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March 12, 2017, 12:00 AM

Guard Your Ears

by Sandy Bach

12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.(Genesis 12:1-4 NRSV)

She’s hopelessly barren. The fact slips into their lives after years of trying to have a child. And now a long and prosperous family tree comes to a sudden and abrupt end.

One of the most difficult things for a woman to accept is her inability to bear children. I’ve counseled several and I personally know their pain and heartache. People don’t understand. Sometimes they’re mean, bragging about their ability to get pregnant and how rough their labor was.  Every baby you see is a stab in your heart. Baby showers are torture; you find excuses to avoid them.

On Mother’s Day you get patronized with statements like, “You’re a mother to all these children in our congregation.” Or “You’re a good woman; it’s not your fault you can’t carry a child.” And you wonder: do they really care or do they want to feel less guilty about their joy over motherhood?

Sarai tries to hold back her tears. Sometimes, it’s all she can do to keep from feeling jealous and angry. It hurts deep down and just when she thinks she has it under control, another reminder comes up and she returns to that tunnel of grief.

In her day, they don't know the science behind it.  Therefore, Sarai is a failure. It’s her fault. God has closed up her womb, probably as punishment for something she’s done.  Abram will have no sons to carry on his name. He’ll be forgotten without children to remember him and share his stories. His immortality is in his children.

In the Bible, barrenness means hopelessness.

God steps in to this heart-wrenching picture with a unique call to Abram and Sarai to move. Isn’t it enough that she won’t bear Abram a family of their own? Now they’re to leave their extended family, their home, even their country to journey to God only knows where.

They live in Haran, the “City of Crossroads.” And at the dead end of life, God offers them a laughable proposition: leave everything you value behind. Travel to a yet-to-be-revealed destination where God will bless them and make of them a great nation.

A what?

Did you say “great nation?”

Is this a joke? Are you trying to rub salt in the wound on purpose? That’s impossible. We’re barren, God. Remember?

But, God has a plan. It’s a long-range plan to build a nation starting with an elderly couple unable to have children. The future of Israel rests with God, who will build trust doing the impossible.

We could ask why did Abram go? Did he give it much thought? How much faith did he have in God?

We don’t have those answers. We could fill in those blanks with suppositions, but in truth, the text doesn’t care. What matters in this story is not what and who Abram and Sarai are, but what and who they will be.

In this season of Lent, we’re journeying to the cross in a series entitled, “Life’s Continuing Journey.” Last week we met up with Adam and Eve and rediscovered our inability to set temptation aside. We need a savior and we need him now.  Today and in the next few weeks we’ll see that God has a plan.

But, right now, Abram and Sarai need a savior. God has a plan. But, for us to see God and only God at work, God chooses the impossible in order to build trust with God’s people. After all, “nothing is impossible with God.”

Listen to God’s words:
I will make you a great nation
I will bless you so that you will be a blessing
I will bless those who bless you
I will curse those who curse you

This mission is all about God. God is leading this journey and God will provide what is needed.

What crossroads have you met in your life? What crossroads are you encountering today?

Abram and Sarai leave all that’s important to them behind. At a crossroads in their life, they choose new beginnings; new life with new promises.

I serve two blended congregations who are journeying to federation.  This text speaks to me about our journey to something new.  Two congregations are leaving the comfortable and the familiar to take a leap of faith to journey to new beginnings; new life with new promises.

When my husband and I set our wedding date, we selected Saturday, October 12: Columbus Day. I was teaching at the time, and one of my fellow teachers loved to tease me about it. “You’re getting married on Columbus Day? Really? What do we know about Columbus? He started out not knowing where he was going. He didn’t know how to get there. And when he arrived he didn’t know where he was! What kind of date is that for a wedding?”

Actually, it sounded like a pretty good date to me. Very few of our own plans worked out, but our life together hasn't been dull.

I wonder if that’s how you feel? Not knowing where you’re going. Not knowing how to get there. And wondering what you’ll look like when you arrive?

Perhaps we can learn from Abram and Sarai. They moved slowly, listening to the crunching sound of the wheels of the cart moving across a rocky desert floor; the dry, arid wind; new surroundings; new everything. Setting up camp, perhaps staying for a period of time before moving on.

The journey itself was as important as the destination. A time to grieve the loss of what they’d left behind; to come to terms with the so-called failures they’d experienced; to learn to trust God who was leading them to a new life; time to see their faith at work.

At the end of their lives I hope they could look back to see how God had been at work in their lives. They were a couple with very little to offer. She was barren. They were elderly. They learned that God didn’t need youth and vigor and fertility. God transcended that and did his best work with two people past their prime. God gave them new names: Abram, exalted ancestor, became Abraham, ancestor of a multitude.  Sarai, the one who was a mockery, became Sarah, princess.

Make no mistake about this: God would be the one to overcome; God would exercise God’s powers to make this plan a reality.

They left a lot behind: their identity as members of a family and community; their wealth; their security and protection. It was a costly demand, but they went anyway. God led and they flourished beyond their wildest dreams.

As you journey to the cross, what do you need to give up or take on?

What security and protection do you cling to, while God waits for you to reach out to Him?

What blessings are waiting for you?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 5, 2017, 12:00 AM

Watch Your Step

by Sandy Bach

 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,[a] knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7)

My mother had a knack for making the most amazing pies. Her apple pies were the best: flaky crust, fresh apples, cinnamon and sugar. I can taste it now.

Her cakes were okay, but nothing to write home about. Except for her browned coconut frosting. I believe it was brown sugar she mixed with the coconut and then placed under the broiler for a short time. I loved that frosting. I loved it way too much.

One Saturday morning, my parents and brother slept in while I played quietly in my bedroom. I was feeling a bit hungry, so I slipped into the kitchen to find something to eat. There it stood under the wax paper cover: that cake with the browned coconut frosting. I tried a bit of the frosting and then a bit more.

For the next hour, I moved between my bedroom and the kitchen gradually scraping the frosting off the cake. It was sublime! Eventually, though, I knew I would have to face up to my family about the cake that had lost its frosting. No matter, I would deal with that later.

Eventually my family awoke and we gathered at the kitchen table for breakfast. I thought perhaps I’d gotten away with it, until my father asked the question.

“Sandy, any idea what happened to the cake?”

“No.”

“It has no frosting on it. Do you have any idea how that happened?”

And that’s when I came up with the most remarkable, brilliant answer ever.

“Must be ants.”

It didn’t work.

Don’t you wonder, at times, what’s wrong with people? Why did I have to eat the frosting? Why did I have to eat all the frosting? Why did that driver get so angry? Why did Adam and Eve reach out to taste that fruit?

What’s wrong with people?

Did God ask too much? God put Adam in this dainty garden of delight and luxury. He was to till and keep it. That means he was to serve and keep and preserve the garden.

In return, God gave Adam free reign over all the trees in the garden, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam had freedom with boundaries and he had a job.

God provided animals and permitted Adam to name them. Then God created his helpmate, woman. And Adam was delighted. Together they would preserve and keep this beautiful garden.

But there it sat day after day. Beautiful to look at; a delight to the eye; the fruit good for food. It stood there in the center of the garden, majestic in its beauty. Wherever Adam and Eve went, there it was. Standing almost arrogantly, as if to say, “You can’t have me.”

Soon it became something to contend with. Why wouldn’t God permit them to eat of it? Enter the serpent, the craftiest of God’s created animals. He poses a question that he well knows the answer to.

“So, you can’t eat of the fruit of any of these trees, right?”

“No,” she responds. “We can eat of everything. Just not that big one in the middle of the garden. It’s off limits.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We can’t eat of it, or touch it, for that matter. If we do, we’ll die.”

“No, you won’t. You won’t die. God knows better. In fact, if you do eat of it, your eyes will be opened. You’ll see life as you’ve never known it. You’ll know good and evil.”

That’s all it took. A nudge here, a wink there, a few well-phrased words and they’re justified.

We’ve been there. Rationalizing a bad decision; standing naked with shame from an act made in the heat of the moment; listening to those inner or exterior voices that help us rationalize and justify our actions.

Our job is to serve and protect this garden we call earth. But we can’t keep our eyes off that tree. We know we must care for God’s creation even as we sign into law actions that inevitably hurt ourselves and others and the planet. We trust God and God’s provision until we can’t. We yearn for security and turn on those who don’t look like us. And then we turn them into the cause of our insecurity.

We justify ourselves: we need these natural resources or we won’t survive. Those who suffer for those actions will just have to deal with it.

“Those people” are sending terrorists or drugs to our land. And that justifies our treating all of them inhumanely.

That serpent is crafty, indeed. God ahead and eat that fruit – it’s good for you. It’s the healthy and right thing to do. Even though God said not to touch it.

Jesus faced the ultimate in temptations in the wilderness. He was tempted by hunger. He was tempted to save himself from danger. He was tempted to take over all the power in the world. (Maryetta Anschutz “Feasting on the Word: Pastoral Perspective” Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Pres, 2010) page 46

Generation after generation fails just as Adam and Eve did. “[We] …fall hopelessly and irreversibly into the power and habits of sin." (Walter Brueggemann “An Introduction to the Old Testament” (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2003) Page 37)

And we stand naked and ashamed, trying to cover ourselves up.

We need a savior and we need him badly. Fortunately for us God has a plan and we’ll search out that plan during this Lenten Season.

God not only has a plan, God provides. The good news in this text comes beyond our reading for today. After God confronts them with their failure to listen; after the consequences are explained; before they heard the slam of the gate and saw the cherubim standing guard, God made them decent garments of skins; God covered their nakedness.

This couple who gave up everything in a moment of temptation will enter life as we know it today. Joy and tears; birth and death; hard work and pain; but always God’s provision.

We can’t help ourselves. Thanks be to God we don’t need to go it alone. In this journey to the cross, let’s learn about God’s activity in the world to bring ultimate salvation.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




March 3, 2017, 10:06 AM

Who is Jesus?

by Sandy Bach

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9 NRSV)

We have names that describe him enormous terms:
Wonderful counselor
Almighty
Glorious
Messiah
Immanuel
Son of David
Son of Abraham
Everlasting
God’s beloved Son
Healer of disease and paralysis and sickness and demons and even nature’s assaults.
He is gentle and courageous
He speaks his mind

We can go on for a lot longer; I’m sure you’ve already begun adding your own descriptors to this list. We call him Jesus, God with us. The One who came to earth to walk among us and show us what’s important.

Yet, these titles barely begin to describe who he is.

We call him the “Jesus of history.” He is fully divine; he is fully human. And it’s in this moment of the transfiguration, that we see the two so clearly.

We see Jesus Christ: the Jesus of history. He was born and raised in a small outback village. He spent his final years as an itinerant preacher in Galilee, Samaria and Judea. He preached and taught with authority. He met people where they were and helped them find new life. He showed us how to live and how to live out our Christian experience. He was tried and convicted and executed. He was buried.

He is also the Christ of faith. This is the anointed One who had control and authority over disease and paralysis and sickness; even over nature. This is the Son of God whose birth was celebrated both on earth and in heaven.

Have you ever noticed how a person becomes a saint at their funeral? Often we gather with friends and family and the pieces of the loved one's life are shared.  And then we see that person more clearly.

Sometimes I thought of Uncle Ern as stodgy and narrow-minded.  But, I learned later that  when he inspected meat for the USDA, he graded the meat fairly and couldn’t be bribed. He spent his expense account on his vehicle, rather than as an addition to his salary.  He believed that he owed his to his employer to spend his mileage money on a sturdy vehicle that would carry him around the mountains of Washington Sate.  Stodgy?  Yes.  But, he left behind an example for other to follow.  I appreciate him more today than I did when he was alive.

While the disciples stand on that high mountain, they see their rabbi being himself: fully human, fully divine. When he is transfigured they see more than their brains can possibly process. They understand only a bit. They can only see in the mirror dimly. It’ll take that journey to Jerusalem; more teaching and healing and preaching; a trial with trumped up charges; death on the cross; and, finally, but most importantly, resurrection. Then they’ll see face to face.

Only then will they look back on that moment of transfiguration and see the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Peter would write about it towards the end of his own life.

Perhaps you read and study scripture through the lens of the Jesus of history; the man who lived and had his being on earth; the man who modeled life for us.

Perhaps you find greater meaning in the Christ of faith: the one with power and authority; who transfigured in the presence of a few close disciples; who speaks to you in prayer.

Look once more at this passage. A voice from the cloud speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” It wasn’t the sight of Jesus transfigured that sent them to their knees; nor was it the sight of Moses the lawmaker and Elijah the prophet; nor was it the cloud that covered them.

It was the voice. Overcome by fear they fell to the ground. What does Jesus do?  He doesn't chastise them or rebuke them.  Rather, he comes to them and touches them. Then tells them, “Come on. Get up. Be raised. No need to be afraid.”

He comes. He touches. He speaks.

Whether the Jesus of history or the Christ of faith, he comes to us and touches us and says, “it’s okay. Don’t fear. Be raised to this new life I’m offering you.”

Do not be afraid.

God touches us and calms our fears. Christ is glory and magnificence and power and mystery. Christ comes to us with love and gentleness. It’s more than we can grasp and understand, even 2,000 years later. I suggest that’s how the disciples felt that day on the mountain.

It’s more than we can grasp and understand. Yet, what we do grasp and understand is enough for now.

Who is Jesus Christ? He is Jesus of history. He is Christ of faith. Our words can only begin to describe him. And perhaps we can cling to Peter’s words spoken just a few days ago: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

With those words on our lips, let us proceed with caution and fear and awe into the Lenten season.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.




December 12, 2016, 12:00 AM

Celebrate Salvation

 

by Sandy Bach

"Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation." (Isaiah 12:2 NRSV)

Imagine a war-torn landscape.  Bombs have destroyed the city, leveling almost all of the homes and buildings.  At the center of it sits a church, miraculously still standing but in need of a roof.  The Christians gather to help those left behind.  They worship in each others' homes until they can afford to replace the roof.  It's dangerous to meet and worship God, but they do it anyway.

Somehow they manage to repair the roof and they're able to worship again in their church.  They could leave and move somewhere more hospitable.  But, they decide to remain.

Hope in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation in Syria.

In nearby Iraq, a church has taken in several families: about 70 men, women and children.  They help feed and clothe them and provide them with shelter.  Some of these refugees are Christian, some are Muslim.  The church is serving those who are hurt regardless of religious affiliation.  What's important to them is serving those in need.

Hope is found in the midst of hopelessness.

These Christians are light in the darkness of war and terrorism.

Perhaps they read this section of Isaiah in order to sustain their hope.

The exiled Jews in Babylon would understand hopeless situations.  They lost their homeland and they surely wonder if God is finished with them.  Living in a strange land with strange customs and multiple gods, they feel the hopelessness of their lot.

So Isaiah reminds them who they are and to whom they belong.  The first part of the passage is a personal message: God is my salvation.  God can be relied on.  God is strength and my might.  With joy I will draw strength from God.

But, Isaiah isn't finished.  He has a message for the community: to those in Babylon 2500 years ago and to you and me and people all over the world.  All of you will give thanks and call on God's name.  All of us can make God's mighty deeds known and we will proclaim that God's name is exalted.  Sing praises.  Even in the hard times, sing praises, because God is with us.

This scripture passage is a song.  It is a song that can be sung during both peaceful and traumatic events.  Rolf Jacobson of Luther Seminary suggests that Isaiah is helping the exiles find their faith by praising God.  But he warns us not to take the easy way out.  "Is it easier to say to a person who is struggling with their faith, 'You just have to believe,' Or is it easier to say, 'Let's pray.'"  (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2704)

The words they "sing" in this passage can be found in other parts of the Bible.  This is a reminder of the God to whom we belong and that this God is faithful.  By singing what is familiar, they find comfort and hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation.

We have our own familiar hymns:

"Bring peace, O Lord," we pray.  "O come, O come Immanuel," we sing.

"Carry me, Lord.  I haven't the strength to go it alone."  "Comfort, comfort, you my people," we sing.

When we can do nothing more but live in trauma, we sing or recite the 23rd Psalm.  "The Lord is my shepherd..."

These words from Isaiah are as important to us today as they've ever been to countless generations who come before us.  In Syria and Iraq; Paris and Mali and San Bernadino; in Ferguson, Baltimore or Charleston.  In times of terror and and times of fear and times of grief.

Will we allow these things to define us?  Will we put our trust in politicians and news media and uninformed people?  Or will we seek strength and comfort from God?  Will we huddle in fear and terror?  Or will we boldly state, "I WILL give thanks to you, O Lord!"  Can we live as if we truly believe that, "God is our salvation, our strength and our might."?

If so, then perhaps it's time to pause and sing:

"Give thanks to the Lord,
    call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be known in all the earth.
 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel."  (Isaish 12:4b-6)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

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December 11, 2016, 12:00 AM

Longing and Rejoicing

by Sandy Bach

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  (Isaiah 35:1-10 NRSV)

Two weeks ago, we re-tuned our listening skills. We wanted to hear hammers beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We listened carefully. I hope that you’ve heard the tapping, however faint it may have been.

Last week, we were challenged to adjust our vision: to look for signs of growth where all appears hopeless. We’re trying to see growth in a tree stump.

How have you managed to hear and see in new ways? Where have you discovered peace in the unexpected? Did you pause, if even for a moment, to watch a hopeful activity of green growth?

Today our text speaks to us poetically. I don’t think it could be stated any better. God’s creation comes alive in new ways: blooms and blossoms in dry deserts and wilderness places; Waters and springs sprout in the dry lands. A special highway for all of God’s people to journey. It provides for safe passage: no danger, no fear.

In this vision, the wilderness is no longer scary. It’s a place of joy and singing, revealing God’s majesty. A foretaste of the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time.

Perhaps you’re tired of waiting. Perhaps you’ve had enough of Presidential elections, immigration arguments, and war. Perhaps you’re worn out by family troubles. Maybe you’ve had enough of social justice issues.

At this time of year, it’s easier to feel these tensions more than any other time of year. While we sing “Joy to the World” we fail to see much joy. Sure, you say, our pastor tells us to listen and look more carefully. But, what of it? There’s still bad stuff going on. People are still angry and politicians are still arguing. I can’t turn the volume up any louder to drown out the sounds of anger and verbal abuse.

Isaiah offers a suggestion:

Energize the limp hands,
strengthen the rubbery knees.
Tell fearful souls,
“Courage! Take heart!
God is here, right here,
on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs.
He’s on his way! He’ll save you!” (Isaiah 35:3-4 The Message)

That’s our part in this relationship with God. Reaching out to those who can’t take care of themselves; to those who are too worn out, too scared, too discouraged, to know strength and comfort. Real strength and comfort.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure to join up with the Hospitality Committee in the congregation that I serve to visit those who can’t come to church. Those with a heart for visiting, meet up at the local McDonald’s. Someone has made some phone calls and we go out in twos to visit. It’s been a good way for me to get to know them. But, more than that, I’ve watched our folks visit, really visit with them.

They share news of the church; listen to what’s happening in their lives; talk about anything. The conversation isn’t forced: it’s comfortable and real. The members of this committee have a deacon’s heart and they’re using it to serve others.

What bugs you? What gifts do you have to offer that might be a part of the solution? What bothers you? What do you need to know about this issue?

Write it down. Pray about it. Talk to someone about it. Ask that teacher-friend about volunteering in the local school; join (or start) a discussion group on the topic of poverty; get involved in local politics; do something to strengthen others.

We live in “the meantime.” We live in the yet-not-yet, waiting for the journey on that Holy Highway to begin. So, while we wait, while we call out to our Lord, “Come, Lord Jesus”, while we sing “O Come, o come, Emmanuel,” we can serve God by serving others.

There are so many ministries that you are doing right now. Those ministries in the community are what we do because our heart drives us to use our skills and talents.

But, if you’re feeling like you want to do more or know more and be more, I encourage you to use this as your prayer during your journey to the manger. What do you want to tell this child, born in a stable and crucified on a cross?

Share it with him. Then listen and look around. You just might hear the tapping of hammer on metal; you just might see a tiny green shoot coming out of a dried up tree stump.

You may discover a new way to strengthen the limp hands and rubbery knees.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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