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A sermon on Mark 1: 21-28, Epiphany 4B

Jesus, it seems, is always on the move. By the time Mark gets to the 21st verse of the first chapter of his gospel, Jesus has travelled from Nazareth in Galilee, south to the Jordan River to be baptized, out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for forty days and forty night, and then back up to Galilee where he began calling his disciples.

When he called Peter and Andrew, James and John to join in his adventure, he did not ask them what they believed. He did not say, “Can you explain to me the doctrine of the Trinity?” He did not say, “Do you believe in the virgin birth?” He did not even ask them their position on important political issues: “Should health care be reformed? What is the best way to deal with criminals?” He just said, “The reign of God is at hand. God is up to something new. If you want to get in on it, follow me.” Then, off he went again, leaving the disciples to decide whether or not they would keep up.

Following Jesus, it seems is largely about being willing to be on the move with him. Are you willing to head off on a great adventure with him called ‘the reign of God’?

In today’s scripture, Jesus has already left Lake Galilee and has entered Capernaum. Mark says, “When the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue — the gathering of God’s people — and he taught.” It sound like a pretty ordinary thing to do. Jesus was a Jew and, on the Sabbath, the Jews gathered in the local synagogue. An adult from among them would read and teach from the Torah — the story of God’s actions among God’s people. So, when the Sabbath came, Jesus went to the synagogue. It sounds like an ordinary worship service on an ordinary holy day.

Except, that is not how the Greek actually reads. The Greek says, “When Jesus entered the synagogue, immediately the Sabbath came.” Jesus did not wake up on a Saturday morning and say, “It’s Saturday. I guess I’ll go to worship.” No. Jesus went to Capernaum, entered the synagogue and “immediately the Sabbath came.” Jesus is travelling on a great adventure and he brings the Sabbath with him.

The Sabbath is the seventh day of creation. For six days, says our story, God created the heavens and the earth. For six days, every time God speaks, new life springs forth. God speaks and something new happens. First, light separates from chaotic darkness. Then, dry land and the seas are put in their places. Trees, vegetation, animals, birds, sea creatures — all begin to join their voices to the song of creation. Then, God creates human beings, male and female in God’s image. Creation is a story of life, more life, life in profuse abundance. Part of being human is that we get to join the chorus of praise.

There are six days of prodigal creativity. Then, on the seventh day, there is a day of rest for all creation. Somebody has called the Sabbath “God’s greatest act of creation”. On the Sabbath, we get to stop working. We get to cease our striving for more and more. We get to rest from trying to put our world in order. Sabbath is a day of celebrating and enjoying God’s good creation.

Sabbath also became a day of anticipating that time when God will set everything right. One day, everything that has gone wrong with us will be put right: wounds will be healed; nations will live in peace; all the divisions among us — the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak the haves and the have-nots — will be done away with. All creation will be filled with rejoicing again.

When Jesus went to Capernaum, he entered the synagogue and “immediately the Sabbath came.”  It is an amazing claim. When Jesus shows up in our worship, he brings God’s life and joy and abundant creativity with him. Mark says that the people were amazed and astounded.

He had an authority about him that they had not experienced from their own religious leaders. He had energy that commanded their attention. This was not at all what they had come to expect in worship. Someone has said that, sometimes, our worship services are so dull and boring and banal, that people of the church merely endure them in order to get to the refreshments time afterwards. People come to encounter the living God. Too often they find that they have to settle for catching with with news about their friends’ latest cruise or golf game.

Jesus shows up, though, and worship becomes a place where something really significant happens, where life happens. It sounds like good news. Except, says Mark, immediately, a man who was deeply disturbed interrupts Jesus and yells out, “What business do you have with us Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You are the Holy One of God and you have come to destroy us.” (Mark 1: 23 -34, The Message)

In this place of God’s creativity and life-giving power, suddenly, there is great anxiety and fear. That is a pretty good description of what happens in us on a regular basis when we try to follow Jesus. Jesus invites us into the new creation God is making in our time and our place. He invites us into God’s transforming work in the world. At some point, we realize that God intends to transform the world by transforming us — by changing you and me. He intends to make a new creation by making you and me into a new creation in Christ.

That makes being a disciple of Jesus both very exciting and very frightening. Each of us has some areas of our lives that we hold onto tightly because they make us feel safe. They help us feel like we are in control. Maybe it is our possession, or our status at work or in the community. Maybe it is some pattern of behaviour that helps us cover over a deep wound in our souls. Maybe it is the lies we tell ourselves so we do not have to face a difficult truth. Whatever it is, it makes us feel safe and in control. Whatever it is, it also functions like a wall that keeps out new life and creativity and freedom. Inside, we are slowly dying.

Jesus shows up, brimming over with life and creativity, and we are afraid. We are afraid that, if we let go of the lies and the coping mechanisms, we shall be destroyed. We will be left with nothing. So, we resist. We push back against the newness that Jesus promises. The fears that we know seem safer than the new life Jesus brings.

Jesus commands our fears and anxieties, “Quiet! Get out of him! Get out of her!” Jesus speaks with authority. He speaks with the authority of someone who knows that nothing we fear in all creation can ever separate us from the powerful, death-defeating, life-giving love of God (Romans 8: 38 -39). That love has gone to hell and back for us. That love intends to lead us into joy and delight and great beauty. That love intends for us life, more life, life in all its fullness.

“Quiet!” he says to our fears and anxieties. “Get out of her. Get out of him.” It is a great gift to have someone with authority say to our fears, “Get out!” It is a great gift to tell them to quit possessing us, to stop holding us in their grip. This is good news because those words come from Jesus who brings God’s Sabbath with him: life, life and more life.

I invite you to take a few moments to become aware of your fears. Hear Jesus say to them, “Quiet! Get out!” Hand them over to God and let God carry them. Do it for a few moments here; then do it again and again throughout the week. Hand them over because that is the way you get to walk in the freedom and the joy of Christ’s great love for you. Thanks be to God.

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A number of years ago, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in his laboratory in Yale. He brought in a randomly selected group of people and told them that they were participating in research on human behaviour. Each participant was put into a room that had a one-way mirror. S/he could see another person in another room sitting on a chair; that person could not see him or her. The participant (teacher) was given a list of word pairs which s/he was to teach to the person in the other room (learner). After reading through the list of word pairs, the teacher would read the first word of each pair to the learner, along with four possible answers. The learner was to push a button indicating which answer was the ‘pair’ to the word. The teacher was told to work a dial which would supposedly administer an electric shock to the learner whenever that person gave an incorrect answer. In actuality, the person in the other room was an actor and the dial was phony. When the dial was turned, the actor would grimace as if being shocked. To Milgram’s surprise, 100% of the people administered what they thought to be an intense shock when told to do so by the white-coated researcher.

In another experiment, the person in charge was not wearing an official-looking white coat. The experiment was conducted in an old basement. Milgram offered the participants every opportunity to refuse to administer the shock. Even so, many did as they were told. They submitted to the person whom they perceived to have authority and power.

When you decide to follow Jesus, God sets you on a path of confronting who and what exercises authority and power in your life. Following Jesus means developing the capacity to resist pressure from people with power and authority when what they want you to do will betray your humanity or trespass the dignity of others. Your primary allegiance is to God: to shape your relationships according to the way of Jesus. You will find your loyalties and your actions being shaped in peculiar ways.

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the influential atheists of the nineteenth century. He once accused the Christian Church of having taken the side of everything weak, base and ill-constituted. He believed that the world ran by the law of evolution and that its rules favoured power and competition. He was frustrated the Christians were, again and again, choosing the must un-Darwinian objects for their love.

Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity lavish their care on people whom others consider to be homeless wretches who have days, if not hours, to live. Mother Teresa considered acts of compassion for the poorest of the poor a great privilege: Only in heaven will we see how much we owe to the poor for helping us to love God better because of them. (http://www.verybestquotes.com/150-mother-teresa-quotes/)

Jean Vanier has spent his life cultivating communities where able-bodied assistants live with men and women with mental and physical handicaps, many of whom are unable to speak or co-ordinate their movements. While he could have done many things with his considerable gifts and talents, he says that it is this work among people whom others dismiss as unimportant that has given his life meaning.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement freely admits the folly of her soup kitchens: “What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate — to ignore the price of coffee and to go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us good coffee and the finest bread.”

There are those who would call these people insane or crazy because of their peculiar sense of what is important. The world needs more of that kind of madness. It is the same kind of madness that led Jesus to touch people whom others had labelled ‘untouchable’. It is the same madness that led Jesus to dine with people whom others would cross the street to avoid, and to challenge the people who wanted him to keep quiet because they didn’t want trouble.

It is the same kind of madness that led God to leave the glory of heaven and to dwell among us. In Jesus, God suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that we, too, might experience Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and death.

When we offer ourselves to Jesus, we offer to live lives which mirror, at least to some degree, his love and mercy and grace — even if those lives look peculiar to people who judge us by this world’s standards of success and conformity.

In a sense, people like Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier, and Dorothy Day reached a point where it was easier for them than for people like you and me to live into such peculiarity. They achieved a level of renown. People no longer think them mad. They have become saints, heroes, models to be admired. It is a different story to labour quietly in your ordinary life, trying to live with integrity and compassion and courage amidst pressures to abandon Jesus’ peculiar standards. It is a different story for you and I to speak the truth, to say ‘no’ when everyone else is saying ‘yes’, to give extravagantly or forgive graciously, to choose to stand with people whom others are attacking.

Where do you find the courage to follow Jesus when he leads you against the flow? Mother Teresa wrote that you find it in humility: Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal ( In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers).

Brennan Manning once pointed out that Jesus’ closest friend on earth, a disciple named John, is identified in the gospels as, “the one Jesus loved.” Wrote Manning, “If John were to be asked, “What is your primary identity in life, he would not reply, ‘I am a disciple, an apostle, an evangelist, an author of one of the four gospels’, but rather, ‘I am the one Jesus loves.’”

That is who you are: You are the one Jesus loves. That is your primary identity. No matter what anyone else tries to have you be or do, you are the one Jesus loves. Live deeply into that identity; act courageously out of that identity. You may seem peculiar to people who know only this world’s pressure to conform. Never mind that. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that is healing this broken world. It is Jesus’ blessed and holy peculiarity that will give you peace. You are the one Jesus loves. Let that give you courage to act in truth and love.

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Scripture: Daniel 1: 1-21

Millard Fuller was a millionaire entrepreneur from Alabama. Rich but miserable, with his marriage on the rocks, he headed to Americus, Georgia where he became involved in an intentional Christian community, Koinonia Farm, under the leadership of Clarence Jordan. Jordan believed that Christians ought to take what Jesus said seriously. He believed that Christians ought to live out their commitment to Christ in very real and practical ways. That encounter with Jordan led Fuller to give away his personal fortune and found Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat for Humanity is based on the simple premise that every persons on the planet deserves a decent place to live. Today, thousands of volunteers join in partnership with the working poor to build houses that the poor can afford to live in. Says Fuller, “You don’t have to be a Christian to live in one of our houses or to help us build one. But the fact is, the reason I do what I do, and so many of our volunteers do what they do, is that that we are being obedient to Jesus” (What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey, p. 243).

Being obedient to Jesus may not lead you to give away your personal fortune. However, it will probably lead to to live in ways that seem peculiar to others. Following Jesus will lead you to live ‘against the flow’.

Willimon and Hauerwas tell of a young man who was a bureaucrat in a state agency. On Laity Sunday in his church, he stood up and said that “he has to come to church because he has to be reminded that Christians do not lie. He has to be reminded of that because he said every day at his job, he is surrounded with lies and it is so hard to resist not becoming part of the system of lies. So, he comes each Sunday, in hopes of renewing his speech so he will not lie on the job. That may not contribute to my advancement, but I would rather be a Christian” (Where Resident Aliens Live, p. 108-109).

Imagine how difficult if must be for his co-workers to have someone among them who has made the peculiar decision that he will not lie.

The people of Israel were often considered peculiar because they refused to ‘go along to get along’ with others. They would not conform to the culture around them even when it would have been easier to do so. After the Babylonian armies had conquered Israel, they dragged the leadership of the country into exile. Then, Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, selected a group of Jewish boys and offered them the opportunity to be part of a three-year executive training programme. At the end of it, each of them would be guaranteed a position in the royal service.

Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the boys chosen for this special privilege. They were given new Babylonian names and began their training. However, when they went for their lunch break, they refused to break Jewish dietary laws. They were being offered Lobster Newburg and Pork Medallions and baked Alaska along with some martinis to help all that food go down. “No thanks,” they said. “We’ll stick with salad and water.” Everybody else said, “What are you doing? Don’t risk the opportunity of a lifetime! Eat a bit of shellfish. Enjoy the pork. Don’t make such a fuss about such a little thing. You don’t want trouble. Remember, we’re in exile in Babylon. The Babylonians are in charge. While in Babylon, eat as the Babylonians do.”

Daniel knew that what he ate was not just a ‘little thing’, even though it seemed to be. Jewish dietary laws were part of what it meant to be Jewish: you are what you eat. The Babylonians changing their diet was a way of forming their appetites. It was a way of shaping them in the Babylonian value system.

He also knew that the Babylonians were not really in charge, although they seemed to be. Daniel knew that “the Lord let King Jehoiakim of Judah fall into [King Nebuchadnezzar’s] power” (Daniel 1:2). Nebuchadnezzar thought that the had defeated Israel through his own superior military power. He thought that the victory was proof that he was a brilliant strategist. Not so says our text. The Lord let him win. The Lord let him take the temple treasures. The Lord let him take prisoners back home with him.  The Lord was God, even in exile. Daniel knew that, ultimately, his destiny lay with the Lord and not with Nebuchadnezzar.

The Book of Daniel begins by saying that the Lord let Babylon capture Israel. By the end of the book, within Daniel’s lifetime, Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, had captured Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was not that powerful, after all. Daniel had outlasted Nebuchadnezzar.

Daniel was able to resist being seduced into conformity by those who promised success and power because he was clear about the authority to which he had to answer. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was. God’s power was not as visible as Nebuchadnezzar’s but it was more decisive. The Lord would have the final say. It was this faith, trust that this was the truth, that gave Daniel the courage to say, ‘No’, even under great pressure.

It is the most natural thing in the world to want to fit in, to ‘go with the flow’, to submit to people who seem to hold power and authority. We often do it with the best of intentions. We want to do well. We want our projects to succeed. But what is at stake is our very selves.

You find the courage to be different in the same way that Daniel did: you pay attention to the stories that remind you that God is present; the God’s authority is greater than any authority on earth. To God you are ultimately accountable. You gather with the people of God week by week to remember whose you are — who has claimed your life and your loyalty and your love. You gather week by week because the world would like you to forget the One who has claimed your life. You are easier to manipulate if you forget. From time to time, you renew your promise to Jesus to follow him, and you let God renew God’s promise in you to guide you in paths of holiness and truth.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia on April 22, 2012.

Scriptures:          Isaiah 42: 6-9; Revelation 16: 6-9

 “By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down and there we wept
When we remembered Zion.

On the willows there,
We hung up our harps,
For there, our captors asked us for songs
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?”

Do you recognize that poem? Do you know where it is from? It entered popular imagination in the movie Godspell, as the song “On the Willows”. Perhaps you have heard it as the reggae song, “Rivers of Babylon”.

It is Psalm 137. It comes from five centuries before Christ was born. Israel had been invaded by Babylon. The leadership of the community had been carried off into exile in Babylon. They found themselves far from home, far from everything familiar and settled. In a new and strange context, they had to figure out what it meant to be people of faith. How would they worship God now that the temple was gone? How would they live out their faith now that they were no longer in charge of the culture? How would they pass the faith on to the next generation now that the culture around them was not helping them to do that? How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

That question has haunted me for the past thirty years. Thirty years ago in May, I was ordained as a minister in the United Church of Canada. The church into which I was ordained was very different from the church as it is these days. The culture was very different as well.

Thirty years ago, to be an ordained minister meant that you were accorded a certain status in the culture. You were also accorded a certain level of respect in the congregation.

Thirty years ago, Christians still thought that they were in charge of the culture. They could pass motions at Presbytery meetings and at Conference Annual meetings and people would actually pay attention. The public would make note of what the church thought people should do. It doesn’t happen that way anymore.

Now, the major task for many people in ordered ministry is learning how to negotiate the politics of declining and dying congregations. Nothing in my training taught me how to do that. Nothing in my training even suggested that that would be on the radar.

I have been learning how to lead worship EPICally (worship that is Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Communal, Leonard Sweet). I have been learning how to preach differently than I have preached for most of my ministry. Every church that I have served has had its pulpit elevated above the gathered people. Having the pulpit elevated was not just about sight lines. It was a physical symbol of the authority that the Word pronounced from that pulpit was to have in people’s lives. It was a symbol of the authority accorded to the person who pronounced that word.

Now, I lead worship and preach from the same level as the congregation. Some of you do not like it much. Beyond questions about whether or not you can see the front clearly, you sense that a profound shift has happened in worship. The change in location signifies the shift in our hearts and minds – a shift that has already happened in our culture. These days, authority does not come from ‘on high’. It is not automatically accorded to people because of the positions they hold. Authority emerges out of our midst, from among us and from our life together.

These days, I find myself having to lead a congregation without any roadmaps for the road ahead. What we did in the past does not work in the present. There are no clear guides to tell us what road to take. There is only the Holy Spirit. There is only the question, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

Each of you faces the same question in your own life. None of us is living the life we had planned on living. One of the great privileges of ordered ministry has been hearing some of you looking back on your life and saying, “I have been so blessed. I have had a very privileged life.” The life you have had is not the life you had planned. Who could have planned all the opportunities that have opened for you in the past fifty years? You are aware that you have received a great gift, and you are grateful.

I have watched as some of you have lived through tragic losses or as your lives took unexpected detours. In all of it, God has been asking you, “What does faith look like now?” What does faith look like in your life of privilege? What does faith look like beyond the loss? What does faith look like in new and unexpected circumstances? “How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

There is no doubt that it is often difficult to live into the answer to that question. It is difficult, but it is the pattern that is given to us in our baptism: the pattern of dying to some things so that God might raise us to new life. We live into that pattern over and over again. It is full of the promises of God for a new future and new hope, but it is not easy.

That same question is being addressed throughout the whole Bible. This morning we heard two scriptures:

Isaiah summoning us to praise –

“Sing to the Lord a new song,

His praise from the end of the earth!”

and the book of Revelation, summoning up the whole witness of scripture—

“Let us rejoice and exult and give glory for the Lord our God reigns! Hallelujah!”

 What you did not hear was the loss, anguish and despair that form the soil out of which those songs of praise and joy grew. The praise carries with it the scars of people who have found themselves in circumstances for which they had not planned, in which they felt unprepared and inadequate. They were circumstances in which they had to wrestle for faith beyond the wounds and doubts and grief and sense of abandonment.

When these passages were written and composed, the hard times were not yet over and gone. “Our God reigns!” they proclaim. “God is enthroned in glory!” they shout. However, there was very little evidence in their lives that that was so. For Isaiah, Babylon still ruled in power. For John, the Roman Empire still seemed strong.

Those songs are visions of the ‘end times’ – of that time when God finally gets the world that God wants. This is a world where armies no longer wage war; where people are no longer homeless; where mothers do not have to stand in the grocery store wondering if they have enough money in their pockets to buy supper for their children that day. It is a world where environmental toxins do not threaten our health. It is a world where there is enough for everyone and everyone lives in peace and unafraid.

Against the evidence, people of faith sing these songs, boldly proclaiming that the way things are now will not be the way they are forever. The world with all its suffering and injustice is not the final word. Our God reigns and God intends are very different world.

Sing those songs and you begin to see the world differently. Sing those songs and you begin to live in the world differently. You begin acting against the evidence.  You begin acting toward God’s promised future. You begin, now, to enter into God’s new creation.

How do you sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? You sing against the evidence, and then you act against the evidence and then you watch ‘the evidence’ change.

That is what the church is doing every time is gathers around the communion table. From the earliest days of the church, communion was not just about something Jesus did in the past. It is about what Christ will do in the future. Here, we catch a glimpse of the Great Banquet as the end of time when God gets what God wants. Here we act out our hope for the world – a place where all are welcome; where there is enough for all and to spare; where sorrow is turned to joy. Here, all creation is made new.

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A reflection on Galatians 1
In a recent posting on Faith and Leadership, Will Willimon was commenting on Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton pushing for a constitutional amendment in Alabama that would allow legalized casinos. They said that there motivation was “jobs for casino workers in some of the state’s poorest counties”. Willimon wrote about the social devastation and corruption that casinos inevitably bring. Then, he reflected on “the peril of not being clear about the source of ministerial authority”.
It reminded me of Paul’s opening chapter in his letter to the Galatians. Paul spent 18 verses clearly setting out that his authority came from God’s call to him, not from any human authority. All the commentaries I have read on this chapter speculate that Paul was trying to establish his legitimacy in the minds of the Galatians. I wonder, though, whether or not he was also trying to keep clear for himself the source of his authority.
It is easy to lose sight of that source in ministry. For one thing, within a congregation, many people have different agendas for the minister. Trying to meet those agendas can leave very little time for prayer and for wrestling with the scriptures. It is a constant juggling act. Without a clear sense of what God has called one to be and to do in ministry, it is difficult to sort through all the demands and decide which ones to focus on and which ones to leave undone without feeling guilty.
The other challenge, however, comes from the diminishing authority and status of the clergy in the culture. When I was ordained 28 years ago, ordained ministers were held in relatively high regard in a community. I have seen that regard erode continuously over the years. The recurring scandals of clergy who have abused their authority have played some role in that. There is also a sense that clergy don’t do anything critically important or decisive. I remember talking with one woman about the levels of clergy compensation compared to other people with far less education. She commented, “Well, you have to take into account the importance of what they do.”
That lack of social regard can lead a minister to want to do something that affirms that what they do and who they are does have significance. That can also lead a minister to avoid doing some things that s/he fears would lead to diminished regard by others. For instance, I have seen clergy remain silent while someone has been treated unjustly because speaking out would jeopardize their own standing in the institution.
Another pressure comes from the cost of confronting corrupt systems. Part of the resistance to someone telling the truth comes in the form of an attack on the person who is raising uncomfortable questions. In such a situation, it is hard to remain free.
The first steps in Paul’s journey in freedom take him to the origins of his call and his authority. It’s God who sets the agenda. It’s God who gives authority and significance. Living the freedom that Christ gives means revisiting this regularly. I have found Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles enormously helpful in doing that.
While he acknowledges the pressures clergy are under to do many things, he reminds clergy of what is critical in their calling: the three practices of prayer, scripture and discernment. Without attention to those practices, the other activities don’t hold together. In all three, we re-direct our focus (which can get scattered in the press of the demands of the job) toward God.
Since the most decisive and determinative thing that’s going on in any situation is what God is up to, ‘working the angles’ becomes critical in staying on mission. I imagine it would still be possible to be mistaken in the stands we take on issues, since all of us are imperfect and discern God’s will imperfectly. But the focus on the three angles keeps a person open and creatively responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit. Walking in freedom becomes a matter of staying close to Jesus Christ who is our freedom.

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