Sunday, June 28, 2020

Moriah Hurst: What we welcome when we welcome Jesus

"Welcoming Jesus"

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18; Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

Tell it in the daylight: Costella Forney, Chris Johnson, Lesley Francisco McClendon, Glen Guyton

Psalm 69; Jeremiah 20; Matthew 10:26-31 

In light of recent events and the deepening public awareness of the systemic racism and continuing violence against black lives, Pastor Phil has ceded his sermon time at Park View Mennonite Church to four African-American pastoral and ministry colleagues, and invited them to bring us some words of exhortation for these times. Listen and be challenged. Then help us continue the conversation in other venues, and discern how we are being called to change.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

Phil Kniss: Taking stock when the market is crashing

“Raising Hope”

Psalm 100; Matthew 9:35-10:8; Romans 5:1-8

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Evaluating is what we do.
    Without a moment’s thought, we assign value—
        to money, to things, to circumstances, to people.

We do a calculation whenever we
    glance at a store display,
    glance at a pop-up ad,
    watch the stock market go up and down,
    watch the evening news,
    consider marriage,
    consider raising a child,
    contemplate a move,
    contemplate a job change,
    lose a job,
    lose a loved one,
    meet a friend,
    meet a stranger,
    encounter a threat,
    encounter an opportunity.

Every time, we ask, consciously or subconsciously,
    What do we open ourselves to?
    What do we close ourselves to?

Now is a time in our lives, and in our world,
    that everyone is evaluating,
    continually and frantically . . .
        and the stakes are high.

Should I walk into that store or restaurant, or not?
Should I go to this demonstration, or not?
Should I read this article or watch this newscast, or not?
Should I undertake this hard conversation with a relative, or not?

Which activities are worth my limited time and energy?
Which sorts of people are worth investing in?

Under normal circumstances,
    these calculations are hard enough and weighty enough.
But now, they have gotten to be downright critical.
    And they are fraught with
        emotional, social, spiritual, and moral implications.

We all feel, especially now I believe,
    that we are morally obligated to respond
    to the desperate human suffering caused by the pandemic,
    to the gaping, bleeding wound of systemic racism
        that has always been there but especially obvious now,
    to the continuing collapse of morally-grounded political leadership,
    and to the escalating hostility and enmity between social groups.

But how do we evaluate?
What is the relative good, and the cost involved,
    for me to move forward in a specific direction and action?

Today I don’t offer easy answers to complex choices.
    But I have a Gospel word that I want to proclaim,
        because that’s my job.

Here it is:
    We don’t need to evaluate ourselves or any other human being.
    God has already done that calculation.

God has determined that our value, their value, is inestimable.
    Worth any cost.
    God treasures and loves each and every one of us . . . to the end.
    And we belong to God.

If only we could all grasp and sink into the truth of that,
    our lives, and our world, would be changed.

I’m not just spouting platitudes.
    This is a foundational truth of scripture,
        laid out in concrete ways in today’s readings.
    Let’s take a look.

In today’s psalm, the beloved Psalm 100,
    we are called to praise.
    Because life turned out well for us?
    Because we were prosperous or blessed?
    Because we belong to God.
    We are the prized possession of the supreme ruler of creation.
    The psalmist sings, “Know that the Lord is God.
        It is God who made us, and we belong to God.
        We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.”

The psalmist drew on his own faith tradition,
    a covenant forged in the wilderness
        between God and Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
    Here, in what we call the Old Testament, is the Gospel:
    God made you, and values you,
        and will even sacrifice Godself for you,
        as a shepherd does for a sheep.
    And not just the chosen few . . . all people.

And in Romans 5 we heard this sublime Gospel message:
    We are justified by grace, through faith, not by earning God’s favor.
    We are inherently embraced by God,
        even before we turn toward God,
        even before we realize we are invited.
    God’s love for humankind is not contingent
        on our proving ourselves worthy.
        The worth is already established,
            and summed up in this glorious phrase:
    “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
        While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

    There’s how we take stock, when everything comes crashing down.
    We are of such worth in the eyes of God,
        that God himself would suffer abject humiliation and even death,
        if it meant our lives would be preserved.
    That’s the Gospel, folks.

And in case you didn’t see it there,
    then go to the Gospel text itself, to Matthew,
    read to us beautifully by the Gredler children today.
    It’s about Jesus calling his disciples, giving them a mission.
    “Jesus went through all the towns and villages . . .
        proclaiming the good news of the kingdom
        and healing every disease and sickness.
    When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
        because they were harassed and helpless,
        like sheep without a shepherd.
    Then he said to his disciples,
        “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
        Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore,
            to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Western Christianity, specifically Protestant Evangelical Christianity,
    has been shaped by a hyper-individualistic
        understanding of faith, sin, and salvation.
    So typically, when we hear this text,
        we go straight to the individual and personal.
        We ignore the social context.

If Jesus only wanted his disciples to go out
    and find individual sinners lacking inner peace with God,
    and offer them a doctrinal formula for peace and forgiveness,
        then he chose a really strange metaphor.
    This is not about sinful sheep needing forgiveness!

No, after he traveled the countryside, the rural towns and villages,
    healing all kinds of disease,
    observing daily life and social ills of his own Jewish people,
    he looked at all those people, as a whole,
        and he was filled with compassion.
    He saw they were harassed—harassed!!—
        as unable to defend themselves
        as a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

This phrase—“harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd”—
    why do we read it as a metaphor for individual and personal sin?
    It is collective oppression.
    It is a people who are harassed, as a group,
        and unable to defend themselves.
        No shepherd.
        No one in the system to advocate for them.
        No one willing to stand between them
            and those who would do them harm.
    Why do we think the sheep need to be forgiven for that?

That is what Jesus would have seen—
    his Jewish people occupied by the brutal Roman Empire.
As a people,
    they were small potatoes on the edge of a huge empire.
    They had no allies.
    There were no counteracting systems in place
        to get between them,
        and the iron hand of King Herod.
    And after being oppressed for so long,
        they lost their collective sense of worth and value as a people.
    They had a confused self-identity.
        They were lost as a people.
        Harassed and helpless.

So Jesus turned to his disciples and said,
    “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

Jesus is not launching a program of personalized spiritualized salvation.
    He is talking about justice. About putting things right.
    Harvest is often a metaphor for judgment.
    Remember Jesus’ own parable of the wheat and the weeds?
    At the harvest, there would be judgment.
    The wheat and weeds would be separated, and the weeds destroyed.
        Judgment against the oppressors.
        Justice for the oppressed.

That’s why Jesus said a few verses later, “Don’t go to the Gentiles!”
    Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
    He wasn’t being exclusive and elitist.
    Obviously, Jesus often crossed those boundaries himself.

But here, and now, and in this context,
    he was identifying those who needed an advocate
        and did not already have one.
    When a whole group of people is harassed and helpless,
        that is who you move toward.
        You prioritize the oppressed.
        It’s not that all lives don’t matter.
        That’s obvious, but it’s not what needs to be said right now.
    So he told his disciples, “Prioritize the harassed.
        Go into the fray and stand with those who need to know,
            that they are loved, and valued, and prized by God himself.”

There are many people right now in our neighborhoods, and cities,
    and all over our land and around the world,
    who are like a flock of sheep under threat,
    harassed by others, oppressed by the system,
    who need to be told their lives matter.
    They matter to us, and they matter to God.

In a time when our black and brown neighbors are
    brutalized by police far more often than white people,
    discriminated against by banks and zoning boards,
    fined and imprisoned way out of proportion,
    locked out of jobs and housing,
    and still attacked by racist mobs—
        as just happened to a black pastor a few miles up Route 11
            two days ago—
    if we followers of Jesus cannot look
        at what’s happening in our world, and our community,
        and say, with conviction, that black lives matter,
        then we don’t understand Jesus,
        and we don’t understand the Gospel of Matthew.

No, we don’t have to agree
    with every position of every person in a movement,
    before we affirm this basic truth of the Gospel:
    Jesus prioritized the harassed and the oppressed.
    It’s not that Roman lives didn’t also matter.
    But Jesus said, “Don’t go to the Gentiles.
        Go to the harassed ones.
        Remind them they are not alone.
        That they have allies who are willing to
            help with the harvest of righteousness and justice.

Here’s my Gospel challenge.
    Look around you . . .
        Who do you notice?
        Who is suffering?
        Who is harassed?
        Who is afraid for their lives, for their future?
        Who is uncertain whether their life even has value?
    Go to them.
        Listen to them.
        Sit with them.
        Stand with them.
        Help them take stock—
            to re-evaluate the worth of their lives.
        To raise their hope.

That is what Jesus calls us to do.

Join with me in praying this prayer, in unison.
    I invite you, wherever you are, if you have the order of worship,
    to read and follow along.
        God of love and justice,
        we long for peace within and peace without.
        We long for harmony in our families,
        for serenity in the midst of struggle,
        for commitment to each other’s growth.
        We long for the day when our homes
        will be a dwelling place for your love.
        Yet we confess that we are often anxious,
        we do not fully receive your love,
        or fully rest in our belonging to you.
        We are not willing to take the risks
        and make the sacrifices that love requires.
        Look upon us with kindness and grace.
        Rule in our homes and in all the world;
        show us how to walk in your paths,
        through the mercy of our Savior. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, June 14, 2020

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Sunday, June 7, 2020

Senior Recognition Sunday

Sharing by High School seniors Hannah Beck, Levi Godshall, Lukas Early, and Thad Jackson. 

Sharing by college and grad school graduates Bryson Boettger, Andre Eanes, Jackie Hieber, Kayla Leaman, Caroline Lehman, and Justin Odom.
Psalm 8:1-9; Matthew 28:16-20

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PVMC graduating seniors -- from high school and beyond -- are recognized, blessed, and given an opportunity to share a few words.

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

Phil Kniss: “Yes, but how?”

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Pentecost Sunday: "Will the fire change you?"

Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

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Our worship theme today is a question: “Will the fire change you?”

I should do a deep dive into the question,
    explore its depth and complexity and nuance.
    Except, there is no nuance.
    I can answer the question in a word, and I did.
        The first word of my title is the answer: Yes.
        But for kicks, I added two more words.
            Just to complicate things.

Of course fire changes us. By definition.
    Fire is physical matter undergoing transformation by heat.
        Molecules are pulled apart and put together in new ways.
        From whatever it was . . . to carbon and hydrogen and water
            and who knows what all.
        Nothing that catches on fire—nothing—remains the same.

    So the two words I added, “but how?” is the real question here.
    Will the fire change us?
        “Yes, but how” will the fire change us?
    That implies we have some choice.
        What kind of change will we allow?

    But before we poke around in the embers of that question,
        we need to complicate it some more.
    Especially now.
    Because fire is a metaphor
        applied to more than the Holy Spirit.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a raging fire
    that is changing us.
    That fire is not the Holy Spirit.
    Oh, the Holy Spirit is absolutely present as we suffer in this fire,
        but that fire is a manifestation of evil.

Other fires are burning in our lives right now.
The most apparent one to this congregation
    is the fire of unexpected loss and grief.
    That fire is not the Holy Spirit.
    Oh, the Holy Spirit is certainly with us in this fire
        of sudden and unwelcomed death.
        But I will not equate that fire with God’s good Spirit of life.

Other fires are burning in our country . . . literally and figuratively.
There is the fire of racial injustice,
    still deeply woven into the fabric and structure of our society.
    The fire sparked in Minneapolis this week,
        and now spreading all over the country,
        is not only the story of a couple bad cops,
            and one victim,
            and a mob mentality getting out of hand.
    It can only be explained as the dry tinder of systemic racism,
        lying on the ground all over our land,
        lying at our very feet,
            which all of us have ignored for too long,
            have failed to really listen to those impacted by it.
        And the spark became a wildfire.
    Again, God is not absent here.
        The Spirit is present in this fire.
            God is close to those who grieve or are oppressed.
        But I would not equate this tinder-box
            with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

    The life-giving Spirit of God is in opposition to
        a lot of what this world experiences as out-of-control fire.

Yes, we know from the Pentecost story in Acts,
    that the Spirit does at times act like fire.
    Those disciples in the upper room
        had seeming tongues of fire fall on their heads,
            and they were empowered,
            they were transformed.
    But how do we know one fire from another?
    Because we must distinguish between them.

We must discern when to open ourselves to Holy fire,
    and when to fight un-holy fire that threatens to consume us.
    Yes . . . but how?

I suggest we walk toward the un-holy fire.
    Yes, we head toward the flames
        with purpose and intentionality and preparation.
    We prepare by opening ourselves more fully
        to the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit,
        and let that Holy-Spirit fire burn within us,
        so that God’s Spirit might be let loose
            to tame the wildfire all around us.
In other words,
    we fight fire with fire, spiritually speaking.

That’s exactly what forest firefighters are trained to do,
    when a wildfire is out of control.
    They know to walk toward the inferno,
        carrying other fire with them.
    And they intentionally start other fires, controlled burns,
        that essentially burn up all the available fuel,
        so when the wildfire reaches that area,
            there is nothing left to feed the flames, and the fire goes out.

Maybe there . . . is a lesson on living in the Spirit,
    in a world burning up with a spirit not of God.

Anyone of us are at risk of being consumed
    by the un-holy fires raging in our world right now.
You may justifiably be angered
    by the evil, the injustice, the oppression.
    That’s okay, stay angry at that.
You may be overcome with grief
    by all the unnecessary suffering in the world.
    That’s okay, lean into the grief, let grief do its work.
You may be incensed by all the inhumanity,
    all the poor excuses for moral leadership
        by those in leadership positions.
    That’s okay, don’t look away. Stay incensed.

    But you still have a choice in the matter.
    We still have options.
        Will we be consumed?
        Will we lose ourselves in the flames,
            because we forgot who we were,
            and only added more fuel to the fire?

    Or . . . will we receive this as an opportunity to open ourselves
        more fully to the Spirit of God dwelling within us?
    Will we carefully carry and tend to the holy fire within us,
        laying our small selves and our egoistic desires on the altar,
        and allow God to change us with this divine fire?

This is not mystical escapism.
This is the way a life in Christ works.
    If we are not intentional about tending the Holy Spirit fire within,
    If we do not purposely open ourselves for God’s transformation,
        we will be consumed.

Whether it be the COVID-19 fire,
    or the fire of racism and injustice,
    or the fire of political corruption and abuse of power,
    or the fire of untimely deaths and ravaging diseases,
    or any of the many flames of general human suffering and cruelty,
        we are at risk of being consumed.

If all we do is stand back,
    and gaze open-jawed at the inferno,
    the fire may change us alright,
        but it may not be the change we need.
    We may well cave in to the depths of despair,
        and lose the battle.
    We may well let our demons get the better of us
        and become callous and cruel ourselves.

On the other hand . . . we might also choose to open ourselves
    to the transforming fire of Holy Spirit,
    the Spirit that looks like Jesus.

Spiritually speaking, this is fighting fire with fire.
    This is clearing away the flammable underbrush,
        all the stuff lying at our feet that shouldn’t be there.
    And with the carefully aimed and intentional fire of the Spirit,
        it gets cleared away,
        leaving a fire-break of compassion,
            a fire-break of willingness to listen,
            a fire-break of a choice to be present with the suffering,
                of a dogged pursuit of justice,
                of a commitment to love sacrificially.
        Then, when the un-holy fire gets close to us,
            it has no fuel remaining,
            it can only spit and sputter and go out.

The fire-break must be intentional on our part.
    But it is not our doing.
    Transformation is what the fire of the Holy Spirit does,
        when it’s kindled in us, and allowed to burn.

Ruth Haley Barton, in her book,
    Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership,
    a book I’m reading right now . . . because I need to,
    says this about the transforming work of the Spirit.

I quote.
“In the process of transformation the Spirit of God moves us
    from behaviors motivated by fear and self-protection
        to trust and abandonment to God;
    from selfishness and self-absorption
        to freely offering the gifts of the authentic self . . .”

And then, just as my good Mennonite duty-bound work-ethic
    is about to kick in and say,
    “I can do this, I should do this, I will do this,”
    she shuts me down with these words,
    “This kind of change
        is not something we can produce or manufacture for ourselves
        but it is what we most need . . .”
    “Lest we are tempted to view this as a glorified self-help project . . .
        it is important for us to embrace spiritual transformation
            as a process that is full of mystery.
        It is a phenomenon . . . outside the range
            of what human beings can accomplish on their own.”

    In other words . . . It’s the fire. It’s not us.
    It’s about accepting the fire,
        being in a place of solitude and silence,
            soaking in scripture,
    It’s letting our souls be warmed by the fire that looks like Jesus,
        fire that fills us with compassion for the suffering,
        and a genuine tenderness and love for the other,
            even the other who might look like a threat.

Our prayer today is not,
    “God, give me a little boost, so I can manage to do this.”
Our prayer is more simple: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
    Come, holy fire, and burn in me,
        and burn away hatred and bitterness and self-absorption,
    Come, Holy Spirit, come.

—Phil Kniss, May 31, 2020

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Get your head out of the clouds

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 7 – “In the time of testing”

Psalm 68; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; Acts 1:6-14 

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     A few weeks ago my parents and I set our alarms for the wee hours of the morning, awoke in darkness and bundled ourselves up to go out into the night. We were looking, as I know some of you also did, for the meteor shower. We walked down my parents’ long driveway searching the sky.

    I wonder if the disciples looked a bit like our motley crew, sanding together staring into the sky, the space where Jesus was taken up. Were they longing as some of us might be, to be taken away with Jesus. Get us out of this moment in time. This world all feels too much for us. Jesus, we would like to escape with you!

    As we made our way back up the driveway we all started getting kinks in our necks from looking upward. We didn’t want to tear our eyes away from the sky; scared we might miss a blazing trail of light. We walked backwards so that we could keep our gaze fixed on the part of the sky where the flash of light might come.

    Was this the fumbling moment for the disciples when the angels showed up, two men in white robes? But instead of adding to their enthusiasm for looking upward the two men direct the disciples eyes in a different direction. They steered their minds away from a cloudy heaven and onto the task that awaits them here on earth. They remind us that our feet are firmly grounded here. We are not to get too engrossed by the sky but to look to the task Jesus sets for us. Jesus had just said: You will receive power from the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses here on earth.

    The disciples left that mountain moment and went back to the upper room to pray. Acts tells us that they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

    As we think of these disciples praying, I want us to consider another group of followers of Jesus, as we look at the 1st Peter passage. We hear in verse 12 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you”. Wait, is the author of this letter talking to us, here in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic that has turned our lives upside-down – it feels very current to our situation.

But the first hearers of this letter were dealing with suffering of a different kind. They would have been part of scattered communities of believers, possibly with many women and slaves in their number who were seen as inhabiting the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They would have truly felt like resident aliens, having a minority status and living in a “truly oppressive and hostile environment” (1-2 Peter, Jude; Believers Church Bible Commentary, page 20).

    Do we need to have a reality check on our suffering – to get our eyes and feet back on the ground?
    I have been sitting with the idea of holding our current state in two hands. In one hand we hold out to God the reality of our situation, how it truly makes us feel and how it is affecting us. All of our disappointment, the fear of the unknown and what confined isolation does to us. There are days when this feels like suffering.

Then we hold out our other hand, realizing our power and privilege. Naming how much we have to be grateful for. I have an income, internet, a non-abusive home life, health care professionals who are willing to care for me, the beauty of nature around me and space that I can work. I cannot look away from either of these realities. I know that what others are holding may look vastly different and that some day these things we carry may cause us to slip into feelings of aloneness.

    As I read 1 Peter I started singing a camp song: cast your burdens on Jesus, for he cares for you”. The next part of the song gets a little more theologically dicey. “higher, higher, life Jesus higher. Lower, lower, stomp Satan lower.” A group of campers approached me one evening at camp after I had led this song. They were concerned about the violent imagery and wondered why at a Mennonite camp we were talking about stomping or crushing something or someone as if it were a good thing. “Isn’t that song too violent for children” my campers asked.

    I’m not well versed in talking about Satan or the devil so these campers had picked up on something that makes me uncomfortable too. While this passage doesn’t say to stomp on Satan it does say to stay alert, to resist the power of evil and stay steadfast in your faith.

What I have been wrestling with during this isolation are my own demons – my cutting words that so quickly hurt others, my temper that flares as I rush to blame, my fears of what life might look like especially if I loose loved ones, my grief and guilt that send me into self doubt spirals to the point that I want to curl up in the fetal position and sob. I have tried not to shrug these things off but have attempted to turn and face them. I want to listen to the words of my spiritual directors who have counseled me to let myself hear and to feel the strong emotions. To humbly notice them and say “welcome, what do you have to teach me”.

This is hard work and not work for everyday. We need to remember that we do not face our suffering alone but with God by our side and in community. By the grace of God maybe I can face a little of what is ugly and in need to redemption within me. This is the place I find myself on my knees before God crying out in honest prayer. I find myself with the disciples in the upper room and listening to the words in the Psalms calling us to cry out to God.

This is where I come back to the Bible and find that it is not just some holy book with stories of long ago times. It is the story of God with God’s people through their tough times, their times of testing and the mundane ins and outs of everyday life. In the little details of the Bible, of who was in the room, what people were wearing and how long it took to walk some place, I see that God is in the little moments of my life as well as the big emotions. And that is where I need to see God right now. In the hugeness of this virus, how it is effecting so many all over the world and yet in the smallness of my little life.

We are called to examine ourselves in our suffering.

I’m drawn to the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer in her poem The Invitation that ends with:

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.


We are told to cast out burdens on Jesus. Verse 7 “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you”. Will we throw ourselves into God’s arms fully trusting our savior and creator?

    I have been helping my Dad carry fallen branches and trees down their steep hill from the woods so we can cut them as firewood. After half carrying, half dragging a huge log, when I drop it I feel first the huge relief but then the wobble in my body as I try to recover from casting off my load. Can we pray like this and are we ready for the adjustment in our minds and spirits to the heavy weight being lifted.

Jesus doesn’t leave us staring into the sky, just longing for a better future, waiting for some bright light and the passing joy that follows. We are left with the hope of the Spirit – spoiler alert we are being prepared for Pentecost – 1 Peter’s blessing for us is restoration, support, strength and that we will be established.

May we hear these words in our own situation – with one hand extended, grounded in our own reality of day-to-day life. And also with our other hand extended, holding a reality much closer to the suffering and hardship of those first hears of Peter’s letter.

What do God’s promises mean not just for us – this promise is for poultry workers, those in meat packing plants, for indigenous communities where the virus is striking hard, for essential workers who still have to use public transport, for African American brothers and sisters who are too well acquainted with the fear of something or someone who will hurt them entering their homes and lives unbidden. This is also for those in refugee camps, prisons and trying to cross a border that is rejecting them. What do these words of Jesus and the breath of the Spirit mean for them.

With our feet firmly planted on earth we say we see you. We look into the eyes of the other and say we hear you. We notice what has been pushed to the margins of our lives and the world; we pledge to use our power to amplify the voices of the outsiders. It is standing in that space with an open posture that we hear God’s promise to restore, support, strengthen and establish.

We need to be heavenly minded for the earthly good. We don’t have control but we are given the power of God’s Spirit to witness to the world. Lead us to prayer. Help us to trust in the God of all grace, who has called us to God’s eternal glory in Christ. Amen

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