Septuagesima

So many of life’s learning environments are disorienting, purposefully so.  Some are more blatant about it: in the two seconds I thought about it, I came up with most sports and music programs, seminary, and most of all, military basic training.  All break you down to build you back up into the person you can be.

 

In a way, Jesus did this all the time.  (As a side note, worship, which is an environment in which you can learn but not technically a learning environment, can be disorienting, but not purposefully; worship is purposefully re-orienting – it orients us God-ward).  Anyway, Jesus didn’t set out to disorient anyone, as far as I can tell, but as it happens when He or anyone tells us the truth, the truth as God gives it to us, we, the finite and sinful, are easily thrown off course.

 

Take today’s Gospel from Luke.  It’s a short sermon from Jesus, the Sermon on the Plain, which sounds very much like the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew, because either they’re same sermon remembered slightly differently, or Jesus had to give it twice so it would sink in.

 

Jesus’ words don’t immediately make sense.  “Blessed are you poor; Blessed are you that hunger now; Blessed are you that weep now; Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man; But woe to you that are rich; Woe to you that are full now; Woe to you that laugh now; Woe to you, when all men speak well of you.”  Seems like the opposite of our reality, because unfortunately, it often is.

 

So a couple things to think about.  First, we need to note that while Jesus surrounded by a crowd – in fact He was once again almost overwhelmed by the people who were coming to Him to be healed of various illnesses – He did not give this sermon to the crowds, but to the Disciples, in the presence of the crowds.  Jesus knew that His words would likely sow confusion amongst the people, the people who had not yet spent time with Him, had not yet decided to follow Him as Lord and Savior.  As Reginald Fuller once put it, this sermon presupposes grace; the grace of God that allows the listener to understand the reality Jesus is presenting.  “Only insofar as persons are “in Christ” will they reproduce this kind of life in their own lives.”[1]

 

Second, and remarkably, “there is no contingency plan.  There are no urgings or exhortations to behave in certain ways so as to earn these blessings and avoid the curses.  In fact, there is no call to action at all. Rather, Jesus is just pronouncing the facts.  He is painting for us a picture of what the Kingdom of God is.  He is not making suggestions about how to be happy or giving warnings on how to keep from being miserable.  Jesus is making defining statements of the way life is inside and outside the reign of God.  It is a reversal of fortunes for the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the full and the empty.”[2]  This is not a roadmap for a good life, but a statement about life.

 

So how is it possible that the poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the excluded are the ones who are blessed?  Why is it that the rich, the well-fed, the mirthful, and the well-regarded are the subjects of misery?

 

Well, because the well-fed, well-regarded rich have a tendency, at least, to rely on nothing and no one except themselves.  Great wealth can, at least, cut you off from other people.  You buy a big house, you need a big fence.  Remember that when Robert Frost wrote “good fences make good neighbors”, he was being sarcastic.  Those fences can be spiritual as well – one can forget that we all, in fact all things, rely on God for our very existence.

 

The poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the excluded rarely have to worry about forgetting all that.  They have to worry about everything else, of course, but they know that they have nothing in and of themselves to entitle them to a right relationship with God, which is why they so often have a right relationship with God.

 

So do the rich, the well-fed, the mirthful, and the well-regarded have to reverse their fortunes?  No.  They – let’s just admit that we are they – we just have to be aware that we can become disoriented by a world which tells us to rely on ourselves, on our possessions, and our power.  That allows us to be poor in spirit, hungry for righteousness, mournful for a broken world, set apart for good works, reoriented by the grace of God.

[1] Reginald H. Fuller: http://liturgy.slu.edu/6OrdC021719/theword_indepth.html

[2] The Rev. Sarah Jackson Shelton: http://day1.org/1029-blessing_or_curse

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Epiphany +5

Way back in 1973 (a year before I was born), a young, empowered, female copywriter was tasked with writing a commercial for a rather expensive hair product for women.  Ilon Specht worked for McCann Erickson, and her mostly male coworkers kept coming up with concepts for the commercial that turned the woman in the proposed commercial into nothing more than an object suitable for the male gaze.  Angry, to say the least, Ms. Specht left room, sat alone, and in five minutes came up with the now immortal tag line for the most expensive hair color in the world, Preference by L’Oreal: Because I’m worth it.  By the way, the most expensive hair color in the world in 1973 was $2.75, but remember that a 1973 Corvette was $5500.

Because I’m worth it.  Or am I?  Knowing ourselves, knowing what people do, knowing what people are capable of, what exactly are we worth?

All three lessons for this week show three of our biblical heroes, Gideon, Paul, and Peter, proclaiming that they are not worthy of much.

Gideon finally figures out that he is in the presence of the Angel of the Lord, and just figures that he’ll die just from being in close proximity to such a holy creature.

Paul calls himself the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle at all.  For all of Paul’s arrogance, he knew that, having heard the voice of Jesus, having had visions of heaven, he was not worthy.

Then we come to Peter.  Peter knew Jesus, but he didn’t yet really know Jesus.  Peter was honored to lend his boat to Jesus so that He could teach the crowds who were mobbing Him, using the water as a natural barrier against being overrun by them.

Peter was, for all accounts, a good fisherman – he was successful.  He had a nice big house in a nice seaside village, he had a wife and room enough for his mother-in-law to live with them, he was a well respected man about town, doing the best things so conservatively.

But he had a bad night of fishing.  When Jesus had finished talking to the crowds, He told Peter to go back out and try again.  Out of respect, if nothing else, Peter obliges, Jesus performs a minor miracle, and they end up with more fish than they can handle.  How does Peter react?  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”  I am not worthy to be even in your presence.

And so it seems that the natural reaction to being in the presence of God is to shield your face and hope you can back away slowly without Him noticing.  There seems to be a sense of shame, of worthlessness.  But the whole premise of Christianity is that God thinks that we are worth dying for, and so we have to reconcile this somehow.

Here’s how I think about it.  In my experience, at least, the closer I’ve gotten to the holy, the less holy I feel.  This is, again, the natural reaction, and perhaps the only initial reaction to drawing near to God, but we need to remember what the feeling means: it means that we’re finding our natural place in reality.  We are not God, and He obviously is, and so that feeling is really a good thing: we are recognizing our place in the relationship.

And there’s the key: in the relationship.  As much as we are not worthy of it, God thinks we’re worth being in relationship with.  What is man, King David asked God, that You are mindful of him?  It puzzled even King David, but what we do know is that God loves us so much that He continually draws near to us, over and over He comes to us, never more so than in His Son, who even became one of us, so that we could draw even nearer to God.

So it is not in shame or fear that we come into the presence of God, but in right relationship, knowing who God is, who we are, and that He loves us.  When we say that we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under His table, that is true, but remember that God responds to us by giving us not crumbs but the very Bread of Life.  Why?  Because we’re worth it.

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Epiphany 4

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, that uniquely American holy day, observed by at least as many as bother to observe Easter.  It’s literally a feast day, as most with eat way more this evening than they normally would, and it’s one of the very few days a year I allow myself to dig into the best party food known to man, Lipton Onion Dip.

Like any other sporting event, everyone has a prediction on who will win.  Sportsline, one of the premier sports betting sites, has the Rams giving 2.5 points, so the Patriots are the “underdogs” in this one.  Every sports commentator has become a prophet this past week, attempting to foretell the future.

“We are rightly suspicious of self-appointed prophets.  Biblical warrant for this suspicion lies in the fact that the typical prophet in Scripture is profoundly reluctant to accept the appointment.  Whence the sarcastic label “self-anointed prophet” applied to anyone who too readily claims such a role.  In most biblical contexts, the term prophet means “forth-teller” rather than “fore-teller.”  That is, the designated person is asked to speak to the community in the name of God.  Sometimes, indeed, the message does include reference to the future, but mainly it is a message the community needs to hear regarding how it ought to alter its way of proceeding in the present.”[1]

“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.”

Last week we heard Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”  Then He had the audacity to apply these words to Himself.

“He said, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing”!  As everyone knew, “this scripture passage” was known to refer to the Messiah.  They saw clearly that Jesus was claiming to be the very Messiah!

“Stunned!  They were stunned.  He had grown up in their midst.  He was the carpenter’s son, the one they used to see weekly in this same synagogue.  Why in the world would a local man invent such a bizarre story?”[2]

We have the benefit of knowing that this story, while bizarre, has the benefit of being true.  Jesus knew that too, as did others.  John the Baptist knew; John even got to see the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus at His baptism.  Satan knew; he caught up with Jesus when He was out in the desert pray, and he tempted Jesus with earthly power, with self-satisfaction and ego.  Jesus won that battle, by the way.

But now Jesus was back in His hometown, where the people didn’t know who He really was.  But how were they supposed to understand?  He looked like a madman, claiming equality with God!  To them he was insulting his home town simultaneously with his people, with Israel, and with God.”[3]

And so they tried to push Him off a cliff, which we can chalk up to a natural reaction, given the circumstances.  “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country.”

In today’s gospel and in everything that Jesus said and did, indeed in just who Jesus is, we see the tension between God’s truth and our truth, between what God says is good and what we think is good.  We still live in this tension, because when we listen to Jesus, when we listen to Him in Scripture, when we hear Him during worship, or in prayer, we don’t always hear what we want to hear.  Jesus, and indeed all the prophets, make us face ourselves and see what we’ve become.

So the choice becomes, do we push Jesus off a cliff?  Or do we, with the benefit of knowing who Jesus is, with the benefit of knowing that true life comes from listening to the good news of His salvation and following Him, do we allow His love to change us from within?  What kind of crowd do we want to be?

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Epiphany 3

Back in seminary, you could always tell the people who used to be Baptists because they could tell you the chapter and verse of whatever Bible passage you were talking about.  For better or for worse, most Episcopalians weren’t raised to know their Bible that well, or at least in that way, myself included.

So I had to google what chapter and verse of Isaiah that Jesus quoted that day in the synagogue – for future reference, it was Isaiah 61:1.  Isaiah has 66 chapters, it’s a serious book.  But back when Jesus read from Isaiah in the synagogue, it wasn’t a book at all, nor did it have chapters or verses.

It was a scroll.  Scrolls back then differed in size the same way our books do, but scrolls that were used for sacred writings were rather regimented.  When a scroll was prepared to contain Jewish scripture, certain standards had to be met.  Back then, at least, paper was not used, just the skin of goats, cattle, or deer, and special ink was used.  It had to be written by a sefer, or scribe; the word sefer/scribe actually means counter, because they had to count all the characters they wrote to make sure they did it perfectly.  “Once all the writing has been completed, the pieces of parchment (were) sewn together with thread made of animal veins.  The finished scroll is attached to wooden rollers.  No instrument containing iron or steel may be used in the creation of a Torah scroll, because these metals are used to create instruments of war.”[1]

Remember when I said that the scrolls didn’t contain chapter and verse?  So when Jesus stood up at the synagogue in Nazareth, took the scroll of Isaiah and found the passage he was looking for, the scroll He had to search through was at least 24 feet long.  Makes you have a new appreciate for books, and for Jesus’ skill with scrolls.

The Bible, whether we find it as a book or a scroll, is a marvelous thing.  The Bible is a collection of history, of wisdom, of poetry, and praise.  It’s been called a blueprint for living a good life, but it’s not that really – too many of the people in the Bible, including most of the heroes, didn’t live perfect lives.  What the Bible is, in the end, is the story of the relationship that people have had with God, warts included.  The main thrust of that story is that God loves us, we don’t always love Him back, but even still, God loves us.  The gospel lessons we get for this week and next week illustrate this well.

St. Luke sets the scene.  “A well-known member of this small village (population, archeologists estimate, around 150), a craftsman, returns with a reputation for healing and acting like an old-time prophet.  He shows up at the synagogue, opens the scroll of Isaiah to the place we call chapter 61, reads the first-person statement of a prophetic figure claiming to be anointed and sent by the Lord for a work of liberation and healing, and boldly applies that passage to himself.”[2]

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  I am the fulfillment of this scripture.  Bold indeed.  Jesus wasn’t calling on the Jewish authorities or even the Roman authorities to declare a jubilee year forgiving everyone’s debts.  He wasn’t saying that God was going to, at some point, do something to relieve the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed.  Jesus was saying that He is that relief.  He is the good news.

Spoiler alert.  This did not go well for Jesus.  Next week we’ll hear about the crowd at that synagogue attempting to throw Him off a cliff.  Remember, this is the story of God loving us and we not always loving Him back.

Later on this morning (tomorrow morning) we’ll review our own story, the story of our relationship with God in the last year, and we’ll hear about the plans and dreams we have for this year.  We’ll see how we’ve proclaimed good news to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the oppressed, and hopefully you’ll lend your ideas on how we can continue to show the light of Jesus Christ to all who long for freedom, release, for some good news.  We’re living the story of our relationship with God right now.  He will always love us; how well we love Him back is up to all of us.

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Epiphany 2

Raising children is hard.  I know this because I was once a child, and raising me couldn’t have been a picnic in the sun.  Raising Jesus must have been especially difficult.  Not only was He the Son of the Living God, but Scripture tells us that He was, as you might expect, rather bright – He had wisdom and understanding beyond His years.  That kind of thing can get kids in trouble.  Luke tells us that when Jesus was twelve, He decided the best thing He could do when His family was leaving Jerusalem for home was to stay in Jerusalem and badger the Temple priests with questions.  Ask Fr. Matt always comes to mind when I read that passage.  Jesus was presumably a well-behaved child, and surely Mary tried to rationalize things with Him, but just as surely, there were times when, like any mother, when fed up with some episode of lollygagging or non-compliance, she just said, “Because I said so.”

How do I know this?  Because we just heard her say it.  We just get confused because she said it to someone else: Do whatever He tells you.

Let’s back up.  First, we need to remember that this episode happened at the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  He had called His disciples, been baptized and tempted, but hadn’t gone about teaching and healing and exorcizing; He hadn’t performed any miracles or become well known.

Second, we know Jesus liked a good party.  He was criticized loudly and often for hanging out with the wrong kinds of people and not, I guess, constantly flinging ashes over himself.  In this Jesus was the opposite of His cousin John the Baptist, who, as we know, ate locusts and wild honey and not much else, and who, we can guess, didn’t have many close friends.  Jesus actually pointed out the difference, saying to the crowds, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’”

So we can assume that Jesus was a fan of weddings, which tend to have great parties, and St. John gives us the account of Jesus at a wedding in Cana.  Jesus and His disciples had been down in the Jordan Valley with John the Baptist, but they made their way up to Cana, about ten miles or so north of Nazareth, for this wedding.  Who got married that day?  We don’t know, but since John tells us that Mary was there, and that even all the disciples were invited, it’s safe to say it was a family wedding for Jesus, certainly reason enough to make the long trek from the Jordan Valley.

At some point in the evening the wine ran out.  This was bad.  For one, the wine ran out, enough said.  Second, this was seen as a major social faux pas; the inability of a family to provide food and wine at an occasion like this would be a source of serious dishonor.  Seeing the problem, Mary steps in.

She tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”  And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”  (Quick side note: calling a woman ‘woman’ back then was a sign of respect – it was said exactly opposite of the way Matt Guitar Murphy said it to Aretha Franklin in the Blues Brothers).

Anyway, think of what Jesus said like this: “Oh mom, don’t make me do this, because if I do, it all starts now, and ends at the Cross.  Why start now?”  Mary’s response: Because I said so.  Do whatever He tells you.

Like the good son He was, Jesus did as His mother ‘requested’, and He did it big.  Jesus didn’t just miraculously refill everyone’s glass, God getting the next round – He had six big stone water pots filled with 180 gallons of water, and turned that water into wine, the best wine anyone had ever tasted. (By the way, in 2017, archeologists found the stoneworks where those water pots were likely made, not a mile south of Cana).

Jesus’ first miracle was the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana, and it was done to please His mother.  He could no longer take things slow: His disciples saw and believed, word spread, and Jesus had to begin all the teaching and the healing and the exorcizing, and all that came with it.  His glory had been revealed that day, and there was no turning back, for Jesus or His disciples.

Jesus did all these things to fulfill the will of His Father, but why did He do them when He did?  Because His mother said so.

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The Baptism of Our Lord

Neither Doan or I watch a whole lot of television (though I watch a lot more, when you consider the amount of sports I watch), but two of our favorite shows are Father Brown and Grantchester.  Both feature priests, surprise, surprise, and they both, in their spare time, solve mysteries.  Each episode ends with either Fr. Brown or Fr. Chambers having cracked the case, who stole what or who murdered who.  All I do in my spare time is go to the gym or what sports, so I feel as if I’m slacking a bit.  Perhaps Frs. Brown and Chambers have set unrealistic expectations of the clergy – they’ve set the bar a little high.

 

I have no hope of clearing that bar, and yet some priests think the bar is set to Jesus level.  Thankfully, Jesus told us to follow Him, not be Him, but today’s episode in the gospel according to Luke illustrates just how high Jesus set the bar for Himself.

 

Being the first Sunday after the Epiphany, it’s the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord.  It’s a big feast, as it celebrates one of the big moments in the life of Christ.  And yet it’s a bit of a confusing moment.

 

“Why was Jesus baptized? Even for the early church, as the canon of scripture itself was being formed, it seems to have been a controversial question.  If Jesus goes before John for the “baptism of repentance,” it seems that Jesus himself is a sinner.  The account from the Gospel of Matthew suggests as much when giving voice to John’s reluctance: “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!”

 

“He was like us in all things but sin, the author of Hebrews reminds us when discussing Jesus’ high priesthood. And yet we balk at the statement. “If he did not sin, how could he really be like us? How could he be fully human?

 

“We misunderstand this because we misunderstand our humanity as well as our sin. Christ has come not only to reveal divinity to us; he has come to reveal us to ourselves. Not only is he truly God.  He is truly human.  And he is truly human precisely because he does not sin.  All of our sin is nothing other than the rejection of the truth of our humanity.

 

“His baptism, then, is at the heart of his mission to heal us. He enters even the wounds of our self-rejection, without having made the rejection himself. He accepts full solidarity with us even if it means being seen as sinner.”[1]  That’s setting the bar pretty high.

 

When Jesus came to John to be baptized, John resisted, but Jesus told Him “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

 

So Jesus did stuff He didn’t even have to do just so that nothing was outside of His human experience.  He took the risk of doing something that looked bad (not to mention hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes and so on) so that no one could ever say that He was less than righteous.

 

What kind of bar do we set for ourselves?  How often do we think about righteousness, much less strive for it?  Even the word righteous nowadays makes us think of righteous indignation or self-righteous social justice warriors.  But Jesus cared about righteousness, as His baptism attests.

 

So how do we become righteous, or at least more righteous?  Where’s that bar?  Well, it does involve avoiding sin, and when we fall into sin, repentance, and returning to the Lord.  If that sounds boring, it is; a life spent thinking about avoiding sin is no life at all, and can actually lead to sin – think of the sins of the Puritans.

 

Real righteousness is more about doing than avoiding.  The prophet Micah said that to be righteous meant to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”  St. James said that true religion is “to visit the orphan and the widow in their affliction, and to keep yourself unstained from the world.”

 

See all the doing?  I was once taught that the best way to avoid sin is to be busy doing good, which I think is a nice way of wrapping all that up.  All that might not mean solving mysteries in our spare time, but it does still set the bar pretty high.  Where is your bar set?

[1] John Kavanaugh, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/BapLordC011319/theword_kavanaugh.html

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Christmas 1

Ah, the first Sunday after Christmas.  Around the church, at least, this is usually a fairly peaceful weekend, especially coming after the hustle and bustle of the holiday.  I, like most, am overfed and feel the simultaneous needs of a nap and a few day-long trips to the gym.

Now, it’s well known that the “Christmas Season” is not really the time leading up to Christmas, but rather the twelve days of Christmas, Christmastide, which ends with the Vigil of the Epiphany on January 5th.  Epiphany is on a Sunday this year, which makes things easier on the clergy, and if you’ll bear with the advertisement, we’ll have the blessing chalk, gold, frankincense, and myrrh at every service next weekend so no one misses out.  So that’s Christmastide.

Less known is that within Christmastide, we have the Witness Days.  Anyone ever heard of that?

“On the six days between Christmas Day its Octave on 1 January, we have five commemorations of persons who have in various ways, by martyrdom or otherwise, born witness to the truth of the Christian faith.  (Note that the word Martyros in pre-Christian Greek means simply “witness,” and that it is not always clear whether Christian uses of it ought to be translated as “witness” or in the narrow technical sense as “martyr”, that is, someone who has explicitly chosen to die sooner than to deny Christ as Lord.  Anyway…

“On December 26th, we remember St. Stephen, first member of the early Christian church to be put to death for his faith — see Acts 6,7. He was “a martyr in will and deed.”

“On December 27th, we remember St. John the Evangelist, one of the Twelve Apostles.  It is commonly believed that, although he was imprisoned and beaten for his adherence to Christ, he lived to old age and died a natural death.  He was “a martyr in will but not in deed,” meaning that he was willing to lay down his life for his Lord, but was not called on to do so (though I am sure he wished he had – remember that he was once boiled in oil but didn’t die).

“On December 28, we remember the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem who were slaughtered by command of King Herod lest one of them prove a danger to his throne.  They were “martyrs in deed, though not in will,” and their deaths are a disquieting reminder that suffering on behalf of a good cause is not always restricted to those who have a choice in the matter.

“The witnesses commemorated on these first three days are all from New Testament times.  On the two days following, we commemorate witnesses from a later period in Christian history.  Taking them in reverse order of days:

“(though not a martyr), On December 31 we commemorate Sylvester, bishop of Rome from 313 to 335 — that is, roughly from the Edict of Toleration issued by the Emperor Constantine to the death of the said Emperor, and thus the first bishop of Rome in the days after Christianity ceased to be an illegal and persecuted religion.  With his term of office, we enter an era when to become a Christian is no longer to place oneself in automatic danger of being put to death by the government. However…

“On December 29, we remember Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, slain in his own cathedral in 1170, for his defiance of King Henry II.  (King Henry claimed that a cleric accused of an ordinary crime ought to be tried in the King’s Courts like any layman. Thomas, who was Henry’s Chancellor and his close friend, vigorously upheld the king’s position.  However, when he was made Archbishop of Canterbury with the king’s support, he reversed himself completely and upheld the right of clergy to be tried only in Church courts, which could not inflict capital punishment.  When Henry uttered, famously, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” four of his knights took that as an order and killed him)  The death of Thomas reminds us that a Christian, even when safe from pagans, can be in danger from his fellow-Christians.”[1]

Christmastide is dominated by the celebration of these martyrs, these witnesses to the faith.  They’re heroes not necessarily because they died for the faith, but because they had, in one way or another, met Jesus, returned His love, and counted their relationship with Him to be more valuable then even their lives.  As we work our was through Christmas and into the new year, how will we witness to our relationship with Jesus?  How will we be heroes and heroines in the Faith?

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