Sermon: Epiphany 4 RCL C – “Speaking in Love”

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

Triboulet was the court jester for King Louis the XII and Francis I. One day, as the king passed, Triboulet smacked him on the backside, which enraged the King. The King said that he would forgive him if he gave an even more clever response for his actions. Without missing a beat, Triboulet said, “I’m so sorry… I mistook you for the Queen!” When he was sentenced to death, the king allowed him to decide how he would die. Triboulet chose old age. Astonished, the king set him free.

An old proverb, “There’s a grain of truth in every joke” even if the King does look like his Queen. That said, no matter how the truth is spoken—jokingly or sincerely or in anger—it is not always appreciated, but that does not mean we stop speaking it. In writing to a friend, Flannery O’Connor (she was a devout Catholic) wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive.” (Source) But it is still the truth, therefore it should be spoken. This is what was happening in our Gospel reading today.

Jesus is speaking to the people of his hometown, Nazareth, but the people respond by essentially saying, “Who do you think you are? We’ve known you all our lives and you’re just a carpenter.” In response, Jesus does not perform any miracles for them, instead he speaks the truth to them by reminding them of two separate incidents in their history.

The first incident deals with the prophet Elijah. There had been a famine in the land and all the Israelites were suffering, but when Elijah demonstrated the love of God through a miracle, it was not an Israelite who profited. It was the “widow at Zarephath in Sidon” who was a gentile.

In the second incident, Jesus reminds them about the Hebrew prophet Elisha. An army commander was suffering from leprosy in the land, so he came to Elisha seeking to be healed. Elisha had pity on him and told him to bathe in the Jordan River seven times. The commander did and was healed. Who was this commander? Naaman the Syrian, another gentile.

In reminding the Israelites of Nazareth of these two events, Jesus is speaking the truth. He is saying that God the Father has many times sent to them those who could bring them into the saving knowledge of God, but that they did not listen or return to God, so instead of blessing the Israelites, God chose to bless the gentiles. Jesus is saying that God is about to do the same thing. “If all you want are miracles, then God will give the knowledge of salvation to the others—to the gentiles.” Did he tell them this just to make them mad? No. That was the outcome—they tried to throw him off a cliff—but Jesus was trying to force them into seeing the error of their ways and to repent. I don’t know of many who like to be corrected for the errors, but when Jesus revealed the truth to them, they found it repulsive.

This incident shows us that we must be prepared to speak the truth, but to also hear it for ourselves when we need to be corrected. How do we go about this?

Within the Christian faith and civilized society, there are rules of engagement. There are things such as Robert’s Rules of Order, but there are even greater underlying rules. St. Paul speaks of these greater rules in his letter to the Ephesians: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

“Speaking the truth in love.” It means being sincere and honest with one another, but before we can speak to one another in such a way, we must first mature as Christians and become a community that is founded in forgiveness and mercy. We must be those who see the love and image of God in the other. Why? I’ve seen way too many people who claim to be speaking the truth in love but use their opinion or version of the truth to browbeat those who disagree with them. The truth we are to speak has nothing to do with personal revelation or preferences. The truth is founded in Holy Scripture and revealed in love. If we are mature in our faith and are certain of our love and motives, then we should go to one another and speak openly and honestly; keeping in mind that, before we go off and speak to someone, we must also be prepared for someone to come and speak to us in the same manner, because it is certainly not about being the one who is always and insufferably right.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it like this: “Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another. It is inconceivable that things that are of utmost importance to each individual should not be spoken by one to another… The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not given help… This recognition [as sinners and God’s child] gives to our brotherly speech the freedom and candor that it needs. We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need.” (Life Together, p.105-6)

Will these kind of tough conversations always go the way you plan them and will they always have the results you were hoping for? Absolutely not, but as Bonhoeffer said, we have a Christian responsibility to one another. Will everyone walk away feeling happy and delighted with the conversation? Not a chance and even if both are firm in their Christian faith, there’s still the chance of someone being hurt. As I said earlier, no one enjoys being corrected. You might even find that the one you’re speaking to becomes angry, but if you have their trust, built up over time, and were truly speaking the truth in love, the other will likely come to understand that you were not accusing them, but were in fact… loving them.

What underpins both the giving and receiving of speaking to one another in such a way is humility. My friend, Thomas a Kempis writes, “Do not think yourself better than others. If there is good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble. Turn your attention upon yourself and beware of judging the deeds of other men, for in judging others a man labors vainly, often makes mistakes, and easily sins; whereas, in judging and taking stock of himself he does something that is always profitable.” In other words, speak the truth in love to yourself before you decide to do the same to another.

St. Peter in his first epistle tells us, “Love each other deeply from the heart.” It is in loving each other in this way that we are able to come alongside one another and speak those things that are sometimes difficult to hear. If done in faith and charity and humility, the result will not be a pushing apart, but a much deeper binding of us one to another and to Christ Jesus our Lord.

Let us pray: 

Lord, make us an instruments of your peace:
where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that we may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Sermon: Proper 15 RCL B – “Bread of Heaven, Part III”

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

A Rabbi was sitting next to an atheist on an airplane. Every few minutes, one of the Rabbi’s children or grandchildren would inquire about his needs for food, drink, or comfort. The atheist commented, “The respect your children and grandchildren show you is wonderful. Mine don’t show me that respect.” The Rabbi responded, “Think about it. To my children and grandchildren, I am one step closer in a chain of tradition to the time when God spoke to the whole Jewish people on Mount Sinai. To your children, you are one step closer to being an ape.”

When it comes to how we were created, whether you hold to the story of creation or the theory of evolution, it is still going to be a mystery. As the Psalmist states, “I praise [God] because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” and it all is a great mystery. Think about your breathing: maybe I’m just a bit on the weird side, but if I think about my breathing, about having to take a breath, then I find I have to keep thinking about it. It is like the automatic process stops, because I made it a conscious action rather than allowing it to remain a sub-conscious function. Speaking of our brains: our brains are able to process 11 million bits of information per second, of which only 40 to 50 can we be consciously aware. A lot happens in the background that we never give a thought to. Imagine if you had to make a conscious decisions to take every 22,000 breaths that a human averages every single day or the 100,000 times per day the heart beats… “beat, beat, beat, breathe, beat, beat…,” then Scarlett Johansson walks by “(fast) beat, beat, beat, beat, beat…. breathe.” I’m sure scientist can explain parts of it, but behind it all is a great mystery.

Today, we continue with the Bread of Heaven / Life discourse from John’s Gospel and in today’s verses we find some of the most difficult passages of Scripture (and I want to read this part for you again): Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” As we will read next week, this teaching was a show-stopper for many. Jesus goes too far. We’re not cannibals. We’re not vampires. And for the Jews, for meat to be kosher, there can be no blood. Jesus manages to offend everyone and he knows it, because he will ask, “Does this offend you?” I’ve no doubt that it still offends many today, but here is the truth: each Sunday when we partake of the Holy Eucharist, we truly receive the body and blood of Christ.

Over the years and still today, there are many who want to ease this teaching, to make it easier on the stomach, by stating that the bread and the wine are merely symbolic of the body and the blood, but it is our belief that this is an error. Why? Because Jesus did not say, “Take eat, this a symbol / representation of my body” or “Drink this wine (and he certainly didn’t use Welch’s!) Drink this wine and pretend it is my blood.” No. Jesus said, “This is my body… this is my blood.” Why? Because a symbol cannot bring you forgiveness of sins nor can a representation give you life eternal. If it is not the body and the blood, then we are simply participating in a charade. It is true, the consecrated bread and wine maintain their appearance, but through the Holy Spirit (at the epiclesis—when the priest holds his hands over the bread and the wine), they are no longer only bread and wine, but are transformed into the body and the blood.

We’ve discussed this before: Jesus told the disciples, at the institution of the Holy Eucharist on that first Maundy Thursday, to do these things “in remembrance of me.” That word remembrance is translated from the word anamnesis, which means to “make present.” “Take, eat: This is my Bod, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” “Do this for the anamnesis of me… do this and make me present.” Not a representation or a memorial of me, but a making present. A true and real presence.

The big question: how does this happen? How does the bread and the wine become the body and the blood? How were we created? How does the mind work? How can you regulate your breathing or beating of your heart? How can we know the depths of the sea or the heights of the heavens? The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is pretending you know all the answers.” How does the bread and the wine become the body and the blood? I don’t know. I only know that it does. How do I know that? Grace and faith. I’m going to let my friend Thomas à Kempis help me out here:

“God can do more than man can understand… Many have lost devotion because they wished to search into things beyond them. Faith is required of you, and a sincere life, not a lofty intellect nor a delving into the mysteries of God. If you neither know nor understand things beneath you, how can you comprehend what is above you? Submit yourself to God and humble reason to faith, and the light of understanding will be given you so far as it is good and necessary for you… Be not disturbed, dispute not in your mind, answer not the doubts sent by the devil, but believe the words of God, believe His saints and prophets and the evil enemy will flee from you…. Go forward, then, with sincere and unflinching faith, and with humble reverence approach this Sacrament. Whatever you cannot understand commit to the security of the all-powerful God, Who does not deceive you…. If all the works of God were such that human reason could easily grasp them, they would not be called wonderful or beyond the power of words to tell.” (TAK IOC Bk IV.18)

I don’t know how the bread and wine become the body and the blood, but through grace and faith in God we know that they do. We do not need to know how everything works in order to believe that they are true.

Finally, I know for some of you, I’m preaching to the choir, but I’m not so naïve as to believe that this teaching is contrary to what others of you hold to be true. Therefore, today I only ask that we all truly and faithfully meditate upon the words of Jesus and the teachings of the church and of those that have gone before us, for that act alone signifies that what we do in the Eucharist is far more than simply eating a wafer of bread and having a sip of wine.

Let us pray:
Jesus, our God,
You art infinitely good and perfect.
We love You above all things
and with all our hearts.
We desire to receive You in Holy Communion
that we may love You more and serve Thee better.
Come to us and strengthen us,
so that we may never be separated from You on earth
and that we may live with You eternally in heaven.
Amen.

Imitation of Christ Project: Bk. 1, Ch. 11

IOC 1.11ACQUIRING PEACE AND ZEAL FOR PERFECTION –

WE SHOULD enjoy much peace if we did not concern ourselves with what others say and do, for these are no concern of ours. How can a man who meddles in affairs not his own, who seeks strange distractions, and who is little or seldom inwardly recollected, live long in peace?

Blessed are the simple of heart for they shall enjoy peace in abundance.

Why were some of the saints so perfect and so given to contemplation? Because they tried to mortify entirely in themselves all earthly desires, and thus they were able to attach themselves to God with all their heart and freely to concentrate their innermost thoughts.

We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things. Rarely do we completely conquer even one vice, and we are not inflamed with the desire to improve ourselves day by day; hence, we remain cold and indifferent. If we mortified our bodies perfectly and allowed no distractions to enter our minds, we could appreciate divine things and experience something of heavenly contemplation.

The greatest obstacle, indeed, the only obstacle, is that we are not free from passions and lusts, that we do not try to follow the perfect way of the saints. Thus when we encounter some slight difficulty, we are too easily dejected and turn to human consolations. If we tried, however, to stand as brave men in battle, the help of the Lord from heaven would surely sustain us. For He Who gives us the opportunity of fighting for victory, is ready to help those who carry on and trust in His grace.

If we let our progress in religious life depend on the observance of its externals alone, our devotion will quickly come to an end. Let us, then, lay the ax to the root that we may be freed from our passions and thus have peace of mind.

If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect. The contrary, however, is often the case — we feel that we were better and purer in the first fervor of our conversion than we are after many years in the practice of our faith. Our fervor and progress ought to increase day by day; yet it is now considered noteworthy if a man can retain even a part of his first fervor.

If we did a little violence to ourselves at the start, we should afterwards be able to do all things with ease and joy. It is hard to break old habits, but harder still to go against our will.

If you do not overcome small, trifling things, how will you overcome the more difficult? Resist temptations in the beginning, and unlearn the evil habit lest perhaps, little by little, it lead to a more evil one.

If you but consider what peace a good life will bring to yourself and what joy it will give to others, I think you will be more concerned about your spiritual progress.

Something extra: The line “We are too occupied with our own whims and fancies, too taken up with passing things” reminded me of a funny video that came out a few days ago (at 0:51) …

Sermon – “Arrogant Jesus?”

toonIt is a statement that offends many. They consider it religious arrogance: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Do you see any arrogance in Jesus? As he weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus is he declaring his superiority? When Jesus washes the feet of the disciples is he displaying a sense of entitlement? As he hangs naked, beaten, bruised, bleeding, dying on the cross, is this presumption?

No. Jesus is not being arrogant, superior, or presumptuous. So what we must consider when others believe that he is, is that what they are seeing of Jesus is those who act in His Name being arrogant and presumptuous. They believe these things about Jesus because they believe them about us.

Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Are we showing the Father? Do we stand alongside a world that weeps for its sorrows and pains or do we stand above it, claiming superior knowledge and rights? Do we exhibit the nature of the One we claim is in us or do we demand to have our feet washed? Do we take up our cross and bear it or do we refuse to get our hands dirty? Do we show the world the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ or do we show them the God according to “I”?

I believe that if we as a Christian people do the things that Jesus did, then the world will once again be witness to the God and Father that Jesus demonstrated. It is then that the world will begin to see Jesus and us in an entirely different light. If we continue in the works and ways of Jesus then the world will begin to know for themselves that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. It is only then that they will also come to the saving knowledge of Jesus: through Him all may come to the Father.

Thomas a Kempis understood Jesus to say this to him, “Follow Me. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Without the Way, there is no going. Without the Truth, there is no knowing. Without the Life, there is no living. I am the Way which you must follow, the Truth which you must believe, the Life for which you must hope. I am the unbreakable Way, the infallible Truth, the unending Life. I am the Way that is straight, the supreme Truth, the Life that is true, the blessed, the uncreated Life. If you abide in My Way you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free, and you shall attain life everlasting.”

Our journey through this life will lead us to eternal life, but it is our responsibility to show others that single path that leads to the Father. There is no pride or arrogance involved. It is a path of humility and obedience, but we are called to show it not just to those who think or look like us. Jesus said, “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” We show the path that leads to eternal life, not just to those who think or look like us, but to all, so that all might come to the saving knowledge of our Lord.

Sermon: Ash Wednesday

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The Bureau of Labor came out with some statistics on how we spend our time.  It breaks down like this:

Working and related activities:  8.7 hours

Sleep:  7.7 hours

Leisure and sports:  2.6 hours

Household activities:  1.1 hours

Eating and drinking:  1.1 hours

Caring for Others: 1.3 hours

Other: 1.5 hours

This means that over half the day is gone, with over 12 hours a day devoted to working, eating, household and caring activities.  Then there is the time for sleeping, 7.7 hours, which leaves only a few hours remaining for anything else.  The majority of that extra time would seem to be assigned to the La-z-boy and the TV.  However, of that “other” category, 16 minutes are given to “organizational, civic, and religious” activities.  If we were being generous with the religious aspect and gave it 50% of that time, we would have 8 minutes per day or 56 minutes per week that we give to God.

Now, the unaware and self-righteous side of me would like to rail against those statistics, start telling folks that they need to get their priorities straight and all that.  Truth is, if I weren’t a priest – receiving a stipend so that I could spend time with God on behalf of the people – if I had a job in the secular world, children to care for, school and family functions, if I had all these things and more, then I’m fairly certain that my minutes per day that I spend with God would be less than eight.  Heck, even as a priest there are days when 8 minutes with God seems like a lot!   But that doesn’t make it right.

Much of our life with Christ is about sacrifice, the giving up of who we are and replacing it with who God is.  It is about a relationship and with any relationship it requires time, nurturing, giving, and sacrifice.

In the time leading up to Lent there are always discussion about what we will be “giving up,” that which we abstain from.  However, this giving up is not about an act of will power: “I’m giving up coffee for Lent or smoking or whatever.”  Heck, I gave up beer one Lent and really learned to enjoy red wine.  The point of abstaining from something is so that you will be able to give that time, those resources, etc. to God.  I’ll give up half an hour of TV a day so that I can spend that time with God.  See how it works?

I read our Gospel today and it speaks of doing certain things for God: giving alms, serving Him, praying, and fasting.  It talks about how we rightly do these things, not in public and not for show, but with a world that is constantly demanding more and more of our time, before we can do these things properly we must first learn to simply DO them.  We discover how to give God more than 8 minutes per day, to sacrifice something of ourselves so that we can enter more deeply into that relationship with Him.  This time with God is not just one more thing that we have to accomplish, as a Christian people, time with God, serving Him is our joy!  Thomas a Kempis understood these things.  In his Imitation of Christ, he writes, “I WILL hear what the Lord God will speak in me… Blessed is the soul who hears the Lord speaking within her, who receives the word of consolation from His lips.  Blessed are the ears that catch the accents of divine whispering, and pay no heed to the murmurings of this world.  Blessed indeed are the ears that listen, not to the voice which sounds without, but to the truth which teaches within.  Blessed are the eyes which are closed to exterior things and are fixed upon those which are interior.  Blessed are they who penetrate inwardly, who try daily to prepare themselves more and more to understand mysteries.  Blessed are they who long to give their time to God, and who cut themselves off from the hindrances of the world…. Consider these things, my soul, and close the door of your senses, so that you can hear what the Lord your God speaks within you, ‘I am your salvation,’ says your Beloved. ‘I am your peace and your life.’”

The Lord is your joy.  Your salvation.  Your peace.  Your life.  During this Holy Lent make the sacrifice, take the time, and hear what the Lord your God will speak in you.

Sermon – Enemies

kife

Thomas a Kempis writes, “If you were but worthy to suffer something for the name of Jesus, what great glory would be in store for you, what great joy to all the saints of God, what great edification to those about you! For all men praise patience though there are few who wish to practice it.”  But it is in the suffering of the cross that we find our victory… Again, Brother Thomas writes, “In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.”  I was reminded of all this in our reading.  We praise patience: those who turn the other cheek, those who gift wrap their cloaks, those who love and pray for their enemies, those who sacrifice.  We praise those who do, but who really wants to practice that?  In the cross – in sacrifice is joy – but who really wants to sacrifice.

Two brothers were playing on the sandbanks by the river. One ran after another up a large mound of sand. Unfortunately, the mound was not solid, and their weight caused them to sink in quickly. When the boys did not return home for dinner, the family and neighbors organized a search. They found the younger brother unconscious, with his head and shoulders sticking out above the sand. When they cleared the sand to his waist, he awakened. The searchers asked, “Where is your brother?” The child replied, “I’m standing on his shoulders.”

Jesus says that we are willing to do this sort of thing for our friends and those we love, but how do we learn to do it for a perfect stranger?  How do we learn to love an enemy in this same way?

The answer and the ability comes only by looking to the example that Jesus has set for us.  Paul says to us, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”  We were once enemies of God, but through his great love for us we were reconciled to Him.  Paul goes on to teach us, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

It is in our very nature to want to repay the evils that have been done against us and our culture through various media does nothing but reinforce that sentiment, but Jesus would have us address our enemies and those who wish us harm in a different way.  He would have us walk with them.  Pray for them.  Love them.

We may not all have great enemies, but if we can learn to practice this with those who simply irritate us, then we will have made great strides.

 

Sermon – Be Perfect

keep-calm-and-be-perfect-30

When we think of commandments of God, we always think of the top ten: I am the Lord thy God, Thou shalt have no other gods, Thou shalt not kill, steal, covet, etc.  The Jews considered these to be the first ten of 613 commandments – laws – that can be found in the Old Testament.  To break any of them was a sin and required that some sort of offering be made for atonement, anything from sacrificing a bull to waving a sheaf of grain.

Jesus, in his teachings, summed up the law for us when he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These are also commandments, and for us, just as important as that Top Ten list found in the Old Testament.

In our Gospel reading today, we have another commandment.  It was the last sentence, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus has commanded us to be perfect.  Can I get a show of hands from those who have reached perfection?  Anybody?  Here is the kicker, if it is commanded – it is possible.  Be perfect – it is commanded by God, therefore it is possible.  To say that it is not is to be disobedient to the command.  So, what’s it going to be?

Would you believe me if I said that you are perfect? The truth is: You are.  St. Paul writes in his letter to the Hebrews, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”  For by one sacrifice – that is Christ death upon the Cross – he has made perfect forever those – that would be you – who are being made holy.

Through Christ, you have been made perfect, but note what Paul also said, “who are being made holy.”  You are perfect and you are being made holy.  St. Francis de Sale summed this up when he said that we are “Perfection seeking perfection.”  We are made perfect in Christ and each day, we seek to be made more perfect.

You may not believe this and believe me, you wouldn’t be the first, but be encouraged.  Think of it this way, expressed by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, “Cast away that despair produced by the realization of your weakness. It’s true: financially you are a zero, and socially another zero, and another in virtues, and another in talent… But to the left of those zeros is Christ… And what an immeasurable figure it turns out to be!”

You may not believe that being perfect is possible, but you are perfect.  You are made perfect because Christ died for you and is in you.  You are perfect.  Your job as a follower of Christ is to seek to be made more perfect.  How do we do this?  My good friend Thomas a Kempis said, “If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect.”  Perhaps today, though, we’ll stick with the words of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  Most hear that verse and think of the cross they must bear and they are correct, but don’t miss that one important word “daily.”  To seek to me made more perfect in Christ is not something we practice only on Sunday.  It is a daily exercise.

You are perfect.  Seek to be made more perfect.

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