Setting the Table

Here’s the sermon I preached today.  Naturally, it doesn’t ever preach quite like it’s written, but it’s worth posting to share with distant friends.  Not really edited for universality, either — there are some references to “this space” and so forth that are unique to the sanctuary in which it was preached.  But the message should be apparent regardless of context.

Sermon Text — “Setting the Table” — Preached at Glencoe Union Church, 6-24-2012

We ate dinner many different ways when I was growing up.  In the earliest days I can remember, my dad would pick me up from kindergarten at First Baptist Greenville, and would drive me back home.  Usually we stopped by the grocery store, and picked up whatever it was we needed for the day.  We ran errands together, too; Dad would often roll down the windows and let the air blow through our hair, and between recycling drop-offs and trips to the bank and the post office and the hardware store and everywhere else, he would lead me in a little sing-song ditty he had made up to keep me amused during these errands.  I’m a little embarrassed to share, but as they said in preaching, tell it like it is.  So here it is.  Y’all ready?

I don’t care, I like my hair to be MESSY MESSY MESSY MESSY MESSY!  ‘Cause I don’t go to school…to-day!  So my hair can feel COOL, hoo-ray!

And then we would get home, and it was time to set the table.  Mom worked during the day, all day, so Dad would begin preparing dinner.  I would have a few minutes to rest or watch TV or play, but before long I’d be called in to get the knives and the forks, get the placemats, and set out the drinks.  It was also my job to get the drink orders – Dad usually wanted water in a big tall Texas Tech University cup, and I had learned that Mom usually wanted a Diet Coke when she walked through the door.  Though their preferences rarely changed, it was still my responsibility to get the drink orders, just in case someone had changed their mind.

That’s more or less how it went, though it certainly changed from time to time.  Mom had Thursdays off, and sometimes she would help set the table.  When my little brother came along and got a little older, we would split table-setting duties.  We usually split them badly, accusing each other of not putting out an equal number of spoons or fighting over which set of placemats and napkins were most appropriate.  But in time we learned to work better together.

More, of course, went into setting the table than just setting the literal place settings.  We also had to wash our hands and faces.  And the context of dinner mattered too; if we had guests coming over, we would turn on the porch light, or open the front door, clean the living room, declutter the tables near the door, and generally make the place presentable.  And even if we were going out to a restaurant for a special occasion or on a day when Dad just didn’t have time to get to the grocery store, we had to “set the table” in other ways, by getting presentable, by getting rid of the dirt and grime of the day, by getting dressed in something a bit nicer than the usual t-shirts and jeans.  It’s a pattern that changed and shifted often while I grew up from toddler to child to adolescent to teenager, varying based on extracurricular activities and my parent’s schedules and our disposable income.  But it was still a pattern.  Setting the table was something we did, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but it was something we did together.

It was something we did because we wanted each other to feel comfortable.  It was something we did because we wanted to carve out a space in the day that wasn’t rushed; a space when we could sit and the utensils would be there, and we wouldn’t need to run back to the kitchen three times for napkins or things we forgot.  It was something we did when guests came because we wanted them, for a moment, to feel that our home was their home, that they were welcome, that they were loved.  As a child, I thought setting the table was a chore.  As an adult, I learned that setting the table was a sacrament.  It was a way we made grace visible to one another.

The gospel passage Rebecca read for you today is about setting the table: specifically, it’s about setting the table BADLY.  It’s not one that is often read aloud in churches.  When opening to First Corinthians in a worship service, our instincts are to go to the passages in the chapter immediately following, about the Body of Christ being made up of many people with different gifts.  A preacher can work with that, he or she can talk about how people have different talents that can come together for the good of everyone.  Or we want to talk about chapter 13, when Paul extols love.  Love is patient, love is kind, love never ends, yadda yadda, it’s all good, smile and let’s go home.  It’s a good passage, we can all feel good while it’s read, and exhort each other to love, maybe we can sing together The Gift of Love.

I don’t mean to make fun of these operations.  Both are good passages.  Indeed, I count among my many blessings that I have been able to read Paul’s ode to love not once, but twice in this same sanctuary.  It is Paul’s answer to the persistent problems of human community.  It is Paul’s answer to the question of how to live together.  For Paul, Love is the answer that allows the Body of Christ, with all its gifts, to function.

But in order to provide the answer, Paul must first outline the problem.  And the problem is that the Corinthian church was not setting the table properly.  The problem was that they were eating the Lord’s Supper together in a way that didn’t make the table welcoming for everyone there.  Friends in Christ, I am asking you today not to rush too quickly to the answer.  Instead, I am asking you to sit for a moment with the problem.  If we are to live into the answer that Paul provides, it might help to consider what it is, exactly, we are trying to get away from.

(read scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:17-34)

Scholars still struggle with what exactly the scope of the disagreement was in the Corinthian Church.  This is not the only passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul talks about disagreements and dissension in the church at Corinth, and they seemed to have disagreed on everything.  From what to wear in church to how to speak in church, the Corinthians were divided against themselves in many different ways.

But in this passage, scholarly opinion seems to have come to some fairly firm conclusions.  Early Christians met in homes, usually the homes of its wealthiest patrons, and from this scholars have been able to examine archaeological evidence.  A typical house church would be divided into several rooms, with space for storage and socializing, but also with a private dining room adjacent to a large courtyard.

Given the leisure time available to the upper class, the wealthier members of the church would gather earlier.  They didn’t have to work all day, they weren’t needed in the fields or the pastures or at construction sites.  And so they started the meal of the church earlier.  A long time ago the Lord’s Supper wasn’t just a ritual feast, but it was a real feast.  In addition to the ritual elements, there was a spread probably much like our coffee hour, but larger.

By the time the poorer members of the Christian church arrived, most of the meal would be gone.  The wealthier members would have eaten their fill, and even drunk most of the good wine.  In addition, they would have filled up the private dining room, leaving the lower class folks outside to go hungry, except for the few bits of the ritual food still remaining.  And they would have had to worship somewhere else, separate from the rest of the community.

In all of the text of 1 Corinthians, in all of the problems and divisions of the church, it is only this problem which prompts Paul to use the Greek word Krima.  It is translated here as condemnation, and it means damnation, judgment.  It is a harsh word.  And Paul reserves, in a long, long list of the divisions in the church, he saves this one for last.  He brings it up last, before he finally begins giving answers.  Friends, from this, I am guessing that Paul thought setting the table mattered too.  Paul thought that the way we prepare our space for one another matters.

What Paul asks the church to do instead is to discern the body when it eats the Lord’s Supper.  He asks that we examine who is our neighbor, and what are their needs?  In the Corinthian community, there were workers and wealthy, poor and powerful, laborers and luxuriants, and the lower class were being consistently ignored by the upper class.  When they had meals together, they weren’t noticing each other, they weren’t taking care of each other.  They were worshiping without substance; they were praising God, but not holding their fellow human beings close as the nearest image of God they had available.

Issues of rich and poor are not gone today, but when I think about this passage, and the problem Paul poses for Christian community, I think about Felipe.  I met Felipe at a meeting for UChicago’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. We struck up a conversation.  He was a graduate student in Spanish Literature at the University of Chicago, in his first year, and had come to the meeting to make friends and get to know people.  He thought it was interesting that I was in the Divinity School, and that I preached from time to time.  He had a lot of questions about faith, and religion, and a story of a church that had not taken kindly to him when he had come out.

When I told Felipe where I lived in Hyde Park, I referenced it by way of a nearby church.  Upon hearing the name of the denomination, he raised his eyebrow and said, “Sounds like a cult!”  I laughed a bit, and we talked some more, and I tried to show him a Christianity that was different.  But what bothered me about the encounter is this: the church we were talking about considers itself welcoming and affirming of LGBT people.  It has gay members.  It hangs a rainbow flag in its building.  I have heard sermons preached there that were honestly and forthrightly welcoming.

And yet every week, it shares the Lord’s Supper.  And every week, Felipe walks past as a member of the Body of Christ, a member who was once turned out and rejected, and Felipe does not know that there is a table set inside for him.  He walks by hungry, while those inside are feasting on the word of God and the memory of the risen Christ.  He goes by, forgotten.

And this happens not because the church hasn’t welcomed him.  The church has, in fact, made steps to be a welcoming church.  It happens because we in the Christian Church universal, from Hyde Park to Haiti, from Guatemala to Glencoe, are not setting the table.  We aren’t turning on the porch light and calling our neighbors to join us.  We aren’t throwing the doors open.  We aren’t discerning the body, and all the members and people in this world who need support.

Friends, I do not want you to hear my words today as condemnation.  I came into this pulpit today thankful for each one of you, and I leave this pulpit just as thankful.  But I truly believe that we are not doing enough to set the table for our brothers and sisters, whether they be poor, whether they are gay or lesbian, whether they are people of color or people in need.  I have my own solutions, and my own opinions.  I have my own set of answers to these questions.  I could share them at length with you, and am always willing to do so.  But today I wanted to pose the question, and let it sit with you.  Your answers are your own.

But as you formulate your responses in the days and weeks and months and years to come, consider this.  My story of setting the table as a child matters, and you all know what it is like to set a table.  You consider who is coming; you consider who to invite.  You consider how to dress and how to act hospitably.  You consider opening the door and turning on a light.  You ask others to help.  You raise your children to take over the responsibility when they are ready.  You strive to make your home – and God’s home, here in God’s house – their home, their place, their space.  For a while, this may seem like a chore – just like my childish self thought setting the table really was.  But in time, and by the grace of God, we will discover sacrament in it.  We will make the grace of God manifest in our lives.  Thanks be, thanks be, thanks be.

Aloft in the Kingdom of Heaven

There are a couple of writings going around by Lillian Daniels, a successful UCC pastor in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago.  The writings are in a well-worn genre.  Depending on your perspective, that genre is either the genre of criticizing the shallowness of spiritual-but-not-religious people, or of ministers complaining about the tiresome task of talking to people who think differently about religion than they do.  You can read the short version here and the long version here.  A brief excerpt, to get the feel for what Rev. Daniels says:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

In some ways, I find myself in agreement with Rev. Daniels.  Spirituality and the life of God is tied up in the experience of a community.  “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another,” as Proverbs 27 puts it, and this can often happen uniquely and powerfully within a community.  That is definitely one of the reasons why I stick it out with a community of faith; I find some of the most powerful and probing moments for growth in my spiritual life have come, not from personal reading or devotion, but from the wonderfully directed and often scalpel-sharp questioning of the atheist who comes to church with his wife.  I wish more Christian communities had room to do this community thing better, honestly.

But her tone throughout the articles seems thoroughly…well, I find it disconcerting.  It reads very much like the gentleman on the plane is a bother or a nuisance; it reads as though Rev. Daniels, a member of the religious elite, is too advanced to be bothered by such simpletons, especially if they’re uninterested in the religious community.  This may not be intended or even felt by Rev. Daniels, but the tone sort of seeps through regardless.

I can’t help but feel that the tone is symptomatic of a broader dearth of religious AND spiritual imagination.  Imagine another scene: you, a minister of Christ, are on a flight from Boston to Chicago.  The person next to you asks what you do, and when you say you’re a minister, they say they are spiritual but not religious.

Instead of getting peeved and asking for a change of seats, consider this: there in the plane, in the space of those two or three cramped narrow seats, a little space of the kingdom of God has been carved out for you.  As you crest the vault of heaven, you have actually landed precisely where “real human community” has a chance to form and develop, even if only for the duration of a journey between Boston and Chicago.  Indeed, this encounter with another human being is more than just an inconvenience on the way to your destination.  Instead, it is an opportunity to attempt a deep encounter with the Image of Christ that resides at the core of the spiritual-but-not-religious person in front of you.

I confess to feeling the same way Rev. Daniels feels, on many occasions.  Especially if I’m tired, the words of the spiritual-but-not-religious person can sound like an attack.  When someone confesses a life spent in abusive congregations, the feeling that somehow they are blaming you for those problems can be strong.  But if you approach the encounter differently — as God setting out a chance to experience nascent human community where the best fruits of religion can blossom, then there is no problem with this encounter.  What is happening in the plane is exactly what Rev. Daniels claims to want: a space where another human being calls you on stuff.  In fact, the person on the plane, just by saying they are spiritual-but-not-religious, just did.

The next time this happens to me, I’m resolved: I’m going to respond differently.  I’m not going to smile and nod and say I understand, while privately seething.  Instead, I’m going to ask them what their spirituality is like.  I’m going to share my own spiritual experiences of labyrinth-walking privately, and my experiences of worship together in a community as an experience of spiritual awakening and healing.  I’m going to say that one reason I like church is because I have a community of spiritual people around me helping me on my spiritual life.  And I’m not going to say everything; I’m going to listen too.  When that spiritual-but-not-religious person speaks, I am going to strain and stretch and yearn to hear the voice of God speaking through them, as the image of God in them strains and stretches and yearns to hear me.  And maybe in that community of believers summoned into being from Boston to Chicago, God will still be speaking, and speaking boldly, and speaking beautifully.

Skip The Chinese Take-Out

I thought I would post the recipe for the egg drop soup I made the other day, mainly because I absolutely loved it. I used as a model the soup recipes that Mike posted in the comments, from Mark Bittman’s work at the NYT.  I’m going to briefly describe it here, in my own words so as to avoid copyright or some weird thing like that, and I’ve also done a few changes to impact flavor and protein content.  I also hope my description of the process of cooking the recipe will help you avoid some of the little paranoias I had while preparing it, especially related to whether I had the right ingredients and whether the broth was the right color.

I would also add, those recipes from the NYT all work together, and from the description of the recipe I’m making one could make two more soups just by slightly altering the procedure — so check out that link!  I also added a “final touch” that really, in my estimation, took the soup from good to great.

Egg drop soup has always been one of those mysterious things that you get at Chinese restaurants, and while it’s usually good, it’s also usually quite brothy, fairly low on actual egg content, and definitely an appetizer.  This recipe, by contrast, is much more geared towards providing a full dinner, especially if served with some fresh raw or roasted veggies.

Ingredients:

2 carrots

2 celery ribs

2 onions (I used just one because I didn’t have two, but think two would give the broth even more flavor)

10 button mushrooms

1 potato

fresh parsley

1 block firm/extra firm tofu, cubed (1/2″ cubes)

1/2 oz. dried poncini (optional)

4 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup chopped scallions, plus some for garnish

1 T soy sauce

1 T sesame oil

1 lemon

Make a mirepoix (a mixture of approximately equal chopped celery, carrots, and onions) and toss into about 8 cups of water in a medium stock pot or large saucepan.  Chop and add a potato (I used two very small potatoes, one russet and one yukon gold, and would suggest this as the normal baking potatoes are very starchy), a generous amount of parsley (Bittman suggests 10 sprigs) and slice and add the button mushrooms.  Bittman suggests adding some dried poncini, but I didn’t have any and it was fine.  Salt and pepper the water (be generous with the salt, but don’t go overboard.  The soy sauce will add some salt later, and the “final touch” that should unite everything and really cut down on the amount of salt you’ll need).

Put the oven burner on high heat, and once the water boils, reduce heat to a simmer, stir well, and cover.  Allow to simmer for thirty minutes (or more, depends on how hungry you are).  When the veggies are soft, strain out the broth.  I strained several times for a more “consomme” style broth.  You might want to set aside the vegetables for another use; they could be mixed with store-bought vegetable stock and lentils, for instance, for another soup later in the week.

At this point, you will notice the broth is the normal brown of a good vegetable stock.  While it is true that egg drop soup is normally a very clear color, don’t worry about it at all.

Before you start reheating, throw in the tofu (this will give the soup an extra protein kick, especially if you’re using this as a full-meal kind of soup, and provide some textural contrast to the finished product).  Taste the broth to be sure it’s salted enough, but again, remember that the soy sauce and the “final touch” will make up for some of the salt, so don’t go overboard!  (I didn’t do this, but I am thinking that if you want to throw in just a few — maybe two — VERY thinly sliced mushrooms at this point, it would be a nice addition to the soup.)  Also, before you start reheating, be sure your chopped scallions are ready, you won’t want to get to the point where you add them and realize they aren’t chopped yet, as time will be pressing.

At this point, I added the sesame oil and the soy sauce.  Bittman suggests waiting until after the next step, but honestly, I didn’t like that idea and this worked fine.

Once everything is chopped, your egg is beaten, and you are feeling confident and in a winning mood, turn the burner to high heat and boil the strained stock.  Once you reach a good boil, reduce heat to a simmer and begin SLOWLY pouring in the eggs (use a measuring cup with a spout for the easiest pour).  Keep in mind that, at this stage, the slow pour and the stirring means your simmering temperature will be a bit higher than it was when you were making the stock.  Stir constantly as you pour to break up the eggs.  You will notice that the broth will lighten significantly in this step, becoming the lighter yellow color associated with classical egg drop soups.

Once the eggs are poured and the broth has cooked them for 1-2 minutes, stir in 1/4 cups of chopped scallions.  You are now ready to serve!

The “final touch” is easy to add, and I highly recommend it.  I had a small bowl with the touch and a small bowl without, and the difference between the two is pronounced.  After preparing a bowl, grab a zester (if you don’t have one, you can substitute a cheese grater or even a fork) and zest a little bit of lemon peel directly into the bowl.  As with all zesting, avoid cutting too deep into the bitter white rind, focusing only on the yellow bits.  This will release essential citrus oils into the soup, giving it a wonderful fragrance and subtle kick to the flavor.  Garnish each bowl with a pinch of your chopped scallions, and enjoy!

Thoughts on something sad

I came across the following post this morning, and it really breaks my heart. In it, “Cop’s Wife” explains the aftermath of a simply beautiful post she made around Halloween, “My Son is Gay.”  The new post, “Epilogue,” is about the way the church preschool where she took her children kicking her out for that post…accusing her of violations of the Eighth Commandment.  I recently preached my first real sermon on the Eighth Commandment.  Doesn’t mean I know everything about it, of course, but enough to know that it sounds like the pastor in this case is misjudging the semantic between the terms “exercising Christian chastisement towards a violater of the eight commandment” and “finding flimsy pretext to abuse a parishioner.”  This is what the pastor did:

The second discussion was a face-to-face meeting during which Squirt was present. I was handed a printout of the church’s response. There had been a meeting with some Elders, and they decided I’d broken the 8th Commandmentand not followed Matthew 18. I was told that some members were worried that I was “promoting gayness.” I don’t even know what that means. The words I had written were not promoting anything other than unconditional love and tolerance. My post was about bullying and how my son was treated. My post was about a 5-year-old child. Pastor said he “tried to be mad at me, but couldn’t.” I didn’t and don’t understand why he would want to be mad at me. Again, Boo’s well-being was not mentioned.

There’s some of this that I won’t touch.  The whole “promoting gayness” thing, well, these folks are wrong and I have no intention of fighting that battle with them.  On this point, what they have to say about gayness I hold as wrong and thoroughly without charity, and with 1 Corinthians 13 as my authority I will interlocute with them on the subject no further.

But what is striking to me is the invocation of Matthew 18.  I assume that the verse the church is considering highly is 6: “‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  Which probably means the church thinks that dressing up as a woman will somehow make this child gay, and thus be an occasion for stumbling.

Yet in the post as it was presented, the child came forth with the desire to be Daphne.  The child conceived the idea; and when he had doubts, his mother encouraged him to face the world bravely, and not only that…in so doing she evinced a clear conviction that the world did not have to be a place where children and adults abuse each other for any reason, heaping ridicule on one another, but rather supporting and building each other up.  Such a evidenced faith in what the world can be is, in my mind, a hallmark of what Christians claim the world is, in that it is the end towards which the created community moves.

But I’m getting farther afield than I intended.  The verses the church is presumably citing in defense of its bald-faced abuse miss the beginning of the chapter, 18:1-5:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

The pertinent points are two: a five-year-old boy has chosen to dress up like a woman for Halloween.  What might it be like if, instead of punishing or preventing him, we thought of how we might become LIKE him?  There is a beauty in his act, an innocence of circumscribed and socially-constructed gender roles, to act in this world as if rules of outward form and performance are unimportant and adhere only to the movement of the spirit in the moment.  Would that all God’s children were gifted with such wise innocence!

And the second point is more pertinent: in rejecting this family from their church and thus their church preschool, as the epilogue suggests, this church has willed NOT to welcome this child, or his two siblings.  That’s, on my counts, THREE separate Christs that this church has rejected, if we are to take Matthew 18:5 as seriously as Jesus does.

And so the only question remaining is, how does this pastor sleep at night?

Mean While

It’s been a long time since I posted anything, mainly because I’ve been busy playing video games, reading books, going to work, and loving my significant other.  But now that school has started up again I have less time to play video games, which means that I’m reading books, going to class/work, loving my significant other, and also doing other things here and there, and I’m going to try to be more…devoted…to writing in this thing every once in a while.

For the present, suffice it to say that this is my sermon text for Friday’s preaching praxis.  Matthew 1:18-25.

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.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But 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.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive
and bear a son,
and they shall name him
Emmanuel,”

which means, God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

I don’t really know what I want to do with this text.  I have one or two little ideas, but nothing big, and Friday is approaching.  There’s a lot I could say about this text from feminist perspectives, of course.  But my heart’s not in it.  I don’t know, though, something about the “do not be afraid” part is talking to me, especially because there are two more angel-speaks-to-Joseph vignettes in which the angel is like “dude someone’s gonna kill your family” and “hey bro the would-be baby killers died” and it seems much more appropriate to say do not be afraid in those contexts.  But I don’t know.  That’s not a lot to start on.

Anyway I’m gonna be posting more often, hopefully, maybe.  This year will probably be a lot more religious just because I’m working at a church and that’s on my mind a lot.

The End of LOST

*SPOILERS: All content which may be spoiling is placed below the jump.*

Well, LOST is over.  Finally.  I will never forget exam week at the end of freshman year, when I agreed reluctantly to watch the sixth episode of the first season when I should have been studying, and ended up watching the first two seasons in less than a week of exam cramming, sleepless watching sessions, and caffeine.  It was the best reluctant decision I’ve ever made.

There have been problems with LOST, at least from the perspective of someone trying to think about sexism and so forth.  The straight white men drive the primary shape of the plot.  There are no gay men or lesbians, not transsexuals.  The show made some great strides with presenting the perspectives of people of color, but those perspectives have often been limited by white-driven stereotypes; take, for instance, Eko the drug smuggler-turned-priest.  And, as my friend Sarah has noted, women in LOST are motivated by two things: men and babies.

The rest is below.

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If Then There Is Encouragement

This is another hymn I wrote for the fun of writing it.  In Philippians, Paul quotes a hymn that is widely regarded as the “‘Christ Hymn,” one that was used in liturgical circles by early Christianity.  When I came across it, I said, hey, why not make it into a hymn again.  The text is Philippians 2:1-11, and in this version there are nods to Galatians 3:28 — “In Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female” — and Psalm 85:10 — “Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed.”  Honestly most of my hymns have nods to this last one, it’s my favorite scripture ever.

The hymn is below the jump.  The tune is Forest Green.

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