A Mother's Love

A Mothers LoveA Sermon for Easter 7 on John 17:6-19 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on May 13, 2018

It was January of 2012. My mom had been chronically ill for about three years and had lived longer than the doctors expected, in part, because my Dad took such good care of her. But that month, she got an infection that was antibiotic-resistant, and her body did not have the resources to fight it off. She was transferred to the ICU at Baylor Hospital in Grapevine as I flew in from St. Louis, my sister, Pam from Wisconsin, and my brother, Doug from California to join us for what would be our last visit with Mom.

The disciples are gathered with Jesus for their last meal together before he is arrested. For three years, Jesus’ disciples have followed him, watching him teach, heal, and love people. This time of sharing all that he could with the disciples was coming to close. So, Jesus uses this time to instruct, to finish his teaching and to pray with his disciples during their last evening together. In his prayer, Jesus reminds the disciples that he is leaving; he prays to God and says, “But now I am coming to you”—Now I am no longer in the world,” and “I do not belong to the world.” We are not privy to the disciple’s reactions to Jesus’ departure and impending death; we don’t hear Peter say, “surely Lord this will not happen to you!” But we can imagine them clutching their chests, wondering what they will do, what their life will be like, and how they will continue without Jesus physically present with them. They wanted to fight for his survival.

The first few days we were with my mom in the ICU, we couldn’t believe it was the end. We encouraged her, told her to fight, talked about how strong she was, how much she had already been through. We read her Scripture passages for strength and healing and hope. “Surely, Mom, this can’t be happening to you, this cannot be the end,” we thought. We were wondering what we would do without her, what our life would be like, how we would continue without her physically in our lives. We were all fighting for her survival.

What’s so unusual about Jesus’ prayer in John, is that Jesus offers it to God aloud in the presence of his disciples—it’s not a moment where Jesus goes off by himself to pray; it’s not a moment where the disciples fall asleep while Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays aloud, so that his followers can hear everything he asks of God for them: “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word…I am asking on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. Holy Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name, I guarded them.”

My Mom couldn’t talk because of the ventilator, but she could nod, she knew we were there, and she could hear us. One afternoon I started to recite Psalm 121—“I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?” and through the ventilator with amazing force and clarity, she said, “The Lord!” My mom couldn’t say her prayers aloud, but I imagine that she was praying something like, “This family of mine is yours, God, and you gave them to me. I am asking that you protect them and keep them and guide them; help them stay together and remain one, when I leave to be with you. Keep them together, help them to love and support each other. While I was them I did everything I could for them, to protect, guard and pray for them, and now I ask you to protect them guard them and keep them safe after I am gone.”

Jesus’ prayer for the disciples continued: “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; I have given them your word.” Jesus did everything he could to teach, empower, prepare, educate and bless his disciples throughout their time together. He showed them how to heal, how to teach, how to love, how to welcome the lost, how to pray, how to abide in his Word and trust that his love and Word are true. Jesus gave his disciples everything they needed to continue the mission of God’s love, forgiveness and salvation for the world while abiding in his love and prayers for them.

By the third day in the ICU, the doctors made it clear that Mom was not going to make it. Telling stories helped us accept this. We told her all the things she had given us, thanking her for all she had done. We talked about what a great cook she was and how much we loved her cookbook; how generous she was and loved giving gifts; how she volunteered at church and the hospital, and helped so many people; how she led our girl scout troops, sewed us clothes, and read us stories. As adults, she and dad always traveled to see us, she always sent cards in the mail, and she helped take care of my family and me during my cancer treatment. We talked about how she was the best Nana her grandkids could ask for, how much she loved and taught us, her tremendous gift of hospitality and welcome, and that even when we had disagreements, we trusted that her love was true. As a mom, she had given us what we needed to continue the mission of our life—abiding in her love and trusting that she always prayed for us.

Jesus’ prayer for the disciples continued: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” The disciples needed Jesus’ words of assurance because the world into which Jesus was sending them was going to be a difficult one. Jesus is not just referring to the devil as a single being who is against God, but all the forces, thoughts, attitudes and actions that are contrary to God’s kingdom—both within the disciples—their egos, their selfishness and fears, and those outside of them—hatred, violence, greed, injustice and the oppression of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew that hardships for his community of believers were coming. His disciples needed to know that Jesus was with them and praying for them in their struggles in a hostile world.

As we shared stories and relived all that Mom had received from God and gave to us, it reminded us that she had given us all we needed to continue on with our lives. When she was no longer going to be a part of this world, we would be. She was sending us from that ICU room out into the world—a world that is often contrary to the values she taught us—a world of selfishness and greed and injustice. I imagine that at that moment, she prayed the prayer every mother prays the first day of kindergarten, the first week of summer camp, the first prom, the first day of college, the first job, the first child, and the last good-bye: “I am not asking you to take them out of all these experiences of life, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” I have no doubt that as she died, my mom was praying for our protection, our guidance, and our faithfulness, as we continued to live in the world without her.

Jesus concludes his prayer by asking God’s favor upon them: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” When Jesus says “sanctify”, he means it in the same way he did when he taught his disciples the Lord’s prayer—“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed or sanctified be thy name”— hallowed, sanctified, holy. For Jesus, sanctity is not an abstract idea, some godly status of being set a part. Jesus sanctifies himself by laying down his life on the cross and taking it up again in his resurrection---so that we might see that the Truth and the Word and the Power of God in him is ultimate and final and will never be defeated. So, Jesus sends the disciples into the world being made holy, being sanctified by God’s love in Jesus, and with his power to overcome evil with good, trusting that God will never be defeated.

About four hours before Mom died, her Pastor—Phil Heinze, who preached at my Installation Service—came to the hospital. We gathered around her bed and sang her favorite hymns—like Beautiful Savior and Amazing Grace. Pastor Phil lead us in the Prayers for the Commendation of the Dying with the forgiveness of sins. We said The Lord’s Prayer and as we affirmed that God’s name be kept holy, we prayed the same for her, “Lord Jesus Christ, deliver your servant, from all evil and set her free from every bond, that she may join all your saints in the eternal courts of heaven…” These prayers assured us that we all live within the Truth of God’s Word, and that Jesus, who laid down his life on the cross and took it up again in the resurrection, sanctifies my Mom and us with God’s eternal and ultimate love. We are made holy through Christ—not as an abstract idea, or to be set apart, but to be sent into the world to overcome evil with good, trusting that God will never be defeated.

As my mom took her last breath, we were all still being held by our mother’s love, through Jesus, who loves us like a mother. On this mothers’ day when I miss my mom so much, I know I am held by Jesus who loves me and all of us, embracing us with the tenderness of a mother’s love and the fierceness of a mother’s prayers. No matter what kind of mother we have or had, Jesus holds us in his safe and protective arms, he prays for us, and he laid down his life for us. Jesus sanctifies us, fills us with his power, and sends us into the world to overcome evil with good, trusting that God will never be defeated. Jesus our mother, prays fervently for us as we go—every step of the way, every milestone, every moment. And then, at the last, when we take our final breath, he will embrace us and say, “welcome home.”


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Abiding in the Dance of theTrinity

Abiding in the Dance of the TrinityA sermon preached For Easter 6 on John 15:9-15 and Acts 10:44-48 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas on May 6, 2018.

Last weekend at our Synod Assembly, we learned a new word from Bible study leader, the Rev. Dr. Mandy Brobst-Renaud: "interdividual" (instead of "individual"). It was coined by Russian Philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin and recognizes that our relationships shape our identity and who we are.

We live in a culture founded on “rugged individualism” and the self-made person. But of course, while a certain amount of independence and self-reliance is healthy and necessary—none of us can survive without others and without community. We never would have gotten out of childhood without parents, relatives or someone taking care of us. We couldn’t have learned to speak or read or write without someone teaching and talking with us. We wouldn’t know right from wrong without someone guiding us and enforcing consequences when we got it wrong. We wouldn’t experience love, forgiveness, humor, loyalty, or compassion without another person offering them to us.

We are "interdividuals"—relationships form our identity and who we are—every encounter has the potential to change us. When we have an encounter with someone else, we enter the threshold—the space in between us where we can be shaped through the relationship. In our children’s message, we just talked about friendship and why having good friends is important. A relationship with a good friend, family member, or work colleague means we are willing to step into the threshold between us and be open to something new. Without stepping into the threshold, we cannot experience the benefits of relationship—trust, loyalty, companionship, mutuality, love, forgiveness, shared interests, generosity and so on. We hope to have relationships that make us better people—better than who we are without them. This is often how we have chosen or will choose our spouse; when we enter the threshold of a more intimate relationship, we want to become a better person—to be more than who we can be alone.

And isn’t this why God became human? When God wanted a deeper more intimate relationship with all of us, God crossed the threshold—the barrier between Creator and creature—and became human in Jesus. With God in human form, we can more readily let down our guards and more willingly enter the threshold of our relationship with God—with an openness to being changed through our relationship with Jesus.

In our Gospel reading Jesus says, "I have called you friends." Jesus is no longer satisfied with the relationship of Master-servant, Rabbi-student, Leader-disciple. "I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends." Jesus invites us to enter more deeply into this threshold and become his friend and companion, allowing our relationship with Jesus shape who we are.

Perhaps you have not spend much time with this idea of friendship with God. How is friendship with Jesus different from him being only our Savior and Lord? Jesus desires presence, enjoyment, companionship, attention, the pleasure of being together, and being with us! Do you hear the important message in this? God desires you; God desires to be close to you!

God was willing to be changed by entering a relationship with us as a human being—a relationship that’s not just about following his commandments (although that’s still important!). God is interested in a relationship that includes listening, enjoyment, humor, and time together. God desires to be with us, and for us to desire to be with God.

Jesus says, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love." Abide in me. Abide in my love. We can’t have a good relationship with our best friend or have a good marriage if we—talk to them 5 minutes a day and hang out for one hour a week. Jesus says, "hang out with me. Spend time with me. Come to the threshold of a relationship with me so I can love you and shape you into your best, God-created self." God has poured love into Jesus, who pours love into us—and we need to spend time at the threshold of this relationship for this love to change us and shape us into who God made us to be. Jesus invites us in to his relationship with God: "I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

St. Andrei Rublev, a Russsian monk, painted this image of the Trinity in about 1410 and I offer this as a visual image for you to use as a prayer tool for abiding in God. Icons are religious art or images that hover between two worlds—the spiritual and the earthly—creating an image of a spiritual truth that cannot be grasped by reason alone. They try to make the invisible visible. On the left, we see the Creator, or God the Father. He wears a luminescent, transparent color that changes with the light, so that it holds all colors. The Creator’s hands are almost closed as a symbol of completeness. Jesus, in the middle, wears colors of the reddish brown earth and the blue of heaven symbolizing that the Incarnation connects heaven and earth, and in the red earth, that he endured suffering. The gold band on his shoulder shows that he carries divinity even in his earthly form. The tree behind him is a symbol of the crucifixion, but now, it is green with the new life of resurrection. The Holy Spirit wears the blue of the sky and the green of the earth as the Spirit hovered at creation and breathes life into heaven and earth. There’s a bowl in the middle— a shared meal, the sacrifice of a lamb, the Eucharist, a sign of community. 

If you look at the line of their shoulders you can see that it makes a circle—the circle of love between them—of pouring out love and receiving it, infilling and emptying love from one to the other. Fr. Richard Rohr says, it’s an unending flow of giving and receiving between Creator, Christ and Spirit which is the pattern of all reality and life which is love!" The last thing we will look at is the square at the bottom. Researchers have tested the residue and found that it was glue. Many scholars believe it was glue for a mirror, so that when you look at the icon, you see yourself as part of the circle of the Trinity. Abide with me. Jesus calls us to belong to the community of the Triune God. God has been waiting for you!

In his book, The Shack, William Paul Young says that we “are called to consciously participate in the divine dance of loving and being loved” in the community of God. "Abide in my love. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."

I invite you to enter the threshold of the Trinity in your prayer time. God has been waiting for you! This image may not work for you, so change the picture in your mind to whatever God the Creator, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit look like in your own imagination. Imagine yourself sitting with them. Ask God to open your heart to receive his love and enter the threshold so you can be shaped by the eternal dance of love. Deepen your relationship with God! Such intimacy with God enables us to more freely love others without fear—and willing to enter the threshold of relationships that you may not have entered before.

We’d love to just hang out in prayer, but there’s always a “so that” in the Gospel. God loves us so that we can love others. Jesus says, "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last." When we live within the threshold of the Trinity in our spiritualty and prayer life, we bring that healing, light, and love into other relationships. God can use us to enter the threshold with someone who is lonely, sick, rejected, or in need. We have more technology today, but people are more disconnected than ever. We can enter the threshold of interdividuality where God can use us to bear the fruit of love.

We have talked about the need for a strategic plan at St. Luke's, and this is the first step! It starts with each of us deepening our relationship individually with God and together as a church. When we live at the threshold of the Trinity, we become open to growth with whomever God calls us. We let go of our fear of new or different people, and we become less afraid of change because we’re right there with the whole company of God, who is changing and shaping us in our prayers every day. There are so many people who need a church like ours who will say, “we’ve been waiting for you!”

Our reading from Acts is a perfect example of this. Peter is at the home of Cornelius in Ceasarea. He’s a Gentile—that is, not Jewish and he had filled his house with family and friends to hear Peter preach the Gospel. Both Peter and Cornelius received dreams from God to welcome each other, even though Peter was a Jew who thought Jesus didn’t come to Gentiles, and Cornelius was a Gentile who didn’t think the Jewish faith was for him. But they each entered the threshold of a relationship with each other, and in that threshold, the Spirit swooped in and made evident that this dance of the Trinity, this circle of love, is for everyone. And both were changed—not as individuals, but because they were interdividuals!

God crossed the threshold to build a relationship with Peter, and with Cornelius in Jesus. Through Peter, Cornelius and his company heard God say, “We’ve been waiting for you!”
So enter the threshold of the divine dance with all of God in your prayers—God is waiting for you! Even if you start out with just 10 minutes a day when you abide with God, you will be filled with love, and together we can enter the threshold with others and say, “We’ve been waiting for you!”

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The Bible's Story and Our Story

The Bibles Story and Our StoryI love it when God makes the connection between the Biblical story and our stories so clear. On Sunday, April 22nd, I was blessed to be installed as the pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. There are many wonderful Christian attributes about this congregation and one of them is hospitality. They have partnered with the Dallas Oromo Congregation from Ethiopia, offering office and worship space. The Children's choir from the Oromo congregation, directed by Ursula Peters, a St. Luke's member, sang two songs during my Service of Installation, and their pastor, Sileshi Hinsarmu read the second lesson and helped serve Communion. Their faith and devotion ministered to St. Luke's and to me.

This past Sunday, April 30th, the first reading appointed for the day was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8, who, upon hearing Phillip preach the good news of Jesus Christ, was immediately ready to be baptized and converted to Christianity. Today, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, is the fastest growing Lutheran church in the world with over eight million members. As St. Luke’s partners with the Dallas Oromo congregation, we have a wonderful opportunity to minister together as we learn about church growth and mission in today’s world.

God’s story is always on-going in the lives of faithful people who continue to dwell in God’s Word, worship and pray in community, reach out in hospitality and mission, and follow the continuing guidance of the Holy Spirit. How is God’s story in and through the Biblical story being woven together with your story for the sake of growing the kingdom of peace, justice and love today? Some days we have to dig for the connections, and sometimes, living the Scripture story becomes as plain as a conversation with my friend and colleague whose office door is two feet away, and the Oromo congregation he serves.

Photo by Larry Wecsler

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From Sheep to Shepherd

From Sheep to ShepherdA sermon preached for Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, on Psalm 23John 10:11-18 & Acts 4:5-12 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on April 22, 2017

The Children’s Message that took place before this sermon learned some new ways to understand Psalm 23 with gratitude for the commentary on Workingpreacher.org.

The Lord oversees and guides my journey, giving me rest and nourishment when I need it (a temporary repose!);
The Lord leads me in finding righteous grooves to travel or ruts in the ground to follow, so that I have right and healthy relationships with others that honor God.
The journey doesn’t go from green pastures to the house of the Lord, I will go through hard times (like Jesus did), and I get through them because God is with me.
I survive the hardest parts of my journey because God is with me to guide, protect, help, and comfort me.
God provides me with everything I need, and even when I think all is lost, You remind me I am your beloved child and you sustain me.
With God I know that only goodness and kindness will pursue and chase me every day I walk this journey.
I will continually return to God’s presence in thanksgiving my whole life long.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd in this Gospel reading from John? Why isn’t he the “Awesome” Shepherd, the “Most Excellent” Shepherd, the “Outstanding, Amazing” shepherd, or the “Greatest Shepherd the world has ever seen?” Surely Jesus fits all these descriptions. We do hear such lofty language in other passages of Scripture—In Isaiah 9 for example—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

We just affirmed in Psalm 23 with the children, that Jesus really is the “wonderful, mighty, incredible” shepherd of our lives. He provides for all we need: strength in our weakness, rest in our exhaustion, guidance in our confusion, hope in our fears, comfort in our sorrow. He gives us rest when we need it, and a prod in the behind when we want to linger too long beside still waters. Life is pretty good as sheep with Jesus as our Shepherd wouldn’t you agree? That’s why Psalm 23 is the most popular and beloved Psalm, and probably the best-known passage in all of Scripture. As the Shepherd, he even provides salvation from our sins. Jesus even says so in verse 15 of our John passage: “I lay down my life for the sheep.”

So if he does all that, why does Jesus describe himself as just the “good” shepherd? I’m not sure we’re going to like the answer. Perhaps Jesus only refers to himself as “good” because Jesus is not the only shepherd he’s referring to. Our passage from John 10 foreshadows a later passage in John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets the disciples at daybreak after their night of fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. They enjoy a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. And then Jesus begins to quiz Peter:

'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my lambs.' A second time he said to him, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' He said to him, 'Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Tend my sheep.'  He said to him the third time, 'Simon son of John, do you love me?' Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, 'Do you love me?' And he said to him, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.' Jesus said to him, 'Feed my sheep.'

Did you catch the shift? Who’s the shepherd now? Peter, and not just Peter, but all the disciples—who are called “apostles” after the resurrection. And not just the apostles back then, but all of us who follow Jesus today. Jesus calls all of us to follow in his footsteps and become a shepherd. It’s so easy to focus on how great it is to be the sheep, that we miss this part of the story. We love being sheep! We’d like to stay over there with the children’s message and remain sheep. They can stay sheep for now, but we adults, we apostles, we followers of Jesus the Shepherd—it’s time to step up and become a shepherd. Part of our experience as the sheep, is to prepare us to become a shepherd.

For we know how important it was to be found when we were lost, to be guided when we were confused, to be comforted when we were afraid, and to be helped when were in the valley of the shadow. We know that WE would be lost without Jesus as our Shepherd, so Jesus calls us to use the truth of our own experience, as the motivation to shepherd other lost and lonely sheep into the fold.

Maybe that’s why Jesus uses the word “good” shepherd. If he were the “extraordinary, out of this world, most awesome” shepherd, we would give up before we even tried to follow in his footsteps. We would come up with every excuse we could and say, “it’s not our job to seek and save the lost. I’m not extraordinarily awesome. I’m much happier just being a sheep, thank you very much!”

But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook—the shepherd’s hook so easily. With Peter, he says to us, “feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.” You see, this whole good shepherd discourse in John begins with Jesus healing the man born blind at the beginning of chapter 8. Jesus finds the blind man, this lost sheep, where he’s sat his entire life—begging for anything that might keep him alive. Then he tells the religious leaders that Jesus healed him, and they kick him out! Jesus goes and finds him again! Jesus finds the blind man in his lostness and brings him back into the fold of his love, not once but twice—he kept on trying until he stayed! 

That’s why in our passage today, in verse 16 Jesus says, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” And Jesus looks at us and asks, “Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd and bring in the missing sheep? Will you seek out the lost sheep, and welcome them, love them? Will be the shepherd who finds the rejected, the downtrodden, the refugee, the hungry, the lonely, and the homeless begging on your street corners? Will you make sure that those who have been previously rejected—people who are mentally ill, or have special needs, or are lesbian, gay or transgendered—will you go out of your way to reach them with my love, so they can hear my voice, and come into my fold? Will you? Will keep trying until they stay?”

We don’t have to be the “most awesome, incredible, greatest shepherd the world has ever seen,” but Jesus does call us to be “good” shepherds who really do seek those outside the fold. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that the lost sheep that Jesus welcomed into the fold, were the ones the established religion hated the most—prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, and blind people. It's the same issue in our passage from Acts. The apostles are in trouble  with the religious extablishment because they healed a crippled man--another outcast--and brought him into the fold. It’s why our inclusive welcome—on the altar and on the website—must be explicit. Because the people you don’t see among us have always heard that they are rejected, outcast, and should stay away.

To welcome lost into the fold is uncomfortable, challenging, and can cause disagreements. But of course, you know that because you’ve done the hard work of creating St. Luke’s welcome statement. I hope we can continue an intentional, inclusive, transparent process to consider becoming a Reconciled in Christ congregation—the official welcome of LGBTQ-friendly congregations. A faithful process and conversation does not guarantee nor manipulate an outcome, but because shepherds are in the “welcome and protection” business, it’s important to continue the conversation and discern to whom God calls us to give an explicit and generous welcome.

We need to have a similar conversation about welcoming homeless people—I met Kenneth at the corner of Belt Line and the North Dallas Tollway this week—and about how we will interact with our interfaith partners, and others to whom God sends us in this community. There will be times when we want to go back to being a sheep with other sheep who are just like us. And Jesus, our Good Shepherd will love us, and forgive us, and then prod us forward when we want to linger too long beside the still waters, and he will say, “try again.” Jesus will ask us if we love him and we will say, “yes, Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you.”

And Jesus will say to us, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, yet. I must bring them also. Will you? Will you follow me as a good shepherd here at St. Lukes?

“Will you tell the lost that I oversee and guide their journey and will give them rest and nourishment when they need it? Will you find the lost and tell them I have helped you find your righteous groove to follow so you can have healthy relationships that honor me? Will you? Will you find the rejected and the lonely and reassure them that I am with them through the darkest valley and that I will guide and help them as I have done for you? Will you, St. Luke’s? Will you tell the outcast that when think that all is lost and there’s no way forward, I will remind them they are my precious child and I will sustain them? Will you? And will you find the lost sheep and tell them that goodness and kindness are chasing after them, and I will keep chasing them until they’re found? Will you? Will you seek the lost and hungry and invite them to return with you here, to my presence so that I can love them as I have love you? Will you, St. Lukes?"

And we will answer, “yes.”




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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.