Epiphany 5

You’re probably not unsure of what I’ll be doing at 6pm tonight.  I’m Giants fan and I watched our season slip away in horror, and I’ll never become a card-carrying Eagles fan, but if you can’t get behind Chris Long and Carson Wentz and company, you need to get your pulse checked.  We saw a meme on Facebook this week that featured a Methodist church sign; the gist of it was that the Bible mentioned “eagles” 33 times and ‘patriots’ 0 times, and so at 6pm tonight I’ll sit down with a bag of chips and my Lipton Onion Dip and say a little prayer for the team featured in the Bible itself.

But it’s not 6pm yet, and there’s no better place to be than right here.  Jesus is in this place, and so here there is found grace and joy and healing.   St. Mark, he was a master of setting a place in his narrative, of making sure we knew when and where things were happening.

In today’s story, Mark tells us that we are in Capernaum at the Peter’s home.  Lot’s of stuff happened in Capernaum, despite it not being a particularly important place.  Capernaum was a fishing village of about 1500 people, but it’s also the place where Jesus healed the servant of a Centurion who sought Jesus’ help, and the place where the friends of a paralyzed man lowered him through a roof so that Jesus might heal him.

Today we’re in Peter’s home in Capernaum, which was fairly impressive, all things considered – he must have done pretty well for himself.  You know those houses that have a mother-in-law suite?  Remember when that was a big deal in real estate?  Well, Peter had a mother-in-law suite, which was fancy-shmancy back in the day.

As it turns out, Peter’s mother-in-law was sick.  We don’t know what kind of illness she had, we don’t even know here name, but we know she was not at all well.  While she must have known that her son-in-law Peter had ditched the family business to follow an itinerant preacher around, because of her illness she also managed to miss last week’s episode of that same preacher casting out a demon at her local synagogue.  Now, it would take a very nice mother-in-law to accept her son-in-law giving up the family’s only means of support, and so we would have to forgive her if she wasn’t real pleased by the whole thing.  And then here she is, sick as a dog, and her son-in-law brings Him home with him along with all their new friends, and this is a set up for a disaster.

But then Jesus, that itinerant preacher, not with a word but a gesture—“he grasped her hand, and helped her up”—Jesus restores the good woman.  Her response to the healing: she begins to serve them, presumably fixing a meal for the four of them.  It is another of Mark’s cameos of Christian life: a person in trouble is rescued through encounter with the Lord and proceeds to serve others.  The single word Mark uses to describe her action, diekonei (“she waited on them”), resonates with the primary Church word for service, diakonia.”[1]  She shows a simple act of hospitality.

You may have noticed that the word diakonia sounds an awful lot like the word deacon, one of the ordained orders of our church.  Our own Vasu is discerning a call to the diaconate, a call to be one who serves, to be one who makes sure that the practical needs of the Kingdom of God are met.  I am sure that we will support her even as she supports the ministries of our church.

I think, though, that all of us are in some way called to be like Peter’s mother-in-law.  Think about it: she was healed, made whole; she had an encounter with Jesus and was completely changed, and her response was to get up and serve Christ and serve others.

I can’t think of a better example for us!  We have all had an encounter with Jesus, and our response is first to come here and praise Him for all He has done for us, and second to do as Peter’s mother-in-law, to serve Him and serve others in His Name.

Just as St. Mark set this story in a time and a place, our stories have converged in this time and this place.  What has Jesus healed in you lately, and what are you doing to serve Him?

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Epiphany 4

This past Tuesday was the feast of Phillips Brooks, one of the great churchman of the 19th century.  Brooks is best known today as the author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  Former generations, however, accounted him the greatest American preacher of the nineteenth century (and not for lack of other candidates). His sermons are still read.  He’s also famous for building Trinity Copley Square, Boston, which is ranked as an architectural masterpiece, and which I think is kinda okay.  Trinity Copley Square was completed around the same time our building was, but it cost them $635,000 to build, as opposed to the $16,000 it cost us (theirs is bigger).  Anyway, Phillips Brooks was widely recognized (no pun intended), as he was 6’4” and around 400 pounds.  Most people are amazed at the sheer size of the pulpit at Trinity, it really is just huge, but in the end, they just had to build something that would hold Brooks.

Brooks had presence, weight, gravitas.  Like E.F. Hutton, when he spoke, people listened.  We don’t know how Jesus sounded when He spoke, if He had a commanding voice or an arresting presence or a dynamic delivery, but we do know that He spoke as if He had authority.  That authority attracted both followers and some unwanted attention.

Today’s “dramatic healing of the demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue is the first action that Mark narrates after the calling of the first disciples.  Each evangelist chooses a different deed of Jesus with which to begin the story of his public life—Matthew begins with the Sermon on the Mount, Luke with the reading of Isaiah in Nazareth, and here we see Mark beginning the story of Jesus’ public activity with this deliverance of a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  And his presentation of the event is nearly as startling and puzzling as the original experience must have been for those present that evening in the synagogue.  A word of command is followed by convulsion and a scream, resulting in complete liberation.  Curiously, the crowd murmurs, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority!”  (They have just witnessed a powerful example of spiritual delivery, and they call it a teaching.)  What’s more, though they refer to teaching, the account has mentioned not a word of Jesus’ teaching.”[1]

Mark’s telling of this story raises some questions, right?  We can’t possibly think that no one in the synagogue that day saw a demon be tossed out right in front of them and didn’t say, “Whoa, where did that demon go?”  I’m guessing that Mark just figured we’d assume that, and used his very few words to direct us somewhere else.

I’m thinking that Mark wants us to see the “dramatic healing of the demoniac by an authoritative word (as) a demonstration of God’s reign in their midst.  And the people (there) recognize it as such.  This rescue from evil power is indeed new teaching, sustained by an authority that enacts what it claims: God’s kingly power is at hand to rescue… This powerful episode puts in bold relief the truth that the gospel we respond to in faith is not simply a new set of ideas but a truth that is meant to transform our lives.”[2]

That’s why we’re here, right, for our lives to be transformed?  Or perhaps your life has been transformed, and this is the only place to be after such a thing.  Today is our Parish Annual Meeting, at which I hope to see you (shameless plug); it’s another opportunity to witness to the transforming power of Jesus in our lives and in the life of the community.  Bishop Stokes speaks often of evaluating parishes not on their size but on the impact they have, both inside and out; the lives touched, made better, transformed because they’ve been shown the gospel of God, the love of Jesus.

I think if Bishop Stokes were to come and take a look at our impact, he’d like what he would find.  He’d find that we are being taught by Christ, that we learn not only from what we hear in Scripture and in the liturgy, but by what we see in the authority, the power of Christ, that we see here, and in Christ’s work that we are so blessed to participate in.

Come share with us how you have been transformed, hear about our celebrations and challenges, and let’s figure out together how we can join with Jesus in transforming the world.

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Epiphany 3

On May 17, 1971, the musical Godspell kicked off its now 47 year reign of terror.  Composed by Stephen Schwartz, with the spoken parts by John-Michael Tebelak, Godspell couldn’t be any more of its time – if you want to know what 1971 sounded like, find Godspell on YouTube and there it is; or you could just hang out in a Hallmark store, Day by Day will come on eventually.  Everyone of a certain age knows that song, so much so that in the movie Meet the Parents, when Ben Stiller is clueless on how to proceed when asked to say grace at his first meal with his girlfriend’s family, he defaults to just reciting Day by Day.

 

After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus walked through Galilee telling people that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Godspell.”  At least that’s what Jesus would have said if He was using early English.  The English word gospel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon godspell (“good story”).  Combine that with the widespread use of the Greek word euangelion, for good news, advance the English language several hundred years, and you get the word gospel meaning good news.

 

And so Jesus was, from the earliest part of His earthly ministry, proclaiming the gospel, the good news of what God was doing for us.  But let’s back up two seconds and see what we can learn from this story from Mark.

 

Mark gives us three key pieces of information in six short sentences, three pieces of action.

 

First, John the Baptist had been arrested.  John had done plenty to get himself into trouble anyway – he had amassed quite a following, which threatened the religious authorities, and he used those same religious authorities as a rhetorical punching bag.  There probably weren’t many people in power John didn’t manage to tick off.  But then he had the audacity to call out Herod for divorcing his wife and unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip.  This was the final straw, and so now John the Baptist, the forerunner, the herald of Christ, is essentially out of the picture.

 

Second, Jesus proclaims the gospel.  How did He do such a thing?  By telling everyone who would listen three essential things.  One, the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  What does that mean?  It means that what every faithful person had been waiting for was happening; God was acting, He had come to us in the very person of Jesus.  Everything they had longed for, hoped for, everything they perhaps thought would never come to pass, well, guess what – it’s happening.  Because this was happening, Jesus gave them the other two essentials, which are basic action steps.  Repent.  Turn from any evil ways you had picked up along the way, renounce your wicked desires, and get straight with God and with your neighbor.  And finally, believe the gospel.  Believe that what is happening is in fact good news; believe that what is happening is a good story, and that you are part of that story, that the news is good for you.

 

The third thing Mark tells us about is the calling of the first disciples.  Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, two sets of brothers, four fishermen, called from their work to witness to and spread the good news.  If the story seems a little weird, like Jesus pulled a Jedi mind trick (follow me, and they just mindlessly drop everything and follow Jesus), don’t worry.  We know that at least Peter and Andrew, and likely the other two, were first disciples of John the Baptist.  They had all probably met Jesus before, heard what the Baptist said about Him, and were primed to become disciples.

 

So what have we learned today, outside of some useless Godspell facts?  Well, we’ve learned the basics of the Christian life.  We’ve learned from John the Baptist that while the truth does indeed set us free, it can sometimes get us in trouble with powerful people.  We’ve learned that the gospel, the good news, is that God has acted and continues to act in our lives through Jesus; that God wants to be with us, close to us, and by us, He means everyone.  And we’ve learned our response to that: repentance, knowing that God forgives; belief, knowing that what God wants for us will always be good news; and discipleship, following Jesus, that we may see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly, day by day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Epiphany 2

Last week I admitted that I’m as Jersey as it gets, especially when I’m not on my best behavior, and so I have a bit of an affinity for the Apostle Nathaniel, who if any of the Apostles had, say, grown up with my mother in Jersey City, Nathaniel would be the one.  Nathaniel’s general demeanor makes me want to know more about him, but alas, he’s only mentioned a couple times in the Scriptures, and holy tradition isn’t a ton of help in fleshing him out.

The first time we meet Nathaniel was in the story we heard today.  “Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee, and was brought to Jesus by his friend, Philip, who also became one of Jesus’ disciples. Nathanael was one of the first to express belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.  His name means “God has given” in Hebrew.  Interestingly, Nathanael is only mentioned in the Gospel of John; the other three gospels identify him as Bartholomew.

“The call of Philip and Nathanael to discipleship (was seemingly rather easy).  Jesus went to Galilee and found Philip first, who then went to Nathanael, his friend.  Philip told Nathanael that he had found “the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph”.  Nathanael was skeptical and said, “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?”  This skepticism was understandable; at that time Nazareth was an obscure little hill town, remote and of no consequence.  It was not sophisticated or glamorous, quite the opposite—it was not a place that anyone expected the Messiah to come from.

“Despite his skepticism, Nathanael followed Philip to meet Jesus.  When the Lord saw Nathanael coming toward Him, He said, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no (guile)”.  Nathanael accepted this description as true and wondered how Jesus knew his character, having never met him before.  Jesus explained: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you”.  Nathanael then immediately recognized Jesus as the Christ, calling him the “Son of God” and the “king of Israel”.[1]

If it were only so easy for all of us.  I often envy, if that’s the right word, those who got to be around Jesus back then, those who got to see Him, hear His earthly voice, share a glass of wine with Him after dinner.  I, along with many others, think that they must have had it made; following Jesus must have been easy when you actually got to literally follow Him around.

But perhaps it wasn’t so easy.  Remember that the disciples, while willing to leave everything and follow Jesus, didn’t always get things right – it took them a long time to sort out who Jesus was and what was happening around them.  Think of the Apostle Thomas, there from the beginning, who wouldn’t totally buy in until he could touch the risen Christ.  Nathaniel, in his bluster, sometimes comes off as a bit of a blunt instrument, but as Jesus pointed out, was also the kind of guy who would sit under a fig tree and contemplate his faith, the kind of guy who believed God and looked for a savior.  He nailed his first attempt at identifying the Messiah, but surely there were bumps along the way.

Nathaniel stayed the course, however, and was gifted with the task of spreading the Gospel around the world.  Eusebius recorded that Nathaniel made his way to India, much like Thomas, after the Great Commission, and he certainly preached and planted the Church in Armenia.  Nathaniel set up shop in Albanus, now Derbent, on the Caspian Sea, and just like ten other Apostles, he was martyred for the Faith.  Nathaniel was skinned alive and beheaded – just to make sure, I guess – and so a flaying knife is used when he is symbolized in art.  Michelangelo included Nathaniel in his work in the Sistine Chapel, and it’s believed that Nathaniel’s face is a Michelangelo self-portrait.

How do we become more like Nathaniel?  First, by taking the time to contemplate our faith, to take stock of who we are and our relationship with God.  Second, by expecting God to act in our lives, by recognizing those moments of grace and revelation for what they are.  And thirdly, by following Jesus; perhaps not by foot as Nathaniel did, but with our lips and in our lives, that we too might be found worthy of the promises of Christ.

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Baptism of Our Lord

Like most people, I’m probably not always completely self-aware, but I did realize fairly early on that I am very much a product of where I’m from.  As my wife would confirm, I’m about as Jersey as Jersey gets, good and bad.  I’m what you get when you take Springsteen, pork roll, and apple cider donuts and bake at 350 for 43 years.  My Jersey-ness was especially evident at seminary, where the grand majority of seminarians were from the South.  Apparently I lacked the necessary Jersey to South translator: they didn’t think I was very nice at all, even when I thought I was being perfectly nice.  Niceness is a good thing, of course, if not absolutely necessary to the Christian faith.  As Fr. Rob Droste says, the point of the Church is not to make nice people nicer.

 

Case in point: the Apostles were not the nicest gang of people ever thrown together.  In next week’s Gospel lesson we’ll hear Nathaniel say, speaking of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  The Jews and the Romans had trouble being nice to each other, as you might imagine, and there was certainly no Jewish to Roman translator.  Peter, who was more than a little rough around the edges, not only disliked Gentiles in general but also thought God disliked Gentiles as well, or at least didn’t like them as much as He liked the Jews, which might actually be the case.  But then Peter met Cornelius the Centurion.

 

“All that we know of Cornelius is contained in the Book of Acts.  A centurion was a Roman army officer, theoretically in charge of a hundred men.  Cornelius the Centurion is called a God-fearer–that is to say, he was a monotheist, a Gentile who worshipped the One God.  The Jews traditionally recognized that such Gentiles had a place in the Family of God… In New Testament times, an estimated ten per cent of the population of the Roman Empire consisted of God-fearers, Gentiles who recognized that the pagan belief in many gods and goddesses, who according to the myths about them were given to adultery, treachery, intrigue, and the like, was not a religion for a thoughtful and moral worshipper, and who had accordingly embraced an ethical monotheism–belief in One God, who had created the world, and who was the upholder of the Moral Law.

Although only a few of them took the step of formal conversion to Judaism…most of them attended synagogue services regularly.

 

“Cornelius, then, was a Roman centurion, and a God-fearing man.  One day, as he was praying, an angel appeared to him and told him to send a messenger to Joppa and ask Peter to come and preach to him.  Peter, meanwhile, was given a vision that disposed him to go with the messenger. When Peter had preached to Cornelius and his family and friends, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on the first Christians at Pentecost, and they began to speak in other tongues.  Thus, there was ample evidence to convince Jewish Christians who hesitated to believe that it was the will of God that Gentiles should be brought into the Church.”[1]

 

This would not have been immediately pleasing to Peter.  But Peter was no idiot, and he could clearly see that God was at work in Cornelius, and Peter’s heart grew three sizes that day.  “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  Peter had finally received his Jewish to Gentile translator; the chasm of suspicion and hatred and misunderstanding was filled by the tireless working of the Holy Spirit.  Peter baptizes Cornelius and more than one soul was converted that day.  Peter baptized Cornelius and his whole household, and the world is quite literally changed.

 

I’ve never really solved my Jersey to the World translation problem, and I suspect that I really could be a bit nicer, all things considered.  But what I really need, and I suspect many need, is for our hearts to grow, for our souls to be further converted; we need to beg the Holy Spirit to be here with us as He was there with, of all people, Cornelius the Centurion.  Then perhaps the chasms that separate the peoples of the earth may indeed be filled, the love of God in Christ Jesus the great translator.  If it worked for Peter and Cornelius….

[1] James Kiefer: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/97.html

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Christmas 1

When I was a seminarian at the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes, I heard the Last Gospel (and therefore the prologue of John) a lot, as all of you have over the last several years.  Fr. Lane didn’t say it too often – he didn’t like the Last Gospel or birettas for that matter – but Bishop Montgomery said it after every Mass, as I remember, and apparently he could recite it in French as well.  Ascension & St. Agnes didn’t have Prayer Cards on the altar, and so Bishop Montgomery didn’t have a liturgical cheat-sheet like I do; the Bishop said the Last Gospel from memory, counting off each phrase on his fingers.  The Last Gospel wasn’t always part of the Mass itself, it started off as a private devotion.  On the way back to the sacristy after the Dismissal, the priest would recite it under his breath as a reminder of the great mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus.  After a few decades of this, people started to wonder what Father was mumbling about after the Mass, and the public recitation of the prologue of John at the conclusion of the Mass began to creep into use.

 

The Gospel for the Sunday after Christmas is always the prologue of John; the Last Gospel cuts off two verses short.  Because we’re still in the Christmas season, this reading is sort of like John’s take on Christmas, on Jesus being born for us, for our sake and for our salvation.

 

But instead of mangers and shepherds and angels and the like, we get, essentially, a mystic poem.

“John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes the words from the book of Genesis: In the beginning God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, “Let there be light.”  In John’s gospel, from the very beginning was the Word.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, who spoke and said “let there be light,” this same God who was from the beginning and spoke that Word, this same God became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  John says, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The God who takes on our flesh does not ignore the darkness but shines in the very midst of it.”[1]

 

If you’ve ever been with us at the 6pm Family Mass on Christmas Eve, then you’ve seen the frantic act of attempting to set up the creche while the hymn Once in royal David’s city acts as a countdown clock.  One year I was handed the angel and forgot where she went until a four year old told me that she hangs on a little hook on the front of the barn.  This year a little boy didn’t want to give me a sheep, and I was totally ready to just let him take it with him, but he did finally hand it up to me.  The baby Jesus is supposed to be the last figure placed in the creche, but it never happens that way – I just sort of get each thing as it comes.  Our baby Jesus is tiny in scale, even compared to the figures around it, and I hope that serves as a reminder of how vulnerable God was willing to become, the risk God took, the risk of Christmas.  At the creche, we’re reminded of the tininess of the baby Jesus.

 

But then comes the first Sunday after Christmas and the prologue of John, and we’re reminded now of the immensity of Jesus, the very Word of God.  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

 

That’s a massive claim John is making about a person, a person he knew and ate lunch with and might still owe him 20 bucks.  But it’s the same claim we make today, that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, that we behold His glory, that life itself is possible only through Him.

 

We make that claim at the end of every Mass, that God Himself set up shop here on earth to free us from the darkness that we ourselves could not overcome.  May the light and life and glory of Christ shine for you this Christmas season.

[1] The Rev. William M. Thigpen: http://day1.org/1676-christmastide_a_reminder_where_our_hearts_belong

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Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody.  Thank God it’s Christmas, huh?  2017 has been a long year for an awful lot of people, and I think we needed Christmas to come.  2107 gave some people what they deserve.  Time Magazine named ‘The Silence Breakers’ as its Person of the Year, and so if things work out the way they should, sexual predation will no longer be tolerated as it has been; we can only pray that those who did or could say “Me Too” won’t face further victimization.  2017 has been the year of the storm: between the hurricanes and the firestorms, it’s hard to tell what’s worse.  Then there’s the barrage of shootings and terrorist attacks here and around the world.  It’s been a dark year, and I think we’re all ready for Christmas, ready for a little hope.

 

But how ready are we?  Last week I admitted that I hadn’t even started Christmas shopping, and I’ll admit now that I barely got started – I did get my wife something, so really, it’s all going to be alright.  And because of the generosity of our parish and many friends of the parish, I had the pleasure of delivering carloads of gifts to several local families who needed a little boost this Christmas.  There was a lot going on, and the retail and shipping businesses of the world are in the process of making a fortune on my unreadiness this year.  The Church has a whole season of preparation for Christmas – Advent is supposed to get us ready for Christmas, not just give us a piece of calendar chocolate every day, but I do wonder how many of us are any more spiritually ready for Christmas, presents aside.  But if Christmas teaches us anything, it’s that Jesus has a penchant for showing up when we are unready.

 

And praise God for that!  Imagine a world in which Jesus didn’t show up until we were ready for Him.  Mary and Joseph were surely not ready for Jesus to be born, any more than any parent is truly ready for the arrival of their child.  Having a child is a life-changing experience.  As our presiding bishop pointed out in his Christmas message to the church, if you’ve ever been in a house with a new baby, you know that this seemingly powerless being somehow, nevertheless, takes over the whole house.  Every routine is broken, every priority is moved down, all that had been usual is made new.  There’s so much stress and fear and anxiety wrapped up with so much love and light and hope.

 

And then imagine that you had that baby in a cave on the edge of a town of about 300 people under the occupation of a brutal foreign power and that your first visitors are a bunch of unwashed shepherds.  Not a good way to start out, and not a sign of efficient preparation.  But Jesus was born nonetheless.

 

That’s because Jesus came not because of our readiness, but because of our need.  He came because human sin had rendered the world unready and unsuitable.  He set aside the unceasing worship and praise of choirs of angels in order to become fragile, humble, and vulnerable.  He exchanged the spotless raiment of heaven for the all too physical realities of childbirth and livestock and adolescence and rejection and suffering and death.

 

Jesus came because we were unready for God, yes, but also because God was ready for us.  Jesus was born into this world so that God could physically touch the human experience, so that everything that happens to us could somehow happen to God.  Jesus was born so that God could know what it’s like to learn and to grow and to have a tummy ache, or what it’s like to go hungry and thirsty and have no roof over His head, or know what it’s like to fear and be hunted and taken captive.  Jesus was born so that God could be with us in every way; Jesus died and rose again so that we could be with God in every way.

 

It has been a dark year.  But we are here once again to celebrate the birth of Christ, because in that dirty cave in that podunk town was born the light of the world.  The King of kings and yet born of Mary; the Lord of lords in human vesture; Christ our God to earth descended, to be the light in our darkness, to be our life, our sweetness, and our hope.  I won’t ask you if you’re ready for Him – He’s already here.

 

Merry Christmas, everybody.

*The theme and a few sentences of this sermon came from Fr. Bret Hays.

 

 

 

 

 

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