Advent 2

So I’m the ballet again. The Central New Jersey Ballet Theatre surely chose me to play Uncle Drosselmeyer because of my long, lean physique and obvious gracefulness.  Dr. Tony Lewis, who preached my ordination and is still a strong mentor to me, once called me a ‘non-fussy Anglo-Catholic’, which was the nice way of saying that I wasn’t particularly elegant, physically, at the altar.  Anyway, I was in the Nutcracker last year as well, and I had a tough time learning all the movements, the stage placement, all the stuff that dancers have to internalize.  I took it seriously for the sake of the young people who were in the show, but unfortunately, four practices does not a dancer make.  And so during my big dance number, as I was twirling around, I had drifted too far out of my space, and a helpful young lady behind me said “Fr. Matt, stay in your circle!”  I said back to her, “I didn’t even know I had a circle!”

 

Stay in your circle.  Stay in your lane.  We’ve heard any number of iterations of that phrase lately.  Stick with what you’re good at, shut up and dribble, don’t make noise.

 

But in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber’i-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae’a and Trachoni’tis, and Lysa’ni-as tetrarch of Abile’ne, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca’iaphas, somebody did not stay in his circle.

 

And so we meet John the Baptist again in Luke’s gospel – remember that the entire first chapter of Luke is about John the Baptist, which is an interesting way of starting a book that’s actually about someone else.  And let’s note right away what Luke was doing in his third chapter by listing off all of these big names: Luke was setting the time in which the Baptist emerged as an adult figure, a public figure, yes, but Luke was also letting us know what the world was like at that time.  None of those people, those big names, Tiberius, Herod, Philip, Lysanias,  Annas, Caiaphas, none of them were nice people.  This was a harsh world ruled by great, terrible men; it was a good time to stay in one’s circle.

 

But something happened to John the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, that set him over against all these big names – did you hear what that was?  The word of God came to John.  Which made John what?  If you’re thinking a baptizer, you’re right, but that’s what John did.  What John was, was a prophet.

 

Prophets have one job, really, and it’s not to predict the future.  Prophets tell the truth, the truth that God gives them to tell, and the grand majority of the prophets, from Isaiah to Hosea to Jeremiah to John and the rest, had hard truths to tell.  Usually it goes something like “Hey, people of God, you’ve failed.  You’ve failed to give to God what is God’s; you’re mired in sin, you’re consumed with consuming, your culture is a culture of death.  Repent and return to the Lord before the Lord really does something about all this.”  Prophets were no fun at parties.

 

John the Baptist had the same message, but with a twist: John wasn’t warning the people of God that God might do something; he was telling them that God was already doing something, and so you better get ready.  And so John’s message was urgent and prescriptive: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, because something is happening, Someone is happening, and people, get ready.  Prepare the way of the Lord.

 

As you’ve heard me say before and will hear me say again, Advent is a time of preparation, a time to prepare for joy.  And just like you have to prepare a feast to have a feast, we must prepare our hearts and souls if we want to experience the joy that comes from meeting Jesus (again) on Christmas.

 

How do we do such a thing?  Well, to revisit my corny metaphor, we might need to wander out of our individual circles.  We all have a circle: the ring of habits that define our behavior, the priorities that set our days, the expectations of others about who we are, our own fear of the powerful people and forces that keep us encircled.  Some parts of that circle are good, and likely some are not so good.

 

John the Baptist tells us today to examine that circle, to rid ourselves of habits and priorities and expectations and fears that are slowly killing us.  He tells us that joy is coming, but that we’re likely not ready to receive it.  He tells us that Jesus is coming and is now here, which changes everything; and so because everything has changed, we must live as if everything has changed.

 

Our question becomes, What are we willing to examine, expunge, or add to this Advent?  Whatever you decide, Christmas is coming, and I pray that we will all prepare for unspeakable joy.

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Advent 1

When I was in high school and active at Trinity Red Bank, my mother was my Church School teacher (so I don’t want to hear any complaints from our kids about their mothers being their Church School teachers). We had a large contingent of kids my age, and among them there were some pretty serious Christians, kids who were intentional about their faith. When you’re a young person who is a Christian or a young Christian, someone new to the faith, you tend to focus a bit on what Christians do and don’t do, and sometimes kids can be a little aggressive about all that, and so some of kids who were more vocal about their faith and values would sometimes run afoul of their fellow students at school. Now, Peter, Paul, James, and even Jesus warned us that when you’re faithful and morally grounded, the world isn’t going to always treat you well, and some of my friends complained regularly that they were being persecuted at school for being Christians. My mother’s first response to these complaints was always the same: she would ask if they were being persecuted for being a Christian, or were they being persecuted for being a jerk about being a Christian.

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent ask us the same question. In our Gospel reading, “Jesus warns people not to be overcome with the pleasures and anxieties of the world but to be ready for his coming. Those who are not ready will practically die of fright when they see him. Well, then, what do we need to do to get ready? The Second Reading in effect answers that question. At Christ’s coming again, we are to be blameless in holiness. And what is that?

“If you are blameless under law, then no one can blame you for any violation of the law of the land. You weren’t speeding, for example, or cheating on your income tax, or violating any other law of the city or country in which you are. If you are morally blameless, then no one can blame you for any violation of the moral law. You weren’t lying, for example, or cheating on your spouse, or violating any other command of the universal moral law that applies to all people no matter where they are.

“But what is it to be blameless in holiness? The answer is in (the lesson from Paul): in order to be ready for Christ at his coming, Christians need to increase in love and abound in it.

“So here’s the thing to see. You can keep all the laws of your land and still be a real jerk. And the same truth holds for the moral law. You can be a priggishly righteous jerk too. Something more than having a great record for keeping the laws is necessary to be ready for the Lord. That more is love.

If you want what is bad for your neighbor, if you curse him in public or even in your heart, if you wish he would just go away, if you tell him in your thoughts or (by your actions) to go to hell—you do NOT love him.  And you are blameworthy with regard to holiness if you don’t. It doesn’t matter how moral or legal your conduct is otherwise.”[1]

Uh oh. Does this mean that being a nice, moral person doesn’t really get you anywhere? Weren’t we all taught that being nice, moral people, is the backbone of Christianity? Well, (maybe cover your kids ears), it’s just not.

It’s the first weekend of Advent, the four Sunday season of preparation before we celebrate the birth of Christ. Why do we have Advent? Why do we prepare for something that has already happened? Why bother with the purple and candles and me trying to tell people to slow down and be prayerful?

We bother with Advent because we forget. We forget the wonder and the majesty and the hardship and the confusion that comes along with the Son of God being born in strange circumstances in a strange time and in a strange land.

And when we forget that, we forget why the Son of God was born for us. Jesus was not born to a human mother so that we could be more moral or, God help us, nicer. Jesus was born so that in His birth, His teaching, His death and resurrection, we would be made free; and in being free, free from sin, free from darkness, free even from death, we are free to love.

Do I want you to be nice, moral people? Yes! But don’t stop there! Because in the end, when there are signs in sun and moon and stars and the powers of the heavens are shaken, it will be your love that marks you as unblamable in holiness before God.

[1] Eleanor Stump: http://liturgy.slu.edu/1AdvC120218/reflections_stump.html

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Christ the King

You know those discussions you have, especially when you’re fairly young, about what you would do if you ever found yourself possessing unfathomable riches?  If you had 100 billion dollars, what would you do?  I used to joke that I would raise a private army and take over Cuba, installing myself as king.  I would have been a benevolent king, I’m sure, worthy of the praises of my people.  But the fact remains that we don’t live in a time that has been particularly kind to kings, at least in the western world.  Our very existence here speaks to how our forefathers felt about kings.  Most western royal houses exist for show more than anything else, and now that we’ve thrown off the worst of what royalty has to offer, we can do things like enjoy royal weddings and princess movies and seeing American girls become duchesses.

But the fact remains that “Not every image of kingliness is pleasant.  Even in better times for royalty, kings have been associated with opulence, money, and reckless appetite.  They were distant and unapproachable, high and mighty surrounded by sycophant and jester.  Most strutted through time, decked in finery, decorated with trappings and trimmings of grand lordliness.  It was the uncommon king who did otherwise.

“King imagery is more problematic today, not only because of widespread suspicion of hierarchy and masculine dominance (a lordly word, that).  We are also not likely to be drawn to chivalrous virtues. Notions like honor, obedience, duty, and loyalty vex anyone whose highest value is individualism.  We love our autonomy (I sure do).  We celebrate choice because it is ours.  Doing the will of someone else is another matter.”[1]

And so welcome to the Feast of Christ the King.  The Last Sunday after Pentecost, according to our church calendar – or perhaps it’s easier to think of it as the last Sunday before we launch into the Advent season – is always the feast of Christ the King, a time to reflect on just Who we’re dealing with as we prepare to gaze upon Him as a baby on Christmas.  We do that because it can sometimes be difficult to grasp, in our day and age, just what it means to refer to Jesus as our King.

“The difficulty of properly applying king-talk to Jesus already appears during Jesus’ own public ministry.  While Jesus easily and enthusiastically proclaimed the kingship, or reign, of God, he was reluctant to accept for himself the royal title of Messiah (“Anointed One,” for which the Greek equivalent was Christos).  This reluctance seems linked, at least in part, to the image of king that most of Jesus’ contemporaries associated with the expected Anointed One.  Many first-century Jews appeared to be looking for a Messiah who would lead the people in the manner of King David, which at that moment of history seemed to entail leading an armed revolt against the Romans.”[2]

We already know that Jesus wasn’t about all that.  At no time did He ever even speak of raising a private army and taking over Israel, even though I am certain He would have been a benevolent king, worthy of the praises of His people.  But Jesus did talk an awful lot about the Kingdom of God, the reign of His Father.  All this talk got people nervous, especially those in power, and those from His own people who had authority, the Scribes and the Pharisees, they used all this talk to set Jesus up to be killed by the Romans.  “A person who constantly spoke of a kingdom and was treated by his followers as the Anointed One must, his opponents insisted, surely pose a threat to Roman law and order.”[3]

And so it ends up being Pilate, of all people, who actually recognizes that Jesus is truly the King of the Jews and perhaps the King of more than he could conceive, and we all know his course of action.

It’s been said that in Jesus, we serve a strange king.  That is true in that God is truly strange to us, but false in that the kingship of Christ is the true icon of a king – Jesus is what a king looks like, and we, with all our human kings, with their opulence, money, and reckless appetites, are just perversions of the real thing.

The Feast of Christ the King forces us to choose between the two images of kingship, and to choose which type of king we prefer to follow.

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Pentecost +26

So I spent the first three days of this week trapped in various conference rooms, surrounded by bishops, priests, and deacons, which sounds like about as much fun as it was.  On Tuesday evening, our presenter, a lovely man who I’ve known since seminary, made us break into groups of nine, gave us three sheets of paper, four paper plates, four Styrofoam cups, three pieces of spaghetti, and some tape, and challenged us to build a five-foot tower using just those things.  I no longer like that man at all.  On Wednesday morning, the hotel stopped serving us coffee at 9am, just as I was readying myself to present on the work I’ve been doing with Calvary Flemington.  I started wondering if we were living in the end times, those times of persecution and unspeakable horror we’ve just heard about in our lessons.

If we’re honest, the three readings we get today in our lectionary are not particularly fun; they’re hard to hear, and make it sound like there’s not much to look forward to.  I guess we shouldn’t expect the end of the world to be a soft subject, nothing but kittens and featherbeds, but I don’t like hearing about having to flee to the mountains any more than anyone else does.  And that, for all intents and purposes, is the message of Jesus in Mark 13.

This section of Mark chapter 13 is called the “Little Apocalypse” in biblical scholarship, because it deals with the end of the world, or at least what leads up to the end of the world as we know it.  That’s what the word apocalypse means to us: we use it in reference to any large catastrophic event or situation, to describe anything that seems to tear the world down around us.

But that’s not technically what an apocalypse is.  The word itself is Greek – apokalypsis – which literally means “an uncovering”.  An apocalypse is a revealing, a disclosure of knowledge.  The last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, could be called the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ the John, and surely that’s what the Greek Orthodox Church calls it to this day.

Mark was not alone in containing apocalyptic writing – in fact, there’s a whole genre of biblical writing that we call Apocalyptic Literature.  Daniel is the most famous writer in the genre, but there are many others who wrote down things that were revealed to them, revealed by an angel perhaps, or by some other spiritual experience.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Mark, John, and Paul all told of something that they had seen that could only be seen if it was revealed to them by God.

Such revelations are important, of course, and we should pay attention to such things.  But paying attention to these things is different than spending way too much time trying to figure out what they all mean.  People have been searching for clues within the apocalyptic writings since they were written: what did Daniel mean when he wrote that the desolation would be for a time, two times, and half a time?  How long is a time?  When will that time come?  What did Jesus mean by the desolating sacrilege?  When will the tribulation begin?  False Christs?  What does it all mean?

Well, for the record, I don’t know, and neither does anybody else, really.  The fact is, we’ve all seen sacrilege that’s caused desolation.  We’ve all seen tribulation and we’ve all seen people claim to be a savior and sometime to be the Savior Himself.  Does that mean we’re in the end times?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that both Daniel and Jesus (and Paul in the other lesson) are less concerned with how we’re all going to die than with how we’re all going to live.  So what does that look like in the context of today’s apocalyptic theme?  Jesus gives us the answer.

First, he tells us to place our trust in no one and nothing else besides him, and, second, he tells us to keep up our guard.  First — watch out who you trust.  If you look to anyone or anything else besides Jesus to be your messiah, to meet all your needs, you’ll be disappointed.

And, second, we are to always be on guard.  The Greek word in verse 23 is actually “See” — Jesus says “Look!  Open your eyes!”  Jesus will come back someday to judge, and we are to watch for him so that he will not find us sleeping but awake, aware, alert, ready to do his will when he calls our names.”[1]

The end times will come – creation had a beginning and will have an end – but that end is truly just the beginning, the beginning of God’s perfect reign, the time when His people will be delivered from this world of tribulation and desolation, the time when all things shall be revealed.


[1]Fr. Sammy Wood

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Pentecost +25

“One hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, World War I ended. The fighting ended at 11 a.m. Paris time, “the eleventh hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.”

The armistice was agreed upon at 5 a.m. on Nov. 11. While news spread quickly, fighting continued until 11 a.m. Army Pvt. Henry Gunther of the 79th Division was killed at 10:59 a.m., a minute before the Armistice took effect. He was the last American killed in World War I.

As many as 4.7 million Americans served in the military during World War I. About 116,000 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded.

Armistice Day became a national holiday in 1919. In 1954, Armistice Day was rededicated as Veterans Day to honor all American veterans.”[1]

Today’s Gospel lesson is all about honor, really, at least as much as it is about generosity.  First, we hear Jesus making a little fun of the Scribes, the religious bigwigs of His day.  Jesus says that Scribes wear funny clothes and make orations out of their prayers in order to get noticed, so that people will honor them for being so pious and polished.

There’s something embarrassing about all that striving for honor, is there not?  Jesus thought so.  It’s not that being honorable is a bad thing – let me point that out very clearly here – it’s the striving that gets people in trouble.  As Eleanor Stump put it, “There is something shameful about trying hard to get honor.”

“It follows that Christians should not care about honor. In fact, if a person who seeks honor is shameful, then it seems that a person who strives not to care about honor is honorable.  And so it seems that it ought to be a point of honor with Christians that they disdain honor.  But here things can begin to slide out of control.

“Suppose you seek the honor of disdaining honor. Does this seeking after honor make you like the scribes?  If it is shameful to seek after honor, is it also shameful to seek after the honor of disdaining honor?  And if it is shameful to strive for honor and also shameful to strive to disdain honor, is there any road at all to honor?

“It is worth noticing that in the Gospel reading, Jesus singles out a widow for honor.  Poor as she is, she is giving from the little she has in order to help those who are needier than she is. Jesus praises her and points her out as an exemplar of goodness.  To be praised by Jesus is to be honored indeed!

So how did that widow get this singular honor?  The first thing to notice about her is that she wasn’t striving for honor, as the scribes were.  Although Jesus noticed her, she wasn’t trying to get noticed.

And the second thing to notice about her is that she wasn’t trying to disdain honor either.  The only thing she was trying to do is to help those in need.  And so her behavior shows the solution to the puzzle about honor.  The only true road to honor is to love the good and pay no attention at all to honor one way or another.”[2]

To love the good and pay no attention to honor.  If that sounds correct and familiar, it’s because we celebrate today all the men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces, who have set themselves between us and tyranny in all its forms, regardless of the consequences.  We celebrate them because they did that with honor and not for honors, and so they are indeed honorable.

What is left for us is to love the good, to honor the good, and to live in such a way that Jesus might point at us from across the street and say, “Be like her.”

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All Saints

So, Halloween was Wednesday, and I’m still recovering from the sugar shock of all the candy I stole while Doan wasn’t watching.  Snickers is still my favorite candy, but Reeses Peanut Butter Cups might be the king of Halloween, and they tend to get the best reaction from the kids when you drop them into their bags.  Reeses Peanut Butter Cups are a delight to the senses: that firm chocolate on the outside, the soft, smooth peanut butter on the outside.  All of which reminded me of the words of the Very Rev. Canon Doctor James Fenhagen, the longtime dean of General Seminary (booo!).  Many years ago, speaking about the Church in American culture, Dr. Fenhagen said that modern Christians tended to have hard crusty exteriors but soft inner cores.  Then he said that the problem is God call us to have a solid core and soft exterior.[1]  That, I guess, is what the dean thought a saint would look like.

So again, Halloween was Wednesday, and so All Saints’ Day was Thursday, but the Church throughout the world celebrates this fabulous feast day not just on November 1, but on the following Sunday as well.  All Saints’ Sunday is a traditional feast day for baptisms – baptism being the first step in the making of a saint.  My first All Saints’ Sunday here, Fr. Salmon baptized eight babies, a record I haven’t yet broken, but I’ll work on that.

So what makes a saint a saint?  “Well, it is difficult to give a simple, straightforward answer.  The word saint is used in so many ways.  We, of course often refer, on the one hand, to those who have led exemplary lives, who serve as an example to all of us of how to live a good and holy life but who have gone on to a wider life in eternity; people like (Mother) Theresa, Dietrich Bonhofer, and many, many others.  We keep days in their honor and frequently recognize them with the honorific title “saint”: St. Peter, St. Andrew and so on.”[2]  And it’s these big-S Saints we celebrate today.

But there is a wider definition.  In the New Testament, the word saint is used 62 times, and St. Paul himself used the word saint 44 times, referring to people who were still on earth, still alive, like you and me.  We, and all Christians everywhere, are called saints of God, holy ones of God.

Well, that just sounds impossible, right?  There must be some kind of mistake.  I don’t feel holy.  Just like most Christians in every place, day, and age, I can be a total disaster, and most of us feel disastrous at one time or another.  We screw up, we hurt ourselves and others, even when we’re trying to do the exact opposite.

St. Paul knew this feeling well.  In his letter to the Romans, he wrote “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”  Is there anyone who doesn’t understand this problem?[3]

Maybe you want to give up smoking, for your sake and your loved ones, but you keep smoking anyway.  Maybe you react badly to some habit your best friend has, despite promising yourself you’ll ease off.  Perhaps you set the goal of praying more each day or reading the Bible for 15 minutes each morning, but it never really stuck.

And so whatever your problem might be, and we all have one thing, right(?), it can make us feel like anything but a saint, anything but holy.  And so we get a reminder on All Saints’ Day that our holiness, at least while we are here on earth, is more of a process than a state of being.  Only God is holy in and of Himself – remember the song of the angels when in the presence of God, Holy, Holy Holy.

(As an aside, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the word holy essentially means someone or something that has been set apart, sacred.  But one meaning of the word is other; to angels, to humans, to anything created, God is uniquely other – His being is another thing altogether than ours).

But we’re not God, and so our holiness comes not from our own being, but from our relationship with the God who is utter holiness.  Strangely, the closer we get to God, the less holy we feel, but the more holy we get.  When we draw closer to God, our spirits, our inner selves, are made firm in the faith, and our outer selves, the face we show to the world, becomes softer, more patient, more loving, more like what a saint looks like.

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Pentecost 23

Yogi Berra once said that “You can observe a lot just by watching.”  This is, of course, true, and like most of the odd quotes we get from Yogi, somehow both profound and obvious.  Yogi was talking about observing and watching in terms of using his eyes – technically the sentence would make more sense if he had said that “you can observe a lot just by looking.”  Our Gospel story today, the story of Bartimaeus, blind from birth, shows us the difference.

If we are observant, we can see immediately that this is not an ordinary healing story.  “Mark’s typically terse prose is simultaneously, on the one hand, personal, earthy, and immediate, and on the other, symbolic, transcendent, and universal.  Mark makes an exception to his rule of not naming the people Jesus heals, which strongly suggests that Bartimaeus was not just a real person, but someone his audience knew, or at least knew about, a man whose zeal to follow Jesus never dimmed, perhaps a leader in the first generation of Christian communities.  Mark was especially interested in people on the margins of society, associating them with the transformational power of God that is emerging in the world.  At first the rest of the world tried to silence Bartimaeus, but to his enduring credit, he responded to Jesus, not to them, and “he cried out even more loudly.”

“So already this is an unusual story. In other places the crowds are indifferent, or even bringing people to Jesus for healing.  What Bartimaeus says is also unusual. He calls Jesus “Son of David.”  Only twice before in Mark has someone correctly identified Jesus: the first time it was a demon, and the second time it was Peter, though he needed some nudging before and after his confession of faith.  Bartimaeus identifies Jesus correctly, spontaneously, and publicly.  Too publicly.  Calling Jesus “Son of David” was not just a profession of faith, it was a political statement, connecting Jesus to the hope of a national leader who would drive out the occupying Romans and re-establish the glory and dignity of a united and sovereign Israel.  You know, the sort of thing that would get you killed, especially if you said it around Jerusalem, especially at the time of Passover.

“This is the moment in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is leaving Jericho to go to Jerusalem.  Passover is near.  This is the very last story before the sequence of events we call the Passion of Jesus begins.  Mark ends this story by telling us that Bartimaeus followed Jesus “on the way,” that is, the Way of the Cross.  He didn’t have to.  Jesus had already healed him and even told him to “go.”  But Bartimaeus stayed with Jesus, abandoning the cloak that was probably his only possession, his only protection from the elements.  His cloak was not physically preventing him from meeting Jesus, being healed, and following him, but the symbolism is obvious: he is leaving behind his old way of life, trusting Jesus and not an object of comfort and safety, responding to Jesus’s unconditional love with unconditional discipleship.”[1]

All of this makes me wonder what I am not seeing.  It makes me wonder if I am seeing Jesus clearly, if my discipleship is unconditional.  Am I being watchful and observant, or am I just looking around?  What’s making me blind to the Lord?

So, I did not win 1.5 billion dollars this week.  I did buy a ticket – 2 of those 1.5 billion dollars came from me – and I did my share of thinking of all the good things I could do with that kind of money.  If I did win, there would be a lot of happy churches, that’s for sure, and I certainly wouldn’t ever have to worry about where my next meal is coming from.

But on Tuesday afternoon it struck me that 1.5 billion dollars would ruin everything.  No dynamic in my life would ever be normal, no relationship unchallenged; my ministry to Bordentown would be based on money, not relationship.  I would have ended up with a 1.5 billion dollar cloak that I could likely never leave behind to follow Jesus on His way.

I had failed to observe, to observe and watch over what and who I really love.  That realization opened my eyes, if you’ll excuse the terrible cliché, to see Jesus more clearly, to watch more closely for where He is leading us.  It seems that you can observe a lot just by watching.  What are you watching for?


[1] Fr. Bret Hays

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