Sunday, June 26, 2011

Prophet’s Reward

audio link

SJF • Proper 8a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.+

I cannot hear that short reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah without picturing him with a wry smile. Jeremiah is, of all of the Old Testament prophets, the prime example of doom and gloom. He even has a separate book of the Old Testament dedicated to his Lamentations — the lamentations he delivered when his prophecies of doom and gloom came true.

In this brief passage, Jeremiah notes that the prophets who came before him — as far back as ancient times (which means ancient to him, which means really ancient to us — prophesied war, famine, and pestilence — much as he does himself. But, he seems to be saying, if a prophet predicts peace, and peace comes, then you’ve really got a prophet sent by the Lord.

He appears to be acknowledging, perhaps as I say with a slightly cynical smile, that given the state of the world it is fairly easy to prophesy war, famine, and pestilence; as these are more or less the normal state of affairs somewhere in the world at any given time — or if not, surely soon to happen somewhere or other.

A social scientist and historian once noted that in the entire documented history of the world there has only been a period of a few dozen years when there hasn’t been a war going on somewhere on our planet. Peace and war seem to be like an elusive balloon — squeeze it in here and it will pop out there. So prophesying war is almost a sure thing — there’s bound to be one somewhere sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later. You can hardly go wrong!

But for a prophet to promise the coming of peace — that’s a much riskier enterprise, as it so very rarely happens. How long ago is it now that President Bush proudly proclaimed a “mission accomplished”? And yet how many additional conflicts have we become involved in since — Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Libya? Some of you here may be old enough to remember what they called “the domino effect” in the wars in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Well it sure looks like somebody’s unpacked the dominoes again and set up a card table out on the stretch all the way from Morocco Boulevard to Subcontinent of India Avenue. If, as Paul says, the wages of sin is death, there are plenty of people are working overtime, and getting a bonus into the bargain!

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Jesus, as is so often the case, turns the tables on this warring world. When he speaks of the prophets, it is not their message, whether of peace or of war, that is the focus of his attention, but rather on how that prophet is received and treated. When it comes to hospitality Jesus focuses on the host rather than the guest. Jesus has told his disciples, when he sent them out, to proclaim peace to those to whom they came. What is important is how the host received that greeting of peace.

I noted on Pentecost that “Peace be with you” is the standard way of saying hello in the Middle East — and the proper response is, And with you be peace. So the hosts whom the disciples greet will be judged on the basis of how generous their welcome has been. Do they return that blessing of peace, or not?

Jesus assures his disciples that whoever welcomes them, when they come bringing (after all) the good news of the peaceable Kingdom of God, are in fact welcoming him — and whoever welcomes him will receive the grace and blessing that comes with the presence of God: the true peace that surpasses understanding. “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” Even a cup of cold water given to a disciple in the name of the disciple, will be rewarded out of all proportion to the simplicity of that gift.

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It is, of course, relatively easy to welcome the prophet who brings a promise of peace and good tidings. It is much harder to welcome the one who comes bringing bad news. Jeremiah himself learned that lesson when he got himself thrown into a cistern for having brought bad news to the king. No prophet’s reward for him — or for the king!

Nobody likes bad news. How many people avoid going to the doctor to see to that nagging cough, or that sore that won’t heal, or that abdominal pain — not because they don’t want to be healed but because they don’t want to find out that what they’ve got might be serious — and by delay end up making their condition even more serious.

And just as people will avoid the doctor and hearing his diagnosis, so too people will avoid the prophet and his truthful warnings; For there are maladies of the soul as well as of the body: that sin can eat away at one’s soul like a cancer, or clog up the arteries of one’s spiritual heart until it grows cold and unloving, and stops. And in their folly, some will turn such a prophet away, and refuse to welcome the words of the Good Physician himself, and all of his associates and assistants, who come to warn of the spiritual dangers that lie in our paths, if we allow ourselves to continue oblivious to them.

For the peace that God brings us through such ambassadors is not simply the comfy peace of oblivion, but the attentive active peace of engagement with the Shalom of God. For “Shalom” does not just mean “peace” but completion, wholeness, and integrity. Who would not want to return such a promise with more than a warm welcome or a cup of cold water? God, through the many messengers God has sent and continues to send, offers us this transcendent peace, this completion and wholeness and rest, the removal of the obstacles. Let us embrace it, for of this we can be sure: when a messenger of God, be it a prophet or a disciple, wishes us peace and promises us peace in God’s name, it lies in our hands to receive that peace, and to join in the proclamation as we too become messengers and disciples in the name of God, and of God’s Shalom. God promises us grace, and that’s good enough for me.+

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Watch and Listen

SJF • Trinity 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...”+

We come today to Trinity Sunday, the day on which we are invited to think about who God is rather than what God has done — although with that wonderful reading of the story of creation from Genesis still in our ears, there is ample opportunity to reflect upon what God has done!

Thinking about the Trinity is something that theologians just can’t seem to get enough of. They also often don’t know when to stop! There are distinct dangers in trying too hard to understand what is beyond our comprehension. It’s especially hard if one has a curious and inquiring mind.

I learned the danger in that as a child of six when I tried to dismantle my mother’s wristwatch — all that exercise got me was a hopelessly damaged watch, and going to bed without supper and with a sore behind and, and an earnest talk from my father trying to explain — in terms that my child’s mind could understand — how much more valuable my mother’s Hamilton wristwatch was than even all of my toys put together. Strange to say, after all that, I still became a theologian!

But maybe it was because of that. Perhaps it was my father’s willingness to offer an explanation that did it. And surely it is good on this day which is Father’s Day as well as Trinity Sunday, for me to remember and give thanks for my own father, God rest him. For even though he gave me a good shellacking after my misdeed with the watch, he also took the time to explain what that watch was worth in terms I could understand. He didn’t teach me anything about its mechanism — which I as a child had vainly sought by taking it apart. But he did teach me about its value — and surely that is what a good theologian is called to do, especially when it comes to the Trinity.

As my father sat on the edge of my bed while I pouted under the covers, he held up one of my toys, a wind-up tank, and said, “Toby, do you understand that your mother’s watch cost more than a hundred of these?” I was awe-struck. A hundred tanks! What an armored division that would make! All the toy soldiers in my plastic army would not be able to stand up against such an assault! And it slowly dawned on me, How awesome is the value of that tiny wristwatch. I did not learn how the wristwatch worked, but how valuable it was.

My father took the time to explain the value of that watch in terms I could understand and in the form of a metaphor — a parable, if you will. My father taught me how to teach.

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And I pass along this teaching. God is not to be taken apart in the vain search to understand how God works. Rather God is someone to be supremely valued — valued as worth more than all creation. Even after we have taken in all of creation, in awesome wonder, our final word should be, How great thou art!

God is to be supremely valued, and loved — and listened to. God is, after all, more like my father than like my mother’s watch. Not only did I learn more from my father than from the watch, but my father showed his love for me — even though at the time the discipline was painful! — especially in taking the time to teach and help me to see where I had gone wrong. God is not to be dismantled, but to be listened to — and listened for.

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Author James Hamilton tells a story that resonates with my own childhood. In the suburb where I grew up some people still didn’t have refrigerators. Many had moved to Baltimore from the mountains of West Virginia to get jobs in the post-war boom, and they brought their iceboxes with them. The iceman would still come down the alley behind our houses with his horse-drawn ice-wagon, selling slabs of ice just the right size to slide into the compartment of the icebox — do any of you here still call your refrigerator an “icebox?” My father always did — in spite of the fact that he worked his way through night-school — studying to become a school-teacher — in the appliance department at Sears! So even though we had a Kenmore in the kitchen, it was always the “icebox” in our house.

The ice in the wagon came from the icehouse, where it was made and stored. Our neighborhood icehouse made the ice with a compressor, but back in the old days they would harvest it in the winter from the frozen river near which it stood. The slabs of ice would be covered with canvas and sawdust until it was time to deliver them. The long, low icehouse had no windows, and the thick door sealed shut to keep the coolness in. The ice would be secure there behind those well-insulated walls.

Well, one midsummer day, one of the workers in the icehouse discovered he’d lost his pocket-watch. It had been left to him by his father, and he was really upset to lose it. He searched up and down, pushing the sawdust with the big broom they used, but with no luck. The other guys helped him, but they couldn’t find the watch; and then they began to wonder if maybe he hadn’t lost it somewhere else.

Kids such as myself used to hang around the icehouse, especially in the hot, humid Baltimore summer, because when the men loaded the ice on the wagons with the big, scary metal pincers, occasionally a block would drop and shatter, and the kids would scramble for the sliding shards of ice, to rub on their forehead or the back of the neck, or to let the cool water drip over their heads. (I could use one right now!)

One of the kids was watching and listening to the men looking for the missing watch, and when they went off on their lunch break, shaking their heads and shrugging, he snuck into the icehouse, and closed the door behind him.

The dim light bulbs were spaced far apart, and even with them on there wasn’t much light; all to keep the ice from melting. The air was cool and he could see his breath, the first time he’d seen it in six months. And it was very, very quiet. The thick walls and sealed out all the heat and all the sound. He looked around at the stacked-up blocks of ice, like building stones mortared with sawdust, covered with canvas shrouds. He imagined he was inside the Great Pyramid, a silent, ancient tomb.

He saw a flat spot in the sawdust about his size, went over to it, and laid himself down; he folded his hands across his chest and closed his eyes thinking about Boris Karloff in The Mummy and keeping very, very still. And in that stillness, he could hear the sounds that ice makes as it gently creaks, and the drip-drip-drip of the water as it slowly melts off. But soon he began to hear another sound. Tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick tick-tick.

And after a few moments of careful listening, he got up and walked across the sawdust to right where the watch had fallen, stuck half under the edge of a slab of ice, wedged tight in a fold of the canvas and covered with sawdust. All of the men’s searching and sweeping had only pushed it deeper. And when he emerged into the bright summer afternoon, even though squinting against the sun, he greeted the astonished iceman with the watch he thought he’d never see again. And as a reward he broke him off a nice fresh corner of a slab of ice, just for him, pure sweet cooling ice that had never touched the ground.

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If God is like a watch — he’s more like that one. We won’t find God by sweeping up a sawdust storm of theological speculation. As the Psalmist says, I will still my soul and make it quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast; or, as I will add, this Father’s Day, like a child in its father’s arms. God is holding us close, and loves us dearly, this unsearchable and sublimely valuable God of ours, and all we need do is listen — listen — and we will hear the beat of the heart of the One-in-Three who called the whole world into being. Listen! Upon that breast, and in those loving arms, we are carried day by day, by this loving God whom we know by Name as the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.+

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Peace - Spirit - Mission

SJF • Pentecost A • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Let me begin with one last, ‘Happy Easter!’ — because today, the feast of Pentecost, is the last day of Easter season, the fiftieth day that adds one to the seven times seven of days since Easter Day. This is the day that puts the exclamation point at the end of our Alleluia! For this is the day on which God’s Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples to empower them for the great mission of the church. This is the day that transformed a withdrawn group of believers into a force that would change the world as much as they themselves had been changed.

We heard the account of what happened on that day in our first reading this morning: the signs and wonders of tongues untied in a torrent of praise to God in as many languages as they could possibly give praise. We heard of the bewilderment of that crowd of pilgrims in Jerusalem, and their amazement, as their ears were opened as effectively as were the mouths of the apostles, so that they could receive the good news.

This morning, however, I’d like to back up a bit from the Pentecost event itself, and focus on the prelude we find in John’s Gospel. In this incident, Jesus Christ lays the foundation for what is to come. In this encounter, he gives the preview of coming attractions for the feature that is rated PG: Praise God!

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John sets the scene: it’s Sunday evening, the first day of the week — and we know how important first days of the week, Sundays, are in the history of God’s work in the world! The fearful disciples are locked behind closed doors. Suddenly, Jesus is among them. And he first thing he says is, “Peace be with you” — the standard way of saying “Hello” in the Middle East for thousands of years. Whether you say ‘Shalom aleichem’ or ‘As-salaam alaikum’ this is how you greet people in the Holy Land: ‘Peace be with you.’ Isn’t it ironic that ‘Peace be with you’ should be the norm in a part of the world that hasn’t known more than a few years of peace at a time for thousands of years! But then again, maybe it makes even more sense, the same kind of sense that led Jesus to speak those words to the frightened disciples — as if to say, “Don’t be afraid... Yes we live in terrible times; there is a lot to fear, but I am here to bring you peace. I am on your side; your friend not your foe. Peace be with you!”

So it is that God speaks to us today through the church. Even in the midst of turmoil and struggle, still the church is the place of God’s peace; which is not simply the absence of conflict but the presence of God’s overarching rule and justice. God’s peace — that is what Jesus speaks to the disciples, and speaks to us today and every day: Peace be with you; not peace as the world gives, but as God gives.

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Next Jesus shows them his hands and his side: to certify by these tokens who it is that stands before them. And though we might think it odd of him to show his wounds as a sign of peace, surely this is proper: for these are the very wounds, the ones which could not prevail against him. The nails and the spear did not bring about his eternal death, only that time of a few short days, and then through the power of Almighty God he overcame death and the grave, and the wounds are now trophies of his victory over death, as if to say, ‘Even these couldn’t keep me down.’

So it is that the church, which is the wounded body of Christ, is still here. Our church, Saint James, is a physical symbol of this: we may have some bad patches in our ceiling up there around the roof-line, and cracks in some of our windows, but the power of death cannot prevail against us, it cannot keep us down. In the power of God we will prevail and remain to witness to his grace and loving-kindness to us and to all who believe.

We know that as people we have suffered as well, and yet been restored. We have been tested and tried, but have never, though, been forsaken by the one whose promises are sure. So there is cause to rejoice, as the disciples do when Jesus comes among them, certified by the very wounds by which the powers of this world afflicted him, yet standing there among them, alive.

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And breathing! For then comes the crucial moment, the moment when Jesus breathes upon the disciples. In this he foreshadows the coming of the Holy Spirit that will equip them to carry out his command: ‘As the Father has sent me, so I now send you.’ Remember: this is, as I said, the first day of the week — and Jesus, as he breathes upon the disciples, is pouring out that same Spirit of God that hovered over the waters on that first Sunday, the first day of creation. For this is the new creation, the creation not of the world but of the church that will be sent on its mission to the world. Jesus is preparing them for the great sending, the great mission of the church, the reason the church exists as his body on earth, to be sent to do the work of God just as he himself had been sent to do God’s work.

And for this work the Spirit is essential. There can be no mission of God without the Spirit of God: if you take the Spirit out of the church it will cease to be the church. Without the breath of God filling the church, it is like a balloon without any air in it, just a little scrap of rubber than lays there.

Sad to say, the church has sometimes been more like that scrap of rubber just laying there than a Spirit-filled ambassador of God. As I mentioned a few weeks back, among great disasters of the so-called missionary era of the nineteenth century was that the Gospel of God’s love was transmitted through a church that was not only intolerant but prideful, and sometimes hateful. The European missionaries too often made the mistake of thinking that anything European was superior to anything they found wherever they went. Here in America native children were beaten and punished for speaking the language of their parents; artifacts were destroyed and cultures ravaged. Yes, people became Christians, but many of them, too many of them, came to understand the church not as a place of love and charity, but as a place of strictness and judgment, of narrowness, a place not of peace, but of wrath. That message was delivered in so many places in the world: that the way to be a good Christian is to be intolerant and judgmental of anyone who thinks or speaks or acts differently. And we live with the results of that missionary message to this day.

How different from the missionary effort begun on Pentecost. The apostles did not tell those to whom they spoke, ‘You must speak our language if you are to be saved’ — on the contrary it was they who were filled with the power of the Spirit so that they spoke all those different languages themselves, so that the word might be spread to all hearers.

There is an urgent need to recover that missionary message by which England itself was brought into the Christian fold. When Saint Gregory the Great sent the monk Augustine to Canterbury, he gave him specific instructions to respect the people of England who, even though they were pagans, were created in God’s image. What’s more, Gregory told him not to destroy the pagan temples and shrines, but to use them as places for Christian worship, so that the people who were accustomed to worshiping their gods in those places might be gradually become accustomed to worshiping the true God.

The church is challenged today to exercise its mission in this way. Not imposing its view upon an unwilling world, but welcoming that world to the great feast. The church’s message is proclaimed most clearly by means of the church’s own being and substance, in the life the church as it lives in its many members, each equipped with spiritual gifts through the one Spirit of God. By this, Jesus assures us, the world will know that we are his disciples, if we have love for one another. How we act is as important as what we say, whatever language we may speak; perhaps even more so: the church is the message of love for the world, the world that God loved so much that he gave his only son not to condemn it, and it is by showing that love to the world that we lead the world to God, who is Love. The church is called and empowered to deliver and to be a message of tolerance, grace, hope and restoration in the midst of a world filled with intolerance, fear, division and despair.

The church itself is called to be a sign of God’s presence; it is the Body of Christ, wounded and yet risen and alive. It is filled with the breath of God’s Spirit to sing and to shout out the good news to the ends of the earth, and above all to proclaim God’s peace to the nations of the world.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we are that church: let us be that church, let us be that message, that mission. Let us rejoice in the presence of God with us, and spread the word to all whom we encounter: Shalom aleichem! As-salaam alaikum! Peace be with you! Alleluia, He is risen! Now and unto the end of the ages, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Monday, June 06, 2011

Witness Protection Plan

Dare we think that Jesus' prayer his disciples would be protected in the Divine Name was unanswered? A sermon for Easter 7a 2011

SJF • Easter 7a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus prayer to his Father, “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

If you’ve watched any films or TV shows about modern crime dramas, you will be familiar with what is called the “witness protection plan.” It is no surprise that witnesses willing to testify against crime, particularly organized crime, put themselves and their families in danger by their willingness to come forward. Although the crime-boss may be in jail awaiting trial, there are plenty of henchmen out and about willing to see to it that the testimony is not delivered. And the vendetta may not stop with the conviction: even after the criminal is found guilty and sentenced, and put safely away in prison, the powerful urge for revenge against one who “turned state’s evidence” or merely told the truth will put the life of the witness in permanent danger of revenge.

So it is that police and state and federal investigators have taken special care of such witnesses — whether they are criminals who have turned on their former colleagues in crime, or virtuous citizens merely doing their duty in spite of the danger. The authorities have developed witness protection plans to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of these witnesses, both before and after they have given their testimony. Some such plans give the witnesses and their families whole new identities, a fresh start with a new name in a new city or a new state, far from the vengeful tentacles of organized crime, or the retribution of a fallen criminal.

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Last Thursday was Ascension Day, and this morning we heard Luke’s account of the events of that day from the opening chapter of his record of the Acts of the Apostles. Since Jesus is about to depart into heaven, the passage begins with the apostles’ understandable question about whether or not it is now the time for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. And Jesus tells them that it is not for them to know the time for such things. (And I note in passing that since we are all still here, and the Rapture didn’t happen on the Saturday before last, it was not for Rev. Harold Camping to know the time for such things either! Of course, now he says it will be in December; but in the inimitable words of our former President, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, well, you just can’t fool me twice!)

Jesus does tell his followers two things: first, they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and secondly, they will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

I spoke last week about just how far the Apostles carried that message, as witnesses of Christ. What I didn’t mention was the fact that this cost most of them their lives in that process. In this church’s large stained-glass rose window, there on the west end behind you, the outer circle shows 12 roundels with the emblems of the 12 Apostles — and in seven out of ten the emblems reveal the means by which the Apostles died! In case you ever wondered why we have a stained-glass window portraying clubs, saws, spears, hatchets or knives, that’s why.

Clearly, the Apostles were witnesses in need of a witness protection plan! And you might at first be tempted to observe that whatever it was, it didn’t provide much protection! Not only the Apostles, but many of the Christians who heard and heeded their preaching and accepted their testimony, suffered persecution in those early days of the church’s life, and the persecution have continued still, even to this day. Peter himself, represented in our window at about four o’clock with a set of crossed keys, ended his life crucified upside-down. He wrote to the believers in his care concerning the“fiery ordeal that is taking place among you,” to assure them that there is nothing strange in this. Jesus had already warned that those who spread the Gospel would not always be welcomed with open arms, and that persecution lay before them. Peter acknowledged this, this sharing in Christ’s sufferings, persecution experienced not only by those to whom he wrote, but, as he assured them, the common experience of their brothers and sisters in all the world who were undergoing the same kinds of suffering.

Such was the fate of many who witnessed to the Gospel. So what happened to that witness protection plan? What happened to the prayer that Jesus offered to his Father, “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Dare we think that Jesus’ prayer would go unanswered. Dare we think that God would abandon his faithful witnesses to the prowling devil seeking someone to devour?

God forbid we should think such a thing! Nor should we think such a thing if we rightly remember that Jesus never promised his disciples, as the old song says, “a rose garden.” Their life in ministry would you not be a bed of roses, but a path of suffering and martyrdom. They would be reviled and tested and suffer, just as their leader, Christ himself, was reviled and tested and suffered. As Peter puts it, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God, is resting on you.”

It was not from temporal suffering that Jesus prayed to protect his witnesses — on the contrary their proclamation as witnesses would definitely bring them temporal pain and suffering. That wasn’t a threat, it was a promise! What Jesus prayed to protect his witnesses from was not temporal suffering but eternal death. His prayer was to protect them from the evil one who destroys both body and soul in hell, to protect them from the devil, who Peter told them “prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” —
— and it is the armor of faith that would protect them from the devouring power of eternal death and hell.

The Spirit of God, whose descent upon the Apostles we will celebrate next Sunday on Pentecost, was a witness protection plan that would save them, not from suffering but to eternal life: to the unity of God himself, the Son with the Father, that they might be one as God is one. And it’s a good reminder for us that at the center of that rose window is the symbol of God the One-in-Three. This witness protection plan would change them, not just in their names, but in their very selves — and they would be given new lives in a new country where they would be free finally and at last from sufferings, all the sufferings they had undergone, and most importantly from the ultimate suffering of eternal death.

This is the protection, that all of God’s faithful witnesses are promised. As we witness to the work of God in us, as we do the work that God has committed to our care, we will not always find favor with the world — in fact we will rarely find favor with the world! We will be thought mad for not heaping up wealth for our own pleasure and comfort; we will be thought mad for sharing with the poor and the needy, for giving food to the hungry, and for bearing with the abuse of those for whom power is the only sign of their worth. Truly they have received their reward.

But our hope is for a better and more lasting reward, a better and more eternal salvation, in the unity of the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Those who remain faithful in their witness to the Gospel will be protected through the fiery ordeal of this world, and then restored, supported, strengthened and established as God’s own for ever. To God the Father be the glory, in the power of the Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+