Sermon, May 12: Love is a Verb

Purple is a mystical color, some would say – born of the union of fiery red and icy blue. Back in the first century, it was the color of empire – only Caesar himself wore robes of glowing purple. If this woman named Lydia was a seller of purple, she was a wealthy, confident business woman, used to dealing with people who understood all kinds of control.
Before we look a little more at Lydia’s story, let’s backtrack and trace how Paul arrived in Philippi. It had started so well. Paul and Barnabas had been travelling through Asia, converting many and planting new churches.
When Paul and Barnabas returned to Jerusalem, instead of asking how them might help them, what church leaders wanted to know was why were they welcoming and baptizing Gentiles(!) Where did they ever get the notion that they could welcome just anybody? Nothing really changes, does it?
Partly to escape perhaps, Paul left Jerusalem and set off on his next journey. When he got to Macedonia, he found that there was no synagogue where he could preach. So he went down to the river, looking for ten Jewish men to make up a minyan, and found – Lydia, the seller of purple.
The Lord opened her heart, Paul tells us, and she became a Christian. And the first thing she did was simple and obvious and different from what the leaders in Jerusalem had done. She invited Paul and his companions to her home. Lydia could see they needed a warm meal, a roof over their heads and what we all know that leads to – a word or two of comfort. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said simply, “come and stay at my house.”
Let’s look a little closer at the kind of love Lydia shared with her new friends that day. It was an immediate response to the unspoken needs of the other. Just as Paul looked at this self-confident seller of purple, and saw someone who would respond to his words, so she looked at the intense, gifted preacher and saw someone who needed simple human care. Both felt and showed the kind of love that we call mothering love today.
Mothering love will do whatever is necessary to create a nurturing space: a separate peace, not a peace as the world gives peace. Mothering love is as close as we can get to what the language of the fourth gospel is trying to express when Jesus says that “the Father and I will come to those who love me and make our home with them.”
The biblical equivalent of mothering love can be found in the story of life in the garden of Eden. Eden is the ultimate image of a snug safe place: untroubled peace with no need to plan, to think, to work. No boundaries or limitations. No separations.
But eventually, we all need to grow up and so, the lush passivity of Eden needs to end just as childhood needs to end. Love, in an adult world needs to be a verb, a word of action, that gives and functions on both sides of the relationship.
And that is what the whole message of the gospel of John is about, isn’t it? As John tells it, Jesus’ new understanding was precisely this: Don’t just say you love one another: Show it. Love each other as I have loved you. And you will know peace – peace that passes human understanding.
It’s about more than words. It’s about how Jesus loved the ones he called “little children.” Mother-like, he healed the sick. Fed the hungry. Comforted the confused. Hugged the children.
When all else failed, he went to the cross and grave. The Apostles’ Creed goes so far as to say that he “descended into hell.” Can you imagine the depth of love such language tries to convey? What the creed is saying is that there is no place, no pain that we’ll ever have to face alone, because Jesus – God-with-us – was there first.
And so, Christians are called to love each other with a love that knows no boundaries, no end. To love each other as a mother loves her child. To love each other with the same understanding that Lydia did when she knew that to make a home for God’s people is to make a home for God here on earth.
Paul’s hunger to share Jesus’ story with the Philippians and Lydia’s willingness to nurture Paul and his companions is a human image of God’s own hunger to make a home with us. It is how Jesus said we are to live – as I have loved you, he told his disciples, you also must love one another. Not just by talking, but by living the very love that is prompted by heaven, but grounded in earth – even, you could say – motherly. Amen.

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Sermon, May 5: Going Home

We don’t often think of it this way, but without the light of resurrection morning, Jesus would be long forgotten. The two sad travelers on the road to Emmaus would have gotten it right. Once it had looked to them like Jesus was the one who had been spoken of by the prophets. Once Peter has said he was the Christ. But he had died and, as far as these two could see, it was time to move on.
So Cleopas and his friend got out of town. While they were walking, Luke says “Jesus himself came up and walked along with them but they were kept from recognizing him.” When it began to get dark, they asked him to stay and share their supper. When he was at the table with them, “he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them.” And, in the doing, their past tragic history and hope of an unimaginable future were joined together.
We said last week that Easter is the single most sacred moment in the Christian story. That sacred is a way of thinking that points to hope when everything around us is shrouded in anxiety and incoherence. In the face of mortal realities, Easter says that there’s far more to life than existence, even if you can’t taste, touch or feel it.
And so the next question is how does Easter continue to say this. You know, of course, that this is not just a story about two people on a back road a couple of thousand years ago. Whatever it was that kept the travelers from recognizing Jesus, when they reached home –something made them say “Stay with us. Please – whoever you are – stay a little longer,”
Luke says it was like their eyes were opened and they wondered about their hearts burning within them, even before – out there on the road. Whatever it had been that kept them from recognizing Jesus: when he blessed and broke and shared the bread, it was gone.
Hiding out in Emmaus is never a solution for anything – it never was and it never will be. But Jesus had been prepared to go with them wherever it was that they were going so he could be with them when they got there. He shared their bread, but before that, he’d shared their journey.
And so they knew that they were not alone as they thought. And they knew with startling certainty that he would share their lives no matter how many more misunderstandings and failures there were along the way.
The brief encounter between Jesus and his friends on the road to Emmaus is a reminder that Easter isn’t so brief after all. It certainly doesn’t end at sundown on Easter Sunday. To encounter Christ on our journeys today and to see him in the breaking of the bread is to have the courage to live our own resurrected life.
Because to live resurrection means nothing less than to trust that God will renew life even in the most ordinary, difficult and painful moments of our living – even in the moment when Jesus disappears the very moment our conscious minds begin to recognize him.
Because that’s how spiritual life is, isn’t it? Breath and words and a feeling – no more, but surely no less. We need to be gentle with ourselves when we question our own experiences of Jesus in our midst. They are real and yet not quite real, they are touchable and not quite, they are something we understand, but only almost. No wonder Thomas doubted. Maybe it’s natural to doubt, but it’s also important to remember that – while the intense sense of presence goes so quickly, the fear from before goes with it too. In its place is peace – the peace that passes understanding.
And joy – the joy of knowing that through all the changes and chances of living and dying, there is a wholeness to reality – one that binds all of life together, and together with God.
And that’s what sent the disciples running back up that road to Jerusalem – to shout the news from the holy city to the ends of the earth – hope and trust in God, whose love is written not only in ancient promises, but also in our own hearts all these years later. Christ is risen. Alleluia. Amen.

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Sermon, April 28: The Only Way

Easter is the single most sacred moment in the Christian story. I say this because sacred is a way of looking at reality that points toward meaning at a time when everything seems to be shrouded in fog and incoherence. In the face of mortal realities, Easter says that there’s far more to life than existence, even if you can’t taste, touch or feel what that “far more” is.
But then, Easter made itself known to those first disciples through their senses, not their thinking. For Mary, it was hearing her name. Early on that first Easter morning, she went to the tomb ready to learn what had happened to Jesus’ body and she found nothing. A little later, she sensed Jesus in the garden, he spoke her name and she ran back to the others calling out “I have seen the Lord!”
Later that day, the disciples on the Emmaus Road said that sight was what had confused them. Their sense of Christ’s presence came through the sharing of food – it’s aroma, its taste, the way it looked in his hand.
For Thomas, the confirming sense was touch. Thomas was the only one able to touch Jesus after he died. John says that Jesus had pulled away even from Mary whom he loved. So who was this Thomas and what about him was so different?
The first we heard of Thomas was in John’s account of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus and the disciples had left Bethany for a while so they might avoid the increasing hostility of the authorities. When the news came that Lazarus had died, and Jesus said he’d go back to Bethany, most of the disciples objected. “What sense does it make to go back into that kind of danger?,” they asked.
But Thomas argued against the caution of the others. “Let’s go,” he said, “that we may die with Jesus.” It’s a curious response, don’t you think – the words of an all-or-nothing sort of person. But it tells us something about how important it was for Thomas to be with Jesus. Wherever Jesus needed to be, Thomas needed to be with him. Even death could be faced, as long as Jesus was beside him. This is great, great faithfulness.
The next we hear from Thomas is during the Last Supper. Speaking to his best friends about leaving them, Jesus said “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He was going to get things ready for them, he added, and there was no mystery about it. They knew the way to where he was going. Except this time, Thomas has the chutzpah to break into the poetry and say “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And by asking it, Thomas gave Jesus one more chance to get his truth through to his friends.
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he said, telling Thomas and all the others – then and now – that there was no map he could give them. Telling them that his truth is not to be found in intellectual abstraction. That it has to be sensed moment by moment, experience by experience – by reaching out and touching.
Perhaps at the end, Thomas reached the point where it simply hurt too much to hope one more time. Even so – he reached out one more time. And, one more time, he waited. He waited in the darkness of his unbelief for Jesus to do the unimaginable. In the end, of course, he received the reassurance he had so desperately longed for.
But what about us? As Jesus pointed out, those who came later would also have to believe without seeing. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That would be us. And that’s what we need to do too, if we are going to receive the assurance this story is offering us.
Because, in retrospect, the resurrection stories tell more than the story of Jesus. They tell us how a group of terrified disciples became the ones so radically changed that, only one generation later, they had taken their message of the living Christ to Rome and to Antioch and India.
They found the courage to do that, they say, through God’s holy spirit – God’s same holy spirit who gets us through the times when all we know seems like a dead end. We describe our experiences differently today, but the essence stays the same: somehow, even in the depths of the pain, we know – really know – that we are not alone. Someone out there somewhere, cares. How you know this is between you and God. But you know deep inside yourself that Someone out there somewhere, really cares.
The Easter stories also say there’s more to life than existence. They tell how the risen Christ came to each person then and comes to each of us now – in the awareness of our separate senses and strengths and weakness. Some to whom Jesus came said they saw the Lord.
Thomas says this Lord is God. We too will find the Christ, he says, as we walk the path he walked – a path which may wound us as it wounded him, but which leads to abundant life. We find him, and share him as we live the life he lived. It’s not magic. It’s not easy. It’s what we so often fail at. But it is, for Christians, the only way. Amen

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Happenings, April 26 – May 3

Doubt doesn't equal Unbelief

The turning of death into life
is past human comprehension –
just ask Doubting Thomas!

Please join us Sunday
April 28st at 10:00 am as we consider
holy doubt and trust.

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Easter Sermon: Holy Imagination

Holy Imagination

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” Then they remembered his words.

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

It seems appropriate that, each and every year, the timing of an event as mysterious as Easter depends on the cosmos itself. You need to look first for the vernal equinox, a sky-defined event, and then for the full moon, a dark-defined event. And the point of course – counter-intuitive as it might be – is that you need to look into the dark to find the light.  Dawn may be when weeping women and shaken men could not find the body of Jesus, but whatever happened to it, it happened in deepest darkness.

But t Jesus’ life had always been about rejoining darkness and light, hasn’t it? Twelve resurrection stories struggle to show us how this can be now.  No two are alike.  Some are about the absence of death.  Some are about seeing Jesus alive.  But the more there are, the more questions they raise.  Were these stories about actual events as we define actual? Were they visions?  Are visions delusions or are they our only way into some realities? Could all this be someone’s imagination? The church’s? Ours? Jesus’s?

What is imagination anyhow? The dictionary says it’s the ability to form new concepts or happenings not previously present to earthly senses. We’ve certainly noticed that Jesus always walked between the clarity of belief and the shadow world of imagination, pointing out that life is not defined by Caesar’s reign, Pilate’s grasp, or conventional pieties. What might we learn if we could know what his God-centered imagination taught him about life beyond life? What might he know about darkness that we can only guess? It takes a certain kind of imagination to look into the dark to find the light.

One thing we know about imagination is that it’s not available to senses of touch and feel, but it’s not delusion. Ask Walt Disney. Ask Jesus –  his scars are part of him now. So is his imagination, the only sign we have of his amazing ability to remain faithful even when his human life was ripped away. We’ve said over and over again this season that Jesus perceived God as radically alive and trusted his life and his hope to his perception of the overwhelming nature of that aliveness.

And now we come to see that’s the real focus of Easter: the coming together of completely different ways of being – God’s and ours. When Jesus chose to trust God to the end by choosing the wellbeing of others, he chose the way of the other, the path of ultimate commitment. Jesus’ way was God’s way. Jesus’ compassion was God’s compassion. Jesus’ life was taken into God’s eternal life.

But what of the rest of us? Luke says that the women who ran to the tomb saw what they saw and believed what they believed what they believed. But when they shared their conclusions with the apostles, the gospel says that Peter “ got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” What that means today is that the heart of the Christian story is a still place where the courage to go on is born of glimpses and yearnings and the need to see the linen strips for ourselves.

Luke did not try to speak the unspeakable. He did not tell us exactly how long ago or exactly how it was that Peter sensed the risen Christ. He told us instead, how to sense Christ for ourselves. Go, Luke tells of the angel saying, go to your own Galilee and try to live as Jesus did. There’s still more to life than our take on Caesar’s reign, Pilate’s grasp, or conventional pieties. Try for yourself and then you will know that the story has no end – for Christ has gone ahead of us. Christ is risen. Alleluia.

Let us pray: God of all creation, you are the one un-confined by our definitions. You are light from past the galaxies, love without a farther shore. We are so small and so very grateful for a glimpse into the mystery of our presence in our world – for our own sense of Christ’s compassion and integrity and resurrection.

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Happenings: Easter

Now
is when tears
turn to alleluias!

In the turning of hate and death
into love and life,
our God is revealed.

Please join us Sunday
April 21st at 10:00 am for
the festival celebration of
the resurrection of Christ.

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Sermon for Palm Sunday: Voices

When Jesus had come near Bethpage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

After the parade and the palm-waving and the borrowed donkey, after the confusion and the hosannas – after all this, Luke tells us. Jesus went into the temple and threw out the money changers. Maybe then, he stopped to look around for one last quiet time.

He did not speak a word that Luke records. He did not heal anyone. Here, in the sacred space at the heart of his people, Jesus was simply alone, alone with the shadows and reflections and memories –  and maybe premonitions.

Did he hear echoes of the voices of Mary and Joseph telling him the story about how they brought him to this temple when he was only eight days old? An elderly prophet named Simeon had taken him in his arms, saying, “Now let your servant depart in peace for my eyes have seen salvation: a light for the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.” Simeon had blessed them then and told Mary that “your child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel – a sign that will be opposed, so a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Did he think about how this was the week when Simeon’s words to his mother would come so horribly true?

Might the lingering scent of temple incense have sparked a premonition of the woman who would open an alabaster jar of perfume to anoint him? “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,” he would marvel, “what she has done will be told in memory of her.” She was the one who believed him. “I will anoint you now” her action said, “because I believe you are the Messiah, the son of David, the lamb of God.

Or do you think he might have heard the bleating of the Passover lambs in the cold dark temple? Or that the scent of their fear might have stirred up his own? He could still change his mind, after all. It was all still possible – he could just go back to Nazareth, stop the healing, stop the talking, live a long life. All he had to do was hug his God tightly to himself and never share another hint with another living soul. That’s all he needed to do and he’d be safe – safe from Jerusalem’s scorn, safe from Rome’s violent rage. Why didn’t he turn back while there was still time?

When he looked up, Jesus could see the veil of the temple that separated the courts of the people from the Holy of Holies. The veil was huge – 60 feet tall – woven from bright linen threads and embroidered with golden cherubim. It protected the place of the Shekinah – the ancient compassionate feminine presence of God-with-us. And so while the veil signified separation – separation of people from each other, separation of humanity from God, the Shekinah was the comfort Jesus longed for. In the moment of his death, the veil would rip from top to bottom and in the days and years to come, Jesus would be understood as the presence of God. It was a lot for one mortal being to contemplate at the end of an overwhelming day.

Later, back in Bethany, Mary would anoint him with precious nard. Was she the first to see that Jesus’ life was driven not by survival, but by an overwhelming love that enabled him to give his life away? The first to understand that this love allowed him to see God as the source of unending life and freeing him to love beyond human boundaries and fears .

“Father, everything is still possible,” he would pray a few days later. “Take this cup away. Let me live out my life.” I believe that lonely choice in Gethsemane’s garden matters more than all the pain on Calvary’s rocky hill because that was when Jesus chose his own high integrity. That was the night he trusted enough to die for us.

But Friday would come and the voices that shouted hosanna would be replaced by the voices shouting “Crucify Him!” And then all the voices would be quiet because the one that would whisper “Father, forgive them” would be stilled.

What was Jesus doing that evening in the shadows of the temple? Perhaps he was choosing to trust God to the end by choosing love for others, no matter where it led him. That trust would kill him, it’s true. But there is no death in the nature of God – that’s true too. Jesus’ way was God’s way. Jesus’ compassion was God’s compassion. Jesus’ life would be taken into God’s life.

But that was all for later. For this one moment on a Spring evening, in this holy place at the heart of his people, Jesus simply looked. And listened. And perhaps in this place, where the voices of memory mingled with the voices of prophecy, perhaps the voices of those dear to him spoke out too  – offering their prayers for the dark days ahead.

Perhaps in this sacred space, Jesus was able to remember voices of love and reflection along with the ones of betrayal and violence. Perhaps there was time to be blessed for one last moment by the sweetness of mortal life. So Hosanna! Hosanna to the son of Mary…the son of David…the son of God!   Amen.

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Happenings: April 12

Now is the time

for telling the story

of tears turning to alleluias.

In the power of the story,

in the turning of endings into beginnings,

our God is revealed.

Please join us Sunday at 10 AM for Palm Sunday.

Good Friday:  April 19th at Noon

A service of remembrance and prayer.

Easter Sunday:  April 21st at 10:00 am

The festival celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

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Sermon: A Multiplicity of Marys

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for Jesus. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

We’ve said before that Jesus perceived God as radically alive and that he trusted his whole life and death to his perception of the overwhelming nature of that aliveness. All these weeks, we’ve been looking at Jesus as human first in an effort to understand what he did and why he told the stories he told. From this, what seems to have emerged is that Jesus as human sensed that God could share some of God’s nature. The way Paul said this is that “The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving being.” And now we see the gospels shift emphasis to share their amazement about how Jesus was a life giving being. One way the gospel writers did this was by seeing him through the eyes of others who shared his story.

When Lazarus died, Mary said to Jesus, “if you had only been here, my brother would not have died.” This is a startlingly new way of looking at life and death, one that includes Jesus’ radical view of God’s aliveness forever. So, from the depths of his compassion and against all human understanding, Jesus called out – and Lazarus stumbled from his tomb.

Because of the uproar caused by all this, the Pharisees called a meeting of their highest court and came to the conclusion that, if they let Jesus continue to heal and teach, the Romans would destroy their nation. It is better, they decided that “one man die for the people, than the whole nation perish.” And so the end began to close in.

Back in Bethany, all unaware that storm clouds were gathering, the celebration of Lazarus’ new life was going strong. The family was serving supper in Jesus’ honor and this time, Mary brought out an extravagantly expensive perfume – precious nard worth enough to feed a poor family for a year. She anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. An extraordinary  gesture, but why?

We need to stop here and think for a moment about how Jesus might have sensed God’ aliveness and – from what we read in the biblical stories – he learned about it by sensing God’s love. “You are my beloved son,” the text says over and over again. “With you, I am well pleased.”  John would later write that “God is love…[and] if we love one another, God abides in us and God’s love is perfected in us.”

In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, the story of Mary’s tribute is remembered as one in which she anointed his head.[i] The gesture reminded people of the prophets and kings like Samuel who anointed King David. In the gospel of Luke, Mary is portrayed as a sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet in an expression of faith and love for which, Jesus said, “her sins were forgiven.” But what was John’s reason for adapting this story, and what might it mean in our world where anointing and foot washing are ancient, forgotten gestures? Might it be a way to talk about love – Mary’s love, Jesus’ love, even God’s love?

We’d miss this point if we missed the link between this and the Last Supper. Then, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them. He would ask them to repeat this act of service to each other as a sign of God’s love. I will be your servant and wash your feet, he said in effect, so that you, and everyone who comes after you, can understand that serving each other is the way human beings actually live out God’s love.

Here, Jesus would allow Mary’s washing his feet and dying them with her hair. Her gesture and his acceptance were about outrageously extravagant love. What she did was give to Jesus what Jesus would later give to the disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. She fulfilled his desire that we love and serve each other even before he said it to the twelve.

Like Jesus’ own, Mary’s was a faith that says “no matter what others may think, no matter what the respectable may say, no matter what it may cost, this is how God loves and this is how I will love also.” And no matter how one tells her story, the woman with the alabaster jar was the one whom Jesus loved, the one who would be first to meet the risen Christ..    Amen.

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Happenings: April 7 – 12

Happenings

April 7 – 12

Beloved…

Matthew 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 1-9; Luke 7: 36-49; John 12: 1-8

A Multiplicity of Marys

Join us Sunday at 10 AM

@ The First Congregational Church of Verona

19 Church Street, Verona

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