5th in Easter-Life for Others: By God’s Eternal Life

Acts 17:22-31 ; John 14:1-14

“Life for others” is my theme for these seven Sundays in Easter. The first way to understand “life for others” is as a description of the shape and purpose of our lives as a Christian community. The rest of the world may live by other shapes and purposes: perhaps “life for me,” or perhaps “life for some,” or life for those I like or that are like me. But that is not the shape of our lives as a church. We welcome all here, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they are like or unlike us. We seek the good of all others beyond those gathered here; we do this by praying for others, including our enemies, by our mission work by which we help the poor, the hungry, and those are neglected or ostracized in our community, regardless of whether they share our faith; and we provide at least some support for the worldwide efforts of our denomination and other organizations (like Church World Service and Blankets Plus) who seek to help people from all walks of life across this country and around the globe. We could do a better job, but all this kind of thing is what life for others looks like. Life for others is also expressed in the kind of community we believe in and try to carry out as a congregation. We try to create and nourish a community of mutual care and love, in which we do not put ourselves first but live for the good of each other. I’ll talk more about that in two weeks.

Since we are life for others, we make room for others to be different, which also means we are a free-thinking church. As I speak to you, I know that we as a group of assembled individuals are all over the map, intellectually. Some of us profess old-time religion, some of us identify with newer, liberal, or modern Christian ideas; some of us do not think much of classical Christian beliefs, and doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity do not mean much to us; some of us don’t have much confidence in any religious beliefs. Well, we mean what we say: “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”—it’s true. But I do see us as on a journey together, although we come from very different starting points. I only ask that you think of us as being on a journey together. And as your pastor, I’m not going to pretend that our journey is just going wherever we happen to wander. This church comes out of a strongly (but not dogmatically) Christian tradition, and that is obvious by the forms of our worship life: we read only from the Christian Bible, we follow a Christian liturgy and practice Christian sacraments (as we saw last week). In short, we profess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We will ask new members to profess this with us, three weeks from now. To be sure, we don’t claim a single interpretation of what that means, and we certainly don’t impose one on people.

But my role here is obviously not neutral. I am not here just to facilitate conversation between you all, although sometimes I will do that and, as a former college professor, I am good at it. I welcome discussion and dialogue, and change my mind often in response to your insights and questions. But make no mistake, when it comes to theology, to our ability to articulate what we are all about as a church, to explain it in a coherent and responsible way—a way that understands the many challenges to Christian belief and creatively reinterprets that faith to meet valid challenges—when it comes to theology, I proudly assert my role as your leader (not your dictator, of course). That’s why I asked that my title be, “Pastor and Theologian in Residence.” When it comes to actually living like a Christian, living a life for others, I gratefully defer to the many saints of this church, because they do it better than me. But when it comes to explaining why we believe in life for others, rather than life for some other purpose or direction, I happily and confidently take the lead.

When I look out not only here but across the Christian world, I see a whole lot of beautiful life for others being lived and I celebrate and praise God for it. But intellectually, I see enormous division and incompatible opinions, often not very clearly articulated; Christians with very different views are often not aware of how much in conflict they are with each other. I observe Christians to be often incapable of even understanding each other, incapable of having effective discussions with each other. In short, on the intellectual front, I see sheep without a shepherd.

And I believe I can be a good shepherd, on that front at least. I do not stand alone, certainly. The intellectual challenge Christians face is enormous, larger than it has ever been, as I need to keep reading and learning from others just to be effective in our little corner of those challenges. But I believe I have a pretty good grasp on responding to those challenges. I hope when I preach and teach that lights go off in your head (not warning lights), and that you see a way of thinking through your faith that is helpful and encouraging. I have tremendous confidence in the Christian faith. I think that our Christian faith, rightly understood, has the best intellectual game going today. I am not ashamed of the gospel, as Paul says, and I want you likewise to be free of shame and intellectual doubt. I do not believe the Bible is infallible. In some ways, I think we need to strongly reinterpret the Christian faith as it has been handed down to us. But when it comes to the essence of that faith, for instance, what I’ll talk about today—the divinity of Christ and the Trinity—I think Christians can claim that they have the most rational way of seeing what life is all about. But I hold to this in a very non dogmatic way. We need to be above all self-critical about our Christian faith, which often gets things terribly wrong. Even when we are right, I think there are many possible ways to be right as a Christian. There can be no one and only way to explain what it means to be a Christian; it won’t fit in any one box. And we need to appreciate that there are good reasons why others have rejected Christianity as it’s been understood and practiced. And we need to appreciate, I think, that there is great truth and insight and validity to other faiths and to non-religious understandings of reality. That’s a lot to take in, but I’ve been at it for years and it hasn’t at all weakened my Christian faith, although my faith has been altered. What a shame that some of our Christian cousins find it necessary to think that everyone else is wrong, and that Christians alone have the truth. Now, did you notice in the John reading, what blockheads Thomas and Phillip were? And they were Jesus own disciples. Why do some followers today think they are so much smarter?

So I am your guide on this “life for others” journey, and we aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims. So I’ve got a strong sense of where that journey will hopefully lead, even though I don’t expect we’ll all get there in seven weeks or seventy years, including me: but I hope that we’ll all come to see more and more that the God of Jesus Christ is our ultimate ground, and way, and hope for the “life for others” that we believe in as the shape of a good life. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said; I hope we all come to see and understand that better and better. Today I want to talk about, by reference to our scripture readings, why God is the ultimate ground of our life for others, the God of Jesus Christ. And so confessing and worshipping this God of Jesus Christ is essential to our life for others. A few of us might think that it would be better if we were just out there right now, helping others.

Well, we can’t be life for others if we are just holed up in here, worshipping (although we do pray for others). But without worship we will not have the feeling of gratitude to spur us to help others; and we won’t have the confidence that comes when we realize that life for others is grounded the divine will for the universe. On our readings for today, we have two versions of how to connect the God we worship to our life for others.

In the gospel of John, we get a command from God. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works that these.” Two weeks ago we talked about how Jesus is the very embodiment of life for others, and that means all others, regardless of their worthiness. Jesus commanded and inspired his disciples to live for others as well. But before they encountered him raised from the dead, alive by the power of the Holy Spirit, they were not yet 100% on board. Phillips says, “Show us the father and we will be satisfied.” O gee, that’s all. We just want to see God. Has Phillip forgotten that the Bible repeatedly, including in John chapter 6, has God say: “No one shall see me and live.” So Jesus could have chastised Phillip for even desiring to see God. But instead he says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

In these innocent little sentences are found all the riches and perplexities of the Christian faith. It is one thing to believe that Jesus was a wise teacher. But here he is saying that what we encounter in him is not just a human teacher but the personification of God, insofar as we can see God. Notice that he doesn’t say, “I am the Father.” That would violate the whole Trinitarian view of God, and it would sound too Darth Vader. I am in the Father, and the Father is in me. Jesus shows us God in a way that is personally recognizable, without exhausting all the mystery and beyond-ness of God.

Trying to explain the Trinity caused no end of trouble for the early church; and things are hardly better today. But Jesus so simply and perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the Trinity with his one word, “in.” Jesus and the Father are not identical, but they are in one another. And the mystery of our union with God is likewise contained in that “in.” “Believe in God, believe also in me,” Jesus said. “Amen amen I say to you,” so says the Greek; or in our version, “Very truly I say to you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Faith in or belief in does not mean assenting to certain claims about who Jesus is, or who God is. “To believe in” means our lives are in Jesus and Jesus is in us, as Jesus also is in the Father and the Father is in him. Our life is in God, through Christ. That is why we can most truly live life for others—because we are in God and God is in us.

And God is most perfectly life for others. We all tend to picture God as some remote but beneficent dictator, ruling from on high. But the more the church thought about this passage in John and about the Trinity, the more we realized that God’s eternal being, even apart from creation, is life for others. The inner life of God is not solitary, but is like the relation of a parent and child. There is an eternal begetting in God, an eternal expression of an other in God. So we don’t just say God is “loving,” we say, “God is love.” Within God’s own being, that is, there is eternal love between the Father and Son, or, since we are expressing a great mystery high above us, we might say a love between God the invisible origin and God completed expression. Or, in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So when I say that, most fundamentally, God is life for others, I mean that as a definition of God’s own life and being. There is a one another in God. (Sometimes I’m so glad I don’t have to take questions while I preach.)

So, in John’s version of things, God has been revealed as life for others by Jesus, who has shown us the Father. We see something rather different in Paul’s famous speech in Athens, as reported in Acts. Paul never mentions Jesus until the very end, and then only by allusion to the coming judgment by Jesus that has been guaranteed by his resurrection. He barely mentions Jesus at all, let alone the Trinity. Instead, Paul talks about how near to everyone God is. God is so near that the pagan Athenians already know God, in a way. Paul quotes their poets as saying, “In him [there’s that “in” again]; In him we live and move and have our being”—that last line is beautifully poetic, but the Greek just says, “In him we live and move and are,” we are in God. And the Athenians poets have also said, “For we too are God’s offspring.” Now, Paul is making much the same point that Christians otherwise make using the Trinity: God is in us and we are in God. Paul didn’t demand that his audience believes in Jesus and that Jesus is God and the whole Trinity thing. They already in fact know they are in God and God is in them.

And this God, Paul declares, is life for others. He puts it this way: “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth…he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Now, the Athenians have clearly lost the simplicity of the message about life for others amid a plethora of temples and multiple gods and idols. But in this respect we are not so different from they. Earlier, Acts describes them this way: “The Athenians…would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Sounds familiar? But despite their flaws, Paul manages to find an in with the Athenians (there’s that “in” again!). He finds an altar that says, “To an unknown God.” Among all their idols, they worshipped also an unknown God. Paul sees in that confession of what they did not know about God an opening to faith. And so we also may do well to speak openly about the God we do not know.   Because we might miss the God who is life for others, all others, if we know only the God who is life for us, on whom we expect to do this and that for us. You all are here to get something from God, right? Maybe that’s your idol, the god you have housed in a “shrine made of human hands,” “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.” Erect then also an altar to the God you do not yet know, for God is life for others, not just God for you, and God is calling you to be life for others, too.

And in fact, the Trinity that Jesus called forth, when he said that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, for he is in the father and the father is in him—this God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already erected this altar to an unknown God for us. For the Father who is life for others in the Son, and who is also our life for others when we put our life in him, when we believe in him—this Father whom we have seen in the Son is also not the Son. We have seen the Father in person in the Son, but the Father also remains unseen in himself. We know God is life for others as our Triune God, but still in the heart of this triune God is a mystery we do not know. And that’s good. For it keeps the “other” in our life for others. We may think that we know all about being for others, but we have not finished discovering which others we are going to be for, or understanding just how other they are, how unlike us; and we do not yet fully know how to be for them. As we rededicate ourselves to living a life for others this Easter, let us pay our respects at the altar to an unknown other.

 

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5th of Lent (April 2): “Loving Loved Ones”

I was gratified by the expressions of appreciation I received for this sermon.  I often find John’s gospel difficult to preach from.  So this time, I came clean and was honest about that fact.  (Almost) Always the right thing to do!  Once I did that, I found that new insights from the text came upon me (from the Holy Spirit, as we believe).  For instance, I didn’t see any insight from the commentary I was using as to why Martha and Mary both say the same thing when they find Jesus.  It sounds stiff and repetitive.  But it came to me that Jesus’ different reactions to the same greeting demonstrate how his demeanor has changed.  

Now, I will not claim that the significance I find there was part of John’s “intentions.”  In some ways, I am imposing meaning that John would perhaps have intended to avoid.  And those with more conservative biblical sensibilities will find my reading a little disturbing.  But this is the confusing but refreshing world of interpreting Scripture seriously but not literally and always deferentially.  (Consider Paul’s baffling, shocking interpretation of Scripture in Galatians!)  I hope all of that does not distract the reader from the point: to focus anew on mending and vivifying our relationships with loved ones. 


Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45

Loving loved ones sounds easy. It’s actually the most difficult and fraught kind of love. It’s usually not too difficult to love a stranger who is in need. I urge you all to practice doing so. It’s both easy and rewarding. And I know that our Board of Missions is looking for opportunities for us to do so, opportunities like Cathedral in the Night, a worship and free meal program for homeless people. It really is easy, and you leave feeling good.

That’s not always how our closest relationships go. Isn’t that surprising? Why would it be harder to love an old friend or family member than a complete stranger? Perhaps because there is so much at stake. Our daily happiness and sense of freedom are bound up thickly with our relationships with parents, children, or spouses. We have so much at stake, personally, in these close relationships. They are part of our past that we can never escape from, and they set the course for our future, as far as we can see. With our past and our future at stake, these relationships threaten to consume us.

A love so essential to who we are can easily feel entrapping, like it is robbing us of our freedom. Perhaps we have all felt that way toward our parents at one time or another. Or we fret about whether the one I love loves me as equally and truly as I love her: perhaps I do not feel as giving as my lover does; or worse, perhaps she doesn’t love me as much as I love her. That’s an anxiety that especially many young lovers have felt. Or what about the heartbreak that clouds the horizon of us parents who experience such an amazing bond of love with a child from the moment of birth. You receive this precious, fragile, cuddly, lovingly dependent life that inspires the noblest feelings of care and nurture in you. Sadly, those precious early years of bonding will be largely forgotten by your child. And so the relationship between parent and child can never be fully mutual. Parents are doomed to watch their children grow more distant, more independent, and subject to all kinds of threats beyond our control, from untrue lovers who will break their hearts, to bad friends who lead them astray—and who knows how our unpredictable economy might fail to bring our children sustenance and opportunity? And then, what if our children do something terribly wrong? / There’s so much at stake. It’s no wonder that parents constantly get it wrong. Out of fear, we are too protective and controlling; our of a desire for mutual love and respect, we are too permissive.

Getting love right, in any of these relationships, seems almost impossible. But perhaps that’s because we have set our minds on the flesh, not on the Spirit. These are the terms Paul uses in our reading, and they are unfriendly terms. They may sound unhelpful. So let me explain them so that they can be helpful. Biblical scholars all agree that for Paul, “Flesh” does not mean the “body,” and “Spirit” does not mean soul or mind. To keep things brief, to set your mind on the flesh is to think only about what I have coming to me; what is mine; what am I going to get out of this? In verse 15 Paul calls this a “spirit of slavery” that makes you “fall back into fear.” When you approach your loved ones with the question: what’s in it for me in this relationship, you will always think first about yourself, and you will live in fear that you will not get what is coming to you. Life and loving relationships for those set on the flesh or on “me” can only bring loss.   “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” If you are all about having and possessing, the one thing you know is that you will inevitably lose it all.

But “To set your mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit is all about giving, not having. For those in the Spirit, life is a gift and a chance to give in return. God’s grace, given freely, stands behind everything. My loving relationships are not a threat to my possessions, but show me the truth that there is no “me.” Who I am from the very beginning is bound up with others—my parents first of all. I will be entrusted with responsibilities, possessions, and decisions, but these are not ultimate. There is not me without others.

If you set your mind on the flesh, then your relationships will present your with two choices: either I am going to get what I want, or I am going to sacrifice myself, and this person I love is going to take all that I have. But if you set your mind on the Spirit, then you live in a “we.” When you give, you give to an “us” that includes you and your lover. And when you receive, you receive as a “we” that rejoices with the lover. There are no losers and winners in the Spirit; if you are thinking about who is winning and who is losing, you are in the flesh.

It’s really pretty simple. And Paul’s believes that God shows us in Jesus that the meaning and destiny of everything is in the Spirit, not in the flesh—with the “we,” not with the “me.” Paul is writing this to the church, whose very identity is founded on Jesus, the one who brought life and peace in the Spirit. Our “we” includes above all Jesus, and through Jesus, God’s own eternal being is part of our “we.” God is our loved one; and we are God’s loved ones. Our “we” is boundless.

So the first thing to do, as we practice repentance in our closest relationships, is to set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. In other words, your relationships are not your possessions to be managed, but they are life itself. They are your “we.” And they will not be all they can be unless you can enter them with the right intention, understanding, and heart.

But fixing our relationships probably isn’t as simple as just “setting you mind.” For one, we remain inevitably prone to selfishness, it seems. We remain at least a little bit in the flesh. After all, Paul had just said in chapter seven, apparently about himself, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” This is the reality we confront during Lent. And so every day, we feel or inflict the pain of life in the flesh on our relationships, because as simple as it sounds, we cannot bring ourselves to live wholly as a “we.”

But besides being inevitably at least a little selfish, we are also fragile, bodily creatures, for thus God created us. We cannot overcome our own vulnerability, and neither can our loved ones. Above all we are mortal. If you were here on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality is what launched this great Lenten journey we are on. Doing so can free us, as it did then, to face our need for repentance and to embrace real life with the time we have. But it also forces us to face the fact that even the “we” that we live, even when we love rightly, for will be taken from us.

That brings us to our reading from the Gospel of John. Now, I will tell you right off that the Gospel of John does not always sit well with me. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, no doubt. But sometimes I find the portrayal of Jesus and others to lack credibility. In today’s reading, as he is bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” That’s lovely. The author of the gospel could have left it at that. But he has Jesus add, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” That’s weird. Jesus has to explain—not to God, surely, so apparently to us the readers—that he only thanked God out loud for the sake of the crowd. I guess that John thinks that if Jesus had to thank God, that suggests that Jesus wasn’t absolutely sure from the start that God would come through. Or maybe Jesus and God are so united that they act as one, so thanks would not be appropriate. But either way, I can’t imagine Jesus actually making this announcement (‘of course, I only said that for the crowds’). And indeed, scholars believe that John’s gospel shows at least a few layers of editing; this odd comment of Jesus could come from the hand of a later editor trying to clarify something about Jesus, but in effect messing up the story a little bit. It bothers me. But this detail in the story need not detain us.

Another detail of the story is more relevant to us today, and it also shows something odd about the way Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel. As I read this story, Jesus is a little bit above the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives a message from his dear friends Mary and Martha, telling him Lazarus, who is also dear to Jesus, is ill. But did you notice this? Jeanie did in Bible Study. Jesus, for no apparent reason, stays where he is for two days, before setting out to the town where Lazarus is. / What becomes clear is that Jesus intentionally waited two days, so that by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Now, what is important about these four days? According to Jewish belief at the time, the soul remains near the body for up to three days after death. It was not unheard of for people of God to bring back to life someone who has recently died. Elijah the prophet does this in 1 Kings chapter 17. Jesus apparently waits for four days so that his raising of Lazarus, even after he had begun to decompose, will stand out as an extraordinary miracle—like the way Jesus gave sight to the man born blind last week, something that was likewise unheard of.

In other words, Jesus is out to make a point. The raising of Lazarus is to be the last and greatest of Jesus’ seven signs, which are never about the deed itself, they are testimony that leads people to find eternal life in Jesus. Jesus indicates as much at the beginning of the story: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so when Jesus meets Martha—who scolds him a little, saying that if Jesus had hurried up he could have saved Lazarus—Jesus tries to direct her beyond Lazarus’ dying and rising toward himself as the true life. She confesses, like many Jews at that time, that Lazarus will be raised from the dead at the end of time; this was thought to take place when the Messiah eventually comes and ends the world as we know it. Jesus corrects her a bit: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” His point is surely not far from what Paul was saying: to live according to the flesh is to die; to live according to the Spirit is to truly live. And then Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?” Jesus is trying to raise Martha’s sights beyond just the life of her dear brother Lazarus, a life and love that will remain fragile and mortal; Lazarus will die again. But to believe in Jesus is to transcend death, although I confess it’s not crystal clear what Jesus means when he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus talks about “eternal life” in John’s gospel, it seems he is not only talking about a life after our death, but something we enjoy here and now. We have eternal life when we live in the presence of Jesus, for God’s eternal being is in this one. He is what allows our “we,” the spirit by which we connect our lives with others, to include not only mortal loved ones, but God’s own being which is eternal. And that is the Spirit that really gives us life and keeps us from falling back into fear, making us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, as Paul says.

Living out of God’s eternal being, in other words, might prevent us from getting too attached to our Lazaruses, our loved ones. It is possible that the problem in our closest relationships is not just ego, or selfishness—the “flesh.” It’s not always that we haven’t loved enough. The problem can also be that we love too much. There is too much at stake; this one person means too much to me. It is a troubling possibility. You know I never would have predicted this, but there is no question in my mind that if I was ever faced with the choice of giving my life for Silas’—it’s unrealistic, but perhaps for a medical reason, I wouldn’t hesitate one second—the easiest hard decision I would ever have to make. Surely there’s something divine in that, the willingness to give up one’s life. There’s probably also a lot of evolutionary biology in it—our innate drive to reproduce. (And ask me again when he’s a teenager. We’ll see what the score is then.) We are not helplessly egocentric, as the cynics like to claim; we are capable of intense, selfless love, at least for our own. That same intensity of love can utterly break our hearts—that’s what is frightening. But while our human love bears an analogy to the love of God, it is not the same. The New Testament understands Jesus to have given his life for all, not just for his own. So I think Jesus in this story is showing a certain detachment from his love for Lazarus and his sisters, for the eternal life and love of God cannot be completely spent just on one’s family and friends. It expands beyond this, even to our enemies, to the ones we consider sinners, which I suppose is what we all were to God. And so in this spirit of detachment, Jesus is trying to lift up Martha’s vision beyond her grief for Lazarus. This is wise, for we must love our dearest ones without thinking that all of life depends on them, lest our grief break us. Only on God can we say that all of life depends.

Yet what is so touching about this story is to see Jesus also share in the fragility of grief. His character’s confident detachment holds sway, until Martha’s sister Mary comes out to see him. I think Jesus was closest with Mary; it is Mary who anoints his feet with her hair. And when he sees this dear friend weeping over the death of her brother, and hears her disappointment that he did not arrive in time, and when he sees the crowd who came to pay their respects moved to tears by Mary’s weeping, Jesus’ confident detachment, with its sights set high on God’s eternal glory, fails him. We are told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” It is as if Mary and even the crowd of strangers who were so powerfully affected by her, remind him—or remind us the readers—of his humanity, for Jesus is fully human. He breaks down and weeps. He does this in front of the crowd of “Jews”—a problematic term we talked about last week—this crowd who are generally depicted by John as not to be trusted. “The Jews” are often Jesus’ skeptics and enemies in this gospel. But here is a rare moment when he is vulnerable in front of them, and they are moved by his love. Jesus is changed by all of this particular human attachment, that of both Mary and the Jews. The change is marked by the fact that, even though Mary greets Jesus in exactly the same way as Martha did, Jesus does not insist on correcting her and raising her sights beyond Lazarus. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” and gets on with it. /

We are called to love everyone, as God has loved all. We are not to restrict our love just for those who love us: our children, parents, lovers, spouses, friends. There is a time and place to detach from our loved ones and to say, as Jesus elsewhere says, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’”  But even Jesus could not help but be moved by his love for his dearest friends. Let us not imagine that we must forsake our dearest ones, but let us love them truly in the Spirit. Your Lenten discipline card offers some guidance to doing that this week.