Richard S. Vosko

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Homily – 6th Sunday of Easter – 1 May 2016 – “Unity Not Conflict”


Easter Eggs

Sixth Sunday of Easter C – May 1, 2016 – “Unity Not Conflict”

Click here for today’s scriptures

The presidential campaign has glaringly uncovered the ways in which we the citizens in these United States are not united on assorted issues especially ones that deal with basic human rights.

And, we Christians are divided on issues as well. For one example, Orthodox Christians are celebrating Easter today, five weeks after we did! Our conflicting calendars lay bare what has been known for a long time as the “scandal of Christianity.” How important is this concern?

In 1997 the World Council of Churches asserted that to celebrate this fundamental aspect of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on different dates, gives a divided witness. It compromises the credibility and effectiveness of our churches in bringing the gospel to the world.

As noted in today’s first reading, the Apostolic Conference in Jerusalem in the year 50 CE also dealt with issues that were divisive. The concern was not about the movable date of Easter. Rather, some Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem insisted that Gentile-Christians from Syria must follow the Mosaic law about circumcision and other Levitical codes.

Right from the start, Christians argued over what they believed to be the fundamental teachings of their emerging religion. Not only does a bitter sweet history list disputes among early Christian movements but also, eventually, whether to wage brutal wars against other Christians and people of different faiths. Church leaders frequently developed doctrines to distinguish Christianity from other religions and to counter what they considered to be heretical campaigns.

The desire to strengthen the unique identities of respective churches continues to thwart unity. In the words of Andrew Sullivan Christianity today is in crisis. Instead of focusing on the “truly radical ideas” Jesus had, Christians are using religion as a tool to advance their own political and moral agendas. In doing so religious leaders attempt to “consume and influence every aspect of public life.”

In the gospel today we heard a part of Jesus’ farewell address to his followers. He said a Spirit will eventually emerge to fire up their passions, remind them of his teachings and guide them in their missionary work. Also,  he said, the peace he gave is not what the world gives. Jesus was not interested in stressing any complex doctrines. Instead, he did not want his followers to forget his primary focus: to treat people equally with mercy.

As it was then it is hard now to know exactly what to do when our church teachings do not adequately help us respond to present day situations. Traditionally, it is believed that a deity will provide guidance. However unless we have a direct line of contact with that deity we have to rely on others (rabbis, imams, priests, prophets, catechists and others) to interpret the social codes for us. [1]

Church doctrines that were written a long time ago do change over time but ever so slowly. The unfinished business of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council is a good example. We have to continuously reinterpret the principles presented at that Council in light of today’s challenges. The same would be true of doctrines developed in the Middle Ages. They, too, need fresh explanations.

Francis, bishop of Rome, is doing exactly that. He has been called a “stealth reformer.” Flying beneath prickly doctrinal arguments he is showing us that mercy must trump doctrine. The life of Jesus is the example of what matters most today — how we respect one another especially those who are different from us.

Our divisions with the Orthodox church and other Christian denominations are complicated and stem mostly from age old doctrinal disagreements. On the other hand, in principle, there is no disagreement among us in terms of serving people who live on the fringes of society. There is a message here.

Emboldened by the Spirit Jesus left us, we can be ministers of peace and unity at home and everywhere we roam. We can cultivate further ways to join other Christians and people of other faiths in works of mercy and friendly dialog. With an emphasis on our common mission rather than rules we will discover and, in Pope Francis’  words, “unity is greater than conflict.” (Laudato ‘Si, IV, 198). 

_____

1. Finch, Jonathan. A Crisis of Belief, Ethics and Faith. (NY: Univ. Press of America) 2016, 33


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Homily – Fourth Sunday of Easter – 17 April 2016 – “What to Vote For”


The Fourth Sunday of Easter C – April 17, 2016 – What To Vote For?

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In the Easter season we hear gospel stories about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Some followers questioned those visions while others gained inspiration to press forward in the name of Christ. We also read from the Acts of the Apostles which contain non-historical homilies and letters about the joys and struggles of early Christian movements.

Today in the Gospel of John we heard about Jesus the good shepherd. Earlier in this gospel Jesus is called a gateway to salvation, a doorway to endless opportunities. This good shepherd story is more about the sheep and their alliance to the shepherd. Some say it is based on the loving association Jesus had with the one he called Father. 

This parable prompts us to think about our relationship with God and one another, near and far. How do we get along as members of the human flock where some advance forward while others cannot? In the Joy of Love, Pope Francis refers to Jesus as a shepherd who reaches out to every member of the flock, a reference to the human family. “It will become possible,” the Pope writes, “for the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst.” (No. 309)

Also, during this Eastertide, we read from the prophetic Book of Revelation more so than in any other liturgical year. The author, John of Patmos, a victim of persecution, writes about the invisible forces and spiritual powers at work on earth and in heaven. 

The Book contains letters from the risen Christ addressed to seven churches in Asia regarding the corruption in those regions. Timothy Radcliffe Johnson, a Christian origins scholar, wrote that the visions include the experiences of those who are marginalized and oppressed by the the dominant society. [1] Today’s passage, for example,  promises that no one will go hungry or thirsty in the future.

According to scripture scholar Robin Whitaker this is a highly charged political text. At that time it competed head to head with the Roman empire known for the unjust ways it treated people living on the fringes of society. The Lamb of God takes the place of the Emperor. [2]

In this apocalyptic Book, the conflicts of the nations are altered by the sovereign power of God who works through Christ. Although slain by the state, Christ is the liberator from all evil. We visualize Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, the good shepherd, a prophetic witness for justice, as a model for us.

How do we model a Christian spirit for others? Last week we wrote letters to our elected officials asking them to stop hunger around the world. This coming Tuesday April 19, 2016, the New York State Presidential Primary presents another opportunity for us to act. We have the responsibility to vote.

The Catholic bishops in this country have published a guide on how to shape our consciences as faithful citizens. The bishops ask us to ponder our nation’s domestic and foreign policies and the promises of the different candidates. They advise against selecting parts of our church’s teachings in order to advance partisan interests or validate ideological biases. The entire instruction is available online. There is also a link on our parish website and my blog.

The bishops instruction is based on four principles of Catholic social teaching — human dignity, subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good. These words are not just casual concepts. They are precisely about basic human needs and the freedom all people should have to pursue opportunities. 

However we vote we are making choices. Our ballot can advance strategies for achieving harmony in this nation and in other parts of the world. Our vote can make a difference in the ways you and I live and it can move legislation to provide for those struggling to survive everyday. Do not forget to vote.

———

  1.  Radcliffe, LT. The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art. (Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans) 2015, p. 43
  2.  Whitaker, Robin. Notes from a class on the Book of Revelation, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY February 18, 2016


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Homily – Third Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016 – “Got Anything To Eat?”


hunger copyThird Sunday of Easter C – April 10, 2016 – Got Anything to Eat?

Click here for today’s scriptures

“Food, Glorious Food,” is the opening song in the musical Oliver! The play is about young Oliver Twist and his difficult life in Victorian London. Fed daily with meager dishes of gruel the workhouse boys sing the song dreaming and fantasizing about food. Oliver got into trouble when he demanded a second helping. [1]

With a huge growth in population in 19th century London crime and unemployment were high. There was a housing shortage, poor sanitary conditions and children were sent away to work dangerous jobs. Psalm 30 for today’s liturgy “I will praise you God for you have rescued me” may have been a wishful prayer at that time.

A similar story could be written today as people try to survive in the favelas in Brazil, the shanties in India, the ghettoes in Appalachia or even the small run-down towns in upstate New York. The exploited children in the story could be living in dilapidated shacks in Syria or South Sudan or the makeshift tents in Turkey and Greece where refugees await their fate. Humanitarian conditions in many parts of the world are nearing irreversible deterioration. 

In 19th century London philanthropic individuals and agencies began to address the plight in their cities. Today international agencies are working with nation states to end food insecurity which is the number one cause of terrorism, drug cartels, child trafficking and murder. According to a report from Bread for the World nearly half of all childhood deaths before the age of five are caused by malnutrition.

In John’s gospel Jesus appears to the apostles and the first words out of his mouth are “do you have anything to eat?” Presumed to be the first post resurrection appearance of Christ to his disciples, it is as if Christ had forgotten something. He neglected to remind his followers of a very important part of their mission if they were to pick up where he left off. 

Jesus questions Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “Of course I love you.” Jesus then challenges Peter and others within earshot, “Well then, feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” These are obvious references not to animals but to human beings. As Dorothy Day wrote, the disciples doubted the resurrection until Jesus asked them for something to eat. [2]

Spiritual hunger can take a toll on us. However, going to bed night after night on an empty stomach can lead to despair, sickness and death. The prophet Isaiah reminded us to seek justice and share our food with hungry people (Isaiah 56-58). Next Sunday we will read in the Book of Revelation — every nation, race, people, and tongue will not hunger or thirst anymore (Rev. 7:9-16).

Jesus entrusted Peter and the disciples with the pastoral care of God’s people. As baptized members of the priesthood of Christ, we also share this responsibility.  In his new letter, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis exhorts us not to forget that the mysticism of the sacrament [of the eucharist which we celebrate almost everyday] has a communal character. It reinforces our “social consciousness and … commitment to those in need.” (187)

This weekend you and I have an opportunity to support robust funding for nutrition and health for mothers and children around the world. By our letter writing campaign today (April 10, 2016) we can urge our elected officials to reform the ways our government provides food aid everywhere. We can press Congress to allocate $230 million dollars for global nutrition programs and to pass the Global Food Security Act of 2016.

Toward the end of the song in Oliver the workhouse boys sing, “Food, glorious food! What wouldn’t we give for that extra bit more.” Jesus wanted something to eat. You and I want something to eat and so too do many men, women and children on this fragile planet want an “extra bit more” to eat. Our food pantry serves the local community. You and I can help to spread that mission, that act of mercy, on a global level.

_______

 1. Composed by Lionel Bart for the 1960s West End and Broadway musical Oliver! The show was based on the second novel by Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, written between 1837-39.

 2. The Catholic Worker, April 1964


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Homily for Easter 2016 “Go Ahead. Eat the Apple!”


Easter C – March 26-27, 2016 – “Go Ahead. Eat the Apple!”

Click here for the Easter Vigil scriptures

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Easter — a cosmic earthy festival. The word itself is derived from Oestre, a mythical goddess of sunrise and spring. In Pope Francis’ words this weekend “we celebrate Christ Risen, the centre and the purpose of the cosmos and of history.”

Our story of salvation begins with God, two people, and a snake. The narrative continues in the Hebrew bible — how God created everything, mercifully saved Isaac, protected and liberated the Israelites, loved and forgave those who sin. On the new testament side we heard that those who trust in God, accept Christ as a model for living and abide by a Spirit-filled energy will be rewarded with eternal life.

We know that the story about creation, Adam and Eve and the snake is a fantastical myth that eludes proof. The legend however helps us to think about making choices in life. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of knowledge thinking it would offer them more possibilities for living. 

Supposing Eve and Adam never ate that apple? Would they and generations to follow live in paradise forever? There would be no original sin or centuries of sinfulness? The flood would not have happened. The Exodus story would make no sense. Jesus would have had no mission. His death and resurrection would have been unnecessary.

What would the world look like today if Adam and Eve did not bite? The global stage would be free of endless, senseless wars. People of color would not be shunned. Women would be treated equally with men. There would be income equity for all classes. Family life would be without quarrels. We would not pollute the earth. Religion would hold no power over people.

But Adam and Eve did bite the apple and now you and I have to make choices of our own. Are we free to do so or are we puppets in the hands of God? Did Adam and Eve have any choice or did the story set us up to think less of ourselves and the world we live in thus preparing the way for a deity who would save us? 

In a provocative essay the author John Gray proposes that when compared with humans, the life of the puppet looks more like an enviable state of freedom. [1] His argument is that marionettes do not have a conscience, they dance above the ground and do not have to worry about what steps they take.

In Gray’s words, instead of becoming an unfaltering puppet we make our way in the stumbling human world. That had to have been the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. He chose the messiness of life, he practiced mercy and justice and died for his convictions. In doing so he left us with a challenge.

What choices do we make that affect not only our lives but those of others? How does our faith in a risen Christ make a difference in society today?

God saw every aspect of creation good — day and night, land and sea, animals and plants, man and woman.“History is no longer meaningless and largely a failure, writes Richard Rohr, but has a promised and positive direction. This creates very healthy, happy, hopeful, and generative people; and we surely need some now. All I know for sure, Rohr writes, is that a good God creates and continues to create an ever good world.” [2]

Go ahead take a big bite of the apple knowing that together we are strong enough to embrace our part in the struggle to make the world a better place.

_________________

1. Gray, John. The Soul of the Marionette. (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 2015

2. Rohr, R. “God’s Victory” <http://www.globalpulsemagazine.com/news/gods-victory/2838>


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Palms & Passion – 20 March 2016 – Embrace the Embrace*


Palms and Passion 20 March 2016 – “Embrace the Embrace” *

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Crucifix at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Albany, NYMarch Madness is here again and the competition is keen. If a team loses one game it is out of the tournament. There are no second chances.

Life, too, is about winning and losing and it can be just as competitive. But losing a game is quite different from losing a job or a home. Even these material loses do not compare with losing a partner or spouse, a child, a relative or friend. We also fear losing honor and pride, memories and dreams. Not many of us are prepared to deal with such losses.

Today we commemorate a loss of life. The family, followers and friends of Jesus lost a leader. Jesus lost big time when you think about what he started out to do. He believed there was evil in the world and that he was called to save Israel from oppression. In the end Jesus had no choice but to give up. His disciples and even his God abandoned him. It was over.

Is there anything in today’s bittersweet biblical texts that can help us handle losing something we cherish or someone we love? The first reading from the prophet Isaiah – a servant song – is read today because of its references, for Christians, to the life and death of Jesus. 

Tired of the empty promises of liberty the Israelites protested. Isaiah, although persecuted, was just as stubborn as his opponents. He wanted to win them over, to let go of their selfish ambitions and to trust more in the presence of God. 

Today, too, we are upset with empty promises. People are using strident strategies to state their opinions, to demonstrate their passions. The ideologies behind the rallies vary. Some people in this nation are perturbed by what they have lost because of big government, foreigners, unemployment, income inequity. 

This fear of loss has triggered a divisive atmosphere that has the potential to weaken if not destroy the foundations of this republic. We are witnessing unfortunate dissensions within political parties and even within religious groups. For us, fundamental Christian values are at stake. Why are so many humans so ready to crucify other humans because they are different in race, creed, nationality and class?

What did those who grieved over the loss of Jesus do? What did they fear most in his absence? His disciples took the loss so badly they denied knowing him and fled the region afraid that they too would lose their lives. It was mostly women who stood by the man they embraced as a son, a lover, a brother, a friend. 

These loyal and intimate companions were in denial. They could not understand how such a merciful king, so welcomed with open arms into the City of David, could suffer such an ignominious and humiliating death. How could God abandon him? The usual answer — Jesus had to die so we could be saved — is not sufficient.

Rather than think of Jesus only as a savior who died to redeem us from sin, this day, in the midst of so much national and global chaos, we can also remember him as a model for living. Jesus was a vulnerable and humble man willing to forego praise and glory, power and wealth, and to win by losing — by dying on a cross. Remember he was killed because people called him “King” of the Jews, a title he would not have given to himself.

As baptized Christians we are called to embrace that cross not merely to remember Jesus’ heinous crucifixion but as a gesture that we too are willing to pick it up and follow him. Our Christian calling may not make us less afraid of the evils in the world. Jesus himself was scared to death. The embrace of what is wrong in our world, however, may help to clarify our place in society, and give us the means to confront evil together. 

On Holy Thursday we will share a family meal and a ritual meal — the eucharist. We will give thanks for the way Jesus taught us to live, for calling us to minister to one another. On Good Friday before we venerate this cross, some will take turns carrying it throughout our church.

We took this cross off that wall and planted it right here in the center of us so we would not forget how much Jesus embraced saints and sinners, allies and enemies. When we “embrace that embrace” * we don’t give up, we press on with our values, we live as if against all odds.

______

* Deacon Paul Kisselback uttered this challenging phrase in a 2008 class on worship & sacraments in the St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry. Thanks, Paul.


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Homily – 6 March 2016 “Welcome Home”


The Fourth Sunday in Lent C – March 6, 2016 – “Welcome Home”

Click here for today’s scriptures

The parable of the lost son and brother is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament. It appears only in Luke’s gospel and comes after fables about the lost sheep (15:1-7) and the lost coin (15:8-10). They are sequences to Jesus’ preamble about the cost of discipleship (14:25-33) — that is, what does our membership in the body of Christ ask of us?

Most often sermons on this parable focus on the young son who left home or the angry son who stayed home or the father who loved them both. The story offers lenses about the generosity of God, how God does not abandon us no matter how much we mess up or lose sight of our purpose in life. The story is also an invitation to see things in a new way or to challenge worn out assumptions.

Nowhere does the story about the prodigal son tell us why the younger brother left home in the first place. This question offers us a chance to look at this parable in a new light. Here are a couple of real time examples. The United Nations reported at the end of 2014, 20 million people around the world fled their homes because of persecution. Another 38 million were displaced by conflict within their homelands. How will these persons ever taste and see the goodness of God? (Psalm 34)

The prophet Joshua announced God freed the Israelites from slavery and guided them to a home of their own and they were fed along the way.

Our country and innumerable organizations in it like the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants are known for finding ways to assist those who have left or lost their homes, uprooted by choice or force.

And, there are families and youths right here in our own country for whom “home” is not easily defined. A 2006 study at the University of Pittsburgh said 60,000 allegations of child maltreatment, including reports of neglect, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse are reported each week! The average age of a homeless person in the U.S. is nine. Thousands of youths are abandoned or purposely trafficked every year. 

In a recent lecture at the College of St. Rose a former prostitute said the average age that girls become escorts is between 13 and 14. She said she never felt loved or even heard the words “I love you” while she lived at home so she left.

Countless youths live with pressures and conflicts at home, in school and among peers. Many are victims of bullying. Often they do not know how or where to get help. Some question their identity or reason for being. Many run away. Few are found again. The National Runaway Switchboard reports that on any given night there are about 1.3 million homeless youths living unsupervised on the streets of our cities.

The good news is that there are myriad examples of adults who adopt  very young children who have been abandoned and older children who leave home for other reasons. One teenager from our parish wrote that without her new parents, who adopted her when she was ten months old, she would not be an athlete, she would not be educated, she would not be given even a fraction of the opportunity that she is provided with today.

Many young people return home because they cannot make it on their own and need the security of an established household. We can only conjecture about the details in the gospel parable. Did the traumatized father throw the party as an act of parental remorse? Did the son say I am sorry or thank you? Did big brother ever get over his jealousy? What we do know is there is no mention of sin or penance in this story, only love, mercy and healing.

So, what does it mean to be a member of the body of Christ? Paul in his letter to the Corinthians suggests we are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5) Parishioner Amy Biancolli uses more convincing language in an article on pursuing peace. “God deputizes us to bring peace to each other. It is our “assignment” she wrote.

On the old church calendar today was called Laetare Sunday — a day to rejoice and take a little break from the challenges of the Lenten season. Let’s do that. And, let’s use this day to rethink what the word “home” means to each of us and to those with whom we share a home. And one more thing, how might you and I help others find one?


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Homily – 28 February 2016 – Don’t Cut That Tree Down Just Yet


Third Sunday of Lent C – 022816 – Don’t Cut Down That Tree Just Yet!

Click here for today’s scriptures

The two tragedies mentioned at the beginning of today’s gospel are sobering reminders of the recent shootings in, Michigan, Kansas and Washington and the killings occurring around the world. Pilate was known for his brutal reprisals against religious practices. The tower that collapsed was part of the wall built to protect the City of David. Both events are historically uncontested.

Why is this passage important during Lent? Some commentators say that the author Luke was afraid of God and wanted to make sure his non-Jewish Greek audiences would behave in ways similar to those who trusted that God would not abandon them.

Do you ever think that when something bad happens to you you are being penalized by God? Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne says that the victims in this gospel story were not being punished. The meaning of the passage and its reference to the barren fig tree is to remind us that we cannot take anything for granted in life. There are always new possibilities and alternatives for living and dealing with challenges that come our way.

The constant reminder of repentance during the season of Lent requires a closer examination. The word “repent” could mean having feelings of sorrow or regret. It could also mean re-thinking or changing our minds about something or someone including ourselves.

Perhaps like you I have been reading reviews about the films being nominated for an Oscar tonight. They helped me think about today’s biblical texts. Like all art forms movies can manipulate us and they can also reveal hidden truths. They can affect, subliminally or directly, the way we think about our own lives in terms of romance, evil, history or fantasy. 

Two films up for awards tonight, like the gospel, deal with brutal stories. Spliced together Revenant and Room create a visual narrative about survival, revenge, captivity and the repercussions caused by violence and indifference toward others. What is the connection with our scriptures?The Exodus reading suggests God was aware of the brutalities the Israelites suffered while they were held captive.

There is no way to know if this story is factual but a meaning behind it reminds us that a kind and merciful God promises to protect us. The covenant, however, is reciprocal. We have to do our part or experience the consequences of our apathy. But, know that God will not carry out the punishment. Rather, our bad decisions will lead to actions that penalize and victimize others as well as ourselves. Therein lies the punishment and the reason for repenting.

One woman in a scripture course I took recently said deliverance from evil comes in stages. It does not happen all at once. The Exodus story did not rid the world of diabolical deeds. So, how does God go about protecting us today? Is there anything we can do to help God?

This past month, dedicated to African American History, is but a short reminder of the gifts that black people give us. Yet, tonight no black actors or film makers will be honored at the Academy Awards. Some say this an oversight that can be corrected. Others say it is symptomatic of a deep seeded racism that continues to plague our nation? Are you racist? Am I?

Capuchin theologian Bede Abrams believes that the cultural gifts of African Americans, their sense of creativity, identity and worth has been “stolen” repeatedly by the dominant culture in power in the United States. Could this also be true about our church, which in this country is predominantly white and still mostly based on European aesthetics and cultures? If so, you and I must act to erase this prejudice. Black lives matter.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his award winning book Between the World and Me writes to his son about American exceptionalism and the struggles of African Americans. “It is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and ignore the evil.” Coates calls for holding our country to “an exceptional moral standard” when it comes to racial equality.

We’ve have a lot of work to do to advance the realm of God in everyday life. The gospel suggests we should not be quick to give up on advocating for justice or improving our own lives just because we do not see instant results. That is why Lent is forty days long. That is why we keep Lent every year — to remind us to turn barren trees into fruitful ones.

Parishioner Rebecca Maxwell wrote to me about how she and her son saw a tree that had fallen by the roadside and looked quite dead. Yet, she said, during last spring, leaves began to reappear. Good thing that that tree was not destroyed before it had a chance to come back to life.

That is what rethinking our lives during Lent is all about — giving one another the chance to blossom and grow before we cut each other down.

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