Archive for July, 2016

From Vanity to Beloved Community

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

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Luke 12:13-21

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Other Sheep I Have

Sunday, July 24th, 2016

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Luke 11:1-13

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Christmas and Easter in July

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

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Luke 10:38-42

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The text is not available for this sermon.

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Revealing Compassion

Sunday, July 10th, 2016

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Luke 10:25-37

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Good morning. I’m thankful for the opportunity to speak to you as a part of the Marsh Chapel Summer Preaching Series focused on a Lukan Horizon, drawing out the themes of compassion and justice within the Gospel of Luke. These messages are always relevant, but seem even more pertinent in our current situation.

Who would have thought that at the beginning of this week, amidst the fireworks and barbecues and time spent with family and friends celebrating ideals like freedom, democracy, and independence, we would end the week with these great tragedies? Here we are again. Mourning loss of life again. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by the violence in our world again. Again. Again. Again. I don’t have words to express my outrage and brokenness in light of recent events. In the words of the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.”   

It took me a long time to prepare for this week’s sermon. And by a long time, I mean it took me a long time to actually sit down and write. Repeatedly this week we, as a nation and members of a global society, woke up to news of violence and death from the night before in our own country. By Friday, I became afraid to check social media. The previous two days my news feed was filled with videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and accompanying lament, anger, and sorrow from my friends. It was devastating to realize that this is happening, again. Not that it has every really stopped happening. We’re just highly aware of it now because of our access to social media, phones with cameras, and live streaming. Our nation is steeped in a history of racism which perpetuates the same systemic injustice and hate toward people of color generation after generation. Friday was no different from the previous two days – I woke up to the news of 11 police officers shot, 5 of which were killed, while on patrol at a rally protesting the police shootings taking place in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Photos from earlier that evening showed police officers and protesters taking photos together – a peaceful gathering that was shattered by gunshots aimed at police officers. After weeks and weeks of horrific news and terror in our own country (Orlando, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas) and around the world (Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and yesterday in Balad), we are in crisis.

In all my grappling with the news this week, I turned to our gospel reading. I wanted a word of hope in this seemingly relentless barrage of death and destruction. What does the gospel have to offer us in this time of need? What is the good news of God given by Jesus that can help us in our lament?

Today’s gospel invites us to see and do.  We love the parable of the Good Samaritan. It exemplifies the message of Christ to us – to love God and in so doing, love our neighbors as ourselves.  It has permeated our culture so much that the term “Good Samaritan” is something that we find in news stories and even in our laws. In those contexts it means someone who helps someone else who is in a dangerous or life-threatening situation without expectation of recognition or acknowledgement. But that doesn’t really get to the heart of what is happening in this passage from Luke.

To understand the meaning of the parable, we must first truly understand the Lawyer and his position within his context. A lawyer in Jesus’ time was a religious official – the law was religious Law, the laws of the Hebrew Bible. In asking Jesus his initial question – “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the Lawyer already knew the answer…and Jesus knows that, turning the question back on him: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to him “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he is correct in his reading and understanding of the law. But the Lawyer is not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. Perhaps in an attempt to trap Jesus into making a mistake, sensing that Jesus’ answer will go against Jewish teaching, the lawyer continues his questioning…”And who is my neighbor?”

The Lawyer’s concept of neighbor is limiting. In Jewish society at this time, there were boundaries constructed by rules about how one was to interact with others depending on one’s place within society. How Jewish people should interact with Gentiles and Samaritans; how women should interact with men; how priests should interact with Israelites. There were clear lines as to who you had to consider as your neighbor, and who you did not. And to act in love to someone who was on the other side of those boundaries was completely out of the question.

In Luke’s writing, Jesus often answers questions like the one posed by the Lawyer with a parable. A parable is a wonderful narrative tool because it requires the listener to actively engage in the story. It begs the question of who you identify with and why. It requires the listener to determine the moral of the story. It answers a question or resolves a situation in indirect ways, putting the onus on the listener to determine what is right and wrong. Utilizing a narrative device like this puts a “face” on the response that isn’t an abstract concept – it’s people in conceivably real life situations. An ethical dilemma.

What we often misunderstand in this story is the Lawyer’s aversion to a Samaritan. Samaritans were viewed as the lowest of the low, unclean people who had perverted Judaism by marrying outside of the culture, taking on new religious practices. That’s why labeling this parable as the “Good Samaritan” is necessary – the “good” is meant to sound like an oxymoron to the initial hearers of this story. The Lawyer would not trust a Samaritan and might not even travel into places where Samaritans were known to live, so for Jesus to set a Samaritan up as the “neighbor” in this story is anathema to the Lawyer. It is completely unexpected.

In contrast to the Samaritan, we have the priest and the Levite, men who are leaders within the Jewish faith. They avoid what they perceive to be a potentially polluting situation because of their adherence to the rules – the ritual impurity of interacting with a potentially dead body. Or maybe they’re afraid – the road described between Jerusalem and Jericho is a steep hill with twists and turns – making it ideal for robbers to hide. What if the priest and the Levite were being set up to fall into the same trap when they helped the man in the ditch? They were not willing to take that chance, for whatever reason, whether out of adherence to the rules or fear of the same thing happening to them.

The Samaritan does not allow himself to be constricted by rules or fear. He does not think of what social convention dictates about he should interact with this person – he only sees someone in need. The Samaritan sees another person, a neighbor, someone close in proximity to him, who needs help. He is the one who has compassion, the one who shows mercy. He acts in love. He is able to put himself in the place of the person who is hurting and recognize that what is most important is his safety. He is the neighbor to the man in the ditch.    

The Lawyer recognizes that compassion is the right action – he knows that it is better to care for someone who is hurting than to avoid their pain. He tells Jesus when Jesus asks who the neighbor is “The one who showed him mercy.” The Lawyer must learn from this outsider – the one whom he would have otherwise rejected – what the love of God and neighbor truly looks like. The Samaritan’s compassion reveals something far beyond what it means to be a neighbor to someone, it reveals the humanness of those that we stereotype into the other.

But the Samaritan isn’t just a rescuer. He doesn’t just take the beaten man out of immediate danger – he makes sure that the man’s wounds are cleaned and bandaged, that he has safe lodging, and that he is cared for by the innkeeper. He will come back to check in on the man’s safety and wellbeing later in the week. The Samaritan puts himself in a position of healing, of on-going care, along with the innkeeper. He doesn’t just assume that the man in the ditch will be able to find help from others, he connects him with support and comfort. He develops a relationship with him.  It’s the difference between putting a band-aid on a deep cut and expecting it to heal, and carefully cleaning it out, getting medical assistance, and ensuring its continued care.

So where do you see yourself in this story? Are you the man in the ditch? The robbers? The priest or the Levite? The Samaritan? The innkeeper? The Lawyer?

I think we all want to be the Samaritan. We know that what the Samaritan does is what God ultimately wants us to do in the face of tragedy or injustice. We all know that inside ourselves is the capacity to love each other the way God wants us to love. But sometimes our culture, our social systems, our preconceived notions stand in our way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we can’t be the Samaritan, but in many cases we may fall short. In some cases we may be closer to the priest or the Levite. I know I am guilty of this – of occasionally seeing someone who might be in need or hurting and avoiding them because I don’t have time or I’m afraid of being taken advantage of or being made unsafe. I fail to see the people who are in need of help.

In the case of what’s going on in our country today, we have broken and bloodied bodies to account for. These bodies are not the root of the problem, however. In order to properly heal this situation, we need to address the larger systemic issues in our world that contribute to the expansion and intensity of violence between people who perceive the other to be bad, or wrong, or threatening. In a post made today on the Religion Dispatches website, theologian and ethicist Emilie Townes got to the heart of the matter:

“We must stop and look at ourselves—all of us. Take an account of how we sanction or contribute to the madness that has overtaken us—a calculating, hoarding madness that fails to take in the complexity of this nation and our world. The rising death toll and the classism, sexism, racism, heterosexist, trans-sexism, militarism, and more that fuel this disregard for human lives will not stop the violence until we decide to stop them and then act to make it so.”

What is at stake here, today, in our context, is injustice. Racial injustice. Economic injustice. LGBTQ injustice. Religious injustice. We have to acknowledge these systemic causes rather than the isolated incidents that have occurred. Systems of injustice in our country have been never really fully acknowledged or alleviated – we’ve made strides, for sure, but underneath there have continued to be forms of aggression and domination that have increased the distance between people living in the same community. We let fear dictate how we are to respond to situations of injustice – we let it overcome us and keep us from doing that which is compassionate. We skirt by on the other side of the road and shout to the man in the ditch how to get up and help himself, instead of tending to his wounds and making sure that healing is on its way.

Forms of injustice are even evident within the church. My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, continues to struggle with the challenges of systemic racism. The ELCA is the least racially diverse protestant denomination in the U.S. – a staggering 96% of our denomination claims white European heritage. There is currently a movement within the church, Decolonize Lutheranism, which aims to point out the ways that Lutheranism has in some ways held so tightly to its cultural heritage that it fails to see how exclusive it has become. How, in some cases, the theological standpoints of defining oneself as Lutheran, such as justification by faith alone being extended to all, have been superseded by assuming that everyone in the church will be of the same background. So, even sometimes as Christians we can fall short of acting like the Samaritan in this parable. We can create spaces that make others feel unwelcome, or fail to include them and their stories in our communities.

Right now is when we need God’s help the most. When we need to be reminded that love prevails over death and destruction. When we remember that God’s only son proclaimed to us the necessity of proclaiming good news to the poor, healing the sick, releasing the imprisoned, and freeing the oppressed.

How can we go and do likewise? How can the Samaritan’s compassion translate to our own compassion in seeking justice? How do we translate our fears and mistrust in to love? If we turn to the advice that Paul gives the church in Colossae, we are called “to lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, as (we) bear fruit in every good work as we grow in the knowledge of God.” (Col 1:10) We can start by reaching out to those around us. Just like the Samaritan, we need to see and do. Instead of seeing the injustices that have been unveiled for us and letting them continue to harm, we need to act. By making connections with people we encounter on a daily basis. By checking in with those whom we know might be hurting, just to ask them how they are doing. By listening. By standing by. By giving a hug, or holding a hand. But most importantly advocating for justice that recognizes the full humanity of all people, but most importantly those who are oppressed, whether they are Black, Latino, LGBTQ, Muslim or any of the other communities in our country who face outright discrimination and hate. We must see the people in front of us rather than get caught up in abstracted ideas about groups of people which may not even be true.

Let’s start here. Right here. In this very chapel. Let us see and act in the simplest of ways. Our neighbors are those who are in closest proximity to us – the person sitting next to you, or behind you, the people up here in the front, and those out in the narthex. Some of us know each other. Some of us don’t. Some of us have been coming for years, and some of us are visiting for the first time. But all of us are here, now, in a community of worship and fellowship, brought together by our faith. I invite you to seek out your neighbors in this building, right now, and greet them. Share God’s peace with them. Give them a smile, a handshake, if they agree to it, a hug. Take this recognition of those around you right now, and leave this building today reminded that our neighbors don’t have to look like us or even have to be someone that we know in order for us to show compassion to them. Let us remember that in every time, the peace of God is always with us, especially when we are in community with others.

May the peace of God be always with you. Let us exchange signs of God’s peace with one another. Amen.

–Ms. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

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Making Our Way Ritually

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

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Luke 24:13-35

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The Gospel according to Luke is very close to my heart in many ways. For example, this gospel’s author was a faithful physician; I married a faithful physician! And so, I am appreciative that our summer preacher series in Two Thousand Sixteen takes the Lucan horizon as its theme.

We are travelers, are we not, you and I? We are travelers together, making our way toward a horizon. It is a funny thing about horizons that they simultaneously serve as a point of orientation and, if focused upon too long, can serve to entirely disorient their observer. We travelers, you and I, as we make our way together, may at times stop and wonder whether we are really still on the path toward our destination. Are we still headed in the general direction of our goal, or has the horizon twisted our field of vision such that we have wandered off the road?

Jesus’ original followers were not known as Christians but rather as “followers of the way,” followers of the way of Jesus, that is. Confucians and Daoists are followers of the way as well, followers of the Dao. Christians, Confucians, and Daoists each have various ways of harmonizing two sides of the way coin, so to speak. The first side is an internal principle expressed in human life. The second is an external norm that sets the principle and measures that life. This is to say that we make our way not only by ourselves according to our own internal principles, but we make our way with others and accord our principles to the principles of these others, and for our collective well-being.

Still, wandering off the path toward the horizon is all too easy, assuming, of course, that we were ever properly on it in the first place. We may wonder, you and I, fellow travelers, whether where we thought we were going is really at the end of the road we are on. We may wonder if it is where we should be going, anyway. We may wonder if the wonders we have been promised if we ever manage to reach that point on the horizon were not, in fact, always only an illusion. Is this the way, or should we be going some other way?

Such is the situation of two disciples, journeying together to Emmaus, in the Gospel according to Luke:

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

The way of these disciples, Cleopas and another unnamed, is uncertain. Each of the evangelists had an agenda in writing their particular take on the gospel. In the case of Saint Luke, the agenda was to demonstrate the continuity of the experience of the early church with the life and ministry of Jesus. To accomplish this, Luke wrote not one book but two: the Gospel according to Luke, which tells about the life and ministry of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles, which tells about the experience of the early church. Luke was writing for gentile Christians worried about their place as Roman citizens, and about whether the ongoing story of the church remains in continuity with the way of Jesus as predicted in the Hebrew scriptures. The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Yes, Christians can be good, upstanding Roman citizens; and yes, Christian experience is in continuity with the life and ministry of Christ. Here in the story of the disciples journeying together on the way to Emmaus, Jesus himself confirms for them that they are in fact on the way, in continuity with his own life and ministry, and in fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures.

Well, we know that it is Jesus confirming for the disciples that they are indeed on the way. The disciples themselves do not know this. To them, Jesus remains a stranger. Strange, is it not, that the disciples who had invested their lives in Jesus’ ministry and teaching and service would now be unable even to recognize him? Or perhaps not so strange, given that the disciples spent the whole of Jesus ministry misunderstanding him and rather missing the point entirely. Even as the one they had called “teacher” teaches them as they walk together along the road, Jesus remains unknown. The teaching is important, but alone is insufficient to confirm for the disciples that they are indeed on the way.

So the story continues:

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Teaching is important, but Jesus is made known and Jesus’ teaching is confirmed, and moreover realized, in ritual, namely, the ritual of the Eucharistic meal. It is only as Jesus performs the ritual of blessing, breaking, and giving bread that the disciples’ eyes are opened and recognition ignites. It is only in the light of this ritually encoded appearance that the teaching on the road is confirmed as authentic and true and reliable.

Ritual often gets a bad rap. Seen as reified and ossified, ritual in our late modern society is often taken as restricting liberty of conscience and freedom of the will. But just as Jeroslav Pelikan noted that tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, so too we may say that ritual is the guide to remaining on the way, while ritualism is a map to nowhere. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are eloquent on this point, and so we listen to the Liji, the Book of Rites, noting that li meaning ritual is here translated “propriety.” I welcome this morning to read the passage my dear friend and colleague Dr. Bin Song, president of the Boston University Confucian Association.

故禮義也者,人之大端也,所以講信修睦而固人之肌膚之會、筋骸之束也。所以養生送死事鬼神之大端也。所以達天道順人情之大竇也。故唯聖人為知禮之不可以已也,故壞國、喪家、亡人,必先去其禮。

Thus propriety and righteousness are the great elements for man’s (character); it is by means of them that his speech is the expression of truth and his intercourse (with others) the promotion of harmony; they are (like) the union of the cuticle and cutis, and the binding together of the muscles and bones in strengthening (the body). They constitute the great methods by which we nourish the living, bury the dead, and serve the spirits of the departed. They supply the channels by which we can apprehend the ways of Heaven and act as the feelings of men require. It was on this account that the sages knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of the rules of propriety.

We suffer greatly from a lack of ritual in late modern life. Just as the disciples recognized Jesus in his enactment of the Eucharistic ritual sacrificing his own body, we recognize ourselves and one another and our shared humanity in rituals as simple as a handshake and as complex as global geopolitical diplomacy. It is in ritual that we commune and communicate; it is in ritual that we open ourselves to the power of presence and partnership. As Howard Thurman reminds us, “people, all people, belong to each other, and those who shut themselves away diminish themselves, and those who shut others away from them destroy themselves.” Ritual is the medium of our knowing and trusting and belonging to one another. When it fails or when we fail to either properly enact the ritual or even bother to enact it at all, we are severely diminished and often as not destroyed. “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Today we call to mind the life and ministry of Professor Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday. Grant to him eternal rest, O God, and may light perpetual shine upon him. Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, teacher, humanitarian, journalist, author, public intellectual, Elie Wiesel suffered from perhaps the greatest abandonment of ritual recognition of our common humanity in the modern period, and went on to craft and establish and enact so many rituals to restore our common humanity. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Rather than dulling the conscience and the will, ritual restrains our tendency toward indifference and allows us to recognize one another.

We have not learned this lesson. We have not learned to not only allow but to invite our selfish desires and neuroses to be restrained that we might see and know and love one another. In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common faith, why are we surprised when nine people are murdered during a bible study? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common love, why are we surprised when fifty people are murdered in a gay nightclub? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common wealth, why are we surprised when a nation decides they know better and can do better on their own? In a time of such vast societal failure to recognize our common dignity, why are we surprised that a plan to build a two thousand mile wall between us and our neighbors has gained such political traction? “The ruin of states, the destruction of families, and the perishing of individuals are always preceded by their abandonment of ritual.”

Perhaps part of our problem is that we are afraid of ritual. We are afraid to participate in ritual. Ritual can seem arcane and impenetrable and so high that we cannot attain it. After all, does not ritual require preparation? Does it not require indoctrination into the cult of the ritual actors? Does it not require confession and repentance and absolution? Does it not require that first we go and be reconciled? Does ritual not demand that we participate with a sincere will and a sincere heart?

Actually, no. Our Confucian brothers and sisters are again eloquent on this point, and so I invite Dr. Bin Song to read again from the Liji, the Book of Rites.

故禮之於人也,猶酒之有蘗也,君子以厚,小人以薄。故聖王修義之柄、禮之序,以治人情。故人情者,聖王之田也。修禮以耕之,陳義以種之,講學以耨之,本仁以聚之,播樂以安之。故禮也者,義之實也。協諸義而協,則禮雖先王未之有,可以義起也。義者藝之分、仁之節也,協於藝,講於仁,得之者強。仁者,義之本也,順之體也,得之者尊。

Therefore the rules of propriety are for man what the yeast is for liquor. The superior man by (his use of them) becomes better and greater. The small man by his neglect of them becomes meaner and worse. Therefore the sage kings cultivated and fashioned the lever of righteousness and the ordering of ceremonial usages, in order to regulate the feelings of men. Those feelings were the field (to be cultivated by) the sage kings. They fashioned the rules of ceremony to plough it. They set forth the principles of righteousness with which to plant it. They instituted the lessons of the school to weed it. They made love the fundamental subject by which to gather all its fruits, and they employed the training in music to give repose (to the minds of learners). Thus, rules of ceremony are the embodied expression of what is right. If an observance stand the test of being judged by the standard of what is right, although it may not have been among the usages of the ancient kings, it may be adopted on the ground of its being right. (The idea of) right makes the distinction between things, and serves to regulate (the manifestation of) humanity. When it is found in anything and its relation to humanity has been discussed, the possessor of it will be strong. Humanity is the root of right, and the embodying of deferential consideration. The possessor of it is honored.

It is by participating in ritual that we become better and greater. It is by neglect of ritual that we become meaner and worse. The fruit of ritual can be summed up as love. It is not that we must become sincere in order to participate in ritual. Rather, we must participate in ritual in order to become sincere. The disciples were decidedly insincere. They did not know whether they were even still on the way, or if the way they thought they were on was really the way at all. The disciples could not recognize their own teacher and mentor and leader. They were not sincere; they were foolish and slow of heart! After participating in the ritual with Jesus, then they became sincere.

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Go and do likewise. Amen.

–Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC†, University Chaplain for Community Life

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