Never Gonna Give You Up

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“When Israel was a child, I loved him”

“When Israel was only a child, I loved him.
    I called out, ‘My son!’—called him out of Egypt.
But when others called him,
    he ran off and left me.
He worshiped the popular sex gods,
    he played at religion with toy gods.
Still, I stuck with him. I led Ephraim.
    I rescued him from human bondage,
But he never acknowledged my help,
    never admitted that I was the one pulling his wagon,
That I lifted him, like a baby, to my cheek,
    that I bent down to feed him.
Now he wants to go back to Egypt or go over to Assyria—
    anything but return to me!
That’s why his cities are unsafe—the murder rate skyrockets
    and every plan to improve things falls to pieces.
My people are hell-bent on leaving me.
    They pray to god Baal for help.
    He doesn’t lift a finger to help them.
But how can I give up on you, Ephraim?
    How can I turn you loose, Israel?
How can I leave you to be ruined like Admah,
    devastated like luckless Zeboim?
I can’t bear to even think such thoughts.
    My insides churn in protest.
And so I’m not going to act on my anger.
    I’m not going to destroy Ephraim.
And why? Because I am God and not a human.
    I’m The Holy One and I’m here—in your very midst.

-Hosea 11:1-9 (The Message)

If there is a primary question that the Bible is concerned with, it is this one: who are we? The answer, overwhelmingly, is that we are God’s people.

Now, if it were that simple, this sermon would be over already. But it turns out that it is the work of a lifetime to figure out what it means to be God’s people, in this or that time, in this or that place, is one of the many and varied reasons that the bible goes on and on and on. In each time and in each moment, it seems that there were different answers to be had.

Take the time of the Biblical Kings for example: during the time of David, being God’s people meant being faithful to the covenant through the practice of ritual sacrifice. There were systems in place. With the building of the Temple, those functions were solidified, and systematized. Of course, in the process, the covenant people were at risk of seeing their identity as ONLY being about ritual. Which is why the prophets came in so handy, reminding them, at the end of the day, belonging to God wasn’t about which sacrifice and when, so much as it was about living a sacrificial life in which God’s ideals: justice, righteousness, peace, and mercy, came first.

Even Jesus has an answer to this question: to be God’s people means to be like a child, filled with wonder and awe, who accept God’s Kingdom with the simplicity of a child-like faith in their Parent (or is it that the Kingdom of God belongs to the innocent?  There are so many directions we could take the child-metaphor, but all of them come back to the notion that we are part of God’s Kingdom without earning membership–we are simply welcomed.)

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“The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Now, this question feels different depending on your situation. In times of security, the people have no trouble imagining what it means to be God’s people—it means being exactly what they are now. But what about in bad times? What does it mean to affirm God’s presence with you when the world as you know it is crashing down?

Our reading today comes from one of those bad times. The Prophet Hosea is writing to a people on the cusp of exile. He knows it, they know it, God knows it. The end of everything they thought matters, the end of every sign that they are Gods—the land, the Temple, the monarchy—is near.

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So what does it mean to be God’s people then? When you fear you may be about to lose everything? When you worry that the future will be worse than the present or the past?

Is God with us in a world where terrorists seem to wish us and all that we stand for dead?

Is God with us when the economy collapses, when we lose our jobs, when the future looks like a long slog in the darkness?

I don’t know about you, but I have noticed that when my family’s elders start worrying about the future, one of the first things that they tend to do is start at reminiscin’ about how it was back in the Good Old Days.

Let’s consider my parents, for example. When my dad wants to talk about the golden age of politics, back before everyone was fighting all the time, he often brings up the Reagan years. Maybe you do too.

What he doesn’t mention is the fact that, in 1982, right before I was born and as Reagan was settling into his first term, our country was going through an awful recession. Since then, our country has experienced multiple recessions and bubbles, moments of a booming economy, and war abroad.

Which makes me just about like most generations, actually. Consider my father again. He was born in 1952 in the midst of the Korean War. The McCarthy witchhunts were underway in DC, our government was building a Hydrogen bomb, and the Cuba Missile Crisis came to a head just as he was about to become a teenager. During my father’s childhood, WW2 had JUST officially ended the year before when Truman signed a peace treaty with Japan.   At the same time, Segregation was finally declared illegal, Disnyeland was opened, and the Civil Rights Act was passed. Heck, McDonalds was born!

Turns out the Good Old Day’s weren’t all that different than today. Perhaps the problems were different, but there were still problems and struggles.

Now let’s go back to Hosea—we are standing here with the prophet on the cusp of a turning point for the people of Israel. Remembering our ancient history, the nation of Israel doesn’t last forever. They are taken into exile. And Hosea stands in the gap at the moment that the people are beginning to realize that perhaps their best days are behind them. They are looking wistfully at their Good Old Days, and wish they could find their way back.

And to those people who would rather look back than acknowledge the future, God has this to say:

Never gonna give you up

Never gonna let you down

Never gonna run around and desert you

Never gonna make you cry

Never gonna say goodbye

Never gonna tell a lie and hurt you

I wonder if part of the problem in Hosea’s time was that the people were afraid that God wasn’t powerful enough to prevent heartbreak. What Hosea tried to teach them was that theirs was a God who would persevere through heartbreak. That God isn’t in the business of preventing pain and suffering. God is in the business of standing with us, of being in covenant with us NO MATTER WHAT. That God is in the business of bringing us back from whatever abyss we find ourselves teetering over.

But we have to be willing to let go of certain things. In order to embrace God, we may be asked to let go of what we thought we needed. In Hosea’s time, the people thought they needed a nation to be God’s people. Without a king, they worried they would be nobody, that they would disappear. To them God says, “Never gonna give you up.”


Have you ever noticed how sometimes it takes a real tragedy to put in relief what is most important? After 9/11, people swarmed into churches, not because they wanted religion, necessarily, but because they needed to know that there was something bigger than hate. Something bigger than fear. And they found that in the knowledge of God’s abiding presence in Christ. They found something bigger than themselves, that wouldn’t give them up, no matter what.

I wonder how many churches, synagogues, and mosques will be filled today in France.

There is a lot of anxiety in the world, and it is natural for us to feel it too. I feel it. I worry about my future, about my children’s future, about the future of the church, about the future of the public school system, about democracy. I worry about terrorism, and refugees, and world peace. I worry about justice, and about God’s righteousness. But I could spend my whole life worrying, and never find the time to do something that contributes to the things that matter.

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preach, charlie.

So instead, I have to put down my worry. I have to let God carry it, so that I can carry the childlike faith that Jesus calls us to. Because when I put down that burden, when I give it to God, then I find that my hands are free to embrace God’s children with the love and the joy and the hope of God’s kingdom in my heart.

I don’t know about your community of faith, but in mine you don’t have to look too hard to find reasons to be anxious. There is always something we  can find to worry about.  But worry isn’t all that there is to living.  In fact, we want to be more than that. We want to embrace the future with hope, whatever it may look like. We don’t want to wait for the worst to happen. We want to imagine a future in which God is with us, in which we are able to do the work of God for the people of God. Will you join us?road_into_the_unknown_by_lowjacker.jpg

Alleluia Amen.

 

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It is Enough

elijah-mount-carmel-6001 Kings 18:20-39

Ahab got everyone together, then they went to meet Elijah on Mount Carmel. Elijah stood in front of them and said, “How much longer will you try to have things both ways? If the Lord is God, worship him! But if Baal is God, worship him!” The people did not say a word.

Then Elijah continued: I am the Lord’s only prophet, but Baal has four hundred fifty prophets.

 Bring us two bulls. Baal’s prophets can take one of them, kill it, and cut it into pieces. Then they can put the meat on the wood without lighting the fire. I will do the same thing with the other bull, and I won’t light a fire under it either.

The prophets of Baal will pray to their god, and I will pray to the Lord. The one who answers by starting the fire is God.

“That’s a good idea,” everyone agreed.

Elijah said to Baal’s prophets, “There are more of you, so you go first. Pick out a bull and get it ready, but don’t light the fire. Then pray to your god.”

They chose their bull, then they got it ready and prayed to Baal all morning, asking him to start the fire. They danced around the altar and shouted, “Answer us, Baal!” But there was no answer.

At noon, Elijah began making fun of them. “Pray louder!” he said. “Baal must be a god. Maybe he’s day-dreaming or using the toilet or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he’s asleep, and you have to wake him up.”

The prophets kept shouting louder and louder, and they cut themselves with swords and knives until they were bleeding. This was the way they worshiped, and they kept it up all afternoon. But there was no answer of any kind.

Elijah told everyone to gather around him while he repaired the Lord’s altar. Then he used twelve stones to build an altar in honor of the Lord. Each stone stood for one of the tribes of Israel, which was the name the Lord had given to their ancestor Jacob. Elijah dug a ditch around the altar, large enough to hold about thirteen quarts. He placed the wood on the altar, then they cut the bull into pieces and laid the meat on the wood.

He told the people, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it over the meat and the wood.” After they did this, he told them to do it two more times. They did exactly as he said until finally, the water ran down the altar and filled the ditch.

When it was time for the evening sacrifice, Elijah prayed:

Our Lord, you are the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Now, prove that you are the God of this nation, and that I, your servant, have done this at your command. Please answer me, so these people will know that you are the Lord God, and that you will turn their hearts back to you.

The Lord immediately sent fire, and it burned up the sacrifice, the wood, and the stones. It scorched the ground everywhere around the altar and dried up every drop of water in the ditch. When the crowd saw what had happened, they all bowed down and shouted, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!”

Mark 9:2-4

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

california-drought-2014-picturesWater. That is the problem. There just isn’t enough of it to go around, it seems. Not so long ago, there was enough. The rivers were bursting, and the sky would rain down pure, living water on fields that drank it up and returned the favor by producing an abundance of food for the people. Enough.

But not anymore. The drought has taken it away. Not just the rain, but the sense of hope that comes with living without lack. The freedom to live hopefullyis gone, and in its place is are bittersweet memories. Memories of what it was like when there was enough.

These days, just a little bit of water requires effort. Walking, mile after mile, to the closest deep well of water. A good strong pitcher is the difference between life and death. Water is precious, something to be hoarded, tucked away, used sparingly. Because who knows when we will get it again? Who knows whether God will bless us with abundance as God has in the past?

The experience of these people is captured almost perfectly by this song that my dad used to listen to when I was a kid. It’s by a group called “The Sons of the Pioneers,” and the song was recorded in 1947.

The nights are cool and I’m a fool

Each star’s a pool of water, cool water

But with the dawn I’ll wake and yawn

And carry on to water, cool, clear, water

 

The shadows sway and seem to say

Tonight we pray for water, cool, water

And way up there He’ll hear our prayer

And show us where there’s water, cool, clear, water

In Elijah’s day, water, and its absence, was the central concern for the people who remained in Israel. For three long, dry, hungry years, a drought has plagued the land and you can bet that the consequences were catastrophic. We know from experience that extended droughts like this tend to produce widespread famine. In 2011, for example, late rains after a bad crop year in 2010 left more than 11.5 million people in East Africa in need of life-saving assistance. Farmers were faced with the choice: do I eat the seeds I have left now, or go hungry in the hope of planting my field? In Haiti, mothers fed their children mud cake, because at least the mud made their children feel as though their bellies were full. There were no good choices—only agonizing ones.

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It is likely that the people of Israel faced these same questions in our scripture narrative today. Difficult questions that had life and death implications. And water—well, you would do anything to get your hands on it. And once you had it, you held tight.

Now, according to 1 Kings, God allowed this drought to happen to teach the King of Israel a lesson. King Ahab is infamous in the Hebrew Scriptures as the worst of the worst. According to 1 Kings 16, he did more evil than any other king when he married Jezebel from neighboring Sidon, and adopted their worship of the goddess Asherah and the stormgod Baal. But it gets worse: it turns out that Ahab also sacrificed his firstborn son, Abiram, and his youngest son, Segub, as well. While this practice was not uncommon in some cultures, the God of Israel explicitly forbid it in the law of Moses.

So by our count, Ahab’s sins:

  • he is an idolator,
  • he has married outside the clan, and
  • he has broken the covenantal law.

For this and more, the Scriptures tell us that God punishes Ahab. Of course, if this is God’s hand, then the innocent people of Israel are being punished as well. In ancient times, however, natural disasters were often explained by the actions and indiscretions of those who led the people… and in communal societies, the sins of one became the punishment for all.

Our scripture today picks up three years into the drought. Elijah presents himself to Ahab and calls for an old-fashioned contest between prophets. He offers the people a choice: you can make up your minds to serve God, or you can stand with Ahab and serve Baal. But whatever you do, you cannot serve both.

The people accept and the scene is set. In a classic case of “the odds being stacked against the good guy,” Elijah goes up against 450 priests of Baal. The contest is simple: build an altar, and call on your God to consume it with fire from the heavens. This contest ought to be easy for the priests of a storm-god.

You have heard what happens. The Baal worshippers go first, build an altar, and begin to call on their god.

But nothing happens. Not so much as a whisper or a breeze.

And so they get louder. And louder. They begin to jump and shout. They cut themselves with swords and knives, hoping to force Baal’s hand. The scene is utter chaos.

The storm god is silent.Baal-The-Storm-God-ghy204

When it is Elijah’s turn, he does not rush. With all the time ien the world, he builds an altar with 12 stones for 12 tribes. He digs a trench, lays the firewood, cuts the ox, and lays it on the wood. Patient. Methodical.

Then it gets weird—he asks for four buckets filled with water—remember, precious water! And three times, for a total of 12 buckets, he pours water out on the offering. At this point, his altar is drenched with that which is most precious to the people—the very water that they have been praying and dying so desperately for.

I cannot think of a richer image of trust in God than this moment—for what trust it must have taken to give up so much water for something that seemed so uncertain. How powerful to have been reminded of who and whose you are as Elijah built that altar before the wavering people.   To see the thirst for God quenced with an abundance of water on the altar before them. There is no hedging of bets here—with Elijah, it is all or nothing. Either God will be with the people, or there will be nothing to live for.

The moment is captured perfectly by Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth Century pope:

            For he did not simply by prayer

Bring down fire from heaven

Upon the wood when it was dry

But exhorted and enjoined the attendants

To bring abundant water

And when he had thrice poured out

The barrels upon the cleft wood

He kindled at this prayer

The fire from the water.

When he is finished, Elijah doesn’t beg. He doesn’t plead. He doesn’t dance or cut himself, or shout. Instead, he simply prays: “God, reveal yourself to us. Be present in this moment, in whatever way you need to be.”

And that is enough. It is enough.

I wonder, what is our water right now? What is it that we feel deprived of? What is it that seems most precious, most out of reach?

For many of us, the answer likely has something to do with our finances. Perhaps we are still reeling from the financial meltdown of 2008, and we worry that we will never fully recover. Maybe we have lost a job, or experienced a setback, or simply seen too much suffering to believe that abundance is possible. Or maybe we are feeling crushed by the weight of student loan debt that we fear will haunt us forever. For us, money is to be held close, to be tucked away and saved for our own rainy day.

For others of us, perhaps that thing that is precious is hope. What Emily Dickinson called

the thing with feathers

that perches on the soul

and sings the tune without the words

and never stops-at all.

Perhaps we fear that our best days are behind us. And certainly we would not be alone. Studies show that many young people under the age of forty are convinced that their lives will not be as good as their parents. Many Christians and faithful churchgoers worry that their faith communities’ best days are behind them. They look around at all the things that have changed, and fear a future in which there is not enough to go around.

So what, then, would it mean to pour out an abundance of what we hold dearest upon the altar of God? What would trusting God with what seems most precious, most limited, look like? What would it look like to put our faith, our hope, those things that we hold most precious, before God in trust? I wonder. I wonder whether it might look like Transfiguration—that moment on the holy mountain when everything changed, and Jesus’ true nature was revealed. In that moment, nothing is the same. The whole world looks different. And in that dazzling sunlight, one thing at least is clear: that God is good, that God is with us, that God is worthy of our trust.trustgod

Power Problems and the Call to Service

Rehoboam traveled to Shechem where all Israel had gathered to inaugurate him as king. Jeroboam had been in Egypt, where he had taken asylum from King Solomon; when he got the report of Solomon’s death he had come back.

Rehoboam assembled Jeroboam and all the people. They said to Rehoboam, “Your father made life hard for us—worked our fingers to the bone. Give us a break; lighten up on us and we’ll willingly serve you.”

“Give me three days to think it over, then come back,” Rehoboam said.

King Rehoboam talked it over with the elders who had advised his father when he was alive: “What’s your counsel? How do you suggest that I answer the people?”

They said, “If you will be a servant to this people, be considerate of their needs and respond with compassion, work things out with them, they’ll end up doing anything for you.”

But he rejected the counsel of the elders and asked the young men he’d grown up with who were now currying his favor, “What do you think? What should I say to these people who are saying, ‘Give us a break from your father’s harsh ways—lighten up on us’?”

The young turks he’d grown up with said, “These people who complain, ‘Your father was too hard on us; lighten up’—well, tell them this: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist. If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!’”

Three days later Jeroboam and the people showed up, just as Rehoboam had directed when he said, “Give me three days to think it over, then come back.” The king’s answer was harsh and rude. He spurned the counsel of the elders and went with the advice of the younger set, “If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!”

Rehoboam turned a deaf ear to the people. God was behind all this, confirming the message that he had given to Jeroboam son of Nebat through Ahijah of Shiloh.

When all Israel realized that the king hadn’t listened to a word they’d said, they stood up to him and said,

Get lost, David!
We’ve had it with you, son of Jesse!
Let’s get out of here, Israel, and fast!
From now on, David, mind your own business.

And with that, they left. But Rehoboam continued to rule those who lived in the towns of Judah. 

1 Kings 12:1-17

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Mark 10:42-45

This year our church has been following the narrative lectionary.   And so, like the Bible, we began at the beginning. Along the way, we have heard from Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Ruth. We have considered the ten commandments, and were reintroduced to the great King of Israel, David himself.

But this week, for the first time, we reenter the story of the Bible through a cast of characters that are almost certainly less familiar: Rehoboam and Jeroboam. So I think perhaps it would be wise to do a little remembering together.

Rehoboam's finger is bigger than his father's waist...or so he says.
Rehoboam’s finger is bigger than his father’s waist…or so he says.

Before king David dies, he anoints his son Solomon as king over the people. Solomon, you may remember, is the wise king, and he is also a prosperous king. Solomon builds the temple his father had dreamed up as a house for God. He also spends considerable time and money building up his roster of eligible young women. His appreciation for the female form gets him into some trouble, especially when he begins to construct temples for his foreign wives to worship the gods of their ancestors.

But there is another problem. I bigger one. Solomon may have built a beautiful temple, but does so on the backs of many poor, powerless people. One of these people is Jeroboam, who during Solomon’s reign served as an overseer of building projects in Jerusalem. He became aware of widespread discontent amongst the people, and began to organize a resistance within ten of the tribes of Israel. Solomon uncovers this treasonous act, which prompts Jeroboam and his supporters to flee to Egypt.

After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam succeeds him and inherits a wealthy but socially fractured kingdom. And when Jeroboam returns from Egypt, he has one question for the new king: will you treat the people more fairly than your father?

This question may seem innocent, but Jeroboam has allies. Ten tribes worth, in fact. So there is a threat beneath this question. “Will you meet our demands and give us rest, or will you be like your father?”

What an opportunity Rehoboam has been given: to consider, what kind of king will he be? What will be his legacy?

It is the sort of question that falls into that “non-urgent, but important” category. How often do we take the time to reflect and discern our higher goals, our priorities and our ethics?

Last week I had the opportunity to do just that when I spent a week at the Presbyterian Pension Program’s CREDO retreat. I spent a week surrounded by natural, spiritual, and communal beauty. And during that time, I was faced with important, defining questions. Questions like: What kind of person do you believe God has called you to be? And how might your finances, your family life, your work practices and rest practices help or hinder you in living out God’s call for you?

getOne of the greatest blessings of CREDO was that I didn’t wrestle with these questions alone. Instead, 
I was gathered with other pastors and with mentors who encouraged and supported one another in this deep soul work. We listened, offered our experience, and helped one another to keep our eyes on the important.

i-get-by-with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-13In Rehoboam’s case, he does something similar: when faced with the big questions, he turns to trusted mentors and to friends. But in his case, the advice they give him conflicts. The older and wiser amongst him counsel that a legacy of servant-leadership will bind the people to him. The elders counsel that “The way to gain the hearts of others is to show them that you live for them, not for yourself. Then people will follow you, will obey, love, and even defend you. A good king has no self-interest.” His contemporaries, on the other hand, encourage him to flex his kingly muscles, to lead by strength, and if necessary, fear. Don’t bend for anyone, they cry. Good kings don’t give in to unimportant people.

What to do, when we are given different advice? How to proceed?

In his desire to be respected, Rehoboam forgets the wisdom of those who have governed before. He rejects the wise counsel of those who know better and he doesn’t even bother turning to God for advice. He doesn’t pray or consult scripture or speak with a priest. Instead, he falls into the trap of peer pressure. He worries that if he doesn’t appear strong, his own friends will think he is weak. He believes that, for a king, weakness is unacceptable.

But there is a price to be paid. Rehoboam’s show of strength divides a weakened nation and throws Israel and Judah into a civil war that will claim hundreds of thousands of lives.   For the rest of his 22 years as king he is at war. There is constant fighting and dying over the boundaries of the kingdoms, over what belongs to who and where.

The price of Rehoboam’s show of force is peace, unity, and mercy for the needy. And it is paid on the backs of the poor, the helpless, those sent to war and never to return.

quote-the-chief-enemy-of-peace-is-the-spirit-of-unreason-itself-an-inability-to-conceive-alternatives-lewis-mumford-316415All of this leads me back to wondering: what ARE we supposed to do when we are faced with big questions? With situations that will test and define our legacy?

Do we make a Pro/Con list? Prayer? Scripture study? Ask trusted friends for advice? Write a blog post or paint a picture? Mow the lawn? What helps you make big decisions? Perhaps one thing we learn today is that it can be helpful to ask from guidance from the very people whom we wish to be like. And for us, there is no one who fits that description more readily than Jesus himself.

And what does Jesus say? We who wish to serve God must become like servants to one another:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many?

Jesus points the way forward by reminding us that it is our calling to use all that we are to serve God. Our time, our gifts, our resources—they are given by God so that we may live to give glory TO God with them.

When we take time, to remember our priorities, it can bring us to a place of great spiritual clarity. Perhaps we recognize that we find peace in God in the quiet. Perhaps, with perspective, we see our slowing schedules not as a sign of age, but as an opportunity to rest in and delight with God. To take Sabbath, and take it joyfully. Or perhaps we find ourselves yearning to make a difference in the world, to follow Jesus out into a community that is broken and crying out for Christ.

Whatever it is that helps your soul rejoice in God, I invite you to pay attention.   Take the time, seek out neighbors and fellow disciples whom you trust, and start a conversation: how might we follow Jesus together? How might we honor the God who made us? I promise you, it will be worth it.

The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word endures forever. Amen.