Easter 2: Now What?

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We all feel you, fish.

Acts 5:27-32
John 20:19-31

When I just need a break from all that is real in the world, I usually go for children’s movies. My favorite among these is probably Finding Nemo.

My favorite scene in the movie actually comes after the credits. I’m going to assume here that the statute of limitations on giving people spoilers is ten years, and since Finding Nemo was released in 2003, I don’t need to worry about any of you postponing your viewing of it for any reason. 

In case you are one of the four people in the United States who has not already seenFinding Nemo, a brief synopsis of the story is that a young clownfish by the name of Nemo who lives in the sea off of Australia is captured by a scuba diver and taken to live in a salt water aquarium in a dentist’s office. Nemo’s father, ironically named Marlin, is accompanied on a mission to save his son Nemo by an absent-minded fish named Dory who happens to be voiced by Ellen Degeneres. While Marlin is attempting to rescue Nemo from the aquarium, Nemo himself has made friends with the fish in the aquarium who, not surprisingly, all want to escape to the big blue ocean. 

They hatch a plan to make the tank so dirty that it needs to be cleaned. Then, while it’s being cleaned, the fish, who have been put in plastic bags for safekeeping while the tank is being cleaned, plan to roll themselves out a window, across the street, and into the very nearby ocean. 

Mind you, by the end of the movie, Nemo has been rescued alone by his father, and the audience has all but forgotten the other fish and this brilliant plan of theirs. But the credits go away for a moment while the other fish roll across the road together in their plastic bags, with one of them screaming, “That was the shortest red light I’ve ever seen!” Then, one by one, each of them plops into the ocean, still contained in their plastic bags. 

They float there for a long moment, salt water fish suspended in now-floating saltwater-filled plastic bags. Finally, one of them speaks up as they bob up and down with the waves, stuck: now what?

Now, you may be wondering what animated fish have to do with Jesus. And the answer is usually, very little. 

But reading through these texts for the second Sunday of Easter one more time, it occurs to me that the disciples both in the Gospel passage and in the Acts passage are in the same boat — or plastic bags, maybe — that the fish in Finding Nemo were. And it’s a really common place for not just animated fish, but humans, to be. 

Now what?

You see it in the Gospel reading, for sure. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Mary has seen him, and Peter and one other disciple have seen the empty tomb. There’s some joy and some confusion and some fear and a whole lot of now what. By the Acts passage, it’s a few years later, but you can still feel Peter figuring out how to explain this whole Jesus thing to people. He references Jesus being hanged on a tree for a very specific reason: the Hebrew Bible explicitly says cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23). To the religious leaders, this was proof positive that Jesus was not God, but one cursed, individual crazy person. Peter latches onto the phrase and owns it as he attempts to make the case for his newfound faith. Paul will do the same thing in Galatians. 

But you know — they were just trying to figure this thing out. They had witnessed a miracle that could change the world and… now what?

Though none of us has started a new religion at least since our college years, we understand this “now what” sentiment. Liturgically, we’re told that Easter is fifty days, but after the holy joyful mystery that is Easter Vigil in this place, and after the grand fanfare of Easter Day, what is left to do or to celebrate for the next 49 days of Easter?
Now what?

We get it even more closely as individuals. Maybe that’s because you’ve made a big decision, or you’ve weathered a death, or the loss of a relationship, or a job. Maybe you’ve finally decided that you need to go into recovery or get help for your mental or physical illness. 

Whether you’ve done a new thing or a new thing has happened, the question tends to be the same: now what?

Obvious statement of the day: transition is turbulent. It is also unavoidable.

Over and over again, we have to figure out who we are in light of new facts, new decisions. And we have to figure out who we’re going to be in light of those new facts and new decisions.

This is what the disciples are doing when they meet in a house and lock the doors behind them. John says that they lock them “for fear of the Jews,” but let’s not make the error of our ancestors in Christian faith by assuming that this was about Jews. No. The disciples locked the doors not because Jewish people are scary, but because they believed something that the majority group thought was ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst. If you’ve ever made an unpopular decision or held an unpopular belief, you get it. So they locked the doors.

The majority group had killed Jesus, and he was apparently back from the dead, but no promises could be made about what would happen to the disciples if they were caught and killed. To this point, only Mary had even seen Jesus alive. 

So they’re there, scared, alone, confused. And they close the doors and throw the locks and ponder:

Now what?

Now, God. 

Jesus is just showing off at this point: he comes in through the locked doors and you have to imagine the disciples being so startled that they jumped a full foot in the air each and Peter yells out “Jesus Christ!” in a way that is very understandable and not at all blasphemous.

As the disciples were wondering what to do next behind locked doors, Jesus comes in and breathes the Holy Spirit on them and sends them out to be just what Jesus was: God’s embodied love, given to and for the world. Thomas, of course, famously isn’t there, and much ink has been spilled over whether he doubted or whether he was just reasonable. Personally, I feel it was the latter: when someone says that a dead person has come back to life and visited them, it’s generally accepted that it’s okay to feel skeptical and not believe the person immediately. You could even be forgiven for seeking help for that person.

The point is that Jesus doesn’t cut Thomas out of the kingdom for not taking the disciples’ word for it. No. Jesus offers himself to Thomas as proof that it’s all real. While we may have gotten the idea that Jesus is a ghost because he came through a locked door, Thomas offers Jesus the chance to prove that he’s a living, breathing human body, still bearing the wounds of his execution. Jesus offers the totally understandably skeptical Thomas his body as proof that he’s alive, just as Jesus offers us his very body and blood every time we gather at the table. 

So if you’re sitting there wondering “now what” for any reason at all — know that that’s completely normal. Know that God is with you. Know that even if you’re so anxious about the future that you’re locking the doors of your heart and mind in doubt, that’s no obstacle to the Jesus who comes through locked doors. Know that even if you’re not sure where this road is leading or whether you’re on the right path, the risen Jesus is there to embrace you and your fear and your doubt and offer you his very self. 

And if you are wondering “now what,” as most of us are nearly always in one way or another from the time we become conscious until the time we die, know that you’re in good company, and not just the company of cartoon fish. You’re in the company of the disciples in the locked house, and the apostles who had to figure out a way forward. You’re in the company of this church, as it meets on Saturday do discuss its way forward. 

Change is as inevitable as it is tumultuous. So embrace it. If you’re asking “now what,” you’re in good company. 

I close with a poem posted by a dear friend this week. It’s by Pat Schneider, 84-year old poet, born in Missouri. Though we often think of transitions and uncertainty as being only for the young, Pat, by age 84,  knows better. 

I leave you with her words.

“The self you leave behind 

is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.
The world, too, sheds its skin:
politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days.
It’s easy to lose this tenderly
unfolding moment. Look for it
as if it were the first green blade
after a long winter. Listen for it
as if it were the first clear tone
in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
And if all that fails,
wash your own dishes.
Rinse them.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.” 

So beloved, come to the table where all are welcome, and where Jesus comes through any doors we might lock in his way. In the tumult of life, and in all our “now whats,” Christ is there, offering his body so that we might be fed, and so that we might believe. 

Thank God. Amen.

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Easter 1: If You Can Believe…

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A little snapshot of our post-Easter Vigil celebration at Our Savior’s Lutheran. 

Luke 24:1-12

I’d like to begin by thanking from the bottom of my heart all of you who worked hard this week to make Holy Week happen for our community. You cooked things, cleaned things, set up chairs, moved tables, wrote skits, did silly things for Jesus, set up for services, cleaned up after services, coordinated with me and with each other, and were generally amazing as usual. Most importantly, you showed up when this community needed you. So thank you. Our Savior’s, you make it easy to believe that resurrection is a real thing.

And now for something completely different: a sermon. I have two rules when it comes to preaching on this day and on Christmas: 1) tell the story the people came to hear and don’t try to be cute about it, and 2) don’t drone on too long. I plan on following those rules today.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a Christian of any type on the day of Easter must be in want of a worship service. Easter draws through these doors all kinds of folks, from brand new people to people who haven’t missed a Sunday service since they got the flu that one time in 1961. That’s not only true in this sanctuary, but in any crowd gathered in this town in this state in this country on this day. It stands to reason, then, that there are also differing levels of belief: there are those who know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus rose from that tomb in bodily form and those who are unsure about any of it, and finally, those who are really just here to get to lunch afterwards. I get it. 

Then there are the vast majority who swing back and forth along that spectrum depending on the year or maybe even the day. That’s a faith community for you.

The funny thing about the passage that we read on Easter morning every year is that one person is very conspicuously absent from the text: Jesus. All you have are these flashily-dressed dudes proclaiming that Jesus is risen, and an empty tomb. All you have, really, is a highly illogical promise. 

So I’d find it silly in this moment to stand here and extol the virtues of an argument for Christian faith of a particular kind. No. Now is not the time, and what you personally believe, while important, is unlikely to change significantly in the next ten minutes. 

What I will say is that Easter is my favorite holiday. That’s not because I’m a pastor. It’s because I read the news. Burning churches in Louisiana and now Sri Lanka, falling steeples in France and terror and death and division and fear — these are the water that we all swim in. Mass shootings and bombings and conflict and death are everywhere, and it is our challenge to find out how to live and live together in a world like this, because we cannot wish for another world. 

There’s also the fact that this Easter, I’m 33. I find it odd, being the same age as the guy in the story. Because you look at Jesus and you go, “sheesh, that guy is my age.” First of all, this guy is saving the world and I can barely remember to save my leftovers when I leave a restaurant. 

But also – when the guy in the story is the same age as you, that changes the story for you.

If you’re older than 33, maybe you thought about that when you were 33 or maybe it didn’t occur to you for one reason or another. Same thing if you’re somewhere around my age. If you’re way younger, and 33 is, like, so old – … I get it. 

But when the body that is raised from the dead in the story is the same age as a body you have occupied or are currently occupying, it might feel just a little more real. 

So this is what I think about Easter:
If you can believe a story about a stilled heart that started beating again,
or at least believe that there’s SOMETHING there,
even if you can’t name it or justify it logically —

If you can’t get into that, fine, then look outside at the springtime and ponder this: if life can come from death, if green shoots can come from the very recently frozen ground, then maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us. 

Hope for a country that can’t agree on much of anything.

Hope for burned out black churches in Louisiana and hope for the end of the racism that burns churches and the racism that red lines neighborhoods. 

Hope for fallen steeples in France — because the reality is that, no matter how catastrophic these disasters feel, our oldest churches and cathedrals have been built and burned and bombed and rebuilt for centuries. In Easter, there is hope. 

Hope for you, whatever heartache or burdens you carry, whether you’ve carried them for hours or months or years or decades. I won’t ever shame anyone for colored eggs and bunnies. I like my Reese’s eggs quite a bit. 

But with all the death and hopelessness we all swim in by virtue of being alive, at least I need a little more. Or, rather, I eat chocolate because it’s Easter and because I have the privilege of being alive and because I found some hope in a story about a radical rabbi in an occupied land who was executed by the state but came back to life some days later. 

Because in Easter, maybe there is hope for us. 

So whatever brought you here, thank you for showing up to this bright festival. 

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a Christian of any type on the day of Easter must be in want of a worship service. Thank you for making this one yours. Whether you have been attending for all of Lent or all of your life or whether this is your first time here or whether we haven’t seen you in a long time, this festival of Easter is yours. May you find blessing, may you find hope, and may you find love here. And remember: Easter is a fifty day festival, and we’ve got a ton of ways to celebrate that you’ll hear about in the announcements. 

But for today — enjoy the grace and music and love offered here. May you go outside and see creation brought back to life in the springtime. May you enjoy the company of these gathered here and maybe even some friends and family afterwards. 

And may you leave this place to go throw your hat in the air in hope. 

God knows, the world needs it. Amen.

Palm Sunday: Rally & Protest

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Luke 19:28-40

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

So begins a song from The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I. The story of The Hunger Games is one that’s familiar to us and all humans: a struggle against oppressive powers for freedom, and not only that, but a struggle so real against a power so brutal and oppressive that people are willing to accept death in order to win freedom.

The story is familiar, and real. It plays itself out over and over in fiction and in reality; only the faces and details change. 

In the scene in the movie Mockingjay: Part I where this song is sung, the people of Panem, are mobilized. Panem, you see, is a fictional dystopian and highly oppressive nation located where the United States used to be. The breaking point has come, and the people gather in huge numbers, singing the song together — it is an Appalachian rallying cry. They charge a dam, an important electricity source to the powerful Capitol, and they keep singing as they march forward in overwhelming numbers. Even as guards gun them down, the crowd eventually overwhelms them, and the people keep singing:

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…”

The breaking point has come, and freedom has become more important than life for the people in the crowd. 

The Hunger Games tells a fictional story of a real struggle that plays itself out over and over in human history and it’s still playing itself out on the news around the world today: people gather to resist an oppressor, knowing that the result could be catastrophic for them personally. Freedom becomes more important than life.

In 1989, East Germans flocked to border crossings along the Berlin Wall to see if they could pass through. Speaking of this event, I heard an historian say, “History turns on these little hinges.” The guards could have fired on the crowd, but they didn’t. The people passed through. Shortly thereafter, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and shortly thereafter, an oppressive regime.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree?

And today, we remember another crowd which gathered to resist an oppressor, for whom freedom was more important than life. We remember the crowd in Jerusalem, which gathered to greet the teacher that some said was the one who would save Israel from Rome. This story has been sanitized in story and in song for so long that we can forget how much the people in the crowd were risking. We also forget because we wave our own palms every year, risking little to nothing, which can leave us thinking that the original crowd was as safe as we are.

But remember: this was Rome, where the only ruler was the emperor. Rome, which put down several Jewish rebellions, and brutally. The Pharisees know this well, so they tell Jesus to send them away, but he won’t, and they wouldn’t go away anyway. The people of Jerusalem still gather to give Jesus a king’s welcome, laying down their coats, and daring to wave palm branches, symbolizing victory, shouting Hosanna — literally “save us, we pray!” To a Roman, this would’ve looked and sounded like a rebellion, a coup. Every person in the crowd — including Jesus and the disciples — knew that this could have serious, possibly bloody, consequences. But freedom was more important than life.

History turns on these little hinges. The Romans could have arrested or killed Jesus right there, and killed people in the crowd, likely starting another rebellion, but they didn’t. So the Holy Week story that we know, the story of the last week of Jesus’ life is allowed to continue. God was in the midst of the people who struggled to be free.

And here we are, stepping into the crowd, and into the story, for another year.

“Are you, are you, coming to the tree?
The dead man called out
For his love to flee
Strange things have happened here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

Later in the week, of course, the crowd will figure out that Jesus isn’t the going to be the military leader that they had hoped for. He wasn’t going to overthrow Rome. The crowd that shouts “Hosanna!” today will famously shout “Crucify!” on Friday. The disciples will flee, too. Jesus will stand alone, with a few women and one man at the foot of the cross, as the only ones for whom freedom is still more important than life. After that, the world will change.

Are you, are you, coming to the tree?

Death is the greatest deterrent that power holds, but when a people no longer fears death, power is in deep, deep trouble. The anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death was this past week. Bonhoeffer was Lutheran pastor and theologian, killed for resisting Hitler and the Nazis. He was hanged. Here, on the other side of the ocean, countless Black souls and others were hanged for resisting the oppression of white supremacy and the KKK in my native Alabama and here in the North, too. Sometimes they were killed just for existing.

Make no mistake: the story of Palm Sunday is not just a story of long ago. It is the story of oppression and freedom, of fear and courage. It is a story of resistance. It is a German story and an American story, a Jewish story and an immigrant story. It is a Stonewall Inn story and a Selma, Alabama, story. It is a Massachusetts militia story and an American Revolution story. It is a Syrian story and a Venezuelan story. 

It is a human story. 

Welcome to Holy Week. 

Are you coming to the tree, on Friday? Will you sit at the table of love and fear on Thursday? Will you gather outside the tomb on Saturday night and remember all the times that God was in the midst of the people?

Will you wait to see how the story will end?

I say this every year: this week, don’t skip stuff. Place yourself in this all-too-human story and forget that you know the ending. Mary and Peter and John didn’t clap each other on the shoulders at the end of the first Good Friday and say “Wait ’til Sunday.” They went away devastated and they hid out of fear. They lived in the excruciating place of grief and death — a place we all know all too intimately. 

This story is our story, and I’m convinced that if we continue to live this Holy Week story year after year, we will, God willing, be resilient enough to resist oppression and death when it comes knocking on our own doors again, as a nation or as individuals.
Because, until kingdom come, it always will. 

“Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where I told you to run
So we’d both be free
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree…” 

God is in the midst of the people.

I’ll meet you at the tree. Jesus will, too. Amen.

If you’re local, join us for Holy Week:
April 18, 7PM 
– Maundy Thursday: A Feast of Friends.
We remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends. An actual meal will be served.
April 19, 7PM – Good Friday: The Old Rugged Cross.
We accompany Jesus to the cross. A service of prayer and song.
April 20, 7PM – Easter Vigil: The Celebration Begins
A one-of-a-kind celebration of fire, story, laughter, and communion. Children are especially welcome at this fun service. The service will be followed by a reception of desserts, wine, and juice for children.
Our Savior’s is located at 319 Granby Road, South Hadley, MA. 

Lent 5: Bloopers and Family

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Our Savior’s church family preparing to celebrate Palm Sunday last year. If you’re local, kick of this year’s Holy Week services by joining us this coming Sunday at 10:15.

John 12:1-8

A mentor of mine in Alabama used to say that Christ created this whole church thing for thirteen people and a maybe camel or two, and now we’re trying to do it with three hundred in an auditorium. The point is, this church thing began as familial, and we’re trying to make it operate like a business, and sometimes the results are hilarious. 

Case in point: these actual church bulletin bloopers.

For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

The associate minister unveiled the church’s new stewardship campaign slogan last Sunday: “I upped my pledge — up yours.” 

The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility. 

Potluck supper this Sunday at 5PM, prayer and medication to follow.
And finally, the pastor will preach his farewell sermon this Sunday, after which the choir will sing: “Break Forth Into Joy.” 

Way back in February, when we gathered for our retreat to think about our values and our future, we voted on five different values to capture our congregation. I’ve covered four of them here in Lent and on the Fifth Sunday, I’ve come to the last one: family. 

This sermon will be participatory. When I say “the church is a” you say “family.” Let’s try it. 

The church is a… [family!]

And in the Gospel reading, we find ourselves at a family dinner table way back when this church thing really was more like thirteen folks and some camels. They’re at a family table — the table of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. But it’s not just any normal family dinner. Lazarus has been raised from the dead not long before that, and the religious authorities are looking for a chance to kill Jesus. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are hiding their fugitive teacher at this intimate dinner.

From very early on, the church is a…

It’s a pretty smelly story. There’s the scent of the food rising from the meal. There’s possibly even the scent of Lazarus, just risen from the grave not long before. And there’s the perfume. 

It’s not just any perfume, either. This is expensive perfume, and there’s a lot of it. So much, in fact, that it prompts Judas to yelp in protest, seeing all that expensive stuff poured out on the ground. Jesus shuts him up quickly and calls him back into the moment: “you won’t always have me with you.” 

It’s that time of year: Jesus’ time is growing short again. The cross is coming fully into view. 

And where is he, a harbored fugitive? Jesus is where he wants to be: with his family. Not his biological family, but his chosen family. 

Those who must live a vulnerable existence — that is, black folks, queer folks, and other oppressed groups — have called each other by familial terms for quite a long time now: brother, sister, mother, father, or just simply “family” (or its modern iteration, “fam”). Whether they’ve been rejected my their own families or not, for some reason, trying times make humans recognize that familial bonds can go far beyond mere biological ties. 

Christians, beginning very early on, did the same thing. Way back when this whole church thing began, Christians lived a risky existence. They lived under threat from the government and religious authorities. Some were thrown out of their biological families for converting to Christianity from whatever religious identity their families followed. Thus, they called each other by family names: brother, sister, mother, father. You can see evidence of it in Paul’s letters, when he writes about his family in Christ: sisters. Brothers. Siblings. 

From the very beginning, the church is a… [family!]

A few chapters later in John, when Jesus is dying on the cross, he will tell his mother that one of his disciples is now her son, and that she is now his mother. 

But here, Jesus is at the table with his brothers and sisters, where he loves to be. And Mary gets up from the table and finds this perfume. You know when you make a large purchase or find something valuable, and you save it for a special occasion, even when you don’t know exactly when that special occasion might arrive? I think it was like that. 

The next part of the story is intimate, as she anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume and wipes them with her hair. It’s a family moment. There’s so much perfume — a whole pound — that it fills up the whole room, eclipsing every other scent in this already smell-rich story.

Mind you, this isn’t the kind of age where people bathed super regularly. Jesus will smell of this perfume for days: when he arrives in Jerusalem to waving palm branches. When he sits at the family table again for his Last Supper with them. When he’s on trial before Pilate. When he’s on the cross. And maybe, just maybe, when he meets another Mary, Mary Magdalene, in the garden outside the tomb. 

I imagine, years later, Martha or Mary or Lazarus walking through the Bethany marketplace and suddenly, that scent hits their nostrils, and they remember everything. They remember Jesus. They remember how he gave them more family than they could’ve ever had by biology alone. 

Because, beloved, the church is a… [family!]

Some weeks ago, I talked about these family stories in the Bible, and how we pass them down from generation to generation. How we may not like everything we hear, just like in any family, and how we may hear different stories from different family members. Beloved, we’re getting ready to tell our best family story again. We do it every single year around this time. Because the church is a… [family!]

So lean in. Listen. Experience the stories as they wash over you, day by day of next week. These aren’t just stories we tell — they’re stories we experience, together, as a family. We wave the palms. We lay down our coats. We eat bread, and we drink wine, and we feel water. We touch the wood of the cross. And we watch the new fire of resurrection burn and tell all the best stories from our faith at Easter Vigil. 

We do this because the church is a… [family!] 

As humans, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. If humans, especially young humans, don’t get it in the form of something constructive, they just might get it in another less savory form. If you watch the news, you’ve seen violent incidents happen, over and over. Whether it’s gang violence or white supremacy or religious fundamentalism, make no mistake: it’s about identity. It’s about finding a family, with family stories, that gives us a family to belong to, a common identity. Don’t miss this, and don’t take it for granted: we have that here. 

The church is a… [family!]

I’ve been with you now for well over three years. That’s three years of Christmases, three years of Easters, three years of births and deaths and baptisms and funerals. I’ve watched you care for one another and love one another as dearly as anyone loves their own families. I’ve seen you welcome new people into this family and love them as if they’ve been here for years. Never miss this: this is an uncommon gift. You have a people to call on and depend on in any crisis life throws your way, people of all ages who will love you and pray for you and treat you like family, because the church is a… [family!]

We get to do this: to be here, in a group of humans that, just like any family, ranges in age from the littlest to the oldest, each beloved, each with the same common identity and story, complete with a family table to gather around.

So experience the family story with us next week. 

And feel it in your bones and know that it is true and know that it is something to be treasured and nurtured: the church is a… [family!] 

So, sure: though this church thing was originally created for thirteen people and a camel or two, we haven’t come that far, not really, not in a small church like this. And though our bloopers may be funny, let’s not forget in the business of things that the church is a [family]: quirky, goofy, funny, supportive, and most of all, here for one another.

Thank goodness.

Amen.