“I Was Baptized, Too”: Matthew 3.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 18, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.1.13 baptismBAPTIZED, TOO
About twenty years ago, when I was still rightfully very angry at the church for its homophobia, sexism, racism, and failure to live the gospels—for its humanity—I found an interesting group working to change some of that. It was affiliated with a tradition other than the UCC, one that at that time had not acknowledged the full humanity of queer people and so did not allow us queer people to serve as priests or to wed. But this group was working to educate the church, to do the tedious and emotionally taxing education required to help fellow children of God understand that we are not a birth defect, an aberration, nor an abomination. One of their slogans was “I was baptized, too.”

At the time it took the wind out of me. Yeah! I was baptized, too! On December 23, 1973 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, Missouri, my sister, grandfather, mother, father, and godparents presented me to the church. They made promises on my behalf and for themselves. An ordained pastor three times put water on my head, reciting the phrase of centuries: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He wiped off my brow with this cloth.

I was baptized, too. Whatever the haters and lawmakers, be they canonical or civil, said about me, I had been in the same river as Jesus, witnessed and washed. To point this out to other Christians was to call them out on the partiality and prejudice they were practicing, in direct contrast to God. In direct contrast to God at Jesus’s own baptism.

At the end of today’s passage, we heard:

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This single sentence is among the Bible’s most powerful testimonies to God’s radical love of all people and God’s expectation that we practice the same.

GENEAOLOGY
Why is that?

Of course, God is pleased with Jesus. He’s Jesus. There’s nothing radical there. There’s no lesson about bigotry in God’s public declaration of love for Jesus at his baptism.

Yes, there is.

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, the scripture was Matthew’s opening chapter. That chapter consists of 24 verses of ancestors, from Abraham to King David to Joseph, whom Matthew’s gospel attends to more than Mary.

But Mary is there, too. Mary, the unmarried young woman, a socially suspect figure. So are several other kinds of shady characters: In addition to Abraham, who tried to do an end run on God’s promise by abusing a slave to get a child, and King David, who had a man killed in order to fulfill his lust for that man’s wife, there is Jacob, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.

Jacob stole his brother’s birth right through a disguise and lies.

Tamar posed as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sex so that she could force him into fulfilling his obligations to her as a widow of his sons.

Rahab was a prostitute, a sex worker not of the ancient Israelite faith, who nonetheless protected Israelite spies from harm.

And Ruth, of course, seduced a drunk man so that he would honor his obligations as a kinsman-redeemer to her mother-in-law Naomi.

In other words, Jesus’s lineage is not pure. It includes the honored patriarchs, sure, but not even they are squeaky clean. And as if to reinforce the point, the book of Matthew includes desperate women made desperate who used their minds and their bodies to secure a future for themselves and their families. And, if there is any factual truth to the stories, it is the future of Jesus.

Jesus’s story does not become any less human as it continues. After the genealogy of Jesus and his birth, Matthew tells us that Joseph is instructed by an angel to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticidal response to the journey of the magi. After Herod is dead, and Joseph has two more dreams, the family settles in Nazareth. It is decades later, then, that John the Baptizer appears at the Jordan, as we heard today.

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Christmas Day 2018: Masterful Mary

2018 Xmas dayDelivered at Ames UCC

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

PONDERED
Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Very little about Christmas, now, is about pondering. We make spaces look like treasures with lights and ornaments and wrapping. But that does not mean we gild the story through contemplation in our hearts.

Yet we hear that Mary does—the person closest to the Christmas mystery, does.

Mary’s body is sore, her bed far away, her visitors strange—she retreats from the tumult and excitement into her heart. She does not demand special treatment for all that she has done. Instead, she wordlessly and privately takes herself to the space of God.

SPACE OF GOD
Each of us has a space of God.

I sometimes call it heart, sometime call it soul. I feel it in my chest, but you might feel it differently.

It is a place in our body-lives much bombarded by noise and news, as well as our own minds. Around the space of God races hymn lyrics, conversations from the day, conversations we anticipate, to-do lists, anxiety, doubt, anger.

It is easily forgotten in the blur of hours. Yet it is still there. All we need to do to access it is to sit, to settle, and to consent to the presence of the divine.

Far easier said than done.

But Mary must have been a master of it. Mary must have been a master of accessing her space of God. Maybe in her prayer, in a meditative and otherwise wordless silence, she flicked away those racers with a phrase like “no, no” or “breathe” or “just this.”

Just this, as in just this space, just this time. Not a thing more matters or needs doing.

How else could she have kept from collapsing into tears and fears?

CONSIDER
Consider what she went through:

  • Mary, you are pregnant and unmarried.
  • Mary, I am going to have to set you aside. No, wait, I will do the right thing.
  • Mary, we have to travel. The governor does not care about your pregnancy.
  • Mary, this barn will have to be your bed and your birthing suite.
  • Mary, angels came to us in the field and said your child is an anointed one.

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Christmas Eve 2018: Original Blessing

2018 xmas no sinDelivered at Ames UCC

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

YOU
Although I am supposed to speak about Jesus tonight, what I really want to do is speak about you.

Not because the story of the birth of Jesus is unimportant, but because the story is also about how you are important.

This story of census and unplanned pregnancy and doing the right thing and giving birth and angels and herdsmen is an offer of faith from long ago to you this night, an offering about holiness for you.

An offering about the little bit of holiness within you.

ORIGINAL SIN
This may feel surprising to some of you, even uncomfortable, the notion that you—we—are not only observers of the story, caretakers of its sacred heart, but a small revelation of that heart, too.

That’s probably because most of us here have a pretty poor assessment of humanity. There is no shortage of evidence that we humans are bad. Bad at our care of ourselves, each other, creation. And if we didn’t feel that already, the public square is full of messages about our badness: too fat, too poor, to black, too foreign. Bad.

And then some of us came up in churches that taught about our badness. Some churches teach that humans are born into sin, and “original sin” that has been bequeathed to every single person born in the world by ancestors ancient and fallible.

But there is another perspective. There is another view from which we may assess ourselves, each other, and creation, a way ancient and faithful to our God of humble births. It is the Celtic Christian notion of “original blessing.”

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Time as This: The Book of Esther

Delivered at Ames UCC on December 2, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

DEFINING HOPE
What is hope? Did you experience it today as we sang for it to rise up in our lives? When we welcomed a new member through baptism into this family of faith? When we laughed during the play? How would you define hope?

I’ve spoken of hope many times in worship, on these first Sundays in Advent when it is our theme, and on many more occasions, but I don’t know that I have ever defined it or ever could.

Hope, like faith and love, defies the rules of language, existing instead somewhere between language and heart and the holy.

In my experience, hope is unpredictable, never arriving on demand. It is unstable in the sense that it is not locked in form, but takes the form needed in a given moment.

Like in the story of Esther.

ESTHER
Esther is nobody.

She’s a young Jewish woman, making her a member of a minority culture and religion. She is being raised by an uncle, Mordecai. Esther has no parents, nor siblings that are mentioned.

As with so many other women in the Bible, and our world today, Esther is vulnerable to the whims and laws of men. When the king demands she come to court as part of his beauty pageant of a bridal search, which is pretty clearly includes a night of sex in the Biblical account, she has no choice.

The Bible does make the scene a little more palatable through many elements of farce and hyperbole: Esther and all of the other contestants spend a year grooming in preparation, for example. Thank you to Amanda for picking up on those comedic elements so well in today’s version.

Esther is chosen to be the new queen, replacing Vashti, who had refused to dance naked for her husband and his buddies. The king does not know that Esther is Jewish because her uncle told her not to reveal it to anyone. Mordecai’s care of Esther extends well beyond food and shelter. As a result, Esther is able to protect her people when an evil man, Haman, gains permission to commit genocide against them for being, in his words, “intolerable.” Esther leverages the king’s affection, and Haman’s ego, to depose Haman and lift up Mordecai in his stead. In doing so, the orders to kill all Jewish people can be reversed.

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Wishes and God: 2 Kings 5.1–15a

2018.11.4 god is thereDelivered at Ames UCC on November 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

WISH
I wish this story was true. I wish that with seven sincere baths in a sacred river, terrible ailments could be healed. I wish that I could walk with each of you who are living with cancer and depression and arthritis and heart failure to a place that keeps its own rules of germs and degeneration and neurology.

I wish that the dead, the loved ones that we will name here in worship and then see in photos in our parlor after worship, could have received such treatment so that they would be with us, bodily, right now.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the tears of joy and relief? As much water as would flow from of our eyes as in the river.

And I wish that Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, could have been taken from the blood-drenched floors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, not to a mortuary but to a life-filled tree fed by the river Jordan. I wish that that there the gunman’s bullets would have been washed away, their sinews reknit, and their lives restored.

I wish that illness could be no more and sorrow a curious aberration from the past.

But those are not wishes destined for fulfillment.

UNFULFILLED
All of our bodies will fail of their own accord if we are not first killed by an accident or another person. There is no river or stream or spring with magical properties that can make them do otherwise.

And it is an abuse of God’s name, and each others’ souls, to say that sufficient faith will bring bodily healing. God is not so egotistical or fickle as to respond to an abracadabra of prayers.

Disease and damage and death are part of creation and creation is part of God, so even the worst of pains and poisonous acts are part of God, too.

I believe the ancients knew this. I believe that the communities that authored our scripture, understood that God’s relationship with us is not capricious or mechanistic.

Yes, they have given us many stories that describe a quid pro quo of giving obedience and receiving blessing, but I think they had just as much capacity for subtlety and metaphor as us. They were not ignorant of inevitable bodily outcomes, they just were just more willing to live into mystery, into the imaginal realm, than we are. So even though some of us may have been taught that stories like this reflect “an age when miracles still happened,” it does not.

This story of Namaan and Elisha, and those like it, is about the miracle of holy presence within the wholly ordinary. Let’s look at the story.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES
Elisha is a disciple of Elijah.

Elijah was a powerful and, toward the end of his career, a horribly bloodthirsty prophet. You may remember him from his retreat to the desert where he was fed by ravens. Later he helped a starving widow and her son with jars of flour and oil that perpetually refilled. He even brought that son back to life.

Elisha proves to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

For example, immediately before today’s story, Elisha also helps a widow secure enough food for her family. He invites her to borrow her neighbor’s empty oil jars and then pour what little oil she has left into each one. She finds that her meager supply can fill all the jars in the neighborhood.

Later, the child of another woman dies. When Elisha arrives, he presses his mouth to that of the boy, his eyes to those of the boy, his hands to those of the boy, an offering of warmth and humanity, which brings the child back to life.

Elisha even feeds a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread.

Then today he relieves Naaman of a skin ailment by directing him to bathe in the river Jordan.

Notice how these miracles occur: through common earthenware, gentle and well-intentioned human touch, bread, and river water. No thunder, or potions, or shazam.

Notice what these miracles achieve: some relief from hunger, some relief from grief, some relief from discomfort. None of these miracles grant power or prestige. None of them grant a permanent lease on life.

Our miracle stories are not about extra faith granting the extra ordinary. In the commonplaceness of their means, and the impossibility of their ends, these miracles do not suggest a 1-2-3 formula for healing.

Our faith ancestors knew how poverty, illness, and grief distract and consume, so they used these radical reversals to startle and inspire us to recognize the simple, ubiquitous, and reassuring presence of God.

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Sexual Violence and the “Point Vierge”: 2 Samuel 11.1–5, 26–27; 12:1–9

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays,
except in July and August when times vary.
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VIOLENCE AND SEX2018.10.21 sophia
In contemporary terms, King David is a violent sexual predator.

At this point in David’s story, he is king of both Israel and Judah. He has accrued so much power that he no longer directly fights in battle, but sends his loyal soldiers instead, including Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. He can also get away with taking naps all the way to eventide—think of it as a five-hour long siesta—and, on seeing an attractive woman, send a messenger off to get her. David has no shame, no fear of being found out. In the twilight of the day, he publicly demands the wife of another.

You might be thinking, “What about Bathsheba? Why was she flaunting her body on the roof? Maybe she was trying to seduce him.”

I don’t buy that argument.

As we well know, the Bible drips with patriarchy and misogyny. The Biblical authors, from Genesis to Revelation, have no problem with demonizing women. Just think of what comes to mind when I say the name Jezebel. If you read between the lines, she was simply a queen who was devoted to her understanding of God and merely wanted to practice her own faith. But thanks to the Bible, her name invokes the most despicable kind of woman. If the encounter between Bathsheba and David is intended to be a story of a cunning woman and an innocently overwhelmed man, the Bible would say as much, and in plain terms.

So, David is a sexual predator. A man who uses his power, which is undoubted in this case, to satisfy his own lust.

He is also violent. We skipped the section about how Bathsheba’s husband Uriah dies.

Uriah is a Hittite, so not a native Hebrew, but his name means “the Lord is my light,” and he fights faithfully for David’s kingship. After learning that Bathsheba is pregnant, David sends a letter to another commander saying,

Put Uriah in the face of the fiercest battling and draw back, so that he will be struck down and die. (2 Sam 11.15)

Well, the commander knows that will be too obvious so, as Robert Alter, the translator we used today, explains, the commander sends Uriah and many other good soldiers into a doomed battle to complete the dastardly deed. David’s unrestrained lust and power result in the death of many innocents.

King David is a violent sexual predator, but he didn’t have to be. Of all the men in the Bible to act as he did, he was the last one who should have. David did not have to, and should not have, because he was a person most blessed by God.
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Serving God In the Story: Joshua 21.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 14, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Check the calendar for details.

2018.10.14 hurricaneSTORMS
It is good to be here together this morning. It is good to be able to leave our homes without having to negotiate any downed power lines or collapsed roofs, unlike so many of our fellow Americans in Florida. Do any of you know anyone affected by Hurricane Michael? The community where Carla and I honeymooned is gone.

How about Harvey in Texas? Maria in Puerto Rico? Sandy in the Northeast? Katrina in the Gulf Coast?

Do any of you know anyone affected by flooding here in Iowa? And the tornado in Marshalltown and Pella? Last week I spent some time in my basement because of a tornado warning—anyone else?

It feels like weather disasters are coming more and more often, with greater and greater intensity. It feels like that because they are. The warmer the oceans, and they are hotter than ever, the greater the storms. The warmer the planet overall, the more intense the rainfall overall. And the collision between warm, humid air, causes tornados when it encounters cold, dry air.

Our bodies can feel the change, can feel the strange. The recent days of high heat with fewer hours of daylight and turning leaves felt fundamentally wrong. Long, dark mornings should come with cold air and gloves, not bug spray and sweat.

It is like we are living in a different place. We did not move, but it is as though we are living in a different land than forty, or even four, years ago. We may not be climate refugees like the people of the Mariana and the Marshall Islands, but we are now exiles from an era when we did not have to talk about family emergency plans, bug out bags, and the tipping point for human survival. So this speech from the book of Joshua can speak as much to us now as it did for its original audience.
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Let God Be with You: Genesis 39.1–23

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 23, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.9.23 let godMANDATE
After worship last week Jeremy, who had read the scripture, asked me if there is ever going to be a time when I can just preach, “Good job, Christians, we’re all done.” Basically, will there ever be a Sunday when I am not either having to agitate or to soothe?

I shared that in my understanding of preaching, I am to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is a phrase originally spoken in relation to the role of a free press, but is also a very accurate description of the life of Jesus and his disciples: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As I’ve gotten older, though, the boundary between the afflicted and the comfortable has become much less clear to me.

The same is not true of our scripture today.

JOSEPH
In this encounter between Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, there is no question who is on which end of the spectrum: Joseph is afflicted and Potiphar’s wife is comfortable.

Joseph was once comfortable, very much so.

When we first meet him, Joseph is described as the favorite son of Jacob, one of the best scoundrels in Biblical literature, and his cousin-wife Rachel. Jacob does not hide his preference for Joseph from all of the other kids, and he had a lot of them between his four wives.

As a sign of his preferential love, Jacob gives Joseph a gorgeous coat, which in contemporary imagination is described as amazingly technicolor. Constantly confronted by that rainbow of partiality, Joseph’s brothers decide to do away with him: They sell him to slave traders and cover the coat with animal blood, which they take to their dad Jacob, tricking that old trickster into believing that Joseph is dead.

Joseph’s comforts are now gone.

As we heard today, Joseph is sold into the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian court officer. Potiphar does give Joseph a great deal of responsibility, but he is not a free man, he is not a citizen.

That bondage is worsened by Potiphar’s wife. She wants to have sex with Joseph. Her offer, or command, puts Joseph into a no-win situation: If he says yes, he will be betraying his owner. If he says no, he will anger his owner’s wife. He does say no, and she is angry. To punish Joseph for his refusals, Potiphar’s wife takes advantage of a piece of clothing she’d grabbed off of him to frame him for rape.

Potiphar does not doubt his wife’s claim, though it is a no-win situation for him, too. If Joseph did perpetrate the crime, then Potiphar’s judgment has been betrayed. If Potiphar’s wife had simply cheated on him, then regretted it, Potiphar has been cuckolded and has to save face.

So either way, there is only one place for that Hebrew slave to go: jail.

REDEMPTION?
Several chapters later, Joseph is redeemed, to a point. He rises to the most powerful position in the house of Pharaoh, and is able to save his duplicitous brothers and mourning parents and sisters from hunger. But Joseph is never a truly free man again. Having been made into outsider-property, by the action of members of his own family, Joseph can never escape the knowledge of the tenuousness of freedom.

In his life, Joseph knows comfort, then terrible affliction, then a tempered kind of comfort.

That could describe any one of us.
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Already and Always a Blessing: Genesis 12.1–9


2018.9.13 spark
Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 16, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

NOT MUCH
Well, there’s not really enough in this passage for me to work with, is there? The action is pretty limited: God tells Abram to go, he does, God promises Abram some land, Abram builds an altar.

There isn’t much language or symbolism for me to unpack, either. Bethel can mean “house of God” and if Bethel, the house of God or the garden of Eden, is to the west of where Abram built an altar, we could hear that to the east of Eden Abram still found cause to thank God. To echo last week’s story, despite how far humanity had come from the garden, Abram as everyman constructs a reminder that God is present no matter where we go.

In a different context, I might speak to the issue of God offering up another peoples’ land to Abram, but I think that would be a negative lesson, and we have enough negative lessons these days.

So, again, not really enough to work with for a sermon. I wonder if Abram felt the same way about himself when God called him out.

CALLED
We don’t know anything about Abram at this point beyond his age of 75, that he is a descendent of Noah, and that his wife Sarai is infertile.

We do not know anything of Abram’s character or why God would choose him. There are no tales of his chivalry or wisdom or might or piety. Noah, his great-to-the-eight grandfather, is described as a blameless and righteous man, but not Abram.

Abram is just an old guy, by ancient Mesopotamian standards, who lives with his wife and nephew, and one day is told by God “You shall be a blessing and all the earth shall be blessed through you.”

Woah! Where did that come from, God? I wonder if Abram felt confused and overwhelmed, and like maybe he didn’t have enough for God to work with, not enough for blessing the whole earth. Perhaps you don’t believe you have enough to be a blessing either.
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Authority and Worth: Mark 10.17–31

2018.8.26 churchDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 26, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

TWO QUESTIONS
There are two questions we have to answer for ourselves when confronted by this scripture. Because it is a confrontation between us and Jesus, just as it is between Jesus and the rich man.

One, what authority do we give Jesus in our lives? And, two, what does that authority require us to do with our money?

AUTHORITY
When we come into a building labeled United Church of Christ, as ours is in such large letters on the east, it is a safe assumption that Jesus is the highest authority in this place; that the in-house ritual worker—me—will describe Jesus’s teachings, and teachings about Jesus, as paramount; and that Jesus will be named as a conclusive expression of the Godhead.

But that does not mean any one of you will accept all or even most of what the church promotes or I have to say. That is not required in our particular branch of the Christian family tree. We do not have a creed or tests of faith. Instead, we have lifelong learning and prayer and discernment about the person, place, and passion of Jesus Christ.

So where are you on that today?

Consider, for a moment, where you are in your conversation with God regarding Jesus.

Maybe you understand him to have been a real, historical man or perhaps a composite of many Jewish zealots and movements. Maybe you believe he physically healed the sick but did not raise the dead. You may accept his death on a cross but reject the idea that God wanted him to die that way.

The longest conversation we have with God is usually about Easter and whether Jesus literally came back from the dead or metaphorically did or did in a way we do not have language for.

Your position on each of those key elements of our story, your own Christology, to use the theological term, will determine in part how you respond to Jesus when he tells you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor.

DODGE
One answer may be to dodge the question. Because who here is really rich, like the man in the passage?

One percent of our population now owns forty percent of the national wealth. Twenty percent owns ninety percent of the wealth. I don’t know that any of us are in that category. I do know that twenty two percent of the Ames population is working and above the poverty line but not really able to afford living here.

The majority of us who come to this place, though, are affording to live here, have sufficient health care coverage, can do some saving, and can even afford the occasional vacation or new car. Though we may not be dripping with gold and Gucci, we do have more than our daily bread.

So Jesus is addressing us, too.

And if we give him any authority in our lives, we do have to decide how to faithfully use our financial resources.
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