Pentecost +22

This might be a dangerous game, but I want you to picture what a priest looks like.  If you’re of a certain age, Fulton Sheen may have come to mind.  One of our favorite shows is the Fr. Brown mysteries, and so I tend to default to him in his cassock and saturno, which is what that black hat is called with the wide brim, because it looks like Saturn with its wide rings.  Whoever you pictured, there’s usually some common markers to the look: priests always wear a collar; sometimes they wear a cassock around, sometimes a suit, but either way, there’s usually a lot of black fabric involved.  The purpose of these markers is to both stand apart from others and to, perhaps counter-intuitively, have no personal style.  When looking at a priest, one shouldn’t be prompted to first think, “Hey, nice suit and shoes combo.”  You should be able to just think ‘priest’.

Jesus, our great high priest, did not bear any of these markers.  For one thing, our priestly garb comes from Roman patterns of dress, which would not have appealed to a member of a group the Romans were oppressing.

For another, Jesus was not technically a priest, at least not a Jewish priest.  Jewish priests came from a certain tribe and lineage, one that Jesus was not a part of.  These priests spent their time “up at the Jerusalem Temple, the ones who performed the sacrifices, and from whom a new high priest was appointed each year.  The high priest was the only one who could enter the Holy of Holies, once a year, to mediate for the whole people of Israel on the Day of Atonement.

“Picture how the high priest functioned in the ritual for the Day of Atonement. The curtained-off, gilded, cube-shaped room at the western end of the sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, stood for heaven.  The rest of the sanctuary was earth. In his annual move into the Holy of Holies with the blood of the Atonement sacrifices, the high priest was understood to be acting as a go-between for the community, mediating between the people and God and between God and the people.  Spatially, his movement through the curtain from the one room to the other re-presented mediation between the heavenly and earthly realms.”[1]

If that sounds both very cool and very familiar, that’s because it was and is.  Movement, mystery, and the joining together of heaven and earth has always been a part of worship, and perhaps the major point of it.  We move from one level of holiness to another still, symbolized by entering the church, moving through a barrier (in our case, an altar rail as opposed to a curtain, but in the Orthodox Church, they still have giant screens that block the view of altar), and up, literally, to the altar, where sacrifice is made.

And making sacrifice is the point of having a priest at all.  The primary function of a priest is to make sacrifice, just as the only function of an altar is as a place of sacrifice.  The Jewish priest sacrificed animals as an offering for their sins, as God had instructed, standing before God as mediator.  Christian priests make the sacrifice of Jesus at our altars, standing before God as an alter Christus, a symbol of Christ, re-presenting the only true mediation between heaven and earth.

See where we are getting to here?  Jesus is our great high priest, in fact the great high priest of all creation, because He made sacrifice, the sacrifice of Himself on the altar of the Cross.  He bears the marks of priesthood, not in collar and cassock, but in the marks He bears on His hands, feet, and side.  And because Jesus experienced everything we must go through and more, He can stand before the altar of heaven with all of our joys and pains on His heart; like Paul told us, “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

So where does that leave us?  Well, number one, in the loving arms of a merciful, self-sacrificing God, who loves you more than we can ever comprehend.  Second, as always, ready to follow Jesus, to follow Him to the altar and yes, even to the cross.  If you may have thought all that sacrificing is just for priests, you’re out of luck: you may not be now or in the future called to wear a collar or cassock or even a saturno, but by virtue of your baptism, you are part of God’s royal priesthood.  In fact, the last words of the Baptismal rite are “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”

You too are called to make sacrifices: to love the unlovable, to give of your time and talents and treasures, to put the needs of others above your own.  Now picture again what a priest looks like.

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Pentecost +21

This year we saw both Apple and Amazon hit 1 trillion dollars in market capitalization.  That sounded like a lot of money, so I looked it up, and 1 trillion dollars is a thousand billion dollars.  It’s a million million dollars.  John D. Rockefeller, however, would not be impressed.  Adjusted for inflation, his Standard Oil was worth at least a trillion dollars in 1900.  Go back even further, to 1637, and the Dutch East India Company, again, adjusted for inflation, was worth 7.9 trillion dollars.

As you can see, I went down a bit of google rabbit hole on all this, which led me to the world’s largest employers.  Number one is our own Department of Defense, with 3.2 million employees, followed not that closely by the Peoples Liberation Army of China at 2.3 million.  But close on the heals of the largest standing army in the world: (any guesses?) Walmart.  The Walton kids have very large inheritances.

The word inheritance is going to become important here.  But first, one of the most controversial things Jesus ever said.

“Jesus’ image about a camel going through the eye of a needle is so startling and so challenging in its application that scribes and commentators have tried to tone down its language.”[1]  Some scholars think we must have screwed up the transcription of the Greek word kamelon, with an e, meaning camel; they think it should have been kamilon, with an i, meaning rope.  But that theory is a bit strained.

“Another effort to soften the blow of this saying comes from commentators who like the idea that “eye of the needle” might be applied to a narrow gate—the kind of gate that it would be difficult to get a loaded camel through, but if you unloaded the camel and maybe gave him a good greasing, you just might be able to squeeze him through that gate.  Another nice try!  Scholars note that we know of no gate called Needle’s Eye.  Moreover, there is a parallel Talmudic saying about the impossibility of an elephant going through the eye of a needle that suggests that this kind of image for impossibility was at home in the Semitic world.”[2]

We just have to accept that Jesus said what Jesus said, which, especially at the time He said it, was shocking.  Rich people are generally admired, if not envied, and the entire American system is based on the possibility, at least, of anyone getting rich.  Rich people, at least good rich people, build churches, support programs, or like J.P. Morgan, bail out an entire government.  If a camel has a better chance of making it through the eye of a needle than a rich person getting into heaven, what chance do normal people have?

Well, let’s take the rich young ruler in today’s Gospel.  He was, on inspection, a righteous man.  He kept the commandments, and we can assume that if he was the type of person to ask Jesus about eternal life, that he was truly a good man, a man who looked for God.  But when Jesus tells him to sell all that he has, give it all to the poor, and follow Him, the man couldn’t face it, literally; he hung his head and wandered off.  It seems that didn’t have many possessions as much as many possessions had him.  Mark tells us that Jesus had looked upon this young man and loved him, wanted the best for him, and so Jesus must have hung His head low in sadness as the man walked away.

The answer to all of this lies in the words of the rich man himself.  He asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  I told you the word inheritance would come up.  See the problem?  One does not do anything to get an inheritance – you don’t earn an inheritance.  You receive an inheritance.  God’s promise to us to share in the inheritance of His kingdom is not something we earn, but something that can only be received.  The rich young ruler, so used to achieving things on his own, put his trust in his stuff, and put his own present comfort over the gift of eternal life.

So do you need to leave here, call the people who do estate sales, and give the proceeds to the poor?  Maybe.  Only you know the answer to that.  Do you own your possessions, or do your possessions own you?  You can tell by the hold you keep on them; you can tell by if you work to hoard possessions, or if your possessions work to the benefit of others.

Jesus tells us today to make people our priority, to make our relationship with God and with others our prime possession.  You do that, and you’ve got quite an inheritance coming.

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Pentecost +20

There’s a couple things going on this weekend.  There’s the Cranberry Festival, of course – a big thank you to all of you who have contributed things to sell and to all of you who will spend some money to eat those things.  There’s the Mum Sale, which is starting to become a big deal – you know you’ve hit on something when you get pre-orders when it’s announced – and a big thank you to Colleen and her gang for putting on the sale (I want to call them mummers, but that’s already a thing) and to those who’ve purchased plants.  And it’s the Blessing of the Animals, one of my favorite events every year.  St. Francis taught (or perhaps re-taught) the Christian world what it means to embrace and hold dear all of God’s creatures, and so the Blessing of the Animals is always on the Sunday closest to his feast day, October 4th.

God knew what He was doing when He created the universe and all it contains.  We’ve done a mighty fine job of mucking things up for ourselves, of course, but the creation is still breathtakingly beautiful, the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets in their courses.  I used to have one of those big picture books of all the (major) animals in the world, and I always favored giraffes, rhinoceroses (rhinoceri?), and the big cats.  My friend Fr. Matt Bradley had a story about lions: when he was on a mission trip to South Africa, their guide told him that one never ‘stumbles upon a lion’.  He told Matt and his group that if you encounter a lion, you didn’t surprise that lion; that lion has known about you for some time, and you’re meeting that lion right were that lion wants to meet you.

All of God’s creatures are amazing.  But despite the awesomeness of lions and tigers and bears, “God wanted to create a living being that could share in the Trinity’s inmost characteristic, (what some theologians have) called deep love.  For all eternity the three persons in God had loved each other so intensely that they are one.”[1]  And so God created humankind.

There’s an old joke that God has only ever made one mistake, and that was to make the male of the human species first.  Everyone knows a man can’t be left to his own devices for any length of time.  The state of my apartments in my 20’s is a testimony to this truth.

And so God create Eve.  Considering that Adam was literally the only man on Earth, Eve probably turned him down only twice before agreeing to go on a date with him.  All joking aside, with Adam and Eve together at last, God had made creatures who were capable of deep love.

So when God said that it was “not good that the man be alone,” what God meant was that it was not good that the man was not experiencing something like the love God has within Himself.  In marriage, in the sacrament that binds two people together, God has given us something of that kind of love, the kind of love binds, that takes two people and makes them one flesh.

But, as we know, flesh is fragile, flesh is weak.  Flesh can be torn asunder, ripped apart.  And in a broken world, if something can be ripped apart, it will be.  Divorce, as a legal means of separating from one’s spouse, came into the Hebrew world under Moses, but it was already practiced all over the ancient Middle East.  Divorce is a serious thing now, but back then, it was a disaster.  The people of the ancient Middle East would have seen marrying for love as a quaint and impractical thing, not that it never happened, and not that deep love never came from an arranged marriage.  But then, certainly more than now, marriage united families in the basic effort of survival, and so divorce said to one side of the family, almost always the wife’s, that I don’t care if you all live or die.  Divorce was the opposite of deep love.

Is that still true for us?  Yes and no.  No, in that issues like abuse of all kinds are more recognized and less tolerated, and we can only hope for more of that.  But yes, in that divorce is relatively easy now, just a symptom of world in which the unity of humankind is shattered daily; the sanctity of marriage too often an afterthought, the concept of deep love something quaint.

The good news is that Jesus loves us anyway.  No matter if your married, divorced, single, remarried, whatever you got, Jesus loves you.  God is deep love, and so when the tragic happens, when those He loves are rent asunder and ripped apart, He is there.  We have a God who’s love created the universe and all it contains, and so no matter what in you has been broken, He is there to keep the stars shining and the planets in their courses, to bombard you with beauty, and to heal your heart and soul.

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Pentecost 19

Back when I worked in New York, my preferred places for meals or for a little relaxation were the neighborhood Irish bars or Jewish delis.  The place we went to get shepherd’s pie for lunch was always packed with electricians, most of whom eyed guys in suits like me with a bit of suspicion.  My favorite restaurant in Manhattan was a Jewish place in a basement that had no sign.  But on occasion, I would find myself waiting in line outside of whatever club was all the rage in that moment, mostly to placate my friends who just had to go there.  These places always seemed have L names, like Lava Lounge and Lit Lounge, and most of the reason anyone wanted to go to these places was their exclusivity.  Not just anyone could get in, and so if the velvet ropes parted for you when you got to the door, somehow you were validated as part of the chosen.

 

People like to feel like they belong – certainly I do.  I’m a fireman, which makes me part of one of the most tribalistic groups in the world.  I’m an Episcopalian – again, rather tribalistic.  But while it’s nice to be a part of an exclusive tribe, one must be conscious of just what that exclusivity means.

 

In today’s Gospel, we get “the episode of the “strange exorcist” in Mark.  John, one of the three in an inner circle within the Twelve (an insider among insiders) is disturbed when they discover someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name even though he does not “follow” the Twelve…Jesus responds with an inclusive impulse, “Do not prevent him. … Whoever is not against us is for us.””[1]

 

Once again, Jesus flips the usual script.  We’re more likely to hear the opposite, Whoever isn’t for us is against us, us against the world, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  But here we see that Jesus wasn’t aiming at exclusivity, His little tribe of twelve against the world.

 

And then Jesus did another curious thing: the disciples had exclusion on their minds, and so Jesus taught them what to exclude.  Hands, feet, and eyes are on that menu.  That’s a bit of a stark image, and so Jesus must have been trying to drive home His point: if we want to exclude something, exclude the things that cause you to sin.

 

So what does this look like in real life?  Is Jesus really telling us to cut off limbs and pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin?  The general consensus is no, at least to the literal interpretation, but an absolute yes to the more nuanced way of looking at it.  Here’s the principle of the thing: “be decisive, even radical, in your choices, when it comes to your journey toward the reign of God.  For example, in the context of the Christian covenant, commitment to a spouse means you need to cut off any other (romantic) relationship.  If alcohol is addictive for you, drop it entirely.  If the television threatens to vitiate normal family communication, put it out of the living room.  If the job compromises your conscience, and the boss will not hear of any changes of policy, maybe you need to quit.”[2]

 

Jesus is telling us that no matter how painful our efforts might be in avoiding sin, no matter how radical the steps might have to be in our path of discipleship, that pain is nothing compared to the anguish sin causes in our lives.

 

As is all too evident in the news, our sins catch up with us, drag us down, and worse yet, they destroy the people around us.  Don’t be that guy, Jesus tells us, and even more, don’t be the guy who’s sins cause others to sin.  “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  Better for him.  Apparently God doesn’t like it when we corrupt the people around us.

 

So, are you nervous yet?  Are you doing a silent inventory of all the times you would have been better off without a hand or with a millstone around your neck?  Good – that’s the way it’s supposed to work.  Being aware of ourselves and the ways in which we have sinned against God and each other allow us to ask forgiveness for those offenses.  God does and will forgive you; He will confirm and strengthen you with His Holy Spirit, and that same Spirit will guide you in correcting course, in becoming a person whom sin has no hold upon.  The type of person who gets past the velvet ropes to the best party imaginable; the type of person who wants to invite everyone along.

[1] Dennis Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/26OrdB093018/theword_hamm.html

[2] Ibid.

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Pentecost 18

So, I had a friend while growing up named Steve (names have been changed to protect the innocent).  When we were teenagers, Steve’s family left the Episcopal Church and started going to an offshoot of a California outfit called Calvary Chapel.  Calvary Chapels were non-denominational and very conservative, not to mention very Pentecostal and Calvinist.  Anyway, Steve and his family joined Calvary in the midst of a long series of sermons on humility, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but when I would see Steve during that time, he would talk incessantly about his humility – he would brag about just how humble he was.  I think Steve, in his youthful fervor, missed the point.  Steve also gave mini-New Testaments as tips in diners, so this was not the only point he missed.

Humility is not a new concept in religion, of course, and neither is the concept of missing the point.  Both concepts are on full display in today’s Gospel story.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus rebukes his disciples for arguing about who among them was first and greatest.  But how do we suppose their argument went?  As Eleonore Stump taught, there are two possibilities:

First Possibility:  Each disciple was saying, “I am the greatest!” while the others were saying, “Oh no, you’re not!  I am!”

Second Possibility:  Each disciple was saying to one of the others, “You are the greatest among us!,” and that person was saying, “Oh no, I’m not.  You are!”

“On the First Possibility, each disciple is trying to put himself ahead of all the others.  On the Second Possibility, each disciple is trying to be small by putting some other disciple ahead of himself.

“We are naturally inclined to think that the right possibility must be the first one.  That is because Jesus rebukes the disciples, and we unreflectively suppose that Jesus wouldn’t want to rebuke them if each one was trying to be small.

But notice that if we adopt the first possibility, then Jesus’ rebuke doesn’t make sense.  On the first possibility, what is wrong with the disciples is that each one is trying to be first.  And so Jesus should rebuke them for trying to be first.

But that is not what Jesus rebukes the disciples for.  On the contrary, Jesus gives the disciples a short instruction manual for how to get to be first.  If you want to be first, he tells them, you have to be the servant of all.  Would Jesus have explained to them how to get to be first if he thought that trying to be first was wrong?

“So the Second Possibility is (probably) the right one.  Each disciple was trying to be small in order to seem humble.  But there is no true humility in trying to be small.”[1]

True humility, Christian humility, is something else entirely.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  But thinking of yourself less is not only difficult, but increasingly difficult.  I’m not one to harp on social media – I think Facebook and its sisters are some of the most remarkable tools ever developed – but I think we have to admit that most people, maybe even some of us on occasion, use it not to see how other people are doing but rather to see what other people think of us.

So again, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  “We discover that from the Greek word Jesus and the apostles used, tapeinos, which conveys the idea of having a right view of ourselves before God and others.  If pride is an exalted sense of who we are in relation to God and others, humility is having a realistic sense of who we are before God and others.  We must not think too highly (or too lowly) of ourselves.  Rather, we must be honest and realistic about who and what we are.”[2]

Last week I told you to go out and do great things for God without worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing.  This week I’m saying to go out and be the greatest you for God, the greatest humble servant of everyone, and pray that none of us miss the point.

 

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Pentecost 17

I got a call from a fellow priest not too long ago, and he sounded kind of distraught – he seemed to be looking for a little comfort.  It seems that he was saying a service for someone he didn’t know in a funeral home, and after the set of prayers for the dead, he realized he had at least once used the wrong name for the deceased.  Once I had assured the priest that these things happen to everyone, I told him the story of how I once told a man, as I was leaving his hospital room after he had a heart operation, to “Have fun.”  Just when you think you’re going full speed, cookin’ with gas, that’s when you’re most likely to fall on your face.

Our gospel reading for today is a perfect example, of course.  It’s possible that no one in the whole Bible flew as high and crashed as hard as quickly as Peter did in this story.

“The disciples are beginning to see that Jesus is much more than just one of the great heroes from the past—John the Baptist, Elijah, the prophets, etc.  Jesus asks them (who they, His closest followers, the people He considers friends, He asks them who they say He is).  Without hesitation, Peter responds, “You are the Christ.”

“Without realizing it, Simon had proclaimed the crucial depth that underlies all Christianity.  Jesus was not just a buddy or a healer, as, up to now, (many) had been thinking.  He was the long awaited Messiah.”[1]

And so the secret is out, at least among the twelve disciples.  You see, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus worked rather hard to keep His identity a secret, at least for the first couple years of His earthly ministry.  Jesus would heal or cast out demons or do some other work of wonder, and then He would charge those around to not say anything about it.  Scholars refer to this motif in Mark as the ‘Messianic Secret’.  The idea behind the Messianic Secret is that if too many people knew about Jesus too quickly, Jesus might have been overwhelmed by crowds or overrun by the authorities, or more likely just completely misunderstood by His followers.  He perhaps needed time to teach, to be present with people, to set His example for us.

But people were and are bad at keeping secrets, and so almost every time Jesus performed a miracle or taught something controversial, people blabbed about it all over the place.  Just before today’s story, Jesus miraculously fed four thousand people and healed a blind man, and the witnesses to these things were making their own claims about who they thought this wonder worker was.  He must be the return of one of our heroes!  Elijah back from heaven, perhaps.

And so Jesus knew He had to clear things up, at least among His own inner circle, and to give them an idea of what His identity meant, what it meant to Him and to them and to the future.

So again, Peter proclaims his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.  Peter’s flying high; I mean, imagine getting that question right.  The disciples are now prepped to learn how things are going to play out.  “The Son of Man must suffer greatly … and be killed, and rise after three days.”

You can almost hear the record scratching in the disciples heads when Jesus told them that, and Peter, at least, was having none of it.  Suffer?  Killed?  Not my Messiah.  Peter openly rebuked the person he had just called the Son the Living God.

And so queue the crashing sound.  Peter fell to earth as quickly as he soared toward heaven.  “Get behind me, Satan,” is not something one wishes to here from God Himself.

But here’s the best part: Peter did get behind Jesus, not to get out of His way, but to keep following Him.  Just in case you thought this made Peter better at things, he went on to reject Jesus washing his feet, to fall asleep during his watch in Gethsemane, to deny Jesus three times after His capture, and to run away in fear of being crucified along side of Him.

And yet, Peter is the rock on which our Church is built; he holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.  He founded churches, converted thousands, and is the most revered of the Apostles.  The lesson is sometimes you fly high, sometimes to you fall on your face, but none of us could ever do it as well or as badly as Peter.  So go out there and do great things for the cause of Christ, without worry or anxiety about saying or doing the wrong thing.  Just try not to tell anyone in the hospital to have fun.

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Blessing of the Firetrucks

Good evening everybody, welcome to the 11th Annual Blessing of the Firetrucks.  It’s been a year since we’ve gathered together like this, and it’s been a year of ups and downs, to say the least.  As a community, death is not foreign to us, but we’ve seen too much of it this year, in our ranks, in our families, and in the community.  We’ve celebrated too, of course; there were a lot of firefighter weddings this year, I’ve run out of fire related jokes to make at the services.  It’s been a year of ups and downs, which makes it all the better that we get a chance to gather together like this, so that as a community we can say thank you, to say God bless you, to show our support for all of you and all that you do.

I want to talk today about time and healing.  “What time is it?” is more than the question you ask yourself when the pager goes off in the middle of the night, or when you’re waiting to get off shift or a duty crew.  Time is crucial in any number of ways: time in training and time of response come immediately to mind, but so does time off, time with family and friends, time to rest, pray, decompress.  And time to check in with each other, to hold each other up, time to help heal the wounds of lives going from one incident to another.

Today’s gospel lesson is all about healing, for all time, all history, was fulfilled in the Messiah coming to heal us.  The healing described for us today is not one of those elegant miracles of Jesus, healing by a word or a gesture or by power flowing through his cloak.  This one is down and dirty, physical, a little disgusting, really.  Friends bring a deaf and mute man to Jesus; He sticks His fingers in the man’s ears, He spits on His hand and touches the man’s tongue.  Jesus groans, feeling the suffering of a life lived deaf and mute, and finally commands the man’s ears and mouth to work properly.  “Be opened.”

By now we know that Jesus could have healed that man any way He wanted to.  Jesus could have waved at the man from across the room or said a quick prayer or, really, just thought the man healed.  But instead, Jesus spent time with the man; He made a connection, an actual physical connection; He took on a portion of that man’s suffering, and He made him whole.

Time and healing.  Like I said before, this has been a year in which, like first responders everywhere, we have seen trauma and the results of those traumas on ourselves.  A recent study has found that 84% of first responders have experienced trauma while on the job, which means that the other 16% are either lying or just haven’t been involved long enough.  The incident that still gives me trouble happened in 1995: some wounds take a long time to heal.

What are your wounds?  Whether you’re a firefighter, an EMT, a police officer, dispatcher, armed service, or none of the above, we all have wounds.  We all have wounds that stop us from hearing and speaking to each other, that stop us from relating to ourselves and to each other and even relating to God the way we would want to.  But healing is real and possible.

For the record, I’ve witnessed miraculous healings, both physical and spiritual.  But the Lord works in many ways, most of them not that mysterious.  Most of the time, healing looks like what happened in our gospel story: people responding to a friend in need, gathering together around him, guiding him toward help.  When time is spent, connections are made, and suffering is shared, healing is possible, miracles are possible.

The Lord created us to be in community, to be together with Him and with each other, so that in truly hearing one another, so that in speaking to each other in truth and love, we may all come to true healing and true peace.

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