Christmas Eve Homily – December 24, 2015
Homily – The Freedom Tree
Christmas is a time for wishing. As children most of us had Christmas wish lists, these were the toys or games we wanted most and we tried to convey those wishes to anyone who would listen. There were letters to Santa, there were constant reminders to our parents of our fervent wishes, and if we saw Santa at a store, we made sure to tell him about the baseball glove or record player we were wishing for. I know I am dating myself here, as there was no Mario Super Smash Brothers. We barely had pinball machines. When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, we did not have visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads like the famous poem, but rather shiny new skates or skis, books or dolls that we dreamed would be sitting under the tree on Christmas morning sometimes wrapped in colorful paper, and other times adorned only with a large bow, especially if Santa was in a hurry. I suspect children still wish for certain gifts to appear under the tree.
We have other things we wish for at this time of year. Sometimes it is things we have no control of. Those who like the warm temperatures wish that it would stay that way, and those who like an old New England winter wish for cold temperatures and snow. Why are New Englanders never happy?. In our own families we may wish for a quiet holiday where there will be no fighting over a behavior or a point of view, or we wish that no one would feel inadequate for the present they gave, the way they look or what they don’t have. As a kid, I remember wishing for a body that was a lot skinnier or that I might someday hit a baseball like Ted Williams. I finally accepted that I would not be a hall of famer, and that my body worked just fine. It was better to be happy with what I had rather than wishing I were somebody else.
When we wish for peace this time of year we may remember what others have endured. The Unitarian minister Edmund Hamilton Sears reflected in “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” on his sorrow over the Mexican War, which had just ended in1849. He wanted to hear the beautiful loving strains of angel songs rather than the violent sounds of war.
Strife is central to Jesus’ story too. It is the story of a poor family who have been made refugees by political and religious turmoil, living under a king who seeks more and more tax money. He uproots the common people for his own gain, and ruthlessly pursues those who may threaten his rule in any way In the story we see Joseph and Mary running away to survive. As they looked for a warm, dry place to prepare for a birth, fearful people turned them away. Days after the birth, the new family had to get back on the road to escape violence and persecution. This story might be one from modern day Syria or Iraq.
During the last three weeks First Parish has been the drop off spot for material items for Syrian refugees in camps in Turkey. Twice my office has been filled to the brim with food and clothes, toys like soccer balls and stuffed monkeys and basic needs like diapers. I try to picture thousands of people massed together, and wished we had a more welcoming spirit here in America. Too many politicians and fellow citizens have been saying there is no room at the inn. Among the visitors to my office was a woman who dropped off some clothes. She asked me if I knew if anything was getting through to the people of Mosul. There was a sad look in her eyes. I remembered that Mosul had fallen to the forces of ISIS last year, just as she was saying, “my family is there.” Yet it is just such a world that Jesus was born into, and families in these tents, and under siege and afraid will also know a moment of joy, a few minutes of hope, with a cry of new life, when their babies are born, with the wish, the longing and the prayer that tomorrow will bring peace, and everyone can go home..
It was not so long ago that a man named Charles Follen came to America as a refugee. We mostly know Follen as the person who introduced the Christmas tree to New England, but his story parallels that of Jesus and our Syrian refugees today. He was born in Germany when Napoleon and his French armies controlled the countryside, and soon thereafter his family had to flee when foreign armies swept through their town, Follen wanted to see a united Germany, but even after French domination came to an end, aristocratic control prevailed. He became part of a revolutionary movement. He was vocal, and his group wanted the overthrow of the government, and soon the police were investigating him. Then he had to flee from prison or worse. It reminds us of the urgency with which we must help save those who are trapped, having fallen into life-threatening situations. Follen changed his place of residence frequently, and burned his correspondence. Soon he fled to Geneva, and eventually to America.
The story goes that he wanted to spread the influence of German culture. He remembered the Christmas trees of his childhood that glowed so brightly, and he wanted to thrill his young son Charlie with this wonderful symbol of light and green growth. But it was more than that. Follen had become part of an anti-slavery society here in Massachusetts, and his group held Christmas fairs and sold gifts to raise funds to further their cause. They sang carols, and offered cards for sale and an evergreen shrub, forever to be known as a Christmas Tree.. The group also focused on children and their rights, and compared the children to the slaves. It was a time when children who misbehaved were beaten, just as slaves were beaten. Don’t all people, Follen asked, deserve basic rights to not be hurt, and to be free to develop their talents?
Follen cut a tree down, set it in a tub, and placed it in his parlor. The tree was decorated with real toys, dolls and puppets, and paper cornucopias with candied fruit for the children to eat. There were popcorn and cranberry garlands, and even whole hanging fruit, as well, not ornaments but things you could eat and play with. They were things to make you happy. There were even real candles that burned creating a magic glow filling the entire room. Harriet Martineau reported on this amazing sight and how it hushed all the voices to a silent awe. A doll’s petticoat caught on fire, but it was quickly extinguished. Follen wanted all children to have rights and all slaves to be free. Gifts were to be given so everyone would be able to enjoy life, and feel the care of others. And so this Christmas symbol was his own very green freedom tree. Today there is a UU church in Lexington named for Charles Follen who did more than give us green growing trees in a time when the earth is barren . He had a growing vision of freedom that would not die.
Charles had a wish for freedom for children and for slaves. What if you had one wish? What would it be? Would you wish for peace, and an end to suffering? Would you wish that there would be no more families who are driven from their homes? Would you wish that no one would be hurt in his or her family or in their school? Would you wish for love, or healing? If you were in a camp would you wish for a ball to play with, or a doctor to make you feel better, or an end to people fighting? Maybe a wish is just that, an empty wish. But maybe it is more. It is an idea you can think about. And you can make a commitment. You can wish to change things sometimes, and you can make it happen. Wishes can come true, and they don’t need stars or wise men, or even holy births. A wish can be a dangerous thing. It can take courage to act on a wish. Sometimes a wish is just wishful thinking. It’s too big. But sometimes you, yes you are big enough to act, or to have the same wish as others and act together, to be thoughtful about what you can do, to wish for strength and courage, and then you have it. It is born in you. What would your wish be, on this night when wishes are waiting to be fulfilled?
O Spirit of this season of darkness, from bleak days, we have gathered in community to make a dreary season shine with lights, we erect greens in our homes for new life, we hang bright ornaments to represent joy, we place gifts under the tree to show our care for each other. We are grateful for the return of the Christmas spirit. May it remind us that even though it seems that we are plodding along, that we are on a wondrous journey if we would only listen to the angelic music that surrounds, and follow the stars leading to new births. May it remind us that sometimes we try too hard with heavy lifting when what saves us is a simple word or smile, a gentle caress of the soul. May it remind us that we can be too orderly in all our arrangements when sometimes we need the messy chaos of the backyard stable. May it remind us that the quiet darkness of the night is imploring us to listen, and not talk our way out of hearing and seeing what is truly lovely. May it remind us to keep lighting candles, because even if the immediate moment seems bleak, the journey continues, and the soul can break open in love again, further down the road. Letting the light shine once more. Amen
“Second to the Right, and Straight on Till Morning” by Lauren Strauss, December 20, 2015 – homily at Holiday Pageant
The way to the Neverland, says J.M. Barrie in his 1911 book Peter and Wendy, is “Second to the Right and Straight on ‘Til Morning.” Peter, telling Wendy these directions, never says the word star. Stars in the Neverland—sentient beings inhabiting neither the Mainland nor the Neverland, but rather the firmament between them—watch over the creatures of both worlds. Barrie describes their existence as strange and sad, because “they may not participate actively in anything” but “must look on forever.” A quintessential child’s world, the Neverland is full of wonder and marvel, but never deepens or grows. Peter, Wendy, John, and Michael may indeed follow stars to the Neverland, but, as Barrie notes, it is more likely that Peter made those directions up to impress Wendy, and that they only found the island because it was ‘out looking for them.’ In 1953, Walt Disney added the word “star” to the phrase in his cartoon adaptation of Peter Pan. Because so many of us are used to the idea of following stars, this addition seems natural.
I was nine years old when Star Wars came out in May, 1977. By my tenth birthday in December, I’m sure I had seen the movie at least five times, read the novelization, and dramatically recreated it with the help of The Story of Star Wars record album, which my neighbor Stacy owned, at least a million times. My brother got to play Luke Skywalker uncontested, but there was always a fight over who got to be Princess Leia. She was my hero. She was strong, and so beautiful, in her flowing white gown and unlikely hair buns. She could handle a blaster as well as any man, and she spoke fearlessly and with authority to everyone she met. When I think “Princess,” I’m not thinking about any Disney princess. I’m seeing Leia.
Now, I swear by all I hold dear that this will be a spoiler-free zone. But as the clock chimed midnight on my birthday morning this past Friday, I was sitting in a movie theater watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And there she was, a general now, with a telltale sadness around her eyes that no one who has lived more than a couple of decades can escape. She’s a mom now, this former princess, and like all moms, she has made mistakes—big ones. She has lost much, and struggled, but she has not given up hope. Her edges, once so hard, have softened: she no longer has to pretend to be tough in every situation. At the same time, she is tough. Tough enough that when things go very badly wrong, she takes a deep breath and keeps going. Tough enough to comfort another, even when she herself is grieving.
Leia grew up. Like Peter Pan, Disney princesses almost never grow up. They are suspended forever at a young but indefinite age that is old enough for marriage but young enough to fit into those absurd dresses and still eat cake. We don’t get to see their marriages go sour, or their children having trouble in school or getting teased or… well, having to learn to control the Force. You know that’s gotta be hard no matter how good a mom you are. But through it all, Leia and Luke and Han are guided, as many of us hope to be, by metaphorical stars like freedom and kindness and love. Those things keep them on the Light Side, wielding the blue light saber, standing up for what’s right, against all the people who seem to think that the Dark Side is the place to be. “Come to the Dark Side,” the saying goes, “we’ve got cookies.” The Dark Side is all about cookies, you know. It’s not about sharing cookies. It’s about having cookies. Would you rather follow a star, or spend your time hoarding cookies? Cookies have an immediate pay-off. They taste great; they’re sweet; they’re covered in frosting, or filled with chocolate chips. But if your whole life is about collecting all the cookies, you’ll lose sight of that star, and stay stuck in one place, in Neverland, where you can maintain the illusion that you can actually eat all the cookies.
Stars are great tools for navigation. They follow a mostly-orderly path through the skies, and organize themselves in recognizable patterns we can easily see. The Wise Men weren’t the first to follow a star to something wonderful, nor the last. Following a star is not meant to be easy, though. There are obstacles on the ground to throw you off course, and people who’ll tempt you with shiny things… and cookies. The path to the Light Side is the harder course. If the Neverland is out looking for you, you might never find the deeper, more satisfying things in life. You’ll never grow up.
Choose the light; like General Leia Organa, choose the harder but more satisfying course. Grow up.
May the Force be with you.
“Jesus was a Unitarian” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – December 13, 2015
Call to Worship – It & Co. by Tracy Smith
We are a part of It. Not guests.
Is It us, or what contains us?
How can It be anything but an idea,
Something teetering on the spine
Of the number i? It is elegant
But coy. It avoids the blunt ends
Of our fingers as we point. We
Have gone looking for It everywhere:
In Bibles and bandwidth, blooming
Like a wound from the ocean floor.
Still, It resists the matter of false vs. real.
Unconvinced by our zeal, It is un-
Appeasable. It is like some novels:
Vast and unreadable.
Reading – from Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Some years ago when I was scouring every used bookstore I stumbled upon for materials on Unitarian or Universalist history, I came across an old tome called Heads of Unitarian History, published in 1895. In a section of the book on the derivation of the word Unitarian, I discovered a reference to a popular old Methodist hymn, which in striving for doctrinal purity contained this line: ‘The Unitarian fiend expel, And chase his doctrine back to hell.” I had recalled it thinking that the Methodists wanted to pursue us into the fiery pit, but no, it is our beliefs that they wished to condemn to the flames. Early in the twentieth century an article in the Unitarian paper, the Christian Register said it was “not worthwhile to make too much of the hymn because it was said that the phrase was not aimed at today’s Unitarians, but rather it was an attack on Muslims, who for centuries were called Unitarians. This seemed to make it an acceptable insult since we were still considered nominal Christians at that point in time. I would guess this was an attempt to be ecumenical towards our Methodist friends at the expense of Muslims, despite the fact that in many ways we have more in common with Islam. We believe that Jesus was not God but a great teacher. Jesus actually plays a key role in the Qu-ran, and is seen in Islam as one of the prophetic forerunners to Muhammad,. It is hard for us to understand doctrinal purity today, but it always takes me back to my clinical pastoral training in the hospital, where a priest once told me he was having a hard time being in the same room with me because of my beliefs. He was convinced that I would burn for eternity. Religious authority had taught him that I was lost, and it would have threatened his very being to have known me.
The cultural power of a religious institution to uphold authority at the expense of seeing truth is depicted in the film “Spotlight.” This is the story of the Boston Globe team of reporters who worked diligently to uncover the truth about the terrible web of abusive priests who were shuffled around by an enabling hierarchy while victims and families suffered alone and in silence. While sexual abuse of children is horrific, there is very little depiction of the perpetrators in the film. Instead we see the culture that allows this to continue unabated, and the victims years later who continued to suffer because no one named the crime. Spotlight casts a shadow on all of us, whether we have Catholic backgrounds or not, because it shows how people and a culture can condone terribly wrong behavior when we can’t speak out against or question the actions of powerful institutions, or even the cultural mileu that we inhabit. As is repeated in the film, if you learn that a priest is a representative of God, then how do you say no to God. The institution that is supposed to protect children does not even ask if it is wrong. It has become more important to protect the church. Moreover we see people who are reluctant to accept what seems to be an outrageous accusation against the community’s pride of place.
This heritage has made everyone who they are, except the outsider, who is the new Globe editor. He is represented as being unable to understand. He is the unmarried Jew who hates baseball. How can someone who is not one of us know anything about what is going on? Yet it is Marty Baron who has the courage and insight to see that there is a truth here that the natives cannot or will not see. The head of the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson, is asked if he’s from Boston, and he replies, “Born and raised.” This is a repeated theme where the affection for the hometown prevents the people from seeing the underlying disease. Lawyers do their jobs of winning settlements, and school administrators don’t recall any incidents, and cultural mavens just want to get everyone on the same page, smoothing over pain with a pat on the back. The scary thing is that they all seem to be good people. Even though they know it went on, they don’t really want to know, because it names all they hold dear as complicit. One other disturbing aspect of the movie for me were the brief scenes with abusive priest, Ronald Paquin, where we see him admit to Globe reporter Sacha Pfieffer. that he did perpetrate these acts, but he finds a forgivable excuse in that he did not derive pleasure from them. It is almost like he was entitled to do these things, as a slave master with his slave. It is like saying; it didn’t mean anything, so it is okay. But what did it mean to the victims?
How do you develop the courage to live inside your own culture, but appreciate how another culture can help you question and then deepen your own understanding of the universe and your place in it, so that you can develop a peaceful living environment together? Of course we have ingrown patterns with insiders who uphold it at church, in denominations, in school administration, in politics, basically at all levels of societal participation. They work to keep the order of power and control to their way of liking and thinking. They would prefer not to hear about ideas or changes that will upset the applecart. How can we help any of them see some of the institutional rot that may exist and needs transforming?
The most obvious example of a culture clash is when we witness another terrorist shooting. Most publicity goes to terrorists who have perverted the interpretation of their Islamic faith and become radicalized. While we all want to be able to live our lives in freedom, we have also been concerned about our public safety in response to terrorist attacks No one wants this violence to continue. We abhor it, and we condemn it. But religious zealotry is not only found with Muslims, but with other fanatics as well who stir up fear and hatred to control or manipulate people’s feelings. The Colorado Planned Parenthood killer claimed to be a Christian, who as long as he believed he was saved, an acquaintance said, could do whatever he pleased. We are a nation founded on religious tolerance and understanding. As a result of the very principles that we profess to be central to our democracy, Trump’s idea of banning or excluding Muslims from coming to our country is outrageous. In fact, as you may know, the first treaty we ever signed as a nation was with a Muslim country, Tripoli. That 1797 agreement signed by John Adams said “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, — . . . it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims]. We have always been enriched by religious diversity, so that knowing and welcoming Muslims will make our community better in many ways.
There have been long standing neighbors who have felt other kinds of terror, too. Freedom to live in communities where they can develop to their fullest potential, and also feel safe has been a continuing concern for African Americans in our society. Ever since slave states developed a wide ranging categorizing of many types of people of European origin as whites, and a wide ranging categorization of many types of African origin as black (including those with more white ancestors than black), these neat categories became accepted as truth This distinction quickly determines where we live, who are friends are, and whom we marry, how we think of ourselves, and perhaps how well we can do in school, especially if you are Judge Anton Scalia. A corollary to this distinction is one that categorizes racists from non-racists. No one wants to be called racist, and so we are quick to categorize ourselves as free from bigotry. But what about those choices we make of where we live, and go to school? We may not be overtly racist, but the question is no simplistic one. Yet clearly the advantages of white privilege run deep in the opportunities we gain merely by being on the right side of the cultural divide. Bill Jones, a UU theologian, called Christianity, “whiteianity” because its signs and symbols of salvation teach that suffering and sacrifice for others were proclaimed good things, but actually contributed to the continuing oppression of African Americans, and so he argued in favor of a theology where human agency became central to liberation.
This month I wrote a newsletter column on today’s Black Lives Matter discussion pertaining to the insertion of a sign in our Wayside Pulpit. I immediately felt the struggle of awkwardness in writing about race. How could I make it so it was not patronizing to Blacks? How could I, the white liberal, not be the bearer of cultural enlightenment?. At about the time I was writing that column, I was also preparing to teach my UU history class at Andover Newton. The subject matter was the early twentieth century and the rise of the humanist/theist controversy. Right in the middle of this denominational wrangling over the role of God came the advent of one of our early Black ministers, Ethelred Brown, a native of Jamaica. Describing his transformation from being a Methodist and a Civil Service employee to hear a call to ministry, Brown said “I was an inquisitive youngster and a truthful child. I was disposed to ask questions.” It was these characteristics, he said, that led him to enter the Unitarian ministry. He could not be a Methodist because he had to be in a church, “in which I would be absolutely honest.” He would not be dissuaded, and so against all counsel, he chose to become the first Black Unitarian to attend Meadville seminary, even though he was advised that white Unitarians required a white minister.” He would face many trials over the years, including being deported from the US before he even reached Meadville. Then once he was in seminary he was told every time he did something well, “you must have some white blood in you.” He returned to Jamaica after graduation to begin a mission there in Montego Bay, and later in Kingston.
What Brown encountered was extreme prejudice from successive Unitarian administrations in Boston. They were quick to withdraw grants because they said his results were not satisfactory; not bring in enough people or money. While there were financial difficulties, perhaps the most painful blow on the part of the leaders was when they said that blacks could not grasp Unitarianism because of limited intelligence. Unitarians officials asserted cultural superiority, believing they were uplifting blacks morally and intellectually so that they could participate in the great white culture. Despite these setbacks, Brown left Jamaica to live out his dream of bringing a Unitarian church to Harlem, and he did so in 1920, where he remained until his death in 1956. It was here that Brown preached his sermon, “Jesus was a Unitarian.” Why did he say this? It was not based in a Biblical interpretation that Jesus never claimed a divine title. Instead, Brown believed that Unitarianism was the religion of the future. It had a message everyone could understand, and he also believed that it had outgrown the narrowness of the older churches. Furthermore, Brown believed people needed a religion of character and service. Historically, Black people had depended too much on what religion could give them in an afterlife, while promoting servile contentment, when instead they needed a faith that would provoke rebellious discontent with inequality and the adoption of personal responsibility to make earth a place wherein dwell justice and peace and love.” He thought that being in direct communion with God in a personal way was the most deeply spiritual faith, and one achieved this by working together for a righteous social order. The statement of purpose for his Harlem church ended: “Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
This creation of a beloved community that builds on the strengths of diversity, is found in literature in what has been called the great American novel, Moby Dick. This summer after dropping off Dana at college, Andrea and I headed for western Massachusetts. Among our stops was a visit to Arrowhead the home of Herman Melville and his family from 1850 to 1863. That first winter Melville wrote Moby Dick mostly ensconced in his study on the second floor, a room which overlooked Mt. Greylock. Melville thought he could see the whale’s white back on the snow covered peak amid the sea of mountains in the distance, and when the wind blew at night, he fancied he would leave this ship’s cabin of a room and go on the roof to rig the chimney. In the chapter I read from earlier, Melville presents the action like a scene from a play and we see the diverse community of sailors of all different nationalities, singing and dancing to the tambourine of the African American cabin boy, Pip. They get into a fight when a Spanish sailor makes fun of the African Daggoo. The onset of a storm, however, ends their fighting and makes them tend to the ship. Pip asks the “big white God,” who may be either God or Captain Ahab, to “have mercy on this small black boy.” The orders are to steer through the storm, and to keep their ship afloat, they must stop fighting. Keep me safe, Pip prays.
Ethelred Brown’s vision for an inclusive ministry was one where we each learn to grow mutually from one another, keeping each other safe, and nurturing each other’s contributions. We must commit ourselves to long term inclusive community building. There is a cultural dance going on, and a fight has broken out. Together we must find ways to keep the ship afloat, even as violence flares and demagogues yell. It is not done by excluding others with words of fear. It is also not done by living in the protective bubble of cultural superiority. It is done by listening and learning from one another, and by protecting those who are attacked. I am going to end with a true story called The Stranger on the Bus, as told by Lawrence Kushner. What would you do if you met the stranger on the bus? It happened in Munich in Nazi Germany. A woman had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed, but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner. The woman watched from her seat in the rear, as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed she was crying, he politely asked her why. “I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.” Suddenly the man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. Was this the end for her? He said, “You stupid cow! I can’t stand being near you. This brought the SS men over to where the man and the woman were seated. “What is this all about?” they asked. “Why are you yelling?” “Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m fed up! She always does this!” The soldiers laughed and moved on. Do we have the courage to speak up to save a fellow traveler on the bus that is this planet? We know Jesus was not a Unitarian, but rather a poor, marginal Jew who was pursued by a maniacal King, but maybe we Unitarian Universalists can still claim his relevant vision. He is riding the bus, and shouting out his saving words for the person others would fail to speak up for. The good Samaritan becomes the good Muslim. I want to be on that bus.
Closing Words – excerpts from “Helped” by Alice Walker
HELPED are those who love the entire cosmos rather than their own tiny country, city, or farm, for to them will be shown the unbroken web of life and the meaning of infinity.
HELPED are those who risk themselves for others’ sakes; to them will be given increasing opportunities for ever greater risks. Theirs will be a vision of the world in which no one’s gift is despised or lost.
HELPED are those who are shown the existence of the Creator’s magic in the Universe; they shall experience delight and astonishment without ceasing.
HELPED are those who love all the colors of all the human beings, as they love all the colors of the animals and plants; none of their children, nor any of their ancestors, nor any parts of themselves, shall be hidden from them.
HELPED are those who love and actively support the diversity of life; they shall be secure in their differences.
“A Hammer and Nails and Some Pennies from Heaven”
December 6, 2015
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
“…“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, ‘Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”…”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Reading: from Phillip Gulley, Hometown Tales
An eighty year old woman in my friend Jim’s congregation lives in a retirement home and ventures out once a week to buy groceries at Safeway. Margaret, Jim reports, is a sweet lady, though that hasn’t always been the case.
Occasionally, Jim says, God builds the house overnight, but most times God nails up one board each day. Margaret was a board each day kind of person.
Several years ago, Margaret felt God wanted her to do something for her church. So she prayed about it, and after a while the Lord told her to save all her pennies for the children of the church. Margaret was hoping for something a little grander, but she didn’t think she should talk back to God. A person has to start somewhere, she told Jim. So, for a few years, as Christmas approached, Margaret wrapped up her pennies, about ten dollars’ worth, and gave them to her church. She told them it was for the kids and not to spend it on pew cushions.
Then, one afternoon a year or two ago, a lady down the hall from Margaret came to visit. She noticed Margaret’s mayonnaise jar full of pennies. She asked her why she was saving pennies. Margaret told her it was for the kids at church.
“I don’t have a church,” the lady said. “Can I save up my pennies and give them to the kids in your church?”
“Suit yourself,” Margaret said.
Before long, thirty folks in the retirement center were saving their pennies for the kids.
Every Wednesday, they climb on the retirement center’s bus and ride over to the Safeway. They steer their carts up and down the aisles, then stand in line at the checkout counter. They put their groceries on the moving belt and watch as each price pops up on the display. When the checker calls the total, the old folks count out the money a bill at a time. Then they ask for the change in pennies. They count that out, too, one penny at a time. The other customers stand behind them and roll their eyes. Or worse.
In the dead of winter last year, these older people all loaded up their jars and took their pennies, twenty thousand of them, to the church Christmas party. The kids staggered out, their pockets bursting with pennies.
When the kids found out who was behind the pennies, they wanted to visit the retirement center and sing Christmas carols, and so Jim took them over. They assembled in the dining room, and Jim watched from the back row. In front of him sat one of the retirement center ladies. Jim didn’t know her, had never seen her. She was explaining to a visitor what was going on.
“These children, you see, they’re from our church, and they’ve come to visit us. We’re awfully close.”
Not too long after that, one of the men in the retirement center passed away, and it seemed natural to call Jim to conduct a memorial service. At the reception Margaret confessed to him that she had been disappointed when she heard God tell her to save pennies. She expected something more flamboyant and dramatic. But, looking around, she thought it all turned out okay.
Sermon: A hammer, some nails, and pennies from heaven
In France, there is an advent tradition that I had never heard of before, which I thought sounded very sweet; although it is possible that I was just reacting to the novelty. In my house, it is unusual to come across religious practices that I have literally never heard of – especially when it turns out it is actually somewhat common. Like most advent practices, this sounds child-centered, even though there is something for all of us in the numbering of our days. At the beginning of the month of December, an empty manger is placed in the living room. And then, throughout the month, every time something kind or helpful is said or done, you give a few pieces of straw in acknowledgement. Over the weeks leading up to Jesus’s birth, the straw piles up in the manger, until you have created a mattress of sorts. The good deeds have made room for the baby; created a welcoming spot. I thought, oh, wouldn’t that have been nice to know about at a time when it was relevant.
Then I thought about it some more. Do you have different mangers for each child? That would be a little weird – triplet Jesuses, or one holy child who had to get passed around? I recall a small tug of war with my sister and a baby doll named Elizabeth stretched between us. We each ended up holding a hand, while the armless baby wobbled on the floor. I remember feeling simultaneous revulsion and intrigue, peering in to the doll to see how she had been constructed. But one manger presents other obstacles. There is always the child that acts like an accountant, and knows how much of that hay was his personal contribution, and how little someone else is responsible for. How about the one that points out how scratchy that hay is – perhaps by climbing in to try it out — , and scissors open a few feather pillows, to help out? And then, the scene that I see as totally inevitable: a three year old viewing this as a great game – you put in the hay, and I will throw it on the floor. If you show emotion about this, I will do it some more! This will make the five year old cry, and fret about scaring Santa away, making it necessary to hit the three year old, and then sidle alongside a parent, offering to help pick up the hay, to remind everyone who the good child is.
So this vision of a little French crèche, filled with golden straw representing all the charming deeds of our lovely and innocent children quickly became a vision of something else entirely. And I am so glad I only learned about it after it was too late for me to have to try it.
Sometime this fall I heard an ad on tv that said “Be the hammer, not the nail.” I wasn’t really listening, but it caught my attention and made me think of my nieces, who are in their early to mid-20s and sometimes like to strategize about the roles they should, or should not, take on. They are living in New York City, paying back student loans, trying to build professional and personal lives – sometimes advice can cut a path through the thicket. Be the hammer, not the nail is, apparently, a self help book that is part of a cottage industry – lectures, workshops, life coaches, etc., that you can purchase, attend, take part in, so that you can learn how to hammer rather than get hammered. The idea is that we need to have agency, not be passive. Our actions should have an effect on the world. Like the straw for the manger, it sounds good at first. But isn’t there some saying – if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? The reduction of everything to either the force or that which is receives the blow reveals a lot about what the author expects in the world. I was thinking about how the nail is actually what holds things together. It isn’t such a bad thing to be, and then, what about the wood?
I loved that line in Phillip Gulley’s story – sometimes God builds the whole house overnight, but usually it goes up one board at a time. Margaret, he says, was a one board at a time kind of person. It is a sentence that lets us know a lot more than it actually says, and we can feel the labor and the need to trust that eventually, we will get there. The house will be constructed; the shelter will be provided, the manger will be full. But it isn’t happening any time soon. That which has been promised is not yet formed.
Sometimes it seems that an awful lot of books get published trying to explain the world to us, or to give us instructions; how to manage, how to be successful, how to communicate, how to protect yourself, how to relate, make money, make space, make a life. Yesterday I was riding the T and a young guy boarded at Park Street carrying an ENORMOUS book, which was remarkable not only because it was called How to Be a Supple Leopard and looked like it must have weighed at least ten pounds, but also because he was the only person with a book. Everyone else was looking at a phone. The would-be leopard then balanced on the edge of a seat, with one arm wrapped around a pole and proceeded to study this volume balanced on his knees, much to the visible annoyance of the retreating woman in the next seat. It felt like she was shunning this person existing in a public space instead of being absorbed into the digital world, and I realized that the divide between those who read on paper and those who read from electronic devices was unfolding before my eyes. I, obviously, wasn’t reading at all. I was watching one woman read other people’s phones; and the young teen who looked up as we rattled into Charles/MGH and realized he had missed his stop while beating a game. He smiled sheepishly to himself, as if he knew his own weak spots.
Where does the idea that the world is either this or that, A or B, digital or analog, paper or plastic, come from? At the eye doctors, when the machine flips through the choices, and we are supposed to pick the better one, I am always hesitant. Well, A is clearer, but it is smaller – I like the largeness of B – but the doctor doesn’t want this kind of hedging. I feel like a young child, knowing that the forced choices being offered me – red shirt or blue? – are a trick somehow, but not being quite able to articulate that I am being given the illusion of control. Supposedly, dualism is religious – like yin and yang. We divide the universe into dark or light, night or day, sun or moon. But I think that skips the point — religion is integrated, holistic; and this division is more like a coping mechanism, or a management technique. It is a way of unspooling everything, so the story can begin.
Which is not to say that these methods for planning and orienting ourselves aren’t necessary, or helpful. They are. But how does that work in a season like this one? This is a time of waiting, of living in the dark. In Catholicism, time has not even started yet – we are in the period before everything has begun. Because the liturgical year is cyclical, this month is sometimes referred to as the end of Ordinary Time, but of course, the idea is actually that nothing has started yet. It isn’t so much the end as it is the period of being formless and void. We who are alive right now, in this moment, are supposed to be without our bearings. Light has not separated from dark, land has not emerged from water; we know something is coming, but what? We can’t know. Only that the world is going to change. And yet, of course, instead of waiting in the dark, we have turned it into a time of preparation, a countdown to the big event. And we do make it into an event; a grand finale, not a patient evolution; the slow building up of pennies in a jar, pennies in two jars; then in thirty jars, and children wanting to know where all this treasure came from, and an old woman tethered to life in an unforeseen way, as she confides to a neighbor, “These children, you see, they are from our church and they’ve come to visit us. We’re very close.”
I have read that line at least ten times and it still swells in my throat with an almost unbearable poignancy. What do you expect – from yourself, from your church, from the New Year; from a life in Ordinary Time? What is on the other side of this waiting? This woman’s statement – we’re very close – reveals what most of us actually want. Not a transaction, in which we get something, but a process of moving closer to being the people we hope to be, part of something bigger than our lonely little lives.
Statistically, these weeks of waiting, are precisely when cardiac mortality peak. This is attributed to stress, lack of sleep, too much alcohol and rich food, but in many ways all of these things are about the burden of expectations. We long for something that is promoted dramatically; that ushers in a new day, brings peace and changes everything. But it doesn’t. All that happens is Ordinary Time begins, and so we dread the promise of the New Year even as we yearn for it.
What if this month of waiting focused not on the process of getting ready for an event – building a manger, piling up the hay; making a list, checking it twice; shopping, wrapping, cooking celebrating – but was about getting ready for living in a world we are building together? So often I hear conflict ascribed to the differences between those who are oriented around process and those who are goal directed.
If you are interested in how things unfold and evolve, you might feel rushed and annoyed by someone who is trying to get somewhere specific; if you are determined to reach particular goals, you might feel hindered by someone who wants to explore and detour along the way. We have set these two ways of being as opposites, in conflict, but of course they are not. Process has no reason to exist without the goal, and the goal will not be achieved without some means of arrival. So what is the goal of this season? And how do we get there? And how does what we expect from this season relate to what we expect from our lives, and our faith?
Margaret, she of the one-board-at-a-time house of God, expected more than pennies. She wanted to hear something dramatic that would turn her life around, make her shine. But it didn’t happen. She never got the big booming voice from the heavens, never made an about face and started over. Nevertheless, bit by bit, over the course of a decade, the world was made new – and not just for her. Going about collecting pennies changed a lot of lives, even though that was never a plan. All Margaret decided to do was save her pennies and give them to the church. There is a difference between having no expectations at all, and expecting something but not knowing what. We get whole lives by simply being willing to be open; by not clinging too hard to that wish for a great narrative quest in which we perform heroically. Margaret had this nagging sense of wanting to do something, and keeping it undefined is exactly what let it grow, and be shared by people who did not even know they were interested. It spread out in complex ways, showering pennies by the thousands.
Before he matured to the point that building houses started breaking his back, my youngest brother had a business called Ha’penny Carpentry, from the old song that ends “If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do; If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you.” Brian likes reclaimed objects, salvaging things from the scrap heap, and restoring pieces made in the days before mass production. I thought of him when I heard the “Be the hammer, not the nail” advertisement. In our childhood, we were often set out to collect the nails that rolled down the roof or fell from the grass, and we had to claw used nails out of old decking, and hammer them straight again. My family has always been what is politely called thrifty and resourceful. But nails really were once considered a precious commodity. They were hard to get in the new world, and expensive in the old. Now, wood is harder to get than nails, but there was a period of time when, if a family was moving, they would intentionally burn the house down in order to retrieve the nails, to bring them along to build the next house. Being a nail might mean tying the past to the present, might mean holding everything together, might mean driving deep into everything and holding on, with hope.
Outside Chicago there is an organization called 2x4s for Hope, started by a couple who went to Haiti to help rebuild after the earthquake in 2010. Back home, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, they looked around and realized how little there is to help people following natural disasters, or just down on their luck. They wanted to make it easy for almost anybody to change lives in a tangible way, so now they buy lumber and invite people to donate $3. That allows you to pick out your board, sign it, write a message, draw a picture. The 2x4s are donated to charitable projects across the globe. Participants, or investors, or donors – whatever you want to call them – have no idea where those 2x4s will end up. They could be anywhere in the world, housing people of any nation, and silently offering hope, and wishes for peace.
We don’t know where we are going, or what we are building. We may know the little things, like what we are doing today, or our plans for next weekend, but as for the big things on our planet, we are all in the dark. All that we have is the shelter of each other, waiting to see what will grow. We can do the simple things we feel called to do, and we can dream, and let one thing lead to another, like Shel Silverstein in his poem – Carpenter, bring out your hammer and nails. Hammer and nails, Hammer and nails, build me a boat to go chasing the whales. Chasing the whales, sailing the blue, Find me a captain, sign me a crew; Captain and crew, captain and crew, take me oh take me to anywhere new.
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
“Caged Bird / Free Bird”
Sermon by Jolie Olivetti – November 29, 2015
“Beginners” by Denise Levertov
But we have only begun
To love the earth.
We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.
How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.
How can desire fail?
— we have only begun
to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision
how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.
Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?
Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?
Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,
too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.
We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.
So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,
so much is in bud.
From Blessing the World by Rev Rebecca Parker
In 1976 I began a cross-country road trip with a friend on my way to seminary. We had time, so we decided to take back roads. One afternoon, the road passed through rural western Pennsylvania. Late in the day, we came down through hill country into a valley. It had been raining hard, and as we neared a small town, we noticed blinking yellow lights warning of danger. We saw fields covered in standing water and passed several side roads blocked off with signs saying Road Closed.
“Looks like they’ve had a flood here,” we said. Coming into town, we crossed a bridge over a wide river. The water was high, muddy, flowing fast. Sandbags lined the roadway. “Gosh,” we said, “they must have had quite a bit of high water to contend with here. Looks like it was a major flood!”
We headed out of town, following a winding country road, captivated by the evidence all around us that there had been a dramatic flood. Then we rounded a bend and in front of us, a sheet of water covered the roadway. The water was rising fast, like a huge silver balloon being inflated before our eyes.
We started to turn the car around. The water was rising behind us as well. Suddenly we realized the flood hadn’t happened yesterday or last week. It was happening here and now. Dry ground was disappearing fast. We hurriedly clambered out of the car and scrambled to higher ground. Soaked to the bone, we huddled under a fir tree. The cold water of the storm poured down on us, baptizing us into the present – a present from which we had been insulated by both our car and our misjudgments about the country we were travelling through.
Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
“Caged Bird / Free Bird”
Sermon by Jolie Olivetti
We’ve been talking about race at First Parish Watertown recently. Some people read Waking Up White, some people went to hear the author Debby Irving speak with Shay Stewart-Bouley, some people came to a workshop last week about racism. And though I promise we didn’t plan it this way, Rev Susan Chorley preached a little over a month ago about the UU Urban Ministry grappling with its identity as a primarily white organization seeking to do good work in a primarily Black neighborhood. And there’s been a larger conversation going on about race as well.
It’s been over a year since protests erupted in Ferguson over the murder of Mike Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, and the chant Black Lives Matter has been heard non-stop across the country since. Also, devastatingly, just as Mike Brown wasn’t the first, Black people have continued being killed at the hands of the police. And the people cry out for it to stop! So I’m asking what can my role be, a white person, in the Black Lives Matter movement?
The first time I heard the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou my heart ached for that bird in a cage, but when I heard those verses about the free bird, I thought, well, it’s just good to be free. But this is a poem whose every word must have been chosen so carefully
by none other than Maya Angelou, a consummate artist, a craftsperson with words.
So after looking at it a few times, I realize that the free bird is not just a foil to the caged bird. I came to this realization by lingering on the free bird, line by line. And if you’ll permit me, I’d like to do that with you now. In the first verse, he’s leaping on the wind and admiring the sunset, that nice, totally understandable. And then he dares to claim the sky. That’s some hubris, little birdie! Later, the free bird is thinking of the trade winds soft through the sighing trees. That’s not just any breeze. When I remember who Maya Angelou was, a freedom fighter of monumental significance, who wrote about racism and her identity as a Black woman in America, then I hear “trade winds” as a reference to the trade routes that brought people as slaves to the Caribbean from West Africa. This bird is thinking about the winds of the slave trade. And if that’s the particular wind this free bird is cogitating on, then those trees in the poem make me think of lynching trees. These are violent, evil parts of American history. It is awful to remember these terrors, worse to forget them.
This free bird then fantasizes about a glimmering expanse of land covered in fat worms and, finally, the last we know of him is when he again names the sky his own. Who is this bird? Dreaming of the winds that powered the merchant ships, thinking about the trees that bore Strange Fruit, manifesting destiny all across the fat-wormed-lawn, and claiming the very sky? What’s more, the free bird doesn’t give a single thought to his brother, the bird who’s been clipped and tied and caged in rage. The free bird doesn’t so much as tip his wing to the caged bird. He just goes on flying and claiming.
I am a white person from a middle-class upbringing. I’ve never been arrested or imprisoned. I’m not targeted by the police. I am neither the descendant of American slaves nor did my ancestors fear lynching in this country. My Jewish forbears were able – thank God – to obtain passage out of Europe in the 1930s. The point is not to feel guilty about any of this. I am listing some of the ways I am unencumbered by the direct impact of racism because this poem, “Caged Bird” has a message for me, because I am like the free bird. Yes, whether I realize it or not, whether I like it or not, I am like the free bird in a country that has enslaved and lynched generations of caged birds. So if not to feel guilty or to beat myself up, Why face race as a white person? Why own up to these hard truths?
As most of you know, I used to manage a farm in Dorchester. As hard as it is to admit this, when I first started working there, I was startled to realize that there was a community of people living their whole lives in that neighborhood. I had spent some time in poor and working-class neighborhoods of color before, but what was different when I was a farmer was the amount of time I was around. Day after day, I was in the gardens on Fabyan Street, a residential block off Blue Hill Ave, close to Mattapan. We got to know each other, the neighbors and I. We’d swap planting tips and we’d complain about the weather or gossip about who got towed for street cleaning. If I was spraying some organic pest treatment on my greens, I’d walk next door, and get Mr Butcher’s greens as well. As I met people’s kids and grandkids, participated in the shifting seasons from snowplows to ice cream trucks, my perspective of Dorchester changed. Before spending this everyday time with people living their everyday lives, I thought it was a neighborhood in perpetual crisis, with little life and much danger. So I was there as a dutiful privileged person, at work to save people, one bunch of carrots at a time.
The absurdity and arrogance of that became clear as I realized Fabyan Street was just a street, with regular people. Despite what the news and other sources of messages about our cities may have told me my whole life, Dorchester is just a place where people live. I’m not talking about ignoring the fact that I’m white and the residents of Fabyan Street are people of color. I’m not talking about pretending that race and racism don’t exist. What I’m talking about is the realization – strange and disturbing as it was that I had to realize this – that these are all people living full and rich lives. And I learned that my job as an urban farmer meant that we were just neighbors, partners in our shared efforts to grow good food and good lives, despite toxic soil and systemic injustices, on Fabyan St.
My initial misconceptions about my role in Dorchester could be called “white savior complex-” in which we whites think we’re best suited to rush in and save people of color. This is different from the free bird’s complex – cold-hearted apathy in the face of his brother’s pain and the evil systems that keep him caged. But there are some similarities. Both instances fundamentally deny the sacred worth of Black and Brown people.
Consciously or subconsciously – When the free bird ignores the plight of the caged bird
And when I thought Fabyan St was helpless without me – Neither of us is respecting
the inherent worth and dignity of human beings on the front lines of oppression.
Failing to acknowledge our fellow beings who are suffering, and failing to acknowledge their efforts to ensure their own flourishing, both deny people’s autonomy and dignity.
And the way whiteness works may mean that we whites are oblivious to all of this.
We heard about this oblivion in Rebecca Parker’s story. She tells of how she and her friend drove through the rain and commented on what may have been wrong out there, before they figured out they had get out of the car or else drown. Right after relating that story she says the following: This is what it is like to be white in America. It is to travel well ensconced in a secure vehicle, to see signs of what is happening in the world outside your compartment and not to realize that these signs have any contemporary meaning. It is to misjudge your location and believe you are uninvolved and unaffected by what is happening in the world.
Waking up to whiteness means we have to realize that we are personally implicated, we have been written into this story of race whether we like it or not. And we might be cluelessly gazing out our car windows at the devastation all around us. It’s like the first time I read the poem Caged Bird, I didn’t notice that in his ignorance and apathy, the free bird was a party to keeping his sister caged. It’s like when I first began working in Dorchester, and I didn’t realize that since I had swallowed the stories about the city, I didn’t recognize the humanity present in that neighborhood.
Rebecca Parker says, “when I speak of the ignorance created by my education into whiteness, I am speaking of a loss of wholeness within myself and a corresponding segregation of culture that debilitates life for all of us.” She goes on to say, “Now that I recognize it, this loss disturbs me deeply. It is precisely this loss that makes me a suitable, passive participant in structures that I abhor.”
So what can I do about this? I can try to rid myself of this oblivion. I can, like Reverend Rebecca Parker and unlike the “free bird,” wake up to my whiteness, and begin to listen to and learn from people of color. I can reject the power that comes to me at other people’s expense. I can invite other white people along on this journey.
If you heard my sermon in early October maybe you remember how I shifted from despairing in the greediness and unreliability of my fellow humans to finding a wellspring of faith in humanity. This faith in humanity includes an enduring belief that we can end our reliance upon structures we abhor, this faith in humanity includes a love of the wholeness that can follow waking up to whiteness.
Now I know my call to ministry will be larger than this, and will shift and grow as I learn more from you all in our two year journey together. But if you think of my call as a song, a song that I am learning to sing as I hear it, this is one verse. In this verse I sing about Unitarian Universalism as a resource to lovingly root the hidden, sneaky white supremacy out of myself and others. I started to hear this song when I was working in Dorchester, a beautiful ode to the people of that neighborhood, a healing hymn that sang the truth over the dehumanizing lies I had previously known. And I need to try to make this song harmonize with the larger movement for racial justice, which leads me back to Maya Angelou.
Her poem tells us about two types of freedom: The freedom of the free bird, and the freedom in the song of the caged bird. Is the freedom that the free bird inhabitsthe same as the freedom that rings on the distant hill when the caged bird sings? Is that distant hill where freedom rings the same place as the land of ignoring cages, claiming the sky, and gliding on trade winds? No. The free bird’s is a false freedom. The song of the caged bird is of true freedom.
Black Lives Matter was created by Black women activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi in the wake of Treyvon Martin’s murder in 2012. The insistence that Black Lives Matter is a necessary reminder in a society that imperils, devalues, and cages Black lives. The freedom song of the caged bird could include the chants of the Black Lives Matter movement. My so-called freedom is hollow until there are no more cages.
That is what the caged bird sings of. No More Cages.
As the bird out of the cage, I need to listen to the caged bird’s song. When I come to understand that my humanity is caught up in the humanity of others, and that my whiteness has prevented me from knowing this fully, then I can join in that song,
I can join in the work for true freedom.
From Blessing the World by Rebecca Parker
I have been given the gift of life but I have not yet fully claimed it. I struggle neither as a benevolent act of social concern nor as a repentant act of shame and guilt, but as an act of passion for life, of insistence on life. I am fueled by both love for life and anger in the face of the violence that divides us from each other and from ourselves.
I step out of an insular shell and come into immediate contact with the full texture of our present reality. I feel the rain on my face and breathe the fresh air. I wade in the waters that spirit has troubled and stirred. The water drenching me baptizes me into a new life. I become a citizen not of somewhere else but of here. The struggle for racial justice in America calls all white people to make this journey. Our presence is needed; we have been absent too long.
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