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Uphill and Down

(a sermon for February 11, 2018, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Mark 9:2-9)

It was a powerful moment; that much is for certain, one that up to that point had to have been the most profound experience of their entire lives.

And as Peter, James and John stood up there on the mountain with Jesus, they were stunned at what they were seeing; and yet at the same time fascinated, exhilarated and warmed to their very souls.  This was no less than glory itself; and as the three of them stood there amidst the brilliant and shimmering light of their teacher Jesus transfigured before them, watching him “in deep conversation” (The Message) with Elijah the prophet and with Moses (!), who could blame Peter for his excitement and for blurting out the very first thing that came into his head?  Mark’s account of this story tells us that Peter responded to all this by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” but he might just as well have said, “Is this great or what?!”    Because he wanted to hold on to this experience forever! Let’s build three dwellings, three tents, he says, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” and then we can just stay right here and never have to leave!

Like I said, it was a powerful moment; and it’s all punctuated by a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”  and you can understand why they’d want to stay atop that mountain for as long as possible!

Of course, that doesn’t happen; for soon the vision fades, the glory dissipates, and once again it’s just the three of them there with Jesus.  And now it’s time to come down from the mountain and to get back to the intense daily realities of following Jesus: the long walks going from town to town; the throngs of people clamoring at Jesus’ feet, the cries of people looking for healing and teaching and love; it was so much more than anything they’d ever imagined back on that morning mending nets on the shore of the Galilean lake.  But this was the life they’d chosen (or, perhaps more accurately, the life they’d been chosen for), and it would go on now just as it had before; except that because of this glimpse of glory they’d received, everything was somehow different.  They were different.

One of the great “little pleasures” of ministry for me has always been those all too rare occasions when I happen to run into a couple at whose wedding I officiated a few months or even years before.  After all, the nature of pastoral ministry, to say nothing of the nature of life itself, is such that you sometimes just lose track of these couples, so it’s great to get caught up on what’s happened to them since that fateful day I got to join them in holy matrimony!  And there’s always stories to tell; but I always have to laugh that almost inevitably when I ask how they’re doing, one or the other will always answer, “Oh, we’re ‘old marrieds’ now!”

“Old marrieds!”  Now there’s a label for you!  It sounds kind of like “used car,” or “factory seconds,” doesn’t it?  I wonder, what does that even mean; “old marrieds?”  Certainly, it can’t mean that the experience of marriage has caused them to age pre-maturely (or at least I hope not!), and I do hope that it’s not an indication that the excitement and passion has gone out of their relationship!  No, I suspect that when they use the term “old marrieds” they’re telling me that over time and experience their marriage has become, well, familiar.

You know what I’m saying; now that the wedding and honeymoon is behind them, they’ve settled into this new daily routine of life that more than likely includes home, work, family… the whole thing.  Moreover, they’ve gotten used to each other’s little quirks of personality; maybe they’ve even set out to “adjust” a few of those qualities, in the other if not themselves!  They’ve probably already had times that they’ve grown closer together and other days they’ve felt like they’re drifting apart; and I’ve no doubt they faced more than a few challenges along the way.  And they’ve probably also come to realize, as I like to say to couples about to get married, that that stuff about “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” ain’t just boilerplate; it’s the ebb and flow of real life that enters into every marriage!

You see, the interesting thing about all of this is that no matter how glorious or memorable the wedding, eventually that day of celebration passes into memory, and life goes on pretty much as it did before; except that now, because of the marriage that’s been forged on that wonderful day – because of vows taken and commitments made – all of life and living is forever changed; and that’s because they’ve changed!

Well, I think that the message of the gospel this morning is that likewise, even as we carry the mantle of Christian discipleship life does indeed go on; and rest assured, friends, that combination of faith and life-as-we-know-it-and-actually-live-it is not always – if ever (!) – going to be easy.  But you see, it’s how we incorporate the glory of what it is we believe into the minutiae of daily life that gives that life meaning, purpose and joy!

The fact is, whereas we weren’t there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, we know all about mountain-top experiences, don’t we; those incredible moments of perfect clarity and insight that occasionally come along in our lives in which we are made profoundly aware of God’s presence and love.  For some of us, that experience came in times of great joy and elation: in the birth of our children; in moments of sudden inspiration and creativity; or when we discover for the first time a fellowship with the divine in the singing of a hymn or a saying of a prayer.  Or that experience may have come right in the midst of pain and strife: in the realization that your prayer for strength and healing was answered; in an inner peace that passes all understanding but somehow brought you through what you never thought you could endure.  These are moments that are both divine in their nature and utterly transformative; truly, this is, in every spiritual sense of the word, transfiguration.  It’s what it means to be up on life’s mountaintop when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over daily life and suddenly we see, hear and feel God’s awesome presence.  And when that happens, it’s a truly glorious thing.

But the thing about mountaintop experiences is that they’re not meant to last forever.  It may indeed be glorious, but sooner or later the time is going to come when you have to walk down the hill and return to the valley from which you came.  David Lose writes that one of the most significant parts of the Transfiguration story is that “after all of what happened on the mountaintop… Jesus came back down.  Down to where the rest of the disciples are, down to where we are, down to the challenges of life ‘here below,’ down to the problems and discomforts and discouragements that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”

And that’s where we are called to go as well: as Jesus makes clear again and again in the gospels, true discipleship is not as much in what happens atop the mountain as in what we encounter down in the valley!  The way of Christ is the way of the cross – it’s no mistake, by the way, that on the Christian calendar, Transfiguration Sunday happens just before the beginning of Lent and our shared journey to that cross – and when we walk faithfully the way of the cross there will be, as we confess in our statement of faith, a cost as well as a joy in that discipleship.  But the thing is;  as disciples we do walk downhill and we face whatever comes; but not so much because the journey has changed, but rather because we have changed for the journey!

I’ve always loved that passage from 1 Kings we shared today; a beautiful and evocative piece in which God’s reassuring voice is heard not in the noise of wind, earthquake or fire, but rather in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows.  That’s a sermon in and of itself (!), but even given that, for me what’s most telling about this story is what brought Elijah to the cave in the first place; for you see, it was not faith as much as it was despair, and Elijah’s deep desire in that moment to quit being a prophet!  And you can understand why: nothing was working out right; the Israelites had forsaken God’s covenant, they’d torn down the altars of worship and now they were seeking to kill all prophets; including and especially Elijah himself!  So Elijah has fled to this cave, not only in fear for his life but also feeling utterly abandoned by God; he’s disillusioned and angry, and he cries out to God in despair, and as a great storm rages both outside and from within, Elijah waits for the Lord to answer… which God does… in the silence.

But did you notice that when God eventually does speak to Elijah, what he tells Elijah to do?  God tells Elijah… to go!  Whereas by our thinking the easiest and safest thing to do would have been for Elijah to stay holed up in that cave and safe from danger, God says, “Go!”  Get out of the cave, Elijah, and go back to the wilderness; go back and anoint Hazael as King over Aram; go down from this mountain and then wait to follow my lead.

While Elijah is looking at the failure of the moment, you see, God is looking at the big picture and the promise of a certain future that would transcend the success or even the failure of Elijah’s efforts.  God’s plan will unfold as God intends; and life within that plan will go on as before. So what matters most now is whether or not Elijah will choose to stay true to the task to which he is called; and if he’ll remember, even in the midst of risk and strife, that incredible moment of transformation and glory that led him to answer God’s call.  The question is whether or not Elijah will walk down the hill with the same kind of faith and determination with which he walked up!

Each one of us here is called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but the truth is that Christ is Lord not only of the bright mountaintops of our lives, but also is the Lord of the shadowed valleys of living. If we are to follow Jesus where he goes, the pathway will not only wind through green pastures, but also through the briars and what my father used to call the “puckerbrush.”  If we’re to model ourselves after him, we’ll surely come to times of triumph, celebration and great certainty along the journey, but we’ll also come to crossroads of grief and despair in which we’ll find ourselves struggling to find the right answers.  And if we are to be true to him, we’ll reach out with love to others in the same place.

As Christians, ours is a day to day journey of faith that goes uphill and down; and as we seek to move forward in this life with some sense of God’s will for ourselves, our neighbor and our world, we do so never entirely sure of what’s beyond the next horizon.  But whatever happens, one thing is always for certain:  in our walk, wherever it leads, we have been the recipients of glory.  The movement of God’s own Spirit in our lives and faith has offered us a glimpse of how God’s own realm will be.  Truly, we are people of a promise that transcends any of the setbacks and the stumbling and the despairing we face as we go along the journey.  The only question is whether we’ll be true to that promise, whether we’ll take the risk to put one foot in front of the other and walk down the hill and into the valley.

Before long, our service of worship will be done for today, another Sunday will have passed and tomorrow it’ll be… Monday.   Soon enough – maybe even before the day is through – we’ll be back to life as usual – going back to work, buying groceries and doing the laundry – and the experience of our prayers and songs in this hour will be but a fading memory; at least until next week when we do it all again!  Truth is, life will go on pretty much the way it did before today; and yet, it’ll be different – it can’t help but be different – because by the gentle, graceful and utterly glorious touch of God, we’re different.

Beloved, in God’s purpose and plan, this week contains a wealth of possibilities for faith, service and love; but you see, we’ll only know what God can do in our lives if we are bold enough and trusting enough to let God’s glory us downhill and into the valley of life and faith.

Just go, God says to us, just keep walking; and always remember that you’ll never be along

Thanks be to God who in Jesus Christ walks with us on the journey.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Moments of Wonder

libertadIn the wee hours of an autumn morning way back in 1980, I was involved in an automobile accident.

It was during my senior year at the University of Maine, where I’d been working as a managing editor for the student newspaper; and in those days long before internet and email attachments made things much easier, it was my responsibility to deliver the layout flats for the next day’s paper to the printer in Ellsworth, a journey of some 40 miles from campus. As I’ve said, it was very late, but I was also wide awake and heavily caffeinated  (not to mention a whole lot younger then!) and doing fine; at least I was until I came around this blind curve and, despite swerving to avoid it, firmly struck a deer that had leapt out onto the road in front of me.

Now, I was not hurt at all and the car was not seriously damaged; even the deer was merely stunned and soon bounded back into the woods, none the worse for wear. Looking back on it, what could easily have been a tragic situation ended up little more than a fender bender, but even now what I remember is that the whole experience left me a bit shaken.

As I recall, however, it also had a rather humbling effect on me, and for an all-too-brief period of time I was not only profoundly aware of the fragile nature of human life (as one might expect), but also cognizant of my  very, very small place in the universe. For several days afterward I noticed the things and people around me like never before: I paid attention to the tiniest nuances of life and living, I wondered at the smell of the air, marveled at the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet; and even took close notice of the beating of my own heart, all the while pondering who I was amidst all this wonder (I know… it was all rather dramatic, but hey, I was 21!).

Of course, as so often is the case in such situations, a day or two later I was back to “normal,” with all the wonder having melded back into the routine of my daily academic life. But I never did forget what it was to feel, even for a little while, so incredibly gifted with all that life and living has to offer and yet at the same time so utterly unworthy of all of its blessings.

Actually, as it turned out there would be a number of other times in my life that I would feel that way again: the day that Lisa and I were married; the moments when my three children were born; at my ordination to the Christian ministry; and even in those days just before and after my father passed away… in truth, there have been  (and continue to be ) countless moments both large and small – times that were utterly joyful or profoundly sad – when there was this palpable awareness of God’s Spirit moving in my life or in the lives of others in ways that transformed those lives in ways I could never have imagined, much less expected; moments of grace so rich and powerful made even more incredible and precious by the realization that I had absolutely nothing to do with it!

Each year about this time, as the Christian calendar moves from the light-filled season of Epiphany to the arduous journey to the cross that encompasses Lent, we in the church return to the story of Christ’s transfiguration on a “high mountain apart,” (Mark 9:2)  as three of his disciples looked on in awe-struck wonder.  This is a story of the ultimate “mountain-top experience” that points to the magnificence of the divine presence which is seen in Jesus, and it’s filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power. But amazing as that is, I must confess that every time I return to this story, my thoughts always seem to be on what those three disciples must have been thinking as it happened!

We know, for instance, that Peter immediately wanted to preserve the moment forever by building dwellings on this spot where Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah.  But what about James and John; did the sight of Jesus’ face shining “like the sun” with clothes “dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2) open up for them the possibilities of the infinite?  Was every one of their senses suddenly awakened by the presence of the divine in their midst; how did the air smell and how did the light of that transfiguration illumine the trees and rocks that surrounded them atop the mountain?  Did they have an awareness in that glorious moment that there was so much more to their lives now than their fishing nets?  In that fleeting moment, could they have possibly imagined, even in a glimmer, what the future held for each of them?  Almost certainly there so much happening that it was overwhelming; it is no wonder that by the time that voice spoke from the “bright cloud” proclaiming that this was God’s son, “the Beloved,” (Matt. 17:5) the disciples had long sense fallen to the ground in utter fear! For such is what happens when all of the wonder of life as God intends opens up before you!

This story is also a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative; it’s about from this point on that we read of how Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) with all of what that journey implies.  So even as it’s happening, we know that very soon it will be time for those three disciples to come down from the mountain and continue walking “down in the valley” and ever closer to the cross.  So I have to imagine that the whole experience ended up as bittersweet at best, made all the more so when Jesus instructs them to “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” (Matt. 17:9) understanding that at this point they had barely a clue as to what all of this really meant. And if you read on in the gospels, almost immediately it was back to the work of following Jesus as he healed the sick and brought the good news of God’s kingdom to all the people in every village along their journey, so in truth, there was likely little time for them to consider what had just happened up on that mountain.

And yet… I’m sure they did.  Perhaps in the morning when the bright beauty of the rising sun reminded them of another dazzling light they’d seen; or maybe at the end of a long day when, drifting off to sleep they’d revisit this lingering memory of an event not of their own making… something that was so utterly ethereal and yet as certain as their very breathing…

…something that would define them, and us all, forever.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in Epiphany, Jesus, Lent, Life, Reflections

 

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“Onward…”

transfiguration2(a sermon for February 7, 2016, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on Luke 9:28-43)

It’s not exactly a theological term, but an apt description nonetheless: the text we’ve just shared might well be called “a glory story;” in that it represents one of the places in the gospel story where we get to experience the glory of God, as revealed in the full and “dazzling white” radiance that shone forth from Jesus Christ on that distant mountaintop.

Granted, as Luke tells the story, much of the scene is engulfed by a thick cloud that “came and overshadowed” those who were there with Jesus on that mountain; and yes, it’s worth noting that those three disciples – Peter, John and James – had actually been sleeping up until this moment, so exhausted were they from having made that uphill climb.  There is something of a fuzzy, dream-like quality to what Luke’s describing here; but make no mistake, this was a “holy moment,” a numinous, that is, wholly spiritual revelation of the overwhelming “tremendous mystery” of God (in Latin, the mysterium tremendum; and there’s a theological term for you!).  What we have in this brief passage that falls smack-dab in the middle of Luke’s gospel is no less than an account of God’s own glory shining forth from the incarnate Christ; it is the very personification of what Paul was referring to later when he wrote to the Colossians that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”(1:19) Not only that, but we also have an appearance here from Moses and Elijah the prophet, both of whom are seen speaking with Jesus; and then there’s that unmistakable voice of God boom out from the cloud saying, “’This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”  And these disciples are there to see it all; in fact, Peter’s ready to immediately build up “’three dwellings, one for [Jesus], one for Moses, and one for Elijah’” in order to hold on to this holy moment for as long as possible!   And, really, why wouldn’t he want that!  It’s amazing; it is incredible; it is “awe-some” in the truest possible sense…

… and then it’s over.

That’s the piece that’s so puzzling to me about this passage:  just as suddenly as it came to pass, this “holy moment” comes to an abrupt end.  Luke tells us that no sooner than the sound of God’s voice stops echoing in the distance, immediately the clouds disperse, Moses and Elijah have vanished and “Jesus [is] found alone;” presumably with the three disciples nearby, mouths agape and hearts still beating wildly.  It’s over, just like that: there’s no explanation of what just happened; Jesus doesn’t “unpack” the experience with his disciples as they walk back down the mountain; all we hear about this, from Luke at least, is that “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”   Add this to the fact that in Matthew, and also in Mark, Jesus actually orders the disciples not to tell anyone about the experience they’d just had up on that mountain, we’re left here with a “glory story” with a disturbingly vague ending!

Talk about your “tremendous mysteries!”

Actually, I have to confess to you that every year as this story of the “transfiguration of Christ,” as biblical scholars refer to it, comes around on the Christian calendar, the memory that for me always come to mind is that of my ordination to the Christian ministry back almost 32 (!) years ago now.  No, we might not have experienced the full radiance of God’s glory that day (at least not in the sense that’s described in scripture today), but it was – for me, at least – a true mountaintop experience.  Short of my wedding day, the days when each of my children were born and a handful of other moments I could talk about, the day of my ordination was probably the most significant moment of my life… and it was great!  A beautiful worship service led by colleagues, friends and family, and highlighted by prayer, beautiful music and the laying on of hands:  it was an amazing day, all the way around, the culmination of everything I’d hoped, prayed and worked for for so many years…

…and then it was over.  Sunday afternoon became Monday morning (!) and in fact, I remember that day walking down to my hometown church to say thank you to everybody, and ended up helping to fold church newsletters!  In other words, though I was still basking in the glory of what had just happened, life was going on and there was work to be done;  including, by the way, my own sermon for the following Sunday!  It all came into focus for me a few days later when I received in the mail a very nice note of congratulations and blessing from a colleague of mine – someone who had actually been part of my journey since I’d first sought to answer this call to ministry – and in that note, I’ll never forget, he wrote these words:  “That was quite a celebration last Sunday, Michael.  What do you intend to do for an encore?”

Understand that the question was not meant to be some sort of ministerial challenge to the effect of “Can you top this?” but rather a powerful reminder that though there had been a long climb up that mountain, and an incredible experience of joy and celebration once I’d reached the summit, now there was this matter of what was to happen next; and the first and foremost what had to happen next was there had to be the inevitable journey down the mountain and into the valley!

That’s the thing, you see; mountaintop experiences, as wonderful as they are, are not meant to last!  Sooner or later, the time comes for us to come down from the mountain and return to the chores and challenges of “real life” down below!  And that certainly can be a challenge; because the truth is, walking the walk “down in the valley,” and to do so with the same kind of sustained spirit and faith you felt in such abundance up on the mountain… well, simply put, that’s hard!

Bill Bryson, in his wonderful book A Walk in the Woods, about his journey along the Appalachian Trail, tells the story of his first days walking that 2,100 mile path from Georgia to Maine, and discovering that despite all of his excitement and planning and preparation for the walk, he was “hopelessly out of shape – hopelessly.  The pack weighed way too much,” he wrote. “Way too much.  I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared.  Every step was a struggle.”  And the worst part, he said, was “coming to terms with the constant dispirited discovery that there was always more hill!”

I don’t know about you, but I get that; and I don’t expect ever to walk the Appalachian Trail!  I don’t care where you’re walking, or what kind of journey you’re on, or what challenge it is that awaits you moving forward in your life; whether it’s something you’ve set yourself to do, or if it’s something that’s been somehow thrust upon you:  the journey can be hard.  No matter how much you think you’re ready; no matter how much joy and enthusiasm you bring to the task before you; no matter how much you think you’re skilled and prepared to expect the unexpected; there are going to be a great many times when you will find yourself deep in the dark valleys of life feeling totally exhausted, ill-prepared and questioning whatever possessed you to consider taking this journey, doing this thing in the first place!  And the worst part of all is… that there’s still more hills.  There’s always more hills!

And the thing is, friends; that are how it is on the walk of faith as well.  I don’t want to sound foreboding here or to be any kind of “buzzkill,” as it were; but this is how it always goes on the walk of faith.

That’s why I included in our reading for this morning the passage from Luke that immediately follows his version of the transfiguration story.  Luke tells us that on the very next day after they’d had this mountaintop experience, Jesus and the other disciples are met by a large crowd and by a man who begs Jesus to come and attend to his only child who has been “seized” by a spirit.  “I begged your disciples to cast it out,” (presumably the “other” disciples who weren’t up on the mountain with Jesus!) “but they could not.”  And what happens next is very interesting:  Jesus does “[rebuke] the unclean spirit” and heal the boy, astonishing all those around “at the greatness of God.”  All of this happens, but not before Jesus says – and rather sternly, I might add – “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”

Admittedly, it comes off as sounding more than a little harsh on Jesus’ part, and biblical scholars suggest that in fact, this was Jesus’ rebuke of those who had turned away from their faith, only to clamor for the healing presence of God when the pain and struggle of life had become too much to bear.  And that is certainly true; but I also think that this little addendum to the transfiguration story serves as a very powerful reminder that on faith’s walk, there will always be a valley filled with human need; that there will always be times and places and people in need of Jesus’ love and healing touch; there will always be for us, an admonition to stand strong and be bold against the powers of evil, in whatever form they present themselves in this life.  So in other words, when it comes to our mountaintop experiences, and I’m quoting David Lose, of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia here, “it is not a retreat from the world but a retreat in order to come back to the world in love, mercy and grace.”

All through these weeks of Epiphany, we’ve been talking about the wonders of each one of us being named and claimed and called by God; and about how each one of us here, you and me, are being empowered, equipped and commissioned for living our lives and doing our work in Jesus’ name, so that we might make a difference in the lives of those around us; and maybe even begin, by God’s good grace and his Spirit leading, to change the world a little bit.  So it’s fitting, I think, that at the end of this Epiphany season we find ourselves up on that mountain along with those three disciples to bear witness to this “glory story;” that perhaps as Christ is transfigured before us, we might also be transfigured by his love, and inspired by all the possibilities that his love creates and strengthens within and around us.

But, I hasten to add, it’s almost Lent… and almost time for coming down the mountain; to move “onward” on this walk of life and faith that we share, and make our way, slowly but inevitably, to the cross.

It’s no accident, you know, that this story does fall right in the middle of Luke’s gospel.  Before the transfiguration, Jesus is in Galilee engaged in his ministry of teaching, preaching and healing.  Afterward, he’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he will encounter betrayal and death.  It is, both literally and spiritually speaking, a pivot point in the gospel, and in fact, almost immediately after the events we’ve read about this morning, Jesus tells his disciples point-blank that he’s going to die (9:44-45), and a few verses after that we’re told that he “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:53)  Simply put, the story’s about to change; and the not-so simple truth is that if we are answer this incredible, amazing, life-changing call of God to follow Jesus where he goes, and to live our lives as Jesus Christ would have us, and to go where God’s Spirit will lead , our story will change as well.

How that story will unfold… where we’ll go, and what we’ll do, and how long it will take us… well, only God knows for sure; though I suspect it might last a lifetime, and it probably won’t always be easy; just as I also know that whatever the challenges we face as we move “onward” along the way, we won’t be alone on the walk… and that it will be worth the journey.

And as that journey is about to begin again in earnest, friends, now seems like a very good time for us to “pause for refreshment” at the Lord’s table; to remember and experience with that transfiguring presence is all about in the bread and the cup.

But then it’s… onward, beloved!

And as we go, may our thanks be to God!

Amen, and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2016 in Discipleship, Epiphany, Jesus, Lent, Life, Ministry, Sermon

 

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