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Rev. Maggie’s sermon for 1/20/19: “When?”

Timing is everything, they say. Being a good waiter, for example, is all about timing. How to bring the drinks and the food at the right time, not presenting the bill too soon, or people will feel rushed, but take too long, and they’ll feel neglected. Giving the right thing at the wrong time makes it not the right thing anymore—if you bring all of the courses at once, no matter how perfectly cooked, you will spoil the meal. This Gospel passage is all about timing. The story takes place just on the cusp of that time, when Jesus is about to move from privacy of his family, who knows who he is, into his public ministry, when each new disclosure of his identity and his teaching will bring suspicion and danger. This is the first sign, the first move, in that journey. We can see that he approaches it with a sense of the weight of this moment. His mother wants him to do something he has probably done before, in the safety of their home—some impressive act, an expression of his joy in being alive, or of his feeling for others—she must have witnessed healings in the family, a flower that bloomed as he held it out to her with his child’s hand. But now, the things he can do will take on a new meaning—are they all ready, for the consequences of this revelation?

The stories of the season of Epiphany take us though the revelation of Jesus’ life, and its meaning for us. The Gospel of Luke, in which we’re spending most of our time this year, is especially journalistic, an honest and colourful reporting, to convince us that we’ve had history presented to us, revealed to us, truthfully and accurately. Our storytellers ask the classic questions: who, what, when, where, how, why? They’re putting all the pieces of the puzzle together for us. Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ Baptism, and we talked about the What of Jesus’ work—what happens in Baptism—washing away sins, and bringing people into a new kind of community with each other and with God. This week, we have the account of Jesus’ first miracle, told in the Gospel of John, because it is the only place we find that story. That first miracle is all about the When of Jesus’ work in our lives.

So let’s go back, to when it all happened, the night of that wedding. Imagine that you are the steward. You’ve worked for this family for years, taking care of their needs, managing the farm, the servants. This is a high-pressure time, a big wedding, there are so many details to take care of, so many guests to welcome from out of town. There’s livestock to slaughter and dress, baking to coordinate, they’ve been working on the cleaning and the sewing for weeks. And now after all of the preparation, it’s the big night, the wedding dinner—you’ve been on your feet since dawn, giving dozens of orders, answering twice as many questions about what goes where and we can’t sit Joseph’s family next to Ezra’s, don’t you remember, they’re not speaking to each other, what will we do? You’ve reached the point in your day when, if one more person brings you a crisis you’re just going to yell, “Handle it!” So you just slip away to your office for a few minutes to take a breath, and take stock of the supplies. It’s late, they’re several hours into the party with now sign of letting up, the wine is running low and you just want to go home. You put your head in your hands. You might lose your job, if someone important complains. Just then, one of the servants comes in and asks you to taste something, a wine they didn’t even know they had, maybe the groom’s family brought it, but they could serve it, if he thinks it’s all right. Oh no, you think, this must be some old jar turned to vinegar by now, this is only going to make things worse. Well, it’s this or water—what have I got to lose? … and then, you taste the wine.

What is that like? What did it taste like, this vintage, grapes grown and ripened, crushed and aged in an instant, in the blink of God’s eye? What was it like, this tasting of eternity, for an ordinary man at the end of a long day, a day on which he has made mistakes, lost his temper, and failed—the kind of day that all of us have known? What is it like, to find hope, when you had given up, when you weren’t expecting much of yourself or of life, anymore? Many of us, at one time or other in life, have gotten to that point when hope has run out. When the good things in life seem to have dried up, for us.

Have you tasted water that has become wine? For the steward, it happened all at once, turned his day around in a flash, but for most of us, it happens with time. Have you had that experience of transformation, of a shift in the way you were able to think about something—some event or some person? With time, what had been only bitterness becomes more complicated. Griefs and angers don’t disappear, but new things grow up alongside them, as we are granted insight about ourselves and compassion for those around us. How has life surprised you, or how have you surprised yourself? Just when you thought you knew exactly what was in that jar, and it was only disappointing and flat, or even empty, when did you find out that there was something else there, something that could live, and even feed others?

The steward is astonished, by the generosity of this late-in-the-day revelation. He marvels at the bridegroom—“You have done what nobody does, you have kept the good wine until now.” Don’t we all expect the best of life to happen up front: the carefree days and beauty of youth inevitably giving way to responsibility and decay, the cars and computers that glitter so brightly in the showroom, and then break down as their warranties run out? The proverbial honeymoon, that dissolves into the reality of stress and boredom?  That is the truth of the world, is it not: decline and fall, entropy, everything, eventually, is lost. But that is not God’s truth, that is not God’s way, as this miracle, this first, miracle, right at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, tells us, pointing all the way to its conclusion, to a death that will not be an end. When does Jesus come into history, and into our own experience? At the right time, now, after you had lost hope.

Contrary to our cynical, bruised expectations, God keeps a blessing for us until the right time. When you feel that your time for opportunity, for joy, has passed, what might be God be keeping for you, that don’t dare to hope for?

clock close up time

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 8/26/2018: “The Whole Armor of God”

I love the passage we read from Paul’s Letter to the people of Ephesus, with its imagery of the whole armor of God, not because I love going into battle, but because I love a system. A plan. If life were a James Bond movie, then I would be the Q character, the nerdy, awkward, scientist with the neat little gadgets for every emergency. This text from St. Paul is basically that scene, for the early Christians. This is what you’re going to need, he tells them, this is your gear. I love how it’s all mapped out.

God doesn’t want us to be without a plan, doesn’t intend to leave us defenseless, for whatever life throws at us, the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Really, the whole of the Bible is a map of that plan, taking us from the place we found ourselves—lost, there be dragons—all the way through our lives to home, you are here, right where you need to be. God’s plan of salvation takes shape through the Creator’s guidance, in Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the follow-up. The implementation strategy.

Paul wants the strategy to be clear. This isn’t rocket science, actually, even though I might want there to be a souped-up Aston Martin involved. The plan isn’t supposed to be some esoteric mystery, available only to the spiritual elite. It’s meant to be accessible to all. So what does Paul describe, what is God offering us, so that we can face what’s coming and stand firm? It starts with the Truth. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Honesty is the plan. I really love this plan. It’s grounded on something so basic, so fundamental, we begin with living in Christ, who told us, “I am the Truth.” We have to start there. Whatever else we do, the truth will be the right guide, the truth will set us free.

 

But there’s more, because honesty isn’t enough. It’s the place we’ve got to start, but the truth can put you in danger, as Jesus’ own life shows us. So, next, we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Now righteousness is a tricky thing for us, because it’s so perilously close to self-righteousness, which we can see all around us in our world—in fact, as Christians, we are known for it, and that reputation can be a huge obstacle, when we’re trying to tell people about the Jesus who loves and forgives. We don’t want to use righteousness as a weapon to wound or dominate others. But, if we pay attention to what the text actually says, righteousness is not being proposed as a weapon at all, here. It’s not the sword of righteousness, or even the club of righteousness, definitely not the machete of righteousness. It’s the breastplate, the protection, for the most vulnerable place, the heart. Without that righteousness, we expose ourselves to all kinds of damage. We hurt our own hearts, when we do wrong, when we become the kind of person who is used to hurting others. Being just and living with integrity, is the best way to make ourselves and those around us safe from the spiritual erosion of callousness and cruelty. Bad actions endanger us, and those we love; eventually, inevitably, they lead to death. Living in God’s way is the only way out of that dead end.

The working out of God’s way, God’s desire for our lives, will be a little different for each person. Paul says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The instruction here is graciously flexible; there is no one right answer. What helps you get ready, to proclaim the Gospel of peace? What gives you energy, feeds your passions, makes you more understanding and patient, more generous? Or, conversely, what do you know you need, to fill up your bucket of good will, or else you get cranky and mean? Running? Time by yourself or in nature? Enough sleep? Serious study and reading? Talking with a friend? Meditation? Experiences of the world and other people? Do what fuels you, make sure you’re equipped with what you need, to do the work and to be there for others.

So we’ve come this far, we’ve been cautioned not to get ourselves into trouble with dishonesty or bad actions, and to provide ourselves with those particular things that nourish us. What else do we need, to confront the forces of evil? Paul reminds us to take shelter, under the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. That’s one way evil works, especially in our world today, it makes everything seem so urgent, I must do this right now! I’ve got to respond to this horrible post on Facebook, or correct my neighbor who’s in the wrong, or make a judgment on this question of national importance, quick, now, before my own position is at risk, or I look foolish, or am judged, myself. I’ve got to handle everything, take every opportunity, or I’ll lose my chance, I, or my family, might be disadvantaged. It’s all got to happen now. Faith meets this temptation by taking the long view, faith trusts, faith waits, it abides, in the old language, resting secure in the knowledge of who God is, and therefore of who I am—God’s child.

We are under the shield of faith and we are under the helmet of salvation. For all of those temptations of urgency are really fears of our own mortality, disguised as the possibility of achievement. What wounds our minds? Fears. What wakes us up at 2 in the morning, racing round our heads? Fears. What keeps us from being in each moment, and cherishing what is, the gift of those around us? It is fear, that eats away at our life, our joy. God has promised, God has spent a lifetime, telling us that we are saved. That every hair on our heads has been counted. That each tear we shed is collected in a bottle. That we are not to worry, not to be afraid, for God loves us, and will gather us all in and make us new. Know that you are loved. Know that God has done everything, has given everything, for you. It’s not on you, saving yourself is not your job. You can’t get any more beautiful in God’s eyes than you are right now, because you are Christ’s, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. That is all the protection we need, that is the whole armour of God.

Paul only mentions one weapon, in this passage. It comes at the end, and it’s not a weapon in the conventional sense: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Word that we are forgiven, sought out, loved as Christ by God, that is how we stand up and fight the forces of evil. Just those words. That they are true for me, true for you, true for everyone—no one is beneath God’s notice, no one is uninvited to the feast of the bread of life.

And always, there is prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times. That is how we live in the awareness of God’s mercy and love. Prayer for everyone. Pray also for me. We rely on each other’s prayers. Feel them all at your back, when you need them, because they are there. Feel the protection of the truth, of righteousness, of the gifts you are given, of faith and salvation. Walk around in the strength of God’s power. Now we are strong enough to go and serve.

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Does the Holy Spirit Have Hands?

Sermon for 8 and 10 am Sunday, April 4th, 2017 || The Feast of Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23||  The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.

Happy Pentecost! Happy first Sunday of June, with a joyful entrance into the summer.

I am so excited to be in this pulpit for my first foray into preaching as an ordained person, wearing a beautiful cross made for me by our Ojibwe friends at the White Earth Reservation, a red stole for Pentecost, and collar on as the outward symbols of yesterday’s ordination and a lifetime of discernment. I am also delighted to have this Sunday coincide with the feast and celebration of the Holy Spirit coming among us.

Pentecost is marked and celebrated by a wide variety of traditions, and is not just a Christian holiday. According to Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates God’s giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 49 days after the Exodus. It also marked a Jewish feast of the early harvest.

We celebrate this day as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the people – finishing Jesus’ work on earth, completing his earthly life and empowering people to go forth and do God’s work in the world.

We understand that the Holy Spirit – fully God, but a distinct manifestation — different from God the Father and from Jesus (I’m pretty excited to hear Father John make the Trinity make sense to us next week when we celebrate Trinity Sunday), yet with God’s same vision, love and expectations for the world.

The Holy Spirit is a holy mystery – which doesn’t mean that it is forever unknowable. Rather, it is a Holy Mystery that we can study, chew over, decipher, unpack and examine while being forever nourished by insights and new understanding about the Holy Spirit throughout our entire lifetimes.

Thank you to those who participated in our reading of the passage from Acts in a variety of languages. I get excited by the scene outlined in that passage, with the notion of a group of unconnected strangers having a shared and barely explainable mystical experience.

Imagine yourself being in a large gathering, in the middle of an enormous, bustling foreign capital. You hear dozens of languages being spoken around you, by people who don’t look or dress like you, and all of a sudden, you hear what is being said in English.

The truth and power of the words cuts through the crowd, and fills your ears and your head with wisdom, insight and your heart with an overwhelming sense of love.

When I think and pray about what that miraculous moment looked like, I think of the hearts and minds and lives that were transformed in an instant. I wonder whether the rapid steps of transformation for the unrelated listeners went something like:

First, an awareness of their own discomfort at the foreign-ness of the surroundings, perhaps a bit of irritation at trying to understand what is being said right next to them by people with unfamiliar manners and dress, perhaps standing too close, or wearing nothing, or something peculiar looking on their feet. As they try to tune out this gibberish sounding noise, they begin to realize that they can actually understand what is being said. This realization is quickly followed by an intense desire and hunger to hear every word – to be bathed in the wisdom and love being espoused by the multitude of speakers. And when the speaking ended, a sense of comfort and gratitude for being in the midst of a miraculous expression of God through the Holy Spirit.

I would love to think that every hearer referred to in our readings for Pentecost was changed for life. That no one who experienced the Holy Spirit on that day decided to go back to his or her shopping list, or to continue along with the marital spat that was interrupted mid-accusation. I WISH that God was as obvious and life altering as described.  I am so grateful that I have had some pretty remarkable brushes with the Divine, but can not claim to have anything quite this obvious or dramatic.

Yesterday was pretty close. An ordination service is perhaps the liturgical equivalent of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was definitely present and is called upon to transform lives.

Yesterday I and Daniel Bell, Emily Garcia, Patrick LaFortune, Duncan Hilton and Amanda March entered St. Paul’s Cathedral as very active and engaged Ordinands (which is the funny Episcopal word that makes us sound like ordinary comedians or something, but we are in fact individuals who worked, studied, prayed and discerned in community, a call to the priesthood). Yesterday we entered the Cathedral as the people we have been all of our lives. People who love God, who want to emulate Christ and serve his beloved children, people who want to work toward God’s vision of heaven on earth, and people who know with certainty that God loves us. And yesterday, we left the Cathedral as ordained people who have newly conveyed authority to serve God’s church in new ways than was possible as lay people.

Our transformation occurred as we sang hymns, were officially presented and vouched for, signed a book, were examined and said prayers. The true moment of transformation within the two hour joy-filled service was when Bishop Gayle Harris laid her hands upon our heads and said a prayer, calling forth the power of the Holy Spirit to fill each of us with Grace and power, to be modest, humble, strong and constant.

And we believe that Bishop Gayle’s prayer worked and she conveyed diaconal authority to Emily, Duncan, Patrick, Amanda, Dan and me because she had this special power and authority invested in her by Bishops who laid their hands upon her when she became a bishop, and they have the power and authority because they had hands laid upon them, all the way back. This is what we know as apostolic succession. We have continuity of authority and doctrinal teaching going back to the time of the apostles.

There are some treasured stories about the beginning of the Episcopal Church in this country and the lengths to which a few courageous priests went to be consecrated as Bishops. Just imagine the vitriolic political schism that accompanied our country’s break with England at the time of the Revolutionary War, and the distinct lack of interest and well-founded worry that the Church of England had in consecrating new Bishops in a rebelling country. It is worth a bit of study to look up the life story of Bishop Samuel Seabury, who was the very first Priest ordained to be a Bishop in this country. He had to go all the way to Scotland to have a Bishop lay hands upon him to continue the line of apostolic succession.

Hands conveying the authority that Jesus bestowed upon his disciples from their age to ours. Hands doing God’s work in the world, translating the Holy Spirit into action. Hands as critically important instruments to do God’s work. Each Sunday, just as we heard in today’s gospel as Jesus offered peace to the disciples, so we extend our hands to one another offering each other a sign of God’s peace, and we use our hands to cross ourselves, a beautiful body prayer, that connects us to God in a silent but meaningful way as we worship, and we extend our hands to accept the sacrament of Christ’s body when we come for Communion at the altar rail.

At the communion rail, our hands accept Christ’s body, and we are fed in the holy mysteries of our faith. We are then called upon to take the blessing of this sacred and sufficient food, and use it and ourselves to feed and nourish others. To use our hands to do God’s work in the world.

Yesterday during my ordination, there was the briefest moment, as I was kneeling before Bishop Gayle, when I could feel her hands on my head, and knew the prayer she was about to say, that I had a quick Formation Review (you know how some people who have walked close to death but have survived say they had a life review? This was similar but so loving and positive) my formation review included the people, prayers and milestones that were reached throughout these years of preparation – my loved ones in the cathedral, my family, priests and friends who have walked and sometimes carried me along this road toward taking Holy Orders. The people who were doing God’s work, being parts of the Body of Christ, being God’s hands by guiding me to be the Priest I am meant to be. It was a moment that felt like a slight shift, perhaps the opening of a very thin place with God and for a moment all things seemed possible. It was the perfect prelude to Bishop Gayle’s prayer.

My prayer for St. Stephen’s is that as a worshiping community, with the faithful leadership of our search committee, we too find that thin place, connected to God and to the joyful possibility of our next rector. My prayer is that like the people in the biblical story of Pentecost whose needs were met by God who spoke in ways they could understand, we too are amazed and deeply satisfied with the person who is called to be our rector.

I am confident that between now and when our permanent priest arrives, there are people hungry for God’s good news, and thirsty for the blessed assurance of God’s love. They may never come and sit among us at St. Stephen’s. But carrying the Eucharistic nourishment we receive each week into the world, we are invited to go and find them and serve them where they are, in nursing homes and hospitals, on park benches or at the beach, in prison or detox or sitting lonely behind a front door in Cohasset. There are people who need our hands and the Holy Spirit which needs to be translated into loving action.

As I live beyond these first few days and weeks of being an ordained person, I pray to grow into clearer understanding of the ways in which God will call and challenge me to do the work of divine purpose in the world. To put my hands to God’s use. And I give thanks to be in this parish at such a pregnant moment, full of the possibility of new joys, new discoveries and new insights, surrounded by faithful guides and inquiring companions, who have brought me thus far on the way.

Amen

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“No Ifs, Ands, or Buts”

Sermon for Sunday, July 10th 2016 || Proper 10, Year C||Amos 7: 71-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1: 1-14; Luke 10: 25-37|| The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Could there be a more painfully pertinent gospel lesson for us at this time in our nation’s history? This time when, driven by fear and fear’s henchmen, anger and violence, so many of our brothers and sisters—our “neighbors” to use the biblical term—are being sinfully dehumanized by the actions and inactions of others…the actions and inactions of us, too? What a stand-in the nameless victim in this story is for all those we marginalize: Immigrants, refugees, Muslims, transgendered men and women, all black Americans– but especially young black men– and yes, police officers, too.

I’d like to share with you a bit of my own journey this week with this morning’s gospel. So I invite you to come with me as I take a close and discomforting look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

A man fell into the hands of robbers, Jesus tells us. Robbers who strip him not only of his clothes, but of his humanity; robbers who beat not only his body but his spirit into near-lifelessness; robbers who abandon their prey in the road to die, vulnerable and alone, like an animal. Robbers who see in this man with no name not a fellow human being but an object void of thoughts, feelings, or dignity, from whom they can all too easily distance themselves and thus do violence.

I contemplate the robbers in this story and am terrified by the questions that confront me: What robbers hide in me, doing violence to others by objectifying them with labels, categories, and classifications, rather than recognizing in them living, breathing, flesh and blood men and women as fully human and alive as I am? What robbers in me are stripping others of their humanity by lumping them into nameless, faceless groups for whom I may very well pray but with whom I may never break bread, enter into relationship, or call by name?

I contemplate these questions and I pray: Lord, have mercy upon me.

And turn to the priest and the Levite—both of whom tragically think they are doing exactly the right thing by avoiding ritual defilement. These men are just, righteous men– symbols of religious discipline and observance. But they’ve put the letter of the law above the spirit of the law, religious practice above God’s loving mercy, and in so doing they are equally guilty of stripping this man of his humanity, assaulting his spirit, and distancing themselves from him like some inconvenient object around which they must navigate.

It’s so easy for me to be outraged at their callous thoughtlessness, so easy for me to distance myself from them by labeling them “bad guys,” to turn them into objects of my self-righteous anger rather than recognize in them the all-too-human beings in whom my own shortcomings might be mirrored. Does not a Levite live in me, too? What moral high roads have I taken at another’s very human expense? When has my insistence on doing what I was so sure was the right thing left collateral damage in my wake? How often have I, too, avoided extending God’s mercy so as not to get my hands dirty?

I realize that for me the victim in this story is a stand-in for anyone or any group from whom I distance myself, like the priest and the Levite distanced themselves from this man. He’s a stand in for anyone or any group I strip of their humanity by not finding time for them, by having “more important things to do,” by not entering into relationship with them.

Convicted of my own sin I pray: Lord, have mercy on me.

Finally, I turn to the Samaritan. His people are despised by first century Jews, yet Jesus makes him the hero of his story: He who saw the afflicted man and did not turn away, did not quicken his gait, did not fear for his own safety, did not use his own sense of powerlessness to distance himself from the man’s need.

I read that the Good Samaritan was “moved with pity,” but know that the Greek here is better translated as “compassion.” The Good Samaritan feels compassion. He sees a human being, not an object or a label, and he feels compassion. It doesn’t matter if this person is from the wrong tribe, the wrong country, or the wrong side of the track, what matters is that he is a person, a human being—created in God’s image like you and like me. So the Good Samaritan acts. He does something. He shows the man mercy.

Now mercy is not a word we use a lot in this day and age. And it’s not one we often embody in our personal or political lives. I actually looked it up in the dictionary. Mercy, the dictionary says, is “action that embodies kindness toward the afflicted, or offers help to people in a very bad or desperate situation.”

Let me say that again: Mercy is action that embodies kindness toward the afflicted, or offers help to people in a very bad or desperate situation. Mercy identifies with, instead of against.

I consider in my prayer that there are entire classes of people in our country who are by any definition afflicted… afflicted by the vestiges of white racism and white privilege in which I am complicit. I pray about the lives all around me in bad or desperate situations and about which I do little or nothing.

I pray, again: Lord, have mercy on me.

I remember being taught in seminary that Jesus’ parables are intended to make one single, important point. In today’s gospel that point is made in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” I realize there is only one correct answer to that question: Everyone. Every living and breathing human being on this planet is my neighbor. The one single important point Jesus is making with this parable is that there are no exceptions. It doesn’t matter whether I dislike you, disapprove of you, resent you or fear you, it doesn’t change the fact that the Samaritan felt compassion and acted with mercy and Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.” There are no “if, ands, or buts.” I am to go and do likewise. We are to go and do likewise.

There’s a young black woman named Austin Channing whose blog “Writing Toward Reconciliation” I follow. She’s a beautiful writer and a fierce advocate for racial justice and reconciliation. And in one of her posts last week Austin Channing had this to say to those of us who are white:

“I guarantee somewhere in your life is a space infested with decisions being made to benefit white people at the expense of black people and other races and ethnicities. It’s time to be a co-laborer, to risk your body along with mine. It’s time for urgency. Your thoughts and prayers and posts don’t mean much, if they are only for places far away, and never right where you live, work or worship.”

Right where you live, work, and worship. Friends, I hope, like me, you can hear the pain in Austin Channing’s words. I hope that like me, you feel the urgency of being co-laborers on this journey. And I pray to God you will join me in navigating—no matter how clumsily—this uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. Because black lives matter.  And I know–I have to believe– that together we can find our way…together we can participate in the healing instead of the wounding; together we can feel and act and obey Christ’s command to “Go and do likewise.”

And as we do, may we pray together with all of our hearts: Lord,have mercy on us. Amen.

 

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