Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, August 28, 2019: LSTC Welcome Week

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago during “Welcome Week,” the school’s new student orientation. Worship services this week centered on the sacraments, with this service emphasizing the eucharist. Audio of this sermon being delivered can be found here.

Texts: Isaiah 55:1-7  +  Psalm 63  +  1 Corinthians 11:17-26  +  Luke 22:14-23

Preachers, you ever have that sermon illustration in search of a sermon that you’ve been holding on to, waiting for the moment you can use it to clarify some bit of biblical or theological obscurity? I suspect we all have. Often the reason those illustrations struggle to find a home in one of our sermons is that, in order to make them fit, we have to do some little bit of violence to the text — either the text of the illustration, or the text they’re meant to illustrate, like Cinderella’s step-sisters trying to cram their feet into her shoes by lopping off their toes or parts of their heels. That’s not the sermon illustration I want to share, just a metaphorical warm-up.

The Muppet Movie poster

No, the sermon illustration I’ve been aching to use and — what the hell, let’s go for it — comes from deep within the heart of my childhood, from a source so early it is almost mythic in its significance. I’m talking about the seminal 1979 Jim Henson classic, The Muppet Movie. The reason it’s been on my mind, begging for airtime in a sermon, is that I got to see it outside earlier this month as part of this summer’s Millennium Park film series downtown with Dr. Wagner. We took a couple of lawn chairs, packed some melon balls and prosciutto, wine and cheese, and I promised her a movie simultaneously entertaining and saturated with rich theological meaning. In particular, I told her, you’ve got to watch for this scene in that back half of the movie set in the desert of the American West. It comes at a moment when all hope seems lost, when our heroes are worn down from their efforts to escape the nefarious Doc Hopper who’s been trying to get Kermit to abandon his dreams and take a self-hating job as the face of a chain of restaurants selling frog legs. The muppets are all camped out in the desert on a dark night around a small campfire under a bright moon when Gonzo — Gonzo! that weirdest of all the muppets — begins to sing:

This looks familiar, vaguely familiar.

Almost unreal, yet, it’s too soon to feel yet.

Close to my soul and yet so far away.

I’m going to go back there someday.

Sun rises, night falls, sometimes the sky calls.

Is that a song there, and do I belong there?

I’ve never been there, but I know the way.

I’m going to go back there someday.

This is a song of amazing depth, hiding out in a children’s movie, a song about the power of memory and imagination to help us bridge the distance between past, present, and future as a resource for enduring the profound anxieties of human life. “I’ve never been there, but I know the way. I’m going to go back there someday.”

We’re halfway through welcome week, a brief season in the cyclical life of the school during which we welcome into our community a new set of students who, in no time at all, will become a part of the fabric of our life together — so much so that, in a few short years it will feel as though they’ve always been here. But right now they are newly arrived, and they are trying to figure out how to fit the contents of the life they’ve known into the odd confines of this new place without damaging either of them. How to squeeze their particular set of cherished experiences and accumulated belongings into a new apartment, a new city, a new group of people, a new life.

Add to the list of all that’s new a new vocabulary, one of the many gifts of a seminary education. All the Greek words waiting to be learned, all the -ologies: theologies, soteriologies, epistemologies, eschatologies. Here’s a Greek word for you, not an -ology, but relevant to today’s texts: anamnesis. Anamnesis means something like “reminiscence.” As a philosophical concept, it’s first connected to Plato’s theory of knowledge (epistemology) in which he posits that human beings possess innate knowledge from before their birth and that learning is actually the process of rediscovering what we have already previously known. A few centuries later the concept gains new meaning as it gets picked up by the early Christians to refer to the “memorial sacrifice” at the heart of the eucharistic liturgy, the words we hear in both Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and Luke’s gospel account of the last supper when Jesus takes the loaf of bread, breaks it and distributes it to the community that has gathered around him, worn down and anxious about the dual powers of the Roman empire and the Temple establishment that have been chasing them, after Jesus has predicted his death on multiple occasions and hope seems thin. There, around that ancient imagined campfire, Jesus says, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

Friends, I have to confess to you that when I first selected these texts for today, I was drawn to the ugly parts of the story. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we catch the apostle in a full-on scold, “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” The community has taken the love meal of Jesus and perverted its fundamental significance as a means of grace by repeating the same injustices that characterize the sinful state of our social existence. The church in Corinth has been showing up to worship, each bringing their own food and drink, and then not sharing all things in common, not distributing from each according to their means to each according to their need. Instead, Paul says, “when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.” The poor in their midst go hungry, repeating the patterns of humiliation experienced in the wider world and making the gospel of life and love and liberation into a lie.

Likewise, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus moves immediately from what we have come to know as the words of institution to observe that “the one who betrays me is with me, and their hand is on the table.” Understandably the disciples are alarmed to hear this, so they begin “to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.”

That dynamic also looks familiar, strangely familiar. It seems to be a part of our human nature that we not only routinely betray our own highest hopes and ideals, but that we cluster together and project our own fears, guilt, shame, and insecurity onto one another, asking who in this community it could be who would do this; who in this community has fallen short of the ideal; who has betrayed God’s preferred future with words or actions that are ignorant, or malicious, or violent, or oppressive. Who could it be? Not me, I hope. Let’s keep looking. Elsewhere.

This is what I am compulsively drawn to, what I think we are all perhaps drawn to, the obsessive memory of all that has hurt us and the repression of and forgetfulness about all that we have done to hurt others. But this is not what Jesus asks us to remember. Instead, in each of these stories which include truth-telling about the persistent nature of human sinfulness, about our own participation in the humiliating structures of injustice and our own betrayals of God’s beloved children, we are asked to remember God’s body broken for us, God’s life poured out for us. For us. For people like us. For forgetful people like us. For imperfect and scared and fearful and jealous and violent and hurting people like us. All of us. 

Anamnesis as Dangerous MemoryIn his book, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue, Bruce Morrill contrasts anamnesis with another Greek word referring to memory, mnemosunon (mnay-MOS’-oo-non). Mnemosunon, as he describes it, refers to memories with “a certain intrinsic continuing, abiding permanency about them, unless and until they are deliberately destroyed or consumed or blotted out.” Anamnesis, on the other hand, refers to the recollection of things forgotten, carrying with it the connotation of renewal and return to what was once known. Like Plato’s idea that all learning is actually remembering.

The disruptive quality of anamnesis, the recovery of what has been lost, is what makes it dangerous to the established order and the status quo. Because it is disruptive to remember God’s abundance in a world of manufactured scarcity in which some go hungry while others hoard food and water and other forms of wealth. It is disruptive to remember God’s welcome in a world that spurns refugees, separates families, and cages children. It is disruptive to remember God’s love in a world that tells us who to love and how to hate. It is disruptive to remember God’s justice in a world that scapegoats individuals and whole communities while ignoring the structural violence that is the backdrop of our entire social lives. It is dangerous to tell the story of God’s salvation history to people who have lost hope, because they might believe it. It might change them. They might find common cause in one another. They might learn again what they have always known, that they were created in love, by love, for love. They might live their lives as if it were true, and then how would the world sell them its goods, its illusions, its rationalizations and justifications for all the harm we do to ourselves and others, all our betrayals of self and other.

In direct defiance of the death-dealing powers of this world, the church asserts that by means of our memory of what God has done in the past, we are joined to that work in the present and enter into the reality of God’s gracious reign which is both here and now and not yet. Anamnesis is the memory of the past that creates the conditions for a renewed present and different future — and, in a more technical, liturgical sense, it is the portion of the eucharistic prayer that comes after the words of institution. In this way, each time we eat this meal together and hear the words of Jesus, who commands us to do all this in remembrance of him, we then immediately do as we have been told, and we remember him, we tell the story of his living and teaching, his dying and rising, his promise to come again to save the world and set it free and this memory, like something we’ve always known but keep forgetting, propels us forward so that we can once again with confidence proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. All three tenses collapsed into one; the past, the present, and the future coming together to disrupt the sinful status quo of our lives and of the world. The chance to become new people and a new creation.

For those of you who are joining the seminary community this week, for whom this may be your first sharing of the Lord’s Supper in this place, it might feel as if you’re having this meal for the first time — but that’s almost certainly untrue. It’s far more likely that you have already had some experience of the Lord’s Supper that has fed you, pushed you or propelled you toward this moment. Now, here in this place, we will have some more of those moments together — there may be baptisms or baccalaureates, there may be funerals or other farewells. As we share our lives with one another, we are becoming a part of one another’s future memories.

That’s what Jesus seems to be saying as well in Luke’s gospel as he instructs the disciples in the use and the meaning of this meal. It’s as if he is already remembering the future, telling them that he won’t eat this meal again until they share this meal in the future; as though the very act of those who love him and follow him, sharing this meal with its command to remember, will bring Jesus into their future present, truly present and alive to them, and with them, and in them. In this way, we are all — every one of us — alive to each other forever. Our memory forming a solid bridge from the past to the present to the future.

There will surely be days ahead when you will feel betrayed by this community or members of it — perhaps there will be days when you will become aware of the ways that you have betrayed it, or the wider, more expansive body of Christ to which we belong. What will you do then? What can you do when you have been betrayed, when you have betrayed?

Jesus could have said, “Remember, you can’t trust anyone.” But he didn’t. Instead, he said this: my body, for you. My life, a covenant, a promise, with you and with all people. Remember that. 

That is the world I long to live in. A place I keep finding and forgetting. It is the memory of the possibility of that place that was promised to me when I was baptized and I am going to go back there someday. Today. Amen.

 

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 8, 2018: The Ordination of Allison Bengfort

The following sermon was preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago‘s Augustana Chapel on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Allison Bengfort, who was a student of mine when I was the pastor with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. Pastor Bengfort now serves St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wilmette, IL.

Texts: Exodus 3:1-12  +  Psalm 46  +  Romans 12:1-18  +  Luke 4:16-21

IMG_1892A few weeks ago, just before Thanksgiving, my husband and I took our dog and headed west to Galena, a former mining town that’s now pretty much a resort area near the Mississippi River. We picked the lodge where we stayed because it was dog-friendly, and we didn’t want to have to board our puppy for the weekend, but the thing I was most looking forward to was the wood-burning fireplace in our room.

I love fire. Maybe it’s just that I like to be warm. During the winter when I was a boy, I would sit in front of the heating vents in the dining room with a blanket wrapped around me and pressed up to the wall to make a tent and trap all the hot air. If she was nice to me, I’d let my sister join me. But fires aren’t just about the warmth they give off. They are powerful. The process of combustion allows us to cook our food, heat our homes, power our cars, generate electricity. It also poses a threat, think of all the Christmas trees drying out near burning candles this season, or the wildfires in California that devastated the land, incinerating homes and leading to the loss of just over a hundred lives. Fire, by its very nature, consumes.

4.12.18 Particulate Matter From California Wildfires Linked to Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Events

As we settled into our room, I immediately set to work building a fire in the fireplace. I stacked the wood perfectly on the wrought iron hearth, nestling smaller pieces of wood near the bottom, just above the rolls of newspaper I’d tucked below the bars. Once I was satisfied that I’d done everything right, I struck a single match and quickly lit the kindling, blowing lightly at the base of the quickly spreading fire to fan the flames. “One match,” I bragged to my husband, as the fire began to roar. I cracked open a book and settled into the comfiest corner of the living room sofa. It didn’t take long for my eyes to grow heavy, and for me to fall asleep.

Napping in front of the fireplace is exactly what I’d wanted out of that weekend. I’d arrived at the lodge feeling drier than the wood stacked in the corner of the room. I was dried out by the effort to keep up with all the work on my various to do lists. I was dried out by a news cycle that continuously fanned the flames of my despair and anger at the world as it is. I was dried out by a season of grief that was burning through every reserve of strength in me. I was being consumed.

IMG_1975The thought, therefore, of presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, is somewhat terrifying. Because I have to confess to you all that there have been times in my ministry when I have done this, when I have placed my life on the altar of my calling and watched it burn. There have been weeks when I barely saw my husband. There have been seasons in which I read nothing for pleasure. There have been years that flew by in which my focus was so singularly on the health and well-being of the church, that my own health and well-being suffered. Studies on clergy health offer me only the consolation that I am not alone in these bad habits.

Perhaps it’s gauche to talk about clergy burnout on the day of Allison’s ordination, but I prefer to think that I am holding true to the promises I made in my ordination, not to offer false security or illusory hope. To pretend that there is not a fire burning in the church and in the world would be both. There is a fire burning, across the church. When I began my ministry in Chicago a little over a decade ago, there were approximately 220 congregations in our synod. I don’t have the precise number in front of me, but I believe we’re closer to 180 now. That’s a 20% decline a decade. It’s not just us, the ELCA. The Pew Research Center, which has been reporting for years on demographic shifts in religious identity and practice, places our experience in the broader context in which Christian affiliation, particularly among young adults, is declining and the number of those who do not identify with any organized religion, Christianity or otherwise, is on the rise. 

As this fire continues to burn, all sorts of things are being consumed, not just the cherished buildings that can no longer be maintained, but traditions that no longer speak to new generations and assumptions about where and how people will choose to spend their time and money. Here at the seminary, it can feel like we’re preparing class after class of smokejumpers, parachuting into ecclesiastical wildfires all across the religious landscape, to bring life-giving water to people and places that can no longer even name the ways in which they are parched.

66719It is with heart and mind singed by these relentless temperatures that I find myself once again transfixed by the image from Exodus of Moses standing before the burning bush. When Moses first sees it, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

Yes, this is the miracle I need, in every part of my life, to observe a living thing, burning but not consumed. Could it be true? Could it be true for our world and our nation? Could it be true for our church and its congregations? Could it be true for my life and my future? Can a thing burn and not be consumed?

In his blessing to me and Kerry on the day of our wedding, my father offered the following insight about the power of combustion. He said,

“On the farm where I was raised, my father’s arc welder did its work by bringing close — but always with a critical space between — two highly charged points. The energy, light, and heat is generated by the difference between the two. May you trust the arc of power that is created today as you draw together in this marriage.”

What an important reminder. The arc of power that allows the welder to sustain its flame is directly related to the space between the two points. The difference between them. This is what Paul seems to be saying when he reminds us that we have gifts that differ, even as we are part of one body. That is true in marriage as well as in the church, and it is the source of the power that fuels each of them. For the arc welder to work, the points must separate — but not too distant. It’s a delicate balancing act, respecting our differences while maintaining our common bond. 

We are living in a time commonly described as being polarized. A recent report titled “The Hidden Tribes of America” summarizes research confirming what most of us intuitively sense: that in our public life, 

“we have become a set of tribes, with different codes, values, and even facts. In our public debates, it seems that we no longer just disagree. We reject each other’s premises and doubt each other’s motives. We question each other’s character. We block our ears to diverse perspectives. At home, polarization is souring personal relationships, ruining Thanksgiving dinners, and driving families apart. We are experiencing these divisions in our workplaces, neighborhood groups, even our places of worship. In the media, pundits score points, mock opponents, and talk over each other. On the Internet, social media has become a hotbed of outrage, takedowns, and cruelty — often targeting total strangers.”

Compare that lived experience with the advice Paul offers to the church in Rome:

“I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned … Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” (Rom. 12:3,9-11)

Paul continues on with prescription for the fever heat that burns through our body politic: bless, rejoice, weep, associate, live peaceably with all.

Allison, you chose a set of texts for this day that speak plainly about God’s vision for a world liberated and restored: the liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh, the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the incarcerated, and freedom for the oppressed. What I want you to hear today is this: God’s dream for the world is not a job description for pastors, though this vision does appear in another set of sacramental vows.

When you were brought to the font, and each time we affirm our baptism, we remember and renew our promise to live among God’s faithful people, to receive the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. We offer our lives as a sacrifice in service of God’s great love for the world, and we ask God to help and guide us. We all make these vows. All of us, together.

All of us, together. That is the only way this fire can burn bright enough to cast the hopelessness from our hearts, the only way this fire can burn hot enough to clear away the undergrowth and prepare the landscape for whatever seeds God is now planting for the future. All of us together, that is how we burn without being consumed. That is the good news already fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. All of us in, no one left out. 

There is power in fire, in the arc that spans the distance between people and tribes, between us and God. Today we pray for that power, that fire, to be poured out on Allison, to cover her without consuming her. We pray for the Holy Spirit to come, to warm our hearts, to bless this pastor, to restore the church, to flood the world.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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Sermons

Sermon: Saturday, December 1, 2018: The Ordination of Erin Coleman Branchaud

The following sermon was preached in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Erin Coleman Branchaud to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I served as Pastor Erin’s internship supervisor at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square for the 2016/’17 academic year, where she now serves as the called and installed pastor.

Texts: Ezekiel 2:8-3:4  +  Psalm 113  +  1 Corinthians 11:17-26  +  Luke 1:39-55

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Goddaughter Kai, with her Ninong Erik.

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving our god-daughter, Kai, and her moms flew in from New York to visit Kerry and I here in Chicago. Since her internal clock was still set to East Coast time, Kai would wake up extra early each morning and sneak into our bedroom to ask me if I was ready to come up and read with her. I’d mumble yes, and then turn back over in bed. If I was lucky, this bought me another ten minutes before she’d return. “Ninong (the Tagalog word for godfather), you said you’d come read with me!”

61y6jpnp7mlChildren’s literature has gotten edgier since I was Kai’s age, I think. I remember books like “The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree” and the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. By contrast, Kai kept handing me books like “I Dissent,” an illustrated biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and “She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World.” Each of these unabashedly political and progressive books had catch phrases that Kai relished saying over and over as we turned the pages. “I dissent!” and “She persisted!” have never sounded quite so sweet as when a girl of nearly seven is curled up in your lap shouting them with the kind of exuberance generally saved for ice cream and puppies.

It isn’t hard to guess the motives directing the selection of books Kai is consuming at this impressionable young age. As a mixed heritage, Filipina girl with two moms, Kai is going to encounter some heart-breaking ugliness in this world. It’s not a matter of if, but when, as a recent text message exchange with one of her moms foreshadowed.

“This morning your god-daughter asked ‘Who has it harder, women or Black people?” the first text read. Then the second, “I asked her what she thinks the answer is. She said, ‘just tell me, mama!’” I replied, “Did you say, ‘Black Women?’” (it’s never too early to teach them about intersectionality). The reply came back, “Of course!”

“Who has it harder?” is one of the questions floating in the background of nearly all the texts that Erin has selected for us to chew on this morning. When the psalmist imagines the LORD bending down to raise the weak from the dust and the poor from the mire, they are using poetry to describe structural oppression. When Paul chastises the community in Corinth for the ways that their worship simply repeats the patterns of humiliation that poorer members were already experiencing elsewhere in their lives, he is indicting not only their failure as a church, but the arrangement of power in the ancient world.

There is no more beautiful text, however, that at once holds together the pain of the world as it is with undying hope for the world as it will be than this gospel passage from Luke in which we hear Mary’s song, the magnificat. “You have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.” 

These ancient, holy words testify to the enduring reality of lament, mourning and anguish that humanity has suffered across all of time, the persistence of inequality and oppression, and yet also ring out with hope for the future rooted in the memory of all that God has done in the past and faith that God will continue to be true to God’s promises in the future.

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Pastor Erin Coleman Branchaud being installed as the pastor with St Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square.

It is the perfect text for this day, as we gather on the eve of Advent, at the cusp of a new year as the church reckons time, a new beginning, and as we prepare to lay hands on Erin Nicole Coleman Branchaud, to consecrate her for the ministry of word and sacrament as a pastor in Christ’s church. It is perfect because it captures both the challenge and the joy of Christian life for all who are baptized, the challenge of honestly naming who has it harder in a world that consistently confuses privilege with merit, and the joy of proclaiming the liberating power and presence of the God who is always coming into the world to bring new life to people and places left for dead.

Notice that I did not say this text captures both the challenge and joy of Christian life just for clergy, but for all who are baptized. There is a real temptation on days like today to hear the scriptures that have been selected as specifically directed at the person being ordained, when their original intent was to form and feed communities of faithful resistance to empire and the death-dealing powers of the world. The role of clergy within the church is not to carry out that work alone, on behalf of the congregation, but as the Augsburg Confession states, “that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel.” 

That is to be your role, Erin, as you carry out your ministry among God’s people as their pastor — to rightly preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. This is no small or simple task. Just listen to how the apostle Paul sets up the words of institution that we are so used to hearing each time we take part in the Lord’s Supper. It’s not enough for Paul to simply pass along to the church what he had first received from those who’d taught him, the story of how Jesus blessed and broke bread and wine with his disciples. No, first he has to tell the truth about what he has seen and heard in the world and in the church. First he has to draw out the practical and public, material and ethical consequences of the Lord’s Supper. First he has to underscore God’s solidarity with all the hungry, suffering people of the earth. Only then does the significance of this meal make any sense. Only then do the words, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” make any sense. To preach the gospel and administer the sacraments requires you to spend your life telling the truth about the reality of sin in this aching world. Only then can we clearly recognize our need for God’s liberating grace.

This is the meaning of this strange image from Ezekiel, who eats the scroll covered with words of woe, of lamentation and mourning, front and back. These are the words God needs spoken to God’s people. Not words of false security or illusory hope, but trustworthy words about the ways that we are all being harmed by this world, and even the ways that we are participating in that harm.

Erin, you have the gifts required for this calling. I know you told me not to talk about you, just to preach the gospel, but I have to say this to you today. You have a gift for telling the truth in ways that set people free. You possess a hard won courage that enables you to speak directly to people about where and how the world is broken in ways that invite commitment and resolve rather than passivity and despair. You are a preacher of the gospel. In your mouth, God’s word is as sweet as honey. 

And, if I may also take a moment of personal privilege — which I may, because you asked me to preach today — you are, as you know, being called to pastor a community that neither needs nor expects you to do this work alone. In the community of St. Luke’s you have found people who want to sing God’s song with you, who are eager to be part of God’s powerful, transformative, world-changing mission. Like Mary, they believed in what God could accomplish through them when such faith seemed foolish. Not only will they appreciate your gifts, they will be patient with your weaknesses. You can trust them with all that is messy and unresolved in your heart. I should know.

That’s why, the moment the news reached my ears that you and St. Luke’s had chosen each other, my heart leaped for joy! You are going to be a blessing to one another, and in your ministry together you will bless the world. 

Amen.

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