170917 – Creation – Delighted

Yr A ~ Creation 2 ~ Psalm 96

We are the Holy Rollers.
We value enthusiasm and spontaneity. creation-delighted
We love happy clappy music and we wear our emotions on our sleeves.
We will laugh or cry in worship at the slightest provocation.
We will fall on the floor overcome by emotion as we open ourselves and ponder the immensity of God’s love for us.

We think sermons are participatory so we answer questions and voice our agreement throughout.
We nod our heads vigorously when the preacher makes an interesting point and we’ll shout out affirmation when the preacher makes a great one.
We applaud after every hymn, praise song, and choir anthem because that’s how we say thanks.
We love and worship God in a noisy and exuberant way.
And we are moved to share this love of God that we feel so deeply with others.

We are the Frozen Chosen.
We value order and dignity.
We love majestic organ music and we hold our emotions very close to the chest.
We will laugh in worship on occasion, and cry if dealing with something profoundly sad, but generally we keep our emotions to ourselves.
We sit in our pews and think deeply about the immensity of God’s love for us.

We think sermons are educational and inspirational so we respectfully listen as the preacher shares their insights.
We will nod our heads at interesting ideas and furrow our brow when we disagree.
We offer an affirming nod after choir anthems to allow the sanctity of the moment to resonate.
We love and worship God in a quiet and steadfast way.
And we are moved to share this love of God that we feel so deeply with others.

We are Faith United!
What do we value? What music do we love?
How much emotion do we dare to show?
How do we use our bodies in worship?
How do we interact with sermons?
How do we respond to music?
In what manner do we love God?

Are you feeling closer to a Holy Roller or a Frozen Chosen?
Or will we do the typically Canadian, United Church thing and declare ourselves to be right in the middle?

Perhaps you’re wondering why we’re talking about worship in the Season of Creation, when the usual topics are about the environment or nature? Well, this year I’m looking more at the Creator than Creation, and worship is our response to the loving action and being of the Creator. So it makes sense to think about what that response, what that worship, looks like.

Worship is really our main thing as a church so it really deserves some thinking time. Worship is the one time we gather together each week as a large community of faith and focus together on what is supposed to be job #1 – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This isn’t the only way we love God, but it’s arguably the most powerful.

Our spiritual energy is amplified when we gather. We share our gifts in creative and helpful ways. We set everything else aside and allow ourselves to be immersed in the presence of God.
A church is healthy and vibrant for many, many reasons and the people who make up a church community of faith need to be involved in many, many different aspects of discipleship such as learning times, and supporting one another, and helping in the kitchen, and grounds keeping, and preparing for various wonderful fundraisers and events, and even simple things like lugging chairs or speaking positively about the church.

But the centre point, the hub, the engine, the power cell, the fuel tank, the core, the foundation – pick whatever image works for you – the main thing, our raison d’être is to gather together and worship the Holy Mystery we call God.
Our buildings are specifically designed to support this gathering of God’s people.
Our biggest budget expenses go toward supporting this activity.

So if worship isn’t right, if it isn’t deep, and spiritual, and moving, and challenging, and inspiring, and life-changing, and soul tending, and action-provoking then this whole church enterprise loses its power and passion and drive – and it withers and dies.
(No pressure!)
I can get a lot of things wrong (and there are days when I certainly do!) but if I get worship wrong I’m in big trouble.

So let’s talk worship and make sure we get it right! Let’s see if Psalm 96 can help us! read on

170910 – Creation – Awed

Yr A ~ Creation 1 ~ Psalm 114

This is the seventh September that we have marked the Season of Creation at Faith United. For some of us here this has become another regular part of the church year. Some of us probably still find it new and strange. And some may not have paid much attention to the church seasons and are happy to take the themes as they come. So it’s probably good for us to begin with some thinking about what it is we’re focusing on in this new church/liturgical season.creation-awed

What do we mean by creation? One aspect is to think about the natural world, the planet we share, and to raise theological issues about sustainability, respect, resources, stewardship, and greed. We can talk about the environment, the physical world, and celebrate the wonders that it holds.

Another aspect is to think about the act of creation, and focus on God. While it makes for a good visual, I don’t for one instant imagine that a humanoid figure with a white beard physically shaped the stars and planets and all that is. So what do we mean by the act of creation? The big bang maybe?
Did it just happen? Was it caused? What banged together? These are big scientific questions, but they’re also spiritual questions.

For me creation is about the existence of life that can in many ways be explained scientifically but also holds a mysterious, miraculous sense because the complexity and interrelatedness of it all inspires awe and wonder and we sense that more than just being a happy accident we are somehow the product of a loving intention. We give that mysterious intentionality the name God, and we celebrate how we are part of it all.

So, we could go in any of those directions, but I’m more intrigued by the God part, which you could’ve probably guessed. So perhaps a better name for the way I’m approaching it isn’t the Season of Creation but the Season of the Creator!
How can we talk about God as creator without falling into troublesome anthropomorphism?
How do we acknowledge the remarkable understandings that science has given us and at the same time acknowledge that there’s more to it than just science?
And how do we find language that can speak to the theological side without leaving our brains at the door?

Today we’re going to explore some of that language – and probably the best language to use to talk about God is poetry – and the best poetry in the bible is found in the Book of Psalms, which is more or less a hymn book – which means poetry and music in the service of speaking of spiritual things. Poetry and music have the potential to help us access deep truths and meaning that science can never get to.
Today we’re looking at Psalm 114. It’s a psalm that recalls the exodus and tries to offer a sense of how momentous a thing it was – and how awesome was the God who inspired and guided it.

1 When Israel went out from Egypt [that’s the exodus], the house of Jacob [which is all of Israel, which was his other name] from a people of strange language [a colourful way to say a foreign land],
2 Judah [a territory] became God’s sanctuary, Israel [meaning the people] God’s dominion [or realm].

The Israelites were once under the rule or domain of Pharaoh – now they’re under God’s domain. That’s the story of the exodus. For the Israelites this was an epic, epoch-making event, and they knew deep in their hearts that God was at the centre of it.
Now, how do you tell that story? How do you describe something so ginormously life-changing for you and your people?
You write songs!
Because the metaphors in poetry and songs give you the potential to express deep truths in engaging and effective ways.
So when that momentous action happened how did not just the people but the planet react?

3 The sea looked and fled; [the river] Jordan turned back [on itself and flowed the other way].
4 The mountains skipped [bounded, danced, frolicked!] like rams, the [little] hills like lambs.
5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?

Why? Why? Here’s why!

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint [an extremely hard rock that gives sparks when struck] into a spring of water.

How awesome was the exodus? Well, the way they tell it it rocked their world!
And this psalm was one of the ways they tried to express their overwhelming gratitude and awestruck-ness.

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.

Trembling in awe before God. read on

170903 – Burning Bushes

Yr A ~ Pentecost 13 ~ Exodus 3:1-15

It begins with an invitation, which opens up a revelation, which inspires a mission. Moses lived that rhythm out in one of the most powerful and well-known stories in religious history – the story of the burning bush. Hopefully through our pondering and praying this morning we’ll catch a glimpse of that rhythm and leave this place ready to notice our own burning bushes – because, and this should come as no surprise, they’re everywhere! But first, Moses.burning-bushes-tree

3:1 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

Where does this story take place? Near a mountain that would be embraced as being very holy – but more importantly that mountain was “beyond the wilderness”. Remember, every time you hear about wilderness in the bible it’s a sign that a transformation is coming. The wilderness is a place away from the hubbub of our daily lives where the distractions are few and the possibility of noticing God’s Presence is dramatically heightened. So Moses was in the right spot!

3:2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

A fiery bush that was not consumed or devoured by the flames, and a messenger of God somehow present in the middle of it.
Not your everyday occurrence! (or is it?!?!?!)
So Moses was tending his sheep in this liminal, transformational space, and a fiery bush appears. He now has two choices, but choose he must. Read it carefully:

3:3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”

He must turn aside to see it.
He has to change his direction, leave the path he was on, purposely take another path in order to experience it more fully. Just noticing wasn’t enough.
He could’ve noticed, thought to himself, “That’s curious,” and kept right on going.
But he didn’t. He noticed, and he turned aside and made the effort to draw nearer.

The burning bush was an invitation. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says the burning bush was actually a test – a test to see if Moses was paying attention and would really see what was going on around him. Moses could’ve ignored the invitation – he could’ve RSVP’d “no” – but instead he did something rare and wonderful. He turned aside from his current path and changed the direction of his life – physically and spiritually.

And when we accept God’s invitation we put ourselves in position to receive God’s revelation.

3:4 When the LORD saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”

The Presence of God was there all along but that Presence didn’t speak until it was clear that Moses too was present!

3:5-6 Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
God said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid (awed) to look at God.

When we answer God’s invitation we can receive God’s self-revelation. And what a revelation it is!
The language is important here. Saying that God is revealed is distinctly different than saying God appeared, or even worse, God came down! The subtle meaning of ‘revealed’ suggests that the thing was there all along, right in front of our eyes, but something was preventing us from really seeing.

The space that we thought was ordinary becomes extraordinary – it is holy ground.
The same ground that Moses was standing on obliviously 5 minutes before was suddenly, indescribably holy ground now.
The ground didn’t change – Moses’ perception did! And as he became aware he realized how awesome God’s Presence was and Moses was awed.

And the taking off your shoes thing? Maybe that’s nothing more than a tangible indication that you’re going to linger. You know the saying, “Take off your shoes and stay awhile!”

So we’ve had invitation and revelation. Now we’re in the right head space and heart space and spirit space to receive the mission. read on

170827 – You Don’t Say

Yr A ~ Pentecost 12 ~ Matthew 16:13-20

So which is it? At the start Jesus says, “Say!” Say who I am.
Then after Peter gets the courage to say, Jesus says, “Don’t say!” Don’t tell anyone!
And then in the next chapter he tells them not to say anything until he’s gone – then say!silenced-dont-say
Now my job is to help us make sense of this in the next 18 minutes. In the end hopefully you’ll say, “How surprising! Is that really true?” In other words, you’ll say, “You don’t say!” And I’ll say, “Yes, I do say! And so should you!”
Got it? Say, don’t say, say! That’s the sermon! Here we go!

Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Here’s a little detail we might miss. Caesarea Philippi is a Gentile city – not a Jewish one. But ‘son of man’ are like code words referencing the book of Daniel from the Hebrew Scriptures that served as a cue that the subject at hand was about the end of times and the Messiah or the Christ. That’s curious because it’s not part of Gentile folks’ spirituality – and yet clearly it was a phrase people knew.
So this is Jesus asking his followers about a theological trend. This is not Jesus talking about himself in the third person. He’s just alluding to some theological water-cooler talk, and he’s asking the disciples who they think, or who they’ve heard, belongs in that tradition.

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

That all makes good sense. John the Baptizer was pretty apocalyptic in his manner and speech. And Elijah and Jeremiah were both larger-than-life, doom and gloom kind of prophets. So, you could read that as the disciples saying that Jesus is the embodiment of those people – but I prefer a different interpretation.

16:15 (Jesus) said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Inflection is everything here.
Now, if I read that: But who do YOU say that I am? It sounds like he’s referring back to the Son of Man tradition.
However, there’s another way to read it.
He could’ve said it like this: But who do you say that I am?
With that emphasis he could be separating himself from the apocalyptic tradition. Who do “they” say the son of man is – and – who do you say that I am? – like maybe he’s trying to establish a new tradition.

Obviously, this is the interpretation I think is better. And it sets up the last verse of this passage in a more understandable way for me (we’ll get to that in a few minutes).
Jesus is offering the disciples a chance to think for themselves here – to discern for themselves who Jesus was apart from the limits of the tradition.

This is the first big “say”. Before we go too far down the road of calling ourselves a Christian person we’re going to have to start wrestling with who Jesus is. I’m not sure that wrestling ever stops, but until it starts we won’t have very much to say at all. read on

170813 – Go Fourth – Rest Up

(Off Lectionary) ~ Mark 2:23-28

Today is part 2 of a sermon series about the fourth commandment – to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – and we’re beginning with a strange passage of scripture. Jesus and the disciples are in the middle of nowhere walking through a grain field. The Pharisees, who have no logical reason to be there, supposedly scold Jesus for breaking the rules by plucking and eating from the grain field. Except that’s not against the Sabbath rules! It’s something of a mystery why the rule keepers get the rule wrong! It’s a very strange exchange.go-fourth-restup

In the end Jesus says this:
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so humans are masters/have control over the sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-28)

And this, I suggest, is the real point of this whole encounter. The Pharisees are there to show us that legalism and Sabbath don’t belong together. Instead, Jesus says that humankind has control over the Sabbath – that it is made for us (to help us, to serve our spiritual deepening) rather than us being obliged to serve the supposed rules of the Sabbath.

But be careful here.
Jesus is not saying that humankind can make Sabbath into whatever we want.
He’s saying that the Sabbath is for us, and that we as individuals need to figure out what that means for us and not just blindly follow a checklist of rules.
He’s saying we need to do the hard work of discerning what Sabbath-keeping looks like for ourselves instead of relying on some priest, or Pharisee, or minister, or cultural tradition telling us how to do it.

Legalism has apparently always been a challenge for Sabbath-keeping. The temptation to create a checklist full of rules and regulations that become the focus of whether you’re ‘doing it right’ is very powerful.

The reality is that every one of us has different rhythms and circumstances.
The world is far more complicated than Moses and the writers of the ancient rules could have ever possibly imagined. They were a self-contained people who shared a very similar life experience. They were small enough and alike enough that uniformity was fathomable. And their reliance on technology was minimal, so their ability to put down the plough for a day and step away from the tools of work was more clearly defined.

Needless to say, life today is decidedly different!

Huge arguments are still ongoing about what the proper day for Sabbath is. For Jews it’s Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Many Christians argue it’s Sunday, what we call the Lord’s Day. Some Christian biblical literalists argue for Saturday like the Jews did it. If you’re Muslim your holy day is Friday.
Who’s right?

Who cares????
What a ridiculous thing to be obsessed with and fight about – as if God is somewhere keeping score as to who gets it right or wrong. I get where their passion is coming from, but I think it’s misplaced.

So I won’t be saying anything about what the ‘right’ days or ways to keep Sabbath are. If you’re waiting for me to lay out the definitive United Church method of Sabbath-keeping you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Sunday would seem the most logical day for us to begin to think about keeping Sabbath, but for me it’s the busiest, workiest day of the week!
I have to do my whole one hour of work today!
And it becomes two hours when our Sunday Night Worship services pick up again. Sundays for me are anything but rest from work.

But maybe for you it’s the perfect day.
Maybe for you this very act of coming to church and worshipping is the centre-point of your potential Sabbath-keeping!
And maybe for the person sitting beside you it’s another day!
So if we can’t even agree on what single day we should keep Sabbath on it’s very unlikely we can agree on many other rules.

Instead, what I’m going to offer are some principles – some insights into ways to approach Sabbath-keeping that you need to figure out how to apply to your own life.

But before I do I’d like to remind you about last week’s sermon, which was part one of today’s.

read on

170806 – Go Fourth – Resistance Is Fertile

Exodus 20:1-17
(away from the lectionary this week!)

One of the best things about summer holidays is that there seems to be more time to do things like read books – and during my holidays in July I read one that absolutely rocked my world – and now I hope it rocks yours. The last time I stood here and preached my theme was about rest. Well, I guess that must have been an omen because the book I reached for was Walter Brueggemann’s new book about the Sabbath called: Sabbath As Resistance. Holidays are a kind of summer Sabbath, so it all connects nicely. go-fourth-resist

Obviously, this isn’t the first time that I’ve ever thought about Sabbath time, but Brueggemann’s book took me into an incredibly wonderful new insight and understanding about what Sabbath means and why it’s important. It probably won’t surprise you that the very first thing that dawned on me, as I was reading the introduction, was that out of nowhere my mind started racing about all sorts of things that I could or should be doing instead of reading. The moment I began to think about Sabbath my brain started looking for ways to avoid it. Maybe your brain is doing that right now?! Clearly, this is a challenging topic.

The United Church has never really focused on Sabbath-keeping very much. I mean, sure, there are some cultural memories that people have of not going to movies, or playing cards, or shopping, or doing all those kinds of things on Sundays – but those were, dare I say, more cultural than spiritual.
I don’t remember ever hearing or preaching a sermon about Sabbath-keeping before – I may have mentioned it, but never focused on it.
When I was looking for hymns to support this theme I did a search of our two hymn books. Guess how many times the word Sabbath appears? In Voices United it appears a grand total of 2 times, and in More Voices…0 times!
Why have we never embraced this idea? Perhaps it’s because, like me, we’ve never seen it the way Brueggemann teaches about it.

Did you notice the title of the book I’m referring to? It’s Sabbath As Resistance.
Isn’t that intriguing?
What do you think it is that we need to resist?
It’s the drive to “do”. The drive to produce. The drive to count bricks.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we need to go back to the beginning – the very beginning.

The Hebrew Bible begins with the book of Genesis in which the poetic description of the creation of the universe is found. It’s poetry, not science – but that doesn’t mean it lacks truth. The point of Genesis 1 is to convey the nature of God. It’s the first book. This is what they want everyone to know about God. The first thing is that God is first – before anything else there is God. God is fundamental.
And the second thing is that God creates out of love, and that it is very good. God moves, God creates, God works. BUT – and here is the monumental, paradigm shifting, unique, mind-bending innovation – God doesn’t just work – God also rests!

God is a working God, but God is also a Resting God! God establishes the pattern for the universe – work, but then rest and savour and reflect on it all. God is not a workaholic, God is not anxious about the functioning of the world, and creation does not depend on endless work. There is a rhythm, and the rhythm is rooted in rest.
In Exodus 31 it even says that on the “day” God rested in the creation narrative that God was refreshed!

Exodus 31:16-17 – God says to Moses: “The Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

Friends, if God needs refreshment don’t you think we might too?
But again, I’m ahead of myself, because God can’t talk to the Israelites about this until they’re out in the wilderness, and the reason why they’re out there is going to blow your mind!

It’s all about the bricks!

Stay with me here – it’s gonna be so worth it!

read on

170723 – Ladders and Circles

Yr A ~ Pentecost 7 ~ Genesis 28:10-19a

The gospel lesson this morning was one of the Kingdom parables.  The kingdom of God is like a seed, a sower, a woman with a lamp and many others.  This morning the reading was to be about the parable of the wheat and the tares.  It is not an easy one to re-vision and I decided to let Larry explain it to us when it comes up in the lectionary in three year’s time.

So, I have chosen to look at the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures.Picture1

You may know the story well.  Jacob has just stolen his brother’s birthright.  The first born son received a double portion of the wealth of the father as well as Judicial rights that he might have held, which meant he filled a priestly role and was the leader of the tribe.   Esau, gave it all away for a bowl of stew.  But Jacob went further and through deceit also stole the blessing that was given to the first born son.   He robbed his brother of treasured gifts from their dying father.

Now I am not letting Esau off freely.   He sold this treasured inheritance for a hot meal.  He could not have placed great value on it until it was gone.

As the story opens Jacob is settling down for the night.  He must be exhausted from his flight, for remember Esau is the hunter in the family, if he is tracking Jacob, Jacob has a right to be terrified of him.  So as the dark settles in, this tired, frightened man lays down to sleep, his pillow, a rock.  He only partly grasps that he is a wanted man.  He knows he is wanted by Esau, but he is also wanted by God.

He had years to listen for God’s voice, to look for God in the everyday places of his life, but he didn’t pay attention until he was in a hopeless situation.

Sometimes we might be like Jacob.  We rest in our comfy, cozy beds and don’t get it until we are lying on a cold hard hospital stretcher in a hallway in pain and frightened.

Jacob was on a journey from Beersheba to Haran is over 300 miles, he has come about 85. He has been on the road for a week or more.   When he decided to re-locate  to where he hoped he wouldn’t be followed, he was serious.  Haran was where extended family lived and he hoped he would find safety there.  But this night he is nowhere, he is at an in-between place.  He has left the familiar and is heading for the unknown.

Isn’t that life?  There are times when we all want to stay in our comfortable chairs, or pews, or homes and situations.  But the world changes, society changes, the rules and norms change and we adjust or become curmudgeons, antiques, museum pieces.   At times I feel that there are only in-between times…we are always on the move.  And as I read our sacred stories,  that is the God I see.  One who calls us to new adventures, kicking and screaming sometimes, but I hope trusting and anticipating more often.

So here is Jacob on his stone pillow, lying on the ground, and he has a dream or a vision.  A ladder, or more correctly translated a staircase between heaven and earth, angels are going up and down and God is at the top.

God speaks and makes wonderful promises to Jacob.  He gives him the ground on which he lies, a place to call home,  He promises a great family who will be a blessing to all who follow after, and God promises to stay with Jacob, to protect him, and to bring him safely back to this land.

Jacob wakes up and realizes that God is in that place.  Sound familiar?  God is in this place, help me notice.  Filled with awe, gratitude and hope, he stands his pillow up, pours oil over it and names the place Bethel.  Beth-house, El-God.  The house of God.

The ladder Jacob saw made him aware of God’s presence, he was not alone in his fear and misery.  The Holy was present in that place.

Picture2This dream ladder for us can represent our connection with the holy, the divine, the awesome mystery we call God.  The wonder, the miracle is not that,  God shows up and breaks into our lives,  it is that once in a while, we see it, recognize it and own it for ourselves.

I’m going to take a different understanding of this story at this point.

For many years this story has been interpreted to mean that connecting with God means a difficult climb.  That is the interpretation in the song,  We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, and it has seeped deeply into our theology.  .  God is at the top of this great ladder and we must ever struggle upward to reach God.  It is hard work and uphill all the way.  We earn God’s favour by what we do, by our good works.  And we can lose God’s favour when we mess up.  There are many verses in the bible that can be quoted to back up this theology, but for me it is  “fake news.”

Many years ago I read a book written by Matthew Fox.  In it he takes on this theology and turns it on his head.  He is in good company for Jesus took many of the things that people knew and understood and turned them upside down in his teaching.

As I read the book this is what I came to understand.

Ladder theology is a very limiting and almost oppressive way to approach our spiritual journeys.

Think about it.  A ladder allows only one person on each rung at any one moment and a finite number can get onto the same ladder. If you envision many ladders then we are separated, divided and apart.  It often becomes a race to get ahead of each other.  People on ladders would step on each other as they tried to best the other person.  There can be no eye contact as one is always looking at the prize.  One can’t even let go to hold a fellow climbers hand, never mind sharing a hug.

Think of the phrases that come to mind,  bottom and top of the ladder, low man on the ladder, corporate ladder, social ladder. If I suggested a Christian ladder  would you want to add it to that list?

Ladder theology is not congruent for me with the teachings or life of Jesus.

Instead Fox suggests we think in terms of Sarah’s circle.  I think he chose Sarah as she is called A Mother in Israel.  She is also Jacob’s grandmother.  Not that she was any less flawed than her grandson or than you or I, but a woman of courage and hope and faithful in her life.

So what about circles.  There is no limit to the size of a circle, always room for more.   Circles can be as small as two or as large as one needs.  There is no hierarchy in a circle, no head, no foot.  We stand side by side, holding hands, or linking arms, and we look each other in the eye, sharing tears or smiles.  Fox suggests we don’t struggle in the circle we dance as we celebrate God’s presence.  And where is God?  In the centre.  No one is nearer to God than any other.  How intimately one knows God is up to each one.

When I think of its usage, the first term that comes to mind is the family circle.  Then circle of friends and third the circle of fifths.  That’s a musical one.  Yes there are negative uses as well, but we use it in positive ways most often I think.  I think almost at once of our hymn, Draw the Circle Wide…and the line in it   God the still point of the circle….the centre….

I have no idea what you will take from these words.  But I ask you to think about how you would describe the kingdom.  One of Jesus images,   ladder, a circle or something that has meaning to you.  As you think about God’s presence this coming week, ponder also the meaning of God’s kingdom for you.

 – Sermon by Betty Turcott

170709 – Yoke’s On You

Yr A ~ Pentecost 5 ~ Matthew 11:25-30

Abruptly Jesus broke into prayer: “Thank you, God, Lord of heaven and earth. You’ve concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled them out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, God, that’s the way you like to work.”

Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows [perceives, personally experiences] the Son the way the Father does, nor [knows, perceives, and personally experiences] the Father the way the Son does, (except for) anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal God.   [Matthew 11:25-27 (MSG+NRSV)]yoke-on-you

That may seem like a tricky theological argument that Jesus is making, but really it’s only tricky because we’ve tended to think about spirituality and faith as information and knowing while Jesus is trying to help us understand that it’s all about relationship.

He’s saying that he and God experientially know one another in a unique and intimate way – that no one quite knows him, Jesus, like God does, and no one quite knows God like he, Jesus, does – EXCEPT FOR anyone who Jesus chooses to reveal God to.
And who is that?
Who does Jesus choose to reveal God to?
Anyone who will listen and open themselves and see!

And how does Jesus reveal God?
By example, by living God’s Way, by helping us to change the way we perceive the world – by being in relationship with us.

And here’s what that relationship looks like. Jesus says:

Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you that are weary, as in exhausted, and not just in body but also in mind and in spirit.
Come to me, all you who are tired out, worn out, and burned out,
and are carrying heavy burdens, are weighed down, and overloaded – is that feeling like you and your life?

If so, Jesus says, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.”

Rest here doesn’t just mean a break, or a holiday, or a couple days off. It literally means to emphasize a pause, in order to refresh, to renew, and re-strengthen.

So it’s not just rest and refreshment for your body, but for your soul.
What’s a soul?
In the bible the idea of soul is that it’s the direct aftermath of God breathing (blowing) God’s gift of life into a person.
It’s your very being.
The absolute core and centre of who you are.
You are God-breathed.
That which animates you is God’s breath or Spirit.

So what’s really going on in this passage – in this promise from Jesus – is that he’s not just offering physically tired people an afternoon in a hammock – although that might actually do our souls a heap of good!

He’s talking about soul-weariness.
The kind of stuff that puts you in a funk and drains your passion for living.
The kind of stuff that feels like a heavy burden – like all the million things you’re responsible for and how like Atlas it feels like the whole world is on our shoulders.
The kind of stuff that seems to take your breath away – as in your God-breathed-ness – as in your Spirit.
Oh how we yearn for rest and refreshment from that soul-weary feeling!
Jesus says, “Come to me, and I’ll give you that rest!” read on

170618 – So Far (Indigenous Sunday)

Pentecost 2 ~ Indigenous Sunday ~ Ephesians 2:14-22

I chose this scripture passage for today because it speaks of a journey of reconciliation between two peoples. In the scripture it was about Jewish/Gentile relations in the early church. In the beginning the Christian church was a reform movement within Judaism. All the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish and stayed Jewish. Over time, as the Good News spread – thanks primarily to apostles like Paul who travelled far and wide sharing the story of Jesus and his teaching – some conflict started to emerge.indigenous-so-far

The Jewish wing of the church demanded that everyone become Jewish in order to be Christian. In their mind you had to be just like them in order to be in the church.
Jesus was Jewish. They were Jewish. It just made sense.
For a Gentile that would mean adopting all sorts of new religious and social customs, and if you were a male it would mean circumcision. This was a big deal, and big source of conflict.

Now, Paul was really good at his job as a church planter, and it wasn’t all that long before Gentile Christians outnumbered the Jewish ones. And in the end the Jewish Christian leaders gave in and learned to accept everyone without requiring full conversion to Judaism. At the time of this letter to the Ephesians though, this was still a big conflict and Paul was desperately trying to get the two groups, or peoples, or nations if you will, to reconcile.

His argument was very simple.
Ephesians 2:14 For Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Today is Indigenous Sunday so naturally I’m reading this passage with an eye to indigenous reconciliation.
Obviously, before you can reconcile with someone you have to know them, so I’m wondering…

What’s your experience of Indigenous people?
Did/Do you live in community with Indigenous folks?
Did you go to school with them? Work with them?
Did you know there are people of Indigenous heritage in this congregation?

It’s hard to have anything but stereotypes about any group of people until you have a relationship with them.
For me, I didn’t really interact with or meet many Indigenous people until I started doing work with the wider church. I’m grateful for the new relationships I’m discovering. I have a lot to learn!

And if you’re not in relationships with Indigenous folks when things come on the news it’s hard to know how to react. I don’t know about you but I feel really disconnected from things like residential schools, and treaty violations, and unceded lands, and the terrible stories of so much poverty, and suicide and despair in too many Indigenous communities.
We feel guilty, and ashamed, but we didn’t really do it, and yet we’ve benefited from it, and it’s all very confusing and messy. The best I think we can do is learn and try to be part of the reconciliation process as best we can.

At Faith United that has meant simple things like this worship service having this theme today – and the learning time about Indigenous spirituality we had earlier this year – and our learning and fundraising work to support the Pikangikum community.
These are good steps. These are good things that we’ve done so far. read on

170611 – Bar None

Affirming Ministry Theme ~ Romans 15:1-7

We’re celebrating today, and we here at Faith United are so blessed that we have so much to celebrate! There is a special, energized, positive, spiritual vibe about this place – and it’s not just because we’re anticipating the pot luck lunch that awaits us. I felt it the moment I walked in here 10 years ago – and I repeatedly hear people make the same comment: It feels spiritually positive here.bar-none

That doesn’t happen by accident. It wasn’t part of the architectural drawings. We didn’t pay extra and order the super-sized box of positivity from the good vibes catalogue. The only way to ensure a positive, spiritual environment is to grow it – to work on it – to prioritize it – and to resource it. We do all those things. And it works.
Faith United is a good place to be.
Faith United is a healthy, vibrant expression of the body of Christ.
That’s worth celebrating.

It’s also worth sharing. And that leads us into our pondering time today. We are in the midst of a journey of learning and awareness called the Affirming Ministry process. Affirming ministries began to address the challenges that lesbians and gays experienced when interacting with churches and church people. Unfortunately, and sadly, many well-meaning church folks took a troublesome mixture of cultural norms and bad theology and used it to exclude, insult, belittle, and bar people whose sexual orientation was different than the majority.

And that’s what this ultimately is – the majority having to wrestle with how to treat minorities. But before I go there I need to back up and unpack a couple of things I just said.
A few months ago I preached a whole sermon about how the bible has been misused and incorrectly interpreted in regards to lesbians and gays. I’m not going to repeat that sermon – I encourage you to read it if you missed it back in January, it was called “A Firm Faith”. I also know that some folks had trouble with that sermon, and maybe will with today’s as well.

Here’s why I think that is.
If you were born a person who is attracted only to the opposite sex, and you’ve never had the faintest sense that you were anything other than the male or female person your body indicates you are, then you are part of the vast majority of people in our society and in our churches.

Add to that a culture that has taught us over and over again that we who are in the majority, we who have the power, are “normal” and anyone not like us is “abnormal”.
And now add to that a view of the bible that tended to read literally (when it suited us) – and you get an environment that creates barriers for those not in the majority, and uses “common sense” and “God’s word” to reinforce those barriers.

The challenge before us is that we have to unlearn a lot of things that we grew up thinking were true, but aren’t.
The first is the idea that being gay is a choice.
It is not.
It’s like being born left-handed, or red-headed – not a choice, but definitely a minority.

If you’re part of the straight/heterosexual majority this whole thing may not make any sense to you. But I would argue that we can no more understand the challenges of being part of the gay minority than we who are white can understand being part of an ethnic or racial minority. We’ve always had the power, so our ways became the only ways.

Then we had bible passages to seemingly back us up. This is the second thing we need to unlearn.
There are two key issues there.

One is that cultural norms in biblical times were very different from now. If you don’t believe me try selling your daughters as slaves this afternoon and see what happens! They made rules and pronouncements that fit their time, their context, but they don’t necessarily apply for all time.

The second key issue about the bible is that by saying “it says so in the bible” we’re picking and choosing which verses should be literal and which shouldn’t.
Those of us who are not gay are quick to point out Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman they shall be put to death.
It’s an “abomination,” the bible says.

It’s funny though how those of us who have some money (which is everyone in this room) never seem to want to bring the same biblical authority and literal reading to a verse like Luke 18:22 – something Jesus himself said.
If Leviticus 20:13 is God’s final word, then so is Luke 18:22, right?
Jesus says, Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor.
Until you show me the receipt you are forbidden from throwing biblical quotes at anyone!

The problem is that we (straight people, the majority) can feel it in our bones that being gay is wrong – but that just means it’s wrong for us – not for everyone.
Just because someone is born into a minority doesn’t mean those of us in the majority, who have the power, can deny their reality.
It is a scientific fact that one’s sexual orientation is as optional as one’s skin colour. Just because that may go against what some of us grew up “knowing” doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It means we still have stuff to unlearn, and learn. read on

170604 – Prophecies, Visions, and Dreams, Oh My

Yr A ~ Pentecost Sunday ~ Acts 2:1-21

Today is one of the high points in the Christian year for me. It’s called Pentecost Sunday. It was the birth of the church! Pentecost is a Greek word meaning ‘fiftieth’ as in the fiftieth day after Passover. The feast of Pentecost was actually a Jewish feast. Jews call this the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. It commemorates the giving of the Law/Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Back in biblical times this was one of the major pilgrimage festivals so just like at Passover Jerusalem would have been flooded with Jews from all over the world who made the journey to mark this religious feast day.

Here’s an aha I had this week. It had never occurred to me before, but during a festival where Jews celebrate receiving the Law – which became their foundational theological concept and root – the disciples receive the Spirit. prophecies-visions-dreams
Maybe we’re supposed to connect that and understand that the Holy Spirit residing within us is our foundational root?
Perhaps the great innovation of Christianity is that our core is not an external law, but an internal Spirit!

I trust you all know the basic story. Jesus’ disciples had more or less been hidden away since the tumultuous events of Easter and they weren’t sure what to do. They were too afraid to go forward but they knew they couldn’t just give up. And while they were gathered in an upper room – probably the same one they shared that Last Supper with Jesus in – and probably the same upper room where they experienced his risen presence on Easter Sunday and in the days afterward – while they were there together, feeling lost and dispirited, something amazingly wonderful, powerful, and awe-full happened.

A thunderous sound like the rush of wind filled the place, and something like tongues of fire rested on each person, and they were each flooded with the Holy Spirit such that they had the ability to communicate God’s very presence to people who shouldn’t have been able to understand them.
(Please don’t get hung up on what sounds like a parlour trick of suddenly learning another language – it’s just a colourful way to say that they could communicate with people at levels far deeper than mere languages.)

People passing by were amazed and wondered how it could be. At first they thought these followers of Jesus were all drunk – but Peter jumped up and assured them that that wasn’t the case because it was just 9:00 in the morning. It wasn’t spirits but THE SPIRIT that they were intoxicated on.

And then he explained exactly what happened. And this is the part we’re going to focus on today. Peter was explaining this to a group of Jews, so naturally he began with something that would have authority for them – a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures from the prophet Joel:

2:17-18 In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

The passage ends with a promise that on that day – on the day that people receive the Spirit that God constantly pours out – all those who call out, or appeal, or open their hand to God would be saved, or healed, or restored.

So the ultimate benefit is wholeness and communion with God for those who receive Spirit, and when that Spirit pours out amazing things happen. Things like prophecies, visions, and dreams! Oh my! [ala Oz]

Your sons AND daughters shall prophesy!
Young men shall see visions.
Elders shall dream dreams.
(Just as an aside: It says “old men” but a truer translation would be “elders” which in Greek can mean both male and female, and the actual Greek word is presbuteros from which we take our word presbytery.)

And even the slaves – both men and women – will receive the Spirit and prophesy.

So there’s two main things I want us to really hear in these verses. The first is that the prophesying, visioning, and dreaming is work for everyone – men, women, slave, free, young, old, and everything in-between. And second, I want you to notice that none of it, no prophecies, no visioning, and no dreaming happens without the outpouring and receiving of Spirit.

And while I profoundly believe that God’s Spirit is constantly being poured out, I know that we are not always tuned in and present and open enough to receive it. And we’re usually closed when we’re stressed. And we always seem to be stressed when we’re worrying about the future of the Church – just like the disciples. And so, when faced with the need to be prophetic, to be visionary, and to dream of a better future, we tend to close off the very source of those prophecies, visions, and dreams. Oh my!

read on

170521 – Why United

Yr A ~ off lectionary ~ Acts 15:2-16:5 (selected)

If you weren’t United Church, what would you be? I posted that question in an online discussion group comprised of United Church ministers and the number and range of responses it got was remarkable. Some took the easy way out by saying they’d move to another country and join their version of the United Church – like the United Church of Christ in the States or the United and Uniting Church in Australia. Some said they’d simply move to another mainline denomination like Presbyterian or Methodist. Several named the attractiveness and simplicity of the Mennonite way. Others, like me, said we could be Quakers. Nobody said they’d go Pentecostal, but a few dreamed of being independent.why-united

Three types of responses really shocked and disappointed me though. Several people said they’d go to the Unitarians, a few said they’d go Muslim, and many said they would go nowhere at all. Don’t get me wrong – the vast majority said they’d remain in Christian churches, but a significant number, a surprising number, said they’d leave the fold entirely. And these are ministers! Friends, we have a problem here!

I lightheartedly introduced this 3-part sermon series as a communal confirmation class. I told you that my colleagues and I were chatting about youth confirmation and I jokingly said that more than just the teenagers need this – my whole congregation needs it! Well, apparently, so do us ministers!

We can probably all understand why a minister might be ready to abandon the denomination. I mean, after all, it’s our workplace – and we all know that workplace bureaucracies and politics and strained relationships can leave a really bad taste in your mouth. But my little ad hoc survey revealed something much more troubling. Of course, there could be dozens of really important and valid reasons why some responded the way they did – and for all I know some were joking to get a rise out us – but for those looking to leave Christianity entirely I’d suggest that they need to spend a good deal of time looking at our first two sets of questions from this sermon series and have a refresher course in “Why am I a Christian?” and “Why do I need a church?” These are questions we ought to be continually asking ourselves and wrestling with.

The “why Christian” question dives into the idea that the reason we are Christians and not something else, or nothing, is that we have experiential knowledge of a sacred spiritual mystery that we acquire and express through the language and imagery and metaphors and persons of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. How do you describe God? You’ll never get to the denomination question if you haven’t first wrestled mightily with how to describe the God/Christ/Spirit you know.

And once you’ve discerned that it really is the Holy Mystery we call God that you are experiencing, and that you resonate with the spirituality and teachings of Jesus, and can articulate some sort of description of what Spirit means for you, then you start to ask ‘what should I do with these nudgings, these intuitions, these knowings?’

And that leads you directly to the Why Church question. And hopefully, as we explored last week, you’ll come to realize that a place like this is essential for a person to grow their faith because places like this are designed to help you with the 4 foundational pillars of growing faith: learning, supporting, sacraments, and worship.

And now – with all that wrestling going on about why we’re Christian and why we do church, we start to ask the last question: why this denomination? Why are we United Church and not one of the other flavours?

Or maybe you think that question assumes too much? Maybe you think the why Christian question and the why church question are valid, but the why United question is just an organizational, bureaucratic add-on? It won’t surprise you that I think the denomination is essential. Let’s see why.

Why do we need denominations? read on

170514 – Why Church

Yr A ~ Easter 5 – Acts 2:42-47

Why are you here? Of all the places you could have chosen to be today, why did you choose this place? I’m going to assume you came willingly, that nobody dragged you here or bribed you to come. You’re here because for you this place has value for some reason. Why? Why are you here?why-church

A few decades ago some of the reasons may have been quite different. Back in the day being in church was socially required. It was your duty to come. If you weren’t in church the neighbours noticed. Holding office in a church council or committee gave you status and respect in the community. None of those reasons hold true today. Nobody comes to church anymore to advance their career or because it’s a community norm. In fact, pretty much the opposite is true. Telling people you attend church now is likely to get you a raised Mr. Spock eyebrow and a dismissive “oh, isn’t that quaint.”
So why are you here?

Often when I ask this question people tell me about how nice and friendly church people are, and that their church helps a lot of people through charitable giving, and that the church takes important stands on justice issues, and that the church community is so supportive. Those are all wonderfully lovely things – but you can get all those things at Tim Horton’s or a service club. So why are you here?

Why do we need things called churches, or communities of faith?
Why do we need gatherings like this one?
Why do we need people like me doing the job I do?
Why do we have special rituals and furniture?
Why do we sing songs?
Why do we use unique language?
What do you get here that you can’t get anywhere else?

The answer is related to what we talked about last week. As a recap, and in case you weren’t here, we’re in the middle of a three week sermon series exploring the kinds of questions that people wrestle with in confirmation classes. Or at least the questions I think we should be wrestling with. Becoming a member of a church, or making a profession of faith, or getting confirmed (which are all really the same thing, it’s just whatever language floats your boat) are all concerned with three core questions.

The first is ‘Why am I a Christian and not something else?’ (How would I describe the God I know, the Jesus I know, the Holy Spirit I know? What is my language?) – that was last week. The second question is ‘Why church?’ (Why am I here? What purpose does this place serve?) – that’s this week. And the third question is ‘Why are we part of this denomination and not another? Why are we United?’ That’s next week.

Confirmation or membership is not about knowing the right answers to these questions, or having enough information about spiritual things, it’s about wrestling with the questions and in the wrestling you grow deeper in personally knowing God, Jesus, and the Spirit – and that journey of ever-deepening growth is what it’s all about.

So, having wrestled last week with the “how do you describe the God/Christ/Spirit you know” question, we turn to why we need a place like this to do that wrestling in.

Let me start by saying that we don’t really need “churches” at all. There is nothing about the edifice, the structure, the architecture of churches that is uniquely required for anything. This building, on its own, is no more or less holy or sacred than any other building. So we don’t need churches, but we absolutely do need communities of faith where people who seek to be followers of Jesus’ Way can be together. read on

170507 – Why Christian

Yr A ~ Easter 4 ~ Acts 17:22-31

I did confirmation class when I was 16. I don’t remember all that much about it actually. I remember my cousin and I sat with our minister in the balcony of the church and talked. I didn’t really know him so I remember it being pretty intimidating. Ministers back in the day weren’t always as warm and fabulous as they are today! I remember him posing questions, and us stumbling over our answers, but I don’t recall the content of what he or we said. As for my confirmation day, I don’t remember that either. Frankly, it just wasn’t that big a deal.why-christian

And that is a real shame! Because it should be a very big deal! One big problem with how we used to do it (and to be honest, still do it much of the time) is that confirmation was little more than a ritual of graduation from Sunday school. Rituals are good, but only if the deep meaning of them is brought to light.

Another big problem with confirmation is that it tended to be more focused on knowing the right answers than what I believe we should be focusing on: wrestling with the right questions!

Even the term confirmation can be problematic. What are we confirming?
Are we confirming that you’re a good person, that you’ve learned the right lessons, that you’re actually a person of faith, that you’re too old for Sunday school? I think it’s actually rooted in the idea that a person was confirming that they “believed” the right things in the right way. Very problematic!

So the United Church changed its language about this more than 20 years ago. Did you get the memo? Instead of confirmation it’s now called “Renewal of Our Baptismal Faith.” More accurate, but not quite as catchy!
Since most people in United Churches were baptized as babies someone else, usually their parents, made affirmations and promises of faith for them. So the “renewal” language is a way to say that the baby who has grown up is now ready to claim those affirmations and promises for themselves. Are they? Some yes, some no.

Our United Church Manual says that for a person to become a full member of the church they “must have enough knowledge about the Christian faith and the United Church to make their commitment with understanding” and if so they must make a profession of that faith. That’s section B.3.3.3 in the Manual – which, of course you all know about because if you’re a member you know about important United Church stuff like what the Manual is! (it’s our book of doctrine and bylaws, by the way).

You must have “enough knowledge about the Christian faith” to make a commitment with “understanding”. So how do we decide what enough knowledge about the Christian faith looks like?

Way back when they used to call it catechism. Some catechism programs take a couple of years to go through before you have enough knowledge about the Christian faith. In today’s cultural climate that’s a monumental ask. Nowadays a “regular” church attender comes once or twice a month. What are our chances of getting teenagers or new folks to commit to a weekly catechism class for a couple of years?

And why would we want to? read on

170430 – Openings

Yr A ~ Easter 3 ~ Luke 24:13-35

“Now on that same day two of (Jesus’ followers) were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” [Lk 24:13-14]openings

That makes perfect sense. Two days earlier they watched the leader of their radical revolutionary renewal movement die a horrendous death on a Roman cross. Crucified as an enemy of the empire. Then just a few hours before this scene starts, the story starts to circulate among their group – the followers of this Jesus of Nazareth guy – that Jesus wasn’t in the tomb as expected and that people were having visions of him.

But nothing really seemed to come of it because these two travellers – Cleopas (not one of the 12 disciples, but obviously a follower of Jesus) and his companion (possibly his wife) – were on their way home to Emmaus – trying to sort out what it all meant, but clearly heading away from Jerusalem and returning to their regular lives.

“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” [Lk 24:15-16]

Again, that makes sense. Why would they recognize him? As far as they were concerned Jesus was dead. They had no reason to expect to encounter him on their walk. Just because we’re so familiar with the story and it seems so obvious to us doesn’t mean it should’ve been obvious to them. If someone dies you simply don’t expect to meet them on the road a couple of days later.

So these followers – who are more like abandoners, or giver-uppers at this point – are closed to the idea that there’s another chapter in the story.
They think it’s over. They’ve closed the book on Jesus, turned their back on Jerusalem, and are heading home.
They are closed. But Jesus is looking for an opening.

He knows they’re closed, but his mission is to find an opening. So he says to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” [Lk 24:17]
Ok, obviously he didn’t really say that. I mean, nobody actually talks like that. [stiffly] ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ No, he probably said something like, “Hey, you two seem like you’re talking about something big. What’s it about?” Or maybe, “Yo, yo, yo homies, what up?”

And here these followers had an opportunity to do something really great, but they blew it. They give this stranger the CNN version of what happened over the last while.
“There was a prophet who we followed but he got in trouble and was handed over to the Romans and was crucified. We had hoped that he was the one to set Israel free – that he was the Messiah – but now he’s dead, although some of our group saw visions of him, but it’s all over now.”

What a wasted opportunity. Two fervent followers of Jesus are talking about Jesus and a stranger comes up to them and asks what they’re talking about and instead of telling him something real about how their lives have been transformed they give the guy the CNN treatment.

And yet, to be fair that’s all they could do at that point – because they were still closed. It was still just a series of events to them. It wasn’t personal, or real, or spiritual yet. They couldn’t speak of their transformation because they hadn’t experienced one. read on

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