Christ the King

You know those discussions you have, especially when you’re fairly young, about what you would do if you ever found yourself possessing unfathomable riches?  If you had 100 billion dollars, what would you do?  I used to joke that I would raise a private army and take over Cuba, installing myself as king.  I would have been a benevolent king, I’m sure, worthy of the praises of my people.  But the fact remains that we don’t live in a time that has been particularly kind to kings, at least in the western world.  Our very existence here speaks to how our forefathers felt about kings.  Most western royal houses exist for show more than anything else, and now that we’ve thrown off the worst of what royalty has to offer, we can do things like enjoy royal weddings and princess movies and seeing American girls become duchesses.

But the fact remains that “Not every image of kingliness is pleasant.  Even in better times for royalty, kings have been associated with opulence, money, and reckless appetite.  They were distant and unapproachable, high and mighty surrounded by sycophant and jester.  Most strutted through time, decked in finery, decorated with trappings and trimmings of grand lordliness.  It was the uncommon king who did otherwise.

“King imagery is more problematic today, not only because of widespread suspicion of hierarchy and masculine dominance (a lordly word, that).  We are also not likely to be drawn to chivalrous virtues. Notions like honor, obedience, duty, and loyalty vex anyone whose highest value is individualism.  We love our autonomy (I sure do).  We celebrate choice because it is ours.  Doing the will of someone else is another matter.”[1]

And so welcome to the Feast of Christ the King.  The Last Sunday after Pentecost, according to our church calendar – or perhaps it’s easier to think of it as the last Sunday before we launch into the Advent season – is always the feast of Christ the King, a time to reflect on just Who we’re dealing with as we prepare to gaze upon Him as a baby on Christmas.  We do that because it can sometimes be difficult to grasp, in our day and age, just what it means to refer to Jesus as our King.

“The difficulty of properly applying king-talk to Jesus already appears during Jesus’ own public ministry.  While Jesus easily and enthusiastically proclaimed the kingship, or reign, of God, he was reluctant to accept for himself the royal title of Messiah (“Anointed One,” for which the Greek equivalent was Christos).  This reluctance seems linked, at least in part, to the image of king that most of Jesus’ contemporaries associated with the expected Anointed One.  Many first-century Jews appeared to be looking for a Messiah who would lead the people in the manner of King David, which at that moment of history seemed to entail leading an armed revolt against the Romans.”[2]

We already know that Jesus wasn’t about all that.  At no time did He ever even speak of raising a private army and taking over Israel, even though I am certain He would have been a benevolent king, worthy of the praises of His people.  But Jesus did talk an awful lot about the Kingdom of God, the reign of His Father.  All this talk got people nervous, especially those in power, and those from His own people who had authority, the Scribes and the Pharisees, they used all this talk to set Jesus up to be killed by the Romans.  “A person who constantly spoke of a kingdom and was treated by his followers as the Anointed One must, his opponents insisted, surely pose a threat to Roman law and order.”[3]

And so it ends up being Pilate, of all people, who actually recognizes that Jesus is truly the King of the Jews and perhaps the King of more than he could conceive, and we all know his course of action.

It’s been said that in Jesus, we serve a strange king.  That is true in that God is truly strange to us, but false in that the kingship of Christ is the true icon of a king – Jesus is what a king looks like, and we, with all our human kings, with their opulence, money, and reckless appetites, are just perversions of the real thing.

The Feast of Christ the King forces us to choose between the two images of kingship, and to choose which type of king we prefer to follow.

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Pentecost +26

So I spent the first three days of this week trapped in various conference rooms, surrounded by bishops, priests, and deacons, which sounds like about as much fun as it was.  On Tuesday evening, our presenter, a lovely man who I’ve known since seminary, made us break into groups of nine, gave us three sheets of paper, four paper plates, four Styrofoam cups, three pieces of spaghetti, and some tape, and challenged us to build a five-foot tower using just those things.  I no longer like that man at all.  On Wednesday morning, the hotel stopped serving us coffee at 9am, just as I was readying myself to present on the work I’ve been doing with Calvary Flemington.  I started wondering if we were living in the end times, those times of persecution and unspeakable horror we’ve just heard about in our lessons.

If we’re honest, the three readings we get today in our lectionary are not particularly fun; they’re hard to hear, and make it sound like there’s not much to look forward to.  I guess we shouldn’t expect the end of the world to be a soft subject, nothing but kittens and featherbeds, but I don’t like hearing about having to flee to the mountains any more than anyone else does.  And that, for all intents and purposes, is the message of Jesus in Mark 13.

This section of Mark chapter 13 is called the “Little Apocalypse” in biblical scholarship, because it deals with the end of the world, or at least what leads up to the end of the world as we know it.  That’s what the word apocalypse means to us: we use it in reference to any large catastrophic event or situation, to describe anything that seems to tear the world down around us.

But that’s not technically what an apocalypse is.  The word itself is Greek – apokalypsis – which literally means “an uncovering”.  An apocalypse is a revealing, a disclosure of knowledge.  The last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, could be called the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ the John, and surely that’s what the Greek Orthodox Church calls it to this day.

Mark was not alone in containing apocalyptic writing – in fact, there’s a whole genre of biblical writing that we call Apocalyptic Literature.  Daniel is the most famous writer in the genre, but there are many others who wrote down things that were revealed to them, revealed by an angel perhaps, or by some other spiritual experience.  Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Mark, John, and Paul all told of something that they had seen that could only be seen if it was revealed to them by God.

Such revelations are important, of course, and we should pay attention to such things.  But paying attention to these things is different than spending way too much time trying to figure out what they all mean.  People have been searching for clues within the apocalyptic writings since they were written: what did Daniel mean when he wrote that the desolation would be for a time, two times, and half a time?  How long is a time?  When will that time come?  What did Jesus mean by the desolating sacrilege?  When will the tribulation begin?  False Christs?  What does it all mean?

Well, for the record, I don’t know, and neither does anybody else, really.  The fact is, we’ve all seen sacrilege that’s caused desolation.  We’ve all seen tribulation and we’ve all seen people claim to be a savior and sometime to be the Savior Himself.  Does that mean we’re in the end times?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that both Daniel and Jesus (and Paul in the other lesson) are less concerned with how we’re all going to die than with how we’re all going to live.  So what does that look like in the context of today’s apocalyptic theme?  Jesus gives us the answer.

First, he tells us to place our trust in no one and nothing else besides him, and, second, he tells us to keep up our guard.  First — watch out who you trust.  If you look to anyone or anything else besides Jesus to be your messiah, to meet all your needs, you’ll be disappointed.

And, second, we are to always be on guard.  The Greek word in verse 23 is actually “See” — Jesus says “Look!  Open your eyes!”  Jesus will come back someday to judge, and we are to watch for him so that he will not find us sleeping but awake, aware, alert, ready to do his will when he calls our names.”[1]

The end times will come – creation had a beginning and will have an end – but that end is truly just the beginning, the beginning of God’s perfect reign, the time when His people will be delivered from this world of tribulation and desolation, the time when all things shall be revealed.

[1]Fr. Sammy Wood

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Pentecost +25

“One hundred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, World War I ended. The fighting ended at 11 a.m. Paris time, “the eleventh hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.”

The armistice was agreed upon at 5 a.m. on Nov. 11. While news spread quickly, fighting continued until 11 a.m. Army Pvt. Henry Gunther of the 79th Division was killed at 10:59 a.m., a minute before the Armistice took effect. He was the last American killed in World War I.

As many as 4.7 million Americans served in the military during World War I. About 116,000 Americans died and 204,000 were wounded.

Armistice Day became a national holiday in 1919. In 1954, Armistice Day was rededicated as Veterans Day to honor all American veterans.”[1]

Today’s Gospel lesson is all about honor, really, at least as much as it is about generosity.  First, we hear Jesus making a little fun of the Scribes, the religious bigwigs of His day.  Jesus says that Scribes wear funny clothes and make orations out of their prayers in order to get noticed, so that people will honor them for being so pious and polished.

There’s something embarrassing about all that striving for honor, is there not?  Jesus thought so.  It’s not that being honorable is a bad thing – let me point that out very clearly here – it’s the striving that gets people in trouble.  As Eleanor Stump put it, “There is something shameful about trying hard to get honor.”

“It follows that Christians should not care about honor. In fact, if a person who seeks honor is shameful, then it seems that a person who strives not to care about honor is honorable.  And so it seems that it ought to be a point of honor with Christians that they disdain honor.  But here things can begin to slide out of control.

“Suppose you seek the honor of disdaining honor. Does this seeking after honor make you like the scribes?  If it is shameful to seek after honor, is it also shameful to seek after the honor of disdaining honor?  And if it is shameful to strive for honor and also shameful to strive to disdain honor, is there any road at all to honor?

“It is worth noticing that in the Gospel reading, Jesus singles out a widow for honor.  Poor as she is, she is giving from the little she has in order to help those who are needier than she is. Jesus praises her and points her out as an exemplar of goodness.  To be praised by Jesus is to be honored indeed!

So how did that widow get this singular honor?  The first thing to notice about her is that she wasn’t striving for honor, as the scribes were.  Although Jesus noticed her, she wasn’t trying to get noticed.

And the second thing to notice about her is that she wasn’t trying to disdain honor either.  The only thing she was trying to do is to help those in need.  And so her behavior shows the solution to the puzzle about honor.  The only true road to honor is to love the good and pay no attention at all to honor one way or another.”[2]

To love the good and pay no attention to honor.  If that sounds correct and familiar, it’s because we celebrate today all the men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces, who have set themselves between us and tyranny in all its forms, regardless of the consequences.  We celebrate them because they did that with honor and not for honors, and so they are indeed honorable.

What is left for us is to love the good, to honor the good, and to live in such a way that Jesus might point at us from across the street and say, “Be like her.”

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All Saints

So, Halloween was Wednesday, and I’m still recovering from the sugar shock of all the candy I stole while Doan wasn’t watching.  Snickers is still my favorite candy, but Reeses Peanut Butter Cups might be the king of Halloween, and they tend to get the best reaction from the kids when you drop them into their bags.  Reeses Peanut Butter Cups are a delight to the senses: that firm chocolate on the outside, the soft, smooth peanut butter on the outside.  All of which reminded me of the words of the Very Rev. Canon Doctor James Fenhagen, the longtime dean of General Seminary (booo!).  Many years ago, speaking about the Church in American culture, Dr. Fenhagen said that modern Christians tended to have hard crusty exteriors but soft inner cores.  Then he said that the problem is God call us to have a solid core and soft exterior.[1]  That, I guess, is what the dean thought a saint would look like.

So again, Halloween was Wednesday, and so All Saints’ Day was Thursday, but the Church throughout the world celebrates this fabulous feast day not just on November 1, but on the following Sunday as well.  All Saints’ Sunday is a traditional feast day for baptisms – baptism being the first step in the making of a saint.  My first All Saints’ Sunday here, Fr. Salmon baptized eight babies, a record I haven’t yet broken, but I’ll work on that.

So what makes a saint a saint?  “Well, it is difficult to give a simple, straightforward answer.  The word saint is used in so many ways.  We, of course often refer, on the one hand, to those who have led exemplary lives, who serve as an example to all of us of how to live a good and holy life but who have gone on to a wider life in eternity; people like (Mother) Theresa, Dietrich Bonhofer, and many, many others.  We keep days in their honor and frequently recognize them with the honorific title “saint”: St. Peter, St. Andrew and so on.”[2]  And it’s these big-S Saints we celebrate today.

But there is a wider definition.  In the New Testament, the word saint is used 62 times, and St. Paul himself used the word saint 44 times, referring to people who were still on earth, still alive, like you and me.  We, and all Christians everywhere, are called saints of God, holy ones of God.

Well, that just sounds impossible, right?  There must be some kind of mistake.  I don’t feel holy.  Just like most Christians in every place, day, and age, I can be a total disaster, and most of us feel disastrous at one time or another.  We screw up, we hurt ourselves and others, even when we’re trying to do the exact opposite.

St. Paul knew this feeling well.  In his letter to the Romans, he wrote “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”  Is there anyone who doesn’t understand this problem?[3]

Maybe you want to give up smoking, for your sake and your loved ones, but you keep smoking anyway.  Maybe you react badly to some habit your best friend has, despite promising yourself you’ll ease off.  Perhaps you set the goal of praying more each day or reading the Bible for 15 minutes each morning, but it never really stuck.

And so whatever your problem might be, and we all have one thing, right(?), it can make us feel like anything but a saint, anything but holy.  And so we get a reminder on All Saints’ Day that our holiness, at least while we are here on earth, is more of a process than a state of being.  Only God is holy in and of Himself – remember the song of the angels when in the presence of God, Holy, Holy Holy.

(As an aside, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the word holy essentially means someone or something that has been set apart, sacred.  But one meaning of the word is other; to angels, to humans, to anything created, God is uniquely other – His being is another thing altogether than ours).

But we’re not God, and so our holiness comes not from our own being, but from our relationship with the God who is utter holiness.  Strangely, the closer we get to God, the less holy we feel, but the more holy we get.  When we draw closer to God, our spirits, our inner selves, are made firm in the faith, and our outer selves, the face we show to the world, becomes softer, more patient, more loving, more like what a saint looks like.

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Pentecost 23

Yogi Berra once said that “You can observe a lot just by watching.”  This is, of course, true, and like most of the odd quotes we get from Yogi, somehow both profound and obvious.  Yogi was talking about observing and watching in terms of using his eyes – technically the sentence would make more sense if he had said that “you can observe a lot just by looking.”  Our Gospel story today, the story of Bartimaeus, blind from birth, shows us the difference.

If we are observant, we can see immediately that this is not an ordinary healing story.  “Mark’s typically terse prose is simultaneously, on the one hand, personal, earthy, and immediate, and on the other, symbolic, transcendent, and universal.  Mark makes an exception to his rule of not naming the people Jesus heals, which strongly suggests that Bartimaeus was not just a real person, but someone his audience knew, or at least knew about, a man whose zeal to follow Jesus never dimmed, perhaps a leader in the first generation of Christian communities.  Mark was especially interested in people on the margins of society, associating them with the transformational power of God that is emerging in the world.  At first the rest of the world tried to silence Bartimaeus, but to his enduring credit, he responded to Jesus, not to them, and “he cried out even more loudly.”

“So already this is an unusual story. In other places the crowds are indifferent, or even bringing people to Jesus for healing.  What Bartimaeus says is also unusual. He calls Jesus “Son of David.”  Only twice before in Mark has someone correctly identified Jesus: the first time it was a demon, and the second time it was Peter, though he needed some nudging before and after his confession of faith.  Bartimaeus identifies Jesus correctly, spontaneously, and publicly.  Too publicly.  Calling Jesus “Son of David” was not just a profession of faith, it was a political statement, connecting Jesus to the hope of a national leader who would drive out the occupying Romans and re-establish the glory and dignity of a united and sovereign Israel.  You know, the sort of thing that would get you killed, especially if you said it around Jerusalem, especially at the time of Passover.

“This is the moment in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is leaving Jericho to go to Jerusalem.  Passover is near.  This is the very last story before the sequence of events we call the Passion of Jesus begins.  Mark ends this story by telling us that Bartimaeus followed Jesus “on the way,” that is, the Way of the Cross.  He didn’t have to.  Jesus had already healed him and even told him to “go.”  But Bartimaeus stayed with Jesus, abandoning the cloak that was probably his only possession, his only protection from the elements.  His cloak was not physically preventing him from meeting Jesus, being healed, and following him, but the symbolism is obvious: he is leaving behind his old way of life, trusting Jesus and not an object of comfort and safety, responding to Jesus’s unconditional love with unconditional discipleship.”[1]

All of this makes me wonder what I am not seeing.  It makes me wonder if I am seeing Jesus clearly, if my discipleship is unconditional.  Am I being watchful and observant, or am I just looking around?  What’s making me blind to the Lord?

So, I did not win 1.5 billion dollars this week.  I did buy a ticket – 2 of those 1.5 billion dollars came from me – and I did my share of thinking of all the good things I could do with that kind of money.  If I did win, there would be a lot of happy churches, that’s for sure, and I certainly wouldn’t ever have to worry about where my next meal is coming from.

But on Tuesday afternoon it struck me that 1.5 billion dollars would ruin everything.  No dynamic in my life would ever be normal, no relationship unchallenged; my ministry to Bordentown would be based on money, not relationship.  I would have ended up with a 1.5 billion dollar cloak that I could likely never leave behind to follow Jesus on His way.

I had failed to observe, to observe and watch over what and who I really love.  That realization opened my eyes, if you’ll excuse the terrible cliché, to see Jesus more clearly, to watch more closely for where He is leading us.  It seems that you can observe a lot just by watching.  What are you watching for?

[1] Fr. Bret Hays

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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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