Twentieth Sunday: There Is Enough

We are now in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel that lead from the Sermon of Parables (Mt 13), on the hidden power, to the Sermon on Community (Mt 18).  The Lectionary gives us five Sundays on these chapters, plus the Transfiguration (Mt 17), to explore the community built by that hidden power.

The first two readings give us our theme.  We have one of Isaiah’s many readings on “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord.”  They will become Israelites: they must “keep the sabbath” and “hold to my covenant.”  They will come “to my holy mountain,” that is, Zion, the temple mount, in Jerusalem, to offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And so the Temple of Israel will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.”

On the same theme, in our second reading from Romans 9-11, St. Paul says that although he is the “apostle to the Gentiles,” “the call of God” to Israel is “irrevocable.”  In short, although Jesus is for all people, not just those born into Israel, he calls us into Israel.  Jesus does not end the Old Testament, but makes it available to all – because Jesus gives us the grace by which we can both fulfill the Law and become the true Community of Israel, the Church.

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These readings give us the crucial background for our strange, and at first disturbing, Gospel story.  A Canaanite woman cries “Have pity on me, Lord.”  Jesus mercilessly ignores her, then says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  Only when she comes up with a clever come-back does he heal her daughter.  Not what we expect from Jesus.

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The Devil Confronts Jesus

But once again, the Lectionary gives us a hint of the context.  Our reading begins, “At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.”  At what time?  From where is he withdrawing?

As we saw last week, after the Sermon on the Parables, Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, and John the Baptist is killed.  Then Jesus feeds the five thousand, walks on water, and heals many.  He is rejected, but he shows his power to save.  The theme last week, remember, was Peter’s profession, “Lord, save me.”

In the immediate run-up to this week’s reading, the Pharisees accuse Jesus for not following all their rules about hand-washing.  Jesus says, not that traditions and the Old Law are bad, but that the Pharisees have lost the sense of the Old Law, and even break the Law in the name of petty “commandments of men.”  For “Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man. . . . But the things which come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile the man.”  Our actions matter, and laws and traditions matter, because they express what is in our hearts, which is what really matters.

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The Teacher

And so we come to the Canaanite woman.  Jesus goes out of Israel, away from the Pharisees, to Tyre and Sidon (on the coast, northwest of Israel), to talk to a Canaanite woman.

Key for understanding this passage is Jesus’s rabbinic method of teaching.  Remember, as a twelve-year-old in the Temple, he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and questioning them.  And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.”  Questions teach.

With the rich young man (Mt 19), Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good?”  Then Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which is right – but Jesus knows it is not the whole truth.  His half teaching provokes the rich young man to say, “What do I still lack?”  Jesus doesn’t just state the truth.  He provokes.

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Study the dialogue.  The woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  The foreign woman acknowledges him as Lord of mercy and as Israel’s messiah.  She knows what’s going on – she knows that in Jesus, she must join Israel.

“Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.”

The disciples respond, “Send her away.”  And to them – not to her; he is calling them into this lesson – he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  On the one hand, he is sent to Israel.  Israel is key in all of these readings.  But he is sent to “the lost sheep,” to those who cry, “Lord, save me,” “Lord, have mercy,” not to the Pharisees with their self-sufficiency.  Israel is about the promise, about hope, not about possession.  (See Romans 4.)

The woman continues to call “Lord, help me.”

He responds to her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to dogs.”  But this is a puzzle, both for her and for the disciples.  He doesn’t say, “No, I won’t help you, because you are a dog.”  He gives a puzzle.

She solves it: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the tables.”  To which he says, “Great is your faith” – remember the “little-faith” of last week.

The disciples think of Israel as zero-sum: to give to the woman is to “take the food of the children.”  But the Canaanite woman knows that God’s grace is super-abundant, over-flowing, scraps falling from the table.  We must join into Israel, but there is plenty of room in the Temple.

Whether born in or out of Israel, we become true Israelites not by hoarding our self-sufficiency but by calling out to the super-abundant mercy of God.

In what areas of life do you find yourself hoarding instead of trusting the Lord’s super-abundance?

More than Obedience

Two weeks ago we finished the sermon of parables, about the hidden, transforming power.  Last week we interrupted our orderly reading of Matthew to get the Transfiguration, a couple chapters ahead of where it lies in Matthew’s telling of the Gospel.

StPierreJeuneP232.JPGWe are now in the section leading up to the fourth sermon, the sermon on Christian community.  We are discovering what that hidden power creates.

If we had not had the Transfiguration instead, last Sunday’s Gospel would have been the feeding of the five thousand.  But that Gospel begins, “when Jesus heard” – about the death of John the Baptist.  Right after the sermon of parables, Jesus is rejected by his people.  Then John is killed.  The hidden power is rejected.  And after those two stories of rejection come two stories of miracles: the five thousand, and this week, the walking on water.

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The Lectionary has a lot to cover, so things get little elusions, such as “when Jesus heard.”  After five weeks in the amazing eighth chapter of Romans, we now get two weeks for Romans 9-11, where Paul discusses the situation of Israel in relation to the Gospel.  We will talk more about this teaching next week.

For now, let us just say: the Israelites are the people who received the Law.  That is a good thing.  Law is a good thing.  But Jesus has something more to offer than law.  He offers the Holy Spirit, his transforming grace.  Paul says he wishes the Israelites could move beyond the Law to grace.

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And that is a good way to approach this week’s Gospel, the walking on water.

Jesus has just fed the five thousand.  The apostles must be excited.  But he sends them away, to the other side of the water – and he stays behind.  They are obedient to Jesus, and that is a good thing.

We can see an image of their obedience in the difficulty of their crossing: “the boat . . . was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.”  How often does obedience to Jesus mean swimming against the tide, and being buffeted by the storm winds?File:Po vodam.jpg

But Jesus has more.

He comes walking on the sea.  They say, “It is a ghost,” a phantasma, an appearance or apparition.  Because it couldn’t be Jesus.  He can’t do that, no one can walk on water.

They are terrified – in fact, the word means stirred up, tossed about inside, just as they are tossed on the waters outside.  What the heck is going on?

Jesus says, be not afraid (different word) for it is I.  What does he mean?

Peter says, “call me out of the boat.”  The first step is obedience.  Our translation is too strong in saying, “command me,” but Peter wants to be obedient, even in the impossible.  That is a good thing.  Funny, though, how even this obedience is on Peter’s terms.  Obedience doesn’t go quite far enough.  What Peter is doing is good, but not good enough – like the Israelites, like the religion of obedience.

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“When he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened.”  The Peter stories are comic.  The boat was being by the winds about before Jesus came.  And the first thing Jesus said was (same word) “don’t be frightened.”  He shouldn’t be surprised.  But he is.

And then he says the most important words of this Gospel, the most important words of our faith: “Lord, save me!”  Notice the transition, from “Lord, command me” to “Lord, save me.”  Peter is no longer in charge.  And he knows that he needs Jesus’s help.

Obedience is a good thing.  But it often presumes our own strength, our own sufficiency.  When the kid says, “time me while I run around the block,” he doesn’t want you to help him, he wants to show how strong he is.  Obedience is often about how strong we are.  “Lord save me” is about how strong Jesus is.

That’s the transition from Law to Gospel.  Not that we stop being obedient or stop following the Law.  But that we learn that it’s only the strength of Jesus, only the Holy Spirit, who makes us able to be perfect as he is perfect.

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“Immediately” – as soon as we call out – “Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter.”  Peter didn’t stretch out to Jesus, Jesus stretched out, and grabbed him.  That is grace.  That is the Incarnation.

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  The Greek is funny: “little-faith” is one word.  Later, when Jesus will talk about faith the size of a mustard seed, he also uses one word for “no-faith.”  Peter is not no-faith.  He has the faith of obedience, the faith to say, “hey, I bet I can walk on water too.”  But he needs more faith, more than obedience. File:Bril Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.JPG

At the end of the reading, those who were in the boat say, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”  Two chapters later, Peter will make the same profession of faith, but this is the first time it is said in Matthew’s Gospel.  They know him as Son of God when they learn to cry out, “Lord, save me.”

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In our Old Testament reading, Elijah sees some dramatic stuff: rock-crushing winds, earthquakes, fire.  But God is in the still, soft voice.  In fact, he is in the quiet, “crushed” voice.  Strange word.  The voice of the crucified.  The voice that speaks to those who have been crushed, and are crushed in spirit.  The intimacy that goes beyond obedience, to “Lord, save me.”

When have you discovered Jesus as Savior?

Exegesis

A couple days ago was the feast of St. Dominic, one of my favorites and the primary influence on this website.  I was hoping to write something about his mission of preaching.

Searching the Scriptures

In every age, maybe ours more than ever, anti-intellectualism has been trendy.  There are elements of truth in that idea.  But it becomes an excuse not to hear the Word of God, as if it is more intellectually humble to trust in your own unexamined ideas than to let yourself be formed by divine revelation.  St. Dominic believed that the Word of God, articulated through preaching, was key to conversion.  I agree.

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Today I’d like to approach the same point from a different angle: exegesis.  In part because of events, in part by design, this page has become devoted above all to exegesis of the Sunday readings.  I have benefited from that, and I want to reflect with you on why.  I believe what I am about to say is the heart of Benedict XVI’s vision – though in our political age, few people notice.

Exegesis is a fancy Greek word that means “drawing out.”  (Ex– means “out”.)  The way to understand it is to consider its opposite, eisegesis.  (Eis- is the Greek for “into”.)  When you have a text before you – we are talking about Scripture, but this applies to liturgy, to Christian doctrine in general, and even to conversations with friends – eisegesis means that you impose your own ideas instead of hearing what the other person says.  (When people turn Benedict XVI into a proponent of the Latin Mass, for example, they are committing eisegesis, seeing their own ideas instead of listening to his.)

There is a “conservative” or “traditional” kind of eisegesis that sometimes infects what is called the “spiritual meanings” of Scripture.  Sometimes people in the tradition have been so eager to talk about Jesus, or Mary, or some other Christian topic that they don’t bother to hear what a particular Biblical text has to say.   It is possible to read these spiritual meanings in Scripture in an “exegetical” attitude, but it is true that we often fail.  Thomas Aquinas, for the record, warns that we need to start with the “literal” meaning of Scripture, by which he means exegesis.

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St. Jerome

A more modern example.  It seems to me that someone taught many priests in my diocese a particular, not exegetical, approach to lectio divina.  In this method – which is not real lectio divina – you read a Biblical text, look for a word to jump out at you, and then you put the text down and run with the word.  You read about the disciples fishing – and that reminds you of fishing with your grandfather, and then you do a meditation, on your own or in your preaching, about the spiritual importance of grandfathers.  And your basis for this meditation is the word “fishing.”

Now, there is a germ of truth in this approach.  To understand the text, it is worth thinking about what it means that they were fishing.  But Scripture has something else to say to you.

Imagine if you did this to a friend.  He starts a story, “the other day I was driving in my car” – and you tune out, and start meditating on what cars mean to you.  Sure, part of understanding your friend’s story is understanding what he means by driving in the car, and it’s possible that your shared experience of the car is relevant to understanding his story – but you have to listen to the story!

There are, of course, more and less “spiritual” and “traditional” ways of doing this.  The point is, if you are more interested in your ideas than in the ideas being spoken to you, you are committing eisegesis.

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To combat this kind of eisegesis, modern scholars have developed some methods – which often become their own kind of eisegesis.  It is good, for example, to consider the original context of the text.  Maybe it was written during the exile in Babylon.  Okay, that’s relevant.  But scholars get so carried away with their theories of Babylon – often, truth be told, based on scant evidence – that all they want to talk about is Babylon, and they can’t hear what Scripture is teaching them about our relationship with God.  They are avoiding one eisegesis and falling into another.

Another danger they want to avoid is that of being so sure that we understand a text that we miss what it has to say.  The Bible is a big book because it has many things to say.  If you are always meditating on the same idea, I would guess you are not listening to the many things the Bible has to say.  So another method of modern exegesis is to set aside your preconceptions and listen to each individual text on its own terms, as if it stood alone.  The modern exegetes have a point.

But again, this can go too far.  If your friend and you have shared experience, and shared loves and ideas, those things are not irrelevant to understanding what your friend is saying.  Even if you are reading someone you disagree with, your background knowledge about their ideas helps you understand the thing they are saying right now – even though, yes, you need to keep an open mind and make sure you keep listening.

One of the premises of this web page – a basic premise of Catholic theology – is that theological knowledge, knowledge of the truths of the Christian faith in general, is helpful for understanding the particular teachings of Scripture.  St. Matthew knew the same Jesus I have been trying to know, the same Jesus who comes to me in the sacraments, and in Scripture.  St. Matthew has things to say to me, and I need to be listening – but to pretend I know nothing about Jesus is not helpful in my listening to St. Matthew, any more than it would be helpful in listening to my friend’s story if I pretended I don’t know what a car is, or don’t know my friend.

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Why exegesis?  Because the Bible has something to say to us.  Because God’s perspective is different from ours.  I listen to a lot of Catholic talk: in my opinion, people who aren’t doing exegesis tend to fall into human ways of thinking.  They especially tend to forget the central reality of divine grace, of redepmtion.  To keep our supernatural perspective, we need to listen to the sacred authors, who have that perspective better than we do.  To think like Christians, we need to read the Bible – and if we aren’t doing exegesis, we aren’t reading the Bible.

You don’t have to be an expert to listen to the Bible.  How do you let God’s Word speak into your world?

 

Transfiguration: Encounter the Glorious Divinity of Christ

This Sunday we are blessed to celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration.File:1648. Праабражэнне.jpg

The readings begin with an apocalyptic vision from Daniel:

His clothing was bright as snow,

and the hair on his head as white as wool;

his throne was flames of fire,

with wheels of burning fire.

A surging stream of fire

flowed out from where he sat;

Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him.

This is not a cuddly Jesus.  It is not even a humble Jesus.  This is Jesus revealed as God.  The Transfiguration reminds us that within the poverty of the Incarnation is the God of Gods.

It seems to me, listening to preaching, etc., that we as Catholics would understand our faith a lot better if we had a more vivid sense of God.

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Our reading from Second Peter is an eyewitness account.  “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Second Peter is a remarkable document, an approach to Christian faith and life through the encounter with the Transfigured Christ.  There are other kinds of approach: through the Resurrection, through the Ascension, Paul’s encounter with the glorified Christ, and yes, through the Cross.  (St. Mark – St. Peter’s disciple – always calls us to the cross.)  But we need to contemplate the face of Christ, to know who he really is.  It all begins with that encounter.

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Let us approach the Transfiguration in four acts.

First, they see him transfigured.  Mark’s Gospel, like Daniel above, compares the whiteness to earthy File:Alexandr Ivanov 015 - variation.jpgthings, snow and bleach.  Luke says it was dazzling, flashing out like lightning.  But this year we are reading Matthew, the literal.  “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”  Precisely.

Jesus is full of light.  He is always full of light – but now they see it, see who he is.

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Second, he converses with Moses and Elijah.  On the one hand, Scripture, the Old Testament, bears witness to Christ.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  Everything points to him, in his glory.

And it is beautiful.  Peter says, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”  The Greek of the New Testament has two words for good.  This one is not good in the sense of profitable.  It is kalon, the word for beautiful.  This is the Good: through Scripture to see the glory of Jesus.  Lovely!

File:Alexandr Ivanov 015.jpgOn the other hand, the good seems within grasp.  Peter is ready to build tents.  Tent is a loaded term in the Bible.  In John’s Gospel, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, it is with such a “tent.”  And in the Old Testament, the first temple itself is called the tent, the tabernacle – same word.  There is some presumption in Peter’s offer.

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But third, “While he was still speaking,” God interrupts him.  “Behold, a bright cloud,” which Tradition sees as the Holy Spirit.  And the voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” repeating the same words from the Baptism in the Jordan.  But where those words seemed a beginning then, now they seem a culmination.

And where Peter was presumptuous before, now, “they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.”  (My kids, quoting the King James via Charlie Brown, use the same words as found when the angels speak to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel: they were sore afraid.)  The “very much” could be translated “violently.”

From presumption and tabernacle building, we move to awe.  We all need this movement.  To discover the divinity of Christ is to discover that God doesn’t need our help, and we aren’t the boss.

Parallel to this movement, the Father adds one phrase to the words from the Baptism: “Listen to him.”  We are called to action – but in reverence.  Jesus will tell them to keep silent until the Resurrection.  God comes first.  Worship comes first.  First we must know him, and know him as God.

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Then in the fourth act, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’”  Jesus takes them beyond fear.

But he takes them there by touching them.  The word even means “attaching himself” to them.  In the File:Преображение Господне.jpgIncarnation we pass to a new relationship with the divinity.  Before, we were forgetful of God.  Now we see his beauty, we fall down in awe – and we rise again, not the same, but transformed by the recognition that in Jesus God has come to us, attached himself to us, touched us.

And so “when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.”  Encounter.

What can we do to make sure we live in awe before the glory of God in Christ?  In what way do you need to fall down before the Transfiguration?

The Parables of Repentance

For three weeks the Sunday Gospel readings walked us through Jesus’s Sermon of Parables, Matthew 13.  My commentary focused on the hidden power of God.  The seed planted in different kinds of soil, and beside the evil one’s tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, File:Hortus Deliciarum, Der Sämann.jpgthe net that gathers in: all of these are symbols of the Holy Spirit, or the Divinity hidden in the humanity of Christ, the power of God that can transform us.

But before we move on from Matthew 13, let us pause to note a corollary.  Each of these parables is at the same time a parable of God’s power and of our call to repentance, grace and free will.  It is not one or the other, it is both, and we need to see both, not only to understand these parables but to understand the Gospel itself.

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St. Paul has a technique of slipping in something we think is minor beside things we think are major.  For example in, Galatians 5, he says, “Now the works of the flesh are clearly revealed, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, fightings, jealousies, angers, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkennesses, revelings, and things like these; of which I tell you before, as I also said before, that they who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

We skim, maybe we don’t even read the whole list.  But watch what he does.  “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lustfulness.”  Ah, yes, sexual sin, bad!  Dirty people!

“Idolatry, sorcery.”  Even worse!  Such sinners!

“Hatreds, fightings, jealousies.”  Wait a minute, I can hate, can’t I?  And, I mean, not every fighting is hatred, and not all jealousy is fighting.  How dare he put my jealousy side by side with “really” bad things like adultery and idolatry!  A little divisions and envy aren’t so bad, are they?  Does envy really belong alongside murder, division beside heresy?

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The parable of the sower works the same way.  “When anyone hears the Word of the kingdom and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and catches away that which was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown by the wayside.”  Well, I am not like that.  I embraced the Word of the Gospel!

“But that which was sown on the stony places is this: he who hears the Word and immediately receives it with joy.”  Right, me!  I received it with joy!  “But he has no root in himself, and is temporary. For when File:Birds from the parable of the sower.jpgtribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, he immediately stumbles.”  Oh.

But I’m better than that.  “And that sown into the thorns is this: he who hears the Word; and the anxiety of this world, and the deceit of riches, choke the Word, and he becomes unfruitful.”  This sentence is the climax of the story.  You are someone who has received the Word, who does have roots, who isn’t just temporary.  And Jesus says: that isn’t good enough.  Because even if you have deep roots, you can choke out the life of the Gospel by your worldliness.

The Gospel is tough.

And it concludes, “He who hears the Word and understands; who also bears fruit and produces, one truly a hundredfold; and one sixty; and one thirty.”  He says, even those who are fruitful are not all equally fruitful.  Bear the hundredfold.

We are called to sanctity.  That doesn’t work with taking it easy.

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The wheat and the tares spins the same lesson another way.  On the one hand, we are so judgmental, but the Master of the harvest warns us , sometimes the ones you are judging are wheat, not tares.  And on the flipside, are you so sure you are wheat?

This parable ends with the first of several threats in this sermon: “bind them in bundles to burn them.”  There are different ways we can think about the fiery punishment – but Jesus insists that the Gospel is demanding.

Later he explains the same parable with some of the most frightening words of the Bible: “The Son of Man shall send out His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

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The mustard seed is positive, more about God’s power than about our obligation.  (Unless we wonder what kind of burden the birds in the branches are.)  But then the leaven turns the same idea into a parable of repentance: “until the whole was leavened.”  Has the leaven of the Gospel permeated my whole lump?

That idea hands off into the treasure and the pearl, which demand that we sell everything.

And the parable of the net repeats the threat: “The angels shall come out and separate the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

The stories in the parables do not require these harsh conclusions.  But the Gospel does: we are called to be transformed.  The power of that transformation comes from God, the Holy Spirit hidden within us.  It is he who will make us righteous.  But we have to become righteous.  Jesus is not interested in sending his Holy Spirit so that we can ignore it and go about our way.

We need to be the instructed scribes, who dig into our treasure house and pull out old and new, digging deep to live the Gospel.

What obstacle is keeping God’s seed from bearing fruit in you this week?