Monthly Archives: February 2008

Called to be Wells: Sermon for Lent 3, Year A

Lessons for today on the Episcopal version of the Revised Commonly Lectionary are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.

The story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John is very funny! It is a joke! The only problem is that you have to be a first century Palestinian to appreciate it. We have to put ourselves into the life of a first century Palestinian to get the point of John’s story

We have to put ourselves into a desert frame of mind. The first century Palestinian who first read or heard John’s gospel knew that water is precious. It’s very hard for us to know that. Streams that overflow their banks rather frequently criss-cross our area. One of the Great Lakes is just 30 or so miles north of us. We are surrounded by ponds and if you dig a whole just a few feet deep it will fill with water while you’re back is turned. It is even difficult for people in our country’s desert Southwest to appreciate. In Las Vegas they build artificial lakes with fountains that shoot water 26 stories high. For them and for us water is accessible merely by turning on a tap.

Not so when Jesus had his encounter with the Samaritan woman. To him and to her, and to John’s first readers, water was precious.
We not only must become for century Palestinians to appreciate John’s humor, we must become first century Palestinian Jews. They would have been steeped in the lore and cultural traditions of their place in time. They would have been schooled by their rabbi’s in the history of their people. They would share certain cultural biases. They would know, for example, that a rabbi like Jesus would never converse with a woman, let alone ask her for a cup of water and risk being touched. No rabbi could be touched by a woman other than his spouse. No Jew, for that matter, would converse with a Samaritan. We first century Palestinian Jews hate those people! When we were taken into exile in Babylon they stayed behind! They build a sanctuary on Mount Gerazim and abandoned Temple worship in Jerusalem! They even reject the book of Deuteronomy! We just won’t have anything to do with them!

We first century Palestinian Jews also know about wells in the desert and what can happen at them. We know for example that at a well like this one that John describes Isaac met Rebecca and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Jacob met Rachel and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Moses met Zipporah and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! And we know what happens when people get married — there’s a feast! So we appreciate the tension this scene implies.

And now, of course to fully appreciate the situation John describes we must be not only first century Palestinians, not only first century Palestinian Jews, but first century Palestinian Jewish Christians. We Christians have learned not only what the rabbi’s taught, but we have learned the stories of Jesus. We know about Jesus and wedding feasts! We know what happened when Jesus went to a wedding party in Cana in Galilee. We know that water became wine… and we know that the wine at another feast became the Blood… and we know that the Blood is the Living Cup from the one who here calls himself the Living Water. It’s all the wonderful circle of meanings within meanings that we know about that the woman in the story does not. And that, after all, is the nature of humor! It’s irony and it’s farce!

John’s Gospel story is a joke! But it’s not an inside joke… it’s a joke we’re supposed to share! Like all good jokes it’s better when it’s shared. That’s part of our mission to share the good news, to share the humor.

That’s what the woman at the well does. Jesus gently teaches her who he is, leading her to make this discovery. Now let’s be clear about something. This woman is not, despite what you may have heard in Sunday school or other church settings, a simple person. Jesus does not condemn her or even suggest, by saying that she has had five husbands, that she is a sinner! She may have had a culturally legitimate reason for her multiple marriages. She may have been the subject of what is called Levirate marriage in which a woman is taken as the wife of her husband’s brother if her husband dies and they have no children. This was the basis of the question which some Sadducees once put to Jesus about the woman who had seven husbands; whose wife would she be in the afterlife. Perhaps the woman at the well had had a similar hard life. That’s all Jesus says to her, that she has had a hard life. And in doing so he leads heard to discover who he is.

At first she believes him a prophet and so she asks him a perfectly legitimate question. She is a Samaritan; he is a Jewish prophet. The paramount difference between them has to do with where one may worship; so she asks him about this issue. It is his answer to this question which finally leads were to recognize him as Messiah. When she does so, she runs into town to share the good news with her neighbors; she is one about the first evangelists! Later, the people of Sychar come out to the well and learn for themselves the good news that the savior of the world is among them.

Meanwhile, those bumbling idiots, the disciples come back from wherever they’ve been. John makes a parenthetical remark here which is itself a humorous one. He notes that none of them asked Jesus why he is talking to a woman or why he is talking to a Samaritan; they are used to this guy doing strange and unexpected things!

So now we can see the humor, we can see the irony, and we begin to appreciate the metaphor of the well where these people have discovered the one who is the Living Water. It is a metaphor which will be used by many as the Christian centuries progress. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that spiritually all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” What St. Bernard meant is that we encountered God when we dig deep into our own hearts for it is there where God has poured his love and spirit as St. Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s epistle lesson.

John Sanford is a modern Episcopal priest who has also used the well image to describe the spiritual life in what he calls The Kingdom Within. In doing so, Sanford recalls his childhood on farm in New Hampshire. At some time during his childhood his parents became wealthy enough to afford to add electricity and modern plumbing to their home. A deep artesian well was dug and an older well was covered over. A few years later Sanford uncovered the old well hoping to do drink from it, only to discover that it was bone dry. He learned that a well of that kind is fed by hundreds of tiny rivulets along which seep a constant supply of water. As water is drawn from the well, water moves along these rivulets, keeping them clear and open. When the well is not used, these rivulets close up. Sanford suggests the human soul is such a well that we must continue to draw from it, from the spirit and love which God pours into it to keep our spiritual lives from drying up.

Another modern theologian who uses the well image is Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest from Lima, Peru. Gutierrez has written a book entitled We Drink from Our Own Wells about his work in his community. In it he borrows from St. Bernard and writes,

Bernard of Clairvaux put it so beautifully when he said that when it comes to spirituality all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” In … the process of liberation …, we live out the gift of faith, hope, and charity that makes us disciples of the Lord. This experience is our well. The water that rises out of it continually purifies us and smooths away any wrinkles in our manner of being Christians, at the same time supplying the vital element needed for making new ground fruitful.

Sanford uses a similar image when he writes that the living water of God flows into us and out of us into the community around us.

This is our calling: to be wells into which the living water of the love and spirit of God flow, flow up, flow over, and flow out into the community bringing forth new and fruitful growth.

The Vestry and I have been on retreat the past couple of days wrestling with our role and our responsibility as leaders of this church community. We are beginning to develop a corporate vision of what ministry has given us by our God, what mission we as a community of God’s people have in the secular community around us.

I believe that our ministry, whatever it may be, centers here at the altar where we share the foretaste of God’s eternal feast, at the altar which is a well where we share the Living Water, but it does not occur only here. Each Friday afternoon a few of us gather for the Stations of the Cross. We have been using a pamphlet written by Clarence Enzler entitled Everyone’s Way of the Cross. In it Christ speaks to us saying, “Seek me not in the far-off places. I am close at hand. Your workbench, office, kitchen, these are altars where you offer love. And I am with you there.”

At work around the tables and desks of your office, there are you gather with people just as the Samaritans and the first century Palestinian Jews gathered at their community wells. At school around the desks and work tables, there you gather with people just as they gathered at community wells. At home around your kitchen and dining room tables, there you gather with people to share of God’s abundant bounty just as they gathered to share to gift of water from their wells.

That is our mission: to call people together to share God’s abundant Living Water, to dig deeply into our own hearts to tap into the spirit and love which God continually pours out into them, to allow that Living Water to flow, to flow over, and to flow out into all the people around us. We are called not merely to gather at a well, but to be a well … a well overflowing with blessing for the community around us, “because (as St. Paul wrote) God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Amen.


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An Arid Holy Week

As one reads through the Psalms in the course of the Daily Office Lectionary, different images, analogies, and metaphors come and go, escape notice and then grab your attention. The psalm used in the Daily Office of Evening Prayer on Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent this year contains such an image. In Psalm 119 at verse 83 is this statement, “I have become like a leather flask in the smoke….” (BCP 1979, p 770) The King James Version renders this, “I am become like a bottle in the smoke,” and the New International and New Revised Standard Versions use “wineskin”.

An old commentary from the 1890s explains the image this way:

As a wineskin out of us hung up among the rafters of the roof grows shrivelled and blackened by the smoke till it almost loses its original appearance, so the Psalmist is growing emaciated and disfigured by suffering and sorrow till he can scarcely be recognized. (Alexander Francis Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, Cambridge University Press: 1895, 1901, p. 718)

It might not be our image today, but one must ask “What does this image evoke for us in the 21st Century?” Surely we are not unfamiliar with the sense of being dried up to the point of cracking, hard to the point of no flexibility, parched to the point where moisture is the only hope.

What makes you dry up? What hardens you? What parches you? Do you know what it is that leads you into such a condition?

These are good questions for reflection as we complete this season of Lent.

For the Psalmist, the source of “moisture” which would cure his smoke-shriveled condition was God’s Law, the Lord’s statutes. The Commandments were evidence of God’s loving-kindness which would revive him (v. 87).

For us the “cure” is Easter, the great festival of the Resurrection, the promise of New Life. The dryness of Lent will end with the great feast of Christ’s Empty Tomb. Cries of “Alleluia!” will sound again and like a long drink of cool, refreshing water will revive our spirits.

But as the old saw says, the night is always darkest before dawn and in the liturgical cycle of the church year, the driest time is right before the most refreshing.

Holy Week, with its round of services recalling, reenacting, and retelling the worst events of history, its stories of betrayal, of unfair trial, of torture, and of death, must be lived through. We cannot fully appreciate the reinvigorating refreshment of Easter unless we experience the fullness of Holy Week.

Palm Sunday, if weather permits, those at my church will once again walk with our Lord as he triumphantly enters to the city of Jerusalem; our Procession of the Palms includes the grim reminder that that parade ended not in enthronement, but in execution and death as we walk through the Old City Cemetery adjacent to our church property. Maundy Thursday, when we recall how Jesus and his friends celebrated the commemoration of liberation and religious identity which is the Passover, reminds us that that feast was Jesus’ Last Supper. Good Friday, with its long meditations on the Crucifixion, Jesus’ “seven last words”, and his grizzly death, always raises (particularly for children) the question, “What’s ‘good’ about this day?” And Holy Saturday, with its deathly quiet, the tomb sealed shut ….

Like a wineskin in the smoke, indeed! By the end of Holy Week we are shriveled, dried up, exhausted, unfit for much of anything … and then there is Easter!

This year we will begin our Resurrection celebrations with an evening offering of the Great Vigil at 7:00 p.m. after sundown on Holy Saturday and continue with an early, simple eucharist at 8:00 a.m. on Easter morning, and then the Festival Eucharist at 10:00 a.m. Our parish’s brass quartet will play at the Festival Service. Whatever the weather, the day will be bright and brilliant and refreshing!

A Lutheran pastor blogging on the internet has offered this reflection on Holy Week and Easter:

I hate holy week. And yes, I’m a pastor. I really hate Lent too. No other time of the year do I feel more depressed; no other time of the year do I feel less motivated to do anything worthwhile. I go through the motions. I get my sermons done (barely) and I do the liturgy. Why this is I do not know. But I hate holy week, and the reason is, I have discovered after five years of this, is that no other time of the year do I really come face to face with the unbelieving human demon that I am like I do during Lent, and especially holy week. So I hate it. I am depressed, because I see that I am not pious. I cannot keep the fast. I cannot pray more fervently like I know I ought. I am weaker than weak. I have no discipline. I think that God does this to me on purpose, because if I got through Lent and observed every jot and tittle of Liturgical tradition, I would really be tempted to boast about how pious I was.

I love it because it makes me thirsty for Easter. I do not love the resurrection any other time of the year as much as I do after Lent and Holy Week. It is a refreshing message. It is like a drink of cool water after a hot and dry stint in the wilderness. My faith is not in vain. The things that I am doing week in and week out are not futile and meaningless, even though to the mortal eye it seems that way. The Resurrection of Christ validates everything we do, say, and think as pastors, as Christians, as parents, as anything. Because if Christ lives, and is not buried in Palestine, but lives and breathes and blood runs through his veins and his heart beats like mine, then I also know that His Word is powerful, because it is not the Word of a dead person, but it is He Himself speaking. I know that the Sacrament that I distribute every week is not just ordinary bread and wine, but His true and living Body and Blood. I don’t know what I would do if we didn’t celebrate Easter every year. So for this, I love Holy Week.

So hate it, or love it … Holy Week is vital! Join your parish family for the full range of services which prepare us for and celebrate the greatest gift of God to humanity. Be a part not only of Easter morning, be a part of Holy Week.

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A Sermon about Nicodemus

I haven’t posted anything for quite awhile … life after Christmas got very complicated and very busy. But I’m back in some sort of groove now and here’s the sermon I preached on the Second Sunday in Lent (February 17, 2008). The Gospel lesson for the day (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A) was John 3:1-17, which recounts Nicodemus’s night-time conversation with Jesus about rebirth.

Fire. For just a moment, before we delve into the story of Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, I want you to think about fire. Close your eyes and imagine a fire and listen to how one professor of mythological studies describes this archetypical element:

It fascinates and frightens, warms and scorches. Too little and we die. Too much and we die. It sings, dances, plays, inspires, destroys. It purifies and consumes. In a burning bush, it marked the presence of God. In a volcano, Pele surges into raw life. Among the flames in a smithy, Bridgid and Hephaestus craft wonders of magic. Around ancient hearths, food was cooked, deities worshiped, songs sung, tales told, babies birthed, the sick and dying comforted. Ancient ritual originated in dance and drumming around sacred fire. In many cultures, a new day is born at sunset and nurtured in firelight — by the time dawn arrives, the day is already old. Fire hides in trees and hides in stars, and most of all, hides in hearts.

So writes Dr. Kathleen Jenks, Professor of Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. (Fire: Sacrality & Lore)

The Jewish culture of First Century Palestine was one of those cultures in which “a new day is born at sunset and nurtured in firelight.” A child of that culture, Nicodemus’s coming to Jesus by night isn’t a coming at the end of the day, but a coming at the beginning of the day: our Gospel Lesson begins, as does the story of creation, in darkness and God brings forth light! Nicodemus starts a new day in the dark, seeking enlightenment.
This is such a familiar story, isn’t it? Nicodemus coming to Jesus to ask … well, we aren’t really sure what he came to ask. The conversation we heard today is like many in John’s Gospel, only partially related and set out in a way to make John’s point. In this instance, the Gospeler seems to be underscoring the mystery of salvation!

Some have argued that the detail about Nicodemus coming in the night is meant to show that he was afraid of discovery by Jews hostile to Jesus and his mission. (Cf. “Commentary” in The New Iinterperter’s Bible [Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995]: “Nicodemus hides his seeking under the cloak of night.” Vol. IX, p. 548.) Others argue that a nighttime conversation underscores the seriousness of the conversation. William Barclay, in his famous commentary, writes: “The rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when a man was undisturbed. Throughout the day Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may well be that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975, p. 124)

Budolf Bultmann, the famous German Lutheran Bible scholar, in his commentary on this gospel offers a similar comment: “There is no indication that his coming by night was occasioned by his ‘fear of the Jews’ (19.38). It is more likely that this is intended to show his great zeal, in the same way as nocturnal study is recommended by the Rabbis….” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1971, p. 133 n. 5)

Bultmann, however, argues that John’s principal purpose in relating the nighttime setting is an “intention of creating an air of mystery.” He writes: “The nocturnal setting and style of the dialogue … give the whole passage an air of mystery, which is developed in a three-fold sense as the mystery of rebirth, the mystery of the Son of Man, and the mystery of the witness. But above all an air of mystery lies over the whole passage, because Jesus only speaks of the Revealer in the third person and never discloses himself by an [I am]-saying.” (Ibid., p. 133)

Perhaps the most mysterious thing Jesus says in the whole passage is his insistence that one be born “from above.” (3:3) This puzzles Nicodemus as much as it puzzles us. The Greek term used by John to relate Jesus’s words is anoqen (anothen), an ambiguous word which can mean “from above” or “from the beginning” or “again”. Nicodemus assumes it means “again.” But Jesus makes it clear that it is the first meaning that he has in mind when he reiterates his insistence in different words: “[N]o one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (3:5, emphasis added.)
So, you may be wondering why I would choose to begin meditating on this week’s Gospel Lesson with a reference to the element of fire. I admit that it may seem a bit odd inasmuch as Jesus does not mention fire he mentions water and he mentions the wind (i.e., the air), but he does not mention fire. But we enter our reflection on this gospel with fire because Jesus insists we be born of Spirit. The recently introduced Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains this precis of the Biblical symbolism of fire:

While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions. The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself. The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions. “Do not quench the Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Profession of Faith, Section Two, Chapter Three, Art. 8, Para. 696, “Fire,” footnotes omitted.)

The same point is made in Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary when it states that “fire is a symbol of Jehovah’s presence and the instrument of his power.”

The last sentence in the Roman Catechism is a quote from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: “Do not quench the Spirit.” For Paul, fire was the very image of God’s Spirit. To the Corinthians he wrote that the Day of the Lord would “be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each [person] has done.” (1 Cor. 3:13, NRSV) To the young bishop Timothy he wrote, “[F]an into flames the spiritual gift God gave you….” (2 Tim 1:6, New Living Trans.)

So this is what Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the fiery Spirit of God.” No wonder Nicodemus was confused. Nicodemus is as much a child of Greek culture as of Jewish … the Greeks had established in the “scientific” understanding of his world the idea that the Cosmos was made up of Four Elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Everything was made up of combinations of these four primal ingredients, except when those elements were “opposites” and did not mix. Earth and air did not mix; fire and water did not mix. So Jesus answer to Nicodemus is really no answer at all – it was simply an impossibility and so his answer simply raises more questions! “Be born of water and fire?” Seen through the lens of the ancients’ understanding of the Four Elements, what Jesus asks is incomprehensible! Fire and water cannot be combined…. What is he talking about? “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus.

In my pre-ordination life as a litigation attorney one of my specialties was handling questionable fire cases. I learned a lot about fires, fire suppression, fire investigation and so forth. One of the things I learned is that there are certain fires against which water has no effect. In fact, there are fires which burn so hot that water actually fuels them – the addition of water to such fires, rather than dampen them, causes explosions!

This is was what Jesus seems to be looking for … the fire of the Spirit combined with “living water” resulting in something explosive and uncontrollable … a transformative rebirth, the creation of a “new human being.” That’s probably not what Nicodemus wanted to hear!
John doesn’t tell us how old Nicodemus was, but this leader of the Jews hints at his age when he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4) Thus, the tradition has grown up that Nicodemus was an old man. For example, in his book What is Regeneration?, the Chinese evangelist Witness Lee writes, “Nicodemus was an old man of perhaps sixty or seventy years of age.” No wonder he asks Jesus in disbelief, “How can these things be?” (3:9) Nicodemus needs to remember his ancestor Abraham.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is a short one, the first three-and-a-half verses of Genesis, chapter 12. Let me read it for you again:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Our reading, for some reason, leaves off the last sentence of verse four: “Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.” Can you imagine starting all over at age 75? Packing up everything you own, including your nephew and his family, loading it all on the family camel, and setting off across the desert for some unknown new land? Now that’s what I call being born again. How did Abram arrive at this renascence? Did it happen all at once? Perhaps not…

Abram was a native of the ancient city of Ur. An article in the December 2001 National Geographic speculated, “He may have worshiped Sin, the god of the moon and Ur’s chief deity.” The author wrote: “I wondered if, somehow, Abraham’s reflections on the moon god had led him to the idea that the world is governed by one God.” (p. 106) Abram’s rebirth (marked by the change of his name to “Abraham”) may have been a gradual thing.

That’s the way fire is sometimes. Coals may smolder unseen; embers may burn unnoticed. That’s the way Christian rebirth is sometimes, too. Someone once wrote about the way a few famous Christians came to their faith:

Noted evangelist Billy Graham says that he can point back to a definite time in his life when he experienced conversion. But his wife, Ruth, says that she grew gradually into the faith and can point to no definite starting point. Her experience is similar to the testimony of Count Von Zinzendorf to John Wesley. When Wesley asked him if he knew when he was saved, he replied, “I have always been saved!” A very famous churchman’s reply to the same question was, “I was saved nearly two thousand years ago, on a hill called Golgotha, outside the city of Jerusalem.” And this is the main point of the biblical witness: Our Salvation was accomplished nearly two thousand years ago in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one true Son of God. The meaning that this past event has for us today, our response to that event, and our willingness to believe is crucial for us. It doesn’t matter so much when we come to believe as it does that we believe.

It is this coming to belief, to faith, instantly or gradually, that Jesus seems to mean when he insists that we must be “born again.”

The author of the annotations to this Gospel Lesson in The New Interpreter’s Bible makes the point that “the use of the phrase ‘born again’ … has become a slogan and rallying cry” which repeats Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. That author writes:

By codifying the expression “born again” and turning it into a slogan, interpreters risk losing the powerful offer of new life contained in Jesus’ words. Nicodemus and the reader are intended to struggle with the expression “born anothen” in order to discern what kind of new birth is at the same time birth from above. In that struggle of interpretation, the reader is called to listen to all of Jesus’ words in this text, not just a few of them. As the reader moves with Nicodemus and Jesus through this dialogue and into the discourse, a fresh and fuller understanding of “born anothen” emerges. “Born anothen” is complicated to interpret because its language and its promise transcend conventional categories. It envisions a new mode of life for which there are no precedents, life born of water and the Spirit, life regenerated through the cross of Jesus. If interpreters turn “born again” into a slogan, they domesticate the radical newness of Jesus’ words and diminish the good news. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol.IX, Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p. 555, emphasis in original.)

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” said Jesus. (3:8) What kind of fiery transformation we may experience, whether a spontaneous combustion or a slow smoulder, isn’t up to us; it’s up the Spirit who does what she chooses.

So, “let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29) Amen.

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