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John 17: 1-19


The late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a pioneer on the subject of grief, particularly on the subject of death and dying. She writes: “Anticipation heightens the senses and enhances birthdays, holiday celebrations, and vacations. Unfortunately, anticipation can also magnify the possibility or reality of a loss….Knowing that we and all of our loved ones will die someday creates anxiety. We see this early in life. ‘Bambi’s mother was shot!’ many little girls cried [out] when they [saw that movie for the first time.] And who didn’t cry at or get choked up the first time they saw the movie ‘Old Yeller,’ or most recently, ‘Marley and Me?’ Other children learned about death watching Simba’s dad dying in The Lion King.” [ON GRIEF AND GRIEVING, Scribner, p.1] Dealing with the death of a parent, grandparent, friend, or a pet can be devastating. Dealing with the death of a child is a loss from which most tell me they do not fully recover. How do we deal with all that life and death throw us?


This summer our daughter, and your seminary student, Jenny Sumner, will spend an intensive three months at Tampa General Hospital, our closest trauma one center. There she will doing Clinical Pastoral Education, what others training for the ministry have done before her: getting used to seeing blood, broken bones, twisted limbs, scarred faces; trying to help people cope with untimely illnesses, find her own places of vulnerability and deal with them and learn how to help others come to terms with dying when she has yet to come to terms with it either. It is a daunting training experience. So far it didn’t go well: to work in a hospital, people have to get a blood test. As they drew blood from her, she fainted and grew nauseous! But as you either laugh or wince at that story, it reminds us of how much anxiety surrounds our times of grave illness, of death, and of dying. Some have spent time in the military and experienced post traumatic stress disorder from the horrors of war; some have learned how to treat the dead, and the families of the dead, with the greatest of respect and honor.  The just released HBO documentary film TAKING CHANCE is an extraordinary example of military honor and care: I highly recommend it.


One of the best ways to deal with our mortality and the illness of others is to hear the words of those who have faced it.  German Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was executed in a Concentration Camp while he was working for Hitler’s defeat. Among his last requests was a prayer to God that he wrote down: “God who doest punish sin and willingly forgive, I have loved this people…. Seize me and hold me! My staff is sinking; O faithful God, prepare my grave.” (From Der Tod des Mose, 1944). Theologian Henry Nouwen return from visiting his father one year and stopped to have dinner with one of his friends named Nathan. “During the meal, Nathan asked [him], ‘Where and how do you want to die?’ He raised the question in a gentle way. It was a question that came from our awareness that [our friend was soon going to die.] Our awareness prompted us to ask ourselves: ‘Are we preparing ourselves for death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy? Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends, or will it be no more than another cause for sadness?’ … Nathan’s question brought me face-to-face with a great challenge: (said Nouwen,) not only to live well, but also to die well.’” [OUR GREATEST GIFT, Harper, 1995,] Fainting at the sight of blood; having to come to terms with death: what can we do to gird ourselves for our fateful day, and to give help and hope to those around us when we pass from this world? On this Memorial Day weekend, we turn to a most sacred moment, and a chance to know the prayerful exchange that our Lord Jesus had with his Father in Heaven. Scattered in the gospels are his so called “seven last words” where some humbling cries and requests are shared. They include: 1) “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It’s a high calling to offer forgiveness ourselves and to ask forgiveness of others in a daily fashion, for we know not the day or the hour we will breathe our last. 2) “Verily, thou shalt be in Paradise today with me.” It’s a word of surprising blessing, something that we can choose to share too. 3) “Dear Woman, behold thy son.” That was Jesus’ assignment to John, whom he trusted to care for his mother, a wonderful example of care. 4) “God, my Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” reminds us that even the Lord Jesus felt the anguish of human life leaving his body. We are not alone in our trials. 5) “I thirst.” From discomfort to anguish, whatever you experience, Jesus too has experienced it. 6)“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” At some point Jesus chose to set his face toward Heaven, leaving Earth behind. At some point we too can cross over to “the sweet by and by.” And the 7) last word: “It is finished.”  When Jesus said those words, they did not just describe his death; they described all his purposes in life as well. “Those words from us can also let others know we did all that we could with the hand we were dealt. In the prayer we read today, Jesus prayed to his Father, and showed first, how to give God the glory. Jesus saw his death as bringing glory to his Heavenly Father. A life well lived, with remorse when needed, and forgiveness offered as appropriate, and the good news shared naturally is a life that glorifies God. Today we remember all those who have gone before us, some living well, some poorly; some dying quickly, and others slowly. How will people talk about us after we’re gone? Second, Jesus lived so that others might know God. Is there one person- a child, a youth, an adult- who you have invited to know God, by inviting them to church, by showing kindness to them, by teaching them, or by offering care to them? Is there at least one person in the world who thinks well of God because of you, and thinks well of you because Jesus shines through you? If not, you have another job description from our Savior: Besides first glorifying God in all things; and second to live so others might know God. Third: Jesus asked his Father to protect us; we ask him to protect the souls of our loved ones as well. Our prayer, like his, is that they are protected from the temptations the Evil One offers. That is a tall order, but one for which we work and pray. Jesus had a number of last requests, most of which were to glorify God and to help others. Those who take steps like that follow in the footsteps of the Master.


And so, dear friends: many well prepared people, Jesus included, put their wishes in writing: in their will they have helped others and glorified God; some have given bequests that helped God or others in visible or lasting ways; some wrote words that guided their children, their spouse, or their friends to more meaningful and peaceful
living. Last requests, written well, can bless those who remain behind. Who will you seek to bless at your passing, with your gifts or your guidance? Let this weekend not just be a memorial weekend, but one of thoughtful planning as well.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                        May 24, 2009

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John 15: 9-17


Psychiatrist Victor Frankyl, had many things change in his life during the three years he spent in Nazi Concentration Camps. His famous book, MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, shares some of his thoughts and experiences:

“As we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and time again, dragging on another upward and onward, nothing was said, but we knew: each of us was thinking of his wife …. My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, and her frank, encouraging look …. A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by many poets … the truth that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which [a person] can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of all is through love and in love.”

Through the horrors of his experience, Frankyl stumbled on a living truth in a most profound way. He had arrived at his conclusion only after grappling with the meaning and purpose of life, struggling for existence, and living only with a glimmer of hope. The thing that kept him going was love. But what was so important about love in his time of despair? Just this: in an environment of hate and indifference, he had a focus; a radically different focus: he had someone who loved him and he loved that person back. Love kindled the will to live of a dying man.


We will not look at the subject of love naively. Sometimes those who are dying, or who are away for a long time, find that the love of another drives or renews them. But on our days of distraction, of human nature, of bad attitude, of hurt feelings, or when passion for life has run dry, we can do quite a poor job of showing love, and even of experiencing it.  Some here have been hurt by love and hurt in love; some have contributed to the hurt. Some I have known has just given up on love because they got hurt in a relationship. Victor Frankyl, Jesus Christ, troops across the miles, dying spouses or friends pull us back on solid ground: love- with all the ways it makes us vulnerable, foolish, and risk-taking- is vital for the existence of life, for meaning in life, and even for the desire to keep living. Some here today, who are immersed in bitterness, hurt, or apathy, will not see that. I will pray for you, that you move through your cold and isolating experience, and I invite you to remember me and others when we do thoughtless and hurtful things. We really can’t get passed needing love.


Listen to the words of Jesus: “Abide in my love … this is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” Listen to the words of others: “Love is the fire of life; it either consumes or purifies.” Another said, “To be loved, love.”  Many of you know that in the Greek language in which the New Testament is written, there are three kinds of love; passionate love, brotherly love, and Christian love. Although Jesus’ words describe selfless, “Christian” love, all of the above mentioned “loves” are part of our lives: we either embrace them, or we are influenced by not having or showing them. Love is that much a part of life. Our Lord starts with those who may feel unloved: it is an invitation to remain in his love; in the knowledge that he loves you. On the days when you don’t feel like you have enough love to give, there is a source from which love comes: it is God; the Bible actually equates God with love. “God is love.” Love has its source with God: now and forever. That love is given to you and to me, not once and for all, but in a continual flow that never ceases. “As the Father has loved me,” Jesus says, “so have I loved you; remain (or abide) in my love.” It’s worded as an imperative, or an authoritative command. Jesus doesn’t say “think about abiding in my love,” or “you may abide in my love.” He says “abide in it” almost as if to say “you can’t help but to abide in my love.”


Scientists know that power of love.  They have done studies that show that love- a little good attention- could lift up and even change prisoners, patients, and all broken people. Just a month ago, I saw retired Presbyterian pastor Bill Chegwin at Indigo Manor. He was coming in to the care center with a dog! I asked about it. He said since his father was in there, he asked permission to bring his dog in because it brought joy to his father and his father’s friends to have a soft animal that liked attention and gave attention. “Now” Bill said, “I bring him around to visit lots of residents here. The nurses say our visit changes their day!”


So we now come to the second part of our text: Jesus had already said the greatest commandment was to love God and to love neighbor. Now he reinforces the second part: “love one another.” Jesus’ words carry a lot of weight. He had loved those who were scorned by others.  He loved tax collectors, beggars, and those accused of “loose living.” He even loved those considered unclean, including Samaritans. His love and his words straightened out the Pharisees’ misinterpretation of the great commandment. Pharisees carried such authority that when they “Loved their neighbor but hated their enemies,” other people did it too. That tragic distortion of the Bible is still going on today: people hating others when they suspect them of dreadful sinning. Jesus at one point told those who were judging to take the log out of their own eye before they judged the splinter in the eye of another. It is freeing to remember that the job of judge is already taken.


A retiring usher in a church was instructing his youthful successor in the details of ushering. The instructions concluded with these words: “And remember, my boy, that we have nothing but good, loving Christians in this church- until you try to put someone else in their pew.” When does love stop flowing from you to someone else?  Often it is after someone offends, hurts, or betrays us. Unfortunately for the grudge we seem to nurse, Jesus had an answer for that too. “How often do we have to forgive?” Peter asked him. “Seven times?” a number with a limit. “No” was the Savior’s overwhelming reply: “seventy times seven”- an unlimited number. And in today’s text Jesus pins us down even tighter: “”Greater love has no one than this: if you lay down your life for your friends.” Just as Abraham was a friend of God according to Isaiah in 41:8, those who are children of God are also friends of ours; friends as in neighbors, sharing the same planet, work space, or home. Jesus chose disciples to bea
r fruit and, when done properly, the work carries on to the next generation. Jesus trusted twelve ordinary men, some special disciples who were women, and a crowd of healed people who went back to their villages and told others about him. Now he’s trusting you, as he trusts me, to show love, to show remorse and repentance when we hurt others, and to be in relationship with one another. With that we can change the world. I’ll close with the words Coleridge used at the end of his epic poem “Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “He prayeth best who lovest best, and things both great and small; for the dear Lord who lovest us, He made and loveth all.”

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                        May 17, 2009

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John 15: 1-8


One of the most observant writers that I have read is the author Annie Dillard. In her autobiography, AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, she described every detail of her observations in life. For example she says about her father: “When our mother met Frank Doak, he was twenty-seven: witty, boyish, bookish, unsnobbish, a good dancer. He had grown up an only child in Pittsburgh, attended Shady Side Academy, and Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania where he studied history. He was a lapsed Presbyterian and a believing Republican. “Books make the man” read the blue bookplate in all of his books.”  So that was her father. But listen to her account of her mother: “The skin on mother’s face was smooth, fair, and tender; it took impressions readily. She napped on her side on the couch. Her face skin pooled on the low side; … how flexible was it? I pushed at a puddle of it by her nose. She stirred and opened her eyes. She reminded me not to touch her face while she was sleeping….[But] I never lost a wondering awe at the transformation of an everyday, tender, nap-creased mother into an exalted and dazzling beauty who chatted with me as she dressed. Her blue eyes shone and caught the light, and so did the platinum waves in her hair and the pearls at her ears and throat. She was wearing a black dress….The black skin bodice and the simple necklace set off its human fineness.”  [AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, Harper & Row, 1987, pp. 6, 21, 22]

For better or for worse, we are products of our mothers. Often the tone of our skin, the wave or lack of wave in our hair, our neurotic habits and our good ones, (like looking both ways before crossing a street, and brushing our teeth before bed) are often imbedded habits because our mothers put them there. 


Last week we were reminded that Jesus spoke in metaphorical and not literal ways. He told his disciples: “I am the vine, you are the branches; cut off from me you can do nothing.” It was a reminder for disciples to go back often to their source of life, of lessons, and of love. Often during Lent church groups will sing the Taize chorus: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” In response I can imagine Jesus joining with mothers across the world as he says: “Remember me when you grow up! I have not taught you these lessons for nothing.” As we consider Jesus’ metaphor on this Mother’ Day, we find a family analogy.  When you were born, it is likely that the first face you saw when your tiny eyes began to focus was that of your mother. From our mother’s face we learned to read exhaustion and exhilaration, earnestness and easiness, sternness and silliness. From our mothers we received our first food. The vine and branches analogy becomes biological when we think of the safety and warmth of our mother’s womb and the life-giving nourishment that came unceasingly from her umbilical cord to us. As we are born, we transferred from umbilical cord to breast or to bottle, and the world that seemed so bright and loud at birth started to feel safe and warm again, snuggled in our mother’s arms. Our needs were met before we were able to voice them: from wet or dirty diapers, to a cheek pressed to a forehead checking for a fever- our mothers, (and sometimes fathers,) had to figure out the sources of discomfort that made us cry.

 As our own children were growing up, Mary Ann and I took turns carrying them around in the handy front sack or the back pack we got. We pushed them in strollers, sang to them, and helped them get on and off of swing sets.  When it came to costumes, clothes, cakes, or schedules, their mom was the best. Of course there came the blessed and sorrowful day when first one child and then the next announced to their mother those five words of independence: “I can do it myself.”  Our hearts sank and soared- sank as they needed our help-less, and soared because they needed our help less! That was our goal as parents, right- “to produce thoughtful citizens of the world and faithful followers of Jesus?”  Would they still stay connected with us when they were grown, and if so, in what ways?

 “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus told his disciples. “Cut off from me you can do nothing.”  Was there no growing up for those followers? Were they destined to stay in his midst forever?  Those haunting words were part of John’s Gospel known as Jesus’ final instructions.  As if mom or dad were going on a trip, or in the most gripping of cases, they knew that they were dying, Jesus was telling those who would be left behind words to comfort and instruct them: I am going for a reason: to prepare a place for you. But don’t worry, I WILL come back- I promise- and get you and next time you can come WITH me! Here is a modified translation of John 15, today’s text: “Don’t ever forget what I taught you and who I am to you! You NEED me! All the words I have said and the examples I have set: make sure they are not wasted! If you remember them, they’ll come back to you as you age and you’ll find yourself believing them and telling them to others.”  Like a good mother, Jesus was preparing his followers for life in the world, and in his case, life after he was gone.

For better or for worse, from neuroses to blessings, from good habits to bad habits, insightful people have learned from their mothers.  Those who were adopted have mothers with a special drive to build and keep that connection with them. And connection is what Jesus’ words are all about. As the children noted what happened to a plant cut of f from its root, so our connections with parents, grandparents, and special mentors guide our feet when we are young and our choices when we are grown. “Train up children in the way they are to go” the Bible tells us, “and when they grow up, they will not depart from it.” They may get transplanted to another home, or room, or state, or country; and growing up may mean, physically, spiritually, emotionally, or all three; but you, good mothers and fathers, are seed planters; you, good teachers and mentors, are planting seeds too.  As our children got Dixie cups with a seed in them on Easter, and they are now hugely outgrowing their cup and are ready for transplant, children grow right before our eyes. But they would not be who they are without tender care when they were new and weak. As branches need pruning, so corrections and disappointments make people grow from babies on milk to adults on solid food. Children, like a vine, do not grow best untended. They need water, guidance, pruning, and good soil.

 Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Cut off from me you can do nothing.”  Staying connected with Him in prayer and mission nurtured Christianity when it was a baby in its mother’s arms; it gave guidance as it took root in Jerusalem, Galilee, and Asia Minor. And it is the glue that
all lifelong Christians need if we hope to always be his hands, feet, and voice on Earth. Our world stays connected with Facebook, IMs, text messages, Twitter, long distance, notepaper and even conversation. But no connection is more important, yet more neglected by so many, than taking time to be with Him.

At the beginning of the conference at Montreat that Mary Ann and I just attended, part of the mission for the week was to meet new people, connect with old friends, listen to new ideas and have time to really worship God and renew our spirits. Mary Ann went to the recreation workshops and I took study leave and joined them for meals and worship. As we gathered the first day, all were asked to take a clay pot, to put a small sapling in it of our choice, and to put construction paper leaves on our tree to remind us of why we had come together. Without thinking but an instant, I labeled my pot “Make Your Garden Grow!” and wrote the words, “Pray, Play, Worship, Live, and Love” on the outside of the pot. From the branches I hung leaves that I labeled “Friends, Laughter, Re-Create, Work, and Worship” that guided my expectations for the week. Here we were, away from the rat race, in the arms of God in one of the Presbyterian Holy Lands, to reconnect with our Creator and to re-create. So our conference would be different from other conferences, right? Have you recently gone to a conference? What happens at the breaks? People can’t wait to pull out their laptops at Wi-Fi hot spots or go outside to make cell phone calls. But we were at Montreat; to connect with God, or even with our inner child! So at breaks what did participants do? They rushed to hot spots with their laptops or to hang out windows or stand in the rain where precious cell phone towers sent faint signals. They got the vine analogy about being staying connected with others. But Jesus hoped he might get at least some equal time.

 For me it took some markers, some sand, a branch, and a clay pot to help me remember who I am on this earth and who I am to the one above.  May Jesus’ simple analogy of a vine be just such a teachable moment for you as well: today, your job is simple: call your mother, or recall her if she is gone, and talk with God in prayer. Connections matter.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                   May 10, 2009

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John 10: 11-18


A man walks into a pet store and asks, “Excuse me, but I wonder if you could get me a Baptist dog.” “A Baptist dog,” the store owner said, “I don’t know. Could you give me some time to work on it?” “Sure,” the man said, left his phone number, and left. A month later, the store owner calls. “I think I’ve found the dog you want!” “Great!” the man says, “I’ll be right down.” He gets to the store and sees the store owner with a rather big dog by his side.” “I think this is the dog for you! Watch what he can do!” The store owner commanded “Bible,” and quick as a flash, the dog crossed the store, picked up a Bible in his mouth, and ran it back to the owner. “That’s pretty good!” the potential customer said. “That’s nothin’!” the owner replied, watch this! “Psalm 23” he commanded, and the dog took his paw, fanned through the pages at lightning speed, and stopped on Psalm 23! “Wow,” the customer said. “Very impressive!” “Here’s another one,” the owner said, “John 3:16!” Just as before, the dog’s paw rifled through the Bible until it stopped and pointed to John 3:16.  “Amazing!” the customer said. One more thing- does the dog respond to regular commands?”  “Hmm,” the store owner pondered. I don’t know. Let’s try it: “Heel!” he commanded, and the dog stood on his hind legs, put his paw on the man’s forehead, and bowed his head. “I can’t take that dog!” the customer cried out. “He’s part Pentecostal!!”


Much fodder has been made about the peculiar differences in the branches of the Church- capital “C.”  Some call Presbyterians “God’s frozen chosen!” some lightheartedly call the Roman Catholic Mass the “service of bells and smells!”  It makes for good humor unless hard hearts cross the line into hurtfulness.  But the lines are blurring in our congregations; Presbyterians sing psalms and chant while Episcopalians play guitars and put words on screens. Some try to avoid denominations and go to so called “independent,” or “non-affiliated” congregations. There is good news and bad news about all of the different houses of worship and the way they do things: the good news is that there is a style of worship for everyone, from jumping and joyful to quiet and contemplative and everything in between. The bad news for those who toe the party line of Baptists, Charismatics, Methodists, Lutherans or Presbyterians is that we are all in this together; we are all sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd. We do not have a Lord of the Contemporary and another Lord of Traditional; a Lord of the liturgical and another Lord of the Free-Church tradition.  There are plenty of jokes about one denomination or another, believing they will be the only ones in Heaven. But the joke will be on them as, to their horror, they will witness the grace of God welcoming people in the next life to whom they hardly spoke in this one. So we might brace ourselves for what is to come: by our attitude, our next life could either be a rude awakening, or a joyful one!


Saying we are all sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd may be unsettling- to think that we all call Jesus Christ, that we all seek to follow him, and to admit that we all need both a Shepherd and a Savior.  If we need a shepherd, that of course, makes us sheep by analogy. Some find that comforting, others disconcerting. Those who are comforted know that sheep cannot protect themselves, find their own food, provide their own drinking water, or ward off pesky flies or diseases. They cannot live without a Good Shepherd; when Jesus called himself “Shepherd,” he counted on our relationship with him being just like that. Do you believe you could live life fully without Jesus? There are plenty who think they can! Yet Jesus, in using that analogy, wants to challenge our perception of independence and hopes that we see our need for dependence, at least when it comes to our salvation! Can you get to heaven by your own works! No, says Paul in the New Testament. Can we be born again without the Spirit of the Living God! No, says Jesus. Can we be like Jesus if we don’t do what he did in the world? No, says Jesus the Good Teacher. Can we be sustained in our spiritual journeys without taking Jesus into us in prayer or word; or especially today, in the sacrament of Holy Communion? No he teaches the Twelve. When he says: ‘Take, eat this is my body,” it is not a statement of cannibalism but of symbolism: we cannot know him unless he is inside of us, dwelling in the Temple of our hearts. “This cup is the New Covenant sealed in my blood. Drink ye, all, of it,” is not an invitation to vampire twistedness; it is Jesus saying “You will need my lifeblood in you; receive it, and I will give you strength.” Those who interpret literally what an allegorical teacher has taught are inevitably lead to wrong conclusions. Jesus taught with metaphor and simile; with parable and with story. So sheep, shepherd, blood, body, these are not terms of the actual but of the metaphorical.


All the words in our passage from John draw me into a pasture somewhere, or to the Upper Room in Jerusalem. I see sheep, helpless and aimless without a shepherd. I see the shepherd, guiding, protecting, and teaching. Then I hear the deliberate words of Jesus: “I have other sheep which are not of this fold.” To denominational people, those words mean there as those in other congregations he also considers to be in his flock; that is either a comforting or disconcerting thought, depending on your position! But to all of us in the great Church Universal, Jesus certainly means that he will welcome and claim the lost who seek to join his flock. Certainly in his day, even though he had the Twelve, they had no special claim to salvation; even the crowds who followed him daily- they had no special claim to salvation. We watch time and time again as the Savior on ordinary days, found and saved blind men, short selfish men, sick women, Samaritan women, and more. “I must bring them also,” he says, “and they will heed my voice.”  His conclusion: “So there shall be, one flock, one shepherd.”


In ages past people have been denominationally loyal: Born Baptist, or Methodist, or Catholic, die Baptist, or Methodist, or Catholic. Many are still loyal; but plenty have found other congregations to call home, attracted to their preaching, style of worship, people, or the feeling that the Holy Spirit is working there. These days changing denominations need not draw the gasps that Arlen Specter drew when he changed political parties this week. No matter what your denomination, claim it and support it. The great news is that we all love Jesus, and that Jesus not only loves all the children of the world, but even all creatures great and small. Still, I don’t know what he would think of a Baptist dog …. Let us pray:

Lord Jesus: sometimes the differences we have with other Christians are significant; sometimes they are much ado about nothing. Yet we, and they, still love you, and call you Lord, and that, it seems to us today, makes all the difference. Working to honor you today and always, we remain your faithful followers. Amen.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                                            May 3, 2009