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We Ain’t Poor

Sermon preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Janesville, WI on August 4, 2013 by Pastor Anne Andert

“We Ain’t Poor”

Most of you have heard me talk about my wild & crazy road trip up to northern Manitoba, Canada. I was going to teach Vacation Bible School in a Cree village far away from any other civilization. The village of God’s Lake Narrows is 200 miles from the nearest road, and the only way in is by canoe, boat, or a small plane.

The first time I went there with a small team of women from the congregation where I worshipped. We were the first white people that had ever been allowed to enter the village and gather the children together for Bible School. While we were there, we stayed with a retired Cree couple who were Christian missionaries to the people in the village.

Alan and Elsie Sinclair were poor by many standards. They lived in a small, drafty broken down trailer home. They wore old, patched hand-me-down clothing. Yet they graciously and generously shared with us from what they had.

In the evening as we sat around their modest kitchen table we guessed at what we were eating. Since one of the women on our team had a husband who hunted, she correctly guessed venison (deer & moose), bear, and several kinds of fish on different evenings. The bread was all made from scratch and topped with homemade jam from wild berries gathered in the surrounding woods.

Our drinking and bathing water came directly from the lake, and we took turns making the long walk with the buckets down the hill and back up again.

In the evening we joined Alan and Elsie as they slowly lowered their elderly bodies to their knees so that they landed facing their old, worn sofa. They helped one another down to the rag rug. Then when they were finished praying in their beautiful melodic Cree language – followed by English for our benefit, they would pull one another back up to their feet again all the while laughing good naturedly at their aging bodies.

Their hearts and prayers were filled with sincere gratitude for God’s generous blessings. Our eyes were filled with tears as we considered the wealth of our own homes, congregation, and communities. We recognized the seemingly insatiable appetite for money and the things that money can buy that is so prevalent in our world which seemed so very far away from that wilderness.

Today’s gospel reads, And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Often when churches are talking about money, it’s because they don’t have enough of it. Frequently when people talk about money, it’s because they would like to have more of it. That’s the opposite of why the Bible usually talks about money. When the Bible talks about money, it’s usually because somebody has or wants too much of it. That’s the case in our Gospel lesson today. (1)

And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions…. And God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things that you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I would guess that many of us have had occasion to be admitted to the hospital for surgery or an invasive test.

First you leave your purse or your wallet and your jewelry and other personal things at home… items that we nearly always carry with us all. After registering at the hospital, you hand over your insurance card, your ID, and your phone to your spouse, child, friend or whomever has accompanied you to the hospital. Then you trade in your clothes for one of those really fashionable hospital gowns. Finally, you relinquish even your consciousness to the drug-induced sleep of anesthesia.

When we surrender so much of that which identifies us, it is a good reminder that all any of us really has is God. We surround ourselves with the protection of status, or job, or belongings, or a bank account; and these are all very good. But at some point, age or misfortune or tragedy can strip them away. Sometimes quickly, and sometimes bit by bit, and we recognize that, finally, it’s just God and us. (2)

A few years ago I heard a report on public radio. A survey had been taken to discover if money can bring happiness and if more money brought more happiness. The finding of the researchers was that money does bring happiness to a point. They found that, on average, throughout the U.S. people who were earning less than $50K per year were less happy than those earning more.

However, those earning $75K or $100K or $200K a year were not any happier than those earning $50K. A sufficient amount of money does bring happiness when essential needs are met, but more money does not bring more happiness. (3)

It has long been known that generally people with lower income give a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than people with higher income. More recently it has been learned that the groups also give to different causes.

Lower income people are more likely to support food shelves, homeless shelters, places like ECHO – those agencies directly supporting the needy.

Higher income people are more likely to support colleges, the humanities, arts, music and drama programs.

The theory is that those who have lived, or live, closer to poverty are more empathetic to it, and have more personal contact with those living in it. Those with higher incomes have less empathy because they do not see poverty on a daily basis and are not regularly confronted with those needs on a first hand basis.

There are many things that money can do for us. It can give us a comfortable home to live in, a reliable car to drive, access to education, health care, and all the physical necessities of life. Please don’t hear this as a sermon against money. It isn’t.

It is when the desire to have more becomes the driving force in our life, when it dominates our thoughts, and causes us to neglect our responsibilities to our family and to God; then money becomes not only a problem – it becomes our god. We worship money and not God. And there are many people in our society who walk very close to that line that separates the worshipers of God and the worshipers of money. The love of money can destroy our soul. (4)

Awhile ago someone told me a true story about a social worker in poverty-stricken Appalachia. I had Sara type part of it in the bulletin today so you could take it home if you’d like because I thought it was so good… Worth re-reading and pondering. Listen to the social worker’s recounting of her story:

“The Sheldons were a large family in severe financial distress after a series of misfortunes. The help they received was not adequate, yet they managed their meager income with ingenuity – and without complaint. 

“One fall day I visited the Sheldons in their ramshackle rented house where they lived at the edge of the woods. Despite a painful physical handicap, Mr. Sheldon had shot and butchered a bear that strayed into their yard once too often. The meat had been processed into all the big canning jars they could find or swap for. There would be meat in their diet even during the worst of the winter when their fuel costs were high.

“Mr Sheldon offered a jar of bear meat to me. I hesitated to accept it, but the giver met my unspoken resistance firmly. “Now you just have to take this. We want you to have it. We don’t have much, that’s a fact; but we ain’t poor!”

“I couldn’t resist asking, “What’s the difference?” His answer proved unforgettable.

“”When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more’n you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”

The social worker continued, “I accepted and enjoyed their gift and treasured that lesson in living. In time, I saw it as a spiritual lesson, as well. Knowing that all we have is provided by the Father, it seems ungracious to doubt that our needs will be met without our clinging to every morsel. When I feel myself resisting an urge to share what’s mine – or when I see someone sharing freely from the little he has, I remember Mr. Sheldon saying, “We ain’t poor!””

Alan and Elsie Sinclair didn’t have much, but they weren’t poor. Mr. Sheldon didn’t have much, but he was not poor, either. What about each of us? What about our congregation? 790 rolls of toilet paper so far this summer to ECHO. $1045 collected last week that will be matched by Thrivent for the ministry that ECHO does in our community. Not bad! Not bad! How else does our heavenly Father hope that each of us might reach out in love?

“When you can give something away, even when you don’t have much, then you ain’t poor. When you don’t feel easy giving something away even if you got more’n you need, then you’re poor, whether you know it or not.”

May God open our hearts to respond generously to the needs around us. And may God bless and multiply all that we offer.
Thanks be to God!

1. Brian Stoffregen, exegetical notes for Luke 12:13-21, Proper 13C – 8/5/07.
2. Betsy of RevGalBlogPals, “Preacher Party” – August 3, 2013.
3. op. cit.
4. King Duncan, “Pigs Get Slaughtered” sermon for Proper 13C.
5. From the story by Florence Ferrier, “We Ain’t Poor.”

Beyond Question: Do you have anything to eat?

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, [Jesus] said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”  Luke 24:41-53

Jesus dies.  Jesus returns.  He is alive.

This week is the anniversary of my dad’s death.  If he were still alive he would, without doubt, still be an active part of my life.  We would still be talking about… well, pretty much everything.  He would be an audible source of encouragement and support in my everyday life.

But he’s not here physically any more.  I am left with wonderful memories and things around my house that he once touched and held.  Even gifts that I lovingly gave him through the years.  But my dad isn’t here, and he hasn’t been for twenty-three years.  My girls were little when their grandpa died.  Only 5, 3, and 1.5.  So they only know my dad through the stories I tell.  They can’t experience him directly.

People we love die and go to heaven where we expect to meet them again for eternity.   How is that different from the relationship we have with Jesus who died and is alive again?

What would happen if we really acted like Jesus is alive and with us each and every day?

What difference does Jesus make in your daily life?

For those of us who are part of churches with a liturgical calendar Sunday began Holy Week: the journey of the events that precede  Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection.  This past Sunday was Palm Sunday – the day we remember Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem being hailed as the Messiah.  Palm branches were strewn before him; a symbol of triumph and victory.  The people thought Jesus was going to be a political king and save them from the Romans.

Next we will gather on Maundy Thursday to remember the supper that Jesus shared with his disciples the night he was betrayed. “Maundy” is from the Latin “mandatum” meaning command.  The “mandatum” refers to the commands of Jesus that evening to, “love one another”, “serve one another”, and “do this in remembrance of me”, as recorded in the biblical accounts of the Lord’s Supper.

Then Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.  A somber day of remembrance. Saturday marks a vigil of waiting in many congregations.  And finally on Easter Sunday, we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord!

So, in this series (Beyond Question) that we have been following throughout Lent, the passages for last week and this week feel strangely out of sequence.  Again this week, the passages are post-resurrection accounts, just at a time when we are moving in the church year toward the cross.  In today’s passage Jesus has returned to the disciples after he has risen from the dead.  He needs to convince them both that he really died, and is alive again, and that his dying was not an accident, but part of God’s plan.  Since ghosts don’t eat, Jesus shows them that he is flesh and bones when he eats the fish that is offered.

At the same time the hands and feet of Jesus show that he is scarred on our behalf.  Jesus did not overcome death and the evil of the world with force and might, but with love that transcends understanding.  There is a wonderful line in a Michael Card song titled, “Why”:  “Why did they nail him to the cross?  His love would have held him there.”

Most years during Holy Week I listen to both Handel’s Messiah as well as Michael Card’s album, “The Life.”  I love the musical movement through the life of Jesus in both.  One classical and one contemporary.  If you can, I encourage you to take a listen this week.  Or else just listen for God’s voice in a quiet space of your life. Jesus is alive you know.  And he’s still speaking.  To you, and to me.

Prayer for today
Ah holy Jesus, you come to us in so many ways.  Sometimes we don’t even notice or recognize you.  Open our eyes to see you, our ears to hear you, our hands and feet to be your messengers, our voices to offer your word of hope to others, and our hearts to receive your love.  Help us to notice signs of resurrection all around us.  In your name, and for the sake of the world.  Amen.
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Beyond Question: Why do you doubt?

He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”  Luke 24:36-40

It seems to me that Christians have often confused doubting with questioning.

My first training was in medicine.  In that field, like in any of the science fields, students are rewarded for questioning.  Questioning leads to deeper understanding, and that is always a good thing.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, in the church we have confused questioning with doubting.  Some of us are just wired to ask questions.  To wonder.  To probe. To explore.  To examine.

When I bought my first motorcycle I was only twenty-two. It was a used bike and needed cleaning.  I was curious about everything. I was at my parent’s home visiting and I took it apart and had it spread across the garage floor.  My dad came home and looked at the parts and screws and bolts and then looked at me.  “What are you doing?!

DSCN0366 (My most recent bike.)

“I needed to understand how it works,” I said simply.  It was true.  I took apart everything that I could; cleaned all the parts and reassembled it.  (I was delighted there weren’t any leftover pieces.)

A few years later I married my husband who was already a Lutheran pastor.  I had grown up in a Lutheran home with parents who modeled faith well for me. I had been a leader in our youth group and youth choir at church.  But I didn’t want to be Lutheran just because I happened to be baptized Lutheran.  I wanted to know that Lutheran was the “right” faith tradition for me.

And so I did to my faith what I had done to my motorcycle: took it apart and examined each piece and then reassembled it to understand how it works.  I can honestly say that I am a Lutheran by choice, having critically examined the doctrines, the core beliefs, and the scriptures through a “Lutheran lens”.  My clergy husband was patient with my questions.  He never ridiculed or shamed me for asking questions.  He took each question seriously and we had wonderful conversation.  His patient conversation is certainly a part of what led me to seminary a few years later.

I am grateful my husband understood the importance of questions.  When I felt guilty for questioning, he quoted one of his former professors who said something to the effect of, “The unexamined faith does not go very deep.”  Since then I have read and appreciated much of what Buechner has written.

God intends for us to struggle with the great questions and challenges of life and faith. I believe doubt is a chief building block in the construction of our faith. Frederick Buechner, contemporary theologian, says, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith; they keep faith alive and moving.”

Today’s question is one that Jesus asks.  Was it meant to shame? I doubt it. Jesus put great effort into lifting people from shame and encouraging them to grow in his image.  So why would Jesus ask, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

How would you answer him?  And in the searching, what would you learn?

When I took training to be a coach, I learned that teachers “pour into” and a coach “pulls the answers out of the student.”

What answer would Jesus be hoping that you would discover?  What lesson deeply understood?

‎R M Rilke wrote,

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”

A Prayer for today:
Ah, holy Jesus, you know the questions in our hearts before they are even on our lips.  And you love us as a parent watching a child question the world in delight, awe and wonder, learning and growing.  Grant us patience with ourselves and with others when it seems there are more questions than answers.  For you are a patient God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Thank you, rabbi. Amen.

Beyond Question: What are you discussing with each other?

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?”   Luke 24:15-17a

The disciples were on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ death.  Jesus came and walked with them, yet the disciples in their grief could not recognize him.  If we consider Jerusalem to be the place of tragedy and loss, and Emmaus to be the destination for escape and denial, I imagine we have all journeyed that  road at one time or another.  Maybe some of you are there right now.

Eric Burtness writes in Beyond Question, 

They were on their way to Emmaus.  Maybe they just wanted to escape.  Maybe they planned to return to the way things were before they met Jesus.  Frederick Buechner writes: “Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred, that even the wisest and bravest and loveliest decay and die… Emmaus is where we go, where these two went, to try to forget about Jesus and the great failure of his life.” (The Magnificent Defeat, New York: Harper Collins, 1985)

I remember going through a particularly dark period in my life where I was necessarily out of town and away from my family.  I called my husband and said, “Just talk to me about the stuff of daily life.  I don’t want to talk about what I’m going through right now.  I just want to hear about normal life.  What’s happening with our girls. What’s happening with you.”

When our soul has been sucked nearly dry by the demands of crises, our heart longs for normalcy.  Sometimes we need to put the tragedy we are experiencing into words to be heard by someone who truly cares.  And sometimes we know that we can’t relive very difficult things one more time at that moment.  Sometimes we just need a spark of light in the darkness to offer a glimmer of hope that life won’t always be this hard, and our hearts won’t always hurt this much.

I think that’s where the disciples hearts were that day on the road to Emmaus. Scripture says, “They stood still for they were very sad.”

Have you ever been in that place?  Madeleine L’Engle is one of my favorite authors. She wrote, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”  (A Ring of Endless Light)

*Questions to Ponder
* Name a “Jerusalem” in your life, a place or time or event in which you experienced hurt or pain that shook the foundations of your life.  Then name an “Emmaus” in your life, a place you go to escape or something you do when you’ve lost your sense of direction.
* How do you recognize Jesus’ presence during your life’s journey?

I’d love to hear your answers.

* Prayer for today
* Precious Lord, gentle Jesus, sometimes life is really difficult and we lose our sense of direction.  At those times, help us recognize your presence in our midst.  Join our conversations and walk with us.  In you holy name.  Amen.

* Material from Book of Faith Lenten Journey: Beyond Question by Eric Burtness copyright © 2012 Augsburg Fortress. Posted by permission. All rights reserved.

Beyond Question: How will you believe what I say?

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.  But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”  John 5:46-47

Today’s scripture is the story of Jesus walking the road to Emmaus with two of his disciples.  They don’t recognize Jesus.  It is shortly after he has been crucified, and the followers don’t know how the story ends yet.  They are deep in grief.  Their hearts are heavy and they are just putting one foot in front of the other.  Their minds must have been a blur.  What were they going to do now?

Jesus asks them several questions.

What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?

Scripture says, “They stood still looking sad.  Then one of them answered Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”  Jesus asked them, “What things?”  And the disciples told the man whom they still did not recognize as Jesus, the story of what had happened.

Jesus responded to their story by saying, “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?”  And then Jesus “interpreted the Scriptures” to them.  They still didn’t recognize him.  Not until he broke bread with them did their eyes open.

Jesus asks his followers questions to help them understand.  To transform their understanding and their very lives.

So how is it going with you?  What would it take for your heart to burn within you?  It is one thing to read the questions that Jesus asked others.  It is another thing to consider how we might answer those same questions directed at us from Jesus.  It becomes personal!

And isn’t that the point?  Jesus asks us personal questions because he cares.  Even when we don’t recognize Jesus in our midst, he keeps showing up.  He promises to be with us.  Dr. Carl Jung had a sign over his office door that read, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present”.  That’s just it.  The same claim that is central to the beloved 23rd Psalm.  “For you are with me”.

Jesus keeps coming to us. He has people to bless, lives to touch, and hearts to transform.  Christ can open our mind to understand his word, and his holy meal will sustain us on the journey.  Thanks be to God!

Beyond Question: What if you gain the world but lose yourself?

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?    Luke 9:23-25

My first career was that of an intensive care nurse.  I loved the work.  I knew my presence at my job made a difference.  I also had the experience of resuscitating more people than I can remember.  Some of my patients were ready for death. Some were not.  Some families were prepared for their loved one to breathe their last.  Some were not.

Chaim Potok grew up in Buffalo, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland.  When he was a teenager his mother encouraged her intelligent son to, “Be a brain surgeon.  You’ll save lots of lives and makes lots of money.”  Chaim’s mother was persistent with her suggestion until one day Chaim countered her with unusual insight for a teenager.

“I don’t want to save lives,” he said sincerely. “I want to teach people to live!”  Chaim became a best-selling author and rabbi.

When I heard the story, it spoke truth to me.  While I loved and valued my work as a nurse, I also had the growing sense that I was being called not to save lives, but to teach people to live.  For me that is about life lived in relationship with Jesus.  I had witnessed many people facing death in my work, and I understood that death can come suddenly, without warning.  I wanted to do what I could to help people prepare for death without fear, and be confident of their new life that would begin when their time on earth was done.

Unlike Potok, I haven’t written any books, much less become a famous author. (Maybe in retirement!) And if my body is ever broken or sick, I pray that I have access to good medical care.  But I was pleased to be called and ordained as a pastor.  Some days I wonder how I can convey the passion and love I have for God in a way that can be received by others.

In both of my careers I have worked with people of great means, and with those who can barely scrape out a living.  I know that a certain amount of financial security certainly does make life easier, but I have also witnessed over and over again that money truly cannot buy happiness.  I have lost count of the times I have heard people lament the amount of time and effort they put into “making it to the top,” only to find it was pretty lonely there.  The glamorous lifestyle was not what they imagined, and oftentimes relationships had suffered along the way.

One of our daughters spent a year in Kenya during college.  She volunteered in an orphanage on the weekends.  As she walked to the orphanage she passed a man she came to call fondly, “Gramps.”  He lived in a mud hut.  He had next to nothing but he was always willing to share what little he had with our daughter when she stopped to visit with him.  A piece of sugarcane or a bit of fruit.  Katie didn’t want to accept it because he had so little, but she didn’t want to offend him by refusing. She experienced the generosity of the Kenyan people often, and also the presence of God.  She wrote in an email to me, “Out of everything I have seen here, my faith has gotten so much bigger.  God is in the midst of everything!”

“Gramps” hadn’t “obtained the world”, but he and many others who lacked worldly possessions shared from their deep faith with my daughter. They lived to the best of their ability in God’s will, and recognized the many blessings in their life.  They danced and prayed fervently.  They recognize God’s presence.  They are grateful people.

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“The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life…. The more we do God’s will, the less unfinished business we leave behind when we die.” –    William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006)

Questions to ponder:
If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
What would you need to give up to give your whole life to Jesus? Why is that so difficult?

Prayer for today:
Gentle Jesus, you are always more ready to hear us than we are to speak to you. Thank you for this day and for the blessings you give us. Open our minds to hear the word you have for us this day, open our hearts to receive your love, and give us the courage to be your hands and feet in the world. Amen.

Beyond Question: Who is greater, the one at the table or the one who serves?

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules is like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.  Luke 22:25-27

In Jesus’ time, only the servants – the lowest class of people – were the servers. Respectable people didn’t serve.  What Jesus did here, and in so many other times and places in his life, turned the society of their time on its head.  He was asking people to step out of the roles that society had clearly defined for them. … give up the status they were entitled to enjoy.  Who would do that?

In the Servant Song (above) we are reminded of the many roles that servanthood can take.  We are also reminded that we reflect Christ when we are serving others from a loving heart.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

It all comes back to love.  Jesus’ love for us.  Extravagant love. Love that serves.  And enjoys doing it. Love that brings light into the darkness, and hope into grief.

martin-luther-king-quote

Albert Schweitzer is another contemporary great man who followed Jesus closely.  (1875 – 1965)  He understood the value and importance of serving.  He said, The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.  He lived what he ‘preached’ – as a German then French theologian, physician, musician, and medical missionary.  He received the Nobel Peace prize for his ethics work, “to be in awe of the mystery of life.”

Schweitzer, and countless other everyday people of far less notoriety, have found the truth and the joy of life.  Serving!   Schweitzer also said, Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier. 

In my denomination we have many hymns about serving.  We talk about servant leaders.  We preach regularly about serving others.  If you want to know what we believe, listen to our music.  This hymn, “We are Called,” is based on Micah 6:8. This particular video is made by the Catholic church, so it shows some of the priorities in that tradition that are not shared in all of the Christian denominations.  It is beautifully done.

And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

 In Marty Haugen’s song, the refrain includes the line, “we are called to serve one another.”

ServeTheLord

Questions to ponder
Who do you know who serves others joyfully?  How do they serve others?
What is one thing you could add into your life to serve others?  How will you begin? And if you don’t, what’s stopping you?
Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” How might serving our neighbors be part of God’s plan for us and the world?

Prayer for today:
Lord God, you are the king and savior of the world and yet you stooped to serve us again and again. You modeled love in serving. Strengthen us to be your servants each day that your love and your light might be reflected brightly throughout the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.