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The Arch of the Moral Universe Bends towards Justice

Posted by chesterlanducc on January 17, 2017 at 4:55 PM Comments comments (0)

My favorite quote from Dr. King is that “The Arch of the Moral Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This morning, I would like to reflect with you all on just how the arch bends—how justice doesn’t just happen—how we as Christians and Churches must participate in the bending. It is clear that justice is most often fought for and paid for in blood and sweat and tears—it is clear that justice is a struggle that we can never let up on, that we can never give up on, that we can never turn away from for even a moment. And the role of the Church, the role of our faith, is to remind us to do justice. Our faith gives us the moral compass we need, and our worship should, at its best, inspire and energize us to leave each Sunday and seek to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. 


When I was nineteen I traveled to Selma Alabama with some other college students over spring break to volunteer. We worked on a couple of houses in rural towns outside of Selma. The home I served at was more like a cabin—rusted metal roofing, no electricity, no plumbing, not even an out-house—just a water spigot outside the front door and a path outside the back that lead out into a field. An older black women lived there. I remember standing in her doorway and talking with her as she sat in a chair in front of an old wood stove. Although it was the year two thousand, the year of the new millennium, it felt as though, in many ways, time had stood still in that rural countryside of Alabama.


I don’t feel as though the arch of the moral universe had quite reached this woman’s living conditions. The arch of the moral universe had not quite touched her life as it has of so many other millions of Americans in this country. There seemed to be little progress. The wooden beams that little cabin sat on had begun to rot away, and in places the foundation rested on car tire rims and concrete blocks. Our small group did what we could to help prop up her home, to keep her safe.


Later that night we were told that we had arrived on the week of the 35th anniversary of the March from Selma and that we were invited to participate. Not knowing what to expect we showed up the next morning, gathering with folks on Main Street, and we met a few women who had marched on March 7th 1965 in Selma. As they had peacefully approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge that traverses over the Alabama River they were met by local and state police who ordered the marchers to go home or back to their churches. They didn’t back down, but quickly they and others were beaten by officers on horseback and assaulted with tear gas.


These women were amongst the countless unsung heroes of the civil rights movement who through brave and selfless determination pushed the arch of the moral universe just a little bit more towards justice.

These black women and their children who were our age, graciously linked arm in arm with us white college students, and we marched together over that old bridge, and this time, on the other side, there was a celebration—there was a remembrance—there was a word of hope for the future. In fact, we had the honor of hearing Coretta Scott King talk about the legacy of that march and those marchers and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Since that day, I have believed those immortal words of Dr. King to be true, that the arch of moral universe is long, and it does indeed bend towards justice, but I have also seen firsthand the conditions that so many folks still live with in the rural South and Appalachia and on Native American reservations in our country; and I have witnessed the fear and poverty of growing up in the inner-city; and I have seen the plight of the impoverished and refugees in countries abroad as well as in our own nation—and I am left to reflect only that the arch of the moral universe has yet to fully reach the lives of millions of Americans and billions of people across the globe.


I know that, like so many of you, that the arch of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it sure takes a lot of strength, it sure takes a lot of courage, it sure takes a lot of determination, and it sure takes a lot of persistence to bend it even just a tiny little bit—and I know like so many of you that it sure has a long, long ways to go and it needs everyone’s help.

Sometimes it is tempting to think that we as a nation have arrived as a post-racial society, one free of bigotry and racism—wouldn’t that be wonderful—wouldn’t that be something to celebrate? Since President Obama was elected, a myth has increasingly been perpetuated in our country that somehow, we now live in a post-racial society—that race suddenly no longer matters much in this country.


Indeed, the day that President Barrack Obama was inaugurated I gathered with friends and collogues at Hiram College to watch our first Black president take the oath of office, and I held in my arms my little new born baby boy, who is black, and I thought it was an incredible moment in our history, and I thought it was an incredibly important moment for my son and our entire nation. But an African American reaching the highest office in our nation didn’t magically fix our nation’s persistent and long held structures of pervasive racism.


In many ways it seems just the opposite is true. Across Europe and the United States there has been an emboldened white nationalism that has crept into popular society—there has been a fervent and vocal phobia of migrants and people of other cultures and races expressed in our nation. These voices are seemingly becoming more and more mainstream, and there has become a seeming willingness to forgive or ignore insensitive and even racist remarks from our highest political leaders.

Our president elect ran on the rallying cry, “Make America Great Again”, and I sincerely imagine there is much positive in that message for many, many, Americans, and especially those who have lost not only jobs and wages in recent years, but who perhaps have also lost loved ones to our nation’s narcotic epidemic. Their pain and frustration is real.


However, I also wonder, for African Americans, for Arab Americans, for Native Americans, for Latino and Latina Americans, for Gay and Lesbian Americans, and even for many female Americans, I wonder what they feel when they hear the slogan chanted “Make America Great Again”? I want to ask, was America greater when we enslaved and later segregated African Americans—was it greater when black men were lynched in public and black churches were burned down?


Was America greater when women didn’t have the right to vote? Was America greater when we committed genocide against indigenous peoples? Was America greater when we made Gay marriage illegal and kicked openly gay men and women out of the military? Was America greater when we became the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons in war, or when we put thousands of Japanese Americans in internment camps? I want to know, when exactly was America greater than we are today for all those in our nation who have experienced oppression, racism, sexism and homophobia? When exactly were we greater?


I think our Nation has been great whenever we have struggled for equality—whenever we as a nation have seemingly bent the arch of the moral universe towards justice through enacting and upholding civil rights and justice for everyone.


I imagine when a lot of African Americans hear “Make America Great Again”—they might hear under tones of make America White again—because the rhetoric of this past campaign was often one of building walls on our southern border, one of promising to keep out Muslim political refugees, one of threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, one of supporting our nation’s police, perhaps at the cost of accountability, all the while many states were striving to increase voter ID laws and laws that make it harder for poor and minority people to vote.


On their face, many of these laws and policies have been advocated to increase safety, and strengthen the rule of law in our country. But we have seen in the past decade laws like stop and frisk in NYC that allowed police to stop and search anyone who looked like a criminal. And in Arizona a law that for a time allowed police to stop and require individuals to produce proof of citizenship if they “looked” ill-legal. And who, mind you, looks criminal, who looks like illegal—probably not me—probably not most white folks I imagine.


The arch of the moral universe is long, but I do believe it bends towards justice—and I do believe this is embodied in our Christian faith. For Christians, doing justice should be like breathing air or drinking water—it should be what makes us alive—it should be an intimate part of who we are and who we understand our God to be. We may not participate in justice the same way those women who marched in Selma did, but make no mistake, all of us, regardless of age or ability, has the capability and the responsibility to do what the prophet Micah tells us God requires of us—to do Justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.


In my sermon I originally had a whole page of examples of institutional racism in our country today, but instead of me talking longer, I would like to invite you to talk with one another. We have lots of members of different ages in this church. Some of you have lived through the civil rights movement and all of us have our own experiences. I encourage you to get your coffee or juice and snacks and just take a few minutes to sit and talk and share with one another on this MLK Sunday. I have some tables set up in the narthex and there is a table in the upstairs kitchenette area and one in the choir room and feel free to use my office. Please just sit and talk for a bit about justice.


Finally, I want to share that my trip to Selma ended with us visiting the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham and it was powerful to see and hear the images and voices of our country’s civil rights leaders. I picked up a CD there of African American Spirituals that I often listened to that inspired me and I have asked Ted to sing one of my favorites today, Above My Head, for us as we share our offerings together. We have much to share, much to give, so I now invite our ushers to please come forward and collect our offerings…

 

Good Corn

Posted by chesterlanducc on January 12, 2017 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (0)

A highly successful businessman was once asked to make a substantial donation toward an urgent charity appeal. The businessman listened to the case carefully then said, “I can understand why you approached me. Yes I do have a lot of money, and yours is an important cause. But are you aware that I have a lot of calls upon my resources? Did you know my mother needs 24 hour nursing care?” “Did you know my sister is struggling to raise a family of eight on her own?” “Did you know I have one son in a drug rehab clinic and another doing voluntary work overseas?” “No we didn’t” they replied. “Well, if I don’t give them a cent, what makes you think I’ll give it to you?!”


There are many stories like the story of the Little Drummer Boy that we sang this morning that remind us that you don’t have to be wealthy to be generous.


This morning in Sunday school our children and youth are going to be thinking about and discussing what gifts they have to share and they will be wrapping presents to bring up to our nativity scene her to share at the end of the service, just as the Magi did.

In thinking about today’s service and I remembered O’ Henry’s modern telling of the Gift of the Magi which was written at the turn of the 20th century. When I was in high school in Cleveland we watched this play in our auditorium with an African American actor and actress and it was really beautiful and it has always stayed with me.


In this story Jim and his wife, Della, are a couple living in a modest apartment. They have only two possessions between them in which they take pride: Della's beautiful long, flowing hair, almost touching to her knees, and Jim's shiny gold watch, which had belonged to his father and grandfather.


On Christmas Eve, with only $1.87 in hand, and desperate to find a gift for Jim, Della sells her hair for $20 to a nearby hairdresser, and eventually finds a platinum pocket watch chain for Jim's watch for $21. Satisfied with the perfect gift for Jim, Della runs home and begins to prepare pork chops for dinner.


At 7 o'clock, Della sits at a table near the door, waiting for Jim to come home. Unusually late, Jim walks in and immediately stops short at the sight of Della. Della then admits to Jim that she sold her hair to buy him his present. Jim gives Della her present – an assortment of beautiful and ornate combs, useless now that her hair is short. Della then shows Jim the chain she bought for him, to which Jim says he sold his watch to get the money to buy her combs.


Of course, they both realize that it isn’t the gifts that matter most, it is what they are willing to share of themselves to make one another happy.


There is another story about gifts and giving that I would like to close with. There was a farmer in Indiana who grew award-winning corn. Each year he entered his corn in the state fair where it won first prize. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and asked the farmer what was his secret for growing winning corn? The farmer simply responded “It’s no secret, I share my seed corn with my neighbors.”


“How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked. “Why” said the farmer, “don’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”


We too are like that corn farmer—like Jim and Della, like the little drummer boy, if we want to be our best selves, we must share ourselves with each other, even when we feel we have little to give.

Sometimes in our society life seems like a competition where the winners are like the business man who holds onto his wealth even as everyone around him who he loves is in need of his help. Sometimes in our society life seems like a competition where we win by holding onto as much as we can—accumulating as much as we can—and sharing is foolishness.


The truth of the Magi, the Epiphany of our faith, is that the more we share, the more we let go, the more allow ourselves to be vulnerable—in actuality, the more we actually receive, the wealthier we become, through sharing ourselves with one another.


If we can just be a like more like the little drummer boy, if we can just be a little more like Jim and Della in the story of the Gift of the Magi, or that corn farmer in Indiana, we will experience such an Epiphany, that we have much to share, much to give, and that when we give the very best of ourselves, it will be enough. So let us grow good Corn here at Community Church and in our community—so that as we share what we have—as we share who we are—we all might all lift up one another together—and there might be enough for everyone.


 

Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice.

 

"There is no try, only do or do not."

Posted by chesterlanducc on January 6, 2017 at 1:25 PM Comments comments (0)

When I was working at Hiram College the minister at the Church in town collaborated with a group of parents of young adults who were on the Autism Spectrum to start an agricultural community (farm) for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I was invited to the group which later formed a board and became a non-profit. Starting a non-profit, especially without funding, is a daunting task. It is hard work and it seems to move very slowly. However, about a year later we had leased a piece of farmland without any buildings, and we began the work of starting Hiram Farm. It was that spring that I was working with one of the parents, Frank, to build a hog shed when I said to him, “I really hope the Farm works out”. He stopped what he was doing and he looked at me and said: “It has to—there is no other choice”. 


There are some things in life that are so important that we will them into being, even though they might be difficult, even though they might seem unlikely or even impossible. The story of Jesus gives us permission to believe that the impossible is in fact possible when the goal is to love and care for others.

A few weeks back Susan Kruger sent me a paragraph from a book she was reading which told the story of the Cleveland Clinic and their decision to move to same day appointments for those they serve. This was a radical and daunting task that perhaps seemed impossible at the time, but the clinicians and the administrators recognized that it had to be this way in order to best help those they served.


This is the season for New Year resolutions—the season for audacity, for bravery, for courage—to set out to do the impossible because it needs to be done, because there is no other choice—in the words of Yoda from the Star Wars trilogy, “Do or do not—there is no try”.


As many of you know this past year was my first year as a Church minister and I began by trying to engage and incorporate our children and youth into worship more, and it was happening but it wasn’t working as well as I had hoped and over the summer I had a conversation with our Faith Proclamation Team about whether I should give up on the idea of having these whole body Sundays which seek to include and engage our youth and children. Connie Becker said no, we needed to keep doing it. It reminded me of my friend Frank, that father whose son is on the Autism spectrum who said of the Hiram Farm “It has to work—there is no other choice”.

Over this past year with this faith community I have become ever more convinced that intergenerational church is powerful and that it transforms the faith journeys of adults, youth and children alike. It is also challenging—daunting at times even—because it requires us, like the Cleveland Clinic did—to completely and radically re-orient how we think about how we do what we do. It doesn’t mean that everything in worship or the Church needs to change, but it means that how we think about and how we engage in everything we do, worship, leadership, service to others, all of it must consider our entire congregation, our young children and youth as well as our adult members.


It’s hard, it’s really hard to “do” church in such a way that it enlivens the spirit of a small child at the same time it engages the soul of an adult—but it is important to do the hard work of ministry that is meaningful for all of us, regardless of our age, or ability, or beliefs. And when we have a worship service where our youngest and our oldest and everyone in between are interacting and engaging one another—God’s spirit is fully present.


And so this New Year, I would like to invite us to think about potential New Year resolutions for our Church as well as our individual faith journeys. Mine will be to continue to work with our church to invite and engage all of our members, younger and older, into meaningful worship together across generations. Thanks be to god for God’s still speaking voice.

 

A Messy Faith (Christmas Eve)

Posted by chesterlanducc on December 30, 2016 at 5:15 PM Comments comments (0)

I am reminded at Christmas time just how messy the story of Jesus is. As you know we have NOT one, not two or even three; but four gospels that tell the story of Jesus differently. In today’s culture we are used to hearing news stories and although there is sometimes bias as to how stories are reported, we often expect that if we hear a story on four different stations that the facts will be basically the same. In the gospels however, the goal is not to report facts, but to communicate truths—they therefore tell four different stories about the truth of who they believe Jesus to be.  


Sometimes as Christians we try to harmonize these different stories—we try to make them into one story, we blend shepherds with wise men and we forget that only two of the four Gospels even mention Jesus’ birth.


But, if we read all four gospels, we recognize a significant truth about our faith—it isn’t an orderly, neatly gift-wrapped faith—it is a messy faith—a faith that invites us to radically love like Jesus loved—a faith that uses mystical stories not to tell facts, but to share truths about this love.


For instance, the Gospel of Mark was written for a non-Jewish community and there is no mention of Jesus’ life until he is baptized as an adult standing in the river Jordan and the Holy Spirit breaks into the world and descends on him as a dove. That’s the Christmas story of Mark—that’s it. Who and what Jesus was before that moment, who his parents were, where he came from—none of this seems to matter—what matters is everything that comes after that moment in the river—the ministry of Jesus—the people he feeds and heals and liberates from oppression—that’s the story.


The Gospel of Matthew on the other hand was written to a Jewish community after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by Rome, and they were searching for a Messiah. This story of Jesus begins with Joseph who is visited by Angels. Mathew quotes the prophets as foretelling the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and the story parallels the story of Moses as Mathew describes Mary and Joseph fleeing King Herod and traveling to Egypt and back. In this story Jesus is the Messiah in the lineage of King David AND a liberator in the tradition of Moses. This story is about how this love, through Jesus, can and will liberate the oppressed and set the captives of Israel free.


And then there is the Gospel of Luke who writes to a non-Jewish audience who are likely on the margins of society and so instead of Magi from distant lands bringing costly gifts, the story of Jesus in Luke is told through the perspective of those on the margins of society itself. It is told through the eyes of women. Elizabeth and Mary are the main characters, and Jesus is so poor that he is born in a stable with animals and lowly sheppards to greet his birth. In this story God breaks into the world through those who are most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor, women and children. In this story, the weak are strong and the messiah is the one who serves others!


And finally we come to the gospel of John. Like Mark, the gospel of John isn’t concerned about the birth or childhood of Jesus. Unlike the gospel of Mark however, Jesus is not baptized in the book of John. John instead uses the creation story from the book of Genesis to help us understand the truth of Jesus. Jesus was in the beginning—Jesus is the creative activity of God—the light of God—Jesus is the word of God made flesh—the breaking in of the divine into humanity and creation.


All of these stories, each wonderful in and of themselves, makes for a very messy faith when told together—not a nice, neat, orderly faith. Christianity is NOT the type of faith where you can simply check off boxes—not the type of faith where you MUST believe this or that—not the type of faith where there is only the right way—no—our faith is such that it invites us to encounter the truth of Jesus on our terms—to live into the mystery of who and what Jesus is based on our own experiences.


Albert Einstein once famously said OF Mahatma Gandhi: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Einstein was right. You can read books about Gandhi, but I don’t think you can fully capture the truth of who Gandhi was, or what Gandhi meant to the millions of people he liberated in South Africa and India. Such love and self-sacrifice is not easily communicated through facts and stories only point towards the truth of this love—to be understood, such love must be lived out in our own lives.


It might just be me, but sometimes I think, who cares if Jesus was literally born of a virgin or if a star lead Wise men to his birth? Show me a person who is willing to touch a leper, who is willing to risk their health and social standing in order to touch someone and make them feel human again—make them feel important and loved. That’s a miracle that has the potential to transform humanity!


Show me a person who is willing to step in and protect a woman who is being attacked by a mob for using her body how she wants—a person who recognizes that none of us are without sin, and none of us should be judging others—that is a Messiah worth following!  


Show me a person who takes the time to welcome children—who sees the outsider who everyone else either ignores or scorns, a person who not only notices, but who stops to invite that person to eat with them—to break bread with them—that is a is a story worth living. Show me a person who is willing to speak truth to power, to speak for the most vulnerable in society, even to the point where he or she knows they will be scorned by their religion, abandoned by their friends, and punished by their government—this is a light that cannot be overcome by darkness. This is Emmanuel. This is God with us! This is the Christmas story.


Again, the gospels stories, beautiful and mystical stories as they are, are not meant to share facts about who Jesus was—they are meant to share truths about how the life and story of Jesus transformed each of these communities of faith in different ways. They are meant to express how Jesus, by loving others as himself, came to embody and reveal the very nature of God in the world. And they are meant to show us, that we too, by loving others, might be the light of God in this world. This is the Christmas story.


 

Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice.

 

The Permission Giving Church

Posted by chesterlanducc on December 30, 2016 at 5:05 PM Comments comments (0)

SCRIPTURE Matthew 1:18-25

 

A reading from the Gospel of Matthew…


Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

SERMON


 

About four years ago now a couple of friends who teach at Hiram College and I partnered with the Church in Hiram to begin a pre-school there. They had a coop preschool for many years in the 80s and 90s but it had long been closed. So, a small group of us began working through the list of everything that had to be done to secure a license for a pre-school. I created a budget and facilitated the physical aspects of the pre-school, including coordinating students from Hiram College and Church volunteer groups to get the building ready.


It was a significant commitment by the Church, who wanted to better support families in our community. As you might imagine there was a lot that was needed done in preparation for the preschool—walls need painted, a fence and an outdoor learning are needed to be built, hooks hung, a three basin sink needed added, and the list went on. I continuously ran into situations where I had to ask if we could move or use something of the Churches, if we could remove a bush here, or cement in fence posts over there, and always the minister, who is a good friend and mentor of mine would say, sure, we are a permission giving Church. And what he meant by that wasn’t that anyone could do anything they wanted to at the Church. That was clearly not the case. But what I think he meant was that the Church members would seek to support anyone doing ministry, and instead finding reasons to say no, they would try to find ways to say yes.


At the first two Vitality Labs we heard some similar wisdom from Rev. Michael Piazza who said “you can always have your way, if you have enough ways”—“you can always have your way, if you have enough ways”. Now it doesn’t seem like this could possibly be true, but I think it is, and I think it is true because if we are truly seeking to love one another and to find solutions together in support of one another, we can almost always figure it out together—we can almost always find a way. Sometimes in Churches and relationships we become guarded and protective because we don’t want to lose out on things that are important to us.


When Churches become accustomed to guarding everything and saying no to new ideas and new ministries, it is difficult for ministry to thrive. However, when we approach change with the idea that we are a permission giving church for those who seek to do ministry, and we approach it with the idea that we can always have our way, if we have enough ways, then we become a Church of problem solvers, a Church that supports one another in helping each other figure out how we can accomplish our goals together, not despite one another.

Now, when we started this pre-school Monica was pregnant with our second child. Because we had first been foster parents of three new born boys, Hannah was our fifth infant in five years and I was tired. Sometimes in life difficult challenges and work take a toll on us and it is easy to lose track of what is important. After Hannah was born, I realized that I needed to be a more supportive husband and this experience of my minister friend Roger who was always saying yes, who would say we are a permission giving Church, we will figure it out—that experience I think lead me to try to allow “yes” to be my default position anytime Monica would ask for permission (support) to get out of the house, or have some free time—time to go out with her girlfriends, or travel for work or for a wedding.


I thought it was going to be much harder than it actually turned out to be. When Hannah was still pretty young and really wouldn’t take a bottle from me yet, or even let me hold her at night when she wanted her mama, Monica had an opportunity to travel with work for a few days in a new position she had at United Way. It meant so much to her, so even though I wasn’t completely confident, I encouraged her not to worry about leaving the girls with me, they would probably be o.k. And they were—it was fine. And later that year Monica started running three times a week, she wanted to be healthy, so whenever she needs to run, it’s fine, and when she studied to become a licensed social worker this year, we figured it out—because I realized more so than ever, that whenever I had the chance to support my wife in something that was meaningful to her physical, emotional or social health, it was worth whatever small inconveniences it cost me.


I think being “permission giving” and putting other’s needs ahead of our own, whenever possible, are acts of love. The Church is notorious for being a place where traditions and rules doing things a certain way, become more important than how we treat each other. It is understandable because the Church is a collection of people, and people act like people at Church just like they do at home, and it is human to want to preserve things the way want they done, the ways they make us feel comfortable, but it is also human to put the needs of others ahead of our own. The church, at its best, models a permission giving life, where we seek to try to find ways to say yes to others, whenever it will make them happier or healthier, and it doesn’t violate our own happiness of healthiness.


So my Christmas wish for us, for myself and all of us, is that in our personal relationships and in our being the Church together, we find ways to say yes—to be permission giving people, to be a permission giving Church—whenever it means loving someone or doing ministry together.

 

They Called Him the Magic Man

Posted by chesterlanducc on December 13, 2016 at 2:50 PM Comments comments (0)

On this day, on December 11th, 1977 at 11:00 O’clock, this Church celebrated Al Freshley Day.   Al Freshley was the Church Chairman of Community Church consecutively from 1952 until 1977 and one of our members wrote of him… Al acted as back-up for whoever faltered, whatever was forgotten, whichever task suddenly needed done. On one occasion when an honored guest thought the steak too rare, Al gallantly took the steak back to the kitchen and grilled it to the guest’s satisfaction. If coffee was too strong Al weakened it, if too weak he strengthened it. Al chauffeured in slippery weather, transported food that could not be delivered by the vendor, returned to home or store when something was forgotten or in short supply. The {Church} caterers called him the magic man.


Al, a relative new-comer in 1952 became Community Church’s Chairman and went on to serve this Church for twenty five consecutive years in that role. The first minister from Community Church he served with was Rev. Harriet Louise Patterson. He served with her at a time when most denominations didn’t even ordain women not less call them to serve as senior ministers. Al served through political assignations that tore our country to its very core—he served during bus boycotts, Church bombings and the lynchings of African Americans—he served during Nixon’s impeachment, he served during the second wave feminist movement, he served during Woodstock and Vietnam, he served during the heroine epidemic of the 1970s. He served as differing opinions on civil rights and war led some to leave this Church in the 1950s, and he served as this Church purchased this land and built this sanctuary that we worship in this morning.


I mention all this not to lift up a single person, but because I want to talk about Joy today—a joy that is rooted in the promise of God’s peace. And I find it curious, but wonderful, that someone who served as our Church’s chairman for twenty five consecutive years, during some of the most difficult years of our Nation’s history, is remembered in our Church history book, not primarily for what he helped build or the challenges he helped this Church face, but rather, for being a person who served others—remembered for being back-up for whoever faltered, whatever was forgotten, whichever task suddenly needed done. Remembered for being that person who if the coffee was too strong weakened it, if too weak strengthened it.


Today we hear the hymn of Mary, which is one of the eight most ancient Jewish-Christian hymns. It is a hymn of joy, hope, and justice, even against the backdrop of great suffering. Mary, a young single women is pregnant in a harshly patriarchal society, she is to give birth to a child at a time when Rome occupied Israel and there was great poverty, oppression and civil unrest. Nothing is particularly joyful about this story, except for the promise of peace and justice Mary receives from God.


Likewise, we hear this morning the prophet Isaiah, who writes timeless prose of God’s justice and peace, even as the powerful Assyrian Empire is at the door-step of Judea and threatens to destroy the remaining Jewish people as it had already destroyed the Israelite people of the north.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable odds—Isaiah prophesizes a word of joy—a promise of peace. Nearly a thousand years later, with the Roman Empire this time threatening to destroy Jerusalem and the Jewish people again—Mary sings this powerful hymn of joy and hope. And time and time again, for nearly two thousand years since, Christians hear these words spoken and sung of God’s promise of peace and justice, and it brings them, it brings us, hope and joy.


So in the 1950s and 60s and 70s this Church, against the backdrop of some of the most turbulent years of our nation’s history, carved out a community of faith that called female ministers to pastor us, that advocated for housing for minorities, that supported Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement, that marched in Washington with Dr. King, that seeked to support those struggling with drug addiction, that lobbied our senate and congress members against bombing Vietnam, that marched for peace in Washington, that housed the Geagua Women’s Center in our church basement, and that began engaging environmental issues at a time it was clear our earth was being harmed.


Al Freshely and others lead this community of faith during these years, and people like Al undoubtedly lead this church, not by force of will, nor by bullying or intimidation, but rather by first serving others—by living out the example of the promise of God’s peace in this world—by being joyful—by having hope, that despite all the noise around us, despite all the violence, despite all the hate, that we have joy because like Mary and Isaiah before her, we have the promise of God’s peace and God’s justice.


 

With joy in our hearts, let us today serve others—and may we too be remembered for being back-up for whoever falters, for whatever is forgotten, whichever task suddenly needs done. By the grace of God, let us be remembered for being that person who if the coffee is too strong weakens it, if too weak strengthens it. Each in our own ways, each different and diverse, may we find ways to build this community of faith together—as a response, as an alternative at times, to all that seems wrong in the world—to all that is too often broken with society—let us, learn from the magic of those who have come before us, and let us prepare a new story, a new chapter in our Church history, to be remembered by those who come after us. Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice. Amen

 

As-salamu alaykum

Posted by chesterlanducc on December 7, 2016 at 6:20 PM Comments comments (0)

I heard a story this week about two women who were wearing head scarfs and robes, presumably Muslim, who entered a small family style restaurant to have lunch. When the hostess was about to seat them a man walked by and said loudly to the women for all to hear, “do you have bombs under those robes?” The hostess had no idea what to say or do, nor did the women. And then, it seemed as though everyone in the restaurant stopped what they were doing—stopped eating, stopped drinking, stopped talking—and they looked up and starred at those two women. And finally, one of the women had the courage to say to the entire restaurant, “Is there anyone hear who cares about us?” No one said a word.  


I have been thinking about this idea of looking for a Messiah and I listened to this story several times, each time expecting a different outcome—each time, even after the first time, expecting, against all reason, that somehow, that someone would just have the courage, just have the compassion, to stand up, to stand with, to stand for these two women—to be Messiah-like—to stand with the oppressed of the earth.


It is clear in our scriptures that from the very beginning of his ministry Jesus sets about the work of finding and preparing others to be Messiahs along with him—others to help bring about God’s peace in this world with him. Jesus knew he would likely not live a long life, so he couldn’t be the Messiah by himself, he needed others.

One of the few things I still remember from Divinity School was something a professor talked about in a class on African American Spirituality. He said, too often we are waiting for a Messiah, waiting for the second coming of Jesus, waiting from another Dr. Martin Luther King—we are waiting, we are looking, we are searching, and the Messiah is already amongst us and if we allow it, the Messiah is us.


Like Dr. King in his final speech, I’ve Been To the Mountain Top, Jesus knows Jesus knows he will likely be killed, and yet he has faith—he has faith that in the face of the greatest of evils, in the face of the most tremendous darkness, that his people will make it to the promised land because his disciples will carry on his work of being God’s peace, God’s Shalom, in this world.


Jesus was the Messiah, but for him being the Messiah meant empowering all of us to recognize that we too are capable of being Messiah-like—capable of shining God’s peace on the world—capable of standing up for and with those on the margins of society like the two Muslim women in the dinner who ask us, does anyone care about us?


Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus knew he wasn’t going to make it to the promised land, but he made it to the mountain top, and he saw what was possible—he saw that God’s peace was possible—and he left his followers and generations of Christians to continue his work of bringing about the Kingdom of God in this world today… PLAY Dr. KING clip from "I've Been to the Mountaintop".

 

Holy Laughter

Posted by chesterlanducc on December 1, 2016 at 11:15 AM Comments comments (0)

I ended up changing my sermon for today. I was really excited about preaching on the Magic Man, but I had been in part writing it with Glenda Freshly in mind, and I also kept feeling as though perhaps what we need today is some holy laughter. There is an ancient tradition in fact which calls for holy laughter on the Sunday after Easter as a way of expressing joy after the resurrection. Reflecting on today’s scripture which depicts God as a sower who generously casts God’s word onto paths, into thickets and briars, amongst weeds as well as onto good soil—I think the same is true for God’s laughter. So I want to give thanks and share some stories from this past year that have made me smile or laugh, and that have reminded me of God’s holy laughter that is constantly present, healing and mending our lives. This is a way for me to give thanks for you all.


My first time at this Church with my family was for a meet-and-greet, and Al Kruger went off with Eileen into the nursery while she played dress up for the better part of the evening while I met folks. Eileen almost never goes off with strangers, so I smiled, and I thought, this is a fun Church. I also met Jerry Zucker that night and he had me laughing and intrigued as he spun tails and told stories. It was the beginning of my experience with holy laughter in this church.

In fact, just the other Sunday when the Hiram Women’s Choir was here, Marline came forward for communion with little Adison holding her hand and I thought, yes, this is what communion is about, and I smiled deep in my soul. And this summer when our young people served at Donna Brook’s home with her and we swam with her afterwards in her pool, which she shared with us on a hot day, I thought, this is right—this is a form of baptism—a blessing in God’s waters—and I smiled and I laughed.


In June when we volunteered with our youth at Hiram Farm with adults on the Autism Spectrum and Barb Mallin joined us, and we went and played Whirly Ball after volunteering and Barb was shouting through the thick glass windows at the kids who were driving bumper cars who obviously couldn’t even hear her, but she was shouting like it was the worlds series at times, encouraging them to play on—Catherine get that Ball, Patrick shoot—and I thought, this is the holy spirt alive, reaching out across generations, as I laughed and laughed. Holy laughter.


This fall we had folks over to our home for a BBQ dinner and I come in the house and Jean Strojan is standing in my living room wearing one of our kid’s green witches hats—and I saw the spirit of a youthful, beautiful, joyful woman, and I laughed. Holy laughter.


I also remember Grandpa Al as I like to call him with my girls, seemingly training our two year old daughter Hannah for the Olympics. He had her jumping from the carpeting in the narthex onto a rug that he had some inches away and each time she made the leap, he would encourage her, and then move back that rug another inch or so and invite her to try again. It warmed my spirit, it made me chuckle, and it reminded me of how we all need people in our lives to help us stretch ourselves. Holy laughter.


I am thankful for our youth. I remember going to Doubrava’s wine tasting party this past fall and Catherine Becker greeted us at the door and she walked over and without saying a single word she gave me a big hug and then walked away in silence. And I laughed a little bit because it was so her and I appreciated it so much. Holy laughter.


There was the night before Thanksgiving last year when Dan, Tracy and I met up at the Welshfield Inn to talk about decorating the chancel for Advent, and the place was nearly empty as it was the night before Thanksgiving, and I am sitting with them at the bar at about nine o’clock at night, ordering cocktails, although I probably had a beer, and Tracy says to the bartender, this is our pastor and we are planning how to decorate our church for Advent. And I laughed. And I am sure the bar-tender got a laugh as well. Holy laughter.

There was of course the wonderful Chair-ity event where the food and wine was abundant and the Auctioneer was really more like a comedian and he had us laughing so hard that my face literally hurt and I was crying with laughter. And some of us were sitting there in the pews, drinking wine, and laughing, and enjoying the children’s chairs that had been painted by all kinds of people. I especially remember Miss Martha and how our Auctioneer took a liking to her and her responses that made me laugh so hard. That was also the first time my in-laws, who are lifelong Catholics, visited Community Church and they came for the Chair-ity event and I think they were a little taken aback, and Al asked with a smile—is this normal? And I said, with a chuckle, I think so—I hope so. Holy laughter!


I have experienced holy laughter in times of joy, as well as times of great difficulty in this faith community this past year. I have mentioned that I got the chance to sit and talk with Bob Paine as he shared with me his love for his wife Ellie and I was so moved and so appreciative for his sharing his story with me. But I also remember the times he made me laugh, when even in his final days he had a quick wit and a dry humor as he bantered with nurses and physical therapists, at times with a grin on his face. There were all the times that Bobby Robertson would tell me stories about Doug and his recover and later his antics, and we would laugh—laugh to keep from crying sometimes. Holy laughter.

And then there is Jim Doubrava who has been my rock and my cheerleader and who gives me constructive feedback. I remember going to visit him in the hospital only a few hours after his surgery expecting to find someone quietly recovering and I am at the desk in his unit and I hear Jim’s loud, joyful voice calling through the doorway, Jason, we’re over here. And immediately he is introducing me to his nurse as his pastor and telling stories, making me laugh, and Brenda is smiling such a beautiful smile. So joyful. Holy laughter.


I have to be honest, many of the times I have laughed the hardest, have probably been at book group and especially with Jean Benson. I’ll just say that my favorite story from her so far at least involves mittens. When I think about it I still laugh out-loud. I love Jean. And I have been so thankful for her because she is so real, and so authentic, and there is both a depth as well as a sense of humor to her which, excuse my language, cuts through the bullshit of life. Holy laughter.


Just the other day I remember on Election Day Glenda walking by my office and a little while later I saw her leaving and I said hi and she told she needed to come to church to pray. And the next day, after the election, I saw her again and she was bringing a little box of tissues for the sanctuary, and I laughed. Not long after that I visited her in hospital a couple times and she was laughing and joking and making the best of life. She reminded me of the importance of healing laughter.


There have been the meals from the service Auction, and the service auction itself, where I have spent entire dinners mostly laughing. I honestly think I have laughed more this year with this Church than I have in a very, very long time. And again, a lot of it has been holy laughter—laughter to keep from crying, laughter that reminds me not to take life too seriously—laughter that has lightened my soul and given me hope and joy. And then there are the times I just grin or smile when I see some of you, when you do things that remind me of god’s presence, and I feel a peace or joy deep inside.


Indeed, I have felt so humbled and grateful to be your minister this past year. You have shared with me the good times and the hard times. I have been so sincerely humbled to be part of your lives in such intimate ways. To learn about your spouses who have passed away, to hear your stories, to have you share your struggles with me, and to see how incredibly, incredibly resilient you all are.


I have told more than one of you that you are my hero, and I have meant it. Many of you have done heroic deeds this year in dealing with great difficulties. And the pain, the loss, the struggles, the fear, it is all very real and it doesn’t do any good to try to hide from it or ignore it, but amidst all of it, there has been this deep and profound holy laughter that is pervasive in this community of faith. I preached about earlier this year, prayer doesn’t necessarily cure us, but prayer often heals us, and I believe laughter is a pure form of prayer—it connect us to God’s holy laughter—and if only for a moment, it transcends all pain and hurt and evil in the world, and it give us hope.


So as we laugh and give thanks, let us give thanks to God for God’s holy laughter in which we hear and feel God’s still speaking voice in our lives. Amen.

 

Visions Must Be Paid For

Posted by chesterlanducc on November 16, 2016 at 5:30 PM Comments comments (0)

SCRIPTURE Isaiah 43:1–3a, 18–19, 25

 

But now thus says God, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia in exchange for you. 18Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

SERMON


The promise of our faith, that if we covenant with God, God will do a new thing—God will make a way where there is no way—when we pass through waters or fire, God will be with us and we will not be overwhelmed.


I struggled to find the words to begin today’s sermon, so I begin today with the words from one the saints of our Church, Jo Elizabeth Pfender, who writes of our Church’s catering service which was active for about a decade in the 1960s—a time in our country’s history that is defined by political and social unrest and division. She writes so gracefully in our church history book…


“We cooked because we had a vision, and visions have to be paid for like everything else. Our Church back in the late 50’s was a collection of men, women, and families who felt a togetherness we wanted to celebrate. Therefore we raised and borrowed money and built a grand edifice in which to carry out our vision for a peaceful world.


To raise money we first cooked for weddings and church meetings. Later we entered the big time and organized a catering service. We prepared feasts for the high, the mighty and the humble. Chopping and paring, kneading and stirring, laughing and occasionally crying we assembled a wondrous collection of recipes from our assorted backgrounds. Our numbers and talents grew. Enough money poured into the coffer to make our mortgage payments.


We purchased china and silverware which we lugged into the city and around the countryside to embellish our gourmet offerings. Our muscles bulged, our backs grew strong and we came to know the joys of friendship.”


“Visions have to be paid for”—very profound words indeed. As in 1950s and 60s, today, Community Church has a vision for a peaceful world—a world where all lives matter equally. Even before election night I was thinking about the topic of stewardship and social justice—and how we are called to be stewards of our community, stewards of those our society would marginalize, stewards of our country and our world.


Today, there are millions of Americans, women who have been the targets of sexual assault, Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, the disabled, Arab Americans, African Americans—millions upon millions of Americans, our neighbors, our friends, our relatives, our collogues, people we love, who in light of president elect Donald Trump’s words and actions this past year, must be wondering, who in this country will stand with them? And I also know there are many millions of economically poor and working class Americans who have felt left behind, ignored and disenfranchised as well. Their pain, frustration and anger is real.

My great hope is that we might find a way as a nation to create space for all Americans—to ensure that all American’s have an equal voice—that we are a nation of human rights and values—that we are a nation with a vision for peace and justice for all.


I sincerely think it is incumbent of all of us to try to see one another’s perspectives—to challenge ourselves to look past our fears and our frustrations. But I also think it is incumbent of us as individuals and as a nation to hold our presidents and all our elected officials accountable. They serve our nation and ultimately they answer to us and we must not hesitate to do our part as Americans and as Christians to hold them accountable and lend our voice with those who are at the margins of our society.


When I think about striving for a vision of peace in the world, I think of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle to fight racial oppression for Indians in South Africa at the turn on the twentieth century. Amongst others, Gandhi faced off against the British General Jan Smuts who jailed Gandhi over his civil disobedience to racist laws. Gandhi responded however, not by returning hate with hate, or violence with violence, but instead Gandhi stood defiantly against prejudice and racism, and protested non-violently at every turn.


"His work in South Africa finished, Gandhi left South Africa with his wife in July 1914. Before he departed, he sent General Smuts a pair of sandals he had made as a gift.


"Smuts wore the sandals every summer at his farm and then returned the sandals to Gandhi on Gandhi's seventieth birthday. Smuts remarked, 'I have worn these sandals for many a summer ... even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man. It was my fate to be the antagonist of a man for whom even then I had the highest respect. ... He never forgot the human background of the situation, never lost his temper or succumbed to hate, and preserved his gentle humor even in the most trying situations. His manner and spirit even then, as well as later, contrasted markedly with the ruthless and brutal forcefulness which is the vogue in our day...'"


As I read this story, I have hope, but I also am left pondering the words of our past member, Jo Elizabeth Pfender, who reminds us that visions must be paid for—that peace comes at a cost. And in the days and weeks ahead, I am going to spend time reflecting on what I am willing to sacrifice—what price I am willing to pay to stand up for the rights and justice of neighbors, of my fellow citizens


The good news is that we have hope. Our faith tells us that God is going to trouble the water—God is going to do a new thing—God will make a way where there is no way—when we pass through waters or fire, God will be with us and we will not be overwhelmed. So today, we celebrate and we remember God’s love and Gond’s justice, and we commit ourselves anew to God’s work of peace in this world. Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice and may we listen… Amen

 

Ancient-Vintage-Emergent

Posted by chesterlanducc on November 11, 2016 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

SCRIPTURE The Acts of The Apostles 15:1-20 (selections)


 

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”


The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.


The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name.


Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.


SERMON Ancient—Vintage—Emergent


 

In today’s scripture we see the earliest Jesus followers doing what church folk have done ever since—struggling with change.


At the heart of this disagreement is the collision of the ancient and sacred religious laws of Israel, with the new realities and possibilities that came with the gospel of Jesus. And let’s be clear, both the old and the new, the ancient and the emerging, are important. If ever there was a struggle worth being had, it was about what it means to hold onto the ancient rituals and traditional practices, and yet still find ways of creating space for newcomers in our faith traditions.


This balance between the ancient, the traditional, and the emergent is how our faith evolves while still staying rooted in gospel of Jesus and the story of the people of Israel.


Rev. Piazza talks about the Vintage Church as a way of describing the traditional protestant Church with our hymns and pews and organs. What is old is new, what has gone out of style is in some places becoming trendy again, with some creativity. But this only happens when the traditional protestant Church, makes room for the emergence of something new. It is possible, it is necessary I would argue, that we bathe our ancient rituals and our time tested protestant traditions, in the new waters of our post-modern world. And what emerges is something familiar, yet something wholly different.

If we can do this, if we can lean on our ancient rituals and truths, if we can celebrate and yet adapt our protestant traditions, if we can somehow find powerful ways for these old truths and practices to find a voice in the post-modern era—we will be like the early Christian Church in Jerusalem that gathered to figure out how to make room for a new generation of Christians who were in many ways very different than they were, but who also were attracted to the powerful truth of Jesus.


I grew up in a pretty modest home and I think the only new appliance or piece of furniture my folks ever purchased, to this day, was a TV when I was about my daughter Eileen’s age. It is an early memory of min standing in the electronic section of Sears and looking at all these TVs. I remember the salesperson showing my father a TV with a remote. We had never had a remote TV, we still had one with the dials on it. And my father argued with the salesman about why you could possibly need a remote--it was the silliest thing ever. There were only four or five channels at the time.


That TV sat in our living room for many years. When the remote finally broke and the buttons began to wear out, he sat the next TV on top of it. And then finally, it got moved out to the corner of the porch. Thirty years later, it is Vintage, it’s something that when we see it, it reminds us of times past. Today, 30 years later, I brought that TV here, today, because it is a reminder to me of how things change. When I was a kid, it was a high tech TV with a magic remote and today, my girls watch shows on a telephone.


While our faith traditions change, they don’t break down like this old TV finally did. But traditions do need to be re-discovered and re-engaged in new and different ways over time. Rev. Piazza used a similar metaphor as this old console TV. He said that one Christmas his teenage girls got him a Christmas present and when he pulled the gift out of the bag past the tissue paper—he said, oh, you got me my grandmother’s phone. It was an old-fashioned phone, the kind that I grew up with, the kind many of us had in our homes for decades. This one is still plugged in, in the library of the Church and it works. I’ve answered phone calls on it.


Well, as it turns out, what Rev. Piazza’s daughters had given him wasn’t his grandmother’s phone at all, but rather and old fashioned phone receiver, that could plug into a Smart Phone, so you could have the comfort and nostalgia of having that phone resting on your shoulder while you do the dishes or fold the laundry, and have your hands free, and yet still be plugged into all the benefits of having a Smart Phone.


This phone, he suggested, is a type of metaphor for the Church, and the receiver is the ancient and the traditional church, which brings us comfort, but you can also plug it into a post-modern phone, and it connect these two generational experiences of using a phone.


It’s funny, when this phone arrived I had it sitting on the counter and one evening Hannah, our almost three year old daughter, was relentlessly asking for Monica’s phone, over and over again—she wanted to play a cake decorating game on her phone. So I handed her this phone. And I was surprised, she took it and she seemed content, and she walked across the living room and climbed up onto the couch and got in the spot where she likes to sit and she looked at the phone and she looked up at me and said “this phone broken” “this phone don’t work”. And I said to Hannah, you have to plug it in, you have to connect to Mama’s phone.


This was the message that Rev. Piazza was trying to share creating worship experiences for baby boomers and millennials alike—you got to connect and engage the ancient, the vintage, and emergent styles of worship. We need to create authentic worship that folks can hear, and see, and touch, and feel, and smell and taste. We need to create worship that bridges the ancient and the traditional and the postmodern. Vintage is great, pews can be comforting, hymns and choirs and organ music can be beautiful, ancient rituals and hymns such as passing the peace, the Lord’s prayer, or the Agnus Dei, can be incredibly powerful—but we need to continue to struggle to make room for new ways of understanding and practicing Christianity which invite and authentically engage new generations of Christians into our Churches. Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice.

 


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