Advent snowfall

Snow: slow
relentless covering
sharp corners disguising
thin ice with deep pile
suffocating beauty: each
fractal shrugging off
the image of its neighbour

endless variations on
a theme devised before
danger delivered
into the world
under the shadow
of life

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On judgement

A sermon for the online service of the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, on November 15, 2020. The first lesson comes from the oracles of Zephaniah.

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There is a big difference between the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” and the terrible and highly personal judgement proclaimed by the prophets.

Zephaniah, descendant of kings and witness to the decline of empires, offers dire warnings against those who believe that their deeds and debts, duties and devotions, are of no consequence to God, that “the Lord will not do good nor harm,” that the almighty king, judge, and author of life has withdrawn from the story, no longer cares about the antics of the characters whom God has created.

We pray through the psalms that we are like the grass before God: easily swayed by the breeze, profligate but prone to mortality, and subject still to God’s indignation, and to God’s mercy.

There is a big difference, too, between the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” and the intervention of the Cross. In our petty judgements of one another’s comeuppance, of disfavour that is deserved, we do not leave room to reckon with the death of innocents, with the pain of those who cry to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”, nor with the apparent and easy victory of the vain.

But Jesus is among us in our most vulnerable hours, our most misunderstood moments, our deepest pain and our most undeserved joy. He, through the Cross, the harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection has proved beyond doubt that the worst that falls us is not the measure of God’s mercy towards us, nor of our deserving; but that the judgement and justice of God, whose measure is mercy, is a more personal and interested and reliable and patient guide to our relationship with the world and with its Maker.

Zephaniah, descendant of kings and witness to the end of empires, writes out of his own history, and he is concerned not only with individual actions but with the disposition of the nation, and he holds its leaders particularly responsible. An oracle that we did not read this morning goes on to say,

“The officials [within the city] are roaring lions;
 its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons;
its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.
The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong.
Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail;
but the unjust knows no shame.” (Zephaniah 3:3-5)

Zephaniah does not exempt himself from this judgement – he is surely among the reckless prophets – nor does he exempt me as priest, nor any of us, since as those responsible for our own governance, we the people have a particular responsibility for the disposition not only of our own hearts but of our nation. Only the unjust know no shame; only those who pretend that God has no interest in our lives, in our world, in our humanity pretend that no good nor ill will follow our own good or evil attitudes or actions.

There are consequences to our actions. There is the simplest cause and effect that we see when, for example, a public health emergency is greeted with sensible precautions consistently applied across the community and its spread is reduced, or when they are flouted or fail, and both the arrogant and the innocent are affected and infected.

We, the people, have a duty to consider with the love of God our obligations toward our neighbors and to stand up for their dignity and protection, and to follow public health advice.

Neither the judgement of God nor the mercy of God exempts us from simple cause and effect. But the judgement, the merciful and just judgement of God, does address our investment as leaders and lovers of God’s people in their health outcomes, their societal status, their equality under the law, their thriving, our common good.

Just yesterday, in his episcopal address, our Bishop noted that the fact that each of us, if we look with clear eyes, will find that our place in our society is affected by our race. Because of the disparity that this reality reflects, we are, as a whole, racist. (I am paraphrasing, because I do not yet have the transcript, so I apologize if I have him wrong; but this is what my heart heard from him. [Update: a link to the episcopal address has been added]) To say this, he said, is not a judgement. It is only a fact. What we do about it, however – and this is where we turn back from the bishop to the prophets – how we recognize it, and repent of it, and submit it for redemption: those things are subject to judgement.

Only the unjust know no shame, and say that because God does not change the dynamic of cause and effect, but lets us lead human lives of substance, agency, and consequence; only the foolish say that this means that God, our Judge and our Redeemer, does not notice nor care what goes on in our hearts, nor in our homes, nor in our nation.

But we sinners know better. We know that whatever the immediate and visible consequences of our sin and of our attempts at repentance, there is more at stake.

When we the people of God move toward love, we use our little power as a lever to shift our planet’s axis toward the intended reign of heaven. When we as disciples of Christ act as those commissioned and called by love, we change the trajectory of our faith and our future toward the will of God. When we embrace the judgement of God, that is neither arbitrary nor impersonal, but steadfast in its loving-kindness and consistent in its fierce mercy, then we live into our salvation.

“For,” as the apostle Paul writes us,

“God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that … we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)

Amen.

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Last Judgment by Petrus Christus. Early Netherlandish paintings in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Contributor Sailko CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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It’s not about the oil

A sermon for the online service of Morning Prayer at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, the Sunday after the 2020 US election, and the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

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In the days of Elijah the Tishbite, there was a famine in the land, and when he came to the house of a widow begging for bread, she told him that she had only a handful of meal and a cup of oil left, and that once the loaf it would make was finished, so was she. Yet she did not deny him, but took him in with herself and her son, and shared their last loaf with him. And lo and behold, for as long as the drought continued and Elijah was with them, the meal and the oil did not run dry (I Kings 17).

Many centuries later, the Maccabees recovered and restored the Temple, cleansing it after its desecration by an abusive conquering king. They celebrated the rededication of the Temple for eight days, burning oil in its lamps that, the Talmud tells, should only have lasted a day, but which God eked out for them, so that they could complete their ritual and restoration (see also 1 and 2 Maccabees).

A lack of oil is the presenting problem for Elijah, the Maccabees, and the bridesmaids of our parable; but it is not a stumbling block for the reign of God, and it is no hurdle to the mercy of God.

In the story of Elijah, God partnered with the self-sacrifice of the widowed single mother, the selflessness of the over-stretched woman, to save the whole family from disaster.

In the story of the Maccabees, God partnered with the those breaking out from under the yoke of oppression, those who refused to accept the crushing of their faith, the desecration of their religion.

In the story of the bridesmaids, we do not find those catalysts of mercy, generosity of spirit, selflessness, creativity which might have been moulded into a more satisfying ending. Instead, each woman was worried only about her own lamp.

Now, I do not think for a moment that Jesus is preaching about who will get into heaven and who will be locked out. The wise don’t get their ticket stamped by having sufficient resources to start with, and by refusing to share them with others. We cannot buy our way into the good graces of God, even less by withholding grace from others. Jesus spent his time preaching good news for the poor and an inheritance for the meek, feeding the multitudes with free bread and fish, healing people in and out of his network.

Nor do I think that Jesus is implying that if we run out of oil, or steam, or get momentarily distracted or diverted, that he will reject us, or pretend that he does not know us. The shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to seek out the lost lamb, when it comes belated and bleating across the hillside, is not going to turn it away or leave it to the wolves.

Jesus’ point about the kingdom of heaven and its in-breaking is not about the afterlife anyhow, but about the here and the now. Not that this, either, a commentary on our election processes, and the work we have yet to do to heal our nation’s hurts, although we might be forgiven for going there.

“Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus says; yet all ten of the bridesmaids had fallen asleep before the bridegroom came. All of them were flustered when they awoke in a hurry, and five realized that they had not planned ahead, and five failed at generosity, and all of them, in their fixation on filling their own lamps, failed to think creatively, or collaboratively, to find a solution that would save them all.

There are any number of different ways this parable could have ended.

I get that it would not make sense to spread the oil so thinly that all ten lamps would sputter and fail; but if they pooled their resources, and shared one lamp between two, they could have made a pretty welcome for the bridegroom all together.

“Why should we?” asked the so-called wise ones. “They got themselves into this mess. Let them get themselves out of it.”

The bridegroom could have had some compassion for the flustered and foolish maidens racing back from the oil dealers with their refilled lights, and let them in. But he said, “Too sad, too late.”

Those five young women, with a little creativity, could instead have ditched their lamps and gathered up posies of flowers, and arranged themselves between their wise and haughty sisters, ready to greet the bridegroom as though it had always been intended this way.

But they were each one fixated on having her own lamp lit, and none had time nor bandwidth nor the imagination to think outside the oilcan.

We can do better. This parable is a commentary, I think, about our continuing lives of faith and hope in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, whose will, we pray, is to be done on earth, here and now, as it is in heaven.

If we fail to share our faith with our families, our friends, we fail the great commission. If we pretend not to know those who come late, or breathless, or empty-handed; if we exclude those who have had the doors shut in their faces for too long already; if we meet anyone without mercy, we open ourselves up to judgement. If we each look to our own interests and neglect the needs of our siblings, we miss the point of the parable. If we abandon our cousins to the outer darkness, we miss the whole point of the gospel.

This is the moment to double down on love.

We do not know even now where and when the next opportunity will present itself to welcome in the kingdom of God, to usher in the reign of heaven. We know from our faith history that God provides for that moment, and that we, in partnership with God’s mercy, God’s unfailing love, can do better than the wise, foolish, and selfish bridesmaids of the parable. A lack of oil is not the problem.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” writes St Paul, referring to the self-sacrificing love of Christ who was crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Or to paraphrase one of our diocesan [Diocese of Ohio] billboards: Love God. Love your neighbour. Change the story.

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Featured image: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh. CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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In the meantime

From my weekly email to my parishioners:

At the time of writing you this morning, the US 2020 election has yet to be definitively called. Many of us are waiting on the final results with a mix of anxiety, hope, and determination, held in tension with prayer.

We are assured through our prayer that, no matter who might be in charge of our government, Jesus is Lord.

This is not a simple statement to make. Jesus was Lord even as his apostles were martyred, Jerusalem sacked, and while Rome burned. Jesus was Lord during the American Revolution, the American Civil War, the slave trade, the civil rights marches, and 9/11.

To say that Jesus is Lord is true throughout all ages and it does not determine that each moment of our history is aligned with his will. Jesus was Lord through two world wars, and the genocide of his people. Our Daily Office readings this week come from the Revelation, which wrestles colourfully with this division between the kingdom of heaven and our lived experience.

Jesus is Lord and his name means Saviour. This is our hope, our comfort, our encouragement, and our challenge.

To proclaim that Jesus is Lord is to accept his marching orders: to bring good news to the poor, to heal the sick, free the captives, offer hope to the broken-hearted; to love mercy and to do justice, walking humbly with God; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and respect the dignity of every human being.

However this election is decided, and however each of us is affected by the result, for better or for worse, personally and even profoundly, our work as Christians is determined by our allegiance to Christ.

On Sunday I left you with a blessing from Henri-Frederic Amiel, and an addendum of my own. Amiel wrote:

“Life is short.
We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us.
So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

And I added:

“Life is eternal. Let us live as we mean to go on.”

Jesus is Lord. His name means Saviour. His mercy endures forever.

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Promise and practice

A sermon for All Saints’ Day, 2020. It is the Sunday before the close of the US elections, and we have reverted to online services because of the steep spike in COVID-19 cases locally, nationally, and globally. Still, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ…

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What a year. What a week. And here we are, at All Saints’ Day, when we promise that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God and of one another; and here we find ourselves still pulled apart.

We are pulled apart by good sense – the need for public health protocols – and by ugly arguments, anxieties, and frank fears as we head into the most uncertain and uncivil election week that many of us remember. We are pulled apart by grief, for those we have lost to such divisions, or to disease or distance, or to death.

But we are not alone if we suffer for it, this separation. Those who stand around the throne of God have come through great ordeal, and they sing songs of praise to their Saviour and their Sanctuary.

We are not alone in our separation. There are children whose parents are lost to our tracking systems, such as they are, whom we have separated from their fathers and mothers. There are hundreds of them.

There are families who have lost loved ones to this coronavirus – more than 5000 in Ohio alone since March.

There are so many people who have been separated from economic security, marriage security, health security, who are still segregated in health outcomes and judicial outcomes, if you look at the statistics and their stories.

Yet at All Saints’, we pray the promise that nothing can divide us from God’s mercy, Christ’s redemption, the new and unbroken life of the Spirit.

We promise the kingdom of heaven to the poor in spirit and the persecuted. We promise comfort to the grieving, mercy to the selfless. We promise that the great ordeal will not last forever.

Promises require practice. It is our call and our promise to bring comfort to the broken-hearted, to make peace without sacrificing justice, or mercy, for peace cannot survive without them. It is our call and our promise to hunger and fast for righteousness, to be fierce in our pursuit of the kingdom of heaven for all of God’s children, all who are made in the divine image. It is our call, and our promise not to overlook the meek, or the weak, nor to let their inheritance be stolen from them. It is our call, and our promise, to resist evil, to proclaim the gospel by word and practice, to serve our neighbour as Christ himself, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

And God promises us eternal life and an end to this separation, this wrenching of the spirit, not because we do these things, but because Christ does these things.

Because Jesus resisted evil even unto the Cross, because he defeated even death, and comforted his friends who were in mourning; because Christ by his word and action made God’s love manifest in the world and in our history; because he had such love for sinners, and defended the dignity of most maligned, and promised paradise to the bandit executed alongside him; because he has done such things for us, we can trust his promises to us.

For there is nothing on heaven or on earth or under the earth, in life or in death, angels or principalities, no rulers, no history, past, present, or future: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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A more perfect idolatry

The separation of church and state notwithstanding, our religious communities are by no means insulated from our current political maelstrom. Far from it. Late in this latest political race, in the context of COVID, of an increase in sectarian violence, in both racism and talk of anti-racism, church bodies discuss how to hold Americans together in their pews, how to hold America itself together. It is language that recognizes the profound risk of a greater rift. It makes sense; the church is practiced in the language of reconciliation and of unity. It has sometimes, although not always, used the language of non-violence.

As a clergyperson in America, a citizen of less than a decade’s standing, in many ways still a stranger in a strange land, I have noticed something else in the language that I am hearing and seeing and being invited to subscribe to through email chains and online resources.

I am invited to find common ground, middle ground, to eschew the extremes and split the difference between polar opposites by resisting the draw of each. I am also invited to resist that pull toward the middle ground, to stand firm on my mark on the political spectrum, believing (as each of us must) that it represents our best chance of achieving justice, mercy, and the will of God.

But what if our political landscape, even in its Platonic ideal form, is not the perfect overlay for the terrain of the kingdom of God?

There is a prideful instinct within us that assumes that we can, perhaps even have, designed the political system and philosophy that will lead us into the promised land of peace, prosperity, justice, and rest, if only we could all agree to meet there, on common ground. Idolatry is insidious. I am concerned that, for all our brave talk of the Gospel, there is a part of us that is still tempted to find our own way toward the knowledge of good and evil, knowing better than God what is good for us (see Genesis 3).

The problem is that only God is perfect. The grammar of the Constitution, “in order to form a more perfect union,” belies itself; perfection is not possible for anyone but God. Even Jesus, when addressed as, “Good teacher,” replied that God alone is good (Mark 10:17-18). The grammar of the document over which we tear ourselves to pieces and hope to put ourselves back together recognizes by its very construction, by relativizing perfection, that it aspires to something that we are not altogether in a position to provide. However perfectly we live into the ideals we have set before us as a nation, America is not the kingdom of God.

None of this means that we do not do our best to engage with the political systems at our disposal (nor that some systems are more helpful than others). They are the tools that provide us input into the steering system of the culture, the ethos, and the economy of this country and the world. It is part of the stewardship enjoined upon us in Genesis to wield the power that we have. It is an opportunity to resist evil, to interpret the struggle to live as God intended us, to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives, on a good day.

The problem of idolatry is that it tempts us to see the means as the end. In saying so, I am not calling anyone who has sent me those emails or signed me up to those Facebook groups or even preached me those sermons an idolater: God forbid. People in glass houses should not throw stones, and I am as fragile in my faith and orthodoxy as the next heretic. I am also committed to non-violence.

I do think that we are each vulnerable to that temptation to rest on solid ground, on something we know and can grasp (or view behind glass at the Library of Congress), as though it were the Rock of our salvation, the Cornerstone of our being.

Finding common ground amid the rubble of our political devastation is an endeavor worth pursuing, but it is not reconciliation, nor is turning our back on the arguments that divide us repentance. Reconciliation will not happen while anyone’s human dignity is denied, and repentance is more creative than repairing the machine that got us here.

Redemption will not be found in the ballot box. May we pray not to find perdition there, either. But hope demands that we set our sights higher than that, even as, in the meantime, we do what we may to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly toward our God.

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Pine

They strew palms before the hooves of a donkey
like candy beneath the wheels of a slowly-moving car.

My God has laid before me a path of pine needles,
and will I hesitate to cry Hosanna?

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The wedding parable

A sermon for the Church of the Epiphany’s service of Morning Prayer online on October 11, 2020. The Gospel reading is Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast. <hr>

What if this wedding were not about the king and his slaves, the guests and their clothing, the invited and the uninvited and the smited?

What if this parable were about the bridegroom and his beloved?

I am not saying that this is the meaning of the parable – I don’t know that it is possible to pin down that too exactly, and the brilliance of Jesus, the Word of God, as storyteller means that his creations can evolve, and translated by the Holy Spirit speak to us in different languages and tongues, as our language, our needs, and our sins have evolved in the centuries since this tale was first told.

But what if it were about the bridegroom? Jesus has elsewhere claimed that mantle and that title. He who, for all we know, was never married is not shy of evoking the feast, the celebration, the consummation that the role of bridegroom implies for his relationship with us, the church.

If this parable were about the bridegroom and his beloved, then the king and his worries about who will come and how they will dress and whether they will reflect well or poorly on his influence and standing are like Jesus’ words to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:41-42) Martha’s sister chose the better part, which was to attend to and to adore the bridegroom himself.

If the parable is about the bridegroom, then we are free, like Mary, to imagine ourselves in relationship with him. We are free to attend to him, to look upon him, to love him. We are free to imagine ourselves beloved by him, bound to him by covenant.

What if the kingdom of God were less about who is in or out, less about status or occupation or appearance, and more about mutual, covenanted love: the kind of love Christ models as bridegroom to the church, who loves us tenderly as though we were his own body. (Ephesians 5:25-30)

What if our covenant with Christ calls us to reciprocate that kind of love? What if our duties and privilege as citizens of the kingdom of heaven call us to love with that kind of tenderness? To treat our neighbour’s health as though we were caring for our own body? To clothe the stranger with the same kind of care and attention as we tend to our own needs for comfort, for warmth, for dignity? What if we were called even to sacrifice for the sake of the beloved, to share our worldly possessions and to bear with those who bear the image of the bridegroom, the image of God in Christ, for better or for worse?

What if the parable were about that kind of marriage, that kind of covenant, that kind of love?

It wouldn’t mean of course that the rest doesn’t matter: the pride and jealousy, the sneering and snarling, the slavery, the violence, the spite that echoes through the rest of the parable. They are still problems. They are still problems.

But it would give us a different starting point to look for their solutions. Instead of coercion, love. Instead of bullying, love. Instead of pride, love. Instead of judgement, love. Instead of rage, love.

I heard the news this weekend of the sudden deaths of two men whom I have known to love Christ deeply, and to serve Christ’s people out of that immeasurable well of love. I am shocked and saddened at the news of Fr Paul and of Br Andrew; yet I know that each of them has found his vows fulfilled, and that each has come into the embrace of his bridegroom.

In the midst of grief, there is love.

Amidst the flailing and failing and wailing and gnashing of teeth of this parable, there in the inner sanctum, at the centre of the feast, awaiting our attention, the bridegroom is patient, and faithful, and true, and beloved, let us not be distracted from him.

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Currents

Looking to a goose feather floating on the surface
for a landmark is rank foolishness;

yet its inconstancy may be no greater than
the line of seagulls ranged along the rocks
nor the white-capped waves,
the deck-chaired people on the sand,

even the lake bed, gouged out by glaciers,
given time

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Good tenants

A sermon for October 4, 2020. The congregation is celebrating its second monthly pandemic-era Communion service outdoors on a cool October morning. The President of the United States is in hospital with COVID-19. The Gospel tells the parable of the wicked tenants, echoing the opening of Isaiah 5, which was the first lesson.

Image via publicdomainpictures.net


God expected justice, but saw bloodshed instead; looked for righteousness, but heard the cry of the oppressed.

This parable did not come out of nowhere. It follows directly from last week’s story of the sons who said one thing and did another. It is part of Jesus’ answer to those who find him to be too much. Too dangerous.

Jesus takes up the parable of the prophet and applies it directly to those accusing him of exceeding his authority, in demanding justice; of riling up the rabble, by preaching repentance, and righteousness, and the blessed mercy of God.

The tenants who break their contract with God, the owner, the planter, the tender of the vineyard; the tenants break their contract with God out of greed, out of pride, out of self-importance and because they believe that if they throw their weight around enough, they will get away with it.

But there is no bluster that can deceive God. There is no violence that can bend God’s will away from the justice, the tender mercy, the harvest of righteousness that God has planted. This disruption, this violence, this evil will not be allowed to stand.

And what will the landowner do? Note that it is not Jesus who predicts his participation in the cycle of violence. No, that word came from the others, the ones he was addressing. They still do not understand the complete revolution of righteousness that rejects bloodshed, that calls forth songs of praise, not cries of pain.

Jesus is unequivocal in calling out the oppression, the deception, the greed, the manifest evil that sin has sown in the vineyard. He does not employ the methods of revenge, of escalation, of dominance to right the wrong. But he is confident that justice will serve, and that righteousness will be returned; that those who would turn a blind eye to the kingdom of God will stub their toes on it.

He is so confident in the justice and mercy of God that he is prepared to go to the Cross for it.

In the book of the prophet, the curse upon the vineyard does not endure forever: “Let it cling to me for protection,” says the Lord; “let it make peace with me, let it make peace with me.” (Isaiah 27:5)

In the book of Jesus’ life, the Cross is not undone. The scars remain; the pain of life and death is not denied, but the Resurrection continues the promise that come what may, no deception, no violence of greed or oppression, no deadly evil, nothing can finally prevent the life of God becoming manifest in the world.

We come together today around the fruit of the vine and the wheat of the earth. We feast on the promises of God made flesh in Christ Jesus. May we be worthy tenants of the vineyard. May we return to God what we owe: our life, our breath, our all.

Amen.

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