Saturday, 29 June 2013

Persistent Truth

2 Kings 2:1-14
Elijah Ascends to Heaven
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Elisha Succeeds Elijah
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

There is lots about this story that I love. It's one of those passages that has cropped up for me at significant times in the journey of faith.
In this passage, we find Persistence personified.
The persistence of Elisha who refused to leave Elijah as he set off on a journey ordained by God.
Although he was given ample opportunity to turn back or to wait it out, he persisted in accompanying Elijah on the road.
The persistence of the company of prophets who met Elisha at each stage of his journey to remind him - today's the day - the day that Elijah will be taken away. Even though Elisha begged them to keep quiet, they insisted in reminding him of what he didn't want to face.
And - The persistence of silence that often forces us to confront what we would rather avoid.
Persistence - a companion on the journey of faith.
Elisha's persistence is a persistence that paid off.
By sticking close to Elijah he witnessed him being taken up in a whirlwind and inherited a double share of the spirit that was upon Elijah.
The company of prophet's persistence paid off - they saw Elisha taking on the mantle that was Elisha's and recognised him as a prophet ordained by God, someone to whom they could pledge their allegiance and get alongside in sharing the word of God.
And the silence?
It's hard to outrun things that must be faced.
No matter what avoidance techniques we employ.
The voice of God, albeit a still, small voice will not be silenced.
The call of God persists through all our denial.
The God we serve is a persistent God.

Often, we are called to Persistence in the journey of faith.
Persistence when it seems that others would distract us and pull us in all sorts of other directions.
Persistence when we are weary and would just love to stop and rest awhile.
Persistence when we would rather not confront what is staring us in the face.
But the truth of God is persistent.
It is a truth that has remained through the ages - comforting, challenging and confronting.
A truth that refuses to be silenced.
Today, the mantle passes to us.
We are called to pass on that truth.
We give thanks today for all who have held the space for us.
For all who have kept the faith and honoured the truth of the living God.
With fear and trepidation we pick up the mantle as Elisha did and journey on into an unknown future carrying God's persistent truth into today's world.
We have arrived at the place of calling.
But the journey is just beginning.
We are called to lay Gods persistent truth before this generation.
We do not journey alone but with the company of prophets all through the ages, unseen witnesses to the truth of God.
And we journey with each other, prophets of God, called to take on the mantle, prophets on whom God's spirit is poured out today bringing us courage and strength for the journey.
Lets take up that mantle and be possessed by God's spirit to live out truth today.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Speaking truth

1 Kings 21:1-21
Naboth’s Vineyard
Later the following events took place:Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard. ’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king. ’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
Elijah Pronounces God’s Sentence
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord:Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord:In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;

What a story we read in 1 Kings today. A real howler.
Another episode in the saga that is the ministry of Elijah.
He really doesn't have it easy as a prophet. (None of them do)
He has more than his fair share of poop to scoop.
And that message he has to give the king at the end of our reading today is the kind of utterance that has resulted in death for countless prophets through the ages.
Just as well Elijah was dealing with such a wimp as King Ahab.
A powerful wimp.
A dangerous wimp.
But a wimp nonetheless.
A king with no backbone who could hear such searing words from Elijah and....
But, as I read through the passage, I couldn't help but feel a sneaking sympathy for King Ahab.
He doesn't have much going for him in life.
He IS king.
But his wife Jezebel calls the shots.
And Ahab does not even try to stand up to her.
Indeed it seems he doesn't even want to.
He is happy to be drawn into her evil and corrupt ways, to let her fight his battles and to let her influence totally desecrate the kingdom.
It's easy to picture this weak, spineless man, king on paper, but totally at the mercy of his strong and vicious wife.
I began to feel just a little sympathy for him - not too much but just a little.
With Jezebel to deal with on the one hand - and Elijah on the other.
Not a good place to be.
Lets look at the story again:
King Ahab has a lovely palace in Jezreel.
And right beside his palace is a vineyard.
King Ahab would like a garden in which to plant vegetables.
I suspect it was probably somewhere he thought he might be able to escape from his wife for a while!
But it makes sense to buy this vineyard, right next to his property and have it cultivated for his purposes.
Except that the said vineyard is owned by Naboth.
And has been in Naboth's family for generations.
And, apart from it being a good vineyard, well established over many years, the land holds sentimental value for Naboth.
It is part of his inheritance, part of his link with previous generations of his family.
He wants it to remain that way.
Why would Naboth sacrifice a part of his inheritance on the whim of a king?
And that is what he tells Ahab.
And Ahab, the warrior that he is, takes to his bed in sorrow over Naboth's knock back.
Enter bad Queen Jezebel.
She wants to know what has upset her dear husband so.
And, on hearing that it was a small matter of desiring a vineyard that belongs to someone else, Jezebel sets about putting things right.
She uses her queenly authority, writes letters and, before you know it, Naboth is dead and his vineyard belongs to the king.
Jezebel's grateful husband makes his way to Jezreel to take possession of his newly acquired land.
Enter the prophet Elijah.
Bringing with him a cheerful message from God. Not.
“Thus says the Lord:Have you killed, and also taken possession?:In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
It was at that point in the story that my sympathies switched from Ahab to Elijah.
Imagine having to deliver such a line to a king?
And, while Ahab would probably just stand there with his mouth open, he would, eventually, repeat the conversation to his wife.
And then Elijah's troubles would begin.
Or continue.
Because Elijah is already on Queen Jezebel's wanted list.
Elijah could have lived a quiet life.
He could have chosen to remain under the radar.
But he felt compelled to speak God's word - a word that might comfort or heal.
But a word that could also challenge and confront and condemn.
No such thing as a quiet life for a prophet of God.
I wonder if we've all but lost that sense of call to prophecy today?
That call to speak out and to speak up.
How often have we heard folk, or found ourselves saying: What's the point in speaking up?
What difference will it make?
And even in those of us who tend to put ourselves in the firing line, who have spoken up on occasion, there comes a point where we become worn down, where we experience futility - and we decide not to waste our energy when it seems that no one is listening.
We become resigned to watching from the sidelines and living on the margins.
The story of the prophet Elijah is a story of a man called by God, to live on the margins speaking out and shaking up corruption and injustice.
In Elijah's time, Gods people were oppressed.
Their rulers had wandered far from God.
Because the people felt that they were outnumbered, because they felt their voices held no sway, they retreated to the safety of obscurity.
A temptation that assails us and that we succumb to today.
But history has shown that it is often on the margins that folk can be at their most creative.
In times of austerity that we can bring forth ingenuity.
As a church on the margins today, I believe that we are being called to be prophetic.
To recover our ability to rise to the challenge - to speak up for communities around us today or, better still, to encourage then to find their own voices and then learn from what they say.
To challenge authority and bring the harsh light of truth to shine on policies that maintain and expand poverty or increase the vulnerability of those already living hand to mouth while the policy makers continue to prosper.
We may be a minority.
We may be marginalised.
But we are not exempt from speaking truth that comes from God.
3 characters in our story today:
Ahab, who turned his face to the wall.
Jezebel who ground people underfoot.
Elijah, who spoke the truth of God.
Which will we be?
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Sunday, 16 June 2013

Listening to the silence

1 Kings 19:1-15
Elijah Flees from Jezebel
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer- sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die:“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Elijah Meets God at Horeb
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

I don't know about you - but most weeks , I can't remember what I've been doing from one day to the next. Time just rushes by - from one meeting to the next, from one visit to another. I like to think that in each encounter there's calmness, a concerted effort to be just where I need to be at any given moment - it's the bits in between where, sometimes, it seems a bit frenetic.
What's important, for me, is that whatever else is going on, however much is piling up, what matters is the person or the people I am with at any particular time.
Being present exactly where God calls us to be is an important discipline for all of us.
Making the most of every God given encounter is important.
And, although its tempting to be ahead of ourselves, or to be rushing on to the next thing, the God we serve calls us to be present right where we are.
Whatever our day entails.
At work.
At play.
At home.
Each moment can only be lived once.
And so it is important.
Opportunities often only present themselves fleetingly.
So they must be grasped with both hands.
- Exercising faith in the God who gives us what we need as we need it.

Elijah, running from the wrath of Queen Jezebel runs out of steam and has to stop and rest.
In the wilderness to which Elijah has retreated in fear, God provides food for the journey.
Just enough.
Each time he wakes from his sleep of fear and exhaustion, angels prepare him food.
At just the right time.
That's been a theme of Elijah's service.
At each stage of his life, God provided whatever he needed so that Elijah could continue to serve God in every circumstance.
At the very time when Elijah feels overwhelmed.
When he feels utterly helpless.
In that moment, God provides just what he needs.
God places in his path, someone or something to minister to him.
I wonder if that's a pattern we see playing out in our lives?
Or are we too busy to notice?
Lets take a moment to think this morning of the ways God speaks to us in the midst of our everyday...
It might be in majestic signs of creation -
Amazing cloud formations, a family of deer at the roadside, a buzzard on a lamp post, a heron by the river, a stunning sunset - all glimpses of God, fleeting, easily missed but glimpses that, when caught, speak into our everyday of the majestic God of creation.
Or what about the angels God places in our path to make the darkness seem brighter - the friend who texts or calls out of the blue, the colleague who pays us a complement, the neighbour who invites us for coffee, the friend who takes the children for an hour and gives us some unexpected breathing space. Humans who, in that moment are angels of God.

Today, whatever our role in life, we can all become overwhelmed at times.
We can all feel the pressure, whatever we choose to do, whatever responsibilities we carry.
In those moments of helplessness, God comes to us, bearing sustenance for the journey.
Sometimes, just enough to take us onto the next stage of the journey.
So it was with Elijah.
Once the angels had fed Elijah, God sent him on another journey - a forty day trek to Mount Horeb.
And there, God met Elijah, not in a great wind, not in an earthquake, not in fire...
But in the sound of silence.
And, in the silence, God's voice came to Elijah.
In the noise and business of our lives today, we face the danger of missing the voice of God in the silence.
If we fail to notice God in creation.
If we don't see the folks around us as angels sent to minister.
How will we ever hear God speaking in a still small voice through the silence?

Often, when ministers get together, its like a competition to see who's the busiest.
Recently, a colleague shared how he had a fear of " dropping the ball".
Of missing something, or failing to turn up somewhere he was supposed to be, simply because he had too much on the go.
That isn't particularly a fear that I have - though I have had nightmares about getting the time wrong for a funeral or a wedding - I check those again and again!
My fear is more that it gets to Sunday worship, which could be considered the end of my working week, or the beginning of a new working week and I quite simply have nothing to say.
Because I've worked flat out- been with people, conducted services, attended meetings, managed staff, dealt with so many concerns, large and small, all important, all deserving of time and energy and care and passion, my fear is that, come Sunday, there is nothing left.
That, in worship, it all comes crashing down.
I know colleagues who are very intentional in setting aside time to prepare for Sunday worship, some who have days that cannot be used for anything other than sermon writing.
Whereas my preparation is sandwiched into quiet - or busy moments.
Snatched from thoughts and inspirations that come unbidden, that pop up here and there as the week moves on.
Fashioned out of the glimpses of God in the week.
Always a work in progress.
And, hopefully, always enough.
The word that God wants proclaimed, sufficient for the day.
It may not be in a beautifully worded sermon.
It may not be in a carefully crafted prayer.
Gods voice comes unbidden, maybe even unwelcome, and certainly when least expected.
As Elijah discovered, not in the great wind, or in the earthquake or in the fire - but in silence.
And silence is something we so rarely experience today, surrounded as we are by noise.
We expect drama - the drama of earthquake, wind and fire, yet God chooses to speak through silence.

May this passage speak to us this day - as God intends.
May we hear the voice of God, however hungry, tired or dejected we feel.
And may it be enough to enable us to carry on with the journey and to hear that still small voice in silence.
Lets listen for God in the silence.

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Sunday, 2 June 2013

Truth brought to life

1 Kings 17:8-24
The Widow of Zarephath
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel:The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
Elijah Revives the Widow’s Son
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

For the next few weeks in worship, we're going to be following the story of Elijah, one of the Old Testament Prophets.
When we encounter Elijah today, he is trusting in God's providence to survive a drought.
God had sent a drought on the land to show the rulers of that time. -King Ahab and Queen Jezebel that they couldn't continue to behave as they did, treating folk abominably.
God sent Elijah to tell them: God is not happy with you and there will be no rain for the foreseeable future.
After delivering God's message, as you might imagine, the prophet has to flee for his life.
God leads him, first of all, to a brook where he is fed by ravens.
But, then, when the brook dries up, God moves him on.
And that's where we join the story today, with Elijah travelling to Zarephath and meeting the widow gathering sticks for her fire.
Elijah asks the widow to bring him some water which she is glad to do.
But, when he also asks her for something to eat, she is less willing.
She explains that she only has enough for one last meal for herself and her son, that she is about to prepare it and then they will die.
Elijah persuades her, before she does that, to prepare a little something for him and then promises her that she will not run out of food.
Steeped in a culture that places such a priority on hospitality, the widow cannot refuse Elijah's request - and her effort is rewarded when she and her household are fed for the duration of the rest of the drought.
Elijah becomes part of that household for the duration.
But not only is Elijah enabled to feed the widow and her son, he also shares with them the truth of the God whom he serves.
When her son becomes ill and dies, Elijah is the first person to whom the widow turns - to ask why?
Here is a woman who, when Elijah first met her, was prepared for death.
She was about to prepare a last meal for her son and herself.
But now she has hope - hope for life.
So when the life of her son is snuffed out, she wants to know why.
Why? She asks Elijah?
Why is her son dead?
Elijah takes this question to God.
That might sound like a familiar place for some of us, questioning God.
Isn't it the case that we often find ourselves questioning God, even accusing God?
When we need someone to rail at when life is just unfair, it is often to God that we turn.
Maybe, just maybe, in those moments, we can find hope in the story of Elijah and the widow's son.
Elijah cries out to God.
And finds a compassionate God.
A God who is not unmoved by the plight of men and women.
A God who wants to make things different.
A God who uses the gifts of folk like you and me to change churches and neighbourhoods and communities - to heal hurting people, to feed the hungry, to build fairer societies.
A God who welcomes you and me and urges us to go out and welcome others to share all the gifts that we have been given.

We find many stories in the Old Testament of people being blessed by offering hospitality.
And, indeed, that theme continues into the New Testament, where we are encouraged by Jesus " as you did it for the least of did it for me".
Sharing food and drink is one of the simplest but one of the most profound acts of hospitality.
You will all be aware of the growth of foodbanks in our area - and throughout Scotland.
Since our harvest appeal last autumn,when we learned about the work of the South Ayrshire Foodbank, we have been able to take regular donations of food for distribution. And this has been greatly appreciated.
I've spoken to many colleagues who are operating or contributing to food banks and other projects that are working to ensure that families on our doorsteps do not go hungry.
And, while we abhor the need for such basic provision in our age and culture, while we long for our government to address poverty and hardship with common sense and compassion, we cannot turn our backs on those who struggle daily to simply find enough to eat.
And so we are called, not only to be generous with the food that we have, but to work to change a system that forces so many families into poverty,a system that denies people's basic rights and puts insurmountable obstacles into the path of those who simply want to feed their loved ones.
This story of Elijah this morning touches on fundamental truths that affect how we live today and how we care for others.
It comes across very simply in the first part of the story:
The widow is helped out of her predicament by helping Elijah.
And isn't that so often the way of it for us.
When we help others, we know ourselves blessed.
When we share what we have, we find our gift multiplies.
And it's not just about focussing on someone else's problem to distract us from our own.
There is a real blessing in being able to give.
And giving graciously allows us also to receive graciously.
So often our giving is tempered with the expectation of a return on our gift.
Perhaps not a physical return, but the anticipation of a Spiritual return - some reward for our generosity.
But today, in the feast we share here - as we gather around the table, to remember Christ's body broken for us and Christ's blood shed for us, we are witnesses to a selfless act of love and giving.
An act that asks for no return.
An act that makes no demands.
A gift that is freely ours.
Given in love, no strings attached.
Now that is real hospitality.
A feast of bread and wine that beckons all to come and dine.
Thanks be to God.

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