A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, March 8, 2021

Sermon (March 7/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Today’s story of when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers is a story about passion. As the disciples watched Jesus expressing his anger, they were thinking about a Psalm in the Old Testament where the Psalmist says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

     Zeal, passion, this is the wilderness challenge that we are presented with today. Are we passionate about our faith?

     This story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers has led some churches to question if they should allow the youth group to have a fundraiser in between services on Sunday morning. And does Jesus not like the hazelnut coffee and pastries that we set up in our church’s hospitality area?

     Well, I think Jesus is much more concerned about a deeper issue than fundraisers or refreshments in between worship services. When Jesus overturned those tables, he was giving us a powerful sign that God had sent him to overturn sin and death. 

     He alludes to this when the money changers asked him to show him a sign of his authority to do such a thing and he told them, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus saw himself as the Living Temple and it would be through his life, death, and resurrection that God would bring salvation to the world. 

     Overturning the tables was so much more than getting upset over people taking coffee into the sanctuary. It was a dramatic sign that Jesus used to get these Temple doorkeepers’ attention and prepare them for the radical new thing that God was about to do through him.

     Think of the story just before this this story where Jesus turns water into wine. He chose a wedding as the occasion for his very first miracle. Both of these dramatic stories in this one chapter are meant to get our attention and put us on high alert for what will happen later in John’s Gospel.

     Which brings us to our wilderness challenge for today which is related to our passion. The challenge for us is to renew our passion and zeal in what Jesus has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection. 

     During the months, weeks, and then days leading up to the presidential election this past fall, a lot of passion was being expressed by many people but it was related more about our choice of politics than it was about our faith. And while our faith and our political leanings do overlap, it can be easy to have more passion for our political party than we do for the party that counts, the one where Jesus is the true King over all creation. 

     Sometimes, our passion gets misplaced because of the competing voices around us. When Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness, he knew that his energy and passion for his work and mission needed to come from God alone. 

     One of my favorite verses in the Gospels is where the Gospel of Mark tells us that “Jesus  was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

     “And the angels waited on him.”

     Jesus was able to draw his energy from God. Satan was outnumbered there in the wilderness.

     Our passion and energy in living out our faith does not come from aligning with the correct political party or a certain political candidate or even a particular church or pastor. Our passion and energy is from God and from others who are also drawing their passion and energy from God’s redemptive love for the world.

     Actually, if you think about it, sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that these other sources give us a boost of energy, but it’s not the same kind of energy and passion that only God can provide.

     “Zeal for your house will consume me.” “Your house.” “God’s house.” And by God’s house, Jesus wasn’t referring primarily about the bricks and walls of the Temple in Jerusalem. And by the way, that Temple would eventually be destroyed by the Romans about forty years later and would never be rebuilt again. 

     Jesus was identifying himself as God’s Temple. And even though he suffered and died on a cross, he was raised to new life on the third day, never to see death again. 

     We don’t draw our passion from the latest building campaign. We draw our passion from the Risen Jesus who is the living Temple.

     The story of three bricklayers is a multi-faceted parable with many different variations, but is rooted in an authentic story. After the great fire of 1666 that leveled London, the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral.

     One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” 

     The second bricklayer, responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” 

     But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”

     Our passion is rooted in always remembering that we aren’t just laying bricks or building a wall. We are building a great cathedral to The Almighty.

     We are building a great cathedral where we are always growing in what it means to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith.

     We are building a great cathedral where we are providing meals every Monday for people in need.

     We are building a great cathedral where we are raising money to provide a house for a family here in southeast, Ohio.

     We are building a great cathedral where college students are welcomed and included in the life of our church.

     We are building a great cathedral where our Growing Tree preschool children can learn and grow in a Christian environment. 

     We are building a great cathedral where people are initiated into the life of our church through baptism.

     We are building a great cathedral where people’s prayer requests are lifted up every single week.

     We are building a great cathedral where we gather for worship and our spirits are lifted.

     Our Temple does have bricks and mortar and thank God, even air-conditioning, but more importantly, our Temple is so much more. It is a haven of blessing and peace for all who enter here.

     This Temple represents the presence of the Risen Christ who offers us hope, forgiveness, direction, purpose, and passion. We are never alone in the wilderness. Jesus is with us in every single moment.

      When Jesus overturned those tables in the Temple, he did so out of zeal to point people to what he was about to do through his life, death, and resurrection. This is why we receive Holy Communion, to draw our passion from what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

     As we go through this week, I invite us to think about this question that the poet, Mary Oliver includes in her poem entitled, “The Summer Day.”

     “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That’s a great question!

     Our wilderness challenge today began with Jesus getting our attention by overturning some tables, and it has led us all the way to this table where we are now invited to receive the bread and the cup. 

     Come to this holy table where we are invited to discover what we will do with our one wild and precious life.

Wilderness Challenges - Our Passion

Sermon Discussion Questions
John 2:13-22
March 7, 2021

Churches have been known to use this story of when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers to prohibit fundraising efforts by church groups on Sunday morning. While it’s important to not overdo these fundraising efforts to the point where they overshadow our main reason for gathering which is to worship God, Jesus’ action in the Temple is about something far more important. Jesus overturned the tables to signify that he is the Living Temple. 

How does this passion and energy of Jesus impact your understanding of who Jesus is and what he was sent by God to do?

Jesus’ action of overturning the tables is connected with an Old Testament scripture that says, “Zeal (passion) for your house will consume me.” In addition to overturning the tables in this chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had also turned water into wine which was his first miracle. These actions by Jesus were meant to point people to a deeper understanding of why God sent him into the world. 

In what ways do you display passion in how you live out your faith?

Sometimes we are more passionate about things like sports or a political party or a hobby than we are in growing in our faith. 

What helps you to stay passionate in how you live out your faith? 

Toward the end of John’s Gospel, we will read how Jesus suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world. These gospel stories are known as the “Passion Narrative.” The word, “passion” is connected with self-giving and sacrifice. Every time we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on this understanding of “passion.” 

How does this understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion deepen your relationship with Jesus?

Pastor Robert concluded the sermon with these words from the poem, “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

What is your response to this important question in light of this week’s scripture/worship theme of having a passionate faith?     

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Online Worship (March 7/Lent) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
March 7
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Monday, March 1, 2021

Sermon (Feb. 28/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Last week, we began our Season of Lent series on the first wilderness challenge and that was the challenge of our identity. The wilderness is that desolate area where Jesus spent forty days and forty nights facing various challenges to who he was and what he was sent by God to do.

     This wilderness story is why the Season of Lent is a forty day season. The purpose of these weeks leading up to Easter is to help us face these challenges which involve dying to self and offering ourselves to God.

     Last week, we looked at the wilderness challenge of our identity. Just before Jesus was sent into the wilderness to begin facing the challenges that would come his way, he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. When Jesus was baptized, we are told that the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, and with him I am well pleased.”

     The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is what reminds us of our identity. We belong to God. We are claimed by God. The Holy Spirit is with us. And because God loves us unconditionally, we too are called his beloved. This is why our weekly benediction has that fist line that says, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God. There are no exceptions, asterisks, or loopholes.”

     We say this benediction every week at the conclusion of our worship service so that we can all be reminded of our true identity. When we leave from worship and face a new week, it’s so important that we remember who we are and who we were created to be. 

     So when Jesus went into the wilderness and faced all of those temptations, he was able to do so because he already knew who he was. He was God’s Son. He was God’s beloved. 

     Knowing who we are is so important when we face challenges in life. Baptism is an important way for us to remember our identity. We only need to be baptized once, but it’s important that we renew our baptism as often as possible. We can do that by simply repeating the words, “I am baptized” which is something the famous 16th century Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther would do whenever he was feeling discouraged.

     Remember your baptism. Remember that you belong to God. Remember that you are claimed by God. And so the first wilderness challenge during this Season of Lent is remembering our true identity. 

     For this week’s wilderness challenge, our appointed Old Testament reading from Genesis helps us to focus on the challenge of trust. It’s the story of God wanting to make a covenant with Abraham and Sarah for them to have offspring that would lead to the formation of God’s people. It’s an incredible covenant because God specifically says that their offspring will continue throughout generations where even kings will come from them.

     This sounds like an incredible promise that God makes to Sarah and Abraham but there’s just one major problem. A really big problem. Sarah is way past child-bearing years. They are around a hundred years old when God made this covenant with them. Their challenge would be one of trusting that God would be able to make this happen. When Jesus went into the wilderness and faced all of those challenges from Satan, he also needed to trust that God had a different mission in mind for him.

     For the past several years, I have served on the district committee on ministry. It’s where we interview candidates for ministry. And one of the basic questions we always ask someone who is pursing the pastoral ministry is, “Tell us about your calling.” How has God called you to be a pastor?

     And almost every single time these candidates share their story of how God called them, it includes how they were reluctant to respond to that calling at first. One candidate in telling me his call story said how he and his wife attended a small country church one Sunday for worship. It was only their second time visiting that little church and there was a guest preacher that Sunday.

     And after the worship service, one of the church leaders came up and asked him, “I know this is only your second time here, but we are in need of a pastor. Would you be interested?

     You know, I’ve heard of church people asking a worship guest to join the choir but I think this was the first time I ever heard of someone new being asked to become their pastor! I asked him how he responded and he said that he would need time to think about it. 

     Long story, short. He did take time to think and pray about it which led him to have a conversation with the district superintendent who explained to him the process of how a lay person can serve as a pastor of a church. Of course this includes a process of training and credentialing, but even more importantly, it includes trust. He ended up saying that he would give it a try as long as the people in that little church would be patient with him since he didn’t have any experience in being a pastor.

     And the wonderful thing is that because this person had an open mind and was willing to learn, that little church he is serving is responding to his leadership in a very positive way. His initial challenge was to trust that God really did want him to pray about if he should become their pastor which led him to saying yes.

     Another pastor told me his call story that involved trust. He was a truck driver and while fixing a car one day, he was invited to come inside a church to get warm. As he was getting warm, he saw a picture of Jesus on the wall which left an impression with him. 

     He decided to get involved in church again and received training to become a Lay Speaker and that led to him to responding to a calling to start the process of becoming a pastor of a small congregation.

     His story was one of trust because he had to work through the challenge of not feeling equipped to become a pastor, even though he could sense that God was calling him.

     When God calls us to try something new or alter our way of life and thinking, that requires us to be willing to trust as we step out in faith. Abraham and Sarah probably couldn’t believe that having children would be possible through them in their advanced years, but they trusted and God blessed them.

     As I’ve been thinking about the importance of learning to trust God while we’re in the wilderness during this season of Lent, the thought occurred to me that we are all wired to trust to varying degrees.

     A couple of months ago when I was in the grocery check-out line, I noticed a national enquirer newspaper. I had almost forgotten that this publication still existed. The headlines on that issue were hilarious. The one about Kenny Roger’s body was missing made me laugh. And I remember thinking to myself, “How do people believe this stuff and why do these newspapers of fake stories sell so many copies?”

     But then I started thinking about the many people who believe in conspiracy theories especially those of a political nature. These are grown adults who otherwise seem to be fairly normal and reasonable people, but they actually believe the information that come out of these conspiracy groups. 

     So, in a weird kind of way, there is something inside of us that wants us to trust that these bizarre stories just might be true. 

     The challenge we often face is in prayerfully discerning if God is truly calling us in a particular way. And this requires trust on our part. I say “prayerfully discerning” because based on these tabloids and conspiracy theories, we don’t want to just believe everything that we read or hear. 

     When Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan was trying to get Jesus to believe that he should turn stones into bread, and jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and angels would save him, and worship him and all the kingdoms of the world would become his. Satan was trying to get Jesus to believe in these conspiracies of what he should do rather than what God sent him to do. 

     The wilderness is where we do a lot of soul searching in discerning what is true and what is not true. This is why spending these weeks of Lent in the wilderness with Jesus are so important. It helps us to face the challenge of where we are called to place our trust and the things where we should not place our trust. 

     Jesus was able to keep his trust in what God wanted him to do rather than what Satan was wanting him to do. Just like God did for Abraham and Sarah, we are called to trust in God’s incredible vision and hope for the world. 

     This vision is one where we are invited to participate in making this world a better place, a place where all people are loved and valued, a place where there is harmony, justice, peace, and equality. This is why our church’s mission statement is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. What an incredible mission we have! To participate with God in bringing transformation to our world.

     If all of this sounds too good to be true, remember that this is what Abraham and Sarah were probably thinking when God made a covenant with them. It sounds like something that you might see on a tabloid while waiting in the check-out line…

     “Hundred year old couple to become pregnant.” But this headline ended up being true and it was through the covenant that God made with them that God would send Jesus, the savior of the world. 

     During this season of Lent, God is calling us to place our trust in something far more interesting than who stole Kenny Roger’s body. God is calling us to change the world.

Wilderness Challenges - Our Trust

Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
February 28, 2021

For our six-week Season of Lent focus, we are spending these forty days with Jesus in the wilderness. Each week presents a new wilderness challenge that is meant to lead us into a deeper faith. Last Sunday, our focus was on knowing our identity. Our identity is rooted in God’s unconditional love and being reminded that we belong to God.

Share a way that you were able to remember this past week that you belong to God. 

This week’s wilderness challenge is related to our trust in God. For this, we turn to our appointed Old Testament scripture which is from Genesis, chapter seventeen and the story of when God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah to become the parents of a great nation. The challenge was that Sarah was way past child-bearing years!

What would have gone through your mind if you were Abraham and Sarah? What does this story tell you about what it means to trust God?

Pastor Robert shared stories of people who faced the challenge of trusting God when they were asked to step out in faith. In each of these stories of trust, they needed to pray, explore the possibility, and be open to God’s signs pointing them to trust and have faith. 

When God is calling you to do what seems like the impossible, what steps do you take in discerning if you are truly being called? How have you helped others who are trying to decide if God is calling them to follow in a particular way?

We live in a world that thrives on conspiracy stories that are not rooted in anything factual. The headlines of the National Enquirer capture our attention and some people even believe these stories are true simply because they saw it in print. When Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan posed a lot of conspiracies to Jesus saying that he should turn stones into bread, jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, and worship him and the kingdoms of the world would be his.

Why do you think people believe in conspiracy stories? What helped Jesus to know the difference between believing in Satan’s conspiracies and trusting in God?

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Online Worship (Feb. 28/Lent) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
February 28
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sermon (Feb. 21/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     We are beginning a new season of Lent worship series called, “Wilderness Challenges” based on the forty days when Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness. While Jesus was in the wilderness, he faced several challenges related to his identity and his mission. 

      The forty day season of Lent is meant to remind us of those forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. If we want to grow in our faith and be faithful in following Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb of Easter, we need to be willing to face these challenges as well. By facing them, we will learn more about the areas of our spiritual lives that are in need of growth and renewal.

     Over these next several weeks of Lent, we will be looking at several different wilderness challenges. These include our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, our humility and our belief. We will be using the appointed scripture readings for each of these Sundays in Lent to explore these themes.

     As we begin this season of Lent series, let’s think about why Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. What is the significance of the wilderness and why is it important for us to spend time there with Jesus as well?

    When we see that Jesus began his ministry by living in the wilderness for forty days, we immediately make the connection with the people of Israel, who centuries before were in the wilderness for forty years. 

    The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years and God called Moses to lead them from slavery and into the promised land. To do this, they needed to travel through the wilderness. It was while they were in the wilderness that God was forming and shaping them to be his people.

     By first going to the wilderness to begin his ministry, Jesus is mimicking what happened to the Israelites centuries before him. Here is the parallel with the wilderness story of the Israelites and the wilderness story of Jesus. 

     Both of these wilderness stories begin with water. For the Israelites, it was the Red Sea when Moses parted it allowing them to escape from Pharaoh. For Jesus, it was the Jordan River where he was baptized. 

     These wilderness stories also were a passage way to their ultimate destination. For the Israelites, the destination was the Promised Land where they would be able to live as free people under God’s gracious rule. For Jesus, the destination was the city of Jerusalem where he would die on a cross and rise again which would lead to the freedom of God’s people from sin and death. 

     But to go from slavery to the Promised Land, the Israelites and Jesus first needed to face the challenges of living in the wilderness. The church has designated this season of Lent as a time to live out this wilderness journey. It’s not an easy journey. It will test us along the way, but it can be a time of tremendous spiritual growth.

     For this first Sunday in the wilderness, the appointed scriptures for today offer us our very first challenge and it’s related to our identity.

     Knowing who we are is critical in living out our faith. 

     Our Gospel reading this morning begins with Jesus in the wilderness but just before he was driven into the wilderness, we have the story of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. And I think this connection is a very important one because Jesus’ baptism centers around his identity. 

     So even before Jesus entered the challenge of the wilderness, he knew his identity. What do we learn about Jesus’ identity from his baptism?

     Well, the first thing we learn is that as Jesus was coming out of the water from his baptism, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And then we get this voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

     These two aspects of Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descending upon him and the voice from heaven calling him “beloved” are also important dimensions whenever we celebrate a baptism. Baptism reminds us that we have been claimed by God and that we are given the name, “beloved.” And so, when Jesus went into the wilderness, he already knew who he was and that the Spirit was with him. 

     Every week when we worship together, we collectively say our benediction which reminds us of our identity. We begin that benediction with these words, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     We started using this benediction almost two years ago. The motivation for creating our own special benediction came out of the anguish I was feeling after the disappointing decision by our denomination to retain the restrictive language found in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ issues. 

     The decision from that special General Conference had made national news and the spotlight was on our denomination. Since Athens First has always sought to be an inclusive and welcoming church, I was trying to think of what our congregation could do to emphasize God’s acceptance of all people, especially people in the LGBTQ community.

     And that’s when God reminded me of something that often goes unnoticed in a worship service. The benediction. The thought occurred to me that I put so much time into developing a sermon, that I don’t give nearly enough attention to what is spoken during the benediction. And so I prayed about it, and came up with that opening line, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     For the first few Sundays, I was the only one speaking this benediction because that is what typically happens. The pastor offers the benediction and the congregation listens. And then I went on vacation for a few Sundays and the person who was leading the service for those Sundays invited the entire congregation to say it with him.

     When I got back from vacation, somebody told me about it and they said how powerful it was that everybody was saying it together. So, I continued this new tradition where I invite all of you to speak those words with me.

     What I love about this benediction is that on any given Sunday when we worship together, every single person is invited to say these words and know that they truly are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.

     The other interesting thing about this is that my plan was to use this benediction for a month or two and now it’s been almost two years that we have been using it!

     One of the leading worship scholars of our denomination has been Laurence Hull Stookey who passed away in 2016. Stookey wrote a book about baptism in which he says, 

     “Each of us stuffers from spiritual amnesia. We forget what God has done for us and promised to us. We also conveniently forget what God wants from us as disciples. In short, we are oblivious to the identity we have been given by our creator. God, aware of our malady and of our inability to effect a cure, acts to reveal our true identity to us. One means by which God counteracts this amnesia is baptism.”

     Our first wilderness challenge is related to having spiritual amnesia and this is all rooted in our identity. To overcome this challenge, we need to find ways to remember who we are.

     Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation back in the 1500’s would remember his baptism and who he was by placing his hand on his head and repeating the words, “I am baptized. I am baptized.”

     He would do this especially whenever he was feeling anxiety or distress. “I am baptized.”

     What a great way to remember our baptism, to cure our spiritual amnesia and to remember our true identity, that we are loved by God.

     In one of the churches I served, a member of the congregation told me that she doesn’t know what she would have done without our church. I asked her what she meant.

     And she said how throughout her life, she had always struggled with self-worth and feeling accepted. She then told me that sometimes when she is really struggling and feeling down, she’ll simply pull her car into our church parking lot and sit there in her car looking at our church building. She said that it has a way of reminding her that she is somebody, that God loves her, and that this is a safe space for her.

     One of my favorite things to do is to look up at our church steeple especially when it’s a beautiful day and seeing that cross high above, 130 feet above our sidewalk. That steeple is here to remind us that God loves us.

     Friends, let’s remember to never underestimate how God can use a hymn, a benediction, a kind word or gesture, a steeple, or even a church parking lot as a way of reminding us of our true identity.

     So on this first Sunday in the wilderness, never forget who you are. You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God! That is who you are!

Wilderness Challenges - Our Identity

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 1:9-15
February 21, 2021

During these next seven weeks, we will be spending time with Jesus in the wilderness when he began his ministry. We will be focusing on seven challenges while we are in the wilderness. These are related to our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, our humility, and our belief. When Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, it reminds us of when centuries earlier, the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness. The wilderness is that place where we are shaped and formed as God’s people.

Which of the seven challenges above stand out the most for you? 

The first challenge from our scripture reading today is related to our identity. Notice that just before Jesus entered the wilderness he was baptized. The Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven called him, “my beloved.” Baptism is one of the significant ways for us to remember who we truly are, God’s beloved.

If you have been baptized, what memories of it come to mind? If you were baptized as a baby, were any stories told about the day you were baptized? 

Theologically speaking, baptism is an outward sign of God’s grace at work in our lives. Baptism has several spiritual meanings which include 1) We are born again 2) We are cleansed from our sins 3) We are initiated into God’s family 4) We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Which of these meanings of Holy Baptism stand out for you the most? How can this help us remember our true identity?

Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian who is credited for starting the Protestant Reformation was known to remember his true identity by placing his hand on his head and saying the words, “I am baptized.” 

What are some ways that you can remember who you are and that you belong to God?

Our worship benediction that we say together each week is a reminder of who we are. Say these words which remind us of our true identity. Instead of using the word, “you,” change it to “I” to help personalize it.

I am a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God. There are no exceptions, asterisks, or loopholes. As I leave from this place today, may I continue to bear witness fo the love of God in this world so that those who whom love is a stranger, will find in me a generous friend. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with me through this day. Amen.