Cat’s in the Cradle (sermon 9/11/16)

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Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”  – Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (NRSV)

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That was it – he’d finally had enough. For years, he’d put up with his son’s nonsense, hoping he’d eventually straighten up and come around, but it hadn’t happened – if anything, he’d actually gotten worse. Irresponsible. Lazy. Spending money like a drunken sailor. Out all night, sleep all day, never buckling down and helping with the family business. Why couldn’t he be at least a little bit more like his older, more responsible brother? And now, in the latest of countless arguments, his younger son said, “Why don’t you just give me my share of things here, and I’ll get out of your hair – I’ll leave here and never look back!” And in the heat of the moment, he yelled “If that’s what you want, fine!” So he made arrangements to do just that. He gave the boy the money, turned his back, and walked away. He’d done everything he could; he couldn’t have expected to reasonably do anything more. That was that. As far as he was concerned, he’d washed his hands of the situation. The boy was on his own. As far as he was concerned, the boy was as dead to him as he was to the boy. And that was just fine with him.

But as the years wore on, he realized that it really wasn’t that simple. In spite of himself, his heart ached for his son. With the perception that only time brings, he’d realized that there was plenty enough blame on both sides of their dispute, and even though they were very different people, he recognized that the stubbornness that he saw in the boy that was so frustrating was really just a mirror image of his own. As time wore on, he realized that when the boy left, a piece of himself had died. He’d been diminished by it. The man never felt complete again after the son had left. He’d have done anything to have his son back, and to make amends, to heal the rift between them. But since he didn’t know where the boy was, or if he was even alive at that point, he didn’t see how that would ever happen. So he spent day after day living this painful partial life, wishing that things could be different.

And then that fateful day happened – from out of nowhere, he saw his son walking down the road, headed for the house. He was so excited to see him that he ran out to meet him, yelling out to him, looking like a wild man in all his undignified glory, welcoming him back with open arms, forgiving him for whatever he’d done in the past, and even apologizing for his part in the split. And later on, when his older son criticized him for making such a fool of himself by welcoming this troublemaker back, the old man said that it was like the son had been dead, but had come back to life – and in his heart, he knew that the same thing was just as true about himself.

Today’s gospel text is one of Jesus’ most well-known parables. And from the earliest times that we’re taught about it, we’re told that the father in the story represents God. And we then assume that if the father is God, then in the story the father is totally good, and blameless, and his actions are totally honorable – after all, how else could God be? We’re told that the son represents us, and that in Jesus’ time, it would have been a shocking, unthinkable insult for the son to have asked for his inheritance up front, and that that represents how offensive our sin and shortcomings are to God. And we’re told that the wild, undignified, unjustifiable way the father ran out to greet the younger son, and all the things that the father lavishes on the son, represent the full, extravagant, illogical forgiveness and grace that God extends to us. And finally, we’re told that the older son who stands up against the father, and who says that the forgiveness and welcome extended to the older son is inappropriate and uncalled for, represents those of us who get too wound up in moralism and legalism, and who don’t fully appreciate the nature of God’s grace, and who would withhold it from others. That’s the way the parable is usually understood.

But that’s the funny thing about parables – they can often be read and understood in any number of different ways, they’re deliberately ambiguous, and that allows them to speak to any number of different situations, and in different ways. In this case, Jesus doesn’t give us any definitive explanation of some single way that the parable is supposed to be understood. And while the traditional way of understanding the parable is a good one, it does require us to fill some missing blanks in the story, and to make certain assumptions about the characters, in order to get that message. But what if we look at the same parable a different way? What if we fill in the missing details in a slightly different way, and assign different identities to the characters in the story?

What if the father doesn’t represent God, but rather, us – either “us” individually, or collectively, as the church? If the father isn’t God, it’s easier to accept the idea that the father might have been just as much to blame for the friction between him and the younger son, as the son was himself. That makes it easier for us to hear this parable as maybe a message of reconciliation, but not reconciliation between God and us, but rather, between us and us. It makes it easier for us to see that reconciling with one another, and healing old wounds, and apologizing for our own complicity in those situations, even at the cost of our dignity and sense of being completely in the right, is extremely important in God’s eyes.

Is that an equally acceptable way to think about this parable, compared to the way we typically look at it? I think so. I know that the idea of reconciliation was so important to Jesus that at another place in the gospels, in Matthew, he tells his followers that even if they’re in the Temple, standing at the altar and ready to give their offering, and they remember that there’s a rift between them and their brother or sister, that they should stop what they’re doing immediately, leaving their offering right there, and go reconcile with the other person first, before even making the offering – maybe even suggesting that that’s the more pleasing offering to God.. That would certainly make people stare. It would be pretty undignified. And yet, it’s what Jesus recommends. Reconciliation is just that important to God.

I suspect that there isn’t a person here this morning who doesn’t have some kind of rift between themselves and some other family member or friend. Maybe you’re convinced you’re right and they’re wrong. Maybe you recognize that in an argument no one is purely right and no one is purely wrong. Maybe the rift has gone on for so long, you can’t even remember how it all started. Whatever the case, allowing ourselves to hear this parable in this alternative way can lead us to ask some questions of ourselves: How might God be speaking into the issue, into our hearts, to try to make peace, to achieve reconciliation between us and people we’re estranged from? How can we allow our hearts and minds to be open, and to keep our pride in check, to be willing to not just forgive the wrongs of the other person, but also to humbly apologize for the hurt and harm that we’ve caused in the situation?

And how do we do the same thing as the church? There are all sorts of people and groups that the church has hurt over the course of its history. In our last General Assembly, we heard apologies made to Native Americans, who we hurt, and whose cultures we tried to wipe out in the midst of our evangelistic efforts in the past. We heard an apology to those who have suffered sexual abuse perpetrated by Presbyterian church leaders in the past.  And we heard a “statement of regret” offered by the denomination to its LGBT members who have been deeply hurt by denominational theological positions in the past – and while not a full-fledged apology, it was at least a good half-step in the right direction that I hope will become a full apology sometime in the near future.

There are still any number of situations, either as individuals or the church, where we need to follow the lead of the father in the parable, at least the way I painted him earlier. There are rifts that are personal. Familial. Racial. Ethnic. Sexual. Theological. Ideological; even political – how many Facebook friends have you lost during the current presidential campaign?

So where do we start? I suppose first, by being honest with ourselves and admitting that the rift actually exists; sometimes we haven’t even admitted that. Next, by recognizing that we’ve got culpability ourselves, it isn’t all the other person’s fault, and in some cases, it isn’t their fault at all. We need to be willing to apologize for our part in the situation, and to work in concrete ways to fix the harm. Mostly, I think, by recognizing that no matter how hard real reconciliation might seem – and it *is* hard – no matter how unlikely it seems that we’ll be able to pull it off, that it’s what God wants us to do – and that God is willing to help us, transforming us and strengthening us in the ways that can make it possible. After all, if the traditional understanding of this parable is valid, and the father in the story represents God, then we can see that God is more than willing to engage in reconciliation, even when it costs some dignity or the ability to be seen as always right – and if it’s good enough for God to act that way, isn’t it good enough for us?

Thanks be to God.

 

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If By Miracle… (sermon 7/26/15)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.  – John 6:1-21

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This story of Jesus feeding the multitude is the only one of his miracle accounts that appear in all four of the gospels. Here, in John’s gospel, it’s one of the miraculous signs that John sets forth as proof of Jesus’ divine identity; that he really is the eternal God of the cosmos in the flesh. This story of Jesus apparently creating bottomless baskets of bread and fish is the same kind of out-of-nothing creation that John’s original audience knew was the kind of thing that only God could do.

But there are other meanings layered into this story, too. On one level, it’s a recasting of the Exodus story where through Moses, God provides food for the people by sending them manna that they find on the ground every morning, and all the extra was to be collected up in baskets so nothing went to waste, just like in this story, where Jesus is seen as a new, improved kind of Moses. And there’s the Passover connection that John points us toward when he comments that the Passover was near when this event happened. This meal, then, becomes seen as a kind of Passover meal. One part of the Passover observation is the meal being seen as a forerunner to the Great Feast that the Hebrew prophets said the coming of the Lord would be like; God hosting a great banquet on a hilltop that all people would flock to – and now, here’s Jesus doing exactly what those prophets had described. And of course, we can see symbolism paralleling our sacrament of the Lord’s Supper here, too.

But I think that most times when we hear this story, we don’t think about those levels of symbolism. Instead, we focus on this idea of the miracle. We ask if it could be actual fact. Could this have physically happened the way the story tells it? Some people say that this was just the code of a pre-scientific culture; stories like this were the way they ascribed divinity to someone; but now, we understand that the laws of physics govern the universe in a kind of closed loop that makes these kinds of stories impossible. Some people read this story and say that once the people were seated, after hearing Jesus’ teaching, they pulled out whatever food they’d all brought with them, and Jesus’ actions simply set off a big, first-century version of Stone Soup – everyone sharing what they had and there ultimately being more than enough for everyone.

On the other hand, other people say that God does indeed intervene in the world at times in ways like this. That the God who created laws of physics is beyond them and can break them if so inclined; or if not break them, bend them a bit, or apply them in ways that they are somewhat different from the way things usually occur. They would say that for a God who created the entire universe out of sheer will and a few words, this kind of miracle would be child’s play.

So a lot of attention gets focused on the question of whether or not a miracle actually occurred here. But to think about that question, you first have to ask just what a miracle actually is.

There’s a story about a politician in the South during the days of Prohibition, who was running for election. A large number of the voters in his district were hard-core Fundamentalists and members of the Temperance movement, and they asked him where he stood on the question of whiskey and other alcoholic beverages. Of course, he knew what they wanted to hear, but he also knew that the woods all around them were full of stills cranking out moonshine for an awful lot of customers, and which was keeping food on the table for a lot of people, and they were just as big a voting block. So when they asked what he thought about whiskey, he said, “Well… if by “whiskey” you mean that wicked drink that numbs the senses and causes family strife and personal ruin; that leads men and women alike to all sorts of immorality and vice… I’m against it. However… if by “whiskey” you mean that golden elixir that brings people of good will together; that warms their hearts and lubricates their souls to instill joy and merriment and brotherhood and sisterhood; and which creates a thriving market for so many of our good, decent, hard-working, church-going farmers… I’m for it.”

When it comes to miracles, maybe we have to think about definition of terms, too. Do we say we believe in miracles, if by “miracles” we mean a big, supernatural intrusion into the laws of nature? On the other hand, do we say we believe in miracles if by “miracles” we mean something extraordinary, uncommon, and of God, occurring all the time, all around us, in the most ordinary and common of things and experiences? Or, just as with the politician’s answer, can they both be true at the same time?

Let’s look at this gospel story again. Regardless of what you might believe about the physical, literal aspect of the idea of Jesus producing food from nothing, let’s go past that for a moment and think about what else was happening. Something like 10,000 people, once you included men, women, and children, came together – all with different backgrounds, different problems, different reasons to want to see Jesus, different experiences and beliefs. And as they gathered on that hillside, they listened to Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God, and a new commandment for them and the world – that they love one another just as he and God loved them. That this new commandment has the power to change the world, and was already changing the world, forever. They listened to him as his disciples spread out in their midst, making sure that everyone, young and old, were having their needs met. And all these very different people, with all their different prejudices and motivations, passed and shared the baskets. They set aside their differences. They enjoyed the breeze blowing in off the lake and the coolness of the grass, and they laughed at each other’s children playing together and doing all the things children do. They all sat close in to each other so they could as close to Jesus as possible, and their guards dropped, and they didn’t mind the stranger bumping up against them as they listened and laughed and ate and learned about love and lived it out; and there, in that place, on that day, in that briefest or moments, the Kingdom of God kissed the earth.

Regardless of anything else, that’s a miracle. A miracle that you, and I, and our very divided, very un-peaceful, un-reconciled world, can find hope in.

And the good news for us is that we can share in that same miracle. We can recreate and relive it, every Sunday, every day, because as much as this story symbolizes anything else, it also symbolizes the very church itself. And the same Jesus calls us together to share in the same Kingdom; to encounter one another, to set aside our differences, to receive and to give, to love and be loved. In short, to experience the miracle of the Kingdom of God; to see God in all the common things of life all around us – bread, juice, water, each other, ourselves. This is what the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was talking about when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit around and pick blackberries.

Because Christ dwells within us, and because we dwell within him, we all have the ability, when we want, to see past the berries and experience the miracle of God in our midst, and in each other. And for that, we can all say

Thanks be to God.

He Came Down (sermon 3/15/15)

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From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. – Numbers 21:4-9

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And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” – John 3:14-21

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There are things in our lives that we get so used to that they just become part of us. They’re so common, so familiar, we have to think about them about as much as we have to think about breathing, or blinking our eyes. They’re part of our routine. Like the order we do things when we get out of bed – shower, deodorant, shave, brush your teeth, always in that order, day after day. And when you shower, always wash your hair first, then your body, always starting with your right arm. Well that’s my pattern anyway; yours might be different but the odds are that you still have one. Our lives are full of these patterns, these familiarities, these shorthand ways of making sense of the day.

We do it with the Bible, too, or at least parts of it. There are some passages of scripture that we’ve heard so many times that they’re just part of us. We know exactly what they say and exactly what they mean without having to think about it, even before we’ve completely read it or heard it. At least, we think we do.

That’s probably the case with some of today’s gospel text. It starts off with an odd reference to lifting up a serpent, which refers to the even more odd passage from Numbers that we heard this morning, but then it moves into a part that we’ve all heard countless times. John 3:16. We’ve seen the rainbow-haired guy and hundreds of people copying him holding up signs citing it at sporting events. Tim Tebow used to have it printed on his eye black stickers. It might be the most familiar, most well-known Bible verse out there; even the most biblically illiterate people in the country could probably quote it, and almost always in the King James Version. And we know exactly what it means, don’t we?

Well, maybe. One of the things that we’ve done in the Wednesday Noon Study Group and in the Confirmation class is to look at a specific familiar passage from the Bible, and to read it like we’ve never heard it before. It isn’t easy; you have to force yourself to do it sometimes, but to really stop and let every word, every phrase, every detail of a story sink in. And sometimes, when you do that, certain things catch your attention. Certain things stand out. You notice things that you’d allowed yourself to gloss over before. You pick up new things, or you notice that in your mind, you’ve added details that really aren’t there. And maybe there’s some phrase or word that just sticks out in your mind and makes you contemplate what it means in this context. From what I understand, the adult forum is going to discuss that same idea, In a slightly different context.

In this passage from John, Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus the Pharisee, who has come under cover of darkness to speak with him, and they’ve been having a conversation when we get to this passage. In all honesty, we don’t know if this is supposed to be Jesus’ words that he speaks to Nicodemus, or if it’s the gospel writer’s commentary on the scene. The ancient Greek language didn’t have quotation marks, so we can’t really be sure which is the case. But either way, let’s listen to that one verse, John 3:16, just by itself, as if we’ve never heard it before:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”  

Early this past week, I read through this passage, and especially this verse, and I just kept re-reading it and thinking about it. And what my brain kept coming back to was that phrase “believe in.” What does it mean to say that a person “believes in” this Son that God sent into the world? And just what does it mean to say that that’s the reason that God sent him? Is it saying the same thing to say that someone “believes in” the Son as to say that they’re a “Christian,” or are those not necessarily the same things? And if God’s whole purpose for sending the Son into the world is strictly that people would “believe in” him, and *that’s* how people gain this everlasting life, then what does that say about all the theological doctrines that say that God sent the Son into the world in order to die and pay some cosmic price or ransom or sacrifice, in order to earn our everlasting life through the shedding of Jesus’ blood?

What I’m talking about here is what theologians would call “atonement theory” – trying to understand just how it works, the nuts and bolts of it, that we’re saved, reconciled, redeemed, justified – choose your favorite term – through Jesus Christ. Or why “He Came Down,” as the hymn we’ll sing in a little while puts it. We were just talking about this subject in the Confirmation class a couple weeks ago, and we’re going to be looking at it in greater depth in the Wednesday group right after Easter. Did you know that there are at least six different ways that the writers of the New Testament explain how this works? And theologians from ancient to modern times have teased out those scriptural passages into complex theological theories about it. A number of these theories would seem to require Jesus’ death and bloodshed to work. In others, that isn’t a necessary component. In the tradition of Western Christianity, coming out of Rome and then the European Reformation and then on into America, the idea that Jesus had to die in order to save us has been a longstanding one. “We’re washed in the blood of the Lamb.” “There’s power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lord.” “Oh! precious is the flow/ That makes me white as snow; / No other fount I know,/ Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” And on and on. But the idea of God demanding the shedding of innocent blood in order to save us implies something really, really monstrous about a God we believe is the definition of love. Some have said that the two ideas are absolutely incompatible. Personally, I agree with them.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God sent the Son into the world to die, to be the victim of violence, bloodshed, and murder, in order to save us. In fact, that idea doesn’t show up in a single verse of this entire gospel. The closest this particular gospel writer gets to that is to say that in Jesus being lifted up, that others will come to believe in him and they will be drawn to him, but that doesn’t mean that that “lifting up” is a necessary part of all this. John 3:16 says that God sent the Son into the world for people to see him, and hear him, and to believe in his words, to believe in his message. In this version of atonement theory, the bloodshed and suffering of Jesus on and leading up to the cross isn’t necessary for this everlasting life to be given from God. We know and enjoy that life, this verse says, just by “believing in” him. Believing his message, his teaching. And what is that message? According to Jesus, it’s what we’ve come to call “the Greatest Commandment”: Love God with all of your being, and love others in the same way that you love yourself; in the same way that Jesus loved his disciples. Do this, and you will know eternal, everlasting life, Jesus says. Hearing and acting on that message is apparently what Jesus thinks it means to “believe in” him. It isn’t believing something “about” him. It isn’t believing something particular about “how” he unites us with God, or how it’s only through him that people come into God’s presence. It seems that according to the writer of John’s gospel, this particular atonement theory, Jesus says that receiving everlasting life is hearing and believing his words, to love God and love one another. And that this could be the case even if Jesus had never been crucified, even if he settled down, had a family, and lived a normal life. Maybe Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t some unfortunate but still glorious thing that we say we’re grateful for, because it was needed to reconcile us with God; but rather, it’s a huge, totally unnecessary tragedy, the biggest miscarriage of justice in human history. Something we should mourn.

And if all this is the case, can someone who’s part of another religion, or even no religion at all, “believe in” Jesus in the sense that it’s meant in this verse? Can someone who rejects Christ’s divinity and rejects, maybe even hates, the Christian Church, still “believe in” Jesus in the way that it means here? Those are some pretty big questions. As we continue through Lent, I invite us all to think about those questions as we ponder the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and the cross. And just think: all these deep, ponderous questions, all come out of looking at just one simple phrase, in one familiar verse, of the Bible.

Thanks be to God.