Pentecost 9B: The Surpassing Beauty of Us

The readings for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament       2 Kings 4:42–44

Psalm                    Psalm 145:10–18

New Testament      Ephesians 3:14–21

Gospel                   John 6:1–21

My focus in these reflections is on the prayer contained in the reading from Ephesians.

The greatest tragedy of our time is that, nationally and globally, we have failed to think in terms of “us.” If we had been pulling together for the past 40 or so years that we have known of the destructive force of climate change, we would have lived less wastefully and saved the lives of millions of people and billions of animals. If we had pulled together for the past two years, we would be done with the pandemic and laughing in each other’s arms without endangering risk, and there would be no delta variant.

We have failed those tests. But there is hope that we can turn things around. In their book, The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney amply document how the United States recovered from the downward spiral of selfishness and the destruction of community spawned by the robber baron days of the late nineteenth century to enjoy the great benefits of the days of the “Greatest Generation,” the winning of a war, the overcoming of the Great Depression, the defeat of polio, and many, many other benefits. Since the late 1960s we have gone in reverse as liberals have “turned on” to drugs and self indulgence, and conservatives have championed free enterprise and personal freedom at the expense of all else. But all we have to do is rediscover and rededicate ourselves to more “us” and less “me” in our lifestyles and public policies. Do this and we will thrive.

How we get from the seeming default human mode of “me,” to the sublime of “us,” is the subject of the prayer of Ephesians. Be it the apostle Paul himself, or someone a generation or two later who ministers to the believers of the urban centers of western Asia Minor, the prayer he has for believers is heartfelt. He gets down on his knees.

The first thing he emphasizes is that he or she is praying to the Pater of all the patria as it says in Greek. That is, this God the author addresses, is the Father of all fatherlands. Later he will invoke glory to “all generations,” which again draws our attention to the universal. All gens – all kinship groups of all generations of kinship groups forever.

Again, the prayer uses the plural all the way through. You all may be strengthened as Christ is dwelling in you all, etc.

The author uses a vocabulary of words and concepts from both the very particular tradition of Judaism, and those of Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. “Whether we are Jews or gentiles, we all have one common aim in life—to find our true meaning and purpose.” So the author prays that the Christians of Roman Asia might find power and strength with the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ dwelling within them. He prays that they might come to comprehend “what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” These are words used by Stoic philosophers—the wisest men of the times—and also by magical texts and esoteric Gnostic Christians. In other words, all sorts of people used the same language for their quest for ultimate meaning and fulfillment.

And then the author says all of this fulfillment is in knowing the love of Christ. In fact, all of Ephesians overflows with love language. Love is what God is all about (see 1:4–6; 2:4; 5:2, 25; 6:23); and when Christ dwells in us in the church, it binds each individual with all others (1:15; 5:28; 6:24).

The prayer ends with a doxology—a yearning for glory “in the church and in Christ Jesus (3:21).” Ephesians doesn’t see Christ and the church as separate things. They have permeated each other to form a new thing. Christ is in us and so Christ’s love is in us. If we miss this point the Book of Ephesians, and indeed the entire Bible is distorted. Christ becomes a new victor—a new Lord—in a triumphalistic way. We can think then that we Christians have the answers and everyone else is wrong. We are here to save the world, but what the world is here for we haven’t the foggiest idea. That sort of “us vs. them thinking lingers on in passages such as 4:17–22; 5:5–8, 11–12. But this prayer makes it clear: it is the “love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge,” and fills us with the fullness of God.

We as a nation and as a world have, so far, miserably failed the tests of climate change and pandemic. But we can get back on the right track when “us” becomes more than “me.” Keeping individual rights and liberties dear, but thinking more and more of the common good—thinking more and more of love—will save us.

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Pentecost 8B: Tucker Carlson, Vaccines, and the Gathering God

The readings for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Jeremiah 23:1–6

Psalm                    Psalm 23

New Testament     Ephesians 2:11–22

Gospel                   Mark 6:30–34, 53–56

Well, the latest, is that Tucker Carlson has told his loyal followers that the Biden administration’s plan to have health care workers go door to door to encourage people to be vaccinated is the “greatest scandal in my lifetime by far.” “Be afraid of vaccines, and of government, and not of Covid-19,” says Mr. Tucker.

Wow, can you imagine a greater scandal than trying to unite a people in fighting a virus? Can you imagine a greater threat than from a government that works to save lives? Don’t you just hate people who do that sort of thing?

I know, my prose is dripping with sarcasm; but Tucker Carlson is surely what we would call an influencer, and what the prophet Jeremiah’s divine oracle described as the kind of shepherd who scatters. In my book the very definition of evil is the work of scattering, dividing, and sowing false fear.

Jeremiah’s good news is that while the powers of evil heighten fear and scatter, God gathers. God’s love drives out fear. God raises up faithful, caring influencers. And, for the healing of the world God will raise up for Israel a Righteous Branch—someone who’s very name will say, “The Lord is our Righteousness.”

Psalm 23 then gives us the picture of how that righteousness is to be given to us. The dividers of this world may lead us into dark valleys where we are surrounded by enemies; but the Great Good Shepherd fills our cup to overflowing, and sets a table that has the power to make friends of our enemies.

Ephesians proclaims the work of the Gathering God in the most soaring terms. Christ, the Righteous Branch has come. His death on the cross, and resurrection from that death, breaks down the walls the evil influencers have erected, and puts hostility itself to death. We who were so divided are made one in the living body of Christ.

Finally we have the feeding of five thousand men by Jesus. Of course the Good Shepherd fed the women and boys as well, but Mark and his sources had much to learn. But we have this Sunday’s  same over-arching lesson here: the Gathering God. Jesus’ tool of gathering is the feast of life. Jesus does not discriminate. As the Good Influencer, Jesus doesn’t check credentials, question worthiness, or cast aspersions. He gathers them all. Here in chapter six it is all about five loaves, five thousand fed by 12 disciples and 12 baskets of leftovers. We are meant to think of the five books of Torah that bind together the 12 tribes of a restored Israel. But then, in Mark’s second feeding in chapter eight, it’s seven loaves and seven baskets of leftovers and four thousand people. We might remember that seven is the universal number; and that four points us to the  four cardinal directions or corners of the globe. Jesus is that Righteous Branch making the whole vine whole—the Good Shepherd restoring the wholeness. It’s not either Israel or the world, but both/and.

Of course, here on Heatherhope Farm, we see this lesson of the beauty of gathering played out every day. Just today I thought of how we have so many animals looking to us to see if we will gather or scatter. The mother robin tending her nest. The Border Collies looking to me to calm things down now that the boys are so stirred up over a bitch in heat. And especially, the sheep. The cardinal virtue of any shepherd is the ability to gather. The sheep are prey animals without claws or fangs to protect them. Their eyes can be full of anxiety. My wife, and everyone who has seen me work the dogs and the sheep, know  how much of a mess I used to make by losing my cool, and yelling, and just adding to the confusion and fear in every sheep handling or herding situation. Sorting, vaccinating, trimming feet, and all the rest, took ten times as long as it should have. I still have much to learn, but I’m much quieter now. My own calm patience, and the priceless help of dogs who move quietly around the sheep, have helped in the task of gathering.

Gathering is good. Scattering is evil. And the world, like the animals on Heatherhope, is watching to see if the church has learned that lesson. What will the gathering God’s people say to the Tucker Carlsons of this world?

And one thing we must surely be saying today is, “Come together! Fight the virus and not each other! Get vaccinated!”

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Pentecost 7B: Repentance is Healthier than Denial

The readings for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Amos 7:7–15

Psalm                    Psalm 85:8–13

New Testament     Ephesians 1:3–14

Gospel                   Mark 6:14–29

The Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel Readings all tell us that repentance is a much healthier stance to take in life than denial. This time of pandemic has also been a time of the exposure of much to repent of.

We need to turn from denial and to turn toward the God of equity and justice.

Our nation is hearing many prophets’ voices pointing out that much in our American history and much in our present has been wrong. We have ravaged those we have defined as “other.” A privileged few have prospered by killing indigenous peoples and stealing their land; by exploiting the labor of Africans we kidnapped and enslaved, by abusing and denegrating the Chinese and the Irish who built our cities and our railroads; by refusing full voting franchise to women and blacks; by making union organizational treacherous, by putting citizens of  Japanese-ancestry into concentration camps; by picking winners and losers and discouraging investment in whole sections of our cities through redlining. And the tainting of our criminal justice system festers on.

Today the prophetic voice is distributed through academia, the media, and our city streets. Thousands are saying, “It’s time to turn back to the highest ideals of democracy and justice for all. It’s time to undo our nation’s mistakes. It’s time to repent!”

But, as always, this call to repentance causes many to say, “Silence! Get out of here! We can’t stand to hear the prophetic call!”

Our former President initiated action to silence those who said there is such a thing as systemic racism in this country. In recent weeks, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho and Texas have all passed legislation that places significant restrictions on what can be taught in public school classrooms and, in some cases, public universities, too. Though the wording of these edicts is often vague and general, they all obviously seek to prevent people from hearing too much about the sins of racism, or feeling any kind of guilt or responsibility.

The New York Times opinion columnist, Ross Douthat, sought to express what he considers legitimate conservative criticism of what he considers the extremes of antiracist education. His primary complaint is that “…there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins” (NYT Week in Review, Sunday, July 4, page 9).

Well, I don’t know if such a theory is proper social psychology, but it sure sounds exactly like what prophets have been crying out to us for centuries.  All the framers of these new state laws, and perhaps Ross Douthat, say they don’t want any people of any race to be singled out for discomfort. But it is a plain and simple fact that it has been white people, and almost exclusively white men, who have been privileged throughout American history. And our white male privileged has hurt people.

And that history has been built into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. So when the Texas Bill 3979 forbids teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States,” it is a blatant attempt to cover up the guilt and responsibility of white privilege built into the foundation of our nation. And that privilege has been sustained by too much of what has been built on that foundation.

The Declaration didn’t mean to include black men, the first peoples of this land, or any women of any race in the “Created Equal” clause. It’s signers had the temerity to call the First People “savages.” And if any Texan would take the time to actually read the “founding” Constitution they  would only get to the second article of the very first article to find that racism was built into the nation: slaves and “Indians” didn’t count when  a state’s  representation in the Congress and the amount of taxes paid were calculated. The second section of the fourth article neatly requires that escaped slaves who make it across state lines be returned to their owners.

So, are the Texas Republicans right in saying it is a crime to point out that  the founders built racism into our sacred documents? Is Ross Douthat right that it is an excessive and destructive theory that would say those who benefit from the long, long string of racist laws and structures should feel guilt and turn from their sins?

Are these voices not like that of the corrupt king and priest of Israel who said of Amos “The land is not able to bear his words—and who tried to silence him, saying, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Aren’t these voices, as they wax in their desire to silence the reminders of their sin, following in the tradition of Herodias who called for the head of John the Baptist when he persisted in calling out her guilt? Are not those who, out of political expediency, go along with such foolish denial of the truth, like Herod who had John’s head severed just to preserve his own image?

Psalm 85 says that God will speak peace. But God does not pronounce peace where there is no peace. He does so for those who are faithful. For those who “turn” to God in their hearts. And that word “turn” is of the utmost of importance in the Bible. It is the Hebrew word for repentance—changing direction in our lives.

If America is to be great it must repent and change direction. No legislator, no political party, and no political pundit should defend us when we stick our heads in the sand of our own long history of racism. We can and must, at the very same time, say we are proud and thankful to live in a democracy, but we also repent of our mistakes and work to repair our laws. We can and we must continue the great tradition of working towards a “more perfect Union.”

And every Christian who cherishes the sacred tradition of prophecy must open our ears and our hearts to every Amos or Christ-like figure who calls us to true peace and justice. We must do all we can to prevent the next prophet from having his head on a platter. We must listen, turn, and change our ways.

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Pentecost 6B: Boasting and Praying on a Pandemic Fourth

The Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 in which Paul demurs from boasting, says he could boast in his visions, but concludes that Christ’s refusal to remove his “thorn of the flesh” taught him to boast in his weakness.

What follows is a sermon I am to deliver this Pentecost 6/Independence Day weekend—a meditation on Paul’s lessons about boasting and prayer.

We can use these lessons this weekend because the Fourth of July is always a time of boasting, isn’t it. We wave flags. We set off fireworks. Why? Because we want to stick out our chests—we feel proud—we love our country, and we want the world to know. We are BOASTING.

But this Independence Day comes after a long, long time when this nasty pandemic has kept us alone—separated from friends and family. And when we are alone, with our thoughts, and with nobody but God to talk to, we want to pray. We have to pray to keep ourselves from going a bit crazy.

So, Paul’s first lesson for us is about boasting: 

  1. “It’s necessary to boast.”  Paul says he has been pushed in a corner by people who have come to Corinth saying he has no right—no credentials to be a missionary.
  2. “But nothing can come of it.”
  3. I could boast of my visions, but, instead, I’ve learned to boast only about one thing: My weakness.

I think I may have some personal insight into what Paul is talking about. Let me tell you two quick stories that shaped me.

The first happened on the railroad tracks that ran behind my house in Louisville, Kentucky. We kids hung out there a lot, and one day when I was about 12 or so, I had a run-on with Renee Butchel. Renee was a big bully from a nearby neighborhood; and he and I didn’t encounter each other that often, but each time we did, he humiliated me. He called me “chicken,” threw mud all over me, even pulled a knife on me and tried to cut me up. But this time, on the tracks, he pushed me too far. We fought with fists, and when one of his landed on my face, I thought, “He hits like a girl!” (no offence to you girls out there). So I clobbered him and wrestled him to the ground. And when I had him down, I started to beat his head on the railroad tracks.

Having him there I felt boastful. I had him beat. I was strong and he was weak.

But then I caught a glimpse of my friends – and even my own older brother—standing around. And their faces looked sick. They were stunned. They were appalled at what I had become.  And so was I!

That was one kind of boasting. “I’m stronger than you. I can dominate you. I can destroy you.”

Thank God there was another story.

The guys and I were now starting a baseball game on the field of my elementary school. We were happily choosing up sides with Bobby showed up on his bicycle. Bobby was too fat and too slow and he wore thick glasses and everyone was used to making fun of Bobby. He stood there stubbornly, wishing one of us would choose him for a side. But, instead, one of the kids went over, walked past Bobby, and spit all over his bicycle seat.

But I felt for Bobby. So I went over and I wiped his bike seat clean. 

I knew it was a risk. I was there with spit all over my shirt sleeve. I looked weak. And I had invited Bobby onto our side and nobody wanted him there.

But something told me I was weak, but some sort of new, different kind of power was coming alive in me. And I had made my choice—this was the strength and power I need to boast about.

Now, we Christians aren’t the first to discover this other kind of boasting and power. Philosophers down through the ages have pointed towards it too. For instance, at the same time Paul was writing his letters there was a famous philosopher named Epictetus—and he wrote this:

 So that you may see for yourselves, O people, that you are searching for happiness and serenity, not where they are but where they are not, behold, I have been sent to you by God as an example—one who has neither goods, nor house, nor wife, nor children—no, not even a bed, or a shirt, or a pot. Yet you can see how healthy I am. Make trial of me, and if you see me maintaining my tranquillity, then listen to my remedies and the treatment that cured me.

For Epictetus and the Cynic and Stoic philosophers of the day it was not brute power over others, nor was it wealth or prestige that people should be proud of – that would give them happiness—but it was inner virtue.

Good advice. But our teacher, the Apostle Paul, takes us much deeper. He takes us to Jesus Christ.

First, Christ shows us what virtue is for—love and respect of others. What good is it to go against the grain—to be counter cultural – to choose what other people look at as weakness?  And what is the true purpose of this power that the crowds around us miss?  IT IS TO LIVE FOR OTHERS – AND TO BE WILLING TO SUFFER AND EVEN DIE FOR YOUR LOVE OF OTHERS.

            Paul was on his way to punish Christ followers. He was feeling boastful along the way. He had all the right answers and those who believed in Jesus were just plain wrong. But when Christ said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me,”  he began to have his eyes opened. What good is it to be right when all you do is hate?

            Paul learned how Christ emptied himself for us. How his mission was to be a servant to all people, and to give his life for others—even out of love of his enemies.

            Paul learned how Jesus didn’t hate anyone, but ate with sinners and tax collectors, came to the defense of an adulterous women, healed the servant of a Centurion – brought back from the dead a gentile boy.

            Yes, Christ looked weak and died a humiliating death as a criminal – but he did it out of love, and to bring respect for other people back into religion, and the human race.

            Jesus said – “No one takes my life from me. I lay it down…for others.”

            So, Jesus looks weak on that cross—but the Centurion at the cross knows, Pilate knows, Satan—the King of Death knows Jesus is more powerful than all of them.

            So, what about us? Sure, we too can simply live our lives as humble and helpless, and as perpetual victims. We can whine about it. We can even use it to get attention. But that’s not what Paul is calling us to today.

            Paul is saying, when you empty yourself to serve – to care—to lift someone else up—you have REAL POWER. Love, and caring respect for others is the most powerful thing in the universe though it can’t possibly be measured or proven by experimentation—no scientist or economist will possibly tell you about it.

            But, read Paul’s letters, and you will hear him saying to the people, “I can boast in only one thing—I’ve learned to follow Jesus. I pour out myself for you. And for breaking down dividing walls and pulling together—so there will be no Jew or Greek, slave or free,  male and female, but all one people in Christ.”

Paul’s second lesson about virtue:  Its source and its power comes from Christ.

Christ not only shows us the purpose, but Christ is the source of it in each of us. Paul had this power- but you can I have it too. It comes with faith in God, and being Christians. It comes with our baptisms.

So, Paul writes to us in Galatians 2:

 I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

And again in this next chapter of Second Corinthians that we read from today Paul writes that, though his critics say he seems too weak, he is actually sharing with the Corinthians the very power given by Christ:

[Christ] is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

No, when Paul recommends to us BOASTING IN WEAKNESS, this is no empty and resentment-filled martyr complex. It must never be a ploy by the church to keep women and minorities servile.   It is strength of the eternal kind. It is the power of Christ to change the world and to overcome death itself. And this is the strength that is our baptismal and apostolic privilege.

That is Paul on boasting in weakness.

Now we come to Paul’s lesson on prayer.

Back to my little story about how I learned not to be boastful and beat my antagonizers head on the railroad tracks, and instead to go over and wipe off the spittle from Bobby’s bicycle seat. I always would rather preach myself as sinner than saint. But what I want to say now is that I didn’t change myself. Christ did it.

Christ did it through my mother, taking me to church, and even more, by kneeling at my bedside  and praying with me, night after night.

We like to say “Prayer changes things.” Well that’s right, in a way. But what does prayer change? If we are doing it right, prayer changes us.

But, instead of keeping track of how much of our wish list is granted, and even how many words we pile up—we must listen for God’s reply. It may be “yes.” More often it is “no.” But it perhaps it is most often in silence when God is at work changing not stuff out there—but changing us.

Paul writes to us: “I was given (given by whom? By Christ himself?)  I was given a thorn in the flesh. Three times I asked that it leave me.  But Jesus said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”              

So, now I can  boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Prayer changes things by changing us.

One last story:

Howard was a big strapping man with a booming voice, who had made a fortune selling car parts. He was a Christmas and Easter sort of Lutheran. Seldom seen. So when he asked for an appointment to talk to the pastor, it was quite an occasion. He came in and said, “I know this church is on the ropes. And you’re not the kind of pastor who knows the church is a business and should be run like a business. But I’m going to make a deal with you and the Lord. My son-in-law had a car accident, and the doctors said we shouldn’t expect him to live. Now, I don’t want him to die. I’ve been praying for him to live and come back to work. He is a great guy—he works for me and has been great for the business. So now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is. I’m prepared to cut a check for the church for $20,000 if he pulls through. And here, I’ve put it in writing so you know I mean business.         

Well, the piece of paper sat there in the pastor’s drawer for a long, long time, because the son-in-law died. No hope for the big check. But the pastor kept it there as a sort of life lesson.        

But then, a few years later, there was another chapter to the story.    Howard came by again. His chest wasn’t puffed out as much. And he spoke in much quieter tones.  He said he had been praying that his daughter find another good strong guy.  Well, she did marry again. But he was disappointed in prayer again because he thought this new husband was a good-for-nothing weakling. He thought the wrong things. He was an elementary school teacher—and who ever heard of a man teaching third grade?   He voted the wrong way. And he probably couldn’t provide.

But when he and his daughter had an argument about her weakling of a husband, she shared secrets he didn’t know about. Her first husband had been a good provider—but he was cold and brutal to her and the kids. But this new husband was kind, understanding. NOT AS STRONG LOOKING—BUT STRONG IN HIS BELIEFS AND IN HIS CARING.   So, Howard said he was going to give not $20,000, but $40,000 to the church.  

Prayer changes things if we do it right. It changes us.

We begin to give ourselves for others—respect them—see that we need them.

Love wells up in us and love is the greatest gift—the greatest power.

We have something to boast about—our weakness and God’s great strength.

Amen.

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Pentecost 5b “Giving under Pandemic Pressure”

Readings for this Fifth Sunday After Pentecost are:

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Wisdom of Solomon 1:13–15, 2:23–24 or Lamentations 3:22–33

Psalm                    Psalm 30

New Testament     2 Corinthians 8:7–15

Gospel                   Mark 5:21–43

These lessons are about as disparate as any in the lectionary. They hardly come down on any one or two themes.

The lesson I choose to deal with here is 2 Corinthians, because, when listening for God’s Word in the Bible, it’s always best to listen hardest to the things that are most uncomfortable. God always prefers us not to stay in a rut, but to change direction for the better in our lives.

I don’t like 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 because they have had the life squeezed out of them by people who want money so badly they can taste it. They mine thee chapters for the stuff they can use to get more dollars, but they forget about the main points  Paul makes.

Paul is talking money here. He wants the Christ followers of Corinth to pitch into a collection he has been working on. But Paul’s reasoning is surprising and provocative to repentance if we read it correctly: surprising to those who are hit up regularly for money, provocative to repentance for the money loving ones who mine these verses for fund-raising leverage.

And, certainly, money-loving fund-raising pressure is one of the dominant symptoms of the present pandemic. If you are like me, every day your physical and virtual mailboxes are bursting with pitches. Every good cause is hurting. Everyone is in desperate need. “We need your money NOW!”

To get the full effect of Paul’s Zen-like pitch in our reading for today, it’s best to back up to the start of the chapter, and even before. Paul refers at several places in his letters to this collection. He believes it extremely important to raise money from the believers of the Hellenistic gentile and Diaspora Jewish communities of the western Mediterranean for the sake of the poor and hungry Jewish/Christians back in Judea who have been hit hard by a famine. It is important to bring unity to God’s people. Paul fervently believes God has opened up the time of salvation, when gentiles and Jews, male and female, slave and free, will be brought together. And this gift of the gentile world for the suffering Judeans, will be a gesture of good will that will wound many wounds.

Paul’s first move is to get at what real wealth is. The churches of Macedonia, to the north of Corinth, have given joyfully and generously out of their own “extreme poverty.” Up in Macedonia for everyone who has embraced Paul’s gospel of Christ there have been dozens of their neighbors attacking them. They have lost friends, jobs, and customers in their shops. But poverty of silver and gold has been outweighed by wealth of joy in faith and generosity of spirit. These Macedonians have begged for the privilege of paying the expenses of Paul, Silas, and Timothy in their missionary work, and now they are leading the way in the great collection for the Judeans. So, the Macedonians have exemplified spiritual wealth.

Paul has written previously in his first letter to the Corinthian Christ-followers that they had a dangerous understanding of spiritual wealth. They rightly cherished the emotionally powerful, charismatic fruits of the Spirit of God. They were blessed with knowledge, or interpretive insights into Scriptural truth, prophetic insights into current politics and events, ecstatic speaking in tongues, miraculous healings, and dramatic eloquence. But these gifts, used wrongly, just puffed them up. It made some of them feel spiritually superior to others. Personality cults cropped up as people chose their own celebrity champions of faith. So, this spiritual wealth became a cause of deep divisions in the church of Corinth.

So, here in 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is deadly afraid of using the money pitch to touch off another spiral of spiritual egoism. In verse 7 he uses irony: Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” His audience would have immediately remembered how Paul had condemned their boastfulness about their misuse of these same “gifts,” and counseled instead a love that is the greatest gift because it builds up the Body of Christ.

To this he adds two more points. The first is that he is not giving them an amount to shoot for—a giving goal derived from some formula based on the needs of the Judeans, or the bank accounts of the Corinthians. He simply says, in verse 12, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable…”

Then he adds in vs. 13, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you.” Instead he evokes the ideal of “fair balance.” And if you wonder what that looks like, follow Paul’s quote from Exodus 16.18: God schools the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings. They think God is not fair, and life is not fair, because they are hungry. God answers by raining down manna; but this stuff is magical. Some gather more, some less, but when it’s measured out, it is all the same. No one had too much or too little.

For the pitchmen too little is simply too little. “You aren’t reaching your giving goal. You aren’t tithing.” For the fund raising pros too much pressure isn’t enough. They show you pictures and charts. They tell you stories. They say if you really had faith you would dig down and sacrifice,  and it will all come back to you double. But Paul is right for not pressuring. Some in Corinth will not be able to send a single mite to the collection, but may need to be encouraged to swallow their pride and receive help from the church. Gladness and joy is the only true measure of giving.

In or out of the pandemic we should always measure our giving by our gladness. When we give of our time, our talent, or our money, we should think, “What am I rich in, even in the midst of poverty? And how can I give until I feel joy?”

One more set of comments on the option A Old Testament reading from the Wisdom of Solomon. Protestants probably won’t hear this read in church since it is among those books of the Greek translation of Jewish Scriptures called the Septuagint. Protestants call these books Apocrypha, or “hidden,” Roman Catholics refer to them as “deutero-canonical” and the Orthodox simply say they should be read.

The Wisdom of Solomon should be read together with the Gospel of John. More about that later. But it is a great example of the way many currents of many global ways of thought come together to form our religious thinking.

Its date is uncertain, but probably about the time of Christ, and from Alexandria, Egypt. It was originally written in the better Greek, with many words used only in the first century of the Common Era. And its thought is much like that of the Jew Philo, who himself was greatly influenced by Plato and Stoic philosophy. And the Wisdom of Solomon is famous for its affirmation of natural theology–that you can know the true God properly without special revelation, for the idea of the separation of the soul and body, and the idea of the immortality of the soul.

In 1.7 the Wisdom of Solomon says the Spirit of the Lord has filled the world and holds all things together. While Plato thought of a great, high, transcendent God, Stoicism thought in terms of an imminent God who fills the cosmos and each person, and holds all things together in the form of the eternal Logos. Then, in our reading we find that God and Logos creates life and not death. Death is brought in through unrighteousness, while righteousness is eternal life: “…for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.”

In the 11th chapter of John we hear Jesus prepare us for the raising of Lazarus. He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Resurrection is one thing. Death is the enemy, and Resurrection is the great slap in the face of Death and the devil. But Life, in the Gospel of John, is clearly eternal life.

Talk of Resurrection affirms the seriousness of death–it is a great enemy that separates us from our bodies, from our loved ones, and from this world and all its complexity. But talk of Eternal life affirms that this biological and bodily life on earth is more than just a staging ground for what really matters. This life really matters because, through the enlightenment of faith we live the eternal existence. We love one another as Christ loved us, and this is life abundant. This is Eternal Life.

So, Jesus, and the Bible (including the Wisdom of Solomon), combine all these ideas. There is the enemy of death, the Resurrection, and the judgment day. But there is also Eternal Life that is with us through the gift of righteousness. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

As we minister to one another through the suffering of the pandemic–the suffering that passes all human understanding–we need to hold to Christ and to both affirmations. Though we die, we will live again through the Resurrection. And with Eternal Life, we will never die.

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Pentecost 4B: Lessons of the Storm

Option III Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost are

Old Testament       Job 38:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 107:1–3, 23–32

New Testament      2 Corinthians 6:1–13

Gospel                   Mark 4:35–41

The first reading holds a wakeup call for Christians and modern society. Christians have operated on the basis of Genesis 1:28:   

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

That word, “dominion” is a troubling word. The the ecologically minded have tried to soften it to “exercise stewardship.” And that, indeed, is a good idea generally. God goes on to emphasize that all the wonders and fruitfulness of the earth are a gifts from God; and surely the Bible urges us to hold holy every such divine grace. But the Hebrew word used here, radah, has a basic meaning of treading on things like grapes. It does, indeed carry the meaning of domination, and that may well have been the anthropology of the author.

But the wisdom book of Job serves as a stark corrective. The Lord speaks from a windstorm: “Gird up your loins…where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Then the Lord follows up by asking the “who, what, when, where, why, and how?” of true dominion, knowing full well that Job doesn’t have any of the answers. So Job has no solid ground to stand on when he questions God’s disposition of justice.

And God means to say human beings are not in charge. They are not authorized or equipped to tread the earth like a vat of grapes. The human race carries much promise, and much responsibility, but desperately needs much humility.

Without humility we forget our heavy responsibility. We forget to reverence the gifts we hold in our hands. We spiral downwards from creativity to destruction.

Yesterday, about 35 miles from here, a fire and chain of explosions destroyed a chemical plant and sent a cloud of noxious chemicals into the skies for miles around. How many miles? No one truly knows. How many days will it burn? Who can tell. Will the chemicals leach into the Rock River? No guarantee one way or the other.

Less than two weeks ago a container ship laden with thousands of tons of nitric acid, fuel oil, plastic pellets, and other poisons, caught fire, exploded and sank along the pristine shores of Sri Lanka.

And, of course, all of this is happening while we try desperately to cover up the truth that our cavalier ways of encroaching on natural habitats, and dangerously crowding both human and non-human animals together, makes viral outbreaks and epidemics inevitable. When it is convenient, we swear by science, and count on it to clean up our mistakes. When it is not convenient, we vilify and blame our scientists for the messes caused by our collective greed and hubris.

In Mark’s gospel story the waves are beating into the little boat of the disciples. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” they cry out. They would rather blame anyone or Christ than learn the lesson of the storm. The waves breaking over the gunnels of the boat are the Word of God. They are the lesson. “No, you humans are not in charge. The wind and the waves don’t do your bidding. They obey someone much wiser, more caring, and more powerful. They obey the word of Christ the Lord.”

What I see happening throughout the fires, the shipwrecks, and the pandemic, is that we want to shut our ears and eyes to the shouts of God. All around the world people are trying to act as though the pandemic is over and done with. Cases and deaths have gone down. Millions have been vaccinated, and billions more jabs are in the freezer. So, at last we can party! Now we can get back to normal!

But normal has been lousy. Blacks and Latinos and all those serving in menial jobs in the US are still dying at an alarming rate. Still the bosses want them to return to work for below-subsistence wages. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and deaths are spiking in India, Africa, and South America. Variants are evolving. But we still want to pretend we have licked Covid, and so still have dominion over the earth.

Genesis is right that we are gifted by God’s Creation, but wrong if it means we have dominion. Job is right about our being most often clueless as to the who, what, when, where, why, and how of nature. We surely are working harder to destroy rather than to exercise faithful stewardship over our home planet.

Please, God, help us learn the lessons of these storms. Help us heed the waves breaking over the gunnels. Help us join the wind and the waves, be still, and obey.  Amen.

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Pentecost 3B: Growth Beyond Our Understanding

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Ezekiel 17:22–24

Psalm                    Psalm 92:1–4, 12–15

New Testament     2 Corinthians 5:6–10 (11–13) 14–17

Gospel                   Mark 4:26–34

Many years ago I was feeling very sorry for myself. My first marriage had come apart, and with it almost all of what I had considered proof of God’s goodness. God was good to me by giving me a loving wife and children, but now all that was in shambles.

Almost.

In my self pity I took a long walk. At the end of the sidewalk was the county fairgrounds, and I sat down, and hung my head. When I looked up there was a giant oak tree with a squirrel, curious as to what I was doing there, flicking its tail.

Instantly I awakened to the idea that the little rodent, the tree, and the grass and soil beneath it all were all there yesterday, and would be there after many tomorrows. I knew I was part of the sturdy whole of it all. Sometimes the sun shines. Sometimes the darkness falls. But God’s goodness is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ezekiel must have been outdoors with nature when he wrote chapter 17. The first 21 verses focus on birds and plants. The first great eagle is Nebuchadnezzar II of the mighty and expansive Babylonian empire who invades and carries away the “top of the cedar,” namely the Judean King Jehoiachin, and his family, into exile. He then plants a “seed” who is Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne as a puppet king. Then comes the second eagle, another superpower great man, we know as Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, who renames Mattaniah Zedekiah. This vine of a man stretches out his branches to Neco, hoping for protection. He is weak, supplicant, and prone to rot away.

But Ezekiel sees this move by Zedekiah as rebellion against God, because Zedekiah has made a pact with Babylon and sealed it by swearing on the Lord’s name. Such cowardly politics of convenience may seem like it will get an edge for Judah, but Ezekiel sees it as gross faithlessness and apostasy that will be punished.

Of course the punishment for this and many other sins of Judah does come crashing down in the Exile. Ezekiel writes when Judah and all she had held dear as proof of God’s goodness were in shambles.

Then comes the following verses which give us our reading for today. “I myself will act,” says the Lord. Judah made a fine mess of things, now God will act. And there follows more meditation on nature.

“I will take a tiny, tender sprig from the top of the cedar, and plant it on the mountain height of Israel, and it will grow, bear fruit, and be a shelter for every kind of bird.”

And though, if you look around, you will quickly see that no mountain or tree in Israel can compete with the lofty heights and noble empires of Babylon or Egypt. Yet, God says, “I’m in charge here, and eventually all these other mountains and trees shall bow down.” Not to Israel, but to Israel’s God. Israel’s God shows power and goodness in bringing the high trees low and the low trees high. It happens often in history, and Mary will tell us that, in Christ, all this happens definitively.

Psalm 92 picks up on this same natural image of the tree. It must have been penned by someone facing the diminished quality of life that comes with age. Common sense says the older we get the dryer and less productive our lives become. But, in truth, it’s not a quantitative matter of age, but a qualitative matter of righteousness. Or should we say it is how close to the water of life our roots are, and that underground waterway is sure tenacious in seeking us out. The waters of new life in baptism are reaching to us, and if we reach out with our roots to the water that refreshes—roots of music and the singing of praise–then we are made glad and part of God’s working in the world.

Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel, takes us back to the seed; and with the image of the mustard plant, to the notion that a healthy plant or tree spreads branches and becomes shelter for others.

But perhaps the most striking note the Gospel sounds is when Jesus emphasizes that the seed spouts and the sower does not now how. Growth goes on while we are sleeping, and while we haven’t a clue as to how it all happens.

In that scene at the end of the sidewalk—of  the ground, the grass, the squirrel, and the mighty oak tree–God caught me unawares in my self pity. I don’t know how it happened. And the pain of the divorce dissipated while I slept. And when I didn’t know what to do, wounds healed anyway. Even though my first wife and I divorced, we kept loving our children, and, even in a way, I believe, we kept loving each other at a distance, and in new ways. Years later we served the bread and wine of communion side by side at our son’s wedding, next to my present wife, Connie. I don’t know how she fell in love with me either, but it happened. Hooray!

God’s planting had grown while I slept.

Surely we feel sorry for ourselves as a nation and a world. The pandemic has exposed us all to anxiety, depression, economic hardship, and the harsh truths of our social inequities and injustices. The institutions we counted on have been strained, undermined, and mistrusted. In our self pity we are very likely to believe there is nothing to believe in. Our world seems in shambles.

But, look up! There is a tree with a bird in a branch. God has kept things growing while you were asleep, and while you hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. God is working in your heart every moment. God is speaking of love to you. And if you plant yourself close to the water of God’s love you will find your own branches growing. If you share your praise and gladness and confidence in the God of love, you will find others seeking shelter in your faith.

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Pentecost 2B: The Alternative Family as Racism’s Cure

Readings for the Second Sunday After Pentecost or Proper 5

Old Testament      Genesis 3:8–15

Psalm                    Psalm 130

New Testament     2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1

Gospel                   Mark 3:20–35

Let’s focus on the Gospel reading. Jesus goes home. He learns that his neighbors think he’s crazy. His own mother and brothers think the same, and they want to take control of Jesus and end this family embarrassment.

Jesus doesn’t take it lying down. First he charges that those who are scandalized by him lack imagination. They are not open to God’s Spirit that is moving him.

A crowd forms. These are people who want to give Jesus a chance to prove himself. They want to learn, and they draw tightly around this charismatic man. Someone alerts Jesus that his family is outside this tight circle asking for him to come out so they can take him away. Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? You are–you who have come to listen. Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Family forms ethnicity. Biological family is at the heart of racism. From time immemorial people have thought our birth determines everything important: our intelligence, our morality, our value, our base of all operations. Even charity begins at home—and usually ends there.

This time of pandemic our eyes have been opened to how destructive this idea can be. Someone turned over the rock, and racism, in so many rude and overwhelming ways, has squirmed out. This week we commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which most of us didn’t even know happened until recently. This past year rampant police abuse of people of color blipped like crazy on our radar, if we cared to notice. Suddenly we became aware of the extent of redlining.  And the ways Blacks are punished for their choice of hair styles. And the systematic prevention of Black farmers from benefiting from farm loans and subsidies. And the way major cosmetic companies make millions off of skin lightening products. Etc. Etc.

All this waking up has given us headaches. At the slightest hint of the need to repent of these blatant acts of racism, or to correct the systems that perpetuate them, or to allow vulnerable minorities to come to the table of power by making it easier to vote when they work two jobs, hackles are raised. Just enough people take umbrage and offense, and shoot all these efforts down. We hate being made to care for such a wide swath of people when its family that really matters.

What are we to do? What can move us past our kneejerk defensiveness? What can move us, as human beings, beyond our habit of making birth, family, and ethnicity into walls of separation and rigid reasons for oppression and the toleration of it?

Only a new way of defining family. Jesus, in the third chapter of John, says to Nicodemus, “You need a new kind of birth and family. No, you are not made fit for God’s Kingdom by virtue of your biological birth. You must be born from above.”

And here in our reading from Mark we are radically charged to reconsider family and ethnicity. Even the “holy family,” at one point at least, thought son and brother Jesus too radical—even nuts. In reply, Jesus says, “Here is the family that matters: Those who are willing to listen, to change, and to actually follow God’s will, are the New Family for God’s New Age.”

Diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion, and tolerance, are wonderful values. But they aren’t enough to break down our walls of resentfulness. We must do as the New Testament does and develop feelings for this alternative family for a new age. Diversity for its own sake looks like a naïve way of claiming nothing matters. Inclusion for its own sake leaves us with nothing in racism’s place–nothing to bring us unity and meaning and purpose in our diversity.

The Apostle Paul’s letters call believers “brothers.” We rightly see that as inclusive of brothers and sisters. All are family—but family of a God who gathers and doesn’t scatter.

I personally love the idea that we say, “All are welcome” to our church and our worship. But we gather tight when we understand that our family consists of those who do the will of God—and the will of God is that we love one another, despite ethnicity or anything else—that we love one another as God, in Christ, has loved us.

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Fresh Blessings of Spring

In the darkest days of the siege of Jerusalem–surrounded by the miseries of starvation and spiritual despair, the author of Lamentations wrote that the Lord’s mercies never end, but they are new every morning.

If this witness could see fresh mercy in such times, how can we not open our eyes to see and glory in the same.

Opening my eyes here at Heatherhope I see newly minted joy every moment these days. The grass in the pasture and winter wheat in the field are as green as green can be.

And the lambs–the lambs! So white. So innocent and pure! What shame that we so habitually spoil, neglect, erase? Here is the gift of life, prancing, running in joy unrestrained. Beholding it and exalting God for it, let us become ourselves more free.

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Trinity B: The Stormy Glory of Embracing Diversity

The readings for this Sunday are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 6:1–8

Psalm                    Psalm 29

New Testament     Romans 8:12–17

Gospel                   John 3:1–17

We have heard about George Floyd’s death for a year now, and about the explosion of rage that followed.

It wasn’t comfortable a year ago, and it’s not comfortable now.

But then, birth never is. And the God behind what is happening in our world is inviting us to a very uncomfortable new birth from above–inviting us to the glory of the storm.

Nicodemus, in our Gospel lesson, had to learn that there was a birth from above that he had to experience. As a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a rabbi, he came to Jesus convinced his biological birth as a Judean had fixed his place in the world as part of the chosen and favored of God. Jesus’ declaration that none of that mattered, but only a birth from above, dumfounded him when he misunderstood it, and then pierced him to the core of his identity when he finally understood.

Poor Nicodemus! But surely after he had time to follow the crucified Christ he would have gained the light of spiritual understanding. The Paul, who we hear in Romans, has had years in the Arabian desert, of negotiating with Jesus’ disciples, and more years on the missionary trail, where he was beaten, jailed, shipwrecked and defamed trying to bring God’s freely given love to anyone who would listen. He had time to consider the birth from above. He understood that we all have a tendency to misuse our biological birth, and turn it into a wall to keep out others, and a prison to keep our souls within. Paul proclaims to the Judeans and Gentiles in Rome that we must break out of that prison we have made. We must envision ourselves not as debtors to our flesh, but to the Spirit of God, who wants to free us to be not only with others, but for them as well. The Spirit is working to liberate us from our prisons of fear and hatred of the “other.” But life on behalf of such freedom always comes with great suffering; so we should get used to the sound of our own cries: “Abba, Father—this is very uncomfortable.”

Isaiah certainly experienced that pain as well when he was called into prophetic ministry. He realized that his whole family of flesh – the chosen people of Israel – had the privileged status of worshipping God on Zion and in the one Temple of God’s presence. But they had let God down when they forgot the responsibility that came with that grace. This false vision of comfortable faith had made them all unclean—especially in the mouth. The very words they used to forgive and excuse themselves made them unclean. So, when God opened Isaiah up it was like burning hot coals on tender lips. So, with us always—the very first thing that happens when we awaken to the responsibility of joining in God’s great Gathering is that we realize we must repent of all the scattering we have done, and the lies we have told ourselves to justify it.

For my money, the Psalm for today is the most vivid message. It is fitting for the task ahead for a new Diversity Initiative that we have launched upon in our Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore, Illinois. In the long wake of the George Floyd death, our congregation has decided that when we return from pandemic distancing, we must greatly strengthen our commitment to diversity. We must be better at welcoming diverse people into our family of faith, working to understand diverse people in our community, and fighting for justice and equity in the systems of society around us.

We must, in other words, genuinely repent of how we have divided God’s people, and answer God’s call to come together.

The Psalm for this Sunday is particularly apt, because it captures the poetic drama of where we are all headed when we work for justice, and inclusion—when we take up our obligation to the Spirit of God that is bringing us together.

The Psalm says, the path toward justice and embrace of the “other” is not an easy or comfortable path. We are headed into the Glory of the Storm.

Please pray Psalm 29, and then contemplate the splendid and awe-filled lyrics that Bob Dylan penned early in his 80 year life—a song used with his permission by Amnesty International as it celebrated its 50th birthday a few years ago. Each time I hear this song I see my dear friend, Louis Warner and me, standing on top of Natural Bridge in Kentucky, watching a violent lightening storm roll by. The storm was far from tame, but the war in Vietnam was far more lethal, and it snuffed out Louis’ life soon after our stand on the bridge. But we are still standing in the storm when I contemplate Bob’s “Chimes of Freedom Flashing.” It captures both the majesty and the terror of  Psalm 29:

Far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

In the city’s melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden while the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin’ rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked
Tolling for the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
An’ the unpawned painter behind his rightful time
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute
Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Even though a cloud’s white curtain in a far-off corner flashed
An’ the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
An’ for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Starry-eyed an’ laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an’ we watched with one last look
Spellbound an’ swallowed ’til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Copyright © 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992 by Special Rider Music

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