Tag Archives: love

Tonight We Remember

An Ash Wednesday sermon – February 17, 2021
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Queens

Beloved people of God,
every year at Easter
we celebrate the new possibilities
God provides through the life, the death,
and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
During Lent, we prepare for this celebration
and the renewal it brings to our lives.

For many years we have begun
Our Lenten journey with ashes,
often made by burning the palms from the year before.
Mixed with a little oil,
the ashes are traced on our foreheads
in the sign of a cross.

This year we physically distance
while we spiritually gather one Christ,
I, as the pastor, will not impose ashes.
If you have received ashes
in the congregation’s Lenten worship bag or
if you have gathered “loose dust” from in or around your home,
and you would like to use the dust or ash
to make the sign of the cross  
on your head or hand,
we will pause to allow you to do that.
We will take a minute of silence,
which my friend the Rev. Dr. Claudio Carvalhaes reminds us
is an eternity of silence for Presbyterians.
You may also decide to impose the sign of the cross
later in the service – when the sermon gets boring, for example.

Whether we impose the sign of the cross or not,
dust and ashes will play a role in our service.
I invite you to take the ashes you received
or the loose dust you have gathered.
If you have neither, image ashes and dust you have seen.
Look at them.
Consider them.
Think about one of their functions
in Ash Wednesday services.

Ashes, loose dust
jog our memories.
They help us remember what is;
they help us remember what will be.

Tonight we remember.

We remember our mortality.
From dust God makes us.
In the marvelous words of James Weldon Johnson:
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
God kneeled down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till God shaped it in God’s own image;
Then into it God blew the breath of life,
And the human became a living soul.

We come from dust.
To dust we will return.
We are mortal. Limited. Finite.
One day our time on earth will end
our race will finish,
our part in God’s great story will close,
the final curtain will fall

and God will welcome us.

Tonight we remember.
We remember our need for repentance.
We remember how we fall short.
How we hurt one another.
How we tolerate social injustice.
How we wound God’s good creation.
How by our actions
and by our failures to act,
we break the heart of God.
We remember our need to turn and follow Jesus Christ
more faithfully this and every day.

Tonight we remember.
We remember those who have gone before us.
We remember people we knew and loved fiercely.
We remember people we never met but whose stories we have learned.
We remember people whose stories have never been told.
In this age of COVID-19, we remember countless people,
who have died from this pandemic.
We remember people killed by the state and racism.
People whose God-given breath was taken from them.
Whether we remember names or not,
we remember each person was and is a beloved child of God,

Tonight we remember.
the unending mercy of God,
the unbreakable grace of God,
the unflagging patience of God.
We remember the incredible love of God
who refuses to give up on us,
and who persistently awaits our return
eager to pour the Holy Spirit afresh upon us
that we might make a fresh start.

Tonight we remember.
that Lent is a time to give up.
Perhaps, like my friend the Rev. Gradye Parsons,
we make a supreme spiritual sacrifice
and give up kale.
More realistically, we seek to give up
that which truly separates and distracts us from God.

Tonight we remember.
that Lent is a time to stand up.
A time to
remove all yokes of injustice,
disrupt prejudice and systems of oppression,
feed the hungry,
clothe the naked,
visit the sick and the imprisoned
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
A time to:
raise the foundations of many generations
repair breaches
restore the streets.
Following Jesus, we stand up in Lent.
We stand up to love.

Tonight, my friend the Rev. Shawna Bowman reminds me,
that as we begin the Lenten journey
of repenting and turning back to God
of prayer and fasting
of commemorating Jesus’ journey to death – and beyond,
we remember.
We “are all made from the same dust
That busted forth at the birthplace of creation,
And [we] belong, In life and in death,
to the one who calls [us] beloved.
[We] belong to God.”
And whatever challenges life brings
and however we may fall short,
God, who raises Jesus from the dead,
will have the final word.
And God’s word will be a word of
love and
life and
hope and
joy.

Tonight we remember.
Thanks be to God.

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So, dusty

Friends –
we are dust.
But do you not know
have you not seen
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
All of creation
every blessed creature,
every amazing facet,
every wonderful human being
you and me and all of us,
made from dust by God.
Made from dust and beloved of God.
So Dusty, if I may call us each that.
Go Dusty,
go and live.
Go and love kindness.
Go and do justice.
Go and walk this Lenten journey humbly with God.
Know, Dusty, that
the love of God
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the peace and fellowship of the Holy Spirit
are with us now and forever.
Amen.
17 February 2021
inspired by a blessing from Jan Richardson

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You made it

Since March, I have been sending messages to a number of my friends who are working from home and whose children are home. Here is what I wrote today. I offer it for anyone else who might find it helpful.

You made it.
2021 has begun.
The past year had more than its share of challenges.
You probably experienced
frustration and anxieties and disappointments
beyond counting.
But you are strong.
You are beloved by God.
You made it.
Of course, with whatever else 2021 brings,
there will be challenges,
frustration and anxieties and disappointments
beyond counting.
But you are strong.
You are beloved by God.
You will make it. 

Germantown, Kentucky
2 January 2021

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To remember, to motivate

God of justice,
God of love,
God of grace,
we thank you for the life of
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
We remember her service to our country,
her compassionate, caring heart,
her fierce devotion to fairness,
her persistence in pushing for equity,
her brilliant dissents,
her commitment to pursuing justice for
women, the LGBTQ community, and people pushed to the margins.
We marvel at the incredible courage and grace
she publicly displayed in the face of illness.
We are grateful that she
“used whatever talent she had
to do her work to the very best of her ability”
and that she helped
“to repair tears in her society,
to make things a little bettert
hrough the use of whatever ability she has.”
We give thanks for the life of
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
May her memory be a blessing.
Amen.

Note: the words in quotations are quotes from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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A prayer for awareness

God of all people,
none of us know fully
the challenges that another person faces
the burdens that another person carries
the troubles that weigh upon another person.

As we encounter one another,
inspire us to refrain from quick judgement and easy criticism,
to treat each person gently with grace and kindness and love,
and to seek to understand.
We pray in Jesus’ name.
Amen. 

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Never Left Alone

John 14:15-21
17 May 2020
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig 

I have heard many sermons about love over the years. I have preached many sermons about love over the years. You have heard some of them. Today you will here one more.

Working on this sermon, I received some insight into why that happens. Statistics. Courtesy of Jaime Clark-Soles. Writing in the Feasting on the Gospels commentary, he notes that John’s Gospel uses verb forms of the word love fifty times, Matthew thirteen times, Mark six, and Luke fifteen. Nouns for love appear thirteen times in John, Matthew two times, and Luke sixteen.[i]

That totals 115 times. And that’s only in the Gospels. The Bible has 62 more books.[ii] To quote Fats Domino that’s a “Whole Lot of Lovin’”[iii]

In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus returns to love. John wrote these words some time after Jesus had returned to heaven. Perhaps as many as fifty years had passed. It is unlikely that anyone for whom John wrote had ever met Jesus. Most of the first followers of Jesus had died. The Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair notes that John’s “words of living hope” were addressed to “a community for whom Jesus was a holy memory.”[iv]

This morning we return to the upper room with Jesus and the disciples. He washed their feet. They shared a meal. And Jesus gave them a new commandment to love one another.[v]

After Judas left to betray Jesus. After Peter promised to lay down his life for Jesus. After Jesus replied Jesus that Peter would deny him. Three times. Before the morning came. After all that, Jesus returned to love.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

Straightforward. Clear. Concrete. Leaves little doubt about what people  should do. But difficult. Complicated. Challenging. Even for us as individuals.

We often love. We celebrate a special man’s special day. We feed those who hunger. We say the kind word. We offer a shoulder to cry on. We write a letter to an elected official for justice.

But I join the Rev. Jill Duffield in confessing that when I look at the world, I do not always see a whole lot of lovin’ going on. The cross on which Jesus died provides the prime example that sometimes, love is met with violence. White supremacy and patriarchy are woven into the fabric of our society and deny equity to many people. COVID-19’s toll grows. The pandemic impacts nearly every aspect of life in almost every place. Rev. Duffield observes that we have reached the point that using, or not using face masks proves divisive.[vi]

Like those first disciples, we sometimes fail to act in love. Even the most loving relationships know challenges—particularly when we quarantine together as the days blur together. It is not easy. The age of COVID-19 has led to an increase in domestic violence around the world.[vii]

But the challenges do not need to rise to that level. A friend told me yesterday, “We all get grumpy from time to time. We have been short on patience with one another.” There are five members of his family. “It’s tough staying home and not being able to go anywhere.”

That happens to those of us who live alone too. I got somewhat testy on a Zoom meeting on Thursday. I raised my voice. Said some unkind things. Turned off Zoom and left the meeting. Fortunately, the problem was that the sound on my computer was not working. No one heard me. I stood up. Made another cup of coffee. Figured out a workaround and joined the meeting again.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

I know I can’t live up to that all the time. I suspect I am not alone in feeling that way. I suspect his first disciples did. Love does not always lead to love. Again and again, they failed to understand what Jesus said. Again and again, they made mistakes. We do the same.

In our passage for today, Jesus addresses the challenge of living up to the commandment to love. He tells us that God will provide resources so his people can live faithfully.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. The Spirit of truth abides with you and will be in you.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

Jesus says that while he would no longer be seen teaching and healing, but his ministry and witness would continue. In his followers. In us. As difficult as it may be, when we love – Jesus will be revealed to the world.

And Jesus says we do not attempt to love in response to Jesus unaided. We are not abandoned. We are not orphaned. We are never left alone. God sends the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to bind us together in Christ. It is together that we can best love. It is together that we most nearly follow Jesus.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair notes that a principle of mountain climbing helps illustrate this point. I have hiked up and down a couple of mountains following well-marked trails. In high school, I climbed Baldy Mountain in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts–over 12,000 feet up and down. I had more hair then. My whole family trudged down Mount Washington in New Hampshire one summer our sons were younger.

Both those experiences and any other close encounters I have had with mountains involved putting one foot in front of the other and staying on the trail. No equipment needed.

The Rev. Dr. Blair points out that on larger mountains and expeditions, climbers tie themselves to one another. They do so to keep from getting lost or from walking over a cliff. Climbers further say that when they are tied together – and when the going gets tough – and one of the climbers is tempted to say, “I have had enough,” they know they are physically connected. The rope commits them to one another. No individual can turn around and go home. On they go, step by step by step, carefully, surely, climbing up or climbing down together. [iv]

As we try to follow Jesus, we may have challenges loving. We may want to give up. Throw up our hands, say some words we don’t want any others to hear, and quit. Jesus knew this well.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.” We are made one by the Holy Spirit. One in the Spirit, we can trust in one who is greater than we can understand, to keep us moving on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd, to strengthen us when loving seems difficult.

We are God’s beloved children, in whom God delights. Jesus says if we love him, we will keep his commandments. We are never left alone; the Holy Spirit binds us to Jesus and to one another. One in the Spirit, one in the Lord, we can walk with each other. Sometimes hand in hand and sometimes six feet apart. We can work with each other. Sometimes side by side and sometimes at an appropriate physical distance. However we walk; wherever we work, the world will know we are Christians by our love.[ix] This day and every day. Amen.

[i] Jarvis, Cynthia A.; Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Feasting on the Gospels–John, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 5172-5176). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/bible/

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_Lotta_Lovin%27_(Fats_Domino_song)

[iv] https://secondpresby.org/sermons/never-orphaned-never-alone/

[v] John 13:35

[vi] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/05/6th-sunday-of-easter-may-17-2020/

[vii] https://chescocf.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Domestic-Abuse-Rises-Worldwide-New-York-Times.pdf

[viii] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/05/6th-sunday-of-easter-may-17-2020/

[ix] Peter Scholtes, “We Are One in the Spirit”, No. 300 in the Glory to God hymnal

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A prayer about being freed to love

God of our joyous laughter,
God of our ugly cries,
God of moments between and beyond,
we give you thanks that
Christ is risen.
And Christ reminds us of your love.
You love us.
You love us and nothing can change that.
By your grace in Jesus
We are freed to love:
to love you,
to love our family,
to love our friends,
to love our neighbors,
to love our enemies,
to love all people,
even to love ourselves.
When we are OK,
when we are not OK,
when we are between and beyond,
help us live in love
as you love us.
Amen

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Freed to Love

John 20:19-31
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

After the empty tomb; after the encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden; the followers of Jesus gathered behind locked doors. They were afraid. Afraid without Jesus. Afraid of arrest. Afraid of death. Maybe even afraid of life:  afraid of what Jesus might ask of them if Jesus really were resurrected.

It seems appropriate to note that the disciples physically distanced themselves from the people gathered in Jerusalem. They met the qualification of not meeting in groups bigger than 10. Judas had left after the betrayal. And Thomas. Well Thomas was not there. Perhaps they could not score an InstaCamel or DonkeyPod delivery and he was out foraging. Perhaps he was grieving in his own way. We are not told. All we know is Thomas was not there.

Behind the locked door and beyond the fear, Jesus appears to them.  He gives them his peace. He breathes the Holy Spirit on them. He sends them into the world with work to do. It’s like group CPR.

The resurrection is for the purpose of re-creation after death, and re-creation before death. The resurrection is about the life to come. It is about this life. The resurrection of Jesus leads to the resurrection of his followers – the creation of the Church – so that through the power and ministry of our life together, the people of Jesus might become God’s continuing presence in the world.

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says, and the stage is set . . . the disciples are ready to go . . . it is a new beginning in the great adventure of life in faith . . . except someone is missing. Thomas is not there. Jesus must come back and pick him up.  For no one can be forgotten. No one can be left out. The new life is for the people of Jesus . . . all the people.

Jesus returns when Thomas is present. Jesus displays his wounds. And Thomas believes. “My Lord and my God!” The words of Thomas serve as the basic affirmation of faith for followers of Jesus. And they serve as the basis for every formal affirmation that has followed.

This year, this passage resonates with me in ways it has never done before. Our lives parallel that of the disciples. Life after the execution of Jesus was not OK for first disciples. Life today is not OK for me. I venture it is not OK for you.

We grieve. Death. Dashed dreams. Lost hopes. Unmet expectations fill our individual hearts and our collective consciousness.[i] The other day, a friend responded to my “How are you” text with: “I had a long, ugly cry today.” I replied that one of my favorite songs features Rosey Grier, a gentle giant, former Pro Bowl defensive lineman singing, “It’s Alight to Cry.”[ii] We grieve.

We shelter in place. We pause. Out of a need to protect others and ourselves, we establish and maintain physical distances. We isolate and separate.

We fear. Writing in The Presbyterian Outlook, the Rev. Jill Duffield notes, “Our fear is utterly understandable. The death toll of this virus mounts. The extent of the economic fallout is yet to be determined, but we know it is, and will continue to be, huge. We’ve seen the suffering, the wounds inflicted, the crucifixion completed. No wonder we shelter in place in anxiety, with no sense of when the world will take a turn for the better.”[iii]

The similarities are striking. Psychologically, emotionally, even physically, we share  great deal with the first disciples. That’s where the Good News of this story finds us.

Christ the Lord is risen today. The gifts he brought his first followers behind locked doors, he brings to us.

The Rev. Duffield names those gifts. The Holy Spirit to inspire us. Hope in the face of fear. Peace amid chaos. Belief in life no matter how deadly the circumstances.[iv] A ministry and a mission.

And that brings us to Kelly Clarkson. I had to look her up. She won the first season of American Idol in 2002. I did not know that because I have never watched an episode of the show in all the years it has been on the air. Her victory led to a recording contract and launched her career as a singer-songwriter, actress, author, and television personality.[v] You may know more. I have told you everything I know.

Except. My friend So Jung Kim posted the news that Kelly Clarkson released a new song this week. “I Dare You.” She released six versions of the song in six different languages. Arabic, French, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and English.[vi]

Clarkson says the song is “about love and all its forms, in the face of adversity. Choosing to love instead of fear.”[vii] She believes that message will connect globally at this moment in time.[viii]

In English, the chorus says:

I dare you to love
Oh, I dare you to love
Even if you’re hurt and you can only see the worst
Even if you think it’s not enough
Oh, I dare you to love.[ix]

I believe that when the Risen Christ entered that locked room to meet the ten and then the eleven, he provided his followers what they – what we – need to take that dare.

In their fear, in the chaos, in their anxiety, the Risen Christ gave his followers the gifts they needed to love one another, to love neighbors, to love themselves, as God in Christ loved them. He freed them to love. He equipped them to love.

And he does the same for us.

Christ the Lord is risen today. The Risen Christ gives us the Holy Spirit, provides hope for our fears, peace in chaos, faith in life in deadly circumstances.[x] The Risen Christ does not magically make all our challenges and afflictions go away. Rather the Risen Christ equips us for the living of our days. And frees us to love.

Even when we are not OK. Especially when we are not OK. Jesus reminds us of God’s unending love for us – come what may, God loves us. And by the grace of God, we too can love. This day and every day, we are freed to love. Thanks be to God.

[i] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/04/2nd-sunday-of-easter-april-19-2020/

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y52bs0aX6v8

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Clarkson

[vi] https://www.countryliving.com/life/entertainment/a32187398/kelly-clarkson-new-song-i-dare-you-6-languages/

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] https://genius.com/Kelly-clarkson-i-dare-you-lyrics

[x] https://pres-outlook.org/2020/04/2nd-sunday-of-easter-april-19-2020/

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A prayer for Easter, 2020

God of the empty tomb,

God of the temporarily empty building,

God of our lives,

We thank you for

the resurrection of Jesus.

May this day remind us

that you will have the final word.

Always you will have the final word.

And your word will be a word of

hope and

grace and

faith and

love.

Christ is risen.

We thank you Christ is risen.

In his name we pray.

Amen.

The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

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Empty

John 20:1-10
Easter Sunday
April 12, 2020
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone

Christ is risen.

We gather at the end of a Holy Week different from any other on an Easter Sunday different from any other.

Every year has unique features. Christians have observed Holy Week and Easter in periods of persecution, during armed conflict and war, and while plague ravaged the land.

Still Easter 2020; Easter in the age of COVID-19 differs widely and wildly from any Easter we and most followers of Jesus have celebrated.

No egg hunts. No visits with family. No trips to restaurants. No crowded gatherings around a table straining under the weight of a feast. No new clothes or bonnets for many of us.

IMG-0618We gather in separate places today. Our church building stands empty for the moment. It does so not out of fear. As such buildings do across our country and around the world, that temporarily empty building on the corner of 149th and 15th offers a profound witness to our faith. It proclaims that we are a people of life even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It represents an incredible act of revolutionary love, amazing grace, and spiritual solidarity. Thanks be to God.

Dr. William Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary points out that this year’s Easter celebration with a temporarily empty building may be among the most biblical Easters we have experienced.[i] The Easter proclamation of resurrection begins with the discovery of the empty tomb.

After the crucifixion, early on the first day of the week, in the darkness, John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Madgalene went to the tomb. Heart broken, soul sick, spirit sore, she made a lonely, courageous journey.

She went to see where they had placed her teacher, her friend. She went to pay her respects even after her death. She went because nothing else made sense.

At the tomb, she found the stone rolled aside. What more indignity can there be, she must have wondered? She went to get others. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved,” return to the tomb with her. Entering they find emptiness. No body of Jesus; only the cloths from his burial.

Each Gospel tells a slightly different version of the encounter with the empty tomb. They all share two common features. Women first. Women went to the tomb first. Women become the first to tell the good news. While the number varies from gospel to gospel, it is always small. Large numbers of followers did not cram together as close as they could on that day of resurrection. It began with a tomb emptied of death and women.

We know not how the resurrection of Jesus happened. No one witnessed God raising Jesus.

The resurrection of the followers of Jesus proved something more of a process. It did not happen in an instant. As the Rev. Denise Anderson notes, the “women who were first at the tomb to find it empty were rocked to their core. But even when they shared the news, the ones with whom they shared it weren’t instantly changed for hearing it. They hardly even believed it.”[ii]

The Rev. Anderson goes on: for the first followers of Jesus on that day of resurrection, “there was still grief. There was still despair. There was still anxiety. There was still waiting. Wondering. Worrying.”[iii] But. God had raised Jesus. God’s work had been accomplished. Christ was risen. Christ is risen.

Perhaps more starkly than have other Easters, this day reminds us that we live in the tension of believing in resurrection even as we feel keenly the impact of suffering and death. Much of what gave us balance and equilibrium in life has been smashed off kilter. We grieve. Uncertainty grips us. We find ourselves in a similar position to the women and the first followers of Jesus.

And  yet, we have the witness not only of Mary and the other women who went to the tomb. We have the witness of women through the ages … and some men, too. People who lived as Jesus calls us to live; people who loved who as Jesus called us to love. People who though stricken with grief and filled with fear, lived and loved. And in the living and in the loving, they encountered the risen Christ. As we live and as we love following Jesus, we too have encountered the risen Christ. We encounter the risen Christ now. We will encounter the risen Christ in the future.

Grief and doubt and fear do not deny the resurrection. They cannot.

Grief and doubt and fear do not indicate the absence of hope and faith and love; they are fellow travelers. They go together, as the Rev. Ben Perry notes.[iv]

Christ is risen, and we mourn for those who have died and we ache for those who are ill and we endure heartbreak for those who are abused, neglected, and forgotten.

Christ is risen, and COVID-19 grips our city and God’s world.

Christ is risen, and we can love one another.

Christ is risen, and there is work to do to ensure that all people in our society have access to safe homes, meaningful and safe work, health care, good food, and the necessities of living.

Christ is risen, and the Matthew 25 vision invites us to make sure that the least of the human family, the people pushed to the margins, receive our attention and our care.

Christ is risen, and the resurrection reminds us that the worst things are never the last things.[v]

Though we tremble at the tomb, though alleluias quaver on our lips, Christ is risen. This Easter day and every day may we know the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil;

Love is stronger than hate;

Light is stronger than darkness;

Life is stronger than death;

Victory is ours through Him who loves us.[vi]

Christ is risen.

People of the empty tomb, people of the temporarily empty building,

Christ is risen!

Alleluia.

[i] https://www.ctsnet.edu/the-life-giving-emptiness-of-this-easter/

[ii] This comes from a Facebook by the Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, coordinator for Racial and Intercultural Justice, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), on April 12, 2020.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] This and the next several paragraphs are inspired by words written by the Rev. Ben Perry and posted on Facebook.

[v] Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Michael Granzen for this image.

[vi] Desmond Tutu, “Victory Is Ours” in An African Prayer Book (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 1995), p. 80.

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