Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Security, Shalom, and How to Save a Life (Sermon)

(This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church on the second Sunday in Lent, 2/25/18, at the 9:30AM service. The text is Mark 8:31-38. Below is the preaching manuscript of the sermon. The written sermon and the preached sermon differ. The manuscript is not carefully edited for grammar.)

Earlier this week, my wife, Jessica was teaching our son, Malachi to fold T-shirts. As you can imagine, at two years old it was very neat and orderly. The scene brought back a memory from early on in our marriage. Jessica and I were folding laundry together and when we put our piles together we realized that both of us folded T-shirts very differently. I had been taught that you fold a T-shirt so that it is square and compact. Jessica on the other hand folds her t-shirts so that they are more rectangular. It was an odd moment, because until then, I had never imagined that you could fold a T-shirt any other way.  

That experience taught me something about the assumptions we have about our world. All of us know that our opinions and beliefs are debatable. If you take any hot button topic, you know that some people will agree with you and others will not. That is just a fact. However, it is those assumptions that we have about how the world works, those beliefs which sit deep within us, unquestioned and unchallenged that can be the most difficult to change. It is often these pieces of ourselves which ignite the fiercest debates and most impassioned arguments.  

Our text this morning tells us the story of when Peter’s assumption about Jesus being challenged and rejected. As Jesus went throughout Nazareth healing the sick, casting out demons, and feeding the hungry, he developed a reputation. These signs and wonders led people to believe that perhaps Jesus was someone special. Although everyone had an opinion. Some thought he was John the Baptist, others thought he was Elijah, returned from heaven, and others saw him as a prophet. It is Peter, however, who actually gets it right when he tells Jesus that he is the Messiah.  

This is a big deal. The Messiah is the one that all the Jewish people had been waiting on for centuries. The messiah was their hope for freedom, liberation, and justice. Such good news deserves to be shared, however, Jesus quickly tells Peter that he is to tell no one. Such a request is unexpected. Jesus does not give Peter any rationale for keeping this secret. Instead he launches into a lesson about how the Messiah must suffer. That he will be rejected by the leaders of the community, the leaders of the church, the best academic scholars and that at the end this messiah will die and then be raised again in three days.  

I get the sense from reading this passage that Jesus wanted to keep his identity a secret because he knew that the culture’s understanding of the messiah was one of those assumptions that Peter and so many others had was incorrect. When most first century Jewish people pictured the Messiah, the image that came to their mind was a military figure. A couple of centuries earlier, a man named Judas Maccabaeus was called the Messiah when he temporarily overthrew the empire and established an independent Jewish state. The Jewish people enjoyed about a hundred years of relative independence from Rome before they were conquered once again and brought back under the powerful, and now suspicious, authority of Rome.  

This image of the Messiah still lingered in the imaginations of all those who hoped for a Messiah to come again. And so, when Peter hears Jesus description of a Messiah who suffers, is rejected, and dies this plan is unacceptable. Rome is too big an enemy to defeat if you are planning on losing all of your powerful friends and then dying in the end.  

Not being one to keep his opinions to himself, Peter takes Jesus aside and lets him have it. The word that Mark uses here is the Greek word, “epitimao,” which the NRSV translates as “rebuke.” Epitimao is a word that Mark uses when something or someone is working against your goals and desires. Jesus uses it other places against the demonic spirits, it is used against the wind and the sea. It is also used against the disciples when they are trying to keep the children away from Jesus.  

In Mark 8, however, both Peter and Jesus’ use the strongest form of the word. My Greek professor in college, preferred a translation in this instance that includes too many expletives to be repeated in a sermon. Such was the strength of Peter and Jesus’s frustration.  

Whereas Peter challenged Jesus is private, Jesus knows that Peter’s views are not in isolation, so in front of all the disciples he tells him, “Get behind me Satan.” In the Gospels, Jesus does not get angry often. And so, when he does, it is important to pay attention to it and see what it is that caused such a strong reaction. What is so dangerous about Peter’s view of the Messiah that Jesus would associate it with Satan the one whose work is to work consistently against God’s will?  

Jesus summarizes his problem by saying that Peter is focusing not on Godly things but instead on human ones. The problem lies not just in his belief about the messiah, but also in something deeper. It is Peter has allowed the categories of this world to so shape his thinking and his beliefs that when Jesus shows up to bring the Good News of the Gospel he responds with anger and frustration.  

Peter’s understanding of the messiah is based on power and strength. He, like most of the other Jewish people at the time is tired of living in fear. Romans were experts in fear. Along the side of the road, they would crucify people who rebelled and spoke out against the empire and then they would leave their bodies hanging there as a reminder to everyone else. The Roman leaders would regularly parade their military around the streets of Jerusalem during holidays as a reminder of their strength and power. Every person lived in fear of what would happen if they got on Rome’s bad side. And so, it makes sense that Peter and others would want to feel safe-to hope that God was going to come down and defeat Rome with a greater display of strength and might.   

However, this is not who God has shown himself to be. When God chose to enter into our world and bring salvation to all people, God curiously did not choose to use power like we understand it. God did not come with an army of angels bearing swords and shields. God did not choose plagues or fire and brimstone. Instead, God chose to become a vulnerable human, born in a rural village, forced to flee for his life. In his ministry, Jesus responded to opposition, not with aggression, but with love. When the guards came to arrest him, Jesus’ disciple’s pulled their weapons, but Jesus reused to fight back. Instead, he healed the servant of the high priest who had come to arrest him, and he submitted to the guards allowing himself to be beaten, whipped, and even crucified.  

Jesus tells the crowds, “If any of you want to be my disciples, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life, will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  In the thinking of this world, these words seem contradictory. Our culture teaches us that if we want something we need to take it—to grab life by the horns. Discipleship, however, is not characterized by a clinched fist, but by an open palm. As followers of Jesus we don’t act first, we wait. God initiates, we respond. God gives, we receive. This way of life is hard, and yet when we deny ourselves, when we turn away from our instincts to control and manipulate, we discover that we receive so much more than we could have grasped on our own.  

When we give up trying to control our lives and decide to follow Jesus it is a vulnerable thing. Instead of trusting in our own abilities and strength, we instead choose to trust in a God who we cannot see and whose actions we cannot predict. And yet it is this complete trust in God that we are called to as disciples of Jesus.  

Trusting God with your work is one thing, but trusting God when your life feels threatened is another thing entirely. With each terrorist attack or school shooting, we become more aware of how vulnerable we are. It is one thing to hear about those things in countries you cannot pronounce, but, unfortunately, it hits home more when the reports are from your own state. 

Our natural human response when we feel threatened is to try and protect ourselves by any means necessary. For some people this looks like sending weapons into schools to fight back against aggressors. For others this looks like controlling the proliferation and access to weapons. There are absolutely responses to shootings that can and should happen, and we need to be advocates for those changes, however, our focus this morning is not on laws, but on the deeper desire for security that drives both responses.  

Jesus does not promise security for his disciples, and indeed he does not want that to be their goal. Security is the language of this world. Security means that I am going to keep myself safe even if that means that I need to keep some people out. It means that I am going to keep me, my family, and my community from harm, even if it means that I need to take another person’s life.  

No, Jesus does not desire security. Jesus instead comes to bring Shalom—Peace. In fully realized Shalom, there is no violence, not because of mutually assured destruction, but because of mutually shared love and community. Shalom is a world not where some people are out and others are in, but instead one where all people are welcomed into the community and live together as one. The problem for us arises in that while , when achieved, security and Shalom coexist, we cannot get to Shalom by seeking our own security.  

cod2013_mubimbicamp_web-x-145c15625b402d20e718d883c35329227fbaa912-s1100-c15I want to introduce you to a man named Michael Sharp, his family called him M.J.  M.J. was born in Kansas and then shortly after college he went to work as a peacemaker in the Congo. Over a three year period, M.J. and his team convinced 1,600 rebels to leave the jungle and the war.1 They accomplished this not through a show of force, but instead through building relationships with the rebels. He would sit in the shade of banana trees and hear their stories connecting with them on a personal level. M.J. and his Congolese coworkers entered into the jungles each time with no security at all. He never carried a weapon. And as a result, his work brought the beginnings of Shalom to 1,600 individuals and to the country as a whole.  

Our society right now is so afraid. The tragedy at Parkland continues to linger and questions over how we keep ourselves and our children safe dominate the conversations around us. But I want to ask us a different question: What would it look like for us to strive not for security but for Shalom? What would it look like if we focused less on how we can protect ourselves and more on how we bring others into our community? 

You may say that this Shalom is dangerous, it will never work, impossible to achieve. The rabbis, chief priests, and scribes felt the same way about Jesus. They thought he was so dangerous that they conspired with the Romans and had him killed,. However, the empty tomb at the end of that story goes a long way to demonstrating that the idea of God’s shalom is persistent and determined. Paul reminds us that “the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor 3:19).  

M.J. died in Congo in March of last year. He was on a new assignment with the United Nations and was kidnapped and killed, buried with his interpreter in a shallow grave. Doing the work of Shalom is dangerous. Jesus is clear about that. But the loss of M.J.’s life is not the end of that story either. I heard M.J.’s story  last summer when his parents spoke in a worship service I attended with hundreds thousands I think of youth. You could feel the power and presence of the Holy Spirit as they shared with all of the young people M.J.’s commitment to Jesus and to the work of peace in or world. Then they asked the question: Who will take their son’s place? Who will continue the work of bringing Shalom to our world?  

All of us are not called to go to Congo. But all of us are called to do something. And that process begins by checking our assumptions. What thoughts, beliefs, and opinions have been formed and shaped more by the world than by the Gospel? Are we like Peter so formed and shaped by the world that we are grasping for security when God is drawing us to Shalom? It is only after we check these assumptions that we can truly surrender to God, deny ourselves and follow God wherever that may lead. Amen.  

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Crown Him With Many Crowns (A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday)

(Below is the preaching manuscript of the sermon. Due to the nature of preaching and the movement of  the Holy Spirit, it is not the same as the video above which was recorded at Memorial United Methodist Church on 11/16/17 at the 9:30AM worship service.)

Eph. 1:15-23   I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.  I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him,  so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints,  and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.  God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.  And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. Kingship is a difficult thing for Americans to comprehend. Our country was literally founded on a rejection of monarchy. I lived in England for a year during seminary and while I was there, I got to understand just what a monarchy can look like. It is a subtle influence. I didn’t even notice it at first, however, every day you are surrounded by symbols of the monarchy. It is on the money you use, the stamps on your mail, signs around town, mail boxes, and even on some of the foods you use. The monarchy also features on the news, it punctuates every major holiday and sporting event. There are no institutions or people who so dominate our society in quite the same way.

When thinking about the Lordship of Christ, such a pervasive influence and impact makes more sense. Consider your Thanksgiving table.  God does not intend to be relegated to a corner of our world like cranberry sauce on my family’s Thanksgiving table. It almost never got eaten. I swear my mom just put it on a dish out of obligation. Instead, Jesus should be like the gravy. It seems into every other item, even when you don’t necessarily intend for it to.

Both of these metaphors fall far short in describing what it means for Christ to be King. The monarchy in England is pervasive, but is a figurehead with little real power. Gravy may fill your plate, but no one would mistake it for the whole meal. Christ as King not only has influence, but also has complete authority in every corner of creation.

Christ the King Sunday provides us with the opportunity to take a moment before the start of Advent and celebrate the fact that the baby we will begin to focus on is now the King of the World. We celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ did not stay a baby in a manger, but grew up, died, was resurrected and now sits at the right hand of God the Father and everything in earth and in heaven is under his control.

There is such darkness and chaos in our world. In the newspapers, on TV, social media we find reports of violence, war, political unrest, suspicion, corruption, oppression, and so much more. I have heard of many people who have quit reading the news or going on Facebook in an attempt to stave it off. However, chaos and distress creep into our lives as well. They come when a friend receives a diagnosis, a relationship becomes strained, work gets stressful, or our lives become somehow knocked off center. It is in these moments when we need to remember that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Paul gives us this vision of Jesus, raised from the dead and sitting at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, above every name that is named not only in this age, but in the age to come…all things under his feet. Just when our world seems like it is careening into chaos, Paul reminds us that God is in control. There are no forces in heaven or on earth that are more powerful. There is nothing in this age, or any age to come that will come out victorious.

Such a statement is not Pollyanna optimism or plugging your ears and pretending it is not real. Recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord does not give us an escape from the world and all its troubles. The reality that Jesus Christ is Lord helps us to live in the midst of those troubles with the knowledge that those troubles will come to an end. No matter what this life throws at you, God is with you and will be with you through it all.

Every Sunday this month, our affirmation of faith has been from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Every Sunday this month, we have reminded each other that nothing can separate us from God’s love: hardship, distress, death or life, angels, rulers, things present or things to come, powers or principalities, nothing at all will be able to separate us from the love of God. This is all true because of the Lordship of Jesus.

Whereas other places in the New Testament describe Jesus’ future return and triumphant victory over the forces of Evil, Paul in Ephesians uses the present tense. It is not that we are forced to wait for a future savior. We have a savior now and his name is Jesus. The forces of evil, the powers and principalities of this world that threaten us and cause us to live in fear, they are already defeated. Christ is already sitting at the right hand and everything is under his feet.

The question then becomes, if Jesus Christ is Lord, how do we live in the present chaos? Paul gives us a glimpse of this in the beginning of his prayer. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…”

As followers of Jesus, we need know the truth. We need to know that the violence of our world will end in peace. We need to know that the oppressed and forgotten people of our world will receive justice. We need to know that the political debates and back and forths pale in importance to the message of the Gospel. We need to know all of these things because we know that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is not only the end of the story – this end is alive and well in the here and now.

Our task is to turn our eyes so that we can see it. Every week in our staff meetings, we share with each other where we have seen God at work in our lives. Each Sunday in the Connect, we highlight one place where our church and its members are living into our vision to be a “grace-filled family of Jesus followers.” These regular habits help us to make sure that we are paying attention to all that God is doing. It is too easy to get caught up in our lives and the frustrations, difficulties and routines that fill our days. The more difficult life gets the more we retreat into our selves and lose focus on God’s presence with us and distance ourselves from those around us. Worse yet, we try and dull the pain. Some people distract themselves with food or shopping. These options can be all the more tempting as Christmas approaches. Others turn to the internet, gaming, or other diversions. Still others use alcohol or drugs to try and escape. Each of these distractions may seem to work in the short-term, but over time they all fall short because instead of trusting in God’s power to lift us up and carry us through the chaos, we have turned to a lesser power.

By trusting in the power of Christ who is our King, we begin to live into Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians.  Instead of keeping our gaze on the darkness around us, Paul asks that they would lift their eyes beyond their present circumstances and that God would give them eyes to see the world as it is with Jesus on the throne. By shifting our perspective we see that there is hope. Not only are we not alone, but the one who is with us is the only one who can see us all the way through to the other side.

When our eyes are Kingdom focused, however, we do not turn a blind eye to the struggles around us, but instead we see them in their context within God’s active presence in our world.

In this way, we can walk through the storms of life with the One who stilled the waves, we can face the threats of death with the One who defeated the grave, and we can engage with the broken places of our world knowing that our God is the One who is making all things new.

My prayer for each one of you is that God would give you the same spirit that was given to the Ephesians. That your eyes would be able to see the world as it truly is and that God would give you the grace to know that all things are under the lordship of the one who is Emmanuel, God with us. And he is with us still. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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Sermon: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

[Side Note: Little did I know that four days after I preached this sermon, our son Malachi Emmanuel would be born. God is good, unexpected sometimes, but always good.]

Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36

Several months ago, the worship planning team was thinking about what to focus on for advent, and I made the half-joking suggestion that we should do a series called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” At that point, Jessica and I were several months into our pregnancy and that classic book had become a regular part of our reading. The more the team thought about it, the more the idea came together. Both pregnancy and advent are times full of expectation and anticipation, and both are counting down to one particular day. For a baby you count down forty weeks, whereas Advent only lasts four. As so many of you have told me, having a baby changes your whole world. The child who is born at the end of advent changes not just the life of His parents, but also the whole course of history and every life that has ever lived. And so over these next four weeks we will be going through the process of preparing for the birth of Christ.

One of the things I have learned about pregnancy is that there is not a lack of information. In our living room is a bag full of pregnancy books with detailed accounts of what to expect at each stage of pregnancy. What a woman may feel. What her body is doing, how the baby is growing. Week by week, trimester by trimester, it tells you what to look forward to and what you should do. Every single possibility is laid out and described in very detailed ambiguity. You may feel this, or you may not. Some women experience this, others do not. Every book tries to answer every question, touch on every possibility that they can think of.

For this reason, one of the first things the doctor told us when she recommended books was that we should not read ahead. The same advice does not apply to the season of advent. The first Sunday traditionally always jumps straight past the birth to the very end, the second coming of Christ.

Whereas reading ahead in a pregnancy book could cause unnecessary fear and anxiety, reading ahead in the Christian story and knowing that Christ will return gives us a sense of comfort and hope. Because we know the end of the story, we can live through difficulties in the middle with confidence and assurance that God will see us through.

Both of our texts for today are set within dark and difficult times in Jewish history. Jeremiah lived during a time when Judah was caught between large and powerful empires who were vying for control. Jeremiah tries to advise the rulers and the people on how to faithfully navigate between them, but they do not listen. And so, in the year 587 BC, the Babylonians entered Jerusalem. Their army slaughtered the leaders in front of the people, they destroyed the Temple, and captured many of the people and shipped them away as exiles. In the wake of their brutality, the Jewish people who remained were demoralized, shaken, and unsure of what their future would hold.

For most of the Jewish people, these events were completely unexpected. How could the God who made a special covenant with them, who brought them out of Egypt, and gave them the Promised Land allow them to be so utterly destroyed, the very symbol of their covenant laid to ruins?

It is into this thinking that Jeremiah speaks this Word from God, ”I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. I will raise up a righteous branch…” In the middle of the broken forest, Jeremiah tells the people that God has not given up on them and that God is working on their restoration.

Over six centuries later, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the Great Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but the worst is yet to come for the Jewish people and the followers of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are again words about the future.

Jesus describes the end of the story, the Son of Man (CEB-translates this Human One) coming on clouds with power and splendor, bringing everything under His rule and control. This image of Christ’s victorious return has helped Christians throughout the centuries to persevere in persecution, to face lions, fires, and gun barrels with hymns of praise, and through it all to share the Good news of Jesus Christ with everyone they met.

Before the second coming, however, Jesus paints a bleak picture as he describes what the world often looks like in this in-between time. All the earth will be turned upside down. Nations will devolve into chaos, and nothing on earth or in the heavens will be constant or secure. In other words, we are to expect the unexpected.

In many ways Jesus could be describing our world today. The attacks in Paris a couple of weeks ago were a violent reminder of the fragility of life and the illusion of safety. The normal lives of people enjoying a sports game, concert, and drinking at a coffee shop brutally interrupted by extremists bent on shaking the very foundations of Western society.

In many places around the world, fear is a regular part of daily life. For people living throughout the Middle East, drone strikes, suicide bombs, and hostile check points keep people constantly on their toes. Families in Nigeria worry each day if their children will come home from school. In our own country many racial and religious minorities describe their fear when those around them do not understand who they are or where they come from, and many women are nervous to go outside because of the catcalls and inappropriate looks they receive from men on the street.

As I read these passages this week, I realized that in addition to terrorist attacks, there are things inside of us that also turn our world upside down. The death of a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend can also shake the ground beneath out feet. The loss of a job, a divorce, a diagnosis, or an illness can call into question the foundations of how we understand ourselves and the world around us.

In these moments of crisis, when what we had expected is gone and pain and uncertainty are all we have left, we look around for something that will help us get through the darkness.

Could it be that in these times when chaos and fear are swirling around us, Jesus is calling us to look for the signs of his coming?

I believe in the second coming of Christ. I believe that at a certain point in the future, Jesus will return, the Kingdom of God will come and at that time, all things will be brought under the reign of God. This is the truth that the Scriptures teach us, and I am confident there will come a day. However, Jesus also told his disciples, “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matt 28:20). In four weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we will call, “Emanuel, God is with us.”

The reality of Jesus’ second coming does not have to be separated from the reality that God in Christ is here with us today. In a world fractured with violence and filled with fear, Jesus’ second coming reminds us that this world is not as it should be, and that God is making it better. The reality of Jesus’ presence with us now as Emmanuel is a daily reminder that God does not leave us alone in the meantime.

Every day, Jesus comes into the lives of people and communities and shares their grief and suffering, experiences their depression, and despair. And, while it may not be as dramatic as riding in on clouds, Jesus nonetheless enters into those situations with power and splendor to bring forth comfort, peace, joy and hope.

The world in which we live is one where things do not always go according to plan. People suffer for no reason at all. As many of you know, I am experiencing this in my own life. Several months ago, when our child was diagnosed with a serious heart defect the news was entirely unexpected. Since then, there have been times of sadness, grief, anger, and fear, but there have been many more moments of great joy, excitement, and hope.

Conceiving and bearing children is a beautiful thing, but it is also something that is incredibly difficult. Many families have stories of infertility, miscarriages, the tragic loss of a child, as well as many other complications of pregnancy. These stories are but a few examples of the brokenness and suffering found in our world. But they are also not the end of the story. For many of those same families adoptions, medical treatments, mentorships, and unexpected friendships, conclude their stories of pain and loss in ways that were inconceivable earlier on.

As people who have read the end of the story, we know that God’s work in our world does not stop at suffering but continues through to life and hope.

We know that violence and fear are very real and present in our world. All of us have seen the power of suffering in our world either in our own life or in that of someone close to us. The violence and suffering in our world is a symptom of its brokenness. The message from our texts today is that fear is not the end of the story.

Jesus’s description of His second coming calls on each of us to turn these symptoms into sign posts to the Kingdom of God. To confront the evil and injustice in our world with the confidence of people who know the end of the story.

So often we turn our attention away from the brokenness and pain of our world. Some people use alcohol, drugs, or other substances to dull the pain and divert their focus. Others insulate themselves by focusing on their work, their hobbies, sports team, or even celebrity news. In this holiday season, how tempting is it to distract ourselves from the cares of the world with the cares of our to do lists, our shopping and decorating, and gift giving. Jesus warns us against this: “Take care that your heart’s aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.” When we are distracted and distanced from the broken and hurting people and places of our world we are at risk of missing the coming of Christ into those very people and places.

By paying attention to the brokenness of our world. By being vigilant in our prayers for our others and for ourselves, we are able to bear witness to the fact that our world is in the process of being remade. We are able to speak God’s word of hope and assurance so that the world may know that even in the darkness, God provides light. Even when everything has been cut down, God provides new growth, and even when fear threatens to overwhelm us and the ground beneath our feet is unsteady, God stands firmly on the clouds bringing order to the chaos and reminding us that our redemption is near. Amen.