Sunday Worship 5 March 2023

Order of Service

Below you will find the Order of Service, prayers, hymns and sermon for today’s service.   You can either simply read this or you can
 

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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 5 March 2023 

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Andy Braunston

 
Call to Worship

 
Listen, hear the sound of the trumpets and the song of the angels! 
The feast is ready; Jesus is here to welcome us. 
See the overladen tables, taste the peace and joy.
The feast is ready; Jesus is here to welcome us. 
Here is food for the hungry, riches for the poor and paradise for those who follow. 
The feast is ready; Jesus is here to welcome us.
 
Hymn    The Trumpets Sound, The Angels Sing   
              Graham Kendrick © Make Way Music Ltd 1989 sung by the Early Worship Ensemble of the Lutheran Church of Honolulu and used with their kind permission.
 
The trumpets sound, 
the angels sing,
the feast is ready to begin.
The gates of heav’n 
are open wide
and Jesus welcomes you inside.
 
Sing with thankfulness
songs of pure delight.
Come and revel 
in heaven’s love and light.
Take your place 
at the table of the King.
The feast is ready to begin.
The feast is ready to begin.
 
Tables are laden 
with good things
O taste the peace 
and joy He brings!
He’ll fill you up with love divine.
He’ll turn your water into wine.
 
The hungry heart 
He satisfies;
offers the poor His paradise.
Now hear all heav’n 
and earth applaud
the amazing goodness 
of the Lord.
 
Prayers of Approach, Confession & Forgiveness
 
Long ago, Eternal Majesty, You called Abram and Sarah to follow You,
to leave their home, their family, and all that was known and secure;
we thank You for their faith.
 
At night, Embodied Word, Nicodemus came and spoke with You,
seeking to understand the demands You make,
yet not quite risking the commitment; we understand his reluctance.
 
In our time, Enlivening Spirit, You call us to leave our complacency,
to see our world as it really is, 
and, through the simple things of bread and wine,  You transform us.  
 
Help us, Eternal One, to hear and respond to Your insistent call.
Forgive us when we hear but don’t follow,
when we turn our ears to other sounds;
when the silent music of Your praise is overcome with our own noise.
Forgive us when we refuse to analyse the ills of our world,
and when we use complexity as an excuse to do nothing.
Forgive us, O God, and give us time to change.  Amen.
 
Hear, O people, good news! Whilst we are still far off, God runs to embrace and welcome us home. Know you are forgiven, know you are given time to change; know you must forgive others and find the courage to forgive yourself.  Amen.
 
Prayer of Illumination
 
Bless with Your Spirit, O God, our flesh, that as we hear Your voice in word – read and proclaimed – we may hear anew Your call to us.  Amen.
 
Reading       Genesis 12:1-4a
 
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.
 
Hymn    Deep In the Shadows of the Past     
              The Rev’d Brian Wren © 1975, 1995 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL sung by Adam and Gillian Earle
 
Deep in the shadows of the past,
far out from settled lands,
some nomads travelled 
with their God
across the desert sands.
The dawning hope of humankind
by them was sensed and shown:
a promise calling them ahead,
a future yet unknown.
 
While others bowed 
to changeless gods
they met a mystery,
invisible, without a name:
“I AM WHAT I WILL BE”;
and by their tents, 
around their fires
in story, song and law,
they praised, remembered, 
handed on
a past that promised more.
 
From Exodus to Pentecost
the promise changed and grew,
while some, remembering the past,
recorded what they knew,
or with their letters and laments,
their prophecy and praise,
recovered, kindled and expressed
new hope for changing days.
 
For all the writings that survived
for leaders, long ago,
who sifted, copied, and preserved
the Bible that we know,
give thanks, and find its story yet
our promise, strength and call,
the model of emerging faith,
alive with hope for all.

 

Reading       St John 3:1-17
 
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
 
Sermon
 
For hundreds of years Christians have either believed the way we do things reflects the way things were done in the Early Church or have wanted to get back to the way things were done in the Early Church!  A large part of part of the desire for reform in the Sixteenth Century was about returning to an earlier pattern of Christianity deemed to be purer than then contemporary practice.  These ideas permeated the traditions that came to be known as Congregationalist and Presbyterian and came to the fore again in restorationist movements such as the Churches of Christ from the 1820s where a desire to return to the pattern of the primitive Church was the guiding principle. 
 
The problem, of course, with this approach is that it’s not clear what we might mean by “the Early Church” and there was no one practice within it!  The embryonic Church in described in the New Testament often flew under the radar of the authorities, was tiny and was concerned with being both Jewish and Gentile.  As it grew the Church had to deal with periodic episodes of persecution until, after its adoption by Constantine it became the state religion.  Over the years more documents have been uncovered, and some early church buildings, which give us better ideas of early Christian practice and it’s often very different to contemporary expressions of Church – no matter how much we might like to believe otherwise!
 
In each place the Church found itself it had to adapt to its context, make sense of how to be a disciple in a world which had very different values to those of the Kingdom.   One thing which united the different early Christian congregations was to have a way of teaching people to be good disciples of the Lord Jesus.  People coming from Judaism knew the Law, had heard the Old Testament stories and could find from them pointers to Jesus.  They already knew the moral law and what was required of a believer and so the journey into Christianity was somewhat easier.  For a gentile, however, one had to disassociate oneself from pagan faith and practice.  Every Roman house had statues of gods in a shrine which was kept neat and tidy with votive offerings of food and flowers.  A statue of the emperor was kept there and prayers offered for, and sometimes to, the emperor were expected.  If the head of the household decided new born babies could be left out in the cold to perish, or be picked up and reared for heaven knows what.  Men might have lovers and Roman sexual mores were such that they shocked St Paul and other god fearing Jews.  The head of the household had the power of life and death over his wife, children and slaves.  
 
New converts had to leave all this behind but still live within a pagan society.  A long process of initiation was developed.  Anyone might come along to church services – held in people’s homes, in the countryside or in the catacombs – but the unbaptised had to leave half way through, after the Service of the Word.  They’d hear readings from Scripture, prayers and a sermon, then be prayed for, blessed and dismissed.  Only after two years of this could they be considered for baptism – and the church would decide if they were ready.  A Church Meeting, held in the second part of Lent, might point out that a man still had a mistress, or a woman still visited the pagan temple, or had left a baby exposed on the hill.  In such cases another year’s teaching and training would be needed.  There was compassion; everyone knew how hard it was to reject the values of the dominant society.  The Early Church as pacifist and this took a particular toll on soldiers who wished to join.  Of course this was hard, the Early Church had a high number of women and slaves in membership – people at the bottom of the social pile – who would have struggled to change their household culture.    All those conservative rules in Paul’s writing about how to behave at home were, for women and slaves, designed to protect them in an unforgiving patriarchal society.  
 
If the church judged that a candidate for baptism had learned enough about the new Christian lifestyle they would be baptised, often on Holy Saturday, after dark, at the main Easter Service.  Separated by age and sex, the candidates would strip, kneel in a bathtub and be doused in water having affirmed the Apostles’ Creed in a series of three questions and answers – one for each Person of the Trinity.  After being baptised they’d be clothed in new white robes and then be anointed by the bishop.  Women deacons would baptise the women converts to preserve modesty.  One was as naked as the day one was born – this was, after all, a new birth.  After baptism the new members could join for the Service of the Table and receive Communion for the first time.  It was quite a journey from an initial enquiry about going along to church!
 
Yet we see journeys in our readings today.  In our snippet from Genesis we hear God call Abram to leave his country, his family, and his home to a new land – a land he didn’t even know.  Much like those early converts to Christianity that had to leave all they knew, all they were comfortable with, in order to respond to the call they had heard, a restlessness in their soul that would not be satisfied until they responded, an itch that wouldn’t be scratched.  God’s promise to Abram was, interestingly, in the future – from him would a great nation be formed; his name would be great.  It was all in the future yet Abram responded and followed.   In our long reading from St John’s Gospel we meet Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who came to Jesus at night and who seemed puzzled by the radical commitment to start again, to be born anew, which Jesus called him to.  We don’t know if Nicodemus ever made that commitment; this passage doesn’t reveal that we do now that later (in chapter 7) he insists to his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the Jewish law required a person has a fair hearing before being judged and after Jesus’ death (in chapter 19) Nicodemus provided the embalming spices and assisted Joseph of Arimathea with the task of preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  So his encounter with Jesus had changed him but, maybe, like, those later catechumens he wasn’t ready to take the final step of faith and baptism.  
 
Of course all this makes us wonder about our initiation rites now.  Often we’re so pleased that someone wants to join the church we fall over ourselves with our hospitality – we’re so grateful we stick them on a rota!  After a year or so we might even ordain them an Elder.  

  • Not for us that two year (minimum) process of conversion. 
  • Not for us clearing out the unbaptised before we celebrate Communion.  Not for us such a radical baptism rite!  (One suspects Safeguarding officers might query naked baptisms).  

 
Now I’m not suggesting we return to this Early Church practice but maybe there are things we can learn from it.
 
First, the Earliest Christians knew how to critique their society.  Perhaps this was a gift from their Jewish members who saw the Roman Empire from the unique vantage point of the ever vanquished race rightly suspicious of imperial policies.  Whatever the reason, the earliest Church believed life was sacred and babies could not be left for dead, that sexual relationships needed to be committed and based on love not lust.  They believed that children, and women, and slaves had worth – those household commands are much stricter on men than they are on women, slaves, and children.  Like their Jewish forebears and coreligionists the earliest Christians knew that only God was to be worshipped; the emperor was to be prayed for but not venerated.  Pagan worship, no matter how exotic or sensual, detracted from the truth that there is only one God; the only one we worship.  By having women leaders of churches – some of these earliest churches met in the homes of richer independent women who, we assume, also led the community – the earliest Church was incredibly counter cultural in a deeply patriarchal age.  How good are we, I wonder, at critiquing our own society.  It’s hard as we see things as normal; debt is as crucial to our society as slavery was to the Roman world, we’re confused about sexual ethics, our various identities which we assert are both useful and confusing – they strengthen and divide us.  We see military might as the only way to provide security – and events in Ukraine make a pacifist position more difficult to sustain.  We still live in economic models which always need growth and exploitation of our planet.  
 
Secondly, conversion and baptism marked not only an inner faith, an intellectual commitment to Christ but also a radical change – symbolised not only by the affirmation of faith but by stepping from the waters of new birth as naked as the day one was born..  That change meant living differently, withdrawing from pagan worship and practice, not leaving babies to die, not beating one’s slaves, remaining faithful.  More than this, however, the radical change that was expected had to be vouched for and it was expected that the church would raise concerns if someone’s conversion hadn’t progressed as it should or if the would-be convert was still stuck in old ways.  We have tended to see conversion as an inner spiritual reality; we might be very interested in how the person understands, intellectually, the Christian faith but less concerned with the radical nature of the commitment – after all we might not be living radical lives ourselves! 
 
Thirdly, Communion wasn’t a sacrament where all were welcome!  Church, itself, was a place of welcome but Communion was seen as special – not so special it couldn’t be celebrated each week – but reserved to the baptised.  Here the Lord fed His people.  Here the simple things of bread and wine – soon divorced from the rest of the meal due to growing numbers – were given greater significance and were seen as signs which, at the very least, pointed to Christ present in their midst.  This meal was only for the baptised who valued it all the more – fragments of bread were taken to the sick who were unable to join the service.   We tend to see Communion as special – which is why we most often limit its celebration but we struggle to articulate why Communion is special, what does, or doesn’t happen at Communion and we wouldn’t dream of telling someone they can’t receive.  

  • What, I wonder, would the Church look like if it expected its members to live without debt, have clearer sexual ethics, see our identities subsumed in Christ, be pacifist and to follow simpler sustainable economics?  Would we block those joining who wouldn’t live like this? 
  • What, I wonder, would our baptismal practice look like if we really expected radical commitment, a turn to Christ so complete that, in the words of the 1970s Catholic rite, the devil was rejected and all his pomp and empty promises.  
  • What, I wonder would our churches look like if we dismissed our wanna-be converts part way through the service, teaching them each week how to be disciples, blessing them on their way but reserving Communion – celebrated weekly as the focus of our worship – for those who had made the radical commitment required to be Christian?

Of course over Church history various attempts have been made to get back to these early practices.  Making membership criteria more demanding always risks the elect becoming rather sanctimonious.  Critiquing the world can soon become petty and focused on secondary issues – Jeanette Winterton’s Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit memorably portrayed a sect like church in northern England were dancing, make-up and pop music were all seen as worldly evils to be avoided but where narrow minded judgmentalism wasn’t.   But if we are to move on from a vague understanding of mission to something where we see God is passionate about our worship, our evangelism, our service of others and our witness to the Gospel we need to take membership more seriously.  We need to re-learn what it is to be radical, how to critique our society, how to work together to change it and to see, in Church Meeting, a key building block for the mutual accountability that is needed.  
 
We may not dismiss the unbaptised before communion, we may not name the sins of those who’d like to join, we may not insist on such radical baptismal promises but we need, and need soon, to see our world as it is, to learn to critique it, and ourselves, that we may be better signs of the Kingdom which we long to come.  Will you pray with me?
 
God of the Church, we ask you to bless us in our time,
that we may learn from how you led the Church of old,
and how you lead us now.
 
Help us to be better disciples, to critique our society,
and to love it enough to want to change it for the better,
that through our lives, your light and love might shine through. Amen.
 
Hymn    Beyond these Walls of Worship
              © Ian Worsfold and Paul Wood performed by Ruth and Joy Everingham and used with their kind permission.
 

Beyond these walls of worship in the stress and joy of life,
can we offer you our bodies as a living sacrifice?
Will we keep you at the centre far beyond the Sunday call?
We’ll return to you, be transformed by you; still declare you God of all?

 

Beyond these walls of worship, in the times of work and rest,
will we display your love for all when are faith’s put to the test?
When the people that surround us deny that you are there,
will we display our faith in you. In life, in praise, in prayer?
 
Beyond the walls of worship may your spirit strengthen us
to make the whole of life our worship as we witness to your love.
From this hour in your presence send us out now to proclaim
that will live our life as a sacrifice to the glory of your name.

 

Affirmation of Faith
 
We believe in God, the Ancient of Days
who designed all creation, from cosmos to crustacean,
and who set humanity the task 
of living in harmony with all the life that teems over mother Earth.  
 
We believe in God, embodied in Jesus,
born poor, exiled due to murderous powers,
preacher of the coming Kingdom, healer and teacher.
Crucified by the religious leaders, 
He died and was buried.
On the third day God raised Him on high,
showing that the powers, even death, are defeated.
He will come again.
 
We believe in God, Enlivening Spirit,
who calls us to be Church,
to see our world as it really is – and to work for change.
We know our baptism changes us,
and at the Lord’s Table we are fed with His own self
until we meet with again with Him, and all whom we love,
in the coming Kingdom. Amen
 
Offertory
 
In the earliest Church the believers lived together, sharing their lives and their goods.  As congregations sprung up over the Roman Empire believers raised money for those in trouble in other areas and learned that they had to support the work of the Church – from looking after abandoned children to helping the poor, from paying for the ministry they had to looking after the vulnerable.  It’s no difference in our own day where we have to return some of what God has given us to support the ministry of the Church in its many and varied ways.  Our baptism reminds us of the radical change that we’ve undergone – our bank balances often remind us of the struggle to stay radical!  So we give, we give as it’s good for us and it helps to change our world.  Let us pray.
 
Eternal God, long ago You called folk to follow you, to change their lives,
to join a radical new movement to change the world.
Bless these gifts of our love, that we return to You,
and help us to see You at work in our world, so we can join in.  Amen.
 
Intercessions
 
Eternal One, Majesty, Word, Spirit,
we bring to You the needs of our world, 
of our nations, of our church and of our own lives,
knowing You hear our prayers, give us grace
and inspire us to make a difference.
 
O God, ancient, yet ever young,
we remember before you the places of pain in our world,
countries at war, nations in chaos, leaders usurping power,
the poor and the earth itself groaning with pain.
Bring to judgement those who do harm to Your people, Your creation;
bless with your wisdom those who work for peace.
In particular we pray for those on the move this day,
families fleeing war, terror and famine; 
youngsters fleeing repression and oppression,
women seeking new lives for themselves and their children;
open our hearts, our wallets and our borders
to Your bedraggled people.
(pause)
O God, embodied in Jesus,
flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone,
we bring to you own nations,
those who can’t afford to pay their bills,
workers no longer earning enough to live,
NHS staff  fed up with claps, exhausted,  
trying to care in a system attacked by predatory elites.
Give us a new understanding, O God, 
of the value of universal health care,
of the solidarity and security that it brings,
and eyes to see the effects of policy.

(pause)

O God, Fire of Love,
we pray for those preparing for baptism this Easter,
that they may see the world as it is,
clearly see what they renounce and affirm,
that the Church, ever young, will be renewed 
and our world changed.
Help us, in our congregation, O God,
to give a firmer witness and to live a deeper discipleship.
 
In a moment’s silence, O God of all compassion,
we remember those we love and worry about, and our own needs
 
(longer pause)
 
Accept, Loving One, all our prayers as we pray as our Saviour taught us,
Our Father…
 
Hymn    O God of Bethel
              Philip Doddrige sung by the choir of Troon Old Parish Church and used with their kind permission.
 

O God of Bethel, by whose hand
thy people still are fed,
who through this earthly pilgrimage
hast all our forebears led;

 

 Our vows, our prayers, 
we now present
before thy throne of grace;
God of our forebears, be the God
of their succeeding race.
 
Through each 
perplexing path of life
our wandering footsteps guide;
give us each day our daily bread,
and raiment fit provide.
 
O spread thy covering 
wings around
till all our wanderings cease,
and at our Father’s loved abode
our souls arrive in peace.
 
Such blessings from
thy gracious hand
our humble prayers implore;
and thou shalt be our chosen God,
and portion evermore.

 

Holy Communion
 
The Lord be with you: and also with you.
Lift up your hearts: we lift them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God:
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
 
It is right and good, O Most High, to give you our thanks and praise,
for you have called us to be Your Church, 
to shine as a light to the nations, to embody Your love, liberty, and life.
Through the waters of baptism,
You call us to live lives worthy of our calling,
to be signs of contradiction to the values of our world,
and to encourage each other to the ways of holiness.
Around this table You meet and nurture Your people, with Your very self.
Through the mystery of this bread and wine You lift us into your presence
and so with the choirs of angels in heaven,
and with all Your creation we sing to Your praise and glory:
 
Ash Grove Sanctus
The Rev’d Michael Forster (b1946) © Kevin Mayhew Ltd 1995 sung by Lucy Bunce
 
O holy, most holy, 
the God of creation,
for ever exalted 
in pow’r and great might.
The earth and the heavens 
are full of your glory.
Hosanna, hosanna 
and praise in the height!
How blessed is He 
who is sent to redeem us,
who puts ev’ry fear and 
injustice to flight;
who comes in the name of 
the Lord as our saviour.
Hosanna, hosanna 
and praise in the height!

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night, in which he was betrayed, 
took bread and when he had given thanks to you, O Most High,
broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying:  Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
 
The same way after supper, he took the cup  and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them and saying:  Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant,  which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.
 
Lord Jesus, we commemorate your death on the Cross, 
we celebrate your resurrection and we await your coming.
 
Eternal God, let your Holy Spirit move in power over us 
and over these earthly gifts of bread and wine, 
that they may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ, 
and that we may become one in him. 
May his coming in glory find us ever watchful in prayer, 
strong in truth and love, and faithful in the breaking of the bread. 
Then, at last, all peoples will be free, all divisions healed, 
and with your whole creation, we will sing your praise, 
through your Son, Jesus Christ. 
Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour are yours, 
almighty Majesty, for ever and ever. Amen
 
To prepare to fed by the Lord’s own hand we sing the Lamb of God:
 
Lamb of God (Ar hyd y nos)
Nick Fawcett © 2008 Kevin Mayhew Ltd, sung by Lucy Bunce
 
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.
In Your mercy, come and heal us; Lord hear our prayer.
Take away our sins, forgive us, Lamb of God restore, redeem us,
grant us peace, Lord, in Your mercy, Lord hear our prayer.
The gifts of God are given for God’s people.  
Eat and drink in God’s presence;
rejoice in food for your souls and rest for your bodies.  
The body and blood of Christ are given for you!
 
Music for Communion     
 
Break Thou The Bread of Life
by Mary Lathbury sung by students at Mansfield College in c1991
 
Post Communion Prayer
 
Having now by faith received the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, let us give thanks:
 
Merciful God of all creation, 
holy Parent of all people through our Lord Jesus Christ 
who united all things in His fullness, 
we join Your whole creation in exultant praise 
of Your bountiful goodness. 
You have now touched us with new life 
and filled us with new hope 
that Your reign will come, 
that the hungry will be fed, 
that the oppressed will be set free from evil, 
that Your reconciling work will be done, 
that love and faithfulness meet together, 
that justice and peace will kiss each other 
and the whole creation filled with your glory.
 
Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honour, power, and might, 
be unto our God, for ever and ever. Amen
 
Hymn    Called By Christ To Be Disciples
Martin Leckebusch (b. 1962)
© 1999, Kevin Mayhew Ltd, Buxhall, Stowmarket, Suffolk BBC Songs of Praise
 

Called by Christ to be disciples
every day in every place,
we are not to hide as hermits
but to spread the way of grace;
citizens of heaven’s kingdom,
though this world is where we live,
as we serve a faithful Master,
faithful service may we give.
  
Richly varied are our pathways,
many callings we pursue:
may we use our gifts and talents
always, Lord, to honour you;
so in government or commerce,
college, hospice, farm or home,
whether volunteers or earning,
may we see your kingdom come.


Hard decisions may confront us, 
urging us to compromise;
still obedience is our watchword — 
make us strong and make us wise!
Secular is turned to sacred, 
made a precious offering,
as our daily lives are fashioned 
in submission to our King.
 
Blessing
 
The peace of God which passes all human understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God,
and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ,
and the blessing of Almighty God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
be with you and all whom you love,
now and always, Amen.

 
 

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