Sunday Sermon, Aug. 5, 2018

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

“Sir, Give us This Bread Always!”

Some of you may have seen the 2017 film, “All Saints”, starring John Corbett, based on the true story of Pastor Michael Spurlock, and his church in a rural part of Tennessee. The movie tells the story of this paper salesman turned Episcopal priest, whose first assignment is to nurse a struggling church to a peaceful death — the membership has dwindled to a faithful few, and they can no longer afford to make the mortgage payments. The priest does what most of us do when arriving in a new context — he seeks to familiarize himself with the neighbors and the priorities of the community. Initially, he meets the sort of people you might expect in small town Tennessee. But soon he also discovers a large population of refugees from Karen State in Myanmar.

Spurlock learns that one of the challenges the refugees have experienced in moving to the United States, is a loss of their way of life, which was mostly based in agriculture. While the parish has few people in the pews on Sunday, it has an abundance of land surrounding the sanctuary. Corbett’s character begins a relationship with the refugee families, offering the use of some of the church’s land for farming. What transpires not only benefits the refugees economically, but peaks the curiosity of the parishioners.

They begin to work alongside one another in the fields, and develop meaningful relationships. They become so invested in one another, that the church no longer needs a miracle. The people in their midst are the miracle. There was always more work to be done for All Saints, but they just couldn’t see it, because they could only imagine that work happening inside their walls, with the people who had always been there.

I realize All Saints might seem somewhat exceptional, if for no other reason than they had a movie made about their story, in which the star of my Big Fat Greek Wedding played a priest. But this story is far more common than we might like to believe. Not for a lack of good intentions, but a scarcity of imagination, we often miss what God is up to in our midst. The good news is, God is incredibly creative in responding to these and so many other human shortcomings!

When my fiancé, Nic, and I were discerning our next call, my future mother-in-law kept insisting that we see this movie! Now she lives in rural Texas, and every time we would talk with her, she would ask if we had seen the movie yet. I could only imagine she was trying to connect with her son’s girlfriend, who professed this new-to-them Episcopal faith. Eventually, we saw the movie, and soon discovered her true motivation. The Episcopal Church in the town adjacent to hers was in danger of being closed down because the elderly pastor had just died. She saw an opportunity that might bring her eldest son closer to home!

The next thing you know my soon-to-be-mother-in-law was sending me emails with Google Earth images of a church, and lets me know she can get me keys to the church the next time I visit if I want to take a look. Somehow the Diocese covering the Texas panhandle got a hold of my contact information and started calling with the intel that I might be looking to move into that area. Fortunately, the St. Michael’s search committee also got my information, and we are very happy where we ended up! But in those very few moments when I pictured what it might be like to lead a struggling, rural congregation, I was reminded that church is less about the details of what happens on a Sunday morning, and more about the people who are gathered. We come to church to worship, but we stay because of the people who make it a community.

Today’s accounts from Exodus and John’s Gospel are prime examples. In John’s Gospel, the people are on the hunt for answers. After Jesus feeds 5,000 people, their curiosity is peaked, and they follow Jesus as he continues on his mission. They’re seeking answers — certainly about the miraculous feeding, but more importantly, about who Jesus really is. They’re trying to make sense of Jesus, in light of their history with God.

Jesus’ response seems to be less than helpful. Instead of the formulaic resolution for which they were hoping — follow this prescription: do these things, in this way, with these people — Jesus declares that He is the answer. This completely confounds them.

But, there’s something important that happens in this moment — Jesus brings the seekers out of the past, and into the present. Jesus reminds them of their full bellies, and his presence in their midst. God is not a God who once provided, God is the God who continually responds and provides. God is not relegated to the past tense. God is always also in the present tense.

An additional illustration comes in our story of another feeding in the wilderness from the book of Exodus. The Israelites are up to their usual — complaining at every turn. Moses intervenes on their behalf, and God agrees to feed them. This is one of my favorite moments in the Hebrew Bible — God provides exactly what they need, both meat and bread, and they do not recognize it!

When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat. (Exodus 16:15)

Whether hardness of heart or pure stubbornness they are unable to see that which God has placed before them. They are starving, God feeds them, and they don’t have the eyes to see the very food for which they have been longing.

God provided manna for the Israelites. The meaning of the word

manna has an Aramic etymology, deriving from the phrase “what is it?” This story is referenced over and over again in the Abrahamic traditions, emphasizing God’s willingness to provide manna in the wilderness. But, this story takes on a more nuanced meaning if we’re willing to read it as follows, God provided, “what is it?” in the wilderness. Meaning, God provided what we thought we needed, but we couldn’t identify it; truthfully, God was providing all we needed, we just didn’t have eyes to see it.

Jesus reminds the faithful who have followed him — it was not Moses’ divine intervention that provided what you needed. God always provides what is needed, it just might not be what you expect. Jesus is not the savior they had been expecting. But, he grounds them in the present moment, reminding them of the fullness they have just experienced.

Jesus continues to feed us with food that spiritually nourishes. When you stop to think about it, this act of eating the bread that represents the body of Jesus and drinking wine that represents the blood of Jesus is very, very strange. But it’s a symbol we desperately need — it is a tangible demonstration of the many ways in which God provides. To come to the communion table on Sunday morning, is to be fed by the nourishment God provides. We need constant reminders of unexpected fulfillment of our hungers.

To explain to another what happens at this table on Sunday morning, we might be well served by referencing the manna from the wilderness. We share “What is it” through the work of the Holy Spirit. Meaning, we share all that God has provided, through the body and blood that we receive.

And yet, the mystery endures. By returning to this table each week, we are no closer to answering the question of who Jesus was and is. We are no closer to answering the universal curiosity about God’s place in the world. But somehow, we are full of the love and mystery of God. Fellow preacher, Will Willimon, describes his understanding of our commitment to the Eucharist in this way, “To feed upon the truth who is Jesus Christ, to find primary sustenance in him, is better even than to understand him.”1

To seek to understand is a natural human inclination. Post-Enlightenment, and the digital age of instant answers to questions large and small, it’s no wonder that not everyone is eager for a spirituality that requires we lean into the mystery that is God. It is presumably unsatisfying that you can’t yell “Alexa explain my existence to me during this commercial break!” and get a coherent answer from your Apple or Amazon device. The deeper we go into our faith, the more profound the mysteries we encounter. We learn from the past, from each story of God hearing and tending to the needs of God’s people.

1Feasting      ontheWord,WillWillimon,p.313.

And, we recognize that God has never, and will never provide only one thing for one people at one time. To dwell on what happened to a particular people at a particular time, we risk missing what God is up to right in front of us! Not for a lack of goodintentions, but a scarcity of imagination, we often miss what God is up to in our midst.

When John Calvin, French theologian, was asked to explain the Eucharist, he said that he would “rather experience it than to understand it.” The wisdom of today’s scripture makes the audacious invitation to risk experiencing God’s activity in our midst, rather than seeking to understand it.

The Rev. Beth Magill

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Sunday Sermon, June 24, 2018

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

This is a question that stands at the intersection of fear and love. A question that reveals that love is what is desperately sought after, desperately wanted, and yet a question that is fueled by fear.

It has been said that “there are two basic motivating forces: fear and love.” When we are afraid, we pull back. We see smaller. When we love, we open to all that life has to offer. We see expansively.

Our Gospel reading this morning is one that many of us are familiar with. In it, we see the disciples struggling at this intersection. Jesus has just finished his parables about the Kingdom of God and now he suggests that he and his disciples go by boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

This is more than just a change of location. Jesus has preached the Kingdom of God thus far to the home crowd, if you will, on the safer side of the Sea. Now, Jesus will make his first crossing into what would reasonably be considered a dangerous, perhaps even an inappropriate, destination. Yes, Jesus has spoken of the Kingdom of God and now Jesus will demonstrate that Kingdom through a vulnerable proximity to the stranger, to that which is other. Those across a border, marked by the Sea of Galilee. But, Jesus does not go alone. He requests that his disciples board the boat and make this Kingdom crossing with him.

Let’s stay here for just a moment. The disciples get on board the boat. That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Faithful. The Gospel does not say, “Jesus then told the disciples his plans and they agreed that these were good and worthy and right.” No. Jesus simply says, “Let us Go,” and they go.  They did not know the whole plan, just the next step that Jesus was asking them to take. Get on the boat and cross the border that lies between what you know, where your comfort is, and that which is wholly other to you. Theirs was a response of faith, not fear.

But, it is not long after the journey begins that the boat is threatened, and with it the lives of those on board, by a raging storm and ferocious winds. There on the water the disciples confront a chaos that leaves them frightened and without much hope for what will come. I imagine that it is only after doing everything that they know to do as fishermen, as people familiar with the sea, that they, fearing that all is lost, look to Jesus, who is asleep.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Yes, this is a story that many of us have heard. But, more than that, it is a story that many of us have lived. Who among us has not feared the wind and the waves that threaten our own fragile vessels? As human beings, we cross seas of uncertainty all the time, whether we like it or not, navigating waters that raise questions about who we believe we are, what we believe about the world, and, finally, who we believe God to be. This is what it means to be alive. And, as Christians who follow a Risen Lord, we profess a faith that calls us to get in the boat – to act in faith even where chaos looms, even where fear would have us do differently.

The disciples fear the storm, they fear their own destruction, and that, in and of itself, seems reasonable. The water is churning. The waves are growing larger. The wind has picked up to such a degree that they can barely stay on their own feet or hear one another’s shouts over the violence of its roar. They are doing all they know to do, and the boat is taking on water. It is first at their heels, and then at their ankles, and it appears that, at any moment, the vessel will be lost to the hunger of the sea. They are, quite literally, sinking and what are they to do and, by the way, why in the world is Jesus sleeping?

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you not care? Do you not hear our prayers? Do you not truly love us after all?

But, here’s the thing, for the disciples then and for us now. While fear might lead us to believe that we are alone, faith knows differently. The disciples not only have each other in that boat, they also have Jesus, literally, in the boat with them. And, their boat wasn’t even the only boat crossing the Sea. Scripture tells us that other boats were with them. Now, we don’t know what was happening with those other boats that would have been experiencing the same storm. Maybe because, when chaos strikes and the winds pick up, we tend to forget that the world is bigger than just us. Our fear can lead to a distortion of perception. Things can grow smaller. The world. Our capabilities. Our resources. Even our perception of God.

Crystal Hardin, Seminiarian

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Sunday Sermon Easter 4, April 22, 2018

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

Edgy Shepherds

I want to start this morning by sharing a story with you that comes from Father Gregory Boyle, who runs Homeboy and Homegirl ministries in Los Angeles, for individuals who were formerly in a gang. Father Boyle writes,

Lula grew up in our office. He’s in his early twenties now and has a son. He was ten when he first wandered in. I’d met him in Aliso Village at the annual Easter egg hunt. This was no White House lawn affair, just something thrown together very last minute by the ladies of the parish, but the kids seemed to have a good time. Lula was a skinny kid, who looked straight out of the Third World, undernourished, filthy. He was standing by himself, and no one seemed to include him or pay him much attention, except when they’d steal his eggs.

“My name is Luis, but everybody calls me Lula,” he said.

I remember this a week later, when I pull up to an intersection and see him entering the crosswalk alone, his walk clumsy and self-conscious. I roll down my window and catch his attention. “Hey, Lula!”

You would have thought I had electrocuted him. His whole body spasms with delight to be known, to be called, to hear his name uttered out loud. For his entire trip through the cross walk, Lula kept turning back and looking at me, smiling.

Lula came from a huge family, and he was attention deficient, except in our office. Everyone lavished Lula with care he didn’t get otherwise.[1]

For me, this story captures the essence of what can otherwise be a fairly nonsensical reading. Talk of sheep and shepherds made a great deal more sense to those who were part of an agrarian culture. But to us, in Arlington, a bit more translation is needed. I want to try and unpack it backwards, through the example of Father Boyle.

Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest who began his ministry in downtown Los Angeles, in a neighborhood that is one of the most saturated by gangs and subsequent violence, of any zip code in the country. As a young priest, he experienced the overwhelming loss and devastation gangs were causing in the neighborhood and the parish, and decided he would end gang violence. As though this was not something anyone had previously thought of, Father Boyle decided he had the disposition to enact such a change. As you might imagine, this was an utter failure. But, Father Boyle’s ministry has now been thriving for decades because of a key theological shift he made after his early years of frustration and failure. Instead of seeking to fix the individuals who were members of gangs, Father Boyle sought to love them for exactly who they were.

He started listening to the stories of young men and women who had grown up surrounded by violence. He started to understand the tattoos and clothing as masks for a lack of a secure sense of self. He started to get curious about the last time these young men and women had been reminded that they were loved, and found that many of them had never heard those words uttered to them, ever. He began to understand that many of these young people had sought out life in a gang because it was the only form of belonging and connection to which they had been exposed. Father Boyle’s focus shifted completely. Instead of providing a corrective path for wayward teens, he began to simply get to know them as individuals, and to share God’s love with them.

What has transpired is truly remarkable. Homeboy and Homegirl ministries serves over 10,000 former gang members annually in the Los Angeles area. Individuals formerly involved in gangs or incarcerated encounter a ministry based on mutual kinship and love that provides tattoo removal services, opportunities for employment, anger management and parenting classes. When he stopped trying to fix people, and started focusing on loving them instead, the opportunities were too many in number to count.

The character of God’s love is not corrective or consequential. The character of God’s love is specific and abundant. God’s love builds trust. Father Boyle has built a thriving ministry based on trust and love. He is the model of a modern day shepherd.

I often return to this story I shared with you at the beginning about Lula, because it’s so simple, but so clear. To remember one’s name, to remember one’s identity, to celebrate how beloved we are by God, is a divine act. This is what it looks like to be the Good Shepherd: to cause another to dance through the crosswalk with delight and gratitude. To know God’s people and call them by name.

Holy Scripture is full of references to God as shepherd tending the flock, which resembles God’s people. The shepherd knows each member of the flock, and somehow knows when one has gone astray, and displays care so extraordinary that chasing after a lost sheep is always worthwhile. The thing we may not realize though, about these peaceful icons of God as shepherd, is that it’s actually a fairly dramatic analogy. One historian describes it in this way, “The life of the shepherd is dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges spending time in the fields rather than in polite society.For Jesus to say “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it.”[2]That is never captured in the tranquil paintings of Jesus overlooking sheep on the hillside.

This invocation of Jesus as shepherd tells us something important about the nature of God! Or, as one scholar says, “The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does, rather than on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are.[3]No matter how we found our way to God, we are God’s own. God delights to name our belovedness and remind us of how we belong.

We all need these reminders, constantly. It is not just the young men and women who grew up in tough circumstances in a run down neighborhood in Los Angeles. Notice, when the wolf appears, presumably to eat the sheep, the predictable does not transpire! Rather, the danger the wolf presents is to scatter the sheep, to disperse the herd. To be counted among the flock is to know and trust in the leadership the shepherd provides. When the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd, they are reassured that they are headed in the right direction. Together, they will reach their destination. The great danger in this scenario and in our life as Christians is the Gospel of self-worth. It is easy to succumb to the allusion that if we are simply extraordinary enough, we can go it alone. To stand grounded in our connection to God and one another is to trust in who we know God to be.

I realize this metaphor doesn’t fully hold up in our individualistic society. We would be loath to be counted as a mere one among a flock and not stand out. But it’s the gathered nature of the sheep that gives the shepherd its’ power over the flock. As God’s people, we come together on Sunday morning to be reminded of who God is. We gather together to be reminded of how our identity is shaped by our connection to God, and to one another. We come together to rejoice in God’s authority as creator, redeemer, and sustainer.

And, that is not enough. This is one of those readings in which we would do well to locate ourselves in multiple roles. We are the sheep to God’s shepherd. To be shepherded by God, means that we are to constantly marinate in the love God has for us.

And, we are called to share in this work of shepherding others closer to God. Father Boyle captures the essence of his ministry in this way, “Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to him.”[4]To share in this role of shepherding God’s people is to gain the trust of the sheep, so that they might follow you closely to experience the “no matter whatness of God.”

Fellow-shepherds, it is our gift to embody the essence of our creator and take our share in reflecting God’s nature. Fellow sheep, you are known and beloved.

The Rev. Beth Magill

[1]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, p. 47-49.

[2]Feasting on the Word, Nancy Blakely, p. 450.

[3]Ibid. p. 452

[4]Father Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, p. 52.

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Sunday Sermon Lent 4, March 11, 2018

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Bronze Snakes, and Other Favorite Idols

Forgive me, I’m going to go through our lessons a bit more methodically than normal – they’re just too weird not to!

This morning we have the most frequently quoted verse of the New Testament, paired with an utterly obscure story from the book of Numbers. Though texts from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are intimately connected, we always have to be wary of reinterpreting that which came first through the lens of that which came second. Put another way, to reinterpret Judaism through the lens of Christianity doesn’t do the original texts justice. While we never want to fall into that practice, there is a way to carefully connect the two, especially for situations like today, when Jesus makes direct reference to that which is found in Hebrew scripture.

Just for a bit of context, the book of Numbers is not simply full of Numbers, as one might suspect. It is the fourth book of the Torah, and spans the forty years of wilderness wanderings that the Israelites experienced. Most notably, it marks the transition through the death of one generation to the leadership of the next, as their lengthy time in the wilderness persists. Immediately preceding the event with the snakes in today’s passage, Aaron, faithful Israelite leader, priest, and brother to Moses, has just been left on top of Mount Hor to die. The Israelites have just rained down destruction upon a town that resisted them, and they are continuing on their way to the Red Sea. In other words, the journey has taken a toll on everyone. Perhaps it is not all together surprising that attitudes and commitments are starting to wane.

The complaint about “detesting this miserable food” is the last in a series of grievances, or what scholars refer to as “murmurings,” from the Israelites. In a fit of anger, God sends the serpents to bite the people. His punishment is swift, and many of the Israelites die.

The people repent, and beg Moses to ask God to take the snakes away. In a very strange development, God commands Moses to make a poisonous serpent into bronze and set it upon a pole, to remind the people of their deliverance. This is a very odd answer to a prayer, especially given countless previous examples of God condemning any form of idol worship. As it turns out, this bronze statue was very, very effective. Five hundred years later, the statue shows up in the temple in Jerusalem, and has become so popular that King Hezekiah orders that it be destroyed. These words from Barbara Brown Taylor perhaps give us a firmer grasp on what transpired, “If the people believed that the bronze serpent was responsible for their cure, then that snake was an idol and Hezekiah was right to snap it in two. But if looking up at the serpent reminded the people to lift their hearts to God, then the snake was a sacrament.” [1]

Idol or sacrament? Initially it might seem obvious that the two are not one in the same, but the more thought you give it, it seems that they are not mutually exclusive.

Idol worship, snakes, and the very thing that caused harm, transformed into the very thing that gives life. How very, very odd that the thing from which they suffered, was the very thing that seemed to provide a cure. Within religious tradition, it is more common than we might realize to use the object of suffering, as the thing that delivers from that same suffering. Passover Lambs were sacrificed and their blood smeared over the entryway to homes, in hopes that it would ward off the death of the firstborn child in the households of Israelites; a death for a death. Jesus becomes the new Passover Lamb. The bronze snake is commissioned to deliver the Israelites from the terror of fiery snakes. Then perhaps it is not surprising that the author of John’s Gospel, who has a habit of making artistic connections, explicitly brings together the bronze serpent, and Jesus on the cross.

Jesus, the Son of God, is present in human form. The very thing that most separates us from God, our humanity, is the very thing with which Jesus is sent to connect. No longer will there be divine and human, and a tremendous divide in between. Because of Jesus, God communicates that our humanity, our brokenness, our sinfulness, is known, and still fully loved. It is Jesus, a human, who cures us of our very humanity.

It is always dangerous to imply that a cure is possible. Certainly, when referencing the brokenness of humanity, there is no single solution. What we find in Christ, and ultimately what we come to realize about God, is that there is no sin, no misunderstanding, no judgment that can separate us from God’s love. Jesus confronted the depths of our unbelief, hatred, and cruelty, transforming an instrument notorious for painful death, into an empty piece of wood. The object that was used to mock and kill, has become the world’s most powerful symbol for reconciliation and hope. It is only God in human form, who fully relieves us of our humanity.

In our most generous interpretation of the bronze serpent, it’s meaning comes to be much greater than that for which it was originally intended. It points beyond itself to the meaning within the symbol. The cross, likewise, comes to represent much more than that for which it was originally intended. This very thin space that separates an idol from a sacrament, we encounter in our lives every day.

Every Sunday morning, we sit before this altar, surrounded by the stations of the cross, and beautiful stained glass windows, and receive bread and wine to remember Jesus’ Last Supper. To the eyes of a newcomer, all of this probably appears quite odd, and may border on idol worship. But, if we’re following the intention behind these traditions, each of these things are vehicles that point towards God. Each of these things, and frankly the people we find here week after week, remind us of the presence of God in our midst.

Just to be clear, the snakes don’t stop biting the Israelites during their time in the wilderness! In the midst of their new painful reality, God provides a way forward, but does not change their reality. Likewise, Jesus does not absolve us of our humanity. There is still more than enough suffering and brokenness to go around. God provides a way forward, despite our often painful reality.

Rarely, is the object of our fixation the problem in and of itself. An idol cannot deem itself such. Likewise, most people and things can straddle the line between idol and sacrament. To allow symbols the freedom to point beyond the symbol itself, to the meaning within it, we suddenly find sacraments too numerous to count. Symbols can be our vehicle to discover outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces. The source of our idolization is transformed from a stumbling block to a stepping stone.

The Rev. Beth Magill

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, p. 103

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Christmas Eve Sermon, 2017

Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:(1-7)8-20
Psalm 97

Birthday Empathy

I’m hoping that some of you who are here tonight have seen the most recent Star Wars movie. I promise I won’t offer any spoilers if you haven’t. But there is a great scene that I want to share with all of you. Part of the premise of this latest installment of the series is reinstituting the religion of the Jedi. In the film, the order of the Jedi has fallen by the wayside. However, a prodigal daughter figure emerges, and goes back to an original disciple, who has long since abandoned the way of life. He is surprised and frustrated with her presence, seemingly dealing with his own spiritual state. She persists, and refuses to leave until he has shared some of his wisdom. In a fit of frustration, the spiritual giant turns on her and demands, “Why are you HERE?”

In this moment, the “here” that he refers to is a nearly deserted island, one of the most difficult places in the galaxy to find. The prodigal daughter is wise enough to realize there is something about being with this disciple that is worth her time, despite his best attempts to ignore her.

And, consider this question phrased with a slight change in emphasis, “Why are YOU here?” As the plot progresses, the emphasis of his question shifts from one of personal inconvenience, to one of individual curiosity. He learns of her giftedness and the potential she has to be a transformative leader. The focus shifts from the history of his leadership, to the future of hers.

Tonight, on this most holy of nights, I beg of each of you the same questions. First, why are you HERE? Lay aside for a moment the feeling of potential obligation to a parent, or respect to another family member. I intend the question from a larger, ethical perspective. Why do we celebrate the birth of Jesus on an annual basis? What was it about this man who lived over 2,000 years ago, in a place far far away, who deserves a birthday celebration beyond what you or I will ever receive?

It was his capacity to love. Jesus loved in a way that changed the lives of those whom He met. He loved those who were deemed unlovable. He loved those who were not easy to love. He loved those who didn’t love him first. Yet, perhaps greater still, Jesus changed the paradigm of what it looks like to love. The original intention of religion has always been to love God and to love one another. Yet, humans constantly get in the way and corrupt that which was intended.

Jesus disrupts the very focus of religion at the time, and offers a return to the true meaning of religion, religare, to be “bound” to God. This binding, rather being tethered from obligation, is rooted in love and generosity. Jesus’ capacity to love changed lives, and continues to be the single deepest aspiration of our discipleship.

Yet, the event of Jesus’ birth is significant for another important reason – the gift of His very presence in our midst. In the gifting of Mary with a child, God makes an extraordinary show of empathy. For thousands of years, God had been in relationship with humanity. The Hebrew Scriptures give us story after story of God’s covenants with His people. Despite his people’s turning away from him, despite their lack of faithfulness or willingness to follow, God constantly returns to humanity to bind what has been broken. In a move of utter determination or desperation, God shares his very own heart in the annunciation. God’s son will be born of a woman, and come and live among humanity in hopes of communicating the love which God has for us, that we couldn’t quite seem to grasp.

When seeking to strengthen the relationship between two beings, there is nothing more empathic than perspective taking. Brene Brown is a professor who has done decades of research on courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Throughout her research, she has found that empathy is a vulnerable choice that requires that I connect with something deep inside myself that knows of the feeling you’re experiencing.

The challenge is that once I connect with that feeling – whether it’s heartbreak, loss, or foreboding joy – I don’t try and fix your feeling, because I want for you to be better, or because I’m uncomfortable. Rather, I simply dwell with you in that reality. Truthfully, it is rare that any form of a response can make such a situation better, which is what we find in sympathy – well-intentioned sentiments that often never penetrate below the surface. Connection is the only thing that can make our suffering better – and not because it solves the problems we face, but because we realize we are not alone.

God’s gift of Jesus is the ultimate empathic move. Jesus does not solve all of humanity’s problems, nor rid us of the evil that plagues our society, even temporarily. Rather, Jesus stands with us in the muck of this world and grieves with those who have been cast aside, weeps with those who have lost loved ones, and mourns with those who are brokenhearted. Sharing of God’s self in the form of Jesus is a risky move!! God stands to lose a powerful reputation, and yet this choice of love over power is exactly where God wants to be. In the person of Jesus we experience what theologian Sam Wells would term a shift from “for to with.”[1] While God has been for humanity all along, we discover a new dimension of God’s love when God comes to be with us. Wells posits that “with” is the most important word in all of the Gospels. When Jesus arrives to be with humanity, God communicates empathy for the human condition.

Which brings me back to the second form of my original question. Why are YOU here? What meaning does a virgin birth all those years ago bring to your life? Jesus’ presence shapes the kind of life God calls us to lead. Sharing love that is rooted in empathy is the calling that permeates our very being as God’s creatures. Or in the more eloquent words of Dean Wells, “It is being with that is the most faithful form of Christian witness and mission, because with is both incarnationally faithful to the manifestation of God in Christ and eschatologically anticipatory of the destiny of all things in God.”[2]

I am here tonight to carry the message of empathetic love that we find in this surprised young mother, distraught unmarried father, displaced family, and misunderstood child to anyone who will listen! In this gospel story, we find our story. We find the story of God’s love for humanity that is more complicated and yet overflowing with love, than we might care to believe.

I hope you are here because a part of this story speaks to your story. I hope you are here because you’re curious about this completely audacious gift of empathic love. Whatever brought YOU HERE tonight, we love you! We are so glad to be with you. Most importantly, know that God loves you enough to come and be with you!

The Rev. Beth Magill

[1] The Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God, 2015.
[2] Wells, Nazareth Manifesto, p. 23.
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Christmas Day Sermon, 2017

Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12)
John 1:1-14
Psalm 98

Christmas Presence

Merry Christmas! I pray that your bellies are full and your hearts as well – with the presence of loved ones, joy of Christmas-tide, and the miracle of our Lord’s birth.

And, I hope you are paying enough attention to be challenged by the celebration of Jesus’ arrival. As we just heard from John’s Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Came to be with us!

For thousands of years, God had been in relationship with humanity. The Hebrew Scriptures give us story after story of God’s covenants with His people. Despite His people’s turning away from him, despite their lack of faithfulness or willingness to follow, God constantly returns to humanity to bind what has been broken. In a move of utter determination or desperation, God shares his very own heart in the annunciation. God’s son will be born of a woman, and come and live among humanity in hopes of communicating the love which God has for us, that we couldn’t quite seem to grasp.

So it is in this being with us that the very nature of our relationship with God is transformed. It’s a curious event – coming to be with us, in the human form. So many questions that come with this virgin birth and Son of God. Yet, I want to propose this morning that we not try and solve this mystery. Rather, that we take a cue from Jesus and wonder about what it’s like to be with people.

Theologian Sam Wells writes, “Being with is about presence, about participation, about partnership.”[1] In Jesus we find presence, participation, and an invitation to partnership.

Beyond invitation to partnership, Jesus (and Mary) provide a model for embodiment of presence and participation.  Through the experiences of Dr. Sweet, Samuel Wells explores how this might look in practice today. A physician by the name of Dr. Sweet, set out on a pilgrimage of sorts to explore the true intention of health care. She had reached a dead end when her working assumption that doctors were called to “work for” her patients didn’t hold up. A seasoned doctor, she embarked on a journey to find out what health care truly ought to be. One of the stops on her journey was an alms-house in San Francisco, Laguna Honda. Rather than that which you may think of as a traditional institution, Laguna Honda provided shelter, rehabilitation, transition, and refuge for those who had nowhere else to go.

The doctors and nurses invested in the lives of their patients in ways that would be a clear HIPPA violation, and a perceived encroachment of privacy in our society.

Dr. Sweet’s stories are truly remarkable. Janice Gilroy changed Dr. Sweet’s approach to being present with patients. “Janice was a heavy cocaine, heroine, and alcohol user. She had a stroke on the right side of her brain. It looked like she would require a brain scan, bone scan, and spinal tap. She appeared to need biopsies and extended hospitalization. Although Janice was in a quiet, cool room, she was stark naked on her bed, and refused to cooperate.”[2] After sitting with her for a few moments, and simply observing her behavior, it occurred to Dr. Sweet that the patient was attempting to crawl out of her skin, as though she had been poisoned. Which was precisely the problem. As soon as Janice was off all the medications, her symptoms cleared up. Sitting in the dark, simply listening and watching crystallized what she had otherwise overlooked. Dr. Sweet became a better physician because she was more present as a person.

Centuries of being in relationship with humanity did not accomplish that which transpired in Jesus’ lifespan. God’s character was not changed. The only thing that had changed was God’s presence with us. In Jesus, we understand God’s deep desire to know and love us. Jesus’ presence changed everything.

Lagunda Honda is certainly not anything like what you will find in an ordinary hospital. It is common for staff to use their own money to throw a birthday party for the patients with whom they have developed a relationship. Dr. Sweet discovered the reciprocity required for full participation to transpire, in a patient named Paul. Paul had an unusual host of problems for someone as young as forty-seven – cocaine and alcohol addiction, peripheral vascular disease, and two amputated legs. He was faced with a slow and painful decline from gangrene. Dr. Sweet administered highly concentrated doses of oxygen, and his many wounds began to heal. As Paul regained his physical strength, his vitality for life also returned. While he continued to recover, Paul shared his talent for constructing computers. Quickly, he became a resource for both the staff and fellow patients. When Christmas rolled around that year, Dr. Sweet offered to buy Paul a Christmas gift. He asked for a fishing vest. “He had no legs, so he lacked the pockets that trousers would provide. A fishing vest, with all its pockets, would make up the shortfall.”[3] Giving Paul this vest for Christmas brought Dr. Sweet immeasurable pleasure. Participating in the fullness of Paul’s recoveries was one of her most fulfilling encounters as a doctor.

Jesus’ mother Mary is perhaps one of our most profound examples of participation. As Mary chooses to respond to God’s invitation, she becomes an integral participant of God’s in-breaking into the world.

Without our willingness to step out in faithfulness, God’s initiatives would show up in a very different way. Jesus does not ask of his earliest followers anything that He himself is not willing to go through. Participation is a key component to both Jesus’ own ministry, and the continuation of the Good News.

Finally, Jesus’ presence is God’s invitation to partner as co-creators in building the Kingdom. The recovery community at Lagunda Honda was remarkable, not because of it’s successful interventions, but because of the ways in which the staff and patients interacted. At the funeral of one of the substance-abuse counselors, graduates of the program spoke at length. There was no magic cure that the counselor had shared with his patients. Rather he entered into meaningful and lasting relationships. They were partners in crafting a plan for recovery. On days off, and even after his employment at the facility had ended, this particular counselor continued to check in with those in recovery on a daily basis. His work was transformative because of the engaging nature of the partnerships he created.

Jesus’ ministry begins in partnership with John the Baptist. He quickly enlists the disciples, and the women who fund his ministry and travels. The ministry continues to spread following his death and resurrection because of the willingness of the disciples to stay in partnership with one another. Partnership is the essence of who Jesus was, and becomes a key characteristic of Christianity.

The stories of Lagunda Honda come through the lens of a doctor, yet the implications are important for each of us. As Wells writes, “There is a profound difference between a problem, which one seeks to solve, and a mystery, which one can only enter.”[4] The problem of the incarnation is not one we ought to try and solve. Rather, it is a mystery, in which we are invited to be present, participate, and partner. In the event of Jesus coming to live among us, the nature of our discipleship is transformed.

Come, O Come Emmanuel! Rejoice that God dwells among us today and always.

The Rev. Beth Magill

[1] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto, p. 8.
[2] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto, p. 192.
[3] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto, p. 198.
[4] Ibid., 195.
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Sunday Sermon Advent 4, December 24, 2017

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Mary’s Hopefulness

Today is Mary’s day. It is our brief and all-to-short glimpse into the life of the mother of Jesus. Interestingly, most of what we have come to associate with Mary didn’t come about until hundreds of years after she was alive, and frankly, much of it is lore. It speaks to the abiding need within the church to understand the virgin birth, and the vast mystery that comes with it. If we could just tie Mary’s story up with a neat and suitable bow, it might all make more sense.

However, I want to propose that it’s precisely the ambiguity and vulnerability that comes with Mary’s story that makes her compelling. Mary chose to respond faithfully in the midst of ambiguity and vulnerability, which become a key component to her character and the faithfulness she comes to represent.

Mary’s story involves several distinct elements of ambiguity. First, there is her relationship with Joseph that becomes tenuous as soon as the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary.

As one might imagine, the circumstances surrounding engagement were particular in those days, not unlike what we find in today’s society. If one were engaged to be married, expectations surrounded that period of waiting and preparation for marriage. Mainly, females were expected to be emotionally and physically monogamous to their fiancée. With the news of Mary’s pregnancy, her commitment was no doubt called into question, not only by Joseph, but by those in Nazareth. To say that Mary and Joseph had a normal engagement would be to ignore the obvious complications the angel’s visit presents. However, Mary makes her commitment to God, and to the angel. Likewise, she keeps her commitment to Joseph, and Joseph to her. In the midst of deeply troubling ambiguity, Mary remains true to God and true to her fiancée.

Mary’s journey is also isolating. Her experience was and remains unique among women, and truthfully beyond just the female gender. Mary did have the gift of Elizabeth’s companionship, and simultaneous pregnancy, though Elizabeth was at an entirely different stage of life.

And, it was still just the two of them. Without a path forged in front of them, Mary and Elizabeth were living out a faithful “yes” to God’s calling, lacking a clear indication of where the journey might lead. Isolation is enough to paralyze any of us, despite our best intentions. It brings me to my knees when I stop and ponder the courage required of Mary to respond to God’s invitation with such little support, clarity, and understanding.

The Rev. Beth Magill

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November Vestry Meeting Minutes

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, VA
Minutes, November 16, 2017

In attendance: Michele Casciano, Mary Cushing, Dwight Denson, Penelope Jones, Dan Plafcan, Karen Ruff, Thomas Sheldon, and Molly White. Unable to attend: Julia Carter.

Senior Warden Karen Ruff opened the meeting with prayer and shared concerns and joys.

Minutes

The October minutes were approved as presented.

Finance Committee

The October finance reports were reviewed and accepted. Vestry noted with appreciation how faithful the congregation has been with their pledges and commitments.

2018 Mission Spending Plan

Vestry reviewed the status of the every member canvas and agreed to continue its contribution of 10% of total pledges and offerings to the Diocese in 2018. Stewardship Campaign Chair Tom Sheldon described progress towards the 2018 goal of $265,000 and 70 pledges. As of week five, 46 pledges amounting to $187,770 had been received. Tom confirmed that Tim Matlack is sending weekly updates on campaign progress to the Vestry

Update on the New Rector

Senior Warden Karen Ruff commented on the various communications that had been sent announcing the selection of The Rev. Elizabeth (Beth) Magill’s as St. Michael’s rector. Vestry approved the letter of agreement signed by Rev. Magill, Karen Ruff as Senior Warden, and the Bishop. Vestry also approved the rector position description set forth in Canon III.9.6 of the Episcopal Church.

Karen noted that St. Michael’s would reimburse Rev. Magill for her moving expenses and provided the following timeline for her arrival:

  • Move to Arlington: 11/29/17
  • In office: 12/6/17
  • First service: 12/10/17
  • Attend Vestry meeting 12/14/17

The following actions to prepare the rectory for Rev. Magill’s arrival were approved:

  • Two estimates for painting the rectory were reviewed. Vestry approved the proposal from Mondo Improvements Inc .
  • The rectory will be cleaned and several remaining pieces of furniture will be removed.
  • Keys to existing locks in the house will be mapped. Dan volunteered to do this.

The Vestry agreed to recognize the work of members of the Profile Committee and Search Committee on Sunday, December 10th. Molly will obtain gift cards and Michelle will order a cake for coffee hour.

Committee to Facilitate Small Group Meetings

Karen indicated that Rev. Magill would like to meet informally with members of the congregation in small groups. Dan and Michelle volunteered to work with Beth to develop a plan for making this happen.

Building and Grounds

Junior Warden Mary Cushing announced that Wil Harkins is looking into issues with the current alarm system. He will meet with alarm companies on 11/18/17. He and Mary are investigating options to contract with a different company. Mary noted a number of items in the kitchen that need attention and said John Kelleher and Wil are addressing these. She indicated she is working with Julia Carter to secure a Powerpoint projector for the church. [Note: Following the meeting, Julia Carter indicated she was making a personal gift to the church of an Epson projector.]

Vestry Liaison Reports

Fall Festival. Dwight Denson expressed appreciation to Helen Hines for her work in organizing this year’s Fall Festival and said the event provided a warm and friendly environment for members to meet and greet one another.

Steps Along the Path. Dan invited Vestry to review the document in anticipation of discussions with Beth and to help inform budget and planning decisions for 2018.

New Business

Michelle described her conversation with a member of the congregation who was concerned about burnout among some individuals who support many ministries within the church. Vestry expressed sympathy for the concern but also appreciation for the dedicated service of so many parishioners at St. Michaels.

Dan indicated he would be attending a half-day brainstorming session sponsored by Region III to discuss ways the churches can get to know one another better. He invited others to join him if interested.

Tom called attention to the article “A Fair Day’s Work” in The Virginia Episcopalian and encouraged St. Michaels to be mindful of this when contracting for work to be done at the church.

Karen Ruff asked Vestry to consider meeting one week earlier in December. The meeting is tentatively set for Thursday, December 14. She noted that nominations would be sought in January for three candidates to fill positions being vacated on the Vestry and indicated that the Annual Meeting of the congregation would likely take place in February.

The meeting was concluded with prayer and blessing.

Respectfully submitted, Penelope Jones.

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December Vestry Meeting Minutes

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, VA
Minutes, December 14, 2017

In attendance: Rev. Beth Magill, Julia Carter, Mary Cushing, Dwight Denson, Penelope Jones, Dan Plafcan, Karen Ruff, Thomas Sheldon, and Molly White. Unable to attend: Michele Casciano.

The Rev. Beth Magill opened the meeting with prayers for our parish family and then introduced Dwelling in the Word. Vestry participated in this exercise which involved reading a selected verse then pairing off and sharing thoughts on an element of the passage with partners. Individuals then explained to the group what they heard their partner say.

Minutes

The November minutes were approved as presented.

Finance Committee

Stewardship Report: Tom Sheldon summarized the results of the every member canvass as of week 7 noting that 62 pledges had been received for a total of $227,444. Beth commended the parish on its response, noting that about 60% of households had pledged with the average pledge at about $4100. Vestry is hopeful that further progress will be made towards its goal of $265,000.

2018 Mission Spending Plan: Karen Ruff invited Vestry to give further consideration to the draft plan prepared by the Finance Committee last month in preparation for approval in January. Beth agreed to resend the draft budget to Vestry members and asked that we keep in mind how the mission of St. Michael’s is represented by its financial resources and be prepared to make incremental changes over the next few years in order to align financial spending and parish priorities.

The November finance reports were reviewed and accepted.

Senior Warden Report

Karen noted that Vestry terms were ending for Dwight, Tom and her and she described the process for identifying candidates to be elected at the next parish annual meeting. Vestry members were asked to keep in mind the skills needed on Vestry including ministry experience, institutional knowledge, and a willingness to serve and to come to the January meeting with recommendations. Vestry tentatively agreed to hold the annual meeting following a single 9:00am service on February 11.

Junior Warden Report

Mary Cushing summarized work done on the rectory prior to Beth’s arrival and noted the following:

  • She will contact Cathedral Crafts to settle a start date for repair of the stained glass windows.
  • Tree pruning and maintenance began last week.
  • She is investigating options for handling snow removal this winter.

Transition

Beth explained that she is working with Michele and Dan to come up with a plan for holding small group meetings with members of the congregation during January– March.

Vestry reviewed and approved a housing resolution stipulating an amount of money Beth can deduct from her taxes for her expenditures on maintenance or furnishings at the Rectory.

Music Director/Organist

Beth indicated that Arthur Roach had agreed to serve as interim organist while a careful search is conducted for a permanent music director. Beth indicated she planned to meet with members of the choir and congregation in order to prepare a job description and identify individuals to serve on a search committee. The goal is to receive applications, conduct interviews, and make a selection by May/June.

Christmas Schedule

Beth reviewed the following plans for Christmas celebration:

December 24, Christmas Eve

  • 9:00 am service in the Parish Hall
  • 5:30pm service in the Sanctuary
  • 10:30pm service in the Sanctuary followed by reception. Vestry is invited to help greet at this service.

There will be no child care on 12/24.

December 25, Christmas Day

  • 10:00am service in the Sanctuary

End of Year Staff Recognition

Vestry agreed on monetary bonuses to be given to staff in thanks and recognition of their service.

New Business

Vestry will meet on Tuesday, January 16, 2018. Plans will be made for a Vestry retreat in March.

The meeting was concluded with prayer and blessing.

Respectfully submitted, Penelope Jones.

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October Vestry Meeting Minutes

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, VA
Minutes, October 17, 2017

In attendance: Rev. Canon Rosemari Sullivan, Julia Carter, Michele Casciano, Mary Cushing, Dwight Denson, Penelope Jones, Dan Plafcan, Karen Ruff, Thomas Sheldon, Molly White and Search Committee members Cindy Matlack and Mick Sutter.

The meeting opened with prayer and shared concerns and joys.

Minutes

The September minutes were approved as presented.

Finance Committee

Senior Warden Karen Ruff said that the Finance Committee was beginning to work on the 2018 budget and sought guidance from the Vestry on any special initiatives or priorities. The Committee recommended a budget goal of 70 pledges and revenue of $265,000 based on the actual amount pledged in 2016. Vestry reviewed and accepted the September finance reports.

Search Committee Report

Search Committee Chair Mick Sutter and committee member Cindy Matlack reviewed the status of their search for a new rector. Three candidates were selected for final consideration and the committee was completing its visits to the candidates and collecting references. They anticipate beginning their final discernment next week and will submit the name of the candidate to the Bishop for approval before making a recommendation to the Vestry. Vestry is prepared to meet prior to its next scheduled meeting in order to receive the nomination.

Neighborhood Outreach Coffee

Junior Warden Mary Cushing confirmed that invitations had been distributed to neighbors within a block of the church to come by for coffee on October 21 from 9:00am—10:30am. Vestry members volunteered to bring refreshments and be available for informal discussions with whoever showed up. Follow-up steps were discussed, such as distributing the church brochure with highlights of upcoming activities and inquiring about a neighborhood listserv as a means of communicating with neighbors.

Stewardship Discussion

Stewardship Campaign Chair Tom Sheldon described plans for the 2018 campaign which would include distribution of pledge cards to parishioners, presentations at services throughout October and November, and articles in the Guardian. He distributed a draft letter to accompany the pledge cards, suggesting that it include revenue goals for 2018. Vestry discussed the 2018 budget goals recommended by the Finance Committee and voted unanimously to adopt them for the campaign.

Staff Position Descriptions

Rosemari distributed a draft job description for an Assistant to the Rector for Finance and Administration noting that this reflects the duties being performed by the current parish administrator. She explained that, as the church grows, St. Michaels may need to distribute the workload by establishing an additional office position with responsibilities for receptionist and other clerical duties.

Rosemari plans to assemble a briefing book for the new rector which will include the draft job descriptions being prepared.

Rosemari called attention to the exceptional service provided by Wil Harkins in his position as parish administrator, noting the management-level finance and building and grounds duties he is performing. She asked the Vestry, at its next meeting, to consider actions to recognize and reward Wil for his service.

Stained Glass Repair and Tree Pruning

Junior Warden Mary Cushing briefly reviewed the two contracts that had been received for stained glass repair and which the Vestry had considered since its last meeting. Both vendors had provided positive references but Vestry felt the cost, comprehensive coverage, and warranty from Cathedral Crafts was a better option for the church. After some discussion, Vestry voted unanimously to award the stained glass repair to Cathedral Crafts.

Mary also reviewed three estimates for tree pruning that had been distributed earlier to Vestry by email. All of the vendors had positive recommendations and offered comparable scope of work. Vestry voted unanimously to award the contract to Strictly Stumps which offered the most cost effective bid.

Building and Grounds

Junior Warden Mary Cushing announced that snow removal options are being considered in preparation for this coming winter. She also mentioned her continuing interest in care of creation activities and volunteered to keep St. Michael’s informed of ideas that are generated from a Diocesan Task Force on Care of Creation.

Vestry Liaison Reports

Fall Festival. Dwight Denson announced that plans for the November 4th Fall Festival are proceeding under the direction of Helen Hines and indicated that Vestry would again be invited to serve as greeters on the day of the event.

Senior Warden Report

Senior Warden Karen Ruff expressed appreciation for Rosemari’s guidance and the contributions of Linda Denson and her committee on the occasion of David Donaldson’s retirement. Noting that transitions can be challenging for a parish, she invited patience and understanding as St. Michael’s welcomes its new rector.

Interim Rector Report

Rosemari expressed gratitude for the opportunity to serve as Interim Rector at St. Michaels and paid compliments to the congregation for its many initiatives and accomplishments this past year. With plans on track for welcoming a new rector, she announced that she would retire from the Interim Rector position effective November 5, 2017. She explained that supply clergy would be available as needed until the new rector arrived and said that Arthur Roach had agreed to serve as organist through the end of November.

The meeting was concluded with prayer and blessing.

Respectfully submitted, Penelope Jones.

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