Sunday, December 31, 2017

God's Word, God's Lyric, God's Song: Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas B


Here we are in the first full week of Christmas, and many of us are celebrating the joys of the season: the gathering of friends and family; time off from work (unless you are employed by a church!); the pleasures of hospitality and generosity.

And then there are the new beginnings that loom:
the turning of the winter solstice so that finally the days will start to grow longer for those of us who long for the sun;
the beginning of a brand new year, which we hope will bring us peace;
for those of us who are still football fans even after the Rams debacle there is the start of the play-off season and the Chiefs are still clinging to the top of the AFC West by a hair;
and for those of us who are baseball fans there is the fact that pitchers and catchers report for spring training in 6 weeks. SIX! WEEKS!
And there is ALWAYS a new book to read!

But the most important beginning of the season is the one that all too often gets brushed aside: here in the time of darkness, a rekindling of light—the light of God. The joy of the newborn Christ-child, the Son of God entering time, taking on human flesh, opening a new way for God to be revealed to us and to show us the way to live into our full potential as human. For many of us, that is indeed the best beginning of them all.

The very first sentence of our gospel lays out four overlapping images or ideas to explore as we celebrate this joyful revelation. The very first words of our gospel are carefully chosen to remind us of the power of God’s longing to be known to and loved by us, and for us to be transformed by that love ourselves, knowing that, just like Mary, we all, through faith and grace, have found favor with God. Let’s look at what John’s gospel says to us in its first few words.



In the beginning…

It is right and proper to put so much emphasis on the start of things. For 27 years, I spent a large part of my career trying to teach students how to write, and one point I always made was how important it was to get the reader’s attention in one’s opening words. Many a brilliant idea had been lost because the person expressing the idea started off in a nonsensical or pointless way. The first words we say carry a heavy burden to set the story that follows.

Note that the first words of the Gospel of John are the same ones as begin the Bible in Genesis: “In the beginning…” This is deliberate. Thus there is a multiplicity of meaning here. This is the beginning of the Gospel. It echoes the beginning of Genesis, and the word Genesis itself means “Beginning.”

In the beginning was the Word…

This beginning in the opening of John’s Gospel is BEFORE the beginning in Genesis, with the creation story appearing only about the third verse in. It roots God’s word, which we understand as Jesus, as existing before creation and thus before the beginning of time. There is no nativity story here filled with angels and shepherds and cattle. For John, the actual beginning lies in eternity, long before human time was reckoned.

In our time right now, perhaps more than ever, we are reminded that words actually do matter. Words can both build up and words can destroy. Words have a power that lingers long after the voice fades or the page is turned. Many of us have been brought to tears by words of love and approval as well as by words of condemnation and contempt.

The story of the beginning of our relationship with God is grounded in the power of words. The Genesis story makes it clear that creation comes about as part of God’s longing for relationship. After each and every act in the first creation account, God announces and pronounces—announcing what is going to be created, and it is then created. God then pronounces the goodness of what has been created, and is satisfied.

We are meant to remember that God speaks creation into being, and creation answers. From that moment of creation God has and continues to engage in conversation with creation and with all that dwells therein. Creation is ongoing— the words of the New Zealand Prayer Book puts it beautifully in its Night Prayer liturgy when it states: our help is in the name of the eternal God, who is making the heavens and the earth.”

God’s Word itself in that first story in the Bible had the power to create, to create order and beauty and light out of chaos and nothingness. Even before the universe was created, God’s Word already was waiting to join with God in the work of creation. Yet the Word that is with God at the start of our story is no ordinary word, but God’s only Son. This Word is eternal. The Word that is present at the start of time continues to move in our own age, and can only be properly spoken of in the present tense: Christ is born for us! Christ teaches us! Christ loves us! Christ is Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…

This Word shares all of God’s power that we have seen testified to in the Isaiah passage and in Psalm 147. Jesus brings life as light which darkness cannot overcome or vanquish or grasp.

The most powerful thing that moves among us is that which is spoken by God. God spoke creation into being. John’s gospel takes this a step further: the Word itself was the agent of creation of all that is, was, or ever shall be.


Look back at Genesis, chapter 1: at each step, God says, “Let there be….” And then there IS. There is light, sky, land, plants, light in the sun, and moon, and the stars, and then animals, and finally humans. It is the speaking that brings forth existence. It is the speaking that creates. Words are where the power is, and the Word contains all the power of God—and yet becomes finite flesh, and pitches his tent among us. God reveals who God is THROUGH God’s Word. 

This is the music and poetry of creation. This is why we are told over and over again to SING our praise to God in the psalms. Jesus is God’s song, singing out into the cosmos, ordering and organizing it through God’s message of love, which is inscribed in our very beings. That Word calls us to join in the conversation that brought all things into being, and be transformed.



In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.

God is here and lives among us. God is in our standing to sing, in our kneeling to confess and pray. God is in our washing the dishes and reading our children to sleep. God is in each heart that seeks to make a little peace rather than make war. God is in each of us in our laughter and our tears. As Rowan Williams pointed out in a reflection on the first verse of John’s gospel, making the Word synonymous and existent eternally with God has profound implications. It means that we should always be discovering what Jesus does and who Jesus is, not what Jesus DID and who Jesus WAS. God’s action through God’s Word, Jesus Christ, continues eternally—it is not confined to a dusty corner of the Mediterranean, 2000 years ago. 


In addition to speaking of Jesus as the Word of God, John’s prologue uses the metaphor of light—light which makes things visible. Jesus came to light the way for us to know God more fully, by making humanity the vessel of holiness God always meant for us to be. Jesus came to point the way to God, our gospel reminds us, and John came to point the way to Jesus. We know that in many cases, Jesus and John were not believed, even by their own followers. And so it is for us today. Far too many people see only darkness.

We are called as disciples of Christ so that we too can point to the Holy One of God, in our words, our attitudes, and our actions. Yet we live in a time when so many do not see the light of God in the world. Sometimes, parts of the Church act as if all that God will ever reveal to us was concluded either 2000 years ago on a cross. Yet we do not worship a poor carpenter who was executed 2000 years ago—we worship a living, risen Savior who continues to seek out the lost and those in need of healing and joyful reconciliation every day.


Jesus is God’s lyric, singing through us to transform the world.


Is that the truth we tell?
Do our own “small-w” words help bring joy and peace and hope into the world?
Do we continue to proclaim the Word of God in all we do?
Do we continue to remember how good it is to praise God, as our psalm reminds us, and to remember that the conversation still continues through Christ’s living presence within our lives right now, and to make room for God’s ongoing creation both within us and in the world around us?

Our Gospel reminds us that God becomes human, an embodied being, so that humans could ourselves embody the life God dreams for us. God’s Son gives us an example and calls us to follow him, so that we can fully embody God’s love and healing power in the world. God loves us too much to want to leave us untransformed. That’s the good news! Even when there is darkness, darkness cannot defeat the light of Christ that shines from each one of Jesus’s disciples—in fact, darkness only makes clear how dear and precious the light is.

Jesus Christ continues to create in us and transform us through the power of love that sang all that is into being. May we echo with that song as well, and point the way to God’s light, the way of life.

Amen.

Readings:
Isaiah 61:10- 62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Preached at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Lake St. Louis, MO, on December 31, 2017.

Prayer 1800: First Sunday after Christmas


Eternal God,
You gave us your light to show us the way to You:
may our eyes behold your wonder and love
as we raise our praises and prayers to You.

Give us ears to hear and welcome your Word,
Jesus Christ, your only Son,
and bid him enter into our hearts forever.

Transform our hearts and minds
by your holy wisdom
that there may be justice and peace
throughout all creation, O Holy One.

With newborn faith,
let our joy point to your glory,
that our love will be our testimony to You, Lord Christ.

Spirit of Hope,
bend near to all who call upon You,
and pour out your blessing over all for whom we pray.

Amen.


John 1:1-18

Photo: labyrinth window at Church of the Transfiguration, Lake St. Louis, where I preached and presided this morning.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Prayer 1799: Sixth Day of Christmas


Almighty God,
our song is to You
from our rising to our resting:
center us now within your presence,
and guide us in all our steps today.

Tune our hearts to the melody of your truth, O Blessed Jesus,
that we may show forth your mercy
and embody your light and compassion.
Pour out a spirit of reconciliation and concord over us,
that we may bind up the broken-hearted
and turn aside from division and rancor.

Shepherd of Our Souls,
strengthen us in goodness
and lead us into verdant valleys
of peace and contentment,
enlightenment and hope.
Shine the light of your countenance, O God,
over all who make their prayer to you.

Amen.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Prayer 1798: the Fifth Day of Christmas


O Lord, you are our rock and our stronghold,
and we rise to proclaim your goodness
as we seek your sheltering hand.

From the tempests of sickness and chilling cold,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From our tendency to stray from your paths,
and for our hardness of heart,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From our heedlessness of your beautiful creation,
and our blindness to its fragility at our hands,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Help us fasten our hearts on our blessings, O God,
that we live a life of gratitude, compassion, and joy.

Help us to seek your Wisdom always,
and proclaim your grace and your mercy
through our own deeds.

Help us to see your face in every person, Lord Christ,
and ground ourselves in empathy,
that we may honor the beauty and worth of all.

By the power of the Holy Spirit,
lead us by the light of hope and faith,
and pour out your protection, O God,
over those whose needs we now name.

Amen.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Prayer 1797: In remembrance of the Holy Innocents


Blessed Redeemer,
we lift up our hearts to You,
and offer You our thanks and praise.

Create in us clean hearts, O God,
and fill us with wonder and grace
that we may walk in integrity today,
and humbly serve You,
seeking your will in our lives.
Strengthen us to act, Lord Christ,
that the weak be protected,
the lost reconciled,
the hungry fed,
the oppressed liberated,
the sorrowing comforted.
Grant us courage, hope, perseverance,
that we may never surrender to evil,
but stand firm in faith
and shine truth into darkness.

Merciful One,
consecrate us to your service today,
and bless and keep all those for whom we pray.

Amen.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Prayer 1796- On the Feast of St. John the Evangelist


Almighty God,
who sent your Word among us
that we may know You and love You more fully,
accept these our prayers and praises
offered to You in faith and thankfulness.

For our hardness of heart,
our indifference to suffering and want,
our everyday cruelties and exploitation
of each other and this good creation,
forgive, dear Lord, forgive.

Strengthen us to turn again, O God,
to the path of wisdom, compassion, and justice
that leads to everlasting peace and contentment
that You have taught us to walk in.

Direct us to fully live into your commandment
to love each other as You love us, Lord Jesus,
and help us build each other up in holiness and charity.

Spirit of Truth,
kindle anew the flame of love in our hearts,
that by our actions
the power and blessing of God is revealed to all.

Holy One, you press upon us behind and before:
envelop those who call upon You in your unfailing mercy, as we pray.

Amen.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Prayer, day 1795- On St. Stephen's Day


We turn our eyes to the Rising Light,
Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer,
giving thanks with all our hearts. 

Keep us, dear Lord, as the apple of your eye,
and hold us in the hollow of your mercy and grace.
Uphold us in righteousness and peace,
and bring us in unity and charity into your holy courts. 

Teach us to serve each other
and witness to your holy truth,
as your servant Steven did, we pray.
Preserve us from all sin and enmity,
both from without and within, O Holy One,
and open our hearts to your Spirit. 

Seal us with your blessing, O God,
and remember those whose names we lay before You.

Amen.
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Photo collage by the Rev. Dr. Maria Evans, one of my "littermates," of each of the three of us in our various parishes at our first Christmas as priests. We were ordained together, and even though serving in three different locations, we remain together.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Prayer, day 1794: On Christmas Day



Most Holy Savior, we bend the knee of our hearts before You, and place ourselves at your command in gratitude and joy.

May we make our hearts a worthy habitation for your love to live. 
May we, like Mary, bear you woth joy into the world for the light of the world. 
May we serve you with steadfast faith and hope for the sake of the world, revealing God's wisdom and truth.
May we be your hands and heart in all our ways, and do your work of reconciliation with joy.
May we turn aside from all that separates us, and remember that we are all children of God, called to lives of compassion. 

Blessed Jesus, place the hand of your blessing on those we now name.

Amen.
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Photo: Putting the Baby Jesus in the Creche before the 4 pm Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols service at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Saying Yes: Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year B


Our Gospel today opens with the Archangel Gabriel appearing in Galilee to a virgin named Mary. This scene is beautifully depicted as one of three scenes at the bottom of our high altar. There,  Gabriel stands with a lily, symbol of purity, in one hand, and with another reaches toward the young woman, who turns from a book of devotions resting upon a prayer desk, a popular image in medieval piety. The Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove, hovers just above them on the edge of the picture, awaiting the young woman’s answer, waiting for welcome. It’s a beautiful and imaginative depiction of the ways that Mary has inspired artists, poets, and musicians for centuries.

In reality, Luke’s gospel makes it clear that Mary is not a person of high position—far from it. She is a teenaged peasant girl in an obscure, dusty corner of a mighty empire. Yet Gabriel greets her as “O favored one,” and says that the Lord is with her. When Mary was declared to be God’s “favored one” one wonders if she did not have to fight off the urge to look behind her to see if the angel was talking to someone else.

Although she’s a very young woman, her response is interesting: in the face of this messenger from God, she’s not afraid, but rather is perplexed and puzzled. Prophecies are then made about the child she is going to have, with even more amazing titles being used to describe the child. Mary responds, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” and Gabriel explains to her exactly how it’s going to happen. 

To give credence to this prediction, Gabriel references Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. Yet, there are some fascinating differences between the stories of the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. When, earlier in Luke’s gospel, Gabriel tells Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah he is going to have a son named John after years of childlessness, Zechariah scoffs, and then is deprived of his ability to speak. Where Zachariah was made mute, Mary reacts not with doubt but with wonder, and then she gets the last word: Yes.

This is an important point. Mary agrees to bear this child of God of her own volition. Mary had the freedom to say “No,” but the courage and the faith to say “Yes.”

Mary had the freedom to say “No,” but models for us the courage and the faith to say “Yes.”

And her yes has consequences that she herself witnesses—she is the only person in scripture to be present at Jesus’s birth, obviously, as well as at his crucifixion (John 19:25), and on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:15). In her Magnificat we hear her thunder with a prophetic voice a very specific vision of the justice and economy of God’s kingdom—a vision that undoubtedly resonates with the message her son himself will embody.

God’s call to Mary is an invitation, not a command. It seems impossible. And yet, “Nothing is impossible with God” Gabriel reminds her—and us. As crazy as this all sounds, Mary ponders… and says “Yes,” even though her entire world will be changed in unimaginable ways. In giving her assent, with faith, hope, and heart, Mary is one of the most astounding examples of human free will joyfully and humbly collaborating with God.



The poet Denise Levertov described the incredible strength and audacity of Mary in her poem, “Annunciation,” which I want to share with you today.

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
         God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

                  ____________________
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
         Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
      when roads of light and storm
      open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

                  ____________________
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                     Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God. 


This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

                  ____________________
She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.





Can we share in Mary’s courage and faith? Can we say yes to God, and allow God to work through us to transform us each and every day, and therefore to transform and restore the world?

Can we say yes to bearing Jesus within our very selves, to making ourselves a home in which Christ can dwell? Can we say yes to acting as Christ’s hands and feet into the world in ways great and small?

Can we say yes to Christ’s enduring gifts to us- faith, hope, and charity- and receive them abundantly?

Can we say yes to testifying to who Jesus is in our lives, to the thousand ways he is present to us and alive in us today, in faces both beloved and unknown to us?

Can we say yes, and let that yes change us?

To remember that in working with us and through us, Christ’s healing power helps gather up the shattered places within ourselves and repairs them so that we can have new life and hope, living lives of purpose and meaning far beyond our imaginations?

To remember that God became human so that humans could know and embody the healing love of the Holy One of God?

God became human
so that humans could know
and ourselves embody
the healing love of the Holy One of God.

Can we respond to God’s invitation to us with joy, and make an imaginative leap of hope and light that endures even in darkness?

Even now, at this moment before Christmas comes, God invites us to carry Christ out into the world, every day. Mary is a model to all of us who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus. Her story reminds us that we all have the choice as to whether we will bear Christ into the world—or not.

The greatest gift of this season is love, and love waits to overshadow us. All we have to say is yes. Come, Lord Jesus, and fill our hearts to overflowing. Alleluia!

Readings: 
2 Samuel 7:1-11,16
Canticle 15
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Preached at 10 am, December 24, 2017, at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, MO.

Photographs: The Annunciation, carving on the High Altar at Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis- my photo.
Robert Campin, the Annunciation from the Merode Altarpiece, 1425.
John Collier, The Annunciation (commissioned for St. Gabriel's Church in McKinney, Texas), 2000.

Prayer 1793: The Fourth Sunday of Advent/ Christmas Eve


Blessed Jesus, enter into our lives today:
may we bid you welcome,
and make our hearts your home.

May we join the chorus of heaven
and the throngs who gather to worship You, O God,
and receive your gift of Love Incarnate.

May the power of the Holy Spirit
overtake us and renew our spirits
that we may welcome the Prince of Peace
who calls us to new life and unity.

O Holy Savior,
whose Mother said yes to the power of God
and dared to open herself to God's will,
and carry Love Incarnate into the world:
give us the same courage and openness
to carry your truth in our lives
and be transformed.

Lord Christ,
who comes to us in tenderness and humility,
lead us to light everlasting,
and pour out your blessing upon all who seek your face.

Amen.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Prayer 1792: for the courage to assent


God of power and glory,
we come before You
as dawn pulls back the curtain of night,
as we hear the call of our Savior at the doors of our souls:
Spirit of God, enter, and guide us.

From the foundation of time
You have loved us, O God:
You have molded us as vessels of holiness
and honored us by calling us into fellowship with all creation:
may we joyfully assent and delight in your will.

We are bound together by your grace
and redeemed by your mercy, blessed Jesus;
may we exalt You
with the works of our hands and hearts,
led by utmost devotion and joy.

Let us open our eyes
to see the beauty of Christ in every face-
in the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned-
and persevere in love and deed
until all are secure, content, and at peace.

Let us jubilantly set our shoulders to the yoke of love,
taking up the works of holiness and redemption
that our Savior taught us to walk in,
singing songs of praise.

You know our hearts, O God:
forge within us the bright flame of compassion
that we may welcome your Spirit of Healing within us.
Bend near, O Merciful One:
give us the courage and strength
to assent to your call to us,
and stoop to hear our prayers,
which we humbly place before You.

Amen.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Prayer 1791: Trusting and Seeing Anew


O God, our times are in your possession:
let us sing to you with the breath you have given us,
and center our hearts and minds
within your peace and joy.

Be with us, O Emmanuel:
shine the light of your countenance upon us,
for your grace, O Lord, is from everlasting,
and your peace a rising tide
that lifts us above the shoals of life.

For the times we have denied your presence
within us, and in the world around us,
whether in joy or anxiety,
forgive us:
for You, O God, have marked us as your own
and written our names across your palm.

May we ever shout for joy
as we perceive your wonders before us,
and walk in gratitude and companionship
with You, and each other, O Holy One.

As the days lengthen,
may the precious Light of Christ
surge again within our hearts,
that we may shout with joy
and turn from endurance to rejoicing.

Gather our prayers within your hand, O Savior,
holding us securely within your safekeeping,
and gather us to rest upon your breast,
content and comforted within your embrace
as we sigh out our concerns before You.

Amen.

Photo: dozens of candles shone in the darkness during our Blue Christmas service at Christ Church Cathedral on December 19, 2017.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Prayer, day 1790: Inspired by Psalm 121


Let me sit in silence
and abide with You, my Savior.
O God, I lift my eyes to You,
for You are my heart and my help.

I lay upon my bed at night

knowing You watch over me and keep me safe,
and I am at peace.
You hear my cries, and know my fears:

your hand rests upon my head
to bless and protect me.

Evil cannot enfold me,

for I rest in the embrace of the Almighty,
whose love never sleeps or turns away.
The Maker of Heaven and Earth

loves me and tenderly cares for me:
who can do me harm?

God watches over me in all my journeys:

God sets my feet firmly upon the way of love and compassion.
The God of Peace calls me to the path of righteousness,

whose foundation is justice and equality.
The heat of anger and fear may beat down upon me,

but my God shades me and shields me,
and I am at peace.

Let me raise up the needs of your children,

my kindred souls, who put their trust in You.

Amen.
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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Prayer, day 1789: On my son's 18th birthday




Come to us, O Light Divine, and fill our hearts with knowledge of salvation! We thank You, O God, for the beauty of the Earth, and we laud and magnify your Name! 

Help us to welcome love and hope into our hearts as we welcome the Christ child into the world, O Spirit of Truth. 

Guide us into paths of righteousness, and lead us into unity and compassion for all living things. 

Give us the faith to do your will, O Holy One and serve you in peace and concord. 

Extend the hand of your blessing over all who call upon you, O Merciful One, and grant your peace to those we now name.

Amen.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Prayer 1788: Saying yes to God


We praise You, O Creator,
and lift our hearts to You in prayer:
abide with us,
abide within us, we pray. 

May we surrender all that separates us
from remembering our union with You, O God,
and with each other:
let it be for us according to your word.

Blessed Jesus, we open the gates of our souls to You:
renew and strengthen us in holiness
as we watch and wait for the Light of Christ.

Holy Spirit, bear us up on the wings of hope and faith,
that charity and generosity may dwell in our hearts;
still us and center us
within the blazing love of God.

In this season of anticipation,
may we offer the gift of ourselves
to the broken places in the world,
just as You, O God,
sent your Incarnate Word
in the name of healing and peace.

Loving Savior, grant us grace,
and guide us in humility today,
pouring out your compassion on those for whom we pray.

Amen.