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Sermon transcript for January 19, 2013

Come and See
John 1:29-42
Belmont UMC—January 19, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

There are three sentences in the verbal exchange between Jesus and the would-be disciples? Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” They answer with another question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “Come and see!” 

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two men who were following him. They were disciples of John the Baptist and they likely knew of John’s interest in Jesus. So they followed Jesus, not like disciples following a leader, they simply followed around behind him, curious, wondering followers. Jesus turned around and asked, “What are you looking for?”

I’m not sure those disciples knew the answer to his question. They may have felt vague about the notion of following this man, but they followed anyway. Something about him attracted their attention. And they followed.

What are we looking for? We sit here in the presence of Christ each week. Is Jesus asking us to ponder this question week after week? What we you looking for? What brings us to this place? What causes us to give up our morning at home to gather here? We could be home drinking a latte and reading the morning paper, or snuggled warmly in bed underneath the warm blankets. (It’s probably not good marketing for me to make that sound so appealing.) What are we looking for? What is it about Christ that bids us to follow him?

At some point in our journey we ask our selves this question or some question similar to it. Why am I here? Why have I followed this path? What does my faith really mean to me or to others? What am I seeking? These are the questions of searching and longing hearts.

One pastor said, “As a pastor I have found it helpful to begin with the assumption that most of us, myself included, are here at church for the wrong reasons.” (Bishop Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 1, Year A, p. 14) We may have come for the wrong reasons (if there are any wrong reasons) but once in the door we found something far more than we could have imagined. We found joy in being a part of something bigger than our selves.

We may have come here looking for a place among the people of God, a place where we can know and be known, a place where we can be held accountable, loved and supported through difficult times. We are looking for a place where friends are like family and where we and our children can find spiritual growth and a sense of extended family. As a person who values community, these reason appeal to me.

We may have come here looking an answer to all of life’s persistent questions. What is the meaning of life? What is the will of God? Some of our questions can be answered in our relationship with God, but there will be many others for which there is no easy answer. We came looking for pat answers to life’s big questions and that’s what got us in the door, but what we discovered was a lasting relationship with Jesus that kept us in the house. We came looking for the answers and have learned how to live with the questions.

We may have come here looking for someone who has the grace and hope to fill an emptiness we carry around inside of us. I believe God created us with a longing and a desire to know more of God. This is why those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed and filled. In our theology we would call that prevenient grace—the grace that brings us to know God. Over the course of ministry I’ve heard many people say, “I felt like there was an empty place within me waiting to be filled.”

The disciples who followed Jesus may not have been able to express why they followed or what attracted them to him. And he asked them, “What are you looking for?”

They replied with what seems like an odd question, “Where are you staying?” The question appears to be a distraction or it appears to ignore Jesus’ question. But Tom Long says this is a theological question, not a hotel question. “Where are you staying?” It means, “What are you about?” It means, “Before we get too close to you, we want to know what you are working for in the world.”

What are you all about, Jesus? For the Gospel of John this question is answered in the names given to Jesus or the names he gives himself. I am the Door. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Way. I am the Light. I am the Bread which has come down from heaven. Is this what we are looking for?

In the story of our text, John the Baptist gives Jesus another identity, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When we think of lambs, we are apt to imagine softness and comfort, but the Lamb of God image of scripture was an image of strength. John’s disciples would have understood the image as one that evokes animal sacrifice. They would have pictured Temple priest sacrificing animals. The image is not for the squeamish. The image is messy and real.

In the church we like things to be neat and orderly. We like tidy and sanitized. I like to get my new bulletin before Sunday and see all the order it promises us. I like to know exactly what’s going to happen on Sunday. But Sunday comes and sometimes things don’t go as planned. The pastor forgets the liturgy and the microphone squeals loudly during the scripture reading and the acolyte sets the table on fire and the pastor spills grape juice all over the white paraments. One church I served used white grape juice for Holy Communion because they did not want red stains on their new carpet. As it turns out white grape juice makes a brown stain on carpet. We like everything to be neat and tidy, but life is messy and chaotic and out of our control a lot of the time.

I’ve shared about one of my favorite pastors when I was a teenager. His name was Jim and he was tall and lanky fellow from Arkansas. He had a kind and gentle spirit and I liked to be in his presence. Being around him during those years was transformative for me. Jim could also be passionate and prophetic. It was the mid 1960s when he arrived at our church and he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which did not always play well with the conservative, status-quo loving, farm families of our church.

We lived down the road from the church and I often walked to church through the backyards of our neighbors. I mowed most of those yards so I knew them well. This walk took me through the backyard of the parsonage. One day I saw Jim out in the back yard and he was working on something. As I got closer I saw he had a huge wooden cross laid across two old saw horses. It was obvious he had built the cross out of scrap wood and he was beating it with a hammer to distress it. He had smeared plaster on it in random places and it looked rough and ugly.

I asked what he was doing with the cross. Jim said, “I’m going to hang this cross in the back of the chancel where that awful painting of Jesus and the little lambs is hanging.” The painting was rather sentimental. Jesus is standing in a pasture, looking very handsome and well coiffed, and he’s holding a lamb and smiling. Gathered around him were other sheep and the sheep are looking up at him and smiling. I’m not kidding—smiling sheep!

I was really young but even then I knew Jim was asking for trouble. I knew there was a brass plaque on that painting but I couldn’t remember whose name was on it. I said, “You really think that’s a good idea?” He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled as though he could read my mind.

On Sunday Jim’s ugly cross was hanging in the chancel and I looked around to see the horrified looks on the congregants’ faces. There were lots of whispers and I’m sure a plot was being hatched before the first hymn could be sung to remove Jim’s ugly cross.

One of the ways Jim’s presence in my life was transformative was that he was constantly challenging our racism. Jim would meet with the youth on Sunday evenings and we would have these rap sessions about the issues of our time: the War in Viet Nam and the Civil Rights movement were hot topics. Jim would push us to think differently about the world around us.

Then April 4, 1968 came and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood outside a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Jim went from being gentle to being fiery and prophetic. I recall the Sunday after Dr. King’s death, Jim’s face at church that morning was grim and he looked like he hadn’t slept for days. I knew his heart was broken.

He stood in the pulpit that morning and he said, “Some of you are not going to like my sermon this morning so I’m going to offer a few minutes of silent prayer. During that time some of you may choose to leave and I’m fine with that.” The church grew very quiet and still. Then there were sounds of rustling behind us and I looked back to see several families get up out of their seats and walk out the door.

Jim proceeded to call us out for our racism. I don’t remember the content of the sermon but I remember his passion and I remember the tears that ran down Jim’s face as he preached.

I was 16 years old and I still remember looking up at that ugly cross behind Jim in the chancel that day and thinking, “Today we do not need the image of little happy lambs; we need to see the ugliness of the cross.” We needed to come to terms with our own hatred and the ugliness of our racism. And we needed to get a glimpse of the Lamb of God whose sacrificial love has the power to take away the sins of the world.

Racism is still present in our country and we are often reminded that God is not finished with us yet. And we still need that Lamb who takes away our sins.

“Where are you staying?” they asked Jesus? “What are you about? What are you doing in the world?”

Jesus answered them, “Come and see!” Do we dare follow this Jesus and see who he is and what he is doing in the world today, and where he invites us follow?


Sermon transcript for January 12, 2013

Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Belmont UMC—January 12, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

Our theme today is “remember” and I was telling someone the other day that I don’t have to remember anything because I have Google. Google helps (especially as our brains age), but remembering is important as a spiritual practice. It is a part of our spiritual heritage and it is a sacred to us as a people of faith.

Several months ago Kathryn, my wife, and I were driving back from Dickson, Tennessee and we detoured through Craggie Hope and Kingston Springs. I served the two churches there when I graduated from seminary. Craggie Hope is still there in a little hollow a few miles from Highway 70. Nobody knows how it got the name Craggie, but it’s kind of world unto itself. When I was the pastor there were about 15-20 people who came to church but there were more who claimed that Craggie was their church and they’d show up for picnics and Christmas pageants and on Easter Sunday.

There was a young boy there named Michael who decided to be my buddy. He would talk to me on Sundays and sit with me at pot luck dinner. Michael would call me in the summer and say, “Momma said we could go swimming today, if you would take us.” And I would drive over to Craggie Hope in my little red Subaru station wagon and pick up 4 or 5 kids and we’d go down to the swimming hole at Turnbull Creek and spend the afternoon playing in the water or sitting on the sandbar talking. Besides playing, my job was to be lifeguard and to watch out for Cotton Mouth Snakes.

I led those youth in a Confirmation Class my last year there. None of them had been baptized and they all wanted to be immersed at the creek. As we drove past that swimming hole a few months ago I remembered taking them out into the water one at a time. The church members were on the bank singing “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow.” I remember their faces as they came up out of the water. Some of them had tears mixed with creek water. Some put their arms around me and said, “Thank you.” It was good to remember that day.

Do you remember your baptism?  Were you a baby, earlier than your primal memory can conjure? Your parents presented you at the altar. You wore the antique gown made by your great-grandmother, worn by every generation since. Your parents looked on with hope and possibility as the pastor placed water on your head and welcomed you as a new brother or sister in Christ.

Or were you were at the lake on a cold October Sunday? So cold the water made you wonder if you were experiencing a spiritual awakening or simply hypothermia. Your warm relatives and friends stood on the bank smiling back at you as the pastor pushed you under the choppy brown water.

Or were you were surrounded by your friends from Confirmation at the altar on that special Sunday—a prelude to membership—a time to profess your faith and to confirm all God had been doing in your life. You were nervous, not fully understanding. The pastor had assured you that you did not have to know everything, but you must be ready to set out on the journey. It felt good to be there surrounded by those people who loved you.

Do you remember your baptism?  I don’t remember mine. I was a baby in the Mt. Zion Methodist Church in the early 1950’s.  There are no pictures. I doubt my parents had bought the little Brownie camera they used to take photos from our childhood. They were a young couple, eking out a living on a farm. There is a certificate in a baby book somewhere.

When I was serving a church in Lebanon, TN, I had a visit from a retired pastor I had known most of my life. He came by to have some coffee and offer some advice. One day he said, “You don’t remember this, but I baptized you when you were a baby.” It was good to know that this man, whose heart was so full of God, was the one who placed the water of baptism on my tiny head.

Do you remember your baptism? We do not practice rebaptism in the United Methodist Church, but we invite persons to reaffirm their baptism and we say, “Remember your baptism and give thanks.” (words that are attributed to Martin Luther) What does that mean? It means to remember that you are baptized! And it means so much more.

It means to remember that you are loved by God! God made a crucial decision for you at the very beginning of your life. God chose to love you--regardless of your pedigree or place in life. Baptism is primarily a celebration of God’s choice—this is why we baptize babies and others who cannot answer for themselves. We’re not celebrating their choice, but God’s. God loves us without condition and everyday we need to celebrate it, share it, and remember it. As you come to the chancel rail to renew your baptism, you celebrate the love of God in your life.

It means to remember that you are part of a faith community! You enter the faith community through the doors of baptism. Baptism is not a private experience, but a corporate experience. Baptism is a celebration of our relationship with God and with the people of the church. We are not alone. All baptisms include promises of the community to love and nurture us in our faith.

I do not remember being baptized, but I do remember that community. I remember the people who loved me, the people who cared for me and my family. When my grandparents died, it was that community that came around us and helped us. When I was confirmed, it was that community who gathered around me. When my Dad was injured and couldn’t’ harvest the crops, it was that community who came to help. I remember Sunday School teachers, youth counselors, pastors, friends. Do you remember them?

To remember your baptism means to remember who you are! At Jesus’ baptism there is a voice, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” At our baptism we hear this same affirmation from God, “You are my child—nothing pleases me more than to call you my child.” As you come to the chancel let your mind hear those words again. “I love you, you are my child, and nothing could make me happier.” You are a child of God, your new identity, new name that defines who you are, the values of your life, and the way you live.

To remember your baptism is to remember that you are called into the ministry of the church. I think it was Bishop Will Willimon who said that our baptism is like an ordination. Jesus entered the Jordan a carpenter and left a Messiah. Baptism is our entrance into the ministry to which God has called us and gifted us. Each of us is called by God to be in ministry in and through the church.

A few months ago I was remembering some baptisms that took place at a swimming hole in Turnbull Creek, near Craggie Hope. It was good to remember.

I saw Michael’s mother at Annual Conference a few yrs ago. I asked her about her son. She said he’d grown up, gotten married, and had a baby. He had recently gone through a dark and tragic time in his life and he’d been depressed. One night he’d come home to visit. She put on a pot of coffee and the two of them had stayed up talking through the night. He told her the best time of his life had been those summers at the creek and then being baptized there. He talked about me, about Sunday School teachers, friends, pastors he had known and loved. In his deepest time of need, he found himself remembering his baptism and being thankful.

Why remember? Because we forget, we lose our way; we lose sight of God’s love, and because remembering is sacred to us.

If you are here today and you’ve never been baptized, God’s grace is extended to you. We invite you to take part in this covenant as a hope of your future baptism. All of us together will remember and be thankful.


Sermon transcript for January 5, 2013

God in Our Neighborhood
John 1:1-18
Belmont UMC—January 5, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

Today we have heard another Christmas story. But if this was the only Christmas story we had in the Gospels, there would be no Christmas pageants with angels, shepherds, stables and mangers. Why, there would be no Joseph or Mary or even a baby wrapped in cloth. There would be no nativities displayed in our art exhibit area and there would be no wise men showing up on Epiphany. 

“The word became flesh and made his home among us.” That’s the Christmas story for today.

And yet, we find one or our central ideas of faith in this Christmas story. “The word became flesh and made his home among us.” Marcus Borg writes that “this is the central meaning of incarnation: Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion—of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about. He shows us the heart of God.” (The Heart of Christianity, pp. 80-81)

As we look at the Bible as a whole, the idea of God coming to us in the flesh (that’s what incarnation means), seems surprising and even scandalous. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures, the God who spoke creation into being, the God who is full of wonder and awe, the God whose name cannot be spelled or spoken but only breathed (Yahweh is a sound, possibly the sound of breath), now comes into the world and lives among us. The word that was from the very beginning of time, the word that creates, becomes the word in our midst.

Another word kept showing up in my thoughts this week and this is a word that became a bigger part of our vocabulary during the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The word is “embedded.” Some people report the news of the war from behind desks in studios, but others were embedded with the troops, right alongside of them, in harms way, experiencing the war as the soldiers experience it, but armed not with weapons, but with recording devices and cameras. I sometimes find myself praying for Richard Engle because he’s always reporting from some place where guns are being fired and riots are breaking out. God has come among us; God is embedded with us.

I like other versions of this text. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son (or like Parent, like Child), generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”

God is moving into our neighborhood! Do we hear how disturbing, transforming and vulnerable that sounds as we say it? Do we want God to be that close by? Some would say, “There goes the neighborhood!”

I carried the idea of God in our neighborhood as I walked my 4 and ½ mile trek through our subdivision this past week. We live on a quiet dead end street. In fact, there are 5 dead end streets within a fourth mile of our house. People get confused when driving in our neighborhood. When I’m out walking or running and a car pulls up next to me and the window is rolled down, I know what the question will be, “How do I get out of here? How do I get back to the main road?” We like our quiet neighborhood.

This week I encountered Jimmy, whose wife died suddenly in June. His family came to encourage him over the holidays but he’s having a difficult time with his grief. We walked together for a bit and talked. I saw Carolyn out on her deck. She was quiet ill two years ago but she’s making a great comeback. We wave to each other. I stopped and helped Kurt move a heavy piece of furniture into his parents’ home. I used to be his pastor and he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Happy New Year, Ken. We miss you.” I found it comforting to think of God being with us, loving us, knowing us.

One of my seminary professors translated it this way, “The word became human and pitched his tent in my campsite.” The Greek word in the text literally means “pitched tent.” The professor would point out that God pitched God’s tent right in the middle of our campsite, not in the campsite next to us. God likes to be right in the midst of things.

What does this mean for us? It means that God, who has come to live among us, knows us, understands us, and experiences what we experience. It means we are not alone. It means that when we suffer, God suffers with us; when we grieve, God grieves with us; when we despair, God understands our desperation. I know more and more people who live under the weight of deep depression and they feel completely cut off from everything, but they are not alone and God knows the depth of their hurts and God comes alongside of them to be the Word of hope in flesh for them.

What does this mean for us as a church, as people of faith? Emilie Townes is the new Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and she used to teach her seminary students that being in ministry means being more than being a tourist (that’s true for lay ministers, as well). Tourists come to visit, take snapshots, buy trinkets and go home. Those of us in ministry must be pilgrims who “pitch tent” with the people--learning about the lives and traditions and experiences of those around us.

Where do we hear God calling us to pitch tent? How many of us have taken time to know and understand the needs of our neighbors from the Golden Triangle Fellowship, mostly Burmese refugees who are worshipping the Community Center this morning? I want to challenge you to get to know an individual or a family from this community. How can we pitch our tents next to theirs and come to know them and love them and be in shared ministry together? 

As the Word comes to pitch tent with us, we must asked ourselves, where are the places God is calling us to pitch tent? Who are the ones we need to come alongside and bring the present reality of this loving knowing God? We’ve spent a lot of time asking the question, “Who is our neighbor?” They are refugees and immigrants; they are young and old, and they college students. They live in nice homes down the street, in dormitories and in Edgehill public housing. Some have no place to live and will be at risk of freezing this week. Now is the time for us to come alongside our neighbors, bearing the love of the ever present Word, with hope and healing.

I believe that we are called to incarnate, make flesh, make real, the God we have come to know and love. As the church it is not enough for us to preach love; we must become love, we must incarnate love. It is not enough for us to tell people to cheer up, we must incarnate hope for them. It is not enough to talk about peace, we must embody peace making.

Today, we come to this table once again to eat this bread and share in this cup, symbols of God’s coming among us in the flesh. As we share this holy meal, may we hear the call of God to go out into the world to share the love of God with others.


Sermon transcript for December 29, 2013

Chris Allen
Belmont UMC
Year A
First Sunday of Christmas
Matthew 2:12-23

Audio - MP3

Today is the now the 5th day of Christmas. Christmas morning has come and gone. The weeks of waiting expectantly for Christmas morning are over. The days of preparing, baking, shopping, and decorating are behind us. All of the Christmas gifts have been opened. Luckily, for most of us, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh came with a gift receipt so we can exchange it. Without a doubt, the holiday cheer is dissipating. The Advent wreath is put up. A return to normal life is creeping back in. The houseguests have all returned home. The shepherds have returned to the fields to tend their flocks. The magi made a detour and returned to the East by another way.

In our scripture today, we find the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – in this post-Christmas morning lull. The months of expecting are now over.  The baby shower has been thrown. A child is born. Now what are they to do?
Well the harsh realities set in for this exulted, yet, lowly king. Joseph has a dream and he is told of Herod’s impending plot to kill baby Jesus. What happened to all that joyful and triumphant stuff? The angel tells Joseph, “You must take your family and escape to Egypt.” Christ’s birth, God’s presence among God’s people does not simply rid the world of evil.  This reminds me of how with the help of the entire congregation the youth group was able to send over 300 deodorants to the women of Grace Place UMC in order to give Christmas presents to their fellow inmates at Mark Luttrell Prison in Memphis. After the Christmas season is over, in the New Year the Tennessee Department of Corrections is scheduled to execute two persons for the first time since 2009.

We still find ourselves living in a world of brokenness, dysfunction, pain, and oppression. Where young parents must flee their homeland as political refugees to live as aliens in a foreign land. We have to look no further than our Golden Triangle brothers and sisters. There still are tyrants who rule with an iron fist. There is still military occupation in Afghanistan. There are still mothers in Sudan weeping for their murdered children. There are still feelings within ourselves just like Herod’s to protect what we think is rightfully ours.

Can you believe in a matter of the first eighteen verses of chapter two, Matthew has introduced us to these the magi following a star, bringing gifts, falling on their knees and then before you know it Matthew has quickly moved on to the bloodshed of children. These first 18 verses of Chapter Two highlight our human condition: Our deepest desires to praise and adore the presence of God in our midst and, yet, our stubbornness to be moved by God’s grace. God does not cause the about face and horrendousness of this Christmas story. It is our humanly reaction to God with us, God coming to be among us that threatens our sense of ourselves.

My wife and I have made it a tradition since we’ve been in Nashville to go to the Belcourt Theater the week before Christmas to see a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life. My favorite part is the closing scene at the home of George Bailey, where his daughter is at the piano bench playing Charles Wesley’s “Hark The Herald Angel Sing.” She plays as the people of Bedford Falls unexpectantly pour into the Bailey home with handfuls of money to generously save George from the plot of Mr. Potter. The Bailey home is filled with laughter, generosity, singing, and voices of children. This is where I want the Christmas story to end. Today’s reading is a reminder of our own destruction and havoc.

So where is the good news in this Christmas story? It is the Lord appearing to Joseph telling him it safe to take his family back to Israel because Herod has died. The good news is the Herods, the powers of this world will not prevail. Sooner or later they die. Sooner or later they lose their grip on control. The gospel tells us the final victory has already been decided and the Herods of this world are not going to be victorious. Beginning at resurrection, when the all of the disciples had gone home, God again is victorious over the death dealing powers of Herod and Caesar. We now continue to look for Christ’s presence among us.

I am indebted to Jim Harnish for sharing this story this past week.  In an edition of the Upper Room, James Martin tells of his experience returning from a trip to the Holy Land. He waited in the security line at the Tel Aviv airport. It finally came time for his inspection and the security officer carefully examined his bag. To James’s surprise, the officer unpacked and unwrapped each figurine of an olive wood nativity set he picked up when he visited Bethlehem. After this hand examination, each piece was sent down the belt through the x-ray machine. No piece was spared, not even Baby Jesus.

I imagine James was a bit bewildered by the meticulous attention given to this innocuous nativity set. As he watch the pieces pass through the machine, the security officer explained, "We must be very careful to make sure there is nothing explosive in them."

All of the figurines passed the security inspection and made it home to his children. James later reflected on this experience and realized that the nativity is indeed history's most explosive event. Jesus' birth sparked a radical change that even Herod sensed. God's love became visible in fleshly form. Jesus' message continues to transform the lives of those who believe its explosiveness.

Take a look around you. There is a lot more elbow space here this morning then there was on Tuesday night. Churches everywhere fill up again and again each year on Christmas Eve. For many people it is the one time each year they venture into a church. They come again and again each year on this one night to hear the one story they know, a story of hope. Hearing the Christmas story each year gives all of us comfort in the familiar carols and the message of hope the Christ child brings. Those new faces that joined us on Christmas Eve came to recount the story of hope in world of distress. In hearing the story again, we all hope that the explosive events of the nativity scene, God with us, will transform our individual lives and our world. The world is waiting to hear the radical change sparked by Jesus' birth.

Howard Thurman says:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

The Christmas story is not only the happy parts of holiday cheer. We have the ability shine Christ love on a longing world with the brightness of the Star that drew the Magi to Bethlehem and the capacity to illuminate our stubbornness on center stage. God with us gives us life and threatens everything we think we are. Go into the world to share Jesus’ explosive birth to a world longing to be transformed by God’s love.

Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).



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