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As Though For the Last Time

(a meditation for Maundy Thursday 2019, based on Luke 22:7-23)

In his introduction of a booklet detailing the preparations and liturgy for an interfaith Passover Celebration, Gabe Huck writes the following: “There is a time when time stands still, motionless.  There is a time in religious life when time becomes eternal, beyond recount, beyond hour divisions.  There is a time when we leave the present to go back in memory, feeling and prayer to the past, to a past that is the very ground of our being.  There is a time when we return to the sources.  Such a time is Passover.”

And, might I add here, such a time is Holy Week, and in particular, Maundy Thursday.

It’s on nights and during services such as these that I am reminded of just how much of what we do in our worship is a matter of history, tradition and even, dare I say it… routine.  Take the way that we “do” communion in the church; that is, how we share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  It is a part of our worship that steeped with ritual rooted in a very specific and appropriate liturgy that dates from the very beginnings of our Christian faith.  From the need for prayerful confession and pardon prior to coming to the table, through the so-called “words of institution” as spoken by Jesus himself, to the very ways that we actually partake of the bread and wine; these are things that happen – and have always happened (!) – just about every time we come to share in the bread and the cup.  With some minor variations, you see, in every church tradition, in every local congregation, in every “where two or more are gathered” amongst the faithful there is a similar sense of continuity and tradition in our communion; to the point where sometimes I fear it risks becoming something commonplace in our life together.

But not tonight.

Tonight, it’s different; tonight is for us that time when time truly “stands still, motionless,” a time when we do “leave the present to go back in memory,” coming together in humble imitation of a Passover Celebration long ago; of a truly holy meal that was the first and in a very real way the last of its kind.

Actually, as Luke records the story, at least leading up to that that fateful night there was nothing particularly unusual about this Passover meal – the seder – which was and is amongst Jews the festive celebration of the Exodus from Egypt and “God’s redemptive liberation of Israel from slavery and spiritual misery,” (from “The Passover Celebration”), a huge feast built upon the remembrance of things past and an expression of true faith.  It was also a celebration largely shared at home amongst family and friends; and so, like everyone else who was in Jerusalem that week, Jesus and his disciples would most definitely have shared in such a table celebration. So of course there would be a great deal of preparation involved and lots of ritual throughout, which is why much s said about Peter and John being sent to find the “man carrying a jar of water,” and going to “the large room upstairs” where “they prepared the Passover meal.”  It was tradition; something that’s still done by faithful Jews the world over.

But this time, you see, it was different.  To begin with, Jesus makes a point of saying how much he’d been looking forward to sharing this Passover meal with them “before I enter my time of suffering,” [The Message] and how it would be the last one they’d eat together until they’d do so together in the Kingdom of God!  “I’ll not drink wine again” until that Kingdom comes.  And then, again after having given thanks and broken the bread according to tradition, Jesus gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Same thing after supper with the cup:  “This cup is the new covenant written in my blood, blood poured out for you.”

Suffering?  A last meal?  A new covenant written in blood? One thing was for certain; this wasn’t the usual liturgy employed at a Passover celebration!  And then there was all of Jesus’ talk about betrayal, and how the Son of Man was going down a path that had already been marked out, “but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!”  You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking at that moment; I mean, it’s not like Jesus hadn’t already spoken of how the Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, but here?  Now?  At the very moment we’re gathering to feast and rejoice at God’s providence and redemptive power for his people Israel, what do you even mean by suggesting  the Son of Man is to be betrayed?  Who would ever… who could ever do something like that?

It was unsettling, to say the very least, and it’s no wonder that as Luke tells the story, almost immediately the disciples start squabbling a bit amongst themselves and then, of course, Peter – good ol’ Peter – offers up his verbal assurance that he would never, ever betray Jesus, even as Jesus predicts that this denial would, in fact, happen not once but three times!  All at once this Passover celebration had become something different, and I have to imagine that in those final moments of that Maundy Thursday evening – though they didn’t yet have a clue as to just how much things were about to change forever, and even less why – somewhere down deep in their hearts the disciples knew that they were all together sharing this sacred meal in the same time-honored way that they’d always done for the last time.

And they could not have possibly articulated this, but I also wonder if when Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them – just before the betrayal; before the denials of one and the desertion of many; before the arrest and the scourging, the jeers and mocking; before the cries for his execution; before they nailed his hands and feet to a wooden cross; before the hours and hours of agonizing pain and suffering as the life drained out of him; before he finally breathed his last; just before everything on earth and heaven shifted forever – I wonder if in that singular moment of “communion” offered to them by their Master and friend Jesus if perhaps time stood still for the disciples, motionless; in anticipation of eternity entering in.

I wonder.

In a few moments, you and I will return to feast at the Lord’s Table, to once again know his presence in broken bread and in a shared cup.  And though tonight we’ll do so in a way different than how we usually share communion in our worship here, nonetheless, we’ll be following a liturgy and tradition that’s been ours for generations as the Church of Jesus Christ.  So in many ways, tonight should be no different than any other time we eat a piece of bread and share a tiny sip of wine from a common cup…

…except tonight it is different.

Tonight we remember the night long ago when this holy meal was shared the first time; how it was given, and what Jesus said about it, and how the disciples responded and what it all meant, especially as we remember everything that was to follow. We remember how praise and celebration gave way to betrayal and desertion; how “hosanna” became “crucify,” and how the claim that “I will never deny you” becomes “I don’t know the man;” and ultimately, we are reminded of how the sins of all humanity are atoned by the sacrifice of the divine.  Tonight, in the bread and the wine, we’ll remember all that happened on that fateful night; but also, if we’re remembering correctly and well,  we’ll also recall how we were there when they crucified our Lord and how, in so many ways, in our weakness, shame and utter humanity, we still are.

There’s nothing routine or commonplace about this meal we’re about to share, beloved.  This is no less than the gift of a holy meal, one that reminds us of whose we are, and what we have been given, now and eternally, by grace and infinite love. So let us come to the table; but not out of a sense of tradition or routine, nor because it’s what’s expected of us.  On this night of nights, let us come to this holy feast with open and willing hearts, ready to receive all that our Lord is so wanting to give to us;  let us approach this table as though we are coming to this meal for the very first time… and also the last.

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Savior.

AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on April 18, 2019 in Communion, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent

 

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Filled With the Fragrance

(a sermon for April 7. 2019, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:1-8)

The smell of a field of wildflowers in summer, or of a pine forest in early springtime…  

…that distinct whiff of a breeze coming off the ocean at low tide;

…the aroma of baking bread,  an apple pie fresh out of the oven, and, oh yes, the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day (!);

…the distinct fragrance of wood smoke coming from cedar kindling burning in the fireplace;

…even the faintest scent of the perfume that your grandmother used to wear, or of the “Sir Walter Raleigh” pipe tobacco that was your father’s favorite back in the day;

…sometimes that’s all it takes!  Years and years may pass; you might live a thousand miles away, and maybe it even involves people and memories that you haven’t thought about in… forever!  But then, you’re out somewhere and catch one whiff that one familiar smell… and you’re back: back at Grammie and Grampie’s house when you were just a little kid; back at the hunting camp “shooting the bull” with your father; back out on the beach watching your own children running around, dodging the seagulls and building sand castles. You know what I’m talking about here; for each one of us, there are bound to be some specific fragrances that we forever associate with special times, places and people!

And it’s no mere sentimentality; there’s actually scientific precedent for this.  People who study such things tell us that while the memory of words and logic and data go to the so-called “thinking” part of the brain, the memories involved with our five senses – most especially the sense of smell – go to the emotional part of the brain which is known as the amygdala. That’s why the smell of certain foods will always remind us of home; and that’s why even the hint of that one long forgotten but oh-so familiar fragrance brings back a lingering, very precious memory of that loved one and of what he or she meant to us.  What happens in such a moment, you see, is that the fragrance enters the nostrils, but then it fills the heart.

Actually, you know, in reading our text for this morning, I wonder if, years later, there was a moment when Mary – perhaps she was out in the marketplace gathering food for the day and there was this lingering scent from someone on the street who passed by her, or maybe there was just the fleeting aroma of something, someone off in the distance – I wonder if suddenly Mary stopped, breathed in deeply, and then said to herself, “Jesus…”  I wonder if there was a time when Lazarus – himself having experienced what it was to have been brought from death to life – if he again smelled that perfume and remembered where that glory had come from and who had brought it forth.  Or, for that matter, what about Martha, busily serving her guests at the house in Bethany, or the other disciples who were no doubt nearby when Mary broke the alabaster jar and began to anoint Jesus’ feet; was there a time when they once again smelled the sweet smell of perfume that filled the room that day and thus immediately were transported back to the scene, perhaps lost in the memory and sighing a bit as they remembered; perhaps even whispering aloud, “Oh yes… that was the beginning, wasn’t it?”

Like I said before, sometimes the fragrance is all it takes to truly remember.

The thing about this passage from John’s gospel is that it’s deceptively simple.  Coming as it does after the raising of Lazarus and just before the “Triumphal Entry” of Palm Sunday, this account of a dinner at Lazarus’ house almost seems like a bit of exposition; a transition, if you will, into the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.  I mean, on the face of it, it’s a dinner party, isn’t it; and with everything that implies:  good food and conversation shared amongst friends; hospitality to the “max” courtesy of the ever-diligent Martha, and a warm, relaxed atmosphere that lingers well into the night.  But then this thing happens that nobody’s expecting: Mary takes this container of perfume made of pure nard – which, by the way, is this very aromatic amber-colored oil derived from plants grown in the Himalayas, of all places; and which was so expensive that scholars estimate that it not only represented a year’s worth of wages in Jesus’ day, but in today’s currency might have had a value of as much as $10,000 (!) – and then proceeds to pour out the lot of it (likely a pint or so) so that she might anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping the excess oil and its perfume with her long, flowing hair!

It is a gesture as extravagant – and as sensual – as it sounds; John, in fact, makes a distinct point of saying that in this moment Lazarus’ “house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  And it’s an amazing moment; though, in all fairness, it’s also a bit confusing.  First of all, why wouldn’t Mary simply wash Jesus’ feet, as was customary in terms of offering hospitality to one’s guests?  And if she were going to be anointing Jesus, why anoint his feet rather than his head (it’s worth noting, by the way, that in Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, it is Jesus’ head that’s anointed with this precious perfume, which makes Mary’s actions here all the more striking)?  And quite honestly, wasn’t what Mary did there rather impulsive and more than just a little exorbitant?  John does make it very clear here about Judas’ questionable motives in making his comment about how the money wasted by such an act could have benefited the poor; yet in all honesty, we can scarcely blame him for casting doubt on Mary’s good sense!  Admittedly, the whole thing does come off as a bit over the top, if not totally unnecessary… as the question becomes, why?  What was Mary doing?

Well, part of our answer comes from Jesus himself:  “’Leave her alone,’” Jesus says in response to Judas’ angry dismissal of what Mary has done. “’She bought it…’” (that is, this very costly perfume) “’…so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’”  She bought it for his burial!  That’s very interesting; because not only would this explain the anointing of Jesus’ feet as opposed to his head (since in Jesus’ time, the anointing of a body for burial always began with the hands and feet, those places where the signs of death are often first detected), but it also suggests that Mary knew what was coming.  The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, in a pair of commentaries she’s written on this passage, writes that “Mary may have been the only disciple in the room who truly comprehended what was to come in the next days. And while one would be hard pressed to say that Mary was comfortable with this certainty that Jesus would die,” nonetheless, she anoints his feet as was – or would soon be – the custom.  “Perhaps there also was nothing else for Mary to do by then,” Hunt goes on to say.  “Perhaps this was all that was left – for her to kneel before Jesus, anoint his feet, and then to wipe them with her hair.  Perhaps there was nothing more for her to do but to do as she did: holding herself still in the deep acknowledgement of the gift of the one who was right before her.”

And so it was; this gesture of true faith, of exorbitant, extravagant, grace-filled act of utter thankfulness and of truly sacrificial love, offered up in fullness in anticipation of an infinitely greater sacrifice to come… and not only was the room was filled with its beautiful fragrance but also and most especially by an all-encompassing awareness of what it represented. In one sense, it was a memory yet to be! It’s no wonder that in Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (26:13)  And so it was.

So, friends, how about you?  Do you remember?

I think it’s safe to say that our particular tradition of faith does not usually include the fragrance of candles or burning incense as part of our shared experience of worship; in fact, I must confess that quite often what I smell the most up here on a Sunday morning is coffee brewing out in the Fellowship Hall!  No, our “act and attitude” of worship and devotion tends toward the sense of sight and sound, along with the occasional tender touch of care and compassion; and, might I add, on a Sunday such as this, the taste of a piece of broken bread and a sip of wine from a shared cup.  So maybe this room isn’t overflowing with the scent of $10,000 perfume; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with the fragrance of love.  It’s there in our remembrance of what Mary did in that act of singular devotion; it’s there in the memory of how Jesus turned his heart toward Jerusalem and willingly submitted himself to death – even death on a cross (!) – so that we might have life abundant and eternal because “God so loved the world.” (John 3:16)  It’s there as we offer up our own precious gifts of faith and love for the sake of that world and of the people whom our Lord loves beyond measure and in a way unending.  And it’s there in in our worship and praise of the one who gave his all to us; in the words of Dennis Ignatius, Malaysian ambassador and Pentecostal Christian, “When we lift our hands in praise and worship, we break spiritual jars of perfume over Jesus.  The fragrance of our praise fills the whole earth and touches the heart of God.”

I like to think that as we worship together, as we sing songs of faith and love, as we pray for another and for a hurting world, what we do breaks spiritual jars of perfume in this place!  And I hope and pray that the same  will happen now as we come to our moment of “holy” communion; it’s time for our table meal with the Lord, that we somehow experience his presence in bread and wine, perchance to truly remember the sacrifice that he has made – and continues to make – on our behalf.  As we so often do in this congregation, in a moment we will sing, we’ll pray, we’ll pass the plate from person to person as we take and eat and drink, and we’ll be thankful for what we’ve been given… but the best part of it all?  As we do, the air around us will be filled with the sweet fragrance of his love and power; a fragrance that we pray will linger in our hearts and lives today and tomorrow and on every day that comes; a fragrance that will continue to remind us that we are ever and always loved.

So breathe it in, beloved; breathe it all in…

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2019 in Communion, Jesus, Lent, Love, Sermon

 

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FAQ’s of Faith: Why the Bread and Wine?

(a sermon for March 4, 2018, the Third Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32)

She was a dearly loved member of the congregation who was in the final stages of an incurable cancer, and had just arrived home from a lengthy hospital stay out of town; and she’d asked if the associate pastor and I might come out to see her.  And while certainly we were both very glad to do that, we were also more than a little concerned about it!  After all, this woman was still very weak from her latest round of chemo therapy, her trip home had to have been exhausting and besides, we knew there was already this long list of family members, neighbors and friends who had prayers, best wishes and casseroles to bring to her; so maybe, we suggested, another day might be better for us to visit.  But she was insistent; and so that afternoon we headed out to a farmhouse on the edge of town to make this pastoral call, deciding that whatever else happened, we pastors would be sure to make out visit brief!

However, as we should have expected, this woman would have none of that!  In fact, every time we’d start to rise to leave, she’d have another question about something going on in the life of the church, or else she’d ask about our families.  And this would inevitably lead to another story about her growing up; about the trials and tribulations she and her husband faced raising their own children, or what was happening now with her beloved grandchildren.  And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that nearly every story, spiritually and joyfully speaking, had us in stitches.  There was a lot of blessed laughter in that room, to be sure, and it went on and on.

But then, almost an hour later as we made yet another attempt to take our leave, she says, “Can we have communion before you go?  Since I haven’t been able to get to church lately, I’ve really missed communion.”  The associate and I looked at each other quickly; though a great deal of our ministries had involved bringing communion to shut-ins, for some reason this possibility had never occurred to either one of us!  “Well, we’d love to,” I answered, “but we neglected to bring the elements, so perhaps when you’re feeling better…”

“Oh, we can find those,” she interrupted, and quickly dispatched her husband to locate what we needed.  Okay, then… but soon we hear the husband wearily calling back from the kitchen, “You know, I don’t think there’s any grape juice; not much bread either!”   “Just improvise,” she calls back, rolling her eyes in no small manner of exasperation.  “My land, Dean, anything will be fine!”  And a couple of minutes and the rattle of cupboard doors later, he emerges from the kitchen with our “holy feast” set before us on the coffee table:  a not quite day-old hamburger roll on a dessert plate, and a wine goblet literally filled to overflowing with… orange juice!  “Not exactly what we’d have on a Sunday morning at church, but it’ll do,” he said, and his wife nodded in agreement.

Not exactly, indeed!  I thought to myself, quietly wondering if this could actually even be considered “official” communion; after all, we were just about to break every sacramental rule in the book!  Where was the wine (or in our case, the grape juice) poured into little glasses?  How about the carefully cubed pieces of bread placed ever so carefully on a silver tray?  A leftover hamburger bun and some orange juice might – might (!) – suffice as a last minute mid-afternoon snack; but as elements in the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper, in a worshipful remembrance of the events of the last night of our Savior’s earthly life?   This seemed at best altogether too casual and flippant, and, well, at worst sacrilegious; I remember thinking that my seminary professors would be aghast at the very thought of such a thing!

You see, in a situation such as that the question becomes, when is communion… not?  And by the same token, how does such a simple, utterly basic little meal as this become a sacrament, imbued with the presence and power of our Lord?  And why the bread and wine; why does that even matter?

What’s interesting about our text this morning, taken from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, is that Paul seems to be addressing much the same kind of an issue. It seems that the Corinthians, who were pretty much of a factious and divided people anyway, were letting those divisions affect their celebration of the Lord’s Supper; for some, sharing the bread and wine had become little more than an excuse for eating and drinking to excess, and moreover, an opportunity for excluding others from the meal by virtue of wealth and their own gluttony!  For all their talk of Jesus Christ, there was precious little consideration amongst the Corinthians as to the true meaning of this particular table-gathering; in fact, just prior to our reading today Paul says to them, “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (11:17) Basically there was nothing at all worshipful, much less sacramental, about what they were doing.  Rather than an act in which Christ is remembered, their coming together existed as little more than a private dinner party, and a very exclusive one at that!

And so, in light of all that, here is Paul now to remind them of the true meaning and reality of the Lord’s Supper: “that on the night when he was betrayed” – or “handed over,” which is probably the better translation – Jesus (and likely at the beginning of what we know to have been a Passover meal) “took a loaf of bread… broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this is remembrance of me’” And then after supper as the wine was being poured, he took the cup, saying to his gathered disciples that “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Do this in remembrance of me, says Jesus… Do this to remember me… do this!  And that’s what Paul was seeking to convey to the Corinthians in the midst of their partying: that more than some small, offhanded and soon to be forgotten ritual in the midst of an evening meal (or, for that matter, as simply one more thing that happens in the middle of a worship service) this particular partaking of bread and wine is no less than a sacred act, for it acknowledges in a palpable way what Jesus has done (or, on that first Maundy Thursday, what Jesus was about to do!).  I love how The Message both translates and actually expands this admonition of Paul to the Corinthians:  “What you must solemnly realize,” he writes to them, “is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master.  You will be drawn back to this meal again and again,” Paul goes on, “until the Master returns.”

Why the bread and wine?  It’s because when Jesus broke that loaf of bread and said, “This is my body,” it was so we might always remember that his body was broken, and that he died for us; for the sake of our salvation and a life abundant and eternal with God.  It’s that ongoing reminder each time we break the bread that we participate in the broken body of Christ; because it’s our sin for which his sacrifice paid the cost, and which brings us new hope forged in forgiveness.  And that’s why the wine: because when Jesus shared the Passover wine with them, calling it the “new covenant in his blood,” he was proclaiming a brand new life for all who would believe; a life of fullness and holiness that starts here and now, but will come to its fruition at that “heavenly banquet” in the Kingdom of God at the close of history.

Now granted, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around something so personal and yet so utterly cosmic as this with something as simple as a sharing a tiny piece of bread and a little cup of unfermented wine (!)… but that’s we “do this” as often as we eat the bread and share the cup; that’s the reason for the sacrament we share!

I’m reminded here of a story from Martin Copenhaver’s book To Begin at the Beginning, in which he tells the story of the great dancer Martha Graham, who had just completed an inspired performance and was approached backstage by an ardent admirer of dance.  “Oh, Miss Graham,” he said, “that dance was wonderful.  Can you tell me what it means?”  “Honey,” Graham replied, still out of breath from the dancing, “if you I could tell you, then I wouldn’t have to dance it.” Copenhaver goes on to say that “the same could be said of a sacrament.  If words alone were sufficient, the sacrament would not be necessary.  The nature of a sacrament is such that nothing can convey its meaning as well as the sacrament itself.”

In other words, I can speak to you theologically or historically or biblically about what we’re doing here today in celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but what’s really important is the experience that each one of us has in sharing this sacred meal; it’s in partaking of the broken bread and the cup of blessing in the same manner that Jesus himself gave it and as so many over the generations have continued to do; and it’s in knowing the wonder and the deep, deep love of Jesus’ presence in it; in the anticipation of what our Lord Jesus will be saying and doing in our hearts and lives as we “do this” today in remembrance of him.

How it all happens and why, well that’s a mystery of grace.  All I know is that every time we gather in this sanctuary and come to feast at this table we come into the presence of the Lord who can and does turn our lives and our world all around; and I also know that when the elements are as “non-traditional,” shall we say, as a hamburger bun and orange juice something sacred and miraculous is bound to happen.

I remember that day at the farmhouse when I finally decided that this wasn’t going to be your run of the mill communion service, the associate pastors and I began repeating those familiar words of institution… do this in remembrance of me… take this, eat, and be thankful… the same words we’ll share together here in just a few moments, words not totally dissimilar to those that have been spoken at countless other celebrations of the Lord’s Supper over the centuries.

And yes, that man was right: this was certainly not the kind of communion you’d likely find in a church sanctuary, the prayers certainly weren’t as formal as you might speak them in a traditional worship service, and, trust me, sharing the bread and cup certainly didn’t taste like communion as you’d receive it on a typical Sunday morning!  But then, in the midst of it all, I looked up and realized why none of this mattered:  the husband and wife had joined their hands and were deep in prayer, most certainly sensing the presence of a loving, caring, healing Lord who had already been with them through so much and would remain close in whatever was yet to come.  Truly, in the breaking of the bread and in the sharing of the cup, the remembered him and his peace… and his hope… and his comfort… and his healing… and his love.  By any measure, I can tell you that it “worthy” of the sacrament, and it was a sacred moment indeed.

As the song goes, “there’s grace to be found in the bread and the wine.”  I hope and pray that as once we again come to this sacred table that we’ll remember; so that we might truly experience all that our Lord has to give us by his presence and love.

So might it be, and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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