While many Christian denominations recite one or both of the creeds in worship at least occasionally, some don’t, and I have to wonder what folks new to Episcopal worship must make of our very regular practice of standing together to articulate a list of things we believe.
Are the creeds rules? Do they express doctrines that we are expected to believe? And what if we don’t really believe some of the things we say in the creeds? Are we meant to understand the claims of the creeds literally? There are questions that I suspect we’ve all asked ourselves at times. Because the creeds are such a central part of our worship life and because they raise such tricky questions, Heather and I decided that our final “teaching sermon” in this series should explore the creeds.
The word creed comes from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe”. Probably the most important thing we can say about the creeds are that they are historic documents, born in the days when the Church, the community of Jesus’ followers, was establishing itself. Like other historic documents , they reflect the concerns and issues that were important to their authors.
The Apostles’ Creed is the shorter and less complicated statement of the two we use. It contains twelve faith statements. A longstanding tradition in the church was that the twelve were written by (or at least associated with) the twelve apostles. While a simple form of the creed may have been in use in the middle of the second century, the Apostles’ Creed as we now know it didn’t actually emerge until the fourth or fifth century1.
What we do know is that the Apostles Creed has always been associated with baptism. From early times, new Christians about to be baptized were required to affirm their faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In one of the nice examples of the Church changing its liturgy to honor and reclaim ancient practices, we now use the question-and-answer format as a means of including the entire congregation present in the affirmation of belief in the three persons of the Trinity (and other fundamental articles of faith) during the baptismal service.
We use the Apostles’ Creed during the Morning and Evening Prayer, and when we bury the dead.
The Nicene Creed – or, more accurately, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed – is the profession of faith that we use each Sunday in the Eucharist. It’s a more complicated and arguably more interesting document with quite a dramatic history.
In the fourth century, the Christian Movement had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The Roman Emperor Constantine had converted the Christianity and established the faith as the official religion of the Empire. The Church was not of a common mind, however, but was wracked by controversies, with various religious leaders teaching different and often conflicting doctrines. Constantine wanted to bring about peace and unity, and so in 325 he summoned all Christian bishops to Nicea for the first Ecumenical Council of the Church. He imposed a mandate: because religious peace could only occur if a single religion existed throughout the empire, none of the bishops would be allowed to leave until they had agreed on a universal interpretation for Christianity.2 (I imagine this to have been rather like a mother saying to a pair of quarreling siblings “Nobody leaves the room until you two have sorted this out!”)
And so the bishops began what would ultimately turn out to be a decades-long debate that must, at times, have been a rather dog-eat-dog process: eventually conclusions were reached about what constituted true and authentic Christian belief, and alternative perspectives were declared to be heresies.
Most of the controversies involved relationships between the persons of the Trinity. Bishop Arius of Alexandria and his followers, for example, taught that although Jesus Christ was begotten by the Father, “the Son” did not always exist, and was not of the same nature as the Creator. Macedonius I of Constantinople, meanwhile, taught that the Holy Spirit was not really divine. Both positions (and others) were eventually declared to be heretical, when the bishops took their votes, and bishops who refused to sign on to the agreed-upon definitions of Christian belief were exiled.
Following, Nicea, a series of further councils continued to refine the creed established in 325. The final form of the creed that we use today emerged from the Council of Constantinople in 381. The finely-tuned language that we speak together each week reflects the deeply-held convictions of those early Church Fathers, that Jesus Christ was
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from True God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Another line in the Nicene Creed that has been a source of considerable dispute comes in the part of the creed referring to the Holy Spirit. The creed from Nicea, confirmed by subsequent councils, stated that the
Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life
proceeds (or issues, or emanates) from the Father…
In the sixth century the Church in Europe, under the authority of the Pope in Rome, added the phrase “and the Son”, so the declaration of faith professed that the Spirit issues from both the Father and the Son, the Creator and the Christ. The Orthodox (Eastern) Church vehemently objected to the addition. Their concern was both that the addition was theologically untrue AND that the Bishop of Rome had no authority to change the common creed. In our own time, most of us grew up with the amended “and the Son” version. The Church in its wisdom has, in the last several decades, chosen to return to the earlier (and more truly ecumenical) form of the creed, which is why we now, in our own worship, say that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father”.
Another change to the way the Church has approached the creed has been to shift from an individual statement of faith to a communal expression. Those of us raised on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer declared that “I believe”, while we now say that “We believe”. It seems to me that this change reflects a larger shift in the Church, in our lifetimes, anyway, from a primary emphasis on our personal relationships with God and our own salvation, to a recognition that it is through our connections with one another and our efforts together that we live into God’s dream for the healing of the world.
All of the disputes and controversies associated with the creed over the centuries, considered in relation to the troubles that cause the suffering in the world, can seem trivial. It is hard to project ourselves into the minds and hearts of the people of faith for whom these fine points of language mattered so deeply and profoundly, for whom these words represented our very relationship with God.
Which point brings me to one of the tricky questions that I asked earlier. Do we HAVE to believe all of the things we say in the Creed to be literally true?
Here’s my answer. All of the language that human beings use in our attempt to explain God, salvation, the Church, and other elements of our faith is symbolic. Our words – and for that matter our attempts to express the truth of God in art, music, or any other form – can never capture the full reality of God and God’s dream for us, because these truths are beyond our imagination. Our words (and our images and our melodies) point toward the truth of God and God’s love for us in the life of Jesus the Christ, and of the Spirit that blows among us, but they cannot capture it. As Saint Paul said, we see in a mirror dimly. Our attempts, including the words of the creeds, are the scribblings of children in relation to the glory of God.
I love the explanation of late Bishop John Shelby Spong:
The church of the future will not dismantle and dispatch the gospel narratives, but will recognize them for what they are, a first-century attempt to explain the Christ experience. We will not jettison the creeds, but will recognize them as fourth-century love songs, sung to those people's understanding of God. We can thus join in singing these ancestral songs. We do not literalize their words, nor do we bend the church of tomorrow to the liturgical patterns of antiquity. We will allow the Christ experience to create new forms through which ultimate truth might be allowed to flow in our time.3
For me, the speaking of the creeds is a statement of faith in and solidarity with the universal Church, with the generations of questioning, struggling, faithful folks who have wondered and who have longed to love God and follow Jesus. The creeds tie us back to those who have gone before us, to those all over the world speaking the same words in myriad languages today, and and to those who, God willing, will continue to do so for generations to come.
Today’s parable, which follows directly after last week’s lesson in Luke, is part of an extended section in which Jesus and the disciples are traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem and Jesus is teaching along the way. He has lamented over Jerusalem, he’s talked about the nature and costs of discipleship, and he is trying to impart to his listeners what it means for God’s reign – what Bishop Michael Curry calls the dream or vision of God – to be realized.
When we talk about parables, we always remind ourselves that they are, on the surface, simple stories, but they always include a twist or a surprise whose unexpectedness causes us to pause, consider, and to re-evaluate our assumptions. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector fits this definition perfectly.
It's about two very different people who go up to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray to God. The first, a Pharisee, in effect lists his credentials – he tithes and fasts – and contrasts himself favorably with the other character, the tax collector. The Pharisee, does, in fact, show his commitment to his religion – he gives away a tenth of his income, and he restricts his food on two days out of seven. He is certainly serious about his faith practice.
Probably many of us, today, have negative associations with Pharisees because the gospel writers so frequently portray them as Jesus’ opponents and adversaries. For Jesus’ community, however, they were the local clergy – men (and they were all men) who led prayer, taught, and offered counsel to members of their congregations.
The other character is a tax collector, who, in his prayer, simply offers up to God that he is a sinner in need of mercy. We should not think of the tax collector as someone who was merely a bureaucrat from the Imperial Revenue Service. The way the Roman tax system actually worked was that different territories in the Empire were, in effect, put up for bid, with the contract going to the highest bidder, not unlike the way we here at James and Andrew put out a call for bids when we need to get the furnace replaced. We’re looking for the lowest bid, while Rome looked for the bid that would bring the greatest revenue.
The person winning the bid guaranteed the amount of his bid to the Roman authorities, and he would make money only if he collected more than that.
This arrangement worked very well for the Romans, but from the point of view of the local population, it had unpleasant consequences: it tended to attract rather unsavory characters, and they in turn were probably not too choosy about the methods they used to get their payments from local artisans or farmers. It’s safe to say, then, that those hearing Jesus tell this parable would have thought it was no more than the truth to hear the tax collector acknowledge his unworthiness as he looks down in shame.
So let’s rename this parable. Let’s call it the parable of the retired rector and the guy who runs a protection racket. When Jesus says that the second character was “justified” (or righteous, or saved) rather than the first character – when the parable nails the cleric but lets the creep get off scot free – we may be as offended as the original hearers might have been. But after we are finished being offended, we still have to ask what Jesus is trying to tell us.
There is no question that the Pharisee, or the retired rector, is a socially acceptable, good person. And there’s also no question that the tax collector, or the creep, is not. So one conclusion we might draw that Jesus thinks it doesn’t matter what we do, how we behave. Upright citizen or extortionist, it doesn’t matter. Of course that’s not the case.
What does Jesus mean when he says that the second character is “justified”? Does it mean that God is satisfied with a little humility and repentance? That it doesn’t matter if I’ve been a really bad person, as long as I admit it? That hanging my head in shame is enough? I don’t think that’s it either.
No one who reads the Bible could think that God does not care about what we do and how we act. In saying after saying, parable after parable, Jesus makes it clear that God cares passionately about what we do.
But God cares for a particular reason: the way we act, over time and in the many different situations of our lives, shapes who we are and determines our relationships with God, with other people, and with ourselves. If we consistently look to our own advantage we become closed off to others and toward God. God offers us grace, but if our hands are balled into fists and our hearts are closed, there’s not much room for grace.
That’s the Pharisee’s story. He is not a miser or a slacker in his religious practice, but he is quite satisfied with where he is. One of our vestry members observed, as we discussed this passage during our meeting this week, that “He’s really praying to himself, not to God.”
And he completes his self-congratulation by observing the inferiority of the tax collector. Yes, he is “better” than the tax collector; but that is not what he should be paying attention to. He should be paying attention to God; but his entire prayer is asking God to pay attention to what a wonderful person he is.
And what about that tax collector? Is Jesus saying that because he has said he’s sorry, everything is just fine? Or is Jesus, rather, saying that his acknowledgement of the wrongness in his life provides the first small opening through which the light of God’s grace can enter. I think that’s what we are supposed to see: not that the tax collector is alright as he is, but that he has started taking a turn toward the right direction.
And what about us, which is always where we need to go as we listen to Jesus’ words to his own listeners. How often are we the Pharisee, and how often the tax collector?
I have to tell you that as I have been sitting with this parable this week, I can’t help but think that we are a nation full of Pharisees right now. I look at our political and social divides, and I see and hear vast groups of Americans certain of the righteousness of our own values, our own positions, our assumptions and our solutions to the problems that plague our nation and our world. I don’t see much humility. Like the Pharisee, we love to not only pat ourselves on the back, but we love to trivialize and vilify not only the thinking of those on “the other side”, but to look with contempt on those neighbors themselves who take positions that offend us.
Now, I don’t think we do it in church, but I certainly see it in the belittling memes that show up on social media, and in the jokes and cartoons that make the rounds in email, that stereotype and make fun of those who don’t see things the way we do, and I confess that I sometimes smile at these before I catch myself. I hear the Pharisee routinely in our leaders in congress, including both the party that I vote for and the other one.
So as we head into this week, let’s work on paying attention to God and asking God for wisdom and generosity and humility. And for mercy on us, sinners.
Let’s work on asking God to open our minds and our hearts that we might be learners and reconcilers, and figure out how to reach across divides for the healing of God’s world.
In Jesus name and for his sake.
I have a distinct memory of my mother taking me to see the film “King of Kings” – one of those traditional cinematic dramatizations of the gospel story – when it came out in 1961, and it included one very scary scene of Jesus meeting and healing lepers. It so stuck with me that I went to the public library and took out a book written by a former patient from Carville, Louisiana, the community where people afflicted by Hansen’s in the US were isolated and treated from the 19th century until late in the 20th.
We know now that Hansen’s Disease is not nearly as contagious as it was once believed to be, and because it is entirely treatable, it has been largely eliminated from the developed world.
Before modern medicine, though, “lepers” were commonly segregated into colonies and cut off from contact with the rest of the community. In Jesus’ era (and beyond it,) the disease was often seen as judgment from God – not unlike the way that AIDS was viewed by many in the latter part of the 20th century.
In today’s gospel story, then, ten folks suffering from Hansen’s seek out healing from Jesus. They were required to maintain a distance from other people, and so they simply called out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Seeing what troubled them, Jesus instructed them to
“Go, show yourselves to priests”, and Luke tells us that “as they went, they were made clean” by God’s power.
Jewish law at that time focused on clean or acceptable status and practice, and the priests were the guardians, rather like Board of Health. Only after certification by the priests could previously “unclean” persons return to their families and resume life within the community.
Nine of those who Jesus sent to the priests were caught up in the moment, undoubtedly eager to receive their certification of health and take up their lives.
But one “SAW that he was healed”, and he turned back and returned to Jesus to praise God and express his gratitude.
Jesus’ response - "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
There are different Greek words used in the New Testament to describe healing. One, that comes from the Greek therapueuo, describes a physical making well. The nine in today’s story were made well, made clean.
A second, that derives from the Greek sozo, conveys a broader and deeper meaning, and is often translated as “to be made whole”, or even “to be saved”.
The tenth leper was healed in a way that the others were not. He was changed, even transformed because he SAW his own healing and RESPONDED to it.
We could say lots of things about what today’s gospel means, but certainly, one of its themes is that of gratitude.
My three year old grandson is in the process of learning about polite behavior, and part of that includes saying “please’ and “thank you”. He has pretty well integrated that behavior, and needs only occasional reminders.
The harder lesson, which we can’t teach, is that of actually FEELING gratitude. When I give my grandson sliced apple for his snack, does he comprehend how fortunate he is to have fresh, healthy food and a loving family who provide it to him every day? He’s definitely not there yet. I don’t even do as well as I would like to in pausing the SEE and value the gifts with which my life is abundantly full. The tenth man was made whole, even saved, because he saw the gift God had given him, and turned back, - he ACTED in his need to express his gratitude.
In last week’s sermon Heather reflected on what it means to have faith. She observed that faith is a matter of “showing up”, of “forming the intention to trust in God”.
She went on to describe faith this way:
“To show up each day, with some intention to bring our best selves. To not be concerned with any kind of reward … Faith is not something we pay God to receive some magical, heavenly good. Faith is our love, our hope, our curiosity, our aches and longings to connect to the highest power in this universe and one another”, and to Heather’s list I would add our gratitude, “as well as a willingness to do our small part.”
Living into a perspective of gratitude – as did the 10th leper – is another critical element of faith that has the power to make us whole.
Living gratefully connects us to others – it breaks down our isolation and helps us to remember we are in relationship, that we are a part of community.
Recognizing and acknowledging gifts helps us to sustain a positive outlook, which can certainly be difficult to do in this troubled world. The positive attitude that gratitude engenders in us involves
Gratitude is not only a right attitude because it’s healthy and spiritually fulfilling; it’s also appropriate.
Nothing we enjoy in life is guaranteed. Everything is gift. It is gift that we choose how to respond to and how to use, whether to hold, and how to share.
Let’s, then, do our best to live life with thanks on our lips and in our lives. Let’s always live our thanks to the God who has created us, who has shown us the way and saved us from lives of shallowness and meaninglessness, whose love sustains us in every moment.
I need to start with some language commentary. You may have noticed that in our announcements about this sermon it was titled “Hebrew Scriptures”, with “Old Testament” following in parentheses. Our bulletin announcement, further, referred to the “First Testament”. What is this all about? Do these labels matter? Of course they do.
I don’t use the term “Old Testament”. I am not comfortable with its implications and connotations. The term “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum, which, in Latin, comes from the Hebrew word for “covenant”. The Church has traditionally held that God made the first covenant with Israel through Moses, and fulfilled (or some would say ) replaced that covenant in Jesus. This can easily lead to a way of thinking about Hebrew Scriptures as outdated, “Old”, less relevant because they have been superceded by the “New” covenant. I simply choose not to use language that might imply this. For me, “Hebrew Scriptures”, or even “First Covenant” are more helpful in conveying respect not only for this collection of texts, but also for the living religion of Judaism, for which these books are not old, but remain sacred in revealing the truth of humankind’s relationship with God.
So back to the topic at hand!
The word Bible comes from the Greek ta biblia, which means “the books”. It’s a plural noun. The Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament, are more like a library than a book. And they’re an incredibly diverse library. The books of the Hebrew Scriptures also include an incredibly wide range of kinds of writing: they include narrative, poetry, prayer, law codes, mythological tales, prophecy, short stories, and more.
The books of the Hebrew Bible were recorded – a number of them taking written form after existing for generations in oral tradition – over the course of more than a thousand years. (The books of the New Testament, by contrast, were composed within a span of less than a hundred years!)
What is included in the Hebrew Scriptures, and how it is organized, is an awfully complicated matter. Understanding the fine print on the differences that exist between religious traditions isn’t important, but knowing THAT the differences exist IS important . Here’s an example. Along with other Protestant denominations, our Bibles in the Anglican tradition follow the Jewish practice of including only those books written in Hebrew (although a couple of them include brief passages in Aramaic). Roman Catholic Bibles also include, in their Old Testament, six more books that were written in Greek. We call these “the Apocrypha”.
Another example: You may hear that we have 40 books in Hebrew Scriptures but that there are 24 in a Hebrew Bible: the material is the same, but we divide into separate books a number of writings that Jewish Bibles treat as one as.
This minutia is interesting for academics, but really doesn’t matter in a faith context. What matters is that the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures express the many ways in which the people of Israel sought to capture and articulate what they understood about the God – the God with whom they were (and continue to be) in relationship. They did so through symbols and stories, through myths and memories whose purpose was to instruct and inspire and unify the Community of Israel. Over the course of more than a thousand year of history that included much more struggle and hardship than it did peace and prosperity, Israel sought to maintain faith and sustain hope; they failed at living into their covenants with God as least as often as they succeeded. The writings of Hebrew Scriptures are the written expression of that dramatic and complex story.
And it is terribly important to remember that Jesus was born into that story and lived, fully committed to the wisdom and the faith of the Hebrew Scriptures.
So - are you ready for a whirlwind tour? Probably the best way to survey the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures is look at the books’ contents as they reflect the story of the nation of Israel.
The first written materials in the Hebrew Bible probably didn’t take written form before Israel was united as a monarchy under King David around 1000 BCE. At that time the priests and scribes began recording ancestral stories that had been passed along orally within the community for about two centuries. The final form of the first biblical books didn’t exist until centuries later, but the first building blocks were taking shape under David.
The first five books of Hebrew Scriptures are a set, identified as the Five Books of Moses or, for Jews, the Torah (which means “Teaching” or “Instruction”).
The first book, Genesis, explains beginnings, including the creation of the world (through two very different stories) and the primordial myths of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. The bulk of the book provides the narrative of God’s original outreach and covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. In the stories of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah and their offspring had quite a series of adventures, knew some moments of great faith and made at least as many bad decisions, but nonetheless survived their trials and tribulations with God’s help.
Exodus, Genesis’ sequel, picks up with the people of Israel thrust into slavery in Egypt and it narrates the call of Moses and his actions (with siblings Aaron and Miriam and, of course God’s frequent intervention) in leading the community out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai where Moses received, from God, the Law, the full terms of the Covenant between God and the people.
The rest of the Five Books of Moses – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – lay out in great detail the regulations that govern the life and practices for God’s people (including instructions for religious and domestic obligations of the community), as well as the further travels and trials of the people before their entry into the Promised Land, and Moses’ farewell addresses before his death.
The second section of Hebrew Scriptures contains historical narrative. The set begins with the books of Joshua and Judges, which together cover the conquest and division of Canaan and the years during which Israel functioned as a Tribal Confederacy before the establishment of the Hebrew Monarchy. These books tell about generations of repeated bloody conflicts with neighboring groups, followed by deliverance through God’s intervention, usually through the raising up of heroic leaders such as Deborah and Samson.
After the tribal period, Israel eventually established a monarchy during which, while the nation was not without continuing challenges and ongoing threats from other nations, there was at least a period of relatively greater peace and prosperity. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel recount the (largely troubled) reign of King Saul (accompanied by the prophet Samuel) and the ascendancy and early triumphs of King David, followed by his downfall as a result of his own wrongdoing.
1 and 2 Kings continue the saga, covering the succession of Solomon, David’s son, to the throne, and the significant accomplishments of his reign., including, the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
These historical books continue and elaborate on a theme that began in the stories of Israel’s wilderness wanderings both before and after establishment of the Law at Mount Sinai. The theme is that of a cycle that the storytellers report that Israel lived out over and over again: it consisted of unfaithfulness – either because of the people’s anxiety and doubt, or by the people falling away from the covenant with God through inattention or selfishness – followed by hardship, followed by deliverance by God, resulting in renewed faith and commitment, after a period of which they would again fall away into unfaithfulness.
The most significant hardships in Israel’s story began as Solomon’s reign ended and the united nation split into two. The truth of “United we stand, divided we fall” was borne out for the people of Israel over the course of the 350 or so years while they lived as two separate states, Israel in the North and Judah in the south, under a series of kings. During this time, recounted in 1 and 2 Kings, the people repeatedly continued to fall away from their faithfulness to the Law, including turning to worship of other gods, and their conflicts with surrounding nations were escalating.
As the leaders and people turned from the covenant, prophets arose, repeatedly calling the people to return, as we remember in our eucharistic prayers. Elijah and Elisha’s stories are told in great detail in 2 Kings. Despite the prophets’ entreaties, Israel was brutally conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. (The descendants of the northern kingdom, you’ll remember, are the Samaritans who feature repeatedly in the New Testament.) Less than 150 years later, in 586, the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians with the conquest of Jerusalem.
When Jerusalem fell, the leadership and priestly classes of the Hebrew people were taken prisoner and forced into exile in Babylon, a time remembered painfully in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
The period of monarchy from David through the divided kingdom and Exile is summarized and recounted, again, in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. These are the last of the biblical texts specifically devoted to the community’s history, though the brief books of Ezrah and Nehemiah, which follow Chronicles, provide some details of the eventual restoration of the Jewish people to Jerusalem the surrounding lands of Judah. After the restoration, after the Babylonian Exile, the people of Israel were never again self-governed (until modern times). Assyrian and Babylonian rule were followed by the Persians, and later, the Hellenists and the Roman Empire.
Having told the story of the political fortunes and misfortunes of the people of Israel in the historic books, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures include a variety of writings. In the order in which they appear:
The final collection of books in the Hebrew Scriptures are the teachings of the prophets, interrupted by three other brief texts:
In this last section of Hebrew Scriptures we hear from the prophets, including the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and “the twelve” minor prophets. They preached before and during the Exile, interpreting to the people of Israel, often in God’s name and in God’s voice, the meaning of the events happening to the community, and foretelling what was to come.
They pronounced bitter and searing condemnation of the people’s sins and abandonment of their responsibility to their covenant with God. They passionately declared God’s displeasure and God’s readiness to abandon the people to the suffering their transgressions deserved. The prophets did not leave condemnation and despair as the final word, however. They reiterated God’s love and reaffirmed God’s mercy, promising restoration for those who return to God’s covenant.
The words and stories and images of these scriptures sustained the people of Israel through generations of turbulent history. They rescued the people from despair by providing a vision of a higher calling. They offered insight, direction, and hope, often doing so in absolutely gorgeous language.
The Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of our own faith. Let us cherish them and let us continue to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all they have to offer.
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