Christmas Eve sermon

I’d like to stay up here as the center of attention, given my preferences, not least to show off my new haircut that was a Christmas gift from and for young Maibritt Miller.

But pondering this Christmas story, this focus strikes me as unnatural. So I’m going to wander away from up front, to be dis-placed and removed from the center. One logical relocation might be to those closets, the sort of spot Christmas decorations will soon be stored away, not just out of sight but out of mind. I could crawl under a bland utilitarian coatrack or something. Picture1So it isn’t because it’s pretty or especially seasonal that I’m tucking myself back here under this little white pine. It really is with the intention to be out of the way, hiding in the very back corner.

See, I’m doing this for the perspective of this Christmas story, of Jesus’ birth and God’s presence among us.

None of us do very well at focusing on Jesus. It’s said he’s the reason for the season, but still it’s plenty easy for him to get lost and pushed to the side in the hustle and bustle, the holly and jolly. Yet I’m not off on the margins to point out that we’re doing it wrong, nor as a creepy voice lurking behind these chairs. That makes it only into a lecture or bad news, accusations lingering in your ears, neglected oughtas.

But this good news faith of ours isn’t about what we’re doing right or wrong, or just how attentive to holiness we may imagine we are. This faith is exactly founded in these edges. I’m over here, on the periphery of the picture to realize what that means for God in our lives.

We might notice this characteristic since “there was no place for them in the inn.” Even if there were room for them in the inn, not many would smile at the prospects of going through labor at Howard Johnson or an AirBnB instead of hospital maternity suites with expert attention and care. So already even Mary’s ideal childbirth options are terribly below our standards. I’ve heard some of you quick to observe next that the manure of a stable may not be the hygienic conditions we’d favor for delicate medical moments.

But we should also be ready to see that this wasn’t Mary and Joe on vacation, taking a holiday trip over the river and through the woods, when a surgical surprise sprang on them. This was a forced march, a compelled journey, mandated by a repressive government. This was part of being captive under the power of a great empire, that they had to travel to meet an obligation. The Gospel of Matthew’s version sees this family as refugees, attempting to cross borders to flee political violence. So it isn’t only impoverished personal details of not having enough resources to buy better accommodations. This is also public problems of a marginalized and disregarded group of people.

There’s reason these days we’re thinking about how we wall off children at our borders, children who have been fleeing danger, children and families put into even more desperate circumstances in these weeks when so many in our nation claim to be celebrating the birth of Jesus. That seems to be missing what sort of birth this is, a very blurred sense of focus in understanding Christmas.

Speaking of celebrating births, though, and to misplace the focus back on me, it was my birthday on Saturday, and my mom related that when she was waiting to deliver me just before Christmas, it felt vacant as most nurses were off duty and the wandering group of carolers failed to come into her wing.

Well, Mary had it a notch worse. That birth had no well-heeled adoring crowds or even extended greetings on Facebook. It wasn’t folks showing up with hotdishes and desserts, and probably in her situation she never could’ve expected a baby shower to stock up on necessary supplies.

What Mary got was shepherds. If there would’ve been somebody you didn’t want dropping by in the middle of the night, it would’ve been these unwashed unkempt Bedouin nomads, unused to civilized behavior, probably not very good at watching their mouths, stuck working bad hours in bad conditions. These well-wishers would’ve outstayed their welcome practically before they came in the barn door.

So we have an outcast baby celebrated by the funkiest fringe.

And then there’s us, singing sweetly, dressed up with the glow of candlelight, and going off into the night to whatever comes next, with packages to unwrap or a fancy feast, or just getting on with life, whether with joy and contentment, or squabbles and oppressive concerns that return their confining imposition on us.

But the great good news of this Christmas evening is that this baby born on the margins and surrounded by the excluded won’t remain left out. He’s not dependent on you trying to integrate him into your life or changing routines or really feeling eagerly dedicated to him. This baby who was born knowing what it’s like to be a refugee, hungry and homeless, who received the praise of shepherds, this baby being born into our world doesn’t go about looking or waiting for his place, isn’t knocking at the door of your house or the entry to your heart waiting to be let in.

He’s already here.

He’s in those frustrating moments where Christmas glitz and glamour are less than you’d wish, plus he’s there when all is merry and bright.

He’s in the comfort of close family and friends, but also when those relationships fracture and fail.

He’s in the plenty of full tables and glasses of cheer, but just as much in the lack and the yearning and famished feelings.

Sure, he’s in this gathering, as we remember for these few minutes to focus on him and celebrate, but he’s also in villages wrecked by natural disasters and wars, and he’s coming to town whether you’ve been naughty or nice.

He’s in the pause of vacation and goes along to jobs that are brutal and underappreciated and even finds his way into big boardrooms and lives that would have little-to-no interest in him.

Like a thief in the night, he just won’t be kept out, but is here for the sake of all lives. So it’s not about us keeping Christ in Christmas or receiving your king. There is no margin, no limit, no place where he isn’t. This is the miracle of the incarnation, of God’s presence here.

This is good news of great joy for all the world, and coming to you. To you is born this day a Savior. Ready or not, he has come.

 

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Grinchy Joseph, a Christmas Eve sermon

Almost all who(m) we know like Christmas a lot.
But Joseph, who lived just north of Jerusalem, did not.
The guy wasn’t sold on this whole Christmas season,
and I’d say he had some pretty good reasons.
It could be, perhaps, his taxes would jump.
It could be forced travel to Bethlehem, the old dump.
But I think the most likely reason, no maybes,
was his fiancée was soon expecting a baby,
which came with the added perplexitive bother
that a messenger said he wasn’t really the father.
So, whatever the reason, the trip or the tot,
helpless old Joseph knew he disliked it a lot.
He growled to himself, carpenter fingers drumming,
wishing he could stop all that bad news from coming.
“Life is pretty hopeless,” he snarled with a sneer.
“There’s not much I could do, it’s quite crystal clear.”
The dread fate grew closer, hour by hour,
the pressures of violence, of money, and power.
And the more Joseph thought of the terrible stresses,
life seemed to slip further away from successes.
And the more that he thought, with his furrowed brow,
the more he was distraught at what he put up with now.
But this wasn’t the time for grinchily moping about
since he had strict orders from one with huge clout.
Whether he felt a grump or people-pleaser,
Joseph had been commanded by Augustus Caesar
to make himself known and register with the empire
as demanded by a government filled with old liars.
He had to get his donkey in gear and start the long journey
to go and report to the district attorney.
So he gathered their bags and young rotund Mary
on a ramshackle mule, though still feeling contrary.
Curmudgeonly Joseph started them down
to Bethlehem, his ancestors’ sleepy small town.
When they arrived, it was dark. Quiet snow filled the air.
Behind the warm windows, they felt no one would care.
Then they came to the first little house on the square.
“This is stop number one,” the step-papa said,
as he slunk nervously and began creeping ahead.
With humble politeness, he tapped on the door
but was disheartened when he thought like before
that kindness was rare; no one was a neighbor.
Hard times had stifled most generous behavior,
leaving all feeling they were lost and were least.
Hope was dim on this night not fitting man nor beast.
Yet! the door cracked ajar with a breath of warm air.
Joseph curtseyed and asked, “Please, ma’am, would you dare,
to allow us inside? We just need to sleep.
My pregnant fiancée and I won’t make a peep.
We’ll be unintrusive, as quiet as mouses.”
Her answer was the same as at many more houses,
with refusals, “We can’t. I’m sorry. No room.”
The light disappeared, leaving Joseph in gloom.
Though he kept knocking, persistently begging and bummin’,
nobody could make space to allow them to come in.
Joseph wasn’t surprised. He thought it might be the case
that people were feeling too worn out to embrace
some strangers in need and smelling most unpleasant
when they’d prefer to feast and open their presents.
Some doors wouldn’t open, because folks were busy,
on errands and tasks and worked into a tizzy
as they pursued the happy seasonal distractions,
with shopping and parties, cookies and snacks, ‘n
others felt stuck in distress, and so hunkered down
to guard their own interests in their own small town.
“Life isn’t easy,” Joseph muttered in his beard,
“when there’s so much uncertain, so much to be feared.”
So they knocked and they knocked and they knocked!
Knocked! Knocked! Knocked!
But every door that they came to was shut up and locked.
As he was scheming if by creeping very nimbly
he could sneak them down in through a chimney,
well, that’s when young Mary got a sensation, an awful sensation.
She got a wonderful, awful sensation.
With no thought left for tough problems of society
Joseph knew it was urgent to find someplace quiet, he
guided his fiancée and dearly he held her
and gave up on knocking and searching for shelter
gave up on the houses and all of the people,
gave up on the holy folks under the steeple,
gave up on kindness and sympathy from strangers,
gave up on police to protect them from danger,
gave up on the inns, hostels, and hospitals,
gave on the beds and simply forgot it all.
He rushed them in to the back of a barn.
She labored until a small baby was born.
(Don’t like the barn/born rhyme from this alleged St. Nick?
Then write your own, if you’re so smart and so slick.)
They swaddled the baby to lay in the hay
trying to keep the cold and livestock far enough away.
Though tiny Jesus was poor, so greatly deprived,
still it was a relief that he was safe and alive.
But before Joseph breathed that sigh of relief,
again he was overcome in his disbelief,
at the struggles of life and feeling depressed,
at how all of existence was such a sad mess,
and he was stuck with the lingering frustration
at bringing new life into that disgusted nation
where any hint of improvement seemed awfully bleak
in the grind to make it through, week after week.
Yes, for poor Joseph, hope seemed far distant
as Mary cradled and nursed her newlyborn infant.
But then he heard a sound, coming over the snow.
It started out low, then it started to grow.
And Joseph cupped a rough hand to his ear,
and strained: what was that sound he could hear?
To guess, it sounded like an angels’ tune
coming drifting in from under the moon.
Joseph’s spirit lifted and so did his eyes
at this song, a delightful and shocking surprise.
This didn’t sound sad. It sounded merry.
It couldn’t be so! But it did sound merry. Very!
Yet while this sound sounded glad,
it was not quite angelic—a little more bad.
And then his wondering eyes saw the sight
of some figures drifting in through the night.
The not-heavenly earthy chorus Jo-seph’ heard
came from a band of dirty, vulgar shepherds.
They stumbled right into the maternity barn,
giving the mother some fright and alarm.
As she pondered what the strange sight meant
they shouted out in great excitement,
“We bring tidings from God of great joy
at the arrival of this here little boy!”
They hollered and cheered disrupting his snooze
while passing around a flask of celebrative booze.
Then, gone in a flash, and just as crazy,
they went into town, singing and praising.
As they left, Joseph had a big beaming smile
beaming-er than any in quite a while!
He puzzled and puzzed ‘til his puzzler was sore,
and Joseph thought of something he hadn’t before.
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store—
maybe the answer, perhaps, means…not more
but Less!
The spirit, the season, life isn’t assessed like usual success.
The good news came without ribbons. It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags—
Well, that much you probably already knew.
But Joseph realized something simpler was true:
the start of changes, the hope of all earth
arrived in a lonely barn through this lowly birth.
The heart of God’s blessing, packaged in Jesus
who comes to love and save and free us.
So it’s not in how you ensure your security.
It’s sure not in chasing holy-seeming purity.
Neither is it in tallying what you’ve done
or in how you find diversions for fun.
It’s not in how well you extend season’s greetings,
how well you sing, or the people you’re meeting.
It’s not in the hunt to keep yourself happy
or what you put inside of bright wrapping.
It’s not measured by all that you’ve gotten,
but is just because life gets downtrodden.
The truth is, it’s nothing more th’n
that God’s favor comes to you as he’s born.
You are always in his grasp, and his aid’ll
hold you closely, just as he was cradled.
That’s no quick fix or instant solution,
it’s not that saying BooHoo’s done.
So Joseph began to trust, with no maybes,
that goodness was born to share with this baby.
As Mary’s heart grew, we, too, can treasure and nurse
the hope that saves us from whatever curse.
Like inbound outcast shepherds we can be shout-y
with rejoicing that even gets a little rowdy.
On Christmas, we can really celebrate.
With that, I’ll stop, since it’s getting late.
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Christmas Eve sermon #1

Let’s do some Christmas ABC’s.

We begin with A—Adorable, but not because baby Jesus is so darned cute. We adore and bow down before him not just as a precious infant, but first for identifying God’s presence in him.

That’s more shocking because of our letter B—Barn. “Were you born in a barn?” is a condescending question, but tonight it ascends to the highest point. The one born in a barn is identified with God. God isn’t located in halls of power or the fortress tower, not identified in lifestyles of the rich and famous. God is marginal, left out, when there was no room in the inn. Yet in that kind of birth is where God wants to be found.

Which brings us to C—Christ, the title that gives us the name “Christmas.” We already had our letter A, but the English word for Christ is Anointed. The Hebrew is Messiah. It’s a term about being chosen by God, to accomplish God’s work. Generally in the Bible, priests and rulers and prophets were anointed for their chosenness to do God’s tasks. For baby Jesus, it’s not about recruiting him for one of those specific godly jobs. Calling him Christ means his entire life is revealing God for us, showing us how God works and what God is up to.

But we note he’s not the only Christ. With those holy workers of old, you are also Christ-like, or—in a term I prefer—you’re little Christs. Anointed in baptism, you’ve also been chosen to receive and embody God’s presence.

Which raises the obvious question: what is God up to, then? What is God’s work for and through you? What is Jesus showing or proclaiming about God as he lies there asleep in the hay? What should we know about God’s presence?

For that, we get to D—Don’t. We have a pretty strong sense that approaching God comes with “don’ts,” with rules to follow of stuff we shouldn’t do. For example, during college when I told friends that I was going to be a pastor, their first reaction was always to apologize for swearing around me. There’s some sense that connections to God mean Don’t Swear. Beyond that, we also presume: Don’t Cheat. Don’t Lie. Don’t Fight. Don’t Be Mean. Don’t Abuse. Don’t Drink Too Much. You probably in your mind can keep adding to lists of Don’ts, of what we imagine are God’s expectations of our actions.

But the Don’t we hear tonight is: Don’t Be Afraid. Don’t Fear. Do not worry or be scared. This is the primary definition of God’s work, what Jesus is arriving to enable us to trust, the good news of Christmas.

Don’t Be Afraid is a hard message to believe, though, isn’t it? Our fears stretch from tiny and silly to unfathomably complex, from being afraid that we won’t get what we want for Christmas on to being afraid our lives won’t turn out how we wished. We may fear we won’t get what we need—food, a warm bed, the next paycheck, an effective medical treatment, resolution to an argument, home safely. And yet the angel has the nerve to tell us Don’t Be Afraid.

It gets worse than those individual concerns. We’re overwhelmed by fear in these days, of what will or won’t change with the next President and the next budget cycle. We’re afraid of tragedies caused by racism and immigration, from xenophobia. We worry about homophobias that undermine people’s wellbeing. Our societal phobias stretch on and on. There are wars and rumors of war, irrational fears of getting caught amid terror attacks or being shot. We have reason to be terrified of climate change. This all nearly incapacitates us, immobilizes us, silences, shutters us and shuts us down, almost forcing us to surrender when things go wrong.

That may be why God announces so definitely and defiantly Don’t Be Afraid. Because our fears confined us, but God wants us to be both free and open to each other. More, God operates in our capacities, the sharing of abilities that join to make this world good and better.

That is so important that I got away from our alphabet for a minute there. Let’s get back to it with E—Everybody. This is also core to the proclamation. It’s not just about people who make it to church often enough. It’s not a Christian deal. It’s not those behaving to follow the religious rules (because, remember, there weren’t rules; the only Don’t was Don’t Be Afraid). It’s not just for shepherds who were in the right place at the right time or a blessing one can claim more of. The angels announce this is for everybody. The good news, calling an end to fear, this birth, the arrival of Jesus is for me, for you, for your family who’s far away, and the dude at the gas station tonight, and folks waiting in hospitals and nursing homes, and those sadly infected by violent thoughts, and ladies wearing headscarves, and guys refusing this celebration. For everybody. No one should feel or be separated from this.

F—Find. In order to trust that amazing, extravagant message, you need assurance. “You will find a baby,” the angel says, wrapped in warm pajamas and snuggled in a feed trough, as a sign, an indicator. This isn’t hypothetical good news leaving you to speculate whether it could really be true. This verification you find first in baby Jesus. And extending that forward, as you follow him, you’ll witness the fulfillment of the promise. In him you may know and trust God’s work is happening.

G could easily be God or gospel or grace, good churchy words. G could be government, since this story confronts the given order. But for Christmas, let’s say G is Gifts. The Christmas presents you give are symbols of sharing and practice at cherishing and caring for each other, just as we already said God’s work is found in our living together in community, building each other up and supporting everybody. In these broadest views of sustaining life, we should especially recognize here on Christmas we are able to give because of what God chooses to offer. God adores you and wants full and abundant life, so all you have is a very good gift.

H—Home. That’s distinct from H—Heaven. Christians sometimes claim heaven is our home and this world isn’t. But God’s work isn’t kept for afterdeath experiences somewhere else. This story tonight places God in our midst and surrounded by livestock. We find God’s gifts here and now. Jesus is born so we may know God dwells among us; the home of God is among mortals. God’s presence is here on earth, in our lives, in the places where you’ll return (just as the shepherds do), at the tables you’ll gather around, in beds where you’ll lay your own heads to rest (just as baby Jesus did). God is with us, in the very ordinariness of it all.

Realizing, then, that this story can only be fulfilled when you leave church to go back with many other good things to do in those places of home, I’m going to leave you the rest of the alphabet to fill in on your own, as a gift of one more H: Homework. You’re welcome, and Merry Christmas.

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Sermon for Christmas Eve, Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

You know what would be great, if on Christmas we had one of the best reasons ever in the history of the world to celebrate and instead turned it into another lame lecture on morality.

I apologize for starting with rotten sarcasm on this cherished evening. But the appointed Titus reading messes up Christmas, with its aloof austerity and expectations that because of Jesus we have to act proper. I can’t help but point out how in faith sometimes we got it, and sometimes we royally blew it.

Let’s get you up to speed with about three sentences of backstory Bible study. Jesus was born, right? Over the years, he did and said some stuff until he was crucified—killed on a cross—and on the third day rose from the dead. With me?

From that first Easter Sunday (if not before), his followers have been left trying to figure it out, to make sense of him. They called him Savior. They said it was good news, that he showed us God in a way nothing else had, which made a huge difference for our lives and maybe all creation, the whole cosmos. The earliest Christians saw it as an abundance of grace, as forgiveness that left out or forgot or excluded nobody. They practiced radical hospitality and sharing and compassion and peace, because that’s what they understood Jesus to be about, what God wanted for all of us. The earliest practicers of the good news saw everyone as favored by God and had understandings on taking care of each other and including females and class-relations and economics that were ahead of their time.

Way ahead. See, Titus and his next generation came along, seemingly intent on flubbing it up. They decided to ditch the amazing equality and abundant love and the entirety of life absolutely drenched in God’s grace. Forsaking that, they wanted instead to cling to power and re-entrench patriarchy and male dominance and privileges of status. And since, it’s taken us 18 or 1900 years to get back to standing against oppression and allowing women to have a voice and saying you don’t have to be special to be welcome here. Some of those persistent problems we still struggle against, with the church too often toiling the opposite direction, naming sinners to be cast out while claiming divine sanction for ourselves.

And so Titus—that forgettable dog of a reading dragged out all over the world for tonight—botches the birth of Jesus, turning gift into demand. But there it is anyway, showing that sometimes we get it and sometimes we get it backward. Here’s a repeat for you (as if you asked for the reminder): it blathers on about “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.” Lest there’s lingering doubt about what malarkey this is, earlier in the chapter tells women to be submissive to their husbands and take care of children and the household. It says slaves shouldn’t talk back to masters. It was written directly to undermine the grace-filled lives of earlier Christians.

More to the point, I’m just sure you arrived here on Christmas Eve yearning, practically begging, to hear a lesson on what Titus calls “temperance, seriousness, and prudence.” Any “amens” to that? You know already that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s not why Jesus was born. It’s not how we celebrate. Prudish self-control and lack of passion is not the heart of what God is up to. It gets God backward, cramming God into a message of self-serving morality. Worst, it replaces joyful abundance with a lame, droning threat.

A related example of such ditching the good news for a threat is familiar in what we’ve been doing for two months with Santa Claus. He should be the mark of generosity and free gifts this season, but instead we turn him into a surveillance camera of “Santa’s watching and knows if you’re naughty.” It reverses the main point. So, of the discipline-surveillance Santa, Titus is a theological version, which makes it an even more rotten corruption.

To explain, I’d like to switch from sarcasm to sacrament. Sacrament is a word that means something like “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” Sacraments are physical signs of God. We look around us and try to figure out where God is in the midst of our existence. We tend to figure certain people or situations are more blessed, to locate God’s presence as more involved in one place than another.

Titus claims this locale is in acting proper, that good behavior gets you closer to God and so work ethic dictates whether God is with you. Our society goes on to add the association with power and prestige, further guessing that wealth is a sign of blessing, making money our sacrament, our sign of God. Likewise, the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” imagines that dust and debris and grime block God, that clearing away bad things gets you next to God. So our tendency is almost toward anti-sacrament, not about stuff where God is, but what we get rid of or escape in order to find God, separating God from the mess of regular life.

But now visualize Christmas…the birth of Jesus…this baby lying in a manger. We may choose antibiotic sterility, but God was born pro-biota, amid the bacteria, the germs, and—we should be honest—the animal poop! Picture how much spit and saliva livestock drool out of their snouts. Then notice how those suspect, podunk first-timer parents put baby Jesus right in the manger feed-trough where the cud-chewers had been licking! They also came with poor planning, without reservations booked at the inn, had no huffy claims to privilege, were left out in the cold.

That’s where we look to find God! Christmas upends our typical sacramental biases of where we wanted to implicate God. If God isn’t primarily in our morality. If God isn’t invested in the “bigger is better” development program. If God isn’t running an exclusive operation. If God isn’t flashy or austere or high and mighty in any regard. With this ultimate revelation of God for us, our sacrament, our sign of God turns up far from power or glory or success or perfection or acting so self-righteously upright or being neat and tidy. Our sacrament at Christmas is the opposite of the magnificent, immaculate, proper, or in any way “just right” but is rather stinky and crowded and a bit crude.

Yet this also says that God’s presence is in some truly miraculous places. If we are able to see God asleep in the feed-trough, waking only to bawl his head off, with grungy shepherds not lingering out in the labor and delivery waiting room but busting right in—since God is there, God is also able to be many other unexpected places. Most importantly, God is abiding with you, not waiting for you to get your screwed-up act together. God is with you when life seems like a big ol’ mess and way too cluttered and not going well at all. God is most definitely there when things are not “just right.”

In fact, that’s exactly why Jesus arrived, not to be a heavenly boss or to reinforce our dominating stereotypes but to be with you in compassion, in blessing through the worst moments, otherwise you wouldn’t really need a Savior. He was born poor and outcast. He spent time with the sick and the losers around him, not to mope or reprimand but to host a party. In the end he went to the cross and into his tomb so you may know God doesn’t evaporate into thin air but abides with you through it all. That’s what we begin to see tonight, not a conquering overlord sealed off behind a hypoallergenic barrier, but one who is passionate about giving himself away, intimately involved in the care of sustaining life, from a vulnerable baby to the stretch of solar systems, and you in the complex, messy midst of it.

One more word on sacraments of this God, words from Jesus himself. This has been about seeing God in sorrow or suffering or sloppiness. But in our usual sense of sacraments, we typically point to two events that Jesus shares with us, where he promises to be found. We started the service turned toward the baptismal font, and near the end, we’ll gather around this table. In water, and in bread and wine, whether completely drenched in grace or snuck in under the smallest morsel, these common, crude elements of our world become holy stuff because with them Jesus has promised forgiveness for what you’ve done wrong, to connect you again to God, to remain with you in love.

So you may expect, then, the presence of Jesus with you, not just on the most holy and peaceful night of the year, but through the grind of every day. Not just when you get exactly what you want, but in disappointments. Not just when all is calm and bright, but through the disturbing darkness. Not just when things are going well and you’re doing exactly what you should be, but when it’s all screwed up and you’re in pain or you are a pain.

Nevertheless, in Jesus, God is here, always for you. That’s why we celebrate and can say Merry Christmas.

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