Tag Archives: Sacrifice

18 August – God’s unrighteous mercy

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Pentecost 10

Hosea 6:4-6
Psalm 40
Colossians 2:6,7, 13-15
Matthew 9:9-13

In a sentence:
Mercy is unwarranted yet needed by us all

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

Hosea seems to propose here a choice: fertile mercy or barren cult. Which would you choose?

And yet, at the same time, the whole sweep of Hosea’s preaching is directed at Israel’s violation of the divine covenant. He would not, then, contradict commandments regarding Temple worship. Rather, with the rhetorical overreach of the preacher, he shocks his listeners into awareness of what is going wrong.

Hosea’s point, then, is not that religious observances should cease but that we see mercy, kindness and steadfast love[1] to be what the sacrifices signify. The crucial thing is that – for Israel and for us – mercy breaks the mould so far as sacrifice is usually understood. It is this re-figuring – re-signification – of sacrifice which Hosea calls Israel to return to: understand what you are doing.

Typically understood, the possibility of a sacrifice means that we are in a system of exchange. Sacrifice offers this in response to that, this to effect that. These exchanges reflect that there is a need which must be met. The perceived need for sacrifice, then, casts our lives as a problem – an equation to be balanced – and the sacrifice brings balance.

The need might be that we will have to stop working someday, so we sacrifice some of today’s pay for tomorrow’s need. The need might be that we could get sick, crash the car or burn our home down, so we sacrifice in the form of insurance. Or we are lonely or sad, so we sacrifice vocation or responsibility for binge-watching on Netflix; or we feel poorly understood at home and so sacrifice fidelity for an affair. We are afraid, so we sacrifice the needs of refugees in order to remain safe and keep the economic system stable.

There is nothing especially ‘religious’ about sacrifice. It is a strategy for dealing with religious or secular powers according to the ordering of the powers: when here, do this.

Hosea’s challenge to Israel is that it acquiesced into this general understanding of sacrifice – something thought almost to ‘force’ God to act because the ritual is done properly. This is religion as calculation, as a way of manipulating the gods into giving us what we need. Prayer becomes magical incantation, as if God also has an equation to be balanced.

Yet what Israel received in its sacrificial rituals was a hijacking only of the form of contemporary religious practice. The substance – what the sacrifices signified – was completely re-ordered.

This is the point of Hosea’s reminder: sacrifice to this God has to do with mercy. But it is crucial that we see how this breaks the typical understanding of sacrifice, because mercy breaks systems of exchange. Mercy is the giving of something which is not warranted by the rules: it is a refusal to balance the equation. As much as anyone one of us might need mercy, none of us could ever ‘deserve’ it as a right or a thing earned. ‘Deserved’ mercy is not mercy; it is payment according to the rules.

When mercy does enter the equation, something very odd takes place. No longer is a sacrifice made in order to secure what we need – to secure ‘righteousness’. Rather, righteousness itself is sacrificed. The appeal for mercy – for God’s steadfast love in the face of our lack of love – is an appeal for the rules to be broken.

And now we come to the heart of the matter – God’s own heart. For the righteousness which is sacrificed in the death and life of Israel is God’s own righteousness, the demands of the law, set aside in the sign of the sacrifice or, as it was later put, nailed to the cross (Colossians 2.13f). Those reconciled with God here are unrighteously righteous.

We nail God’s righteousness to the cross, in the person of Jesus. Mercy – incomprehensibly – makes that sacrifice God’s very own. Our offering to God is made into the mercy of God, the casting aside of righteousness. In reconciliation, God meets our unrighteousness with his own; this is the meaning of mercy and so the substance of our lives before God and with each other.

And so Hosea calls for a people like this: a people among whom it is not known what will happen next, for they are incomprehensibly merciful and the rules of exchange do not apply. This would be a people among whom the strong don’t do with the weak what is usually done, the rich don’t do with the poor what is usually done, the old don’t do with the young and the young don’t do with the old what is usually done, the citizen does not do with the foreigner what is usually done with foreigners.

To be such a people is to sur‑prised – literally, over-taken – by mercy. When the rules are broken it cannot be known what happens next, and there finally enters the possibility of something new under the sun. The dead could even stop being dead. Imagine that, and you’re beginning to imagine the possibilities of mercy.

Mercy is not right and so make no sense, and so mercy is just what is needed in a world in which we are crushed by what is sensible, by what ‘has’ to be done.

Praise God, then for unrighteous mercy, and let us commit ourselves to become the mercy we seek.

[1] The translation of the Hebrew word under the NRSV’s ‘steadfast love’ varies considerably in the commentaries and versions: goodness, kindness, mercy, and steadfast love are all offered as translations.

6 May – The blood of Jesus and the joy of God

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Easter 6

1 John 1:5-9
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17

Prelude: Reading a biblical text

It might be helpful to begin this morning by saying something about the way in which we are engaging with the first letter of John. We are not doing is taking a blow by blow, verse by verse account of what John says and why that might matter to us to. This is because a lot of what John says quite simply does not make immediate sense. He often seems to go in circles, makes logical leaps which are not obvious to us, seems even to contradict himself on quite important things. A ‘straight reading’ – a ‘literal’ reading, if you like – can simply lead to confusion or uninformed rejection of what John has to say. This problem with the letter springs in part from the fact that it is a letter (or similar) – that it addresses a known community and known circumstances which we don’t know and in cultural and linguistic ways quite different from our own. We have to infer from what John says why he says it – a process a little like trying to lift yourself off the ground by pulling on your own bootstraps: never straightforward.

But there is another challenge, more important than the historical one. This is the gospel itself. John is not just a cultural or historical ‘other’ to us; his words come to us as ‘scripture’ – as ‘the word of God.’ We listen, then, for where John contravenes what we might have in common with those to whom he wrote: where does he say it ‘wrong’? These are the most interesting, engaging points. Where we find ourselves in agreement with the text (if we can be sure that we are), we simply affirm something we already know. But it’s the apparent cracks in the logic of the Scriptures which let in new light.

– – – –

One such crack appears in our reading from 1 John today, which we’ve heard now for the third time (there’s a lot going on here!):

‘…if we walk in the light as he himself walks in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin.’

‘If we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another.’ This is the reverse of how we typically understand fellowship or communion to work. For us – as a political theory, and in our common experience – it is communion which brings light. Dialogue brings understanding and illumination. Get the warring parties around the table, have them share of themselves, encourage understanding and empathy, and peace will follow: fellowship, communion. This is peace conceived in terms of strategy. And we know that it works. Seeking to live in communion can bring light.

But John says it the other way around: light brings communion – if we walk in the light, we have communion with one another. This is not accidental, a passing slip; the logic pops up right through the letter (see, e.g. 1.2; 2.11; the ‘externalising’ of love in the work of God, rather than our own work [3.6, 4.10]).

Communion is possible because of the light. This is not to diminish the importance of whatever light might spring from what relationships we might dare to enter into. We are only ourselves by virtue of our relationships to others; we can expect to grow and be illuminated by those relationships we already enjoy.

But John’s vision is larger than what we know and are comfortable with. This is implicit in what he adds to his remarks about communion and walking in the light:

‘…if we walk in the light as he himself walks in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin.’

There are two things we note here. The first is the reference to the blood which washes sin away. Here the strangeness of sacrificial logic is invoked, upon which we touched a couple of weeks ago. But we notice this logic first of all to bracket it to one side. Sacrifice is one way of interpreting the cross and not a final explanation for what God does with the cross.

Nevertheless John is saying – and we can’t simply bracket this out – that the cross of Jesus is the light which brings fellowship. The cross overcomes un-fellowship, un-communion – the darkness of sin.

And yet, behind this and at the same time, the cross is precisely the opposite. A crucifixion is a radical excommunication, a rupturing of communion with the executed criminal. So the cross both the sign of un-communion and makes communion possible.

This apparent contradiction is only resolved by the identity of the one on the cross – that Jesus is the Son of the Father who sent him. At the beginning of John’s gospel we hear, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1.11). If Jesus is the Word, the Son of the Father, then in the crucifixion of Jesus is the relationship of all relationships broken: that of God to God’s people and so of God to God’s world.

This, of course, would be catastrophic on any account except that of the gospel. For the gospel may be put this way: the people of God do not cease to be the people of God for having crucified the Son of God. We do not define our relationship to God; God defines that relationship. That definition is that we are God’s people; this is the ‘essence’ or substance of this relationship.

But, while we do not determine the substance of this relationship, but we do give the relationship its form, its shape. That form is most fundamentally the form of a cross. The substance of our relationship with God – that we belong to God, regardless – takes the form of the cross. And so the love which is the substance of the relationship is now not ‘mere’ love – formless affection or attraction – but a love which has overcome, a love which is forgiveness, a love with a history.

The cross saves because it is the shape we have given to our relationship with God, which God has honoured without changing the essence of God’s own intentions with us: to be our God.

Here we come close to the meaning of another text we’ll meet later in John’s letter: we love because God first loved us (4.19). The ‘first’ here is not so much a chronological priority, that God ‘got in’ first, and our love follows. It more a matter of God ‘out-loving’ us. We give the God-relationship the shape of the cross, and God reveals in response just how seriously he takes us: the cross as a sign of excommunication is made the sign of God’s communing love for the world (John 3.16f).

We noted in our first reflection on this letter another ‘crack’ in his logic which let in gospel light: the surprising rationale John gave for writing the letter: ‘We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.’ John desires the joy of fellowship. But this unexpected thing – that he evangelises as much for himself as for those he addresses – is also not accidental. It has its basis in the gospel itself. For the gospel is that God insists on being the God of these people, even if that relationship takes the shape of a cross. For we are God’s joy, and God refuses to have his own joy denied. The crucified Jesus becomes the love and light of the world, in order that God’s own joy may be complete.

This is to say that, with this God, nothing is insurmountable.

It is also to say that, for a people so loved, nothing is insurmountable. If we walk in this light, then communion comes because nothing can finally keep us from each other; the blood of Jesus washes un-communion away from us (1.7).

Let us then, walk in the light by which God’s own joy is complete, that ours – and everyone’s – might yet be.

22 April – No anaemic God

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Easter 4

1 John 1:5-2:2
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

Next week, of course, we mark once more the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli and, by extension, the war service of hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders, and others. Familiar stories are retold and new ones are uncovered, expounding the courage and feats of people in extreme circumstances.

Not far from the heart of these accounts is the language of sacrifice as a way of characterising what soldiers and others do in giving up their lives or wellbeing for comrades or for the community on whose behalf they fought – for us. Such extraordinary self-sacrifice is rightly marked with gratitude by those who have benefitted from it – even us today, after so long, whatever we make of the wars which have gone before, however much we agree or not with the fact that they were fought.

Now, the reason for raising all of this is not quite that ANZAC Day is coming, but that the theme of sacrifice appears twice in the passage we have heard (again) today:

‘…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (2.2); ‘the blood of Jesus [the] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1.7)

This is uncomfortable language for many in our modern and enlightened times, not least in the church. This discomfort arises because Scriptural sacrifice is foreign to us, despite its familiarity after so long and despite our willingness to borrow the language for something like war service. John – whether he was a Jew or a Gentile (allowing that he may not have been the apostle John, as many scholars hold) – would have imbibed with mother’s milk an understanding of ritual sacrifice which held great sense and conviction for him. He wrote of such sacrifice because he knew about it, saw it, had participated in it. We, however, really only speak of such sacrifice because the likes of John wrote about it. We no longer do or see done what they did and saw. We echo what they say when we speak of sacrifice and, because it is only an echo, it can sound hollow or simply come out wrong. Sacrifice is, simply, not how we understand the world to work and so we struggle to use such language with conviction.

But we cannot leave the matter there. At dawn services around the country on Wednesday the words of Jesus will be quoted: ‘No greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13). I suspect that it appeals to us that Jesus gives up his life for his friends, even us. Or, at least it makes sense to us that Jesus might do this, as we imagine our soldiers do.

Yet, if Jesus’ self-sacrifice is for his friends, from what does he save them? The intention of the self-sacrifice of the soldier is clear; her death saves the comrade-in-arms, or weakens the enemy. In the case of Jesus, however, what is the threat from which his friends are to be saved? The horrifying thing – especially for the likes of us – is that the threat can only be God; Jesus dies to protect the disciples from God.

And here we strike the fundamental objection to sacrificial language: that God is said to have stipulated sacrifice for such protection – the blood of lambs, bulls and doves, and ultimately the blood of Jesus himself. The problem is whether God might just be a bloody God. This does not sell well.

Our hesitation here ought not to surprise us, because it is not only a theological hesitation; it is not a problem for only the church with its cross. We – society and church together – hesitate in the same way when it comes to speaking of the sacrifice of those wounded or killed in war. It seems obvious that we could borrow the words of Jesus to characterise the casualties of war, yet we are mistaken if we do so. Scriptural notions of sacrifice have nothing to do with self-sacrifice. The sacrificial victim is a third party in an exchange between the principle actors – the priest who sacrifices and the God who is appeased. If we were to speak properly (and honestly) of sacrifice in relation to war we would have to say that is not the soldiers who make the sacrifice but the community or nation which offers them up. This is surely the meaning of conscription, on the one hand, and white feathers on the other. Nations and kings go to war, not their soldiers. The lives of combatants are the sacrifice we are prepared to make – we, who cannot qualify as the sacrifice by virtue of being too young, too old, too rich or too important.

But we do not speak this way when we commemorate war service. It is very hard to admit that it is better for us that one die for the people than that the whole nation should be lost. And so we generally can’t admit it. And because we can’t, it is difficult to admit that God’s purported stipulation of sacrifice might be just. Surely God is not like us, only open where we are covert?

In fact, even if we are bloody, God is not. Sacrificial blood does not buy forgiveness; God cannot be bought. But if God is not bloody – does not demand blood – neither is God anaemic. John’s insistence on the cross goes with his insistence that Jesus is the Son, is at the heart of God (cf. John 1.18). This death – this blood – is squarely in the middle of the God-humankind relationship.

But, unlike all other human sacrifice – whether the soldier on the field, the neglected spouse, the molested child or the ignored refugee – this death is not finally mere tragedy. God is light (1.5), we considered last week, and the cross of the Risen One is that light. This is the truly difficult thing at the heart of Christian confession: that a tragic failure might become a healing word, that the justice of God (1.9) might meet this failure with forgiveness.

John, with most of the New Testament, borrows the language and logic of sacrifice but it is only passingly useful if we insist on being biblical literalists, speaking Scriptural language with too thick an accent. If God is free – unbound by anything outside of God – then God is not bound by a sacrificial economy of exchange, such that Jesus ‘had’ to die on the cross. Ritual sacrifice in the Old Testament only ever served as a kind of cloak covering the truly important thing, a Tabernacle housing the incomprehensible glory which cannot be gazed upon directly. That glory is God’s freedom to love and heal those who imagine that death is the way to life, even God’s own death.

The miracle of Easter is not that a blood debt is paid. It is that the blood we spill does not stain but washes clean.

And we are those who are washed.

22 March – This is how God loves

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Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51
John 3:16-21

I bought a violin on Friday. Not that I can play the violin – yet. But, for reasons quite obscure to us, Coulton has wanted to learn the violin since he was about 3, and we figure that now is about the right time to start, and I’ve offered to learn with him as some encouragement along the way. Buying violins is not a straightforward thing. You have to talk to people who know something about them, research what is available, and where, and in what condition. You can learn all sorts of things via YouTube reviews of the instruments – what to look for, why it’s better if the instrument if professionally modified from its factory condition, and so on. In the case of my new violin – it came up on Thursday on Gumtree, and looked a pretty good deal. The problem was that it was in Geelong – amounting to probably a three hour return trip, all up. I contacted the chap offering it for sale, and he didn’t want to post it but would be happy if I arranged a courier. So I contacted a courier, and that wasn’t going to cost too much, so got back to the seller to arrange an electronic transfer and the courier pick up. It turned out he then needed to be in Melbourne on Friday, so I upped the offer a bit if he’d deliver it, which he did, and I have my violin. (Coulton doesn’t have his yet!)

Why am I telling you all this? Now that I’m a parent, it is becoming increasingly clear to me just how much parents do for their children, if everything is working the way that it should. Most of the time a child has no idea what is involved to make happen the things which make her life a happy one. But occasionally she’ll hear, especially is ingratitude is present, Mummy and Daddy loves you so much that is this what they have done for you. Of course, it is almost impossible that the child can understand what in fact has been done, but still it is the case: love does “so much

Which brings us to today’s gospel reading – re-visited from last week – and the first verse in particular: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”. This is one of the Christian texts: printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers and baseball caps, appearing on placards in crowds at major sporting events: it sits somewhere near the perceived centre of what needs to be said in evangelism.

“For God so loved…” Is the way to salvation the same kind of way as that by which a boy comes to learn the violin – that so much is done, which then has to be “believed” or received?

I want to propose this morning a reading of this verse rather different from the way in which the church has generally heard it, thinking through three crucial parts of the verse: first, the so which seems to carry most of the weight of emphasis (God so loved the world), then the giving of the Son and, finally, the belief we are to have in response to all this.

1. For God “so” loved the world.

It is difficult not to hear this as “so much” – so much, so big, was the love of God, that he gave the Son. In the background here is the love we have for our children and the cost it would be to us to give them up in this way. (Perhaps also, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac also sits behind this text). And yet even though this is the sense the English suggests, it is not what the Greek implies. In the Greek, the “so” is the first word in the sentence, giving it more the sense of “thus”: Thus, or this, is the love of God: God gave the Son. The difference is subtle, but very important. If I say to Coulton – this is how much we love you, that we did all this that you might have a happy experience with the violin, his response might be, But couldn’t you have got an even better violin with a bit more effort? The “so much” implies the possibility of even more – that God has paid enough – even more – than necessary, but not necessarily everything. Here the love of God is quantified, measured: this is how much God loves you; is it not impressive?

But if we read the clause as “This is the love of God” then we are not dealing with a quantity of love which might have been smaller or even bigger but the very content of love itself: love is the giving of the Son. We’ll come back to this again in a bit.

2. God gave the Son

What then, of the second thing to note in the verse, the giving of the Son? In most Christian thinking, this touches upon the theme of sacrifice: God sacrifices the Son, trades the blood and life of the Son for the salvation of the world. This understanding is both dearly embraced by some Christians and abhorrently rejected by others. On the part of those who embrace it, there is in the background the “so much” understanding we’ve just be considering: God has sacrificed even his Son for us. On the part of those who reject this idea there is, among other things, horror at the idea of sacrifice itself, let alone of sacrificing a child (in this era of heightened sensitivity to the abuse of children). The idea of sacrifice is made all the more difficult in those understandings which insist that God had to sacrifice the Son: that there was some kind of “deep magic” which forced God’s hand in this way (see an earlier sermon on this: here). It is difficult to overstate how thoroughly ingrained this way of thinking is in the way the church speaks about the saving work of Christ. Explaining why the New Testament speaks this way about the cross would take more time than we have now; suffice it to say, the “giving” of the Son is not a sacrifice, if by that we mean that it would necessarily work in the way religious sacrifices are normally thought to work, that somehow we or God met all the requirements and sinners are automatically sprung from judgement.

In what sense, then, does God “give the Son”? We can say that God “presents” the Son. This the love of God for the world: the Son. This is perhaps a little dense to be immediately clear, but it is the heart of the matter. For “the Son” is for us always the crucified one – not the “sacrificed one” – but the crucified one. Again, the difference might seem subtle but it is everything. To understand Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice is to interpret it in terms of first century Jewish understandings of the ritual animal sacrifices in Temple, which makes perfect sense if you are a first century Jew. We today do not have – or rather, we do not acknowledge that we have – a corresponding system of sacrifice securing our religious and secular lives. And so, if we are to interpret the cross as a sacrifice, we have to become first century Jews before we can become Christians. This is what St Paul rejected in a different form when he denied that uncircumcised male Greeks needed to undergo the cut in order to become Christians.

Jesus cannot be for us “the sacrificed one” in the way he could be for those who first heard his story. But he can be for us “the crucified one”, interpreted in a different way. Christians are so accustomed to the theory of an economy of salvation in which something has to be sacrificed that it is difficult to apprehend the story in a different way. But there are other ways. The sacrifice interpretation requires that Jesus came in order to die – that this was what the Father who sent him required. But this is not the sense we get from John’s gospel. Here, Jesus comes precisely to live – to be Word made flesh, to be Life and Truth in all their fullness. Jesus does die, but not because it was somehow demanded by God. If anyone demands his death, it is us: contradicting Jesus’ purpose as the Way, the Truth and the Life. The religious authorities require that Jesus die because he threatens the peace and may invoke the wrath of the Romans (John 11.48-50,18.14). The Roman governor Pilate, who initially tries to get Jesus off, finally also sees the political risk Jesus represents and decides that saving him is not worth the trouble (John 19.12f). And so Jesus is crucified, but not as a “sacrifice”; he dies because the capital-L Life he lived was too confronting, too threatening of human self-righteousness. On this reading, the Son – Jesus – is not given to be crucified; the crucified Son is what we are given. God says: Look at this. God asks, What, Why, How has this come to pass; what shall we say about it?

On the sacrificial reading, the un-crucified Jesus appears as a kind of currency in a sacrificial economy. The cross is a kind of “spending” of that currency: an exchange of Jesus’ life and blood for ours. The fundamental problem here is that we have to believe in this economy of salvation before we can believe in Jesus.

On the “presentation” reading – that God “presents” the crucified Son to us – we are back in the realms of last week’s reflection: that the cross symbolises something about our heart and the heart of God. John’s gospel is concerned with a “Word” – a Word enfleshed. This Word becomes what we are; the question is simply: what, actually, are we? At the end of his gospel John has the Roman governor Pilate present Jesus to an angry crowd with the words: Behold, the man. The sense is more, Behold: the Human Being. Here is the human being – his humanity and ours – and this is what is crucified. Jesus, then, dies not only (or even?) “for” us, but as us; it is us on the cross, our true humanity being broken by broken humanity.

This is too much to think through here, but it is the kind of thinking which springs forth if we allow that God’s love is not a divine Son given for us but a crucified Son given to us: a revelation which effects something rather than something effected which is then revealed.

3. So that everyone who believes

For the sake of finishing within a civil time frame, the third crucial aspect of this central Christian text: “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.” What is this “belief”?

On the traditional reading, “believe” means here something like assent as the appropriate response, and receiving salvation in return. This is not unlike the case of little boys and their violins, where “believe” looks like taking up the bow and doing whatever it is you call what a little boy does with a violin: the “so much” of the gift received requires this response.

But on the alternative reading we’ve been unpacking, “believe” is quite a different thing altogether. This is the love of God: the Son. The crucified Son, and no other. The crucified humanity of the Word-made-human. Humanity brought to nothing by humanity. Here, “believe” means recognising ourselves in all dimensions of the story. It means seeing ourselves as the cause of the cross, and as the victim of the cross, and as the beneficiaries of the cross. The giving of the Son is not a “buy-back” scheme; it is the revelation of God’s heart for us, and of us as God’s heart.

We noted in passing earlier that it is closer to the dynamic of God’s work through Jesus to say that God’s love is the giving of the Son, rather than is shown by the giving of the Son. This is the love of God: the Son, crucified, restored to life. The cross and the resurrection are God’s story, are God as love, and are given also to be our story.

To believe in this God is to receive this love as our own. It is to grow into a humanity formed after the likeness of Jesus, the Son. It is to become love, as the children of God, and to participate in God’s great work of love in the world.

This is not easy. We begin with this story as we might begin with a violin for the first time – barely possible to hold let alone to get anything like music from it. But the promise is that, in continuing to hear the story and to tell it, it will increasingly become part of us, as the instrument becomes part the musician, the one enabling the other to express, and to be.

Let us, then, open ourselves to become love as God is love, harmony to the song God sings, to our greater humanity and, what is the same thing, to God’s greater glory. By the grace of God. Amen.