The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon: The peace of Christ’s presence, the love of serving, and the joy of both

Now, what exactly is going on here at Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary?
         It can feel like we’re supposed to take sides, right?
I’m for Listening-Mary against Overactive-Martha.
Or I’m for Hospitable-Martha against Couch Potato-Mary.
         Soon enough, we could start to hear Martha crashing around in the kitchen colanders and pots and pans flying everywhere, brisket burning, emotionally on the edge of meltdown.
         Soon enough, we could transform Mary into a figure popping Pringles on a grody beanbag chair while Jesus philosophizes for her.
         After all, Jesus does make the statement, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
         There is, clearly, a side being taken, and so, a shallow reading of today’s gospel could leave us in lethargy, listening, not doing.
         But, I think, if we consider all that leads up to Jesus’ time with Mary and Martha, we can, and should, embrace both of their examples of being disciples of Jesus.
         Let us pray:
         Lord, May we know the peace of Christ’s presence,
         have a love of service
         and find joy in both. Amen.

          It should be unsurprising that Mary is praised for listening to Jesus.
After all, from Jesus’ transfiguration
—that wild story about Jesus taking James and John and Peter up a high mountain and revealing his glory to them
—from that mountain to this humble visit to Mary and Martha, we’re constantly being reminded of how special it is to be in the presence of Jesus, to see, hear, and listen to him.
         On that mountain the three are commanded, “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him.” Listen to him, just like Mary.
         Then people are called to account by Christ’s presence
—his being-with-them becomes the only thing.
         He affirms that the presence of just his name is enough to make someone for him, and not against him.
         His presence causes people to follow him and to head out telling everyone that he’s coming—that his presence will soon be felt!
         The disciples are reminded that knowing him is the same as knowing the Father.
         They’re reminded that seeing him and hearing him… listening to him… is a privilege that Prophets and potentates miss out on.
         For that matter, people who respond to his presence with other concerns are condemned. “I have to bury my father”—tough. “I have to say farewell to my family first”—too bad. Being in his presence is the only thing.
         Yes, by the time we get to Mary and Martha’s house, we realize how important the presence of Christ is,
sitting at his feet as disciples,
listening to his words and letting them soothe us and shape us.
         But that’s not all. Service, hospitality, welcome, the core of what Martha is about, is also lifted up on the way to the sisters’ home.
         The moment Jesus steps off that mountain, he welcomes a child to be healed, and then tells his disciples that greatness is found in being hospitable to a child.
         He tells his disciples to go out and rely on the hospitality of others as they prepare a way for him.
         He caps this off with last week’s story of the Samaritan who serves a man of a race and religion different than his own, condemning the unwelcoming Levite and unwelcoming Priest in the process.
         In a strange reversal of this story Jesus himself runs into an Inhospitable Samaritan village and leaves those Samaritans behind.
         On top of all that, he declares that those who do not welcome are a deeply evil people.
         By the time the disciples reach Martha and Mary’s—they’ve heard and seen Jesus assess service, and welcome, and hospitality as central to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
         So, I would imagine, Jesus’ words were surprising to them, just as they ought to be to us.

         Because of this surprise it is worth looking closer and noticing that they are spoken in a defensive way.
Jesus doesn’t want to get caught up in a family argument
—strangely a common theme in Luke’s Gospel
—but more importantly, he wants to make sure there is space for listening,
for sitting at the feet of the Lord,
space to allow Mary to experience the presence of the Kingdom of God.

         I wonder… if Mary had attacked Martha for serving and asked Jesus to side with her, as Martha did to Mary, would a similar skewering would have occurred?
Would Jesus have lifted up service in a similar way?

         Make no mistake. Both service and listening,
presence and hospitality,
welcome and sitting at the feet of the Lord,
are part of the Kingdom of God, part of being a disciple,
part of this whole Jesus thing.

         Perhaps you feel like a Martha, always inviting, and encouraging fellowship and feeding and collecting, and quilting and preparing care packages.
I pray you also find rest, filled with the Joy of Jesus’ presence, find yourself more closely knowing the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

         Or, perhaps, you feel like a Mary, always in Bible Study and personal prayer and reflection, finding Jesus in worship and sacraments and sacred conversation.
I pray you also come to know the joy of serving your sisters and brothers, becoming a welcoming presence and being hospitable as Christ was hospitable.

         And so, I pray that neither of these are threatened.
I pray also that all of us might regularly get to experience both.
         I pray, in short:
         Lord, May we know the peace of Christ’s presence,
         have a love of service
         and find joy in both. Amen.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Sermon video: How not Who


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

Loving neighbor is a how question, not a who question

         Three years ago, the last time the parable of the “Good” Samaritan came up, was the week of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
         And I remember how quickly people picked the kid to pieces.
They blamed him for his death because he’d smoked marijuana, he’d been tardy, and he’d scratched WTF into a door at school. Who he was shaped whether he was worthy for life or death!

         And that reminds me of what they’ve been saying about the shooting in Dallas.
“Why did it happen there?” they ask.
It was the model of best practices in policing.
It shouldn’t have happened there, after all before the shooting the police and the protestors were mingling, snapping selfies with one another like teenagers in love.
         Who they were as a police department should have protected them against injury and death. Their character and their person, who they were, should have shielded them from the sniper.
         Then there is the case of Alton Sterling, killed in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile killed outside Minneapolis. People are saying strange things like:
“It’s a shame Philando died, but so what about Alton.”
Philando Castile was the beloved cafeteria guy,
Alton couldn’t keep a regular job and instead sold CD’s in the open air, he’d been to jail and had to hustle to make ends meet.
         Imagine that,
do any of you have relatives or friends that work odd jobs?
or have seen the inside of a cell? Imagine if society decided that meant it was okay to kill them! Who they are allows for execution.

         Likewise, both the Black Lives Matter folk, and the police, are similarly feeling targeted for who they are.

         With all that weighing on our shoulders and our speech, we come up against Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor.
In the face of today’s readings and our current reality, I would suggest we must ask how questions, not who questions. When confronted with this command to love our neighbor, we must ask how questions,
not who questions.
Let us pray:

         Today, Jesus is asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
         Jesus, responds with his own question, “What does it say in scripture? How do you read our tradition?”
         The Lawyer’s response is not unusual, he thinks back to the second verse of the Jewish morning and evening prayer known as the Shema:
         “Hear O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord, is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
         To which he adds from Leviticus, of all places, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
         And that could have ended the discussion right there. Jesus answers, “Yup. So go on and love God with your whole self and love your neighbor as yourself.”

         But, the Lawyer insists upon asking the who question.
“Who,” he asks, “is my neighbor?”
“Who,” he asks, “must I love as myself?”
“Who,” he asks, “must I love to gain eternal life?”
         But Jesus takes this question about eternal life
—this who question
—and takes it out of the abstract
—he solidifies,
“love your neighbor as yourself,” in story.
After all, “Once upon a time,” is a more effective instructor than, “thou shalt not,” or even, “thou shalt.”
         He takes this lofty concept and lowers it onto a road
—the Road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
         This road winds and twists, gets narrow, and is an easy place from which to ambush someone.
         This road, was a dangerous road and a deadly place to ponder earning eternal life.

         For that matter, Jesus answers the “who question” very clearly and very concretely.
         -Who? The bloody carcass of a man mangled on a dangerous road—he is your neighbor.
         -Who? A man stripped naked, so you can’t tell if he’s your kin or not—he is your neighbor.
         -Who? A man without any means to repay you—he is your neighbor.

         Confronted with the ways in which our country devalues the lives of black men:
         -Who? Alton Sterling, the father of five selling CD’s, surprised and shot.
         -Who? Philando Castile, the man pulled over for a torn tail light, caught in his car and confessing to the cop that he had a concealed carry permit and a gun, before he was killed in front of his girlfriend and her 4 year old daughter.
--They are your neighbor.

         Confronted, as well, by the ambush in Dallas:
         -Who? The 5 officers slain there in the street and all the injured that night.—They are your neighbor.

         In the face of these tragedies…
         -Who? The families of all the fallen.—They are your neighbor.

         Acting merciful in the midst of death and danger—that’s how Jesus answers the eternal life question and the who question.
         When you can’t even tell who it is you’re helping and you help them anyway
—that’s when you know you’re loving your neighbor.

         But he doesn’t stop there.
He then turns to those who ask the who question,
and shows how the who question leaves men stranded and dying on deadly roads.
         The Priest asked the who question,
“Who is that there, is he dead?
Who is he?
Is he Israelite?
Who will ambush me if I try to help him?”
He then decides that he’ll go to the other side, to be on the “safe side.”
         The Levite asks the same questions—the who questions. And he too decides to go to the other side, in order to be on the “safe side.”
         Then—to add insult to injury—the man who helps the injured man—the man who doesn’t ask the who question—is a Samaritan!

         Now, that might not strike us as odd… after all we know this story as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” But at that time, and at that place, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan.
         I could tell you all the historical reasons for Samaritans being considered bad news to 1st century Jews—but I think the startling nature of Jesus’ story can be made in another way—by placing him into our present crisis
—by sticking him here and now.

         The way some people are framing our life together in this country…
Jesus would tell the police the story of “The Good Black Lives Matter Activist.”
and tell the Black Lives Matter Folk the story of “The Good Policeman.”

         The hero of Jesus’ story—the one that doesn’t ask who—is a Samaritan.
And this Samaritan asks a different question, he asks how.
How am I going to help this man?”
         And his actions answer this question loudly. He becomes personally involved.
He personally binds up wounds, he gives of his oil and his wine, he puts the wounded man on “his own beast” and gives of his own monies.
         When confronted by someone broken by the conflicts and snares of this world
—by banditry and by pain
—he did not ask who is that?
Is that person worth helping?
Is he someone of my religion?
From my nation?
My race?
My social standing?
         He asked, “How can I help him?
What resources do I have, or do I know of, that can help that person!”
         And once Jesus finished up his parable, he asked another question of the Lawyer. Because you see the Lawyer was busy asking who is my neighbor?
So Jesus asked a different question—“Which of these three was neighborly to the man who fell among the robbers? Which one was neighborly to his neighbor?”
         Sheepishly the Lawyer must admit, “The one showing mercy on him.”
That is, the one who is moved in the gut, so that they are forced to move with hands and feet, moved to minister and give aid!
         Jesus isn’t concerned with who the neighbor is
—he’s concerned with how we treat the neighbor.
He is concerned with showing mercy in the midst of death and danger!

         As we light these seven candles for the five officers killed in Dallas and the two men killed in Minnesota and Louisiana, let us honor their lives,
who they were,
but let us also consider in our hearts the how.
How we can love as Jesus calls us to love.
I, for one, will reach out to our local police today, just to let them know our prayers as with them in their time of mourning,
and check-in with my colleagues of color,
and I guess, just try to listen, right?
To ask God for the courage to connect with people whose experience of life is not like my own,
so that I can continue to ask that how question.
How will you love your neighbor as yourself?

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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The invasion of Iraq / the 4th of July / Patriots and Protestors

The British released their report about the invasion of Iraq, and Tony Blair is defiant about his choice to invade. For that matter, the partisan divide here in America feels to me like we're back in 2003.
So, I thought I'd let 19 year old Chris speak, just so I can remember where we were 13 years ago:

"It seems we have lost. I’ve seen America’s government deciding to be an invader for the first time in history and, after initial doubts, the American people supported it. I’ve seen those of us who marched against war relegated to “focus groups.” Like a scene out of the Third Reich, people who would seem to be sane individuals, burn Dixie Chicks’ CDs in the streets; “Freedom fries” reign supreme. 
At the presentation of our flag at the 4th of July fireworks display here in Cheyenne Wyoming, my hometown, the presenter mentioned that there are too many Americans who, “don’t respect the flag.” He separated the sheep from the goats, the patriots from the protesters.  
To say the least, this marcher for peace felt down in the dumps. Then something happened to strengthen my resolve. The fireworks display began with a reading of the names and ages of each American soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. With each name read, a single white firework was shot into the air, rose up through the solemn night sky, began to descend back down, and fizzled out. Robert M. Rodriguez ptttwp, a white light, a falling star, then darkness again. It was as if we were sending our national heroes up into heaven. 
As I sat there between my parents, my father looking a little bored, my mother’s eyes glistening with tears, I got to thinking about those names of soldiers, so many about my age (19). Each firework retort was also the retort of an Iraqi rifle, a miss-lobbed grenade, the crash of a helicopter. Bam Frederick E. Pokorney Jr dead. It was the light of Lori Ann Piestewa’s life, acceding through existence, then fizzling out, descending to the dead. 
This is why I marched. I didn’t march for the United Nations. I didn’t march for a certain political ideology. I marched for peace. I marched for the life of Brendon C. Reiss. 
The patriots holler and shout at the explosions while Toby Keith sings about putting “a boot in your ass” The protesters realize “an eye for an eye makes the world go blind,” and anger against anger makes a graveyard. The patriots smile and cheer about the troops we sent off to die. The protester sit somber, eyes glistening, knowing America chose this war, America chose to be the aggressor, America chose to let those soldiers die.
Don’t be embarrassed that you strove for peace. Don’t be embarrassed that you want to know about the legitimacy of the documents used to justify our war. Don’t be embarrassed that you want to know where the weapons of mass destruction are. Don’t be embarrassed; our cause is just, our motives virtuous, our actions commendable. 
We protesters may not wrap ourselves in the American flag, but rest assured we did not protest as traitors to our country, but as a people standing against needless death."

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Two years of Read, Reflect, Pray

Greetings all.
It is hard to believe that it was two years ago, but back in 2014 I gained permission from a variety of publishing companies to use quotes, prayers, and bits of liturgy to stitch together a prayer book focused on the seven central things of worship, the readings and prayers of each day pointing toward one of them. I took from A Minister’s Prayer Book and added some diversity in a variety of ways.
Well, tonight my copyright runs out.
It’s been a good run. I’ve sold enough books to recover the money I paid for the copyrights, and RRP has a facebook following of 276 people who receive a prayer or quote daily.
To everyone who was involved in the creation of the book, those who purchased it, and those who participated on the facebook page.
Thank you.


Chris Halverson

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

A letter to the Galatians of New Jersey

Then I preached this:

Dearest siblings,
            I write this letter leaning on a single question that I pray that Christianity will continue to wrestle with, even long after I, Paul, am dead.
            “Who occupies you?”

            In case I’m being obtuse, or a certain level of rugged individualism has clogged your ears to what I’m asking, let me try to state my question a little more clearly
—Who occupies y’all?
Or maybe, “you’se
or “You’uns”
or “you folk
or even just “the congregation?”
            While every individual is precious, and that truth must not be lost
—our life together as Christians, as the body of Christ, is of utmost importance to my question today “Who occupies you?”
            I pray that the ages will not neuter my question, tame it, make it into a question of private morality or some sort of spiritual hobby.
            Because this is about all of us,
how we live as freed people,
how we are Christ for one another.
            “Who occupies you?”
            Have you noticed there is a vicious,
going on?
In the seeming plainness of our lives there is a war going on.
This power holds us down,
has occupied the lives of so many,
has enslaved so much of the world.

            In my letter to the Galatians, I called this occupying power,
this enemy,
“The Flesh.”
It saddens me to hear that many have taken this word to deal with human bodies,
and has led some people to feel great shame for being an embodied human being.
This was not my intent,
in fact if you read my letters carefully you will note I make a distinction between The Flesh, this thing that has pulled one over on us and has captured us,
and The Body, which is part of the good human thing we’ve been created to be…

            So, perhaps I could come up with a way to re-name this power, for all your sakes, so that you might more easily understand what I’m saying,
            What then shall I call it?...
            This occupying power is Sin.
            This occupying power is Self-obsession.
            This occupying power is Neighbor-Destruction
            You get my point now, don’t you?
            We are occupied by, self, by being turned away from our neighbor and fixated on MEEEE!

            That’s what I mean when I say “we are occupied by The Flesh.”
That’s what I mean when I say that The Flesh is at war against us, intends to take us prisoner, and enslave us.
“Who occupies you?”

            Like any occupation, there are those who resist. Those brave groups of people who fight back, who escape, who will not cooperate with the enemy, no matter what.

            One way of resisting, a force used to combat the occupation, a good one, a godly one even, is The Law.
            Yes, The Law,
a set of rules we can follow to stop hurting our neighbors,
to quit seeking after selfish things,
to resist Sin,
resist the Flesh.
The 10 commandments,
the stories of God’s acts for God’s people,
community rules,
at their best basic, the rules governing society,
are put in place to restrain evil and make good neighbors.

            I repeat, The Law is a good solution, even one given by God.
            Yet it, like us, has been enslaved by the Flesh, infected even, not allowed to act as it ought.
            It’s proper use is to help us love our neighbor, but it can be made to be exclusive and can keep us immature.
            The Law creates insiders and outsiders,
those who follow it, and those who do not,
and that separation has a way of coming back at you like a boomerang.
You start defining yourself as not a lawbreaker,
and soon enough you are defining yourself as not your neighbor
—soon enough you build a wall between you and your neighbor and you start to care about only those on your side of the fence of the Law.

            Isn’t that wild, the very thing that is supposed to help you love your neighbor, can be tricked into making you hate him!

            Think of those disciples of Jesus who enter into a Samaritan village, the village of a people who keep a different law than they do
—and these disciples, people who’ve been toddling after Jesus like a flock of ducklings behind a mamma duck
Even they wonder if they should ask God to destroy the village!
After all it’s not their village,
it’s not their people!
Not their laws…
Yes, The Law, both scriptural and secular, transformed by The Flesh, can create exclusion.
            It can also keep us immature,
it’s like a helicopter parent who won’t let us grow up.

            Think of it, there are many ways to love your neighbor,
fixating on a single way,
because it’s the rules,
can make you miss out on all kinds of good ways to show God’s love to people.
            Take something as simple as tying your shoe. When you first learn the rules to tying a shoe you learn the rhyme:
Over, Under, Around and through,
Meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.
            But if you repeated that song every time you tie your shoes for the rest of your life
you’d get funny looks at the office,
and for that matter,
you’d never learn a double knot,
or that knots can hold together hammocks and sails and many other things, not just shoes.
            So too, learning from The Law is wonderful,
and regular refresher courses are great reminders of how to love our neighbor,
but if it is the beginning and end of the way we love other people,
 we’re missing out!

“Who occupies you?”
            The good news is that there is another way to fight the Flesh.
            Christ has freed us, and we hold onto this freedom and resist the power of the Flesh,
by being captured by one another.
            Get that?
We’re going to be captured by something, so it is imperative that we are captured by each other, captured by the love we share with one another.
            Every other option ends up with us eradicating each other.
            This loving way
—bound to one another in liberty
—is the way of the Spirit, the way Jesus continues to move us into freedom.
The Spirit liberates us and puts us to the work of loving one another.
We can be occupied by The Spirit, instead of The Flesh.

            “Who occupies you?”
            When we look at our life together, do we see the Spirit or the Flesh?
            We’ll know, at least in part, by the fruits that we produce.
            Are we as a community: sexually exploitative, spiritually suspect, a public embarrassment, and a fractured family?
            Or, are we as a community filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control?

Together we struggle against sinful-selfish-neighbor-hate—the Flesh.
We resist it with The Law, but find it wanting.
We cling to the freedom given to us by Christ by clinging to one another in the Spirit of love.

            Let us live in the Spirit,
let us carry out our life together under the guidance of the Spirit.  A+A


Sunday, June 19, 2016

"All people are created in God's image" a sermon in response to the shootings in Orlando and Charleston

(again, I preached without notes, so I said something like the following)

I began by reading Bishop Eaton's letter:
“Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
"So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them." Genesis 1:27
We are killing ourselves. We believe that all people are created in God's image. All of humanity bears a family resemblance. Those murdered in Orlando were not abstract "others," they are us. But somehow, in the mind of a deeply disturbed gunman, the LGBTQ community was severed from our common humanity. This separation led to the death of 49 and the wounding of 54 of us.
We live in an increasingly divided and polarized society. Too often we sort ourselves into like-minded groups and sort others out. It is a short distance from division to demonization. Yesterday, we witnessed the tragic consequences of this.
There is another way. In Christ God has reconciled the world to God's self. Jesus lived among us sharing our humanity. Jesus died for us to restore our humanity. God invites us into this reconciling work. This must be our witness as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The perpetrator of this hate crime did not come out of nowhere. He was shaped by our culture of division, which itself has been misshapen by the manipulation of our fears. That is not who we are. St. Paul wrote, "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ" (II Corinthians 5:17-20).
Our work begins now. We need to examine ourselves, individually and as a church, to acknowledge the ways we have divided and have been divided. We must stand with people who have been "othered". We must speak peace and reconciliation into the cacophony of hatred and division. We must live the truth that all people are created in God's image.
 This morning your churchwide staff came together to mourn and to pray. We prayed for those killed in Orlando and remembered the Charleston Nine killed only a year ago. We prayed for the family of the shooter, for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and for our Muslim brothers and sisters who now face the threat of retaliation. And we prayed that the Prince of Peace will bring us to the day when we stop killing ourselves.
Your sister in Christ,
Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”

“All people are created in God’s image”
Because all people are created in God’s image, Luke writes about Christ crossing over to the other side, to be with the Gerasenes—crossing over to a people different than his people in Galilee, crossing over to them, they who too are created in the image of God… Yes, the earliest followers of Jesus, spent a lot of time crossing over to the other side—finding people created in the image of God where they would not expect it!
Heck, look at the Acts of the Apostles, the whole thing is one big catch-up game, the Disciples, the Apostles, catching up to the Holy Spirit, who continually goes and reaches the other side and dwells with people the Apostles didn’t realize were made in the image of God!

“All people are created in God’s image”
This is echoed in Paul’s words written to the Galatians.
Some scholars call this section the earthquake of the antimonies—what does that mean right? It’s two apposite categories which together make a whole… for example Jews and Gentiles—in Paul’s time those two categories would encompass the whole of humanity—you were one or the other…
Until, until Paul recognizes Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as shaking the very foundation of these antimonies… in Christ there are no longer Jews, nor Gentiles. In Christ we are no longer Slave, or Free. In Christ we are no longer male and female. And this list can grow—we can affirm In Christ we are neither black, nor white. In Christ, we can affirm we are neither gay nor straight… yes, in all people, ALL people, resides the image of God!

As I intoned this morning to start the service all of Psalm 22, God explicitly enters into the image of humanity in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, who cried the cry of dereliction from the cross—My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
            Yes “All people are created in God’s image” so fully, that God joins in our cries, joins the cries of those caught in the horrific and the tragic…
Christ’s cries joined our own in Orlando at The Pulse one week ago.
Christ’s cries joined our own in Charleston at Emanuel AME one year ago.

“All people are created in God’s image”
--Let us honor the image of God found in The Pulse and in Emanuel AME by lighting a candle for each one of those who died in Orlando and Charleston.

(As we lit the candles Tom played “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”)

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