Would that God’s Spirit were on all of us

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“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Watching for the Morning of September 30, 2018

Year B

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 21 / Lectionary 26

It doesn’t seem right to read the second half of psalm 19 about the goodness of God’s law without having read the beginning of the psalm that declares “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” The beauty, harmony and order we see in the stars is found in God’s ordering of human life by the Torah/teaching/“law” given to Israel: “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul… making wise the simple… rejoicing the heart… enlightening the eyes… enduring forever.” God’s commands to live faithfulness and mercy are “sweeter also than honey” and more desirable than gold.

Into the chaos of this last week, and the wrenching trauma of sexual assault, raging anger, and bitter partisanship, comes this sweet word about God’s gracious ordering of the world.

But our readings, Sunday, start with bitter complaint. Israel is in the wilderness craving meat and imagining that life had been wonderful in the old days. They dream of melons and cucumbers, forgetting that Pharaoh made life bitter and sought to kill their children. Moses, too, cries out in bitterness that God has entrusted him to care for such a people. God answers with the commission of the seventy elders upon whom a share of the Spirit is given. But it is the story of Eldad and Medad to which the narrative drives. They were not with the others when the Spirit was given. They were still in the camp. Joshua would have Moses silence them. But Moses answers instead: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”

Where Joshua would seek to control and limit God’s work; Moses wants to see it spread. And so then we hear Jesus with disciples who also want to control and limit God’s work: “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” He wasn’t on our team. He wasn’t one of us. We can’t allow him to succeed – even though he was freeing people from demons.

We are living in the sorrows of partisanship. And Christians have been brutally successful at tribalism through the ages. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord welcomed all. Pretty disgraceful given that our Lord said it was better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be cast into the sea rather than cause anyone to waver in their allegiance to Jesus. And it is better to cut off your hand or tear out your eye – the punishment for lawbreakers still in some parts of the world – than betray God’s reign of mercy and life.

Moses was right. Would that God’s Spirit were upon all of us.

The Prayer for September 30, 2018

Holy and Gracious God,
before whom the least of your children bear an eternal name,
season us with your Spirit
that we may never drive away those whom you call near;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 30, 2018

First Reading: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” – Moses cries out to God about the burden of caring for this rebellious people, and God puts his Spirit upon seventy elders to share the leadership. Two of the elders, Eldad and Medad, are not present with the others on Mount Sinai and begin prophesying in the camp. Moses’ aid, Joshua, wants Moses to silence them. Moses wants all God’s people to possess the Spirit.

Psalmody: Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.”
– The psalm sings of God’s wondrous ordering of the world, beginning with the majesty of creation, and then the gift of God’s law.

Second Reading: James 5:13-20
“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”
– The author urges the Christian community to mutual care and absolution.

Gospel: Mark 9:38-50
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” – The disciples show their failure to understand the reign of God present in Jesus and he summons them to the radical commitment that the reign of God requires: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Statue_tripping.jpg By Bianca Bueno (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

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Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority – as if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief. They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth. It is the cry of despair born of grief. It is the parent or lover who wish they could have died in place of their beloved.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were blamed for Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. However cruel and harsh life in Egypt had been, they had lives and homes there. Now it is gone and they are in a cruel desert: weary, hungry, thirsty, and far from a home of any kind. We can see why they would say it would have been better to have died in Egypt.

What they find in the wilderness is mercy. However easy it may be to mock their faithlessness after the wonders they have seen, this is a story about mercy. God saw. God heard. God provided. There is language in the story about faithlessness and testing, but first we find mercy.

God does not provide them with riches. What God gives is bread enough for the day. But it is enough. And slowly it leads them forward. Step by step it leads them towards their encounter with God at Sinai. Day by day it sustains them until they find rest in a new land.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the promise of life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

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This post is adapted from the post From Grace into Grace in 2015.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWeltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_103r_detail2.jpg By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bread from heaven

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Watching for the Morning of August 5, 2018

Year B

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

It takes three hours each day to grind by hand enough flour for a household of five or six. It is a burdensome task passed off to the lowest ranking (newest) daughter-in-law of a family compound. And this is only the last labor in the long chain of plowing, sowing, reaping, winnowing. Daily bread was the central occupation of ninety percent of the population.

And hunger was familiar. We need to remember the food insecurity of the ancient world when we hear about the feeding of the five thousand and all that follows in John’s Gospel. The Biblical narrative is full of references to famine. It is not just the backdrop for great stories like the widow of Zarephath or the journey of Jacob’s sons to Egypt for grain – a journey that has them bowing at the feet of the brother they sold into slavery in fulfillment of young Joseph’s prophetic dreams. Famine and hunger are persistent realities in the Biblical world. Drought, locusts, marching armies – a year’s hope can be lost quickly. And the tax burden at the time of Jesus and tenancy requirements of the landless took half of your crop. So when this Jesus is able to turn five small loaves into food for five-thousand (plus women and children) it is understandable they want to make him king. These were barley loaves – the food of the poor – and there were twelve baskets left over!

Now Jesus has to fight off the crowd. This bread was a sign pointing to something other than our bellies. There is a bread here that is eternal. There is a life here that is imperishable. The new and abundant wine, the living water, the birth from above, the word made flesh – it is here before us in the word and person of this Jesus, bearing to us the life that abides.

Sunday we listen to the first part of Jesus’ encounter with those who ate their fill. He will press us to see beyond our bellies, past our wants, needs and fears, past the perishable to the imperishable, to that life of loyalty to and trust in the embodied Word of God, the living incarnation of God’s voice, the way of compassion and truth and all that is eternal.

In preparation for this word of Jesus we will hear first the story of Israel murmuring in the wilderness, ready to abandon the way of God for the fleshpots of Egypt. We will sing the psalm about God’s faithfulness in providing manna even when the people showed no trust in God. And then, just before we hear the words of Jesus about the bread of life, we will hear the author of Ephesians urging us to live this transcendent life:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

Daily bread is life, but ordinary bread and the life it sustains perishes. Before us stands a bread from heaven, a love immeasurable, a truth enduring, calling us into his imperishable life.

The Prayer for August 5, 2018

Heavenly Father,
you sustained your people through the wilderness
with manna from heaven;
sustain us through the days of our lives
by the presence of him who is the true bread of life,
your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 5, 2018

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” – Delivered from bondage in Egypt, but now running out of food in the wilderness, the people cry out that it would have been better to perish with full bellies than follow God into freedom.

Psalmody: Psalm 78:22-29 (appointed 23-29)
“He rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.”
– The poet sings of the faithfulness of God who provided for the people in the wilderness.

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
– The author begins his exhortation for the community to live in keeping with the grace of God they have experienced in Christ.

Gospel: John 6:24-35
“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” – The crowds seek Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand, but Jesus challenges them to see that the true bread from heaven was not the manna God gave them in the wilderness. The true life-giving bread is present to them in Jesus.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Krzy%C5%BC_w_lesie_-_Grabarka.jpg By Kornelia Głowacka [CC BY-SA 3.0 pl (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/pl/deed.en)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Tested

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Watching for the Morning of February 14, 2016

Year C

The First Sunday in Lent

We are reading Luke out of order now that we have entered the festal season of Lent, going back and jumping forward (and even adding a Sunday from John) to capture themes for this season that leads us to the three days from the Last Supper on the evening of Maundy Thursday through the cross and resurrection. So where we had been reading about Jesus in Nazareth, we jumped forward to the Transfiguration last Sunday (to match the words from Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the previous season) and now, on this first Sunday in Lent, we are looking back to the narrative of Jesus tested in the wilderness.

It’s a little disorienting and leads to the perception that the Gospels are like bags of marbles rather than dramas with a beginning, middle and end that bear a message for a time and a place. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is not a collection of sayings from the time of the Salem Witch Trials; it is a narrative for a nation in the midst of the anticommunist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era.  It intends to help us see ourselves and our time.  It intends to change our hearts – and so, too, the Gospels.

So as we hear the Gospel read on Sunday we need to remember where we are in the story: We’ve heard of the wondrous birth of John, the angel’s message to Mary, the promise of a kingdom without end, Mary’s song of the righting of the world, John’s exhortation to begin now to live the life of the coming kingdom, and Jesus, baptized, anointed with the Spirit, with the voice from heaven declaring: “You are my son.” It is a claim that must be tested, and tested it is. The devil comes to urge him to be less than he is – to be like God’s people who clamored for bread, bowed down before the golden calf, and tested God in the wilderness.

But Jesus proves true. He does not break faith. He trusts fully in God’s word.

Created

File:Heavens Above Her.jpgDuring Lent each year our parish focuses upon one portion of the catechism – this year, the Apostles’ Creed. The themes of the coming five Sundays are: Created, Redeemed, Called, Gathered, Enlightened.

“God has created me and all that exists” is the line from Luther’s Small Catechism that guides our first week. The genius in Luther’s brief explanation to the first article of the creed is the word ‘me’. The creed does not set out a doctrine of God; it is proclaims a relationship. God has created me. God has surrounded me with all the bounty of creation. God provides me with all I need for no reason other than God’s goodness. It is all gift – and that proclamation leads to the recognition: “Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him.”

It misses the point to argue creation versus evolution. What the faith confesses is not a theory of origins; the faith confesses a loving presence to whom I belong, to whom I owe fealty, to whom I owe praise and thanksgiving.

The Prayer for February 14, 2016

In the mystery of your love, O God,
you called forth the world
and formed us from the dust of the earth and the breath of your Spirit.
In the wonder of your Son, Jesus,
you show the pattern of true faithfulness.
Make us ever true to your Word
and confident of your mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for February 14, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” – When Israel enters into the land, they are to bring an offering of the first fruits, recite the story of what God has done for them, and celebrate God’s goodness.

Psalmody: Psalm 91 (appointed: 91:1-2, 9-16)
“You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
– The psalmist proclaims the protective love of God (a psalm the devil quotes in testing Jesus).

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13
“If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” – Paul is arguing that we are restored to a right relationship with God not by outward acts of obedience to the law, but by trusting allegiance to God’s promise.

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
– Following the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon Jesus and the declaration from God “This is my Son”, the devil tests Jesus, seeking to show him unworthy of such a title.

 

Image: Briton Rivière – The Temptation in the Wilderness [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Image 2: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHeavens_Above_Her.jpg  By Ian Norman (http://www.lonelyspeck.com) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

From grace into grace

File:Weltchronik Fulda Aa88 103r detail2.jpg

Saturday

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority. As if I would not have been among the grumblers.

It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.

The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.

So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.

I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.

But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief.

“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth.

Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?

It is the cry of despair born of grief.

Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were the cause of Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.

But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.

“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”

It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.

In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.”   They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life.   It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.

In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.

The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.

There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.

Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.

 

Image: By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The power to heal

Friday

Numbers 21:4-9

File:Staff at Sunset.jpg

Brazen Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni atop Mount Nebo

8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

There is no magic in the bronze serpent. No power in the image. The power is in the promise of God and their trust in that promise.

I suppose God could have said, “stand on your head and you will be healed,” and it could have functioned in the same way, as an act of trust. But that would have been more magical than looking at the bronze serpent. For the bronze serpent is an image not only of the plague, but their own bitter, poisonous words. The bronze serpent is the truth of who they have become and what has happened to them. To look on the bronze serpent is to take the first step in rehab: to admit they are powerless over their addiction. It speaks the truth about themselves.

We are vipers. We are a brood of snakes. We have become the offspring of the cursed one who turned our first parents from trusting God. And if the limp and broken body of the holy incarnation of God is not enough to convince you of this, then consider the masses of humanity that have been hacked, shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, hanged, gassed, poisoned, irradiated and burned to a crisp in the last century – or just allowed to perish from starvation. They are all present in the body of the crucified one.

We are vipers. We are crucifiers. Healing and confession go together. There is no healing without truth.

There is no requirement that the people feel badly about their bitter words against God. Confession is not about the feelings of guilt – it is about the objective reality of guilt. This is who they are. This is what they have done. Speaking that truth opens the door for God’s healing.

But in the bronze serpent they are not only looking at the truth of their bitter tongues. They see not only the consequence of their rebellion. They see also the promise of God to forgive. God does not hold their sin against them. God wants to heal them. God wants to create faith and trust and fidelity in them.

And in us.

And so we can see why Jesus says he must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. We, too, must see the fruit of our rebellion from God. We must see the truth of the violence in the heart of humankind. We must acknowledge the bitter poison on our tongues. We must recognize our distance from our true humanity. We must see the truth.

But there, in the crucified one, we see also the promise of God to heal and forgive.

There is no magic, here. The power is in that promise – and our trust in that promise.

 

By JoTB (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons