Seeing God in Ward 5B

(sermon 6/23/19)

aids quilt

View of approximately half of the National Mall in Washington DC, displaying the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, started in 1987 to celebrate the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Currently weighing over 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Each panel measures 3’x6′ and is made by loved ones of the victim. It currently occupies 1.3 million square feet, and can no longer be displayed in its entirety on the entire National Mall. It consists of more than 48,000 panels honoring more than 94,000 individuals. This is 14% of the total number of people who have died from AIDS in the United States alone.

1 Kings 19:1-15

Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return; and on your way, go by way of the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

 

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Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

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Maybe you could think of today’s sermon as a play in four acts, with each act dealing with finding and experiencing God in surprising and unexpected circumstances. The first act was our reading from the First Book of Kings. There, we see the prophet Elijah, who’s on the run. He’s just publicly humiliated the prophets of the god Baal – the god worshiped by the evil queen, Jezebel. As if publicly humiliating these prophets wasn’t enough, Elijah also killed them all, which would seem to be a bit excessive to anyone, and it was certainly seen as excessive to Jezebel, who swore to capture Elijah and give him a taste of his own medicine. So Elijah did what any reasonable person would do if their life was in danger in their own country – he fled across the border. Feeling that the whole world was against him, he trekked all the way to Mt. Horeb – which most of us probably know better as Mt. Sinai, where Elijah knew God had appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. Elijah knows the story: God appeared to Moses in a cloud, with thunder and lightning and wind and a loud booming voice – really, you know this; I know you’ve seen the movie. And Elijah has seen the movie, too, and so in the midst of his own crisis of faith, Elijah wanted to have a meeting with the boss now, too, as it were. He wanted to offer God a list of grievances and get some advice, and he figures this is the best place to find God. Well, as we heard, Elijah definitely got the big theatrics – wind, earthquake, fire – but ultimately, Elijah encounters God in a completely unexpected way – in the quiet. In the small, still voice, asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” along with the implied “Now quit complaining and get back to work.” Elijah encountered God in the way and place he least expected.

The second act in this play is our reading from Luke. Here, Jesus had gone to Capernaum, a favorite place of his and one that he knew well. On this particular trip, he got a request for help from a centurion in the Roman army. This man is essentially part of the muscle of the Roman Empire, imposing the Roman thumb on top of the local residents, keeping them in line and quiet and, most importantly, paying their taxes. By any measure, a Roman centurion wouldn’t ordinarily be seen as a friend of the townspeople, but apparently, this one was at least a bit different, having helped the people build a synagogue. So when the centurion seeks out Jesus’ help to heal a beloved slave who was near death, the townspeople told Jesus “Well, yes, he’s a Roman, but as Romans go he’s a decent one; you really should help him.” Of course, we heard about the centurion’s faith, the trust he placed in Jesus, telling Jesus he doesn’t even need to bother himself with coming all the way to the house. He trusted in Jesus’ power and authority such that he could just will the slave’s healing from wherever he was. And just as Elijah was shocked and surprised at how he experienced God’s presence, now Jesus was similarly shocked, seeing the presence of God so powerfully, and faith exhibited so strongly, and by a Gentile, a Roman occupier of all people. Incredible!

Scene three of this play takes place in much more recent times. Since today the Presbyterian Church recognizes World AIDS Awareness Sunday, this scene takes place in the mid-1980s, in and around Ward 5B of the San Francisco General Hospital. It was the first hospital ward dedicated to treating AIDS patients, even before it was even called AIDS, at the very beginning of the epidemic when very little was understood about the disease and when people were terrified, panicked. Into this scene, enter Ronnie. Ronnie was a gay man living in the Castro District of San Francisco. He had a slight build, and he dressed flamboyantly, and talked with a lisp and he had a limp wrist and his hips swished when he walked. Ronnie was basically a walking catalogue of all of the stereotypes that the general public had negatively held, assuming all gay people were like. Add to that the fact that Ronnie could be really nasty, catty, cynical, and frankly, even bitter – which was understandable, given the physical and emotional abuse that people had heaped upon him all his life. Unlike many gay men who could blend, who could pass as straight, passing was never an option for Ronnie. He couldn’t hide who he was, and he’d paid a heavy price for it. And Ronnie’s real hot button was religion. Mention God, or Jesus, or the Church to Ronnie and he would unload a barrage of profanity and obscenity on you like you’d never heard before, and he might even physically throw something at you. That was the result of being told his entire life by people inside the church that he was a terrible person, sinful pervert who was going to hell.

And then came AIDS. Ronnie started to see his friends and acquaintances getting sick – first just a couple, and then more, and then even more. It was maybe just a few dark blotches on their skin at first, but then they’d start losing weight, and a lot of weight, fast. They’d become gaunt, and weak, and over time blotches of Kaposi’s Sarcoma would cover their bodies, and still, no one really understood what was happening. At first, “gt was just called the “gay plague,” since it was predominantly, not exclusively but predominantly, appearing in the gay community. No one really knew what to do for them. A lot of people didn’t want to do anything for them, out of fear it was contagious and they’d get “it.” And frankly, a lot of other people didn’t want to help them simply because they were supposedly just a bunch of perverts who deserved to die anyway. It was God’s punishment and condemnation, according to Jerry Falwell and others.

Ronnie started to visit his sick friends and acquaintances in their homes – especially those whose families had long ago disowned them and even whose friends had now abandoned them; the ones who had no one else. Ronnie knew what it was like to be friendless and abandoned. Some of them he didn’t know well, if at all. Still, he helped them take their medications. He helped them eat, and get dressed, and get to the doctor’s. He bathed them, and he cleaned up after them after they’d lost control of their bodily functions. And when things got worse, and they always got worse, and they were admitted to Ward 5B, Ronnie spent hours visiting them there, too. He would bring them their trays when hospital orderlies refused to deliver food into the rooms, and he’d feed them when their skeletal arms were too weak to allow them to feed themselves. He listened to them when they could talk, even when their dementia caused them to speak nonsense, and he talked to them when he wasn’t even sure they could hear him. Ronnie actually had a remarkable singing voice, and sometimes he sang to them – maybe a Top 40 hit, or a disco favorite, or maybe a showtune. On a few occasions, when they’d asked him to, Ronnie even momentarily put aside his own hostility and sang some comforting old religious hymn that they’d both remembered from being in church as kids. Just as importantly as all that, Ronnie gave them the incredible gift of simple human touch. When others wouldn’t even come in the room, he held their hands, and stroked their cheeks, and brushed their hair, and in general let them know that someone cared. That they mattered. That even if everyone else in the world had abandoned them, there was still someone who loved them.

And when they died, and they always died – they always died, thirty or forty of his friends every single year – it was Ronnie who came up with the extra money the orderlies demanded just to their bodies; and it was him who fought and argued with funeral directors who refused to take the bodies, or who wanted to charge three or four or five times their normal fee to do so. And it was often Ronnie who ultimately got their box of ashes, too, because no one else would come to claim them. And it was him who spread their ashes out over someplace that had been special in their memories: out over a mountaintop, or into the sea, deep in a lush forest, and even a few times into the parking lot of their favorite dance club. And then, after that, he went back to Ward 5B and did it all over again.

Sometimes, you see the existence and the power and the holiness of God in the most surprising of people and situations. Even though he would have sworn at you if he’d heard you say it at the time, Ronnie was the very presence of God on Ward 5B.

Both of our Lectionary texts are reminders to us to always try to see the presence of God in the world. To be prepared to see the face of God in others, sometimes even in the people you might least expect it. In the Roman centurions of the world. In the Ronnies of the world

And that brings us to the fourth act. What is the fourth act of this play? Honestly, I don’t know yet. It’s up to you and me to write it, by way of our words and actionsover the course of this coming week, and all the weeks to follow – because you see, God doesn’t want us to just see God in unexpected places; we’re called to *be* God in unexpected places. Out of gratitude for the love that God has surrounded us with, to be the face of God, the face of Christ, to someone you encounter this week. Maybe someone completely different than you are, maybe someone you don’t even know well, or maybe someone you do know and frankly, you don’t even like, and you might think wouldn’t even appreciate the gesture. We live in very trying times, as you know, and we all need to see God’s presence in more of it. So this week, find some way to be the surprising encounter with God that *they* have this week. Elijah, and Jesus, and now even Ronnie, who is now enjoying the eternal reward that God had prepared for him before he was even born, would agree.

Thanks be to God.

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Why Trinity?

(sermon 6/16/19)

mellon memorial fountain

John 15:26 – 16:15

[Jesus said,] ”When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them. “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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Imagine being a congressman’s spokesperson, and on this particular day it’s your job to give the press a logical, rational, totally normal and explainable reason why the congressman had just been arrested by Capitol police drunk, naked, and dancing in a park fountain. If you can imagine that, you have some kind of an idea how pastors feel every year on this particular Sunday, Trinity Sunday, when we’re supposed to lift up and consider this most fundamental, absolute bedrock piece of orthodox Christian theology, and supposedly explain it and make it more understandable, make some sense out of it, without stepping into one heresy or another, which, honestly, is almost impossible.

As I said in the weekly email, the concept of the Trinity came out of the 4th century church trying to construct a rational, systematic way to harmonize what Jesus had taught about God, and himself, and the Holy Spirit, who he called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, or the Comforter; along with what the earlier scriptures had said about the nature of God.

Now, the whole idea of constructing a rational and systematic way of understanding something as irrational and un-systematic as the nature of God is a pretty daunting challenge, to put it mildly, I suppose these early church fathers did about as good a job as they could, or as good as anyone could, which is to say not very.  And yes, they were all church “fathers,” they were all men; that very fact alone shaped the solution they came up with, in ways that are still troublesome to us today. I wonder what the past two thousand years of Christian theology would have looked like if their church councils would have been more diverse, more representative, an even proportion of men and women, and from across a broader geographical and cultural spectrum. I wonder what a group like that would have come up with to try to explain the nature of God.

In any case, what they did come up with was essentially a set of propositions – a set of theological assertions that a person had to profess they believed about the nature of God in order to be considered a good or “true” Christian. There are a couple problems with this. The first is that some of these propositions are functionally illogical, so that when someone questions them, the only acceptable answer becomes “Yes, it’s an illogical mystery, but you just have to believe it, and that’s just the way it is;” which is hardly an answer that would satisfy many people, whether you’re a full-grown adult or a thirteen-year old Confirmand. The biggest problem, though, is that most of the people trying to explain God as a Trinity tended to focus on trying to explain the composition, the essence, the makeup, if you will, of these three persons, or identities, or ways-of-being-God; and the details of how they’re in relationship with one another. But I believe that what’s most important about the nature of a trinitarian God isn’t those points, but the far more basic point that they’re in a relationship at all. That in and of itself is incredibly important, because it can tell us a lot about ourselves. Getting a handle on the reality that God is, at God’s very core, by definition, a relationship, can teach us something important about what it really means to have been created in the “imago Dei,” the image of God.

A couple of weeks ago, the sermon touched on this relationship – I’d mentioned “perichoresis;” the all-important, inseparable relational bond among those three persons, identities, ways-of-being-God that those early church fathers termed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’d mentioned that this relationship was one all-focused on acts of love, through continuous acts of creation, reconciliation, and sustaining; all of them doing all of those things simultaneously with and through the others. And so, if an intense bond of love and relationship is the very nature of God, then that is still very important to us today, because being created in the image of God means then that we are created with the primary purpose of being in a similar relationship with the people around us. Our whole reason for being becomes doing all that we can to be in relationship with, and to reconcile with, and to sustain, to seek justice and peace for, all people. It isn’t just something nice that we can add on to whatever else it is that we might think is our real spiritual life; it *is* our spiritual life. It’s our  purpose for being here; it’s our “Job One.”

The concept of the Trinity gives us the answer to the question of what our purpose is; in essence, what the meaning of human life is. And because we know that Christ has taken care of the “vertical” relationship between us and God through his life, death, and resurrection; because we know that there’s nothing that we can do to work to achieve that; because we know that that’s a gift given to us entirely by God, that it’s God’s choice to do so; we now have freedom, we have liberation – we’re now free to focus on this “horizontal” relationship among all of us here. That’s our purpose. That’s our reason for being. In all of its shapes, that’s our call.

I want to be clear – I enjoy all of those deeper discussions and debates about the Trinity, and the nature of the three persons, and all of that as much as the next pastor. But maybe just for today, I want to suggest setting those debates aside, because frankly, it’s impossible to ever rationally understand the full nature of God, so no one can ever know the full truth and reality of those discussions anyway. So today, maybe just focus on that way of thinking about the Trinity that focuses on the idea of God being within a relationship of love – that God, by definition, then, *is* a relationship, one that continuously creates, reconciles, and sustains, out of a deep love and desire for peace and justice for all in the relationship – and that means that we should be, too. Focusing on the Trinity like that can be a huge relief. It should make you happy. It night even make you joyful, maybe ecstatic even. But if it goes that far, just make sure you don’t end up singing and dancing in a park fountain somewhere – and if you do, at least keep your clothes on.

Thanks be to God.

Can You Only Imagine?

(sermon 6/9/19 – Pentecost Sunday)

pentecost-painting2

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

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This morning, we remember an event that changed the world forever. Today, Pentecost Sunday, we remember the day that Jesus’ first followers made a radical shift in their mindset, going from people still often hiding behind locked doors, and when not doing that, at very least trying to not draw attention to themselves – not even the resurrection, and seeing the risen Jesus had changed that – to now being people who were literally out in the street, speaking all these languages, and proclaiming the same message that Jesus had proclaimed, the same message that had gotten him killed.

So what was it that caused such a dramatic, and dangerous, change in direction? Well, since we’ve all heard this story so many times, we know the easy answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And that’s true, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think that before the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the disciples first had to have time to come to terms with what all had happened, and what it all really meant. Over the better part of two months, they gradually came to understand the significance of Jesus having been killed by the powers that be. Long before anyone ever considered the idea that Jesus had to die in order to pay some debt that we owed for our sins that God demanded and we couldn’t pay ourselves – long before any medieval theologians wrote about that, even long before the apostle Paul  talked about Jesus’ death in those terms – what these first believers focused on wasn’t the idea that Jesus’ death was necessary for some cosmic business transaction with God, but rather, that Jesus’ death was the direct result of what he’d said, and taught, and done during his life. Those in positions of power, and the people who benefited from that power, saw Jesus’ message as a direct challenge to their places of power and comfort – and they were right.

So when the Spirit did come, these disciples had had the time to process all of this, and then, having been emboldened by the Spirit, they went out into the streets telling the people gathered there that Jesus’ resurrection was God’s validation of what he had proclaimed and done – that even though his opponents had tried to silence him, his message was too big and too true for even death to keep him. As he spoke to that crowd, in this part that we read today and as it continues beyond where we stopped, Peter framed the significance of Jesus’ death precisely in the context of his life – and how his message had been one of God’s love and favor for all people, especially those who were being treated unjustly by those in places of power and privilege – the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the forgotten or ignored – a message that was completely at odds with what Peter called “this corrupt generation,” and it was that, he told them, that they needed to repent for and be saved from.

So to summarize, in the time from the resurrection to Pentecost, Peter and the other disciples had had sufficient time to consider and start to understand the meaning of it all, and then the Spirit gave them the ability and the desire and the courage to catch God’s vision and run with it.

Two thousand years later, with every new person and every new generation, we’re continually re-learning and re-catching the vision that God has for us, and we’re running with it, too. And yes, honestly, sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes it takes us a long time – sometimes a very long time – to back up and get it right. But the fact remains that God is speaking into all of our hearts, giving us time to discern and understand, and giving us the Spirit to dwell within us just as was the case with those first disciples, enabling us to catch God’s vision for us, and in our own time and place, and run with it, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately within the context of our own congregation – how this congregation has grown and changed from its origins, when the congregation was mostly made up of potato farmers who primarily decided to build their own church here just so they wouldn’t have to use the toll road to get to church on Sunday mornings. We’re so much different from that now. In fact, we’re different now than we were even just 20 years ago. We’re more involved in mission initiatives than we were in the past, we’re involved in social justice work, our involvement with immigrants and refugees has expanded. We’re building houses with Habitat, we’re working for creation care and decreasing our own congregational carbon footprint, and yes, you called a pastor who even ten years ago, you would never have even considered. Later this week, members of our congregation will go downtown and be part of a protest march led by the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, to protest the unjust cash bail system and call for its elimination, and just a couple days later, members of Springdale, for the third year in a row, will show that we’re a welcoming and affirming church by taking part in the Gay Pride parade. Can you imagine that?

The truth is, we’re doing so many things that I don’t have time to mention this morning, and each of them are ways that we offer witness to, and work to advance, that gospel proclaimed by Jesus that was too big and too true for death to silence it. In all likelihood, in the next few weeks we’ll sign on as part of the denomination’s “Matthew 25” initiative, which asks congregations to focus over the coming year on at least one way of working in the world to either “1.) build congregational vitality; 2.) dismantle structural racism; or 3.) eradicate systemic poverty.” And then, at the end of the year, to submit a brief report about our experiences. If anything, our biggest challenge here will be deciding which one of the many things we do to report about.

There’s no question that our congregation has caught God’s vision. Can you only imagine where that vision will take us in even just the next five years?

And beyond the idea of our congregation catching the vision – can you only imagine where God will lead you, personally, in that same timeframe? Pentecost is a great time to think about that – to carve out some time in your busy schedule to think about what Jesus’ life, his message, his teachings, really means in your own life. How does that change how you’d be living otherwise?

And most importantly – where do you see God’s Spirit leading you? What is God’s vision for you now? Where, and what, is God drawing you toward, and realize that in all likelihood, that be a very different direction from where it was just a handful of years ago.

Can you only imagine – what amazing, and yes, sometimes scary, but always wonderful things, does God have in store for you, and you, and you, and me, tomorrow? Next month? Next year? Whatever it is, and wherever it leads, you can rest assured that God will always be walking that journey with us, leading us, comforting us, challenging us, inspiring us, and emboldening us, and all of that coming out of the unimaginable, unending love that God has for us. And that’s good news, whatever language you hear it in.

Gracias a Dios.