Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Yet Older Way

Image: "Sparrow" by GorFor, distributed under a CC BY license.

Sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Indianapolis
September 15, 2019

Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28Psalm 141 Timothy 1:12-17Luke 15:1-10

Audio File


Good morning – I know many of you, but for those of you I don’t know, I’m Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism. I bring you Bishop Jennifer’s greetings. It is my privilege to be among you today. Thank you to Amma Susan for the invitation.

I hope you will indulge me as I read the passage from Jeremiah again:

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-- a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.

In 2002 I quit church. I didn’t have any particular thought or premeditation behind it. It’s just one Sunday I didn’t go, and then the next, and before I knew it I was just a person who didn’t go to church any more.

I hadn’t stopped believing in God, exactly, but clearly my relationship with God had changed. God was now more of an idea I held, rather than the ground of my being with whom I cultivated an active relationship.

That is, until January of 2004. Late in that month there was a massive winter storm one night, coating Indianapolis with two or three inches of ice.

“Don’t go outside,” the radio cautioned, but I was an invincible twenty-something, still, so I left my apartment building downtown, going out the back door and into the alley, and made it all of three steps on the slick ice before losing my balance and crashing down. As I attempted to get back up I noticed that something was very wrong with the angle of my left foot. I realized I wasn’t going anywhere, and began to shout for help.

As it turned out I had a triple fracture in my ankle, requiring surgery and two nights in the hospital. I have metal plates in there to this day.

Now at the time, I lived downtown but worked in Carmel, and was going to school at night at IUPUI in pursuit of an MBA. And I had just broken my left ankle…and the car I drove was a stickshift. I may have been up from the alley and walking around on crutches, but I still wasn’t going anywhere.

Yet somehow, people came out of the woodwork. A rotating team of three people got me from my apartment to my office, and then from my office to IUPUI, and then from IUPUI back to my apartment. More importantly, perhaps, my 2004 New Year’s resolution was to quit smoking, for real this time. This fall came just as I was about to cave in, but now, suddenly, I couldn’t go to the grocery store or drug store or anywhere without being supervised by a friend, and they were not going to let me get away with buying a pack. They carried me through the most difficult part of kicking that addiction and I haven’t touched a cigarette since.

As I reflected on my circumstances I began to perceive this as a time that God was particularly active in my life. I mean, I’m not saying God actually broke my ankle – but I am saying God didn’t let that injury go to waste. Despite my abandonment God had not abandoned me. This experience showed me how much I was surrounded by people who cared for me. And not only did the injury in my ankle heal, my lungs did, too, and the piece of my will I had given to nicotine became my own again.

In thanksgiving for this miracle, this lost sheep started going back to church, and, obviously, I’m still here.

It is dangerous for us to ascribe any particular disaster to the hand of God. The discernment of a divine message in suffering is properly reserved solely to the one who suffers. To do otherwise, to be a faith that valorizes victimization, is a corruption that makes cruelty the condition of grace.

But it is the prerogative of a victim to interrogate the meaning of his or her own pain, to inquire whether God has a message that could not be conveyed any other way. As a member of the people of Israel whose kingdom has been swept away in the triumph of Babylon, Jeremiah had standing to interpret why God had allowed the defeat of the kingdom of his own chosen people. And in it, Jeremiah did discern the hand of God at work.

A wind is coming from God from the heights over Jerusalem, not a refreshing breeze, nor even the sort of wind that clears trash from supermarket parking lots; it is a wind too strong for that. And in contrast to
the Spirit of God moving over the face of the deep at the beginning of creation, this breath from God seeks to destroy.

The reason, God says, hurling insults at the chosen people, is that they are foolish, stupid children, wise only in the ways of evil, ignorant in doing good.

This is a harsh restatement of something God says a few chapters back in Jeremiah’s text, That “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13) In other words trusting their own skills over God’s gifts – with the results you would expect.

And that sin in turn is just another permutation of that first sin in the garden, the one that is our common possession as humans, when Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation “to eat [the fruit], [so] your eyes will be open, and you will be like God.” (Gen. 3:5)

God’s punishment for the betrayal in Eden is to cast Adam and Eve from the Garden.

God’s punishment for this betrayal is a near-total undoing of the first chapter of Genesis: cities fall, flowering fields turn to desert, the birds flee away, and all the stars are snuffed out. The earth remains with quaking mountains, a desolate ruin.

In the destruction of his beloved kingdom, Jeremiah discerns the voice and the will of an angry God: “I have spoken, I have purposed, I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”

And yet within this menace is a kernel of hope – for God also says: “I will not make a full end.”

The wrath will come, but: God will not make a full end.

For this is a wrath born of heartbreak: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me, That they went far from me?” (Jer. 2:5) God asks, abandoned by his beloved people.

Did you ever have a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point in your life, and so you cleared out the picture frames and photo albums, and these days, I guess, your social media feeds, too, but just tucked one or two pictures away in a drawer as a token of the good moments that were, the possibilities that might have been? That’s sort of what God’s doing here.

This great wave of destruction Jeremiah describes – the smoldering battlefield – may feel a bit far off to us here in 2019. But one of the commentaries I refer to frequently, The Interpreter’s Bible, which I inherited from my grandfather’s library, was published in 1956. And to its authors, this passage was very real. They had just experienced the cataclysm of two world wars and the growing menace of the atomic age.

And now, here in Indiana – how far away is calamity, really? California wildfires wipe whole towns off the map. Schools, nightclubs, Wal-mart parking lots become killing fields. In this city school bus stops turn into murder scenes. And this week we observed the anniversary of an attack that killed thousands, and covered lower Manhattan in dust and ash.

Even if the nature and scale of these disasters don’t match the picture Jeremiah paints, surely the corruption of our current age does. The human tendency to trust ourselves more than God has left us vulnerable to the enemy’s snares. We have been assailed by the malaise of materialism, which leads us to see wealth and mistake it for virtue, and to see poverty, and mistake it for sloth. Politicians and pundits fan flames of division that seek to turn hearts to ash. And God will allow this to happen to those who have ceased to feed  on “the words that fall from the mouth of God,” (Deut. 8:3) but instead pursued worthless things, and become worthless themselves. (Jer. 2:5) Beware: “those people” may well be us.

This is not a forecast of destruction, but if it came, would it be unwarranted?

In this critical hour, when the institutions of government and the values of our culture have so utterly failed to yield the beloved community that is God’s intent for this world, the church faces a particular challenge.

But what is the church to do? It can feel hopeless when the church
has lost its social standing: whether due to the hateful and hypocritical
excesses of Christianity’s loudest voices or the general winds of secularization. Our old ways of doing things, of making Very Important Statements to a world that is no longer listening, simply don’t work.

So we need to go to a yet older way to receive strength for these times.

Consider Jeremiah’s birds. Israel’s cities are destroyed. Its fertile fields have turned into wastelands. The stars are dark.

But the birds are not destroyed: Jeremiah tells us they have fled. Which means they have somewhere to go.

Like Noah’s dove taking wing over the waters of the great flood in search of dry ground, these birds have departed their roosts, flying through smoke and over sand, in pursuit of a safe place to call home.

And I am convinced that they found one. In fleeing God’s wrath, they have flown toward God’s mercy in the most intimate way. As the psalmist writes: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts.” (Ps. 84:3). These tiny birds nest in the shadow of God’s altar, hatching eggs and teaching fledglings to fly.

And so the effect of God’s wrath is to bring creation closer to its creator.

This shouldn’t surprise us. When God created the heavens and the earth and the garden of Eden, God descended to walk the gardens in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). God descended into a burning bus to make Moses the promise of freedom. The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on Pentecost. God descended to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and even though he died by our sins, he refused to allow death to be the end. And at the very end, John’s Revelation tells us, God’s holy city, the New Jerusalem, will descend to earth.

So the testimony of scripture is clear: God desires a relationship with us –
HERE – and if the effect of concern for God’s judgment is to drive us to make like a sparrow and fly to the warm, dry shelte of God’s altar where we can abide in God’s love, so much the better. God wants us there, under the shadow of his wings.

In a few moments, we will turn our attention to this holy table, where in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the gift Jesus left us so that we can stay in companionship with him, God is waiting to meet us.

Approach with courage, for you are stepping forth to encounter a God with the power to level cities and lay waste to mountains. This God expects something from us: to be God’s emissaries, hands, and feet, proclaimers of the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ. But not one of us is fully worthy to stand before him.

When God called the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah protested in his unworthiness, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,” and an angel touched his lips with a burning coal (Isa. 6:5-6) to prepare him to declare the judgment, love, and liberation of the Lord.

Now you, come forward bravely and humbly. In these simple elements of bread and wine, God reaches out to purify your heart, strengthen your soul, and unite your will to the divine will. This communion contains within it the power to make rough places smooth, crooked roads straight, to bring down mountains and to raise the dead – and, to ignite in you a flame of love powerful enough to heal this broken world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Good Samaritan

Race cars roar outside, as St. John's Speedway worships inside Brickyard Crossing.


Sermon preached on the sixth Sunday after Pentecost (July 14, 2019) at St. John's Episcopal Church, Speedway IN. Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37


Audio file

Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, mother to us all. Amen.


Twice in recent days, I have come across one of those inspirational quotes that you see all the time on Facebook or Instagram artfully displaying the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.”


We’ve all probably had these words spoken to us at one time or other when we’ve been in grief or hardship, and we have probably spoken them ourselves as well. They’re meant to be comforting, but at best they gloss over the complexity of human existence in a world whose forces are ultimately out of our control, and at worst they ascribe malevolence and evil to the great ruler of the universe, whoever that may be.


But given its presence on greeting cards, inspirational posters, jewelry and keychains, “Everything happens for a reason” is as much an industry as a sentiment. So it’s not going anywhere, and it will remain a go-to phrase indicating sympathy and a sort of casual spirituality, part of the cultural background noise in the midst of grief and sorrow.


But what caught my attention in the two made-for-Instagram social media posts was not the phrase itself, but the attribution.


As near as I can tell, no one knows who first said, “Everything happens for a reason,” so I was surprised to see two posts that attribute the quote to scripture. One says it’s Genesis 50:20, and the other says it’s Psalm 37:5. I’ll let you look these up on your own later, but - spoiler alert - “Everything happens for a reason” is a boneheaded paraphrase of either verse.


I don’t know who created these posts - they just sort of seem to have sprouted like mushrooms after a rain in Facebook feeds and on Pinterest boards, but I do worry about the character of their creators’ faith, one that squanders the riches of scripture by shoehorning it into a shallow and sentimental secular platitude.


We run a similar risk with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The risk, fortunately, is not the scripture is outright misconstrued as in the “everything happens for a reason” stuff.


But this is a super well-known story, and we can sometimes be too comfortable in thinking we know what it means. Even outside the church, it has cultural currency in the naming of countless hospitals and other non-profits, and has even worked its way into our legal system, in the form of Good Samaritan laws that protect those who in good faith offer aid to an injured person from being sued in the event that such aid should cause unintentional injuries or other damage.


In American culture at large, the Good Samaritan is a helper, a healer, very often a hero - the sort of person we might aspire to be.


But Jesus tells us the Good Samaritan is a much more mundane kind of person: a neighbor.


Now, I might just be overly picky about vocabulary here, but I don’t think so. The trouble with the conception of the Good Samaritan as a heroic figure is that we can easily enough absolve ourselves of the responsibility to be heroes. I mean, who am I to be one? But it’s hard to say you don’t have the responsibility to be a neighbor, when pretty much by definition, you are one.


Not that that stops the lawyer who kicks off this story from trying. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”


This is not a genuine question. As a student of the law, the lawyer has in his mind the 19th chapter of Leviticus, which sets the standard for how you should treat your neighbor: by leaving the edges of your fields unharvested, so the poor and the foreigner can have enough to eat, by having honest business dealings, by telling the truth to one another, by paying wages promptly, by judging fairly in the event of disputes, by seeking reconciliation rather than revenge.


Luke tells us the lawyer asks this question not out of genuine curiosity, but “to justify himself.” In other words we can safely assume that in his life perhaps he has had dishonest business dealings, or has held grudges rather than pursue forgiveness, has lied or held back wages - he wants to get off on the technicality that the people involved weren’t neighbors. Maybe they weren’t Jews, or they were foreigners, or Roman occupiers, so he’s held to a relaxed standard of behavior, he hopes, until Jesus gives him the gold standard of a neighbor in the form of the enemy dwelling in their land - a Samaritan.


Think back to the Gospel two weeks ago. It’s only been about 30 verses since Jesus himself was refused entry to a Samaritan village, and his disciples asked if they could destroy that village with fire from heaven.


And it’s not just the lawyer who has looked for a way out of the responsibility toward the neighbors we love, and the neighbors who make us uncomfortable, and the neighbors we despise, that God lays upon us.


Many of the early church fathers gave the story an elaborate allegorical interpretation. In one version, the man making the trip from Jerusalem  (representing heaven) to Jericho (representing earth) is Adam. The robbers stand in for sin, the priest is the law, the Levite stands for the prophets, and the Samaritan is Jesus Christ himself. Jesus drops Adam off at the inn, which stands for the church, and promises the innkeeper he will come again - the second coming. (Origen, Homily 34.3, paraphrase)


It’s actually pretty elegant, and there’s nothing wrong with viewing the text this way, unless you assert, as some have, that the allegorical reading is actually the truest reading of the text.


Because then you’ve just done what the lawyer did: found a way to avoid loving neighbors you’d rather not see, let alone love: Indifference built on a scaffolding of pious intellectualism.


That can’t be the way of our church, least of all now, today, when migrant families are being ripped apart, and ICE raids fill communities with fear; when friends and neighbors live in the grip of addiction; when children in this city go to bed without mattresses and sleep on the floor.


The law of love that Jesus describes in the parable of the Good Samaritan is not an abstract sentiment but concrete action: meeting a man down in the dust, binding his bloody wounds, heaving him on a pack animal, carrying him to an inn, putting up a little of your own money to see that your neighbor is cared for. It’s a messy business.


It’s no wonder we put so much effort into avoiding it.


Even though I’m not a big fan of the elaborate allegorical reading of this parable, there’s nothing wrong with spending some time with it, as long as you keep it in the appropriate perspective. Because there’s one thing it gets really right: the concept of the church as the innkeeper - the place where a wounded soul can heal.


Because “Love God, Love Neighbor” is the heart of what we’re supposed to be about in our time here on earth - and if it were easy - well, we’d have a much shorter Bible, for one thing, because that business is covered in the first five books.


But it’s not easy. Being busy makes it hard. The need to make a living makes it hard. The blindness of sin makes it hard.

And let's face it - for as much as we might like to cast ourselves in the role of the Good Samaritan (set aside whether or not we actually want to do it), just as often we're the guy in the ditch.


And so God gives us the church, this inn where sinners can heal, and week by week be restored to the image ff our gracious, loving creator. It is a credit to you, St. John’s, that even over all the uncertainty and change of the last year and then some, you have faithfully continued to gather to ready your hearts for the transformation and salvation our Lord Jesus Christ promises to us.


"You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself."


“Surely, this commandment is not too hard for you,” Moses says, “Nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, neither is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”


Do this, and you shall live.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Let us not consume one another

"Amazing Grace Mural" by 1Flatworld, distributed under a CC BY-ND-NC license.


Sermon preached on the third Sunday after Pentecost (June 30, 2019) at the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis. Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Ps. 77:1-2; Gal. 5:1, 13-25; Lk. 9:51-62



“The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Gal. 5:14-15)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Early on in my life as a newly converted Christian, I worshiped with a woman who, whenever “Amazing Grace” came up as one of our hymns. would change one of the words.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” she would sing, “that saved a soul like me.”

“That saved a soul,” rather than, “that saved a wretch.”

She told me she didn’t like the word “wretch” because of what it implied about her worthiness, about her standing with God. I don’t begrudge her that decision, necessarily. God knows certain of our fellow Christians have so emphasized human sinfulness at the expense of our belovedness, and the fact that at the creation God called us good, that when an opportunity comes to surface from the toxicity of such an expression of our faith, that it can do one’s soul good to leave a word like wretch behind.

But as a new Christian, I took the wrong lesson from our conversation. Back then, as now, I relied on the members of the church as a guide to living the Christian life. But I was inexperienced enough that I didn’t understand that what this person was telling me was about what she, as one person, needed to do to protect herself from past harm the church had done. The lesson I learned - or thought I learned - instead, was that in churches that valued the leadership of women, and were at least willing to have the conversation about the standing of gay people before God - my own minimum standards for a church I would join - people weren’t wretches, full stop.

And so all this unpleasant judgment business was just some parasitic narrative that had clung like a barnacle to the super-nice warm and fuzzy “love thy neighbor” heart of the gospel.

When you’re 20 years old in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, amidst the first glimmers of hope in the form of effective HIV treatments that removed a simmering dread, with months yet to come before the revelation of Bill Clinton’s Oval Office affair (and with no small measure of compartmentalization of the Rwandan genocide), it was possible to believe such things, that there was no need for a day of reckoning, that there was no judgment due.

But we do not have the luxury of believing such things today, if we ever did.

Beloved, we are beloved, we are created in God’s image, God did call us good. And in our belovedness, in our goodness, God entrusted the world to our care. How have we done? How have we been our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? How well have we let the little children come to us?

Others have said better the things I might say about how we as Christians should respond to the stain of our nation’s response to the migrants seeking asylum on our southern border, and most especially our treatment of the children.

On those matters I commend to you Bishop Jennifer’s message  delivered on Friday, and the message from the Bishops of California  delivered yesterday. If you can’t find Bishop Jennifer’s letter in your inbox, chances are you aren’t subscribed to the Diocese’s newsletter, and as the bishop’s canon I am duty-bound to remind you that you can find her message and subscribe to the newsletter at indydio.org.

Also today, at 4:00, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette is hosting “Never Again is Now,” an interfaith gathering to resist the cruelty our country is visiting on toddlers, and to call us back to the values America claims to hold dear. Bishop Jennifer and many people of faith and others of good will will be there, and I likewise commend it to you.

We live in angry, dispiriting times, justifiably so, and who knows if we have seen the worst yet? But we are a people of hope, a people of resurrection, a people who know that when the stone of the tomb eclipses all light from sun, moon, and stars, a yet more powerful spark remains.

There is another side to these times.

But who will we be on it?

From the looks of it, whatever side of the political spectrum we fall on, it appears we will all be like James and John, saying to Jesus, “Hey those Samaritans weren’t so welcoming – is it cool if we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

We don’t traffic in brimstone the same way we used to, but the vitriol and the scorn of our present age burn nearly as hot.

The impulse to destroy our enemies and those who do harm to us and to those we love is perfectly understandable, and scripturally supportable, even, if you look in the right places. But Jesus calls us to a harder thing. I’m not talking about making peace with injustice: that’s appeasement, and we’re all too good at it. I’m talking about making peace with people.

How I wish today’s gospel were longer - like three times longer. Because today and for the next two Sundays, St. Luke gives us an extended lesson on making peace. Today, we have Jesus’s scouts sent ahead to a Samaritan village to find a place for Jesus to stay and teach, and the Samaritans in no uncertain terms reject him. The disciples want to take vengeance, but Jesus rebukes them. We don’t quite know what he says, but next week’s reading gives us a hint.

That’s the sending of the seventy, two by two, into all the places Jesus intended to go as he made his way back to Jerusalem. He instructs them to bring the news that the Kingdom of God has come near, and they are to bestow their peace upon those they meet - only, if they are not received hospitably, they are to move on, yet telling even those who reject them that the Kingdom of God has come near. In a curious aside that is left out of the lectionary text, Jesus says that on the day a town rejects them, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” Though with no fire from heaven, no brimstone, no pillars of salt, It’s not quite clear what he means: only that it is clear that the judgment of those towns belongs to God, and not to the disciples who would rain down fire.

And then the next week, a lawyer challenges Jesus - seeking to justify himself he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the parable of the man beaten by robbers and left by the side of the road, passed over by a priest and a Levite, only to be rescued by a man of the very Samaritan people who rejected Jesus just some 30 verses earlier. In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus not only reaffirms the expansive notion of neighborliness commanded in Leviticus, but in its placement so soon  after his own rejection by the Samaritans, Jesus affirms that alienation and enmity need not be the end of us.

The development of the Samaritan people in Luke’s Gospel from the rejecting enemy to the literal gold standard of a good neighbor is a mystery in some ways. After all, the Good Samaritan isn’t even a real person, but an imagined possibility. But part of the point of that story is to provoke us to seek the good in those who in actual fact or merely our perception are our enemies today.

But the way of making that shift happen becomes comprehensible if we acknowledge that in the aftermath of our sins against each other - whatever the rightness or wrongness of our past actions and positions - that we have all along been looking through a glass, darkly, and on the basis of our faith’s twin treasures of repentance and forgiveness, we can be reconciled one to another by the grace of God in Christ.

Loving our neighbor means loving the one who is nice to us, the one who has wronged us, the one who reviles us, the one we revile, the one we have wronged - all while upholding the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God. It’s a messy business.

And it’s a messy business we can duck. It’s optional, Paul advises, writing to the Galatians. We do have the option to proceed down the spiral of biting and devouring - just be careful, Paul writes, that in the process of devouring one another you don’t consume one another…as if devour and consume weren’t synonyms.

I have faith that the darkness of the present hour is not our end, but on us is whether the character of the time to come is revenge, blame, and recriminations, biting and consuming, or a yet more excellent way.

It is tempting every day to call for a rain of fire rather than reconciliation to God and to one another in the promised reign of God.

Let us not be led into that temptation.

So, beloved, discipline yourselves, be alert. Your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. (1 Peter 5:8-9, paraphrase)

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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