Sunday, November 12, 2017

Phil Kniss: A whole-hearted life

Stewardship and a jealous God
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

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So what gives . . . with all this talk in the Bible,
about God being a jealous God? . . . 
Have you ever felt, even a twinge of discomfort
when you hear God referred to, as “jealous”?

Be honest. Doesn’t it sound a little . . . off?
like God is being a tad selfish? or petty?
that God would be portrayed in scripture
as having hurt feelings
if someone doesn’t pay him enough attention?

When we read a text like Joshua 24, or many of the psalms,
and get to the word “jealous,” 
we sometimes wish there was a good substitute word,
a euphemism maybe.

We know when humans are jealous,
it’s a sign of immaturity, more often than not,
it’s a clue that we’re not quite emotionally secure enough,
to allow a friend to share attention and admiration
with other people.

Not talking about protecting healthy boundaries in intimate relationships.
If a little jealousy helps us keep faith, that’s good.

I mean the sort of feelings we had in high school or junior high,
a sense of entitlement or exclusivity,
when we weren’t quite willing to share a friendship
that was meant to be shared.

But whatever the word “jealousy” conjures up for us,
this morning I want us to come to admire God’s jealousy,
to be grateful for it,
and to realize what a gift it is to our wellbeing,
and the wellbeing of the world.

So let’s first talk about Joshua, and what’s happening in chapter 24.
This is Joshua’s last lecture.
You probably heard of this at universities,
where professors give a public lecture,
as if they knew it was their last chance 
to impart any wisdom to the world.
It’s inspired by a professor at Carnegie Mellon 
who gave a public lecture
after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Some of you EMU profs have done this—
given your hypothetical “last lecture.”

But this is literally what Joshua is giving to the people of Israel,
his last lecture.
It says in v. 1 of Joshua 24,
“Joshua assembled all the tribes of Israel at Shechem. 
He summoned the elders, leaders, judges and officials of Israel, 
and they presented themselves before God.”

Joshua got straight to the point. And I quote,
“I am very old. I am about to go the way of all the earth.”
No denial going on there.

And then he proceeded to give a challenging last lecture
on priorities.
And it was timely, given their context.
By the time of Joshua’s death,
they had partly, but not completely,
been given their promised land.
They were no longer nomads, for sure.

They were becoming a powerful people in the Ancient Near East,
economically and militarily.
Other city-states in the region
had a healthy fear of what the Israelites could do to them,
because they had seen it happen to their neighbors.
Now, it’s way beyond the scope of this sermon,
to try to help us make sense of
all the violent stories earlier in Joshua,
describing Israel’s partial conquest of Canaan.
That’s not the focus this morning.

Suffice it to say
this was a people, once enslaved and poor and landless,
who were now a landed people,
with significant economic wealth and military might.

God . . . and Joshua . . . were worried.

That’s the context of Joshua’s last lecture.
He started out by reminding them where they came from.
They are the children of Abraham.
A nomad who went wherever God led him.
One step at a time.
All over Canaan.
This is the land in which their ancestor once roamed,
not always knowing where his daily bread would come from.

The fear that Joshua had, on behalf of their jealous God, Yahweh,
was that other gods were getting in the way
of them remembering their identity.
They were forgetting the kind of people they were destined to be.

Particularly, the gods of the Amorites, in whose land they lived,
had an appeal with the people of Israel.
Perhaps because the Amorites themselves
tended to be tall and strong and influential,
and were thought to speak a similar Semitic language.

It’s not a coincidence that they gathered at the city of Shechem.
This was a commercial center on vital trade routes.
It had political, economic, and religious significance.
It was one of the few cities the Israelites occupied,
where there is no mention of them destroying it first.
They may well have lived there in the city
with persons of other nationalities and religions.
So here at Shechem, the people of Israel stood 
at a theological and political crossroads.

Whatever the details were, this much is clear:
They were becoming a people with power,
having land,
having influence,
having commerce with other powerful people,
who were shaped by a very different value system,
and it was changing the people of Israel.

God had already set forth pretty clearly,
in the Exodus,
and the years in the wilderness,
what sort of God they were in relationship with,
and sort of people God wanted them to be.
And that was very different from who they were becoming.

So God’s jealousy is not merely about feeling slighted 
because his people are sneaking in some idol worship on the side.
God is jealous,
because as our Creator, God already determined and defined
the full and flourishing human life.
God gave humanity a precious gift—
the possibility of a full life reflecting the image of God.
God gave us the means to live lives of
self-giving freedom and joy,
and abundance for all,
celebrating the beauty in diversity,
showing compassion for the needy.
Idolatry undermines and trashes that gift.
The worship of idols,
stands for the very opposite of all that God designed.
It cultivates self-interest, 
fear of scarcity, 
fear of the other,
and all manner of other evil.

The God of Abraham has a heart for 
the poor,
the downtrodden,
the oppressed,
the dispossessed.
This is a God whose intention is deliverance,
full and abundant human flourishing.
That is what God is jealous for.
God is jealous for our well-being.
God is jealous for the shalom of all creation.

That kind of jealousy has nothing to do with insecurity.
It is a precious gift,
to preserve God’s good intentions for creation.

God’s intentions are all love.
And this love is mirrored in us, as bearers of God’s image.
It courses through our veins, and through all creation.
This love and longing is directed toward 
God’s saving and reconciling mission.
To worship God, alone, is to live the life we were made for.

We reject the many idols that would distract us from that worship,
not to satisfy God’s petty emotional needs,
but to help God fulfill God’s universal purposes for creation.

That is why Joshua was so pointed and passionate 
in his plea for the people to put away their idols,
and choose to worship Yahweh,
who was jealous for them to fulfill their created purpose.

Joshua saw how compromised they had already become,
so he put before them a challenging choice:
“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve—
Yahweh who delivered you from slavery 
and led you through the wilderness, or
the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.
As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

So the people got all excited and motivated by Joshua’s lecture,
and declared anew their loyalty to the one God Yahweh.
But Joshua didn’t buy it right away.
They were too compromised by their idolatry.
He said, you are not able to serve the Lord.
God is holy. God is jealous.
God won’t stand for your compromises.
You are in open rebellion, in sin.

But the people insisted they would put away all other gods,
and serve the Lord alone.
Thus, a new covenant was established there at Shechem.
They would make a new start.

It was a stark choice the people of Israel faced that day.
And it may seem hard for us to identify with this ancient story.
But I have to wonder whether this is not also our story.

We, too, are compromised by the gods of the people 
in whose land we have taken up residence.

The Israelites, a once-enslaved people,
a once-nomadic people who depended on God for daily bread,
were, tragically, seduced by 
the extravagant life and abundant land in Canaan.
They no longer saw themselves as servants of 
the God of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger.
They no longer even recognized the core spiritual values
of the God who delivered them from Egypt.

Could that be our temptation today?
Could that be the seduction of life in 21st-century North America?
Do we even recognize the God that calls for our allegiance?
the God who is jealous for our future well-being,
for the shalom of our cities, our nation, our world, our planet?

We have choices available to us.
Here, at our Shechem,
at the crossroads of everything that tempts us,
we have a choice to make.
Who will we serve?
Israel had to decide.
The church today needs to decide.
As families, we need to decide.
We, individually, need to decide.

We might even say, that in some way,
God calls civil society to decide.
What kind of people do we want to be?
That’s one of the questions our political systems are faced with,
in this tumultuous time we live in.

But those on the receiving end 
of this challenging question in Joshua 24,
are the people of God who have a particular identity and calling:
to reflect the purposes of God to a watching world.

Who will you serve?
The Lord? 
or your idols?
The only true God and Creator of all,
who made you, and names you, and loves you?
or the many things in this world that distract you 
from worshiping the true God of all?
When we answer that question right,
we are also in a much better position 
to live well, in a chaotic and wounded world.

Reminds me of the great Bob Dylan song,
“Gotta Serve Somebody.”

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed.

And it goes on for about 8 or 9 verses like that.

If you want to be inspired sometime on YouTube,
when you get tired of cat videos,
listen to the blues great Etta James,
sing her version of Dylan’s song,
“You gotta serve somebody.”
You could worship to that!
In fact, I’ll play a 1-minute clip of it now.

You gotta serve somebody.
And those words are just as challenging to us today,
as they were when Joshua spoke them to the people of Israel.
“Choose this day whom you will serve!”

Sisters and brothers,
we live in distracting times.
We are at great danger, at all times,
of misdirecting our worship.
We are constantly at grave risk of the sin of idolatry,
the sin that offends God most.

God is a demanding and jealous God,
and I’m so grateful.
I need a clarifying purpose and focus,
in this world of constant distraction,
that pulls me in a dozen different directions,
but mostly, pulls me into myself,
encourages me to focus on my desires and my fears.
We need this gracious gift of a God 
who is jealous for our undivided loyalty.
Who wants all of us. All the time.
Who wants worship that is whole-hearted,
and whole-bodied,
and whole-minded.
God wants worshipers who are all in.

God’s jealousy is a gift to us all.
It saves us from a destructive self-obsession,
and keeps us aligned with God’s priorities 
for the poor and oppressed.
It’s a gracious gift to us that God is jealous
for our whole-hearted lives.
God’s jealousy is an expression both 
of God’s commitment to God’s cause, and
of God’s unconditional love for those of us
partnering in God’s cause.
God would not be so offended by our worship of idols,
if God didn’t love us so deeply and so unconditionally
and so irreversibly.
God wants us all in with God’s project,
because God is all in with us, to the end.
And God has made known to us
what will give us the most joyful, and free, and whole,
and flourishing human life.
And that is, alignment with God, and with God’s purposes.

This is where we start—with whole-hearted devotion,
offering our whole lives to God alone, in worship.
This is where we need to start whenever we talk about stewardship.
I didn’t even mention the word stewardship 
until here at my conclusion.
I don’t want anyone to think that we at Park View
are mostly interested in getting people to give their 10-percent
into our offering plate.
What we advocate for here is whole-life stewardship.
That we give it all, every moment, of every day,
in every situation we find ourselves.
Anything less is idolatry.

We might want to hold back some for selfish purposes.
But that is not what God is asking.

Let’s sing a hymn that talks about that exactly.
HWB 512 - a wonderful hymn text by Tom Troeger.

If all you want, Lord, is my heart 
my heart is yours alone 
providing I may set apart 
my mind to be my own.

If all you want, Lord, is my mind, 
my mind belongs to you, 
but let my heart remain inclined 
to do what it would do.

If heart and mind would both suffice, 
while I kept strength and soul, 
at least I would not sacrifice 
completely my control.

But since, O God, you want them all 
to shape with your own hand, 
I pray for grace to heed your call
to live your first command.

—Phil Kniss, November 12, 2017

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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Living as faithful witnesses

All Saints Day 2017
Matthew 5:1-12
Revelation 7:9-17

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Phil Kniss: How do I love thee, neighbor? Let me count the ways

The defining ethic of love
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-46

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Again, I found an unexpected treasure in the biblical text,
by approaching it in the most simple way I know.

I didn’t decide ahead of time,
on a topic to address, and a point to make,
and then search and find scripture verses
to support my topic and make my point.

These texts were handed to me, on a platter, by the lectionary calendar.
I started with them,
and tried to read them while paying attention
to their context, and mine.

Whenever we read scripture,
we read two worlds in conversation with each other—
the world of the text, and our world.
We try to understand what was written,
by whom, to whom,
on what occasion, and for what purpose.
And we try to read our own world,
aware of its wounds, its troubles, its violence,
and noticing its beauty, its goodness, its complexity.

So as I read the designated scriptures for this Sunday,
I brought to mind things already swirling in my mind and heart.

I’m sure I’m not the only one lately,
dealing with heaviness of spirit
as we navigate daily life in this broken world.
If you have your eyes open at all,
you can’t help but notice the emotional toll its taking
on our society, our culture.

There’s no letting up.
The many-layered woes of the world keep piling on.

Intractable global conflict threatens the peace of our planet,
from North Korea, to Afghanistan, to Nigeria,
to Israel-Palestine, to you name the place.

Natural disasters—superstorms, drought, wildfires—
are made more devastating because of climate change.
The loss of human life and community from this, is mind-blowing.

Political discourse in our society keeps hitting new lows,
from the White House on down.
Distortions, lies, insults, and plain old nastiness
is excused, and now so commonplace, as to appear normal.

And churches—local congregations and denominations alike—
struggle to maintain unity and keep up missional momentum,
in the face of a polarized and disillusioned membership.
All across the church, people are leaving in droves,
weary of all the divisive rhetoric,
grasping for some way forward
that embraces both radical truth-telling
and unconditional love and mutual respect for all.

Those are all the things going on in the background of daily life,
virtually all the time.

And as if that weren’t enough . . .
as if everything in the universe wasn’t already aligning itself
against any semblance of healing and hope for the future,
it got worse recently.

A couple weeks ago, as I began to think about these scripture texts
we were confronted anew by the shameful reality
that there continues to be widespread violence against women,
perpetrated largely by men in positions of power,
and covered up, kept in the shadows,
by people and systems that seem to have too much to lose,
to speak the hard truth, and break the cycle of violence.

And the scourge of white supremacy bubbled up again,
this time at the University of Florida, in Gainesville,
where our family spent seven years.

So it was that this preacher—
as I held in recent memory the hateful and violent actions
of white supremacists in Charlottesville, and elsewhere . . .
as I followed, with horror,
the revelations about Harvey Weinstein
and the code of silence that protected him so long,
as I saw millions of women
break the silence on sexual violence
by saying “me too” on social media—
so it was that I went to today’s texts,
especially the Old Testament reading from Leviticus,
and found what I think we need to hear today.

Leviticus is another one of those sections of scripture
that don’t show up very often in my sermons.
But this week, this passage, Leviticus 19,
practically shouted out to me.

Let me read it again, slowly,
as you hold in your awareness all these things I just named . . .
the emotional, physical, and sexual cruelty
we human beings inflict on each other,
the hatred and bigotry, and demeaning behavior on display
in the public arena,
and all manner of other ways we harm each other in this world.

Hear the word of the Lord . . .

1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel
and say to them: ‘Be holy . . . because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

15 “‘Do not pervert justice;
do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the powerful,
but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
I am the Lord.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge
against anyone among your people,
but love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the Lord.

In those few verses,
there are words that speak to any and everyone,
whatever their role, in these woes that we named.
There are words to challenge . . . confront . . . disturb . . .
and at times, comfort.

Leviticus is not to be dismissed, as a book.
I know, Leviticus is kind of the poster child
for irrelevant and arcane biblical material,
like details on how to cut meat when doing burnt offerings,
on why we may not eat rabbits and pigs,
but may eat locusts and crickets,
on how to treat skin disease,
on rules not to plant your field with two kinds of seed,
or make clothing of two different fabrics.
. . . and many, many more laws that make us scratch our heads.

But looking at the larger view,
Leviticus tells us that holiness matters, because God is holy.
This is about removing anything that would cut us off,
as a people,
from a vibrant relationship with the holy God
who loves us dearly.
It’s not so much about naming individual sins,
so individual sinners can be identified and punished.
It’s more about maintaining holiness in the community.
It establishes a ritual order for the people of Israel,
that mirrors the cosmic order that a holy God created.
Maintaining right order allows life to flourish,
chaos to be kept at bay,
and creates a space for God to dwell with God’s people.

Leviticus does not make a big distinction
between religious and secular concerns.
All of life matters—
what we eat, how we do business,
who we sleep with, how we care for the land,
how we relate to family, neighbors, and strangers.
Some of the specifics we are wise to set aside in our context,
as culturally-specific or time-limited.
This is why we observe, and hold with care,
the world of the text in one hand,
and our world in the other,
and do good discernment.
But ethics in daily life still matter.
There is still a holy God we relate to,
who asks us for a holy place in which to dwell.
So there is still “Gospel” in Leviticus.

Yes, when we speak of holiness,
there is a risk—a high risk—
that we fall into a legalistic score-keeping mentality,
and think of God’s love as a reward for good behavior,
and spend our time and energy keeping score on each other.
We have fallen off the wrong side of that ledge many times,
in our Mennonite history and tradition.

But we need not give up on holiness.
It is a core characteristic of God,
and a characteristic God wants us to also embody.

Holiness is how we can become whole persons,
as in, holistic, as in experiencing deep shalom.
Our lives before God are a unified whole.
God cares how we live, always, and in every arena.
And God is equally concerned with how we deal with God,
and how we deal with others.

As Jesus said, famously, in today’s Gospel reading,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . .
and . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Those are the two core commandments.

And of course, in that second command,
Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19.
This passage from Leviticus, ending with
“you share love your neighbor as yourself”—
gives details about what love of neighbor looks like, in life.
How do I love thee . . . neighbor?
How do I love thee?  Let Leviticus 19 count the ways.
(Sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

So it seems to me, that since Jesus quotes this chapter directly,
and the chapter gives us concrete examples of how we love,
then here is stuff from Leviticus we better pay attention to.

Parts of this text seem to point to opposite values.
But I don’t think they are conflicting ideas.
I see them as ideas that clarify and help interpret each other.

For instance,
Do not go about spreading slander . . .
and . . .
Rebuke your neighbor frankly.

If we only read the one, “do not go about spreading slander,”
we might be tempted to keep quiet in the face of evil.
And I think we often have erred on that side of the equation,
and gone silent when we should be speaking,
especially in the area of sexual violence,
and racial bigotry.
That’s why we also need the command,
“rebuke your neighbor frankly.”

Of course, if we only highlight the command to rebuke,
and ignore the rest of the passage—
commands like “judge your neighbor fairly”—
we might end up adding to the injuries already inflicted.
Even in rebuke, there must be justice, and truth, and yes, love.

Holding these together might help us find a way forward.

I especially am drawn to the command in v. 16.
“Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
I am the Lord.”

When one of these commands is followed by the statement,
“I am the Lord,”
it bears paying special attention.
It’s like an exclamation mark. Or all CAPS.
Here this now!!
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life!

What is so tragic in the area of sexual violence,
and racial bigotry,
and many other forms of human cruelty,
is that these acts of violence—
whether physical, sexual, verbal, or otherwise—
do, in fact, endanger life.
Every bit as much, and maybe more,
than an injury that draws blood or leaves a physical scar,
these acts keep someone created in the image of God—
for whom God desires wholeness, and joy, and freedom—
they keep them from living fully into God’s intention.
They endanger the life God gave them to live.

There is no room in my life as I aim for holiness,
and no room in a community that values holiness,
for us to use our power over another to
injure, demean, objectify, categorize,
or otherwise make another feel less than whole.

And those of us who hold the most power,
bear the most responsibility,
for changing the culture, and stopping the violence.

It’s up to all of us, of course,
but I feel a particular burden, as an older, white male,
given a position of leadership and authority in the church—
an institution where historically,
there has been a shameful amount of racial discrimination,
of gender inequity and injustice,
of sexual harrassment and abuse—
that I have a responsibility to lead us down a different path.

So let me make a few commitments to you, my church family.
Four, actually. And I was helped in articulating these four
by a recent blog post from MaryKate Morse,
a Quaker seminary professor.

My first commitment: I will—we will, as a church—
accept and believe the magnitude of the problem.
Racism is an evil that still deeply and widely infects our culture,
and expressions of racism, both personal and systemic,
are still alive and well in the church,
and in our minds and hearts, individually.
Sexual violence perpetrated by those in power,
against those in a place of lesser power,
is still an evil scourge that plagues our society,
and shows up everywhere there are people in power—
especially (although not only)
where men are in power over women.
Gender power imbalance is still a reality in the church,
so, predictably, sexual violence is still present in the church.
It is a pernicious sin, that we can never assume
is someone else’s problem, and not our own.
So we will accept and believe there is a problem
outside and inside the church.

Second, I commit to keep these problems on the table, and not under it.
I will not shy away from naming them
when I speak publicly.
And I will encourage smaller venues to keep these matters
out in the open,
in Faith Formation classes, small groups,
facilitated conversations, retreats, etc.
Doing so may help those already wounded,
from thinking they are alone,
or that the topic is not acceptable in church.

Third, I’d love to see the work we have done for protecting children,
in our Safe Church policy,
to be a model for developing a broader set of guidelines,
with clear and open channels of communication,
so if any woman, man, youth, or child
experiences any inappropriate touch or comment, or worse,
whether inside or outside the church,
they know where to go and what to do.

Fourth, I’d like us to be proactive
in providing some safe places where individual stories can be told,
and believed, and honored,
and where some healing can happen.
I’m open to ideas about what that might look like.
Talk to me, if you have thoughts on that.

Those are my commitments. Hold me to them.

Now, finally,
a few more comments on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does that mean when many of us
are not particularly good at loving ourselves.
How does self-love become a model for neighbor-love?

I think loving neighbor as self
has something to do with embracing our human complexity.

Even those of us who have trouble loving ourselves fully,
are nevertheless able, I believe,
to see ourselves as complex, multi-faceted beings.

Yes, we know that some parts of ourselves
are more praise-worthy than other parts.
Some parts we might readily love and embrace.
Other parts we might struggle with.
But we recognize our complexity.
We see the beautiful mystery of becoming fully human,
even though we have yet to arrive.
We know ourselves all too well,
to make the mistake of seeing ourselves one-dimensionally.
We don’t take a flat view of ourselves.
We look at ourselves from all kinds of angles.

Now, it will never be possible
to see as much complexity in our neighbors,
as we see in ourselves.
But I think loving our neighbor, as ourselves,
requires that we accept the fact, up front,
that our neighbors are just as beautifully complex as we are.
The constant temptation in human relationships
is to de-complexify, if that’s a word,
to reduce the other to categories.
It takes less energy to live that way,
because if we only see one dimension,
then we know how to respond,
we don’t have to agonize over someone’s complexity,
we don’t have to keep renegotiating the relationship.
It’s set, and done.

But it’s precisely that kind of one-dimensional thinking
toward the other,
that becomes the foundation for racist ideology,
and objectifying others sexually,
and leaves the door open for committing violence.
One-dimensional thinking is what creates enemies.

Sexually suggestive comments, or racist inuendo,
even those comments we might consider mild,
chip away at the humanity of the other.
They diminish our ability to love.

So let us all, I exhort you,
love each other, and love our neighbor, as ourselves.
And let us love the Lord our God, our holy God,
with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.

Being confronted with these two core commandments,
leads us, naturally, toward confession.
Because we recognize many ways we have failed to love like that.

I have come to appreciate and use,
the classic prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer—
printed in your bulletin this morning.
It’s a confession used in many traditions,
whenever the people gather to worship.
I have begun to use it in my own daily prayer time,
and it’s good to have it committed to memory.

I invite us to pray it together now . . . in unison.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Almighty God,
you freely pardon all who repent and turn to you,
now fulfill in every contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace;
forgiving our sin, and cleansing us from evil,
through the sacrificial work of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, October 29, 2017

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