Who are you related to?

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6 June, 2021Pastor Andrew Brook

20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” 23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” 30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” 31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:20-35

This is Jodi and my collection of family history books. They tell the story of where our family has come from, mostly from the northern part of Germany, and what is now Poland. I don’t know why the English and Scottish half of my ancestry don’t have their own books, only my Lutheran forebears. I have a sense of deep gratitude for my ancestors, and for the importance they attached to passing on the faith through to the next generation. And God has called me to do the same thing in my family. That’s a heritage far more important than genetics.

“Who are you related to?” People say that this is a particularly Lutheran question, and not always a helpful one. There have been times when we have placed more stock on our ancestry than is warranted, an overweening pride about where we’ve come from.

This happened to me when I was reading through the latest family history book in my collection, “Browsing the Bormanns.” It tells the story of my mother’s father’s family. This man, Johann Gottfried Bormann, is my great-great-great grandfather. He arrived at Port Adelaide on the 27th of October 1841. Not only was he in the one of the first waves of Lutheran migration, but he was also on the same ship, the Skjold as Pastor Fritsche, one of the two key founders of the Lutheran Church in Australia. Suddenly, I could feel the pride welling up in me. I was much closer to the centre of all things Lutheran than I had imagined. Perhaps there are times when you may have felt that way, basking in the reflected glory of an esteemed lineage. “Who are you related to?” is an important question, but today Jesus invites us to answer it in a new way.

The gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus’ ministry has begun with a bang. Immediately after his temptation, Jesus is thrown into the ring, and goes the full nine rounds with evil and human brokenness. The first thing he does is exorcise a man with a demon, while preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. News about this spreads like wildfire, and soon crowds come from everywhere, wanting a piece of the action. While visiting Peter’s mother-in-law, not only does Jesus heal her, but also the many people gathered outside her door.

News about Jesus travels fast, and soon the religious authorities get wind of the impact he is making. He heals another man, again in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus makes the audacious claim that he also has the authority to forgive sins. He heals a leper on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees criticise him for breaking the Sabbath law. He does the same thing again, challenging the religious leaders, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save or to kill?” The crowds continue to grow, the anger of the authorities glows hotter. Trouble is surely not far away.

It arrives today. But it begins, somewhat surprisingly, with Jesus’ own family. Jesus is at someone’s house, and there’s such a crush that they can’t even recline at table to eat. Jesus’ family, which we hear later means his mother Mary, and his brothers, are deeply concerned for him. Their concern clearly runs deeper than the fact that he can’t eat. They wonder whether he is out of his mind, literally ‘beside himself’ and they resolve to take charge of him, to take him away. Why do they think this? It’s hard to say. Are they worried that the fame will go to his head? Is their concern the same one that the teachers of the law have?

They, too, come to Jesus. Their motive is not his welfare. They are deeply disturbed by both his teaching and the following he has gathered. They make a serious accusation against Jesus, ““He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” What an astonishing claim, but one which indicates that they believe Jesus is a clear and present danger to them, to their authority, and to the populace at large.

Jesu takes this accusation head on, and he begins with some simple logic. “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” The same is true for a household, for a government, even for a church. Divide and conquer. Jesus goes on, “If Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.” Which we would all agree would be a great outcome, but hardly one that the evil one would engineer himself.

The logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now Jesus states his case. “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” Jesus is saying that he is, in fact, the strong man. He is the one to whom God has given the power to bind Satan and tear down his rule. Jesus is the one who will break open the prison doors which sin has bound fast and release the captives from bondage. Jesus will battle sin and death on the cross and emerge victorious in resurrection on the third day. This is what the prophet Isaiah promises that God will do through his Messiah: “24 Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives be rescued from the fierce? 25 But this is what the Lord says: “Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save.”

Jesus is saying, “You’ve got this all wrong. Badly, sadly, dangerously wrong.” “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” I remember worrying about committing the unforgiveable sin when I was younger. As a pastor told me way back then, “If you worry about committing this sin, then you haven’t committed it.”

The scandal, and the sadness, in today’s gospel, is that God’s people, the family descended from the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wouldn’t recognise and receive the one God had sent them to rescue them from their slavery to sin. They continued to argue and attack and grumble and fight against Jesus, right to his bitter end. Jesus wanted to lead them on the new exodus, a final journey to new life, but as happened the first time, they grumbled and complained and maligned the work of God. They refused to see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus and decided not to believe in him. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit-unbelief, a repudiation of the saving work of Jesus. In making this decision. God’s chosen people, his own family, wrote themselves out of their inheritance as his children.

If that wasn’t enough controversy for one day, Jesus’ family return, still trying to take him away for his own good. Even they don’t understand his mission, at least not yet. In time they will. Mary will stand at the foot of the cross. James will lead the early church. But right now, they can’t see that there is a deeper loyalty than blood, a loyalty to the Father in heaven. This doesn’t preclude loving one’s own blood family. But as we in the sequence of commandments, loving the Lord your God, and having no gods before him, precedes every other love and action, including that of mother and father. For Jesus and for us.

Jesus gets a message out to his family, ““Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” God’s children are those “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” They are those who have thrown their lot in with Jesus as their Lord, their Saviour, their brother. This is the relationship that doesn’t end when death calls. There God calls us home, to his house, where we will live forever with our family of faith. There are no surnames in heaven.

How did this family act? What are its characteristics? “ Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” God’s will is that through the spirit we come to faith in his Son, and that we share the love that we have received through his life, death and resurrection for us. This is not to our credit; the glory belongs to God alone.

The concept of what a family is, is much debated in contemporary culture. Jesus is not speaking against the importance of family in nurturing children and providing a secure environment in which to grow up and flourish. However, he is calling his children, his church, to a deeper loyalty which goes beyond blood family. This is the family of faith, the church across space and time. Now many of us have been greatly blessed to grow up in a family where these two things came together: family and faith. We have a truly blessed heritage. But that’s not true for all of us. Some of us didn’t grow up in a family of faith. But now we are part of God’s family, the family that acknowledges that Jesus is the King, and being in his household is the best family to be part of.

Who are you related to? To Jesus your brother, God your Father, through the love of the Holy Spirit. And to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There are no surnames in God’s family. Amen.

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Still, in the storm

20 June, 2021 Pastor Andrew Brook

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ 41 They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ Mark 4:35-41

Cheap and trashy novels often begin something like this. ‘It was a dark and stormy night. The thunderclaps were rattling the windows of the run-down cottage. Rain was beating against the door. The timbers of the roof were creaking ominously, as if they were protesting against the deluge...’And so on. Given enough time alone with a computer, I’m sure we could come up with something equally appalling.

Storms are often used by writers and movie directors as a metaphor for the difficulties and tragedies of life. People often talk about a stormy relationship. When a relationship faces breakdown, it’s said to be on the rocks, like a ship driven by the waves on to the shore.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that the gospel writer Mark introduces a storm into the story of Jesus’ ministry as a kind of plot development. But this storm does serve God’s purpose, and it means that the disciples can see exactly who it is they’re following.

Jesus and his disciples sail straight into a storm, but Jesus has actually spent the whole day in a boat, not sailing, first of all, but preaching. The crowd listening to him grew so large that he had to get into a boat to use it as a floating pulpit, to avoid the crush. As the boat bobbed around, he let the crowd in on the secrets of the kingdom of God. When the day was ended, Jesus told the disciples that he wanted to sail across the lake, to the other side.

The other side wasn’t just geographically distinct, but culturally too. It was Gentile territory, the kind of place that held genuine fears for the average Jew. They were on their way across the lake to a place inhabited by people from whom they expected to get a stormy reception.

And then a storm sprang up. The wind reached gale-force, the sea started to pound, and waves crashed into the boat, threatening to swamp it. Some of the disciples were fisherman, and used to a bit of rough weather, but this storm really had them really worried. But what was even more worrying was Jesus’ reaction. Or indeed the lack of it. There he was, head on the leather seat, oblivious to the chaos, sleeping on the job.

They woke Jesus up. Blind panic drove then. And they weren’t polite about it. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die.” Do you really care? Are you all just talk? In the middle of the chaos, the raw fear, the howling of the wind and slapping of the waves, Jesus simply stands up and speaks. To the wind he says, “Be silent” and to the sea “Be still”, literally, be muzzled. And the wind hears these words and stops, and the roiling sea becomes calm.

You might have expected some gratitude, but instead there’s fear. Not of the storm, but of the one who spoke the storm to stillness. Jesus gets to the heart of the issue. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

Faith is the issue. They don’t yet know who they are dealing with. “Who is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him?” They have just started on the journey with Jesus. They’ve heard him speak with great wisdom and insight. They call him Teacher, Rabbi. But then this happens, the kind of stuff only God alone can do. “God, you rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.” Or right back at the beginning, the story of creation: “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters...and God said...’ God spoke. Things happened. Jesus spoke. The same kind of things happened. The wind and the sea responded immediately. Jesus forces them to further grapple with his identity. Who is this Jesus?

As his gospel account progresses, Mark shares with us the disciple’s ongoing struggle with faith in Jesus. They can’t see how he could possibly feed 5000 people. They continually misunderstand the parables and need Jesus’ to give them a more detailed explanation. They argue about who is the best of the bunch. They are scared when Jesus talks about his impending death.

But what happens in the storm is one of the clearest indicators they’ll get of Jesus’ true identity. Despite their confusion, their lack of trust, even their anger at him, he acts to rescue them. The grace-filled God, the living, breathing God, is in the boat with them. Who can believe that?

But there’s so much more to come. There are harder, scarier times ahead. They will see their teacher, their Saviour hanging lifeless on a cross, having given up his life for the sake of this chaotic, sin-fractured world. Death has swallowed up his life. Who will rescue Jesus? They can’t. They’ve abandoned him, and so, it seems, has his Father.

But Jesus does come out of the other side of this storm of death. Death could not hold him, because he is the sinless one. He drew life from his Father. Only after the resurrection does Jesus’ life made a whole lot more sense. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” the psalmist writes. These are words that speak of Jesus’ trust in his Father, and words that are true for us too when we place our faith in Jesus.

Our lives seem to consist of alternating periods of storm and calm, stress and success, pain and pleasure. Is now a stormy time for you? Are you in a stormy and tempestuous relationship with someone close? Is this storm characterised by harsh words exchanged in anger, or is it the ache of a cooling friendship? Sometimes it mightn’t be the ferocity of the storm but the fact it seems to go on and on, without an end in sight. It might be living with chronic pain, or raw emotions from some event in the past. Sometimes it’s the whirlwind of busyness We feel trapped by our work and family life, with so many commitments from which we can’t extricate ourselves, and we see no way out.

Who is going to rescue us? In whom can we put our trust? The disciples grabbed the sleeping Jesus by the scruff of the neck and woke him up. Perhaps more in fear than in faith. Yet Jesus responded in grace and in power. He is Lord over all creation, and even more than that, he is the Lord of love.

The same faithful Lord responds gracefully to us, even in our lack of faith. When all hell breaks loose, and when we are stretched to breaking point, we will not find a sleeping Saviour, but a living Lord. He will not, he cannot let us sink. If Jesus wasn’t in the boat that night, all hands would have been lost. If Jesus wasn't with us now, the same would be true. But he has faithfully bound himself to us, as God and man. In our baptism, God has bound himself to us through his Son, and, and that means that we will never have to face the storms of life alone. We may often wonder how we can cope, but we never need wonder about whether Jesus has the ability to save us.

This isn’t true just of each one of us personally, but also of the church. The image of the church as a boat sailing on a stormy sea has its origin in this incident. Tossed around by the pressures of society and culture, sorely tested by the power of the evil one, the church’s only hope is to call to Jesus for help.

The disciples were on their way to a place that they knew very little about, and they were scared about what might happen there. Although St John’s isn’t sailing anywhere, change and chaos surround us. The world continues to travel further and further away from God, thumbing its nose at him and celebrating the freedom to live without any constraints. We are beginning to see what a world unmoored from God looks like-no longer is all human life sacred; no longer need we respect those who disagree with us. Add to that the ongoing challenge of COVID-19, and the way that the pandemic acts like a fog that enshrouds us, and international tensions, it’s no wonder that we feel uncertain, anxious, out of sorts.

The disciples felt this way, at this point in their journey with Jesus. And they continued to face challenges as the church was born at Pentecost and grew though the power of the Holy Spirit. The tempestuous life of Paul is a case in point. But then he experienced the power of a lifechanging encounter with Jesus, and he knew, as did those disciples in the boat, that nothing would be able to separate them from the love of God that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We trust in the same living Lord as those first disciples. Jesus is in this boat, and he will sustain us, guide us and lead us as we call out to him for help. In your life, in the life of our congregation, in the life of the church, let your confidence rest in the faithful, storm-calming Jesus Christ, Lord of the wind and waves, Lord of the church, Lord over all. Be still with him, in the storm and the calm. Amen.

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Waking up to God's work in the world

13 June, 2021 Pastor Dale Gosden

Introduction

Jesus often spoke to his disciples in parables, and impressed upon them the importance of listening closely to what he had to say. On a number of occasions, he said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”. Today we might say, “If you’ve got ears, then listen up!”

God’s word is so powerful that, when it takes root, it shapes us and brings God’s light into our lives. The Holy Spirit bears fruit in us through this word as it takes hold of our hearts. This is why listening well is so important. Like a plant that flourishes in the right conditions, hearing God’s word, paying attention to it, acting on it and living by it means that God’s power and influence in our lives will grow in increasing measure.

May God open our ears to hear his word today so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Sermon summary

Occasionally, as people reflect upon the state of Christianity both in Australia and in the West more generally, we hear them speaking about a ‘dying’ church, or even a ‘dead’ church. I am reluctant to speak this way, since the church is Christ’s bride and he will never allow her to die, and the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the most powerful, life-giving force in existence. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the pain endured by people when congregations amalgamate, churches close, or when faith seems hard to find in the world around us. Jesus’ words in Revelation 3 about ‘dead’ churches and ‘lukewarm’ churches should be enough of a warning for us to take the health of the church very seriously.

But what if something that looked dead was actually only dormant, like a seed? Jesus says in today’s Gospel that God’s kingdom is growing and will keep growing, even without our effort or help. Jesus’ parable about the seed reminds us that God’s kingdom advances automatically, that is, all by itself. Like a seed that grows in the ground without any tending by a farmer, so God’s kingdom will grow and advance throughout this world. A supposedly ‘dying’ church doesn’t mean it is time to panic; it certainly means it’s time to pray.

The great privilege we have, as Christians, is that this advancement of God’s kingdom takes place not merely around us but within us. Jesus calls us to listen carefully to his word, because the seed of his kingdom, when it takes root in our hearts, will also grow automatically, without our help, all because of God’s incredible power.

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The Family of God

30 May, 2021 Pastor Andrew Brook

14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. Romans 8:12-17

A baptism is a precious family occasion. Parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles, brothers and sisters, godparents and friends, are invited to the special day. And today’s baptism is doubly a family occasion, given that Florence and Walter are cousins.

We are all born into a family. Its core reality is mum and dad, and siblings. It expands out, each layer people with whom we share not just a genetic but also an emotional bond, a shared history and stories that define and inspire us. At its best, there’s a deep, robust and vibrant love.

Blood family is important, but the church has another dimension of family that we celebrate. And baptism is the starting point. Because it’s here that people are born into another family, the family of God. This morning Florence and Walter were named children of God. This name was a gift of God to them, through the new birth of baptism. And this is the name also given to each one of us here today who have been baptised in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s the day in the church’s calendar that we stop to reflect on how God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God Christians worship lives in a perfect community of love: one God, but three persons who are joined together in love. And God doesn’t keep this love quarantined. From the very beginning, God wants to share his being, his love.

God’s starting point was the act of creation. This universe, so beautiful, so intricate, so complicated, so incomprehensible, showcases God’s wisdom. But God wanted someone to share it with, someone who could enjoy relationship with God.

So “God created human beings in his image,” the book of Genesis tells us, “in the image of God he created them.” God gave us the amazing blessing of being co-creators of life: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The birth of a child continues to be one of the greatest miracles we will ever witness.

We also know, however, that it didn’t take long for things to go pear shaped. Our first human parents decided that they didn’t need to listen to God and the instructions that he had given them about a meaningful and rich life in relationship with him. They thought they knew better, they pushed the boundaries, and the rest, sad to say, is the shared history of the whole human family. We have a sad solidarity in sin, and this is played out in each and every relationship in our lives. No family, workplace, community, organisation, or nation is exempt. And what is worse, our relationship with the God of perfect love has also been fractured.

God could be excused for wanting to retreat into his holy huddle of triune love, but that’s not the path he took. He chose to engage with us, in the deepest way imaginable. God sent his Son to be born as a human being, so that the relationship we broke might be restored, and that we could become “children of God.”

Reuniting the human family was no easy task. It took Jesus’ everything, his love, patience, grace, kindness, obedience, suffering, even his life. The Apostle Paul writes earlier in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God wanted us back in his family, but we weren’t capable of restoring the relationship, so he did it for us. Jesus’ death and resurrection were what it took to welcome us. What pain it caused God the Father to give up his Son to die for us, but what joy too that Jesus accomplished the task and made it possible for us to become God’s children.

When Florence and Walter were baptised, we heard these words, and then again in today’s gospel reading: “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again … No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. A person is born physically of human parents but is born spiritually of the Spirit.” The phrase “kingdom of God” is Jesus’ shorthand for every good thing that comes from being part of God’s family: a new identity, a Father in heaven, knowing Jesus as our Lord, Saviour and brother, the presence of the Holy Spirit to nurture, guide and direct us, and a family far, far wider than those we are related to by human birth or marriage. And all of us becomes ours when we are born of water and the Spirit, in other word, baptism.

In our first reading today, Paul explains what a difference it makes in our lives to be called God’s children. This is no small honour. In the Old Testament, God called his chosen nation, Israel. And Jesus, of course, is also called God’s Son. So, for us to be given that name is a sure sign that baptism makes us part of God’s family. Paul describes this as God adopting us as his children. Adoption was a common practice in the Greek and Roman world of Paul’s day. An adopted child received all the rights and privileges of a natural child. The old ties are broken, and the new ones become permanent. With adoption comes a whole lot of new relatives and relationships.

Baptism has huge implications. We take up residence in God’s heart, and he is ours. The Holy Spirit is God’s relationship builder, the one who keeps us connected to God, and to our spiritual siblings. The Spirit encourages to keep open the communication channels with God our Father.

This doesn’t come naturally to us. Many people seek to avoid God altogether or live in perpetual fear of how they feel God wants to punish them for their failures. But Paul tells us: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.” Fear arises from ignorance or misunderstanding. People are scared of God because they think of him as a capricious, angry dictator, who is out to get them, punish them; or they think of God as a remote and impotent cosmic technician, who is too far away to care. But that’s not an accurate picture of God our Father.

God craves relationship with us. This relationship is based on the life of his Son Jesus. As Jesus was facing his death in the Garden of Gethsemane, he cried out to his Father, “Abba, Father ...everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

Jesus cried out, “Abba Father…I want to do your will.” And because Jesus did take that last step to the cross, we can now pray to God in the same way, “Abba, Father,” through the Holy Spirit’s prompting. We know where we stand before God, because of Jesus’s sacrifice of obedience. We are loved beyond measure, cared for and valued, wanting to serve and honour our loving Father.

And there’s more. Paul goes on: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” We, along with Christ, are heirs to all that God has and is. This doesn’t mean property, money, family heirlooms handed down from generation to generation but something much more solid and even more precious: the confidence that comes from knowing that God will never abandon us, the hope that we are part of God’s family, for good, for ever. And this is true in tough times as well as good. We see how Jesus suffered for us, and we know that God will stick with us through the worst.

A baptism is a precious family occasion, and today’s no exception. We celebrate the new life of children, grandchildren, the opportunity to reconnect with one another. Baptism is a precious family occasion for all of us, people who are related to another as God’s children, brothers and sisters of Jesus, welcoming the newest members of God’s family, Florence and Walter, linked in love through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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