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–The Rev. Steve Pankey

An Easy Yoke

       The church I grew up in was a mission congregation planted during the post-World War Two economic boom.  The building was nestled in the very back of the Mission Hills neighborhood. Many who have driven on St. Thomas Road probably have no idea there is a church at the end of it.  Despite enormous population growth and housing developments taking over farm land on a daily basis, to this day, St. Thomas still backs up to a vast Amish farm.  On more than one occasion, I can remember leaving the church, smelling the natural fertilizer wafting heavily through the air, and seeing a man in a blue shirt and straw hat standing on a plow behind a team of two mules preparing the soil.

I didn’t realize it at the time, as I choked for fresh air amid the stench of manure, but without that Amish farmer in the church’s backyard, I wouldn’t have an image for what Jesus is talking about when he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Nothing about what that farmer and his two mules were doing was easy.  The ground was hard and rocky.  The blades on his plow had to be hand sharpened.  The wooden yoke that tied the mules together surely weighed heavy upon their withers.  Yet, without the yoke, there could be no teamwork between the two animals.  Without the yoke, the farmer had no control, or with mules, the semblance of control.

       For me, then, whenever I hear this well-worn turn of phrase from Jesus, I imagine that farmer and his heavy yoke, working hard to keep a way of life alive and his family fed.  For Jesus’ audience, the farming metaphor would not have been lost, but two other images would also have been close to mind – one Biblical, the other Rabbinical.  After the image of a famer’s field, the next thought would have probably been of the Prophet Isaiah.  In the ninth chapter of Isaiah, after stern warning of the judgment that was coming against a nation that had forgotten their God, had made their worship idolatry, and had ignored the needs of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed in their midst, the prophet looks ahead to a day in which God will appoint a new king who will overthrow all those who have oppressed the Israelites and break the yoke of their burden.[1]  The crowd who heard Jesus speak of his easy yoke would immediately have had this promise of a new King, in the lineage of image of David brought to mind.  Their hopes would have again been stoked that Jesus would be that king who would overthrow their Roman oppressors and bring a kingdom of peace to their land.  Oh, how they longed for the heavy yoke of their oppressors to be broken, and easy yoke of God’s kingdom to be revealed.

       Close behind that image would have been the Rabbinical image of a yoke.  The teaching of a Rabbi was said to be his yoke.  For many, that yoke took a lifetime to learn.  The Torah, with its 613 individual laws, with all their various interpretations, could, at times, feel burdensome, as Paul the Pharisee tries to articulate in our passage from Romans.  In the wrong hands, the Law was used to weigh people down, to force them into a system that kept them poor and reliant upon the Temple to mediate God’s forgiveness.  For many in the time of Jesus, the Pharisaical interpretation of the Torah felt like a yoke too heavy to bear.  Not only was their political life a heavy yoke, but religious life didn’t seem to offer much in the way of lifting the people’s burdens.  The people were weighed down, tired, and broken.

       So broken, that even the most righteous among them, John the Baptist, had begun to doubt.  The impetus for what we have just heard is a scene just before our Gospel lesson this morning. Imprisoned and frustrated, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the one he had hoped for.  Could it be true, in a world that sat so heavy upon his shoulders, that Jesus really was the one to lift the burden and break the yoke?  Emphatically, Jesus says yes.  Not because he was gathering an army to overthrow Rome.  Not because he had a plan to break John out of prison.  Not due of any show of force, or power, or might, but Jesus is resolute that his Messiahship is based in freedom.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  The poor have the good news brought to them.  “My yoke is easy,” Jesus says, “and my burden is light.”

       Almost immediately after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the Church began to add weight onto the yoke of Christ.  Two thousand years later, and after sixteen hundred years of being tied to empire, the Gospel of Jesus can feel pretty heavy for many.  Over the centuries, the easy yoke of Jesus has been weighed down by sexism, colonialism, white supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and nationalism, among other things.  It has been bent under the weight of powerful men who have tried to muscle the easy yoke of Christ off the path of freedom.  Add to that the sheer weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, economic instability, and a long overdue reckoning for America’s original sin of racism, and it should come as no surprise to any of us that many people are feeling weighed down by the burdens of sin, fear, and hopelessness.  Despite it all, the promise of Jesus remains true.  His yoke is easy.  His burden is light.  If only we human beings would let God lift off all the garbage we’ve laid upon the yoke of Christ, we could be unburdened.  If only we would let God break the yoke of oppression, those who have been oppressed and those who have been the oppressors would be able to stand taller in the freedom of God’s mercy.

It’ll take eleven more chapters in Matthew’s Gospel before we get a clear understanding of just how easy the yoke of Jesus really is.  In Matthew 22, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were embroiled in a philosophical war of words with Jesus.  Jesus had just silenced the Sadducees one final time, when the Pharisees got together and sent a lawyer to test him.  “Teacher, which commandments in the law is the greatest?” he asked.  Out of all 613 laws in the Torah, which one is most important?  Jesus answered him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  Jesus could have stopped there.  Having shared with the lawyer the foundation of his teaching, he would have answered the man’s question, but he went on.  “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It isn’t just that loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself is the beginning of Jesus’ yoke, but it is the fullness of it.  Everything else Jesus taught was simply an interpretation on love God and love neighbor.  As Deacon Kellie said in her mid-week meditation on Wednesday, “even when Jesus is talking about finances, or fear, or feeding, or following, or faithfulness, he’s always also talking about love.”[2]  Or as the Presiding Bishop said in his installation sermon back in 2015, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”[3]

The yoke of Jesus is love.  It is simultaneously feather light and impossible to carry on our own.  The yoke of love unites us together.  The yoke of love necessarily puts us in community.  The yoke of love puts to mind first the needs of others, it moves us toward compassion, and calls us to reconciliation.  Without the yoke of Christ there is no ability to work together.  Without the yoke of love, our work in the field of God’s kingdom goes undone.  I invite you, my dear friends, no matter how heavy the weight of today might feel, to let Christ replace your burdensome yoke, for his yoke is truly easy, and his burden is, in fact, light.  Amen.


[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-06/our-yokes

[2] https://www.facebook.com/cecbg/videos/1239052959792585

[3] https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/michaelcurry/sermon-installation-27th-presiding-bishop

Peace, Unity, Shalom

       In the search process to become your Rector, I told the Search Committee that, as an introvert, one of the ways that I find refreshment and renewal is in the minutiae of rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the Canons of the Episcopal Church. That’s me.  I know full well that there are maybe 15 people like me in the whole world, and the last thing you want to hear from me today is some obscure reference to some never-turned-to page in the Book of Common Prayer, but given the stresses of preaching Trinity Sunday in the midst of a pandemic and a New Civil Rights movement, you’re going to have to excuse me while I find an anchor to hold on to.

       Deep in the recesses of the Prayer Book is the Catechism.  Catechism comes from ecclesiastical Greek and means, “to make heard.”  Its purpose is to articulate the teaching of the church in terms that are as accessible as possible.  Rarely actually “made heard,” our Catechism is intended to be a brief summary of the Church’s teaching and an outline for deeper discussion.  About halfway through the Catechism the focus turns away from theological questions about the Trinity, sin and redemption, and the scriptures and toward the Church and its work.  At the top of page 855, toward the tail end of the section titled “The Church,” the question is posed, “What is the mission of the Church?”  The answer isn’t intended to be all inclusive, but it is about as good a summary as there is of why disciples of Jesus continue to be a part of this sometimes messy, human institution.  “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

       While not exactly identical to Paul’s message of unity in our lesson from Second Corinthians this morning, it seems obvious that the mission of the church as defined in the Catechism is built upon a similar foundation.  Paul had sent two, maybe three, letters and made two in-person visits trying to lead the Church in Corinth beyond its near-constant fighting.  Outsiders had come in and tried to undermine his message.  The rich and powerful had hijacked Christ’s gift of the Eucharist for their own gain.  The Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ was getting lost in a long list of requirements for “true membership.”  As Paul put the finishing touches on this second letter, he claimed every bit of his authority as an Apostle of Jesus and founder of the Corinthian Church and insisted that they finally accept the Holy Spirit’s call to become a new creation, find agreement, and live in peace with one another.

        Living in peace with one another sounds so nice, doesn’t it?  Working alongside Christ to restore all people to unity with God and with each other has that same sort of warm fuzzy feeling to it.  They both evoke images of prayer circles around a campfire singing Kumbaya, but given the anger, pain, and stress that the Corinthian Church was experiencing, that naïve utopian vision seems to miss the mark.  The anger, pain, and stress that we see in the nationwide call to end police brutality, to address systemic racism, to name that Black Lives Matter, and to unwind our nation’s 400-plus-year history of white supremacy make it clear that simple platitudes will not result in any true unity or lasting peace.

       The peace that Paul calls for in Corinth and the unity that we are commissioned to seek are both based in the Hebrew concept of shalom.  Shalom is most often translated as peace, but it carries a meaning much deeper than “no longer at war.”  Inherent in the concept of shalom is oneness or completeness.  Shalom exists when all people are as God intended them to be.  Shalom exists when the world is as God created it to be.  Shalom will exist when all is made whole again.  As Christians who claim belief in God who is Three-in-One, we see the perfect example of shalom in the relationship of self-giving love that exists in the Trinity.

       Whether we call it peace, or unity, or shalom, each word assumes the wholeness of the other, the belovedness of the other, and the sacredness of the other.  Unfortunately, almost from the very beginning of humankind, we have repeatedly failed to offer to our neighbors these most basic assumptions.  Instead, envy, fear, hatred, and bigotry have led us further and further from shalom, further and further from right relationship with each other, and ultimately, further and further from God.  Again, and again God intervened, inviting humanity back into shalom with one another and with God.  Again, and again, human beings, often led by those in positions of power who were intent on maintaining control of a social order that benefited them, made deals with the devil; taking themselves and their people further and further away from God.  Again, and again, real people have failed to fulfill even the most basic commandments of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.

       When the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth to live among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the example of what shalom looks like in human flesh was right in front of our faces.  Once again, humanity chose fear, violence, and control – nailing the shalom of God to a cross to die.  Yet, as we well know, in the resurrection of Jesus, God the Father confirmed that death and destruction will not have the last word.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, humanity was given atonement for their sins – at-one-ment in the shalom of God.  In the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we were given access to the heart of God and the perfect shalom of the Trinity, should we be willing to turn away from sin and toward the peace and unity of God.

After his resurrection, Jesus met his disciples on a Galilean mountain, and commissioned them, and by extension each of us, to take shalom into the world, teaching by word and example that loving God and loving neighbor really can change the world.  Clearly, human beings still struggle with living into the wholeness that God intended for creation.  People still crave power.  People still hoard resources.  People still dehumanize the other.  People still think that the color of your skin somehow defines you as better or worse, more or less human, or more or less deserving of God’s love.  As disciples of Jesus, we must utterly reject any worldview that works against peace, unity, and shalom.

       “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  The Catechism goes on to ask and answer a more practical question, “How does the Church pursue its mission? … It prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.”  I, we, Christ Church, the Diocese of Kentucky, the Episcopal Church, Mainline Protestantism, and many predominantly white congregations have done a lot of good work in prayer, worship, and proclaiming the Gospel.  Now, we must get about the work of promoting justice, peace, and love as we seek the shalom of God for our community and the whole world.  Amen.

The Martyrs of Uganda

Today, the Church remembers the Martyrs of Uganda, killed on this date in 1886.

Let us pray.

O God, by your providence the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church: Grant that we who remember before you the blessed martyrs of Uganda, may, like them, be steadfast in our faith in Jesus Christ, to whom they gave obedience, even to death, and by their sacrifice brought forth a plentiful harvest; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A reading from Matthew 24:9–14

Jesus said to his disciples, “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.”

The story of Christianity in Africa is messy, to put it mildly.  During the 33 year “Scramble for Africa,” European powers simply drew lines on maps, portioning off control of a continent that was not theirs for the taking, the Church played a lamentable role as missionary zeal mixed with political desire and a hunger for natural resources to create a toxic situation.

In Uganda, a nation claimed by British Empire, Anglican missionaries from the Church Missionary Society focused their attention on converting the King and his Court beginning in 1877.  When the sympathetic King Mutesa I died in 1884, his son, Kabaka Mwanga II took the throne.  Mwanga was concerned that his court was filled with pages who put loyalty to Jesus Christ ahead of loyalty to the king.  He feared that this religious influence would have a political impact as he felt the powers of Europe closing in around him.  On October 29, 1885, King Mwanga ordered the execution of Bishop James Hannington and his companions as they made their way from Lake Victoria out of fear of a British invasion.

Eight months later, on June 3, 1886, Mwanga ordered 32 young men, between the ages of 15 and 30, to be burned to death for their refusal to denounce their faith.  In the following months, many more were burned or tortured to death for their faith as Mwanga tried to eradicate the Christian faith and its European influence from his kingdom.

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous.  Under the threat of certain death for those who preached and sought out the preaching of the Gospel, Christianity began to grow in Uganda.  The example of martyrs, who walked to the flames singing hymns and praying for their enemies sparked a desire for such faith in many who witnessed those horrific events.  With no white, European missionaries to turn to, these new Christians were taught the faith by their neighbors, people who looked and spoke like them and shared their traditions, history, and customs.  As a result of this Christian faith that came from the voices of an indigenous population, today Uganda is the most Christian nation on the African Continent.

As inheritors of a Christian faith that has been used by empires to subjugate people, enforce political control, and rob people of their cultures, we should be cautious about thinking that Jesus is talking to us when he warns his disciples of the coming persecution.  Our faith tradition has often been the persecutor, not the persecuted.  We should, however, be all in on the commitment to endure in sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God throughout the world.  This Good News, as Matthew portrays it in his Gospel an impossibly simple one sentence sermon that Jesus preached again and again, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

If we are to learn anything from the Martyrs of Uganda, it is that the work of repentance is ongoing.  We must choose daily – and sometimes hourly or even minute by minute – to turn from the ways of self-preservation, anger, and bitterness and toward the way of love that Jesus showed us in this life and that the Martyrs of Uganda showed us in their deaths.  During these fearful and troubling times, may we all choose to follow the way of love and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

I’m Thirsty

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

The Story of the Day of Pentecost is, as many have pointed out, a story about breath.  The word we translate as Spirit is pneuma in Greek and ruah in Hebrew.  Both words mean wind or breath.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of God at work in us and wind of God at work in the world.  There are obvious connections between this breath of God and the “I can’t breathe” cry from George Floyd as he slowly suffocated to death, handcuffed and unnecessarily subdued under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer who was sworn to serve and protect.  There are obvious connections between the breath of God and the pepper bullets, meant to make breathing painful that were intentionally shot at Louisville reporter Kaitlin Rust and her cameraman as they covered protests over the death of Breonna Taylor and “no knock warrants” on Friday night.  There are obvious connections between the wind of the Spirit at work in the world and the wanton endangerment of a man refusing to change lanes and hitting a woman with his truck during a Black Lives Matter protest right here in our own city.

       While the image of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God runs throughout the Bible, as a white man, my privilege means that I have very little trouble breathing.  In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, it is the African-American, Latin-American, and Native-American populations who have been most profoundly impacted by COVID-19s ability to take your breath away.  In the midst of increasingly visible and brazen acts of bigotry and racism, it is black and brown bodies that are most likely to have their right to breathe forcibly removed.  By any measure, I have no right to ask for deeper breath.  Instead, this week, I have found myself drawn to the image of thirst.  I can breathe easy, but I am thirsty for justice, thirsty for righteousness, thirsty for hope.

       When I first realized that I’d be preaching from John 7 this week I found it strange.  The primary Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost comes from John 20.  On that first Easter night, Jesus breathed on his disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit so that they might be sent out into the world to continue the work he had started.  I couldn’t help but wonder, why would we instead hear this lesson from early-on in Jesus’ ministry, when, the narrator reminds us, the Holy Spirit wasn’t even generally available?  But as the week went on, I found myself growing increasingly thankful for the image of living water that has been promised to those who follow Jesus.

       As Jesus hung on the cross, unjustly condemned to suffocate to death for crimes he didn’t commit, each of the Gospel writers highlights a different part of the traumatic story.  In John’s Gospel, in his final moments, we hear Jesus say, “I am thirsty.”  After receiving a drink of sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” as he bowed his head and gave up his spirit, pneuma, breath.  In those final moments, as the full weight of sin in this world sat upon his chest, Jesus’ thirst wasn’t simply physical, but spiritual as well.  He was thirsty for hope, thirsty for justice, thirsty for righteousness.  As the darkness crept in, Jesus was thirsty for the living water that had sustained him through three years of ministry.  As the loneliness grew, Jesus was thirsty for his companions to be about the work of reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.

       I can’t help but imagine that there were a few women left in the crowd around the cross that day who heard Jesus say, “I am thirsty” and remembered his promise that anyone who is thirsty can drink deeply of the living water of the Holy Spirit.  Standing there, watching the unjust murder of their friend and rabbi, I wonder what they thought?  I wonder how thirsty they were for hope, for justice, and for reconciliation.  I wonder how desperate they were for the comfort of the Spirit to be in their midst?

       It is in a different Gospel account that Jesus climbs up the side of a mountain to teach his disciples their first lesson.  In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus tells the small group, and thousands of others who were eavesdropping on the conversation, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  He then spent the next three years showing them what it looks like to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Speaking up for the voiceless.  Offering hope to the hopeless.  Setting aside privilege to enter into the difficulties of the marginalized.  Feeding the hungry.  Healing the sick.  Touching the untouchable.  Loving your enemies.  Caring for the needy.  Jesus taught his disciples to thirst for righteousness, not just for themselves, but for the whole world, until, ultimately, that thirst brought him, and them, to the place where they were willing to risk even death to make this world more like the Kingdom of God.

Today, I find myself thirsty.  For too long, I’ve sat quietly, just hoping that people would come to their senses.  My privilege meant that the basic injustices of a nation that was built on an ideology of white supremacy would never really impact me.  For too long, I’ve been afraid that speaking up would cost me too much.  And now, having declined the Holy Spirit’s repeated invitations to drink deeply, I find myself nearly dehydrated.  I’m thirsty for a day of justice.  I’m thirsty for righteousness.  I’m thirsty for peace.  I’m thirsty for hope.  I’m thirsty for a day when the stories of our African-American neighbors don’t fall on deaf ears, until it’s once again too late and another black man is murdered out of fear, bigotry, and anger.  And, from what I’m hearing, many of you are thirsty too.

I don’t have many answers today.  I don’t know what concrete steps we need to take in order to work toward a more just society.  I don’t know what relationships need to be deepened in order to effectively work toward righteousness.  But I do know that if we try to do it all on our own, we will quickly run out of water and find ourselves thirsty again.  So, on this day of Pentecost, more than breathing in the breath of God, today my prayer is that we might drink deeply of the Spirit, so deeply that the living water of God might tap into our hearts and gush forth rivers of hope, peace, justice, and righteousness so that all our neighbors might one day have the ability to breathe freely.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.  Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

Walking in Darkness

Death seems to be all around us. Yesterday, the United States marked a grim milestone of 100,000 Coronavirus deaths. My home state, Kentucky, crossed the 400 dead marker. Outside of this all consuming virus, there are other, much more sinister stories of death. It’s been almost a month since we first saw the video of two white men hunting down a black jogger named Ahmed Aubrey and shooting him in broad daylight for no reason. It’s been just a few short days since a white police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man accused of nothing more than passing a bad check, while he was shackled with his hands behind his back, begging for the chance to breathe, ultimately killing him.

Death seems to be all around us.

Yesterday, I was, as I do many afternoons, listening to the Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. It is, ostensibly, a sports talk show on ESPN Radio, but Dan and Stugotz never shy away from talking about issues of race, gender, or class. As Dan processed what he had seen in the video of George Floyd’s death, he wondered, “why does it take death to get us to talk about these things?” I found that question to be supremely important. Why, when systematic racism has been impacting the real lives of our African American siblings every single day, do we, that is white people, wait until it comes to the death of a human being before we take any kind of action? Why, when we are aware of the abject lack of leadership on the federal level around the COVID-19 pandemic, do we not mourn, lament, and work toward science-based protection measures for all people, until we see a staggering number like 100,000 dead?

One of the things that makes a collect a collect is that it begins by naming some attribute of God that pertains to the prayer at hand. In the second collect appointed for Pentecost, we say the following about God, “who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit.” My mind was immediately taken to John 3 and the condemnation of humanity, “light came into the world, and the world chose darkness rather than light,” which is, I think, the answer to the question above. Why do we wait until some one or 100,000 some ones die to talk about these difficult things? Because we’d rather live in the darkness. The light is hard. The work of naming racism, naming ineffective leadership, naming oppression, doesn’t need to matter to those of us in privileged positions, and it feels easier to ignore them. Until, of course, we can’t.

In his response to an effigy of him being hanged near the statehouse, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said of lawmakers who had taken pictures and supported the protesters all the way until they mimicked a death, “You cannot fan the flames and then condemn the fire,” and it would be so easy to apply those words to “them” and not to “us” or even me, but the truth of the matter is that we have gotten so used to the flames that most of us fan them, simply by not doing anything to put them out. As Saint Paul would say, “I am chief among them.” This post is too late, but I guess I felt like I couldn’t just do nothing any more. Why did it take death(s) to get me to say something? Well, the answer I would apply to “them” equally applies to me. The darkness feels safer.

Yet, once we name God as one who sends light, we pray that the light of the Spirit might give us right judgment in all things. And so, today, I choose to stand in the light, to embrace the prodding of the Spirit, and to point out that we’ve, I’ve, let the flames grow into a raging fire and that those of us who claim to live infused with the Spirit of God can no longer sit back and wait until the darkness of the death forces us to speak.

The Ever-Changing Church

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the sixth chapter of Acts begins.  Despite some early successes, including three thousand new members on Pentecost, public perception was that they were a tiny minority of fools, following a failed, fake Messiah, doomed to flounder for a few months before it all came crashing down.  On top of that, a series of intense internal squabbles threatened to split the Church.  Leaders who were picked based on their ability to teach and preach and inspire, suddenly found themselves having to learn how to administrate.  Factions were arguing constantly, and the leadership could no longer do it all on their own.  So, with some reluctance, they decided to open up the ranks, and seven new leaders were brought on board.  These men, called Deacons, were charged with the day-to-day operations of the ministry, while the rest continued to focus their attention on teaching and preaching.

As we are well aware here at Christ Church, a good Deacon is worth their weight in gold.  Seven good Deacons showed the potential to turn the Church around.  The word of God spread because it had hands and feet in the world.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly as people began to experience the love of God lived out in real life.  Things were blowing and going and everything looked great, until… Luke tells us that even many of the priests of Judaism were being converted by this newfound way of being the Church.  Converting the rank and file is one thing, but religious leaders don’t take too kindly to the poaching of clergy.  Stephen, one of the seven Deacons, was supremely gifted.  Like Deacon Kellie, Stephen’s skills went way beyond the primary role of Deacon as a servant minister.  Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit.  He was a gifted preacher.  He had a servant’s heart.  He even began to perform miracles.  His public persona became the focus of frustration for some of the Jewish leadership.

The story we heard this morning comes at the tail end of a long Passion Narrative for Stephen.  In many ways, his story follows what happened to Jesus.  A secret plot leads to the need for false witnesses to testify before the authorities.  Ultimately, the power of the crowd is used to convict Stephen and he is sentenced to death as a blasphemer and dragged out of the city to be killed. As he dies, Stephen, like Jesus, asks God to forgive those who killed him.[1]  Despite all manner of hardship, the prodigal love of God that was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth was still at work in the world, through disciples like Deacon Stephen, but things were about to get much, much worse.

The Lectionary ends at chapter seven, verse sixty, but the story of Stephen doesn’t really end until one verse later – chapter eight, verse one.  There, the story transitions based around a new character who will carry the narrative through the rest of the book.  “Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  We heard Saul’s name in our assigned passage.  He was said to be a young man who was trusted to watch everyone’s overcoats as they stoned Stephen to death. Saul was a Pharisees’ Pharisee.  The son of a Pharisee, Saul was an up-and-coming leader in the Jewish faith, and after the message he heard in Stephen’s final sermon, he made it his duty to destroy the Christian faith.

Things weren’t looking good for the Church as the eighth chapter of Acts begins.  After their brief glimmer of hope was snuffed out by Stephen’s death, Saul successfully organized a massive persecution of the followers of Jesus.  Those who didn’t flee the city or deny their faith in Jesus, men and women alike, were dragged from their homes and thrown in prison for blasphemy.  The Apostles hid, not unlike they did after the death of Jesus, and the faithful fled to surrounding communities in Judea and Samaria.  There were only a handful of Christians left in Jerusalem, their membership was spread all throughout the land, and there was no Facebook Live to broadcast Sunday services.

What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.  The people who scattered took the story of Jesus with them.  As they travelled, they told about the power that God’s love and how Jesus had changed their lives.  They showed God’s love to strangers in their new communities by acts of compassion and service and by modeling the sharing of resources for the needs of the poor.  These people, who fled everything they knew for fear of their lives, took Jesus with them on the road, and lo and behold, the Church continued to grow.  When everything else fell apart around them, the faithful reinvented what it meant to the be the Church in order to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the love of God with everyone they met.

As we continue to navigate this new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could learn a lot from the experience of the early church during the sixth, seventh, and eighth chapters of Acts.  We aren’t being persecuted, but we aren’t able to meet together either.  Still, we have the chance to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God with the world by staying healthy and hopeful at home.  Our clergy might be focused on how to preach and teach in this new climate, but so many of you have found ways to step up and serve your neighbors generously, by ordering meals for the Salvation Army and BRASS, by dropping off fresh baked bread, helping out with grocery shopping, sending cards and letters, and making phone calls.

Twice in a matter of weeks, the early church fundamentally changed how it did business, and the Gospel flourished.  As we come to the realization that this marathon is going to last a lot longer than any of us wants, the Church writ large, and Christ Church specifically, is going to have to take on a spirit of adaptation, of listening for the Holy Spirit, and of evangelistic zeal for the building up of the Kingdom of God.  Even when we can re-open our building, the ways in which we worship God, learn and grow, and radiate God’s love are going to look vastly different than they did on March 12th.  Our task, as we settle in for the long haul, is to discern as a community how God is calling us to be the Church in the world during and beyond these unprecedented times.

None of us has the answers quite yet, but we do have models to look to as we think and pray and dream.  We have the story of Stephen, the work of the diaconate, and the spread of the Gospel in the diaspora, among many others to remind us that even in hardship, uncertainty, and fear, the Church’s mission to restore all people to right relationship with God and with each other will not fail.  The Son of Man continues to stand at the right hand of God, which means that evil, fear, and folly can never win.  Things haven’t looked good for the Church before, but God who is faithful will show us the way to the truth of eternal life.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4456

Don’t Worry? – a mid-week reflection

Today, the Church remembers Catherine of Siena, who died on this date in the year 1380.

Let us pray.

Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Gospel lesson appointed for today is select verses from Luke chapter twelve.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”


Whether it is coming from Bobby McFerrin or Jesus of Nazareth, “Don’t worry, be happy” is easier said than done.  In what feels like the 10th year of Coronatide, I found myself getting viscerally angry at Jesus for these “words of comfort” to his disciples.  As usual, Biblical texts taken out of context can be detrimental to your health.  What seems like simple platitudes from our Lord are actually part of a much larger teaching by Jesus on the dangers of following him long-term.  See, a crowd of many thousands had started to follow Jesus.  The crowd was so large that, in order to hear him teach, they had begun to press in so close that some were being trampled.  As Jesus looked at the crowd, he realized that many of them were there for the wrong reasons – thinking they had hitched their wagons to the next King of Israel and looking forward to a life on easy street.

The first time Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension the crowd, not to worry, he does so in the context of dying for their faith.  “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.”  After the parable of the rich fool, who after a bountiful harvest built bigger barns rather than sharing his largesse and died that very night, Jesus continues with this series of warnings not to worry about earthly things, but rather, to remain focused on the greater things of the Kingdom of God.

Catherine of Siena was born in 1347 as the twenty-third or twenty-fourth child of her mother, Lapa and father, Giacomo.  One of a set of twins, Catherine’s sister, Giovanna died shortly after birth.  In all, her parents lost just under half of their 25 children at a young age.  Catherine’s first few years were spent under the fear of the black plague that killed upwards of 200 million people in Europe between 1347 and 1353.  As the plague came to an end, Catherine and a brother went to visit one of their married older sisters, and on the way home, at the age of five or six, she had a vision of Jesus seated in heaven with Peter, Paul, and John.  By the age of seven, she vowed to give her life to God.  For the majority of her life, Catherine lived under her own strict rule of life.  As a third order nun, she did not live in the monastery with her sisters, but remained at her family home.  Rather than enjoy the comforts of her family’s relatively well-to-do lifestyle, she was constantly giving away all of her food and clothing.  Her only meal most days was the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  Amidst all of this, she also found herself in the middle of not one, but two controversies involving competing Popes.

If anyone had reason to be prone to worry, Catherine of Siena did, and yet, she always chose the harder path.  Whether it was becoming a nurse so that she could treat lepers or nearly being assassinated in a riot after the death of her friend, Pope Gregory the eleventh, Catherine set her hope on Christ, and found reason to have faith.

Maybe Jesus has a point.  We have very little to do with the rain or sun or the yield of the harvest.  Ours is not to worry about how much toilet paper gets produced in a week, but only to give thanks when the Kroger shelves are stocked and to share of our abundance when we come across a 24 pack in all its glory.

Blessed to be a Blessing

On Maundy Thursday, my family sat down around our dining room table with a Church at Home bulletin, some fancy beverages, and a freshly baked loaf of Leslie Weigel’s sourdough bread, ready for a feast.  As we walked through the liturgy, with a priest at the table, it felt strange to not just have communion.  Instead, our girls said the prayers over the bread and the wine and the cherry lime sparkling ice beverages.  We couldn’t gather as a congregation to celebrate the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, the night in which Jesus instituted the central sacrament of our church, and so neither did my family get to have their own private communion service.  As a clergy team, we very quickly decided that the Governor’s “Healthy at Home” order and the Bishop’s Pastoral Directive meant that due to the Eucharist’s fundamentally communal nature, we should all fast until we can all have the opportunity to share in the sacramental nourishment from the riches of Christ’s grace.  While we don’t all have the same Eucharistic theologies, Becca, Kellie, and I were able to agree that without the ability to be together to share Christ’s body and the blood, the fullness of the Eucharist would be lacking.  That’s not to say, however, that what we experienced around our dining room table on Maundy Thursday evening wasn’t special or sacred.

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As my girls read the prayers that night, my eyes wandered to the notes about the prayers, which pointed out that while the words and shape of them might sound familiar, what was happening there wasn’t “consecration” but rather “blessing, something all Christians are called to do.”  Now, I’m certain that nobody watching this live-stream wants to hear me wax poetic about my own understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, the right and wrong ways to worship during a pandemic, or the nuances of language between blessing and consecration, but this distinction has been helpful to me.  As many of you know, the action that we now know as the Eucharist is based on a common Jewish ritual of the shared meal; a ritual that Jesus and his disciples would have experienced almost every day.  Remembering this has proven helpful as I try to overcome my grief about our inability to break bread together around this altar.

Eight weeks into this “new normal” of live-streamed worship, having to hear how the disciples recognized the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread seems unfair at best – maybe even downright cruel.  As I look at the calendar and think that it’ll be at least another five or six weeks before we can even begin re-gather for in-person worship.  As I slowly come to realize that what that in-person worship will look like is a whole lot less like the Easter Day packed house I long for and probably a whole lot more the like a physically distant Wednesday healing service, hearing that Cleopas and his companion got to see the resurrected Jesus take, bless, and break the bread feels like a bit of a gut punch.  As the Psalmist asks, so we might cry out, “How long, O Lord?  How long?”

Sermon prep during physical distancing looks a lot different than sermon prep used to.  Gone are the days of twenty-page print outs of sermon resources.  My bookshelves aren’t at my beck and call.  My brain is working at less than full capacity, and I find myself easily distracted.  Maybe you know how that feels.  Anyway, this week, in a call back to sermon prep long before I became a Rector, back when I had more time on my hands, I pulled up the Sermon Brainwave Podcast.  Four of the best Biblical and preaching scholars in America spend thirty minutes each week talking through the lessons appointed for Sunday, and I just knew they’d give me a fresh perspective.  Karoline Lewis didn’t disappoint.  She pointed out that Jesus breaking bread with his disciples, what we so often see through our lenses as a Eucharistic action, is, in the context of that first Easter afternoon, simply a ritual that Jesus and Cleopas and his friend would have shared dozens or even hundreds of times before.

When Luke writes that Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, he isn’t just telling the story as a re-creation of the Last Supper.  Luke uses the same language in the story of the feeding of the five-thousand.  Jesus commissioned the disciples to feed the crowd, but when they balked at the idea, he took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, before giving the pieces to the disciples to distribute.  Jesus provided an abundant meal to show the disciples what their ministry should look like.

In the Road to Emmaus story, Jesus empowers the disciples yet again by way of a meal, to take the news of the resurrection out into the world.  The broken bread and shared cup of the Eucharist might be one way that our eyes can be opened to see the Lord Jesus, but what is clear to me in this experience of Eucharistic fasting is that it is most certainly not the only way to see Jesus in our midst.  Whether it is formally consecrated by a priest or blessed by the prayers of two little blonds around our dinner table or blessed by the staff at Indian Oven who prepare perfectly baked naan for take-out, I see Jesus in broken bread of all kinds.  I love carbs, but even when there isn’t bread involved, I can see Jesus at work in this strange new world every day.

I’ve seen Jesus at work though our staff, vestry, and eucharistic visitors making calls to parishioners to check-in with one another.  I’ve seen Jesus at work in the tireless efforts of HOTEL INC, the Salvation Army, United Way, BRASS, and Hope House to serve our at-risk neighbors.  I’ve seen Jesus at work in the sewing of masks for health care workers, our neighbors experiencing homelessness, and some of our most vulnerable members.  I’ve seen Jesus in the care that so many are showing toward one another; a care that has maybe been assumed or taken for granted for too long.  I’ve seen Jesus in the generosity of so many who have given in abundance to keep our congregation in a solid financial position.  I even see Jesus in the camera lens, as I get to share the Good News to people I know and love on the other side of an internet connection. The Lord Jesus has been made known to me in all kinds of new and interesting ways during this difficult season.

After the bread and drinks were blessed on Maundy Thursday, we prayed together, giving thanks for every person who brought the meal to our table and asking God to use that meal, and every meal, to give us strength to be good stewards, to care for creation and for one another.  That is how we continue to make Christ present in the world around us, by loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  Even in this time of physical distancing, each of us who follow Jesus as Lord has the opportunity to shine the light of Christ, to be Jesus, for our neighbors, our friends, our families, and even to strangers who are walking this same difficult road.  Today, you might need to see Jesus.  Tomorrow, it could be your turn to be Jesus.  While we remain unable to see Jesus in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread here at church, there are still plenty of opportunities to be Body of Christ in the world as we, like disciples across time, are blessed to be a blessing.  Amen.

One Word Changes Everything

On May 10, 2018, NBC News tweeted a report that said, “Major depression is on the rise among everyone, new data shows.”  In response, a sportswriter named Robert O’Neill[1] tweeted back, “Well, I mean.” followed by stage directions that read “gestures broadly at everything.”  More than twenty-eight thousand retweets and ninety thousand likes later, and the *gestures broadly at everything* meme became a permanent part of internet culture.  I had a pretty strong sarcastic streak in me before the COVID-19 pandemic and mandated physical distancing rules, but after a month at home, I’ve polished my sarcasm into a sparkling diamond.  It wasn’t surprising to me, then, as I read the Easter Gospel this week, that the sarcastic *gestures broadly at everything* meme came to mind.  Every time I read it, I couldn’t help but hear the angels ask Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and see Mary sarcastically respond with a *gestures broadly at everything* type motion.

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“Woman, why are you weeping?”  Well, let’s start on Thursday night, when one of my friend’s closest disciples betrayed him for a lousy bag of silver.  A mob of soldiers and police came to arrest him, and when things got heated, somebody got their ear chopped off.  Then, another disciple, one of Jesus’ inner circle, maybe the person closest to him of all, denied even knowing him on three separate occasions, while inside the Chief Priest’s house, they spent the whole night trying to make up fraudulent charges against him.  By Friday morning, they had gotten something to stick, or at least they convinced themselves they had, and dragged Jesus over to the Governor’s house, where after hours of back and forth, Pilate handed my friend over to be killed, even though he knew that Jesus had done nothing that deserved crucifixion.  We watched as they beat him senseless, crowned him with thorns, mocked him, spit at him, and made him carry his own cross through the city and out to Golgotha, where they nailed him to a cross and laughed at him while he slowly suffocated to death.  As the sun was about to set, they took down his body and we hastily put it in this tomb in order to keep the Sabbath.  And now, here I am ready to anoint him for a proper burial and somebody has taken him away.  Why am I weeping? *Gestures broadly at everything. *. Yeah, all of that, and a whole lot more, is why I’m weeping.

I’m thinking that maybe most of you can relate to the sarcastic Mary Magdalene character I’ve created in my mind.  Without so many of the traditions that I know and love about Holy Week, I’ve found it really challenging to get into the mindset that there is anything different about today; that there is anything worth celebrating.  As I got up this morning, while it was still dark, put on my seersucker suit that barely fits thanks to a month of snacking, TV watching, and social distancing, and prepared to make my way to 1215 State Street, I couldn’t help but feel sad.  I miss seeing your smiling faces, I miss the craziness of the Easter Egg Hunts all around the building, I miss the brass and the timpani, I miss seeing Mrs. Spiller arrive at 7:30 to tie lilies to the processional cross, though she still managed to be here in spirit, I miss the joy, the excitement, and the exhaustion of a week that is hard and holy and exhausting and awe-inspiring all wrapped up in one.  I miss *gestures broadly at everything* all of it.

As soon as Mary expresses her fear, frustration, and anguish with the two angels, a new character arrives on the scene.  She assumes him to be the gardener and implores him, “If you took him, please tell me where he is so that I can give him a proper burial.”  There is still not even an inkling in her mind that Jesus is anything other than dead and his body, missing.  This moment had to be the depth of her sadness, her darkest hour, as she desperately searched for the body of her friend, Rabbi, and Lord.  There, at rock bottom, nearly crushed by the shadow of the valley of death, the man Mary thought was the gardener spoke a single word, and her world, and the whole world, changed forever.

Mary.

This year, when everything feels so strange and difficult and dark, I think the word that changed everything for me is “Alleluia.”  I’ll admit, I snuck it in a few days early.  Standing beside a grave in Fairview #1 on Thursday afternoon, I ended the Committal liturgy by saying “Alleluia, Christ is risen.”  Five voices replied back “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia,” and I almost lost it; as the power of breaking that particular fast washed over me.

Alleluia.

A word of praise that we set aside for the season of Lent.  A communal act of fasting that is meant to help prepare us for the joy of Easter.  Having not said that word for more than a month, when I heard it come from my lips, it brought me a twinge of the joy that I knew I’d miss this morning.  I don’t know if hearing it through a screen and saying it in your pajamas or your Easter finest in your living room had the same effect, but I sure hope it did.

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A new meme was created this week ahead of Easter-in-Quarantine.  While it isn’t nearly as popular as the *gestures broadly at everything* meme, I found it helpful as I processed my emotions around this odd and holy day.  It features an image of the Grinch, and in someone’s best Dr. Seuss impression, it reads, “It came without dresses.  It came without ties. It came without baskets, egg, hams, or pies.  And he puzzled and puzzled ‘til his puzzler was sore.  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.  What if Easter, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more?”  Now, we know that the Easter Bunny is an essential employee, and I hope you’re having something delicious for dinner today, but the deep truth of that meme remains.  Even without many of the usual trappings of Easter, Jesus Christ is risen today!  No power on earth, in heaven, or hell, no pandemic or *gestures broadly at everything* anything else in all creation can keep Easter from coming.  Whether we are all gathered in this space, or each in our own homes.  The tomb is still empty.  Darkness did not win.  Hope still lives.

It’s ok to miss all the fun things that go along with our Easter celebrations, but this year, I have found it helpful to remember that the joy of Easter was first discovered by Mary Magdalene in sadness and deep darkness.  In the speaking of a single word, Jesus raised Mary Magdalene to resurrected life.  At the heart of Easter is the truth that God will never leave us, and that sometimes, even with just a single word, God can overcome *gestures broadly at everything* all the sorrow and worry and shame that the world, and we, can place upon us.  Jesus Christ is risen today, and is present in every living room, bedroom, and back porch where this message is being live-streamed, ready to embrace you with the grace and hope and love of God.  So, whether you are gathered with your spouse, with your children, or watching this and feeling all alone, know that you are loved by God and by your community at Christ Church.  And even though we are apart, with God’s help, we can *gestures broadly at everything* all be together as we share in the Good News of Easter, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] https://twitter.com/robertoneill31/status/994691275960926208?lang=en

Good Friday and the Space to Grieve

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed just about every aspect of our lives.  From the way we work to the way we grocery shop; from the way we interact with friends and neighbors to the way we worship.  As I thought more about it, I couldn’t name a way in which my life hasn’t changed, except maybe that I still get to sleep in my own bed.  On Sunday morning, Cassie’s aunt died in Florida after a lengthy illness, and yesterday, I performed a graveside burial service for one-time Christ Church member, Charles Davenport.  These two things have made me keenly aware that our practices around death have profoundly changed.  As a family, we are unable to gather together to mourn the loss of a loved one.  Text messages, Facetime conversations, and notes of encouragement help supplement, but they don’t take the place of families gathering to share stories, to hug and cry, to laugh and reminisce.

Mourning the death of a loved one and the burial habits that are a part of that process of grief were understandably close to my mind as I read through the Passion narrative from John’s Gospel.  It isn’t hard to notice that things are quite different than our normal arrangements.  Rather than our usual pattern of Christian burial here in the United States, which can take a week or more and include various visitations, all kinds of family gatherings, large funeral services, and graveside ceremonies, the standard Jewish customs around death and burial feel quite rushed.  All the way in Deuteronomy, we read the requirement that burial is to take place as quickly as possible after death.  In the case of the death of Jesus, the process was necessarily made to work even faster.

Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, which meant that the Sabbath was about start.  As a result, important steps were skipped in the burial process. Dating back to Abraham and Sarah, one of the key elements of the Jewish burial rite is the Eulogy, but they are forbidden when the death takes place on a Friday.  It isn’t mentioned in John’s Gospel, but in the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that this Friday was also during the Feast of Passover, in the month of Nisan.  This means there were three reasons why the Eulogy would have been skipped.  Time was of the essence as the sun sank low in the western sky.  There was barely time for Joseph of Arimathea to get permission from Pilate, for Nicodemus to bring the spices, and for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses to anoint his body before it was whisked off and laid in Joseph’s tomb.

Mary and Mary did what they could, given the time constraints, but they knew that this would not be the last time they would see their Rabbi and friend.  As the sun set on Friday night, they began to prepare the ointments for a proper burial for Jesus, but that would have to wait until Sunday.  I wonder what was going through the minds of those women that evening.  It seems there wasn’t a thought in anyone’s mind that they’d find anything other than a dead body, laying on a slab of rock, come Sunday morning, but in the utter haste and mind-numbing confusion of the day, had they even begun to process what had happened?  Was there even room to grieve, or was it just shock and fear and anguish?

I wonder the same for us?  In the utter haste and mind-numbing confusion that has surrounded one life-altering change after another, have we made room to grieve?  As Mother Becca pondered on her blog this week, have we given ourselves permission yet to say, “I’m not ok”?  Whether we have lost a loved one, or a job, or a way of life, or an assumption of safety, or trust in the systems of this world during this pandemic, just keeping the plates spinning, the bills paid, and food on the table is enough to feel overwhelming.  Has there been any room to feel the feelings of grief?  Maybe today is that day.  Maybe these next 46 hours, between noon on Good Friday and 10am on Easter Day, there will be time to slow down, just enough to begin to grieve.  To grieve the sins of the world that took our Savior Jesus Christ to the cross.  To grieve all the events of the 30 days since Governor Beshear first recommended that congregations cancel in-person worship, and later suggested schools close, eventually extending an order to all non-essential businesses.  To grieve the lack of hugs and handshakes, visits to grandkids and trips to the park.

John’s Passion feels like it ends rather abruptly.  Jesus is hastily laid in the tomb. Period.  End of story.  But that’s only because the next word is one of hope.  We need space to grieve, but we do so, knowing that a better day will soon be here.  Amen.