Love Stinks

Luke 15:1-10

5cae69e92cfe7.imageNow all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 4Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
8Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Love Stinks

Pray with me:

Gracious One,

May you find us today.

And in doing so, help us

To find ourselves.

Amen.

It’s really nice to be here today. Thank you for the invitation.  I’ve married, and unfortunately, buried a few people in these hallowed halls.  The Chapel of the Resurrection-and you’ll know this when you leave and, after a while, come back-the Chapel of the Resurrection has a distinctive smell.  It is the smell of old wax, lemonade, books, and the potpourri of perfumes and colognes and suit jackets and tobacco and tears, and yes, the smell of laughter…which makes no sense except, it’s just true. Remember, we serve a God who died and rose again…which makes no sense.

Smell is, of course, one of the most memory-jarring senses that we have, even over and against sight and sound.  I smell my grandmother into being quite often.  The woman smoked since she was 16, and even though she has long since died and been sainted, I smell her into being often enough.

Anytime someone is smoking her brand of cigarettes near me, I don’t find myself shying away, but moving closer to them, making her real again for just a moment.  I remember when I got my first tattoo, in college mind you, right up the street at a parlor that’s still here, and I come home and she’s visiting, and I say to her, “Grandma, I have a tattoo now!”  And she had a cigarette in one hand and a bourbon Manhattan in the other (her drink of choice that she’d make a double), and she looked at me and, in her raspy voice said, “I don’t know why anyone would do that to their body…”

I don’t see her anymore, but I find her still…by smell.  I find her, in all her imperfections, with her bawdy mouth and tendency to gossip, and in her perfections, the way she gave money away with abandon to those who needed it.  I smell her into being, even though I’ve lost her, and in those brief moments I’m able to love her again.

It turns out the song is true: love stinks.

That’s an appropriate phrase to repeat in light of a Gospel text that brings up repentance. Repentance is turning away from all of those things that have stunk up our lives…that continue to stink up our lives.  And I think it’s worth noting that I’m not one who believes that God loves us despite our sins, as heretical as I may now sound.  I do not believe God loves sin by any means, but God certainly must love sinners: us with our bawdy mouths and tendency to gossip. We who shove needles in our veins to feel something, and contemplate taking our lives because we’re not sure we feel anything anymore…or deserve to. We who cheat on our spouses and cheat on our tests (despite the honor code) and cheat on our taxes and cheat death in many and various ways.  We, the mix of perfection and imperfection are still most perfectly loved by a God who must love the totality of us if God can love any of us.

Love stinks. Or, more rightly, God loves stinky things, like free-range sheep and dusty coins in couch cushions and you and me who smell of both honesty and tragedy and cover it up with Hugo Boss’s latest offering.

This is, of course, something that the Pharisees and scribes couldn’t wrap their minds around.  And, of course, this is still something that much of the religious world can’t really wrap their minds around.  We don’t like embracing the stinky parts of our lives in the halls of religion, by and large.  We’d instead like to take un-stinky parts and call them stinky to divert our attention.

Like bodies. We have an enfleshed God, but the way that the church talks about the flesh would make you think that God would have been better off not being embodied at all. We still argue too much about sex, imagining that what people do with their bodies is somehow more important than arguing about the easy access to guns in this country that actually take bodies.

To talk about such things if you wear a funny collar like me can seem dangerous because people get mad and then send you emails, and my response to that fear-based quietism is that love stinks. It stinks to have to talk about hard things, but I love you, by God. And notice, there’s no email address for me in your bulletin…

And could it not be that we are lost as a people when we believe that pieces of metal are more important than babies shopping in a Walmart?

Could it not be that we are lost and God, the perpetual bloodhound, is hot on our trail with words of wisdom and love dripping from the Divine lips that say something like, “Love one another, as I have loved you,” or “the last shall be first and the first shall be last,” or, as Jesus said to Lazarus caught in his tomb of death, “Come out!”

Come out, leave the tombs where you live. The tombs of addiction…and we’re all, every one of us, addicted to something, Beloved.  The tombs of self-righteousness, and that is certainly not an issue for students on this campus, right? The tombs of homophobism which, in my time as a student here, plagued us quite mightily…and those of us in the ally movement were accompanying students back to dorms at night because we feared they’d be hurt. The tombs of racism which have presented themselves with more overt force in recent years. We are lost in the stench of xenophobism…

And there is a difference between confession and repentance, Beloved. And these are things we must repent of, not just confess!

We are lost, Beloved, in many and various ways. And being lost stinks.

But God loves stinky things. Love stinks.

I remind you, and myself, that God loves stinky things because it’s easy to get lost in something else in these days, too: hopelessness. Sometimes the stench of all that is rotting in this world, or even in our own lives, can make us despair.

And yet we’d be wise to remember what the bald and beautiful Reverend William Sloane Coffin, pastor of Riverside Church in New York once noted: that the most powerful statements in scripture, the ones where God gives the greatest mic drops, are in the indicative, not the imperative. For all you non-English majors out there, what I mean by that is that the greatest statements of scripture are not the ones where God what to do, but reminds us of what God has already done for us.

The basis of our faith is on what God has done, not what we should do.

And really, if there’s something that religion as a whole should repent of, it’s for messing that up for so many in this world.

Because if this faith-life is all about what we should do rather than what God has done for us, this parable, Beloved, doesn’t work at all.

The whole thing would have to be about how the sheep found its way back into the fold, or about how the coin found its way back into the purse.

But that’s not the parable, or the story of scripture. The stories of God are not the stories of people returning to God, but of God, the faithful bloodhound, seeking out God’s people in the places they’ve wandered off to, sniffing them out, and loving them into being. It is the story told in church basements at AA and NA meetings, but so rarely told in church sanctuaries. It’s the story told in online blogs, but so rarely found in bulletins.

We’ve found too many ways to put perfume on the honest things that stink in our lives. The perfumes of quietism, manners, decorum, or even just plain “If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s not true.”

The God found in scriptures cares nothing for manners; he eats with sinners and tax collectors.  The Christ who flips tables could care less about decorum. The God who speaks the world into being has no patience for quietism. And the God who calls the fisherman, the outcasts, the woman at the well, who calls them by all name, has no stomach for not acknowledging things properly.

The story of scripture is about a God who, because of a deep love for things that are a mix of perfection and imperfection, a mix of sweet smell and stink, a mix of holy and hellish, makes a way through the cosmos to show humanity and all creation just how far God will go to be with them.

God loves us to death. Literally.

And if we’re honest we kind of hate that story. Because we like earning things. We don’t like acknowledging we’re lost. We like making amends and making things right and being worthy through work.  Our own Blessed Martin Luther said that we “suffer the grace of God upon us,” and it is suffering, because we don’t like grace, we’d rather deal in merit.  We like a world where we’ll just do better tomorrow, and while that might be true, it just never feels enough if we’re honest…

And to all of you who feel that way, and to all the parts of me that want to earn my salvation, I say: yeah, it stinks.

But love stinks, by God.

And, Beloved, in realizing how much God has been lost in love with us, we might just find ourselves found, whole, able to acknowledge tough, smelly truths, and free in ways we didn’t think possible. We might find ourselves wrapped in grace instead of gritting our teeth trying to prove our worth.

And that sounds an awful lot like repentance: where you acknowledge the stench in the room and find some windows in your soul opened to let in the light that outshines the shadows and the breath of God that hovers over the void of our various shames and turn it into things that teem with life.

And while Jesus says God and the angels rejoice at such a thing, as with most things when it comes to encounters with God, we’re the ones who rejoice in the end at being so honest and free, stinky and all, in the presence of a God who will have it no other way.

Love stinks. And God loves things that stink. Thank God.

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The Heresy of Nationalism According to Jesus

American and Christian flags[10]In the 1950’s, a time that many folks are nostalgic for (if your race and sexual identity check the most dominant boxes, at least), the United States was feeling a sense of renewed pride and vigor.

We had won the war. We had an economic boom that made us forget that little Depression (and the boom, btw, was largely caused by the war effort). We had little pink houses for you and me, as JCM would say, ironically.

And in this boom we had a resurgence of organized religion as it clasped hands with the feelings of the day, clutching the American flag in one hand and the cross in the other.

This was the rise of civil religion which, in many cases, looked exactly like religion-religion, which confused everyone in the end…and still confuses everyone.

I note all this because this Sunday’s Gospel is all about this.  Go ahead. Read it: Luke 14:25-33.  In fact, you might want to read it twice, because if you actually read it, it should piss you off a bit.

Ok?  Here we go…

So, you’re wondering where the 1950’s plays into the cost of discipleship, right?  Jesus talks about parents, siblings, even life itself, but he doesn’t mention the ’50’s, you might say, right?

Well, literalists, here’s the thing: your family unit in the ancient world defined you.  It was how you knew who and what you were…by where you came from.

Jesus is not talking about families, he’s talking about identity.  He’s saying that, to follow the way of God you must be willing, even eager, to give up those things that previously defined you.

And not only give them up, but in some instances you must be ready to shun them, especially if they’re not in line with the Divine.

Now, here’s where we get to the 1950’s and nationalism…

Have you ever seen a church with the American flag out front, and then the Christian flag next to it?  Which one is at full mast, and which one slightly lower?

Right. The American flag, as per the proper use protocol, is at full mast unless ordered otherwise.  All other flags, including the Christian flag (which, by the way, I’m pretty sure should not even be a thing), need to be slightly lower.

And there you have it. There you have the true allegiance of most so-called churches and denominations: they are American first, Christian second.

Which is exactly what Jesus is saying you cannot be in this section of Luke.

When I was in grade-school, we would recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  I went to a Christian grade-school, by the way, and so we had the American flag in one corner of the classroom, and the Christian flag (again…why is this a thing?) in the other corner.  And we would start out every day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance first, and then turn and recite the “Pledge to the Cross” (also…why is that a thing?).

But it was no mistake: the American Civil Religion came first.  Christianity, second.

Christians, when at their best, should be little apocalyptic communities who live in a nation, but do not hold it as the end-all-be-all.  Quakers, Mennonites, Brethren…the “peace traditions”…still have rules around this.  But most Evangelical and Mainline churches do not, and run a real risk of running afoul of Luke 14.

And sure, some traditions even suggest that you can’t serve in the military, because to do so requires a pledge to a government and a President.  That, to me, is one of personal conscience, of course…but we must all wrestle with the idea, at the very least.

You must wrestle with it.

You must wrestle with the flag as much as you do the cross, Beloved.  And if you aren’t wrestling with either, well, then how will you eek out a blessing from your convictions?

This whole idea is why churches have been, and continue to be, known as “sanctuaries.”  People could go there for respite, for a break  and for safety from the often unjust laws that sought to jail them and criminalize poverty, criminalize undocumented immigration, criminalize race (and if you don’t think that’s real, read up on the Antebellum South, friends), etc.

The church, as an institution founded not on soil but on soul, was to be something different.  But too often it’s not different. It’s one of the legs that props up the stool of nationalism.

In other words: “America First” is a heresy.

In other words: “Nationalism” is a heresy.

You cannot be a nationalist and a Christian.  There is no such thing as a Christian Nationalist.  That makes about as much sense as saying you are a “stationary runner.”

The two are incompatible, and you must be willing to give one of them up.

We should not have “Prayer around the Pole,” as we did in High School, where we intentionally ignored Jesus’ call to pray in our closets and instead chose to pray at the most public, patriotic symbol in our school, confusing the heck out of me.

We shouldn’t even have the National Prayer Breakfast.  It makes no kind of sense, unless you’re using the breakfast to challenge the powers of the nation who sit eating their croissants.  That, by the way, doesn’t happen there…

The words of Jesus, the warning that we must be ready to give up everything, in fact maybe even have already shunned everything, to follow a Divine way of living feel hollow in a world, and especially a nation, where Christian is often synonymous with American.

And if you, like so much of historic Christianity in the last century, thinks this is all too extreme, I send you back to the text: consider the cost, disciple.

Humility is a Four Letter Word

images (2)I cringe when I see people looking at the scriptures like a “Dear Abby” column.  It happens all too often in our “get it right” world.  The scriptures are rarely about advice except for, perhaps, pieces of what we call the “Wisdom Tradition.”

I once had someone come to me wondering what they were allowed to “get away with before marriage” when it came to intimacy, according to the scriptures.

“I guess it depends on where you look…” I responded with a smirk, thinking they were joking.

Because the scriptures were not written to give us a sexual ethic.  If you need proof of this read…well, any of the Hebrew scriptures.  Or parts of Paul’s letters dripping with a misogyny that is out of step with how Jesus himself treated women.

The person stared at me, unblinking. They were not joking.  And this was an adult.

In my mind I said a four-letter word.

This is the kind of problem we run into when we see scripture as a fence instead of a feed-box…

And yet there are times, like this Sunday, where Jesus seems to be doling out advice.  While the scriptures themselves are not an advice column, Rabbis were entrusted with the authority to advise on all sorts of customs and whatnot.

The problem, of course, is that the contexts between those days and today are so vastly different that most of what Christians take from the sorts of exchanges vacillate between trite behavioral moralisms, or strict, unbending rules (depending on the personal proclivities of the observer, mind you).

Jesus, in this reading, isn’t about giving advice, though.  He’s about pointing to about reality.

Oh, before we go on, why don’t you read the scripture or else the rest might not make much sense: Luke 14:1, 7-14.

It’s ok. I’ll wait.

Ready?  Onward.

So, here’s the thing: you might read this as Jesus encouraging his people to observe simple humility when it comes to a dinner party, right?  This all smells like a “Dear Abby” column on banquet etiquette.

In fact, I’ve heard and read Christians interpret it just that way, as some sort of backward backhanded way of appearing humble while actually waiting for the seat of honor secretly in their hearts.

I heard one preacher say once, privately, that he actually wished he could witness his own funeral just so he could take stock of the impact that he had on people’s lives…I gagged a bit on his words, but wasn’t surprised by the sentiment.

This passage is not about being humble in order to be exalted.  It’s much more radical than that.

Notice the scene: Jesus is at a Pharisee’s house.  We shouldn’t be surprised by this; Jesus was in the Pharisaic tradition himself.

But the Pharisees were particularly interested in knowing who is in and who is out in the world.  And some of the behavioral norms that came along with that sort of mindset is knowing your place. Literally.

And so when Jesus comes in and says, “Your place is at the end of the table,” these Pharisees who studied long and hard to get their titles and prestige are taken aback.  Humility in the ancient world was a four-letter word.

In fact, I’d say that it’s still a four-letter word in most hearts today…that part of the ancient/contemporary divide hasn’t changed much.  And here’s a secret: most of the people others think are really humble are really, behind closed doors, just as selfish as everyone else.

It’s just true.

But, back to the scriptures…

And then Jesus says, “Instead of assuming you’re first, just assume you’re last…and you may be surprised!  Because the last end up being first.”  But the trick of his statement here is not that in putting yourself last you end up being first…

No.  He’s actually saying this radical thing: the people the world thinks are last are actually first in God’s eyes.  And so you go to the end of the table not to be more humble yourself, but because that’s where the wisdom is, my friend. That’s where the hope, the glory, the love, the true power that means any damn thing is.

And in seeing the truth of that reality…that’s what makes you humble in the end.  For most of us it only hits home on our deathbeds.

Our God is not a God of status or titles or quid pro quo behavior.

And he drives this whole point home in the next little vignette offered by the Gospel writer where he says people should throw dinner parties for folks who can’t repay the favor, because that is a true act of love.

Which is, of course, what happens every week at communion where people, with all their baggage from the streets of their train-wrecked lives are invited crawling, limping, and struggling forward for a feast of love that they can’t repay…

And when that hits home, Beloved, when the reality of that situation hits home, it should honestly lead you to say a few four-letter words to your, newly humble, self.

 

 

 

 

On Necessary De(con)struction

images (1)This Sunday’s Gospel text is a doozy: fire, division, prophetic anger, and just enough justification to dislike your in-laws that many have used this as reason not to attend family reunions.

You can find it here: Luke 12:49-56

We can’t pretend like these kinds of texts where Jesus is bringing the heat (literally, in this case) aren’t difficult to understand, let alone preach on.  Acknowledging that, actually, might be the beginning of holding the text righteously.

Consider the situation.  Peter Rollins in his wonderful book The Idolatry of God talks about how the words of Jesus, Paul, and the prophets did something in the ancient world that scandalized the social order, namely, that it erased the lines that held everything together.  This is hard for us to understand in this day, because we have all sorts of social controls that give us identity…and we don’t usually take them very seriously in this individualistic age.

But how did you know who you were in the ancient world?  You looked at your family.  They gave you the context for identity.  But Jesus, in his Divine wisdom, reminds us that we are first and foremost born of Divine breath and imagination, not just the blood of those who physically birthed us.  In this way, parents and children do find themselves at odds, because you could break free from the system that kept you a slave or, conversely, gave you wealth.  You could cut ties from that world, and enter into a new reality where status didn’t define you!

The heavenly fire that Jesus brings is not one that destroys you, but rather one that destroys everything that tries to name you in this world before you even take your first breath.  This is, of course, what we say in baptism, isn’t it?  In the baptismal rite we acknowledge that you were birthed once, probably in a sterile environment surrounded by medical professionals.  But now, in this new operating room called the sanctuary (or the river…because all water is holy, Beloved), the font becomes your amniotic fluid and you are birthed again not in a sterile environment, but in the mess of humanity, where God chooses to dwell.

This being “born again” (which has nothing to do with “inviting Jesus into your heart” or any such nonsense) is the fire that breaks you from all that defined you previously so that you are known only by one name: Beloved, Child of God.

I mean, you watch the weather report, but you can’t see what time it is right now?  It is time, Beloved, to live into your God-given name, not those other monikers out there!

Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral has a wonderful little thought about the necessary change that fire brings, and it is dripping with new-life imagery. She writes:

My heart swells that the Universe

like a fiery cascade may enter.

The new day comes. Its coming

leaves me breathless.

I sing. Like a cavern brimming

I sing my new day.

 

For grace lost and recovered

I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.

Until the Gorgon night,

vanquished, flees. 

This is a necessary destruction, a fiery cascade of water.  A necessary construction, rebuilding us into a new identity.

A necessary de(con)struction.

If You Surrendered to the Air, You Could Ride It…

imagesHere’s the first of a few blog posts about what I’d be using in my preaching, if I were preaching for the coming Sunday.  I’ll include quotes, stories, or quips that I think make good hangers for sermons and sermonizers.

By the way, the text is Luke 12:32-42.  You can read it; I’ll wait…

Ok? Onward.

An initial response to this text is precisely what Jesus encourages us not to have: fear.

We all fear the unknown. We all fear what we cannot see.  And because of this, it means that there is this subconscious little burr in the saddle of our lives that fears the future.

We do not know it. We cannot see it, despite what the Horoscope section of your paper tells you, and even though we try to discern our path forward (in our best moments), I suspect that your crystal ball is as broken as mine and we do not know what is next.

So, Beloved, know that, though this text has been used as fear-baiting in the church for centuries (I once had a grade-school teacher tell us that Jesus could come back any instant, so we had to have our souls clean and fresh constantly, like crisp laundry), it is not meant for that.

It can’t be meant for that.  Why?  Because Jesus starts off my commanding-not just encouraging, but in the imperative-commanding us to “Have no fear, little flock.”

This is not about the end times. It is about now. Right now. Always now.

So what, then, is the point?

Well, as with all scripture, there isn’t just *one* point.  Anyone who tells you differently has not done their homework.

But I think there are a number of little pieces to pick from this text and hang a message on:

First, Mindfulness.  Be mindful; present and aware.  In our technology age this is certainly a needed message for distracted masses.  How many times have we missed the Divine in our living rooms because we’ve been too distracted to notice? When Jesus says, “The Son of Man could come at any time,” so many of our ears turn to something like the “end times.”But what if God is showing up continually, constantly, and we miss it?

What if, as the poet Elizabeth Browning Barrett says, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

Then, the old switch-aroo.  Notice that second example that Jesus gives about the servants waiting up for the master, and when the master arrives, the master then serves the servants.  This is a great theme to hang on to on this Sunday, because in the presence of God the scriptures hint that the unexpected should be expected.

The master will become the servant.  The last will become first and the first will become last.  The rich will be found poor, and the poor with great wealth.

So why then, Beloved, do we fill our coffers and our bellies as if every moment must be economized by work and every meal may be our last, so we hoard all we can?

Jesus is genuinely wondering, I think.  Do we not trust God enough to give up control?

And finally, I’d probably want to invoke a little bit of Toni Morrison on this week where she died.  She was a master of words, and there are certainly plenty of Morrison quotes and notes to throw around in any number of sermons.

If you really want to stir the pot, go with her insightful and heartbreakingly true comment,“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

Because while Jesus encourages us to “have no fear,” we must be honest about the fact that there are many in this world who DO live in fear because of their race, country of origin, or heritage.  With White Nationalism on the rise (and look at how young these gunmen are!), we need to be honest about how the Christian message and the day-to-day realities of many do not match up, and Christianity can play a part in righting this wrong, or standing by as it continues.

But perhaps that’s too much for your context, and I get that.  There are plenty of other points to make in a sermon, and perhaps a few could be had.  On this day, I’d probably throw also use that quote I used as the title of this post,

“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

What does it mean to surrender in a world where we’re constantly controlled?  We’re controlled by the clock, by our bosses, by our biology, and yes, by our over-arching theology (which everyone has, even the atheists).

We live in a world of norms, but in this passage we hear Jesus suggesting that the norms need not be normal: servants become masters, you should not fear even that which you have no control over, and God arrives when you’re not looking, so always look.

The safeguards we put on our lives are placebos in the end, so perhaps the point of life isn’t surviving, but rather living.  Living with open eyes, open ears, and an open and watchful heart.  Surrender to the uncontrollable nature of life, and live, by God!

You think you can’t ride the wind, but have you tried?

It should not be lost on us, of course, that the very first line of the Christian and Hebrew scriptures has God riding on the wind, hovering over the face of the deep, exploring the possibilities of what could be in this world.

Perhaps that’s a good model for life in our over-controlled, technology wielding, overly-caffeinated, fear-mongering world: curiosity and attentiveness, riding on the Divine winds of possibility.

It is possible to live together in love, by God, if we’re attentive to the needs of our neighbor.  It is possible to live a more distraction-free life, waiting for God to show up in any given moment.  It is possible to hold out our hands in a world the clutches it’s purses, as the crucified hands of God were held out on that day, reaching toward the East and the West in sacrificial love.

It is possible, Beloved, to ride the air of curiosity in a world that doesn’t like it…

That’s probably where I’d go if I were preaching this Sunday…

Beloved…

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<If you missed the sermon, you can hear it here.>

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Beloved…

God who loves,

We are your Beloved

Remind us that all of us

All of us

Are always just that.

Amen.

Before I start, let me say thank you.  Thank you for years of love and laughter, service and fun. Thank you for putting up with a pastor with a young family, and the crazy schedule that gives me. Thank you for indulging crazy antics like dressing up for Three Kings day, for icons and coffee references and singing in sermons and bluegrass music.

Thank you to this staff who are the greatest people I’ve ever known. Thank you to the best colleague I’ve ever had in Pastor Marsha…I will miss working with her greatly.

Thank you to the call team for calling me here, and thank you for taking a chance on me.  I know you had hoped, as I had thought, we’d be together longer, but the call of the church doesn’t work on any of our timelines.  Despite that, my heart is grateful and full.

I changed the Gospel for today from the one assigned.  I figured I could do it because, what are you going to do? Fire me?

It was the Gospel lesson that we skipped back on the 14th when we did the hymn sing, which I heard was wonderful, by the way…

It’s the familiar story that’s often labeled what?  What do you know this as?

Right. The “Good Samaritan.”

Ever wonder, by the way, why it’s called that?  The Samaritan in the story is never called good.  Jesus never calls them good.  Why do we have to label the Samaritan good?

In the ancient Jewish world, the Samaritan had to be labeled “good” because they would have suspected that the Samaritan was, in fact, not good.  Which, of course, is hard for us to imagine, right?

Or…not so much.

Because, Beloved, I think we should cross out “Samaritan” from our Bibles and rename this story, so that we get it. This is the story of the Good Undocumented Immigrant, who is seen as suspect in these days and in this climate.

My friend, just two weeks ago, was texting me on Sunday the 14th, the Sunday when this Gospel was to be proclaimed from pulpits around the world, because it was the Sunday of enforcement when ICE agents were going to start raiding homes and businesses and places of worship for the undocumented, and he texted me asking for advice for how to instruct his largely Latino congregation on how to handle any agents that come to the door.

Beloved, this is the story of the Good Person of Color who are still trailed in shopping centers more than their white fellow citizens, and who are still incarcerated at alarming rates in comparison to the rest of the population in the United States.

Beloved, this is the story of the Good Congresswoman who, just down the street, was chanted about a few weeks ago, imploring that she be “sent back” to the country she came from.

Beloved this is the story of the Good Addict, who are still demonized in our world today.  And let’s face it, we’re all…all of us…addicted to something.

Beloved, this is the story of the Good Minority, the Good Gay Person, the Good Republican, the Good Democrat…

We still have Samaritans in our world, Beloved.  We imagine that the moral of this parable is that we are to be the Good Samaritan, right?

But perhaps the point of this story is that we are the lawmaker, the one who needs to have clarification on who their neighbor is because they secretly or not-so-secretly want to know who it is ok to dislike or to hate, by God.

Who are we allowed to treat as less-than?

This is story is about how God, and goodness, show up in the person we least expect in this life, and so we don’t have time to play the games of prejudice and intolerance that the world throws at us constantly. Playing those games only leaves us battered in the streets…and we’ve seen some of that, haven’t we?  Lest we forget Charlottesville.  Lest we forget Mother Emmanuel, Pulse Night Club, or going back, Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The lawmaker in this story is the one bruised and battered in the street, robbed of his ability to see others in this world as Beloved, as his neighbor, because his ideology trumps his theology and his humanity.  And we are the lawmakers of the world, whether we like it or not.

Our prejudices leave us bruised and battered, Beloved.  How can we not see that?

The problem with Jesus is that he doesn’t provide many qualifiers in the statements that he makes.  There are no asterisks when he says love thy neighbor.  It means your queer neighbor, your black neighbor, your indigenous neighbor, your documented and undocumented neighbor, your trans neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your Democrat neighbor, your abled-body neighbor and your neighbor who is not able-bodied in all the conventional ways but who still holds tremendous possibility; it means your divorced neighbor, your single neighbor, your sinful neighbor, and yes, your Southern Baptist neighbor.

There is no qualifier on the term neighbor when it comes to Jesus, and the fact that in this story the religious people probably had good reasons for not helping this person in need, reasons like “they couldn’t get blood on them or it would make them impure,” or “a hurt person means there are robbers nearby so we can’t stop,” or “they don’t look like me and might be diseased,” Jesus doesn’t care about their “good reasons.”

They are called to love their neighbor as themselves.

You are called to love.  To treat others with dignity. To affirm our shared humanity, and to trust that God has labeled everyone the same thing that God has labeled us all: Beloved.

I use that term a lot because you need reminding. I need reminding.

Because so often I’m caught beat up in the ditch of life, pummeled by work, by hurt, by words of others, by politics that don’t. seem. to. stop. and by systems that don’t seem to let up.  I’m lying, bleeding out because we’ve buried too many of our babies in this latest generation to suicide and addiction, and because we’re unable to get a grasp on how technology, for better and worse, is changing our humanity.

The violence both inside me and around me, the prejudices I choose and the ones that come unwittingly to me because we live in a world that gives us clues and dogwhistles and signals about who we are supposed to accept and who we’re not, and it all leave us in the ditch of outrage, prejudice, and continual defensiveness.

And yet God, in God’s great love, stoops down in Christ to lift us from the ditch, tends our eyes so that we might see again, fixes our ears so that we might hear the cry of our neighbor not as annoying but as the very voice of God, fills our bellies with food at this table, splints our hands and our feet again so that we might help those in need, and rejuvenates our hearts for the expansive love that God would have us show, and not the anemic love the world encourages us to give.

Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” only because he knows that God, through him, has done it first for us. Because the story of Jesus is one of “powerful love triumphing over loveless power,” as the Reverend William Sloane Coffin would say. A world that practices loveless power can only throw people in ditches.  But powerful love pulls us out, by God.

This is, I hope, the only thing you’ve ever heard me say in my time with you.  God’s invitation to expansive love is one that we must accept, because it’s the kind of love we receive, by God.

And if it is you who, today, feels a little beat up somehow, by this world, by these words, by circumstances beyond your control, by addiction, by cancer, by families you can’t control or jobs that just don’t satisfy; if you are in the ditch today and the last thing you need to hear is some preacher telling you to be kind to others when you don’t feel like anything has been kind to you, know that the Samaritan God who you cannot see shows up in Christ and is bent over you, especially when it feels like everyone else has passed you by, and is whispering something to you, the still small voice of God calling your name, saying:

I’m here, Beloved.

And, finally, if there’s one thing I could say to you in my last sermon, perhaps ever, it’s that I will always remember you by that God-given name.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

We End as We Began

end-1050x700I’ve always said that, at my funeral, I want two things to happen:

  1. I want it to be a traditional Celtic funeral where you push my body out to the middle of the lake on a raft and shoot fire arrows at it until a pyre forms.
  2. I want the whole Gospel of Mark read.

I figure that people will show up for number one, and because that will happen at the end of the service, they’ll be forced to endure the reading…

The Gospel of Mark is my favorite. It always has been, I think.

Matthew’s Gospel is heady, with cross-references to Hebrew prophecies galore. Matthew has a point and he’s going to prove it.  It has some of my favorite unique stories, including the visitation of the Magi, which I’ve loved reenacting every year in my parishes.

Luke’s Gospel is the one that cares for the margins the most.  The sick, the disenfranchised, and women play a huge part in that Gospel, more-so than any of the other ones (which is what makes it my second-favorite).  It also has a sequel, Acts, and I’m a big fan of sequels.

John’s Gospel is full of mysticism and spirituality.  You can tell it was written much later than the rest because the stories are just slightly hued to have Jesus know everything that is about to happen.  John’s Passion narrative is, by far, my favorite, and Pilate has the premier line in my mind: “What is truth?”

But Mark has a special place in my heart.  It was written the earliest, is the most concise, and in it Jesus is the most human.  He cries. He’s confused. He just arrives on the scene, with no birth narrative, and at the end he dies in such a way that the most unlikely person, the Roman guard, is the only one to call him “the Son of God.”

I love that about this Gospel: the unlikely person is the only one who recognizes God in Jesus in Mark.

And at the very end, when the women approach the empty tomb, the “new guys” there (in Greek it’s literally “new guys”) say, “Go back to Galilee, and meet Jesus there.  He’s waiting for you!”

And then they go and tell no one, or so it says. And yet, here you are, knowing the story. And here I am, knowing the story. The women told someone. Perhaps, everyone. No one would know of the resurrection if it wasn’t for them.

They are the first preachers.

The tricky piece of all of this is, if you know the Gospel of Mark, you get what the angels, the “new guys” are saying.  Because the Gospel of Mark starts in Galilee, with Jesus walking out of it proclaiming the Good News.

So, reader, the angels are telling you to start it all over again.  To hear the story again.  To read it again.

In other words, the Gospel tells you that the ending is actually the beginning, so go back and play it again, Sam…

The ending is actually the beginning. And round it goes, forever.

And here’s the truth, we end as we began in this moment, too: with open hearts, with potential, with expectation, and just a little bit of anxiety.  But all good stories begin and end like that, right?  Hearts and eyes burning, we start again, trusting that the story that holds us, the story of a Divine love that reaches past our understandings, is the scaffolding that holds it all up.

And holds it all together…even when we’re not, actually, together.

I sat in the back pew yesterday.  I opened the hymn book.  I turned to a favorite song and sang the first line in an empty sanctuary.  This ending is, for me, a bit different.  I’m changing vocations here.  I’ll be a pastor, yes, but not in the same way.

And so I wrapped up the memories carefully, even as I’ve wrapped up my office, and you all are a big part of what’s carefully wrapped.

But I end as I began: full of hope and wonder and just a little sadness and anxiety, and wonderful, carefully wrapped, memories; not knowing what’s next, but trusting it will be OK…good even.  Maybe, great.

And you all, too, will go in this way, I trust: hope, wonder, some sadness and maybe some anxiety, but with wonderful, carefully wrapped memories; not knowing what’s next, but leaning into that it will be OK…good even.  Maybe, great.

And we play the story again. The story of salvation that, though we change, never changes. The story of a God who loves us to death, no matter where we are, and won’t let us go, for Christ’s sake.

See you, one last time, in church.

pt…

Telling Time

VasnC1t<You can hear this sermon here.  Sermons are best heard, like melons are best grilled…>

Luke 10:38-42

Are you ready?

38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Telling Time

Holy One,

You are the timekeeper.

In the rush of here and there

Remind us of your timing

Remind us that the balance between

Being and doing

Is important for our human flourishing.

And as you keep time, Lord,

Keep us, too.

Amen.

Ok, first, let me address the elephant in the room: baby Brigid was born around 2am on Saturday morning. 9lbs, 11oz. She’s a force, like her mama.

But wait, there’s another elephant in the room.  I know many of you are concerned, but I want to assure you that Good Shepherd will still have Blue Grass worship.

In all seriousness, though, I’ve written about it and blogged about it, and I want to be very honest with you when I say that we don’t have enough time together at the end here.

It feels short.  It feels cut short.  For me and for you.

And I know that.  And I’m sorry for that.  We tried to find a way and there’s just not.  In the corporate world we get two week’s notice.  In the church world we get four.  It just doesn’t feel like enough time…but that’s what we get, and so like everything in life, we play the hand we’re dealt, we do the best we can, and we just try to love the hell out of each other for a bit even amidst any sort of anger, grief, resentment, or whatnot that bubbles up inside of us.

On my end, too.

And, since this one of my last sermons with you, I’ve decided to do another thing that time won’t allow me to do anymore: use songs in sermons.  So, this sermon is going to use all the songs, and for that I’m not sorry.

We start with the Byrds, Beloved. I mean St. Pete of the Seegers wrote it, but the Byrds made it the earworm you know and love.  If I sing the words, will you sing the “turn, turn, turn” refrain with me?

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

My whole life, at least as long as I’ve been trying to figure out how to steer the ship of life, has been contemplating the phrase, “What time is it?”  Ecclesiastes 3, on which this song is based, is my life-verse.  Trying to embrace the yin and the yang, the push and the pull, the stop and the flow of life.

Or, like we might say today, trying to embrace the Mary and the Martha.  The Mary and the Martha inside all of us.

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

This reading is all about time, Beloved, and is timely for you and me.  But even if we were not at this point of beginnings and endings, a point that neither you nor I saw coming two months ago, we’d still need to hear this text for the day because the push and pull inside all of us between being and doing in this world is real, and really a struggle.

What time is it?  Is it a time to act?  Or a time to listen and discern?

In a world where value is placed on doing and achieving, most of our time is spent acting, sometimes not out of our own best interests.  In fact, if there was a compelling reason for me to stay as your senior pastor, it would be simply because we are not done!

There is more to do!

But there is always more to do, Beloved.  There will always be more to do.  And as profound poet and witty writer David Thoreau notes, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

And to figure out what to be busy about takes some discernment.  Some listening.  We cannot always be Mary, sitting in potential energy, but we cannot also always be Martha, expending our energy.

There is a time for everything, and paying attention to the push and the pull of doing, Martha, and being, Mary, is the key to the mindful life.  The Godly life.  The Christ-like life.  Jesus went to the mountain to pray, and then healed the sick, and then went onto the lake to pray, and then raised the dead, and I dare say he could not do one without the other.  My spiritual mentor, Father Richard Rohr, named is spiritual center the Center for Action and Contemplation, which encompasses both the need for Mary and Martha in the holy life.  We act, but we must discern, and then act, and then discern, and this is the cycle. It is this same cycle we hold here weekly: we worship, and then we work in the world for peace and justice, and worship and then work.

There is a time for everything, Beloved.  What time is it?  Telling time is hard in this life, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  Who is winning out in your soul these days, Mary or Martha?  And who should be winning out?

And please don’t take Jesus in this story to be favoring Mary.  The point is that God in Jesus is saying something, and Mary is not too distracted to listen.  There is a time to act, and a time to listen, and when God is saying something, instead of getting too busy to pay attention, you listen, by God!

We listen.  Even if it’s tough news.

This time-telling trick that we all must do, discerning where we are, reminds me of another classic by the band Chicago who, if we’re talking about time, really saw their prime in the time when Robert Lamm was their lead singer, rather than the squeaky Peter Cetera.

But I digress.

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said

Does anybody really know what time it is (I don’t)
Does anybody really care (care about time)
If so I can’t imagine why (no, no)
We’ve all got time enough to cry

That phrase, “does anybody really know what time it is?” is what I want to focus on.  Because there are competing voices, all the time, as we try to discern time.

Martha’s focus on cleaning up the house was not because she was anal-retentive, or some sort of snob.  She was trying to be a good host.  Social convention compelled her to do this.  She, as the host, was obligated to care for her guest, and she showed her care through providing a clean and cared-for environment.  It’s what the social norms of the day called for.  It’s what she knew.

But in the moment, Jesus was inviting her to abandon the social norms, to abandon what she knew, what she was comfortable with, what was expected, and listen to a new voice, and unexpected voice, the still small voice of God sitting in her midst.

South American poet and social activist, Nicanor Parra…my father turned me on to him…has a short little poem that sounds more like a fortune cookie fortune than a poem.  He writes,

Whatever you do, you’ll regret it.

This, for me, is a poem of deep meaning, because it holds both Mary and Martha in tension.  Whatever you do, you’ll regret it, so do something, by God.  That’s Martha.  And if you want to regret whatever you do the least, discern and the Divine voice intentionally.  That’s Mary.

To know what time it is, to know whether it’s a time to go or stay, to know whether it’s a time to sow or reap, to know whether it’s a time to practice the conventional social norms, or buck them, we must be intentional. We must pay attention.  We must, as I say most every time before I read the Gospel verse to you, be ready.  I don’t ask that to be funny.  I ask that with seriousness.

Are you read, am I ready, to hear the voice of God?  Or am I too distracted in the moment?

One last song to frame this scripture for you, and this one comes from St. Cher.  There are some saints who only have one name.  Saint Elton of the Johns, St. Billy of the Joels, they need two names.  But some, like St. Paul and St. Cher and St. Prince only need one, right?

She sings,

If I could turn back time

If I could find a way

I’d turn back the words that hurt you

And you’d stay…

St. Cher, in this little diddy, expresses regret over a failed relationship.  Her words are honest and true, but she misses the mark, I think, existentially.

Because, Beloved, if there’s one thing that parish ministry has taught me, it is that all things change.  All things pass away.  There’s no staying, there is only here and now and the time before us.

I’ve buried too many of our young, and enough of our old, to know that time does not discriminate.  And if we are too busy doing, which is our penchant, and don’t spend enough time being, we will miss the Divine moments of love in our lives.

Who knows, perhaps Jesus has been sitting in your living room, and you were too busy to notice him.

Or, as is my particular sin, you’re too busy looking at your phone to notice.

If I could turn back time, you know what’d I’d like to do most?  Put the phone down.  I am certain that I have missed Divine moments and the Divine voice in my life because I was too distracted about my work, or even my play, on that little hand-held computer.

We cannot get time back, Beloved.  So we must be intentional about the time we have.  Mary and Martha wrestle in our spirits, and we must be attentive to the wrestling, to act like Martha when God calls us to act, and to discern like Mary when God’s voice is small and still, but we must do both, we cannot have one without the other.

We’d like to tell the future.  We’d like to, like St. Cher, turn back time.  We’d like to do all of these things, but we cannot.  Time is in the hands of God, and is safer there, by the way.  If we could control time, we’d certainly be in a mess…and so we live trusting and reminding ourselves that all time is in the pierced hands of the one who would do anything to love us.  We need not fear time…but we need to discern it.

All we can do is be in the moment, however it is, holding Martha and Mary in tension, trying to tell the time.

So, Beloved, for you, for this church, for this world: what time is it?

It’s About Time…

imagesA moment of pastoral privilege, if you don’t mind.  Normally these articles are about the upcoming Gospel lesson, but I want to write honestly, from the heart, about time.

Because time, Beloved, is part of the problem of this leave-taking.  And it’s part of what I’ve heard is on your heart, your head, your tongue, and part of our shared frustration.

The timing of my departure is really unfortunate.  Really bad, actually.  There’s no two-ways about that.

Due to all sorts of factors: plans that couldn’t be changed, timelines stretched as far as they could, and a variety of calendar events, I announced my departure right before Pr. Marsha was set to go on maternity leave, right before a long (and long-planned) family trip, and it just didn’t allow for the kind of time together that I wanted, that I hear and know you wanted, that we all wanted.

I am truly sorry for that.

I have been with you for four Christmases and four Easters, and I’ve been using that number, four, to describe our time together because my internal rhythm has been conditioned these last ten years by the liturgical calendar. It’s how I think.

But I also know that, technically, we have not been together four years.  It will be three years and seven months.  And I hear that some are upset with my using that number, four, perhaps because it feels just really untrue.  And, technically, it’s not true…four Christmases and four Easters does not four years make, Beloved.  And I know that.  And know that my using that number was not meant to hurt or cheapen or even elongate our time together.  It was, is, for me a frame.  Time is framed in our lives through the large events.  And, for me, these holy days are our large events together.

But I get it.  That imprecise number is not helpful in the time of grief.  And it is about time, after all.

I also know that sometimes a pastor leaving, especially when there were hopes and expectations that she/he would stay longer, feels like a betrayal of sorts.  It can bring up in all of us times where we’ve been betrayed or disappointed or let down by others in our lives.  And, let’s be very honest, I’ve tried to prepare you for this: I’m nothing if not eventually disappointing.  I say that with both a smirk and deep honesty.

But all pastors are disappointing.  Whether they stay, or whether they go, the office of the pastor is not one that can be held very well for very long.  We have fits and spurts of success, and moments of lull and disappointment filling in the gaps.  That doesn’t make me sad, mind you…I just know that’s how this work goes.

And the sadness, anger (which is just sadness that has hung around too long), and even the feelings of hurt and betrayal are both totally normal and, Beloved, important.  We must take every opportunity that life, that time, gives us to work through the stuff in our lives.  In working through the stuff, both my stuff and your stuff, we come closer to becoming, as Father Richard Rohr would say, “elders, not just older.”

And if time allows, I hope all of us strive to be elders, not just older.

Time is tricky and fleeting.  I announced my departure directly before a 10 day family trip to Iowa to see Rhonda’s grandmother, Inez, out at the family farm.  Along the way I performed a wedding in Virginia, saw my two brothers and their partners, stopped in Chicago to see my Goddaughter, and allow Finn to see his Godfather, took in a Cubs game, and made memories.

But most all of that could have been postponed until next year…except, time.  We’re all growing older.  I haven’t seen my brothers in two years.  The last time we saw Rhonda’s grandmother, Alistair wasn’t even born.

And, Beloved, I’ve buried too many people in the last ten years to think that “there’s always next year” when it comes to anything, especially family.  I had to announce when I did, and we had to take that trip.  And the timing stunk.  But it’s about time, all around.

Speaking of timing, I know that this community waited a long time for their senior pastor to come.  And to hear that they’re leaving after, what feels like not a lot of time, is frustrating.

Yes, it is.  For me, too, in some ways.

But the call of the church doesn’t work the way I want it to work.  I wasn’t looking for a new call when I got a phone call from North Carolina back in 2015.  In April, the same conversation out of the blue happened again.

But I’ve known, and I’ve tried to impart upon you (and remind myself) that the pastor who follows such a long, founding, pastorate, usually can’t stay more than three to five years.  A variety of environmental, emotional, and vocational factors come into play with that wisdom.  It’s been noted in almost every church-management and transition book I’ve ever read, and I scoffed at it for many years.

We always think we’re the exception…but we’re not, most times.  And it’s about time, after all.

And I know that the next pastor to lead this community will come quicker than I did, and will find a people ready and eager to embrace her/him, because they will have known, twice now, that God leads by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, through any wandering wilderness that may come. God leads no matter the conditions.

In other words, I feel that God is doing all the calling, the leading, here, Beloved, for you and for me, despite the timing.

And now for a vulnerable note about calling and time…

I’ve felt now, for over a year, that I was being called away from parish ministry.  I don’t know why, I just have.

I’ve felt that this would be my last congregation, however long I was here, for a bit now.  I’ve wrestled, and struggled, and cried, and sought spiritual and professional therapy over this feeling.  It’s not something I’ve wanted.  I’ve read, a few times now, poet and theologian Christians Wiman’s wise words that “Sometimes God calls people away…” I’ve usually only thought that God calls people to things.  But now I see that, sometimes, God calls people away.

I haven’t felt called away from you.  I knew I would be with you however long I was in this particular work.

But I have been feeling called away from this particular avenue of ministry, as much as I love it and respect it and will miss it.

Will miss you.

But timing is everything.  And though four years ago I couldn’t imagine not doing this work, now I feel like something different is ahead for me, for my writing, for my focus, for how I’ll be a part of what’s next for the church.  And I’ve truly loved this work for the time I’ve been able to do it…but God, in time, calls us to different places and different seasons, and I’ve learned not to swim upstream in these moments.

One final note about time: I do not believe that “time heals all things,” but I do know from experience that time helps sharpen perspective.  And right now the shock, the hurt, the anger, the grief, the feels, the anxiety…it’s all very present.  And may be very raw. And understandably so.  But, in time, I know that these feelings will dampen, and we’ll come to the place where we can unequivocally say, “That was a good time…”

Even if it felt too short for some (though I’m sure it felt long for others!).

Even if it felt like the timing was bad.

Even if it felt hard.

I trust, by God, that it’s about time.

Signed, with love,

pt…

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