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Sharing their Christmas message: Excerpts of this year’s sermons from Madison-area clergy
The Wisconsin State Journal asked a cross-section of area Christian clergy members to share with readers excerpts from the sermons they plan to deliver on this most extraordinary Christmas.In most cases, the messages are being delivered online as churches adjust to new forms of worship during a pandemic, although some are also holding in-person services. At least one — Gateway Community Church in Middleton — planned to hold a drive-in service on Christmas Eve. Here are excerpts of their glad tidings.
Rev. Jenny Arneson, Sun Prairie United Methodist Church
‘So this is Christmas’Let’s just say it out loud, “Christmas is going to be different this year!” Like all the other significant times in 2020 when we would typically gather with family and friends, Christmas will also be a time when we are discouraged from gathering or traveling because the Coronavirus pandemic continues to rage in our communities, our country and the world.We may even be finding ourselves saying, “So this is Christmas.” And there may be many reasons to say those words. Maybe it’s the loss of life and employment and businesses due to the pandemic. Maybe this is the first Christmas without a loved one who has always been there. Maybe it’s the racial injustice, low-paying jobs, illness and broken relationships that is causing you to say, “So this is Christmas.”Maybe it’s the story of a young, pregnant girl going into labor and without much help from anyone else, gives birth and lays the baby in a feeding trough that had been used to feed barn animals just a few hours earlier and we say, “So this is Christmas.”Yet, this is the way God chose and continues to choose to come into our midst; right in the middle of our lives; right in the middle of sorrow and right in the middle of the mess. In her poem “Amazing Peace,” Maya Angelou wrote, “Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters.”The circumstances and stories of our lives will change, but God’s story never changes. The story told of Jesus’ birth does not change. What changes is the depth of the story’s meaning that is still being realized and revealed each time the story is told.This is the story of Emmanuel — God with us. The God who comes to us in the midst of our lives; however less than ideal our circumstance; however messy our lives may be. That is where God is born and we can say with joy, “So this is Christmas!”
Rev. Dr. Charlie Berthoud, Covenant Presbyterian Church
This has been a challenging year. A dark year. The good news of Christmas is that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Since we cannot safely worship together in the sanctuary this year, we dropped off and mailed Christmas gift boxes to our members. Each box has candy, crafts and candles — including the actual candles we use on Christmas Eve. With prerecorded and Zoom options for Christmas Eve worship, we will join together to share the light of Christ. And we remember that Jesus said “I am the light of the world” and he also said “You are the light of the world.” So we do our best to share the hope, peace, joy and love that Jesus brings the world.
Pastor Mike Brown, Bethel Lutheran Church
Such Beautiful DustNight watchers unite! Daydreamers awake! Dust off your telescopes and pull out your binoculars! This Christmas season the planets of Jupiter and Saturn draw closer to each other than they have been in nearly 800 years, generating the effect of an actual “Christmas star.” What a great opportunity to be reminded that Jesus’ earthly story opens under the vast canopy of the night sky! What a great time to be taken up into God’s grand sweep through time and space centering on the birth of the babe of Bethlehem. Praise the Lord! Exciting stuff! Mind-bending! Heartwarming! As we celebrate the holy child of heaven swaddled in the manger in Bethlehem, we see the Eternal One who is “wrapped in light as with a garment and who stretches out the heavens like a tent” (Psalm 104:2). The lights of heaven ignite, flame out and fill the cosmos with tiny particles of dust, which form the building blocks of new stars, planets and even people. Yes, it is true. The dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7) from which God formed all living things was created in the furnaces of exploding stars of heaven. You, dear friend, are made of star stuff. Planetary scientist and stardust expert Dr. Ashley King states, ”It is totally 100% true: nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.” But there is more. This same God who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6: 16) chooses to dwell inside creation, to dwell not only in the light but in the dust of the earth. In Jesus’ birth, the Eternal One of heaven breaks through Mary’s water to enter the world. Almost everyone understands that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Christians say that this one man was also the one God. But Martin Luther saw in this event not just the birth of one person. For Luther, the incarnation was not what we might call a “one off” or a “one and done” event, limited to only to Jesus. For Luther, the Eternal One becoming manifest in the dusty creatures of the earth gets repeated over and over again. In one of his Christmas sermons, Martin Luther said: “We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ’s birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ.”What this means, good friend, is that you are also part of God’s manifestation. You are part of all that is holy, beautiful and good in the world. So get outside! Lift your eyes heavenward! Scan the night sky! See the “Christmas Star” shine the light upon the new life within you.
Rev. Kelly J. Crocker, First Unitarian Society of Madison
Underneath a bright star, so long ago, came the birth of perfect love, of light and of hope. It came to a fractured and hurting world. This Christmas, around this hurting world, people gather once again to hear ancient stories, to light candles in the darkness, to sing familiar songs, to be reminded that love, and hope, and courage are still possible, here, and now. This is a different Christmas Eve with a long litany of loss. We have lost the presence of one another, of traditions we hold dear. We have watched those we love become ill and pass on from our sight. We have lost hope as we hear voices of hatred and fear in our communities, here, and around the globe. Here we are on this holiest of nights and we may struggle to see the holy among us. We are exhausted. We have been challenged. We carry loss and fear, uncertainty and loneliness, like we have never known.Just a few nights ago, we were witnesses to what we could call our own Christmas star. A star, not seen for 800 years, created by the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Perhaps this is the same star seen by those Wise Ones so long ago. The story tells us they followed that star to find perfect love in a holy child, a bearer of light. And this child arrived with a message of divine love, of a peace on earth found through the very human power of loving one another. The Wise Ones followed a star. Perhaps this star, too, is telling us that something new, something holy, is trying to be born among us. This time I hope, dare I say I believe, it is nothing less than humankind trying to find a new way of being human, finding a new way to live as one people on this small planet we share and finding a new way to love ourselves with an expansive love, a love that teaches us how to also love others. This is an immense thing to birth.In this time of anxiety, of uncertainty, of injury and illness for so many, of violence and dehumanization, of mistrust between neighbors, we would do well to simply tend our sheep on our very own hillside. We need more than ever to follow a star and to hope for this perfect love. We need more than ever to examine our own hearts and to open our hearts to another. We need more than ever to make friends beyond the conventions of sameness. We need more than ever to discover a perfect love, not only in a newborn child, but deep inside ourselves. Then, and only then, can we love this world into a new way of being. May we let something be born in us that heals the brokenness, that does not bow down to hatred and fear but rather meets them, and offers them love. Let us, this night, under the light of the brightest of stars, remember our greatest work, and all we know for sure, is love.
Pastor Tom Flaherty, City Church
The kindness of ChristmasWhat does it mean when the angel says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is well-pleased”? Is God’s kindness only available to a chosen few, or is it really “good news of great joy for all the people”?To understand the kindness of Christmas, it is helpful to listen to Paul’s explanation of how the gospel works: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5)The Old Testament explains why we were cut off from God’s Presence, revealing both God’s holiness, and man’s sinfulness. It makes it clear that even our righteous deeds are like “filthy rags” in His sight. (Isaiah 64:6) A flock of sheep appears white against a backdrop of green grass but looks filthy after a freshly fallen snow; the flock doesn’t change color, but only what they are compared to. God doesn’t compare us to one another but to His own holiness, which is why we all need a Savior.Sin separates us from His Presence but not from His love, and His love includes everyone. “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Jesus was well-pleased to make peace between us and God by dying for our sins on the cross; now all we need to do is receive God’s kindness by putting our faith in Christ.Have you experienced His kindness? Do you know personally the great joy available to you? Why not humble yourself in this year of humiliations and ask Jesus to be your Savior and Lord? It’s the secret to having a truly Merry Christmas!
The Rev. Dr. Miranda Hassett, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church
At our Christmas Eve service on Zoom, we’ll have a Christmas pageant, then I’ll use some props to show how the Nativity might have happened in a barn or a shed — or in the lower level of a house, where animals might be kept in that part of the world — or even in a cave carved into the soft rock behind a house, as a place for livestock to stay. This is how I will end my all-ages sermon.It doesn’t really make a difference to the story, whether it was a stable, or the ground floor of a house, or a cave behind a house. The heart of the story stays the same. Jesus, who was God, was born to an ordinary family, a family without much money, a family that wasn’t important or powerful or rich.Mary and Joseph didn’t have a cozy bed or a nice cradle to put their new baby in. I’m sure most of the time they held him, because that’s what you do with new babies; but when they needed to put him down for a minute, they had to put him in the manger, the animal feed trough. Because if they just put him on the ground, one of the animals might step on him by accident!This is the heart of the story: When God came to be with us, God didn’t choose to be powerful or rich. God didn’t choose to grow up in a fancy house with plenty of food and lots of toys. God chose simple people who didn’t have very much, to be God’s family. That is just the beginning of the story of all the ways Jesus helps us see the world with new eyes, but it’s a really important beginning.
Pastor Dean Howell, Grace Baptist Church
Bethlehem BreadMicah 5:2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlastingRoman dominion was on the mind of Caesar Augustus when he made the decree that the whole world should be taxed. The inhabitants of every city should return to their homeland to have their names recorded and their belongings documented. This may have been the first stay-at-home policy. Families were to remain home until the census was over. Interesting that everyone was ordered home during the first advent.According to the New Testament, Joseph brought Mary from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth into Judea and then to the city of Bethlehem. Bethlehem means the “house of bread.” Over 700 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the minor prophet Micah recorded the exact place where the birth would take place. Insignificant compared to other cities in Judah yet God chose Bethlehem. Insignificant perhaps in size and population yet not insignificant concerning the Messiah. The house of bread would bring us the Bread of life. The fascinating story of Ruth took place in Bethlehem, where Ruth gleaned barley and wheat from the same fields where the angels appeared to the shepherds. The Shepherd King who was born to rule was also born to die upon Calvary.Most interesting, Micah reveals Jesus as eternal. This is the most important point, that God himself became flesh and dwelt among us, Immanuel. Underneath this truth we find redemption in the Lord Jesus Christ. Christmas Day is almost here, and we will spend time celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Jesus came the first time there was fear, frustration, hurts and helplessness in the world. We have these same things in our day and the only answer to these issues is the person of Jesus Christ. My prayer is that you would consider a personal relationship with the Bethlehem Bread, the Eternal Shepherd King who was crucified, buried and risen again to complete salvation for all who call upon Him. Merry Christmas, Madison.
Bishop Donald J. Hying, Catholic Diocese of Madison
JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL
This painful year of 2020 has dramatically revealed our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and mortality. It has also shown the resilience and generosity of the human spirit. So many things that may have seemed so important a year ago matter very little now. Other realities, like faith, prayer, family and friends, health and ultimately God stand in sharper focus as the bedrock of our existence. This year will be a different sort of Christmas, as we pray for those who died this year, those who are ill and those who heroically serve them.We will forego many of our Christmas traditions this year, but the central truth remains. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, entered into our broken and sinful world as a vulnerable baby, to rescue us from sin and death. In our poverty and frailty, we can most profoundly relate to the Christ Child, who is born among animals and adored by shepherds. How easy it is to romanticize Christmas; the reality was far different. The advent of God is marked by poverty, obscurity, and danger. God quietly slips in through the back door, unbidden and unnoticed but here with us. This overwhelming divine love is the cause, meaning and destiny of our human existence.I appreciate this quote from William of Saint Thierry, as he speaks to God, “You first loved us so that we might love you, not because you needed our love, but because we could not be what you created us to be, except by loving you.” No matter the suffering, trials, difficulties, we find ourselves in this year, we know that Love always wins and when we give ourselves to that Love, Christmas is born in our hearts all over again. Know of my love and prayers for all of you! Have a blessed Christmas, as we pray for better days in 2021.
Pastor Paul Lundgren, Gateway Community Church
Christmas, for me, begs a few questions that we must consider. What could Jesus value so highly that he, the Almighty One who created the heavens and the earth, would take the form of a helpless and powerless infant? What could he value so highly that he would be born to a mother and father of “humble estate”? Even more astounding, what could he value so highly that he would purposefully come in order to die on a cross?Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1: 46-56 teaches us that God loves the humble and lowly and thus he became humble and lowly. Mary says that through him the mighty will be brought low. In Jesus’ case, the mightiest (God) became the lowest (an infant). Mary says that through him the low will be lifted up. And in his case, the one who made himself low would indeed be lifted up, but on a cross.He did all this for us! He loves and values us enough to have drawn near to us on Christmas and to have died for us on Good Friday. All so that if any of us will humbly trust in him, we can be filled with good (v. 53) and receive his mercy (v. 54).I pray we all will know his goodness and mercy this Christmas season!
The Rev. Staci Marrese-Wheeler, Lakeview & Glenwood Moravian Congregations of Madison
The Rev. Howard Thurman, theologian and Civil Rights leader, wrote, “Christmas returns, as it always does, with its assurance that life is good.”Life. It is all at once beautiful, horrible, miraculous and mundane. Life is the essence of why we celebrate Christmas. Immanuel — God with us — incarnation — God made flesh. Christmas is about God born into and alive in the world.Christmas is about God living among us in the midst of the realities of human life, like poverty and political machinations and a housing crisis and a census. It is about God living among us in relationships and questions of identity and conflicts of national interest. It is about God living among us in celebration and grief and betrayal and joy.The Gospel of John says that all things came into being through Jesus — God With Us — the source of our life.“What has come into being in him is life, and the light was the life of all people.The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”[John 1: 3b-5]Christmas has returned, as it always does, after a year like no other. We might struggle, even though it is Christmas, to find the “assurance that life is good” in this year’s pandemic and divisions and grim statistics.Yet, for those who seek and love him, Jesus is the light shining in all of the darkness we experience and giving us life in the midst of it. Jesus is “the life” that is good. His is the life we embrace and when we follow him, he becomes the life we live.Christmas returns and with it we are reminded from where our source of life has come. Christmas returns and we remember what a life lived in Christ looks like — loving in the midst of self-interest, compassionate in the midst of apathy, hopeful in the midst of cynicism, just in the midst of corruption.Christmas returns and we, who have seen much darkness since we last celebrated, are assured that ultimately life still shines with goodness.
Pastor Matt Metzger, Blackhawk Church
A Great LightThis feels like a different kind of Christmas. The year has been filled with the unexpected. At best, we’ve learned new ways to work and to stay connected with loved ones. We’ve also grieved deeply. In this season, what should we make of these words?“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Isaiah 9:2It’s easy to coat the familiar Christmas story in a peppermint glaze. But as we look closer at all that Mary and Joseph faced, we find that the first Christmas was the most unexpected of all.It began with a teenager named Mary, unmarried and pregnant, facing poverty and discrimination. She and Joseph had more questions than answers. An angel had appeared to each of them, telling them she’d give birth to a son by the Holy Spirit. They would call him Jesus. Now there’s an awkward subject to bring up over a holiday meal.They followed a government order to travel to Bethlehem for a census. Nobody thought, “road trip!” It was a grueling trek across harsh landscapes. Mary was close to full term. The only room they could find there housed animals. No toilet paper. No hand sanitizer. The whole thing stunk.We love to make the story of God’s son spending his first night in a feeding trough warm and fuzzy. But it’s really a story of brilliant light shining in profound darkness. Jesus has the power to bring light into the dark season we’re walking through. This is a great year to read the story in Luke chapter 2 with fresh eyes. Ask God to help you see how the story connects with your life even now. Listen a little closer to Christmas song lyrics. Experience an online Christmas service. You just might find something unexpected.
Hon./Rev. Everett Mitchell, Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church
The Courage of ChristmasMy 8-year-old son and I were talking about Christmas and the story of baby Jesus. While explaining all the different ways that the baby Jesus inspired people, he had a confused look on his face. I stopped and asked him, “What’s wrong? Are you confused by the story?” He said, “I am not confused but I wonder how can a baby inspire people when a baby needs so much help and attention when a baby is first born?” His question made me re-examine the story of Jesus’ birth through the lens of those who supported Jesus’ ministry. I discovered that the Christmas story involves the courageous acts of everyday people who chose to be inspired by God’s action of engaging justice and love. For example, Mary harnessed a conversation with the angel to affirm her own internal self-worth and was willing to embrace a new narrative that focused on who the woman people will call her, “from now on.” Joseph represented the courage to live with a blended family. Joseph could have rejected Jesus and Mary. But, as the angel instructed, he embraced a child and protected him. The Wise Men followed the star but chose to raise a question that put fear in the hearts of the Chief Priests and Herod. But, the Wise Men chose to ignore Herod’s request to reveal Jesus’ location. They chose another way home. Or, even the courage of shepherds living in the fields, who heard a chorus of singing reminding the community about God.These are important stories because in a season of uncertainty, the Christmas story is a reminder that the gifts God gives to us still require a collection of community and voices in order to ensure those little promises reach their destiny. Maybe the next civil rights leader is living in a blended family with a bonus mom and a dad. Maybe the next astronaut is somewhere gazing at the stars, listening for the voice of the universe. Maybe the next Supreme Court Justice is asking questions of teachers, family and church members in a way that makes everyone nervous. Or maybe the first female president is redefining her destiny as we speak. Justice requires more than belief. Justice requires the pieces of everyday courage to be put together so that the Kingdom of God emerges. Jesus is a big piece, but as my son pointed out, even Jesus needed the courage of others to reach his throne.
Rev. Dr. Tom Robinson, Christ Presbyterian Church
‘Mary and Joseph (and us), longing for Peace and Comfort’There are times when time seems to stand still. We need those times. We need THIS to be such a time, as we catch our weary breath and exhale slowly to center ourselves for the time to come.Mary and Joseph, and this birth in the Bethlehem Manger in our reading from Luke, provide us with such a time.Christmas Eve, when a birth that went virtually unnoticed to the world swirling around, was attended by shepherds who listened to angel song, and, with just a bit of liturgical-calendar-harmonization with Matthew’s Gospel, Magi, wise-ones looking for signs of hope, from a distant land, were on their way…2000 years of worshiping this Prince of Peace, brings us in this Advent time, to anticipate this Holy Night.And in all that time, have we yet found true Peace, of world, of heart, of meaning, of humanity?Perhaps we all need to let time stand still, to let the Silence of the “Silent Night” gather our hearts together at the Holy Birth. Mary and Joseph longed for Comfort and Peace, in a war-torn nation, in a land devoid of hope and healing … They yearned for what I call a “deepening silence” of the soul. It is the feeling that Pastors sometimes experience, when they are the last one out of the Church building on Christmas Eve, locking up after 1 a.m., and the air is really cold and clear, there is snow around on everything, and the world is very quiet, very still, and Christmas busy-ness is just past. (This COVID-adjusted year will be a bit different in this regard!)Yes, when time stands still and the stillness of a holy silence embraces our souls, going ever deeper into our hearts, we do finally realize Peace.• It is the Peace we walk outside following a snowfall and not a sound is heard or a motion known, just being in that moment;• It is such a profound peace as when we look down upon the sleeping face of a new-born child and all that matters, in all the universe, is the trust and vulnerability and miracle in that face;• It is the deep peace when we realize with pride and amazing joy that the children we have nurtured in family and whose pictures are posted in the gallery on the second floor of the church have become the young adults who are now the nurturers;• It is the silence after a last holy breath, of a loved one who is finally released from suffering to be at peace, and we believe, in divine embrace;• It is the deepening silence of realizing that the relationships of friends, of faith, of respect for humankind, and of God … these are the only possessions of any worth in God’s Creation, and that worth is beyond any measure.Is there any hope for Peace, in our times, in our daily stresses, in our personal unrest, amid the seemingly-endless culture wars and political discord? The Birth of Jesus says there is, when we are open to it … a “deepening silence” of awareness of an Incarnate God, born in quiet obscurity, discovered in glorious rejoicing, known in surprising signs of faith. Incarnation can be anytime and anyplace, drawing us to God.The “Deepening Silence”, the Comforting Peace, of that “Silent Night” is every night, every day, every land and every people … when eyes are opened to Immanuel, “God with us.” Walls come down, tears of sorrow and tears of blessing mingle, angels appear and enjoin us in their songs, and the gifts we lay at his feet are our own moments, our dreams, our endless chances to live faithfully.What do we do with “deepening silence” this Christmas Eve? I suggest this. Don’t just sing “Silent night” — but pray “Silent Night,” as you sing the words. Make it the theme for your life. And whenever you are hurting, when peace eludes you, when you are sad or lonely, doubting your worth, doubting the worth of our culture, our world … “sing the silence” of this night, and let God’s Peace find you. It will find you. It will.Amen.
Rev. Tim Schaefer, First Baptist Church of Madison
Hope in New Beginnings“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” These words from Isaiah bring us hope every year at Christmastime. We have come to know these words well. But for many of us, they take on a new meaning this year. Written during a time of great turmoil and despair — against the backdrop of fear, the inevitability of war, and the dread of death and deportation — Isaiah pens what is almost certainly a coronation hymn for a new king. It is an aspirational hymn, articulating the desirable qualities of the ideal leader. It represents, to paraphrase Isaiah’s words, a light at the end of the tunnel — a glimmer of hope to a suffering people. All the hopes and dreams of a kingdom rest on the shoulders of a justice-seeking leader who will break the yoke of his people’s burdens and liberate them from the rod of their oppressor.I cannot help but recognize the relevance of this passage to us in this time. In many ways, 2020 has been a year of turmoil. As COVID-19 cases continue to spread into the tens of millions in this country, we remain anxious about our own safety and health; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake, among too many others, have forced to the surface the righteous anger over the racism that is so deeply embedded in our country’s institutions, including our churches; our elected officials have failed to serve the needs of the people they represent, engaging instead in partisan brinksmanship and stoking division, suspicion and fear among us.Yet, if we look more closely, we can see glimmers of hope in the midst of our despair. The distribution of vaccines and sacrifices being made by all who stay home, social distance, and wear masks to protect our neighbors; our commitments to recognizing our own complicity in racism and dismantling racist systems and institutions; record turnout and engagement in our civic life and the ambitious promises from our national leaders for a more inclusive and collaborative governance to heal our political divisions — all of these things give me hope.Yes, things may seem hopeless right now. But one thing is clear to me — in history’s most dire moments, humanity is always able to find those glimmers of hope. The prophet Isaiah found hope in his time, and the prophets of our time find it here and now. As we enter into a new year with its many promises, let us not forget that there is great hope in new beginnings.
Fr. Randy J. Timmerman, Saint Dennis Catholic Church
Hope for Everyone!“The light shines in the darkness.” (John 1:5)Each day brings us closer to the reality of a vaccination available for all. At the natural level, we hope this vaccine will allow us to return to some sort of normalcy and allow us to gather with loved ones without fear and uncertainty. Yet, at the interior level our hope is renewed in the gift of Christmas.It is helpful to remember that the original Christmas, when Christ was born, the situation was not ideal. The people of Israel were under some very difficult conditions of life, and in that midst, the Son of God was born. Amidst a smelly stable and very isolated, the Savior of the world was brought forth.Perhaps one of the lessons learned in the midst of the pandemic is that our God will never leave us. May this be a Christmas to “test everything and retain what is good”. (1 Thes 5: 21) Find the courage to let go of that which has distracted and diminished the light within. Ponder the gifts and graces received as a result of these trying times. Bring the light within to a weary neighbor. Focus on the message of Christmas and hope. Our God comes to save us. We will never be alone, Emmanuel- God with us. Help is on the way and there is Hope for Everyone!
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