Read Sermons Author: The Rev. Susan Payne

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From My Faith to Our Faith

December 13, 2015

John the Baptist was ranting in the desert. Ranting at these people who had left town and come out to hear what he had to say and to be baptized.  John was extraordinary.  He would say anything to anybody who misunderstood religion or had suspect ethics, and that’s what he was doing in our gospel lesson today.

Maybe it would be good to have someone like John today, not the ranting—there are plenty of those preachers.  I mean maybe it would be good to have someone who would hold a mirror up to our blind spots, and show us when and how we are fracturing community with each other, instead of caring for each other.  Most of us have some blind spots in our religious understanding.

Actually, the Dean of General Seminary who preached at Dean Keller’s Installation, was something like John.  He did some finger pointing and loud talking to make his point, but most importantly, he called on us to forget any ideas we might have that Trinity is Chris’s work alone.  No, he said, “You, and you, and you (pointing his finger around the room) must do your part.”

The people whom John the Baptist so blatantly called a “Brood of Vipers” were descendants of Abraham, the father of our faith, they were the first people to believe in One God.  They understood themselves as the chosen ones to whom God had revealed this knowledge.  They thought God’s good favor was something they possessed because they had inherited it from their ancestors.  This gift was for themselves, a way of staying on the inside, assuring their status and also chosen ness.  They wondered or they wouldn’t have been there listening to John.

In the same way, I hope we wonder.  I hope we question even our closest held beliefs. Someone might shed some new light for us. 

Someone might give us a new perspective.  Maybe we Christians think we’re on the inside track with God and there’s nothing new to be discovered or taught.  John’s ranting was about another way of seeing the life of faith--not as a personal possession but as a source of connected ness.

In our Book of Common Prayer, in the back, you can find an old-fashioned instrument called the Catechism which we used to memorize.  I don’t think Confirmands memorize it any more, but all of us can look to it for clear statements of faith.  Here’s the Episcopal question and answer for John’s preaching:  “What is the mission of the Church?”  “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

I think that’s what Chris was talking about last Sunday morning when he fleshed out his second goal as Dean of Trinity Cathedral.

He said in addition to growing the church, with our help, my distillation of what he said, was that he hopes our life together will be healthy and interesting.  He hopes we will recognize when something is “useless or useful,” “friendly or unfriendly” and we will use our emotions accordingly and appropriately.  And he hopes we will engage our powers of both intellect and will to drive our moral choices, seeing “that all good comes ultimately from God.”

Unity beyond one’s own group was a new way of seeing the world in John the Baptist’s time, and John had it so right that we still look to his teaching.  Here’s the amazing thing—John wasn’t polite.  He didn’t say, “Welcome to my preachin’ mission down here by the Jordan River.  I’m sure glad ya’ll could make out here today.  No, John ranted! He called the crowd a brood of vipers and ridiculed them for saying  “We have Abraham as our ancestor.”

But did they turn and leave?  No.  The people asked, “What then should we do?”

What would you do if someone called you a Viper—a snake?  I doubt I’d stick around, but this so-called Brood of Vipers stayed right where they were or maybe they even drew closer and they asked, “What then should we do?”  They had an intuition or a sense, that this man, John, knew what he was talking about.  So they stayed to see what they should do to stop the ranting.

John, as you can imagine, had a ready answer.  He recognized these tax collectors and soldiers and other crooks who took advantage of their positions.  He knew human nature.  To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” (not 50% for Caesar + 20% for your wage + 10% more just because you can get away with it).  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.”

To the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone...and be satisfied with your wages.”  To everyone he said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.

John gave concrete and particular instructions to each group and each in it’s own way had to do with living so thatrelationships are restored or established among people who arealienated from one another.  Share what you have.  Be fair in your dealings. Don’t use the power you have to take advantage of people.  And an instruction that apparently was just as hard then, as it is today.  “Be satisfied.”

These are the good fruits.  These are the “fruits worthy of repent-ance”—repentance meaning turning from one way of life to another.  We all have patterns of life in our work, or leisure, or friendships and family that bear asking the question, “What should we do?”

John’s main point seems to be that salvation is the main point, or another way to say it—Jesus’ good news is meant to be lived.  It is not simply an affirmation.  The Good news of Jesus Christ is a force that changes our relationships with everyone and everything. There’s no point saying the words that the mission of the Church is to bring all people into unity with God and each other if we don’t live in a way that promotes unity.

In Alcoholics Anonymous there’s a saying about someone who knows the right words but doesn’t live them:  “He talks the talk, but he doesn’t walk the walk.”  We can memorize all the words of Jesus, but if they have no bearing on our lives we’re just talking the talk.

The Christian good news can change our lives in this way.  Relationships between people with coats and people without coats are restored.  Relationships between people who levy taxes and people who pay taxes are restored.  Relationships between people with economic power or political power or military power and those without are restored because the gospel says whatever we’ve been given is to be used to restore people to unity with God and one another.  If we use our wealth and influence and power just to get more wealth, influence and power, we are vipers.

So the people vowed to exchange their old ways for new lives of generosity, compassion and justice, and they were filled with expectation.  They knew John was talking like a Messiah would talk.  He was saying things that suggested that God was coming into their lives in a powerful new way.

John’s ranting did not fill the people with shame and anger. They were filled with expectation, with hope, because they believed that justice and generosity spreading through their lives and their world would be a sign that God was near.

Getting It Wrong is How We Learn to Get It Right

September 27, 2015

During my preparation for priesthood, I served as a Chaplain at the University of Arkansas Medical Center (UAMS) here in Little Rock.  That was a long time ago, but some of my experiences that summer have become life long touch points for me.

One evening a young woman delivered a beautiful baby boy.  He looked as normal and healthy as any baby you have ever seen, but he wasn’t.  He had a congenital defect which made it impossible for him to live outside his mother’s womb more than a few hours.  Tests prior to his birth had shown his condition, so the medical team and the parents knew what to expect.

When I arrived the mother was holding the baby.  She had been holding him for several hours even though his heart had stopped.  She was having a hard time letting him go.  It was a comfort for her to hold her baby, but for the young father and the rest of the family, these had been long and difficult hours.  They dreaded the coming of this sad time, but they were ready to say good-by.

They looked at me with hopeful glances and whispered pleas:  Chaplain, please tell her it is time to let go.  Frankly I was at a loss to know how to hurry her.  I wasn’t even sure it was a good idea.  Perhaps she needed more time with the precious baby she had carried for nine months, however difficult it was for the rest of the family to watch her grieve.

About that time, her grandfather came in.  He was a blustery southern Baptist preacher.  He went right to his granddaughter, put his hand on her shoulder, and he said, “Your baby will never have to suffer like the rest of us do.  He will be playing on streets of gold.  He will never have to play in the dirt.  He will be playing on streets of gold.”  “What?”  I thought to myself, as he pulled me into a concrete image of heaven.  No toes in squishy mud, no wet tickly grass beneath his feet, no roly polys and cicada shells to hunt.  Golden streets from John’s dream in the book of Revelation.  I was judging him – much like Jesus’ disciples who reacted against those “other” people in our lesson from Mark—the ones who were not in Jesus’ entourage, but were casting out demons in Jesus’ name any way.  The disciples were judging those outsiders and I was self-righteously thinking  that is no way to comfort a grieving mother!

Then I turned my attention to the young mother.  Her face had broken into a smile.  She kissed her baby good-by and handed him to the nurse as peacefully as you can imagine.  That day it became clear to me that there are many ways to think and talk about God.  There are many ways for Christians to make peace with the disappointments, heartbreaks and losses of our lives—there is plenty of room for our differences.  

There is no room in Jesus’ teaching for his followers to divide people into insiders and outsiders.  It is Jesus who binds us together, not our particular ways of expressing our faith.  What matters is whether or not our beliefs and our actions bring us into harmony with each other and deeper faith in God.

Jesus and Moses before him, countered fearful exclusion and inclusion regarding who is “doing it right.”  They addressed the heart of the matter:  who did these outsiders follow?  “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” said Moses--not just the ones I appointed.  And Jesus said, .. no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”

I’ve never seen a more powerful healing word than that given by that southern Baptist preacher to his granddaughter.  He expressed his belief so differently from mine, I failed to catch what we held in common.  We both believed we would always be with God in this life and life beyond death.  In this life, our purpose is to become more Christ-like. We will fail if we are not open to a broader view, a bigger picture which includes those many people who are different from us.

You will remember when another of those riveting moments of self-recognition.  It happened to 15 yr. old Hazel Massery when President Eisenhower called up the National Guard to escort 9 black students into Central High.  Hazel did not think Elizabeth Eckford and the other black students should be allowed into her school.
Hazel was not alone, but she had the misfortune or the good fortune,
depending on how you look at it, to be captured on camera by a Democrat Gazette photographer.  People opposed to integration lined the path of the entering students escorted by the National Guard screaming racial slurs.  Hazel was screaming (apparently at the top of her lungs, by the expression on her face).  She was just a few feet away when Elizabeth walked by her.  Hazel’s expression showed the fierce hatred she felt at the forced opposition to what she believed about right and wrong.  She was certain she was right that these students should not be admitted to her school.

When the Democrat Gazette, once again on top of the story, interviewed
Hazel Massery, she said when she saw the evening news on television,
she was aghast at her terrible hate-filled face, and she was filled with shame and remorse.  God’s redeeming love was already beginning to work in her.  Finally, she said, “After 6 years of agony, I called Elizabeth to ask for and to receive forgiveness.”  How humiliated, but fortunate, each of us would be if we could see a snapshot of ourselves when we are at our worst.  Most all of us have those moments, if a bit less dramatic.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Holloway, a Scottish writer and former Bishop of
Edinburg in the Scottish Episcopal Church, said, “We are saved, not by getting it right, but by the love which redeems us while we are getting it wrong.  We no longer have to live defensively, only honestly.  It is all right not to have got it right:  ... it is understood.”  Moses’ appointed prophets, Jesus’ disciples, Hazel and I all had it wrong.  Getting it wrong is how we learn to get it right.

“Life, especially Christian life,” said Holloway, “is an experiment in human maturing.  Our God expects us to be trying things out, getting things wrong, finding out who we are:  and it is all taken care of, it is all part of the deal, part of the covenant between us and the God made known in Christ.”

Bread of Life

August 02, 2015

People ask why there are No miracles today. They’re looking for something dramatic like turning 2 fish and 5 loaves into enough food for 5,000 people.

But Jesus said, to do the works of God is to believe in me. When our hearts are transformed by believing in Jesus, we no longer need something spectacular to see the power of God’s presence. We will see it in every act done in love. These are today’s miracles.

Perhaps you knew Gordon and Elizabeth Young. Gordon Young was a federal judge and he was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Young who lived next door to my Grandmother Payne in Malvern. The elder Mr. Young was a dignified man who briskly walked each day to and from the bank of which he was president. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him, although he politely tipped his hat when he met me even though I was a little girl. Mrs. Young, Gordon’s mother, was different. She had the sweet, plump, glowing face of an angel. She came out to chat with her grandson and me when we were engrossed in searching for roly-polys and cicada shells under the big oak tree in their front yard. Mrs. Young was also a baker of bread and that is my fondest memory of her.

One day I was visiting my grandmother when we heard a tap, tap, tap at the back door. Close friends and close neighbors used the back door, just like the family did. Tap, tap, tap. My grandmother went to the door and there stood Mrs. Young offering a fresh-from-the oven loaf of bread. It smelled heavenly. My grandmother saw the greedy look in my eyes resting on that bread, and she offered to cut a piece for each of us to sit down and eat. We slathered it with butter and soon had a second slice. It was so delicious.

Mrs. Young gave us more than bread to eat. With her sweet and generous hello and gift, she gave us what Jesus gives: bread of life. She gave life that comes from a circle of family and friends whose source of generosity and love is Jesus. Unlike a loaf of bread grabbed from a grocery shelf, her bread was the delicious reminder of Jesus himself – a reminder that Jesus transforms our hearts and turns our work and attention outward.

As you may know, making bread takes several hours. First you mix the dough, knead it, put it in a big bowl and you let it rise. Then you punch it down and let it rise again. After you shape it and put it into pans, you let it rise a third time. Then you bake it. Altogether it takes a good three or four hours. And then you give it away? Yes. If you love like Jesus did, you give it away to friends, neighbors, and family. Mrs. Young’s bread nourished us much more than ordinary bread. The miracle of one loaf of bread carried so much meaning that I remember it all these years.

I’ve told you how friends and neighbors and the church surrounded my family

with cinnamon rolls, and love, and a beautiful burial for my father after he died when I was a teenager. Many of us have been loved, comforted, and ministered to when we suffered the loss of someone we love, and other devastating losses.

Please do not say, well of course we did. That was nothing extraordinary. The healing comforting love we share is no less than a gift from God who loves us and created us to be loving. If we are looking for something spectacular, we overlook the simple acts which are filled with the capacity for healing.

Jesus was disappointed in the people who followed him after his miracle with the loaves and fishes. Their stomachs were growling again, and they wanted more food. They didn’t see the meaning of what he had given them. They took the miracle at face value without noticing what it said about Jesus and what he was teaching.

They didn’t see that God had sent the manna in the wilderness. They hadn’t seen beyond Moses. They didn’t see what Jesus was revealing about God when he multiplied the loaves and fishes. God cared about their hunger, and about all things in their daily lives. Seeing behind the miracle, we learn to see God. Seeing beyond the bread of communion and the bread we share with friends and strangers anywhere, we remember that Jesus is the giver – Jesus is the bread of life.

If we allow God to transform our hearts, we see God’s guiding presence when we feed someone who is hungry or visit someone who is sick or heal someone who is lonely or grieving. A mystery is different from a problem. A problem is hunger or loneliness. Food and company are a couple of obvious solutions. The power of love offered with bread to someone who is hungry, or real presence offered with a visit – this is a mystery, a miracle. This is spiritual power Jesus entrusts to us.

Miracles have an interesting history. The early Christians saw no reason to question miracles which disrupted the natural order. Their belief in God’s power was strong and scientific knowledge was in the future.

When I was a teenager, my teachers wrestled with faith and science. (People still do.) They thought miracles needed a scientific explanation. Feeding the 5,000 people was one of the explanations I remember. They explained how there was enough food for all the people. Because of the boy’s example of giving away his 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread, everyone else was moved to be generous. They pulled whatever they had from their bags and cloaks and pockets and shared with their neighbors. I don’t remember what, if anything, they said about Jesus’s part.

What does it mean that Jesus fed 5,000 people? that he could work a miracle which disrupted the natural order, if he wanted to? That isn’t the meaning. Miracles are not an end in themselves. Their meaning for sustaining our lives is not just food,

but that Jesus is the bread, the sustainer, of life. This miracle shows the abundance of life in God’s realm, both physical and spiritual. Some how, some way, there is plenty for everyone when we see as God sees.

Whether we believe in miracles at face value or not, the stories are not as important as the meaning behind them. The meaning is more than the story. What we have in common with all Christians in every time is the capacity to see that each miracle revealed something about God and God’s kingdom. We can see who God is when we look for meaning in what Jesus did. God’s desire for us is to love and be loved—to live life to the fullest. Jesus fed people who were hungry in body and hungry in spirit. Nicodemus is a good example – short Nicodemus who climbed a tree so he could see and hear this Jesus he had heard about. Nicodemus had plenty to eat, but he wasn’t satisfied until he found Jesus.[2]

Other miracles reveal more about God. Jesus healed people of their illness and of fear and loneliness. How lonely the woman Jesus found at the well must have been.

She came for water at noon (not the usual time), so she wouldn’t have to face the other women who came in the morning. How frightened the woman who was caught in adultery and was about to be stoned. Jesus offered forgiveness to the woman at the well who had had seven husbands and to the men who would stone no greater a sinner than they were.

Jesus forgave old and young people, rich and poor people. He didn’t treat thieves any differently than people who were stingy or arrogant. There are no little sins or big sins. All sin separates us from God and each other. Jesus forgave all sinners. In turn, our hearts grow forgiving.

Jesus showed his disciples how to live. He trusted them to carry on, to show the next generation how to live. He sent the Holy Spirit to continue to guide them and us. Generation after generation of people have shown, through their lives, what we need to know about love — God’s love and how to love. There is always the possibility of a miracle — every day – miracles in which we can participate, with God’s help. We can be instruments of God’s miracles. We are God’s incarnational presence – God’s bodily presence.

We each have different spiritual gifts to exercise whenever an opportunity arises.

Some of us are teachers, some prophets, some are particularly good at serving,

others are merciful or generous. Some are leaders, administrators, and preachers.

Some are healers and some are bakers of bread.

Jesus is the bread of life.

He gives us everything we need to do the work we are called to do –even miracles.

[1] Year B: John 6:24-35.
[2] John 3:1-6.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.