"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Archive for September 2013

Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator (CFEI)

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I’ve done forensics work for a local engineering firm for the past 5 years or so. Usually I get called in as a specialist in electrical phenomena – so the lead investigator (usually a mechanical engineer) may refer a question to me when a fire or failure involves electrical stuff that may have failed in a weird or wacky manner.lg_CFEIDecal09081323249

Some failures are pretty apparent just with a first look, but sometimes you can have a complicated electrical chain of causation that is not immediately apparent.

For example, you have a failure on the overhead electrical service that results in conductor to conductor arcing that severs the neutral conductor. When you have a ‘floating neutral’, particularly in a 3-phase service, you can end up with very unpredictable behaviour. The first result is that the phase voltages may swing as high as the phase-to-phase value resulting in over-voltage conditions. If you combine that failure with a system that uses metallic conduit as the ground conductor, and a marginal building ground system, you can end up with the conduit being energized and conducting fault current continuously. That type of failure is not readily apparent, and may result in a fire or failure at some point far distant from the electrical service entrance.

More recently, I’ve been doing more fire investigations on my own. It is really neat work, and I’ve never sought other certification as I figured my engineering credentials are adequate.

This year I decided to finally go for licensing as a certified fire and explosion investigator (CFEI), and just received my exam results back. I stopped collecting pre- and post-nominals many years ago, but in this case I’m happy to be able to say I’m now a CFEI.

Written by sameo416

September 27, 2013 at 10:33 am

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The Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13)

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Sermon preached at St Margaret’s Edmonton, 22 Sep 13  Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13 (the unjust steward)

Today’s Gospel reading, the unjust steward, is rightfully called the hardest parable in the Gospels. We’re certainly used to Jesus using images of reversal (the first shall be last), or shocking insults (you are like whitewashed tombs, white on the outside and full of death and corruption on the inside) to illustrate points about the kingdom of God. Today, however, this parable seems to outstrip anything we’ve encountered previously.

Now, the first thing to note about difficult teachings is that any approach which attempts to make the teaching go away is something we should reject outright. Our first option, when encountering a Christian teaching that personally challenges us, is always to somehow make that teaching go away. The group known as the Jesus Seminar was very skilled at this, and it’s not surprising that after they had voted on all of the Jesus sayings in Scripture all of the really challenging, life changing sorts of things ended up on the discards heap…by concluding Jesus didn’t really say those things.

Our second attempt to protect ourselves is to make the teaching go away by concluding it really doesn’t speak to us. So when Jesus calls the Pharisees whitewashed tombs, my first reaction is always to cheer – yeah Jesus! You give it to those evil men. If I allow myself to do that, I miss the point entirely…there is far more of the Pharisee in me than I ever want to admit, even to myself. In fact, if you look at the Pharisees in honest detail, you would likely conclude that most of the Pharisees would make pretty good Anglicans – they tithe, show up at all the parish events, follow the rules, dress well and sit on vestry.

The first caution about difficult teachings is not to allow yourself to escape by blunting the Word in a way that protects you. The second caution is not to miss the point by taking only a portion of the reading in isolation – Scripture is meant to be consumed as a complete meal, not a different side dish each week. Our lectionary is unfortunately very skilled at snipping out readings and leaving off both the hard parts and the most important parts. For example, it is important to note that the first sentence after the snip today is the reaction of the Pharisees to the parable –which gives us a clue about who the parable is talking about.

“The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and scoffed at him. He said to them, ‘You are the people who impress others with your righteousness; but God sees through you; for what is considered admirable in human eyes is detestable in the sight of God.”

And this rebuke is immediately followed by the story of the rich man and Lazarus, who you may recall is so poor that he lay in the rich man’s gate and the dogs came and licked his sores.

The second thing you miss in the sequence of readings is that the unjust steward comes right after the parable of the Prodigal Son, considered the king of the parables. Also in the immediate vicinity of these parables are the cleansing of the ten lepers, the unjust judge and the Pharisee and the Publican. The overall theme of this section of Luke’s Gospel is description of the Kingdom, and how it behaves nothing like this world.

Ok, into the text. The parable starts with the description of the problem – the master has become aware that his business manager is squandering his money. Now stop, before we go any further, I want to emphasize why you can only really understand these parables when you read them together. The two Greek words used here for squander (diaskorpicon) and money or possessions (hyparchonta) is the same word for what the prodigal son has done with his inheritance.

Immediately after the parable starts the master passes summary judgement on the steward, orders him to prepare the final accounts and fires him. So, like the prodigal son, we have an encounter with the death of the old life – for the son when he dies in a foreign country through poverty and starvation, and for the steward when he leaves his master’s office. At the start, we have the death of all that the unjust steward has known…and he immediately sets out to solve this problem, by cooking his master’s accounts so as to curry favour with his master’s debtors. If he builds favour with them, the steward hopes, he will be have a place to rest after being cast out of the master’s house.

This parable sounds somewhat quaint to us, but it expresses a profound truth about God’s economy which is this: God’s economic plan for His creation bears absolutely no relationship to anything that we might consider to be wise. This is one of the reasons why so many bible commentators spend their time, not trying to figure out why God has said things so outrageous and challenging, but rather explaining why God didn’t say what he really meant. In God’s economy, outrageous debts are forgiven without a second thought. This is outrageous, and an affront to anything that we capitalist westerners hold dear. Imagine going into your bank and being told, “You know your second (or third) mortgage on your home you took out to finance your small business? We’re going to forgive all the interest charges for the next 25 years.” What might you think of your banker after that encounter? Even though you would be happy, you would be left wondering how much longer your bank would be in business.

The thought is so out there, that we can’t even conceive it as a possible reality, and so we see this parable as quaint, and maybe not at all related to our real lives. So, we say, Jesus forgives debts. A nice thought, but having no real place in my real-world life.

That’s another way we work to misdirect a challenging message, to assume that it might have sounded good 2,000 years ago, but that it has no real application to us today. No – in fact, the one thing about the Bible that continues to amaze me is its ability, if we’re open and receptive, to continue to bring us to our knees even in this modern era.
When the unjust steward is confronted with the end of his life as he knew it, he does not first think of revenge against his master, but rather how he will survive. I’m too weak to dig and too proud to beg, he says to himself, so what shall I do? He decides to appear to his master’s debtors as both just and generous, and so forgives large amounts of owed money – it’s not a huge debt, maybe about 500 denarii in each case, about $25,000 in modern money, but in both cases amounts to a sizable fraction of what was owed.

The usual interpretations of this parable either make the steward a hero, or a villain, either one who is oppressed by the evil rich, or one who is a crook through and through. I’ll suggest that both interpretations are likely correct, depending on how you read the parable; however, I don’t think those types of interpretations really help you to understand God’s economy because they recreate the parable in capitalist, first-world terms…after all, we all know the rich are evil by any measure, even though, by any global standard of measurement, Canadians are among the wealthiest in the world. So before we feel too smug about the evil rich, we should recall that most of the world would count us as the rich man.

The more important understanding of this parable is not tied down in assigning 1st-world characters to the players, but rather in finding how God’s radical economy is being made manifest by every person in the parable. First, the master calls the unjust steward on what he has been doing – we don’t know what the crime is, but it likely has to do with something the steward is doing that will bring disrepute on his master. Honour was measured as more important than any other measure in this ancient world, and a steward’s actions were thought to reflect badly on the master…because a steward acted as the master. So the steward may have been charging unreasonable interest, a practice banned by Torah, and that action would have brought dishonour on the master – what is being squandered is the master’s standing in the community. At this point in the tale, neither the master nor the servant understand God’s economy.

As the steward considers the end of his life as a steward, he becomes very shrewd and decided to forgive these debts so as to demonstrate his honour in business. The debtors are delighted by this unexpected turn in their favour, an unexpected forgiveness of what was owed. The master, in turn, has his eyes opened to this new economy. Whereas before all he saw was dishonour which he could only address by firing the steward and cutting his losses, now he sees a new way out of his bind – unrighteous forgiveness of debts which will serve to put him in the most righteous and honourable light possible. Rather than ending up the laughing stock of the town, the master instead ends up the hero through the servant’s shrewd and questionable accounting.

Without trying to strain the parable, the path to the servant’s conversion to God’s unrighteous economy of forgiveness only comes about by the servant’s death – that is, the ending of the life that he had known up to that point. Likewise, the master’s conversion to God’s unrighteous economy only comes by the servant’s example: unexpected forgiveness of debts. That is, out of the master’s death of dishonour, he finds new life in the servant’s new life. Likewise, while we’re not told about the debtor’s response to this, we can expect a similar reaction from them – renewed new life at the relief from debt. God’s economy, when it breaks through, transforms everyone involved, bringing life out of the death of this world.

The first important lesson from this parable comes to us concerning times of great trial in our lives. When we are convinced that all that is left before us is death, through the illness of a loved one, the loss of employment, the death of a child, and nothing will ever be whole again. Remember the lesson of the unjust steward. It is only after he dies to this life, that he finds the radical new life that exists on the other side of death. In the reality of the life of a person of faith, it is often only when we have been emptied of all the things of this world that God can proceed to make us truly wealthy in His economy.

Looking back to the parable of the prodigal son, we see the same actions at work here. The surprising turn of heart of the master, is the same as the surprising response of the wronged father when the prodigal returns home. Both parables are also fundamentally about the honour of a father, or the honour of a master, concepts that would be far more shocking to an older middle-eastern audience than we hear today. The shocking thing in both parables is that the person in a position of power once dishonoured, responds not with anger or violence, but rather with radical forgiveness.

What the unjust steward tells us is that grace cannot come into this world by respectability, or by wealth, or by the number of invitations to the right social gatherings that we receive. Rather, grace comes into our lives through our death: our death to the world, to all the things which the world values. In fact, the outrageous economy of God will almost always be considered by this world to be closer to crime than to what the world would count as faith.

One of the best reads on this parable comes from Fr Robert Capon in his book, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus.”

“The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus, is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.” Jesus was, “…not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he dies as a criminal.” And he did all this to “…catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.”

The point is that worldlings like this – the sons of this world – cope with an emergency in their temporal affairs with a far-sighted realism and a resourceful acumen which religious folk – the sons of light – would do well to emulate in the pursuance of their spiritual calling.

At the end of the parable we have a master covered with honour, a servant with a new job, or a renewed lease on his old job, and a bunch of debtors infused with new life. It’s not hard to see this as a parallel of what God is performing in this world. The Son comes to humanity, and outrageously forgives debts. The Father delights in the son’s shrewdness – that’s exactly what I was thinking of but couldn’t figure out how to do it! Exclaims the master. And those touched by the Son receive forgiveness of debts, and find new life out of what they only thought was death.

The grace of God only works by death and losing, which is foolishness to this world. May God bring us all deeply into His foolishness. Amen.

Written by sameo416

September 22, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Cost of Discipleship

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Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33 (the cost of discipleship) Pulpit supply in a friend’s parish.

Pray. I’m delighted to be with you here today sharing in God’s Word and in our worship of the almighty. This month, the Gospel readings bring us an increasingly challenging series of snips of text, providing us a series of teachings and parables, all around the question of the cost of salvation. Not a comfortable topic, and certainly not one that lends itself as the setting of a talk for children! Yet that is exactly the manner in which we are called to approach the Father in faith – and as is fitting children, the root message in these texts is simple, but has infinite impact.

I want to comment on the reading from Philemon for a moment. Our schedule of readings cuts this off at verse 21, which is unfortunate given this is a very short book, and only has another four verses after 21. In my reading of Philemon, the verse that jumped out at me was verse 22 – let me reset the stage.

Paul is writing his co-worker in the Gospel, Philemon, from Paul’s place in prison. Paul mentions prison three times in this short letter. The purpose of the letter seems primarily to be Paul’s commendation of his child Onesimus, who has been Paul’s helper while he is in prison. The letter tells us a number of things about Onesimus – he is (or was) a slave of Philemon, who appears to have done something that has left him in Philemon’s debt. Paul calls Onesimus a slave, and goes on to say that if Philemon is owed anything, or if Onesimus has wronged him at all, those things should be charged to Paul’s account…that is, those accounts should be wiped clean off of Onesimus’ record.

This is incredible, that Paul would do such a thing, and he doesn’t even specify how big the debt could be. Now, put this in terms we can imagine. I’m building a new house and because of some bad deals I’ve made, the bank requires a co-signer for my mortgage. Would you co-sign my loan? Oh, wait, that’s not a direct parallel. This is closer to what Paul is doing. I’m building a new house because my family is growing, and there’s no room left for us…will you pay for that house for me? Your first question (after some shock at my audacity) will likely be to ask…(how big a house, how much, what neighbourhood are you planning on building in). I’ll continue in my boldness and say, “I really don’t know how much. It might be a very big house, and we might decide to build next door to that guy that owns Rexall Drugs, so it might be really expensive.” At this point you will have moved on to thinking about cleaning your gutters, or the coming tea after the service, or how you can quickly end this conversation with an obviously deranged father – pay for your house? I’m not even paying for my own!

That, however, is exactly what Paul is doing on behalf of Onesimus. He offers to take on all of his debt solely because Onesimus is now a member of the body of believers. We don’t know what Onesimus has done – run away? Stolen money? Murdered a member of Philemon’s family? We don’t know, but we do know that some reparation, some forgiveness is required – and Paul tells Philemon that all that debt of sin is to be counted as Paul’s burden, and not Onesimus’. CS Lewis wrote that forgiveness sounds like a really great concept, until we’re actually called to do it, and then it seems not so good. But God’s forgiveness is audacious in the extreme.

This should strike you as being as audacious as my request that you build me a house next to Daryl Katz, with a skating rink and a pool, by the way. It’s not that surprising given who Paul was serving, and how his conversion on the road to Damascus had literally remade his being. Paul is just reflecting the audacious forgiveness offered to us by virtue of our faith in Jesus Christ – are you a murderer, a thief, a liar, a cheat, a person who gossips, a person who has never forgiven that teacher in grade 6 who hurt you so badly? Well, all that is done away with by virtue of Christ’s death – all of it, not one tiny bit is left in the big accounts book of God, because that account book has been wiped away as well.

This is so audacious that we can’t believe it, and we spend our lives wondering, is it even remotely possible that this can be true? This is how Paul, even while languishing in prison, writes this appeal of his own hand. The audacious nature of God’s forgiveness is set out in a wonderful movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? This is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in the deep south in the early 20th century. Have you seen it? It’s well worth a watch, and it has some rather profound theology worked out in the tale. The three main characters have escaped from prison, and are on a journey to rescue a great treasure – the money from an armoured car heist, if I recall. That turns out to be a lie, but in all great narratives it is the journey that counts. The three come across a revival baptism at the river, and one of them, Delmar, runs to the head of the line and submits himself for baptism. As he comes up out of the water they have the following exchange:

Delmar O’Donnell: Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Ulysses Everett McGill: Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar O’Donnell: The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Ulysses Everett McGill: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?

Delmar O’Donnell: Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.

The audacious forgiveness of God – neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on us now, and thank God for that. Paul makes an even more audacious statement next, also based soundly in God’s economy of Grace, that Philemon is not only to receive Onesimus back forgiven and free from debt, but he is no longer to be his slave, but rather his brother, a beloved brother in the faith. This, we have already heard in the Gospel, is part of the reason Christ marks the cost of faith so high – because it undoes all the comfortable power relationships we have in the world around us, and suddenly our property, a slave, comes back as a full member of our household. Paul is clear in this change in relationship when he calls Onesimus his son in the faith. I’ll talk about this more in a moment, because it is exactly what the Gospel is telling us, that our faith in Christ is a great leveler in terms of power imbalance, and this is one reason why the faith overhauls any community it enters in a real way, and is also the reason dictatorships always quickly seek to suppress the church.

Back to Philemon for a moment more – what strikes me most about Paul’s letter is the first verse excluded by out cycle of readings, verse 22. After interceding for Onesimus Paul closes by saying, “At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” This gives me some pause when I think about the form of my prayers, which usually include a large component of things that I need (or think I need) done in my life. There’s nothing wrong with petitions, Jesus tells us we should ask the Father for whatever is on our hearts, but Paul’s focus makes me think about prayer a bit differently.

When one of us is in need, we often stop to send out an email, or call a friend or activate a prayer chain, with a request that goes something like this, “I’m in the midst of , please include me in your prayers asking for ” that’s the kind of request brothers and sisters in the faith are called to make to each other as we share burdens, and ask for petitions on our behalf. But do you notice that Paul makes no such request? He would be quite proper to finish his letter, “and please have the brothers and sisters pray for my speedy release from this prison.” Last week I received an email from Myron Penner, a priest who just left this diocese to minister to a church in Bolivia. One of their fellow missionaries, a physician, has been accused of malpractice and thrown into a nasty prison (where she still is held). Myron boldly asked us for prayers for her safety and release, exactly as he should have. But look again at Paul – all he says is please make up your spare room, for by prayer I hope I will soon be with you.

For Paul, he is confident that the Father will be looking out for him where ever and whenever he might be, and so it doesn’t matter. He states the outcome, arriving at Philemon’s guest room, as if it is a foregone conclusion. It is a powerful display of faith.

Ok, now over to the really tough material this week, this being Jesus’s comment on the cost of discipleship. The challenging Word comes right at the start: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus is not encouraging us to literally hate our beloved family members, but he is making a clear statement about what we chose to treasure in our hearts, the things that are most important for us. The caution is directly against idolatry, against placing worship of things of this world, even our families, above God’s rightful place in the order of things. We are to love the Lord our God, with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength (which is the first and great commandment) and secondly, to love our neighbours as ourselves. Love of neighbour includes our love of family, and while important it is always stated in second place to love of God. Indeed, it has been written that we are not able to properly love those around us, unless we first love God we are unable to love in a real and genuine way (1 John 4:19). It all starts with love of God, and Jesus states this is his usual uncompromising, ‘you have to give it all up, everything, if you want to follow me’ way: if you want to follow me you must be prepared to hate those you love.

It does raise another question, about what to do in a family where belief is not consistent, where parents mock their children’s faith, or visa-versa. Even more challenging can be the case where one spouse is a believer, and the other is not. Jesus is not telling us to be ready to hate in those cases either, but he is cautioning us that His coming to humanity brought a sword that will cause conflict of the worst kind. The question he leaves before us, is what we will do if it comes time to chose: burn incense for the emperor or die; support an unrighteous government that uses violence to achieve its economic goals, or publicly stand for something different even if that carries a personal cost. That is the call of the Christian, tough as it might be.

Consider a comment on our faith by the English writer G.K. Chesterton, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that it’s been found [too] difficult and not tried.” Christianity is not rejected by many because it does not answer the big questions, but because the answers it does give draw the inquirer into a deeper relationship that requires work, prayer, contemplation, caring. Our relationship with God, like any relationship, requires hard work.

Jesus follows the difficult statement with two short parables, that are not at all that helpful – both illustrate the importance of counting your assets before undertaking a major project. In one case building a tower, in the second before going to war. The parables are not so much meant to tell us something about God, but about how we carefully consider important decisions in this world. Usually, we don’t build until we know the house can be paid for…we don’t undertake to make war unless we know that victory is a good probability. But this does not tell us much about God, because in both cases God comes with a different answer: for the builder, he points not to the building but rather to the chief cornerstone which the builder (this world) rejected; for the king, he points not to the mathematics of victory, but rather sends his Son to die to bring peace to those who make war. Jesus’ point is – look at how carefully you consider the things of this world, that one day will rust or be eaten by moths, so then how much more carefully should you consider things of God. He ends by emphasizing that we must renounce all we have – and the Greek word here refers to possessions and everything else, everything. To follow Jesus, you just have to give it all up, all of it. The good news is that we’ve already been given all we need to meet the cost of entering heaven.

Our lectionary has skipped the parable just before today’s reading – we get it in other years, from other Gospels, and that omission is a shame. The parable is the wedding banquet, where the master’s invited guests all reject his hospitality and so the master sends his servants out into the highways and byways to collect whomever happens to be wandering around, the poor and the blind and the crippled and the lame. And when they don’t fill the banquet hall he orders the servants, “‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” My house will be filled is God’s biggest concern. How then do we find a place at that banquet?

Well, in God’s economy we’ve been given everything we need to be saved. The price of salvation is infinitely high, and we need to count the cost to us for that tells us something about the cost to God. What you conclude in the end is that everything you are, everything you have, is exactly the right price for salvation: the price is one life, which is exactly what we’ve each been given by the Grace of God. To live forever, all we need to do is die. And thanks be to God for that. Amen

Luke 14:12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers[b] or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant[c] to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you,[d] none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

Christ Be With Me

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Saint Patrick

Even more challenging, and more frequent, are the subtle small decisions that we have to make on a daily basis. Looking the other way while someone does something that while not being entirely wrong, you know you should do something; hearing a very improper joke told at the coffee table about something you know personally impacts one of your co-workers and not speaking up; being asked to do something by your boss that makes you feel just a little uncomfortable. Those are the decisions that Christ calls us to seek a different way, even if it results in personal cost.

Written by sameo416

September 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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