of the show.  His eyes were as wide as saucers; a combination of the wonders he’d witnessed and the abundance of doughboys and cotton candy he’d consumed!  And with visions of daring young men on the flying trapeze, elephants and clowns still dancing in his head, the boy replied, “Mama, if you ever get to go the circus, just once, you’ll never want to go to church again!”

I wonder why it is, every year around Palm Sunday, I always think about that story!  Probably because this is one of the three or four most celebrative days we have in the church; and while it’s not exactly a circus, I think you’ll agree that this morning there’s certainly been a parade atmosphere around here:  I mean, we shout our “hosannas,” we sing songs of triumph, and we wave palm branches as our kids march up and down these aisles and around the pews; all of it to rejoice in the fact that on that day when Jesus entered Jerusalem he did so with the respect and honor and love of all the people.  And it’s great, no doubt; it’s what the late Peter Gomes used to refer to as “that festival frenzy of the palms, the marvelous chaos which we organize each year – a festive dress rehearsal for an Easter triumph.”   Because don’t forget, next Sunday we go from “Hosannas” to “Hallelujahs,” and that’s going to be even better… so spread the word and invite your friends; the celebration continues next week!

Of course, first there’s what happens in between Palm Sunday and Easter; there’s still this matter of the cross.

That’s the problem, if you will, with Palm Sunday: it’s called Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” for a reason, just as there’s a reason that all four of the gospel writers chose to record this particular event in their account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  It’s because this “Palm Sunday Parade” was not merely celebratory; it was revelatory as it just seemed to embody all the hopes and dreams of God’s people, all amidst the growing crescendo of hosannas and ancient words of prophecy:  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  And it’s tempting – very tempting (!) – simply to treat our re-creation of it all “as though it were an Easter before Easter.”  But, as Fred Craddock wisely observed, “as we sometimes have early warm weather called ‘false spring,’ so it is possible to observe a ‘false Easter.’”  Because, you see, not only was this “triumphal entry” we remember today the focal point of a joyous celebration (and, might I add, a supreme act of protest) it was also, as it turned out, a funeral procession.  To quote Peter Gomes once again, that is “the solemn side of [this] day, and it is almost unbearable in its anguish and pathos.  Here [is where] we confront the dark side of the human experience, and when [very soon] we are forced to cry ‘Crucify, crucify’ along with the biblical mob, it is painfully close.”

On Sunday, you see, the people met Jesus with palm branches; on Friday, they slapped him his face and struck his head with a rod.  On Sunday, they extoled him praises as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord;” on Friday, they heaped insults upon him and mocked him as “King of the Jews.”  (15:18) On Sunday, they raced to be among the first to lay their clothing along his pathway, a fitting “red carpet” for approaching royalty; on Friday, they stripped him of his own clothes, “clothed him in a purple cloak, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, put it on him.”  On Sunday, he was welcomed into Jerusalem as a King, a Savior, the Messiah; by Friday, he’d been thrown out of the city as a criminal, having first suffered through a hasty trial, jeered and condemned by the crowd, mocked and tormented by the Roman soldiers and abandoned and even denied by those closest to him!  On Sunday, he was mounted on the back of a donkey (or “a colt that has never been ridden,” as Mark’s version of the story tells it) and despite the humility of such an entry, Jesus is accorded every mark of honor; but five days later on a Friday morning, he was hung on the wood of the cross, his flesh torn by whips, his hands and feet pierced by the nails, his side cut open by the spear; crucified there with “two bandits, one on his right and one on his left” (15:27) and left there in the hot, midday sun to die a truly “excruciating” death.

That’s the problem with Palm Sunday, you see; however joyous are our songs for this festive morning, however much we would just like to slide into the hallelujahs of Easter morning and avoid everything in-between, inevitably and inescapably Sunday leads to Friday… the shouts of hosanna will become the cries to crucify…and we will see Jesus there on the cross, suffering and bleeding and dying, calling out so plaintively in such agony and pain, ’Eloi, Elio, lema sabactani? which means,“My God, God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34)  There’s no avoiding it… come this Friday that’s inexplicably called “good,” Jesus, our teacher, our healer, our Savior and our friend… will die.

And you and I; we were there.  Even some 2,000 years later, we’re still there; even knowing as we do how this story is going to end, you and I are still there at that place of the skull called “Golgotha,” and we’re asking perhaps the most “frequently asked question” in all of human history:  Why?  Why, God?  Why Jesus?  Why your Son?  And why the cross?

What’s interesting, you know, is that the disciples really should have already known and understood what was going on; after all, look through the gospel story and you’ll be reminded that Jesus had told them three times (!) of his approaching death in Jerusalem!  But of course they couldn’t even begin to comprehend what Jesus was talking about – they didn’t want to think that anything like that could ever happen to Jesus – and it was only after the resurrection that they began to remember and understand what had taken place there on the cross.  In some ways, it’s the same for you and I who have already been to the empty tomb, who’ve been there “in the garden” with Mary and have encountered the risen Christ.  Yes, the central truth of our Christian faith is that we are “Easter People,” to be sure, but we live in a Good Friday world; truly, if it is true that “we were there,” at least in spirit, “when they crucified our Lord,” then it follows that we are the reason for Good Friday!  So, before we can rejoice in how in Christ we are made alive forevermore, doesn’t it seem as though we should understand why he died so that could happen?  Why, God?  Why the cross?

I’ll be honest; over the years as I’ve tried to wrap my mind and heart around that all-important question, I’ve discovered that I’ve never felt like I’ve had the words adequate to even begin to answer that question – maybe it’s better expressed by poets and singers and dancers – but I do know this:  the answer to “why the cross” basically comes down, simply and beautifully but oh, so deeply, to… LOVE.

Some years ago in a prior congregation, about this time of year the church staff and I were invited for a noontime luncheon at the home of a very elderly lady of our congregation.  This was my first year there, and I was told that this was an annual affair put on by this lady as a way of thanking us all for what we did for the church.  And I have to tell you, it was as fancy a meal as I’ve ever been served: the fine china was out; the place settings were beautiful; the sandwiches were cut just so and there were fancy desserts.  And at the end of it all, there was coffee and tea, served in these dainty little cups and saucers way too big for my big glaumy, clumsy hands! (It’s not what you think happened!)

But I managed somehow, and reached over for the little pitcher to pour out some cream my coffee… and what came out… were chunks… chunks of spoiled, curdled cream, just plopping into the teacup.  And the thing was, nobody noticed; or at least, if they noticed, nobody said anything about it.  And as much as I’m not liking the curdled cream, I’m also very sensitive to the fact that our hostess is smiling so broadly and who has done everything she possibly can to make this as special and as perfect a luncheon as she can for us all; I mean, she’d been planning this event for weeks, all because she wanted to do something so nice to honor us. So… long story short… I just quietly stirred it a little bit and drank the coffee… a very little bit at a time.!

It wasn’t until a couple of days later that our hostess came over to the church office to ask me in no uncertain terms what in the world was the matter with me; how I could ever drink coffee with spoiled cream in it, and why in heaven’s name did I not tell her about it at the time?  She was actually a bit angry with me!  “Is that what you people do in Maine,” I remember her asking, “drink sour milk all the time?”

All good questions, I’ll admit; and I also have to confess that I didn’t have much of an answer for her… just that I didn’t want to embarrass this lovely woman when she’d gone to so much trouble, or hurt her feelings in any way or form by making a deal out of this spoiled cream incident.  Looking back on it now I probably should have – gently and lovingly – pointed out the error and honor her effort in the process; in the end, we probably all would have had a good laugh and I’d have gotten better coffee!  But at the time, I felt on the horns of a dilemma and all I could think about was how correcting this woman in front of all these people could have ruined everything about this beautiful luncheon that she’d prepared; so instead I just opted to drink that awful tasting coffee instead!

A small faux-pas, to be sure, albeit one the rest of the folks on the staff never let me forget!  But it did get me to thinking a bit about the mind of God.  Max Lucado, in his book He Chose the Nails, writes that on an infinitely greater scale God faces with humankind much the same kind of challenge.  “How can [God] be both just and kind?  How can [God] dispense truth and mercy?  How can he redeem the sinner without endorsing the sinner?  Can a holy God overlook our mistakes?  Can a kind God punish our mistakes?”  Two equally unappealing solutions, writes Lucado.  But from God’s perspective, there is a third solution; and it’s the cross.

It was for Jesus – son of God, son of humanity – to take the mistake, the sin, the brokenness of our very lives as his very own, and to himself pay the price for that sinfulness so that we don’t have to suffer for it ourselves.  In Jesus, God was willing to hurt because we hurt and needed healing; In Jesus, God was willing to suffer because the idea of our suffering was unacceptable to him; in Jesus, for the sake of our sin God was willing to face the judgement of death – even death on a cross – because the thought of our being apart from him now or ever was and is unbearable.  And so, beloved in cross of Jesus Christ, God emptied himself so that we could be close to him today, tomorrow and forever.

That’s why the cross… and it is, as the song we’re about to sing proclaims, a wondrous cross.

Beloved, next Sunday we will come together at the empty tomb to shout our hallelujahs.  But first, let us be sure to pause at the foot of the cross; to ponder this divine sacrifice and the wonders of redeeming love; and most especially, to remember that which we’ll be singing together in a moment, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

May this be true for us on this Holy Week and always.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2018 in Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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