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Matthew 25:37-40

July 6, 2018

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. Matthew 25:37-40

When a parent tells their child to take out the garbage or to clean their room, they aren’t inviting a conversation about the nature of garbage or an argument about the organizational standards a child chooses for their own sleeping environment. The parent expects the child to take out the garbage or clean their room. Said expectation is fulfilled when, and only when, the garbage has been taken out or the room is cleaned by said child. Period.

Why ought what seems crystal clear when talking about earthly parents and children seem so cloudy when it comes to what the Bible tells us about the will of God?

Since Jesus is the one telling this story, isn’t it safe to say that feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned is right there at the center of what Jesus would want his people to be about in the world? It is a laundry list of the sort of thing that Jesus did. He set an example. He modeled exemplary behavior. He expects those who follow him to do the same.

The interesting thing is that the “righteous” – those who got it right by aligning their lives to the model of Jesus (Jesus sets the standard for righteousness) – don’t even realize what they did. They are the children who took out the garbage because they saw – just like their parents could – that the garbage was full and needed therefore to be taken out.

I trust every parent has seen that happen. They have returned home from work to smell dinner cooking because a child knew it was going to be dinnertime again that day too. The garbage out because the can was full. The floor vacuumed because it needed it. The room picked up because it had gotten messy. Even without asking. No fuss. No arguments. It is wonderful when that happens. And, in most families, it is rare.

The righteous don’t realize that they have been doing what is right. To them it seems that they have only been doing what is obvious. They are shocked when the king says that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The writer of 1 John would later encapsulate this scene with the words, “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Love, in this passage and in life itself, is not a feeling. It is a decision to be loving. Thus it might look like a meal, access to fresh water, welcoming, rather than rejecting, those who are different, comprehensive immigration reform, access to affordable health care, bringing justice into the criminal justice system.

The king commands us to clean our rooms. Are we willing?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we live in a world that tells us that might makes right. Again this morning, you remind us that right makes right. That there is a right way to live and it is measured by the care, concern, and justice afforded to the most vulnerable among us. This turns our world upside down. It might even heal it. Guide us to do right today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Matthew 25:34-36

July 5, 2018

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” Matthew 25:34-36

Sometimes it is helpful to remember the vast gulf between us and the people of Jesus’ day. While human nature might not change, human conditions certainly have.

In Jesus’ day, the vast majority of people lived on a subsistence diet that barely kept them alive. There was nothing approaching what we know as the “middle class.” There was the rich and the extremely rich and those that suffered under grinding poverty. There were no opportunities to change one’s position in life.

The good news that Jesus brought was not only the forgiveness of sin, it was the promise of healing of all that separates us from God and from one another, including peoples’ public social realities and physical needs. It was good news for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. It was good news for those who needed it most. Conversely, it was a real challenge – and still is – to those who had plenty to eat, drink, and wear. A challenge to those who sat at the “top” of the humanly created pecking orders of life.

In Jesus’ day, the remarkable thing about Christian community was how it reached across dividing lines of class, culture, and gender. People who otherwise might not have anything to do with each other beyond social and economic functions joined their lives as a community. They shared what they had with one another. The writer of Acts says “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

We certainly have poverty and hunger and oppression in our culture today. No question about that. But we have softened those realities with the work of non-profit caring efforts, and state and federal programs for the poor and the poorest of the poor. There is also real opportunity for upward mobility for those that work hard and take advantage of those opportunities.

Along the way we have learned that efforts to create and sustain large populations of people on the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” doesn’t work. It might sound good on paper but the dark side of human nature gets in the way. All human systems are vulnerable to corruption, self-dealing, and catering to those that accumulate power and wealth while ignoring the common good. All human systems see life from the top down.

Jesus would lead us, instead, to view life from the bottom up. To consider – in our personal and public lives – first the needs of the poorest of the poor. There will always be enough for all.

Let us pray: Soften our hearts and open our eyes, O Lord, that we might see the world as Jesus did. That the good news which we both receive and share, be truly good news for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 25:31-33

July 3, 2018

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” Matthew 25:31-33

Like many other people in Houston, I was disappointed at the news that Lebron James had decided to take his basketball skills to Los Angeles. Nothing against Lo$ Angele$, he had lot$ of great rea$on$ for moving there….but it would have fun to see him play for my town.

I’m thinking of Lebron today because he will always come up on the list of NBA GOAT’s. I find it just a bit ironic that we use GOAT to refer to the “greatest of all time.” Ironic because anyone who has read the Bible knows, like the childrens’ song has long taught us, “I would rather be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah.

Jesus turns the heat up now in the 25th chapter of Matthew. Now he isn’t telling stories about unnamed masters and slaves, now he is painting a picture of a future to which “all the nations” are heading. He describes a gathering together of the scattered nations and a sorting process that puts some on the left and some on the right. The sheep and the goats. I just wanna be a sheep.

We’ll have to read on to learn more about this sorting process but for today – especially as we in the United States prepare to eat hamburgers and hot dogs to celebrate Independence Day – let’s notice just how undemocratic this future vision is. The Son of Man is in charge. The sheep and the goats have no say in the matter. Regardless of their earthly power, their constant jostling for position, their past tales of glory, “all the nations” are reduced to farm animals.

The Good Shepherd, once reduced to pastel images of carrying the lost sheep home or surrounded by children, is now the Great Separator. Backed up by an army of angels.

Anyone, it seems to me, upon hearing this brief introduction to the story that will now carry us to the end of the chapter, will end up wanting to be a sheep. They just might not want what it takes.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, our ears perk up at the idea of a great separation. We don’t want to be left out, or left behind, or found wanting. We don’t want to be exposed. We want to be insulated and protected and privileged. We like the illusions of control. We like to justify our likes and defend our divisions and protect our preferences. But we know the day will come when all of that will be stripped away. Help us live today as we want to be found on that one. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 25:24-30

June 29, 2018

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25:24-30

Now we come to the twist in the story. If this was a movie, here the soundtrack would change from the light-hearted joy of the master and the servants celebrating their mutual successes in doubling their talents to something more ominous. Duh duh duh dahhh…..

The first thing we notice is that the description of the master offered by this final slave doesn’t quite fit the actions of the master we have seen thus far. He showed great trust in his servants to take appropriate care of the assets entrusted to them. He rewarded them handsomely for their efforts. But this final slave doesn’t see that in his master at all.

There is a disconnect between the master as he is in the real world and the master that exists in the minds’ eye of this third slave. To him, the master is harsh and greedy. He was afraid so he took the easy way out. He buried his talent for safe-keeping to make sure he could return it intact. At least he was honest about it. But then he loses everything. His fears are confirmed. The master does appear cruel and capricious.

We saw this ending coming from the very start. The other two went to work, the third buried his talent. Right at that point we knew that this wasn’t going to end well for him. He failed in his imagination even before he picked up the shovel to bury his talent. He had already decided there was no pleasing this evil master so he didn’t even try. He took the easy way out. In digging a hole for his talents he failed to see that he was already digging a hole for himself.

How does the ending of the story sound in your ears? Just or unjust? Fair or unfair? How does the story leave you feeling about the master? Is he, or isn’t he, the kind of master you want to work for?

I once worked for a boss who struck fear in the hearts of all of us. He was a gifted, talented, visionary man but he was also moody and quick to get angry. (Many people might have seen the same things in their parents.) If he showed up and we were hard at work, all was well. But if we were loafing, just seeing his car coming down the road made a pit in my stomach. We jumped into action, looking busy. That was the worst part of that job.

We could cynically say, “Well, that sounds about right. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Everybody gets what they deserve. Like it or not, life is a meritocracy and to the victor goes the spoils. You get what you work for and, if you don’t work, you’re gonna get it.”  Is that really the way the world works? Is that really the world we want to live in?

Maybe that is how Jesus intends for us to hear the story – it both encourages and troubles us. We’re drawing ever closer to the end (of this stage) of the Jesus story. At this point his disciples have largely been around for the ride. Maybe this story is intended to wake them up, to shake them up. I know that is what it does to me.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we see all of these slaves in ourselves. Sometimes, and in some places in our lives, we are bold and full of confidence. In others, we are fearful, lazy. We don’t want to be useless and we certainly don’t want to wake up on a trash heap. Come to us in our imaginations that we might see your love for us, toward us. Take away our fear that we might be freed to do what lies ahead of us, what only we can do. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Matthew 25:19-23

June 28, 2018

After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Matthew 25:19-23

As I shared yesterday, we use the word “talent” today to refer to something that a person is good at, something they are gifted at doing. In Jesus’ day, it was a unit of measurement. A talent of gold today would be worth more than $1 million. Consider that and you will realize the cartoonish character of this parable. Cartoonish not in terms of funny or silly, but more in the way of a political cartoon – biting.

Imagine hearing this story from Jesus’ own mouth. Instead of doing what we do as we read them from the Bible – we immediately, without conscious thought, spiritualize them so that the master is “God” and the slaves are “us” – the first hearers might have heard them at face value. They would have realized that the master was crazy.

No master in their right mind would leave that kind of money with his slaves and then disappear for a long time, at least long enough to allow them to double his money. If not crazy, then the master must have been incredibly trusting, and the slaves trustworthy. Imagine that. There lies the bite.

While we might like to live in a world like that, we know that isn’t how life normally works.

Another way to hear this story, rather than a business transaction, is to hear it as an argument from the lessor to the greater, as a test of the trustworthiness of the slaves. If they prove faithful in some measure, they will gain greater responsibilities.

Once again, even here, the master is taking a huge risk. They might fail. He might lose everything.

So, in the end, is this a story about the master or a story about the slaves? Call it a test or call it a deal, the master remains a crazy risk-taker. Have you ever imagined God as a crazy risk-taker?

Do you trust that God knows what God is doing in creating you, gifting you, deploying you in the world as an agent of God’s love? Use well your gifts, good and trustworthy servant.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, while our shortcomings and limitations might never be far from our minds, the scariest parts of us are our possibilities and capabilities, all gifts from you. We love because you first loved us. Love is crazy. Love takes risks. Love means letting go. When we love others, what we give away is doubled. May we love today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 25:14-18

June 27, 2018

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.

The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.” Matthew 25:14-18

I love David Letterman’s new show on Netflix. He interviews interesting people. The other day I watched his interview with Jerry Seinfeld. At one point, as Jerry is showering praise on Letterman for the cultural contributions he made, Letterman – in classic Midwestern fashion – does the “awshucks, go on, it was nothing” thing. Letterman says his career was “selfish.” Immediately Seinfeld challenges him. To Seinfeld, the work they did was generous.

Seinfeld said that it is like God gives you a “talent horse” and then your job is to ride it where it takes you. It took both of them to a place where they made people laugh. That was their contribution to the world. It was worthwhile.

The “talents” in this story don’t refer to the same kind of talents that Seinfeld. These talents refer to very large sums of money. But – for Seinfeld at least – those two things go together. He had to work very hard for a long time to make it as he did…but so does someone who shingles homes in the Texas sun. They too have a talent. They too might use it to the best of their ability. They might do OK but they aren’t going to get Seinfeld rich doing it.

So the world then jumps in and decides that the roofer “got by” while Seinfeld was a “huge success.” But that isn’t what the parable says.

Yes, it does say that the talents were unequal…but that isn’t to say that the wise manager wasn’t shrewd enough to realize which of his servants had the right “talent horse” to do the most with what he was given. And I don’t know how long the master was away but doubling one’s money is quite the profit.

But the point…don’t we all see it?…is the poor guy who was afraid of the boss so he put the money away for safekeeping only to end up losing everything.

I don’t know what you’re good at, or what you are passionate about, or how much money you make, or how much money you started life with…but the warning in this text is not to bury it because you fear the boss. The boss is a GOOD boss! The boss is a GRACIOUS boss! The boss LOVES YOU! Make the most OF your life for others…which has little or nothing to do with what you make IN your life for your boss, yourself, or anyone else.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for entrusting the gift of life to us and for giving us gifts that allow us to be useful, helpful, loving, and just with others. Help us make the most of our gifts. And if we already have something buried in the backyard, let today be the day we dig it back up and do our best with it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 25:1-13

June 26, 2018

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.

But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Matthew 25:1-13

I got stuck after Easter. I’m very grateful to the members of Faith who wrote daily devotions for the Easter season. It is much easier to send out devotions when someone else is writing them and what they all, all from their own hearts and points of view, were very good. Then, when I turned back to Matthew to pick up the story, I got stuck.

Then I got stuck in the hospital. I went through a major surgery that I didn’t see coming that really knocked the wind out of my sails. Like everyone else, it wasn’t the hours that I spent in surgery that was the problem, it was the weeks of recovery that I only foggily remember. But now I’m much better, back at work, and back at my computer first thing every morning.

I still found myself stuck on this opening story in the 25th chapter of Matthew. I really don’t know what to make of it. I read it and I realize that weddings in the Bible are always significant and always a metaphor directed toward God. I have read about the multi-day nature of weddings in Jesus’ day but that doesn’t help. Because I can’t seem to get past those foolish bridesmaids who find themselves locked out of the wedding feast because they didn’t think to fill their lamps with oil.

All of my life I have heard people talk about the Christian faith in a way that makes it seem very logical, very biblical, to see life in such a way that is very OK with the idea that the wise get the goodies and the foolish get the shaft. Sorry, foolish bridesmaids, you don’t get to come in. Like the Titanic, this world is going down and the wise have hopped into the Jesus lifeboat while the foolish plunge into the sea. I am not OK with that. It is amazing grace that saves a wretch like me, not my own wisdom to keep my lamp filled with oil.

There is a way of reading this story that pours fuel on the fires of Christian entitlement, Christian privilege, and Christian arrogance. It is almost an anti-Christian story in that, in my mind, the Christian thing to do is to share my oil with those who don’t have enough, or to let them take my lamp and head to the party.

So I get stuck on this story (and those which follow) which Jesus told at a critical time in his life. Or, at least, which Matthew places in a strategic moment in Jesus’ life. The cross is just around the corner. The first will be last. All is not as it seems.

Let us pray: Keep us awake, Lord Jesus, even when we feel stuck in our ways of thinking, seeing, and being. Keep us awake and open, Lord Jesus, that we not miss your party nor content ourselves with the idea that it is OK that others do. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Acts 20: 17-24

May 18, 2018

Throughout the Easter Season, the daily devotions have been written by members of Faith Lutheran Church. Today’s writer is Zhen Zhou.

“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When the arrived, he said to them: “You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me — the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” Acts 20: 17-24

It seems as if I were sitting with the group of elders in front of Paul when reading this passage of Scripture, I can feel the fruit of the Holy Spirit – joy and long-suffering, from the bottom of his heart through his words. Because Paul had met the resurrected Jesus and had strong faith that the judgment of God and the kingdom of God would eventually come, he could discern and enjoy the joy from sufferings in the real world.

Joy does not mean feeling happy all the time or with everything, on the contrary, suffering and pain often accompany with us for most of the time and contribute to achieve the final joy. Then, what can we do? The answer is – What would Jesus do?

Since we could find guidelines in God’s words through the Holy Bible, we need to confess and focus on refreshing ourselves, and do everything under the guidance of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. At the same time, pray for others and pray for the coming of the kingdom of God. Thus, others will notice the image of God inside you and they will be attracted by God. We will have fulfilled the way of delivering Gospel from God via both actions and words, just like Jesus Christ and Paul did two thousand years ago. Finally, we will gain more fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Let us Pray: Our heavenly father, please give us strength and courage to overcome each temptation and suffering. Give us wisdom while delivering your Gospel and love to the world. With your guidance, we’re filled with joy. In your name we pray, Amen!

Acts 18:24-28

May 17, 2018

Throughout the Easter Season, the daily devotions have been written by members of Faith Lutheran Church. Today’s writer is Jeff Jones.

“Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately. And when he wished to cross over to Achaia, the believers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. On his arrival he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus.”   Acts 18:24-28

I picture Apollos as being the young, college grad type who goes around sharing his knowledge of the Messiah with the uneducated masses. Apollos was from Alexandria, which was the second largest city in the Roman Empire. Alexandria’s library was the largest in the world at the time. Before being destroyed by fire, it contained 700,000 scrolls. Apollos was an educated Jew. I suspect he had the equivalent of a masters degree. Because Apollos had the gift of eloquence, he could take old scriptures and breathe new life into them by articulating them so well.

As a scholar, I think Apollos found for himself what the scripture told of the coming Messiah. The suffering servant coming to bring redemption. It seems Apollos had ample credentials, passion and energy to be a missionary to the Jews.  He used the scriptures to prove Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Apollos spoke boldly in the synagogue, though he primarily knew only the baptism of John . When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more completely. While Priscilla and Aquila may have felt inferior, they never let the intellectual differences between them and Apollos prevent them from having a fuller understanding of God.

I believe everyone who hears and accepts the good news of Jesus Christ is qualified to share what they know with anyone. Christians should always maintain a teachable spirit. No matter how much formal education or experience one has, there is always something new to learn.

Let us pray: God, through your only-begotten Son, you have overcome death on this day and have opened unto us the gate of everlasting life. Bless us to pursue, with your aid, the good resolves you have inspired, and by your constant help make them eternally effective. Through the same Jesus Christ, your Son, who is living and reigning forever and ever. Amen.

Acts 16:25-34

May 16, 2018

Throughout the Easter Season, the daily devotions have been written by members of Faith Lutheran Church. Today’s writer is Brent Lamb.

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.

At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” Acts 16:25-34

It is amazing how God’s timing can be so relevant in our lives.  Upon receiving a request to do an Easter devotional from John Vickery, we had just returned from visiting a falsely accused Faith Choir member in prison.  He also leads prayer with other prisoners as Paul and Silas were doing.  Unfortunately, there have not been any earthquakes in Teague, Texas to open all the doors of the Boyd Unit.

This passage is the story of a prison release, but more importantly, of the conversion of a jailer who asks what he must do to be saved.  Paul and Silas tell him to “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  After cleaning their wounds, the jailer and his family were baptized and the jailer became a believer in God.  As we journey through the season of Easter, we look forward to our release through forgiveness with our resurrected Lord.

Let us pray: Our heavenly Father, thank you for our release from the prison of sin through your Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.