Author Archives: cnomann

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Live With Hope

Category : Archived

A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on November 27, 2016 (First Sunday of Advent)

– Isaiah 2:1-5

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
– Matthew 24:36-44


The musical “West Side Story” begins with its lead character, Tony, looking forward to a night that he hopes will bring excitement, and maybe romance…

(Play “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story) YouTube link:

I especially like at the end of that song, where he seems to be looking for something amazing to come from the midst of the poor tenements and the hanging laundry of New York’s west side.

That is what Advent is about. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And Advent is about waiting for something amazing to come. The question is, what are we waiting for?

For many people, Advent is a time for dreaming of “a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know.” It is a time of nostalgia for times gone by.

But for the church, Advent is a time to hope for something new — something great.

In this season we prepare to celebrate the great thing that God has already done, in coming to be with us in the baby Jesus. But we also remember that we are waiting for Christ to return. The early Christians waited eagerly for Christ to return. They believed that the work Jesus came to do was not completed during his lifetime – that he would return to bring about God’s judgment on all people and nations, and to begin God’s righteous rule over all the earth. Because at the time the gospel of Matthew was written, the young Christian community was suffering persecution by the Roman Empire. The world was not yet at peace. They believed Christ would return in their lifetime to make all things right and new.

The traditional gospel readings for the first Sunday of Advent were first written to encourage the early believers not to lose hope when it seemed like Christ’s return was delayed. They urged the early Christians to remain ready, and watchful, but not to waste their energy speculating about the exact time of the second coming. God only knows when that will be.

Today, these scripture texts sound just plain strange – even depressing, when our consumer culture operates on a different timetable than God’s. Who wants to listen to warnings about the end of the world, when there are parties to attend and holiday bargains to purchase, and festive songs in the air?

But these visions are not depressing. They are great, good news! Like the song from West Side Story: “Something’s coming, and it’s going to be great!”

Let’s take a closer look at this text from Matthew. Jesus says that when the Son of Man comes (that was one way he referred to himself, borrowing a title from the prophet Ezekiel),” then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, one will be left.” For anyone who has read the book or seen the film “Left Behind,” with its fictional imaginings of what some call the “rapture”, this inspires visions of people being literally and miraculously snatched out of this world and into God’s protection. The idea of such an event is a misreading of the biblical texts. I think Jesus was trying to describe a great mystery using language and images that were so incredible that they couldn’t possibly be taken literally!

I will attempt to explain what I think these texts are about. But to try to explain what Jesus may have meant in more rational language is clumsy, and can rob these texts of their power.

I believe that, at Jesus’ first coming, some people were ready to accept who and what he was, but many were not. He was the gift of God’s presence, God’s wisdom, God’s love, God’s righteousness – of what human life could and should be, of eternal life — but he was so different that many people just didn’t get it. When Christ comes again, it won’t be in some cosmic event that will affect everyone in the world at once, but rather Christ will come to people, one at a time, hoping to be recognized and received. Some will get it; some will not. Some will see in Christ a new way of living, and will leave this world of human dominion that we foolishly call “the real world,” and take up residence in the Realm of God, where there is enough for everyone, and where there is peace with justice. They will be “in this world, but not of this world.” There is something better waiting for those who will see and accept it.

Even so, Jesus said he would return like a thief in the night. Not a very comforting image; no one likes to have their house broken into. That is because, when God comes to us in Christ, it can happen very suddenly. God breaks into our carefully constructed and defended orderly lives and worldviews, challenging our assumptions, and many things that we hold dear. That is necessary for us to truly accept God in our lives and trust in God’s leading. It is a good thing. After all, we occasionally see the fallacies of life apart from the God who makes and loves us: all the shopping in the world won’t bring happiness; the partying won’t bring us out of despair and depression; insisting on our ways by the use of force won’t bring peace. We need something new. But it still may feel at first like our well-ordered lives are being broken into.

There are many stories throughout history of people who supposedly “had it all” – and their lives were turned right-side-up when the spirit of the living Christ broke into their lives and changed everything.

More than two thousand years ago, God came into our world in Jesus. That was a miracle worth celebrating – and we will celebrate – four weeks from now! But even after two millennia, we wait as a faith community for Christ’s Advent to each one of us, to our church, and to people throughout the world. “The air is humming, and something great is coming… Maybe tonight!”


Robert J. von Trebra

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God With Us

Category : Archived

A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on December 18, 2016 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 7:10-16

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

– Matthew 1:18-25


Long ago, in a church far, far away (6 years ago, in Indian Head Park, Illinois, to be exact), I did an Advent reflection on these same scripture texts. It was a part of a series of reflections I was doing on great Advent songs of the church — In this season we are hearing all the traditional Christmas songs, but the church has a great tradition of Advent music as well. The closing song on that day was the same one we will sing today – “All Earth is Waiting.” So I am reprising that reflection for today.

Many of the traditional hymns of the Advent season are very old – going back ten centuries or more. But some are much newer, including one that has become one of my favorites. “All Earth is Waiting” was composed by Alberto Taule’ about 50 years ago. He was a leader and church musician in the Roman Catholic church in Spain. In those years after Vatican II, the Catholic Church was trying to add hymns to their masses – hymns in the language and culture of the local people. Taule’ composed Toda la Tierra (translated by Gertrude Suppe) for Advent, drawing particularly on texts from Isaiah 40 and 7.

The second verse is based on the text we read this morning from Isaiah 7:

Thus says the prophet to those of Israel,

“A virgin mother will bear Emmanuel”:

One whose name is “God with us,” our Savior shall be,

through whom hope will blossom once more within our hearts.

The virgin birth of Jesus is one of the traditional central teachings of the Christian church. It is expressed in many of the ancient creeds of the church – such as the Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed. For many Christians, it is a miracle that they believe without question. But for some people, it is difficult to accept and a stumbling block to faith. This may come as a shock to many of you – especially those of you who grew up Roman Catholic or in churches that believe the Bible is always to be read as literal truth. Modern biblical scholarship has raised questions about whether Mary was actually virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. I have usually been reluctant to take on this controversy in the context of a sermon – especially as a big celebration like Christmas is right around the corner – but it seems important in the light of our lessons for today to at least make folks aware of the issues.

Let me begin with the text from Isaiah 7 – this often-quoted prophecy in the Advent and Christmas seasons. This was written or spoken more than seven centuries before Jesus was born. Isaiah was not getting a vision of the birth of a Messiah in some far-distant time to come; he was not staring into some mystical crystal ball, foretelling the future. Isaiah was trying to speak a word from the Holy One about a current event of his time – a threatened war between Judah and its allied enemies, Israel and Aram. King Ahaz of Judah was in a panic because these other kingdoms were threatening Judah, and he may have been considering going to war against them or making an alliance with some other nation that would cost him and his kingdom. God (or Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf) tried to reassure him with an ordinary, yet extraordinary sign: “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (a Hebrew word that means “God with us.”).

It isn’t clear what young woman Isaiah was talking about – but it was someone who was expecting at that time. And what a remarkable sign this was. Ahaz was afraid his kingdom might be destroyed and life as he knew it would come to an end; Isaiah assured him that life will go on. Ahaz was afraid that God had perhaps forgotten him and the promises God had made to his ancestor David; Isaiah said the child would be a sign that God was still with them, and would help them.

But here is the surprising thing about this prophecy: Isaiah did not say “a virgin would conceive and bear a son.” Isaiah used the Hebrew word almah – which means “young woman.” It does not specify marital status or sexual experience. So there was nothing particularly miraculous about the birth that Isaiah was talking about. Isaiah did not prophesy a virgin birth.

Now, fast-forward a few centuries. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel were both eventually conquered by other enemies. God’s covenant people (the ancient Jewish people) for various reasons were scattered to many places around the world – far away from their ancestral homes. And then, in the year 333 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world and established a Greek empire. Soon, Greek became the common language of that broad empire, and many Jewish people grew up speaking Greek instead of the Hebrew in which their Bible was originally written. So, in the mid-third century BCE, a group of scholars translated the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek (known as the Septuagint).

If you have ever studied other languages, you may have learned that all of the words in one language do not necessarily have a corresponding word in another language with exactly the same meaning. For example, I’ve heard it said that the language spoken by Eskimos has many different words for what we would call snow. They live with snow even more than we do, and their hunting success and even their lives may depend on distinguishing between fresh powder, or old, crusty snow, or wet snow. And so, they have many different words for snow.

And so it was when the Bible was translated from Hebrew into Greek. Greek has several words that can mean “young woman”, and the translators chose to translate Isaiah’s almah with the Greek word parthenos, which means “virgin.” For all of the Jewish people who were hoping for a Savior who would restore their kingdom, and who read or heard the Greek Bible, they came to believe that a Messiah would be born of a virgin – a real miracle. There were other Greek legends or mythologies of the time of heroes being born to virgins. But this reading was different from what Isaiah had originally prophesied centuries before.

In the days after his earthly life and resurrection, when the first believers were proclaiming the good news about Jesus and claiming that he was the Messiah the Jewish people had been waiting for, some refused to believe because they claimed he didn’t fulfill all of the scriptures that they thought described the Messiah. I don’t think anyone really knew much about Jesus’ birth or childhood. In the biblical writings we have from the Apostle Paul, he never wrote anything about Jesus’ birth. What most scholars believe was the first gospel written – the Gospel of Mark – has no birth stories at all; It begins with Jesus’ baptism as an adult. One would think that, if Jesus had been born of a virgin, that would be well-known and proclaimed.

I believe (and I am not alone in this) that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke wanted to show that Jesus fulfilled all of what they believed were Old Testament prophecies about a Messiah. And even though the exact circumstances of Jesus’ birth were probably not known, they created stories of his birth that fit them. They told of his birth to the Virgin Mary because that is what people who read the Greek Bible thought would happen, even though the original prophecy by Isaiah didn’t talk about a virgin birth.

While this may sound shocking to many modern readers – that the authors of the gospels would invent stories of Jesus with no basis in fact – it was a common practice of that time. And maybe it isn’t even that shocking to us any more, with people now inventing “fake news” to influence elections and public policy and spreading their stories on the internet. The gospel writers were not trying to write factual histories of Jesus — they were trying to convince readers and hearers to make a life-transforming leap of faith by accepting Jesus as their Savior.

This may all seem very convoluted and complex – especially if it is the first time you have ever heard this. So let me try to give you the important, take-away lesson from all of this. We will probably never know the exact circumstances of Jesus’ birth because there is reason to believe the only sources we have (the gospels) may be biased. If it is important for you to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin – well, the angel Gabriel assures Mary in the gospel of Luke that “nothing will be impossible with God.” But if you just can’t buy it – you are still welcome here in this church – because what I am saying is that it may not have happened. And for me, it isn’t a real important issue. My faith in Christ does not depend on whether it is true or not. In fact, it may be a good thing if it didn’t happen, since the church has often used the story of the virgin birth of Jesus to suggest that sex and sexual desire are inherently sinful, rather than a good gift of our humanity as God created us (when exercised responsibly).

Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith makes no mention of a virgin birth.

For me, here is the important point: long ago, God’s people hoped for and longed for God to send them a great leader – like Moses and David and Elijah and Elisha of long ago – who would show that God loved them and cared about them, who would forgive their past sins and those of their rebellious ancestors, who would restore them to a healthy relationship with the God who had created and saved them, and would bless them with health and wholeness and peace. Today, many people – Jew and Gentile, spiritual seekers and people who have been turned off by religion, agnostics and atheists and people who just don’t care one way or another – are looking for the same thing: someone to lead them into fullness of life and community, and to free them from all things that rob them of their humanity.

“All earth is waiting to see the Promised One.”

That person is Jesus, whose birth (virgin or otherwise) we are preparing to celebrate.

In the words of Alberto Taule’, “Again, on arriving, Christ brings us liberty.”


Robert J. von Trebra

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Vision of Peace

Category : Archived

A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on December 4, 2016 (Second Sunday of Advent)

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. – Isaiah 11:1-10

– Matthew 3:1-12


The prophet Isaiah – like most of the biblical prophets – was a poet. A visionary, sometimes critical, subversive poet. This particular poetic vision starts small (a shoot coming up from the stump of a royal family tree), and ends big (a whole new peaceful creation). It is a bold work of art.

Like many poems, I don’t think this was ever intended to be taken literally. It is more evocative than definitive. From what I know of ecology, it would not be a good thing if animal predators stopped killing prey. But it does give us a vision of peace. It is poetry that makes us look at our own divisions, fears, stereotypes, and enemies. God’s new creation is one in which we have no more enemies.

How can we make such a vision of peace a reality? Isaiah’s description of a righteous king or a messiah made me think about those people in our world today who seem to embody peace. Some of them are Christian; others are not. People like the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis. Thich Nhat Hanh. People are naturally attracted to them because they have… something. John the Baptist may have had that something. I am sure that Jesus had it as well – perhaps more than any person who has ever lived: A deep connection to something greater than themselves — God, Spirit, mindfulness, humility based in a realistic knowledge of who they are. Deep peace.
It is impressive to meet people like that. Can we become like that? I would think that we can, if we devote a lifetime to it, although it is a challenge to do while holding down a job as a teacher or nurse or accountant. But maybe we can make a little progress towards that kind of inner peace. Because I believe that creating peace in this violent world begins with finding peace in ourselves: peace with God; peace with ourselves; peace with loved ones.

I think many, if not most people have brief moments in their life of connection to a deeper reality – mystical experiences – although we rarely talk about them with others. And they are sporadic and brief things – not something that we can hold onto or recreate, though their memory may stay with us for a lifetime and change us in profound ways.
We can remember those experiences of peace and connection — or open ourselves to them — through spiritual practices like prayer and meditation. I also think it helps to find ways to get perspective on our human situation. Our daily lives are filled with crises, and the evening news inundates us with more crises from around the world. It can help to remember what astronauts discover while orbiting the earth – that we are little parts of a beautiful planet without borders. It can help to remember what historians and cosmologists and biologists and geologists know – that the human story is only a small part of the history of the universe; that death is a part of life; that the human race is only a small part of life on earth; and humans have a long and sad history of violence and injustice against one another. We are not likely to end it quickly with a new law or by invading violent countries. And if we aren’t careful, we may cause as much or more damage than we prevent.
In order for a new creation to come into being, we need to be new creations ourselves. John the Baptist called people to repent. That invitation has gotten many negative connotations over the centuries – becoming for some a judgmental imperative to give up all things fun or pleasurable. But it is, instead, an offer to become new people – filled with that spirit of which Isaiah spoke: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and a respect for what is good and true and holy.

Christians have used the metaphors of Christ living within us; of being baptized with the Holy Spirit. We need divine help that moves us from selfishness to relationship and community.

We find peace with God when we believe that we are not God’s enemies, but beloved. The coming of God to be among us in Jesus is one way we have seen Deep Reality reaching out to us to offer a new way of living – even inviting us to be coworkers in bringing a peaceful new creation into being.

We find peace with ourselves when we know the truth about ourselves – that we are precious and gifted and beautiful, but we also are prone to doing foolish things. We cannot make peace on our own; we need that “fear of the Lord” (which means deepest respect for Ultimate Goodness, Power and Love and Grace).

The peace that God offers us is peace that refuses to make anyone an enemy — even people who vote differently than we, or who threaten us with harm. Divine peace is not just “Don’t worry – be happy,” but a willingness to confront those who do wrong with loving resistance. That is our challenge in these dangerous times.

Do we truly want peace in our lives and in our world? Do we want a whole new creation? Repent. It’s hard to embrace a new creation when we are heavily invested and comfortable in the old. Nurture peace in yourself. Be peace that insists on what is right without resorting to violence to achieve it. It is challenging, frustrating, dangerous work. Indeed, I believe it is beyond our purely human ability to achieve. We need divine help. We need a Savior (to save us from ourselves); we need a Prince (or Princess) of Peace.


Robert J. von Trebra

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Water and Spirit

Category : Archived

A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on January 8, 2016 (First Sunday after Epiphany/Baptism of Christ)

Acts 19:1-7
Matthew 3:13-17

The Christmas season has come to an end. Two of the gospels in our Bible tell stories of Jesus’ birth, but almost nothing is known of his childhood. There is only one story of Jesus as a child – in the gospel of Luke – which narrates how he visited the city of Jerusalem with his parents when he was about 12 years old, and stayed in the temple when his family returned home (unbeknownst to them). After that, the next part of the gospel story is Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist when he was about 30 years old. So the traditional gospel reading for this first Sunday after Epiphany (the end of the Christmas season) is the Baptism of Jesus.

We have been having some discussions about baptism in the church recently – in our council meetings and adult faith discussions. Baptism is the traditional ritual or sacrament by which one becomes incorporated into the church – the Body of Christ. Our HUCC bylaws require that one be baptized in order to become a member of the church. But what about those who come to be a part of our faith community from other religious traditions? If we say, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” should we require baptism to be a member? Apparently, some UCC churches have decided that should not be a requirement for membership in their local congregation.

That will be one important question for us to wrestle with in the years to come, as we discern how to be a church of Jesus Christ in a changing culture. I have told our council that perhaps it is a question best saved until you call a new pastor. I don’t intend to provide an answer today, but instead I thought this would be a good occasion to talk about some of the meanings of baptism.

John the Baptist seems to have been a popular, apocalyptic preacher in first century Judea. He came out of a Jewish tradition, but he was not main-stream; in fact he was critical of some of the Jewish traditions of his time. He preached that a time of God’s judgment was soon to come, and that people needed to be baptized as a sign of repentance. And he also proclaimed that one even greater than he would soon come.

Baptism was not something new with John. Many ancient religions, including Judaism, had ritual washings with water of various kinds. They were often symbolic of purification or preparation for a new kind of life. The baptism that John preached was a ritual of repentance. And, according to the story, this was a problem when Jesus came to him because John recognized that Jesus had no reason to repent, so he at first refused to baptize Jesus. He only consented after Jesus insisted.

Christian baptism still retains this meaning of purification from sin. The Christian church has long taught that baptism is the necessary cure for “original sin” – the sin that all people inherit from our earliest human ancestors. It is the ticket – or the first punch on the ticket – that gets one into heaven. But that teaching has faced some serious criticism in recent years (including from folks in this church!).

But Christian baptism has more dimensions of meaning than cleansing from sin. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism came to symbolize (in the words of the apostle Paul) a death like Christ’s, in order that we might also know a resurrection like Christ’s. Our Centering Reading from our UCC Book of Worship refers to this symbolism. In baptism, we die to our old life – a life focused on self and the wisdom of this world; and rise to a new life – a life focused on service and community and God’s wisdom, which seems like foolishness to this world. That symbolism is more powerful in baptism by immersion than in sprinkling with water, but it is there.

We don’t often talk about that meaning of baptism when we baptize infants in our tradition.

There are also echoes of the creation story in Genesis – when God brought forth a world with dry land and living things from a watery chaos; of Noah and the flood and the ark; and the story of the Hebrew slaves who escaped bondage under Pharaoh of Egypt by going through the sea. In baptism we become a new creation, and are set free from bondage to false gods.

Other meanings are also suggested in the story of Jesus’ baptism. After he was baptized in the Jordan River, two amazing things happened: he saw the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove; and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In our baptisms, we become beloved children of God. Now all people are, in some sense, children of God – although many of them are estranged from that relationship. In baptism, we claim that relationship and become also heirs – heirs of God’s promises of steadfast love and life. The image of a parent giving an infant a loving bath, and then covering the child with a fluffy blanket and kisses comes to mind.

And we also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is big. Early in the book of Acts, the story is told of how the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and early followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost, giving birth to the church. Our UCC Statement of Faith affirms that it is the Holy Spirit that creates and renews the Church of Jesus Christ, and binds together people of all ages, tongues and races.

Early Christians also believed that baptism bestowed upon believers “spiritual gifts.” These are gifts like speaking in tongues (other languages), prophecy, teaching, leadership, ministry, giving, healing, and others that are given to people for the common good – to help build up the faith and the Church.

In the story we read from Acts, Paul came to the city of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) and found some disciples of Jesus. They had been baptized, but with John’s baptism – a baptism of repentance. They did not even know about the Holy Spirit. But when they were baptized in the name of Jesus, they received the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and prophesy (speaking the words of God to the community).

We need these gifts in the church – all people’s gifts.

These are a few of the meanings of baptism. I do not suggest this list is exhaustive. These are all gracious gifts of God; we aren’t entitled to them and we don’t earn them. They are gifts freely given because God loves us and wants us to live in peace and health and wholeness and freedom.

I don’t think these things all happen magically or miraculously by the application of Holy Water. The water reminds us that God’s love and grace are as essential to our new life of faith as water is for our life in this world: for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. What matters from us is the willingness to be open to all these gracious gifts – a willingness publicly demonstrated by consenting to baptism – and the prayers and support of a faith community.

During our time of Communion, I invite you to come to the baptismal font – either before or after receiving Communion – for a reminder of your baptism.

Robert J. von Trebra

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