Scripture Meditation: Christ Among Us

Luke 24:36-48

Imagine yourself in a locked room because you are fearful of what is going to come next. You are still trying to make sense of what has happened over the last few days when, as Scripture relates the story:

“Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your minds?”

I love this line, “They were startled and frightened…. Jesus said to them, why are troubled…?”

How many times in our lives have we been troubled that might have been taken away with someone saying to us, peace be with you.

Why are we troubled?

You just walked through a locked door! But Jesus says to them, Peace, it’s me, look at my wounds and see for yourself. Then he gets to the real reason for his visit; he was hungry.

Peace be with you. In all the gospel stories of the Resurrection and first appearances, Jesus says to them; Peace be with you. In a way, this is a reminder back to the Palm Sunday story. Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, a humble beast as a sign of one who comes to bring peace.

I can only imagine how I would have felt to be sitting there, scared for my life, knowing that my friend was dead, and then poof, there he is right in front of me. I believe saying Peace be with you is the least he could do at that moment.

But Jesus is just that; he is the one who brings peace. One of his titles is the Prince of Peace.

Like many people around the world yesterday, I watched the funeral of HRH Prince Philip. I was struck by the image of the Queen, dressed in black, sitting all alone in the chapel for the funeral of the man she spent all her adult life with. She sat there as they brought his flag-draped casket in. She sat a listened to readings and the prayers. And she sat and watched as they carried him to his resting place.

Funerals are not for the dead; funerals are for those of us left behind. Funerals are designed to help us cope with the loss of the one we loved. Funerals are supposed to bring some level of peace in our world that is swirling all around us. I hope she could find a little peace yesterday that will help her in the days and weeks to come.

Many times, in Scripture, Jesus comes on the scene and brings this peace that passes all understanding. One of my favorites is the story of the disciples on their boat and in a storm. They wake and are frightened, and Jesus is still sleeping. They wake him, and he brings calm. Scriptures tells us that Jesus calms the waves of the water that was tossing that little boat around.

There was another time, again on the water, when the disciples saw Jesus walking toward them. They were frightened that what they saw. I mean, who wouldn’t be? But Jesus brought calm and peace to them at that very moment. When Peter decided he wanted to walk on water as well, and when he began to sink and cried out, Jesus reached out and brought calm to his life.

But what about our own lives? Are there times when you could use a little peace?

In my life, when things are going crazy, I turn to prayer. Over the years, my prayer life has been good and not so good. It is the time when my prayer life is good when I make the time to read Scripture each day that a sense of peace comes over me. I will not say life is perfect in those times, but it seems that the little things don’t bother me as much.

Finding peace these days is not always easy. Sometimes I feel like those first disciples hiding in that upper room with the door locked in fear of what will happen next. Sometimes I am afraid to open the door because I am not sure what is on the other side. In those times, we need to ask Jesus to come into our midst and bring that peace.

My prayer for us today is that we can find that peace in our lives or that we can be that peace for another.

Amen.

Scripture Meditation: Marks of Faith

John 20:19-31

They had just lost their friend and mentor. They watched him brutally murdered. They watched in horror but could do nothing to stop it. Their entire world has been turned upside down. Scripture tells us that they were locked inside because they feared that the authorities were coming for them next. One of them, probably sitting in the corner all by himself, was coming to grips with his denial. No one knew what to do next.

Then, like a flash, he was there. The friend they saw murdered just hours before was standing there right in front of them. How did he get in? Is he a ghost? How can this be we saw him die? The questions running through their heads must have been overwhelming. Maybe it’s the wine. Perhaps it’s a lack of sleep. But here he is. Scripture tells us he simply says, “Peace be with you.”

The familiar greeting of their friend. But how can this be? He died. We watched them put him in the tomb and roll that enormous stone over the opening. The door was locked, yet here he is, standing right in front of us talking. Maybe it’s a dream.

Then “he showed them his hands and his side.” Jesus, is it really you? But they still had questions, but no one wanted to ask. They rejoiced that their friend had come back to them. He said to them again, “Peace be with you.”

Scripture says, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” Reminiscent of Genesis when God, after having created humanity, breathed life into the nostrils of his creation. At creation, God’s breath animated humanity, and now, Jesus, who is God, is breathing the breath of God in the form of the Holy Spirit to animate them for the mission. It is complete; the relationship between God and humanity has been restored to what it once was.

But for some reason, Thomas was not present. Scripture leaves no clue why Thomas was not with the rest that first night and we can only speculate. When Thomas returns, Jesus is gone, and the others tell him what had happened. How can this be? We watched him die. Scripture tells us that Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas wants proof.

It took a week for Thomas to get the proof he was looking for. Thomas sat with his doubt for a week. The others gave him space and did not deride him or make fun of him for his questions; they simply let him be. Thomas needed time to process it all, and the others gave him that space.

Then it happened. They had gathered again, and this Thomas was with them. I am sure he cleared his calendar, for he was not going to miss it this time. Maybe it was belief, and perhaps he wanted to prove the others wrong. Whatever it was, it drew Thomas to that place, that place of memories of happier times just a few weeks before.

Then it happened. No flash of light. No trumpet blasts. No smoke. Only Jesus, standing there. “Peace be with you,” he said to them. Then he turned to Thomas. Jesus knew he had questions. Jesus says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

But Thomas does not touch Jesus. He looks at Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God!” Notice what happens next; Jesus asks him a question but does not wait for an answer, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” He does not scold Thomas for his lack of faith; he uses this time to teach more. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Thomas is all of us who have questions. This story is essential as it shows that it is okay to question, have doubts, and want proof. Faith is believing without seeing, and that is not easy. We are being asked to consider something that there is no proof for, nothing that can be seen or examined. Thomas had the opportunity to touch the risen Jesus, but what he saw was enough for him.

After Jesus healed the young man, the man’s father said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” This should be our prayer; help us in our doubts, and in those times, we find it hard to believe. We do not have to believe everything we were taught as children or that we hear as adults. However, the one article of faith that it is crucial to believe is that God loves each of us and forgives each of us.

I find great comfort in these words that Paul wrote to the church in Rome, and I pray they bring you some comfort. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Amen

All is Forgiven: A Meditation for Easter

Mark 16:1-8

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Mark 16:6-7

But go and tell his disciples and Peter… This is an often-overlooked verse and part of the resurrection story, but it is one of the most important. Just a few days before, Peter denied Jesus three times. He was asked if he was with Jesus or if he knew Jesus, and Peter, the one who would eventually become the chief of the Apostles, denied Jesus. But, after the resurrection, Jesus forgives Peter and wants to that point truly clear.

Forgiveness is the point of all that Jesus has done and continues to do.

It seems that at times we forget that forgiveness is what it is all about. Our relationship with God had been broken, and that relationship has been repaired. The stone of our hearts has been rolled away, just as that stone was rolled away from the tomb of Jesus. We need to empty our hearts from all that keeps us from fellowship with Jesus and with each other. 

This past week, we walked with Jesus as he approached his death. We witnessed Jesus coming in triumph into Jerusalem and the cheering crowd. We were with Jesus as he washed the feet of those who had been with him from the very start. We were with him when he gave himself to us in the Eucharist and told us to “do this” in remembrance.

We were with him in the garden, his most human moment when he pleaded with his father in heaven to provide another way. And we witnessed the example he left for us in his words of “not my will by your will be done.”

We were with him when the tone of the week changed, and one of his own betrayed him and handed him over to those who would kill him. We were there with him through all of it, including the moment when he died.

And all this Jesus did willingly not for his own sake but for ours. Jesus endured all this not as a sacrifice but as an expression of love and as a reminder of God’s love for us and that we are to love each other.

Easter is a reminder of what love can do. Easter reminds us the love requires us to empty ourselves and make room for others. Easter is a reminder, not of what we have done for that is whipped away for all time, but Easter reminds us of our potential and what we can do.

Jesus turned the order of this around. Jesus reminded us that he is the fulfillment of all the law and all the prophets, and Jesus left us a new commandment, we are to love God and love each other. We are no longer just to live for ourselves, but we are, to the extent we are able to live for others. The sacrifice that we are now to make is the sacrifice of love.

But our journey is not over; it is only just beginning. Our task is to take that love that Jesus taught us out into the world and to make it a better place not for some but for all. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “take this all of you…” All of you, not just some of you. Take this love, all of you, this love of God, and know that you are forgiven.

Amen

Palm Sunday: Entry Into Jerusalem

John 12:12-16

Today we begin our Holy Week journey. We begin the week with shouts of Hosana, but by the end of the week, we will be shouting Crucify Him! Crucify Him! But we also cannot and should not despair because we know that in the end, love wins, and death is destroyed, and that makes the journey and the pain of the coming week worth it.

We see Jesus coming into Jerusalem riding on the humble donkey. This is an essential part of the story. This is a day of contrast, and we see the contrast in the way Jesus enters the city. When a conquering king would come into the city, he would ride on a horse, usually a large horse that would make it truly clear that he held all the power.

But here comes Jesus, being hailed as King but not riding on a horse but coming in on a donkey. The donkey is a humble beast, and if the King arrives on the donkey, it signifies that he is coming in peace. Jesus is being hailed as King, but he is not the King of power and wealth but rather the King that brings peace to the world.

Regardless of how he entered the city, he was being hailed as King, which made the establishment extremely nervous. Jesus had been this guy in the background for a long time, and he is gaining the attention of the religious and the political establishment. Not long ago, he caused quite a ruckus in the Temple when he turned the tables over, and now, he is coming into the city being proclaimed King.

Those in power do not like to give up control. When their power is threatened, they do all sorts of things. They create false situations that cause people to feel that they will somehow lose power as well. People in power can get others to believe whatever they say for no other reason than those in power. The religious authorities stayed in power by keeping the people down and subservient to them. But Jesus knew what he was doing.

Jesus had to stir the pot. Jesus had to get the religious and political folks nervous about what he was doing. Jesus needed them to get so worried that they had no other choice but to put him to death. So, he brought attention to himself in a grand way.  Go big or go home!

Now, we all know the end of the story, so I want to look in a different direction. We will talk a lot over these next few days of salvation, redemption, sanctification, sacrifice, and many other Holy Week themes. But salvation did not happen on the cross; salvation happened in the cradle in Bethlehem.

We need to go back to the beginning of the story, way back to the time of creation itself. God created humanity and placed humanity in the garden. God walked, physically walked with humanity at this time, but, as we know, something happened, and humanity was placed outside of the garden, and God no longer walked with creation. There was a distance between God and humanity. I don’t want us to dwell on the why but only that it happened.

God tried to fix this relationship, but it was not until God sent Jesus, his son, to show humanity a new way, the way of love. The moment Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God and humanity’s relationship was restored, for God once again walked with humanity. Salvation came into the world not through the cross but through a tiny baby. Salvation came to the world not through violence but through love—the love of God for all of creation.

The crucifixion was necessary, but not for the sacrifice but for love. Sure, God could have done things a different way, but the way of love is a way of obedience and sacrifice. Jesus willingly went to the cross; everything he did, he did willingly. All of the pain and anguish was not some blood sacrifice to pay a debt owed to God because of something that happened “in the beginning,” but instead, it was all for love. Love requires a sacrifice; love requires death in a sense, a death to self and our ambition.

Jesus came to show us a new way to live and a new way to act, and that is the way of love. Jesus died on that cross as an ultimate expression of love. Jesus was hanging on that cross, with his arms open wide, signifying that all are welcome in the kingdom of God, not just a few select people but everyone.

As we walk the way of love this week, let us keep in mind that everything that we will witness was to show us a new way of living and a new way of interacting with each other. And remember the new commandment that Jesus gave to us, love one another.

Amen

The Friday of Sorrows

The Friday before Palm Sunday is set aside as a time to recall and meditate on the Blessed Virgin Mary’s sorrows. The Friday of Sorrows is the day to remember Mary’s physical, mental, and spiritual pain upon seeing what was done to her Son.

I believe that the Reformation went too far in its reform of traditions surrounding Mary and her life. She was and is the mother of God, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the one who brought Jesus into the world. Of all of the women of her time, God chose Mary for this honor. The Reformation has all but erased her role in all of this, and for that, I am sad.

As I wrote about just before Christmas, yes, Mary did know. Mary knew in her heart what was going to happen. She may not have known all of the details of the events of Holy Week, but she knew that her Son would eventually die. But the knowledge that death is coming does not make it any easier when it finally arrives.

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I deal with death and grief daily. The philosophy of hospice is to prepare the patient and the family for a good end. But all of the preparation in the world does not make it any easier when your loved one slips away to the other side.

Of all the images of Mary in art, and the one that shows her true sufferings is in the movie the Passion of the Christ. In that movie, we see Mary, from a distance watching all that is happening to her Son. She is present for his trial, for his whipping and beating, and yes, she is there for his crucifixion and death. She is present but cannot do anything to stop it. She, like Jesus, has consented to the will of God at that moment in her life.

As we prepare to follow Jesus during the coming days of Holy Week, let us not forget the one who gave him birth and the pain and sorrow she felt.

O LORD in whose Passion, according to the prophecy of Simeon, the sword of sorrow did pierce the most loving soul of thy glorious Virgin Mother Mary: mercifully grant that we, who devoutly call to mind the suffering whereby she was pierced, may, by the glorious merits and prayers of all the Saints who have stood beneath the Cross, obtain with gladness the benefits of thy Passion; who livest and reignest with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Collect for the Friday of Sorrows

Incarnation and Atonement

It seems fitting that this topic of Atonement comes up as we approach Holy Week and Easter. Over the next few weeks, a lot of time and energy will be spent talking about and meditating on the Cross of Jesus Christ. I will be one of those in meditation but not from the bloody perspective but the perspective of love. Although I believe the crucifixion was necessary, as was the resurrection, it was the Birth of Jesus Christ that mended the rift between God and humanity.

The 2nd-century write Irenaeus wrote about the atoning nature of the Birth of Jesus Christ. From the moment of conception, Jesus was sanctifying humanity. He sanctified the nature of woman by connecting to the essence of womanhood in the womb. As he progressed through the various stage of life, he joined with the essence of each stage of development and sanctified humanity.

Jesus came to reset the clock or hit the reset button on humanity’s relationship with God. The Birth of Jesus returned humanity to its natural state of walking with God. In Genesis, we read that after the creation of humanity, God walked with humanity in paradise. Sin entered the world, and that relationship was broken. God no longer physically walked with humanity. The image I have is God and humanity walking and spending time together not just in a spiritual sense but in a very physical sense. The Creator was present with the creation. Humanity became corrupted and needed sanctification.

Irenaeus was writing to combat the heresy of Gnosticism that believed that Jesus was not both human and divine. They did not believe that the Old Testament’s God was the true God because that God created matter, and all matter is flawed and sinful. Jesus could not have been born in the flesh for the same reasons; all flesh is matter, and matter is evil. The Gnostic belief that Jesus put on his humanity like a coat and then took it off before the crucifixion, so God was not crucified but the man Jesus.

Centuries later, Peter Abelard would write, rejecting the idea that Jesus came to pay a ransom to Satan for humanity. This idea was rejected because it would place Satan on the same level as God, making Satan another God that had to be satisfied. But Abelard also dismissed the idea that Jesus’ death was in payment to restore God’s honor. In the work of Abelard, there was also a rejection of the judgment of God that said a person was damned to hell for all of eternity until the person accepted the death of Jesus Christ as a payment for their sins. This would indicate that the mind of God could be changed. This perfect God that does not change could somehow change God’s mind because of the acceptance of the death of Jesus. Abelard taught that Jesus died not to repay a debt but as an expression of the love of God.

I appreciate what Abelard was doing, and the result of his writing was to see himself excommunicated from the Church. I feel a close kinship with Abelard as a church has excommunicated me for my positions. It was not over my position on the Incarnation as it involves the Atonement. Still, it did have to do with the love of God for all of God’s creation and this idea that the God that sent Jesus to the world is not a vengeful God that seeks to rule by fear but that we follow God out of love.

I have a real problem with this idea of a blood sacrifice and that God sent Jesus just to die. To me, this does not put God in a, particularly good light. This idea of the blood sacrifice is at odds with the God of love that so loves the world that he sent Jesus, not to judge the world but to show us a new way, a way of love.

Because of this, I must reject the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement espoused by Anselm and which Abelard wrote against. This idea that humanity had insulted God’s honor and that Jesus had to come in human form, the same form that offended God seems theologically ludicrous to me. Yes, sin is repugnant to God, and yes, humanity distanced itself from God but this idea that God could be insulted in such a manner that only a sacrifice could repay that debt?

Coming off that theory, the Theory of Penal Substitution seems at odds with this idea of a loving God and thus another rejection from me. The theory was first developed during the Protestant Reformation and advocated by both Luther and Calvin. The Reformed Theologian Charles Hodge more concretely developed this theory placing it biblically and putting in the historical roots of the early Church.

My spirituality and theology are grounded in this idea of revolutionary and God’s radical love as shown to us by Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world…” “God sent Jesus not to judge the world…” Along with being rooted in love by theological understanding comes from the idea that it was the Birth, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that redeemed the world. In answer to the question of why Jesus died on the cross, I lean towards the Moral Theory of Atonement and what Christ came to do was to be an example of the great love that God has for humanity.

Jesus willingly stretched his arms out on the cross in a posture of welcome and love. There is no payment. There is no blood sacrifice. Jesus came to demonstrate love. Jesus witnessed to us how to serve God through love and not through fear. We perform good works for others because of the grace of love poured out on us through the witness of Jesus Christ.

So why then did Jesus die? I see a two-fold reason, one is spiritual, and one is political. Spiritually, as already aggressed, Jesus died as the ultimate expression of love. Yes, we are called to death, but not in a physical sense but rather spiritually dying to self-sense. When we move to love others and wish to serve others, we have to die to what the self wants. We recognize the divine in each human, and due to that recognition, we love them.

But there was a political reality as well. Jesus angered the political and religious leaders of the day. Jesus made them extremely nervous. He led multitudes of people toward a different way of religious expression, which threatened the power of the religious elite. By allowing himself to be called King, Jesus put himself at odds with the political reality of the day.

Was there another way? Sure, and Jesus pleaded with God in the garden before his arrest but willingly gave in to the plan again to express love.

Jesus was put to death on trumped-up charges in a kangaroo court as an innocent. The act of salvation was completed at the Birth of Jesus, the act of love was completed on the cross.

The Season of Passiontide

Today, the 5th Sunday of Lent begins the season with the Season of Lent known as Passiontide. Traditionally this was the beginning of Holy Week, although, with the liturgical reform, Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday have been joined together.

Passion Sunday was also the traditional time that the color of the vestments changed to purple, and all of the crosses and statues in churches were covered and would remain hidden until the Great Vigil of Easter.

It seems we do not like to meditate on the suffering of Jesus. We do not want to think of suffering but, it is important to recall these events that lead up to Easter. It has been said by many that we cannot celebrate Easter without Good Friday. We cannot have the resurrection without the death of Jesus.

What Passiontide does is invite us to inhabit the experiences of betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, and unjust suffering, to see what causes these things, sin, and to place our hope in the One who redeems them.

But it also enlightens us to what hatred can do. Hate is what nailed Jesus to the cross. Hatred, jealously, and the fear of losing power. All of these conspired together to murder Jesus, and the Religious Authorities of the day were the ones who did it.

Jesus was very hard on the religious leaders of his day. He called them a brood vipers and hypocrites. They were calling the people to do things that they were not doing. They added to the poor’s burden and those on the margins, the very people Jesus came to minister to.

But in the end, Jesus willingly gave himself up for us. This was done because of what St. John wrote in the 3rd chapter of his Gospel, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son Jesus.” We need to look past the blood and the gore of the Crucifixion and see in that scene the love of God, God who was willing to take on our frailty to show us a new way, the way of love.

Sir, We Wish to See Jesus

John 12:20-33

I think I am the world’s worst gardener, well, at least the world worst at starting things from seeds. I am not sure if I do not have the patience, or I just forget. I have tried everything. I have read books, blog posts, Google, everything, and nothing seems to work. So, I only buy plants that have already grown, and I seem to do ok with those.

We are coming to the end of our Lenten journey, and I have to ask, how has it been going? For many, it feels like we have been in a state of perpetual Lent since last year. A year ago, I had just started in a new interim position, and we were preparing for our second Sunday of virtual worship. We had begun to think about Easter, but we all thought for sure we would be back in the Church by that time. Well, here we are, preparing for our second Easter of virtual worship. So, I ask again, how has your Lent been going?

Today’s Gospel takes place during Passover. People have come from all around to worship, and of course, Jesus is there with his Apostles. By this time, the word has spread about Jesus and people and intrigued by what they have been hearing.

“Some Greeks” have come, no doubt they heard about Jesus along the trade route, and they want to learn more. They come to Philip and ask if they can see Jesus. Phillip goes and checks with a couple of others who check in with Jesus. The funny thing is the passage is not clear if they saw Jesus or not. The Apostles come to Jesus, presumably ask if he will see the Greeks, but he starts talking.

In John’s Gospel, this is the first time that we hear Jesus speak of his death. Jesus is getting his friends ready for what is about to happen, but Jesus being Jesus, does not come right out and say it.

Jesus uses the image of a seed.

Way back when I was in seminary, I had a class on preaching. The professor teaching the class told his students that we needed to use imagery that was understandable by those listening or they will not understand when preaching. Jesus often used agricultural or fishing imagery because that is what those listening would have understood. But it makes us work a little harder.

Jesus says that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” For there to be life, there has to be death. For the seed to grow, it must first die.

The kernel of wheat is a seed with a hard outer shell that protects the inside’s soft seed. This is important when the seeds are being stored so that the seeds are not damaged. But the outer shell of that seed has to give its life so that what is contained inside may flourish and grow.

Jesus is speaking of his life and what he has to do. He has to die so that there will be life. He will go into the ground, his tomb, so that there will be life eternal.

But then, Jesus turns the topic to others, to you and I, and what we have to do.

Yes, Jesus speaks of dying, and how we have to die, we have to take up our cross, and all of that. But remember, Jesus used metaphorical language, so we are not speaking of actual death here but spiritual death. This is why I ask you at the start, “How is your Lent going?” The giving up of things during Lent is to train us to transform ourselves into another being. To lose that hard outer shell so that the soft seed inside might begin to grow.

We need to die to ourselves. This does not mean we need to sacrifice ourselves or our comfort, some might be called to do that, but this is not a blanket call for us. We are to die to sin. Yes, I said sin. I know we don’t like to talk about sin, but we have to. Sin is missing the mark, not living up to our potential, not using the gifts God has given us to build up the kingdom.

But there is also another sin that we need to cause the death of. The sin of racism, we saw this sin play out in Atlanta this past week. We need to cause the death of the sin of hatred in all of its forms. We need to cause the death of the sin homophobia and all of the other phobias around us. We need to die to all of this sin because that is what keeps us from shedding that outer shell that is preventing that seed from growing.

Friends, the season of Lent is all about shedding that outer shell. It is hard work; the soil has to be just right. We have to use the right amount of water, fertilizer, and sunlight, or nothing happens. Lent is when we prepare the soil by reading Scripture, increasing our daily prayer routine, or starting one. We use this time to give up bad habits and create some new ones.

As we continue to walk with Jesus toward the cross and eventual resurrection, let us continue to work to remove that hard outer shell so that what is inside may blossom and grow.

Amen.

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