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1-26-20 — But I Say To You — Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Everyone wants to do right. When did you ever set out intentionally to do wrong? You may look back on something you did and say to yourself, “That was wrong. I never should have done that.” But at the moment it probably seemed like the right thing to do. You know it’s wrong to break the speed limit, but you’re running late, so you justify breaking the law. You may regret this morning something you said to a loved one last night, but in the moment you thought he had it coming to him, and it felt like the right thing to do. And there are those times when we know that we’re doing wrong, but can’t stop ourselves and do it anyway. Flip Wilson said, “The devil made me do it.” Paul in Romans says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Even the greatest evil that human beings have carried out has been justified by some standard of what is good, even if that standard had to be contorted to justify what was done. Ethnic cleansing, whether in Darfur or Bosnia or Nazi Europe or colonial America is always given some justification, whether racial purity or bringing justice for age-old grievances or claiming a God-given destiny. Those who commit murder will offer a defense that is based on some concept of good. A drug kingpin will justify killing an opponent by the standard of fairness and justice of the mob; a jilted lover will stab his ex because he feels he has been wronged.

People want to do good, even if that means reinterpreting what good is. And that’s the problem with laws. They can be interpreted. They have loopholes; they are never expansive enough to cover all the wiles of the human heart. It’s like Janet Napolitano said when she was governor of Arizona and Congress approved building a wall along the Mexican border. “Show me a 50 foot wall and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder.”

We are masters at justification, at finding reasons to clear our consciences and feel OK about ourselves. We need laws because they give us a minimum standard of how to live together and fulfill our minimal responsibilities as citizens. On April 15, I fully intend to pay what I owe my country in taxes, but I’m going to spend a lot time poring over my tax return to make sure I don’t pay anything more. A manufacturer is going to comply with environmental regulations to do its part for the environment and to avoid getting fined by the EPA, but it’s probably not going to do much more than the law requires or it might be at a disadvantage with its competitors. It would be nice if we could trust every person to do exactly what they were supposed to do, to pull their fair share, and to work together for the common good, but we can’t see inside the human heart. Ever since God gave the 10 Commandments to Moses, we have had laws to guide us and keep us within certain bounds for our own good and for the good of others. And ever since God gave Moses the Commandments, we’ve been looking for ways to parse our way around them.

There’s a common misconception that Jesus came to replace the understanding of God we have from the Old Testament, that he came to do away with the old laws and replace them with grace and forgiveness. Some people think that the God we know in the Old Testament is a God of law, while the God we know through Jesus is a God of grace. Well, for one thing, there’s lots of love and forgiveness and grace in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus clearly says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Instead of letting us off the hook from having to follow the laws of the Old Testament, Jesus holds us even more accountable. He holds us accountable not for how we follow the letter of God’s law, but how we follow the spirit. He has come to bring in what he calls the kingdom of heaven, that way of living together and relating to one another that isn’t guided by self-interest or individual maximization, but by the welfare of others that springs from the God of love. He has called us to be part of that kingdom, where he tells us the requirement for belonging is “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And how do we be perfect like our heavenly Father? Not by trying harder and harder to obey the letter of the law. Not by striving to be perfect on our own. We do that by giving our lives to Jesus, who changes our hearts so that we have the heart of God.

In this section of his Sermon on the Mount that we read today, Jesus describes what it looks like when those whom he has called to be part of God’s kingdom live the way the law intends us to live. Rather than going into a long discourse on abstract concepts of justice and law and righteousness, Jesus gives some concrete examples so we can get the drift of what he’s saying. He starts with what most people consider probably the worst transgression of the law there is: murder. That’s one Commandment that most people can feel good about keeping. But Jesus says, “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment.” Ouch. Who hasn’t been angry? Even Jesus was angry when he used a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple. You can’t be a parent without getting angry with your kids for disobeying or doing something that puts them in danger. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus “be angry but do not sin.” Anger can spark us to stand up for justice or discipline our kids or expose wrongdoing. Jesus got angry with the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple, but then he went to the cross to die for them. A parent gets angry with a child for disobeying, but then love channels that anger as motivation to train the child. Jesus knows how dangerous anger is. It’s like a nuclear reaction. If it can be channeled properly, a nuclear reaction can produce energy to power a city, but it can easily get out of control and lead to massive destruction.

A while back I read Rick Atkins’ best-selling Liberation Trilogy about the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II. He tells how ineffective Allied forces were when they first landed in North Africa in autumn of 1942 because the soldiers were green and not battle hardened. They hadn’t become angry enough with the enemy to throw themselves completely into battle. By the time the Allies were fighting their way through France and Germany in late 1944, they had become a more effective killing machine. After years of war, they became angry enough with the enemy that they could bring themselves to do things that are horrifying to read about. A few years ago Ken Burns produced a documentary on PBS called The War. It was about the American war effort, and it ended with the soldiers returning home. It told how the Greatest Generation got back into their routines, started families, and built careers. But there were certain things they never talked about around the grill on the patio or over the bridge table on Saturday night. My father was one of those. He was a Marine who earned two battle stars and a Purple Heart. I remember how he would talk fondly about his comrades and the exotic things he saw in the South Pacific. He told some scary stories about being trapped on a submerged submarine and being stranded on an island for days surviving off coconuts. But there was always a line he would never cross. It was clear there were some things he would not discuss. There were things they had to do in order to win the war and preserve our freedom, but they were things that did not always square with their image of who they were as children of God, things that they do not want to bring back up to the light of day, things that they could not have done if they hadn’t had the anger to fuel them.  We’re grateful to them for what they did for us, but what a price they had to pay.

Anger can cause us to dehumanize another person, and at the heart of all God’s commandments is the command to recognize and honor the humanity of others. Take the next example Jesus gives of adultery. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” We may not be able to control the thoughts that pop into our minds, but we can control what we do with those thoughts. One way that people justify watching pornography is that they don’t act on their thoughts. If they are married, they remain physically faithful to their spouse. Adultery as Jesus defines it is anything that objectifies someone as a object of lust or disregards the vows of fidelity we make to another. It’s when we see others as objects to satisfy our desires, not as people made in the image of God, whom God loves and cares for. That is not being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.

Or divorce. Jesus was speaking to a culture in which all a man had to do to divorce his wife was present her with a written statement that they were now divorced. The law was written so that the woman could be free to marry another man, but in those days when women were not allowed to have the same freedoms they do today, they were basically dependent on their husbands or their fathers for survival. For a man to cut off his wife, even according to the law, was to leave her destitute with no means of supporting herself. It was treating her as an object, not a human being beloved of God.

And finally, Jesus gives the example of swearing an oath. If we truly are to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, as those who are perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, what sense does it make to swear under oath? In our legal system, you can be held liable for making a false statement under oath, but you can’t be prosecuted for telling a lie to your neighbor over lunch. That implies that there are two kinds of speech – speech under oath that is always true and other speech that may or may not be true. In God’s realm, there is only truth. God never speaks what is not true, and neither do those who are called God’s children.

So for Jesus, the standard of right and wrong is how our words and actions and thoughts build up relationships and respect others. Before Pilate sent Jesus to the cross, he found legal justification to put him to death. Jesus was convicted as a threat to the emperor and one who broke the laws. The Romans were legally justified for killing Jesus. But Jesus went to the cross to fulfill God’s law, to restore that broken relationship between humankind and God and the broken relationships among people. He showed the kind of love God has for us, which is the kind of love we are called to have for one another.

Jesus didn’t come to do away with God’s law. He came to fulfill it. And this is God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We can be as precise in following the letter of the law as a Pharisee, but if we don’t do everything out of love, we are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Jesus changes our hearts so we are fit for God’s kingdom, where the law is made perfect in love.

1-26-20 Bulletin

2-2-20 bulletin

1-19-20 Bulletin

1-19-20 bulletin

1-12-20 Sermon — The Rev. Chris Blackford, H.R.

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1-12-20 Bulletin

1-12-20 bulletin

1-5-20 — The Rest of the Story — Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-23 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Over the past week you’ve probably been seeing reviews of the past decade in the news. The 2010s began on a horrific note. In just a few days we’ll be upon the tenth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti where 230,000 people lost their lives. A photo I saw captures the horror of that event. A mother kneeling on the floor, her hands clutching her head, facing upwards with tears streaming from her closed eyes, surrounded by the bodies of children, among them her own.  The verse we read from Matthew could serve as the caption of the photo: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.  Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When you read those reviews of the past decade, with wars, genocide, floods, and earthquake, it raises a hard question for those of us who just got through celebrating the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem: Where is God in this?  It’s a question that’s asked daily somewhere by someone.  It’s asked after a violent crime.  It’s asked when there’s a diagnosis of cancer.  It’s asked when a marriage falls apart and when a dream is shattered.  When you look back over the years, there are tragedies of such magnitude that we have to ask as a community of faith Where is God in it all?

That’s when we have to hear the rest of the Christmas story, the part we leave out of our pageants and carols.  The rest of the story tells how the well-meaning inquiry of the wise men led to the death of innocent children.  The rest of the story tells what happened in the little town of Bethlehem after the wise men left, how its streets that lay so quiet on Christmas night ran with blood a few weeks later.  And it tells the story of how God was present through it all, never going back on God’s promise to deliver God’s people in the face of disaster and death.

One of the biggest hits on Broadway last year was To Kill a Mockingbird.  Not long ago, I rented the movie to watch it one more time. In one scene the hero, a small-town Southern lawyer named Atticus Finch, goes out to the country with his 10-year-old son Jem to meet with the family of Sam Robinson, the black man whom Atticus is defending against a trumped-up charge of raping a white woman.  As he’s leaving the shack where Robinson’s family lives, one of the white men who wants to lynch Robinson confronts Atticus, calls him an obscene name, and spits in his face while Jem watches.  When they return to their home in town, Atticus says to Jem, “I wish I could shield you from all the bad things in this world, son, but I can’t.”

And God doesn’t shield us.  Christmas is a time of hope and joy and promise, but it doesn’t make the world a perfect place, at least not yet.  Once Christmas was over in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph had to flee with the baby for their lives. The hope of Christmas isn’t that everything is perfect now.  The hope of Christmas is that God is with us – Emmanuel.

Our Christmas celebrations focus on the baby in the manger, but the Bible sets the scene in the midst of a world with which we can identify, a world where powers collide and leave innocent victims in their wake.  Remember how the beloved account in Luke begins: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration, and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  In Matthew’s story of the wise men, they stop in the capital city of Jerusalem to ask King Herod for directions to the child.  The Bible stories want us to be clear that the Messiah was not born into some idyllic world far removed from the conflicts and controversies that are so real to us.  The writers want us to remember that this child was born into a world that was wracked by political disputes and tormented by tyrants.  Some scholars have wondered why there is no other historical record of Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.  Wouldn’t another ancient historian in addition to Matthew have noted something so horrible?  Probably not.  Herod was such a tyrant that the slaughter of a few dozen innocent children might have gone unnoticed in light of his other atrocities.  Just consider how many people have been killed by dictators in Syria or North Korea or Congo. We’ll never know their names because their individual stories are overshadowed by greater atrocities.

Jesus was born into a world that was much like ours, where the lives of innocent people were at the mercy of powers greater than themselves.  The wise men had made the mistake of asking Herod where they could find the one who was born king of the Jews.  Herod heard that as news of a rival, which is why he sent his soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem who were under two years old – just to be sure he didn’t miss the one who might threaten his power.

The Holy Family fled to Egypt.  Like many refugees who come to this country to flee persecution, they may have had family or friends in that foreign land.  Ever since the fall of Samaria in the 8th century BCE there had been a large contingent of Jews there.  When Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, another wave of refugees headed west.  The prophet Jeremiah went Egypt when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.

It’s likely Joseph and his family settled among fellow Jews and made a decent living.  Perhaps they could have stayed in Egypt and the child could have grown to live a safe and relatively comfortable life.  But that is not why the child was born.  That is not why God sent his son into the world.  After Herod died, an angel told Joseph to take Jesus back to Israel, back to the place they had fled.  There he grew up to live among the poor and the outcast.  He healed and taught and gave hope to those who had little hope.  He threatened those powers that hold sway over us, and his witness led him to a cross, where he shared the fate of those children who died in Bethlehem – the death of an innocent one who did not deserve to die.  He took on himself the pains and disappointments of the whole world.  And just as God was faithful to him in infancy and delivered him from the sword of Herod, God remained faithful in death and delivered him from the grave.  Except that Jesus’ suffering and death and victory were not for himself but for us, for you and for me and for all creation.  Jesus suffered an unjust death, even felt the absence of God when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Yet even death could not separate him from God.  Even death cannot separate us from God.  In his death he conquered death to give us hope and courage. – not only to you and me and the rest of humanity, but to the earth itself.  Romans 8 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…”  Maybe the earthquake that shook Haiti or the fires that are ravishing Australia are the groaning of creation that waits for the redemption of Christ.

There are no simple answers to explain why someone like Herod had it in his power to murder the innocent.  There are no simple answers to explain why floods and tsunamis kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people.  In the face of questions like that we cannot do much better than look to Job and stand in awe of God whose ways are so much beyond our ways that we cannot begin to comprehend them.  But when God came to us at Christmas, God showed us the divine character, and God’s character is love.  God came to be with us, to live with us and to die with us and to deliver us into eternal life.  God weeps with that mother surrounded by the bodies of her children.  God comforts those who grieve.  God upholds those who question and wonder why.  And God gives strength and purpose to those who reach out in compassion in his name.

The rest of the Christmas story brings us back to the world where Herod reigns and floodwaters rage, but there is something fundamentally different.  We know that God is with us, sharing our horror and our grief.  God is with us working through our prayers and our gifts.  God is with us giving us hope.  That is the rest of the story.

1-5-20 Bulletin

1-5-20 bulletin

12-22-19 — Signs of Hope — Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

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Don’t you wish God would make you the kind of offer God made Ahaz? “Ask a sign of the Lord your God,” Isaiah told the king, “let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”  Wouldn’t you like to have that offer when you’re trying to decide whether or not to take a new job? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have divine confirmation when you’re trying to determine if the person you’ve been seeing for so long is really the one you’re supposed to spend your life with? How many times has someone begged for that sign at the bedside of a loved one after the doctor has asked whether to end life support. Usually we’re the ones who ask God, Please give me a sign.

But God offered to give Ahaz a sign, and Ahaz rejected the offer. He’d rather not have God get involved. Ahaz had already worked things out on his own.

Ahaz was king of Judah. His country was being threatened by its neighbors Israel to the north and Syria to the east. Israel and Syria had formed an alliance and laid plans to attack Ahaz’ capital city of Jerusalem. In order to protect himself, Ahaz had made an alliance with Egypt, the most powerful superpower of the day. Egypt would protect Judah, but in exchange Judah would give up some of its freedom and pay tribute to the pharaoh.

That wasn’t what God had in mind for the chosen people Judah. God sent the prophet Isaiah to remind Ahaz that the source of Judah’s strength and freedom wasn’t Egypt, the country that had enslaved their ancestors. The source of their freedom was God. Before long Israel and Syria would amount to nothing more than a couple of smoldering logs. Have faith. Hold firm. Trust in God, not in Pharaoh. God has something else in store for you. Do you need a sign to reassure you? Just ask. Ask for anything, and God will confirm what God has planned.

Ahaz tried to make it sound like he didn’t want to put God to any trouble. “I will not ask,” he said, “and I will not put the Lord to the test.” God saw through his ploy. Ahaz wasn’t being humble. He didn’t have so much faith that he didn’t need a sign. Ahaz didn’t want God interfering. Being an ally of Egypt appealed to him. It made him feel important, the way some people feel important when they have a connection with the powerful and the famous. “Oh, did you know the senator goes to my church?” “I’m in the same club with the CEO of that company.” Or as those of us from across the river liked to say before they broke up, “Did you know that Lady Gaga’s boyfriend lives in Lancaster County?” Ahaz had visions of a grand alliance with the world’s major superpower. He was willing to sacrifice his country’s freedom and its role as God’s chosen people for the security that he thought would come from being friends with pharaoh. So no thank you, he didn’t want a sign. He preferred that God keep the sign and stay out of his way.

But God wasn’t going to stay out of Ahaz’ plans. God gave him a sign anyway. And it wasn’t one of those grand, dramatic signs. It was a simple sign in the midst of ordinary life, something that is miraculous and wondrous, but as commonplace as life itself. The sign was a child. By the time that child became a toddler, the threat that faced Ahaz would be gone. God was going to work through the normal course of events to show that God was involved in the life of God’s people.

Now, God isn’t confined to working through the normal course of events to give signs that God is involved in our affairs. When God wanted to get Moses’ attention, God appeared in a burning bush that was on fire but not consumed by the flames. When God wanted to show how wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel displeased God by worshiping the foreign gods of Baal, God sent down lightening to burn up the offering Elijah had prepared on Mt. Carmel. There are plenty of examples throughout the Bible when an angel appears to someone to tell them what God wants. That’s what happened on Christmas night when the shepherds saw the heavenly host singing in the night sky over Bethlehem.

And God sometimes gives signs like that today. I have a friend named Betty who was going through a difficult divorce. Throughout the ordeal she saw a pastoral counselor who helped her find the inner resources to deal with the feelings of failure and defeat and depression that she struggled with as her marriage fell apart. One night a bright light woke her up and a voice told her that her church was to have a counseling center to help other people through life crises and that she was to be the one to make it happen. At first she worried about her sanity, but the light and the voice came to her again. She talked about it with her pastor, and to make a long story short, she listened and obeyed. Betty was a philanthropist and knew how to make things happen, and with her seed money, her organizational skills, and her testimony, she saw to it that her church, which I later pastored, had a Samaritan Counseling Center which for decades now has been a force for healing and wholeness in that community.

But that’s not the kind of dramatic sign that God gave Ahaz. Isaiah pointed to a young woman. We don’t even know who she was, maybe just a young woman who happened to be standing nearby. Her pregnancy, the birth of her child, the child’s healthy growth in the normal scheme of things would be God’s sign that God was at work among God’s people, carrying out God’s plans in ways that were not obvious unless you saw them through the eyes of faith.

I have another friend, Carla, who had a sign like that. One summer day her husband Earl had a massive heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital where he was on life support for several days. Late one afternoon Carla left the hospital to return home and check on their preteen daughter who was being watched by a friend. It had been raining all day, and as Carla drove through the country back to her home she saw in the distance a rainbow. It was a simple sign, and not all that uncommon in central New Jersey in late August. But for Carla that natural phenomenon was a sign. It assured her that God was going to hold her and her daughter up no matter what happened. It gave her the strength to make it through the next few days and be with Earl as he died. It helped her grieve her loss knowing that she was held in God’s everlasting arms, the same arms that welcomed her husband into eternal life. And it gave her strength to carry on as a single mother in the challenging days and months and years that lay ahead.

When Paul wrote to the Romans, he reminded them that Jesus had been born of a woman just like every other one of the billions of human beings who has ever lived. Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh.” He was not beamed down from heaven; he was not sprung from the head of the divinity like some Greek goddess. He was born, just like you and I. When God raised him from death, God gave him the power to raise us up with him and to call us into his work of drawing all people to God. And just as God was involved in the life of Ahaz and of Judah, God is involved with us. We know God through our Immanuel, Jesus, who was born of another young woman, the virgin, Mary. Jesus guides us, and he directs us in doing his work that proclaims justice and life and goodness, even in those places where injustice and death and evil have the upper hand.

We can nurture our ability to recognize those signs when they appear. We can get to know God well enough that we recognize God when the holy one is in our midst. That’s how the people of Le Chambon knew what God wanted them to do. Le Chambon is a tiny village in the South of France. In 1942 two khaki-colored buses pulled into town. “They were the buses of the Vichy French police, and they had come to round up the Jews who were there. The police knew that Le Chambon had become a refuge for them, so they rousted everyone into the village square. The police captain stared straight into the face of the pastor of the Protestant church, Andre Trocme, ‘warning him that if he did not give up the names of the Jews they had been sheltering in the village, he and his fellow pastor, as well as the families who had been caring for the Jews, would be arrested.’

“The pastor refused, and the police, after a thorough and frightening search, could find only one Jew because the others were so well hidden. They loaded him into an otherwise empty bus. Before they drove off, ‘a thirteen year old boy, the son of the pastor, pass[ed] a piece of his precious chocolate through the window to the prisoner, while twenty gendarmes who were guarding the lone prisoner watched.’ The rest of the villagers began ‘passing their little gifts through the window until there were gifts all around him – most of them food in those hungry days of the German occupation of France.’”[1]

After the war a scholar wrote a book exploring why this village put itself at such risk by hiding Jews from the Nazis. The author was not a Christian, but what he discovered was that the people of Le Chambon had been shaped by the experience of Scripture. There were many intimate groups in the village who spent time studying and experiencing the Bible – groups of miners, children, women and young people. Their Bible study wasn’t an extracurricular activity that they did to enhance their lives. It was their life. When they read the Bible, they didn’t ask the question, “What does the Bible say?” They asked, “What is God using the Bible to do to us and in us and through our lives?” Through their Bible study and their prayers they came to know God better and better, to be convinced, not just in their minds but in the depths of their beings, that God is faithful; God keeps promises. They didn’t see the world through the distorted refractions of deceit and alienation and hatred, but through the eyes of God who created it in love and redeemed it by grace. So when the Jews came to their doors in the middle of the night looking for refuge, they did what people do who are engaged in a living, growing relationship with God. They opened their homes to the Jews. When the police threatened to arrest them unless they turned in their guests, they did not respond out of fear but out of love, a love shaped by an ongoing relationship with God.

In that relationship with God, we can see signs of God at work among us in ordinary places, like the shepherds saw the divine light of Christ in the manger in Bethlehem. At Christmas those signs are a little more obvious. Regardless of what signs we’ve seen or overlooked all year, at Christmas we are reminded once again through acts of kindness, lights in the darkness, the story of the young woman with child, that God is with us, Immanuel.

The English poet John Betjeman put it like this:[2]

And is it true? And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,

A Baby in an ox’s stall?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me?

 

And is it true? For if it is,

No loving fingers tying strings

Around those tissued fripperies,

The sweet and silly Christmas things,

Bath salts and inexpensive scent

And hideous tie so kindly meant,

 

No love that in a family dwells,

No caroling in the frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare –

That God was Man in Palestine

 

And lives to-day in Bread and Wine.

[1] Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), pp. 56-57, from Philip Haillie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There (New York: Harper and Row, 1979).

[2] John Betjeman, “”Christmas,” John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, enlarged edition (London: John Murray), 1977, p. 188-190.