Big Questions Sermon Series: June 18, 2017

This is the first sermon in our summer sermon series on “big questions” about life and faith asked by the congregation. The most common questions I received this year were about heaven, hell, whether they exist, and who goes where. The first three sermons in our series will explore these issues. This sermon responds to the question, “What do Lutherans teach about hell?” One of the people who asked this question also wondered how and why church teaching has evolved.

The frequency with which you submitted questions about heaven and hell speaks to some of our deepest human curiosity about cosmic reward and punishment when we don’t always see it reflected in the world around us. It also speaks to the culture in which we are immersed, in which the Christianity we hear about most often claims absolute certainty about heaven and hell. Finally, significant moments in our lives tend to stir up questions about heaven and hell: serious illness, the death of a loved one, friends or family members choosing a different religion from ours or no religion at all, and facing our own mortality.

We’ll begin our theological exploration of hell by looking at what hell is like in the Bible. Spoiler alert: there is no single “hell” in the Bible. Confusingly, different English versions of the Bible translate various different words as “hell,” so we often miss the nuances when we read the Bible in English.

The first hell-like place in the Bible is Sheol, the Pit. Some parts of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, talk about Sheol as an underground realm where the souls of all the dead reside. Sheol is morally neutral. There is no punishment there; when you die, it is simply where you go. The psalms tell us that Sheol is not out of God’s reach: Psalm 139 is a good example. Just as God knows human beings intimately before they are born, God is still with them even when they end up in Sheol.

A second hell-like place in the Bible is called Gehenna. It’s based on a real place, the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, south of Mount Zion. Because tradition says that one of the Israelite kings sacrificed children there, the valley gained a reputation for being cursed. By the time of the life of Jesus, Gehenna was also understood as a metaphysical place of curse and punishment after death. In rabbinic literature from Jesus’ lifetime, Gehenna works sort of like traditional purgatory; sinful souls serve out their sentence there before being set free. Second-temple Judaism understood Gehenna as a fiery place; its fire could burn away souls as well as bodies.

Gehenna comes up frequently in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, where Jesus uses it to describe the opposite of the kingdom of heaven. Note that it’s not the opposite of heaven, the place where God dwells, but it’s the opposite of the kingdom of heaven, God’s reign of justice and peace coming into the world here and now. In Matthew and Mark, to reject Jesus’ message of compassion, justice, and peace is to earn a place in Gehenna.

The third form of hell in the Bible is Hades — yes, the same one as in Greek mythology. Greek thinking had a significant influence on the New Testament. In the Bible, souls that have already served their punishment in Gehenna end up indefinitely in Hades, which is characterized by forgetfulness. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the gospel of Luke takes place in Hades.

The last type of hell in the Bible is called Tartarus. It has a tiny cameo in Second Peter in the New Testament. Like Hades, Tartarus draws on Greek and Roman mythology and seems to be a place for fallen angels. Non-biblical writings from the century around Jesus’ lifetime expand on Tartarus and its fallen angels, but the Bible says little.

To review, the Bible contains four ideas that we translate as hell: Sheol, the realm of the dead; Gehenna, the accursed and flaming opposite of Jesus’ kingdom of heaven; Hades, the forgetfulness after punishment; and Tartarus, imprisonment for fallen angels. You might have noticed that none of them correspond perfectly to what we imagine as hell: eternal punishment, fire, and brimstone. Biblical ideas of hell are influenced by a few different cultures. First, ancient Hebrew culture, most influential in the Hebrew Bible, believed in Sheol. Second, the Pharisees, one of the main sects in second-temple Judaism during Jesus’ lifetime, believed that souls would meet either eternal reward or punishment after death; the New Testament shows plenty of evidence of Pharisaic thought. Finally, Greek and Roman ideas of afterlife, punishment, and reward left their fingerprints all over the New Testament as well.

So what about those signs that street preachers carry listing all the kinds of people who go to hell? For the most part, they’re not in the Bible. They come from bad interpretations and inexact translations of the Bible, from apocryphal writing not part of the biblical canon, from popular religious tradition, and from the influential literature of writers like Dante and of Milton.

If you have gotten the sense that church teaching about hell has changed… well, it has. Just like science, theology grows and changes as we learn more. Talk of hell has waxed and waned in churches through the last millennium. It has spanned the spectrum from Jonathan Edwards and his famous sermon about sinners in the hands of an angry God to the universalists who proclaimed salvation for everyone. Politics, social issues, war, and peace have all influenced the extent to which churches have preached about the threat of hell. In recent decades, pastors and theologians have grown more sensitive to the damaging ways in which hell has been used as a tool of spiritual manipulation, to scare people into an arbitrary determination of correct behavior. Theologians from across denominations have also taken a closer look at the Bible verses traditionally used to condemn people like gay and gender-nonconforming people, unwed parents, women preachers, and so on. Reading these so-called “clobber verses” with better awareness of their original context reveals that they have very little to do with the contemporary issues they are often used to condemn. In fact, threatening specific categories of people with hell is sinful behavior because it causes spiritual, psychological, and physical harm to real people. Claiming that certain people are going to hell works directly against the kingdom of heaven — God’s reign of justice and peace. God alone can judge.

Our Lutheran tradition does not deny the existence of hell, but it’s complicated. Our understanding of where hell is located has shifted. God’s reign is breaking into our world all around us, but it is not here yet, and evil is deeply entrenched. Today, we often talk about hell as a state of separation from God. Hell is real because sin and evil are real. We live in a world poisoned by sin, and sin results in evil. Hunger kills the most vulnerable people around the world; people of color die in routine traffic stops; disease strikes down our loved ones. Last week was the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, and yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. Sins like homophobia, racism, poverty, and sexism are real, not abstract. They are lethal; they are signs of hell: abject separation from God’s reign of justice and peace.

But we are not helpless to stand against the forces of hell and the devil, these lethal sins that claim our lives and try to separate us from God. We have Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus goes out of his way to heal, feed, and welcome people sidelined by society. We also have the love of God. Love and mercy are God’s primary defining characteristics from the creation of the universe all the way to the end of the world. Some of the most beautiful language in the whole Bible speaks of how nothing can separate us from the love of God: not height or depth, not things past or things to come, not even life or death.

God’s life-giving promises are stronger that evil. The redeeming love of Jesus, who died and rose to bring God’s reign to each one of us, reaches all of us by the grace of God. God’s humble power reaches into the depths of our suffering, even to the heart of hell, and gathers us all into God’s embrace.

Sermon: February 5, 2017

If you visit 310 South Quince Street in Philadelphia, you’ll find yourself at a building called the Mask & Wig Club. Outside there is a historical marker which says: Rev. Jehu Jones, Jr., 1786-1852: First African American Lutheran pastor in the US.

The story of Pastor Jones is an American story; it is also a Lutheran story, a chapter of our history that we often forget while we are busy making jokes about casseroles, Norwegians, and Minnesota.

Jehu Jones was born a slave in Charleston, South Carolina in 1786. His father bought the family’s freedom during Jehu’s childhood. It was not easy to be free and black in Charleston in the early 1800s, but the Jones family did their best. Jehu’s father invested in real estate and opened an inn. The family joined an Episcopal church, then a Lutheran one. Jehu was ready to take over his father’s business, but the Holy Spirit had other plans. His Lutheran pastor noticed that Jehu had gifts for ministry. Free African Americans had recently begun a movement to return to Africa by settling in Liberia, and Liberia was in need of pastors. Jehu was trained for Liberian missionary work and ordained in New York City in 1832, the very first African American Lutheran pastor. But to get to Liberia, he had to pay his own way. And he couldn’t raise the money.

State law prevented Pastor Jones, a free black man, from returning to South Carolina without being imprisoned, so he set his sights on a different mission field: the free black people living in Philadelphia. These people needed a pastor to minister to their particular challenges as they struggled with poverty and discrimination. Pastor Jones saw an opportunity to share a Lutheran word of God’s loving grace while helping them improve the quality of their lives. In 1834, Pastor Jones founded St. Paul’s Evangelical Colored Lutheran Church in downtown Philadelphia. At first, the congregation wasn’t much larger than ours, but they needed a building to call their own. Pastor Jones secured sponsorship from the surrounding white and mixed-race Lutheran congregations, purchased land on Quince Street, and built the church. The congregation moved in and worshipped God with joy.

Then the first bills came due, and the sponsoring congregations declined to pay, one by one. Many of St. Paul’s congregants were poor, and there was no way the congregation could settle their debts alone. The church went into foreclosure, and the congregation survived for a few more years before closing.

Pastor Jones went on to found mixed-race congregations elsewhere. Some succeeded. But some were doomed from the start by the failure of St. Paul’s in Philadelphia, as Lutheran synods blamed Jones himself for financial mismanagement.


For the next few weeks, our lectionary is focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We imagine that we are standing right there with Jesus, as though he is speaking directly to us. We have a lot of company in that crowd. At the end of chapter 4, Matthew describes the many people who have followed Jesus to the mountain: “crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan;” in other words, the poor and the rich, locals and foreigners, some from as far away as Syria. It’s a diverse group.

To this group, Jesus speaks of his followers as two precious commodities: salt and light. Salt required considerable labor to be produced and refined, and it was a necessary preservative for food in the hot climate. Because it was so expensive, salt was rarely sold in pure form. It was usually mixed with other minerals to stretch it further, and over time, it really could lose its saltiness.

Light was valuable too. In a world without electricity, daylight limited the length of the workday. Having a lamp at home might mean that people could work after sunset, perhaps spinning or producing other handcrafts for extra income. Of course, it took money to fill lamps with oil. To cover a lamp with a bushel basket was sheer economic foolishness — never mind the fire hazard and darkness.

Even though Jesus knows that we humans are imperfect people, he is convinced that we also carry within us the capacity to be like precious salt, preserving the world around us and rendering it deliciously life-giving, or to be like valuable light, shining radiance into places in need of illumination.

We usually read Jesus’ words about salt and light as though they are intended for us: to make sure that we let nothing restrict our own talents and abilities to share Jesus’ love and mercy. But today, on this day when we are worshiping in the sometimes-forgotten music and words of African American writers, pastors, and musicians, this day when we remember that our northern European heritage is not the only way to be Lutheran, I’d like to offer another reading of Jesus’ words. Perhaps we are not called to tend our own saltiness and light alone. Maybe Jesus is calling us to nurture the saltiness and light of other people, to be humble enough to assist others in bringing Jesus’ love to people and places in need.


I’m telling the story of Pastor Jehu Jones this morning because it is the story of someone who had a lot of salt and light to share. As a black man born into slavery and trained for missionary work, he had many gifts to share with the black Philadelphians to whom he ministered and to the Liberian settlers he never got to meet. But Pastor Jones’ circumstances effectively tossed a bushel basket right over the lamp of his efforts by way of racism and indifference. It was hard for a former slave to rely on charity to raise money for a trip to Liberia, and although Pastor Jones tried, he did not succeed. It was hard for a black pastor to build a church for a black congregation in the nineteenth century, and as the sponsors of St. Paul’s withdrew their financial support from a congregation that could never have afforded to survive without them, they allowed it to fall into financial ruin just a few years after it was created. And though the closure of St. Paul’s was no fault of his own, Pastor Jones found that the largely white Lutheran synods continued to blame him personally for the rest of his career.

Pastor Jones still accomplished a lot. He successfully started other congregations, and he played a role in Philadelphia’s civil rights history by becoming a social and political advocate for the poor black Philadelphians who had been part of his congregation. His historical marker is downtown, and he is even on our calendar of saints’ commemorations on November 24. But I wonder what he could have done had he traveled to Liberia as a missionary. I wonder what God could have done through him had St. Paul’s stayed open.

It is good and right to nurture your own salt and light, to focus on the ways that you show Christ to a world in need. But today, I invite you to look beyond your own efforts for places in the world where the light is flickering, fighting to stay lit under a stifling bushel basket. I invite you to look for places where the vibrant flavor of salt is going bland. Find places that have potential to share God’s love and God’s hospitality with a hurting world. Then, do what you can to lift off that bushel basket so the lamp can burn brightly, to add salt to blandness so that God can nourish the world. You might do this with your hands and feet and labor, with your advocacy, with your dollars, or even with your prayers alone.

Sometimes, the project can seem impossible, but even a small group of people can make a difference. You may recall that last year, St. John’s resolved to help alleviate the global refugee crisis. With our New Generation Fund, we raised more than three thousand dollars and shared the funds between Lutheran World Relief and Welcome Home, a local congregation’s refugee resettlement ministry. Three thousand dollars isn’t a lot of money when you consider the 50 million refugees around the world. But it makes a big difference to families like the one Jack Saarela is working with right now, families who just needed some help finding an apartment, furnishing their home, and learning how to work and bank and shop for groceries in America. Even when we think we are powerless, we can accomplish amazing things together as workers in the reign of heaven on earth.

May Jesus’ love sustain you as you discern how to be salt, to be light, to be disciples in a world in need of healing.




Sermon: January 22, 2017


The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…

And there is nothing quite as foolish as standing up to empire.

On January 8, we read the Epiphany story in worship. In it, the magi — wise people — follow the mysterious star in the sky to find the place where the toddler Jesus is living with his family. They know that the star means that someone very special has come into the world. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they go straight to King Herod to ask if he knows where this savior of the nations might be.

Herod’s title might be King, but he is no divinely anointed ruler in the tradition of the ancient Israelite kings like David. Herod is a puppet of the Roman Empire, installed and maintained in his position as long as he keeps order in Jerusalem. When the magi ask for information about the messiah, Herod is threatened, because infant messiahs grow up. He resolves to nip the problem in the bud. When God sends the magi home by different roads, Herod attempts to eradicate the threat by killing all the little boys under age two. I can imagine him justifying this horrific crime to himself: better safe than sorry, lest the Romans decide it is time for a regime change.

Jesus and his family flee to Egypt as refugees, and Jesus survives the purge. But Herod has made the murder of children seem like a reasonable response. This is what empire does: it makes such reasoning possible.

This story is only the first of Jesus’ many confrontations with empire in the gospel of Matthew. In our reading from last Sunday, Jesus decides to join John the Baptist’s followers at the banks of the Jordan River. John’s grassroots repentance and renewal movement engages Jews from across the religious spectrum. They are living with the realities of Roman occupation every day. The Roman empire allows Jews to practice their religion, but only insofar as it does not threaten their power. And John’s movement is growing larger, becoming more of a threat by the day.  “Repent,” John is telling them. “Turn around.” He baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins, and they commit themselves to God’s vision of the future.

As John preaches, he tells the crowds, the kingdom of heaven has come near. As he preaches, he uses a simple, dangerous word: basileia. It means kingdom. Dominion. Empire. It’s the same word used to describe the vast Roman empire: basileia. When John proclaims the basileia of heaven, it’s as if someone were to say today, “The United States of Heaven has come near,” or “The commonwealth of heaven is at hand.” John takes a word that means the domination and control of his homeland and reclaims it to speak about the freedom of God’s reign. John proclaims the coming of the basileia of heaven over and against the basileia of Rome’s power, the puppet government, and the oligarchy.

Meanwhile, Jesus walks into the Jordan and submits to John. Quaking in his sandals, the Baptist submerges the Messiah. The heavens tear apart; the dove descends; the voice from the sky shakes the world to its foundations. The basileia of heaven breaks into the basileia of earth.

It is foolish to confront empire in this way, to take a word like basileia that means one thing and make it mean another, more dangerous thing. John the Baptist pays the price. He is arrested and thrown into prison. We know the lurid, graphic story of what comes next: John will die at the hands of basileia, of empire.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus learns that John has been arrested. He moves and changes his preaching. He begins to speak with John’s words: The basileia of heaven is at hand. The empire of God has drawn near. Heaven’s commonwealth is coming, and soon.

I think Jesus senses what will become of John as soon as John is arrested. And yet Jesus steps into John’s shoes with courageous foolishness and without hesitation. It is the opposite of what is prudent and wise. Anyone can see that it is not safe to preach John’s message, to attract John’s crowds. But instead of keeping his head down, Jesus starts recruiting in earnest.

He starts with a group of fishermen: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John. They are unlikely revolutionaries. They are not former followers of John; they were too busy pulling fish from the Sea of Galilee, trying to scrape out their own subsistence. They are salt-of-the-earth people, hardworking, keeping their heads down and making a living to the best of their abilities. And one day Jesus walks up to them — this foolish man who has taken up the dangerous work of that foolish John, who is already on a path to having an abbreviated career and life.

But when Jesus says, “follow me,” they have no doubt about him. They have no misgivings about his urgency. They toss aside their nets, the tools of their trade. They abandon their livelihoods on the shore. They drop their concern for their own safety right there on the sand, and they walk after Jesus, who is working to bring the basileia of heaven right into the midst of the empire of Rome. The gospel tells us how Jesus does this: by healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, raising up the lowly. Andrew, John, James, and Simon Peter walk straight into Jesus’ foolhardy dangerous work and fashion his message into a new kind of net, one that will draw all people into God’s embrace.

This story baffles me. When I translate it into modern terms, giving it the context of my own life, it gets even stranger. Let’s say a man walks into St. John’s on a Tuesday morning while I’m writing next Sunday’s liturgy, marches straight past Linda and into my office, looks me in the eye, and says, “Follow me.” Do I really get up and walk out without a question, leaving my laptop and my hymnals and my stoles?

Discipleship is demanding and difficult, but this is exactly what happens when Jesus calls disciples in every time and every place. God’s call is always disruptive to our lives. Today, Jesus is still doing the foolish thing, preaching about the basileia of heaven and asking us to leave everything and follow him so that we can transform the world together. Jesus does not wait for us to get our affairs in order, and he does not pick convenient moments, because the crisis of the empire of this world does not wait until it is convenient for us to resist it. The basileia of heaven is drawing near,

breaking into our world right now, and we have repenting to do — work to do — turning around and using our words and our actions for healing. God’s reign of justice and peace needs us.

Today, the work of the basileia of heaven and the work of our discipleship is the same as it has always been: Proclaim the good news that God’s love is for all people. Cure sickness and heal disease in individuals, in bodies and spirits, and in societies. Cast out demons: the demons of chronic illness and addiction, the demons of intolerance and racism and xenophobia. Feed the hungry: those who are dying of malnutrition, those who haven’t seen a hot meal in a long time, those who yearn to claim their rights, those whose souls ache to hear a word of grace and mercy. Comfort those who mourn: who lament for lost loved ones, who cry out because society does not want them, who have no voice left to cry. To be disciples, we have to act on our faith. It is so simple. It is so, so challenging.

When Jesus comes to us, still foolishly denying the power of the empires of oppression and death, are we ready to respond? Are we ready to drop our nets, close our laptops, and abandon our offices and our cars and our orderly lives? Are we prepared to be like those four fishermen who allowed Jesus to transform their talent for fishing into a talent for caring for others? Are we ready to let Jesus change our hearts and send us marching into places we never expected to go?

Every day, Jesus calls us to follow him. When we see news reports of injustice and suffering, Jesus is right in front of us, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Leave your nets and follow me.

When the people around us are hurting, Jesus appears before us, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Leave your nets and follow me.

When the disease and woundedness of our society are in need of healing, Jesus interrupts us, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Leave your nets and follow me.

Yes, the way of Jesus will lead us to the cross, and it will seem like the empire of death has won. But the way of Jesus will also lead us to the empty tomb and to the resurrection.

These are our marching orders. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Be foolish. Be bold. Be disciples.

Sermon: January 10, 2016

Epiphany stars

Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution?

I know that I’ve certainly made a few halfhearted attempts. Usually they focus on eating habits and exercise, and they never last very long for me. First, it’s hard to find the motivation to cook elaborate meals for yourself when you live alone and all you really want to do is boil a pot of pasta. Second, I genuinely dislike exercise unless it is solitary, takes place in the dead of winter, and requires snow.

I suspect that my problems with New Year’s resolutions are experienced by others. Just once, I would love to meet someone still keeping diligently to their resolutions in July.

You might recall that the new church year started on the first Sunday of Advent at the end of November. Our new calendar year roughly coincides with the church season of Epiphany, a word that means “discovery” or “revelation.” Epiphany begins on January 6 with the visit of the magi, the wise men, to the young Jesus. Tradition says there were three of them, and that they were kings, but the Bible never tells us how many of them there were. The Bible doesn’t say that they were kings, either; they seem to have been more like astrologers, trying to predict the future with the stars and planets. It was, however, a star that drew them to Jesus. And even though they may have arrived when Jesus was a toddler, not a baby, they still recognized him as God incarnate.

Of course, the magi brought gifts to Jesus: gold and incense, rather impractical for Jesus the two-year-old but certainly meaningful for Christ the King. I wonder if they actually received the greater gift from their encounter with the living God. In a child, they saw the Messiah. They saw a peace-bringer, a justice-worker, a death-conqueror. They discovered that the very existence of this child was troubling King Herod, and once they saw Jesus face to face and looked into his eyes, they understood why — and left quickly for their own countries to protect his identity as long as they could. Their visit to Jesus had blessed them far beyond their expectations.

Inspired by the story of the magi, who received so much when they beheld the face of Christ, we are going to share star gifts this morning. This is a practice celebrated by many other congregations during Epiphany, and I thought it might speak to the people of St. John’s too. Think of them as the opposite of a New Year’s resolution: instead of something difficult we require ourselves to do, they represent gifts freely given to us.

Here’s how it works: the ushers are going to pass around baskets of paper stars. The stars represent the star guiding the magi to Jesus at Epiphany. Each star has a word on it. The words are inspired by traditional spiritual gifts and by the gifts Jesus shared with other people throughout his life and ministry.

When the basket comes to you, pick one star. Don’t hunt through the basket for your favorite one; don’t try to exchange it if you don’t like the word on it; don’t trade with your neighbor. Just take one, and take a moment to think about the word written on it.

(Stars are distributed)

How can this word be your guiding star in the year ahead? How can it point you toward Jesus? How does it resonate with your life? How does God speak to you through it?

I was working for my internship congregation in Delaware when I got my first Epiphany star. I reached into the basket, pulled out a little yellow star, and saw that it said…


Not hope, or joy, or strength, or any of the other things I thought I needed or wanted. Patience.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes and try to toss it back. You see, I don’t usually feel very patient, though I’m good at acting like it.  But, well, people were watching, and trying to trade in my star seemed out of keeping with the spirit of the activity. So I pulled my hand back from the basket and kept my patience star. I stuck it in the hymnal I used every Sunday, and at every service, I saw Patience staring up at me.

Gradually, I stopped rolling my eyes at it and started to listen.

As it turned out, patience was something I needed. I was getting pretty tired of putting down roots and pulling them up again. I had been in Delaware for five months and knew I’d be moving again in another seven, and then again nine months after that to an unknown area of the country—if I even found employment. I had barely started recovering from seven consecutive years of higher education, and I was facing another year of seminary soon. There was nothing I could do to fast-forward through the impatience, uncertainty, and anxiety to get to that magical day when I’d have a call and an ordination date and a place to live. My goodness, I really needed patience. I needed the reminder that I wasn’t alone — that wherever my journey led in the next year and a half, Jesus would be walking by my side. How could I have forgotten?

Patience was not my gift, but it was the gift given to me, and for that I was grateful.

As we hold our paper stars and consider their words this morning, we remember that Epiphany is a new beginning for us as Christians. The light of Christ grows brighter each week, revealing who the Messiah is as he walks among us, sharing our lives and our burdens. The light of Christ began as a single point, radiating from the strange new star that drew the magi to see who this exceptional child might be. This week it swells into the glow of sunrise as Jesus is baptized. The bystanders are caught in its rays as they see Jesus the Messiah surrender to God in the muddy water of the Jordan. They witness the Holy Spirit descend like a bird and pour itself into Jesus as he rises, dripping. They hear a voice that seems to come from everywhere claiming Jesus as the Beloved. And we all receive the gift of the same baptism, the same forgiveness of sins, the same promise: you are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.

Every day, the morning advances and the light of Christ grows brighter, revealed everywhere around and within us. With what gifts will it bless us next?


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