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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Charleston, Pulse, and Power

When the opportunity to preach came a week after the Pulse nightclub killings, and it was also so close to the anniversary of the Mother Emanuel killings, I knew that I must try to elucidate the gospel's relevance to a world faced with mass murder that goes even into the places believed to be sanctuaries.  Thanks to my friends Revs. Herman and Pinkey Graham, pastors of God's Property Church, for the opportunity to work on this message.  It was also a Father's Day Sunday, so that theme winds its way through the sermon.  The association of maleness and fathers with violent power is a cultural pattern that must be challenged, and there is in both Dylan Roof and Omar Mateen an element of the perceived need for men to prove themselves and their convictions through violent acts.

It has been several weeks of travel and staying busy with teaching summer school that have slowed down my posting of this sermon preached on June 19, 2016, at God's Property Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC.

1Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die:  “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep.
Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.
The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.”

Galatians 3:23-29
         Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore, the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Luke 8:26-39
         Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)
Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.
Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.
So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”
So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

The Power that Comes Through Being Clothed in Christ
         The text read from Galatians is one of the great baptismal texts of the New Testament.  Many of us are most familiar with texts, such as from Romans, that compare baptism to being united with Jesus Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  Going under the waters is a symbolic death and burial of the old self, and a widely used baptismal statement says we are “raised to walk in newness of life.”  Here in Galatians, Paul uses another comparison to describe baptism.  He says it is like putting on a new set of clothes.  Verse 27 compares baptism to putting on Christ.  The garment we wear, by being put into the waters, is Christ himself.
         This baptismal teaching has far ranging significance.  If we delve into the common uses of the Greek word baptizo, we find that it also was often used with reference to garments.  When a piece of cloth was to be dyed another color than its natural white or off-white color, the process of dipping it into a vat or basin of dye was named by this same word, baptizo.  Having been dipped in the dye, the fabric comes out a different color.  It is changed, and its appearance is different.  The same should be true of us.  Having been dipped into Christ, the dye of his character should change our appearance.  Who we are should become marked by who Jesus is.
         As I already mentioned, Paul takes the garment image further by saying that in baptism we have clothed ourselves in Christ.  Our outward appearance, by this description, takes on the appearance of Christ.  We don’t push the metaphor too far to wonder whether such an image describes a change of the whole person including the inner self.  Becoming clothed in Christ is not merely a superficial fa├žade.  It is a change of our appearance that illustrates the change that has happened in the fullness of who we are.
         The message to all Christians, but especially to Fathers today is that the image our lives show to the world should be the image of Jesus Christ.  What does it mean to fulfill one’s human destiny?  It is to grow in the grace of God poured out to us by the Spirit.  This grace is displayed in living as God intends one to live.
         Paul repeats the language of our unity with Jesus Christ in the next verse.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is not male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Having put on Christ, fathers and mothers, men and women, enslaved and free, in-group or out-group are united to one another in Christ.  What has divided us is now obscured by the clothing we all are wearing—the same Jesus who lived and died to save and transform us.  It is the way of Jesus that shows up in who we are, putting into the background our gender identity, our skin color, our primary language, our social rank--every way that we might classify and divide ourselves from one another.  Having been united to Christ in baptism, we are “in Christ Jesus.”  You are in Christ Jesus.  He is in Christ Jesus.  She is in Christ Jesus.  Each one of us is in Christ Jesus through our baptism.  And because Christ is one Lord, in him we have been united to one another.
         United in Jesus, united with one another, there is no longer any place to pull rank or claim status over one another.  Paul, through his understanding of the way of Jesus, is challenging the patriarchy that is rampant in the cultures of his day.  Greek cultures ranked the property owning Greek men, the fathers who headed households of wealth, at the top of society.  Below them were ninety percent of the people who did not count as citizens:  women, children, slaves, and barbarians.  Not only the Greeks of Galatia, but also the Jews held men to be above women. 
But Paul says that this has changed in the community of Jesus.  Baptism into Christ evens the playing field.  The old saying is right that “there is level ground at the foot of the cross.”  So being a father does not mean pulling rank over everyone else.  Being a father means a partnership with one’s spouse; it leaves a space for sharing equally in the tasks of the household and the formation of the lives of God’s gift of children.
So on Father’s Day, Galatians 3 reminds us that God has brought us together as a team in the church to share in the beloved community.  God didn’t pick winners and losers based on our genes and our genitals.  God holds all our uniquenesses and differences as valuable and good, yet puts them in the background when compared to becoming like Jesus.  United to him in baptism, our destiny is to conform to his image.  Together in Christlikeness, fathers are on the team to make this world the blessed place God created it to be.
Too often, we have created stereotypes that distort the nature of men and women.  Then, as men, as fathers, we try to live up to the stereotypes, no matter how unnatural or how unlike us they feel.  In our culture, no man wants to be thought of as unmanly.  Boys and young men often feel compelled to take dangerous risks or behave erratically in order to prove to their peers that they are a real man.  This kind of overcompensating testosterone driven activity proves nothing other than we can be driven to the point of stupidity by stereotypes and the social enforcement of them in our communities. 
The Old Testament lesson for today from 1 Kings 19 sheds some light on the way that fathers may distort the way they think of their power in the world as men.  It is a familiar story about the Prophet Elijah.  Elijah spent a large amount of his life on the run.  He was under threat of a corrupt king and a highly devoted religious queen, with whom he was constantly in disagreement and conflict.  Ahab despised him for challenging the corruption of the royal court.  Jezebel despised him for rejecting the religion of her family heritage.
Let me chase a rabbit here.  I think we all can agree that Jezebel is not presented to us as a model character in the Bible.  In her commitment to the religions of her family heritage and the power those religious systems should bring, she was a zealot.  She promoted these idolatrous practices and did not take kindly to the resistance she faced from Elijah and others.  Like so many other royal figures in the Bible, when she met with opposition, she felt justified in imprisoning and executing her enemies.
Yet for some reason, many people revel in singling out Jezebel as worse than all the others.  It seems that she gets the worst reputation in this royal court mainly because she is a woman.  Ahab was no icon of virtue folks.  He held the throne, and he shared his power with Jezebel.  She exercised her power with often malicious intent, and so did he.  We need to be careful about how we save our harshest criticism for women who exercise power.  There is no doubt that Jezebel is wrong, but she is in a long line of wrongdoers, most of whom were kings and their courtiers, false prophets and nobility.  You don’t hear people referring to their enemies as an Ahab, however. 
To get back to this story of Elijah, he has won a great victory, yet he fears the revenge of Ahab and Jezebel.  So he runs away.  God sends angels to care for him and strengthen him, but he keeps running away to Horeb, the mountain of God.  When he gets there he hides in a cave.  After he’s rested a bit, he begins a conversation with God that turns out to be mainly whining about how Ahab, Jezebel, and lots of the other Israelites don’t like him, don’t like what he says, and don’t like what he does.  He implies that his problems are God’s fault.  He is in the middle of a bigtime pity party.  He is basking in the glory of his own mistreatment.
He probably want’s God to go blow something up.  He wants to see the royal palace crumble in upon itself and take the king and queen and their minions to an early grave.  Maybe he wants people to be afraid of him like he is afraid of the king and queen.  We may not know the specifics of what he wants, but we do know that he is feeling deeply sorry for himself and wants God to get up and do something about it.
What do we want God to do?  What kind of power do we want God to show?  Human beings like Ahab and Jezebel, caught up in human, worldly power, love to demonstrate their power through threats and violence.  They have no qualms about doing harm to others to make a point.  They love to intimidate, and can’t stand it when someone does not back down. 
Maybe Elijah was wishing for some of that kind of power.  In fact, he had recently claimed for himself that kind of power in the contest between the prophets and their gods at Mt. Carmel.  He arranged a great demonstration of the power of God, and he ridiculed the failure of the priests of the false gods of Ba’al and his pantheon.  But Elijah seems to have been carried away by success.  The God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Milpah, the God of Israel had rained down fire to consume the sacrifice and the altar and the water around it and even burn the dirt on which they built it.  The prophets of Ba’al had no success.  In a fury, Elijah turns the people on the false prophets to lynch and murder them.  Nowhere in the instructions Elijah received did God say to commit mass murder as a sign of victory.  Having taken up violence as the way to victory, Elijah found himself caught up in the unending cycle of violence.  Angry that he had done such a deed against the priests, Ahab and Jezebel vowed to get revenge.  And thus the cycle continued. 
Now, it seems, Elijah thinks he is about to get swallowed up in this orgy of bloodshed.  He doesn’t have an army at his beck and call.  So he is hoping God will intervene with power to confront power.  In that frame of mind, Elijah gets instructions from God.  God says to step outside the cave onto the mountain and await further communication when God passes by the mountain.  So Elijah steps out there.
What did he want from God?  Did he want to see some kind of unbridled power?  Is that what Elijah was believing that the exercise of power should be—intimidation, violence, and destruction?  Far too often, men in our culture have accepted the false belief that real power is demonstrated through rage and violence.  For instance, Nathan McCall tells the story of growing up in Virginia Beach in a community where rage and power were held in awe.  He says that even if a boy did not want to be violent, it was pushed upon him by a culture that tested boys by their willingness to “go off on” somebody.  Gaining respect and surviving, as he tells it, depended heavily on people thinking a boy might just go crazy and lose all control in a violent rage.
Another feature of that cultural milieu, according to McCall, was the understanding that boys could victimize girls at will.  He describes horrible events that destroyed young women’s lives simply at the whim and opportunity of young men to employ violence to get their way.  Such sexual abuse through violent control was part of what the culture told the boys would make them into men.  McCall said it was a terrible way to believe the world should work.  He reports that he lives with guilt for what he stood by and saw happening around him and for the posturing he did to get by.
Like McCall had to learn that power does not have to mean violence and rage, Elijah had a lesson to learn as well.  He stepped outside the cave as instructed.  There on the mountainside, he began to observe a great spectacle of nature’s power.
First he observed a great wind so powerful it was dislodging boulders and breaking them against one another, splitting rocks off the mountainside.  Surely, Elijah must have thought, this is God.  God could send stones crushing my enemies and breaking down their strongholds.  Maybe he wished that he could have a voice like that wind.  A great terrifying, bellowing voice of anger and rage would go far in frightening his enemies.
Too often, fathers get caught up in a rage, shouting and chastising, berating and belittling.  Consequently, too many children grow up wondering if Dad really loves them or if Dad is always angry with them.  Lord, I have prayed in confession and sought forgiveness far too often for the times I let my anger slip over into shouting and rage, intimidating and frightening my children.  To exercise power through rage is not really power, but weakness.  It shows the inability to control one’s emotions and to solve problems with reason and creativity.  It shows the failure of patience and compassion.  Elijah learned the lesson here, because he found that God was not in the great rock-busting wind.
As Elijah continued to wait, he saw, and surely felt beneath his feet, a great earthquake.  The mountainside shook.  The other mountains, hills, and valleys around rumbled and moved.  The power of an earthquake frightens people.  Elijah may have wished to be able to shake the ground in Samaria under the palace of Ahab until it collapsed to the ground.  He probably thought that if God would repeat this back in Israel, there would not be any reason to still be afraid of the king and queen. 
Tearing things up, throwing things down, knocking things over—sometimes we are fooled into believing that this how to show power.  Fathers sometimes reach their wits’ end, that is the end of their creative and rational thinking, and start knocking things around.  Not merely the fear-inducing booming voice, but now also the physical harm becomes a way to demonstrate power.  But such power has no ability to excite love and loyalty.  It is a very limited and toxic form of power that intimidates and undermines relationships. 
I have far too many times overheard the conversation among men that they need to show their families who is the boss, and the implication is that pushing people around or smacking people around is the way a man stays in charge.  But this is not the way of God.  Jesus came as a friend and servant, not as a bully.  There was no place in his world for that kind of harmful interaction.  In fact, Jesus warned the crowds listening to him one day that if they might be inclined to harm a child, they should think twice and figure out how to stop themselves.  He suggested they go down to the grist mill and pick up the two-ton grinding stone and put it around their necks.  He said then they should go over and throw themselves into the sea.  Drowned under a two-ton weight, they would be better off than if they did harm to a child. 
Power does not come from violent behavior toward our loved ones.  Even if we want to blame them for provoking us, Christian virtue says we should rise above the debasing temptation to violence.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  Elijah realized quickly that although the earthquake was a spectacle, God was not in it.  He was still waiting to hear from God.
Then a fire began to spread across the mountainside.  Wildfires, forest fires, brush fires, do great damage.  Every summer we see news reports of fires in Florida or Texas or California or some other place, pushed by hot winds and fueled by dry vegetation.  They rapidly sweep across countryside, hills, and valleys.  Firefighters get caught in their path and lose their lives.  Homeowners evacuate and return to find charred remains of their homes.  Certainly a fire is powerful through the heat of destruction.
Fire is often a weapon of war.  Setting fire to crops and cities has been a strategy to weaken the enemy through starvation and lack of shelter.  Firebombing industrial cities using carpet bombing as a weapon of mass destruction has left scars and resentment across the world.  Fire is so destructive that the Bible often uses it as an image of the utter destruction that evil brings upon God’s creation and of unending suffering for those who turn against God.
Fathers may be tempted to let loose their anger like a fire to demonstrate power, but when they burn the bridges of their relationships there may be no obvious path to recovery.  Destroying relationships through trying to control or damage the egos of others may seem to be powerful, but it is a self-destructive path.  Driving away those we love destroys us as well.  It isolates us and leaves us stewing in our own self-justifications away from anyone who cares for us.  God did not make us to be lonely, solitary beings. 
Neither Omar Mateen nor Dylan Roof found the path to true power.  They thought power came through destroying others.  Dylan had a moment of uncertainty, he says.  He began to wonder whether it was right to kill people who had been so warm and welcoming to him.  But he still had this distorted, upside-down view of power, so he shouted his accusations and fired his bullets into the gathered people of God in Mother Emanuel AME Church one year ago.  And last week, Omar decided the notoriety of killing a crowd of people was more important than the sustained relationships of his family and friends.  He would show everyone his empty power as a final act of self-destruction.  This is not what God made us to be, and it is not what power is in human relationships.  God made us for community.  Strengthening relationships with love is God’s plan for fathers.  In the wake of these destructive events, when young men thought their path to power in the world should come through violence, the church has a crucial witness of love to offer to all those who suffer from such outrage and violence.  God has made us for love, each one of us, in all of our differences.
Elijah may have thought that a fire sweeping across the land would solve all of his problems.  But as the fire passed by and displayed its destructive power, Elijah realized that God was not in it.  God’s power was not to be demonstrated in destruction. 
The wind, the earthquake, and the fire had passed, each with its semblance of power.  But Elijah was rebuked by their emptiness.  They were sound and fury, signifying nothing.  They were not the way of God.  And when they all passed, all that was left was “sheer silence,” the barest of sounds, a whisper, a breath, a rustle of wind.  The King James Version calls it a “still, small voice.”  The rabbis speak of “the daughter of a voice,” something smaller and more delicate than anything we might bellow.  God’s greatness and uniqueness is such that God has no vocal chords as we do.  God is not possessed of a mouth and tongue as we use for speech.  God is Spirit, and the association of Spirit with wind and breath in the biblical languages gives us an idea of how the Israelites, and Elijah among them, might imagine the Word of God coming to them.  In this blessed quietness, this holy quietness, Elijah must open his heart, his mind, his ears to hear what God will say.  Not through destructive power and spectacle and intimidating noise, but through a faint breeze, a barely-heard whisper, an intimate shared conversation, God speaks to Elijah.
In all his arrogance and self-pity and confusion, Elijah is finally getting the point.  God is finally getting through to him.  So Elijah steps out from whatever protected spot he had sought during the wind, earthquake, and fire.  He wants to be all ears for God’s voice, this still small voice of calm, this tiny wind that has the power to rule all creation.  Elijah steps out to listen.  He covers his face, in awe of the moment of being in God’s presence so directly.
It’s not like he could give up on his self-pity.  He starts in again to whine about his situation.  He thinks he is God’s only asset, God’s only faithful one.  He believes his end is near.  But God doesn’t address the problems Elijah can’t get off his mind.  Instead he starts giving instructions.  Today’s reading only includes the first line, which is telling Elijah to start walking toward Damascus to get ready to do another task.  The story goes on to reveal that from God’s point of view, it is time for all these players to retire.  Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah have reached the end of their days of leadership.  New rulers and a new prophet are about to arise, and Elijah will help anoint them to their task.
But the answer Elijah gets right off the bat is that power comes not from rage and violence and destruction, but it comes from getting down to the work that God has given him.  Instead of running away, hiding out, and plotting for how to destroy his enemies, God want’s Elijah to set about obediently helping to put the torn up world back in order.  God will not be without a witness, and before Elijah is off the scene, there will be a new prophet to arise.  God will not long tolerate injustice, so there must be judgment on the evil that rulers do.  But as far as Elijah is concerned, God has some work for him to get started on, so he needs to get moving.
The power that God has given us as fathers is to do the work of building good relationships.  Sharing in the joys and struggles of others rather than dominating them is the path to a life of joy.  In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul goes on to describe the way the power of the Holy Spirit can work in us.  The fruit will be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Patience, not rage.  Kindness, not intimidation.  Gentleness, not violence.  Faithfulness, not destroyed relationships.  Peace, not conflict.  Self-control, not going off on people or losing it.  Joy, not anger.  Love that builds up and strengthens oneself and all those around us.  That is what we put on when we put on Christ in baptism.
The gospel lesson for today comes from Luke 8.  It is a familiar story of Jesus’ visit to a remote village, the country of the Gerasenes.  When he came on land on the east coast of the Sea of Galilee, he encountered a man living among the tombs, naked, frenzied, wounded, scarred, and enraged.  The man was living the opposite of what God intended for him.  What had driven him to this condition?  Was he mentally ill?  The gospel story describes him as possessed of many demons.  Had he destroyed all his relationships and through violence gotten himself thrown out of town?  Certainly people feared him, for they chained him, although unsuccessfully.  His rage, his violence, had destroyed his life.
But when Jesus comes to him, he heals all that is broken in him.  The demons are driven away.  The man comes to himself.  They help him get cleaned up, and perhaps tend to his wounds.  The get him dressed decently in clothes.  The man is, as the text says, “clothed and in his right mind.”  People did not know whether to trust that or not.  They were afraid of him and of Jesus.  But Jesus comforts the lonely man.  He tells him he has a job to do.  Having turned from his previous destructive ways, Jesus says to share his life and hope with others.  He says to go back to his home.  You know there are some broken relationships.  People are going to be afraid, but they need to hear how God has changed him.  He needs to testify of all that God has done for him.
This is the power that God gives us.  It is not a power of intimidation and threats.  It is a power of joy and thankfulness.  It is the power that comes from knowing who we are and whose we are.  God has work for us to do—to build loving relationships, to serve one another, to bless one another.  There is a way of living in the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is what God has called fathers to do.
As many as have been baptized in Christ have also clothed yourselves with Christ.  You are all dressed up in Jesus.  Your presentation to the world is of the way of life Jesus lived.  Step into that work God has for you.  Step up to love.  Step up to patience.  Step up to gentleness.  Step up to faithfulness.  Step up to Spirit-filled living.  Open your ears to hear the breath of God’s Spirit guiding you to do the work God has called you to do.  Lay aside every encumbrance of empty, false power.  Be clothed with Jesus Christ.  Get decked out with meekness, peacemaking, and hunger for justice.  Gussy up with a pure heart, a humble spirit, and good works.  Rock that outfit with love of God and love of neighbor and love of enemies.  Clothe yourselves in Christ Jesus.  Unite yourselves to him and to one another.  In that unity, we rest and live in true power, in the power of God who loves and made us for love.

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