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Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 1:1, 17-27 AND Psalm 130:1-8,Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24 OR Lamentations 3:22-33 AND Psalm 30:1-12,, II Corinthians 8:7-15, Mark 5:21-43

One of my grandfathers died in a tragic farm accident when I was nine years old.  I spent a lot of time on that dairy farm, playing in the barn and running around the orchard.  I dearly loved that man, but I was too young to know how to grieve.

In my thirties when I going through an intense career assessment experience that involves hours of testing and counseling, lots of old memories were dredged up.  After the first of three days, I dreamed about my grandfather’s house all afire. I woke, sat up, and turned to my wife, saying, “I need to cry for my grandfather.”

There’s something in us that experiences great loss when someone we love dies.  Grieving seems to be an essential part of the human makeup.  Some of us come to it with a Christian faith that says death is not the final word.  Some are uncomfortable in the presence of tears and want to find a way to bring them to an end.  We try to make a Christian funeral an occasion for celebration, and so it can be, but sometimes it is approached in a way that suppresses the grief.  Unfortunately it is not buried with the body, forever to remain out of sight.  It will likely resurface some day in some way.

“This too shall pass” or similar words are often offered as comfort to those who are in the middle of grieving.  They may not seem, at the time, like much comfort, as if we are being rushed into forgetting what we have lost, the good with the bad.  At the same time, “This too shall pass” seems to be a theme found in several of this week’s lectionary readings.  They are about death and grief—the celebration and hope that surround those moments, which, in the long scale of time are but for a moment.

The reading from II Samuel records a response by David to the death of Saul and his son, Jonathan, both killed in battle.  (I Samuel 31:1-II Samuel 1:1) David sings a song of praise.  (II Samuel 1:17-18)  He overlooks the conflicts he has had with Saul, the division that arose between Saul and his son because of Jonathan’s love for David.  Memorial services tend to do that, and maybe they are not the time to find healing for those wounds.  We need to find it sometime in some way, though.

On this occasion, David sings, “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!  In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.  O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul ...”  (vss. 23-24)   David’s grief is intensified because of his close relationship with Jonathan, mentioned in last week’s blog.  He cries out, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”  (vs. 26)

(We should note that another theme that could be picked up in this song David sings is the seeming futility of war.  Three times he cries out, “How the mighty have fallen!”  (vss. 19, 25, & 27)   In verse 27, he adds, “the weapons of war perished!”   How that phrase cries out for comment!  Does war reduce human beings so that they are described simply as “weapons of war”?   Is it only when the mighty fall that we consider making this the last of all wars in which human life is lost?)

Others of the readings are written during a time of grief but hold the promise of another day.  Psalm 130 begins with these words: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”   The writer is longing for something better, waiting “more than those who watch for the morning.”  (vs. 6, see also vss. 4-5)   If the implication of morning after the lingering darkness is implicit in Psalm 130, it is explicit in Psalm 30.  “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning ... You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”  (vss. 5 & 11)   The reading from Lamentations declares that God’s mercies “are new every morning.”  (Lamentations 3:22-230

The Gospel reading from Mark, chapter 5, is another of those troubling stories of miraculous healing and resurrection—one bracketed within another.  Jairus comes to Jesus because his daughter “is at the point of death.”  He wants Jesus to come lay his hands on her, “so that she may be made well, and live.”  (vs. 23)   On the way a woman “suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” touches his cloak and is healed.  (vss. 25-29)   By the time Jesus reaches Jairus’ home, there is full-blown grief because they believe that his daughter has already died.  (vss. 35-38)   Jesus says, “No, she’s just sleeping.”   He goes in, takes her hand, and tells her to get up, which she does.  (vss. 40-42)

I don’t really know what to make of all this.  I observe that faith is involved.  Jesus says to the woman who touched him, “Daughter, your faith has made you well ...”  (vs. 34)   I notice that touch is important, the woman touching Jesus, Jesus taking the hand of Jairus’ daughter.  Even the sophisticated and educated healing professionals of our day recognize the power of touch during suffering and grief (and other times, for that matter).  Sometimes the best thing we can do when someone is grieving is to touch them, just a gentle touch on the shoulder or maybe a hearty hug.  A colleague once told me, several years after a time of deep grief he was going through, that he remembered how I touched him when I met him in the hall one day.  He remembered it as a healing moment.

The most important thing I take from stories such as these is the truth that suffering and death are not the final word about what happens to us human beings.  They are things that will pass.  Others of this week’s readings make it clear that they are not what God desires for us.  The Wisdom of Solomon says, “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”  (Wisdom of Solomon 1:13)   The reading from Lamentations ends with the declaration the God “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”  (Lamentations 3:33)   Psalm 30 says, “For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.”  (Psalm 30:5)   This too shall pass!

The epistle reading from II Corinthians doesn’t seem to fit the theme.  It is about following the example of Christ who, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  (II Corinthians 8:9)   Paul has been collecting money to assist those in need in Jerusalem.   (See 8:1-6 and 9:1-5)   The Macedonian Christians have responded generously.  Now it is the Corinthians turn.  “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”  (8:1)   It is a matter of fairness—“a fair balance between your present abundance and their need . . . As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” (vss. 13-15)

It is a reminder that we are here as a resource of support and encouragement to one another.  It’s how God’s love—demonstrated in Jesus Christ—works.  It applies when we are grieving as well as when we are in physical need.  Through our touch and our songs and our presence we bear testimony to the fact that “This too shall pass!”
Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49 AND Psalm 9:9-20 OR I Samuel 17:57-18:5, 18:10-16 AND Psalm 133:1-3 OR Job 38:1-11 AND Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, II Corinthians 6:1-3, Mark 4:35-41

Nobody ever said life was all smooth sailing.  We weren’t promised that all would be well all of the time.  The message of faith is that we can face what comes our way, that we need not fear giants and storms because they cannot ultimately destroy us.  Faith is about hope rather than fear.  It is about inner strength rather than weapons of war.  Many treasured biblical stories, including some in this week’s lectionary readings, are full of threat, demonstrating how faith faces threat.

Let’s start with giants.  The obstacles we face sometimes seem like giants who can crush us with one stomp.  (See Numbers 13:25-33)   If we choose the first reading from I Samuel, we have the beloved David and Goliath story.  As I’ve gotten older, it has become less beloved.  It is a story about war with a pretty gory ending, the cutting off of the giant’s head.  I suppose one could argue better the slaughter of one man than a whole tribe—or do as this reading does: stop before you get to that part of the story.

The hero of the story is a lowly shepherd, filled with faith and character, who rises to become the iconic king of the “Golden Age” of Israel.  It is this David, in fact, who becomes the model for the hoped-for Messiah.  It is important in the early church that Jesus comes from the line of David.  It is David alone who is willing to face the challenge of the Philistine giant.  All the others “were dismayed and greatly afraid.”  (I Samuel 17:10-11)  They laugh at David, saying, “ . . . you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”  (vs. 33)   David recalls his experience protecting the sheep from lions and bears.  (vs. 34-36)

It turns out, though, not to be typical warfare.  One doesn’t need heavy armor to face down the giants and challenges of life.  The armor will probably just get in the way.  David rejects the armor and defeats the giant with a slingshot and a single stone.  (vss. 38-40 & 49)

In a similar manner, the reading from II Corinthians talks about facing “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” with “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute.”  (II Corinthians 6:4-8)

The gospel lesson turns us from a giant to a storm, equally fearful to those in the middle of it.  (Mark 4:37)   It doesn’t seem to bother Jesus much.  He apparently would have slept right through it if they had let him.  (vs. 38)   He awakes, quiets the storm as if it were all in a day’s (or moment’s) work, and rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith.  (vss. 39-40)   There’s not much practical advice in this brief reading—only that faith is more powerful than fear.  Repeatedly in scripture we are told not to be afraid.  We still have not heard that admonition very well.  Fear so often dominates politics and relationships, even our inner psyches.  Going down that road leads to sure defeat, so why do we keep falling into the trap of fear?

Psalm 107 speaks also of a “stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.”  (Psalm 107:25)  The courage of those who “went down to the depths . . . melted away in their calamity; they reeled and staggered like drunkards, and were at their wits’ ends.”  (vss. 26-27)   As in the Gospel lesson the Lord “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”  (vss. 28-29)   The context is the “steadfast love” of the Lord which “endures forever.”  That declaration sandwiches the reading—in verse one and verse 31.  It helps when we face giants and storms to know that we are loved unconditionally, to know that we are held in a love which cannot be destroyed.  As we were told in a recent lectionary reading from I John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . .”  (I John 4:18)

Notice that the reading from II Corinthians also ends with a focus on love—this time not God’s love but Paul’s love for the Corinthians, which he hopes is mutual.  “ . . . our heart is wide open to you.  There is no restriction in our affections . . . In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.”  (II Corinthians 6:11-13)   Don’t be afraid when you face all the afflictions I have mentioned, Paul seems to be saying.  Like Jesus in the boat, he is calling his readers to have faith, because they are bound together in love.  An open heart need not be afraid.

There’s a storm in the reading from Job as well—a whirlwind, real or imagined.  Job has been railing against God about the unfairness of life.  In the storm God reminds Job of how little he knows and understands about the way things work, so that Job is eventually left with nothing but faith.  Most of the reading is an extension of verse 2: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  (Job 38:2)    The questions continue on for three chapters until Job responds, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  (Job 43:3, 5-6)   Sometimes we try to conquer the challenges of life by trying to understand them, or by complaining about their unfairness.  Certainly understanding is something to be pursued and unfairness is something to be confronted.
Sometimes, though, we need to recognize our limits and simply trust, by embracing the storm and finding God in the middle of it giving us the assurance that in the end all will be well.

The second reading from I Samuel continues the story of the rising popularity of David.  It’s less about facing giants and storms and more about the storms that can rise when someone of humble beginnings becomes a threat to the powers that be.  David has become a threat to Saul.  (I Samuel 18:5)   Possessed by an evil spirit (and aren’t the powerful too often seemingly possessed by evil spirits), Saul throws spears at David.  David eludes him twice.  (vss. 10-11)   We’re told that Saul was afraid of him. (vs. 12)   There’s fear at work again.  It has become a popularity contest in which “all Israel and Judah loved David.”  (vs. 16)   Even Saul eventually stands “in awe of him.”  (vs. 15)

Tucked into the reading is another intriguing story about love between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son.  The back story includes tension between Jonathan and his father.  (See I Samuel, chapter fourteen, for some insight into that.)   Jonathan falls hard for David.  “ . . . the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul . . . Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”  (I Samuel 18:1-3)   Is it too much of a stretch to wonder if this is a “marriage” of sorts?   Whatever the nature of the relationship it is a story of two men who are soul mates and love each other deeply?  Does this contribute to Saul’s ill humor?  Whatever the nature of the relationship, it is always easier to face the storms of life, even the threat of death, when one is not alone, when one is surrounded with love as David seemed to be.

Psalm 103, the remaining Psalm, has only three verses.  It is too short to develop much of a narrative, yet it has one verse that has become a favorite of many, including former President Lyndon Johnson.  “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  (vs. 1)  In the context of this week’s blog theme, maybe it calls us to first look for common ground when we face giants and storms in our lives.

Giants and storms will come, and it will take everything we have to get through them, including those three mighty weapons, faith, hope, and love—the greatest of which, I Corinthians 13 tells us, is love.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 15:34-16:13 AND Psalm 20:1-9, OR Ezekiel 17:22-24 AND Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, II Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:25-34

It seems to be almost inherent in human interaction.  We find ways to measure ourselves against one another.  Sociologists call it a status system.  Often it’s based on the quantity and quality of our possessions.  Sometimes it’s based on beauty and physical prowess.  By the very nature of things, it pretty much has to be something external and observable—outward appearances.  One of the themes running through this week’s lectionary texts is the suggestion for an alternative—perhaps inward focus in measuring what is of worth in human life and interaction.

We have Samuel coming to Bethlehem to seek someone to replace King Saul.  (I Samuel 16:1) According to instruction from the Lord, the new king is to come from Jesse’s sons.  (vs. 3)  Notice that the people of Bethlehem don’t expect this to be a peaceable thing.  They tremble and ask, “Do you come peaceably?” (vs. 4)

Isn’t it sad that transitions in leadership are so often filled with venom and violence?  Even with our American democratic tradition where there is an “orderly” process for such transitions, elections often degenerate into a time of gross incivility.  Even in a period of considerable violence in biblical history, Samuel responds with a clear word, “Peaceably,” suggesting that there is another way.  (vs. 5)

The alternative way this time involves calling the candidates one by one, so the Samuel can announce the one the Lord has chosen.  (See vss. 6-11)  It doesn’t sound very democratic when compared with American ideals.  In the process, however, we are treated to a look at what matters in leadership.  Samuel (speaking for the Lord) makes it clear from the beginning that he is not looking for the usual outward signs that seem sometimes to influence who gets elected.  “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . .; for the Lord does not see as mortals sees; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (vs. 7)   It’s interesting that, when David is chosen, he is nevertheless described as “ruddy” with “beautiful eyes” and “handsome.”  (vs. 12)   Oh well, they were only human—but is also true that we remember David as a person of sensitive heart (still with some significant shortcomings), a musician and sherpherd and poet.  And the Lord, through Samuel, has put before us an ideal the moves beyond looking only upon outward appearances.

It’s there in II Corinthians, chapter five, also, where Paul is, among other things, examining himself and trying to help his readers see into his heart.  He looks at his life and thinks it might be better if he made his way to be “at home with the Lord.”  (II Corinthians 5:6-8)   Drawing his readers to consider his ministry, he says, “We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart.”  (vs. 12)   Paul has already talked about walking “by faith, not by sight” (vs. 7), and now he contrasts the heart and outward appearance.  Those whose lives have been empowered by the love of Christ are called to see things in an entirely new way, regarding “no one from a human point of view.”  (vs. 15)   The infusion of love has the power to make it seem like “there is a new creation,” as if “everything has become new!”  (vs. 17)   Paul states, in considerations about being at home with the Lord, makes it clear that “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”  (vs. 9)   It is not our outward physical circumstances that are the measure of our worth.  It is the aims of our hearts.  Psalm 20:7, included in this week’s readings, says, “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.  They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.”

We human beings are often impressed with size.  I am awed by deep canyons and majestic peaks, and, yes, I notice and admire the mansions along portions of the Columbia River north of Vancouver—even as I apply some critical judgment.  Human values often judge a family in terms of the size of their home.  Several of this week’s scriptures, however, remind us not to overlook the potential in what is small.

The reading from Mark compares the realm of God’s love to a mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  (Marks 4:31-32)   It is not the ultimate size that is important, but growth and bearing fruit and nurturing the life that settles in the branches of what grows from love.  Seeds are planted and something grows from them, “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”  (vss. 26-28)

Similarly, in the reading from Ezekiel, the Lord takes “a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar,” breaking off “a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs.”  (Ezekiel 17:22)   He plants it in order that “it may produce boughs and bear fruit . . . Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every king . . . I will bring low the high tree, I will make high the low tree.”  (vss. 23-24)

In measuring human worth, then, let’s not overlook the small within which there is great potential.  Let us look not just to those who flaunt their self-satisfied achievement; let us notice where growth is taking place, growth in inward being not just in outward appearances.

At age 72+ I find words in Psalm 92 challenging.  It again speaks of growth.  “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”  (vs. 12)   Then, these words: “In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”  (vs. 14)   Okay, some days I feel like a sap.  More seriously, there are some days I feel a little dry and withered.  I read Paul’s words and wonder where life is taking me in these final decades.  In Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach (also author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull), a barn-storming pilot comes into possession of a “Messiah’s Handbook” filled with proverb-like words of wisdom.  One of them says, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

I’m alive!  You’re alive!  It isn’t over yet!  So, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, let’s consider what it would mean if we were to say, with Paul, “we make it our aim to please him.”
Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Lectionary Scriptures: I Samuel 8:4-20m 11:14-15 AND Psalm 138:1-8 OR Genesis 3:8-15 AND Psalm 130:1-8, II Corinthians 4:13-5:1, Mark 3:20-35

Some of us have fallen into almost despair as the civility of political discourse has made it seem more like a gutter brawl than a conversation among civil men and women about the welfare of humanity.  I have come to the United Church of Christ after serving many years as a pastor and administrator with the American Baptist Churches in the USA.  Like many denominations, it became wracked with divisions over issues that threatened to tear the fabric of American life.  Some of us had worked hard to lead our denomination in finding Common Ground.  I had worked with a fellow pastor whose views on some of those issues differed sharply from my own.  We had led conferences, with some success, to encourage open and loving conversation.  Then we attended a particularly bitter national convention about 10 years ago.  My colleague and I happened to meet outside the convention hall.  We stood there in tears and asked how things had ever gotten to this point.  I still don’t have a clear answer to that question.  I’m grateful now to be part of the United Church of Christ where I no longer have to endure that level of divisiveness.

I believe this week’s lectionary readings address such divisions, beginning with Jesus’ declaration, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”  (Mark 3:24-25)    Jesus has been accused, by his family, of having “gone out of his mind.”  (vs. 21)   He has claimed to have authority to cast out demons (vs. 15) and they suggest that perhaps it is because he himself has been possessed by Satan.  (vs. 22)   He scoffingly suggests that that would pit Satan against himself, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

It never makes sense to be pitted against oneself, but it happens in individual psyches, in families, in congregations and denominations, and in and among nations and groups.  When that happens, things begin to fall apart.  Many of us weep when that happens.  To see a body to which we are deeply committed begin to self-destruct is certainly cause for weeping.

There is the hint of solution in verse 28.  It speaks of forgiveness, as does Psalm 130:4 when it declares of the Lord, “ . . . there is forgiveness with you.”  There’s also, in Mark 3:29, the puzzling reference to those who cannot be forgiven—“whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”  I grew up with too much effort put into that reference.  Here it applies to accusing Jesus of having “an unclean spirit” (vs. 30) which I take as highlighting the destructiveness that occurs when we confuse good and evil.  We look at good people doing good things and suggest that they are doing the devil’s work.  It is another way of looking at a house divided against itself.

Then, this Gospel lesson ends with a redefinition of our connections with one another.  Rather than being divided we are to be like family, like brother and sister and mother.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  (vs. 35—See from vs. 31 on)

The reading from I Samuel reads like something out of today’s political discussion about taxes and about the abuse of power.  The people come to Samuel wanting him to appoint a king, “like the other nations.”  (I Samuel 8:4-5)   Samuel has a conversation with Lord about it, and the people are given fair warning.  This is what a king will do: “ . . . he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots . . . . He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.  He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.”  (vss. 8-17—See entire section from verse 7-18)   The people didn’t listen and, in my opinion, the rest of I & II Samuel and I & II Kings are an extended, “I told you so.”  The people suffer the consequence of choosing the way of power in the manner of other nations.

I don’t want to suggest that this text be used as fodder in an anti-tax movement.  I believe paying taxes is part of responsible citizenship.  I do see this text of an illustration of how easily power can divide so that the rich try to subdue the poor and the oppressed rise up in rebellion.  When our eyes are on power and the obtaining and use of power as the solution to our ills, we are in danger of becoming a house divided against itself.    That’s not the way of the Lord.  “ . . . he regards the lowly;” we are told in Psalm 138:6, “but the haughty he perceives from far away.”

The reading from Genesis is also a story of division.  Adam has eaten of the forbidden fruit and immediately the accusations begin.  The woman made me do it, Adam says.  (Genesis 3:12)   The serpent tricked me, the woman says.  (vs. 13)

We could talk about nakedness and the loss of innocence in this story.  Adam feels vulnerable so he covers his nakedness.  (vs. 10)   We often try to hide our true selves.  Doing so, I would suggest, is often the beginning of division.  Certainly that is the end result in this story.  It describes a great rift between men and women.  One need not take this to be a literal and eternally immutable condition to realize that trickery and blame lead to a house divided against itself.  Wherever those occur, all that we value is in danger of falling.  Certainly we see far to much trickery and blame in the politics and relationships of this life from households and congregations to nations and global affairs.

The reading from II Corinthians seems to take us in a different direction, focusing more on persisting through times of trouble into a hopeful future.  (II Corinthians 4:16-17)  That them would be fine, but I also see in it a concern for looking beyond outward appearances and discovering realities not seen by physical observation.  “ . . . we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”  (vs. 18)   What if we paid more attention to those eternal things in the here and now?  They’re here you know.  What if we paid less attention to the outward realities of one another and saw instead the eternal value of each person?  Idealistic?  Yes, but if we could go even a little way down that road we might be able to move beyond some of our divisions.  We so often build divisions according to what we look like and what we think.  Instead, suppose we looked at one another with loving and forgiving eyes and saw that we are all family.  Perhaps we could begin to dwell, even now on this earth, “a house not made with hands.”  (II Corinthians 5:1)

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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