Faith at Night

sermon on John 3:1-21

 

You thought you were sending me on vacation to enjoy the warm rays of the Florida sun. But for a guy with my fair complexion, that’s dangerous. No, I was actually going to research night.

See, in this week’s reading, evaluating the night may get us far enough: “There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”

Sure, as the reading goes on, we could contemplate newness of life and baptism and the strange work of the Holy Spirit and offer some gracious balance to diatribes about the necessity of born again conversions. There’s the odd hair of the dog with a story from Numbers 21 about holding up fiery serpents or poisonous seraphim and how Jesus is like a Florida cottonmouth viper (which I did not get to research, much to Acacia’s relief).

And, of course, there’s the Gospel in miniature, that single verse that captures the core of our faith, of what we hold dear, those memorable words we in some way spend every Sunday and maybe the whole of our lives trying to comprehend and absorb, “for God so loved the world that God gave the only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Yes, there’s much for pondering and exploring in there. But still I don’t think we do poorly to get hung up already a verse and a half in. And on vacation in Florida last week, I didn’t get beyond pondering and exploring the night, that the night could be beautiful, scary, vast, mysterious, simple, disorienting, and re-orienting.

For the beauty, I waited each evening as the sun set for stars to reappear, to be revealed one by one in the expanding darkness. They’d been there the whole time, of course, but I couldn’t see them until it began to be night. For more, I crawled out of the tent a couple of times each night to gaze up at the billions of wilderness stars. As a tiny sliver of crescent moon reflected, dancing on wavy water, I gaped and gasped at brilliant Orion cartwheeling after Taurus the bull and was stunned as Jupiter and Mars glistened brightly amid bejeweled Scorpio. Even bits of cloud drifting past unveiled more, beauty.

Maybe such beauty is what brought Nicodemus to Jesus by night. Maybe he was eager to behold a sight he couldn’t from his usual perspective, where his sightlines were stuck amid the center of his society, his vision too obscured by the haze of daily life. Maybe looking clearly at Jesus in the dark made it all more resplendent, awe-inspiring, reawakening than his dullness of the usual daylight hours. Maybe everything appeared too plain to Nicodemus by day, so he ventured into the night for little glimmers of beauty, for Jesus as a perspective on God that he was unable to find in the broadness and brightness of day’s commotion.

And maybe you come to church searching for beauty, something other than what you see day, by day. Even though it’s morning, still you may come to enter the darkness, to step out of the blinding glare of your regular routines and patterns, again to notice the rich beauty you were unable to see because of your surroundings. Maybe as you venture here today, you’re expecting a peek at what’s been there the whole time, but was obstructed or hidden. Maybe you’re re-attuned to God who usually gets lost in the mix. And as you come to experience this sporadically apparent subtle beauty, maybe you’re again able to delight in life, to be fascinated, to offer thanks.

Or, slightly differently, maybe you feel you’re actually seeing less when you come to worship, that we in some way don’t look at the whole picture.

In the dark, while shapes you’d normally make out fade and blend into a solid black amalgam, night becomes an opportunity to focus, to simplify perspective. In the night, there are few distractions. I watched the flash of a red beacon buoy offshore. Occasionally a plane crossed overhead. There was one nightlight shining for a young person sleeping nearby. Occasionally a bit of noise, an owl, rooster, or cat, but mostly quiet and with a limited view.

You may come to worship precisely so the other stuff you ordinarily have to pay attention to and the concerns in front of you fade somewhat into the background, to dwell for a bit in silence. You might end up feeling like this is boring, like there’s not enough here, like we’re limited in scope and too quiet. Still, you may find that the daily distractions somehow disappear, and you can focus on a narrow perspective and attend to what you need to, with Nicodemus to ask the big questions. Somehow the quiet of a night sky prompts enormous questions.

And the dark presents smaller risks, as well. We can’t pretend the darkness is all clear beauty. I observed on vacation that, being out at night, when there isn’t much light, the darkness is darn dark. Remarkable, right? I was made to realize that if trying to find my way to the outhouse, I could be easily lost, confused, nervous, or even scared.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Maybe he thought he knew how he should proceed, but found his steps stumbling and leading the wrong direction, not so well ending up where he wanted or anticipated. Maybe that was frightening to him, disorienting.

And maybe for us, too, thinking we had it all figured out and were aware of the right path, still coming to encounter Jesus in the dark with only the small blinking beacon of his light, an oftentimes dim flashlight for the path ahead for our next steps, to see where we ought to go. And trying to maintain that faint focus doesn’t easily resolve the lingering trepidation whether Jesus is leading us the right way, toward our destination. Nicodemus must have been left to wonder. Maybe your wondering, too, still has a question mark and your awe is unresolved.

Further, in the darkest places on my trip, I peered eagerly for a glimpse of the stretching Milky Way, arcing across the dome of the sky, not only a rare treat of gentle and subtle splendor for our overly-illuminated city eyes, but also a reminder of the stretch and scale of the cosmos beyond us, of so many stars so distant they don’t seem to beam like the singularity of our sun but blend into an amorphous cloud. That marks our place in a spiraling galactic arm, which still more limitlessly is amid billions of other galaxies, far beyond our view or even our comprehension.

Maybe you get blown away and actually find yourself in worship on less solid footing than before, reminded of God’s grandeur and the utterly small significance of your lifespan, the incomprehensible enormity of scale—of God as Creator of all this universe and yet also as Creator of you, concerned about you, in love with you. Amid that infinite scope, for you to be chosen, important, cared for…well, that can be nearly unbelievable, that God would choose you, give you new life, love you, save you.

Or, again, that God isn’t bound to the insiders, maybe sometimes that’s the surprise, that God chooses and loves and strives for those who’d logically be left out. Jesus displaced Nicodemus from the center, from his position of prominence, shrinking his self-perception. Nicodemus couldn’t quite grasp that, couldn’t really fathom it. That was part of his shock. Even if he came trying to resolve answers, he came thinking that he as a teacher of faith would have an advantage and leg-up on figuring it all out, but was quickly left realizing he didn’t understand these things of Jesus much at all.

Well, as I stood outside my tent staring up at the expanse of night sky, I was left with some of that sense, or maybe I should say that senselessness, that inability really to get it all.

Our reading says God so loved the world. The actual Greek word there is cosmos—God so loved the cosmos. And, just as John uses this term, we may not be much surprised that God loves the beautiful twinkling of stars across the heavens, relentlessly and powerfully fusing elements that will give birth to new creations, or that God loves comets that stay inevitably on course in orbit, or even that God loves the mysterious invisible forces of dark energy that we can neither see nor yet explain—all of that seems plenty godly and right.

But the still greater mystery is when John uses this phrase and term, God so loved the cosmos, it’s that God loves us, when we forget we are loved and resist being loved and all too apparently use our energy for bad and still would perhaps prefer to be self-sufficient and go our own ways instead of following God’s paths of our orbit or ignore that we’re inextricably hitched to everything else in God’s good creation.

In this case, like Nicodemus we may need that re-placement, the mystifying awe and grace for our place of being loved. So maybe you find worship reorienting for your place in the world, the cosmos. Maybe it affirms your value, while also expanding your understanding.

In Florida, I kept searching for the Southern Cross and trying to get my bearings. I noticed that the constellations weren’t all the same, not located in the same section of the sky, and there were unfamiliar stars we’re not used to seeing in our northern latitudes.

Maybe Nicodemus and we have our awareness broadened in encountering Jesus, remembering that we are not the center of the universe, that there are others outside our usual field of vision and beyond our typical restricted narrow perspective who nevertheless are held in Jesus’ embrace. That may feel jarring, perhaps dislocating for our self-importance, but honest and also beneficial for us in understanding or at least witnessing the scope of God’s goodness.

God loves you, and God loves the cosmos. That reorders your understandings and is worth focusing on. It may seem strange, yet so simple and beautiful. And for that, maybe, like Nicodemus, in worship you come to Jesus by night.

 

Hymn: Joyous Light of Heavenly Glory (ELW 561)
 

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Word Made Flesh

a sermon on John 1:1-18 for the 4th Sunday of Advent

 

In the beginning was the Word.

Before we ask what that Word was, what it spelled out for us, the first thing we might notice simply about it being the Word is that it means organization. Letters grouped on purpose, for a reason or with reason. Logical.

Indeed, that’s exactly the original Greek word here: Logos, Logos—logic.

That’s a remarkable notion, that there was logic and order, the Word in the beginning. Remarkable the Word was there from the start, partly because it was so long—billions of years until us, many millennia then until we had words for that beginning, much less had developed any language at all, and generations more of pondering, then coming to understand, and even now still studying and trying to explain what happened, what brought this about, what this order is. But the Logos says such sense was there before the first moment.

And it’s remarkable because we’d have no reason to presume there was order or logic to the universe. From a Big Bang explosion and the hot plasma that eventually birthed galaxies and nebulae of hydrogen and carbon and gold and water and single cells. Or logic for how we attempt to make sense of the world around us or organize our week or search for meaning in life. There is no apparent defining logic, through the end of a telescope, in a survey of cultural patterns, in trend reports, in navel-gazing.

Addressing a smaller question of logic, it may seem backward that we’ve been through 14 weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, through centuries of the Old Testament and progress of the story and development of relationships…and suddenly we’re starting over? After all of that, we’ve rewound and find ourselves back at the beginning?

Looking for the logic, maybe we return to the beginning now for 20/20 hindsight, a way of reorienting the past and reframing the history that also allows us to understand better what is coming in our own lives. Maybe we see something different about the Old Testament because of the reminder that the same God has been working in the same ways with Logos since the start.

And maybe this isn’t that those who forget the past are condemned…but is about the arc of the universe, about knowing the grain so we’re not going against it. I’m not sure we’d say this Logos sets a pattern that must be followed, an order or rule to life. It sure doesn’t feel like any of this is quite that insistently compelling, but rather feels almost optional, as if you could get away with doing whatever you want. While it’s a conundrum that we’re apparently able to work against following the directions of the universe, still, maybe in being properly oriented we find assurance or wisdom or our values. Maybe we find it a way of saying that it does, after all, matter who we are and what we do.

In the beginning was the Word. Logic. Cohesion. Intention.

It’s all the more remarkable because our sense of God couldn’t be so orderly. If we’re trying to uncover evidence by looking at the overall blueprint or shape of our lives, there’s a birth on one end but death on the other. The form of that pairing reveals or tells us nothing about God to discern the logic of life. Similarly, there’s beauty around us, but destruction also confronts us. Loving caring relationships stand versus the unknown stranger with our uncertainties, insecurities, fears. Evolution and progress, but certainly not on a clearly upward trajectory. No, from all of that, if we were trying to label God, we may well not come up with the insightful clarifying Word of timeless logic at all, but merely an odd jumble of letters.

Let’s try that as an experiment: give me six letters right now… [I think we ended up with something like M-R-X-T-A-Q.] Nonsense. Not a word. Made up. And if we added much more than that little bit, it would be utterly confusing.

plensa

In a similar feeling, I’ve been stuck deliberating about an art exhibit at MMOCA, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The pictures in your bulletin show this exhibit by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, made up of random letters from eight different alphabets: Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and our own Latin alphabet. The letters are totally disorganized, intentionally unintentional, broken apart from our normal sense of letters forming words. They are lumped together to be nonsensical, to take the letters away from their usual purpose of language and communication.

It becomes a reminder of global diversity and differences. The sculptures are described as breaking through cultural, linguistic, and geographic barriers. In a way, I like it—the sense that we may be standing next to and connected with somebody we don’t understand and can’t hardly comprehend.

But in another way, it was disturbing to me. I suppose partly because I’m a person of words and explanations, scientifically-minded, who likes logic. This exhibit, then, picked that apart and left it disintegrated, as if words don’t have meaning. Or maybe the reverse of that, the reminder that when letters float off by themselves out of any context, they are nonsense and emptied symbols until re-formed into a word, and then can communicate and share meaning and provide understanding. But if not rationally assembled, then are left like our six unprounceable letters as pointless, arbitrary, and literally insignificant—refusing to signify anything.

I’ve been contemplating this exhibit for several weeks now in light of today’s Bible reading. There, rather than an amalgam of random alphabets formed into a sculpture of the universe, of creation, of humanity, of something that would only have meaning by inventive happenstance, we are told this all came into being with logic, by the Word, that God has an organizing principle for creation, and that you, too, have significance as part of God’s Logos.

The Word for this logic of God’s creation, for our lives, and for God’s own self, this Word isn’t law, or order over chaos. It isn’t life. It isn’t growth or expansion or development, though we might label those in our community projects and in the complexification of the galaxy. God’s Word isn’t fundamentally even love.

God’s logic, the Word of God, is Jesus. In him is the embodiment of what God intends and conveys, is spelling out for us to understand. With hindsight from Jesus’ birth, we can see not just one star over a manger but that the cosmos from the Big Bang sings for him. The highest host of heaven condescends to kneel before him. Lowing cattle give way to make room. All of this as big flashing arrows pointing as signs from God for us. In Jesus, we come to comprehend God’s logic for creation, of healing and welcoming, of teaching and serving, of putting down and lifting up, all to save.

And looking ahead to where this story ultimately leads, the shape of God’s order in Jesus, finally, is cruciform, shaped by the cross. God’s order for the universe bears the marks of suffering for another, and of rising to new life beyond that suffering.

I don’t know which you may find more shocking and stunning, that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to you, or that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to God.

Jesus is the shape of your life, not because you are ordered to emulate him, but because in a happy exchange, at this table and more, he takes on your flesh, gives you his Spirit, dwells with you, becomes you, so that your own life embodies God’s Word. Your significance is shaped by Jesus.

And Jesus is the shape of God, because the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him, and he alone has made known to us God’s heart, a heart filled with sacrificially dying and yet endless, eternal, infinite love. God’s significance comes from Jesus.

The reason we go back to the beginning is for the ongoing clarification: If you want to understand your life, listen to the Word Jesus. If you want to understand God, listen to the Word Jesus.

 

 

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Ezekiel: Valley of Dry Bones

sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
We hear from 2nd Isaiah next week with the Sunday School program, but this is the last preaching on the Narrative Lectionary’s sweep through the Old Testament. Then we’ll be in the Gospel of John from Christmas until Easter, with the life of Jesus.

From the trajectory of this autumn, we remember back to origins, stories of progenitors, sources of family connection, in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. That family took us ahead several hundred years to the population explosion outnumbering the Egyptians, with stories of Exodus on the way to the Promised Land, and settling to increase their institutions of government and religion. That brought us to prophets who called for reform and justice, and (at least in their suppositions) being conquered as punishment for misbehavior.

We’ve been in exile for three weeks now, and Isaiah next week will see a path toward home and restoration. Though I recount those details as human narrative, with people as the main characters, this is actually God’s story, the account of God’s ongoing goodness, God striving in God’s world.

So once again, with that sweep of history, with today’s reading still more than 500 years before Jesus, we repeat in the story’s plot: these people weren’t waiting those 500 years for the Messiah to show up, twiddling their thumbs until Christmas finally came. There are words of hope, but not with sights set on a Messiah a half millennium later.

Rather, it was simply a longing for home. Indeed, as Isaiah makes rare use of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” the term is applied to a foreign leader. That’s good to keep in mind as we’re wrapping up our time with the Old Testament. Isaiah called Cyrus a Messiah—the king of Persia, the next in the line of empires, this time to knock out the Babylonians and allow the Hebrew people to go home (45:1). That was its own moment of salvation.

With that one example, I really, really hope throughout this fall you’ve been hearing God’s striving for the sake of the world, and investment in all circumstances of our existence. It gets it terribly wrong to claim an old god was angry or could care less, so we were waiting for the nice and loving Jesus to bring a divine alternative. There aren’t two different gods. The God embodied by Jesus is thoroughly and absolutely the God encountering us in the faithful probing of these Old Testament accounts.

Yet, just as this God shows up in hidden and surprising ways—like as a baby and on the cross—God tends to work without blatant and apparent showmanship. The promise seems inevitably paired with doubt, the expectancy amid darkness, God’s blessing where we have all but given up hope succumbing to despair.

So as Ezekiel set his eyes toward God’s vision and the hopes of home, he saw only a dead end. A very honest dead ending. A valley of bones. An abandoned cemetery. The entire family tribe, lifeless and piled in a heap. Ezekiel had begun to figure there was no way out of exile, no return to the life they had known, no possibility for the future.

With that, besides the overall trajectory of the Old Testament story, I also notice a smaller trajectory—the arc of your life—in three of four weeks of these readings.

The first was Isaiah declaring hope in the gift of birth: “unto us a child is born.” Whether Hezekiah or baby Jesus or the young ones around us, or yourself in youth, there was a promise of God’s possibilities and blessing simply in that fragile existence, in the imperfection of not knowing what lay ahead, in small capabilities, yet with God’s care and potential with the birth of a baby.

The following week, Jeremiah moved to the middle of life. Even in captivity under a hostile government, when life was far from what people wanted, still the word of the Lord for the exiles was to build houses, to make their gardens grow, to celebrate marriages. You know, the regular sort of stuff that has kept you busy most of the time since you were born. The stuff you’ll go back to doing this afternoon, and maybe more seriously when the alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning. It’s the stuff of sustaining relationships and tending your spot amid creation, which often involves vacuuming it (as we’re stuck with typically un-thrilling aspects of the not-so-showy God). And it means not pretending you can escape to some utopia, but striving in the place where you are, simply since it’s not perfect.

So we had the start of life, the rest of life, and with Ezekiel come to life’s end, or to be precise, beyond the end.

That God’s concern for and potential in a baby would be a surprise may take a little extra pause for us to appreciate, to remember infant mortality rates and the insignificance on a scale where 255 babies are born onto this planet every minute. But in such small ways, God’s work persists.

And continuing for unspectacular daily lives, God sees potential. That doesn’t mean you could really make something of your life, that you could go on to win a Nobel prize or be a volunteer of the year for some organization or have your picture in the news as a hero. Rather, God is invested in your daily life as it already is, at home and at work and in your family and at the grocery store. God isn’t waiting for something to change, but trusts the potential with you right now.

Okay. So it’s fine that God sees what’s possible in the birth of a baby. It may even be realistic that God would find potential in the course of your life, even up to your dying breath.

But once you’re dead, could God really be seeing any potential then? Isn’t it too late? Relationships over? Isn’t death the point where all that’s left is to go through their clothes and look for loose change, as they said in The Princess Bride? Or for science and the conservation of matter, how your elements are recycled, not just as worm food, as Luther liked to point out, but returning to the soil and becoming crops that go on to feed the hungry? Is that all? Could God possibly plan more of you than that?

That hard language may well be considered morbid. Most of our discussion of death doesn’t really look at it, but euphemizes and ignores, and we say we lost someone or they passed and try to whitewash over how terribly terminal and critically fracturing death has been. There is nothing more to say or do about it. It is ultimate. Sad. Final.

Except not for our God. God will be stopped by no dead ends. Hope will not be overcome, ever. Death is not final. These dry bones will live. They have potential and a future. And so will you.

In Ezekiel, this is brought about by a sermon (or actually three sermons, if you like). Ezekiel preaches to those bones, offering them God’s word. Well, God has a word for you, too. Though none of you today are in the exact physical circumstance of Ezekiel’s sermon—none of you are dead, dry bones—you may either factually or figuratively find yourselves at any of these points in life—young, fresh with potential. Amid the flow and mid-stages and regular rhythms. At terminations where things look worse than bleak and all seems lost. Throughout, the sermon is that God is relentlessly filling you with life for God’s purposes.

In what to me is an utterly astonishing faithful declaration, this is an assurance that with every breath, God is renewing and refilling you, recreating goodness in you. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve done any Hebrew, so here’s another good one for you: ruach. It means wind and breath and Spirit. And with this from Ezekiel, as you are filled with each breath, it is God’s Spirit filling you. In respiration you are inspired; you are re-Spirited as the Spirit is put into you over and over. And even when you expire, even when you breathe out and breathe your last, still God will call for breath to fill and renew you yet again.

I started out saying that the prophets weren’t predicting Jesus. But we should still most definitely see their vision of God directly embodied in Jesus. With life to dry bones and the Holy Spirit that will take victory from death, probably our clearest understanding is in Jesus and the empty tomb, that the forces of enemies and powers of death were defeated, not only once, but for all. Even amid the season of Advent, even as we aren’t ourselves today facing death and the grave, even as we may be closer to birth, still this is always an Easter faith, always with its soul in the hope of resurrection, from birth, through life, and beyond death. We don’t need to and we shouldn’t pretend like we can’t talk about that as we’re getting ready for Christmas. That is the overall shape of our story, the fullness. Though it remains so totally unclear and prone to doubt and without visions of grandeur, with our God who shuns glitzy showmanship, still we know the ending. The end, finally, is life.

And though it risks confining that message and not allowing you to live into the full expanse, I want to tag on a word about Israel and Palestine for these days. Ezekiel’s people were captive under empire. Mary and Joseph were captive under empire. Again this week, we were reminded of the violent claims to power by an occupying empire. Even as our siblings at Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they are left more and more with a reality of the valley of dry bones, as people confined by razor-wired walls and the dead end of life. As our President worsened the obstacles on the path to peace this week by shortsighted and single-minded declarations on Jerusalem, this reminds us that the word out from death, a word of hope and the breath of life still needs to stir in us all, of a God who understands our weakness, who comes to inspire and to break down barricades, who will not be confined. Our God remains against all that would kill or remove life. The point of our story is not just to look back to one who was coming, but to see that the God of Jesus still comes into our midst and our troubled world now, with every breath, for the sake of life.

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Daniel: The Fiery Furnace

sermon on Daniel 3:1-30
The name Hananiah means “Yahweh (or the LORD) is gracious. Mishael is  “Who is like God?” And “The LORD keeps him” is the translation of Azariah.

And you’re wondering why in the world I’m mentioning these three names of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Who has heard of them? Okay, who has heard of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Well, then you’ve heard of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah! They’re the same guys! Just with different names.

But it highlights an important detail for us. These men with names that directly named their faith, their connection to God, this identity was taken away from them in exile, under Babylonian captivity. After they were dragged away from Jerusalem, they lost their names and were forced into new roles for foreign king Nebuchadnezzar—though judging from his moniker, we have to admit the Babylonians names aren’t too shabby but even kinda fun. The prophet Daniel himself gets called Beltshazzar. Maybe I’ll start referring to Dan McGown as Beltshazzar McGown.

Although, for Dan and for Daniel and for these three other men, what might be gained in a fun name is a loss of identity and connection. Names ending in –el or –iah (think Nathanael or Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah) meant connection to the Hebrew God. But the Beltshazzar swapped that as a prayer to a Babylonian god, as “Bel help the king.” Similarly, Abednego is “servant of the god Nebo.” These name changes were changes of allegiance.

That gives a sense of what’s riding on this story of the fiery furnace. Besides that dangerous conflict of colliding cultures, I want us also to hear some subtlety. I’m not sure this story is best received as the risk of martyrdom and a faithfulness in the face of death. Sure, there are people undergoing persecutions in large and small ways all over our world today. There were the people killed in the mosque in Egypt after Thanksgiving because they belonged to the wrong sect. In smaller but vital ways, there’s also the difficulty of being Muslim in the United States, of the ostracizing and worse. But I’m not sure it’s most helpful to hold this story as if it’s about a God who will offer salvation and deliverance from enemies and death if you believe strongly enough and confess your faith heartily enough.

Instead, for a more helpful sense of the dilemma these guys were facing, I want to point away from the ordeal of the fiery furnace for a second to what is perhaps an even more terrifying situation of what exile meant. It’s not just being stuffed into blazing heat cranked up to seven times its normal searing intensity. No, maybe even worse for some perspectives, these poor guys, these sad captives in Babylon, the tragic fate of these people was that they were forced to be… VEGETARIANS! Oh, the horror! Hadn’t they already suffered enough! Appalling, right Debra? Because the Babylonian meat would break their dietary restrictions and cause them to violate the religious standards and understanding of how they maintained relationship with God, they refused to eat the normal rations and tried to survive without meat, if you believe that could even be possible.

And if you thought it was miraculous that the three young men weren’t incinerated in the fiery furnace, you’ll be incredulous at the earlier note that they stayed as healthy as everybody else, even without eating meat. It’s shocking! It’s amazing! It’s ludicrous!

Now, I want to pause for a second for you to understand I’m not being totally flippant. I’m not poking fun at the story. It’s not that I’m failing to take this seriously.

Rather, this story itself is meant to be taken lightly, to be some comic relief. There’s importance in that term—that humor can relieve some suffering and some worry. That’s what this story intends, for the people back in Bible times and for us now.

See, this isn’t only a story about how strong your faith is and whether God will do something about it when you’re put into the rotisserie oven. This is meant to reinforce your faith when things aren’t particularly going how you’d wish, and to lighten your mood, and to lighten the load a bit.

We heard the reading in the King James Version to highlight some of that, to give it its original sense of theatre. Those long, detailed, repeated lists that go on and on and are repeated over and over are meant to sound silly! There’s a pompousness to it that’s supposed to portray a farce.

For our ears, that’s accentuated when we hear that the marching band assembled to toot the horn of the king not only has cornet and flute, but also a sackbut. If you thought Nebuchadnezzar was fun to say, then you were just waiting for the sackbut! We hear an edge of the ridiculous regal procession of princes and captains, the treasurers and the counsellors. But we may catch some extra sense when the King James Version mentions that amid that ignorant throng were governors, judges, and sheriffs, and we may begin to sense this not as an old one-time story, but as a drama, a comedy of errors that plays out in our life, too. Through the hilarity, a king who started out so authoritarian and arrogant was manipulated by his jealous staff, went into blind rage, full of fury, but wound up praising in exclusive terms the very God he was trying to dismiss.

Now, while admitting truth can be stranger than fiction, I would say that generally if we’re looking for a repetition of these events or characters in our lives, then we may have too narrowly confined the meaning of the story. Whether our aim is with a hopeful chuckle about clueless leaders coming around to our side, or is with the serious dread and regret of Jewish lives not saved from the ovens, this isn’t really a story of that kind of direct application. If we’re waiting for somebody to set up a 90-foot tall golden idol or effigy or whatever and demand we bow down to it, then this is left as a laughable little fairy tale, without impact on our lives.

But if we understand it as hyperbole, as overstatement, as dramatized for effect, then we can see connections all over. If this story is simply about the challenge of where our faith collides with culture and what is dominant, then that turns up the metaphorical heat. Where do we symbolically bow down in the wrong direction, offering our lives to what usurps the place of God? How should we be living while in this strange country?

Would we be prompted to confront our leaders? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t need to start this confrontation; they probably could’ve figured their actions and decisions wouldn’t make much of a difference. So should we see this story as a parable about what to do in the face of an ignorant, careless government?

But let’s take it down another notch. Forget about being tossed in a furnace. If we determined that it was what we needed to do to live faithfully, would we eat only vegetables? Would we risk our jobs or our social standing at school? Would we sacrifice our place on a sports team, or our income that we prefer to use to give ourselves a little bit of luxury? Would we give up some core part of our identity? This gets awfully serious and awfully implicating and awfully quick. It means we need some humor in our stories!

But if you’re not feeling scorched quite yet, here’s a blisteringly timely seasonal paragraph some of you may have read in Christian Century, about Christmas as

glittery rituals [it says] that have no biblical basis or meaning and become a kind of alternative religion competing with Christ. How many children can pay attention to the meaning of incarnation when they are encouraged to focus on gingerbread houses, candy canes, ornamented Christmas trees, and Christmas lights? Santa is no Saint Nicholas. He’s a Coca-Cola advertisement symbolizing the complete secularization of Christmas, replacing Jesus’ poverty, vulnerability, and self-sacrifice with magic reindeer, a pile of toys, and “Ho, ho, ho!”*

I don’t know about you, but that one burns a bit. I like Christmas and our decorations and the lights in the darkness and the mood of it all and am obviously endeared to St. Nick. I certainly don’t want to imagine that in any of that I’m venerating an allegorical 90-foot Coca-Cola statue.

But raising those small, hard questions in a humorous, outsized way is only one aspect of this story of the fiery furnace. There’s this personal interrogation of what I would do if I were in their place, and—even more difficultly—what I do in my own place.

But the other aspect of this story is God’s place. And that is—it should go without saying—the more vital aspect, much more than what you do or don’t do. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego recognize it. They didn’t see this as putting either their faith or putting God to the test. One of the most interesting lines of the whole story is their statement that it doesn’t matter if God saves them from the fire or not.

I find that to be astonishing and terribly important. It’s not that if you believe strongly enough then you’ll deserve miracles. The three men didn’t earn escape for displaying extraordinary devotion and faith. It wouldn’t disprove God if they didn’t emerge from the fire. More than your identity or circumstances, this is about God’s identity.

For that, three godly wrap-up points:

  1. No matter how high and mighty somebody thinks they are or how much they want to claim for themselves, they can never displace God. That’s why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego wouldn’t bow down, but also why it didn’t matter what happened to them.
  2. Still, I think we can tentatively say that God’s preference, God’s design, the will of God, would not be for people to be chucked into a furnace, not to be made to suffer.
  3. And finally, the presence of the fourth divine Son of God in the furnace, that we can take as gospel. Jesus is with you, even when you are oppressed and suffering and in danger, even when things aren’t going right. In the words that (at least sort of) ended the prayers at Jean Oliversen’s sister’s memorial service yesterday, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus: neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor Nebuchadnezzar nor sackbuts, nor loss of identity, nor fiery furnaces, nor barbequed pork, nor a chimney with Santa Claus. And that’s no joke.

* https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/why-my-church-stopped-decking-halls

 

The comic relief, according to the King James Version:
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Therefore the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then a herald cried aloud, “To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of music, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.

At that time certain Chaldeans came near, and accused the Jews. They spake and said to the king Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live for ever. Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every person that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that one should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Therefore they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and God will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he commanded the most mighty soldiers that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore because the king’s commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those soldiers that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, “Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said unto the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “Lo, I see four people loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent an angel, and delivered these servants who trusted in God, and disobeyed my command, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.”

(Daniel 3:1-30, King James Version)

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God Calls Samuel

sermon on 1Samuel3:1-21
Amid God’s strange way of speaking to us now, this reading makes clear that sermons aren’t just for adults, and may speak especially to our children and youth.

It said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” We’ll say more about how to integrate that with our lives. For now, it’s a fairly shocking change in the story. While we may wonder why God doesn’t appear to us like God did in the Bible and our lives are so ordinary and not supernatural, in the story this may come as an unusual twist.

To see that, let’s catch up on what we missed in the Narrative Lectionary. Last week we were hearing about manna, which came after God was dialoguing with Moses, and was—if not a vision—a pretty direct daily miracle from God. Plus, the people were following God’s guidance in a pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness.

After God spoke amid smoky thunder to give Moses the 10 Commandments, at the very end of the book of Exodus, those written laws were placed into a box called the Ark of the Covenant, and God’s presence sat on that box. The pillar of cloud and fire moved in to the tent which served as the temporary holy of holies, the mobile worship center, to remain both visibly and audibly with the people, throughout the wilderness for those 40 years. Besides that direct presence of God, it extended to Moses, too, who had a glowing face from contact with God, so bright that he needed to wear a veil, like his time with God rubbed off on him.

From such obvious and miraculous depictions, it may seem disappointing it went away. As the people entered the Promised Land, God sort of disappeared. I mean, that’s not exactly it. God wasn’t really marginalized. God didn’t just give guidelines to start the community running and then abandon them to their own devices. Certainly the Bible still has words from God all through that section. But as the people are settling into the Promised Land, they sort of go about their business. Although we heard last week that even miraculous manna didn’t resolve God’s relationship with the people, throughout the time of Judges the connection deteriorated further, with them alternately straying from God and then being brought back.

Of course, they brought the box of God with them into the Promised Land. Though that Ark of the Covenant apparently no longer directly revealed God’s presence, we may say it re-presented (represented?) God. That box is even there in the reading today. In odd language, it says that Samuel is sleeping by it “in the temple.” Actually the temple won’t be built for over a hundred years by King Solomon, as we’ll hear in two weeks.

That temple will become the center of worship in Jerusalem, the place where God’s presence was still believed to dwell with the box. Again, it no longer had mysterious stuff happening, or a vocal presence of God or a phenomenal appearance. As our reading indicated, that stuff was rare, even as the pomp and glorious architecture and political turmoil around the temple grew. The box became so special that only the high priest could go by it and only once per year. Even 29 centuries after it was constructed and 19 centuries after a second temple was destroyed, still that former location of the box is seen as the spot to get closest to God.

For all of that, today little Samuel is curledTissot - The Voice of the Lord up near the box, just trying to get some sleep. But something keeps interrupting his snooze, snaps him out of his nap, has him tossing and turning.

Now, I want to try out a thought. It’s not explaining away or dumbing down the story, but it’s a possibility I want you to consider. The image on the cover of your bulletin has a bright light streaming down from above a bed. First of all, Samuel probably wasn’t in a bed like that, because he was sleeping near the box in the temple. Second, there probably wasn’t a bright light. The reading sure didn’t mention one. Another artwork I looked at amid bulletin possibilities showed an angel delivering the message, but no angel is mentioned, either.

…Unless we consider the angel to be old Eli.

One detail we did hear is that three times as Samuel is pondering this voice, three times he thinks it is Eli calling. I suppose you could explain that Eli was the only person around, so Samuel assumed it must be him. Or you could say that Eli’s voice sounded like the voice of God—whether that means to you that it was deep and booming or soft and gentle or kind of nasal-y and goofy sounding.

But here’s my suggestion: maybe it was that Samuel was used to learning about God from Eli. He was used to hearing Eli’s sermons, Sunday School lessons, bedtime prayers, and so the voice of the Lord was spoken from Eli’s mouth to Samuel, the word of the Lord was articulated by an ordinary human tongue, and the angelic messenger on most days was Eli himself.

One reason I suggest that is, as we’re two weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the start of the Lutheran Reformation, I find myself believing with Luther and the Reformers that this Eli perspective is the most likely experience. Our so-called Evangelical or good news-focused understanding is that faith comes from hearing. This resists and rejects the idea that you find God within you, that God offers messages nobody else has, that there is some sort of peculiar unique personal revelation.

Though you may typically imagine it elsewise, the early Lutherans said—and I’d continue to assert—that faith comes not from our internal reflections when a shaft of light breaks on us in the night, not unmediated, but from a preacher, who can be somebody who sounds a lot like me and stand someplace like this. It could also be a mentor or Sunday School teacher, and should quite definitely be a parent, a baptismal sponsor. This is saying that God’s process for working in us, is as faith is taught and learned. It is why we end Bible readings with the thankful reminder that you’ve just heard “the word of the Lord” (and maybe we should be saying before the readings “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”). This reminds us it’s not a sudden conversion in a rare vision but is mostly God’s word spoken by human mouths

That included Eli’s mouth. He was a Confirmation instructor and pastor and Bible professor and even an adoptive parent for Samuel. As Samuel grew up, Eli was telling and teaching him this faith, and the Holy Spirit was working through those words to create faith in Samuel, to use those very ordinary means for divine purposes. That is why I suggest that, when this child Samuel heard a call from God, he heard it as the voice of Eli.

And the call that Samuel was responding to was really just continuing what he knew of faith. He should’ve been taught about the will of God, about the care for relationships, about trying to live for what is right, to respect God, to be forgiving and not prejudiced, and so on. Or, as we summarize how we practice it here, as “living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation.”

The previous chapter said the sons of Eli did the opposite. Depending on the Bible translation, they were wicked, scoundrels, worthless men. The Hebrew phrase literally says “the sons of Eli were sons of Belial,” calling them the offspring of a personification of lacking in values, maybe like we’d say somebody was a no-good sonofa…gun. These guys were stealing out of the offering plate and abusing people on their way to worship, and such misbehavior betrayed God’s reputation.

Even as a child, Samuel knew his faith well enough to know that wasn’t how it should be. He knew they were ungodly, doing wrong. It contradicted the story he’d been taught. So Samuel spoke the voice of God back to Eli.

The story we have been taught and that continues to be spoken into your ears to reinforce faith calls us also to resist evil, calls us to be on the side of life. It doesn’t require cinematic magic for us to be compelled to act against injustice. We already trust that is what the voice of God asks of us. All of us.

So we know sermons are for children, that our young people learn and grow in these beliefs, in God’s striving for goodness, for love, for justice, and against death. And our youth are not only passive learners, but also call the older of us back to faithfully living.

In some of these ways, I remember in 2nd grade trying to convince teachers we should recycle, and in 4th grade telling my uncle to quit smoking, and in 6th grade being against the war, and in 10th grade trying to improve how poor people in my community were treated.

But to admit continually I’m no hero and need faithful reminders as much as anybody, this week one of our youth saw me pedaling by on my bicycle with my phone in my hand and shouted out, “Didn’t they tell you about texting and driving?!”

Yes they did. And to be on the side of life, I need godly reminders and the grace to keep living into it. I’ve heard similar coercions in both sides of families here, of parents who urge kids to come to church, and also children who want to be here and drag their parents.

However it comes to pass, you gather here, in a place you may think of as holy or set apart, though it’s so very ordinary. You come not for any miraculous phenomenon, not expecting bright lights, knowing you’re going to wind up hearing me, but still listening for God. This is how and often where God’s voice is spoken to us, coming into our hearts, sometimes continuing to needle us in the night, knowing that we need to do something, to change situations around us. For Samuel, it was a call to offer that challenging word. For Eli, it was a word of being challenged, called to account. For you, this sermon is a reminder of God’s voice speaking right now into your life. For all of us, the oldest to the youngest, it is a call to live in this relationship together.

 

 

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sermon for World Communion Sunday & the burning bush

(Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17)

 

There’s so much that could be said about these Narrative Lectionary stories, and today you have the benefit of having two preachers unloading on you, so you should get to hear plenty over the next 45 minutes or so. Just to be clear: that’s a joke. Some of you were already squirming, so I’d better get on with it.

My initial point is that it’s good you have two pastors. Sonja and I wanted to give you a chance to hear different perspectives amid this passage. Moses asked “who is God?” and the answer was “I AM!” revealing God’s identity as “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” something of both personal integrity and also all being. We’re going to explore this weird name for a few minutes, pondering who this I AM is, what it means to have I AM as your God.

 

I AM who responds

The first theme about this God is that it is I AM who responds. We may think of this as a call story, of God calling and commissioning Moses, even as Moses argued knowing he was unqualified, still he repeated that phrase of acceptance we hear a lot in these weeks, “Here I am.” Sonja is going to say more, but with calling we should notice it’s first responding. The reading starts thick with this: God heard their groaning, God remembered, God took notice. Before God is I AM who calls, I AM responds. Our work is always preceded by God’s initiative and compassion.

That is critical because these people who were groaning and crying out apparently weren’t even expecting God to be listening. They likely felt very left out, living in the wrong place at the wrong time, without help, without hope, without God. Their entire existence of slavery in Egypt, of a vile, oppressive leader taking and killing their children, of deadly workloads and frustrations, that must all have seemed like desperate separation from God. And yet God heard. I AM responded.

God listens. God hears. God cares. Suffering and sorrow may feel so isolating, but they cannot cut you off from this I AM God who is striving to respond to you always. Your existence can’t be apart from I AM. Let’s keep listening for what it means to have a responsive God, the I AM who is centered on you and your needs.

 

I AM who accompanies

From Sonja’s focus on calling and equipping, I want to add a word about location. That the God I AM didn’t go to be directly amid the hurting people seems disappointing, but I can’t really give a reason for why that would be. Instead God shows up with a burning bush. Maybe it’s just storytelling flourish to have God show up in the vegetation.

From that place, consider this place. You may say there’s nothing so phenomenal here as shrubbery bursting into flame. To counter that, I’m going to remove my shoes to offer you a sensual cue. See, really the thing in the story wasn’t the bush itself. That was a sensual cue, also, to highlight God speaking, this I AM who responds and calls. That’s why we gather here, why we come to this place together, because we expect a word from God. We expect these messages and listen for words that tell us we are cared for and loved, that suffering is not what God intends for our lives or our world, listen for where we’re invited to contribute, where we’re called and sent to offer God’s care to our relatives and neighbors and people in need. That doesn’t mean God is only here. Rather, we come for the reminder that God is with us always everywhere.

In may seem less miraculous, but I’m amused that instead of a burning bush, God shows up today with a frozen loaf of gluten free bread, another sensual cue, directing us to the vital matter of God speaking to us. With bread at this table, God says “Here I Am, for you.” This is the word of presence, of joining with your life, of hearing your longing, of uniting you into the task, filling you with what (or who) you need to bear that presence for others.

This God is I AM who accompanies. In Exodus, God went with Moses, eventually leading the people as a pillar of cloud and fire. More for this name of God, I AM, is that Jesus claims this terminology in the Gospel of John, where we’re headed later in this Narrative Lectionary year. In his walking-, talking-, caring-, serving-, eating-, dying-, rising-self is the embodiment of the God I AM for you.

“I AM the bread of life,” is one of these ways Jesus identifies himself. He is the God who accompanies, literally breaks bread with you, abides with you for the journey, who knows and nourishes your life and will never leave you, through death and beyond.

We gather here to hear again that word of promise, here on ground made holy by the realization that your God is I AM who accompanies you.

 

 

Responding God I AM, we are standing on holy ground. Gathered together, we pray for all who are having Burning Bush Moments, For those struggling to believe that it’s actually You speaking, For those who, like Moses, think our insecurities or inadequacies disqualify us from your call, For those who receive callings that will require courage and sacrifice
We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Your call comes to us in words spoken here, through slow mouths and with lowly bread, with sounds of music and in quiet of prayer. Your presence is also with us amid bushes and trees that burn with autumn colors. You are with us in the wilderness and on mountains. And your voice finds us especially in the midst of hurt. When we’re fearing loss, you show up to fortify us with yourself, I AM. We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Equip us to do your will of justice and love. We pray for all leaders to hear the groans of the oppressed and respond with compassion and care. With you, we hear cries of those lives too long left in pain. We hear those suffering from natural disasters. We hear those facing war and poverty.  We hear those in our midst and on our hearts, including Ellen Lindgren in the hospital, Jean Oliversen at the death of her twin sister Jan Kelly, Jess Kaehny at the death of her grandfather,  Mary Margaret Nack,  Mara Bakken in her move to Paris, Emily Kuhn in Honduras, Don Falkos’ brother, Dennis, Thomas Wildman, Fred Loichinger, Ellen Roberts and Leigh, Phill Bloedow, recovering from shoulder surgery, Corkey Custer’s brother Mike, Nancy Greenwald and her mother Anita, Robin and Kathy Alexander, and Margaret Helming. We pray with expectant hearts…

We ask your blessing on these quilts, on the hands who made them this year, and blessings on all who will receive them through Lutheran World Relief.

We ask your commissioning care for the service trip for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson, WI, this week and pray for Mary Maxwell; Jean Einerson and Ann Ward; Rita and Rich Olson; Mary and John Rowe; Julie and Tom Walsh; JoAnne and Ken Streit.

We pray for these members of our congregation this week: James Hamre, Margaret Helming and Joe Powell, Jim and Jan Eastman, Kim and John Eighmy, Jean Einerson and Ann War.
God of our ancestors, God who joins us into a mystical communion of saints, God who is with us in every bite of nourishment to accompany us, God of all nations and peoples of this world together:  We pray with expectant hearts…

 

 

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