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“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Now That Peter Has Answered, What Do You Say?”
Matthew 16: 13-20
August 27, 2017 (12th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

Who doesn’t love answering Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

The disciples immediately got in on the act. They raised their hands the moment Jesus called on them and they breathlessly answered, “People are saying you are John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah, and others say you are one of the prophets.”

We want to answer, too. We want to be the first to tell Jesus what others are saying: “Some say you are the best person who ever lived, kind of a super Martin Luther King, Jr. or a wonder-working Mahatma Gandhi but even better; others claim you are almost like God; some actually declare you are God; and still others confess that you are completely human and completely divine all at the same time.

Oh yes, we love reporting what others say: “Did you hear what President Trump said yesterday; my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Burt, always said this about the Palmer Method of penmanship; my pastor preached exactly on that issue last Sunday; my mommy warned of that when I was six-years old.”

We are quite proficient reporting on what others say.

Now, let me forewarn you: never come knocking at my office door and say, “Pastor, people are saying.” Never! To be blunt, if you tell me, “People are saying,” I will look you straight in the eye and say, “I don’t want to hear what others are saying, I want to hear what you say! Put your money where your mouth is.” Oh, and by the way, expect the exact same thing from me…at least on my best days.

I know this sounds unusually harsh but I am only trying to do what Jesus did. After the disciples blurted out all they had heard regarding what others were saying about him, Jesus asked them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?” As you might imagine, there was dead silence, as there so often is when convictions are required rather than opinions. Answering “Who do you say that I am?” demands guts; we must stand up and be counted.

Actually, one person did blurt out who he thought Jesus was and, as you might imagine, it was good ol’ Peter. Never shy to offer his slant on matters of the day, Peter instantly declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Don’t you love him?

And for that answer, Jesus presented him with this impressive ecclesiastical accolade: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”…Oh, and by the way, we have followed suit and put up a mosaic in Peter’s honor, right here at Holy Trinity altar’s, just off to Jesus’ side.

I don’t for a minute think Jesus called Peter “Rocky” because he was a theological genius: Jesus had to know from experience that Peter was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I also doubt whether Peter’s new nickname had much, if anything, to do with him offering his own courageous opinion rather than that of others. Jesus must have had an inkling that, only hours before he would die, Peter would cower when it mattered most. A young girl would query Peter, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean?” and Peter would get all shaky-kneed, just about upchuck, and stutter, “I tell you, I do not know the man”—and he would allegedly do this not just once but three times. Sounds like no answer at all.

Whatever the case, never forget Jesus’ response to Peter’s answer as to who he was: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” When all was said and done, Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” had nothing to do with his convictions, with his heroism, or even with his brilliance; it had everything to do with God. Peter’s answer to “who do you say that I am” may seem like he had just won the ¾ of a billion-dollar heavenly lottery, but don’t be fooled. Peter didn’t even realize that his answer actually meant that God had come very close to dolts like him and would come close to all those who followed him down through the centuries, including you and me. No matter how idiotic our answers regarding who Jesus is or how profound they might sound, Jesus comes to us anyway. We must never forget, just as for Peter, God has provided us with our best answer and that is Jesus who comes to be our brother.

I think that’s why Jesus called Peter the rock and why he calls us the rock in our own peculiar way. We can be such cowards, falling back on the old saw, “people are saying.” We can sometimes tremble and claim we hardly know Jesus when our answers matter most. In spite of our foul-ups and flame outs, God has come to earth in Jesus to put up with our foolishness and cowardice and even when we try to convince others that we are the bee’s knees.

Yes, we are the rock, not because we are so much better than the rest of the world or cleverer than just about anyone else or fearless heroes beyond compare. We know full well that our boldest moments often come when huge cheering crowds march at our sides and we don’t have a thing to lose; likewise, our worst moments often come when we are standing all alone and must say exactly what we think. In spite of all our corny, cowardly, and halfhearted answers, Jesus for some odd reason builds the church on our scrawny and sometimes pompous shoulders. If we can at least know that—and that will be our best answer—we can almost certainly be like Peter, the rock, called to serve Christ here in this place at 65th and Central Park West.

Who knows, maybe someday there might be a mosaic of us right up there with Peter, standing at Jesus’ side! Amazing, huh?

 

 

“The Grace to Change Our Minds”

Pastor Wilbert Miller
“The Grace to Change Our Minds”
Matthew 15: 21-28
August 20, 2017 (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

These are tumultuous times, times that in the words of Mitt Romney cause “racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”

As white supremacists parade swastikas through American streets, neo-Nazis present Hitlerian salutes in front of synagogues, and Ku Klux Klan members wave Confederate flags in African Americans’ faces, we must examine our souls this morning and cry out in horror, “My God, my God!”

One of you asked me following worship on Wednesday evening, “What can I do?” Your question was borne in fear for our nation and for our African American, Jewish, Muslim, and LGBTQ brothers and sisters. You have participated in countless protest marches and called your representatives in Washington, but the madness continues; in desperation, you wonder, “What else can I do?”

My answer may seem surprisingly passive, simplistic even. I said, “What you can do is go to church.”

I believe going to church is the most radical thing we can do in these perilous times—not the only thing, mind you, but the most radical thing. This is where we gather to hear a different word—not a partisan word from Republicans or Democrats or a brawling word from CNN or MSNBC, The New York Times or Breitbart. Here we gather to receive a creative word from God amidst the jarring cacophony of anti-Semites, the harsh screams of racists, and the pathetic whimpers of scaredy-cats. The word we hear in this place implores us to seek an uncommon way, a way overflowing with love for our enemies. This fresh way of viewing the world challenges the very core of our being: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran martyr who sacrificed his life against the Nazi madness, seemed to agree that church-going in tough times is exactly what we should do: “The early morning belongs to the Church of the risen Christ. At the break of light the church remembers the morning on which death and sin lay prostrate in defeat and new life and salvation were given to mankind.”

The word of God that raised Jesus from the dead has the exact same power to eradicate the demonic insanity that threatens to rip our nation asunder. Yes, indeed, we come to church this morning to learn a different language so that when we leave here today, we are able to speak the vibrant language of God’s love to our suffering world.

The story we just heard may not sound at all like the life-giving word we are in search of on a day such as this. The Canaanite woman who approached Jesus was an old enemy of his “people.” It seemed only natural for Jesus to detest her; she came from across the border after all, Syria, and worshiped gods repugnant to God’s chosen people. It seems like the wrong word for today because Jesus plummeted to sickening lows of racial superiority. As the woman knelt before him, pleading for her demon-possessed daughter, Jesus’ response was disgusting: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The Canaanite woman refused to surrender, she would not be deterred: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Outcast that she was, she believed God’s word could overcome hatred and because of that stunning confidence, Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And, of course—surprise, surprise—Jesus changed how he felt about this woman from the other side!

It may sound blasphemous to suggest that Jesus changed his mind and yet have we not come here this morning for an extraordinary word from God, a word not of our own making but of God’s, a word that can set this world upside down? Far from being blasphemous, to be able to change one’s mind is a gracious gift from God.

Perhaps you think changing your mind—or Jesus changing his—is a demonstration of weakness. If that’s what you think, know that God changed God’s mind as well.

In the story of Noah, after annihilating pretty much every human-being and the entire creation, God stretched out a rainbow in the sky and changed God’s mind: “The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9). On another occasion, when the Israelites created a golden calf and God was beside himself with fury, Moses implored the Lord to think twice before wiping them out. And, once again, a surprising word: “And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people” (Exodus 32). Did you hear that? God repented, God changed God’s mind!

Far from heresy, as I said, the greatest grace is the astonishing news that if God can change God’s mind, God can certainly change our minds and our enemy’s.

I know this can happen because it happened to me a few months ago when an African American Lutheran pastor worshiped right here on Sunday morning. At the Passing of the Peace, I unfortunately did not greet her personally. While we met after worship, she was quite upset and said so on Facebook. I was crestfallen. I quickly built up walls of defense as to why I was right and she was wrong: I didn’t notice her; I would never do such a thing; I have served African American congregations; we raised our sons in African American communities; I was arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC, protesting its racist apartheid regime. But it didn’t take long to realize that I had overlooked the pain she was feeling at having been left out all the while trying to justify my inaction. At that moment, God spoke a new word to me that changed my mind and, hearing that word, I apologized to her publicly on Facebook and wrote her a personal note begging her forgiveness. When she wrote back thanking me, I felt a great grace extended to me from her and from God…I pray that I was changed for the better.

We are pointing a lot of fingers these days, uttering lots of harsh words. Could some of our anger be borne in the frustration that nothing will ever change—in our enemies who seem so brazenly wicked, with our families whom we so vigorously disagree, and even in the dark caverns of our own shady hearts? I wonder…

That is precisely why we need to go to church in these tumultuous times. It is in this place where we hear that God can change anyone, including our enemies and, yes indeed, even ourselves.

“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon as We Prayed for Our Nation
“Water Walkers Who Refuse to Wait for the Catastrophe”
Matthew 14: 22-23
Wednesday Evening Mass, August 16, 2017

This wasn’t the first time Peter had said something so preposterous. He was always the big shot, wanting to be at Jesus’ side in glory and telling anyone who would listen that Jesus called him “The Rock.” Like the disciples, we have grown weary of Peter’s antics. When he says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” we, along with James and Andrew, jab each other in the ribs and say to Peter: “Go for it Pizza Pie; take a giant step for mankind, big fella; float like a dragonfly.”

The Bible doesn’t tell us how far Peter walked on water. What’s your guess—two steps, perhaps four? Saint Matthew does write: “Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, be became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” As Peter screamed, Jesus castigated him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

In the midst of our merriment at Peter the buffoon, aren’t we a bit jealous of his bravado? After all, taking just a few measly steps on a wind-battered lake ain’t exactly shabby. How many steps do you think you could take before sinking into the sea?

In these days, it’s easy to sit in our La-Z Boys and judge those who get out of the boat and try to quell the sickening racism and disgusting anti-Semitism occurring in our nation. We all have our opinions of what is appropriate and inappropriate. Like Olympic diving judges holding up scorecards, we evaluate anyone who takes a step or two off the high dive to try to bring justice to our reeling nation. It’s easy to judge from a safe distance; it is far more dangerous to step into the raging sea with hopes that things might get a bit better.

What do you think: is it better to try and fail or to be rendered impotent by our desire to act perfectly before taking a single step?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the great saints of the twentieth century. You are probably aware that he had a cushy job teaching just up the street at Union Theological Seminary. But as Hitler began to rear his ugly head, Bonhoeffer had to make difficult decisions: whether to leave the safe confines of United States soil for his beloved German homeland and, eventually, whether to be involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. People could and would judge him but Bonhoeffer found it more unbearable to stand idly by as Jewish people faced the slaughter. In the finest of Lutheran tradition, Bonhoeffer “sinned boldly;” he dared to act because he was already saved by a merciful God. Risky, of course, but, for Bonhoeffer there was no alternative. Oh yes, he was hung at Hitler’s Flossenburg Concentration Camp only days before World War II ended….Feels a bit to me like sinking into the sea for what you believe. But we do not forget Saint Dietrich.

Listen to his words and tell me if you have heard anything more timely in recent days: “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” One thing is clear: there is no room for anti-Semitism and racism in the Christian life. We must take risks and we must do what we can to stop the madness in our own day.

At the beginning of this evening’s worship service, Steve Aurand played one of my favorite liturgical pieces, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Steve asked whether this was appropriate for this evening and I said, “More than appropriate, it is perfect!”

Jesus invites us to join the clowns, folks like Saint Peter and Saint Dietrich, those willing, in faith, to jump out of the boat and to walk on water. For my money, Peter is the most faithful clown in the disciple boat—as was Bonhoeffer after him! Their faith was borne of bravery and deep faithfulness, knowing they would be ridiculed when their boats began to sink and yet trusting that Jesus would catch them no matter how wet they got.

I pray that each of us will step out of this boat (this holy space, by the way, is called a nave after the Latin word “navis” which means “ship”). We will leave this boat tonight and, I pray, by faith, boldly and lovingly walk on water. There is far too much hatred these days, far too much vitriol aimed at those with whom we disagree. Let us not be coopted by the haters; let us not use their ugly ways to try to accomplish loving results. Let our biggest risk of water-walking be to love those who think differently than us and to stand with those too easily crushed by the rich and powerful.

Let us dare, in Christ’s name, to build a house where all are welcome, in this congregation and throughout this nation.

“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Wildly Extravagant Ministry”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2017 (6th Sunday after Pentecost)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
New York City at Central Park West

During the next few weeks, Jesus will tell us a few parables about the kingdom of heaven.  His stories about wheat and weeds, a tiny mustard seed, buried treasure, a fine pearl, a fisherman sorting through good fish and bad ones, will invite us to see the Christian life much more exuberantly than most of us typically do.

Jesus might stun us this morning as he tells of the most peculiar seed-sower.  The sower flings seeds every which way—onto rock-hard paths, lousy soil, and weed patches; thank goodness, some seeds end up in good soil.  No hoeing, no fertilizing, no soil analysis at the local community college’s agricultural branch—seeds are simply hurled hither and yon in what appears a wildly careless fashion.

I adore this extravagant seed-sowing technique, I suppose, in large part, because of how I grew up. My parents taught me a far different style: seeds are to be planted precisely, in straight lines, at correct depths, and in carefully prepared soil.  I detest gardening to this day because of the mind-numbingly cautiousness of it all!

I learned a similar risk-adverse style when it comes to money: save it and never spend it foolishly.

I remember taking a vacation to Sea Isle City at the Jersey shore.  My mom and dad kept a financial logbook the entire way.  Every penny spent was recorded: gas purchases, Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls, camping site costs, even the cokes, pizza, and salt water taffy bought on the boardwalk.  At one point—at least this is how I remember it—dad warned us, “We are running very low on cash.  We must be careful or we will run out of money.”  I have a hunch we weren’t quite as low as he made us out to be—dad was far too cautious for that; instead, he was teaching us to be frugal.  I do not remember that vacation as a particularly extravagant or fun one; what I do remember was, at times, being scared to death that we might run out of money!

This may sound unusually harsh toward my father but dad was a very good man.  He grew up in the depression and thriftiness was undoubtedly drilled into him by his parents.  His chief goal in life—and he passed it on to me—was to leave his children and grandchildren enough money so that we could go to any college that accepted us and that as the years went by we would never have to worry—no extravagances, not an ounce, just care for his family’s future.

Some good church people are like my father.  Don’t call them miserly; such a view demeans their well-intentioned sacrifices for the well-being of future generations.  These folks invariably are some of the most generous givers to the church’s ministry.

Churches can easily begin to mimic the anxieties of such good and prudent people. They save money for leaky roofs and, lo and behold, when leaks appear, they become nervous nellies: how can we possibly spend our hard-saved money to repair our roof, we will go broke?

I know a few churches like that; they have literally died with millions of dollars in the bank.  They had oodles of money available to proclaim the good news of Jesus to the community but they were too afraid to do that.  How distasteful to be extravagant, they always thought.  Oh, for sure, they ended up with invincible roofs…they also died rich.

Communities and people who have ears to hear Jesus’ parable of the outlandish sower are inevitably far more vigorous and certainly more exciting.  Jesus wanted us to know that God will create a harvest beyond our imagining, especially if we only dare scatter seeds extravagantly in God’s name. Today is the day to announce that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near—not tomorrow!

How extravagant are you?  Now, please, don’t answer too quickly.  In a congregation I once served, an active member repeatedly voiced harsh criticisms to me because, in his mind, we weren’t spending enough on his favorite pet projects.  He criticized our church as “penny wise and pound foolish” as we tried to get years of deficit spending under control—which we did.  There was only one catch: while he criticized us for being cheapskates, he didn’t give one cent to the church’s ministry, not one!  Don’t feel sorry for him: he drove a fancy sports car!  It is a good idea that whenever we get the urge to demand our church to be more extravagant, we first examine how generous we are ourselves.

Anyway, I can guarantee you that people will be far more attracted to extravagant ministry than miserly ministry!  People can see extravagant joy a mile away and they can smell miserly fear from even further.

We are called to follow the one who gave away everything, including his life, in love for his neighbors.

To be completely honest, a number of churches that have touched me most deeply over the years are long gone.  One church had a building as grand as Holy Trinity’s.  Ministry flourished day and night.  Bills were paid by what I call the “shoebox method,” placing them in a shoebox and prioritizing what had to be remitted immediately before gas, electricity, or water was turned off.  Thousands of people were touched with Christ’s love in this breathtaking place but it is now dead and gone; a Buddhist monastery is in its place.  But I, along with many others, continue to bear the excitement of having been part of that place, a ministry that exuberantly celebrated the life Jesus promised in the face of constant threats of death.  That’s how we learned to do ministry and, God willing, that’s how we will do it here.

You know of such extravagance because you have been there.  You have dropped clods of dirt mixed with your warm tears on your loved one’s casket; you have taken Jesus’ extravagant promise to heart: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of what falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

One day, these words will be spoken over all our graves.  We will be planted in the ground with the assurance that we will sprout up and live forever.

May our hearts be filled with joy as we hear Jesus’ wild story of the extravagant giver and may we fling seeds of hope and joy into all the world.

“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”

 Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Discovering Heaven-Up and Down, Up and Down”
(John 17: 1-11; Acts 1: 6-14)
May 28, 2017 (Seventh Sunday of Easter)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity
Central Park West-New York City

Do you ever catch yourself dreaming of heaven?  What will it be like?  Who will be there?  Where exactly is heaven?

Ever since we were kids, we have asked: “Mommy, how far is heaven up in the sky?  Daddy, does heaven really have cotton candy clouds and streets lined with gold? Grandma, will Boomer be waiting for me, with his tail wagging, when I get to heaven?”

As we grow older, our speculation intensifies, though masked in more sophisticated jargon: Who will get into heaven?  Is heaven a state of mind or an actual place? Given that we no longer hold the antiquated three-tier vision—heaven way up there, earth right here, and hell way down there—where exactly is heaven?

I give thanks for musicians, poets, and artists who help us explore these questions with greater imagination.  As our hymn sang last Sunday, the creative souls dazzle us with heavenly “wonder, love, and praise.”

Our choir, week after week, dazzles us with such heavenly wonder, love, and praise.  Since I will be away next Sunday on our choir’s final day before taking a well-deserved summer break, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to our cantor Donald Meineke and our choir for your breathtaking music.  You point us toward heaven as we join the melody of angels, saints, and martyrs singing “Holy, holy, holy.”

During the offering today, our choir will sing In Paradisum, breathtaking music from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem.  Listen to the words:

May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you
and with Lazarus, once (a) poor (man),
may you have eternal rest.

I have used these words at countless funerals.  They magnify our heavenly vision, not only as we gaze upon martyrs and angels, but also as we gaze at Lazarus, once a homeless beggar.  I did far too many funerals for my homeless brothers and sisters while serving in my previous congregation.  I used this text about Lazarus every time.  The words of the funeral Mass invite us to think of heaven differently than we typically do.  Who imagines skanky Lazarus with matted hair and feet wrapped in plastic bags joining Saint Peter and the angel Gabriel as they welcome us into the Pearly Gates?  Those who are homeless might be surprised to find a kindred spirit in such an honorable heavenly welcoming committee.  What a vision, huh?

I have a hunch that most of us look upward when we think of heaven.  After all, the Bible does say that “Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  If that’s how it happened, why ever look down?

And yet, we need to listen a bit further, to the angel who asked the disciples: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

This is where Lazarus, “once a poor man,” enters the picture.  With an angel’s invitation, we cast our heavenly eyes, not only up, but also down.  Is it possible to catch a glimpse of heaven right here on earth, in this place?

A number of you have been volunteering at Holy Trinity Women’s Shelter in the community room.  I thank you for your devotion.  You have happily helped twelve women call Holy Trinity “home” for six months out of the year. As you have lent a loving hand, you have been blessed to see a few of Lazarus’ sisters.  This vision did not occur by gazing up into heaven, not exactly here where the Tiffany windows dance and the altar mosaics mesmerize; you have discovered the risen savior in our basement—as far down, down, down in this place as you can go; definitely not up, up, and away.  Let us never forget Jesus’ words, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”  This is artistic imagination at its finest, learning to spot heaven in earth’s surprising people, in the broken, hapless, and forlorn.

We dare not forget a few of the final words Jesus spoke to his disciples the evening before he died: “And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”   This Jesus Christ, who has gone up to heaven, can also be discovered down here in the shattered and forgotten.

Quite a few years ago, when we lived in Washington, D.C., I baptized our next-door neighbor, Anthony Stokes.  “Little Ant,” as we fondly called him, was a rambunctious sort and an acolyte at our church.  One night, thirteen-year-old Anthony was shot to death by a fourteen-year old right around the corner from where we all lived.  I told Anthony’s grandmother that we would not let her dear grandson’s senseless murder be in vain.  We would rage against our nation’s intoxicating madness for guns, madness, by the way, that continues seemingly unchecked nearly twenty-five years later.  I told her that we would call for life instead of death in our beloved inner-city neighborhood.  And so, when Anthony’s funeral concluded, we processed out of the church, with incense, cross, torches, and a throng of people including our city councilman and Anthony’s football team; we solemnly marched down Monroe Street with the hearse bearing “Little Ant’s” body.  I concluded the funeral liturgy on his row house steps.  Right before I prayed the words of the commendation (“Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Anthony”), I said to hundreds and hundreds of people, “We need to do our very best to make our city streets as holy as our sanctuaries.”  I could just as easily have said, “We need to see heaven down here on earth as well as way up in heaven.”

For those of us given to speculating about heaven, let us not forget that God offers us the precious opportunity to glimpse heaven right here, this side of the kingdom come.  While Christ is risen and ascended, he is also here today: “Take and eat, this is my body given for you.”  Yes indeed, though we say goodbye, we also say hello.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!