The Force Awakens

A Sermon for Sunday December 27 (The First Sunday Of Christmas), Luke 2:41-52 and Colossians 3:12-17

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There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light.

Those are the words that the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke says to his young apprentice Kylo Ren, a masked Darth Vader want-to-be, during the latest installment in the Star Wars movie series: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Three decades after jedi master Luke Skywalker and his friends have shattered the Empire by blowing up the Death Star and defeating The Emperor and Vader in Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi, the dark side of the force is rising once again.

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The First Order

And this time it appears in the form of the Nazi-like First Order, an organization led by Snoke and Ren, which is determined to rule the galaxy and extinguish the light side of the force, which is beginning to manifest itself in the life of a young woman named Rey.

Living alone on a desert planet, Rey survives by daily scavenging parts from wrecked space ships to buy meager amounts of bread to eat. Throughout The Force Awakens, Rey displays cleverness, compassion, kindness, humility, bravery and resiliency as she learns the ways of the Force and battles the Dark Side of The First Order.

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Rey and the droid BB8

For Star Wars fans and regular film goers, Rey has become an instant favorite, a powerful heroine for the 21st century. But some of the characters in the film, both good and bad, don’t fully understand her.

Even though these characters are well acquainted with the story of Luke and Vader and have seen the Force at work, they don’t recognize Rey’s unique gifts.

There’s been an awakening of the light side of the force in their galaxy. They have felt it. The light. The dark. They know it has to do with Rey.

But they’re not sure what to with this immense power associated with her. And so they put Rey in a box made of their expectations about how a young woman should act, which of course, she defies at every turn during the film.

 

Similarly, there’s been an awakening of a powerful force in our universe. We celebrate it every year in the seasons of Advent and Christmas:

Carol Aust Nativity medium res
“The Nativity” by Carol Aust

–The light of the peasant child born in a smelly, dirty manger that got the attention of angels, shepherds and magi and frightened a terrible murderous king.

–The light of the child who grew up to be  man who–with only the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet–would share a whole lot of love and grace with the poor, the oppressed and the sinners.

–The light of Christ that shines in the dark and which the dark cannot overcome.

We’ve felt this awakening. The Light in the dark.

But we’re not always sure of what to make of Christ’s birth or how to respond to this powerful force of Light in our lives.

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The boy Jesus in the temple

According to today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is 12 years old when he and his family go to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Biblical scholars point out that a 12-year-old boy wasn’t “just a kid” by Israel’s standards—“he is becoming a man.” Jesus, like all 12-year-old boys of the time, is entering young adulthood. He is learning more about life and the world. He is discovering his purpose and calling.

Unlike his peers, though, Jesus is beginning to embrace his identity as savior and redeemer of all of creation. Jesus, scholars say, “isn’t just Mary’s boy or Joseph’s son. Jesus has a direct relationship with God as his Father, and he knows his life will follow a path of working for God.”

Oddly, though, Jesus’ mother Mary and stepdad Joseph appear to have forgotten about Jesus relationship with God and don’t seem to appreciate that their missing son is in the only place he could be: God’s sanctuary, preparing for his ministry.

And even after Jesus questions them, the gospel writer says Mary and Joseph were still unable to understand him.

Maybe they were so wrought with emotions that all they could think about was getting their boy home and nothing else. It’s a lot of pressure, for sure, to be the caregivers of Emmanuel—God-with-us who is both perfectly human and perfectly divine. And I suppose Jesus could’ve cut Mary and Joseph some slack and not talked back to them when they were clearly distressed.

However, I think there is something more to this gospel passage than a lesson to be learned about the relationship between parents and teens or that Jesus’ family life is a lot like anyone’s with mishaps and misunderstandings.

With no disrespect to Mary and Joseph’s parenting and their genuine concern for their son, I’d like to suggest that this incident says more about their and our desire to make Christ stay within the boundaries we set for him. And assumptions that Christ will stay there.

Mary and Joseph expect Jesus to stay with the caravan of travelers (extended family members and neighbors from their home in Galilee) and to not leave. When they discover Jesus is missing and search for him, the temple is the last place they check. And when they see him inside talking with the rabbis, they feel Jesus has mistreated them.

But it’s kind of silly that they’re acting this way because this is not just any missing Jewish kid. This is Jesus. Son of God. Savior of all.

His question to them, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” makes a lot of good sense.

Where else would he go but to the temple? Why else would he be there than to be about God’s business of building a kingdom where the good news would be brought to the poor and the captive would be released and the blind would recover sight and the oppressed would go free?

None of this about Jesus was new to Mary and Joseph. They knew Jesus was God-in-the-flesh and the One who would conquer the Roman Empire that ruled over them and save the world from sin and death.

But maybe they didn’t know what to do with all that knowledge at the time. It was probably too overwhelming to contemplate on most days and much easier to see Jesus as an ordinary child who would always obediently stay by their side and never leave.

So rather than focusing on Jesus’ true identity and purpose, they chose to cling to a different version that placed Jesus in a box or within boundaries defined by their own view and expectations of him as a regular ole dutiful Jewish son.

Because when Jesus defied those views and expectations, as he so often does in the New Testament and life, Mary and Joseph panicked!

In the moment that they discovered Jesus was missing, they never stopped to consider that he might actually be safe or that he might be somewhere else doing God’s work—the work he was born to do.

They just freaked out.

And the truth is that we’re no different from Mary and Joseph.

We know and feel deep in our hearts that this child is the harbinger of hope, peace, love and joy. This baby laying in the hay, this 12-year-old boy in the temple, is the most creative, loving and merciful being there ever was, is, or will be, and this being, this God-with-us, cares about each and every one of us.

There’s been an awakening. We know it. We feel it.

And yet, we don’t always act on what we know and feel and what we say we believe. The entire concept of Jesus can be so difficult to comprehend, let alone respond to, at times that we choose to keep a much more manageable version of God-with-us for ourselves; we unfortunately put Jesus in boxes and within boundaries of our making.

Maybe it’s the one called home where Jesus is more known, read, talked and prayed about than anywhere else.

Or it’s the location known as the neighborhood where all the good Christians live and raise their families.

Or it could be the state of residence where the most devout believers of Jesus work and pay taxes and vote.

Or maybe it’s the nation where Jesus’ teachings have lived and thrived for more than 200 years.

Or quite possibly it’s the church with the most friendly and welcoming and inclusive congregation.

Whatever the box or boundary may be, when we turn around and realize Jesus is no longer where we thought we put him, we panic. We become frantic and upset and indignant:

Why isn’t Jesus close by so we bring him home and keep an eye on him?!?! What do you mean Jesus is far from here and with people who are so vastly different from us?!?! How could this be?!?!

No matter how accustomed we become to the boxes we make and the boundaries we set, Christ can never be contained.

Christ is always with the people and in the places we least expect. And when we try to keep Christ in, we inevitably shut others out—those whom Christ also calls beloved.

The apostle Paul reminds us to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.”

 The awakening of Christ’s Light is not a force that we can fully comprehend or always understand in utmost detail. And it’s definitely not something we can keep and manage in our comfort zones.

Instead it is a force that knows no bounds as it connects and flows through every living thing—a force that continually calls us to boundlessly share love and peace everywhere we roam.

We just have to set aside our own expectations and boxes and allow the Light to dwell within—filling our hearts, enveloping us completely and guiding all of our steps.

That, my friends, is not make-believe. It is true…all of it.

Amen.

…………………

Biblical scholar quotes come from editors notes in The Voice Bible

All photos come from Google Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God Is A Verb: Our Faith In Action

A Sermon for October 21, 2012, 2 Corinthians 8:7-12, James 2:14-17, 19-26 (Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

When I was six years old, there was nothing I enjoyed more than watching hours of Saturday morning cartoons in my footy pajamas with a big ole bowl of Frosted Flakes. In between the adventures of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and Super Friends, the ABC Network would air the animated series Schoolhouse Rock, 3-4 minute short educational commercials in an effort to squeeze some knowledge into our TV-possessed brains. Of all the episodes, which regularly featured creative musical lessons on history, math or English, my favorite was the one entitled Verb: That’s What’s Happening:

 A boy and his super hero idol Mr. VERB demonstrate the grammatically correct use of a verb with colorful action and a groovy 70s pop beat. On the surface it’s an ordinary exercise in English… until you look closer at the lyrics:

 I get my thing in action
To be, to sing, to feel, to live

I put my heart in action
To run, to go, to get, to give

That’s where I find satisfaction, yeah!
To search, to find, to have, to hold, to be bold

When I use my imagination
I think, I plot, I plan, I dream
Turning in towards creation
I make, I write, I dance, I sing
When I’m feeling really active
I run, I ride, I swim, I fly!

I get my thing in action
In being, In doing, In saying

A verb expresses action, being, or state of being. A verb makes a statement. Yeah, a verb tells it like it is!

I get my thing in action.
To work,
To play,

To live,
To love.

Schoolhouse Rock, “Verb: That’s What’s Happening” 1974, ABC-Disney Entertainment

The cartoon’s lyrics and the animation convey a deeper message about how verbs are an essential part of human experience, and quite possibly the core of existence itself.

 The boy in the story is not sitting idly in his bedroom doing nothing. Instead he is active in the world, embracing the wonder of life. Throughout the cartoon, the boy is imagining, dreaming, creating, playing, working, laughing, singing, moving and serving. The kid is excited to be alive; his narrator voice croons: “I put my heart in action/I get my thing in action/In being, In doing, In saying…I get my thing in action/To work/To play/To live/To love” In the words of the song, the boy is “telling it like it is.”

            For Christians, telling it like it is…in being, in doing, in saying is precisely how faith in the living triune God is to be demonstrated. In his book Faith Works, Jim Wallis, respected preacher, activist and author, says: 

When put into action, faith has the capacity to bring people together, to motivate, and to inspire, even across former dividing lines. We demonstrate our faith by putting it into practice and, conversely if we don’t keep the power of faith in the actions we undertake, our efforts can easily lead to burnout, bitterness, and despair. The call to action can preserve the authenticity of faith, while the power of faith can save the integrity of our actions.

Faith that isn’t practiced or put into action or lacks expression in being, doing, saying, is actually no faith at all. It’s as dead as the spirit of the one who God calls to live in faith, as James writes in a letter to early Christians:

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? (Consider) Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.”

James’ insistence that faith must be translated into practice makes good sense. I don’t suppose there are too many Christians who would argue with his wisdom.  Several believers might even wonder why James’ words need saying. It’s fairly obvious that faith needs to be acted upon.

And yet, the statement probably can’t be repeated enough. Since the early 2nd Century, the time in which James’ letter was written, there continues to be a human presumption that “knowing the right truth or holding the right position is enough to make them righteous.”

From what is reported in the news and experienced first-hand by people in Christian communities, there are numerous good and decent believers who make genuine statements that “Jesus is Lord” and “God is love,” but ignore the one who is suffering from hunger, abuse and violence…

Christians who daily read their Bibles and recite the Apostle’s Creed and Lord’s Prayer by heart but who rarely embody God’s commands to be merciful, hospitable and loving on a daily basis.

Christians who spend too much time arguing over the right words and who is the more devoted follower than actually devoting themselves to God and serving those in need. 

Christians who waste years of their lives fighting over whom is welcome in the church and the rules over the best way to be the church instead of welcoming and being church for all people.

Christians who put all of their time and energy into rules and the creation of a power structure instead of immersing themselves in the power of God’s grace.

Christians who have separated faith from works, turning the institution and ministry of the church into a corpse. Christians who have failed to put faith into action. Christians who have forgotten that God is a verb.

            “I am a verb. I am that I am,” says God to the middle aged Mack in the 2007 best-selling novel The Shack by William P. Young. Perplexed by this statement, Mack, who is having a crisis of faith while spending a weekend in his family’s vacation home in the mountains, asks God to explain. God, who has taken the form of a older African-American woman, continues:

I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb…and my very essence is a verb. I am more attuned to verbs than nouns. Verbs such as confessing, repenting, living, loving, responding, growing, reaping, changing, sowing, running, dancing, singing, and on and on. Humans, on the other hand, have a knack for taking a verb that is alive and full of grace and turning it into a dead noun or principle that reeks of rules: something growing and alive dies. Nouns exist because there is a created universe and physical reality, but if the universe is only a mass of nouns, it is dead.  Unless ‘I am,’ there are no verbs, and verbs are what makes the universe alive…I give you an ability to respond and your response is to be free to love and serve in every situation, and therefore each moment is different and unique and wonderful. Because I am your ability to respond, I have to be present in you. If I simply gave you a responsibility, I would not have to be with you at all. It would now be a task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.

The Macedonians, whom the apostle Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians and Dave preached about last week, appear to understand this concept that God is a verb who gives human beings an ability to respond freely to love and serve in every aspect of life.

The Macedonians, writes Paul in the verses read last Sunday, “voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints…they gave themselves first to the Lord.” The Macedonians put their faith in action. They recognized God was active in their lives and they responded by eagerly joining in God’s activity—God’s work to redeem and transform a broken world through love.

And it is the Macedonian’s incredible demonstration of faith that Paul uses to encourage the Corinthians to not let their faith become stale and eventually crumble away, as we heard in this morning’s scripture reading:

It is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something—now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.

Late last week I had coffee with Patrick Borders, an active member of Pleasant Hill who recently became the executive director for Water @ Work, a faith-based, non-profit group dedicated to providing clean and safe drinking water to the poorest of the poor in the Dominican Republic. During our conversation about Water @ Work, Patrick shared an amazing story about a Dominican pastor who, like the Macedonians, gets it.

Pastor Alejandro

Pastor Alejandro serves 1,200 to 1,500 Haitians, about 200-300 families, in the village of San Joaquin, less than 10 miles northeast of Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. While the village is one of the most calm and peaceful in the country, it has suffered for many years from the existence of a bar/drug-infested prostitution den where girls as young as 12 could be seen dancing out front.

One day, Alejandro stood defiantly in front of the bar and shouted at the drug dealers who owned the business, “This land belongs to God and you must leave!”  While the chronological details of what happened next are fuzzy, the drug dealers cleared out and Alejandro eventually reclaimed the land and the building where horrific abuse, violence and oppression occurred. With a fresh coat of paint and some minor repairs, the space has been transformed into a place where children can joyfully play without fear of being harmed.

The bar-drug-prostitution den
The space transformed
A place where children can safely laugh and play, and where the village can start a self-sustaining trade co-op

Pastor Alejandro’s larger vision is to use the space as a trade co-op so the residents of San Joaquin can sell clean water, which will eventually come from a Water @ Work filtration system, and also use that water to make and sell their own shampoo and soap.  Alejandro recognized that God was active in the life of the village, and he responded by eagerly joining in God’s activity—God’s work to redeem and transform a broken world through love.

That recognition of God’s work in the world and that eagerness to put faith into action is precisely why this congregation has:

  • provided some small assistance to Patrick and Water @ Work;
  • supported efforts to send Pleasant Hill mission teams overseas to do mission work for more than a decade, most recently to Honduras
  • volunteered to host Family Promise of Gwinnett County twice this Fall
  • and continues to actively give of their financial resources, time and talents to Rainbow Village, the Clifton Men’s Shelter, the Duluth Co-Op, the Red Cross Blood Drive, World Relief Refugees, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Habitat For Humanity, food banks, emergency assistance programs, after-school tutoring, hospice care, knitting prayer shawls for the sick, teaching church school, mentoring youth, creating opportunities for fellowship, planning meaningful worship services, etc.

Time and time again, you live up to the church’s motto and God’s call to love and serve by “connecting faith with everyday life.”  And it fills me with indescribable joy every time I witness each one of those moments.

You’ve done these things not because it is expected of you. If expectation was what drove you, then ministry (as the character of God explained in The Shack) would bea task to perform, an obligation to be met, something to fail.” No, you put your faith into action because you realize that God has given you the freedom to love and serve and to make every moment different, unique and wonderful!

So in an effort to continually foster that seamless unity between being, doing and saying and to prevent a stale faith from turning Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church into a corpse, we invite you to visit the display tables that comprise “The Verbing Fair,” this Sunday and the next, in the Gathering Area outside the sanctuary doors.

Each display table offers a special opportunity for you to share your passion, wisdom, imagination and love with a ministry of this church…and your gifts in these ministries are greatly needed!

God created the Earth by Couboo, May 15, 2010, http://coubo.fr/category/t-shirt/

So don’t be afraid to tell your faith  like it is!

Put your faith into action

to work,

to serve,

to create,

to play,

to live,

to love…(cause)

God, that’s what’s happening!

 Amen

___________________________________________________________

Resources:

Schoolhouse Rock, “Verb: That’s What’s Happening,” 1974, music and lyrics by Bob Dorough, performed by Zachary Sanders, and animation by Phil Kimmelman and Associates, owned and distributed by ABC and Disney, http://www.schoolhouserock.tv/Verb.html

Faith Works: How To Live Your Beliefs and Ignite Positive Social Change by Jim Wallis, 2000. Random House.

The phrase “God is a verb” was coined by Buckminster Fuller, American philosopher and systems theorist, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller

The Shack by William P. Young, 2007. Windblown Media.

Spring Us Forward

Clock Repairman by Norman Rockwell, 1945Pastoral Prayer for Sunday March 11, The Fourth Sunday of Lent and Daylight Savings Time

O God of all time and space…

Spring us forward today

Spring us forward toward greeting you

        at the doors of our homes

        in the middle of our neighborhoods

        in busy and violent filled streets

       in schools and workplaces

       in jails and refugee camps and foxholes and disaster sites

Spring us forward toward reaching out to others in need

       to lift up our neighbor

      to heal the sick

      to feed the hungry

      to empower the poor

      to bind up the broken-hearted

      to foster peace among those torn up by conflict and war

      to love the un-loveable

Spring us forward toward compassion

      toward mercy

      toward hope

      toward justice

      toward redemption

      toward grace

Spring us forward toward new stories

     new ways of being the body of Christ in the world

     new ways of building your kingdom for all people

     new ways of serving and following

Spring us forward in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus 

who long ago taught us to pray together saying, 

 “Our Father, who art in heaven…

Ash Wednesday: A Time to Awaken Our Souls

http://someecards.com

Christians all over the world today will receive the imposition of ashes on their foreheads in observation of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  But what does this ancient practice exactly mean  for us as Christians in a post-modern world? Why do we need ashy smudges above our eyebrows? Why does Lent begin this way, and does our observance of the season mean we have to give up chocolate or caffeine or The Celebrity Apprentice for 40 days until Easter?

In the PC(USA) the season of Lent—a period of 40 days—is recognized as  a time of prayer, fasting, self-examination and service that helps us prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter morning.  As Dr. Martha Moore-Keish, associate professor of theology at Columbia Seminary, puts it:

“Presbyterians do not enter this period of fasting and prayer to attract God’s attention or to be noticed by other people. Lent is a way of paying attention to our own lives. We receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads to focus our attention on who we really are…Ash Wednesday and the whole of Lent provide a time to focus our attention on the mystery at the heart of the Christian life: that through the death of Jesus Christ, we have entered new life…The paradox of Ash Wednesday, and of Lent, is that we take on particular disciplines—fasting, prayer, service—in order to repent and conform ourselves more closely to the life and death of Christ, all the while recognizing that Christ has already come to us before we sought him.”

In other words, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are not about us cutting out junk food or countless hours of web & tube surfing. (Honestly, giving up those things is just a pious–albeit unintentional–way to attract the attention of God and others. And avoiding M&Ms doesn’t bring us closer to God, deepen our faith or help us grow as disciples). Ash Wednesday and Lent is actually an incredibly profound opportunity to practice humility and compassion with and toward others on our faith journeys, all the while reflecting on Jesus’ ministry and walk toward the cross in Jerusalem.

It is a chance to take on something new: learning a new spiritual practice; adopting non-judgmental attitude; widening a compassionate heart, volunteering with a non-profit organization that seeks justice and empowerment for the poor and oppressed; spending more time with family; reconciling a broken relationship; speaking out against the bullying of LGBT youth; becoming a better steward of God’s creation, etc. It is a time in which we invest our love and our life into a different way of living–

a type of living that is counter to the self-centered, consumerist society that we live in…

a type  of living that faithfully and selflessly seeks to build a community where all are welcome in unconditional love and mercy.

a type of living that believes in God’s promise to awake our souls (our inmost being) to the reality of God’s kingdom and the hope of a another world that is already/not yet…

Awake My Soul–Mumford & Sons (lyrics)

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show

Lend me your hand and we’ll conquer them all
But lend me your heart and I’ll just let you fall
Lend me your eyes I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep, totally free
Har har, har har, har har, har har

Awake my soul
Awake my soul

How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
Har har, har har, har har, har har

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life

Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker

Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker
You were made to meet your maker

Songs for Good Friday and Dead Saturday

Every year, I’m filled with a variety of emotions (sadness, melancholy, lament, guilt) on Good Friday and (what I like to refer to as the dead time between the former and the dawn that is to come) Dead Saturday.   In a time in which we recognize the suffering and torture of  Jesus for preaching and embodying the love of God’s kingdom for all people; and in a world that is filled with much brokenness, pain, oppression, violence and death, my mind and heart turns to these songs.

A soundtrack, if you will, for your own reflection during these dark days and nights of the soul.

I believe God speaks prophetically and imaginatively through every one just as God speaks in holy scripture as well as life, death…

and beyond:

1. Jesus Was An Only Son by Bruce Springsteen

2. Blood of the Lamb by Wilco and Billy Bragg

3. Blessed to Be A Witness by Ben Harper

4. Christmas Song by Dave Matthews

5. Until the End of the World by U2

6. Doubting Thomas by Nickelcreek

7. Freedom Hangs Like Heaven by Iron & Wine

8. Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down by Willie Nelson

9. Save Us All by Tracy Chapman

10. Jesus Christ by Woody Guthrie

11. Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? by Johnny Cash

We need to immerse ourselves over and over again for long periods of time and very quietly into the living, speaking, acting, suffering and dying of Jesus, so that we may recognize what God promises and what he fulfills.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer