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Sermon transcript for March 3, 2013

The Tenacity of Grace
Luke 13:1-9
Belmont UMC—March 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

I first met Tom when he started coming to church with his girlfriend. After they were engaged he and his fiancé began coming for premarital counseling. Tom was a friendly guy. He owned a small fencing company so he was strong and ruddy from being outdoors all the time and engaged in physical labor. After we began the counseling sessions he would often call me and asked if he could stop by for conversation. He’d come in my office at the end of the day, covered in dirt and mud, go in the washroom off my office, clean up and change into a clean T-shirt. I enjoyed those conversations but I always felt he was holding back something.

I learned that Tom’s mother had died when he was in middle school and I knew that event was a turning point for him. He hadn’t attended church since his mother died and he was a little surprised by the new experience. What surprised him most was how kind everyone was to him. The older ladies who sat near him and his fiancé on Sunday mornings always welcomed him and told him how glad they were to see him. They would give him gentle hugs during passing the peace. Those embraces reminded him of his mother.

Tom decided he wanted to be baptized and join the church so we set a date and we talked through several sessions about the meaning of baptism. On the Saturday night before his baptism he called me. He was obviously upset and I had difficulty understanding what he was saying; he was crying. I said, “Tom, I’m worried about you. Meet me at the office in half an hour.” I drove to the church and waited for him in my office. He burst through the door, fell on his knees and wept. I’d never seen a person cry with that much intensity. I knelt down beside him and put my arm on his shoulder and waited until he could talk. He kept saying over and over again, “I can’t be baptized; I’m not good enough.”

Over the next hour Tom poured out his story. When his mother died, his father started drinking a lot, and when he was drunk he became violent and beat Tom and his little brother. Tom said that the worst part was not the beating but what his father said to him. He told him, “You are worthless. You’ll never amount to anything.” (I’m cleaning the actual language quite a bit for church.)

After the first beating, Tom ran to a friend’s house. His friend helped wipe the blood off Tom’s face and then offered him a joint of marijuana. The drug helped ease his pain. After that Tom turned to marijuana and other drugs to ease the emotional pain of his life. His father quit beating him when Tom was big enough to fight back, but he kept using drugs. Every time he used drugs, he could hear his father telling him how worthless he was.  Tom said, “I’ve been clean for a year now, but you can see I’m not baptism worthy. I’m not worth anything and I’ve always known it.”

Over the next hour I talked with Tom about baptism as a sign that he is a child of God; that God had loved him from the beginning of his life and that God’s love gives him and all of us worth. It is this love that redeems us. I told him that his father had been wrong and his baptism would be a new beginning and a new way of seeing the world and seeing himself in it.

I did not give him the option of backing out of the baptism. The next day standing with him at the chancel and beside the baptism font, we both cried through the whole service. No one in the congregation knew what the tears were for, but I think I understood the power of baptismal water more that day than ever before.

Jesus told a parable about a fig tree, a fig tree that did not bear fruit. Every year for three years, the vineyard owner came looking for fruit on that tree and found none. The vineyard owner said, “It’s worthless, cut it down. It’s wasting soil. Cut it down.” But the gardener said, “Give it some time. I’ll cultivate around it and add some manure/fertilizer. Give it another chance.”

I’m not sure I’d be as patient as the gardener, but God is. God does not give up on God’s children. God is patient and waits for us to find our way to life and fruitfulness. There is nothing more tenacious than the grace of God. Last summer I threw a “dead” plant in the compost pile, a plant I’d given up on and finally yanked it out of the garden along with some weeds. In late summer I was surprised to find it sprouting in the pile of other dead leaves so I pulled it our and repotted it and it looks better than ever.

Who are we in this story? We may be the gardener who like God tends to the fruitless ones with love and patience until they come around and begin to live into their identity as fig trees, that is, as children of God. Transformations don’t take place over night and we need the time and patience that God gives us.

In the text some folks come to Jesus and ask him a hypothetical question. Sometimes people asked Jesus these questions to distract him or to trap him into saying something that sounded blasphemous. Jesus always had a way of turning the question back on the interrogator. He says it’s really about repentance. Repentance is about a complete new way of thinking and a new way of being in the world.

Who are we in this story? We may be the manure. Sorry if that offends anyone. We are to be the rich environment of love and hope that comes around another person and allows him/her space to come to know who and whose they are. Like those older ladies who greeted Tom with gladness each week and hugged him during Passing the Peace. They were doing what came natural to them and they never realized that their love was creating an environment of acceptance and care, a rich soil for his transformation. They created an environment for repentance to happen in his life, repentance that allowed him to see things differently, to see himself as a child of God.

We have lots of baptisms here at Belmont and that’s a sign of our vitality. But we must not let the language of the baptismal liturgy grow stale. This is our promise to each baptized person. “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” These words are full of grace and promise. At Belmont we begin to surround persons with love and forgiveness long before they make it to the Baptismal font.

Reflection question: Think of someone who needs you to provide a rich environment of grace for them. Picture them in your mind. Pray for them and carry them in prayer throughout this holy season.


Sermon transcript for February 17, 2013

Free Lunches, Power Trips, Quick Fixes
Luke 4:1-1-13    First Sunday in Lent
Belmont UMC—February 17, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

One of my favorite movies is the 2000 film, Chocolat, based on the novel by the same name (writer, Joanne Harris). Chocolat tells the story of a young mother, Vianne, who arrives in a repressed French village with her six year old daughter and opens a Chocolaterie. The village is a very serious little place under the leadership of a severe and unhappy mayor,    whose countenance is reflected in the faces of the people. The cinematographer does a wonderful job of capturing the environment of the town in the use of monotones of gray and brown. Vianne arrives with her daughter, both wearing bright red capes, in contrast to the town and we know immediately that something is about to happen.

The time is the beginning of Lent and Vianne opens her chocolaterie across the street from the church. Beautiful, mysterious chocolates begin to adorn the front window of her shop and the contrast between the chocolates and the town’s Lenten observance is stunning. One by one Vianne wins over the people of the village with her happy and gregarious personality. The conflicts between Vianne and Mayor Renaud grow more intense throughout the movie until she decides to move on to another place. A group of townspeople come to encourage her to stay and each has a story of how she has changed their lives.

At the end of the movie the staunch Mayor breaks into the chocolaterie on the day before Easter and destroys the beautiful display of chocolates in the window. But to his surprise, a small piece of the chocolate drops on his lip and he gives in to the seduction, devours the chocolate, collapses in tears and falls asleep in the window. Vianne finds him there the next morning and agrees to keep his secret, vows to stay and live in the small town that has been transformed by her presence.

I have told a story that has made the first week of Lent more difficult for those who have given up chocolate for the season. Lent is about our identity, not our ability to resist chocolate for 40 days. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness defines Jesus’ identity as the son of God, as the one who will not take the easy path in this life, the one whose power is centered in servanthood, not aggrandizement. Jesus spent 40 days of reflection and preparation for what his future would hold.

“The devil said to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” (v. 3) In the wilderness Jesus is tempted to make bread from a stone, but Jesus has come to the wilderness to fast. Fasting is not designed to starve a person, but to feed the soul, to make space in the soul for God. During Lent fasting is not only about giving up food in the spiritual discipline of fasting but replacing the time spent in eating and meal preparation with prayer and meditation. It would be easy for the man who can turn water into wine to make bread out of stones, but we do not live by bread alone. We have spiritual needs and spiritual hungers and fasting would prepare Jesus for the difficult days ahead. As fasting would prepare Jesus for the difficult days ahead, so it prepares us as well.

When I was in seminary, the spiritual life department proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting during Lent. Posters had gone up all over campus calling students and faculty to participate. We all knew about it but we were too busy learning how to be pastors to attend to such spiritual disciplines.

The day of the fast arrived and at lunch time we lined up at the only place on campus for food, the cafeteria. Instead of the usual two lines, only one line was open and the line was long. I still recall the look on the face of the cafeteria manager as he walked up and down the line, wringing his hands and saying, “I thought you were supposed to be fasting today. We did not prepare enough food. Why are you here?”

Chances are we won’t be fasting this Lent, because we won’t understand the value in it. We are so accustomed to satisfying every hunger, every hint of loneliness and isolation, every moment of silence, with something, anything that prevents us from being alone with ourselves and our feelings.

Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that the empty space within us belongs to God and the simplest definition of addiction is anything we use to fill that space other than God. She writes, “The hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers in our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole. To enter the wilderness is to leave them behind.” She invites us to live with the emptiness for a bit and see what we find out. It’s possible that the emptiness of fasting will remind us to make room for the God who calls us children of God and who loves us with all God’s being. (Home by Another Way, p. 67)

From a high place where he could see all the kingdoms of the world, the devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms.” (v.5) Jesus is tempted with power, but being prepared to follow God’s plan meant learning that power is found in servanthood, not in self-serving displays. Jesus shunned the flashy, attention getting events. He would heal people and instruct them to tell no one. On the way to Jerusalem two of his disciples would ask him if they might sit on his left and his right in his coming kingdom. He scolded them, saying, “You do not know what you are asking.”

Jesus criticized those who lord power over others and taught that the mission of our lives in serving others, not ourselves. Jesus came as a servant, not a political leader or conquering hero. Consequently, many rejected him. But he came to teach us that there is no place for power trips in the kingdom of God.

The forty days of Lent prepares us to be God’s servants, calling us away from the temptation of the world to rise to the top, stepping on others on the way up. There are no ladders of success in the kingdom and we have 40 days to come to terms with this reality.

“Do whatever you want, and God will protect you.” the devil said. (v. 9) I’ve known folks who believed that. Jesus did not come to be protected; he had come with a mission. He came to show us what God is like and to do that he had to suffer and he continues to suffer with us when we are wounded by the realities of this world.

We want the God of the quick fix. We want a God who will always protect us from the hurts and pains we might experience. We want a God who will give us pat answers to all our questions and we want all of this now, right now. We know from human experience that it doesn’t work that way. We will all experience suffering, loss, defeat, sadness, disappointment, and failure. And we need to be prepared.

The people I have known who have spent significant time alone with God, in prayer, in study, in reflection are those who are better prepared to live victoriously and hopefully everyday, in spite of what they face. Because the Jesus who said “no” to the devil in the wilderness is the Jesus who says “yes” to us when we are suffering and he comes along side of us and gives us courage, comfort and hope.

You have heard this quote from Frederick Buechner before, but here it is one more time. “After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”

It means more than giving up chocolate for 40 days. It can be a little frightening like looking in the mirror first thing in the morning, before we’ve had time to comb our pillow hair and put on our make up. It’s frightening because who we see is who we are. It means bringing all we are to the wilderness, all our baggage, all our painful memories, our broken hearts, our history of failure, and our weird idiosyncrasies. We come to allow our emptiness to speak to us of God and hope and identity.

This is a process and there are no quick fixes to our humanness. It takes time but with Christ, everyday, we can learn and grow and find our way, our identity as the children of God.

REFLECTIVE QUESTION: Today I want you to capture in your mind one person, one person who typifies the servant ministry of Jesus, one person who has been to the wilderness and come back again, changed. Ask yourself, how can this person’s life example lead me on this journey of Lent?


Sermon transcript for February 10, 2013

Retreat or Encounter
Luke 9:28-26--The Transfiguration
Belmont UMC—February 10, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

One of my most unusual pastoral calls was to a man named Eugene. This was in my first appointment as a pastor. Eugene’s wife, Lilly, had stopped by the parsonage one afternoon to ask me to visit him. When I asked what was going on, she replied, “It’s too stupid for me to explain, but I’m really angry with him.” The next day I drove to the farmhouse where Eugene and Lilly lived. Eugene was on the front porch and he did not seem happy to see me. I told him about Lilly’s visit and request. Eugene said, “She’s mad because I won’t go back to church. I have no place to sit since you removed my post.”

Years before someone had decided that the sanctuary was structurally unsound so a large support post had been added to the center of the room. We had some restoration work done on the building and new roof supports added, so there was no need for the unsightly post. Eugene sat behind the post every Sunday and as soon as the sermon started he would go to sleep. Lilly had joined the choir and was no longer sitting next to him to nudge or elbow him to wake up. He thought he was hiding but even I could see him sleeping. Everyone in the small church knew he slept through the sermon. I assured him that his sleeping did not bother me but I did want him to come back to church and make Lilly happy. He did come back, the marital crisis was averted, and all was well.

It is okay to fall asleep during the sermon. I’m told that my voice puts babies to sleep and I should provide CD’s for all new parents (and maybe insomnia sufferers as well). I heard that if you were to take all the people who fall asleep in church on any given Sunday and lay them end to end, they would be a lot more comfortable. Thanks for enduring that old joke.

The text today is the Transfiguration Story, which always ends the season of Epiphany. Jesus took the inner circle of disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain to pray and there Jesus’ appearance was changed—his clothes were white like lightening and Elijah and Moses appeared with him. Luke adds this detail: “the disciples were weighed down with sleep” (NRSV) or “almost overcome by sleep” (CEB) but they managed to stay awake and experience Jesus’ glory. Have ever tried to stay awake when you were very sleepy? We can almost imagine the disciples about to drift off when this event happened and startled them fully awake.

Luke notes that the same disciples fell asleep when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and had asked the disciples to pray with him. “Pray that you won’t be overcome by temptation.” But they fell asleep and Luke notes that they slept because they were overcome by grief. Jesus asked them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you won’t be overcome by temptation.” (22:39-46)

There is a recurring theme in scripture when the people of God are called on to stay awake, stay alert, and listen. From the words of Isaiah, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord, Awake. . .” (51:9) And the stories of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration where we hear a voice announcing, “This is my son,  listen to him.”
Or the words in the Book of Revelation to the churches, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (3:13)

Why does this theme of paying attention recur in scripture? Because the church’s vitality depends on the church’s willingness to hear God’s call and follow. And because we believe that God continues to reveal God’s self to us and we must always be in the posture of listening and receiving God’s revelation. Our ability to be God’s people and to live as Christ’s followers hinges on how awake and alert we are to the call of God on our lives.

Several years back I read an essay in which the writer (now unknown to me) referred to the modern church as the somnambulistic church, or the sleepwalking church. He noted that the modern church is like someone who walks in her sleep, going through what appear to be normal motions but not really paying attention or remembering what she is doing. (We have a child who is a sleepwalker and it is fascinating and a bit disconcerting to see him do this.) The sleepwalking church is the church that is going through the motions. Rituals, deep in meaning, are reduced to meaningless and repetitive exercises. The church is not fully alert to God and what God is saying and where God is leading. The sleepwalking church becomes irrelevant and is on the road to decline.

As a church we are in a season of prayer and discernment so that we might posture our selves to be fully alert to hear God’s voice guiding us for the journey ahead of us. This is an exciting time in the life of our church, but it can also be an anxious time because of uncertainty. We may feel the tension that comes from upsetting the status quo. We ask, “Where do we see God at work? Where do we hear God’s call?” Those questions come with risks. Those questions can lead us to transformation and our tendency is to resist transformation.

Simone Weil wrote, “Absolute attention is prayer.” Prayer allows us to attend to the gentle, grace filled leading of God.

I mentioned Alan Storey last week. Alan is the pastor of Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, South Africa. Our mission team spent an hour or so with Alan when we were in Cape Town in 2009. When Alan was younger he had to decide if he would resist the draft to serve in an army that supported the apartheid government of South Africa. He went to Australia to work as a laborer and to spend a year in intentional and prayerful discernment. He returned to South Africa declaring he would never fight in the apartheid army or any army. He was arrested and put on trial, with a six year prison term the likely outcome. The trial was abandoned midway for unknown reasons. Alan went to the court but no one showed up to prosecute him. Alan’s courage meant that he was the last conscientious objector to be put on trial in South Africa. The year after Alan’s arrest 30,000 young men were drafted but only a third of them showed up to serve. His willingness to follow Christ was a factor in ending this oppressive government system.

During this Black History month we are reminded of the courageous faithful who heard God’s call and at great risk led our nation out of the grip of racism and toward God’s dream for a better and more just world. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hearing Jesus’ voice late one night, sitting alone in his kitchen and pondering a threatening phone call. He said, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying, still to fight on, still to fight on.”

The church Eugene and Lilly attended was built in 1840 and had solid brick walls. The bricks had been made on the property by slaves. One of the older men in the church told me that when he was a boy one could still find finger prints of the slaves molded into the bricks. I thought about those slaves, building a church in which they would never be welcomed. Even in 1840 some courageous Christians were listening to God and God was speaking words of human dignity and liberation!  

We are not the same church we were when I was born in 1952. We are not the same church because the discerning faithful have been courageous enough to listen to God. In 1952 women could not be ordained in the Methodist Church. In 1952 blacks and whites served in separate conferences in the Methodist Church. But God spoke to the church and some were listening. We have a long way to go to end racism and sexism in our country and in the United Methodist Church. And I believe God still has a word for us that we need to hear.

The transfiguration story is one of those mystical stories and it’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around it. The disciples saw Jesus transformed, standing with these heroic figures in Jewish history, figures that represented the law and the prophets. Peter’s response is typically impulsive as he suggests that they build three shrines, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Then they were enfolded in a thick cloud and filled with awe. A voice from heaven was heard, a voice that silenced the impulsive and talkative Peter, “This is my Son, my chosen one, listen to him.” The voice seemed to be saying, “Peter, stop talking and listen. Peter, pay attention to what is happening here.”

This event was not meant for Jesus but for the disciples. It was meant for the early church, and it was meant for us at Belmont. It calls our attention to the identity of Jesus and invites us to align our lives with his. It reminds us that we are not on our journey; we are on the Jesus journey. It reminds us that we are not called to build shrines to the status quo, but to posture our lives so that we can be fully awake, fully alert, to listen and to hear where God is calling us. It reminds us of God’s grace, because even when we are almost overcome with sleep, even when we are reluctant or fearful of change, God can and will break into our lives and get our attention.

Belmont, God is calling us to do great things. Will we listen and hear? Will we have the courage to follow?


Sermon transcript for February 3, 2013

The Greatest of These
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Belmont UMC—February 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

It is said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but if that were true then we would approach these words of Paul with contempt. Instead we hear them over and over again. They make us smile as we read them at weddings, funerals, or simply sitting quietly during our morning devotional time. They warm our hearts and we greet them gladly.
But these words are meant for much more. Paul wrote these words so that they would change our lives. So let’s look at them again this morning but let’s look at them with a new and transformed way of seeing them.

We will need some context for this spiritual exercise. A number of years back Kathryn and I went to a local restaurant at the end of a busy Sunday schedule. We would order coffees and something simple and talk about the day and plan for the week ahead. As we sat there we noticed our District Superintendent walk into the restaurant. He did not see us and he took a seat on the other side of the room from us. He ordered something and then he put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. It was obvious to us that he was tired or troubled.

As we were leaving we walked over to his table to greet him and we asked if he was okay. He invited us to sit down. He told us about the church from which he had just returned. The church members were in a feud with each other and as I recall the feud was over the color of the new sanctuary carpet. A special meeting had been called and he had been invited in to convene the meeting. There had been a pot luck meal before the meeting and one group set their food up on one side of the fellowship hall and the other group set their food up on the other. They sat on opposite sides from one another during the meeting, a meeting that was contentious and hateful and no resolution to the carpet dilemma had been found. Paul is writing to a church that has similar problems and Paul documents their divisiveness in the opening chapters of this letter. “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are not ready. . . For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, behaving according to human inclinations.” (3:1-3 NRSV) We need to remember that when reading 1 Corinthians 13.

The other contextual piece I want to mention is the preceding chapter. Chapter 12 was a Lectionary option over the last two Sundays and we did not read it, but we have to visit that chapter to fully understand the transformational nature of 1 Corinthians 13. In this chapter Paul uses the metaphor of the human body for the church. The human body has many parts, many different parts that work in concert with each other and dependency on each other. He is saying that the human body needs diversity and unity or it will not survive. He is saying that the church needs diversity and unity or it will not survive. Since unity/diversity has emerged as a major theme in our ongoing discernment process we need to hear this, remember it and we come back to it again.

In the words of Reverend Alan Storey (from his sermon, “Unity and Diversity”) of South Africa, I was reminded this week that Paul took the prevailing philosophy and turned it upside down. Aristotle and other philosophers had used the body as a metaphor as well, but they used it to describe how societies work. The prevailing sociological viewpoint was that there were different roles for different persons in society. Some were more significant and important; some less significant. That was a natural order of society and those that were less significant should not complain but accept their position. This worked out well for the privileged few. Alan noted that he was raised in a country that told him he was more significant than others because of the color of his skin. So was I.

But listen to what Paul writes, “On the contrary, the members that seem to be weaker are indispensable (we can’t live without them), and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” (verses 22-25) He goes on to say that we need each other and “if any one member suffers, we all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (v. 26) Do we hear how counter-cultural this was and is even now?

And then Paul writes one of the most startling sentences in the New Testament. It is this, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (v. 27) He didn’t write, “You will be the body of Christ someday.” He said, “You are it.” The church at Corinth, with its jealousies and quarreling and new Flamingo colored carpet in the sanctuary, is the body of Christ? And Paul is speaking to us across the centuries, “Belmont, you are the body of Christ!” You are the present and visible reality of the risen Christ for this world. That’s a tall order for the church at Corinth and it raises the bar for us as well. We are the body of Christ!

The 12th ends with these words, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” And we see why the chapter and verse designations do a disservice to this passage because it flows naturally into the 13th chapter. The more excellent way is the way of love. If we are to be the body of Christ we must embody the love of God. To embody the love of God is to embody the very nature of God’s self.

Paul notes that we can have the gift to speak in angelic languages, prophesy until the cows come home, have faith to move mountains, and even become a martyr for the faith, but if we do have the love of God in us, we have nothing, we gain nothing. Because it’s not about us; it is always about God and God is the source of everything good that happens in the body of Christ. We have nothing apart from God and we have nothing apart from God’s love.

Paul describes love this way: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

I have said before that years ago a friend said that the test of our embodiment of this love is rewriting these phrases and putting our name in the place of the word “love.” So it reads, Ken is patient and kind. Ken is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Ken does not insist on his own way. Ken is not irritable or resentful.” Do the words ring true? Do they ring true to my wife, my children, my close friends? Hearing it that way leads me to the altar of confession. Is it possible for me to love this way? Probably not on my own, but it is possible with God. And God can lead us to these new depths of love.

So this morning, as we consider these texts and as we prepare to come here to this table of unity and diversity, and to kneel or stand at this chancel, we may want to bring something with us, something we need to leave here. Maybe we’ll leave our jealousies, our resentments, our arrogance, or our insistence on having our way, and may as we feed on the food of this table, may it fill us with God’s love so that we can be the body of Christ for the world.



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