To Whom Was He Speaking?

The Sermon on the Mount is probably the most written about speech in history.  Scholars debate the finer points of what Jesus said, as you might assume, but there has been plenty of ink and pixels spent simply discussing the context and setting in which Jesus gave this sermon.  It is helpful, of course, to know something about life in first century Palestine.  It is helpful to know that agriculture was the prevailing occupation, that land ownership was difficult for many, and that the Law had been heavily interpreted by the leaders of 2nd Temple Judaism.  It is equally helpful, though often impossible to really know, to think about to whom Jesus was actually speaking.  This is one of the main sources of controversy around the Sermon on Mount.  To whom was Jesus speaking?

It has been a few weeks since we heard Matthew set the scene for this sermon.  If you’ll recall, Jesus has been surrounded by large crowds who have been drawn to his ministry of healing.  As chapter five opens, Matthew tells us that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:…”  Most scholars read this to say that Jesus and his disciples took leave of the large crowd in order that Jesus might lay the foundation for the work ahead.  As his popularity grew, Jesus thought it important to take a moment, before things got way out of control, to make clear what this kingdom he was proclaiming was all about.  Some scholars find this reading to be difficult.  The idea that Jesus could be surrounded by such a large crowd and somehow find some space away from them seems hard to believe.  In their mind, it is more likely that Jesus did attempt to step away from the crowd with his disciples, but the crowd, at least the closest few hundred folks, were able to eavesdrop on the conversation.

I’ve probably been in the minority camp for most of my years of Biblical study, but that seems to be changing.   For some reason this morning, as I read the last two of Jesus’ six anti-theses, I found myself really struggling to believe that the crowd could have heard all of this difficult teaching and stuck around.  I turned to the end of the Sermon on the Mount, and found chapter 8 opening with these words, “When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him…”  I just can’t imagine the Sermon on the Mount as a church growth technique.  It seems impossible that the crowd would have heard Jesus say, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” or “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and not have at least considered turning around and walking away.  As we prepare to hear more difficult teaching from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, to whom is it now speaking?  How do these hard words ring in the ears of the faithful?  The waffling?  Those on the margins?  How do we take these words and make them real in our context?

A call to perfection

The following statement may not be true of everyone on the planet, but I think it is true of most: human beings like to know the standard by which they will be judged.  Whether it is a math test, marital vows, or a job description, it is helpful to know what constitutes good work and what sort of actions would bring about the need for remediation.

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Sometimes, those standards are easy: get more than 70% of the answers right, and you’ll be OK.  Other times, it can be more elusive: what exactly does it mean to “honor” someone?  Sometimes, the bar is set very low.  I once heard the story of a boss who told an employee on their first day of work, “All I really need you to do is show up to work on time.”  By lunchtime, the new employee had decided that was just too much to handle.  Other times, the bar is incredibly high.  I remember during my final year of seminary when VTS was in search for its next Dean and President, we joked that the job description had them looking for Jesus Christ with PhD.

The latter is the case in both the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for the Seventh Sunday After the Epiphany.  In the passage from Matthew, we hear the final third of Jesus’ six anti-theses of the Law.  Through the homiletical device of “You have heard it said… but I say…” Jesus took the Law and dug down to its foundation, inviting his disciples to a much higher standard.  In fact, by the end of the these six injunctions that Jesus comes right out and tells us the standard by which we will be judged, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The word that gets translated as “perfect” is the Greek word “telos” which means something different than our modern idea of perfect.  Instead, it is more like the completeness of something, the goal, the reason for its existence.  When Jesus invites his disciples to live into their telos just as God the Father is telos, he is, I think, hearkening back to the words that God spoke to Moses in the lesson from Leviticus.  “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  The “you” there is plural, meaning the people of Israel and not just Moses himself.  Here’s where living in the south really comes in handy.  God says, “All y’all shall be be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Our telos is holiness, sacredness, set apart for God.  It would be easy to feel like this is yet another impossible standard to live up to, but the reality is that we have help.  God’s telos is perfect relationship.  We have been created in that image such that God living into God’s telos will help us to live into ours.  God is always searching us out, always inviting us into deeper relationship, always willing to forgive our sins so that we might once again be made holy.  It is God’s very nature to invite us back in so that we might live into our telos.  The bar might feel high, but thanks be to God we know what the expectations are and have God’s help in living up to them.

Show your work – a sermon

Unlike some Episcopal priests I know, I have always enjoyed math.  For the most part, it comes naturally to me, though I’ve often had some help along the way.  Coming of age in the mid-1990s, I found myself reaping the benefits of the Texas Instruments graphing calculator.  In high school, I had a TI-83, the swankiest model available at the time.  It could do algebra, trigonometry, and graph parabolic functions.  Of course, the favorite feature for me and my friends was that you could program it to play Tetris.  In preparation for studying engineering at Pitt, I upgraded to the TI-92 for use in my calculus courses.  College calculus was the first time that math didn’t just make sense to me, and so I used my TI-92 as a crutch through Calc 1.   Why they let me use it, I have no idea, but it made it all the more difficult when I got to Calc 2 and the professor uttered words that struck terror into my soul.  “Show your work.”

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No longer was it sufficient to have the right answer, which my TI-92 could so easily provide, now I had to show the stuff below the surface.  My professor had a good point, even if I didn’t like it very much.  The key to math isn’t getting the right answer, but learning the process by which every right answer will come.  One’s motivation shouldn’t be an A on the exam, but the reward of having learned the concept inside and out, and that can only be proved by showing your work.  The same is true in the life of faith: it isn’t about doing the right things so you can get to heaven when you die.  Instead, it is about what is happening on the inside, the unspoken motivations, the work of holiness.

Last Sunday, Jesus invited his disciples to show their work, and just like when I heard it from my calculus professor, I really wish Jesus had never said it.  “I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Now mind you, the scribes and the Pharisees were the professional interpreters of the Law.  They were the ones who defined the right answer.  How far is too far to walk on the Sabbath?  Ask a Pharisee.  Do I wash this pot or that spoon first to keep kosher?  Ask a scribe.  These men were the holders of all that was right and holy, and Jesus was so bold as to say that we should be more righteous than that.  How could anyone possibly live up to that standard, we could reasonably ask.  Jesus answers my concern with six of his own interpretations of the Law that at their core teach the profound truth that having the right answer, living the right way, isn’t really enough, it is about knowing what underlies that right action that really matters.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.”  Jesus was not one for subtlety, but rather he jumps right into the deep end on this line of teaching.  One of the Big 10, “thou shalt not murder” is as well known a law as any of the other Commandments.  It is also one of the easier ones to keep.  Most human beings are not predisposed to taking the life of another human being in anger.  It would be fairly easy to feel morally superior for having not murdered anyone, but Jesus pushes it further, “show your work.”  “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to the same judgment,” Jesus says.  It is a lot harder to hold oneself as smugly self-righteous if the bar is now “being angry.”  Who hasn’t felt anger toward a brother or a sister, be they actual siblings or figurative ones?  If you insult your brother or sister, literally in the Greek it says, “if you call your brother an idiot,” you can be brought up on charges.  If you say “you fool,” you’ll go to hell.  I am liable to the fires of hell thanks to my ride into work on Thursday morning, but I’m sure y’all are better Christians than I am.

Notice what Jesus is doing there, he’s not abolishing the law, but taking it to its core.  The commandment “thou shalt not murder,” isn’t about killing someone in anger, it is about the destruction of relationships.  If we are really honest with ourselves, a whole lot more damage is done on a daily basis by those who harbor anger, who hang on to resentment, and who look down on their sisters and brothers than any murderer can accomplish.  God cares deeply about our relationships, and in order to make them life giving and fulfilling, we are called to show love and compassion rather than anger and contempt.  In fact, God cares so much about our relationships, that in verses 23 and 24 Jesus says he would rather we spend time tending to our broken relationships than come to church.  Jesus is serious about us showing our work, checking our motivations, and examining our hearts in this relationship stuff.

“You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’” Another perfectly reasonable commandment from God that Jesus takes deep to its roots.  “But I say that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  It isn’t enough to simply not have sex with someone who isn’t your spouse, but it is about how we treat our neighbor.  God did not create human beings to be used by others simply to satisfy the desires of the flesh.  In fact, the way we treat one another is so important that God would rather us injure ourselves before we harm someone else.

The same is true for divorce.  In Jesus’ day and time, women could be divorced by their husbands for any number of ridiculous reasons including burning a loaf of bread.[1] Jesus is clear, just because there is legal precedent for something, doesn’t make it right.  People aren’t disposable; we can’t just throw them away when they no longer meet our needs.  Show your work, check your motivations, and know that these life-long relationships matter deeply to God.

Finally, Jesus turns his attention to the swearing of oaths.  “But I say to you, do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Here again, Jesus cuts down deep to the fundamental meaning of the commandment not to bear false witness by asking us to consider why an oath is necessary at all.  It seems to me there are two possible reasons.  On the one hand, we swear oaths because the stakes are too high not to.  In a court of law, a witness is asked to swear to tell the truth because the ramifications of lying are so very profound.  When an elected official takes their oath of office, they make solemn vows because the ultimate threat of treasonous activity is the end of the Republic.  On the other hand, and more, I think, to Jesus’ point is the need to swear an oath because one can no longer be taken at their word.  If one cannot be trusted to keep one’s word on small things, the whole of their character is called into question.  If I have promised to love my neighbor, and later I am seen treating her with disrespect, how then can I again be trusted?  Worse yet, how is my witness of the Lord Jesus Christ negatively impacted.  Indeed, how is the whole of the Gospel tarnished when one disciple fails to live up the standard of yes means yes and no means no.

Jesus invites his disciples, and by extension each of us, to show our work when it comes to developing fruitful relationships.  It isn’t enough to sit comfortably and say, “Well, I haven’t committed murder or adultery” when inside our hearts there exists a cesspool of anger and lust.  It isn’t enough to simply fulfill the letter of the Law, but as followers of Jesus, we are invited to go deeper, to check our motivations, and to work to make our inner-lives match our outer-lives.  Of course, this ethical standard is so high as to be impossible, and Jesus knows that, but it is the work that matters.  By constantly examining our own hearts and our deepest motivations, we learn, slowly but surely, the core concepts of holiness, and in so doing, we find ourselves coming ever closer to the heart of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2033

Choosing Mercy – a sermon

Shortly after my arrival in Foley, a parishioner named Wayne asked to meet.  He had been serving on the board of the local educational enrichment foundation and asked if I could attend a meeting with him and the Principal at Foley Elementary School.  In that meeting, in Dr. Lawrence’s cramped office that he shared with his administrate assistant, I learned for the first time what it meant to be a Title I school.  At that time, 75% of Foley Elementary School students received free or reduced lunch, a key poverty indicator.  More than 50% of the children didn’t have a dad living at home.  Just less than half came to kindergarten with no pre-school experience.  Nearly 25% came from homes where no English was spoken.  As a result, most incoming students were already a year behind: they didn’t know the alphabet, couldn’t count to ten, didn’t know blue from red, and often, had never held a crayon or a pair of scissors ever before.  My heart was broken, but I was afraid the task was just too big.  I could feel the doubt creeping in, and Dr. Lawrence could too.

“I have to tell you,” he said with dead cold seriousness, “you are the third church to come to my office and ask what you can do to help.  I never heard from the other two again. I hope you are serious about coming back.”  So much for sneaking out the door quietly.  Whether we wanted to be or not, the Holy Spirit had just committed Saint Paul’s to adopting Foley Elementary School.  For almost a decade now, there have been Saint Paul’s members all over that school.  Most help in kindergarten, helping the least and the lost get on that first rung of the ladder.  My favorite part of my nine years in Foley is easily the hour I spent in Mrs. Cashion, Mrs. Davis, and Mrs. Laurendine’s class rooms.  Watching kids who couldn’t recognize the letter A when I first met them read “Tap, Rap, Bam” to me by the end of the year was a gift.  Seeing our volunteers, many of whom had grandchildren who were grown or lived far away, fall in love with these kids was a gift.  Even as my heart broke for the kids who I knew hadn’t had a clean shirt since Monday or whose shoes were clearly third generation hand-me-down, or who I wondered if they had anything to eat from Friday lunch until Monday breakfast, God’s blessing was always present in that place where there should have been despair.  I can’t help but think about Foley Elementary School every time I read the beatitudes because they remind me that God is always present where we least expect him.

A funny thing happens when you start to spend time with people different from yourself: you begin to care about the things that affect them uniquely.  After several years of being blessed at Foley Elementary School, we found our Latin American friends in the middle of a crisis.  In 2011, the state of Alabama passed HB56, a draconian anti-immigration law that was intended to make brown-skinned people second class citizens.  Its impact was as far reaching as it was uninformed.  Some of the provisions of the bill included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant.  As a priest, I was eligible for prosecution if I gave any kind of aid to an undocumented immigrant.  Under HB56, I could have been arrested for using my discretionary funds to help someone stay in their trailer, keep their lights on, or feed their children.  At Foley Elementary School, the law struck fear into the hearts of many.  Schools were required to check and keep track of the immigration status of all of their children.  “We’ll never ask you to turn in your students,” they said, but Dr. Lawrence and his teachers didn’t put much faith in that promise.  Mothers would tearfully ask teachers to take care of their children if they were arrested during the school day.  Children were afraid to get on the bus, unsure if anyone would be home when they got there.  Over the first weekend after HB56 was signed into law, some 50 Foley Elementary school children disappeared into the dark of night as their families fled in fear.  It was heartbreaking, and yet, God was in that heartbreak, calling us to show mercy.

The IRS is very clear about what I can and cannot say about politics from the pulpit.  Saint Paul’s, like Christ Episcopal Church, was a rich tapestry of political and theological viewpoints from Tea Party Conservatives to Bleeding Heart Liberals and yet that Sunday my Rector and I decided it was time to take a stand.  This wasn’t a political issue, it was a gospel issue.  Hundreds of thousands of Latin-Americans were made to feel less than human because of the color of their skin or the accent on their lips.  In that moment, we had a choice.  We all have a choice.  Do we stand with the oppressed or with the powerful?  Do we use our positions of privilege to lift up those who have been cast down or do we sit comfortably and give thanks it isn’t us?  That Sunday, we chose to speak out on behalf of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We invited our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those young children at Foley Elementary who were so scared, and we let them know that despite a state law to the contrary, we would continue to show mercy to those who were in need, whether they could prove they were in this country legally or not.  It was what we were called to do as followers of Jesus and ministers of the Gospel.

This morning is another one of those mornings when a choice has to be made.  Will we sit in relative comfort as a thousands of Muslims right here in Bowling Green, both Arab and European, along with 1.6 billon Muslims worldwide are told that they are less than human?  Will we allow 55 million Latin and Mexican Americans live in fear of harassment or arrest just because of their appearance or accent?  Or will we use our positions of privilege to do what is right, to show the love of God and to respect the dignity of every human being?  Will we be a church that is too afraid to stand up for the Gospel of love or will we take a risk by showing mercy to the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the outcast?

During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains to his disciples the basics of blessedness.  Among the items on that list are things to which we might be called for a season: mourning, meekness, and persecution, for example.  Others are things that I believe all disciples are called to seek at all times: a hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, and especially, showing mercy.  We live in a time in which being merciful has gone out of fashion.  It has become increasingly easy to casually label and dismiss our neighbors be they Muslim or Jew, Hispanic or Black, straight or gay, rich or poor.  As a nation, we have lost sight of what it means to show mercy, to offer compassion, and to see the good in one another.  And as a result, we’re seeing more and more unmerciful legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.

In the beatitudes, Jesus is clear that his disciples are to stand up against such things, by showing mercy to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  In the beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s blessing on those who seek after the heart of God, who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother, who fled to Egypt as a refugee when the powerful tried to kill him, who declared God’s love to sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans, and Centurions, who died on the cross that all might come within the reach of his saving embrace, and who invites each of us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in his grace.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness, we who have received mercy, are called to show mercy to all because God cares not just about those who are in power, but especially for those who are most vulnerable.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they shall receive mercy.”  Will we choose comfort over blessedness?  Will we show severity instead of mercy?  The choice this day is us ours.  Amen.

Blessed are the merciful

In 2011, the state of Alabama passed a draconian immigration reform bill.  HB56 was designed to make sure “illegal meant illegal” and it was as wide reaching as it was uninformed.  Some of the provisions of the bill, which was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, included making it illegal for a landlord to rent to an undocumented immigrant; schools were required to check the immigration status of all their students; and from my perspective as a priest, giving aid in the form of money or a ride to an undocumented person became a punishable offense.  In Foley, where we lived at the time, the law struck fear into the hearts of many.  Mothers would tearfully ask teachers to take care of their children if they were arrested during the school day.  Children were afraid to get on the bus, unsure if anyone would be home when they go there.  It was heartbreaking.

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TKT and I knew the limits of our ability to speak out on such things.  Not only because the IRS has strict rules about political comments by churches and non-profit organizations, but because our membership, like many Episcopal congregations, included people from the tea-party on the right to occupy democrats on the left.  But this situation felt different.  This was no longer about political opinions, which are as common as butt-holes and smell about the same, this particular issue cut to the heart of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  And so we spoke out, calling our people to stand up for what was right, to show God’s love to everyone, especially those children from FES who were so scared, and letting them know that we would continue to show mercy to those who were in need, whether they could prove they were in this country legally or not.  It was what we were called to do as followers of Jesus.

During his inaugural sermon in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples the basics of blessedness.  Among the items on that list are things to which we might be called for a season: mourning, meekness, and persecution, for example.  Others are things to which I believe all disciples are called to seek at all times: a hunger for righteousness, peacemaking, and especially, showing mercy.

We live in a time in which being merciful has gone out of fashion.  “Illegal is illegal,” “drill baby drill,” “build the wall,” are a part of our common life.  We casually throw others under the bus be they single mothers in need of help to buy milk and bread or business executives looking to maximize their own return on investment.  We have, by all accounts, list sight of what it means to show mercy, to offer compassion, and to see the good in one another.  And as a result, we’re seeing more and more draconian legislation and, in recent days, executive orders, coming down from on high, demanding that we show less and less mercy to the vulnerable among us.

In the beatitudes, Jesus admonishes us to stand up against such things, to show mercy to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  In the beatitudes, Jesus declares God’s blessing on those who seek after the heart of God, God who came in the form of a baby, born in a stable to an unwed mother in first century Palestine.  We who claim to be disciples of Jesus, we who claim God’s blessings of forgiveness and grace, we who have received mercy, are called to show mercy to all because God cares not just about those who are in power, but especially for those who are the most vulnerable.  We are blessed when we show mercy, and now, more than any time I can remember, we have ample opportunity to show it.

Blessed?

Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the peacemakers…

I have been known to occasionally get fussy about the unthinking appropriation of religious language into common parlance.  For example, the Florida Georgia Line song entitled H.O.L.Y. uses the word that God uses to set apart his saints as an acronym for “high on loving you.”  Because of this, I’ve determined that all comparisons between FGL and Nickelback are moot because FGL is so awful they make Nickelback look like a decent band.  Another word that I’ve tended to want to protect is the oft repeated one in Sunday’s Gospel lesson “blessed.”

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To me, to be blessed is to find favor with God.  So the various #Blessed memes that are out there, usually associating God’s blessing with some sort of material possession or physical ability really make my blood boil.  But then again, so does the choice by most translators to make a similar mistake with the beatitudes: conflating the meaning of blessed and happy.

Despite our years of comfort with “Blessed are the meek,” the Greek word that Matthew chose doesn’t actually mean “blessed.”  Instead, Matthew chose the common word for happy.  “Happy are the meek” seems to make even less sense than blessed are the meek, am I right?  But the more I dug into that word, the more I realized that Matthew might have been onto something.

Having dedicated my life to the service of God in the Episcopal Church, you can imagine I’m a fan of our Book of Common Prayer.  In my now nine years as a priest, I’ve been through the Book from cover to cover more than once, and by far the best thing in there is Burial Office.  It is crawling with great biblical imagery, especially the opening anthem (which could use some gender neutral tweaks, but I digress) that ends with these words from the Revelation of John, “Happy from now on are those who die int he Lord!  So it is, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.”

As God is wont to do, this ordinary word “makarioi“in Greek, “happy” in English is transformed.  It is imbued with grace.  It is made holy, and not in the FGL sense, such that those who are called to live in meekness, as peacemakers, with purity of heart will find not just blessings, but happiness in their circumstances.  God turns this world on its ear, helping those who the world would say are outside of God’s grace and helps them to find joy in even the most difficult of circumstances.   Do you find yourself blessed by God?  If so, you better also find happiness.

The Basics 102

“Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  The prophet Micah, as I suggested yesterday, gives us a glimpse into the very heart of God’s desire for discipleship.  Of course, to think that this is the fullness of God’s dream for the Kingdom would be foolishness.  Because the concept of justice is so widely contested, there are any number of ways that one can live out these three basic tenants of discipleship.  We need something else, something deeper, to help open our eyes to the specific ways in which God would have us live into the Kingdom.  We need a 102 course.

Which brings us to Sunday’s Gospel lesson and the opening verses of Jesus’ three chapter long Sermon on the Mount.  We will spend the next four Sundays in the fifth chapter of Matthew, hearing things about salt and light, difficult teaching on anger and divorce, and the admonition to love our enemies.  There are any number of ways that Jesus could have started his public ministry, and yet, he chose the most challenging.  He laid out, from the very beginning, what discipleship would look like, and it all starts with the nine beatitudes that turn the world’s understanding of power upside-down.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

You could spend your whole life trying to wrap your mind around these blessings, but the real power in them comes when they are lived out.  It is only when you find yourself being comforted in your mourning that you’ll realize the blessing it contains.  It is when you feel that insatiable pull toward righteousness that you’ll understand the blessing that comes from seeking justice for every human being.  It is when you are mocked and reviled for standing up against fear mongers, war makers, and power brokers that you’ll come to know the blessing that is God walking alongside.

None of these things are easy, which is precisely why they are blessings.  When we get out of God’s way and take part in the hard work of the Kingdom, blessings flow like a mighty river, sustaining us for journey ahead.