Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, November 29, 2017: Reign of Christ (transferred)

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24  +  Psalm 95:1-7a  +  Ephesians 1:15-23  +  Matthew 25:31-46

“What I think, is that this is hell,” is what my sister told me.

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Me and Tara, ca. 1985. Arriving in the United States from Thailand.

By this point, I’d already gone to seminary. So it occurred to me, in the moment, that my sister was articulating a very present eschatology. By this point, she’d been living with a dual-diagnosis of persistent mental illness and mild developmental delay for a few years. She’d experienced the primal wound of being abandoned by her birth mother, raised in a foster home for the first six years of her life, and then torn from the land of her birth by loving, well-intentioned people who, nevertheless, did not look like her, or speak her language. By this point, my sister, Tara, who is Thai by birth and gifted with beautiful, lustrous brown skin, had experienced a childhood filled with racism both ignorantly casual and pointedly vicious. She had spent years running away from home, running toward danger. She’d been exposed to the violence that comes with life on the streets. She’d been beaten, she’d been exploited, and when she turned to the police in a life-or-death moment looking for help escaping the horrors of her immediate surroundings, they’d taken one look at her and saw only a disheveled, disorganized, dirty, brown-skinned girl with a funny way of talking and they told her to get lost, as if she wasn’t already.

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Tulips, breaking through topsoil.

So we were talking, she and I, about resurrection, and what hope we may have for the future, for a life better than the ones we’d known. I was talking to her about the miracle of tulips, which seem to die over and over, only to break free from the earth again and again to show their beauty in their frailty. And that’s when she told me, “what I think, is that this is hell.”

So, my reflection on this passage from Matthew has to start there, in hell, though the text itself does not use that word. This scene of final judgment, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, is “the only scene with any details picturing the last judgment in the New Testament.”[1] Here we hear Jesus speaking in the voice of the ruler of heaven and earth seated on a cosmic throne before all the nations, rendering a judgment that addresses each person, each of us, on the basis of how we have responded to the human beings in our midst who are experiencing on a daily basis the depth of the hells this world has to offer: hunger, thirst, hostility to all that is strange or foreign or different, the bare naked exposure of poverty, the wretchedness of disease and illness, the graceless confines of our retributive justice and our merciless prison industrial complexes. In this scene of final judgement, the Lord of the universe says nothing about people’s personal sentiments, or public proclamations. The Lord gives no consideration to who you have claimed as your “personal Lord and savior.” The Lord of time focuses, like my sister, on the present and the fires to which we have consigned each other and asks what we have done for those whose daily reality is a burning hell.

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Illustration of St. Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Britain, 8th century.

I haven’t always known quite what to do with the festival of the Reign of Christ at the end of each liturgical year. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunity it provides for us to consider the distinctive voice of the synoptic gospel assigned to the year now ending. For this last year, it has been the Gospel of Matthew. So we have been hearing the good news of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in a recognizably Matthean mode. Matthew’s theological world draws us into a recognition of the reign of God in clear opposition to the reign of Satan; it is the only gospel to speak explicitly of the “church” as a description for the community of believers, and so it invites us to give consideration to what we think the church is and who is part of it; it insists that Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolishment of it, and in doing so it ties the ethical life of those who follow Jesus to the ethical demands of the prophets of Israel. Then there is the thorny matter of Matthew’s relationship to the rest of Judaism, as this gospel preserves the memory of a religious community divided within itself over the nature of the covenant, the revelation of the messiah, and the imperative of the present moment to acknowledge and respond to what God is doing now in human history.

These themes and tensions are always with us, and I was reminded of that fact as I read and re-read the Boston Declaration, a theological statement released last Monday at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that publicly calls out American Evangelicalism for the ways that it has stoked the fires of a very real and present hell for millions of “the least of these” who suffer under the tyranny of intersecting ideologies of oppression that have interlaced racism, colonialism, and environmental degradation in ways that have created a living hell for the peoples of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the US territories; that have privileged and prioritized profits for gun manufacturers over the lives of human beings; that have supported the violent hetero-patriarchy evident in the daily revelations of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse by men against women and girls in workplaces and in homes; that has scapegoated Jewish people, Muslim people, Black and Brown people, and Queer people for the sins of White Christian Patriarchy; for elevating the economic appetites of nations by respecting national borders more than the lives of those who cross them as immigrants or refugees from the living hells created by those very same nations.

The stark and unapologetically divisive nature of the Boston Declaration very much reminds me of the stark and unapologetically divisive nature of this scene from Matthew of the final judgment in which all the nations are gathered before God and the people are surprised once more to hear that God takes sides. That our apathy and misconduct cannot be dismissed or justified by our claims to ethnic or national or religious exceptionalism.

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“The Last Judgment” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1395-1455

We all recoil from this scene, or should if we are in the least bit self-aware. The on-going presence of hunger and thirst, violence and poverty, malicious neglect of the ill and obscene incarceration of our neighbors who are, in fact, our siblings, indicts us all as complicit in the dominion of “the devil and his angels.” (Mt. 25:41) And it simply will not do to dismiss our discomfort with reminders of our Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith; to let ourselves off the hook with reminders of God’s unceasing mercy, because it is God who addresses us here. It is God who speaks these words of judgment.

So we are left to grapple with the purpose and function of this eschatological vision and the tensions it produces. It is a tension that brings me back to my sister’s own declaration: “What I think, is that this is hell.” A very present eschatology, not unlike, I think, Jesus’s own eschatology. After all, it is in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt. 4:17) This is Matthew’s Christology, that Jesus brings the reign of God, the fulfillment of God’s promises in the past, into the present moment with consequences for all of human life, for all of creation, here and now. Now is the moment of judgment. Now is the assurance that God does, in fact, take sides. Now is the promise that the hells in which we are burning cannot stand against the waters of the Christ into whom we are baptized. Now is the moment of our salvation. Now, not in the words we say or the identities we claim, but in the acts of lovingkindness we perform for one another, for the needless misery we relieve, for the welcome we offer, for the liberation we effect. Now. Now. Now.

Hell is not a threat of future punishment by our God. It is now. Or at least that’s what I heard when I listened to my sister, one of the least of these, and I believe her. What do you suppose might happen if you, if all of us, believed the voices of the women and girls, of the strangers and foreigners, of the masses that are incarcerated, of the legions of the sick and dying, of those who hunger and thirst?

A final word before I say goodbye to Matthew for a couple more years:

We struggle with the vitriol Matthew voices against those he calls “the Jews” because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, which the Boston Declaration rightly both laments and condemns. In its own context, however, what Matthew gives witness to is an intra-religious conflict among people who understood themselves as belonging to the same faith, yet who still drew very different conclusions about what God was doing in the present moment and what their faith required of them as a result. Here, again, the Boston Declaration provides a timely example. We might wonder what this present moment will look like two thousand years from now to those who have the advantage of that perspective, who will be able to look back and see what this one group called Mainline Protestants said about another group called American Evangelicals. We cannot know how these divides will deepen, or heal. Perhaps we will continue to drift away from one another to such an extent that we can no longer even recognize ourselves as belonging to the same religion.

Here Matthew shows us the righteousness of God, in that, no matter how much Matthew the evangelist might wish to claim superiority over the other sects of Judaism on the basis of his theological declarations, in the end God once again confounds our ideas of righteousness by disrupting the borders we draw around nations, tribes, religions, identities by lifting up those who do what is needed to meet the needs of the wounded neighbor, the suffering sibling.

We, too, should hear this word: that God cares less for our Boston Declarations than for our actual presence with those who suffer. God cares less about the accuracy of our theological ideas than the impact of our public witness. Just as fifty years of dialogue with the Roman Catholic church has led us to a new commitment to shared acts of proclamation and service, we might imagine and should already be looking for ways to heal the rifts that divide us from the very people we now condemn. For surely, in the moment of judgment that is always already happening, we will discover once again that we are all a part of the same family, that we all bear Christ to one another, that we are all standing before the throne of God, and that we are all in this together.

Amen.

[1] “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible, v.8, p.455 (1995: Abingdon Press)

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, December 30, 2012: First Sunday after Christmas Day

Texts:  1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26  •

In his video commentary introducing the bible study series Manna and Mercy, Alan Storey, a Methodist pastor from South Africa, presents the story of another young pastor, Dave, and the lesson his son taught him about what happens when people lose their Jesus.  This young pastor recounts a day at the playground with his four-year old child:

Video Introduction to “Manna & Mercy”

So when my son was about four years old one day I said, “let’s go to the park.”  He asked, “can I bring my Bible?” I said, “sure.” So I put my books in a bag and he put his Bible in a bag and we came to the park.

I sat on a bench and read for a while, and he played with a little girl.  I looked up after about 30 minutes or so, and I saw that he was on top of the jungle gym and the little girl was down below, playing in the mulch.  He had his Bible in a tote bag, and he was aiming at her head through the bars of the gym.  He dropped it and it fell and hit her in the head, and she started wailing and her mom got up and came over and I got up and came over.  Her mom said, “oh, it’s OK, it’s just an accident.  I said “no, I saw what happened, it wasn’t an accident.”

So I called my son down and he came up to me, kind of sheepishly, and I said to him, “Leo, the Bible is an important book, and if you’re going to use it as a weapon and hurt people with it, then I’m not going to let you have it.  So I took his Bible and I put it in my bag.  He looked at me for a few minutes.  I could see the gears working in his head, and he twisted up his face in fury and said, “you can’t take God’s word away from me!”  And every parent, and every child… it was complete silence in the park.  Everyone was looking at us, and he gave me the worst tongue-lashing a four year old has ever given me.  He said, “you’re supposed to be a preacher!  You’re supposed to teach people about God, not take the Bible away from them!” and on and on.  So I said, “if you’re throwing a tantrum, we’re going to have to leave.”

So, as we were walking out of the park, this little ten year old boy was holding open the gate for us, and he was looking at us as we walked by, and Leo was shouting at me, “you wicked, wicked man!  You can’t keep me from learning about God!”  And the little boy was just looking at me, his eyes were as big as dinner plates, and thinking, “what kind of man is this, that would take the Bible away from a child?”

I think Leo and I both learned a lesson that day.  I hope that he learned that you’re not supposed to use the Bible as a weapon, and I learned that, when you tell people that, they get mad at you.

“You can’t take God’s word away from me!” the boy shouted.  Less than a week ago we gathered in this sanctuary on Christmas morning to celebrate the nativity of our Lord, the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh.  We have been waiting so long for this child, this Word, this light shining in the darkness, so it’s completely understandable that we may have grown possessive of him.  It’s true, you can’t take God word away from God’s people, but that doesn’t mean you won’t lose your Jesus from time to time.

images-10I don’t remember the first time I noticed my Jesus was missing, but I remember one of them.  I was a year or two out of college, and I’d stopped going to church.  After I’d come out, I assumed that Jesus and the church didn’t have much good news for me and people like me in the LGBTQ communities.  Then I stumbled across a book by Robert Goss, a former Jesuit priest who’d earned a doctorate in Comparative Religion from Harvard University and was a member of ACT-UP and Queer Nation, both radical LGBTQ organizations who came to prominence at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the late 80s.  The book was titled, “Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto.”

Standing in the aisle of a gay bookstore in Boston, I thumbed through its pages wondering to myself, “what do these words even mean, ‘Christology’ and ‘liberation theology’ and why haven’t I ever heard them before?”  I’d spent my whole childhood in church.  I was sure I knew exactly who Jesus was.  He was the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died for my sins and the sins of the world.  He didn’t discriminate against women or Samaritans, he healed the sick, and he was often in trouble with the church.  But here was this book by a priest and a scholar who put Jesus’ name next to the names of radical and non-religious queer organizing communities mobilizing people with AIDS for power and change as if the two naturally belonged together.  I felt a little dizzy.  Where had my Jesus gone?

Have you ever lost your Jesus?  Can you recall how disorienting it was?  It happens all kinds of ways.  Sometimes, like with me, we lose our understanding of who he is.  We hear new interpretations of the meaning of his life and ministry, or his death and resurrection, and it feels like everything we’d been taught before has become untrustworthy.  Sometimes it’s our ability to feel his presence, his nearness, as we pray — once taken for granted, but now lost and confusing, even terrifying.  Sometimes we lose our Jesus because we’re simply surrounded by too many other voices, and we can’t hear Jesus above the din of so many other “content streams” — news, entertainment, the workplace, the marketplace, the streets.

Mary and Joseph had an annual holiday tradition not so different from the one many of us have just celebrated.  Each year at Passover they would travel in a group from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  Though the mode of transportation and the terrain were completely different, I suspect some features of holiday travel haven’t changed that much.  You pack and repack the donkey or the car.  You double-check to make sure you’ve remembered all the gifts for all the people you plan to see and stay with while you’re away from home.  You make sure there’s food for the road and toys or travel companions to keep you occupied throughout the journey.

It was on their way home, after the holiday, on a day like today, that they realized they hadn’t actually seen Jesus in a while.  They’d been so busy with the packing and the gifting and the eating, but when they stopped and took inventory, they realized they didn’t know where Jesus was.  They’d lost their Jesus.

Church people like to notice that when Jesus is found, he’s found in the church.  I think it’s good that we notice this, and I think it’s helpful for us to remind ourselves and one another that when your Jesus is lost, a good place to look is the church.  We’ve got the stories, and the histories, and the sacraments, and the small groups.  We work hard to foster as many meeting places as we can for each of us to encounter Jesus once again in the ways he reliably shows up: in the Word — read, preached and sung; and in the sacraments — touching our skin and filling our stomachs.

We should also note, though, that when Jesus is found in the church he is listening and asking questions.  The learned people of the temple, the ones who — like me, and maybe you as well — thought they already knew the whole story, are amazed at how his listening and his questions bring new ideas and understandings and possibilities to light.  This is a reminder to all of us, but particularly to those of us called to teach, that the Spirit needs our silence as well as our voices, so that questions can be asked and people can be listened to.

I think finding Jesus is a life-long process.  I don’t think we ever truly get there, or get it right.  When we start to think we’ve got Jesus nailed down, then we start to drop him on other people like that young boy on the playground.  Our answers and our understandings become leaden and freighted down with our own histories and hurts.  They can even injure those we try to share them with.

But losing Jesus is a life-long process too, and one I think we’re called to risk over and over again.  It was confusing and disorienting for me to discover that the Jesus I knew as a child had, somehow and somewhen, gotten mixed up with a community of HIV-positive radicals, even atheists!  I kept reading, finding more and more words I didn’t understand, until finally I had to call one of my childhood pastors and ask her to explain them to me.  She told me there was an entire field of religious studies concerned with the many ways people understand the meaning of Jesus, called “Christology,” a topic within the larger field of systematic theology.  She suggested that I might enjoy studying the topic more deeply, perhaps at a seminary.  I wasn’t ready to hear that quite yet, but a seed planted many years before got some fresh water that day.

We all need to lose our Jesus from time to time, even our religion.  I think Jesus knows that.  Perhaps it’s even why he wanders off from time to time, leaving our prayers unanswered, our spirits restless, our minds troubled, our hearts yearning.  Because in missing him, we begin the process of looking, and once we begin to look we are more open to what we may yet discover.

Amen.

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Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, September 9, 2012: Season of Creation — Humanity Sunday

Texts:  Genesis 1:26-28; 2:7-8,15,19  +  Psalm 8  +  Philippians 2:1-8  + Mark 10:41-45

Good morning to you all.  If you worship here at St. Luke’s with us at all regularly, you’ve probably noticed that our assembly is a little larger than usual this morning.  If you haven’t noticed that, you’re probably among the group of people who are here this morning to celebrate with Justin Dluzak and his family his great achievement in earning the rank of Eagle Scout.  Welcome to you all, to Troop 115 in particular, and thank you for all of the ways you are exercising careful and faithful stewardship of our most precious natural resource — our children.

So, let’s do see a show of hands.  How many people in the room this morning are Boy Scouts?  How about Girl Scouts?  And how many of you are Eagle Scouts, or Gold Award Girl Scouts?

Alright.  Now, how many of you are Christians?  And how many of you are really good Christians?  It feels like a trick question, doesn’t it?  We’re not even sure such a category exists, but if it does, we’re fairly certain we don’t get to put ourselves in it.  There are no Christian merit badges or ranks.  There is only baptism and discipleship.  Confession and forgiveness and fellowship at the table of the Lord’s Supper.

Still, we long to know that we’re on the right track, that we’re doing the right things, that we’re getting ahead.  Each fall the students go back to school, they advance a grade, they show progress toward goals with the hope of graduation — from grade school, from high school, from college, from grad school.  Each year a new batch of people enter the workforce, get a foot in the door, get promoted, get tenure, receive a call, make partner.  We work hard to get ahead.  We judge our progress by the rate at which we advance, by the ways we set ourselves apart, above, each other.

It seems to be hardwired into us, the desire to distance and distinguish ourselves from each other.  Even the disciples struggled with a sense of competitive ambition.  The reading from the gospel of Mark this morning seems to begin mid-sentence, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (Mk. 10:41)  Here’s what’s happened.

James and John, brothers and disciples of Jesus, have just heard Jesus teaching on the cost of discipleship. First a rich young man approaches Jesus to ask him what must be done to inherit eternal life.  The inquirer tells Jesus he has already done everything required by the law, and Jesus tells him to go beyond what is required to what is needed.  He says, “you lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21) The people are shocked by his teaching, and they begin to ask each other, “then who can be saved?” (Mk. 10:26)

But Peter, a leader among the disciples, points out to Jesus, “look, we have left everything and followed you.” (Mk. 10:28) In reply, Jesus offers the strange reassurance, “truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mk. 10:29-31)

This is not a clear system of reward and promotion.  This is an HR director’s nightmare.  Jesus says that the life of discipleship reverses the expectations of hard work and advancement.  There is no Eagle Scout court of honor for those who follow the LORD.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.  As they continue along the road, Jesus pulls the twelve aside and says to them, “See, we’re going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mk. 10:33-34)

And it’s at this moment, after Jesus has taught the crowds that the cost of discipleship is absolute, after he’s shared with the disciples that he is leading them along the road that ends at the cross, it’s at that moment that James and John step forward and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mk. 10:35)  And Jesus asks what it is that they want.  They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mk. 10:37)

It’s such a painfully awkward moment, made all the more painful because of how recognizable it is.  James and John may seem deaf to Jesus’ teaching and oblivious to their surroundings, but no more than most of us.  We, who come to church week after week, who labor hard to live a good life, still torture ourselves and each other trying to get ahead, when Jesus is inviting us to get behind.  To get behind our children.  To get behind our co-workers.  To get behind our neighbors.  To get behind each other, and — particularly during this season of creation — to get behind the Earth.

It may seem odd that we celebrate a “Humanity Sunday” during this season of creation in which the surrounding Sundays have names like “Planet Earth Sunday,” “Sky Sunday,” “Mountain Sunday,” and “Animals Sunday.”  We are conditioned to think of ourselves, to imagine ourselves, as being set apart from the rest of creation.  How can we be like the planet?  It is a place and we are people.  How can we be like the sky or the mountains?  They are inanimate and we are alive. How can we be like the animals?  They act on instinct and we act on reason.  Aren’t we set apart from all these thing?  Don’t they exist for our benefit, not we for theirs?

That is the way many of us have been taught to understand even our own creation stories.  That God created the world as some kind of garden paradise for our own benefit, and gave us dominion over it, to do with as we pleased.  Students of the bible know that Genesis doesn’t just give us one creation story, but two, and that the stories can’t — and aren’t intended to be — synchronized into one.  You hear clips from both stories this morning.  In Genesis 1, the first story, God tells humanity to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28) over it.  In Genesis 2, the second story, God puts humanity in the garden “to till it and keep it,” (Gen. 2:15) though this is perhaps not the best translation of the Hebrew, which could also read “to serve and preserve it.”  Either way, the difference between the first story and the second is the difference between getting ahead and getting behind.  Is the Earth here to serve us, or us it?  What does it mean to be a human, created in the image and likeness of God?

It is to this point that Paul addresses himself as he writes to the church in Philippi.  For Paul, the cost of discipleship has been imprisonment, and it is from prison that Paul writes this letter to a community he cares for deeply and whose generosity is remembered not only by Paul but in the book of Acts as well.  The verses we read this morning are considered by some as the beginnings of the field of theology known as Christology, or reflection on the person of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.  Because Paul’s letters are, in fact, older than the gospels themselves, we believe that what we read here in Philippians is the early Church’s emerging understanding of who Jesus was in relation to God.  Paul writes,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:3-8)

This is what we hope it means to be a Christian, or an Eagle Scout for that matter, which is why I asked Justin to read this passage this morning.  It is our hope that in recognizing him before this congregation, his family and friends and his peers, we are not simply rewarding hard work, but also recognizing a set of values that run counter to the ones that too often prevail in the world around us.  Jesus recognizes as much when he says,

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”(Mk. 10:42-45)

We aren’t just celebrating the culmination of a series of merit badges, but affirming a childhood spent developing qualities of character — trustworthiness, loyalty, obedience, bravery, reverence and all the rest.  The badges earned along the way were markers of growth into a pattern of life capable of sustaining these traits, traits that the world needs, that the very planet needs during this time of ecological crisis.

And while we celebrate Justin’s achievements this morning, these traits are not reserved for him alone.  You are all laboring to get behind one another, in your homes and in your workplaces.  We are still small enough as a community to know each other’s stories well. We know that among us are those who have been wiping noses and changing diapers, and there are those who have been sitting at bedsides, keeping watch during dying days.  We know that there are those who been laboring to find work, and those who have been working on behalf of those who labor.  We know that there are servants scattered all among us, patiently, quietly, faithfully serving our neighbors, in hospitals, in schools, on the bread line.

Dear friends, you are good Christians, which doesn’t mean that you are perfect, or puffed up with the pride of contraband works righteousness.  It simply means, you are the baptized people of God, welcomed at this font, fed at this table, gathered and sent for the sake of God’s world.  Together, we are the ones who get ahead by getting behind, and we continue to learn how to do this together; good by the grace of God who created all things and gazed on them and called them good; taught by the one who makes us one, Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom lordship takes the form of service to all creation.

Justin, we congratulate you on your significant achievement this day and we pray that in your life you will continue to show us and to lead us into deeper service to our neighbors and the whole creation.

In the name of Jesus,

Amen.

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