Sermons, Uncategorized

Dirty Diapers, Sheep and Goats

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The text for today is Matthew 25:31-46.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It was 3:00 a.m. A piercing scream woke me. I thought it was the fire alarm, until I realized it was my own sweet baby daughter. Through the fog of my interrupted sleep I somehow realized that I was not equipped with the physical ability to nurse the famished little girl, especially at such an ungodly hour.

So I nudged Aimee, who never has been as light a sleeper as I am. “She’s awake,” I said. Her response came so quickly I can only imagine that she had been rehearsing it every day while she’d been taking it easy in the hospital. “What’s your point?” Always the patient one, I said calmly and quite rationally: “She’s hungry. I can’t feed her. I don’t have the right equipment.”

Again, it was like she had it all planned out. “Well, she probably also has a dirty diaper and the last time I noticed you still had hands and feet. Why don’t you walk in there and change her? Then you can bring her to me.”

What should I say next? I was fully awake by now, and the ramifications of this one decision hit me like a ton of bricks. If I got up now to change the baby’s diaper, I would set a precedent that could actually apply for the next ten years or so, depending upon how many more children we had. But I did not know how to answer. I have to admit I felt a little taken advantage of. Relaxing in that hospital bed, she obviously had more time to think this all out than I had. So I got up to change the baby—a smile on my lips, a song in my heart. Or something like that…

Now to be honest, this was not the first time I was ever up at 3:00 a.m. But it’s a lot different to still be up at 3:00 a.m., as opposed to be awakened from a sound sleep at 3:00 a.m. Obviously the two women in my life at that point were somehow conspiring together. The aromatic odor that met me as I stumbled into the baby’s room suggested my wife had been right about at least one thing. I fumbled around for a bit and finally got her diaper changed. Then I brought our fresh smelling little girl into her mother for feeding. Of course, she got to snuggle her and tell her what a good girl she was. It all seemed a bit unfair.

Now, I’m not looking for pity or praise. Everyone who has changed a baby in the middle of the night has those same stories. I was this little girl’s father. It was my responsibility. And so, I did it. Then why do I tell this story? What does getting up at 3:00 a.m. to change a dirty diaper have to do with sheep and goat besides the rank odor?

Because it teaches you everything you need to know about good works.

You see… it’s not the grand, impressive works of the rich and the powerful that God commends, but the simple, humble works of the Christian who is simply going about the work of his or her vocation and in the course of their vocation also feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and visits the sick—the sort of things that for the most part generally go unnoticed by others.

This is a wonderful text by which to learn of the doctrine of vocation. God gives us our vocation, that is, our place in society, in the family, in the Church, in order to serve other people. Vocation is how God takes care of creation and people until Christ returns in glory. It is how God feeds the poor, welcomes strangers, clothes the naked, comforts the sick, and visits the prisoner.

What’s more, God values each vocation equally. Whatever station in life to which God has called you has been made holy by God and set apart to be used to provide for the needs of your neighbor. Christians recognize the fact that all we are and have is given to us by God for the express purpose of taking care of others in this world as we look forward to the day we will share in Christ’s glory. But the doctrine of vocation extends not only to Christians; it covers unbelievers as well. In our text both the sheep and the goats tended to the needs of others.

God uses even the vocations and works of unbelievers to care for people. Even unbelievers get up in the middle of the night to change their children’s diapers. (Otherwise it would be really easy to tell the sheep from the goats… the goats would be the ones with the smelliest children.) Even unbelievers visit the sick and the imprisoned. Even unbelievers clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Unbelievers are quite often very nice people. In fact, many unbelievers would put you and me to shame with their good manners, kindness, and generosity.

Which brings us to a complaint often uttered by those outside the church and often used by inactive members as the reason they don’t go to church: Church is full of hypocrites. People talk about love and goodwill and all that, but when you actually look at the pews you see that they are full of people who don’t begin to live up to the high ideals that people expect.

Maybe the Church is a little bit disappointing because you expect people here to be different than in the world. You expect everyone to be happy and generous and willing to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. And then when you take a good, hard look you discover that not everyone is happy, that many people are stingy in their giving, a number of them are unnecessarily critical in their speech, and very few make sacrifices without complaining.

Welcome to the real world. Actually, welcome to the real Church here on earth, where people are at the same time saint and sinner. Welcome to this congregation, full of real people with all their failings and frustrations and sins and shortcomings. You will only get disappointed and discouraged if you expect anything of people inside the Church that you don’t find outside the Church.         

In the Church you do not necessarily find people that are very different on the outside than people who are in the world. In the Church, however, you do find a God that is different from the god of this world. That is what those who don’t come to church because of the hypocrites are completely missing.

You don’t come here to this place to be around good people. You can go down to the local bar or the ball game for that. You come to the Church because here is the only place where you can find a God who is good—a God who comes in ordinary everyday ways through ordinary everyday people to serve His people, giving them faith and guarding and keeping them in that faith unto eternal life.

You see… even Jesus had a unique vocation. The Son of God was called to bear the sins of the world upon His shoulders, to obey God’s will perfectly in our place, and to suffer shame upon the cross as a perfect substitute for you and me. God, wisely, has not placed such a vocation on you or me. It is a calling that only He could fulfill and accomplish on our behalf.

In His vocation as Messiah, our Lord used certain means, namely His own human body, the cross, and the empty tomb to set us free from sin and death, and give us the promise of our own resurrection and eternal life in the glory of heaven.

Of course, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit also have vocations. In the Creed we ascribe to the Father our creation and preservation; and to the Holy Spirit our calling and keeping in the one true faith. Just like the Son, the Father and the Spirit do these things through means. Through means of the vocations of our parents God created us. And through means of the vocations of not only our parents but everyone from farmers to the President of the United States, God continues to preserve our lives in this world.

The Holy Spirit also uses means to accomplish His vocation in our lives. We call these the “means of grace,” since through them He brings to us the love and forgiveness of God. The Word, through which He speaks God’s love and forgiveness into our ears. Baptism, through which He pours God’s love and forgiveness over our heads and into our hearts. And Holy Communion, through which He puts God’s love and forgiveness into our mouths.

Through these means of grace, God guards and keeps His people in the one true faith unto life everlasting. In these means of grace, God is forgiving our sins, making us His children, strengthening us in faith, and keeping us in that faith unto life everlasting. So that we may know His love and forgiveness, God has established a place where we can know for certain that we are receiving the means through which God is for us and serves us. That place is the Church.

Here in the Church you will find that people are pretty much the same as what you will find in the world. But only here, in the Church, can you find a God that is completely different from the god of this world. The god of this world focuses upon you and tells you only about where you have failed or gives you a false confidence that you are succeeding. The one true God uses the means of grace to tell you about how He loves you, how He fulfilled the Law for you, how He died and rose again for you, how He rules over all things in this world for you, how He washes you clean of sin, how He feeds you His very body and blood.  

So you see, the Church is not about how people act; it is about how God acts. Here, in worship your vocation is simply to be a hearer, a receiver of what God promises through Word and Sacrament. Here in the Church, God serves you through the voice and body of His called and ordained servant—another common, ordinary sinner just like you, who has been given the vocation of pastor.

And when God serves us by the means of grace, He fills up our hearts and minds with what He has done for us in Christ, rather than what we do ourselves. Jesus, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the message of the means of grace. And so much does the Holy Spirit fill our minds with Jesus’ work for us, that we forget the good works God enables us to do as we go about our vocations in this world.

Which brings us back to the sheep and the goats. Notice that they are separated before there is any accounting of good works. Nor does the King note anything negative about the sheep—nor anything positive about the goats. It’s not a case of having done both good and bad, with the one outweighing the other. In fact, they could have been doing pretty much the same things. The difference between those on the right and those on the left is faith and unbelief.

The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In other words, when we live by faith in the Savior, God sees only the good that we do. All of our sins have been washed away in the blood of Christ. As for the damned, even their best deeds amount to only so many “filthy rags.” None grew out of holy motives because none came from holy hearts. So the difference between the sheep and the goats is not a matter of their outward works, but God-given faith.

Through His means of grace, the Holy Spirit has created faith in the hearts of the sheep and that faith has so filled up their hearts with Jesus that they are caught off-guard when the King commends them for their good works. “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?” The Christian regards his own works as so insignificant that they aren’t even worth mentioning when compared to what Jesus has done for us. And that is certainly true. But through these insignificant works we serve Jesus by serving others.

In Christ, all the sinful works of the Christian have been forgiven and cast away as far as the east is from the west and God remembers them no more. The only thing remaining is our good works, washed clean and made holy in the blood of Christ. It is these works that testify on our behalf in the judgment.

Contrast this with the unbelievers. Having rejected the Word of Life, their hearts are filled with themselves. Oh, God still uses their works to serve the people of this world, but it is those very works that fill up their heart and drive the Holy Spirit out. And so they say, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” “Look, Lord,” they are saying, “I’ve been a good person.” And so they may have been. But it is faith that fills the heart with Jesus and justifies the sinner. And it is faith that they lack, so their sins are unforgiven. God doesn’t see their good but only their wickedness. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment.”

So in the end it is not by works that we will be judged—the sanctified works of the sheep are simply the evidence of the faith that God has created and nourished within us. As we live in this world, it may not look on the outside like we are any different than the people of the world—we hold the same kinds of vocations—but it is what God has declared us to be that makes the difference.

Through His Holy Word and Baptism, God has recreated us and bound us to Christ, giving us faith and hope in Him. Through Holy Communion, He feeds and nourishes that faith and gives us constantly the forgiveness of sins—which we need, for even the good works of God’s people are still stained by sin in this world.

The time is coming when we will be completely free of sin and all our works will be perfect, but only in Christ, only because of what He has done. In the meantime, we live by faith and in that day when this life is finished and our vocations have run their course, by the grace and mercy of our almighty God, we shall be gathered to His right hand in glory and hear Him speak those gracious words: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Even today, you hear the basis for this wonderful promise of eternal life with the Father. It is not your good works, but the Lord’s work of righteousness credited to you by grace through faith in Christ that saves you. Solely for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Rock That Says My Name

my_tombstoneI like to listen to music from a variety of genres, favoring songs that have thoughtful lyrics reflecting a true picture of the human condition with all of its joy and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, its scars and freckles, beauty marks and warts.

Some songs grow on you over time; others connect with you immediately. My current favorite, “Rock That Says My Name,” falls into the latter category. The first time I heard it, I loved it. The more I hear it, the more its message resonates with me. “Rock That Says My Name” was released January 18, 2019 by The Steel Woods, a relatively new band whose music balances heavy blues-rock with Southern poetry, adding a bit of plainspoken outlaw country to the mix. (If you wish to listen to it, you will find a link to the official YouTube version of the song here. Click on “more” to read the lyrics.)

“Rock That Says My Name” is a story told from the point of view of a man who works at a cemetery. A jack-of-all-trades, he keeps the grounds, digs the graves, carves and polishes the gravestones, serves as pall bearer, helps with the burial, and when called upon, is willing to put on a suit and tie so he can join in the mourning. Though it’s not exactly the most glamorous job, it is necessary work, and the man finds great satisfaction and contentment in his job that he’s been doing for fifty years.

What gives this man such satisfaction? I would suggest two things: faith and vocation. This comes out especially in the chorus:

Well I ain’t afraid to die ‘cause I know where I’ll go.
There I’ll live forever on the streets made of gold.
‘Til then I’ll keep on working, you won’t hear me complain
And every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.

The man knows his ultimate destination—in heaven to be with the Lord for eternity. This frees him to serve his neighbor as he carries out his calling in life. It enables him to do his work in a way that respects and affirms the dignity of human life even as he daily walks amid death and all its accessories.

As he faithfully follows his vocation, the man recognizes that the day will soon come when it will be his own grave that is dug, his own gravestone that is carved. He and his wife have picked out their own plots right by the cemetery gate, where the sun shines every day. He’s carved his name on the stone. All that’s left is for someone else to add the date of his death next to the date of birth, throw the dirt on top of him, sow some grass seeds and let it grow.

In the meanwhile, the man carries on with his vocation, working each day without complaint. And just so he remembers all this, he says “every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.”

I’m reminded of Psalm 90, which I often use when I conduct funerals. After talking about the eternal nature of God and the mortal nature of God’s fallen human creatures, Moses prays:

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom… Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil… Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 12-17, emphasis added).

Moses’ closing prayer contains two main elements. The first is a plea for understanding and wisdom. As we daily observe death all around us, we are warned to make the most of this time of grace that God has given us, since death is inevitable. We are warned against being like the rich fool who accumulated treasure on earth but forgot about the needs of his soul (Luke 12:13-21). Since we have only one life and that one life is short, we should use it to gain the wisdom that comes from God. That wisdom is the message of the Gospel, through which we gain forgiveness of sins and salvation.

The second part of Moses’ prayer is a plea for mercy. We do not deserve to have our lives prolonged, but we pray that God will give us the time and the wisdom to serve Him faithfully on this earth. Such labor brings joy to all the days of our lives, even to life under the burdens of sin. Only the labor that we do for the Gospel can produce fruits that will endure into eternity. We pray that God will establish and bless our labors for the Gospel so that they will bear fruit for us, for our children, and for others, now and forever.

“Rock That Says My Name” ends with the voice of a Southern preacher reading a fitting portion of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 19-20:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
Where moth and rust doth corrupt
And where thieves break through and steal,
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
Where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt
And where thieves do not break through nor steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

As beloved children of God, heirs of His kingdom, we have something that lasts long beyond anything that this fleeting world has to offer. We realize how few are the days that we actually have in this present world, and how our only real security and refuge is found in God, through His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. We are also reminded that just as the treasures of this earth are only temporary, so are our sorrows and troubles. They will all be forgotten when we come to the eternal joy and glory of being in God’s eternal presence. This proper perspective frees us to live in service our neighbor, living out our vocations joyously without fear or regret, no matter to where or to what God may call us.

By God’s grace, may He make you and I learn to number our days that we may gain hearts of wisdom. May He make us glad for as many days as He has afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. May the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us! May God grant this to us all.

Sermons, Uncategorized

(Re)Created to Serve and Give

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But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also (2 Corinthians 8:7).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

I often marvel at the spiritual insights of children. One week during chapel services I was teaching the preschool children about David the shepherd boy as part of a series of lessons on loving our neighbor. I showed the kids two pictures: one of David as a young boy watching over his family’s sheep, and another of David as the grown-up king of the nation of Israel. And then I asked them, “Which one of David’s jobs was more important—shepherd or king?”

Most of them replied predictably: “King!” But one of them stole my thunder. “It depends upon whether or not you’re one of the sheep,” Patrick said. And he was exactly right. Both jobs are important for those who are under their care and influence. For the sheep, the shepherd is going to have much more direct impact. He serves them. They depend upon him for food and water and protection. The king might be able to help provide those things for the people of the nation, but he won’t be too concerned about a few sheep.

Both positions of shepherd and king are God-given vocations—callings or stations in life. God gives the shepherd the privilege and responsibility of caring for the sheep in his flock. God gives the king the responsibility to care for the people in his nation. God gives you each of your various vocations.

God created humans to work and to serve. If you look back at life before sin, you’ll find work and service there. When God created Adam and Eve, it wasn’t for them to lounge around. As He worked to serve them, they were to work by caring for creation and by serving one another.

This is important: before there was sin in the world, there was work and service. To be sure, it was easier back then, as work wouldn’t be bothered by thorns and thistles, crabby customers, unreasonable supervisors, and the like; but even today, God has created you to work and serve in the place He puts you. This is true of everyone, regardless of whether they are a believer or not. Regardless of if they recognize their vocation is a calling from God or not.

This means a king has no higher calling than a shepherd. If either one neglects to do his duty, those under his care are going to suffer. A doctor has no higher calling than the woman who cleans and disinfects the operating room. If either one does not take her work seriously patients may get sick and die.

For Christians, this gives a completely different understanding of our daily life and a greater appreciation for all vocations. If you’re a Christian, whatever you do according to God’s will is holy, your vocation is holy and given by God for the purpose of serving your neighbor. Work should not be considered a “four-letter word,” but a gift of God.

Now, if work and service are gifts from God, you can bet the devil is going to do his best to ruin those gifts and your perception of them. Look at the popular notion of work today: a job is something you have to do Monday through Friday, so that you can get the days off to do what you really want to do.

But if you’re working for the weekend, you’re not going to see your job as a holy vocation, but rather as a hassle, or boring and unfulfilling. Aren’t you? Instead of rejoicing in the quality of work, you’re more likely to settle for “good enough.” Right? But what would happen if the weekend was a time that refreshed and prepared you to return to that holy vocation you wanted to do? That’s how it is, once you’re set free from the sins of sloth and selfishness. It’s another good reason to repent when you find yourself resenting the prospect of going to work. Remember: God created you to work and serve whatever stage of your life.

We’ll add one more: God created you to give. Giving is part of serving. As God gives us to do to serve others, so He also gives us to give to serve others. Where the Lord gives us abundance, He also gives us the opportunity to support church and charity, to help our neighbor, to assist a relative in need.

Now, if we’re tempted to deny that work is a gift from God, it’s going to be that much easier to deny that giving is a gift from God. It’s all too easy to see giving as an ugly test that comes with salvation, as in, “I have to give so that I can prove I’m not guilty of being greedy or to show I am truly thankful.” But both of those are attempts to motivate with the Law; and Law can cannot properly motivate or empower. It only kills and condemns.

God created you to give, which is why the devil will do his best to prevent you from giving to others. Beware, too, because greed acts much like sloth. The less you give, the less you want to give; the more you keep, and the more you’ll focus on keeping. And rather than seeing the proper solution is giving more, you’ll be inclined to believe that happiness will be found in gathering more for yourself.

The Macedonians were not like this at all. They were afflicted and poor, yet they continued to experience an “abundance of joy,” which “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” This generous giving was an act of God’s grace in Christ.

The generosity of the Macedonians was exhibited in three ways. First, they gave not just as much as they could, but even more than that. Like the widow with her mite, they had given in a way some might consider reckless or imprudent.

Second, no one had pressured them into giving. They had decided “of their own free will” to be so overwhelmingly generous in their offering. They had, in fact, “begged earnestly for the favor of taking part” in “this act of grace.”

And third: “They gave themselves first to the Lord…” The Macedonians gave something more important than money with their offerings—they gave themselves back to the Lord who had given Himself into death for them.

Paul ties everything connected with giving to the grace that God has given to His people. God’s grace centers on His gift of Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on our behalf. That grace moves us to be gracious—to freely, gladly give everything, including our material goods, back to the Lord. The offerings of a Christian, then, are part of our worship, our response to God’s grace.

Notice how evangelically Paul encourages the giving of the Corinthians! He doesn’t bargain with them or exploit their guilt or try to squeeze dead works out of their old Adam. He addresses the new man who loves to do God’s will and welcomes opportunities to express the gratitude of a reborn heart, as a fruit of faith. That is why Paul is careful to say, “I am not commanding you.” He does not want this offering to be given reluctantly or grudgingly, but freely and generously.

As always, Paul points to Jesus, the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” in fact. Paul uses the same terms, “rich” and “poor,” he had been using in talking about the offering of the Macedonians. “Though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor so that you by His poverty might become rich.”

It is not difficult to see that the Jesus who Paul holds up as a perfect model of sacrificial giving is much more than just a model. He is first a Savior. Through His humbling Himself all the way to death, the Corinthians are spiritually rich beyond compare. Their sins are forgiven. They are enjoying brand new lives as part of God’s family. An eternity of joy awaits them.

They know all of that, but like you and me, they need to be reminded of it daily. If their eyes turn from the Christ, every area of their Christian lives, including their stewardship practices, will soon degenerate into dead works instead of being good works. To be “acts of grace” their offerings must be gifts driven by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christ who became poor to make us rich is the foundation on which all Christian stewardship rests. He is our Savior. He is our motivator. He is our example. And in that order.

Saved by His grace, we are then motivated to follow Christ’s example. Knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn to be sacrificial and generous in our giving. And in the process, we are surprised to discover joy. One of the mysteries of God’s grace is that joy grows out of unselfish, sacrificial giving. The suggestion is not “Give until it hurts” but “Give until it feels good.” Only those who get beyond giving only what they won’t miss will find that joy.

How much should you give? God doesn’t give us percentages or amounts. Giving is to be an act of grace. As you see needs arise—be it disaster relief after a hurricane, a family that is struggling with economic hardship, or your weekly offering, you’re created to help and to serve as you are able.

Given all this, what would keep you from giving? What would prevent you from doing what God has created you to do?

It might be fear, fear that if you give you may end up not having enough for yourself. If that is the case, remember to be sensible in what you give and what you keep, but also be careful that fear is not the master who dictates what you do, because fear is a terrible idol to have.

It might be selfishness. You have plans for some luxuries in life, and you’d rather spend your money on those. While luxuries are not intrinsically sinful, take care that selfishness is not defeating your God-given desire to give and to serve.

It might be a restless feeling that you need more than you have because you are not satisfied. But contentment springs not from having much, but from doing what God has given you to do with what He has given you.

So God has created you to work and to serve and to give. But with all those temptations out there and that sinful nature within, you’ll never work and serve and give as you ought. As you do your best to do these things, you will likely avoid much of the restless desperation that haunts those who live only for themselves, but your best efforts are still hardly enough to earn eternal life.

Therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, abound all the more in this act of grace—“the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You do not rejoice today simply in your own working and serving and giving. Those would never be enough to gain you favor with God. No, you rejoice today because of the Lord’s working and serving and giving. You rejoice today, because the Lord who created you to work and serve and give, redeemed you and is now at work recreating you in His own image through His means of grace. In Holy Baptism Jesus gives you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. In Holy Communion, Christ gives you His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen you in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.

So you rejoice this day. God created you to work and to serve and to give: therefore, your labors each day are what He has given you to do. Where sin sought to destroy those gifts and even rob you of life, Christ died to redeem you, to set you free from sin. Therefore, you are set free to work and to serve and to give. Therefore, your labors each day are holy, because they are sanctified by God.

But even more, you rejoice in this: while sin still taints your work and your service and your giving, this does not harm your salvation—because your salvation doesn’t depend on your work and your service and your giving. This is an act of grace. Salvation is yours on account of Jesus Christ, because He has worked and served and given and lived and died for you.

Therefore, in whatever you do, you rejoice this day to be God’s holy people, recreated to serve and give freely. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.