Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Glory and humiliation

February 25, 2017

Transfiguration – 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who can transfigure and transform those who, with Jesus, are willing to accept that the way of faith may just be the way of the cross. Amen.

The very public and tragic meltdowns of someone like Grant Hackett are a stark reminder of how difficult it is for a person whose life has been spent in the limelight and the constant affirmation that success brings, to deal with life afterwards. If their sense of identity and purpose has been tied up in their sport and their success in that sport, it may be extraordinarily difficult to forge a new life, a new identity and a sense of purpose after retirement.

“Everything that goes up must come down,” the saying goes. Most of us know that highs of life are very often followed by lows. When a great party ends and we are left with the cleaning up, or when friends who have stayed for a while leave to go home, we can be left with a sense of emptiness, a lack of direction and no way to fill our days. We would like the good times to go on forever but life is not like that.

Traditionally – from the ninth century onwards – the feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated on August 6th. When the Lectionary was updated about 22 years ago the festival was moved to the last Sunday of Epiphany, the Sunday immediately prior to Lent. In this new position the feast day does a number of things. It acts as a bridge between Epiphany and Lent, it reminds us that our faith did not emerge in a vacuum, that it has its roots in the ancient stories of Moses and Elijah, it points us forward to Jesus’ resurrection and Ascension and in its context it highlights the tensions between glory and humiliation that are not only part and parcel of Jesus’ life, but which can be expected in the life of everyone who chooses to follow him.

When the Transfiguration is celebrated on the Sunday before Lent it serves as a stark reminder that Jesus’ glorification came at a cost – that of complete submission to God and of the acceptance of God’s will in his life. In some ways it reverses the account of the temptation of Jesus that we will hear next week. Just to remind you, before Jesus’ ministry began he came to John to be baptised. As he came out of the water he heard a voice from heaven declaring “This is my Son the Beloved”. It is heady stuff especially if, as the gospel implies, only Jesus hears the voice. You can just imagine what might be going through Jesus’ head at that moment. He has come to be baptised and in the process learned that he is none other than God’s Son. What could he do with such power? He could perform miracles in the way that magician would perform magic tricks, he could behave recklessly and expect that he would come to no harm or, better still he could rule the whole world! As the Son of God nothing would be beyond his power or his reach!

Amazingly, despite the temptation to do otherwise, Jesus chooses NOT to take advantage of his divinity, choosing instead to allow the power of God to work through him not for him.

The occasion of the Transfiguration is, as I said, almost the reverse. Jesus has by now begun his ministry, chosen disciples and sent them out as his representatives. According to Matthew, just six days prior to the journey up the mountain Peter has made Jesus’ identity known to the disciples: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”. Jesus’ secret is out. Here is his opportunity to shine, to share with the disciples what the Son of God can and will do, but Jesus is clear, his role is not to seek his own glory but to take the path that God has chosen – a path that will lead to suffering and to the cross. If he ever had a desire for power and glory it was defeated long ago, his role now is to convince the disciples that they too must follow the path that he has chosen.

Following Peter’s declaration, that he is the Christ Jesus goes – not to the desert – but to the mountain. Here, instead of facing the temptation to seek power and glory, he has power and glory bestowed upon him. As if it is a pledge of what is to come, Jesus is transfigured, he speaks with the prophets of long ago and once more a voice from heaven declares: “This is my Son the Beloved”. Jesus has made the right choices and has made it clear that he will follow through to the bitter end. There on the mountain and before the disciples God affirms Jesus’ choice and gives both Jesus and the disciples who are with him a glimpse of what is to come. A moment of transcendence and affirmation that will sustain them through the bitterness of betrayal and the humiliation of the cross.

For Jesus the euphoria of his baptism was followed by the trials of the desert, the affirmation of Peter by the announcement of his death and resurrection, the mountain to experience by his mundane human existence and the misunderstanding and foolishness of the disciples. If it was so for Jesus it will be no less true for us. Our lives of faith will not be lived on some exalted plateau of spiritual experience from which we never descend. There will be moments of doubt, times of anxiety and occasions of temptation and humiliation. In our faith journey, we may soar to the clouds but we may also come crashing down to earth. We may feel enveloped by God’s love and we may feel utterly abandoned. But, if we hold to our course, we will be affirmed, encouraged and ultimately transformed.

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Desolation and despair

June 4, 2016

Pentecost 3 – 2016

Luke 7:11-18

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who shines light in the darkness, turns despair to hope and raises the dead to life. Amen.

There are a number of images from recent times that are seared into the minds of many of us. For example, think of the desolate picture of an emaciated child who is sitting on his haunches with his head in his hands and beside him is a buzzard just waiting for the child to die. Another picture that has haunted the world in recent times is the heart-wrenching image of young Aylan, the Syrian refugee washed up like flotsam on a lonely beach. Both children were victims of conflicts in which they had no part. Both pictures are confronting images of despair and desolation in a world in which selfishness, greed and a desire for power leads to suffering for the innocent.

I’m not sure that any of us can begin to imagine what it must be like to be a parent in a country devastated by drought or war. We cannot conceive how it must feel to know that we are unable to feed or care for our children. It is impossible to really understand what it must be like to live with the fear that hunger or disease might kill us first and leave our children alone and unprotected in a harsh and uncompromising world. Nor can we envisage the sorts of horrors that lead parents to risk their lives and the lives of their children on dangerous journeys across sea and land.

Few of us will ever know the despair and desolation that characterizes the lives of millions of people throughout the world. Thankfully we will probably never know what it is like to live in on the rubbish tips of Manilla, or to live in constant fear of Isis or Boko Haran. We will not have to live with the constant fear that haunts the slums in countless countries throughout the world. An accident of birth has ensured that we are by and large protected from some of the horrors that are the daily experiences of so many.

Despair and desolation are at the heart of today’s story. It is only in the last century, that women who had no father, husband or son to support them have not faced a life of destitution and isolation. What was true in the memory of some of us was no less true in the first century. A woman without a man in her life was entirely dependent on the charity of others.

In today’s story, Jesus is confronted with a widow who had only one son and now he is dead. She may have had many daughters, but they were no protection against the harshness of the world. If married, they would have been absorbed into their husband’s families. If still at home, they would have been a drain on whatever resources the widow still had.

We know only the bare details of the story. Jesus, for reasons unknown has travelled to Nain. There he observes a funeral procession. Even though the widow is a stranger and the funeral is in full swing Jesus finds himself unable to remain distant and aloof. He “sees[1]” the widow and has compassion on her (and her situation). He interrupts the proceedings and orders the woman not to weep. It is an extraordinary situation. Without invitation, Jesus steps into the woman’s grief and desolation and without being asked he restores the son to life and the child to his mother.

Can you imagine someone entering a church or a chapel at a crematorium and halting the proceedings while at the same time ordering the bereaved not to cry? They would almost certainly have been evicted from the building for being disrespectful and for adding to the family’s distress. This would be equally true in the first century – interrupting a funeral procession and appearing to make light of the widow’s grief would have been social suicide, demonstrating a lack of respect and a failure to understand the gravity of what is going on.

Jesus interrupts anyway. It is almost as if he is compelled to help. He cannot bear to see so much present and potential suffering – especially when he can do something to stop it. Two lives have come to an end – that of the son but also that of the mother. Jesus brings life and hope. He gives a future to the widow and life to her child.

Mass media has made us aware of the enormity of suffering in the world. It is easy to be overwhelmed, to turn off, to feel that there is nothing that we can do to really make a difference. Some issues are so complex that we are at a loss as to how to help we are afraid to interfere in case we make things worse. When suffering does not directly touch our lives, it can be easy to stand aloof – to blame the victim for not doing one thing or another, or for taking a risk that from the comfort of our arm chairs we deem to be to dangerous or unnecessary.

Jesus could not stand apart. While he could not and did not provide hope for every widow in Israel and while he could not and did not heal every Israelite who was suffering from demon possession, disease or infirmity, Jesus did what he could when he could.

You and I cannot, collectively or individually, bring an end to the suffering in the world. We cannot house all the homeless, protect the vulnerable from harm or find a cure for dementia or for cancer. That does not mean that we should do nothing. As followers of Jesus we need to find ways to bring life and hope into situations of desolation and despair. Where we can, we need to disrupt, interrupt the things that are going on around us. By our actions and our words, we need to say that so much suffering should not be the norm.

We need to have the courage to interfere and to challenge the world to follow our lead.

 

[1] In Luke’s gospel, “seeing” has particular significance. Jesus “sees” the whole person, the whole situation.

No easy answers

March 26, 2016

Today we meet, not only in the shadow of an act of terror over two thousand years ago, but also in the shadow of events in our own day. We draw comfort from the knowledge that God in Jesus shares our suffering. We know too that in Jesus God wrought victory from defeat, joy from sorrow and life from death and we believe that good will triumph over evil and that love will conquer hate.

 

Service of the Passion

and

Recognition of the Cross

 

The contradiction of the cross

The contradiction of    the cross

 

 

(On this most solemn of days we would invite you to enter
and leave the church in silence.)

 

Procession with cross:

Hymn: 349 in the cross of Christ

Greeting:

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

 

Let us pray:

God of contradiction,

give to us wisdom and understanding,

patience and humility,

and the courage to live with uncertainty,

so that we may hope for the right things

and arrive at what we do not know[1].

We ask this through your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.


Poem: T. S. Eliot – from The Four Quartets

 

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

 

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before. I shall say it again,

Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.

 

In the name of God who suffers for us and with us, and who longs for us to turn and be made whole. Amen.

“And what you do not know is the only thing that you know.”

Shortly after five pm on Tuesday the world was shocked by the news of yet another act of terror – this time in Brussels. At least thirty people were dead and more than two hundred wounded many seriously. For those of us in Australia this news followed a grueling day in which, through the inquest into the police response, we revisited the final moments of the Lindt Café siege and the deaths of two hostages. At times like this, it is difficult not to ask: “Why?” “Why now?” “Why them?” As the story of the Brussels explosions unfolded, we learnt that a simple decision such as not buying a coffee made the difference between life and death, between being in the line of fire and being a safe distance away from the explosions.

Times like these remind us that there is a fine line between life and death, and that sometimes there is no rhyme or reason as to why one person lives and another dies, why some people live lives seemingly unfettered by grief or disaster and others live lives of quiet desperation, burdened by pain, sorrow or misfortune.

This side of the grave there are no easy answers. Life as we know it is vulnerable and fragile – susceptible to disease and constantly exposed to hazards and dangers – known and unknown. At the same time, humans are complex beings – capable of acts of great selflessness but also of unfathomable depravity, capable of great love, but also of immense hatred. We live in a world in which the good do die young, and the bad sometimes escape unpunished, in which only chance determines the country of our birth or the quality of our parenting, whether we stop for coffee or go straight to the departure gate. In this life, nothing is certain. We cannot predict what joys or heartache lie ahead.

There are two possible responses to this awful uncertainty – we can resist with all our might, refuse to take risks and try to force the world to conform to our expectations. This road will lead to frustration and disappointment, anger and bitterness. Our lives will be narrow and constrained and there will be no guarantee that we will be spared the pain of suffering and loss.

Alternately, we can willingly surrender. We can accept that life is filled with risk and uncertainty and choose to live boldly, courageously and confidently – no matter in what circumstances we find ourselves. This road will not be free of pain, but it will leave us open to joy and laughter, to adventure and hope. We will be able to ride out the bad times because we know that they will come to an end and that it is the good and the bad together that make life worth living.

Jesus chose the latter course. He willingly gave in to the future that was his. He surrendered himself completely to what life had in store. He submitted himself to the humiliation of a kangaroo court, the indignity of a flogging and the certainty of death of the cross. He did not ask: “Why?” or “Why me?” He simply walked the path that was his to walk, believing that somehow, in some way, God would give him both courage and strength in the present and that in the future, it would all begin to make sense. Jesus faced the cross not knowing what lay on the other side. As a consequence he learnt that through death comes life, that joy can be wrought from sorrow and victory from defeat.

Life is filled with uncertainty. The best that we can do is to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands and trust that in this life God will give us courage to face whatever it is that life throws at us and that in death, God will raise us to life eternal.

Reflection:

An abandoned God;

a dying God

confronts our sense of decency

and at the same time opens us to new possibilities –

to new ways of understanding God and ourselves.

 

Collect:

 

Holy God,

who teaches us that this day

which is so bad, is good.

Help us to live with incongruity

to know how much we do not know,

that understanding our limitations,

we may be open to the wisdom that comes from you alone. Amen.

 

Ministry of the Word

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

Hear the word of the Lord,

Thanks be to God.

Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me:

            why are you so far from helping me

            and from the words of my groaning?

My God, I cry to you by day, but you do not answer:

            and by night also I take no rest.

But you continue holy;

            you that are the praise of Israel.

In you our forebears trusted:

            they trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried and they were saved:

            they put their trust in you and were not confounded.

But as for me, I am a worm and no man:

            the scorn of all and despised by the people.

Those that see me laugh me to scorn:

            they shoot out their lips at me

            and wag their heads, saying,

“He trusted in the Lord – let him deliver him:

            let him deliver him, if he delights in him.”

But you are he that took me out of the womb:

            that brought me to lie at peace on my mother’s breast.

On you have I been cast since my birth:

            you are my God, even from my mother’s womb.

O go not from me, for trouble is hard at hand:

            and there is none to help.

Many oxen surround me:

            fat bulls of Bashan close me in on every side.

They gape wide their mouths at me:

            like lions that roar and rend.

I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint:

            my heart within my breast is like melting wax.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd:

            and my tongue clings to my gums.


My hands and my feet are withered:

            and you lay me in the dust of death.

For many dogs are come about me:

            and a band of evildoers hem me in.

I can count all my bones:

            they stand staring and gazing upon me.

They part my garments among them:

            and cast lots for my clothing.

O Lord, do not stand far off:

            you are my helper, hasten to my aid.

Deliver my body from the sword:

            my life from the power of the dogs;

O save me from the lion’s mouth:

            and my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will tell of your name to my companions:

            in the midst of the congregation will I praise you.

O praise the Lord, all you that fear him:

            hold him in honour, O seed of Jacob,

            and let the seed of Israel stand in awe of him.

For he has not despised nor abhorred

the poor man in his misery:

            nor did he hide his face from him,

            but heard him when he cried.

The meek shall eat of the sacrifice and be satisfied:

            and those who seek the Lord shall praise him –

            may their hearts rejoice forever!

Let all the ends of the earth remember

and turn to the Lord:

            and let all the families of the nations worship before him.

For the kingdom is the Lord’s:

            and he shall be ruler over the nations.

How can those who sleep in the earth do him homage:

            or those that descend to the dust bow down before him?

But he has saved my life for himself:

            and my posterity shall serve him.

This shall be told of my Lord to a future generation:

         and his righteousness declared to a people yet unborn,

         that he has done it.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Hear the word of the Lord,

Thanks be to God.

 

Hymn: 339 O sacred head sore wounded

 

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John Chapter 18 beginning
at verse 1.

Glory to you Lord Jesus Christ.

For the Gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Hymn: 341 My Song is love unknown.

(During the hymn a collection will be taken up for the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem)

 

Intercessions:

Living, loving God, help us to relinquish our confidence in ourselves and our desire to go it alone;

to accept the vagaries of life and to let go of our need to be in control;

to recognise that we do not and cannot have all the answers and to understand that our knowledge is only partial and our insights limited by our humanity.

God when our hearts are aching,

Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

Give us grace to acknowledge that life consists of the good and the bad and that our lives are enriched as a result;

to admit that hatred and fear only limit and bind and that love frees us to be fully alive

and to learn that it is only in your that true peace and joy are to be found.

God when our hearts are aching,

Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

 

Be with all those whose lives are marred by violence, terror and war,

and with those who perpetrate acts of cruelty against others.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world

Support and encourage those whose lives are restricted by poverty, ill-health and disability,

and challenge those who have the means to help but do not.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world

Be a friend to those who are overlooked and discounted

and open our eyes to the suffering of those around us.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

Help us all to reevaluate our lives in the light of the cross and take our place among those who live life to the full and who make a difference in the lives of others.

God when our hearts are aching,
Help us to find you in and among the suffering of the world.

 

Lord’s Prayer: Accept our prayers through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who taught us to pray.

            Our Father in heaven,

                        hallowed be your name,

                        your kingdom come,

                        your will be done,

                        on earth as in heaven.

            Give us today our daily bread.

            Forgive us our sins

                        as we forgive those who sin against us.

            Save us from the time of trial

                        and deliver us from evil,

            for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours

                        now and forever. Amen.

Confession:

Our God whose love knows no bounds

comes to you – naked, weak and bleeding,

holding out holey hands, holy hands and asking only for your love in return.

 

Let us offer our hearts to God, confessing our sins – the barriers that separate us from each other and from God.

Suffering God,

who gave everything for us

forgive us our arrogance and presumption,

our greed and self absorption,

our neglect of the vulnerable,

our carelessness with the world’s resources,

our unwillingness to trust in you

and our failure to accept and to share your love and compassion. Amen

 

Absolution:

God whose love knows no bounds

forgives you and sets you free

to love God and to love one another.

Forgive others,

Forgive yourself. Amen.

Recognition of the cross:

730 Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.

(Recognition of the cross – you may like to place a flower at the foot of the cross, as a reminder that today is a day of contradiction, a reminder that God continually overturns our expectations so that we might rely on God and not ourselves. Alternately you are welcome to sit or stand in quiet reflection.)

Blessing: May the God who died for you, inspire you to live for God,

and the blessing of God almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier be with you now and always. Amen.

 

Hymn: 262 When pain and terror

 

Please leave the church in silence

 

 

Copyright: Marian Free , 2014 (revised, 2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANZAC DAY

There will be a service to commemorate Anzac Day

Monday 25th April – 8:00am

 

(If there is anyone for whom you would like us to pray,

Please add their name to the list at the back of the church.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rector:          The Rev’d Marian Free: m) 0402 985 593

  1. e) staugust@bigpond.com

 

Curate:                 The Rev’d Professor Rodney Wolff,

  1. e) staugust@gmail.com, 0426 287 283

 

 

Parish Office:       3268 3935 / Fax 3268 4245

Office Hours:       Monday, Thursday & Jumble Wednesdays

                               9.30am – 12.30pm

 

staugust@bigpond.com

www.staugustineshamilton.com.au

 

Sermons:            If you would like to read the weekly sermon,

                                 go to the home page and click on sermon.

 

            St Augustines Anglican Church

 

@StAugustines

 

Music Director:      Lesley de Voil: 0418 561 663 or

                                         lesleymdv@gmail.com

 

Service Times:      Sunday 7:30am & 9:30am

                               Tuesday & Thursday 7:00am

Wednesday 10:00am

 

Columbarium:      Robin Loan: 0417 799 400 or

                                 r.loan@optusnet.com.au

Columbarium Service: First Saturday of the month 7:30am

 

 

 

[1] “For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” “In order to arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.” T.S. Elliot from “East Coker, The Four Quartets”

When bad things happen to good people

October 3, 2015

Pentecost 19 – 2015

The Book of Job (or why bad things happen to good people)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. Amen.

I’d like to begin today with two stories, one true, the other fictional, both traumatic. You may remember that some twenty to twenty five years ago there was an horrific accident on Brisbane’s bayside. It was Easter Day, a mother and her three children were returning home having attended church. A drunk driver ploughed into their car and all three children were killed. As you might expect the Parish Priest visited the mother in hospital but after a while he began to feel that his visits were not having any effect on the bleakness that had descended on her. He appealed to the Bishop for help. The Bishop (who related the story) visited the woman in hospital.

When he visited he asked: “What is the most painful thing?” The woman responded by waving weakly in the direction of the drawers beside her. The Bishop opened the drawer and discovered that it was full of sympathy cards. They contained sentimental, pseudo-religious statements such as: “Your children are in a better place.” “Your children are with the angels.” “What,” the woman asked, “was so wrong with me, that God had to take my children to a better place?”

A similar story is recorded in the movie: “Down the Rabbit Hole”. The plot of the movie centres on the experience of a couple whose four year old son and only child has run through an open gate onto the road and been killed by a passing vehicle. As happens, the child’s parents cope with the grief in different ways and each one struggles to come to terms with their partner’s reaction and coping mechanism. At one point the couple join a support group for grieving parents. One evening, as the group were discussing their different stories, a well-meaning group member says: “God just wanted another angel.” The mother storms out saying angrily: “Why couldn’t God just make another angel, why did he need my son?”

These stories illustrate our failure to face death and tragedy head on, our need to find reasons why bad things happen, and our tendency – in the face of awkwardness and embarrassment – to resort to simplistic explanations, using pietistic, “God language” or some other evasive technique that, under a pretext of caring tries to cover over or avoid the pain. The stories illustrate too, the way in which our clumsiness and evasion add to rather than diminish the pain.

This is no less true of Christians than it is of the general community. Despite our belief that even Jesus suffered and died, we do not always have the language or skills that would help us adequately address the suffering of another person.

The Book of Job tries in part to answer the question[1]: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” Job, as we have heard, has been sorely tested. Everything has been taken away from him. All the things that gave him status in the community – his livestock, his children – all gone and for no apparent reason. Even his health has gone and we find him sitting among the ashes, scraping his sores with a potsherd. Luckily for Job he has three good friends – Zophar, Bildad and Eliphaz – who come to comfort him in his distress. Unfortunately, like many of us, they are at a loss as to what to say, so they resort to the simplistic and the trite. Together they look for explanations as to why Job is in the situation in which he finds himself.

If you have time, I suggest that you read the Book of Job in its entirety or at least the first eleven chapters and the last five chapters. The middle tends to be repetitive. For chapter after chapter the three friends seek to explain away his suffering, primarily by suggesting that Job has behaved in ways that deserve to be punished. The friends say such unhelpful things as: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” or “How happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” or “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.”

Time and again, Job responds by protesting his innocence. He is sure that he has not behaved in a way to offend God and that his suffering has no rational explanation.

Finally, or so the story goes, God can stand it no longer. God cannot bear to listen to the four friends. As we will hear in a few weeks time, God explodes and in words dripping with sarcasm attacks Job from out of the whirlwind: ““Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” On and on God goes, challenging Job to demonstrate his wisdom, his ability to understand and therefore his right to speak for God. Finally Job (in what I imagine is a very small voice) responds: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

As Job realises in the end, none of us can read God’s mind, none of us have any real idea why the world is as it is. What we do know is that life can seem haphazard, that the world is full of both the good and the bad and that we have no control over the weather or the movement of the continental plates. We know that accidents do happen, that disease can hit at any time and that at the moment none of us is immune from the process of aging. When we are confronted with suffering, whether it is ours – or that of another, we should not try to explain it away or to make excuses for God. Instead we need to accept that there are times when we will not have the answers, when we are simply unable to comprehend why it is that bad things happen to good people and why some suffer their whole lives and some seem to suffer hardly at all.

When faced with unbearable suffering or distress in our own lives or that of others, surely it is better to admit that we simply do not have all the answers, that there are aspects of this life that are beyond our comprehension and that there are some things that we will not understand this side of eternity?

When tragedy hits and lives are turned upside down we have to remember that even though God doesn’t intervene as we would like, that God in Jesus knows just what it is like to experience suffering and pain, rejection and torture. When our lives seem to fall apart, when nothing seems to make any sense, it is important to remember that God is with us – supporting, encouraging and strengthening us until such time as the troubles pass and the world is put to rights again.

[1] It is important to remember that Job is a story or fable. It is also important to note that in this story “Satan” is not associated with evil but is one of the angels in heaven. He is “the accuser”, the “devil’s advocate”, the one appointed to present an opposing view.

According to Mark

January 24, 2015

Epiphany 3 – 2015

Mark 1:14-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who will never, ever abandon us. Amen.

It is generally accepted that Mark’s gospel was the first of the four gospels to be written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark account as the model of their own records of the life of Jesus. The author of Mark is writing at the time of the Jewish War – that is some time in the late sixties or the early seventies, around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Up until this time the central message of the faith (as is attested by the letters of Paul) had been the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, those who knew the earthly Jesus have died. There was a need to flesh out the Passion story, to provide the context surrounding Jesus’ execution and to explain to a new generation why the Christ, the Son of God had to die. Jesus’ death and resurrection, though powerful events were no longer enough on their own. They needed to be balanced with stories that illustrated the extraordinary nature of the earthly Jesus. Jesus’ beginning, his teaching and his miracles were important elements in bringing the story to life for future generations.

At the same time it was becoming clear that those who believed in Jesus could expect to suffer. Even if those for whom the gospel was written were not themselves experiencing suffering or persecution themselves, they would have been aware of the plight of believers in Jerusalem and of the persecution of Christians in Rome by Emperor Nero. Members of Mark’s community not only had to come to an understanding of Jesus’ suffering, but they also had to learn that as disciples, they would share in that suffering.

The first gospel is the most honest of the gospels. By that I mean that in Mark’s gospel we see the characters as they really are – nothing is hidden from our gaze. The author doesn’t gloss over either the humanity of Jesus or the foolishness of the disciples.

In Mark’s gospel we meet a Jesus who, among other things, doesn’t know everything (13:32), who can’t do miracles for those who don’t believe (6:5), who at times does not seem to know the will of God and who allows a gentile who is a woman to change his mind (7:24-30). This Jesus expresses every human emotion – pity anger, sadness, wonder, compassion, indignation, love and anguish. His humanity is as evident as the divinity that is stressed from the very first sentence and repeated throughout.

If Jesus’ humanity is evident, the ignorance and fear of those who follow him, is equally clear. Mark’s picture of the disciples is far from flattering. They let Jesus down, they fail to understand, they try to persuade Jesus from his course and at the end they betray and desert him. The disciple’s frailty is particularly obvious when Jesus predicts his suffering and resurrection. In each of the three instances, the disciples’ reaction shows their complete lack of comprehension. On the first occasion, Peter rebukes Jesus, the second is followed by a discussion between the disciples as to who is the greatest and after the third prediction James and John ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and at his left in his kingdom. Unable to accept that the Christ must suffer, they demonstrate their complete lack of understanding by correcting Jesus, by changing the topic and by trying to regain control of things. Their response shows that they can only understand the kingdom in human terms.

According to Mark, Jesus is fallible and the disciples are anything but models for those who come after. (Matthew and Luke rehabilitate both Jesus and the disciples. In Matthew, then Luke and finally John, Jesus becomes more and more like God and the disciples become both wiser and braver.) Of course, there is method in Mark’s apparent madness. Mark is not interested in presenting either Jesus or the disciples as perfect. His purpose is to emphasise what God has done for us in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ humanity provides the vehicle through which Mark can reveal God’s grace and dependability. The frailty and fearfulness of the disciples reminds readers that it is what God does and not what they do that matters in the end.

This gospel is not a tale of triumph but an account of frailty and suffering. The gospel takes a circuitous and difficult route from the announcement of Jesus as God’s Son in verse 1 to Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” It is only at the end that everything comes together. After the crucifixion – the apparent failure of Jesus’ mission – it becomes clear that God has been there all along. God’s presence in the rolling away of the stone and God’s messenger in the tomb announcing the resurrection are evidence that despite appearances to the contrary, God did not abandon Jesus. Jesus’ trust and confidence in God has been vindicated by his resurrection. The report that Jesus has gone before the disciples to Galilee is proof that though the disciples had denied and abandoned Jesus, Jesus has not abandoned them.

This year we will be travelling together through the Gospel of Mark, which was written not only for disciples at the end of the first century, but also for those of us in the twenty first century. We will hear how Mark moves the story along, we will see how from the moment he begins his ministry Jesus is always accompanied by those whom he chose to be his disciples, we will understand that the conflict that is evident from the beginning will characterize Jesus’ ministry and lead to his death, and we will be reminded that despite his cry of agony from the cross, God did not abandon him and God will never abandon us.

Faith in Jesus does not guarantee a life of ease. Following Jesus does not lead to perfection. Belief does not always equal understanding. There will be times of pain and suffering in our lives, there will be times when we are only too aware of our imperfections and there will be times when we simply do not understand what God is doing or where God has gone. At such times we can turn once again to Mark’s gospel and remember that whatever life has to throw at us, God will never, ever abandon us and however often we let him down Jesus will never, ever give up on us.

Suffering is not failure

August 30, 2014

Pentecost 12 – 2014
Matthew 16:21-28
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us strength and courage to weather the storms of this existence and to come through the other side. Amen.

It is not unusual for someone who is confronted with bad news to deny or ignore it or to change it into a challenge – something that can be defeated or overcome. For example, a typical response these days to a diagnosis of terminal illness is: “I am going to fight it.” Older people (weary with living) who are encouraged by their families to hold on: “You are not going to die, we won’t let you.” When someone has an untimely death at sea, in the mountains or in the air or at sea, it is not uncommon to hear friends and family say: “At least he (or she died) doing what they loved,” as if that somehow makes it all right. At the same time, it is possible to treat the suffering of others in the same way. After the flood and during the cyclone our then Premier assured the state: “We are Queenslanders – we will recover.”

In today’s world it seems that many people are so determined to be positive or to be survivors that they are both unwilling and unable to confront the fact that life consists of both the good and the bad and that together they make up the fullness of living. Death is not some disaster that should be evaded – either by fighting it to the bitter end or by making out that a tragic death is somehow wonderful. Neither is it, for Christians at least, something to be feared. Death will come to all of us and while we may want to embrace life we cannot, in the end, cheat death. In the context of this strong, positive culture a simple acceptance of one’s circumstances has come to be seen as a weakness. Giving up or refusing treatment and accepting the inevitable has come to be viewed as a lack of determination to survive. A failure to be upbeat in the face of loss is considered to be giving in to rather than challenging fate.

Of course, I am over-generalising, but it does seem to me that, in this country at least, there has been a movement from a culture that lives with the tension of life and death, trauma and triumph, to a culture that seems to believe that with the right attitudes anything can be achieved.

When viewed through the lens of this culture Peter’s outburst in today’s gospel makes absolute sense – he doesn’t want Jesus to die.

To re-cap the story – in last week’s gospel Jesus asked the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” After a couple of responses: “Elijah, one of the prophets”, Jesus asked: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” His statement earns Peter not only Jesus’ commendation, but also the assurance that Peter is the rock on whom Jesus will build the church. In today’s gospel Peter the rock, is being accused of being Satan, a scandal, a stumbling block. The problem is that Peter doesn’t really understand. While he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ, he has not grasped what that really means. When Jesus explains that he must suffer and die, Peter reacts in a very human way and demonstrates that he has no idea of Jesus’ real nature and purpose.

At the time of Jesus there were a variety of expectations about the type of Saviour that God would send to redeem Israel. Some Jews thought that the redemption of Israel would be a military victory over Rome and that the Christ would lead them in battle. Others looked for a priestly figure who would reinvigorate the faith and cleanse the Temple and its officials of corruption. No one, it seems, expected the sort of Saviour that Jesus would turn out to be, a Christ who would suffer at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be put to death. They expected a leader, not a victim.

No wonder Peter bursts out: “God forbid! This will not happen to you.” He has not grasped that Jesus will win the hearts and minds of the people, not by force, but by love and that evil will not be defeated by power, but by powerlessness. He is thinking in human terms, showing that despite his acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ he has not fully grasped what this means.

Peter’s natural instinct is to reject the notion of a suffering Christ and to protect his friend and teacher from harm. He does not realise that his good intention would in fact defeat God’s purpose. His misunderstanding makes him no better than Satan. For like Satan, Peter is trying to turn Jesus from the path set before him, like Satan, Peter fails to understand that weakness, not power will achieve God’s purpose, like Satan Peter has not grasped that it is only by submitting to God’s will that humanity will be saved.

No wonder Jesus reacts so strongly. He must be as firm in his purpose now, as he was when he was tempted in the desert. What is more, it is essential that Peter and the disciples understand what lies ahead. It is vital that they, his followers, understand the way of salvation, not only because he, Jesus will need their support and encouragement, but more importantly because if they are to carry on after he is gone, they will have to teach others about Jesus and they too will have to walk the way of the cross. The disciples must learn not only that Jesus is the Christ, but they must learn and understand what it is to be the Christ to follow in his footsteps.

Accepting the way of Christ is no passive submission to fate, but an active decision to follow the path that God has laid down for us wherever it may lead and whatever it may cost. It is a decision to allow our lives to be governed, not by human needs and desires, but by the presence of God within us. It is grasping the contradiction that the one sent by God to save, must also suffer and die and teaching others that suffering is not always failure, but is sometimes the very thing that leads to salvation and life.

Who is Jesus?

August 24, 2014

Pentecost 11

Matthew 16:13-20 (A Reflection)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Amen.

In January 2013, ABC Science reported that an Australian researcher had discovered a new frog near Ho Chi Minh City. Apparently Jodi Rowley who discovered Helen’s Flying Frog, at first thought it was familiar species. It was only when she saw the original specimen some time later that she realised that the former exhibited a number of differences. Molecular analysis confirmed that she had in fact identified a species that had not previously been recognised. Similar discoveries are happening all the time. If you google “new frogs” you will learn that no less than fourteen new species of dancing frogs have been found in India, another frog has been found in Madagascar and a thorny tree frog has been discovered in Vietnam.

I find it extraordinary that centuries after Linnaeus developed a system of classifying flora and fauna, that it is still possible to locate new species. It is equally fascinating that the distinction between sub-species is sometimes so subtle that a researcher has to rely on molecular analysis in order to be certain that the new creature is in fact new. Presumably any difference is significant and important in the scientific world.

Identity is an important issue. If a person claims to be a policeman or woman, we want to see some form of identification before we comply with their request. If we are about to have major (or minor surgery) we would like to know that our specialist has in fact passed their exams. When we hire a car, pick up a package from the Post Office, leave or enter a country, staff and officials need some surety that we are who we say we are.

Despite all these precautions, it is still possible to be taken in. Numerous people have been caught up in improbably investment schemes, or have lost their life savings believing that the person whom they met online is their one true love. Still others have been caught in the grip of charismatic figures who imprison them in some form of extreme religious idealism (often with catastrophic results).

It should come as no surprise then, that the matter of Jesus’ identity was a live issue both during his lifetime and when the gospels were being written. Why would anyone risk their life, or expose their credibility for a charlatan? Those who were writing the gospels wanted to write in such a way that others would be convinced to follow Jesus.

Each writer approaches the question slightly differently. Matthew, whose gospel we are reading presents Jesus primarily as the authoritative teacher (one who has more authority than the scribes and Pharisees). Jesus is also the “one who abides” – Immanuel, God with us. He is the Son of David, the Son of God. He is “I AM” and the one who will bring Gentiles to faith. It seems that no one word or expression can fully contain the writer’s experience and knowledge of Jesus. While we know who Jesus is, the early disciples were not at all sure. The writers of the Synoptic gospels show how the disciples gradually came to understanding.

That said, all gospel writers struggle with the fact that Jesus does not fit neatly into any existing category. The disciples especially find it difficult to come to grips with the fact that Jesus is to suffer and to die. This tension comes to a head in today’s gospel. At the very point at which Peter makes his declaration that Jesus is the Christ, the same Peter makes it clear that he doesn’t understand what this means. He, along with his fellow Jews had expected God to send the Christ – a figure who would set things right – either by reforming the faith, or by leading a revolt against Rome. A Christ who was dead would not be able to achieve either of those things.

Peter expresses his determination that this should not happen – that Christ should conform to expectations. Jesus’ aggressive response demonstrates just how serious Peter’s misunderstanding is: “Get behind me Satan.” Jesus cannot and will not fulfill his task in any way than that set before him. It is suffering and death and consequent resurrection that will set the world to rights – there is no other way.

Jesus has been so domesticated and his death and resurrection so sanctified, that it is difficult for us to understand how confronting it was for those first disciples. We cannot grasp what a huge leap it was for anyone, Jew or Greek, to believe in a crucified Saviour.

You and I have the benefit of the gospels and two thousands years of reflection and study on the life of Christ to inform our understanding. We have the creeds that have formalized our belief and our liturgies which celebrate it.

All these come to nothing however, if we have not answered Jesus’ question for ourselves, if we have not made the effort to come to know who he really is and what his suffering achieved.

Jesus asks: “Who do you say that I am?” What do you reply?

Safe in the hands of God

October 19, 2013

Pentecost 22

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who raises up the humble and puts down the mighty and who never abandons us to face our trials alone. Amen.

When the weather is good, Michael and I like to eat outside. Not only is it a pleasant environment, it also gives us a chance to observe the natural world. Among other creatures that inhabit our garden are some rather large, but harmless ants. Needless to say they are very much in evidence should anything fall from our table. On one particular day a rather large crumb was picked up by two of these ants. We watched as they moved it somewhat awkwardly across the cement amazed that they should think that the trouble was worth it. Because the ground slopes, the concrete has a large crack in it – too wide for the ants to cross. The two of them spent ages trying to manoeuvre the crumb down one side of the crack and up the other. If one ant dropped an end, the other clung tightly until the first had regained its hold – a process repeated over and over again. They did not seem to be discouraged no matter how often they had to repeat the process. It was hard to believe that one small crumb warranted such persistence – especially when there were others, more manageable, to be had.

Today’s gospel consists of two parables which, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with each other. A closer look however reveals that they are both about faith – a relationship of trust in God that persists in difficult circumstances and that is built on openness to God in prayer.

To understand the parables, we have to understand the context in which they are being told. The Pharisees have asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. Jesus’ response was to tell them that the coming of the Kingdom would not be observable by outward signs. Indeed, he says, the Kingdom is already among them. It is just that they have failed to recognise it. Jesus concedes the world is not yet perfect. It is full of uncertainty and suffering which will only come to an end when God’s rule is firmly established. Jesus warns his followers that they are to expect difficult times – and the letter to Timothy indicates that the believers do experience persecution and suffering. The disciples and the church live in this in-between time. They are aware of God’s rule in their own lives, but conscious of how far from the ideal of the Kingdom the world still is. They accept that in this still unperfected time that their life will not necessary be one of peace and ease.

The parables are told to encourage the disciples to remain faithful even in difficult times and to trust God to vindicate them against those who oppress them. Jesus is responding to the unasked question: How are the disciples to live, how are they to pray in this time after Jesus coming and before the realisation of God’s rule over all the world?

Even though it seems to be taking a long time for things to change, the disciples are to persist in prayer, confident that God will respond. They are not to abandon their faith at the first sign of difficulty, but to preserve against all odds. God is not like the judge who has to be worn down before he will act, and then only acts in his own self-interest. God’s loving goodness has the disciples’ interests at heart, and though the Kingdom seems long in coming, they are not to be discouraged even when times are tough. Jesus urges them to continue in prayer and to remain faithful, confident that even if God does not act as quickly as they would like, God will respond.

Having told this parable, Jesus tells another – about two people at prayer. The Pharisee, confident in his own goodness is keen, not so much to pray, but to tell God just how good he is in comparison to everyone else. Certainly, he is living in a way that is consistent with the law and he is observing the spiritual disciplines expected of him. However, he cannot see that even though he fasts twice a week, gives ten percent of his income away and does not earn his living by collecting taxes for the Romans, his very arrogance, self-centredness and lack of compassion place him as far from God as every other sinner. His belief in his own perfection has blinded him to his own faults and shortcomings. Worse than that perhaps, he has made himself judge, thus standing in God’s stead and doing God’s work for him! He might think that he believes in God, but in fact by his attitude he demonstrates that he doesn’t need God. He can be judge and jury all on his own.

The tax-collector on the other hand, is only too aware that by circumstance or design, he falls far short of the ideal of perfection. In fact, he is so aware of his failings, that he cannot hold his head up high, nor can he wait for God to pass judgement on himself but beats his breast as a form of self-punishment. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax-collector knows only too well how much he depends on God for anything like a good outcome at the judgement. He hopes against hope that God will overlook his present situation – his role as tax-collector – and that God will restore him to a relationship with God. The Pharisee does not need God to tell him how wonderful he is. The tax-collector, knows how much he needs God if he is ever to be declared wonderful.

This is the difference that Jesus wants us to observe, and why he commends the tax-collector who, to his contemporaries is a traitor and one of the worst kinds of sinners. What matters, Jesus implies, is our relationship with and dependence on God, our recognition that we fall far short of godliness and our belief that, despite our faults, God will vindicate us if only we trust in God and not ourselves. The widow’s persistence and faith in God teaches us to persevere and not to be discouraged. The tax-collector’s humility in prayer teaches us to trust in the mercy of God even though we are far from perfected.

Today, we continue to live with the tension that faced the first century church. Like them we might wonder why God who sent Jesus to save the world, continues to stand back, to hold his hand when a baby dies every three seconds, children starve in Syria because adults cannot agree on how to bring about peace, millions of people languish in refugee camps, Christians are persecuted and killed and people’s homes are destroyed by fires so ferocious that they are almost unimaginable. We do not and will not have the answer to this question, but Jesus tells us that we must not be discouraged, we must not give up. We must continue to pray, confident that God is not only listening, but that God has everything in hand and in God’s own time God will respond.

So we must continue to pray, and when we do, we must be honest with ourselves and with God. We must recognise that if the world is not perfect, it is in part because we are not perfect. When we ask God to change the world we must first ask God to change us.

We are to have faith in this in-between time when Jesus has come and the world is still not perfected. We are to keep the faith even in the most difficult and trying circumstances. We are to understand that faith does not consist of doing the right thing, but first and foremost consists of a relationship with God which is honest and transparent, which is open and responsive to the presence of God and willing to be transformed by that presence.

Persistence and humility are two characteristics, two attitudes that should inform and support us in a world that is far from saved. Persistence in prayer prevents despair when our circumstances seem impossible. Humility in prayer acknowledges our solidarity with (rather than our superiority over) the world around us. Both evidence a trust in God which places our future and that of the world firmly where they belong – safe in the hands of God.

The vulnerability of God

December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who gave up all power and authority to create and then to re-create us. Amen.

I often think that the infant in the cradle, “wrapped in cloths”, distracts us from the reality of the situation. We are drawn to the baby as we are drawn to all babies and our hearts are filled with love and a longing to wrap our arms around the child. In the depictions of the Nativity, we see a loving family, comfortably gathered and surrounded by the shepherds and wise men who come to worship.

What we don’t always see is the raw, naked vulnerability of the child – the child who is God and who at this point in time is completely powerless to control his destiny and who is utterly dependent on those around him – on Mary and Joseph, on Herod and the political circumstances of the  country which he finds himself.

Thinking of God as a defenceless child can be startling and a little confusing. It goes against our expectations and forces us to see God from an entirely different perspective. A vulnerable, powerless God does not conform to our concept of a God who is omnipotent and all-powerful, who directs and determines, who judges and condemns. To think of God as a helpless baby challenges everything we might have thought about God. And yet, from the inception of Christianity this is one of the images of God – a God without power, a God unable to intervene and God unable to force God’s will on anyone.

In fact, from the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian faith, the image of God is of a God who instead of keeping all authority to himself, chooses to give that power to humankind. In the Garden of Eden, God the creator gave humanity the freedom to choose. God who could have determined the future of humankind, ceded that power to human beings who used that power to choose to compete with, rather than serve God.

When it all went horribly wrong God chose, not to force humankind to change, but to trust humankind to change themselves. In order to do that, God put himself in our hands and risked everything in the hope that we would rise to the occasion, in the hope that our response to the infant Jesus and to the man, would serve to bring salvation to the world.

God still depends on us to get it right, trusts us to return the world to the idyllic state of the garden. God is still powerless unless we co-operate. The vulnerable God in the cradle depends on the people around him for his survival. The powerless God depends on us to change the world.

The powerlessness of God is demonstrated in the vulnerable and suffering of our own time. Until we accept the vulnerability of the baby, the helplessness of the child in the manger, we will not recognise our responsibility to be those who empower God’s saving work in the world. We will not change the situation of

–       the children of Syria and throughout the Middle East who are dependent on warring parties sitting down at the negotiating table and committing to a lasting peace.

–       the children of Niger, the Sudan and countless other nations who are dependent on our goodwill for food,

–       the millions of children who are victims of the AIDS epidemic who are dependent on education programmes and access to health care,

–       the children working in sweat factories and mines, who are forced into slavery and prostitution who are dependent on enough international advocacy will to set them free,

–       the children of Sandy Hook whose lives along with the 20,000 other young people killed by guns in the US are totally dependent on the will of a nation to give up a love affair with guns.

Until we are willing to change our lives, until we are willing to give us some of our comforts, until we are determined to engage our political leaders and to confront world leaders, until we in our turn become vulnerable and dependent on each other, God remains powerless to intervene in world affairs. Because God is dependent on us, God can only do what we are prepared to do in God’s name.

Next time you look in the manger, see beyond the comforting image of a well-fed, well clothed, well-loved baby and see in that child’s eyes, the eyes of God doing the only thing God knows how to do to change the world around – to give himself utterly and completely to us, hoping against hope that we will give ourselves to God and to each other.

 

 

Let us pray

Holy God,

give us grace and courage to acknowledge our contribution to the suffering in the world. Help us to become vulnerable as you became vulnerable that we may be part of the solution and not of the problem.

Powerless God,

make us aware of your presence in and around us. Help us to have the grace to open ourselves to you, that your presence may be made known through us.

Living God,

be with all who live life in the shadow of poverty and despair,

especially those in our own community whose needs often are overlooked

as we look further afield in our desire to ease the suffering of others.

Give hope to the lost and support to the powerless and make us sensitive and responsive to needs and concerns of those around us.

 

Healing God,

in Jesus, you shared the pain of the sick, you knew what it was to face death. Be with all who at this time are in need of comfort and healing. Encourage and strengthen those who are ill and recovering from surgery, support those who are dying and be with all whose task is to bring about healing.

 

Dying and rising God,

as you shared our existence, may we strive to share yours, that at our end we may             join you and all the saints for eternity.


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