Monsters and Doors, Shepherds and Gates

Monsters IncMessage for Easter 4 on John 10:1-10 and Psalm 23 given on May 3, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas and can be viewed here.

In the movie Monsters, Inc. doors offered the passageway for monsters to travel from their world into the human world to scare children in their beds at night. Without the right door, there was no getting into specific child’s bedroom and racking up their monster scream score. There are about 36 million doors in the whole movie.

This provides an apt metaphor for today, when it feels like a monster is out there in the world and we do not know when, where or how it will strike. Like a child fearing a monster behind the closet door or under the bed, it scares the bejeezus out of us. The most difficult part is not having an end date to this crisis, knowing full well that what we used to define as “normal life” will not be that way anymore. It seems like there are 36 million ways to get this virus and until there is a vaccine, masks, gloves, distancing, and disinfecting are our new normal. We do not know exactly what the future will look like once we ease into some of our regular activities, how long it will take, nor what future impacts will be. Some days, staying under the covers hoping this will stave off the monsters feels like the best we can do.

“I am the gate of the sheep” says Jesus. It should really be translated, “I am the door of the sheep” but that sounds strange to our ears since, as outdoor animals, sheep do not go in and out of doors—they go in and out of gates. So consistent with the metaphor of sheep, the translation refers to Jesus as the “gate” rather than the “door.” But the point is the same. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who brings us into God’s fold, who seeks us out, claims us, loves us, and provides for us.

Jesus is not giving an abstract speech to the disciples, but rather, he is describing what he has just done from the man born blind described in the previous chapter. This man, blind from birth, was consigned to a life of begging—crying by the side of the road to get what little he could. He was at the mercy of those who walked by—sometimes monsters he could not see, but only hear as they rejected and derided him for his sin, yelling at him to stop bothering them, shoving him aside as they went on with their busy lives. But the Good Shepherd heard is cries for healing—spit in the dirt, made mud and put it on his eyes and told him to wash in the poop of Siloam. As he did, the man’s sight was restored. You would think this miraculous healing would give him a joyous life—a new normal that restored him to the community. But the powers-that-be rejected his testimony about Jesus and threw him out again—monsters indeed. Now he could see, but he was still alone and rejected, cast aside with the door of hope and community slammed in his face again.

But this was unacceptable to Jesus, so he went in search of the man and found him. The Good Shepherd sought out the man so he could enter into relationship and community with the living God and not be left outside the fold ever again. Jesus explains his actions to the disciples by saying, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

There were plenty of monsters, thieves or bandits ready and willing to steal this man’s life and peace and joy, and lead him astray---but this newly sighted man knew Jesus’ voice, he knew his healing and life abundant lay with Good Shepherd, so he entered the door that Jesus opened and followed him.

There are so many monsters ready to steal our peace and bandits ready to disrupt our life right now—so many conflicting voices telling us what to do and what to think and what is right and what is not. There are so many things we think we should be accomplishing at the same time that so many doors that are being shut in our faces. Who do we listen to and what do we do?

Jesus comes to us today as the Good Shepherd and says, I am the only voice you need to listen to and the only door you need to open. I am the gate. So listen to my voice—

“In me you shall not be in want. You can lie down in green pastures; and rest beside still waters; and I will restore your soul. I will lead down the right path as you listen to my Word and my voice. When you walk through this valley of shadows, you need not fear any evil, for I am with you, I will protect you and comfort you. I will prepare a table for you in the presence of your enemies. I will anoint your head with oil so that your cup overflows. Surely, my goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life and you will dwell in my house forever.”

When we are nourished by the Good Shepherd in body and soul, then we are equipped to discern which voices in the culture, news and medical reports are Christ-like voices and lead us to behavior that follows Jesus in how we live in the world—values that heal and preserve well-being for all, that love and care for our neighbor, that share our resources, that care for the vulnerable, that seek justice for the poor, that honor creation, and that reflect Jesus who came that we all might have life and have it abundantly.
We do so as a community who is called to join the Good Shepherd in loving others into the fold because they too, want a relationship with life-giving abundant shepherd of our life. In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote “the goal is not to create joy for ourselves but, ‘to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to those around you.’ ” That is what it is to enter the door of the Good Shepherd and to confidently, dwell in Jesus’ fold—to allow Christ’s presence in us to create a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity—that cannot help but be a cup overflowing and drawing others into the fold of the Shepherd.

We have this overflowing abundance because the Jesus the Good Shepherd stands at the gate of the monster of death victorious. When at the last God looks at the whole of our life, marred by sin and brokenness and the door should be slammed in our face, Jesus will stand in our place, crucified and risen, proclaiming, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me is saved. Enter into the joy of heaven for the free gift of grace is life eternal with God.”

Trust the Good Shepherd, for there are no monsters that can defeat the power Christ, or shut the gates of heaven!

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Invite Jesus In

Altar at HomeMessage for Easter 3 on Luke 24:13-35 given on April 26, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas which can be viewed here.

“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” “But we had hoped…”—such forlorn words of sadness, disappointment, and dashed dreams. Jesus of Nazareth was supposed to be the one to redeem Israel, he was supposed to bring liberation to God’s people, but he was crucified instead, and with him all of their hopes and dreams for a new and different life had died. “But we had hoped…”

There has been no greater time in our lives when we too, share the forlorn sadness, the disappointment and the dashed dreams of Cleopas and the other disciple on their way, not so much as they walk to Emmaus, but more as they run away from Jerusalem. We have had to let go of many hopes this spring—

• We had hoped for a festival Easter worship in the sanctuary
• We had hoped to attend a graduation
• We had hoped to go on vacation
• We had hoped to finish our school year with our friends, or our semester abroad
• We had hoped to go to prom or play in our spring concert
• We had hoped to look for a new job
• We had hoped to celebrate our anniversary on a cruise
• We had hoped to hold our new grandchild
• We had hoped to visit our family member at their care facility
• We had hoped to visit our friend in the hospital
• We had hoped…

These disappointments and the grief that accompanies them, are very real. We understand why these two disciples decided to head out of town, trying to leave the bad news and the sadness behind. Would that we could also walk away, head to a different place, have a new beginning, but the most we can do is go on a walk around the neighborhood—with a mask on at that—which is why it is so important to just let the feelings come. Feel the sadness and allow it to move through us and then it will pass on, like a storm.

Jesus does not dismiss their sadness, but instead, he invites them to see that suffering and salvation have always been intertwined throughout the story of our faith. Suffering and loss is not antithetical to God’s plan and God’s power, but the very place we experience it most intimately. Jesus explains this truth to the two traveling disciples starting from with tongue-tied Moses and on through prophets with feet of clay. God’s power comes to us in our weakness, so the Messiah also comes to be victorious through suffering.

This story is so strange because we cannot imagine why the disciples do not recognize Jesus. Perhaps their vision was clouded by their own suffering—by their grief and sadness; perhaps it was simply disbelief that the resurrection could actually happen; perhaps it was Jesus’ own desire to wait for them to be ready to receive the good news…whatever it was, they were kept from seeing the Christ who was right beside them.
As the evening draws near and they arrive at the village, the disciples stop for the night. Their traveling companion does not stop with them but continues down the road. Even though their hearts are broken, and they are suffering grief and confusion, they are moved with compassion and hospitality for this fellow traveler. Their suffering opens their hearts.

So, Cleopas and his companion implore this new traveler to stay with them—they invite Jesus into their dwelling, to join them at the table, to come into their lives. And that is when everything changes. As Jesus gives thanks and breaks the bread with them—just like he broke the bread as he fed the 5,000, just like he broke the bread at so many meals, and just like he broke the bread at the last supper before he was crucified, they recognize Jesus as their risen Lord and Savior.

Jesus always remains alongside us, but to really see him revealed as our Lord and Savior, and to deepen our relationship with him, we must to invite him in—into our home, into our heart, to our table, and to come into our lives. We experience this more clearly right now than ever before. We are worshipping in our homes, making an altar of our dining room, and worshipping with our family in new ways—making real that our home is a sanctuary where we meet Jesus at our table, whether we eat alone or with others. We meet Jesus in our family, in our shared meals, and when we give Communion to ourselves or to one another in the very same place where we eat or pass the bread or tortillas at mealtime.

Jesus spent all that time on the road with them, but he never pushed himself on these confused and hurting disciples. We serve a patient God—always available, always present, and always waiting for the invitation to enter our life.

This is an invitation we can offer anew each morning in prayer—Martin Luther encouraged this as daily remembering our Baptism into Christ. We can invite Jesus in again each week as we receive Communion, as he is revealed in the breaking of the bread. We can invite Jesus in again especially in this time of difficulty and suffering—to remember that we do not have to wait until we are at our wit’s end to ask for help. But to remember that Jesus is constantly with us, walking beside us, always ready and waiting, moment by moment to be part of our life, our fears, our sadness, and also the solutions we seek—be it with work, with our family or just dealing with the grief over what we have lost.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Jesus waits to be invited in. So if you have not specifically asked Jesus to come to your aid and comfort, help and guidance during this crisis, this is your moment—remember to always ask Jesus for what you need, always invite Jesus in, always seek the help of the Lord in all things. For Jesus reveals more of himself to us when we ask him to come into our lives and hearts.

When you invite Jesus into your everyday life, your daily decisions, your work, your home, your family, your dinner table, your heart and your life—be ready for the Spirit to move you! The disciple’s plans in Emmaus changed when they invited Jesus in! Cleopas and his companion immediately got up and headed straight back to Jerusalem! They had to stop running away and had to start running toward their mission; they had to let go of their fear and sadness and they had to embrace hope and joy.

Their story of meeting Jesus inspired the other disciples to tell their stories of what Jesus had done for them, and how he was appearing to them. Their witness gave others the opportunity to invite the risen Lord into their life. Because those first disciples shared their story, we can invite Jesus into our lives today! When we invite Jesus in, the Spirit will move and change our directions because Jesus will give us a new story to tell! The Spirit will also move us to share our story, so others will be moved to invite Jesus into their hearts and lives as well! And the mission of the church continues from this altar to the altar in your home and heart, to the altars in the world where Jesus can enter because you told your story and you shared your experience of what Jesus has done to get you through this time right now.

So ask Jesus to come into your life and heart, not just today, not just on Sundays, not just at church, but every day—ask him anew. Hold fast to the truth that he is beside you and within you and will never forsake you, and that he is risen from the dead with power beyond fear and death unimaginable—and ask him to fill you with that Spirit every day and see what the Spirit does in your life and heart.

God’s power over death in Jesus Christ alive in the hearts of believers got the Gospel to us 2,000 years after the resurrection—and that’s the power that will see us through today and every tomorrow.

Image: An altar at home which we were encouraged to make in the Children's Message

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A Powerful Testimony!

krishen khanna doubting thomas with jesusMessage for Easter 2 on John 20:19-31 given on April 9, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas, which can be viewed on video here

When our children were preschoolers and making the transition from a baby car seat to a toddler car seat, I remember very vividly changing the seats in my minivan. I printed out a nametag to tape to the back of their new booster seat, so that if we were in an accident, and I were incapacitated, they could be identified. I had worked as a chaplain at a children’s hospital briefly, so I knew the importance of adding one more sentence to their nametag: “we support organ and tissue donation.”

But when it came time to actually tape the nametag to the back of the new toddler car seat, I could barely do it. I cried my fool head off. To do so was to acknowledge that raising children in this world and putting them in a car was exposing them to unseen forces and other’s choices I could not control. It was to admit that bad things happen to good people. It was to recognize that I could not always fix, manage or rescue them from harm. To tape a nametag at all to the back of their car seat was to acknowledge death and I so badly, did not want to do that.

I am reminded of this experience when I put on a mask and gloves to go to the grocery store, or pharmacy, or even up to church. To do so is to acknowledge that we are all exposed to unseen forces and other’s choices that we cannot control. It is to admit that bad things happen to good people, and that we cannot always fix, manage or rescue ourselves or those we love from harm. To don mask and gloves is to acknowledge death and we so badly, do not want to do that.

Perhaps this why the disciples remain in a locked room, sheltering-in-place—because they so badly do not want to acknowledge death. Mary Magdalene has already encountered the risen Lord, but it does not seem real to them, so they remain afraid and locked up inside. They fear that as Jesus followers, death will come for them as well—that those who killed Jesus will be coming for them next. They fear that to go outside and live without Jesus is to acknowledge that death won, and they must live a future they have no idea how to manage. They fear ever putting themselves out there again because the best thing that ever happened to them just went to hell in handbasket, and they are still reeling from the shock of it all. They fear that Mary Magdelene has gone back to being possessed by demons—going off about seeing Jesus alive—and none of them are yet prepared to go back to their old life the way it was before Jesus—no one wants a life without Jesus.

The disciples cannot step out of the house and acknowledge death, so Jesus—who did not need the stone rolled away and now does not need a door opened for him—steps into the house, appearing smack dab in the middle of their sheltered fear.

“Peace be with you” Jesus says. And he shows them his hands and side.

Imagine that moment as the grip of death begins to melt as Jesus promises come flooding back into their minds, washing over their whole being:

 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ …  And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

Jesus’ peace moves over them, like rays of sun rising in the dawn, warming them, softening them, filling them with peace and sweet relief—and as everything he said falls into place like the last piece of a puzzle. Death is not the enemy nor even the end—Jesus is here—alive again—just as he said—meeting us and carrying us through to the other side. It really is Jesus—scars and all—holes in the hands and feet, a slit in the side. Somehow resurrection does not eliminate the past, it transforms its pain into life and peace!
We don’t know where Thomas was that day—perhaps he was out looking for Jesus upon hearing Mary’s testimony, or maybe it was his turn to risk going out to get some food from the market. But regardless of the reason, Thomas’s absence meant that Jesus had to return. How unfortunate that Thomas is branded as a “doubter”—especially because the word “doubt” does not appear in the Greek—a better translation is, “do not be an ‘unbeliever’ but believe!”

Thomas simply wants the same experience the other disciples had—what a compelling mission for the church—for each of us! To share such a moving story of our experience and relationship with Jesus that others come to God asking for the same experience of the risen Lord! Don’t we want all of our testimonies leading others to say, “I want that experience of Jesus, too! When I have that experience of Jesus, I will believe, too!”

That gives meaning to our suffering, and our scars. I believe that’s why Jesus’s scars are still visible after the resurrection instead of completely transformed. Because it is our scars and our suffering that gives rise to our testimony. Not to give us bragging rights about what we have survived, (which I sometimes want to do) but our scars give us a testimony of what God has brought us through. “Look what God has done for me—and God can do the same for you!” God has brought us from death to life, from suffering to victory, from pain to promise—that’s why Jesus still has scars in the resurrection. New life does not discount, ignore, bury, or disregard our pain or difficulty, it transforms them into new life which becomes the basis of our testimony to grow faith in others. “Look at my hands and my chest, my back, my hip, my broken heart—this is how God got me through, and I am here to help show you God will get you through as well.”

Thomas had the courage to ask for what he needed, and Jesus came back and found him, and gave him what he needed. Jesus will use our scars to help find the Thomases of the world who are locked up and afraid, asking for God to show up, and they need someone to share their story.

But Jesus does not leave us to our own devices in this new life and future. Jesus breathes on the disciples and us the Holy Spirit—another one like Jesus—the Paraclete—which literally means the one “called alongside” us. And Jesus does not breathe “on” them—Jesus breathes “into” them the Holy Spirit—like a divine respirator! It’s just like God giving breath to the first humans in Genesis, or Ezekiel’s image of God’s breath into the dry bones—the Holy Spirit is divine respiration and life itself and Jesus’ power all in one! This is why I am always saying that God is as close as our own breath!

It is only with divine respiration and Holy Spirit power that sends the disciples into a new future to share their belief and living relationship with risen Christ. The church is sent to witness—to embody the peace, the hope and the life of a living, breathing relationship with Jesus the Christ—that causes other people to react like Thomas, and say, “I want that too!” The church is wherever God’s people gather, and right now which is in our homes, among our family, on the internet, and when we go out occasionally for work and supplies—the Holy Spirit is blessing us with the peace and power of the risen Christ to be the church where we are and to be sustained by our relationship with the risen Christ, scars and all.

The Holy Spirit who gave them breath and power, equipped the disciples for a new future they did not know, and could not predict or plan. We do not know what the future will look like and how exactly our lives, work, or church will change, but we are already equipped to live into the future. The risen Christ sends us with the power of the Holy Spirit who never leaves us, and like Thomas, always finds us when we ask for his presence with us.

I finally did get those name tags taped to the back of the car seats with a message of support for organ and tissue donation, but not by my own strength. I finally trusted in the risen Christ for my children and me, knowing that no matter what happened, we would never be alone; I would be equipped for the future with what I needed through the Holy Spirit, when the time came. That peace helped me be clear about the values I wanted to live by that day.

That’s the most we can do today—trust in the peace of Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit—and let that peace guide our highest values and choices today, trusting the risen Lord and his Spirit will be with us in the future we cannot yet see.

Image: Krishen Khanna (Indian, b. 1925)

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Easter and the Bonus Miracle

Easter2020 MatthewMessage for Shelter-in-Place Easter on Matthew 28:1-10 on April 12, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas and can be viewed here
(with apologies for late postings while we refigure new ways to be church!)

The two Mary’s pick their way to the tomb at dawn; they have no spices in hand because the tomb is well-sealed and armed guards stand watch. Like many of us after a particularly grievous death, they go to the tomb to mourn. They do not expect to see anything but death—a tomb, a stone, and powerlessness. Their future, their hopes had been snatched away while they could only stand at a distance and watch. At least now they can get closer to Jesus—they can be near the tomb and release their anguish. The crowds and their shouting are gone. They can be alone with their thoughts and the body of their Lord for a quiet a moment.

But when they arrive, they are shaken loose from their despair by the ground quaking beneath them. An angel appears like lightening and rolls away the stone in front from the tomb. The soldiers fall out like they are dead!

I love that these strong, armed soldiers, trained for war, fall out at the first sign of trouble! But the women—the women who are also afraid—stand their ground to see what happens next. What the angel really says to them is, “Don’t YOU be afraid”—as in, “don’t shake and fall over like those big, brave soldiers do! You are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here for he has been raised—just as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

The angel does not roll away the stone in order to let Jesus out—God has already raised him! The angel rolls away the stone to let the witnesses in! God raises Jesus from the dead to let us in on the fact that God can roll away every stone, every obstacle, every fear in our life—so that WE know that God has power over even death itself. Come and see that death has no power! Illness has no power! COVID-19 has no power! It may take the body for now, but not forever. It cannot kill the soul; it cannot overpower God. Death is not final! Death is never final in God!

Once the women see the empty tomb—they cannot linger or bask in the angel’s glow—they have a mission to fulfill. The angel immediately gives them instructions: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, "He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." The angel goes from miracle to mission. See the miracle, fulfill the mission!

The miracle of God’s power over death is never a mission we can keep to ourselves—it must be shared! Everyone must know—for they, too have been standing, staring at an immovable stone like death, believing it is the end of the story. Because in Jesus Christ, death is never the end of the story—we have a mission to tell others that God is more powerful than death or any other power on this earth!

So, Mary and Mary go and do as they are told. Not expecting to see Jesus themselves—they do not even ask for glimpse—instead, they trust that with the other disciples, they will see Jesus in Galilee.

But even though they don’t ask, Jesus does appear to them on the road as they follow the angel’s instructions. Jesus is going off-script here—and we are not sure why. Did he and the angel miss signals, or did he just decide to give the women a bonus miracle? During this pandemic, I am going with “bonus miracle.” Many of the women traveled with Jesus ministering to him by preparing food, offering hospitality, getting water and attending to daily needs. I imagine Jesus’ unscripted appearance on the road is Jesus’ way of ministering back to the women, so their role in the Gospel mission is sure to be acknowledged and recorded.

All of us are learning to live life in a different way, following new instructions, and providing for our families, neighbors and each other with new patterns. Jesus “bonus miracle” on the road reminds us that the risen Christ appears to us in our daily life, ministering to us and acknowledging the importance of our small acts of love, preparing food, offering care, hospitality, and service to one another.

We meet Jesus in each other: I have seen Jesus in the people of St. Luke’s making masks, delivering food, making calls, praying, cooking soup, teaching Spanish, doing essential work, making worship videos, giving generously, taking care of the church yard, paying bills, caring for family and neighbors. I have seen the risen Christ in my own daughter, Leah, cooking and managing quarantine for my son and husband, while I, as a high-risk person, stay safely at my dad’s house, I am sure you have seen the risen Christ in your own family and neighborhood. We all certainly see Jesus in medical staff and first responders, and all people working to bring life to others—signs of the risen Christ, who are living emblems that death has not and will not win.

The women’s response to their “bonus miracle” of beholding Jesus on the road is to worship at his feet. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus knelt at the disciples’ feet; the women, in response to seeing their risen Lord, fall on their knees in worship. This is one gift of the church during this difficult time—we are expanding and growing in new ways! Using every possible vehicle—YouTube, Facebook, Zoom—the global church of Jesus Christ is worshipping and praying together, and connecting like never before! We are expanding our audience and increasing our worshipping attendance through the miracle of technology! Only the risen Christ can increase our hearts for worship like that!

Again, the women are not able to linger in the glow of resurrection on the road with Jesus—worship moves toward ministry. See the miracle, fulfill the mission!
Jesus repeats the angel’s words and tells the women that their future will be forever different. "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." They are not to be afraid now or in the future—for Jesus is going ahead of them and will always be there!

Life will be different after this COVID-19 crisis and our temptation will be to look at the future in terms of grief and death, what we have lost. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ calls us to look to the coming months and the rest of 2020 with Easter eyes and to move forward with Easter feet.

The future was different for the first disciples after Jesus death—because after the stone was rolled away revealing God’s power over death, they always knew that Jesus went into the future before them. The future is always about where the resurrected Christ meets us, calls us, and blesses us with new gifts.

Yes, the future will be different—and we can look at those differences with Easter eyes—

• we will re-prioritize what truly matters,
• we will understand the interconnectedness of the world and its well-being,
• we will take greater care in how our behavior affects the health of others,
• we will know when to rest and be still,
• we will be more flexible and adaptable, we will appreciate small blessings,
• we will more deeply value community, hugs, and shared meals with friends and family,
• We will worship and sing together even more joyously.

And not only that, we go into the future together on Easter feet, as the family of Christ. Jesus gives us our mission: “tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." The disciples who denied and abandoned Jesus are now called, “brothers”—we are all sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, the family of God, joined by love and bound in the same body to enter the future God has for us as one community in mission together.

Jesus has a miracle and a mission for us at every turn of the Easter story, and he will continue to appear to us with love and power at every turn of our story. Look to today, tomorrow and the future with Easter eyes, moving forward as a family on Easter feet; for Christ is risen, and Jesus goes before us into the future filled with life.

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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.