Sunday, June 19, 2016

Pentecost 5, 2016: Cultivating seeds of divine love

Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a; Psalm 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

(Note: I preached from notes today, so the audio text will be expanded from the notes below)

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Intro: the preacher thanks the intercessor who added the intention of the Orlando shooting to our prayers last Sunday. We had no idea the scope of this tragedy as it would unfold throughout the days to come.

As we drove home from her, I got a call from my mother. She was panicked to know that my daughter (who is a lesbian) was OK. My daughter lives hundreds of miles from Orlando, but it wasn’t a rational fear my mother was experiencing. She was touching the fear every LGBTQAI (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Asexual, Intersex) sisters and brothers experience everyday: the fear of being hurt or killed because of their sexual identity.

Share Rev. Wayne Nicholson’s (St. John’s, Mt. Pleasant, MI) letter (See below). This is the time for their voice, not ours. We, who are allies, must listen to them and what they need.

…We had awoken, of course, to the horrific news from Orlando: Forty-nine people shot dead at a gay bar by a murderer with an AK-15 assault rifle, 53 others seriously wounded.

To my GLBTQ community, I am with you with a broken heart, I share your anger, your fear, your love.

To my heterosexual community, I am with you also, but you must understand: This was not just an attack on Americans, this was not just the act of an Islamist lone-wolf terrorists, this was the murder of forty-nine people because he assumed they were gay. This was the murder of men and women, straight and gay, brothers, lovers, friends, uncles, sons, daughters, and at least one mom. Because they were in a gay bar. Not a "youth club" or any other sort of nightclub, a gay bar. (I'll not rant my disappointment at public leaders, including leaders of our own Church, who have avoided saying "gay" club... And I send my thanks to the Lt. Governor of Utah, of all people, and the Bishop of West Tennessee, who have not shied away from the acronym LGBT nor the word "gay.")

You must understand, also, that GLBTQ people, no matter how "out," no matter how confidently visible, live in constant, constant anxiety: "Why is that person looking at me? Am I safe? Can I touch my husband's hand here at Ric's?" We check our surroundings, we look over our shoulders, we avoid any public display of affection that you would take for granted because we never know who might take offense, who might be outraged, who might be dangerous. This is our life. Every. Damn. Day.

And now for some of us that anxiety has returned. Three weeks ago I was in the pulpit. Midway through the sermon a man entered the back of the church, a man I didn't recognize. He was taking the back pew, eyes forward toward the Altar (or me), reaching in his pocket. For some reason I had this moment of fear: "Who is he? Why is he late? Why is he reaching in his pocket? Does he have a gun? Is my time up?" And then, by grace, my fear abated with the thought and prayer, "All shall be well."

Homegrown terrorism is a fact. Accessibility to weapons created to kill large numbers of people is a fact. Right-wing extremism is a fact. Denunciation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people is a fact. And it is reprehensible and un-Christian. And it contributes to terrorism. I believe that companies which sell AK-15 rifles, people who espouse fanaticism of any sort, and so-called Christian leaders who tell me I am intrinsically disordered, who say the people in the bar got what they deserved, who shun me because of who I love, are complicit in the tragedy of Orlando. They all have blood on their hands.

But I must return to the thought and prayer, "All shall be well." And I must heed the words of St. Paul that "faith without works is dead." Prayer is good. But prayer isn't enough. I must speak out, I must name the crime for what it was.

And I must love, and I must have hope.

In Christ,

Wayne is right: prayer isn’t enough. We must also act in solidarity with our LGBTQAI family – listening to them as they tell us, their allies, what they need from us – and in our gospel today, Jesus demonstrates for us exactly how to do that. It’s a spiritual habit any of us, in fact, all of us, can and should cultivate.

Before we get to that, let’s review a few things in this story.

1. NAMES (last week): “magnify the name of God.” The 8th chapter of Luke begins by naming the women following Jesus, which was the conclusion of our lectionary reading last Sunday. The issue of naming was very important in the culture of Jesus’ time.
• appellation
• (Hebraic) how you are known… details and feelings that one experiences upon hearing the name. E.g.: Francis of Assisi. Watch any victim of violence respond to hearing the name of their perpetrator.

2. DEMONS (Today): Anyone who speaks of demons is considered unsophisticated, superstitious, unscientific.
• E.g.” Legion” would be listed in the DSM 5 as Multiple Personality Disorder (at least on the first axis)
• “Not in their right mind” is a phrase we still use today, but we hear it as someone who would benefit from therapy, medication, or medical intervention (elderly person with an UTI)

All that may be true, but as one commentator put it: would therapy have stopped Hitler? Would medication have changed the murderous way Stalin or Pol Pot or Idi Amin?

There’s more to this concept of demons than science can manage.

Luke describes Mary Magdalene as one from whom 7 demons had gone out.
• In ancient Biblical understanding, the number seven:spiritual perfection, completeness, and the work or action of God.
• Demons – devils: general divine agency/a higher power. Later it was used to refer to destructive power, esp. morally.

I’ve heard many refer to addiction as a demon - destructive power. My experience with the chronic repetition of destructive lifestyle of some abuse victims affirms this too.

The demoniac, however he is understood, is possessed by a destructive force. How Jesus acts in this story is remarkable:

1) Jesus went to the demoniac (everyone else ran away in fear) and began a relationship with him where he was, as he was.
2) Jesus asked him his name.
3) Jesus listened to him and gave him what he asked for.

The symbolism in this story is so rich. Let’s listen to some of them in spiritual – not literal – terms:
• a Gentile (a despised outsider) living among the dead
• naked (unclothed by the spirit of Christ), wild (spiritually undisciplined), and bound with chains (sin)
• Legion: a Roman army of about 6,000 soldiers. It symbolized “the occupying forces whose power was overwhelming and whose presence meant the loss of control over every dimension of their society.” (Source: Keith F. Nickel, Preaching the Gospel in Luke, 120)
• the abyss (bottomless pit of nothingness, powerlessness)
• the pigs (unclean, despised by Jews)
• the drowning
• the rebirth of the man
• the fear of the onlookers

So, what’s the spiritual habit I mentioned we need to cultivate as followers of Christ? It was in our Collect: perpetual love. We need to walk into relationship with the demoniacs we encounter. We can be willing to walk into their darkness confident of the light of Christ we bear. It takes practice and there are parameters to follow:

1. Walk to them.
2. Don’t judge them or try to fix them. Just love them.
3. Listen to them as a prayer (meaning behind the words).
4. Stand still while God works.
5. Recognize that most people are afraid of change.
6. Remember a divine seed is being planted.

Jesus sent the man home with instruction to tell everyone the great things God had done for him. This was a seed of divine love planted by Jesus and harvested later by St. Paul in his ministry to the Gentiles.

The lesson for us as members of the body of Christ is: Detach from outcomes. Sometimes we are asked to simply to plant a seed, not to reap a harvest.

As we did with “seeing” one another last week, I pray you will practice and build this new spiritual habit of perpetual love here, with one another, then take it out there to the world – magnifying the name of God in the world.

Close with prayer/poem by St. John of the Cross as a response to the Orlando shooting.

It’s called: "If you love"

You might quiet the whole world for a second
if you pray.

And if you love, if you
really love,

our guns will wilt. (Source: Daniel Ladinsky, trans., Love Poems from God, Penguin Compass, 2002, p. 317)


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Pentecost 4 2016: Reconciling "seeing"

Lectionary1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Preacher: The Very Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, supply priest at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Mills River, NC

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En el nombre de Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

We begin our worship every Sunday with the Collect for Purity. It’s a Collect because we are asking God to collect us from our various life situations and perspectives into a single state of mind that in our worship we may be one body, one spirit in Christ. Let’s listen to it again: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (BCP, 355)

We talked last week about the “inspiration” of the Holy Spirit – God breathing God’s self into our bodies, into our lives. This Collect reminds us that it is by divine “inspiration” that we are able love God completely and magnify the name of God. To magnify is to reveal the nature of God by what we think, do, and say; and the name of God is God’s identity.

My experience anymore is that God is too often magnified by God’s people as a gun-toting, foreigner-hating, American flag-waving judge who is waiting to smite anyone who makes a mistake or violates a law. Either that, or God is far away in some heavenly realm, removed from the vicissitudes of life on earth, instead deputizing certain members of the people of God to judge, punish, and even kill those who are determined to be sinners in our midst.

Yet our readings show us something very different. They reveal a God who knows us intimately and loves us all - and I mean ALL- deeply; a God who sees beyond our behavior, our reputation, and our titles to the truth about us. They show us the merciful nature of God who, seeing our sins – which is anything that divides us from one another or from God - forgives us and opens space for us to change, that we might do the same for one another.

First, however, we must trust God enough to open our eyes and our hearts to know our own sin, especially our invisible sin – which is the sin we can’t or won’t see. Most of us resist this, I know I do, but it’s very clear in these Scripture stories that God isn’t leading us to an awareness of our sin in order to shame us or punish us but to encourage us to live differently, to live as people who magnify the true name of God.

Jesus demonstrates this by telling the story of the two debtors. One debtor owed much, the other half as much. Their creditor cancels both of their debts, and Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee: who will love the creditor more? Simon answers correctly: The one who had greater debt.

Then Jesus turns to the woman and asks Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?’ Simon was caught up short because he hadn’t really seen her. He’d only seen what he believed about her – that she was a sinner. He’d seen what she was doing – intimately touching Jesus with her hair loosed (a very suggestive detail in the gospel) which confirmed his conclusion that she was a sinner. Feeling justified, Simon had condemned the woman in his thoughts, but he hadn’t actually seen her.

When Jesus looked at the woman he saw, and publicly described, the joy of a life restored, the light of her love and gratitude pouring forth as tears that washed his feet. When he looked at Simon, he saw the sin of spiritual pride, the interior darkness of Simon’s judgement against both the woman and himself. You see, Simon’s lack of hospitality toward Jesus was a proverbial slap in the face to Jesus and Jesus called him on it saying, ‘You gave me no kiss, no water for my dusty feet, no oil to anoint my head…’

The gospel story demonstrates for us all how God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known and no secrets are hid, sees the truth about each of us and reveals it to us so that we can be set free from what divides us and begin to live together in reconciliation. Jesus’ public proclamation of forgiveness set the woman free from the habit of her former life, a life which held her bound in the chains of poverty, shame, and contempt. It also set Simon free from the invisible bonds of his privilege, bonds that strangled the love right out of him and blinded him to the truth about himself, others, and even God.

Seeing and being seen in this way transforms us. When I am attacked by a Simon who has misjudged me, or when I’m drowning in my own insecurities, I can look into my husband’s eyes or my children’s eyes, or even my dog’s eyes, and see myself as they see me, and I am healed.

When I look into the eyes of the beggar as I hand him my dollar, he sees my love and respect for him, and there’s that moment of surprise, a hiccup in time where both of us know we are truly “seeing” each other. It’s a vulnerable place to be. What if the beggar sees my sin? We are, after all, both sinners saved by grace. Perhaps this is the true reason we often look away…

In every church, every community, everywhere you look, there are people who won’t get along; people who judge another based on what they think about them or their behavior – without really “seeing” them. Yet every Sunday when we gather for Holy Eucharist, we have the opportunity to practice during the Exchange of Peace what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel: to “see” our neighbors; to connect with them, forgive them or ask their forgiveness if that’s what’s needed; to notice and let go of whatever divides us. Only when we are reconciled to one another are we to approach the table for Holy Communion.

I have to admit: I love a chaotic exchange of peace. I love the love that descends upon us like a cloud covering us and permeating us. I also love the transformation that can happen when we use this weekly opportunity to really “see” one another; to forgive and be forgiven, and to live together differently afterwards as a result. It is by practicing this in here that we are made ready to worthily magnify the name of God out there.

So today, I have a 3-part challenge for us:

1) I challenge us to choose to really “see” our neighbors today as we offer one another the sign of peace.

2) I challenge each of us to find one person we need to forgive and go forgive them; or one person whose forgiveness we need, and ask for it. This might be forgiveness like the woman in the gospel received for something we did, or the forgiveness like Simon received for something we thought.

3) Finally, having practiced this kind of reconciling “seeing” here in church, I challenge us to make one opportunity to practice it out there in the world and come back next Sunday, our last Sunday together with me as your presider, and share our stories about how it went.

Let’s close with prayer. “Christ our true and only Light: receive our morning prayers, and illumine the secrets of our hearts with your healing goodness, that… we [may be] made new in the light of your heavenly grace. Amen.” (Source: Gelassian Sacramentary)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Pentecost 3, 2016: Living compassionately like Jesus did

Extemporaneous sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Mills River, NC. Transcribed.
Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24), Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

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En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

The Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading bring up for us the concept of compassion -as distinct from the concept of pity. Pity is a thought. Compassion is an act. So, I want to talk about that word for just a minute. The Greek work that we translate as “compassion” literally means, “ to feel the bowels yearn.” For the ancient people this was the seat of compassion. This (points to gut) is what we would call heart. This (points to head) was the location of thought, as for us.

So, when Jesus had compassion on the widow whose son had just died, leaving her penniless, homeless, and without protection, basically, she was to become a beggar until she died – he felt a yearning in his bowels. For the ancient peoples, the bowel was the location of love.

So in his body, Jesus felt the stirring of love. We know that God is love. So the stirring in our bowels is the stirring of God, acting in us. He said to the young man - our Scripture interprets it as, “Rise,” but what it actually says, the Greek work says, “Awake,” “Wake up.” which he did, and he gave him to his mother.

Now the story in Elijah and the story in Luke are almost identical. Elijah hears the spirit of God stirring in him and the first thing the Spirit of God says to him is, “Go.” The Scripture starts with, “The word of God came to Elijah…” The word of God, the logos of God, the action of God, came to Elijah and said, Go. Go to Zarapheth and there you’ll find a widow; and she’s going to give you something to eat because I have commanded that that happen.

So the word of God, the command of God is creative, is it not? In Genesis, God created √°dam, which means human, and eve, which means first, and breathed life into their nostrils and they were alive. They became human. (Gen 2: 7). Job, in the book of Job says, ‘the spirit of God made me, but the breath of God gives me life.’ (Job 33:4) And in John, you remember that just recently we read about the upper room just after the crucifixion and the disciples are all afraid, and their behind a locked door; and Jesus passes right through the locked door, and what does he do? He breathes on them and he breathes his own spirit into them; his own life into the apostles including the women.

So Jesus says to the young man, Wake up. Compassion. The compassion that we’re given in these stories show us the compassion of God and the compassion we should have for one another. God says to Elijah, go to that widow. And he does, and the miracle happens with the bread and the oil; and he eats, and she continues to eat. Then her son dies – and she blames Elijah: you shouldn’t have even brought us to God’s attention because now my son is dead.

But what happens in Elijah? The spirit of God stirs in his bowels and he’s upset. And he goes to God and says, why are you bringing calamity on this woman? And he takes the child and brings him up and lays down on him. He takes his own body, his own life and lays on the boy and he says to God, please, please, please, bring life back to this boy.

But in the story in Luke, Jesus sees this woman walking in the funeral procession and knows that she’s a widow and that her only son has died, which means she going to die poor, a beggar, and he has compassion. He feels the love stirring in his gut and he walks up…

Now remember, in Jewish times and in Jewish faith, if you touch a dead body, you’re unclean. Even if you touch the bier, the thing holding the body, you’re unclean. But how many times does Jesus dispense with those rules when he has to? He walks up to the bier and he touches the bier, not the body, and he says, ‘young man, get up.’

That’s the difference between to story in Elijah and in Luke’s gospel. This story is the same exact story, right down to certain phrases; except in the Elijah story, Elijah lays on the boy and said, ‘God, please bring life back to this boy.’ But in the Luke story, Jesus brings the life back to the boy because… Jesus is God! Nowhere in the history of faith in this community has anyone brought life from death. Nowhere. Other people had done tremendous healings and lots of what we would call magical stuff, but nobody had ever brought somebody who was dead back to life. Yet Jesus did this a couple of times in his ministry, didn’t he?

So the compassion that we’re shown in these two stories is the compassion God has shown people who are suffering and the compassion we’re to have for each other just like Elijah did when this woman’s son died.

So let’s look at: what is the Incarnation. The incarnation was God taking human form, embodying flesh and walking among us. I want to look now at the Latin meaning of the word compassion because that’s what matters her in regard to the incarnation. So, the Greek meaning is that stirring in your bowels, the source of love. The Latin word from which we get the word compassion is "com," meaning "with," and "passio," meaning "to suffer." To have compassion is to suffer with someone.

The Incarnation is Jesus’ compassion, God’s compassion for humanity by coming among us and suffering with us. And we’re asked to follow in Jesus’ steps, to do exactly what he did, right? So when Elijah sees this woman, he suffers with her. ‘Her son is going to die, don’t bring this calamity to her, Lord. Please bring this boy back to life.’ And he does.

Jesus, sees with compassion. Jesus in human form, embodiment of spirit, sees this woman’s calamity about to strike and stops it. He suffers with her and he stops it.

So how do we do that? How do we do that? Isn’t that the whole point of church – to be Christ in the world today? We are bearers of that Holy Spirit. Christ breathed on us – I mean, we just had Pentecost. The Holy Spirit breathed all over this church. And every Sunday we leave here and we are sent out into the world; to walk out into the darkness, or as our Presiding Bishop now says, to enter the nightmare of the world and make it into the dream of God. Right?

The interesting thing about this gospel story from Luke is that it’s the second of a couplet. You may have noticed, but almost always, Luke presents stories in male and female versions. So this story immediately follows the story of the centurion whose slave was healed by Jesus; and then it follows with the woman whose son is healed. Now look at the centurion: a man of the world, commands great respect, has plenty of money. And then the opposite – the widow – whose son has just died- no power, no prestige, no respect… nothing.

So when the action of God, the compassion of God happens to the world, it happens to the powerful and the rich, and it happens to the powerless. It happens to men, to women, to the respected, to the un-respected… It’s as generous as Jesus said, and that’s how ours should be.

So when we hear the world – and ohhh, my gosh in this political season we hear plenty of this, don’t we? - when we hear the world saying who should not be treated with respect, or who should not be given compassion, or who should not be welcome among us… what we hear is this story. We hear it in the context of its couplet: the powerful and the powerless, the respected and the un-respected. And we remember that we bear the spirit of Christ in the world today.

So when God asks us to have compassion the way God asked Elijah and said, Go – go to Zarapheth, God is saying to us and to this church - this congregation is the body of Christ – God says to YOU, Go into the world. Find this person to whom I want to give grace... find this family who needs our compassion and bring it. Give it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a centurion or a widow. Bring it.

The last thing I want to say about this story (Note: this is such a great story. I told someone before church, these are some of my favorite readings, but I find myself saying that a lot!): whenever Jesus spoke, he always spoke in levels. That’s one of the reasons I loved learning Greek to hear the different levels Jesus was speaking in. So the level here is the literal level. There’s a story about a woman whose son dies. There’s a funeral. Jesus touches the bier. The boy wakes. That’s the literal.

Jesus is always talking spiritually too, isn’t he? Always. So remember I said that he said to the boy, ‘Awake. Wake up.’ If we think about it, this is a story about waking up spiritually. We’re walking around, many in the world are walking around either spiritually dead or spiritually asleep - kind of mindlessly going through our stuff; and this includes people who walk into church every Sunday somewhere and pray. They may be saying words, they may be doing (churchy) things, they may be obeying rules, but are they feeling that yearning in their gut? Are they feeling God’s love stirring, ready to pour into the world to bring compassion to someone who suffers?

This story is also for all of us to hear as a prayer. Listen to the symbolism in it: the widow – the person who has no prestige, no power. The son – the Son – get it? - who is dead and God says, wake up! It ends with, “A great prophet has risen among us… and God has looked favorably upon his people.” Let me tell you what the Greek said: “One on whom the spirit of God rests has risen among us; and God has visited his people. So when we hear that, we often hear this being directed at Jesus. This prophet has risen among us. And God has loved us and been favorable to us because this prophet is here. But let me tilt that just a little bit for you.

What is a prophet? A person who speaks the message of God to the world. We’ve got a whole bunch of prophets in the Bible who speak to the people saying, ‘Remember God. Wake up!’

Who woke up? The dead boy. What’s the first thing the dead boy did when he woke up? He spoke to his mother. He’s the prophet! He’s the one on whom the spirit of God rested. And then, the people shouted, God has visited his people! We have proof – this dead man is now up and speaking. He’s the prophet. Jesus is the Savior - not the prophet. It’s not that they didn’t get it. They did get it! They understood what was happening. We’re the ones who keep missing the point.

When you wake up spiritually, you become a prophet. Ahhh, which is why so many people choose never to wake up! It’s a big responsibility, isn’t it? But that’s OK, because it’s not as hard as you might think. Remember in our Collect, we prayed this: “O God from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them.” (BCP, 229)

By your inspiration… What is inspiration? Is there a doctor or nurse in the house? (Reply comes: “Breathing.”) Breathing!

By the breath of God in us, the life of God in us, we come to think and know the things that are right and do them.

One thing you don’t know about me is that I’m a science nerd. If I could have stayed in school I probably would have gone into quantum physics or neuroscience. I love both. So a new discovery in that field is that there’s a direct link between the heart and the brain. They have found the neural pathways that directly link the heart and the brain. So if, we, by the inspiration of God, feel that stirring in our bowels, the location of our love, it will automatically help us to know what is right.

I’ll give you a personal example. I go to Charlotte twice a month to see my therapist. (Note: Yes, I see a therapist. I think everybody should!) On the way back, there’s a place where I’m getting onto I-85 to come back to Shelby, that there’s always a beggar, and it’s not always the same beggar, but it’s one of those spots. There’s always a beggar. So before I leave the doctor’s office, I always take a dollar out of my wallet; so that when I get there, I can just hand him the dollar.

But I struggled for so many years with: should I give this person a dollar? Not this person, any person begging, and here’s why. I worked in alcohol and drug treatment for many years. If I give them a dollar am I just enabling their habit? Am I going to hurt them, rather than help them? If I give them a dollar, are they going to use it to buy their dog food instead of themselves? And so I really struggled with ‘should I give this person a dollar?’ Every time I saw a beggar do I do this? Any yet my heart kept saying - the stirring in my bowel kept saying - give them a dollar.

So I sat and I prayed about it a long time. And you know? It could be that this person is going to use it to put toward buying a drink. But what I get every time I get to give them a dollar… I roll the window down and this is what I get to do (Note: demonstrates with a parishioner in his seat): I get to look at that person right in the eyes. I get to draw near – my body and their body, together. They can feel what I’m feeling. They can see that I have given them the respect of looking them right in the eyes.

What happens with that dollar? I don’t know. I don’t care. What I seek is the opportunity to make that contact. For just a moment to have contact with a person that most people will just ignore, driving like this (demonstrates looking the other way) so they don’t have to look out and see them.

Compassion. The action of God stirring in us. The love of God helping us to know what is right and do what is right. God will bless that dollar I give them. They might use it for alcohol. Not my job. My job is to love. To give that person a moment of love – which I did… which I do. So I always have a dollar ready for them.

So, I’m going to close with a poem from one of my favorite compassionate saints; one of our bishop’s favorite compassionate saints: St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis writes this: God came to my house and asked for charity. I fell on my knees and cried, Beloved, what may I give? Just love, He said, just love. Amen.

Note: Citation on the St. Francis poem is coming. I left my book at the church. :)
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