Sermon Pentecost 2020

Sermon
Pentecost • May 24, 2020
Acts 2:1-21 • Psalm 104:25-35. 37 • 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 • John 20:19-23

In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pentecost—fifty days after the Resurrection. Originally a Jewish feast held fifty days after the Passover, it celebrated the ecstatic experience of the disciples after Jesus ascended into the heavens. The ecstasy described in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is wonderful—the sound of a roaring wind in their ears, their vision clouded with a red mist such that fellow disciples looked as though they had flames over their heads, and spontaneous, babble sounds ushering forth from their mouths, speaking in tongues.

Group ecstasy in church was apparently common in the early church—Paul speaks of it frequently in his letters, as though it were an ordinary part of Christian worship—but it died out fairly quickly. Revived at the end of the Nineteenth Century in America, several varieties of “pentecostal” churches were founded, and in the 1950s the Pentecostal movement spread to some Episcopal and Roman Catholic parishes. It seems to have died out now in the liturgical churches, but the Pentecostal Church itself remains alive in America and is growing very strongly in Latin America.

So, on that first Pentecost, the disciples spilled out onto the street, still babbling away in their ecstatic language, which some strangers took to be their own native languages, and the scoffers sneered, “They are full of new wine! A bunch of drunks, and early in the morning, too!” But Peter did what the Early Church frequently did—he referred back to the Hebrew Scriptures, saying that this was the fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Joel, chapter 2, verse 8. In it, God declares,

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

The teachings of Jesus struck devout Jews as being novel, radical even. So the Christians in the first Century tried to gain legitimacy by seeing the events that occurred as being foretold by the prophets, by Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and even Joel. As it turned out, this practice was quite useful, for they forever tied the Hebrew Scriptures to the Christian experience. And what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, are not only the foundation of our faith, but a rich heritage stretching back thousands of years, connecting us with our forebearers in a powerful way.

The Spirit which moved the disciples on Pentecost was no new thing. The Bible opens in the Book of Genesis with the creation of the world. In the beginning there was nothing, “…a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The word in Hebrew for wind is also used for spiritruach—and this passage is frequently translated as “the spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” Ruach is also used to mean breath, so that wind, spirit, and breath are all pretty much the same.

You and I have a spirit. To have a spirit is to have breath—we are alive, and spirit is a word to describe life. Groups have a spirit. Good Shepherd has a spirit that is larger than any of our individual spirits, a spirit a bit different from any other Episcopal parish. Large, casual groups have a spirit—in a great stadium, when your side wins, you are impelled to rise from your seat with a great shout; you are moved by the spirit of victory. Spirit, of course, is not a thing; it is aliveness of one kind or another. On occasion, there are evil spirits, an aliveness intent on destruction and decay.

And then there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. Paul says, in Galatians, that the fruit of the God’s Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is a pretty good description of how one behaves when the Spirit of God abides in a person.

And in the Gospel for today, Jesus come into a locked room—this is following the Resurrection—and after greeting them and saying that he was sending them out just as the Father had sent him out, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ He gave them God’s Spirit, which is the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

So we celebrate the Spirit of God today, and give thanks for that spirit of forgiveness and truth, which yields in us a disposition to be better to those around us, so that we are a blessing to them, and they to us.

Amen.

Sermon 7 Easter 2020

Sermon
Seventh Easter • May 24, 2020
Acts 1:6-14 • Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 • 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11

In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I heard on the radio the other day that there is widespread emotional distress abroad in the land, and that citizens are suffering at record rates. Our Bishop has indicated something of the sort as well. So perhaps it would be good to listen closely to what Peter is saying to us in his letter that was read a few minutes ago—the Second Lesson.

He says, “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.” The fiery ordeal he refers to is not a virus, of course, but persecution of some kind, perhaps from the Romans or perhaps from the leaders of the Jewish communities of which they were members. Christians at that time were still a sect of the Jews, somewhat deviant since they claimed that Jesus was Messiah, and not always welcomed.

But they were definitely under siege and in trouble. He says, in effect, “Where’s the surprise? It’s just another test.” I want to suggest to you that the corvid-19 shelter-in-place orders, and the possibility of infection, sickness, and death—these are just another test. You and I are all of a certain age; this is not the first test we’ve been faced with. There was Hurricane Sandy; and 9/11; and various previous illnesses and economic challenges—a host of them, if you live long enough.

But James is suggesting something pretty radical. He is saying that these tests are not given to us for no purpose. He says, “…rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” Here is an invitation to not be the victim of the test, but to claim it. And in claiming it, to link it with the sufferings of Christ, thereby giving it meaning.

Peter has the clear notion that we are in God’s hands, in good times and in bad, and that the only thing to be afraid of is the devil. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that the Father will save us from the time of trial, or as another translation says, that God will not bring us to the test. We hate being tested! And rightly so, but we are tested and we will continue to be tested. The bigger problem is evil. As the next request in the Lord’s Prayer says, “…deliver us from evil.”

Evil is a profound fact of life. The Scriptures see evil as an active force, and evil is often personified as “the evil one,” or “the devil.” You can see evil every day in news broadcasts and newspapers. We seem impelled, from time to time, to do things that damage others, to be shoved into dividing and separating ourselves from others. Not only on the personal level, but nations are divided against nations, and we are caught up in the midst of the trouble.

Peter says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” If I remember my Greek correctly, “devil” is one way to translate “the evil one,” or simply “evil.” So devil, the evil one, and evil all refer to the same thing.

In the face of the evil one, Peter encourages us to “Resist him, steadfast in the faith,” and he goes on to say that we are not alone. Many of our brothers and sisters are facing the same trials. There is strength in solidarity, in knowing that we at one with many others who have the same problems to deal with.

And then Peter gives us a promise, and it is the consistent promise of the Gospel—our suffering will not last forever. I have noticed that, in the middle of a severe illness or stress of some kind, it seems that it will never end; I cannot even remember what it was like to be whole. But in fact, nothing lasts forever.

Peter promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace…will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The promise is not only that the time of testing will end, but that you will be stronger for it.

My father, now long dead, once said to me in the middle of some difficulties I was having, “The ladder to success is made up of rungs of failures.” This was cold comfort at the time, but he was speaking to the same profound truth that Peter is promising—that facing the trials that are attacking us, and claiming them, is where growth comes from.

The evil one would have us refuse responsibility for our condition; he would encourage us to throw the blame on others; he would have us become the victim. This is the ultimate degradation, the destruction of the soul, killing any human dignity.

Please remember that Jesus, in his time of trial, when he desperately wanted to avoid the cross, asked the Father to “take this cup from me;” then he faced the trial and took it on. And in claiming his test, he was given the crown of resurrection.

To God be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon 6 Easter 2020

Sermon
Sixth Easter • May 17, 2020
Acts 17:22-31 • Psalm 66:7-18 • 1 Peter 3:13-22 • John 14:15-21
In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus made a promise in last week’s Gospel. He said, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” And we spoke about how it is that his promise is being fulfilled in our remarkable civilization that our ancestors and we have created—a world where healing is a miraculous art, poverty has been nearly eradicated, wars and murders reduced to a fraction of former years—indeed, a world where more people die of overeating than of malnutrition.

In this week’s Gospel reading, John gives us a clue about how this happened. He reports that Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth….” An advocate is someone who works on our behalf, who is dedicated to our welfare, a counselor. The word is usually applied to lawyers, but it can mean anyone who works for our well-being.

The spirit of truth! Jesus did not leave us with “The Truth” but rather a particular spirit, an inclination, a desire to seek the truth, to look yearningly for that which is real. The spirit of truth is a spirit of curiosity, a spirit of inquiry. This is the very basis of the sciences, a spirit that always is searching for the truth. And it is the sciences that have made these huge advances in our welfare.

Human beings—all of us—have both an advantage in dealing with the world, and a disadvantage. The advantage is that we know things, we have knowledge that we have acquired over the space of our lives and from those who came before. This knowledge is powerful, for it gives us control of parts of the world that make a difference. For example, we know that social distancing will slow the spread of viruses and fewer of us will get sick. We know that a savings account, even a small one, will be a useful cushion to as we manage our finances. We know a lot of things!

We also have a huge disadvantage—we know things. The same thing that is advantageous to us is also a huge disadvantage in that it blocks learning anything new.

There’s a story about a young man who came to a revered monk asking for him to be his teacher. The young man went on at length explaining to the old monk about his desires, and how he picked the monk for a teacher, on and on. The monk said nothing, but placed a teacup in front of the young man as he continued to speak, and began to pour the tea. He continued to pour until the cup was full and overflowed—and kept pouring. The young man jumped up and said, “What are you doing?” The monk said, “You cannot learn anything from me; like this teacup, you are full of knowing, and there is no room for anything new.”

The spirit of truth includes within it a sort of skepticism about what we know, about those things of which we are so very certain, about what we believe, and what we are convinced we remember perfectly. I say “skepticism,” but perhaps it would be better to say “wondering.” An open attitude toward other people and the way things are, wondering if I got it right, wondering if it is really the way it strikes me, wondering…. With wondering, certitude and prejudice fall away and we are open to new ways of seeing other people, new interpretations of what we know.

When Peter was preaching to the people in front of the Areopagus at the altar to the Unknown God, I wonder how many of his listeners were open to the new interpretation of that God that Peter was offering. He was offering a God who “is not far from each one of us.” A God in whom “we live and move and have our being.” I wonder how many could hear beyond their already fixed understanding of religion and its purpose.

They were being offered a God who is immediate and available to being known, a God in whom we move and live and have our being—just as a fish moves and lives and has its being in the ocean. Much better than gods made of silver and gold, gods constructed out of the imagination of artists.

I invite. you to make wondering a habit, to have a gentle skepticism about everything, and especially a skepticism about what we know and what we are so certain of. I invite you to welcome into your life the spirit of wondering, a dedication to seeking, an openness to new truths. Our wonderful world, a world far beyond the imagination of our forebearers— this world is a result of the spirit of truth. Thanks be to God for the gift of his Spirit.

Amen.

Sermon 5 Easter 2020

Sermon
Fifth Easter • May 10, 2020
Acts 7:55-60 • Psalm 31:1-55, 15-16 • 1 Peter 2:2-10 • John 14:1-14

In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

TRANSLATE

Jesus made a promise in today’s Gospel that is quite astounding: He said, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.”

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Here is a gifted healer of bodies; here is one who could cleanse people of what today we could call psychoses and crippling neuroses; here is a teacher of such power that he shifted the small, local, national religion of the Jews into a position to become the dominant religion of the world; here is a visionary who could see the world transforming into a place where “caring” could replace “forcing” as the thing that moves people.

TRANSLATE

Jesus is promising that you and I can do greater things than he did! And in fact, his promise has been fulfilled—in part, if not fully. Our physicians routinely produce miracles of healing. Our mental health professionals routinely produce miracles in their patients’ ability of cope successfully with the trials of life. In our time, fewer people die of malnutrition than die of overeating. Social violence—wars and murders—kill the smallest percentage of the population in the history of mankind.

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Our current crisis—the covid-19 virus—is nothing like the black death, the bubonic plague, when upwards of 200 million people died in only four years back in the fourteenth century. More importantly, we knew the cause of the current pandemic within two weeks of its outbreak, and measures for combatting it were put in place fairly quickly, despite governmental dysfunction in major capitals.

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All this is vastly more that Jesus could ever have accomplished, just as he promised. We still have major problems, of course, but we have been empowered to deal with them. Speaking as the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” This is a message for our present circumstance, locked-down in our houses, afraid to get close to our neighbors, cautious of even the slightest personal contact.

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People will say that our mastery of the natural world has come through science, not faith healing. They will declare that it was the industrial revolution that gave rise to the world’s great prosperity. They will say that it is the product of our technology-driven economy. And they will be correct. The work of generations of engineers and chemists and biologists has produced our enormous capacity to feed and shelter and heal each other.

TRANSLATE

This is the Christ at work. The Christ is not a single human being, but God incarnating in multitudes of people. Christians have a secret, a mystery we have been given—to know the source of humanity’s great benefits, to know that it is the Christ, God acting in God’s world.

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Let me change the subject for a minute. We have inherited a nasty confusion in our language. In the First Letter of Peter, the epistle which was read this morning, Peter wrote, “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” He calls the members of the Church a royal priesthood. The confusion is in the word “priest.”

TRANSLATE

Peter wrote in Greek, and the word that he used for priest is “hieros.” It means the person responsible for conducting sacrifices—before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the priests took live birds and beasts and killed them, roasting the meat on the altar as an offering to God. A hieros is a person who offers sacrifices to God.

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Jesus shifted the practice by offering himself as the blood sacrifice, and you and I are called to be priests, offering (as we say in the Eucharist) “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” Now comes the confusion, because the word in English, “priest”, is a simplification of the word presbyter, another Greek word which means “elder.”

TRANSLATE

So we have two quite different functionaries—on the one hand a person who offers sacrifices to God, and on the other hand a member of the Bishop’s council of elders who manage parishes—both called by the same word. My apologies for the confusion that we have inherited. But it is important to realize that all of us Christians are called to function as priests in the sense of those who offer sacrifices to God.

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What kind of sacrifices? James says that we are “God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It is about the light. About seeing clearly what God is doing in the world. Our job as royal priests is to simply be clear that it is God who is acting in the world through the technological revolution.

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Does that mean that all is well? No, of course not. All is not well. We are in the middle of a health crisis, and we are about to enter another crisis of significant proportions, an economic crisis—we are on the edge of another great depression, with twice as many people out of work as there were in the Great Depression of the ’thirties. How well the managers of the economy are able to work us out of this difficulty is yet to be seen. But we clearly are in trouble.

TRANSLATE

My friends, let us continue to do our job of praise and thanksgiving, of seeing clearly that God is working in the world, and of promoting love and cooperation among our associates and friends, of caring for one another. This is the sacrifice that God requires of his priests. For, as James says, we are not just anybody, we are God’s own People. Amen.

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Sermon 4 Easter 2020

Sermon
Fourth Easter • May 3, 2020
Acts 2:42-47 • Psalm 23 • 1 Peter 2:19-25 • John 10:1-10

In the Name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

TRANSLATE

This day is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the Gospel reading. Jesus compares himself to a shepherd whose work is to look after a flock of sheep. The flock is kept secure at night in a sheep pen, but the shepherd leads them out to green pastures and running water during the day.

TRANSLATE

But, he says, the sheep will not follow just anyone. They will follow only their particular shepherd, and they will follow because they are familiar with his voice. Thieves and robbers they will not follow because they don’t know their voices.

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The disciples’ response was, “What? What are you talking about?” So Jesus shifted the metaphor. “I’m the gate to the sheepfold. You can get to safe pasture only by going through this gate, through me.”

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So Jesus gives two approaches to accessing the abundant life the Gospel promises. Listening to the “voice” and using Christ as the “gate.” The voice and the gate, two metaphors, two figures of speech, to salvation.

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How then does one learn to listen to the voice of Christ, to distinguish clearly what is Christ’s voice and what is not? I suppose that one learns what his voice is in the same way we learn the voices of family members and associates—by listening to them repeatedly, by familiarity with what they say and how they say it. So, step one would be to read the Gospels, listening for the voice of Christ, distinct from the voice of the writers of the Gospels. For example, the voice of Luke, when he tells about Jesus’ ministry, is different from the voice of Jesus as he speaks his parables and stories.

TRANSLATE

Familiarity is the key. I’ve noticed when listening to televangelists and others who speak in God’s name that I can gradually hear the difference between their opinions and the authentic expression of the voice of Christ. I am able to hear the difference only by having become familiar with the voice of Christ in the first place, as Jesus spoke it.

TRANSLATE

Jesus says that others come to steal and kill and destroy—in other words, they come for their own self-interest, not for the welfare of the listeners. When listening to speakers who claim to speak for God, what are the results of their speech? Do they produce harmony and love, growth in understanding, or do they produce division and condemnation?

TRANSLATE

Jesus came, he says, so that we can have abundant life. Abundant life for everyone who will listen to his words, take them in, examine them, and apply the words to their lives. The Christ is profoundly not concerned with people’s past, with their being good. He loved the disreputable, the outcast. He spoke equally to soldiers and thieves, fraudulent tax-collectors and prostitutes. Their past was of no concern to Christ, only their willingness to repent, to turn around, to do right in the future.

          TRANSLATE

“I came,” he says, “ that you may have life and have it abundantly.” There is no condemnation here, only acceptance of who they are, only love for the person, only a straight-arrow dedication to the truth, to what’s so. He valued people who looked at their lives and acknowledged their misdeeds. And his standard response was forgiveness.

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In years past, there were edition of the Gospels that printed the words of Jesus in red, with the rest of the text in black type. This had a real value of helping the reader notice the difference between what Jesus said, and what the writers of the Gospels said about Jesus. I invite you to entertain the possibility of reading a short passage from the Gospels every day. In invite you to look for those passages that record what Jesus said.

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The writers of the Gospels had a list of the sayings of Jesus that they fitted into their story of Jesus’ ministry. I invite you to begin to hear clearly what the voice of Christ sound like, so that when others speak you can distinguish between what is the voice of Christ and what is the voice of other-than-Christ. Amen.

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Sermon 3 Easter 2020

Sermon
Third Easter • April 26, 2020
Acts 2:14a, 36-41 • Psalm 116: 1-3, 10-17 • 1 Peter 1:17-23 • Luke 24:13-35

This is the familiar story of the encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. Two things in the story stand out for me now that we have been sequestered in our homes for almost a month during the covid-19 crisis: First, the two disciples on the road did not recognize the Christ for some considerable time. And second, it was when they sat down to dinner with him that they did finally recognize the Christ.

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It seems to me that the Christ shows up around us frequently, but we don’t recognize the presence of the Christ and his or her actions that impact us. Remember that “Christ” is not a person, but a title, and a job description.

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Think for a moment of a President of the United States—the current on or any previous one. And let’s say that you go down to Washington to meet the President. Whom do you see when you walk into the Oval Office? Is it a human being, George or Barak or Donald or whomever you are going to see? Or is it the President of the United States. Well, both, of course.

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It is a regular human being that you are going to see, but one who is invested with an office, a job to do, and a title. So it was with Jesus. He was a regular human being with particular skills and knowledge, a teacher and collector of followers. And was invested with a mission to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. He was the man Jesus, and he also embodied a mission, just like the President is both a human being and embodies the office and work of leading the country.

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This is what it means to incarnate some being, to put into the flesh of a human being some other entity. In the case of Jesus, it was to embody the godly being of Messiah, of the Christ.

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Now, I would like to suggest to you that there are many Christs in the world, each of whom is carrying out the work of salvation—not salvation in some abstract sense, but the salvation of particular people in particular circumstances. For example, if you are sick, the skill and dedication of a nurse or a doctor could be your salvation. Or if you are in danger of being mugged, a policeman could be your salvation.

          TRANSLATE

Life is a risky business, as we are reminded in this viral crisis, and to have salvation available is critical. I want to suggest to you that there are many Christs who save us from many dangers. And I want to suggest that you are one of them, and that what you do is a Godly work, the work of a Messiah, the work of a Christ.

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Like the Christ on the road to Emmaus, however, Christ is rarely recognized. We have filed Christ away in the person of Jesus, too high and lifted up to be part of our ordinary lives, and forgotten that he has called us follow him in his work. And this means doing the work of the Christ, the work of being a Christ for others.

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St Paul recognized this when he said in his letter to the Galatians, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The spirit of Christ is something we can put on, something we have adopted. In doing so, we are still the same person, fully human, but doing Godly works.

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At our baptism, when we committed ourselves to Christ, we promised to “seek … Christ in all persons” and to “serve” him, “loving our neighbor as our selves.” This is exactly how it works—looking for Christ in others and, for ourselves, claiming nothing except to serve the Christs we find.

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But how do we recognize the Christ in others? There is a clue in the Emmaus story. The disciples recognized the Lord at dinner, when he broke the bread. Breaking the bread in a First Century Jewish meal was what the master of the house did. It was an act of service to take a loaf of bread and break it into pieces and to pass it around to everyone else.

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The Christ is whoever serves us, whoever feeds us, whoever helps us solve a problem, whoever opens us to new possibilities for our lives, whoever empowers us—in short, whoever saves us.

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So here is the mystery of the Christ: That we are called to serve, and that we are called to recognize God our Savior in those who serve us. The road to Emmaus is the road of our lives, meeting and recognizing the Christ who walks with us. Amen.

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