Falling Gracefully

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 9, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 7:15-25a + Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Please pray with me:

Holy Comforter,
Our lives are full of expectation,
Maybe none more than the expectation we place on ourselves.
Lighten our burdens and ease our demands this morning.
Help us hear your liberating word of grace.
Amen.

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These last 3 verses of our Gospel this morning are read to every Lutheran pastor at their Ordination. It’s read as the stole, one of the marks of the Office of Pastor, is placed on their shoulders.
Usually the pastor kneels while this is happening, and will stand up and be announced after the stole is put on.

And…if you’re Pastor Chris, you’ll get caught up in your alb as you’re trying to stand and nearly fall on your butt, only to be saved by a quickly-placed hand on the floor, trying to make it look as natural and smooth as possible.

Yeah…tell me again about how easy that yoke is and how light that burden is…

Sometimes the call to discipleship can feel like that. It can feel like a really lofty ideal, completely unreachable. And I wonder, what must that do to our own sense of discipleship? Devastating, right?
Why would we willingly follow if the way seems impossible?

Like St. Paul in Romans this morning, you might find that you’re heaping all kinds of guilt upon yourself, trying to live as God has called you to live. It’s one of my favorite lines from Paul, by the way, “The good that I want to do, I do not do, but the evil, that which I do not want to do, is what I do.”
Paul’s giving voice to a really significant inner struggle, I think. Why is it that I keep doing the thing that I don’t want to do—harming others with my words, my actions…living counter to the way God would have me live—rather than the thing I want to do…living according to the path of discipleship God has called me to?

The Reformer, Martin Luther, resonated deeply with this passage from Romans.
Side note: 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We haven’t talked a whole lot about it up to this point, but it is something that is informing my preaching a lot these days. It’s one of the reasons why when we made the changes to our liturgy for the summer, I wanted to be sure that we heard these passages from Romans. For Luther, Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the clearest articulations of the Gospel. And you’ve heard those themes these past few weeks.
Saved by grace through faith…baptized into Christ, buried into Christ’s death and joined to Christ’s Resurrection…
Luther had many of his own struggles, but these verses from Romans 7 really vexed him. Luther couldn’t figure out why it was that even though he wanted to live out what he felt God was calling him to, he continuously felt like he wasn’t measuring up. He constantly felt like he was falling short.

Maybe you feel that way too. I certainly do.
You may have heard me preach the past few weeks and thought, “There’s no way I can live like that all the time. That’s an impossible task for anyone.”
And if that’s the case, then I hope Jesus’ words this morning are a welcome balm of grace for you.

Look, the call to discipleship is a tough road, let’s be honest. It’s not easy, it doesn’t come naturally to us, and to try and live the kind of life of discipleship that Jesus is talking about will find you, like St. Paul and Martin Luther, at odds within yourself.
Our default posture is not one of giving of ourselves so that others would have.

But just because the task seems tall and the goal seems unreachable, doesn’t mean that there aren’t steps we can take to try and live the type of life that we’re called to.

But…and this part is key, so don’t miss this…we try to follow Jesus in the path of discipleship in full and complete knowledge that we will fall short and we will be in need of God’s grace to help us and cover us and make up for our shortcomings when that happens.
That the grace of God will catch us when we stumble.
And right here, church…this is the incredible gift of the Gospel that makes all the difference in the world.

I was raised in the city, I don’t know much about agriculture or farming, but I learned something about plowing this week. Yokes, like the kind used to link two cows or horses together, are custom-fit pieces. Yokes have to be made to fit precisely, otherwise it can cause serious injury or harm to the animals.
Friends, if Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon yourself,” you have to know that it is fit exactly for you.
The yoke of discipleship is specifically made for you.
And you are created to be a disciple.

yokeThe heaviness of the yoke can sometimes feel like the heaviness of the cross of discipleship that we’ve been talking about these past few weeks. But the magnificent gift of grace is that you are not called to carry a cross or a yoke that is ill-fitting. You are called precisely according to the gifts that you have.

We have a baptism this morning at the late service, and as I sat with Milo’s parents, Peter and Brittany, this week, we talked about baptism as being born into a spiritual family…a community of faith…the body of Christ…and that through our baptisms we celebrate and name the various members of that body and the gifts we bring to that community. We had a wonderful discussion about what part of the body each of us might be and why, and then I asked Peter and Brittany my most favorite question to ask whenever I do a baptismal seminar: What member of this body do you hope your child is?
The warmness of hope and possibility that settles over me every single time I ask that question is one of the great gifts I receive as Pastor of this community.

We all bring gifts to this community, church. You have something to give.
Later on, we’ll bless and commission youth that will serve our neighborhood and community as staff during the next 3 weeks of Camp Hope.
We’ll bless and bid farewell to Cheryl and Tom Braaten as they make their way to San Antonio and we celebrate the gift that they’ve been to us these past 34 years.

What about you? What gifts do you bring? What part of this body are you?

You are made to be disciples, dear friends.
The yoke of discipleship is easy and light.
Know that. Trust that.
Most especially when the weight of the world causes you to stumble.

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The Least You Could Do

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on July 2, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:12-23 + Matthew 10:40-42

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Please pray with me:

Welcoming God,
Your word of hospitality is wider and deeper than we imagine,
And though we try, we often fall short of extending that word.
Remind us again this morning that we were once recipients of hospitality,
And give us courage to show that same love to all whom we encounter.
Amen.

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There’s a church in the Briarforest neighborhood of Houston that has a ministry that’s been going on for over 20 years. Every week a handful of people from the church get together and they make sandwiches. Then they take them out to the area around the church and bless the folks who are homeless in the area with a meal and some cold water.
If you talk to the Pastor about it, the Pastor will tell you, “I don’t invite people to church, I invite them to make sandwiches.”

Incredible…
Church, for them, is less about coming together and existing for themselves, and more about what a lived-out faith looks like.
When I asked the Pastor about how their ministry got started and why they started doing it, the Pastor said, “It just seemed like the least we could do.”

These past 3 weeks, our Gospel readings have all come from the same chunk of the Gospel of Matthew known as the Discipleship, or Mission, Discourse. In it, we’ve heard a pretty clear outline about what a disciple is and what a life of discipleship looks like. The past 3 weeks began and end today with hospitality.
We started with how disciples are to be welcomed in ministry.
2 weeks ago we heard that disciples are to travel lightly, bringing peace to the places that will receive them, but shaking the dust off their feet on the places that won’t. With Jesus expressing words of caution about the ministry disciples are undertaking.
Then this week, the discourse ends with how disciples are to be welcoming.
And last week, we heard we heard about the perils of discipleship, the call to pick up your cross and follow Jesus on the path of discipleship.

And I wonder if hospitality doesn’t sometimes feel like a heavy cross to carry. Not only because it requires you to open yourself to someone or a group of someones who may not think, talk, believe, vote, speak, or worship like you; but also because, as a church, as a community of faith, we have to be honest about what we’re inviting people into.
Because if we’re being hospitable and inviting people into a place that is genuinely and authentically church, I think we have to be honest, certainly with the people we’re inviting, but maybe most especially with ourselves, that as a church, we expect that God is actually present…that we really and truly believe that God is moving and active and bringing about God’s reign of peace and justice…a kingdom that sees through the way things are and instead visions and works toward the way things could be…a reign that rejects violence as a viable solution and establishes equality, and equity, and justice, and righteousness as its foundation.
If we’re inviting people to join us on the path of discipleship, then we need to be honest about what discipleship looks like and where that path leads. Like I said last week, the path of discipleship is the way of the cross, and that is a way to death—dying to yourself and living for others, losing your life to gain it.

sandwichSeen this way then, church, there’s a deeply consequential connection between hospitality and discipleship, right? Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
How we show hospitality to others is a direct reflection on how we treat God.
I said it a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating here: if it’s true that all of humanity is made in the image of God, like we hear in the Creation narrative, then how we treat one another, how we treat those who are seeking our hospitality, is a direct reflection on what we think about God.

In a day and age when individualism and exceptionalism are celebrated and lifted up as the highest ideals to aspire to, it seems to me that the call to discipleship is a call to recognize the ways in which we’re connected.
And more than connected, to recognize the ways in which we’re in-ter-dependent upon one another, the ways in which injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, the ways in which the oppression of anyone anywhere is oppressive of everyone everywhere.

But if our oppression is bound up together, then so is our liberation, by God.

 

And hospitality isn’t really that difficult. It doesn’t require much of you, mostly a posture of welcome and invitation. A cup of water, like we heard this morning, is literally the least amount of hospitality you could give. It hardly requires anything of you. To do any less would be to do nothing.
And yet, this is what gets lifted up as a model, right?

So, what does hospitality look like for us? How do we begin to adopt this posture of welcome?
It’s interesting, as I look across the many ministries we have at New Hope, so many have a component of them that involves food. And don’t get me wrong, I love to eat, but I think there’s deeper meaning there. Isn’t it interesting that one of the things that we hear about Jesus doing a lot of is eating? Sharing meals together is one of the great acts of hospitality.
One former member of New Hope tells the story about being totally new to the area, taking a chance on a little congregation in Missouri City and being invited over to another member’s home for lunch. On her first Sunday visiting. That’s the kind of radical hospitality that transforms lives, church.
Every church says they’re welcoming and hospitable. Few actually are.
So where are we currently showing that kind of radical hospitality?

In a few short weeks, we’ll welcome a group from El Salvador, and we’ll have an opportunity to open our arms and show hospitality.
We have visitors in our pews more Sundays than not. Are we being hospitable and welcoming in a way that isn’t in your face and overbearing, but is, at the same time, open and honest about the kind of Christian community we’re trying to be, the kind of life of discipleship that we’re trying to follow?

And what if we take the question of welcome and hospitality further? What about our LGBTQ siblings? What about our neighbors who are people of color? How are we showing invitation, welcome, and hospitality to members of oppressed and marginalized groups?

I’m talking about deep, consequential hospitality and radical and inclusive welcome. That’s the kind of stuff that transforms.
If sin is separation from God and from one another, than to be inhospitable is sinful. The prophet Ezekiel notes that “This was the sin of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” And like we heard from Jesus 2 weeks ago, “It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for the one who is inhospitable.”
Friends, hospitality is more than a lovely ideal or a nice thing to put on signs, hospitality a vital part of being a disciple.

And if being inhospitable is sinful, then St. Paul’s words in Romans carry new meaning, right? “No longer be bound by sin.” We often relegate Paul’s message, especially his letter to the Romans, into morality, but consider Paul’s words in relation to righteousness or justice that he so often writes about.
Then the call to no longer live sinful lives is a call to live lives that are transformed.
A transformed life doesn’t live to sin out of some sense of morality; a transformed life doesn’t live to sin because it has no need to sin, it has no use for ways of living that are separated from God and from other people.

We heard last week from Paul, through your baptism, you died to sin.
You are no longer beholden to, no longer enslaved by sin. Your identity is no longer defined by sin. Your identity is rooted in your baptism. Your identity is that of a saved, redeemed, and sanctified child of God, reconciled to God’s own self. So what are you going to do with that?
Therefore, Paul says this morning, be enslaved by God. Be bound up in your calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

And this is the great liberating word of the Gospel. That you are no longer defined by or beholden to the ways of sin that draw you from God.
You are freed to live a life worthy of the calling you have received from God.
You are free to live lives of radical hospitality and inclusive welcome. Lives that are full and reflective of the same limitless and extravagant love that God has for you.

It seems to me, that in light of this incredible gift we’ve been given, this amazing grace of God that loves us in spite of our sin and promises us salvation here and now in this time and place, that being extravagantly hospitable and showing radically inclusive love to those we encounter is the least we could do.

Suffering With and Speaking Life

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 18, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 5:1-8 + Matthew 9:35-10:23

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This is a tough sermon this morning.
One that I hope names some of our deeper hurt, but also calls us to greater love.

Please pray with me:

Holy One,
We live in the midst of suffering.
But we do not suffer alone.
Remind us again of our call to bear one another’s burdens.
Call us again to speak words of life and peace and love.
Amen.

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I served as a chaplain in 2013 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. The summer of 2013 was one of the deadliest on record up to that point, and each summer since then has seen the violent crime and homicide rate increase in Chicago.
I served on the Medical ICU floor…the worst-case scenarios, the long-term sick, the touch-and-go cases, and the folks who were out of options…

I didn’t know what suffering looked like until I served in a hospital.

I prayed with a family of about 25 people all crammed into one hospital room as we held hands around the bed as their matriarch took her last breaths. The room was filled with cries and sobbing and shouts of lament like I had never experienced before, but they were the most honest prayers I’ve ever heard.
I sat with a man for 5 hours in the lobby of the hospital after he watched his wife of 47 years die on the stretcher in the ER. Sometimes suffering looks like someone who’s just lost their beloved staring blankly at a cell phone, trying to remember who they were about to call, or even what they were going to say.

As I’ve listened to and watched the personalities on NPR and the news channels this week, it seems like everyone’s carrying around a heavier weight with them. It feels like the news cycle is starting to catch up to us.
On Wednesday, a man felt justified in opening fire on Republican Congresspeople as they practiced baseball in part because of the virulent rhetoric present in our political discourse.
On Friday, a jury in Minnesota acquitted a police officer in the 2016 murder of Philando Castile.
Yesterday was the 2-year anniversary of the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. A massacre of 9 beautiful children of God, including their pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, by the way, studied at an ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. A massacre perpetrated by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, who, by the way, was baptized, grew up, and was confirmed in the Lutheran church. Our church, our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, the ELCA…

And all of this in the same month when Coptic Christians are being martyred in Egypt, terrorist attacks are happening around the world including Manchester and London, and more than 50 people are presumed dead in an apartment fire outside London.

There is no shortage of suffering in our world.
And yeah…it’s been a tough week.

I think of the end of our Gospel reading this morning when Jesus talks about siblings and parents and children warring against each other, and ruling classes oppressing the lower classes, and state-sanctioned punishment and execution. And it really doesn’t sound so different than today.
And when we hear this, I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, like “What can I do in the midst of all of this?”
And I turn to our Gospel today here too. See, because I don’t think Jesus is sending the disciples out to convert people, to create the newest batch of the first Christians. We hear Jesus this morning sending the disciples with explicit directives to “cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.” Friends, the call to discipleship is a call to go and alleviate suffering. And not through thoughts and prayers and retweets and facebook posts, but through actual embodied presence. To alleviate suffering is go to the places where suffering is and do what you can with what you have to make things even just a little better for those people in those places.

Our Gospel this morning notes that when Jesus saw the crowds of people he was ministering to, those that were sick or diseased or cast aside or beholden to something outside of themselves, he had compassion for them. The Greek word is interesting…compassion…splachnizomai…literally, to be moved from your guts. Compassion is visceral, it’s feeling that moves you to action. Compassion, which we get from Latin…com—passio…to suffer with. To have compassion for someone is to be physically moved to suffer with them.
It only requires an investment of yourself.

But how many of you are dealing with suffering of own? I wonder for how many of you the thought of being present with someone else in their suffering feels like a really tall order because quite honestly you’re just trying to deal with you own stuff…
This, dear friends is why discipleship is a communal effort. Because it really does take all of us. To bear one another’s burdens. To lift one another up. To be present with one another in the midst of our suffering. To search out meaning and fumble around to find moments of joy in the midst of suffering.

There’s another interesting language note in our reading from Romans this morning. St. Paul writes that, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance; endurance, character; and character, hope; and hope doesn’t disappoint.” That “boasting in sufferings” part, that’s not boasting or being prideful because of suffering, but is more accurately translated as boasting in the hope we have from God in the midst of our suffering. It’s having hope in spite of suffering.

And that is the message of the cross. That though we are still sinners, Christ suffered and died for us. And for “them”. And for all of creation.
And not just that Christ died, but through the Resurrection, Christ overcomes suffering and death—Christ defeats death and takes away the sting of suffering. Death no longer has the last word. God’s final word to God’s people is one of life.

And if that’s true, I think that gives us an indication about how we are to go about at least beginning to follow this call to discipleship. If God’s word that overcomes death and suffering is a word of life, then the call is to alleviate suffering where we find it begins with our words. Speaking words of life instead of words that harm and injure and inflict violence.
Because how can we know the needs of someone else unless we talk and listen to them? How can we possibly start to show compassion to someone who is suffering if the words we use most often are those of division and violence and hatred?
There’s no shortage of suffering in our world; that harvest is plentiful, but the laborers willing to be present with and speak life-giving words into the midst of that suffering are few.
So how will you undertake the call to that kind of discipleship?

I think it starts with our words.
In the wake of the attack in Virginia on Wednesday, US legislators of all parties are calling for a toning down of the vitriol and spitefulness in the rhetoric of Washington. And I think that’s a helpful lesson for us. It may or may not surprise you to know that your pastor can see your facebook posts. And you may or may not be ok with that.

Be kind to each other. Speak words that lift up and give life rather than words that tear down and destroy. Build bridges instead of walls. Build bigger tables for sharing food rather than larger fences for closing yourself off.

And when you do that, I think you’ll find that your capacity for sitting with one other in your suffering begins to grow.

Hard Truths

* a sermon preached at my home congregation Calvary Lutheran Church on August 23, 2015 *

** you may also want to watch and hear this sermon preached. Here is that video. And here is the audio if you prefer to just listen. **

Text: John 6:56-69

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Please pray with me:

Holy One,
Speak truth to us today.
Even it’s difficult for us to hear,
Help us know the truth of your love for us.
Amen.

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Good morning, church! It is good to be with you this morning. I’m honored and privileged to share this time with you.

Well, here we are, church. We made it. No-carb dieters and those with a gluten intolerance, take heart. We made it to Week 5 of this 5-week series of passages on bread, specifically what are called the “Bread of Life” texts. Next week, we’ll get back to Mark, but this week we get what might be some of the more difficult words from Jesus in this whole exposition.

And Calvary, I need to tell you something this morning, something that may be…difficult…to hear, so please just trust me when I say that this is for your benefit… “Calvary…you’re spoiled.”

I mean, you have it really, really good. I’m not kidding, Pastor Phil and Pastor Kyle have spoiled y’all…with Interns.

I mean, you just finished up a great 11 months with Drew, who’s one of my classmates, we entered seminary together, and he’s a rockstar. I mean, seriously, did y’all meet Thaddeus?!? Cutest dog ever, am I right…?

And you’re getting another absolute rockstar in Anna. Seriously, she’s phenomenal. Y’all are going to learn a lot from each other, and I’m thrilled to see the ways in which you both grow over this next year. And all of this is not even to mention Amy, and Ethan, and Alex, and Paul, and on and on and on… Calvary’s list of former interns reads like a “Who’s Who” list of all-star pastors in the church. No joke.

And as much as that says something about those individuals, I think it says just as much about you, church. It tells me that you are called, Calvary, to raise up and train leaders for the church, and that you take that call seriously, and that you have affirmed and embraced that call, and by God, you’re good at it. You are such a blessing to our church, the ELCA.

It’s funny how those things that are often difficult to hear at first, can be turned into a blessing like that, isn’t it? Sometimes the blessing doesn’t come about that quickly, but I’ve often found that to be true of things that are, at least initially, difficult to hear, that eventually I come to understand them as something that are for my benefit. We call them “hard truths,” right? The things that maybe we don’t want to hear, but they are certainly the things we need to hear.

It’s what I hear in Jesus’ words today. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood. Eat me and you will live.” See, we take for granted that we know that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist, but remember that the concept of Holy Communion would have been completely foreign to the disciples and those gathered in 1st-century Judea. It’s likely that they would have thought that Jesus was talking about full-on Hannibal Lecter cannibalism… Which is funny, but also helps explain why they were a little put off by Jesus’ words, “This teaching is…difficult, Jesus… Who could possibly understand this…?”

But it is difficult, even for us. Because even though we understand Jesus to be talking about communion, there are promises made and gifts given in this meal that we have to trust. We have to trust that Jesus body and blood are broken and given for us, and that somehow that means something, that it has an effect on us and how we live in this world. We have to trust that this meal of bread and wine, as much as it is for us, is also food for the journey, nourishment that carries us out into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ to a world that desperately needs it.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we would prefer easy, wouldn’t we? We would prefer it if Jesus didn’t say things like, “Eat and drink my body and blood.” We would prefer it if Jesus didn’t ask challenging things like, “Does this offend you? Do you also want to go away?” Because if we’re honest, I think we would say, “Well…yeah.”

But don’t be discouraged, church, when the way of Jesus is a little tough going. When Jesus asks, “Do you also wish to go away?” remember that the disciples did leave, they did scatter when things got really tough. They denied, they fled, and they hid behind locked doors. So know that you’re not in bad company, it’s in our nature to want to leave or turn back when things get rocky.

But also know that that rocky place, that mound of rocks, outside of the city walls, that hill of death, is where our salvation was realized. Know that even as the savior of the world was put to death, death was defeated; death does not have the last word. So although we may wish to go away at times, we serve a God who brings life from death, who breathes that life and encouragement into us, who makes resurrection from things that are dead.

Sometimes following in the way of Jesus is difficult, not so easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it, right? Because following in the way of Jesus means sometimes having the unpopular opinion. Following in the way of Jesus means fastening truth around our waist and holding faith in our hands, shouting down the evil in this world and proclaiming the gospel of peace. Following in the way of Jesus means picking up your cross, and following…

Following in the way of Jesus looks like 8-year old Drew asking that his friends bring water for his homeless friends underneath Lancaster instead of gifts to his birthday party It means being willing to be challenged, church, and absolutely, unequivocally responding to that call, and then some! There’s no way you could walk into the sanctuary without seeing those mountains of water…

If those stacks of water out there show you anything, it should be that you are absolutely capable; you can absolutely step up, and that you are a blessing. As we bless these backpacks this morning, know that the blessing of this church sends you out into your schools to be a blessing to others. As we enter into this capital campaign, as we celebrate tradition and imagine the future, remember this. Calvary is a church that steps up to be a blessing. Calvary is a church that is open to being challenged, willing to hear some hard truths, and to respond in overwhelming ways.

Who are the truth tellers in your life? Is it your spouse, or partner? Your mom? Dad? Your kids…? Siblings? Friends? Your pastor…?

I think we all need a little truth telling in our lives, someone who can cut right through all the junk, all the stuff we try and put up in the way to prevent people from seeing who we really are, someone who can get right to the heart of us, who knows us…

Maybe you need a little truth telling this morning. Maybe you need to hear something difficult.
Well, here you go, try this one out: You are loved more than you could possibly imagine.
You are so loved, you are forgiven, you are beautiful, you are saved, you are an incredible child of God’s own. And this table, these gifts, this body and blood, this bread of life and cup of salvation are for you. And for you. And you, and you, and for the church, and for all of God’s creation. God’s love and grace are here for you. Come, you who are broken…you who are unsure…you who are desperate…you who are needy; come and taste and see that you are loved beyond your wildest imagination just exactly the way you are.

Come. See. Taste.
Be moved.
Be transformed.
It’s the easiest thing you’ll do all day.