Saturday, April 21, 2018

Chased By God: A Sermon For the Fourth Sunday After Easter

Preached At St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, on Sunday, 22 April, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Lections:  Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23, 1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18

Much of this sermon relies on insights from Joel LeMon’s commentary found on here on the Working Preacher website.  MP+

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

   He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters; 

   he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

   for his name’s sake. 


Even though I walk through the darkest valley,

   I fear no evil;

for you are with me;

   your rod and your staff—

   they comfort me. 


You prepare a table before me

   in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil;

   my cup overflows. 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

   all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord

   my whole life long.


(Psalm 23)



Psalm 23 is like comfort food for the anxious soul.  Each of its lines exudes peacefulness and reassurance.   It’s certainly the one psalm that most of us could recite by heart, and get mostly right.  I’ve been in hospital rooms at the end of life, and I’ve heard family members join in as I read this Psalm, as if they were clinging to the promise of its words.  Friends of mine who have served as chaplains in Afghanistan have told me about reading this psalm to troops before they went out on patrol.   No doubt, Psalm 23 is one of the pieces of scripture that we turn to in our most anxious moments when we find ourselves in that “darkest valley”.  


The images of the first few lines set a tone of peace and tranquility.   The words “makes me lie down” and “still waters” suggest a kind of spiritual oasis, the rest we long for when we are spiritually exhausted and bone-tired.  Small wonder then that we turn to this Psalm at our darkest moments, when we are confronted with our mortality.  Like Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross beside him, “In my father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).


It is lovely and reassuring to think of Psalm 23 as an image of the afterlife, as an assurance that we and are loved ones are safe in God’s keeping after death.  But what does this beloved Psalm say to us in the here and now?  Today I want to reflect on what how it can speak to us and support us as we live out our lives?   


This week I came across a really helpful insight by a biblical scholar who pointed out that Psalm 23 is actually about a journey.   Joel LeMon notes that “This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (vv. 2-4)”.   It’s true that the Psalm begins with an image of rest by “still waters”, but that moment is like a short rest on a long hike.   It’s as if God says, “Get up, we’ve got a long ways to go” and then we’re off again.   


It’s quite a hike.   We go past “still waters”, and the phrase “right paths” suggests trustworthy routes through a difficult landscape.  The use of the word “leads” suggests a knowledgeable guide to keep us safe.   I think of my own experience with a crusty old army Major who took a small group of us to the Rockies to climb three mountains in three days.   “It won’t be a walk in the park, Padre”, he warned me when I asked to join.  But he was an expert in mountain warfare, and for three days we followed in his footsteps, always trusting that he would get us up and down in one piece.    I think of the guide in this Psalm as someone like that, skilled and trustworthy.


We need such a guide desperately, because the road we will take is a dangerous one.   The verse “Even though I walk through the darkest valley” doesn’t necessarily suggest death, but it does suggest a bleak place, some moment of despair or depression where we feel might be tempted to feel that we are lost or abandoned.   The Psalm promises us that however dark our road, however difficult, we are not abandoned.  God will be with us.


God will be with us, or, if we go astray, God will seek us out.   One of the things I learned about Psalm 23 this week is that the verb “follow” in the verse “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” is actually a translation of a Hebrew verb that can also mean “pursue”.  Elsewhere in the Psalms, this verb is used to describe pursuit by enemies.   Also, the word “surely” is a translation of a Hebrew word that can also mean “only”.  Again, to quote Joel LeMon, another way to translate this verse would be “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”


Sometimes we use language of pursuit or chase to describe moments of adversity.  For example, we can speak of being hounded by creditors, or of having our steps dogged by misfortune, or of having enemies at our heels.     Psalm 23 invites us into a life where the only thing that is pursuing is is the immense and inexhaustible love of God.   Psalm 23 invites us into a life where nothing has the power to catch us or ensnare us, because of God’s fierce determination to protect us and accompany us through our darkest moments.  


Psalm 23 reminds us that there is no way we could mess up, and nowhere we could stray to, where God’s grace would not seek us out and try to bring us home.   It is the same vision of God’s love that we see in today’s Gospel reading, of the passionate and resolute shepherd who will seek all the sheep, even the lost ones, and who will die for them all.   It is a vision of a broad, inclusive, and persistent love that will risk all and do all for us at each and every stage of our lives.  


I say every stage of our lives because there is one more point I would like to make about the language of the Psalm.   Our bible translation says  “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” which has a sense of permanence, perhaps suggesting the vision of heaven or the afterlife that comforts us at moments of crisis or imminent death.   Again, Joel LeMon points out that the Hebrew word for “dwell”, shuv, can mean “to turn” or “return.” He notes that another translation of this line might be “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.”  


In other words, our lives are only a long journey in which God is seeking, even being chased by God’s love, but in which we are also checking in with God, staying in God’s presence, long enough to be refreshed and recharged, before going back onto the road.    Think of it as the sheep coming into the sheepfold for the night, or think of it as us, gathering in this church, pilgrims and sojourners stopping for rest and refreshment, before we continue on our way.


Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Light Breaks Through: A Sermon For Holy Saturday and the Vigil of Easter

Preached on Saturday, 31 March, 2018 at S. Margaret of Scotland’s Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON.  

Lections: Exodus 14: 10-15,21; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

When my wife Kay and I were dating, I persuaded her to come to an Easter Vigil service with me.    Not being from an Anglican background, she thought it all was very strange to be celebrating Easter on Saturday night.   Easter to her mind was celebrated in the light of morning, perhaps the first light of sunrise, but morning nevertheless.   Anything else was quite foreign to her Presbyterian upbringing.   To her, starting Easter the night before was like opening all the Christmas presents on Christmas Eve, it was simply too early.


Nevertheless she was willing to give it a try, but we were both quite unprepared for one of the customs of that particular parish we had chose to visit that night.   You see, if you look at p.329 of the Book of the Alternative Service, the rubric says “Glory to God, You are God, or some other suitable song of praise is sung.  Bells may be rung, according to local custom.” 


I think the idea behind this instruction is that when the Gloria is sung for the first time since the start of Lent, the bells are rung in celebration of the resurrection.   Well, the choir took this to extremes, so there were cowbells, symbols, airhorns, and the organist let out every stop on the pipe organ for what seemed like minutes.  Poor Kay almost jumped out of her skin.   She was frightened, and then she got mad.  WHY DID THEY DO THAT?  she asked me.   WHY DID THEY SCARE ME LIKE THAT?   To this day i’m surprised that she later agreed to marry me, but for years afterwards she acted like the entire Anglican church was to blame for that night.


While that choir certainly took things to extremes, they did understand something about the liturgy that we celebrate tonight.   They know that this is the moment, even in the gathering darkness of night, when the light breaks through.  In the first reading from Exodus, this moment is not arrival in the promised land of milk and honey, but it’s also not slavery in Egypt.    In the second reading from Romans, it’s not yet the renewal of our souls, but it’s also not our old lives of sin.   In our gospel reading, it’s not yet the encounter with the risen Christ, but it’s also not the sealed and brooding tomb.


Tonight is a transitional time.  Tonight we we stand on the borderlands of hope.   Tonight is that magical moment in the worship of the Christian church when we realize that all things are possible.


If you’ve ever sat vigil with a loved one as life ebbed from their body and the cold seeped in, tonight is for you.   If you’ve been scarred by abuse or violence and thought that nothing good could ever happen to you again, tonight is for you.  If you’ve ever believed that you were unlovable and that not even God could care for you, tonight is for you.   Tonight is when the darkness starts to crack and the light gets in.


Our three readings all begin in dark places.   Exodus starts with the Jews huddled on the edge of the impassable water, watching their doom approaching.   Romans begins with Paul speaking of the physical death that Jesus chose to share with us, reminding us of the words we heard on Ash Wednesday, speaking of our mortality: Dust you are, and dust you shall return.  Luke begins the grey light of dawn, as the Marys walk sadly to the tomb.     


All of these disasters are turned around.  The Israelites pass through the muddy sea bottom.  Christ’s death opens up the possibility of new life.  The risen Jesus gives the Marys instructions and tells them to go to Galilee where a new life awaits them.  Tonight is the end of the old story and the beginning of the new story of our lives.  


Because they knew that is a threshold moment, the early church chose it as the time for baptisms.   Converts were carefully instructed in weeks approaching Easter, and on this night between the death of the cross and the resurrection of the Sunday dawn, they committed themselves to the new lives that God offered to them.   We follow that tradition by renewing our own baptismal covenant on this night.   We do not know the details of how the rest of our lives will unfold.   But we do know that tonight we cross that border between light and darkness, between fear and hope, between death and life.   We know, as we stand between crucifixion and resurrection, that the light will always break into the darkness.   We choose light.  We choose hope.  We choose life.  We cross the border, and we move forward.   We are immigrants from the lands of shadow and the realm of death, who joyfully find ourselves to be citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Given For All: A Sermon For Maundy Thursday

Preached Thursday, March 29, 2018, at St. Margaret's Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario

Lections:  Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 17:1-17, 31b-35

Tonight we do something so unusual, so profound, so clear in its meaning, that I think the act of washing one another’s feet speaks clearly to our souls.   To kneel before someone, to touch and wash their feet, to accept the other’s offer of vulnerability and grace, and to hold that offer, like their feet, in the greatest trust and humility – these things speak clearly and eloquently to our Lord’s call to love one another that I think they scarce need a sermon to illuminate their meaning.  

Besides this service where we do this one extraordinary thing once a year, we also do the perfectly ordinary thing of coming forward to take the bread and wine.   Well, sort of.   The bread is really a weightless, tasteless disc that might be distantly related to wheat, and a tiny sip of wine.  Nevertheless we recognize that this symbols stand for something greater, and see them as a glimpse of the love and forgiveness of the heavenly banquet.  So we do this every Sunday, and as we receive the bread and wine we hear the same words each Sunday, the same words that we just heard in our second lesson, “this is my body”, “this is my blood”, “do this in remembrance of me”.  

 Could it be that on this one night, that we are so caught up in the novelty, perhaps even the shock, of water and strange hands on our gnarled and unlovely feet that we miss the importance of this strange meal that we have become so accustomed to in our weekly liturgy?    What if we were to try and recover the strangeness of this meal – can we even call it a meal?  maybe a ceremony?  a ritual? – of bread and wine that we observe every Sunday.

 This meal, what we call eucharist or communion, certainly was strange to the first Christians.   It was absolutely foreign to their thinking.  When Paul wrote his first letter to Corinth, he was writing to new believers who had started a church, but had almost no clue what they were doing or why.   They knew about communion or the Lord’s supper, but they observed it as if it was just a normal meal, conducted according to the usual social rules of the ancient world.   The haves ate with the haves and had quite a nice time.   The have nots stood at the fringes and watched,  Paul writes angrily:

20When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. 21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! (1 Cor 11: 20-22)

 Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that this was an event for all of them.   No one should be left out.  It was a meal for all, to be started only when the community had come together, so that all believers would be fed, regardless of their wealth and status (1 Cor 11:33).   These instructions on how to conduct this meal were not up for debate.   As Paul told this struggling church, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23).  These instructions came from Jesus himself, and when he said “do this in memory of me”, he was speaking to all his followers.

A community that waited until all were at the table was a community that cared for one another.   It was also a community that wanted its witness about Christ to have integrity and credibility.   No one was left out of this meal, slave, rich or poor, man and woman, observant Jew and gentile believers in Christ, all were welcome.  That was a huge message in the ancient world. 

 It’s a huge message in our world of inequality and injustice, where a few control vast amounts of wealth and billions have inadequate access to food and water.   When we come forward to receive the bread and wine, rubbing shoulders with people from all walks of life and from different races and places, we come forward and are welcomed by our God who wants all to be fed.   I think we make a mistake to think that the bread and wine are just spiritual food, that communion is simply about the feeding of our souls.   Food is food.  In taking the bread and wine, we remember a savior whose place was with the poor in body and spirit, who called us to care for the least among us.

 “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you”.   Tonight, our act of communion may not be as dramatic as the ritual of footwashing but they both point to the same thing.   Both actions remind us that just as God came to serve us, so are we expected to serve.  The life of this parish, particularly what we do around food, should be in the spirit of the eucharist.  If one of us brings some folded twenties to slip into the free will offering, and someone else brings an appetite sharpened by want and hunger, both should be welcome.  No one should be resented for being a free rider, because we are all free riders at the communion table.   Our social events, our programming, our mission and outreach, need to point the God who wants to feed us all out of his love and abundance.

I started by saying that the eucharist seems symbolic compared to the physical reality of footwashing.   I suppose we could do something to make communion more concrete.  We could tear off chunks of bread for one another, leaving the floor covered in crumbs, and drink the wine in big gulps so that it dribbles down our chins.    That would be fun, though it would be messy church.   But better still, I think, to make our communion truly real and truly urgent by remembering the amazingly generous spirit of the words that we hear each time we take the bread and wine.    

This is the bread.  This is the wine.  This is the love.  This is the abundance.  Given for us.   Given for all of us.   Paul  wrote, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you.”  May we, who have received so much grace and abundance from the Lord, hand them on to others.  May we wo do these things in remembrance of him, remember also those who are physically and spiritually hungry.   Amen.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Anti-Celebrity. A Sermon For The Fifth Sunday Of Lent

Preached March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON.

Readings for this Sunday: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ (Jn 12:21)

Is there anybody here who wouldn’t want to meet their favourite celebrity in real life? I’m guessing that all of us have some sports hero, some musician or actor that we would hang out with and talk to.   Maybe just meeting with that person would leave us speechless and slack jawed, or maybe we would have a hundred questions, or maybe we would just stammer out something totally stupid or ordinary, like “I just love your work”.   

I think this desire to meet a famous person is perfectly normal.   Perhaps it’s because we live in a celebrity culture, and we are encouraged to live vicariously through our heroes.   We even elect celebrities to political office, which doesn’t always go well, but we seem to trust them more than other choices.   Maybe its just human nature to project all of our longing, all of hopes and wishes on one well known figure, so that when they win an Oscar or a Nobel Prize, or become President or get married, we somehow feel better about ourselves because we are so invested in that person?

Do you ever wonder though, when you think about meeting a celebrity in real life, what it would be like if that person disappointed you?  What if we actually met our hero and that person turned out to be boring, or a self-centred obnoxious jerk?   Wouldn’t you be at least a little bit crushed or disillusioned?  Perhaps you might even start to wonder why you ever got so caught up in the cult of celebrity culture, you might even feel lied to about people you once thought deserved to be famous.

In today’s gospel we briefly meet some people who might have been celebrity seekers.  John tells us that “some Greeks” who happened to be in Jerusalem came up to Philip the disciple and said that they “wish to see Jesus” (Jn 12:21).   We aren’t told why they wanted to see Jesus or what they were hoping for.   It wasn’t uncommon for non-Jews to be interested in Judaism and to attend the great Jewish religious festivals, so they may have been spiritual seekers hoping to meet Jesus in the way that people today want to meet the Pope or the Dalai Lama.   They may have been converts to Judaism hoping to hear some teaching from the famous rabbi that everyone had heard of.   By this point in John’s gospel Jesus has already made his entry into Jerusalem on the donkey, the story we will celebrate next week as Palm Sunday, so perhaps these Greeks are just celebrity seekers wanting to meet the man of the day.  

Whatever the reason for their desire to see Jesus, its interesting that Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the Greeks.  He has no zero desire to play the role of celebrity.  He doesn’t invite them backstage or off them his autograph.  As N.T. Wright observes, he instead “goes off into a mediative comment about seeds and plants, about life and death, about servants and masters” (Wright 29).  Jesus talks about how “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23) but he’s not talking about the sort of glory that fans give to their celebrities.    Jesus rather is talking about God’s glory, a glory which has nothing to do with fame or fortune or power.  Jesus, you might say, is talking about himself as the anti-celebrity.

Jesus is clearly looking forward to his own death, as his comment about the seed suggests: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).  The second half of John’s gospel gives us a series of Jesus’ teachings and teachings in the last few days between his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion.   Many of these teachings focus on the idea of servanthood, the idea that we find true life when we give up on serving our own egos and reputations and instead start serving others in the spirit of the Father’s love.   For those who are invested in ego and status, giving them up can feel like death, but this sacrifice is actually the way to life.   

Then as now, this is a difficult message for humans to accept.  Our desire for affirmation and importance, even the kind of secondary, vicarious importance that we get from attaching ourselves to celebrities, works against Jesus’ message that we truly become ourselves when we let go of ourselves.    Perhaps this conflict explains the confusion after the voice from heaven affirms the words of Jesus.  Not everyone understands the voice, and some just think it was thunder.   As always in the gospels, not everyone understands what Jesus means or who he is.  Not everyone gets it.

Going back to our fascination with celebrities, I wonder if our fear of being disappointed by our heroes is because we would rather make them into what we want them to be.  We want them to be our ideals of masculinity, or femininity, or style, or heroism, or whatever we are looking for.   We don’t want them to be real.   I wonder if the same thing can sometimes be true of our relationship with Jesus.  Someone once said that we tend to see the Jesus we want to be, as if we were looking down a well and saw our reflection in the water at the bottom.   We tend to assume that Jesus looks like us, has our skin colour, our values, shares our politics.  We want him to be a champion of the poor, a defender of the status quo, a feminist, an environmentalist, a teacher, we want him to be wise, or fierce, or mild, or whatever.   It may be harder to think of him as the Son of God, the one who calls us, who challenges us, the one who wants to, well, change us by reorienting us to others.

At the end of our Gospel reading, Jesus predicts a time “when I am lifted up from the earth, [and] will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12.32).  For we who will soon be observing Good Friday, the image of Jesus raised up painfully on the cross comes to mind.  Do we wish to see Jesus?  Then by all means, see Jesus on the cross.  See his agony, see his humiliation, see him taking on the sin and hatred of the whole world so that he might change us and free us.   Our second reading, from Hebrews, speaks of Jesus’ of his “obedience” and his “reverent submission”, of his taking on this terrible thing on our behalf.  This is not the celebrity that longs to be worshipped and revered.   The cross invites us to consider the strange and wonderful anti-celebrity that Jesus is willing to embrace on our behalf.   

There are many things that make us want to be church - our desire for fellowship, our need for support, our need for peace and reassurance.   All of these things are good, but what really makes us church, I think, is that we are like the Greeks.  We want to see Jesus.   We want to see Jesus for who he truly is.   As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, we will have many opportunities to see Jesus.  We will see him enter Jerusalem, humbly, on a donkey.  We will see him wash he feet of his disciples.  We will see him share bread and wine with his disciples as he gives himself to us.  We will see him stand before Pilate.  We will see him stagger under the cross, and we will, terribly, see him lifted from the earth on that cross.  We will see him buried.   And, two weeks from now, in the light of a new dawn, we will see him rise again.

Our challenge is to let go of the Jesus we want to see and to see him as he really is, as the compassionate servant of God, as the one who gives himself to us so that we can be changed, as Jeremiah says in our first lesson, so that even our hearts and souls are rewritten.   As we approach Holy Week, think of what a strange celebrity Jesus embodies, and how different it is from the celebrity that the world chases.   Jesus says “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31).  I don’t know quite what that means, but as I read it this week I thought of the three most powerful men in the world today, the leaders of America, Russia, and China, and of how they wrap themselves in the cult of celebrity and power.  One takes delight in praising himself and telling people that they’re fired.  Another is engineering his own election win while poisoning his enemies abroad.  Another has just had himself declared leader for life.   How foolish they seem, compared to Jesus.    How confident he appears in his love and glory as the Father’s son.  He doesn’t need our loyalty, or obedience, or fear.  He comes to us as priest, as saviour, and servant.

We want to see Jesus.  This Easter and Holy Week, may we truly see him, and in seeing Jesus, may we truly see, and truly serve, one another.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Living The Kingdom Life: A Sermon For The Third Sunday After Epiphany

It's been a long time since this blog was a regular thing.   I feel like I am slowly getting back to some kind of normal after the death of my wife Kay in November.  I miss her enormously, but I felt her keen intellect and critical eye on my work as I prepared this sermon.  It's a wonderful parish and I'm so grateful to be their honourary priest.  Hopefully you'll see more activity from me here in the days and weeks to come.  MP+

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario, on Sunday, 21 January 2018, The Third Sunday After Epiphany.

Readings for this Sunday: Jonah 3:1-5,10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:9-31; Mark 1: 14-20.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." (Mark 1:14-17)

Cartoon courtesy of 

A good adventure story begins with an invitation.   Sometimes that invitation is hard to refuse.   A wizard and might descend on a hapless hobbit and drag him off to a dangerous and lonely mountain.  A mysterious wardrobe may tempt some children to a magic realm called Narnia.   A wandering rabbi might appear on the lakeshore and turn some fisherman’s world upside down.  

Today’s gospel reading, like last Sunday, is about that moment of invitation.   Jesus’ call to Simon and Andrew is just two simple words, “Follow me”.  Jesus doesn’t say anything about where they will go, how they will get there, or what they will do when they get there, but then again, you want suspense at the start of an adventure.   However, like any good adventure, there is a special destination -- the kingdom of God -- and unlike the magical realms of J.R.R. Tolkien, or the land of Narnia, it’s not imaginary.   The kingdom of God is real.  It’s now.  It’s close.

Today I want to talk about what it means when we say yes to those words of invitation:  “Follow me”.   I want to look at what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and at how Jesus invites us to follow him to a place called the kingdom of God.   Finally I want to talk about what the kingdom of God means, not just for us as individuals, and not even just as a church called St. Margaret’s and St. Giles, but in fact for us as The Church everywhere and always, as the means by which God shows himself to the world and by which he asks us to join him in his plan to save the world.

First, let’s think about what it means to follow someone.  “Follow” is an important word in the Gospels.  We heard Jesus use it last Sunday, in John’s gospel, to call Philip and then Nathaniel.            Now sometimes we use “follow” very casually, as when a business invites us to follow them on social media, but its significance is much more than that.   This past Thursday, those of us who were at Faith on Tap did some brainstorming around this question.   We talked about how to follow can be a very deliberate act.  To follow someone is to go where that person goes, to do what they do, to learn what they know.   To follow someone means to emulate them, to strive to be like them in a meaningful and transformative way. 

So when Jesus says “follow me” to the fishermen, or to you and me, for that matter, he isn’t just saying “hey, guys, let’s go somewhere”.   He’s inviting them to spend time with him, to learn from him, and to grow and change as people.  Jesus speaks as a rabbi or teacher here, inviting the fishermen to become his students, or to use the Greek word, his disciples.   A disciple in the ancient world was someone who learned by sitting at the feet of a wise and learned teacher.   St. Paul frequently gets at this when he talks about putting on the mind of Christ (Phil 2.5, 1 Cor 2.16).   To follow Jesus is to know him well enough that we become, well, Christlike in what we do and think and say.  After all, as much as we might use the slogan “What would Jesus do?” when confronted with a difficult life choice, we have no way of answering that question unless we know how Jesus thinks, and we can only learn how he thinks by spending time with him and attentively listening to him.

Following Jesus, therefore, is a decision to accept his invitation to follow, and to deliberately and carefully strive to become more like Jesus.  However, as soon as we use words like “decision”, we make it sound like this is all about our choice as individuals to respond to Jesus’ invitation, and that the ensuing relationship is all about this thing that happens between me and Jesus.   But it’s not, because there are other people in the relationship.

Being a follower of Jesus isn’t something that we do by ourselves.   We may think that the process begins with our decision to follow Jesus and to believe in him, but its more than that.  In our gospel reading, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John to join the twelve and the others, including women, who follow them.  To follow Jesus is to join together with other followers.   Think of it this way.  You made a personal decision to visit St. Margaret’s, and then you made another decision to stay, as my wife Kay and I did over a year ago.   However, despite that choice, St. Margaret’s is not you.  It’s all the people around you, all of us, trying as best we can to follow Jesus and to be more like him.

This brings us to the destination of our journey as followers of Jesus.   Mark tells us that before Jesus met the fishermen, he was preaching a message “that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (1:15).   What is this kingdom?  Where is it?   Jesus says that it is real (“it has come near” – it’s already happened) and that it is near.   Almost in the same breath, Jesus says “repent and believe in the good news” (1:15), as if these things, repent and believe, are the ways we get to the kingdom.   Repent to us often has a moralistic quality, as in “to feel sorry for something”, but the Greek word “metanoia” can mean “a change of mind or a new way of thinking”. 

One commentary about this verse suggests that Jesus is saying something like this.  “The kingdom of heaven is so close – wrap your minds around this new reality”.   Or maybe “Try to understand this amazing thing, that the kingdom of God is just next store”.   So, to go back to our idea of the journey, Jesus’ words to the disciples, “follow me”, assumes a destination, “the kingdom of God”.  Jesus is saying, in effect, follow me and we can get to this amazing place, the kingdom of God, if you dare to believe it.

It’s natural for us to think that the kingdom of God means heaven, the place we go to at our live’s end.  I know that as my wife Kay was dying, she firmly believed that she was going to God, and that she would be safe when she got there.   However, I think that Jesus also links the kingdom of God to our decision to follow him on earth.  If we want to be followers of Jesus, if we want to learn from him and to become more like him, then we not only come closer to the kingdom of God, but we make that kingdom more visible for others, which is perhaps the most important role of the church.  Here are three examples of how that can work.

Take money and wealth.  We live in an age of growing inequality, where crazy amounts of wealth are gathered into the hands of fewer and fewer people, and where it becomes increasingly acceptable to blame the poor for being somehow lazy and corrupt.   Jesus has a lot to say about how we should use our money, and tells us that the way we treat the least among us is how we treat him (Matthew 25:40).   As I write this sermon, I know that our treasurer and corporation are carefully reviewing our year end numbers, and say that St. Margaret’s is doing pretty well.   So at our vestry, or around our family dinner tables, how can we talk about how we as followers of Jesus should use our money and our wealth to make the kingdom of God visible?

Take gender.  We live in an age of the Me Too movement, where women in the entertainment industry and in business are telling us that the sexism and abuse of powerful men has to stop.  Almost every day we here about domestic violence and murder directed against ordinary women and children in our communities.   What should we as followers of Jesus learn from how he treated the women around him?  The scholar and novelist Dorothy Sayers once famously said that “it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross”, because Jesus never once in all his teaching suggested that women were in no way inferior or in any way deficient to men.   How can we, in our lives as a congregation, in our homes and workplaces, show that all people, regardless of gender or orientation, are fully loved and equal citizens of the kingdom of God?

Or take power.   Some people say that we live in an age where freedom is more and more the exception, where tyranny and repression are more and more common around the earth.  Governments have huge powers of electronic and digital surveillance, journalists are threatened, and minorities like the Rohingya in Maynmar/Burma can be terrorized and driven from their lands.   In fact, at the very start of Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes preaching “after John was arrested” (1:14), so oppressive regimes are nothing new.  If we truly want to be his followers, then Jesus can teach us much about how God’s power has nothing to do the supposed strength of kings and emperors.   In our Faith on Tap discussion this week, we asked Jesus’ politics and asked if he was in fact a socialist, but maybe that’s the wrong question to ask.  We use political labels to build up our side and tear down those we disagree with.    How can we, as a congregation, set aside these labels so that we can really listen to Jesus and try to model our lives and actions on the justice of the kingdom of heaven, where all are created by God and loved and valued by God?

Let me close by returning to the idea of the invitation to adventure.   In the best stories, any good adventure is difficult.  The hobbits suffer to get the ring to Mount Doom.  The children who find Narnia must fight to defend it from the White Witch.   Jesus asks more of us.  Later in Mark’s gospel, he explains that anyone who wants to be his disciple must take up their cross and follow me (Mk 8:34).   To be a follower of Jesus is not an easy thing.  To be a follower of Jesus is to sacrifice our self-importance once we realize that every other follower has equal value.  To be a follower is to have demands made on our time, our money, to be willing to sacrifice friendships if needs be because we have to say things and live out values that might not be popular.   To be a follower is to be willing to have our comfortable values and assumptions challenged and turned upside down.  But that’s what we agree to when we follow Jesus.   “The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news”.   Or, if you like, “The kingdom of heaven is so close – wrap your minds around this new reality”. 

Jesus is calling.  Are you ready for an adventure?


Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Nativity Pageant: A Sermon For The Third Sunday of Avent

A shorter sermon for this Sunday. MP

Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, Sunday, 17 December, 2017

Truly there is nothing quite so wonderful and so real in the life of the church as a Christmas pageant.   Those children shuffling about in bathrobes and towels, pretending to be shepherds and angels and Joseph and Mary - we know them, they are our children, our grandchildren, and we watch them with pride and, perhaps, a little suspense as we hope nothing goes wrong.  (And goodness, so much can go wrong!  Some time I’ll tell you about my disastrous idea of giving the wise men a bag of chocolate coins to be the gold).  

 We are warmed by the innocence of this children, and some of us, perhaps, feel saddened at memories of children we know, now grown, who once played shepherd and Mary and angel and who are now missing from the life of the church.  Or maybe we are saddened by the passage of time, by our own lost innocence, or uncertainty about whether the message of this little play can compete with what Christmas has become out there in the world.  

So for me, at least, this mix of innocence and lost innocence is why I feel a mix of emotions when watching a children’s Christmas pageant.   its the same jumble of feelings I get from listening (and I do, many times each Christmas) to the famous jazz soundtrack to the Charlie Brown Christmas, composed way back in 1965 by Vince Guaraldi.  The untrained children’s voices singing “Christmas Time is Here”, or“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are full of simplicity and innocence, while the slow minor chords of the jazz piano add a layer of sadness and speak of lost innocence.

This year I got to wondering, why do we as church ask our children to act out the Christmas story for us?  What is it about this particular story that makes us turn it into a children’s event.  Perhaps it is the raw bones of the story, wondrous and simple, which seem to come out of children’s literature - a barn, animals, a magical star, a family with mommy, daddy and baby, mysterious visitors and kings no less!   You couldn’t do better than that for a bedtime story, really.  

But at the same time there is real substance and power in this story.  Gabriel setting aside the fear and shame of Mary at her pregnancy, the angels telling the shepherds not to be afraid of God, the startling and awe-inspiring fact of just who it is lying in that manger - all this is the essence of our theology, the heart of our church’s message.   St John in his gospel puts this message into abstract terms - “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), but the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke put it in real, concrete terms that any of us can understand.  Somehow, that’s the living God in that manger, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made Flesh with little fingers and toes and we aren’t alone and we don’t have to be afraid of anything.   

That’s a story so simple that children can tell it.  It’s a story with God at its very centre, a story with so much power that perhaps only children can really tell it.   Perhaps this is true of all the church’s proclamation.   The American writer Annie Dillard once wrote that the liturgy of the church is like children playing with a chemistry set, trying to make TNT.  Her point was that we scarcely imagine the power of the one whose name we invoke in our worship.  Every Sunday we are like children, trying in our eucharist to imagine the heavenly feast, playing in our fellowship at the communion of the saints who are before the heavenly throne.  These children who have just told the Christmas story are us, Sunday by Sunday, and how true and honest our worship would our worship be if we approached it with the wonder and innocence of children?

These stories that we tell, Sunday by Sunday, Christmas after Christmas, are not make believe or children’s stories, though same out there might think so.   Like children trying on their parents clothes and makeup, we know that we are imitating something real, that we are on the edge of a reality that we aspire to grow into.   In the meantime, the church’s role in this dark and preoccupied world is like Linus at the end of a Charlie Brown Christmas, stepping into the spotlight, and in his lisping, child’s voice telling the nativity story in the words of St. Luke’s gospel, a story that begins with shepherds abiding in the field, and the angel of the Lord telling them to fear not, for a saviour is born to them.  Those shepherds are us, our friends and neighbours, preoccupied, afraid, and called to salvation by a story so wonderful that perhaps only a child can truly tell it.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Eulogy For My Wife




Kay Leslie Brown

6 July, 1952 - 25 November, 2017

Funeral Eulogy

St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, 3 December, 2017

Bishop Shaw, dear colleagues, friends, fellow parishioners, on behalf of my family and Kay’s family, I thank you all for joining us today to pray for and to remember an extraordinary person and faithful Christian, Kay Leslie Brown.   Kay received so many acts of kindness and compassion from so many of you during her long illness that any words of gratitude I could offer would be wholly inadequate.


Kay was always tickled that when we were married, three priests and a postulant, so, for you non-Anglicans,  three and a half priests, officiated at our wedding.  I think we have that number beaten today, as there must be a small platoon of clergy and chaplains present.  Kay would enjoy that fact.


As I wrote this eulogy, I was mindful that Kay would probably not have had much interest in what I said about her, because she would never have wanted to be the focus of this event.   Kay designed this funeral, chose the readings and the hymns, so that it would be about her God.


For Kay, the words of the liturgy, the proclamation of the word, and the faithful preaching of the gospel were what mattered.  That was the exacting standard that she held my own sermons up to.  If I saw her frowning face in the congregation, I knew I wasn’t doing well.  Sometimes, in the car on the way home, she’d say “You did OK.” When it came to preaching, she was my fiercest and best critic.


In that respect, Kay always reminded me of the figure of John the Baptist, as painted in the Isenheim Altarpiece in the 1500s by Matthias Gunewald.  John is depicted off to the side, pointing to the figure of Christ on the cross.   The theologian Karl Barth loved this painting.  I know that Kay would be rolling her eyes at my working a theologian into her eulogy, but darling, you always knew that I was a geek.   


Barth said that the church must always be like John in that painting, not calling attention to itself, but rather directing attention to the cross and to Christ’s work there in defeating our enemy of sin and death.   That was Kay, like John the Baptist, always pointing to the cross.  Anytime she spoke up in the life of the church, you could be sure that would be asking, often impatiently, where was God in all our human activity.


However, darling, I am not here as a priest or a preacher.   I am here to talk about you and about what a privilege it was to be your husband.   So bear with me.  I’ll speak about you briefly, and then get out of the way of the church’s true business, as you would want.  


Kay fought a two front war with cancer and diabetes, and in the last year of that struggle she wrote a bible study on how our faith helps us to deal with pain and suffering.   She spoke on that subject with great authority.   People often told me how they were in awe of Kay’s calm, even serene, composure.  As she liked to say, God gave her “the peace which passes all understanding”.  

Despite four significant surgeries in three years, and long hospitalizations, Kay was gracious and kind with others.   As her body slowly failed her, she never gave in to self-pity or despair.   I saw her comfort other patients, nurses, and even embrace the young doctor who burst into tears as she told Kay that she had reached the end of what medicine could do for her and that she would soon die.  A priest friend of mine told me that he went to the hospital to bless Kay, and he came away blessed.  So while I regret that Kay never got to lead that bible study on living with pain and suffering, a friend pointed out to me the other day that, in a very real way, she did teach that lesson, just by the way she lived and died.


Kay would have been the first to tell you that her peacefulness and calm did not come from within, but rather were spiritual gifts.   Kay was not a saint, and she was not always a person of faith.   In her youth, she liked to say that she was, in her words, “a flaming atheist”.   In her passion for research and for the scientific method, Kay convinced herself that she had to jettison her faith, but God had other plans.  In the twenty years I was at her side, I saw Kay struggle with God’s call.  I think God had the upper hand in that struggle, because God simply reminded Kay of who she was and of who she had always been.


Kay was always a person attuned to God’s justice and grace.  Growing up in the southern United States in the 1950s and 60s, Kay saw things that would stay with her all her life.  She often told me how, as a girl, she didn’t understand why there were separate water fountains for coloured people.   At the same time she saw her father, a devoted civil servant, give the same care to black clients as he did to white ones.   Martin Luther King was one of her early and lifelong heroes.  Kay always believed that the moral arc of the universe bent towards the good, even if she stopped believing, for a while, that the moral arc came from and led back to God.  


Despite being a profound introvert at times, she attracted the misfits and the hurting, who sensed her compassion and patience.  Kay had deep reserves of empathy and kindness.   Even while she was still a self-proclaimed “flaming atheist”, she paid the tuition of a friend so she could go to seminary.    She gave freely because she had a big heart, an innate sense of decency, and an ability to see the other’s point of view.


What led Kay back to God is a long story.   I think partly it was circumstances, the people and places that God led us to, and I think it was also the frustration of her hopes to make a career in science and academia.   Kay had dreamed of winning a Nobel prize, and her academic career ended in frustration, partly due to bad luck and partly due to Kay’s struggles with mental illness.  I was attracted to Kay because of her warmth, humour, and creativity, but I soon realized that these moments came at a cost.  She had violent swings into depression and despair, and her darkest period was when she had to walk away from the university environment that she had built her identity on.


I don’t doubt for a second that it was God who led Kay out of that dark valley.  It took years for us to build a new life together.   Her career was ending as mine was taking off and that was a source of tension as well.   We learned the hard way how to build a marriage based on mutual respect, careful listening, giving and taking.  Early on I mostly took, and Kay gave, a lot.  She found satisfaction in building elaborate and beautiful gardens, in which she combined a scientific method with the flair and soul of an artist, and then she had to walk away from them, repeatedly.   Becoming a military spouse, at an age when most people are looking forward to settling down and staying in one place, meant that she had to move, frequently, and that got harder and harder on her.   Soldiers get the medals, but really the medals should go to spouses like Kay, who gave so much to advance my career.


I think the last ten years of her life were probably the best.  Kay found the right psychiatrist and the right medication, and the black clouds of her depression mostly lifted and vanished.   She made friends, and opened her house to others - wandering chaplains, military people far from home, strays and misfits - all were welcome at her table.  Kay thrived in a series of churches - St. Barnabas in Medicine Hat, St. Columba’s in Waterloo, and, of course, here.  I have no doubt that Kay could have made significant contributions to the life of St. Margaret’s and St. Giles in the years to come, had it pleased God to leave her with us.  I also have no doubt that God completed his work in Kay, by bringing her to a good place in these years.  Kay’s deep and integral goodness, her joyfulness and compassion for others, her plain speaking and prophetic voice, all these things came through strongly.  Kay was no longer a flaming atheist, she was simply flaming, a bright beacon of God’s power to bind up and restore.


I will always be profoundly grateful for the privilege of being Kay’s husband.  In my mind’s eye I will always see her as she was, her strong and capable hands weeding a garden or paddling a stream, her mouth quirked in wonder or humour, her eyes wide and seeing the beauty of the world and the people around her.   In her last years, as she grew increasingly sick and frail, Kay would talk about the resurrection body that God would give her.   She hoped that when she got to heaven, that God would give her some challenging scientific assignment, like designing a new plant species, or managing a supernova.   No sitting around playing the harp for Kay! I have no doubt that one day we will look on Kay again, in whatever form God pleases to give her, and that she will burn as bright and fierce and glorious as any star in heaven.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Book Review, Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War by Daniel Swift

I bought and read this book, then reviewed it, thinking i was a new publication.   2010 isn’t exactly new, but it’s a terrific book and well worth your time.  MP+


Daniel Swift, Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot's War.  New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.

“The beach where the body washed up is wide and white, with cafes raised on stilts and couples drinking beer in the sand.  There are windsurfers; children smacking the waves.  He came to land in the middle of a summer holiday, and the mismatch is startling after the calm of the cemeteries where my father and I have spent the day.”

Bomber Country is a difficult book to classify: part genealogy, part elegy, part literary criticism.  The body is that of a Royal Air Force pilot, whose Lancaster crashed in the North Sea in June of 1943, on its way home from raiding Munster in Germany’s Rhur Valley.   In a cemetery near the Dutch town of Bergen Op Zoom is the grave of Squadron Leader James Eric Swift, the author’s grandfather.  He is buried with other bomber crew, whose bodies were recovered from the sea or found on the beach.  Was his grandfather that pilot, washed up on the Dutch coast in June, as family memory would have it?  

As Swift and his father stroll through the cemetery, they note the short verses and couplets, some profound, others homespun, on some of the gravestones.  For Swift, clearly immersed himself in poetry, he thinks of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, who wrote of the dead that “The shall have stars at elbow and foot … Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again”.   Thomas spent the war years in Wales and London, saw the effects of German air raids, and who memorialized those killed by bombing, the young girl and the old man, “dropped where he loved on the burst pavement stone / And the funeral grains on the slaughtered floor”. 

Three connections – a dead airman, verses in a cemetery, a poet in an air raid – lead us into the heart of Swift’s book, which examines the prominence of the air war in the English language poetry of World War Two.   To establish this connection, Swift fist has to remind us that the war produced poetry of any note.  He briefly takes on the idea that everything about modern war was said, better and more prettily, by the soldier poets of the First World War, like Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.   The poetry of the Second World War is far less canonized,  in part, Swift argues, because of opinions like those of the late Paul Fussell, long the dean of war literature, who wrote that the conflict of 1939-45 was “a savage, insensate affair, barely conceivable to the well-conducted imagination” (15).       Swift also argues that the soldier poets of the trenches created the idea that poetry was about war on land, when in fact Owen imagined himself as a pilot in “battle with the Super-Zeppelin … this would be chivalry more than Arthur dreamed of” (26).

In fact, argues Swift, the war in the air captured many imaginations.  For those on the ground, like Day Lews, it was the fear of being air raids, as “searchlights set the low cloud smoking” and fear in “a terrified heart, / under the bomb-strokes” (30-31).   For the aircrew whose verses are collected in the wartime volume Air Force Poetry (1944), their war combined the exhilaration of flight “Along the pillared streets of cloud” with a clear-eyed awareness of their mortality, for no wartime trade in the Allied militaries suffered great casualties than the combat aircrew: “they’ll die … / More swiftly, cleanly, star-defined, than you will ever feel”.   Among these young and doomed poets, Swift also finds a brutal honesty about what bomber crews are called to do:


            The moon in the star-laden sky

           becomes a thin smile, as the hand moves

          the bomb-release, and others, compacted

         of bone and blood the same even, die below.


These lines remind us that the air war was largely about dropping bombs on people, mostly civilian, more or less indiscriminately.   While the Germans started this war (the Blitz in the poetic imagination takes up a large part of Swift’s early chapters), the Allies finished it, decisively and terribly.  The lasting ambivalence about the bombing campaign may also explain our preference for the Great War poets of the trenches, who like all soldiers of that war were more victim than killer.   Despite the fact that the aircrew also died in their tens of thousands, the poetry of their war is far more morally ambivalent than the outraged verse of Owen or Sassoon.

 In search of this war, Swift goes to Bomber Country.   The name refers to the part of England, from the Midlands to East Anglia, where the Royal Air Force and the US Army Air Force concentrated its many airbases to strike targets throughout NW Europe and beyond.  Today one can buy local guidebooks to Bomber Country and its abandoned airfields.   For Swift, Bomber Country is also the past, the home of a man he never knew and who his father barely knew.   Using diaries and memoirs, he reconstructs the life his father knew, from the monotony of training to busy bases and constant raids.   Bomber Country is also a literary place, whose poets, like Randall Jarrell, help Swift imagine his grandfather’s life:

             And the crews climb to them clumsily as bears.

            The head withdraws into its hatch (a boys),

            The engines rise to their blind laboring roar,

            And the green, made beasts run home to air.

The poets’ realism about their survival prospects also helps Swift understand the studied banality of his grandfather’s letters home, about life in camp and a local “fish & chip shop that does quite a decent egg & chips”.   In the poetry of John Ciardi, an American bomber crewman, he finds the sentiments that were probably unsaid in his grandfather’s homey letters.

            Darling, darling, just in case

            Rivets fall or engines burn,

            I forget the time and place

            But your flesh was sweet to learn

 Finally, Bomber Country is also a metaphor for the bomber’s targets.  It is the bombed city, be it English or German, and the poetry that imagines destruction and survival.  Thus, T.S. Eliot’s lines from “Little Gidding” about a bombed house, “the place where a story ended”, informs Swift’s visit to Munster, which his grandfather bombed, and where Swift meets survivors of these raids.   He meets an old clergyman who served in a flak battery until the raids became too overwhelming to defend against, and who passed the raids reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.    Swift thinks of the souls Dante describes in the burning desert

            And over all that sand on which they lay

            or crouched or roamed, great flaks of flame fell slowly

            as snow falls in the Alps on a windless day.

 Bomber Country is ultimately an unknowable place, what Hamlet called “that undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”.   His grandfather exists in photos, in letters, and in a file in a Dutch archive with a German document from 17 June, 1943, recording the burial, “with military honours”, of an unknown airman washed ashore, whose shirt was labelled “J.E. Swift”.  This airman who fell to earth becomes an almost mythological figure, like Icarus, and in a final mediation, the grandson imagines another poet who wrote of Icarus, W.H. Auden, who toured Bomber Country as part of the US Strategic Bombing Survey, just after the war’s end.  In desolate Munich, “the abolished City”, Auden locates Munich in a poetic landscape of ruined towns going back to Troy and beyond. 

            This is the way things happen; for ever and ever

            Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the road of the waterfall covers

            The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers

            And the hard bright light composes

            A meaningless moment into an eternal fact.

 At the end of his journey, Swift comes to recognize that his search through Bomber Country was to participate in this process, by which “the meaningless moment” becomes “the eternal fact”. 

Bomber Country is a remarkable and haunting book.   As a connection of history, art and memory, it is in the tradition of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), but pitched in a more intimate key.  Parts genealogy and family history read through the literary lens of the stages of the hero’s quest, Swift’s journey touches on the historic past, in so far as we can know it, while acknowledging our desire to mythologize the past.   Swift is a sensitive literary critic and cultural historian, and a skilled stylist in his own right.   If I have any uncertainties about this book, it is only whether I should put it on my history shelf or my literary shelf.


Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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