Information or Transformation – A Sermon on the Goal of the Word of God for the 15th Sunday of the Year

071214What do you expect from reading and hearing God’s Word? Do you expect to encounter something that will change you? Frankly, from my discussions with people over the years, many do not even understand the question and, after puzzled looks, respond to me with another question: “What do mean by ‘expect’?”  I then follow up with “Just what I said, ‘What do you look to have happen in your life from having heard or read God’s Word?'” This is greeted with puzzled looks and finally something vague like, “I dunno” or “Like, maybe, to get advice?” Some might even go so far as to say that they expect to be encouraged or instructed. But in the end, most of the responses to my question are pretty tepid, lukewarm, and uninspired. Most really don’t expect much and, frankly, haven’t expected much. Reading or hearing God’s word is more of a tedious ritual for them than a transformative reality.

Here again, I lay some of blame at the feet of clergy who don’t really teach the faithful to expect much. But this Sunday it is clearly set forth that God’s Word is able to transform, change, renew, encourage, and empower us. And we ought to begin to expect great things from our faithful and attentive reception of the Word of God.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in three steps.

I. Promise – That the Word of God can utterly transform us and bring forth a great harvest in our lives is clearly set forth in today’s first reading:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s Word has power! If we authentically and attentively listen to God’s Word it will refresh us and bring forth the fruit of transformation. No one can authentically attend to God’s word and go away unchanged. If listened to with any alertness, God’s Word can open our minds to new realities, give us hope, teach us the fundamental meaning of our life, instruct us, thrill us, frighten us, make us wonder, make us repent, make us rejoice, and it can also transform us. It can make us mad, sad, or glad, but if we attend to it, it’s pretty hard to go away neutral from this Word, of which Scripture itself says,

  • The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).
  • God says in the book of Jeremiah, Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)
  • And Jeremiah himself said, But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).
  • And yet again he cries out, My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry! (Jer 4:19)
  • Amos echoes, The lion has roared–who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken–who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)
  • The Apostles join the great company of preachers and declare, For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
  • Yes, the Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers! (Ps 68:11)
  • And through his preachers the Lord wants to set us on fire! I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes (Jer 5:14).
  • Yes, if we will let him, He will set us ablaze with His Word. Thus He will also set the world on fire through us.

Yes, God’s Word, effectively preached and thoughtfully attended to, is fire that transforms. Pray for fiery preachers. Pray for ears attentive to God’s Word. Pray for a soul alive and alert to the sound of God’s trumpet. Pray for a mind capable of appreciating God’s Word in all its subtlety and all its plain meaning.  It can change your life.

II. Problems – But the Lord also alerts us to some problems that can arise in the human person. For while God’s Word does not lack power, neither does it violate God’s respect for our freedom and our call to love.

God speaks to inanimate objects and they must obey:

  • And God said, Let there be light. And there was light (Gen 1:3).
  • And to the sea, This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt (Job 38:11). And the sea obeys.
  • And he says to the mountains, “Move!” and they shake and melt like wax before his glance. (cf Ps 97:5)

But the human person is not inanimate. We are possessed of a soul and gifted with freedom so that we may love. God speaks to us and, remarkably, we are free to say, “No.” And the Lord Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel that our freedom is ultimately respected. So the power of God’s Word remains, but God Himself has made it dependent on our “Yes.” Consider, then, some of the problems Jesus warns us of,  some issues that can cut off or reduce the power of God’s Word:

A. RejectionJesus says of some that they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand … Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them (Matt 13:13-15). The Greek word translated here as “gross” is  παχύνω (pachuno), meaning fat, thick, or dull. By extension, it means having an insensitive or hardened heart. Hence there are some who have hardened their hearts to God and His Word.

God once observed about us, through Isaiah,  I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4).   This is another way of saying, “I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like bronze, nothing gets through your thick skull.” For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the Sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.

But for some the stubbornness never abates. In fact it grows even stronger as a descent into pride and an increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems and the less likely conversion. As things progress these people are not just resistant to the truth, but hostile to it. They harden their hearts, stiffen their necks, and at some point it would seem they reach the point of no return.

There are some texts in the Scriptures that speak of God Himself hardening the hearts of sinners. This is a very deep mystery and tied up in the deeper mystery of God’s primary causality of everything. But the text before us today emphasizes the hardening of the heart from the human perspective. And thus those of hardened hearts have closed their eyes lest they see.  They don’t listen either lest they be confronted with something they would rather not hear and sense the need for repentance and conversion.

The Word of God can have no place in them for they altogether reject it and hence its offered power is cast aside.

B. Reflection The text says, The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart (Matt 13:19). The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίημι (syniemi), which means to put (or set) together. Figuratively, it means to connect the dots, to synthesize. In other words, a person who does not “understand” gives little thought or reflection to the Word of God. He does not try to connect it to his life or understand its practical application. He does not “set it together” with his experience, or seek to apply it in his life. This Word will not last in him due to his inattentiveness to its meaning and its deeper role in his life. Thus the Word stays only on the surface and in the short-term memory. Satan is able to take it away quickly with little resistance from the man, who has not really connected it to his life anyway. Here, too, there can be little or no transformation, for the power of God’s Word is little appreciated and is not admitted into the deeper recesses of the man’s soul.

C. Rootlessness The text says,  The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  But he has no root and lasts only for a time.  When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away (Matt 13:20-21). The image here is of a plant that thrives when the weather is good and calm. But let the wind pick up and the plant blows away for lack of roots. There are some who can rejoice in the Word of God as along as it paints fair pictures and tickles their ears. But when the Word convicts them, or causes them any negative reaction within, or persecution without they scram. When the wind blows they are gone. A common line from the Old Spirituals says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout. Before six month’s they’s all turned out.” As long as the preacher speaks of “fair weather,” and there are no consequences to the Word, they’re shouting “Amen!” and singing the refrains of the songs. But let that preacher step on their toes or let someone in the world raise an eyebrow to them and they’re gone, gone with the wind. Here, too, the power of God’s Word to transform is cast aside.

D. Ripples The text says, The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety … chokes it off (Matt 13:22). This describes people who are simply too distracted by the things of the world to spend time with the Word of God. They allow the water of their life to be rippled and disturbed and there is never enough calm for them to be reflective. They obsess over every small ripple that rocks the boat and do not trust God enough to relax and ponder His will and His Word. They are ever-busy making adjustments to their life and responding to the alarms of life. The word “distract” means to draw away. And hence they allow the world to draw them away from reflection on God’s Word. This, too, limits the transformative power of God’s Word.

E. Riches The text also speaks of the lure of riches [which] choke the word and it bears no fruit (Matt 13:22). Riches divide the heart. Scripture says elsewhere, People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10). The Lord says, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21). Hence if our treasure is in riches, our heart will not be with God’s Word. Job says, I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Only with a heart set on God’s Word as a treasure will we hunger for it and reflect on it enough to be truly transformed by it.

III. Produce – The text says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear… the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold (Matt 13:23). Here then the promise is reiterated that the Word of God is powerful and will produce a radical transformation in us of thirty, sixty, or one hundredfold! Note that this is for those who receive the Word with understanding. That is, as we saw earlier, those with  συνίημι (syniemi), with a will to connect the dots, to synthesize, those who seek to understand the Word and apply it to their life.

I am a witness to the power of God’s Word to transform life and to yield abundant fruit. I have learned to expect a lot from God’s Word: a new mind, a new heart, and a new life. And God has not failed me. I have seen my life change dramatically for the better in so many ways. God has been good to me and He has been true to His Word, which says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).  I cannot take credit for this new life I have received. It is the gift of God and He has given it to me through the power of His Word and the grace of His Sacraments.

Yes, I am a witness; how about you?

This clip is from a performance of Handel’s Messiah and features the following: “The Lord gave the Word. Great was the company of the preachers!” It’s not as easy to sing as you might think. The long melismatic lines are difficult for the singers to coordinate while staying on tempo; it’s quite a little workout. Pray for fiery preachers!

21 Replies to “Information or Transformation – A Sermon on the Goal of the Word of God for the 15th Sunday of the Year”

  1. Lovely Homily, but I wonder if you mean it. I mean that I have been a Catholic all my life and I have never heard a sermon that actually calls me to repentance. It has always been and always is one or another variant of “Jesus loves you now be nice.” If it were not for Catholic radio and the internet I would never hear anything that challenges. So if someone has actually given this homily, and it is not just a blog on the internet, good for you!
    Just keep in mind, Shepherd of the flock, there are wolves all around us and most of us sheep do not even recognize the danger. Secularism, modernism, indifferentism, and relativism are decimating the Catholic Church in America. If the Bishops do not wake up and act they will find nothing but empty pastures fit for nothing but to be sold and forgotten.

    Esto Dignus

    1. I DO mean it, how dare you presume otherwise. Pastors, parents, and blog readers also need to be clearer from their “pulpits” too. I am more than willing to accept that clergy are part of the problem, and I state that in the article. But its so easy to blame bishops (by the way I am not a bishop – which I say here because you seem to want to school me in the office). And if you want to do the blame game stuff, (I do this only for your sake) then fine: too many parents are also disgracefully negligent in raising their children, in staying married, in even getting married at all.

      I Know, I know that’s all the fault of the bishops too! The polar ice caps are melting, all six of them: on Earth, on mars and Uranus – and that’s the Bishop’s fault. And Adam and Eve’s sin? That’s right, the bishops! And when Mohammed wiped out all of North Africa by the edge of the sword: the Bishops, and that whole unpleasantness of WWI and WWII, and the Cold War, and Korea, and Vietnam, and the Beatles and rock music, and the summer of love, and pot smoking, and the fuel shortage in the 70s and my high utility bills, …. the Bishops! It’s all their fault. If only they were preaching a little clearer we could have avoided all these problems because people always listen to and heed good sermons and go right home and tell their children that we’re all going to heed what the bishop said and the priest said. And all the kids will obey, and everything will be fine. Because we all know that the only reason things are a mess is because bishops and priests don’t preach well, they don’t give barn-burners etc.

      You may “dignus” but the rest of us poor slobs are still over here scratching our heads trying to figure out what went wrong and what brought on this tsunami of the Cultural revolution. (I know, I Know, the Bishops should have seen it coming 200 years ago and had a plan in motion to prevent it through a perfect sermon program. But they didn’t have you around dignus to advise them) Yes, if only you could school us all and then we’d be perfect, and our perfect sermons would be followed by all the perfect people who always do exactly what the Church teaches. The ONLY reason people reject Church teaching is because we preach poorly.

      Frankly how dare you tell me to “Be Worthy” (Esto Dignus). Since you want more sermons on repentance (and I preach plenty, thank you) consider this YOUR call to repentance: Shame on you, cease your arrogance and blame-game stuff, stop trying to school people you don’t even know and work your vineyard for awhile. For, it would seem there are too many sour grapes growing in it. Metanoia!

      For heaven’s sake…!

      1. I thought it was the liberals fault? It’s a mindset not a rank and file thing. Liberalism is a mental disease.

    2. Adam, if you were really familiar with Msgr. Pope, you wouldn’t make an absurd statement like “but I wonder if you mean it.” Your cynicism reflects a lack of faith and hope; a cynicism informed more by “secularism” and “relativism” than by the Word of God.

      1. Dear Adam,
        I am deeply saddened that you have been so spiritually impoverished as to have never heard a call for repentance from a pastor from a pulpit or confessional. I am even more saddened that you seem not to have read The New Testament. If you had you would have abundantly “heard” there the call to repentance.

        Perhaps you also have never come upon the meaning of the title Monsignor.
        If you look into that title it may edify you and qualify that which you seem to need qualified.

        May God grant you the grace, through Our Lady The Mediatrix of all Graces, to grow in piety and reverence, As sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church we owe every priest, anointed and transformed at ordination as Alter Christus, respect and reverence for the complete gift of self he gives to God for His people. The priesthood is NOT a career choice, it is a Sacred Office. I wonder if you already knew that? Whatever we do to the least of our brethren we do to Our Lord Saviour and Redeemer Jesus the Christ.

        I am willing to step up to this plate at this time as, for reasons not necessary to go into, there were several years that I was fed by the online homilies of Monsignor Charles Pope. Thank you Monsignor! For the faithfulness to your vocation to The Sacred Priesthood, Deo gratias! Alleluia!

        in Caritate

        1. I wondered about the tongue in cheek Uranus comment and looked it up.Technically there is no definitive proof Uranus has polar ice caps melting or otherwise, because of it’s thick atmospheric conditions. Welcome to the family.

  2. I personally read the Bible to internalize what it says. Sometimes sermons help that process and sometimes they don’t. But I don’t know that ponder or understand is where I am going with it; I just want His Word to be in complete control of my life. Then great things will happen, even in the small things, because everything will be done through Him and in Him and with Him. That’s why I read Scripture.

  3. Your sermon troubles me.

    I do not know what I want from listening to and reading scripture. I know to do so is to pray and to praise God. I do not expect anything personal other than food for the day. I pray petitions, not that I expect any to be answered as I wish them to be, but as a means of giving worship. God has answered me, directly, at least two times that I recognize. So I know he listens and responds.

    What do I expect? Instruction by the Holy Spirit? when combined with the sermon? Instruction on how to live a life pleasing to God?

    Food for thought.

  4. Thank you Msgr Pope! Having grown up on a farm in Southern Maryland, this parable has always been one of my favorites. Even at 80 plus years of age, I still find new meaning in this parable.

  5. Well I guess I have rejected God because I think he is a monster for ordering genocide in the Old Testament. Oh, but I just need to trust God. He had a reason for killing all those other races of people. They were worshiping false gods that didn’t order genocide!

    1. Please, don’t give up! I was reading Lumen Fidei earlier, thinking a quote might help, but my worst mistakes usually come from thinking I’m helping. I am compelled to try so, in response to you lack of understanding I dare speak of my own. I was raised with Sacraments, Scripture, prayer… this is what I understand. But my unique place on the autism spectrum, a great blessing, means I lack understanding in worldy matters. As a child, labeled “retard” in some grades/schools then placed in advanced classes (back and forth) I didn’t understand why other children couldn’t pick up musical instruments and play, why they couldn’t see something and draw it. And since I can hear (feel) multiple responses / conversations simultaneously, even after processing I didn’t understand jealousy and the like. So I’ve always talked with God. Some 26 years ago I used to channel surf televangelists and ask “why don’t they understand? Is it because I don’t?” So I began reading Sacred Scripture intensively … backwards. I don’t recommend this. But Jesus came alive, His humanity and Divinity, in the four Gospel accounts. And as He becomes moreso with every passing day I realize ever more my lacking. It takes time, we all find different paths, but I know if you give Jesus a chance our paths will converge in the Lord who is the source of all understanding. God bless you.

      1. Edit – oops, didn’t mean ‘lacking’ understanding near the end… ‘worthiness’

    2. Dear Nathan,
      God giveth and He taketh away.
      That is within His sovereignty to do.
      We are not our own, we are His.
      He created us for His delight.

      Our Lord Jesus The Christ revealed that even He did not know the time or the place The Father would take us.

      We know that God is Love.
      We know that His Will for us is to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life that we may be with Him in eternity. Only God knows our hearts.

      Considering that the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, what you see as genocide seems to me to have a resonance of a far different Motive. The worship of false gods seems a form of self-destruction. It is important to value words and to weight them and to use them precisely and with care.

      Genocide, as with fratricide, infanticide, suicide etc, are acts of created persons upon created persons.

      The Father sent His Only-Begotten Son to us, for us, in His Love.

      And our response?

      I think it fair to say It was Deicide,

      If you truly seek peace and not provocation. Do what He tells us to do. Go within “your room” which is your heart and be still…and know that He is God.

      in Caritate

    3. To Jas and Jeanne (and anyone else),

      I read the Bible and I see genocide in the OT, and He’ll in the NT. Jesus seems obsessed with Hell. I flipped forward in the Sunday lectionary and Jesus mentions Hell in at least a third of the upcoming Sundays. Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell. But God is Love, right? He sends these of us to Hell because He is infinitely good, and any offense against an infinitely good God deserves and infinite punishment. But then God can do whatever He wants, including committing genocide like Hitler. What?? How can people square this all together?

      I will tell you what I think exists. I do not believe the arguments for atheism. I believe God exists, and God is out to get me. It just fits all the “data points” that I see. You might call it reason.

      I had a personal experience in which I felt certain God was calling me to a certain vocation. I talked multiple times with my spiritual director (a priest who is conservative and often says Latin Masses) and he agreed that God was speaking to me. I felt so strongly in my heart that fulfilling this vocation was a major reason who I was put on earth, and doing a good job for God would lead me to Heaven someday.

      Well…this vocation fell apart completely and really the exact opposite happened almost immediately after hearing this call. You couldn’t make a Hollywood farcical movie about my life because it would be too unbelievable. And there was nothing I could do. I feel convinced that I will enter Hell because God wills me there.

      I probably should briefly mention that since I hung out in Catholic circles, I had a large percentage of my friends and family telling me that I was/am in mortal sin, and warning me of Hell. This wouldn’t stop despite me telling them that I think of Hell almost nonstop. I have been so abused in so many other ways by Catholics, especially devout Catholic who go to daily Mass and say the daily Rosary and go on pilgrimages and so forth. Priests laughed at me for having suicidal thoughts, the diocese just gave them a slap on the wrist, other blamed me for reporting these priests, and I became an outcast. If this is what is holy, I want none of it!! If St. Paul says to judge things by their fruits, then it seems Catholicism bears the most rotten fruits! (And before anyone says chemical imbalance in my brain, my anxiety is almost entirely focused on religious matters, making me think it is not my brain, but my religion which is at fault.)

      And please do not tell me the CS Lewis quote like everyone else about Hell being locked from the inside. Why would I want to spend eternity face to face with a sadistic God? I would rather jump into a river of unending fire, and that doesn’t mean I am a monster for rejecting God.

      Ok, my rant is over for now. Thank you for making it this far.

      1. But Israel didn’t commit genocide, it was open war. Then they mixed with their neighbors, worshipped their gods and revoked the Covenant mediated by Moses. Esther3, though, shows one example where their extermination was decreed. Please meditate on the 2nd reading next Sun. Please try praying Psalm 86. Jesus only warns of Hell because He doesn’t want to lose us. I’m sorry you were mistreated so, that is not Holiness. Ask Jesus to help you forgive, He will do it.
        I don’t know anything about Lewis, God’s Word is my food. Don’t obsess on hell, though. The enemy wants such attention, I think, more than being ignored, which is impossible in this age of instant gossip and denial. Perhaps it would be of benefit if you took a break from many distractions as, I think, Msgr. has just written. I live as hermit with no facebook or the like and life is fine. Seek silence and may you hear His voice again. May God grant you clarity and His Peace. God bless.

      2. Dear Nathan,
        Thank you for filling in some of the blanks. I can now “hear” you more particularly.

        What helped me greatly was to have come to the understanding that the state/place known as hell/gehenna is not a place God wants me. Point in fact, God goes to the Extreme Sacrifice of His Only-Begotten Son in order to have all of us with Him in Paradise.

        To the point of all the focus about hell, it helps me to remember that when children are close to danger of a life-threatening type and they have not listened to the 1st or the umpteenth time to the warning and they are on the brink of disaster (loosing their life physical and/or their life spiritual which is to fall from the state of sanctifying grace) there need be something quite large to get their attention and keep them from self-destruction.

        The most important understanding about freedom is that it is nothing to do with license. God created us in His Own Image and Likeness and gave us the ineffable Gift of Free Will. He respects our choices! If He did not respect our choice to offend Him, reject Him, (and any and all manner of what you can see and hear for yourself in Holy Scripture and throughout Salvation History up to and including this very day) we would in essence be enslaved to His Infinite Love. NO! It is in His Infinite Love the He respects our choices…even the choice to choose our “self” over Him.

        We are just higher than the animals and just lower than the angels. We are “human” beings, homo sapiens. We have everything, absolutely everything we need to get back to Home. And it is just as simple as that. Just as simple as Yes! or No!

        So when I say Yes! to anything which is not Him, is not what He has revealed, is not The Way of His Beloved Son Jesus The Christ, then I have exercised the gift He, The Father, Our Father, has given me to reject Him.

        The verdict of Hell is one which I will make for myself when, and only when, in conscience (‘with knowledge”) I see my transgressions against Love and the person He made me to be for His delight. It is no coincidence that Knowledge if one of the Gifts of The Holy Spirit. Going beyond the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are the Fruits of The Holy Spirit.

        What you reveal is painful just in the reading. My own “painful” without understanding was brought Home when, in His Infinite Providence I heard in homily just when I needed it, that when we are tempted and troubled and burdened with trials and tribulation that is a good indication that the one who seeks to destroy us (he goes by many names).

        Please do not give up. Please seek the counsel of a holy priest (and yes, there are holy priests, many of them, it may take a while but it will not take a lot of physical effort if you turn to prayer, every day, many times during the day (and night) and pour out your heart unto His Own Heart.

        Please carry your Rosary. Pray your Rosary. Pray to Our Lady that she teach you how to pray…and then wait, as She waited, surrendered, trusting, confident, joyful.

        Thank you for bringing to light your distress,

        in Caritate

        1. (sorry, left out the ending of the sentence)
          What you reveal is painful just in the reading. My own “painful” without understanding was brought Home when, in His Infinite Providence I heard in homily just when I needed it, that when we are tempted and troubled and burdened with trials and tribulation that is a good indication that the one who seeks to destroy us (he goes by many names)…is working overtime to keep you enslaved and in bondage.

      3. Dear Jas and Jeanne,

        Thank you both again. I do have a spiritual director, he is a very holy priest and very intellectual, but he doesn’t really have a good answer for most of my questions.

        As for free will, I understand and believe in it completely. I just often wish I hadn’t been given it. Why couldn’t God make me a robot, or a toy without a soul? I would have no fear of Hell then. Or why does God respect our choices? I have never been convinced that this is a good thing. I believe in free will, but am extremely skeptical that it is a good thing.

        I guess your argument Jeanne is based on the assumption that God is loving and that free will is part of God’s love.

        But I do not want to take up any more of your time. I feel appreciated that both of you listened to me, and that helps for now. And to the extent possible, I will try to avoid ruminating over Hell, which you both recommend.

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