Refugees or Refuse?

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. . . .    we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.  (1 Corinthians 4:1, 13)

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The current kerfuffle about refugees being a threat to America exploded when President Trump carried out a campaign promise to close our borders to terrorists by forbidding people from certain Islamic countries to enter into the United States.

And while many are in agreement with what the President endeavors to do to protect the country from terrorists, there are many who are troubled by the way in which it is being carried out.  It judges broad swaths of people guilty even if they have done nothing and are themselves trying to escape the very Islamic extremists our country has proclaimed as its enemies.   It consigns the innocent and some victims to further suffering, even though they did nothing wrong, and may have in fact followed all the rules and jumped through all of the hoops that were placed before them on their road to freedom in the United States.

In the refugees we begin to understand how St. Paul felt when he wrote the words above to the Christians at Corinth.  He knew what it was to be treated as refuse, garbage.  Most likely when he made his escape from Damascus, he was lowered in a basket used to dump garbage over the city wall.  He was speaking literally when he said he was refuse!

For many immigrants now living in America and for the descendants of immigrants, the whole current American effort is very troubling because many know there are people in the world who desperately need our help and need to get out of war torn areas of the world for the sake of their children.  Some Americans have taken to the streets to protest President Trump’s mandates – the protesters may not all have the same motives for coming out, but at least some immigrants and children of immigrants know what it is like to be unwanted in the world.

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(Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Certainly, as Christians, we should never cease praying for these refugees, even if our country won’t let them in.  Praying for the suffering of the world is our task – it doesn’t matter whether or not we agree with what the President is trying to do.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.  (Hebrews 13:2-3)

We do need to remember that our fellow Christian people from the time of the apostles were often rejected by society and made to suffer with little hope of rescue, as St. Paul himself notes.  Our prayers and sympathies should be with the current refugees of the world.  We may feel uncertain about what our role as Christians should be – on the one hand we sympathize with the refugees, on the other hand we want to stop terrorists from coming into the country, I am reminded of a story from the desert fathers:

Certain brethren came to Abba Anthony, and said unto him, “Speak to us a word whereby we may live.” The old man said to them, “Behold, you have heard the Scriptures, and they are sufficient for you.”  The brethren said, “We wish to hear a word from you also, O father.” Abba Anthony said to them, “It is said in the Gospel, ‘If a man smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Luke 6: 29). They said to him, “We cannot do this.” Abba Anthony said unto them, “If you cannot turn the other cheek, at least allow yourself to be smitten on the one cheek.”  They said to him, “And this we cannot do.” The old man then said to them, “If you cannot do even this, do not pay back blows in return for the smiting which you have received.” They said, “We cannot even do this.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Make then for the brethren a little boiled food, for they are ill,” and he added, “If you cannot do even this, and you are unable to do the other things, prayers are necessary immediately.”   (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 770-77)

We Christians may be far from behaving perfectly toward the refugees, but we still can do something for them – prayer at the very minimum.  [Though I am not down playing the importance of prayer.]   Even if we can’t give them maximal love through our charity, we can offer to these refugees some love, as noted in the story from the desert fathers above.   It is not an all or nothing situation for us.   We aren’t to say since we can’t help them, forget about them.  NO!   Perhaps if we prayed for these suffering people at every Liturgical service, our hearts as the Orthodox living in America would be open to what God would have us do.

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Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and visitation for the servants of God the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of their teeming shore, the homeless and for the pardon and remission of their sins.

We might also think of some words that St. John Chrysostom said while he was sent into exile.  As he was on the forced march, he commented that if Christ says in Matthew 25 that those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned to the fires of hell, what will happen to

“those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains?  Imagine what torments they will suffer!”  (LETTERS TO ST OLYMPIA, p 77)

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All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)

It is not just the State Department than needs ambassadors.  St. Paul says we are the ambassadors for Christ to the world.  We bring Christ to everyone, and our mission is the same as that of Christ’s – to reconcile the entire world to Him.

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The Three Hierarchs

On January 30, we commemorate in the Orthodox Church The Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.

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One of the Matins hymns for the Feast appealed to me because of my interest in our friendly pollinators, the blessed bees.

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LIKE BEES HOVERING OVER THE MEADOW OF THE SCRIPTURES,

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YOU EMBRACED THE WONDERFUL POLLEN OF THEIR FLOWERS.

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TOGETHER YOU HAVE PRODUCED FOR ALL THE FAITHFUL

THE HONEY OF YOUR TEACHINGS FOR THEIR COMPLETE DELIGHT.

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THEREFORE AS WE EACH ENJOY THIS, WE CRY OUT WITH GLADNESS:

BLESSED ONES, EVEN AFTER DEATH,

BE ADVOCATES FOR US WHO PRAISE YOU!

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St. Ignatius of Antioch, Martyr and Godbearer

Today in the Orthodox Church we remember the Martyred Bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius the Godbearer.  Below are a few words about St. Ignatius taken from an old Christian Education publication, Personalities Who Shaped the Church (pp 3-4):

It was the year A.D. 107 when Trajan, a Roman emperor, came back victorious from a war against the Dacians and Scythians. As soon as he entered the glorious city of Antioch, he let the Christians know that the persecution against them was not yet over.

One night a great celebration was given in his honor. Trajan, out of gratitude to his gods, ordered precious incense to be burned. But he thirsted for more victories and more blood.

“Roman citizens…tonight we honor our divinities, for they have deemed us worthy to gain more victories…But our victory cannot be complete until we defeat Christians, those bitter enemies of our empire who refuse to acknowledge our gods.”

Meanwhile, in some remote corner of Antioch, another message was being heard [from St. Ignatius, Christian Bishop of Antioch]:

“Keep on praying for those who persecute you. Return their bad temper with gentleness, their boasts with humility, and their violence with mildness. Never be eager to retaliate. Try to please not yourselves but God.

Toil together, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rejoice together, as servants and assistants of God. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism serve as a shield, your faith as a helmet, your love as a spear, your endurance as full armor. So be patient with one another in gentleness, as God is with you.” 

The Sickness of Zacchaeus

The Gospel lesson of Luke 19:1-10 –

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

St. Nikolai Velimirovic comments on the Gospel lesson:

“Christ said a number of times that He had come into this world for the sake of sinners, and especially for the greatest sinners. As a doctor does not visit the healthy but the sick, so the Lord visits those with the sickness of sin, not those with the health of righteousness. It is not said in the Gospel that the Lord, on this occasion, visited any righteous man in Jericho, but He made haste to visit the house of the sinful Zacchaeus. Does not every sensible doctor behave in this way when he goes into a hospital? Does he not go straight to the beds of the most gravely ill? The whole world represents a great hospital, full to overflowing with sick men and women infected by sin. All men are sick in comparison with Christ’s health; all are weak in comparison with Christ’s power; all are ugly in comparison with Christ’s beauty. But there are, among men, the sick and the sicker, the weak and the weaker, the ugly and the uglier. The former are considered righteous and the latter sinful.

And the heavenly Physician, who did not come on earth for His own satisfaction but for the urgent healing and salvation of the infected, hastened first to the aid of the worst infected. To this end, He ate and drank with sinners, permitted sinners to weep over His feet, and entered into Zacchaeus’ house.”

 (Homilies, p. 339-340)

 

Charity Transforms the World

A common theme in the post-Apostolic and Patristic writers is that Jesus Christ in His various works, reverses the deeds of Adam, thus restoring humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Christ obeys the Father, whom Adam disobeyed.  Christ obeys the Father even to death.   Christ’s obedience leads to the resurrection of Himself and all humanity from the dead.

And while every action of Christ was seen as undoing Adam’s disobedience and sin, we who are united to Christ become part of that saving process.  So when we obey God, when we love our fellow human, when we give food to the poor for example, we are using food for what is was created and  intended – a means of expressing love and communion.  When we give in charity to feed the needy, we undo Adam’s treacherous use of food for self gain.  When we remedy the hunger of another, we return to Paradise and make all food again to be love.  So, St. Basil the Great, writes how the most simple of human gestures – sharing food, can also be the undoing of original sin so that we can participate in God’s love and salvation.

“For Basil, giving food does more than cover sin: it redeems the cosmic flaw. . . .  he asserts that ‘as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, we we ourselves if we remedy the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating.”     (Susan R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying, p 83)

In giving food to the hungry, we blot out Adam and Eve’s turning away from God for selfish reasons.  We participate in salvation, in the work of Christ, in making the Kingdom of God present on earth.

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Love Another Language

 

fiddler-on-the-roofIn THE FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, the beleaguered family patriarch Tevye finds his thinking on marriage to be challenged in different ways by each of his daughters.  While the usual way of marriage for the villagers is an arranged marriage by the parents of the bride and the groom, Tevye is confronted with a new idea: people choosing to be married based on their love for one another.  Tevye asks his wife if she loves him.  She is struck by the question:  after 25 years of her raising their children, washing his clothes, cooking his meals, why would he even ask, isn’t it obvious?  An issue is raised, do we by our behavior speak love to our spouses in a way that they can understand and feel loved?

five-love-languagesI read Gary Chapman”s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, and found it an interesting read and a potential tool to help couples strengthen their marriages.  The book and the tools it offers help people gain self knowledge and also to gain understanding of others.  This can help people overcome stumbling blocks in their relationships.  Here are a few quotes from the book:

Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.  (Kindle  Location 310-312)

Chapman argues that love is a form of language.  Humans have different love languages – some behaviors from family and friend make us feel more loved than other behaviors even if all the behaviors are shown to us in love.  If I am feeling like a failure, offering me cookies might be comforting, but praising me for deeds I’ve done might be the thing that makes me feel loved.

Forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a commitment. It is a choice to show mercy, not to hold the offense up against the offender. Forgiveness is an expression of love. “I love you. I care about you, and I choose to forgive you. Even though my feelings of hurt may linger, I will not allow what has happened to come between us. I hope that we can learn from this experience. You are not a failure because you have failed. You are my spouse, and together we will go on from here.” Those are the words of affirmation expressed in the dialect of kind words.  (Kindle  Location 463-467)

Forgiveness is central to our Christian lives.  Chapman reminds us that forgiving a loved one who has hurt or offended you is an act of love.  It is one way we do show love to another.

We forget that marriage is a relationship, not a project to be completed or a problem to solve. A relationship calls for sympathetic listening with a view to understanding the other person’s thoughts, feelings, and desires.  (Kindle  Location 686-688)

A good reminder for any couples who are struggling – your marriage is not a problem to be solved, but a relationship which requires us to listen and to speak.

But I vacuum our house now, and I vacuum it regularly. There is only one reason I vacuum our house. Love. You couldn’t pay me enough to vacuum a house, but I do it for love. You see, when an action doesn’t come naturally to you, it is a greater expression of love. My wife knows that when I vacuum the house, it’s nothing but 100 percent pure, unadulterated love, and I get credit for the whole thing!  (Kindle  Location 1613-1616)

We show love in many ways.  The issue is that not everyone sees our behavior in the same way.  Doing acts of kindness are a form of love, but some people need to be held and touched gently before they feel loved.  We can learn the love language of those around us.  We can learn the love language we like to speak.  We can learn how to love people so that they feel loved.

We both knew it was the choice to love. We had realized that if we continued our pattern of demanding and condemning, we would destroy our marriage. Fortunately over a period of about a year, we had learned how to discuss our differences without condemning each other, how to make decisions without destroying our unity, how to give constructive suggestions without being demanding, and eventually how to speak each other’s primary love language.  (Kindle  Location 1731-1734)

There is hope.  We are able to learn and change and improve our relationships!

Caring for the Poor: Lending to God

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 5:17-21)

Adam, Eve and Jesus
Adam, Eve and Jesus

In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations.  Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way.  But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition.  Righteousness can also be equated with salvation.  When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.”  They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.

Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also  used to mean almsgiving/ charity.  Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness  we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)].  Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:

“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine.  The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth.  In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune.  He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of  your throne.’  The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.

Jesus speaking with the rabbis
Jesus speaking with the rabbis

 King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18).  According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.  The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity.  As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘”  (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)

The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers.   Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.

Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean  only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way.  Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase.  Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness.  We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:21-26)

Seeing the Invisible God: The Need for a Pure Heart

The Gospel Lesson – Luke 18:35-43

At that time, as Jesus was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

[Sermon notes, January 2017]

1]  The blind man already knew something of Jesus for although he cannot see what is happening, when he hears Jesus of Nazareth is coming by he begins shouting for Jesus’ attention.   He knows Jesus has no money to give him, but he has obviously heard of the miracles of Jesus.  It is obvious that the blind man could see who Jesus was based on what he knew about Him and what he believed about Him.  The blind beggar not only never saw Jesus before he never saw anything Jesus had done.  But he had the eyes of his heart to see, and there was purity enough in his heart for him to see God!

color-of-paradise2]  The Iranian movie, THE COLOR OF PARADISE, has a scene in it  in which a blind carpenter takes on as an apprentice a blind boy whose poor father sees only as a terrible burden which he wants to be rid of.  The boy explains his sadness to the blind carpenter – God doesn’t love him for He made him blind.  No one wants him, not even his own father.  The blind carpenter points out that God is invisible, eyes will not help you see God.  In fact those with eyes think they can see things about God which they cannot.   Eyes will not help you see God.  To be born blind is a gift from God for those with eyes keep trying to use their eyes to see God, while the blind already know this is not possible and so skip that deception and immediately use the eyes of their heart to seek God.  Seeking God is a matter of faith not sight.  Seeing is believing?  In the Gospel lesson, believing is seeing.

3]  St. Paul reminds us that God is invisible from the day’s Epistle –

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”  (1 Timothy 1:17)

This is why Jesus spoke about those with a pure heart seeing God.  You can’t see the invisible God with your physical eyes!  You need to work on your inner self, your soul, the eyes of your heart to see God.  Clearing away all manners of impurities from the heart is needed to see God.  Even if you have 20/20 vision, without purity of heart, you won’t see God.

4]  The blind man already sees that Jesus can give him sight before Jesus does anything!  Jesus gives to the blind man what the blind man already believes.  Jesus doesn’t even claim to heal the man, he tells the blind man, “your faith has made you well.”   The fact that the man could see with the eyes of his heart enabled his eyes to be opened.  As St. Paul says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”  (2 Corinthians 5:7).

5]  The people in the Gospel lesson are interesting as well, for they see the miracle and praise God.  None of them benefitted from the beggar being given sight and yet they praise God.  They were able to see and rejoice in the good fortune of another even though they themselves did not benefit from what Jesus did.  In fact they had just a few minutes earlier tried to prevent the blind beggar from disturbing Jesus.   But their hearts are good as they were able to see what God is doing.   [I think we Christians don’t always have that ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others.  We are often selfish and self-centered, jealous and envious.  We more often rejoice in the misfortune of others.  What the Germans call Schadenfreude.  We seem more likely to take pleasure in the misfortune of others than to find pleasure in the good fortune  of others from which we don’t personally benefit].  We would do well to learn from this crowd – even if we don’t experience a miracle in our lives, we need to be thankful for every blessing others receive, even the dispised people whom we often want to shun and push aside.

 

First Among Sinners

The conversion of St. Paul
The conversion of St. Paul

 St. Paul the Apostle writes to his spiritual son, Timothy (who is one of the 70 Apostles):

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
  (1 Timothy 1:15-17)
St. Isaac the Syrian says:
“Love sinners, but hate their works; and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same.”  (Orthodox Prayer Life, p. 160)

The Apostle Timothy from Among the Seventy

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Apostle Timothy from Among the 70.  The Orthodox Church does accept that in our Scriptures we have letters from St. Paul to Timothy.  St. Paul writes to his spiritual son:

My Son, Timothy…

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.

Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.

(1 Timothy 6:6-16)