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A Cup of Cold Water

(a sermon for June 27, 2020, the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:40-42)

Her name was Peggy Grenier, and she was an elderly widow who lived in a log cabin up the road from us on the lake, and at the end of a wooded pathway; and for a period of time when I was very young, she was one of my very best friends.  Actually, Peggy was best friends with just about every one of the little kids who spent their summers on the lake, and as I think about it now, it’s a wonder she had a moment to herself, given all the children who used to come to visit her! 

We all loved to “go see Peggy,” and this was because by all indications, she loved to see us!  No matter what she was doing or how busy she was, the moment we turned up at her door, she’d stop everything to visit with us.  We’d tell Peggy all of our long, drawn-out stories, she’d laugh heartily at all our “little kid jokes,” and over cookies and cold glasses of lemonade we’d have these deep discussions about the great issues of our lives – school and friends and how much we hated social studies – but the thing was that all of this truly seemed to matter to Peggy!

What I remember the most about Peggy is that she really did listen to us, and what’s more, she talked to us like we were grown-ups, which at the age of six is quite a thing indeed!  I remember our parents saying to us, “Now, don’t you go up there and bother Peggy every day; she doesn’t need you kids hanging around all the time,” but we never really understood that because you see, Peggy never acted like we were a bother1 She always made us feel welcome, and all these years later I still remember how great that feeling was. And even though she’s long since passed on, other people live there now, and the log cabin itself has been completely remodeled, as far as I’m concerned, that place will always be “Peggy’s Camp.”

To feel welcomed – to be received, as scripture often translates it – is one of life’s great blessings, isn’t it?  I’m sure we can all name moments in which a simple act of hospitality made all the difference: someone inviting us to sit at their table and share a meal; inviting us to spend a holiday with them where otherwise we would have been alone; or has been the case for me recently, stopping by the house to bring a flower or a goodie bag or a simply a word of comfort.  It’s part and parcel of being a good neighbor, yes, and on a deeper level, it’s the act of affirming the great value of that person through a not-so-random act of kindness; but even more than this, spiritually speaking, it is seeing that person through the eyes of God.  It truly is as our reading today describes it, like giving that someone “a cup of cold water” on a hot and muggy day; it’s just that refreshing and life giving…

…and, might I add… an essential part of the Christian life; it is the manner of welcome to which you and I are called as disciples of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said it in our text for this morning, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and who every welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It is worth noting here that these words of Jesus come right on the heels of those other rather disconcerting words from our text for last Sunday, all about how he’d come not “to bring peace but a sword,” about families being set against one another, and about losing one’s life to save it (and all of that, by the way, coming on the heels of Jesus’ dire warnings to the disciples about the inevitability of conflict and persecution). But then, just when any reasonable person might have run the other way, Jesus reminds the disciples of the great importance of the task before them; essentially saying that whenever someone receives them –  that is, whenever someone welcomes them into their homes, and into their “circle of trust” and admiration – they will be receiving Christ himself! Just as prophets and righteous believers are received on the basis of who they are, Jesus says, anyone who gives you even a cup of cold water because you’re my disciple is also welcoming me!  And when they are welcoming me, Jesus goes on to say, they are welcoming the God who sent me.

In these three short verses from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus reminds us of the vital role that his disciples will play in the building up of the Kingdom of God; understanding, of course, that this extends not only to the original twelve but to all who would seek to follow Christ, and that includes you and me.  As disciples, you see, you and I are in the truest sense ambassadors of Christ in the places where we dwell, emissaries of his kingdom.  So anyone who welcomes us into their circle is also welcoming Jesus; and what that means is that anything and everything we do as “guests” will reflect on the one we represent:  our demeanor around those who welcome us matters, as does our sense of graciousness for what we receive, and our ability to speak, act and respond with love befitting the example of our Lord.

Now, you might think that this is an obvious point (in fact, I hope so; I mean, what’s not to understand about what amounts to “loving one another?”), but in truth of fact, there are a great many people, and many “Christians” among them whose lives never quite approach that example; the kind of folks who by their behaviors give too much credence to those rumors about Christians being holier-than-thou, hyper-critical hypocrites!   My point here is that it’s important for you and I to remember that for better or worse, when every day we head out into the world we are carrying our faith along with us; and there are countless occasions throughout the week when what we say, what we do, the choices we make, the attitudes we show toward others – how we live (!) – cannot help but proclaim something about that faith, either positively or negatively.

Which message comes forth… well, that in large part is up to us. 

It actually puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes from Frederick Buechner,  a passage from his book, Wishful Thinking.  “Who knows,” he wrote, “how the awareness of God’s love first hits people.  Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn’t believe in God if you paid him.  Some moment happens in your life that you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen… how about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment… maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.”  The bottom line, friends, is that as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are his representatives.  We are in essence his heart, his hands, his feet, his arms of compassion; in receiving us, you see, the people we encounter can and do discover the love of Jesus Christ; that is both the word of encouragement and the word of challenge that our Lord offered to his disciples as they went out into a harsh and uncertain world.  “This is a large work I’ve called you into,” Jesus tells them in The Message version of this text, “but don’t be overwhelmed by it… the smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”

In other words, the “effectiveness,” if you will, of true discipleship is not to be measured by the greatness of what is accomplished, but in all the small things that are done greatly.  Just as something as simple as a card, or a call, or a visit shows us how much we’re loved and appreciated, when you and I offer up, as Jesus puts it, “even a cup of cold water to these little ones in the name of a disciple,” not only serves as an affirmation of faith and love and care to that one who was thirsty, it also shows forth the great and giving love of Jesus Christ and of the God who sent him.  And understand, when Jesus refers to “these little ones,” he’s not talking necessarily about children, but rather, he’s talking about anyone and everyone who has ever needed to be recognized and affirmed and valued and loved… or who simply need a drink of water. 

The point is that these are the ones to whom we are called to bring our faith and our love. and the best way we can reveal the reign of Christ in the world is for them to see Christ in us through merciful acts of love and kindness and grace that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. This, I believe, is what makes you and I authentically Christian, and it’s what makes us the church… yes, what makes us the church no matter where and how we meet.

Once again, it all seems so simple, so basic to the mission we share as believers; and yet I would dare say that in these days when people and groups have become so sharply and bitterly divided over so many issues – not to mention quite literally having to have our faces be covered and be physically distant from one another – that this call to bring forth true love and mercy represents one of the greatest challenges that the church faces in this day and age. 

For instance, I don’t know about you, but these days I’m something finding it very difficult to be able to express what I want to express while wearing a facemask!  This whole pandemic has made me realize just how much of ourselves we convey to others simply by the look on our face: the way we smile, or frown, or grimace, or share the abundance of our displeasure… or for that matter, our compassion.  I think I’ve shared with you the story of how I was in our local Hannaford the other day and another woman came barreling around a crowded corner and fairly well careened into my shopping cart.  It wasn’t a big deal – no harm done at all – but what was interesting was that because we were masked we literally stared at each other’s eyes for the longest moment because neither one of us could tell how the other was going to react to this little accident.  Was there going to be anger and heated words exchanged, or would we just laugh it off?  Based on just the masks we were wearing, there was no way to tell!  Frankly, it wasn’t until I made a stupid joke – in my official downeast dialect, mister man, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to you folks (!) – that she could tell I wasn’t upset and she could breathe a sigh of relief… and we both had a good laugh as a result.

It was, in its own unique way, a cup of cold water… and whether or not that woman knew it, a little bit of God was revealed.  And that was reward indeed.

Karen Mains has said it well: “When we give, having put away our pride, then Christ sanctifies the simple gift.  He makes it holy, useful.”  Friends, it may well seem to us like what we give is small and perhaps even insignificant in the wider scheme of things, to those who receive what we have to give it is anything but; and it’s certainly not insignificant to the Lord.  A cup of cold water matters; for what greater reward can there be than a not so random act of kindness resulting in someone encountering God, perhaps for the very first time?

There’s a lot of very thirsty people out there, friends… and we’ve got plenty of water.  

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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Living Faithfully (While Standing on Your Head)

(a sermon for June 21, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:24-39)

Let’s talk for a moment this morning about paradox.

As the dictionary defines it, a paradox is a statement or proposition that contradicts itself and may even sound absurd in nature, but in fact is true.  It’s a statement of fact that goes totally against the grain of how we usually understand and interpret things.  It is a paradox, for instance, that a creature as small and seemingly insignificant as an ant should be able to carry some 50 times its own weight, or for that matter, that a tiny mosquito has the ability to cause so much discomfort when we’re outdoors this time of year!  It’s a paradox that sometimes it’s the people with everything that money, power and prestige can provide who end up with nothing but misery and heartache in their lives, while those who by worldly standards have next to nothing at all can claim happiness without hesitation.

In other words, paradox is what happens when what happens is not how we expect things to go; it what boggles the mind by defying our way of thinking and yet stands there as undeniable truth!  No wonder that the great G.K. Chesterton once defined paradox as “truth standing on her head to get attention,” because these are the truths that require from us inside out, upside-down thinking! 

And if that’s true, friends, then I think it can also be said that the Christian faith is actually a pretty topsy-turvy religion!

Think about this with me for a moment, because the truth is that in a great many ways Christianity is very paradoxal in nature!  It’s a paradox that at the center of our faith is one who was the Son of God – Jesus Christ by name – yet who was not a political ruler nor a powerful leader of the religious establishment of his time; but rather a lowly carpenter.  It’s a paradox that this one who healed the sick, raised the dead, and brought goodness, joy and salvation to a hurting world would be, in fact, summarily executed in a horrific fashion at the hands of the very people to whom he brought that goodness, and that he should be executed with the tools of his own trade: nails and hammers and cross-beams of wood!  And perhaps the greatest paradox of all, that the instrument of Jesus’ death, the cross, remains for us a symbol of life abundant and everlasting; that to this day we “cherish the old, rugged cross!” 

And then there’s our text for this morning from Matthew’s gospel, a series of admittedly less than uplifting teachings of Jesus: “I have not come not to bring peace, but a sword.”  What? “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”  Well, then, Happy Father’s Day, everyone!  “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household… whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  Not exactly a celebration of family here!  And for the moment, let’s not even talk about that verse about fearing the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  But then there’s this, which seems to sum the whole thing up: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”   Friends, if you came online this morning hoping to hear some words of comfort from the Bible, this might not be your day (!) because what we have here is confrontation, pure and simple; for the same Jesus who assures us that “even the hairs on [our] head are all counted” by our Heavenly Father and that we need not ever be afraid then goes on to warn us that “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

And that, folks, is paradox.

But then, that is the nature of faith, isn’t it: it’s grace coupled with responsibility; forgiveness that goes hand in hand with repentance; the call to follow Jesus that leads to true discipleship and a brand life that comes with risk as well as reward!  The idea that glory comes out suffering, that victory is won out of defeat, that gain comes in our loss: these are the paradoxes that lay at the very foundation of Christian belief!  And yet it’s precisely in these kinds of upside-down, inside-out truths that we gain our greatest insight into things like love, courage, strength and faith itself.

What we can take from Jesus’ words to us this morning is that there is indeed a cost as well as a joy in discipleship, but amidst all the difficulties we are loved and protected by God.  And we know this because of Jesus, who says, “everyone… who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”    But keep in mind there’s a flip side to this promise as well… and a warning: “…but whoever denies me before others,” Jesus goes on to say, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Again with the paradoxes (!); unconditional love on the one hand but the need for complete accountability on the other!   But that’s what Jesus’ words about families set against one another for the sake of discipleship is all about.  Bottom line is that when it comes to our faith we need to ask those difficult questions that Jesus sets forth:  like, have we denied Christ before others?  Do we, in fact, love others more than Christ?  Have we, at some crucial moment of life, refused to take up our crosses to follow Christ where he would lead us?  At the crossroads of life and living can it be said of you and me that we are worthy of Jesus and his “acknowledgement;” or is the truth of it that we’ve been so all-consumed with doing what we want to do for our own edification that we’ve risked losing everything that truly matters? 

What we’re talking about here, in the words of Clarence Jordon, is the difference between being “an admirer of Jesus and his disciple;” the difference between those whose faith stumbles at the first sign of challenge, struggle… or paradox (!)… and those who are willing and ready to bring a sword of righteousness against that and those who are wrong; those who are willing lose something of themselves and their lives for the sake of everything that can be gained.

Is it risky to acknowledge Christ in these strange times in which we live?  Sometimes; but then, true discipleship has always proven to be risky in some circumstances.  But as Jesus makes clear in our text this morning, the stakes involved are high; no less than life itself.  It seems to me that what you and I need to be doing, especially now, is cultivating within ourselves the ability to live faithfully while standing upside down; to embrace the glorious paradox that when we risk ourselves to the Lord – when we lose our life – we discover is that the old is made new, the lost is found, the weak are made strong, the hurts in our lives and those in others are made healthy, and that we find sight in our blindness, hope in the midst of hopelessness, and love and power in times and places we never thought could ever be.  Because when “truth stands on its head to get attention” – when we are willing to live faithfully while standing on our head – then the maze and craze of human life becomes a pathway to the kingdom.

Some years ago when they were still quite young, another Dad and I packed up our kids one night to take them to see a double-feature at a nearby Drive-In movie theater. We always loved going to the drive-in, but as I recall, the two of us taking all these kids to the movies required preparation only slightly less than a 3-day camping trip!  We had to find the perfect spot, then back up the mini-van up and lift the rear hatch up and fold the seat down so the kids could lay in the back and watch the movie in comfort, while tying down the hatch enough so not to block anyone else’s view.  (I know, this sounds excessive, but this is what you do when you take a bunch of kids for an outdoor movie!)

As you can imagine, this all took quite a while to get set up properly, but just as we had finished here comes one of the managers of the drive-in who asked us, very politely, if we might move. It seemed that this rather stern looking couple in a Toyota Celica in back of us couldn’t see, and complained to the management.  Now I looked back at that this car and saw that there were probably six slots to their right and three to their left, each one empty free and with a clear, unobstructed view of the screen; never mind that all the while we were setting up they’d been parked behind us and never said a word to us.  And I’ll be honest here; I looked down at all this little makeshift campsite that would now take several minutes and a goodly amount of effort to pick up and move I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fair!”  But please, the manager said, we’re sorry, and we hate to ask, but those people are being very, very difficult.  So I looked at my friend and he looked at me and, well… we picked up and moved the whole shebang over ten feet; not particularly happily, I must confess, but we did it.

But then a strange and interesting happened:  the owner of the place comes over to personally thank us for being helpful and “so reasonable.”  The kid at the concession stand recognized me, and pretty much talked my ear off about how much they appreciated what we did, and how some people were just hard to get along with (apparently this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened)… as I remember, he even snuck an extra bag of popcorn in with our order!  As I headed back to our car to watch the movie feeling that not only had we done the right thing in that situation, but perhaps a good thing as well; maybe even the faithful thing!  And I suddenly realized that I could no longer grumble about the hassle of what we’d been asked to do because my perspective had changed.  I’d just seen things differently; the way you see things differently when you’re standing on your head!

Was this some great and heroic religious experience that furthered the cause of Christ?  No, of course not… but it was in some small way acknowledging our faith by our actions and through our attitudes.  And I tell you about it because every day each one of us has countless opportunities, both large and small, to do the same thing: to offer up some word of kindness and support even if we risk something of ourselves, our comfort and even our own valued sense of tradition and propriety and to do it.  Truth be told, most of the time faithful living simply requires from us the ability to see things and understand circumstances in an entirely different way than we have before.  Our challenge always is to do as Christ would do, and that can be difficult at times, to be sure; but the rewards are most certainly worth the risk.  For the gospel holds true: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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To Lead Lives Worthy

(a sermon for June 14, 2020, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-29)

Since confession is good for the soul, it seems like now would be as good a time as any to tell you that one of the things that Lisa and I have been doing to pass the time in these days of quarantine is “binge-watching” old episodes of the television show Survivor.

Now, we’ve actually been watching that show off and on for the 20 years (!) it’s been on the air, but recently we’ve been re-watching the first few seasons from back in the early 2000’s and it has been… (please don’t judge!) not only entertaining but fascinating!  To begin with, those early seasons were more wholly focused on two “tribes” of people literally working to survive alone together on a south sea island: you got to see them struggle to make fire, battle the elements, build a shelter, eat bugs and beetle larvae (which my wife still can’t bring herself to watch!) and at the end of each episode vote off the weakest link until there’s one “sole” survivor, all the while wasting away to nothing and getting filthier by the day!  Back then there were no “hidden immunity idols,” nor an “Edge of Extinction” island as a way of staying in the game longer as is routine now, and the so called “reward challenge” often yielded little more than a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew!

In many ways Survivor is a very different show than what it was when it started; but what’s interesting is that from the beginning the basic premise has always been the same:  that you gather this group of people of vastly different backgrounds competing to “outwit, outplay and outlast” each other all for the sake of winning a million dollars; while at the same time, perhaps, maintaining their own personal integrity in the process.  And if you’ve ever watched Survivor, then you know what I’m talking about here:  every season, almost every episode there’s always some contestant who’s lamenting as to how they can actually lie to, lie about or otherwise manipulate a fellow contestant – some of whom they’ve actually grown rather close to out there in the wilderness – all for the sake of moving themselves further along in the game and closer to that million bucks.  Trust me here, folks, there ends up being a whole lot of generally “good” people who end up doing some really terrible things on Survivor!  And what gets me is that their reaction to this kind of behavior usually goes one of two ways: either they say, “well, it’s just a game, after all, not real life,” or else they confess that “At the end of all this I need to be able to look myself in the mirror,” and thus act accordingly.  And isn’t it interesting that – not always, mind you, but generally speaking – these aren’t the people who end up the sole survivor!  If the question asked on a show like this – and on countless other shows these days – is “what would you do for a million dollars,” the answer would seem to be, “almost anything!”

The real question, of course, is, “why?” Why do this; even for a million bucks, why would you ever diminish yourself, your character, your reputation and your integrity do this? Now, I understand that there’s a fair amount of fakery on these so-called “reality” shows, so I don’t want to overthink this, but I suppose that at heart the reason comes down to human nature; our inner yearning, to quote the Rev. Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, to “hit the jackpot… to [garner those] windfalls that give us more of what most people are after – fame, power, fortune” and even security.  It’s basically the same reason people buy lottery tickets or enter the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Giveaway; we want all of the benefits of that which we believe a million dollars will provide… even if ultimately, it won’t; or even if it’s not the true blessing we’re looking for!

Now, lest we think that this is a latter-day phenomenon of human life, consider the crowds from our gospel text this morning from John, who the day before had been well fed with a miraculous abundance of loaves and fishes and who were now actively seeking Jesus out, even following him eagerly all the way from Tiberias all the to Capernaum in boats, ostensibly to be nearer to Jesus and to hear more of his teaching.  But when they finally do find Jesus, he sees right through them, saying, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Or, if I might draw from The Message here, you’re “looking for me not because you see God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” In other words, they figured they’d gotten one good meal, so why not another!  And in the process of looking for that next meal, to quote Thomas Long again, they’d confused “the difference between the hunger for a blessing and the lust for a jackpot.” 

And, friends, therein lies our confusion as well.  What Jesus makes clear in this passage is that he’s not about to be a short-order cook for the crowds at Capernaum, any more than our following Jesus is evef meant to be a means of wish fulfillment.  No, it goes much, much deeper than that.  “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but [work] for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  

Yes, these people had had their bellies filled in an amazing, miraculous way… but what Jesus was giving them was more than just perishable food that temporarily relieves a passing hunger; Jesus is offering up the nourishment of God, he food that feeds the soul and satisfies our deepest hunger.  And the beauty part is that it’s not even something that we have to earn, or win or “survive.”  It’s just given us as a gift… gracefully, lovingly, purposefully. “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

For each one of us as believers, you see, the most important question before us comes down not to what we’d do for a million dollars, but rather what we are willing to do for that which really matters.  How willing are we to work for the blessing rather than go for the jackpot?  Would we be willing to let go our grip of dependence upon all those things of this world and this life that will most certainly perish?  Are we willing to let go of all that so that we might grab ahold of the life that is true and abundant and eternal?  Are we willing to believe in something greater than ourselves, and then give over the whole of our hearts and lives to it?  Are we willing to renounce the need for windfall, or entitlement, or privilege for the sake of loving our neighbor – all our neighbors – as ourselves and as Christ as loved us?  Are we willing to lead lives worthy of the food we’ve been given, “the food that endures for eternal life?”

I’ve always been very fond of our second text for this morning, that portion from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes, “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”   And also, by the way, once again drawing from The Message version of these verses, “Mark that you do this… not in fits and starts, but pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert in noticing differences and quick at mending fences.”  I love this passage because it serves as a reminder not only that our calling as disciples is a marathon rather than a sprint – a lifetime commitment to working for the bread that endures – but because of that bread, the work provides its own reward.  So though we might wonder what would happen if we made it to that final “tribal council,” for fame, fortune and security, ultimately really doesn’t matter if we never win the million dollars; just as in the larger landscape of our lives ad living, it makes no difference if the other castaways stick with their alliance and vote us off the island.  What matters is how we “played the game,” so to speak, because we know in faith that there’s a greater place and better meal awaiting.  Strangely enough, friends, the great Frederick Buechner expresses this perfectly.  He writes, “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us.”

What matters is that our true home is ever and always going to be with God, beloved.  What matters is that the sum total of our lives will never to whatever fifteen minutes of fame we might have achieved along the way, but rather in how we were able to live lives worthy of all of God’s graceful gifts that have been bestowed upon us.  What matters in times of conflict and uncertainty is both that we stood up for justice and that we conducted ourselves after the manner of God’s whole peace – God’s shalom – and made that our intent and priority for the world.  What matters is that we love as Christ has loved us, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. What matters are the ways we “[speak] the truth in love, [growing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.”

I pray that this will be the vision that beckons to each and every one of us, beloved, “until all of us is come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

So might it be… and thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Discipleship, Epistles, Faith, Jesus, Paul, Sermon

 

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