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Your Illusion of Christ

June 26, 2016 Leave a comment

long lotus

Here’s my question for the day: “What illusions do you have about what Jesus expects of you when you choose to follow him?” Let me repeat that: “What illusions do you have about what Jesus expects of you when you choose to follow him?” For many years I was under the illusion that if or when I would finally be answering His call, everything in and about life would suddenly be like a movie. The butterflies and birds would fly around in circles near my head. Everyone would treat me kindly and I’d see the perfect utopia that we all dream about. Rainbows everywhere, and hunger, fear, disease and poverty were too far out of sight to be brought to mind for even the slightest moment.

I had a lot to learn and learned a lot in a very short time once I stopped the kicking and screaming as I passed from one Committee on Ministry to the next in my diocesan ministry discernment process. I was second-guessing myself right up to almost having to be dragged down the aisle by the saints and angels to have Bishop Baxter lay his hands on me to be ordained. Even the next Sunday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, so afraid I’d sleep in, that it hit me hard – this was for the rest of my life! This following Jesus thing was now for real! But did it have to involve wearing a collar? There were so many good lay ministers out there that seemed to be more in tune to what it meant to be a Christian than I ever thought I could be. In short, I was like John and James, wanting to know where those lightning bolts were to hurl around at something… just anything… to prove a point. I couldn’t tell you what that point was but I was positive that since I was now following Jesus I might as well go and do some rebuking of my own!

But when we read today’s gospel we find that all of that fluff that we dream about happening couldn’t be further from the truth. What do mean we can’t call upon the heavens to destroy some civilization that is being mean to us? It wasn’t part of the Old Testament lesson for today, but we just read about Elijah, Isn’t that what he did? Didn’t he request that God send down fire to wipe out enemies? Surely we can take revenge on those who harm us. It’s in the bible. We just read it. Oh, and still yet, didn’t Elijah let Elisha, who wished to continue on and follow him go home to say good bye to his family? But now Jesus won’t allow this one potential disciple leave to take care of the bones of his deceased father and then return and continue on with him. Why is there such a difference between what we hear in the old testament and what we hear Jesus doing when it involves the same situations?

Unfortunately, when we try to relate to the bible and look there for answers to what it is we should do in our daily lives, so many of us get caught up in the laws, just as the Jews did, just as the Greeks did, just as the Romans did. To understand Jesus, to understand what it takes to be a Christian requires us to unwrap our brains from the rules and regulations and sink our souls into the Spirit of Christ. I couldn’t remember where I first heard the saying that “You must never break a law unless you know the reason why the law was written in the first place.” Seems that you’d have to be a bit of a renegade to do that. But then again that’s what Jesus was. He healed on the Sabbath, he hung out with the homeless and the sick, he crossed religious and cultural boundaries tending to those different than him, and he opposed war, revenge, and violence.

Looking at those traits, what do many who claim to be Christians do today? Cities are finding ways to make it more and more difficult to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Money is withheld from or refused by agencies whereby that money would enable those who need health care the most to get it. Lies are spread and traps set to lure others into fighting instead of seeking to compromise on issues and work things out in peaceful fashion. We could go on and on with these comparisons, and even try to make them political, but the fact of the matter is they are issues not about countries or cities or governments but issues that affect the dignity of human beings everywhere. I’m saying these things today; Jesus was explaining it a couple thousand years ago. Not much has changed except the time and place.

What does all of that have to do with me being a Christian, you might ask? According to Jesus, it has everything to do with it. When we talk of being a Christian so many people like to wrap themselves up in their own little cuddly blanket thinking that to say they are Christians is enough. They wear crosses and put tag lines on email addresses and maybe even have a Shield on their car. They do the duties in church that are needed for the congregation to survive like tithe, volunteer and assist with the services. They do everything they’ve heard they should do and have read – like the ten commandments – from the old law. Yet still we find something missing. Something that nags at us from time to time and we can’t quite put our finger on it. Eventually it comes to us, some late in life, some early, some early, then late, then even late after that. Those are the ones like me who had the call at the age of 10, then put it off at the wise old age of 13, then on again around 35, off at 40, on at 45… until finally we think we “get it”. And then we find out there’s way more to what Jesus kind of said would happen but we glossed over it and act surprised when it does happen.

We find that following Jesus and being a Christian means what Paul said today, that now we are led not by earthly, material things (the flesh as he calls it) but we are led by the Spirit and so must live the way of Christ. We find that living in Christ means that our first response to a crisis is not about what happened or will happen to our property, but we move forward with an automatic concern and compassion for the people who may be effected by that crisis no matter if it’s from a natural disaster or an act of violence, revenge, or war. And we find that living in Christ means we know the reasons why rules and laws were written and made and if the time comes to break that law in order to save lives – be it human or animal, domestic or foreign – we will act in the spirit of the law of do what is right.

Looking back at my own illusion, what I thought what being a true follower of Jesus would be like, all I can say is, “it’s not the same animal, not even the same species.” But once we understand the nature of Christ, not the superficial one some talk about, but the Christ that feeds us with grace and inspires us through the acts of others; once we begin to understand that, we can begin to accept that not everything about being a Christian is butterflies and rainbows. You’ll often be on the wrong side of history. You’ll often have an opposing view of current affairs from what your friends have. You’ll often be in the middle of some illness, some crisis, some dilemma – either yours or other’s – that needs professional help. You may not have it all as far as others are concerned. Having it all is the illusion that you started with. But you will have more than you will ever need or know through this Grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Deacon Pete

(Ref Revised Common Lectionary:  Year C, 6 Pentecost, Proper 8, June 26 2016)

 

 

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Focus and Choose (Elisha and the Boanerges)

June 30, 2013 Leave a comment

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Knowing that I grew up in a coal mining town in the hills of western Pennsylvania, might give away who some of my childhood heroes were.  My first was a second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates by the name of Bill Mazeroski.  I still remember my Grandpap calling our house on that late summer day of 1960 when “Maz” hit the game winning home run in the final inning of the final game of the World Series!  He became a household name for many years to come, as would the likes of Clemente and Stargell.  Now my talents weren’t close to theirs and there wasn’t much of a chance for me to become like them, but in my mind when I practiced on the ball field I would imagine my body was going through every motion exactly as they appeared on the games I saw on television.  But the biggest thrill of all for me that left the biggest impression on my mind was actually going to baseball games at Forbes Field and seeing these idols perform before my eyes.  Oh, how I wanted so much to play at the level they did!  A competitive spirit was growing in me and would soon show in everything I did.  As much as I’d like to think I’ve settled down with the competing aspect of sports, my wife still brings to my attention from time to time that some things in life aren’t and shouldn’t be a contest.

Now I mention these sports figures not to brag about a particular team, city, place or time, but because as I look at the characters of Elisha, James and John, I see the image of some young people going about life with the same zeal for God that many youngsters have for sports.  There is an enthusiasm here that can get one in trouble depending on what you’re doing – and that is true to the point so much that James and John are told to settle down and start paying attention.  It’s also true in showing where our own passions and desires lie in our lives.

For Elisha it lies in wanting to be able to do more than Elijah does.  He sees the good that Elijah has demonstrated throughout his life, knows that it’s God who does the work, and so wants to do the same his desire to please God is evident everywhere.  Several times he’s told to stay at a certain spot, yet each time he insists on going the distance.  Some might classify this as a test of will and strength.  When we know we are heading toward an unpleasant situation there is always the choice of sitting back and saying no.  As we get closer to the end and we are given an option of not having to witness the final moments of it what will we choose?  Elisha is prepared to stay with his friend to the end.  His request for a higher blessing is met with a condition.  “If you see me as I am being taken from you… then it will be granted.”  Paraphrasing it might sound like this; “If you keep your focus on the ways of how I showed you to live your life up to the final moment, and never take your eyes off of the ways of God and look back to the past, your blessings will be increased.”  So Elisha, formerly a rich man who left his wealth and luxurious life to follow a prophet of God, gained a new life in the rich blessings of the Holy Spirit.

For James and John, their passion for God was so intense they were given the name “Sons of Thunder.”  Jesus seems to have a liking for giving out new names to his followers, especially the twelve, the ones closest to him.  Have you ever stopped to think about what he might name you if he were around now?  This is one passage many consider to be the main reason Jesus dubbed them “Boanerges.”  As they pass through the Samaritan village they are treated badly.  Take into consideration that during the first century CE the relationship of a Samaritan to a Jew then is what the relationship between an Arab and a Jew is today.  They barely tolerated each other; to the point where I read New Testament historian C. Bernard Ruffin tell us to imagine signs on the hotels reading “no Jews allowed.”  That is what is meant by the more polite statement here made by Luke, saying that Jesus’s face was set toward Jerusalem.  Another spiritual lesson is taking place, this time in humility.  James and John are so riled and offended at the apparent hatred being thrown at them they’ve allowed their thoughts to be brought down to that same level.  They want to throw hate back at hate and so ask Jesus to send down lightning bolts from heaven.  They have seen him numerous times control nature by calming the storms and walking on water.  If he can stop the wind and waves from turning over a boat full of fishermen, surely he could shock a few bodies or at least rattle them with some rolling thunder.  Combine that attitude with their presumably powerful voices echoing the good news of Jesus through the huge crowds –the Sons of Zebedee become the Sons of Thunder.

But Jesus tells them to let it be.  They are not traveling through this place or any other place to retaliate and get into arguments and fights.  The mission is clear, at least to their leader.  He is travelling to the place and time where soon He will be taken up.  Just as Elijah has related to Elisha, the focus has to be on God and the Holy Spirit to make it through the entire journey.  Now to drive this point further home, Luke presents some issues that cut through centuries of time and generations of culture.  What about my family?  What about those I love?  What about the things I put above all else every moment of the day?  The people say; “Lord, I would follow you anywhere but you see, I have a wife and 3 children, another family member has passed away and the winds and rain are coming so I must harvest the wheat and there are all these things I must attend to in my daily life, but after I take care of those things, then, yes, Lord, I’ll start following you.”  And then the final request of them is to “let me go and say goodbye to family.”  First of all, it’s my hopefully humble opinion that in none of these cases is Jesus literally telling us to leave everything we have or we will never be able to serve God the way God is to be served.  I do not believe He would tell us to forget about family values or socially acceptable customs or business ventures that keep us clothed and fed.  If that is the case, then we certainly wouldn’t have been given the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Luke’s presentation of the gospel and Jesus’s words are directed to a society where family life was considered central and was more tightly knit than we are today in the western world.  So we must keep this in mind when reflecting on these very shocking words of how to realize the Kingdom in this world.  Jesus knew that all these things were important to people or I doubt these situations would have been put in the gospels.  He understood that family was a prime subject but he wanted to remind everyone that God should be at the top of the list.  He tells us that before everything we do, we must consider what is most important.  Everything is in its place.  We go to our jobs and perform our work but we keep our moral and ethical values no matter what kind of deals are offered.  We tend to the sick and dying with the respect and honor they need and deserve but we don’t forget about our commitment to the living while we mourn.  We value time with the family on weekends but we make certain that some of that time is spent together in church or prayer.  And we look toward the future with each other but we do it prayerfully and thoughtfully keeping God front and center in the decisions and plans we make.  Instead of following that idol from childhood we must now start following the Christ that Jesus has become.  We are Its body.  Through Him it is realized.  By us the work is done.  Will we be like “Boanerges”, daughters and sons of thunder?  Like Elisha, desperately wanting more?  The answer lies in where we choose to place God in our lives.  Amen.

(Scripture used from RCL for Year C, Proper 8.  2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14  Luke 9:51-62)

Have You Been Formed?

January 29, 2013 1 comment

I’m sure you’ve been asked if you’ve been “saved.” Conversion is something the religious world holds as an end-all to being … well … “religious.” It amazes some how anyone can possibly go about their lives not being sure whether heaven holds a place for them or not. We can wonder if perhaps part of the incursions made to us by zealous disciples is simply the other person’s reflection of their own uncertainty. Yet genuine encounters with God most definitely abound. Many of us long for a hint of an epiphany such as this season represents. We ask; “How will God be revealed to me?” or “When will I experience that event set apart from my ordinary life that can only be classified as ethereal and holy?” Whether it is as dramatic as St. Paul being knocked off his horse, or as sullen as a slight chill that raises the hair on your arms, a profound and unmistaken sense of knowing God and where the Holy Spirit moves in our lives can elude us for what seems like eternity. If this is has been the case, consider there may be another more subtle option going on; the option of being formed. When we create regular habits of reading scripture, when we listen to sacred music, and when we allow the spiritual connections with others to move us – rather than make them into what we think they should be – we begin to settle into a way of life where the main thing moving us is the Holy Spirit. And this is what is meant by being formed. Holy things form holy people. The difference is, while an epiphany can be earth-moving, formation is a settling-in. One day we arrive at a place and notice how our ways of doing business in the world are quite different than when we first started out. And maybe then we get that slight chill and the hair on our arms rises up. You’ve been formed!

New Wine, New Joy

January 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Each of us probably has the memory of a wedding – outside of our own – that was an example of a true and honest celebration of the union of love. Not an orchestrated show of “Bride’s Wars”, where parents attempt to out-do the neighbor’s or cousin’s last production; but a coming together of family and community in a spirit of support and love that honors the commitment two people are making to each other. Even in ancient history like we hear in Isaiah this morning, where such celebrations were much more about commitments between families and social orders than they were about two people finding love between each other, the celebration was all about binding the two into one. It was tradition. Now, “Tradition” was much more than a song from “Fiddler on the Roof” and I’m hoping you get the idea of it before I break into singing “Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match…” So while the prophet speaks of the promise God makes to Israel in the same manner as a bridegroom does to his bride, the people experience it in the context of a tradition that is to be celebrated and honored. This image of a wedding has been used for thousands of years to portray God uniting with the soul.

Now it’s important to note that these proclamations in our first lesson are from the latter years of Isaiah – where most biblical scholars have determined the theme of a savior is projected into the future. Here is where the prophets begin looking ahead for hope and not in the immediate group of heirs to the throne. It’s important because John’s Gospel ties in this theme of a marriage promise with the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry and his first miracle directly influences the success of a wedding celebration. John picks up where this prophecy of Isaiah leaves off. By providing a miracle, Jesus announces his arrival with a display of what God has in store for us.

The lead-in to this story can appear to be a bit disrespectful from a son or daughter’s point of view. When Mom brings something to our attention, most of us would not dare react with an attitude which can seem to be portrayed as “Woman!!” What we have to keep in mind here is that the word used in scripture at the time was a very endearing term. “Woman” was a word filled with respect, admiration, and love. And the response of Jesus that “my hour has not yet come” must be imagined as a more caring attitude of “Okay, Mom, thanks for the heads-up, but I’ll handle this my own way.” Looking at the situation in this context we can see several things. First off, Mary probably had a relationship to the bride and groom beyond being a guest. She knew what the situation was and bore some sort of authority that allowed her to be aware of the situations behind the bar and in the kitchen. The last thing she would want to do in this situation – is leave the newly-wed couple and their families embarrassed and disgraced – by not having enough supplies to satisfy the guests while they were still around. Her comment gives a hint of what God can do. In our present day where we place limits on everything, there would have been a set hour at which time people were expected to leave. If the stock behind the bar runs out, guests would be expected to accept what was left or be understanding and make their way home. In this story’s place and time as long as the guests were around it was understood that they would be provided for. The rabbis had a saying “Where there is no wine, there is no joy!” The joy would indeed be ended for this couple if there were no more wine.

Secondly, Mary was also acutely aware of her son’s nature and his relationship with God. He was thirty-something at this point. Clearly, she had intimately shared his faith and witnessed his actions that spread God’s abundance in every aspect of their lives. Mary’s faith in him is strong enough to know he will do the right thing – and so instructs the waiters to “do what he tells you.” Jesus’s response was more of an acknowledgement that help is needed than a refusal of wanting to help. I can almost hear him giving a big sigh and thinking “Okay, Mom’s right. Now is the time.” He then points to the stone jars, and directs the staff to “fill them.” Maybe it was that nudge from Mom, maybe not, but he uses the situation to take charge and begin the ministry that will change the world.

Finally, we, too find out just what was planned for the world; something which at the time only Jesus and perhaps his mother knew. John tells this story in part to show how God’s plan is to make remarkable things out of ordinary objects. What started with empty vessels results in something better than anyone could have expected; things so great that even experts like the chief steward had never experienced them before. John also points to God’s overflowing abundance and grace in places we may never bother to look. Around us there may appear to be nothing. Emptiness, scarcity, nothing left on the table or in the kitchen. Then somehow we get a hint, a nudge, a familiar touch that says “do what I tell you”. We look around and suddenly things that were ordinary are producing extraordinary things. We can look upon the faith Mary had in Jesus – and know that the possibilities are endless. What was once empty is now not only full, but spilling over in ways we’ve never quite experienced. Through our encounter with Jesus, we’re learning what God has in store for us. It may not always be what we expect or what we’ve had previously, but if God’s idea of providing for us is shown by the progress from empty – to water – to wine, then indeed the rabbis will be full of joy; and so will we! Amen.
re: RCL 2 Epiphany, Year C

The Epiphanies in our Lives

January 5, 2013 Leave a comment

How do you relate to the word “epiphany”:  As the name of a church holiday or season?  One of the most thought provoking definitions of the word I came across was from an on-line source.  It was not the initial description of the word that jumped out at me which was “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something…”  That portion was familiar.  It was what followed that struck me:  “…usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.”  How true it can be that such powerful experiences emerge from what appear to be ordinary.  We go about our lives through our daily routines when we pick up our mug to take a drink and suddenly that little action ignites an insight into the meaning of a bible passage … or maybe even a childhood experience is unearthed that causes you to realize why you use mugs and not cups … it’s the simple action that causes a reaction and produces this awareness.

Even in our spiritual lives it’s through common things that our awareness of the birth and rebirth of our soul’s longing to touch Christ can be ignited.  Perhaps it’s a simple glance at an animal, a familiar gesture, a whiff of something baking or the smell of perfume.  Just as it was through a small child that our salvation was revealed, so it can be through the small parts of our lives that God’s presence might be revealed.  The epiphany lies not in the grand nature of the situation at hand; the epiphany is in the grand nature of the realization that comes over us.  It is quite simply the Divine breaking through into our consciousness.  In today’s watered down expressions where you hear people talk about how they had an “epic” cup of coffee, let’s not confuse an epiphany with suddenly remembering where your car keys are while you franticly search for them.  That’s called recollection.  We can have more epiphanies through continued daily prayer and meditation that helps wear down the wall we’ve built between us and the Divine.  As we do so, we open ourselves to the possibilities of more and more epiphanies, all when we least expect it, and most through the common, seemingly mundane events of our days. 

 

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The Kingdom of Christ

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

This past week every time I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a sermon for this Sunday, the typical question of “what are you preaching on” came up, and when they heard me say “It’s Christ the King Sunday” their response was, “Already?!?”  Perhaps we’ve always been lulled to sleep around this time of year.  Pentecost is a long season and we become so wrapped up in Jesus’s teaching of things such as the parables every week that maybe we become too comfortable for our own good.  I, for one, am ready for the change in season.  Advent is always a comfort for me.  Whether we use the time for the traditional reason of penance or the modern interpretation which is preparation, Advent is ready to lead us on into a deeper relationship with God and hopefully with a fuller understanding of this Christ who is our king.

Who is this king?  And where is he?  His initial coming was promised as far back as Isaiah and his return has been proclaimed through the ages; perhaps none more dramatic in style than what we hear in today’s readings about this ‘now-and-forever’ kingdom.  And as for this kingdom, what is it and where is it?  What makes it different than others?  Our lives are surrounded by kingdoms.  Everywhere we look, a piece of this world is under the jurisdiction of a king or queen who attempts to take charge of our every movement and lead our thoughts into the realm of its world.  They are countless.  We have the kingdom of consumerism which creates witty phrases and catchy tunes to lure you into buying their product.  There is the kingdom of politics where various sides do whatever possible to convince you their ways will keep you the safest in everything from foreign aggression to local traffic laws.  Then there are the more personal realms we may not consider to be kingdoms at all that are composed of such things as school alumni, sports teams, television shows, and the latest kingdom of social media that strives without end to get us involved.  Some private, some public, some local, some universal, all of these kingdoms begin with the same focus; to draw your attention to what they think you should be paying attention to.  Each claims to be the best, the truest, the most believable and the most beneficial to your existence.  Anything else is just not worth your time or effort.  The thing is, we all follow along to some extent. We may follow with nothing more than keeping an eye and ear out for the next greatest thing to come along that will be worthy of our allegiance and money, but we all follow along.  We have our favorites and in some cases it can be quite easy to allow them to rule us.

Turning to our readings, not much was different in the middle east of the first century, BCE.  Caesar was king.  The politics of the time was that of the politics of Rome, and Caesar ruled wherever his armies travelled and set up camp.  It was not that great a difference from any previous era for the tribes of Israel.  Some king was always trying to rule over them.  Whether it was the pharaoh in Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon or now the Romans who occupied the region; freedom was not something that was often experienced by their people.  Even in times of self-governing, they avoided having a king as much as the world would allow until they, too, gave in to the demands of the people to have a human ruler.  The Jewish Kings came and went, success was often brief, and at times, being in exile seemed to be the most reasonable thing to do.  Their minds and prayers always looked to the future with a promise of a king that would lead them into their own wealth and security.  They were promised it.  It was prophesied and foretold by many that one day a king would lead them to their home.  These prophets were dramatic.  They were dramatic testaments to this promise of a divine kingship that would save the people from their suffering.  The apocalyptic works of Daniel and John of Patmos are brilliant; Daniel looking to the future of the first coming, John anticipating the return of Him in the final days.  But they are not just ordinary visions or prophecies.  In their own worlds, each was embroiled in a battle for a kingdom.  The people surrounding Daniel were occupied with the attacks on Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greeks.  John’s writings in the Book of Revelation were driven by the continued aggressions from Rome.  Each of our writers sought comfort and assurance that there is a kingdom without the dread of oppression, tyranny and war, and that there is a king who will rule over it righteously.  Each looked for an end to the pain and suffering caused by kings who ruled by greed and built up their earthly powers by abusing others.  Daniel’s magnificent account of his vision and prophecy proclaims a king that will have dominion over everything for all times without end.  The writer John relates how this king has not merely arrived, but will return to right all wrongs.  And of course we heard the Gospel with Jesus explaining how we already have this kingdom available to us, and that He is our king.

He tells us the kingdom is not the government, not the family, not the social clubs, and definitely not the companies that sell us the necessities we need to survive.  And in a time of history that was so politically charged that we see both secular and religious leaders trying to get the other to condemn an innocent man, so that the other will be held responsible if something goes majorly wrong, Jesus pulls us out of the kingdom of politics and says “it’s not here either.”   He shuts down all of our major learned behaviors concerning this outer visible world that is our home and where we live out our human existence, and says, “That’s not it.”  Aldous Huxley once said “The third petition of the Lord’s Prayer [Thy will be done] is repeated daily by millions who have not the slightest intention of letting anyone’s will be done but their own.”  Might I add the second petition of that prayer as well:  “Thy Kingdom come?”  The kingdom is here and we do pray for it and we have it available to us whenever we choose.  So the real question might not be “where are the kingdom and our King?” but more like “how do I live in this kingdom with our King?”

To do this, I don’t believe God is asking us to give up any of these things we’ve turned into our kingdoms.  In their own right, they are good and often necessary aspects of life and living and happiness.  The error is in allowing these worldly things to rule over us and control our lives as if they were the source of our living and happiness and therefore, we are not to worship them and their kings and their queens.  Even our own King, Jesus Christ does not ask us to worship Him in order to find the true kingdom here on earth.  He doesn’t say, “Worship me.”  Jesus says “Follow me.”  And that, my friends, may be a good way to begin living in the Kingdom now; by allowing Christ to lead us through our journey during Advent, by following Him and His way as the only King in our lives.  Amen.

(readings:  Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14  Rev 1:4b-8  John 18:33-37)

by:  Rev. Peter M. Gdula

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