Spy Wednesday – Judas: My story

This was delivered at St Stephen’s Church in Windsor at the Wednesday Holy Week service.  We tend to use a reflection rather than a sermon for this simple Eucharistic service.  

As always, but especially in this format, it loses something by being read rather than hearing it spoken.

I never thought it would end like this. Three years. It’s gone so quickly, but it feels like I’ve known him forever. Did he know? He seems to know everything. And yet he seems to know so little. I can’t explain it well. You see, he’s like no one else. And yet he seems so ordinary. Everything about him is an impossible paradox. And he’s turning me into the same. I love him. I truly do. With everything that I am. And yet I do this. I sold him for thirty pieces of silver. More money than I could ever have imagined owning. But that’s not his price. Nothing could pay his worth. It’s my price. I sold my honour. I sold myself.

I thought it would end in triumph. I thought that together we would see glory. We seemed to have the same ideas. He was here to bring us, the chosen people, to freedom. We’ve suffered so much. Generation after generation. The chosen people have been the oppressed people. He was supposed to change that. He was supposed to set the oppressed free. I worked so hard. But he seemed more concerned with those who didn’t even follow him. Children! Children, apparently, are more in tune with God than those who have spent years studying and striving for holiness. The lame and blind who have never worked and rely on the charity of good people. And women! He put so much at risk for women. Talking to them in public, listening to their opinions, teaching them and encouraging them to talk to others.

I thought we would see God’s power enacted through him. I thought the powerful would be brought low. I thought the Romans would be defeated. That’s how freedom comes. By release from the oppressor. But he has even been kind to them. A centurion, for goodness’ sake! Instead of bringing things to order, the order we have been waiting for, he turns everything upside down.

Everything is upside down. This money can change my life. I’ve been saving bits that have ‘slipped out’ of the purse for a while. But now I have enough to make a real difference. And yet even that seems somehow in doubt. He was in the house of those women and the man he raised from the dead, and he seemed to have no regard for money and what money can do. I said the perfume should have been sold. “Think of the poor who could have been fed”, I said. That should have jolted him. His beloved poor. But no. Even that didn’t make any difference. It was almost like he thought the money couldn’t help them. So what could?

Despite myself, I think I understand. Love. So much is about love. Mary’s love was more important than the money. Love is more important than law. Love is more important than earthly power. It is love that heals. It is love that frees the oppressed. And so here is another paradox. It is love that will betray him. My love, which is so little compared to his. I will betray him with a kiss. How, then, will I be free?

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The Resurrection Explained with a Teabag

Yes.  you read that right.  I have today explained the resurrection to a bunch of seven year olds using a tea bag.  I stole the idea from a  number of places and put bits together.  After a few requests on Twitter and Facebook to share what on earth I am talking about, I decided to put together this post.  Now, I don’t normally share my assembly scripts.  It’s not that I’m trying to keep things to myself.  It’s just that I don’t feel that my ideas are really worth sharing.  So please be kind.  This idea might not work in your context.  You will certainly be able to find infinitely better ways of using it and make a much better assembly or lesson from it than I did.  Please do!  And then let me know what you did to improve it so that the next time I use this idea (because I recycle ALL my ideas) I can take it up a notch.

Firstly you need to get yourself a tea bag.  One of the types with a string and tag on the end.  This type of thing:

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Talk about the label – We give ourselves lots of labels in life and we accept lots of labels that other people put on us:  Teacher, mum, blonde, fat, tall … But none of those labels on their own can fully describe who we are.  Jesus had lots of labels too (maybe get the children to give some of those e.g. rabbi, shepherd, Son of God etc).  But he wasn’t interested in labels.  He wasn’t going to be the person people expected him to be such a s the King they wanted with a crown and political power.  So he threw the labels away.  Take off the label and scrunch it up.

The string – We tie ourselves to so many things in life that we don’t need to such as money, power, possessions, needing to be better than other people.  All these things tie us up in knots.  We don’t need them.  Take off the string and put it to one side with the scrunched up label.

The Tea –  carefully open up one end of the tea bag and empty the tea out onto a saucer.

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This tea looks like dirt.  When God created us, he made us pure and clean.  When we do things wrong (sin) it takes us away from that and adds dirt into our lives which make us very different from who we were created to be.  You might want to put the tea into a glass of warm water so that you can use that as an extra demonstration of how sin changes us.  I did this, but I’m not sure it was absolutely necessary.  Jesus dying on the cross meant that he took all those wrong things, sins, from us.  He can take it all away and we have the chance to start again completely empty of sin.

Once the tea bag is empty you can open up the other end and open it out into a tube.  The tube can now stand on end on a saucer.  Because Jesus took our sins away, we can stand confidently in front of God.  Because he was raised to new life, he lives with us and helps us to keep turning back again to him and shine as a light to God in the world.

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Now you set fire to the tea bag!

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Don’t panic!  It will burn pretty vigorously and may burn quite low down.  Some tea bags burn better than others so experiment with different types.  Eventually, the tea bag will rise up into the air.  Cue lots of Ooohs and Aaaahs.

Because Jesus refused to accept labels he gave us permission to see ourselves as more than the labels people put on us.  We don’t need to tie ourselves to things which the rest of the world seems to think are important and we are given the chance to be emptied of all the things that separate us from God.  Because of Jesus we can shine as a light in the world for God’s glory and, because Jesus was raised from the dead and lives forever, we also live a resurrected life and will join him in heaven.  

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First thoughts on Bishop Philip’s statement

https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2017/03/statement-from-the-bishop-of-burnley,-the-rt-revd-philip-north.aspx

This is not good news.

I follow Bishop Philip North on Twitter because I like what he has to say and I believe he is a very gifted bishop.  Would I have welcomed his appointment if he had been invited to become the bishop of my diocese?  Well, I’m not sure I’d be heading up the team to plan the welcome party.

I don’t honestly know how I would feel if I was told that a FiF bishop would be my diocesan. I’m sure I would feel very worried. I think that, what ever assurances he made, I would always be conscious that he didn’t accept my orders. I’m confident that I would feel valued as a person and servant of Christ, but being a priest is much more than what I think I am. It’s WHO I am. Having someone in pastoral charge who doesn’t believe that I’m who I am would feel very strange to say the least.

As we are in a church which holds these two positions on women in ministry in tension, I don’t believe we should be barring people from the episcopate because they hold a particular theological line. That wouldn’t make sense. But, in the spirit of mutual flourishing, we must make sure that all are allowed to flourish in the Anglican Church. That doesn’t just mean those with ‘traditional’ views. It must mean all of us. Maybe we should have the option of alternative episcopal oversight for parishes within a FiF diocese who cannot agree with their bishop’s position on the ordination of women.  Mutual flourishing often feels like a stick to be beaten with rather than a safety net within which to hold my deep seated belief about who I was created to be.

We have been living with ‘mutual flourishing’ now for some time.  As a phrase representing a way of being, it has evolved with the circumstances and the context in which it finds itself operating.  In the early days of this existence it was often theoretical.  Then it became a shield for some.  Now we have seen how it can leave others vulnerable and how it can even be used as a weapon.  The model we have fallen into is not working.  It is not ‘mutual’ and bad behaviour seems to be the dreadful consequence … from both sides.

So, back to my initial statement that I don’t believe that Bishop Philip stepping down from his nomination is good news. It is not good news at all. If he had reflected and decided that now was not the time for him to be taking this role, and if he had felt that, without a way to make sure that all felt they were being properly cared for, his acceptance was inappropriate, then that would be one thing. But that is not what has happened here.

Regardless of whether he could or could not care fully and appropriately for all in the diocese of Sheffield, he has stepped down because he felt he was bullied. How can that be a good representation of the Gospel?  Bishop Philip refers to “highly individualised” attacks.  What on earth do we think we are we doing that we make someone feel this way?  In what possible sense can it be right that we attack someone in this way and claim we are doing it from a theological position?  If our theology leads us to attack a person or a group of people, then our theology needs a good hard looking at.

I hope that, as a church, we will take time to reflect on what has happened here and what it says about how we can live in love with those we disagree with.  Maybe it will give us new energy to look at what ‘mutual flourishing’ really means and whether it really ever can be mutual.  If not, then we need to find a new way to be.  But I hope and pray that it can be the catalyst to real dialogue.

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Never Trust a Biblical Fundamentalist With Two Eyes

Matthew 5: 21-377764c-10commandments2(Image ‘borrowed’ from the internet … oops!)

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw the Gospel reading for today was could I throw a sickie? It’s a challenging read. But it’s one that has a lot to say. Not least; “never trust a biblical fundamentalist with two eyes”. I’m afraid I can’t take the credit for that but I’m sure you can see what it means. Who of the holiest of us can honestly say we have never muttered under our breath that someone is an idiot? I’m pretty confident that even the Pope could be found guilty of that one! We have all been angry. This seems like a list of impossible expectations. It seems so far away from the loving, forgiving, gracious God that I know. And it is!

This is a reading that should be seen in a much wider context. We have to remember that it is the end of the Sermon on the Mount, a piece where Jesus punctures so many long held beliefs and turns expectations upside down. He is creating a new order, a new way of being religious. As part of that he is looking to the past. The laws he is referring to, the Commandments given to Moses and the Levitical Laws, take us back to a time in Jewish history when the Israelites were running from slavery. These were laws intended both to order a community that had been through a dreadful and unsettling time, and to show them and the rest of the world, why they were different … what living under the rule of God looked like.

But Jesus came to fulfil that law, not just to talk about it. And the fulfilment of the Law looks very different from the list of dos and don’ts that the Jews had until He spoke.

Anyone can follow a list of rules. I know so many people who are not Christians who would look at the 10 commandments and be able to tick a fair few, if not most of them off. Yes, they are good people. Yes they are loved by God. We know that everyone is. But being good people and being loved by God isn’t the same as knowing and loving God back. The rules aren’t enough, on their own, to make a two way relationship with Christ. I also know people who are Christians and yet have failed with some of the commandments. And don’t even think of looking how many rules from Leviticus I’ve broken this week. But I love God. I don’t pretend to love Him as much as He loves me. But I want to.
And that desire is at the heart of my Christian journey and, I want to suggest, should be at the heart of your Christian journey too.

This is what Jesus was getting at. Fulfilling the Law isn’t sticking slavishly to a list of commands that no one can ever fully succeed at. Fulfilling the Law frees us. You’ve heard it so many times: Jesus came to set us free. And this is one way in which He does that. The crux of what Jesus is saying here is that the rules mean nothing if they are not kept because they are in your heart. We should be doing these things because they come out of our love for God, not because a book tells us to. Our actions should be driven by our love, not because a book gives us a tick list. If we are keeping the commandment not to murder because we believe it is God’s will that we do this, then not committing murder would not be good enough. We would also be trying our best not to hurt our brothers and sisters in any other way. If we truly understand God’s urge for us all to become one in Him, we would not rest unless we are at peace with each other. We know that conflict unsettles the natural order. It actually feels wrong deep inside when we lose our temper or even just argue with someone. Joining with God, understanding His will, and living within His perfect love means that we will, at all costs, attempt to avoid anything which upsets His perfection.

But it is God’s perfection. And we, however hard we try, are not perfect. But last week’s Gospel, also from the Sermon on the Mount, reminded us that we are salt and light. We ARE salt and light. We are good enough because He says we are. If we trust in ourselves the way He trusts us, knowing that it is grace that gets us through our human mistakes, we will grow. The message is “keep it simple”. You don’t need to swear oaths. Let your words be simple and uncomplicated. Let your heart be simple and uncomplicated and let your actions be simply led by your heart full of love. As St Augustine put it “Love God and do what you like”, because if we truly loved God, truly and deeply, with our whole hearts, we would only want to do what honoured Him and what would bring us closer to the Kingdom, here and now. We were created to be in this perfect relationship with God and so, with His help, we will grow closer to loving Him the way He loves us. By grace and love. Because love, and love alone, is the fulfilment of the Law.

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Salt and Light

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(Matthew 5: 13-20)

Salt and light are interesting and really rich images. Salt is used to preserve and to bring out flavour of things. It’s an antiseptic and purifier. Light shows details, provides growth and safety. So salt and light are things which both show our environment as it really is and stop things from harming us. Of course it’s a great ambition to be like both of these things, shedding light on darkness and and showing the true nature of things. We are called to these tasks. But it all seems so hard. How can we shine light in this dark world? How can we restore things to their full richness when humanity seems to prefer worldly things such as power, money, self, to all the things that God has provided such as equality, love and community?

Well, the simple fact is, unless we confront these things head on we can’t make a difference. What use is salt if it stays in the grinder? What use is light if it is stopped from shining? For salt to do anything to food it must come into contact with it. You can’t preserve a piece of meat with salt if the salt is in the next room. It doesn’t matter how big the pile of salt is, if it doesn’t come into contact with food it can’t stop it from rotting. And it can’t bring out its flavour either. Salt has no use unless it comes into contact with the things it needs to change, although its salty nature is still there. And light is the same. If you hide a candle under a thick dark bowl, it cannot illuminate anything although it will still be shining. And a single candle cannot make much difference to the light levels in a brightly lit room. To have any discernible effect it needs to be taken where there is no light. So to make any difference, through our faith, in this world it is clear that we need to be out in it. We are not going to change the world by sitting in here. Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t come to church. For a start, I think I’d be in trouble with the bishop if I did. We need to come together in our community of Christians to learn together and to join with others in worship and prayer. But we will be effective in furthering the kingdom we want to see when we are shining our light outside these thick walls, not hiding it inside them. We need to speak out. We need to point out injustice and harm. We need to expose the things which break God’s perfect creation and purify them. We need to stand up and be noticed.

But that is so hard. How do we become strong enough to speak out when we see things in the news, and I know you’ll agree with me that the news lately is absolutely jam packed with stories of abuse of God’s creation, injustice and people using their power and influence to further their own ends? How do we become like salt and light?

Sometimes, when we hear a familiar reading, we miss the details. I want to make a confession to you now. It took a friend to point out something that I’d missed in this morning’s Gospel. This passage that I’d always read as Jesus telling His hearers that they needed to be like the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World. He wasn’t doing that at all. Let’s look at it again. Right at the start of that passage we hear the words “You are the salt of the earth”. The next verse starts, “You are the light of the world”. Not “you need to be”. It’s a subtle, but I believe, crucial difference. You ARE the salt of the earth. You ARE the light of the world. This is a clear declaration of who we are by virtue of being in Christ. We are not aiming to be good enough. By grace we are good enough. By following Christ we have all that we need to be able to stand up and be counted. We are salt and light. We can expose harm and purify. God has confidence in us because He knows who He created us to be. We need to have confidence that He is not asking us to do anything which is outside our nature – just act as salt and light are meant to act. This is truly what it means to ‘be ourselves’. Every time we speak out we are becoming closer to our true nature. Every time we see a frightening political decision, one which seeks to divide rather than bring us together, or one that increases inequality and raises one group of people above another, we can make a difference. We can say “this is wrong”. Go on marches, write letters to your MP, blog, tweet, give donations to the Homeless Project or the Foodbank, treat a homeless person like a human being instead of an inconvenience as so many seem to, tell your friend that you don’t think their racist joke is funny and that their homophobic comment is offensive … and tell people why you are doing it. Because every time we show up injustice for what it is, we make it that bit less acceptable.

I want to say one more thing about salt. As we heard in the Gospel, when salt loses its taste it becomes useless. Let me tell you this: salt cannot lose its taste. The taste comes from the chemical make-up – sodium chloride. That means that the taste of salt cannot simply leech out of a grain. It will always be salty, however long it lies around. The only way that salt can lose its taste is if it becomes contaminated. If we over-complicate what makes our Christian faith we lose its essential flavour. To remain salty we need to make sure that our faith is based only on its actual composition … love. And when we do that, love will inform our outrage and our actions. Let love be our salt and our light as we go out into the dark.

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Break Our Hearts For What Breaks Yours …

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This morning’s Gospel marks a turning point in our understanding of the Christ Child’s story. Up until now we have seen a series of hints … the shepherds, first to hear about the birth, who hint that status, or lack of it, is no barrier to God’s invitation to find Him and love Him. The wise men bringing strange, unexpected and impossible gifts which hint at the extraordinary nature of this child in such a humble setting. The fear of Herod, hinting that the powerful abusive order will be overthrown … A series of hints which are drawn together in today’s reading to show us the fullness of the promise we are given in this tiny baby boy.

So, in a story which continues the birth narrative, showing the Holy Family keeping the expected and required rituals of God-fearing Jews, we get a clear image of the cross. We are in in-between space where the only way we can go is forwards. We cannot stay in this part of the story where Jesus is a child. Remarkable as his infant days are, they are not the full story.

And what a story Simeon describes. He has waited patiently for the Messiah. And then, when he finally sees him and holds him in his arms, does he talk of the glory that will come to God and God’s people through Him? Well, yes, he does. But that’s not where he ends. Simeon has much more to say. Not only is the child the saviour of God’s chosen people … he is to bring God’s light to the gentiles too. The wise men, the outsiders we recognised at the Epiphany, were right. This King was to be significant for the whole of creation, not just a chosen few. In this tiny, fragile frame, Simeon saw an amazing future. He saw a future where light would be shed on all things and where God’s Kingdom would come to fruition. And he saw a future hinted at by that surprising gift of Myrrh … the gift that tells of death. But what he saw was not just the death of Christ. Indeed, he never actually says anything about Jesus’ death and suffering. Yes, he says that Jesus will be opposed and that, in opposing him, people will be revealed as opposing God’s plan; but he never says that Jesus will be brought to death. He holds this child in sure and certain faith that he will bring salvation, but he shows no indication that he knows how this will be accomplished. Without knowing the end of the story, he is content to say that he trusts the promise he sees before him. He doesn’t need to see the end or even understand the end, to know that it will come.

What he does say, is that Mary’s soul will be pierced.

I wonder if these words ran through Mary’s mind as she witnessed the death of her son. Now, it won’t come as a surprise to many of you to hear that I am a fan of Mary. I see the faith that this woman had. I see the strength that she had. I see the love that she had … and I can’t help but be inspired. This woman was herself a warrior for God. And part of her fight for the salvation of the world was to feel her heart break as her child died in agony.

At the presentation of Christ at the temple, two birds were given as a sacrifice. At the presentation of God’s saving grace and love to the world, Mary’s son was given as a sacrifice.    Mary made her own sacrifice as her heart broke.

We know that Jesus through his death and resurrection overcame evil and sin. We know that the battle has ultimately been won so, as Christians, we have Simeon’s trust. But we see a broken world. We see a world wracked with pain. And through the cross we see a promise of redemption and healing … hand in hand with the truth that full healing and wholeness will only come through sacrifice … not just that of Jesus, the one saviour … not just that of Mary, the first evangelist … but of all those who have a part to play in God’s salvation history. Yes. That means me.  And, yes, that means you.

Being a follower of Christ puts us directly in the line of sacrifice. Most of us won’t (I hope) have to sacrifice our lives in the way of the Saints … but we are called to give of ourselves in service to this world. To sacrifice our own interests in favour of the Kingdom … in favour of those God loves. That sword will pierce our soul too. We will see things which break our hearts and we must act on those – allowing our hearts to break for the things that break God’s heart.

After reading the report on sexuality from the House of Bishops on Friday I know what is making my heart break today. After listening to the pain of LGBTI Christian friends, I know what today is breaking their hearts. And I’m as sure as I can be that that pain is breaking God’s heart too. So I must act on that. I will speak out. And with the faith of Simeon I must trust, and for whatever breaks your heart I ask you to trust too, that it is all in Christ’s hands.

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Who do you think you are?

This is a special occasion. Not only are we celebrating the feast days of St Stephen and St Agnes, but we are celebrating them for the first time ever in the church of Saints Stephen and Agnes. Now this may not seems such a big deal. After all, we’ve come together in this church for many years now to celebrate these two saints together around this day in January. But this year is different. In October last year this church was rededicated by Bishop Andrew from being simply St Stephen’s to bearing the name of both of the saints. It marked, not a change in identity as such, but a recognition of identity. And that feels good. St Agnes, and the congregation who used to worship there, has been a proper and full part of this church for a long time. But now the dedication of the church reflects that fact.

What this church has been – its identity – is now known and celebrated.

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But what is this identity? What do the identities of St Stephen and St Agnes say about our worshipping community? We dedicate churches to saints for very good reason. We see in the saints an example of true devotion to God. What they do often seems so far from what we can ever hope to achieve … but it’s an aspiration. And the miraculous lives they lead come down to something very basic. Everything they achieve is based on the love that they have for God, which leads them to want the very best for the kingdom … Their actions are determined by their desire to join in with God’s mission of bringing ‘Shalom’, peace, wholeness to God’s world … to restore the world to its God given shape and to enable all people to be who they were created to be. They know that God works through them and that, in doing His work, they are acting as His hands and feet in the world. Their saintliness comes from their identity in God.

St Stephen and St Agnes showed their faith in very different ways. Agnes was martyred for what she didn’t do – She refused to become part of the world – to marry and to be consumed by worldly desires and concerns. However much she was offered, she kept herself focussed on God and her own purity. Her resistance to the demands of the world gave other christians courage and her faith that God would never leave her … a faith she spoke freely and clearly about … a faith she was prepared to die for … is inspirational and aspirational.

St Stephen was martyred for what he did do. He stood up and challenged those around him. He is blunt. He is what people would probably call a bit gobby today. He calls a spade a spade. And he annoys people in the process. This comes from a passion for the Gospel. A deep desire to see the world brought back to what it was created to be, for people to realise the same truth he sees. A passion which leads him to death.

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Two very different approaches to living the Gospel. But two approaches which marked them both as faithful followers and saints. Two approaches which resulted in both being persecuted in the way in which the Gospel reading describes. Two very different approaches … but both used the talents and personalities of Stephen and Agnes in a way that was authentic to them and their God created identity.

The reading from Galatians is also deeply concerned with identity. In fact, Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins with a question of identity. The opening words are those of Paul setting out who he is as an apostle. He then goes on to give his autobiographical credentials. For those he is addressing, his identity gives a legitimacy to his teachings. But we’d be mistaken if we took from this that Paul believed his true identity was in his Jewish roots. His true identity is much richer than that. As we see in Chapter 2, from where today’s reading came, Paul’s true identity is in Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me”. And this is the identity Christ himself prayed that we would experience – that we would become one with him as he in one with the father – that we would find our identity in God.

Like Paul, we often present our identities as a picture of where we come from or what we’ve done. The world leads us to believe it’s important to take sides and proclaim our allegiance to a particular political party or to legitimise ourselves through our professions, wealth or pastimes. But our task is to discover who we are in Christ and what we have to offer Him. What can we achieve through our love of God? Are we gifted to shout about injustice when we see things which need changing? Or are we the quiet one who shows an example of a life of faith which inspires others?

Love of God and their identity in God led Agnes and Stephen to their actions. Their identity in Christ was expressed in different ways. You see, it is not the actions which bring us closer to God so much as the intentions behind them. Through our actions we express our identity in Christ and, at the same time, like the saints, grow closer to our true identity, as part of a world reconciled by God’s redeeming love.

We are here this morning to celebrate our identity knowing that we have different talents and different personalities, but celebrating that we are invited into one identity as the body of Christ.

Let us pray:
Father of us all, we pray that, following the example of the saints, we can become closer to you, bring your kingdom closer and become closer to our true identity – a saint in and for your kingdom.
Amen

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