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Archive for January, 2015

Message for Heavenly Host Sunday

January 26, 2015 2 comments

The audio for this message can be heard by clicking the embedded player below.

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Message for Heavenly Host Sunday, 2015

slideshow2_6Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the Gospel reading for this morning Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand and calling disciples to follow Him. These are all present tense verbs. The kingdom of God is happening, right now.

Today is a good example of how a good idea can snowball. It was born in our staff meeting when we were talking about doing something to highlight the school because of the beginning of National Lutheran Schools Week. But as we rolled the idea around, it began to grow. Why not have the school kids come and sing? It would be easier for school parents if there was one service. Why not pray for our school board members? But it kept growing, as I said, “As long as we have one service, we should really capitalize on this opportunity and install the new congregation officers and that way the first service people could see the officers from second service and vice versa.” You get the idea. But it also became a part of a solution to a challenge we have as we look toward the future of the congregation and our school and the start of a new building. We have a number of challenges and we’ll go into some of those, but when I announced the council voted to establish the new building committee was formed it became clear to me that there was a perception challenge, that maybe right now we don’t yet have what we need, the critical mass we need to see this project to the end.

This time of year we all love a nice fire. A couple weeks back, I was at Cracker Barrel sitting in the same room as the big fireplace admiring the fire. At one point, a server came by and just chucked a few logs on the fire. The server didn’t have to fuss with the fire and add more kindling and get out the bellows. He just chucked more logs on and fire grew warmer and burned a little brighter because the fire was already going strong. We don’t really think about it too much but fires are pretty formulaic. They burn because the three elements are there, fuel, oxygen, and heat. Take away any one of those three, they told me in firefighting class, and the fire will go out. It’s actually a great picture of our life together in the church.

With two services, half of us don’t see the other half. How do we know there’s enough to keep it going? How can we burn together? The church has grown over the past 10 years to the point where we outgrew the hall originally built for the church’s social activities. That’s a good problem to have, but it’s still a challenge for us going forward. Now we’re still missing some folks today but I still hope we can see something of the critical mass that the Lord has gathered here to accomplish the kingdom work He’s given us to do in His name.

So let me tell you about some more good things happening here. The first is structural. I’m trying to change the way we think about the work of the kingdom we share. I see us, you and I, at work together in the work of the Gospel in this place for the sake of our community. I believe our Scriptures and so I believe that I was sent by the Lord Jesus to equip you for the work of kingdom service, for the building up of the body of Christ. (Eph 4:12-14) We just had Chaplain Danielsen here yesterday to talk to us about a great ministry idea for supporting and reaching out to military service members and veterans and the whole idea behind this ministry is that it’s not led by the pastor; it’s an area where a group of equipped saints can participate in meaningful Christian service. How exciting! This past fall I’ve been active training our new Stephen Ministers in the first half of 50 hours of training. But already, we have active caring ministry happening in our congregation and this program is only going to grow. And a core concept behind Stephen Ministry is that it doesn’t have to be led by the pastor; it’s an area where well-equipped saints can participate in meaningful Christian ministry. Our school is a continuing expression of what we mean when we say we want our children to be brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph 6:4) and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. With Mrs. Illian on board now for a year and a half, we have leadership that is not only handling the day to day issues that arise but setting a course for the future. One more. Our assimilation group has been working toward smoothing the process for new people joining our congregation. The concept was already in place, so after only some fine tuning from me, we’re ready to give our greeters more specific training so that they know what to do and how better to help a first-time guest feel welcome on Sunday morning. By the way, we’re actually going to need more greeters and we’re going have a greeter training session coming up soon and I’m looking for a captain to be in charge of greeters so that the next training can be led by a greeter and that’s one more area of our work together that you can participate in. We have our elected officers here today. These are the people who said yes not just to the members of the nominating committee but to the Lord when He said, please serve in this way. And yes, we’re still looking for a director of Christian Education to facilitate the congregation’s teaching work like Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. I’ve been praying that the Lord will show us the person He has in mind for this work but so far this hasn’t happened. Maybe today is the day. It is not an overly romantic notion of our life together to think of all these people serving in the church today, the called workers and our elected volunteers and our contracted staff and faculty as fellow workers with Andrew, Peter, James, and John. To think anything less is to think less of the Lord’s own calling to follow after Him .

Do we have some more areas that still need some development. Sure, one of those is outreach. But let me start by asking you a question, when you hear me say “outreach,” what do you hear in your head? You hear “knocking on doors, canvassing,” don’t you? Cold-calling on the telephone. Any salesman will tell you, cold-calling is a special skillset that doesn’t result in immediate sales. You know what does result in sales? Sales. Attracting people by giving them a discount on your product or service. Have you heard of Groupon? It can drive sales for businesses. Well, we can’t offer a sale. We can’t give people 30 percent off their tithe but there are other ways to get people who wouldn’t normally walk onto our campus to come for an event that is less threatening to them than a church service. They’re called entry events. Our Oktoberfest was originally designed to be an entry event, an event where the goal was to see as many people outside our congregation as those from the Heavenly Host family. We probably need to tweak our Oktoberfest so that we really are welcoming folks from outside the church and school but we still need more events like this. Now, they don’t need to be as big as our Oktoberfest, at least not at first, but Jim Groce and Bill Baessler need some help planning some more entry events. Is there a way to partner with our school and expand the fall festival to make it an entry event for the community? Some congregations have sponsored Super Bowl parties at the church. Others have offered Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University not just for their congregation members but for outsiders. Back to our new Operation Barnabas group here. We may have the opportunity to do a community Veterans’ Day event to honor veterans or support military service members and their families. Even if you don’t help directly with the event, the word of mouth publicity for these events is everyone’s job, to invite a friend or family member or help with publicity and advertising. The key is to get the unchurched to participate. I may have to stop using the word outreach until we’ve redefined it by different usage but this could really be an exciting time if we got serious about reaching unchurched people.

I want to talk about one more way you can be a part of outreach. By show of hands, how many of you are on Facebook? How many of you have a hundred “Friends” or more? How many of you follow the congregation’s Facebook page? The world has seen enough cute cat videos. If half of you posted something positive about what was happening at the church or the school and generated some thought around something positive and godly, it would reach tens of thousands of people in less than 24 hours. It may sound trite but it’s true, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

We have incredible resources here at Heavenly Host. We have you. You are some very smart, dedicated, and hardworking people. Each of us has been given knowledge, skills, and abilities that if stacked in the right way and fed well could blaze well into eternity for those who come to the light of the truth of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

Do we have challenges? Sure we do. I don’t even have time to outline them but I’ll name a few of them. We’re not reaching out effectively or enough. I’ve already said that, but it bears repeating. While we have a great strength in our school, it presents several challenges for us not the least of which is a perennial financial challenge. We’ll need to support them even as we work toward good stewardship of both people and financial resources. We have also not yet created an environment where equipped saints have the room to take ownership and grow a ministry area. Call me crazy, but I just don’t think I’m the person to lead a young mother’s Bible study, or head the finance committee, or the new building committee. And not only can I not meet with every committee every time, because I am only one person, but I also don’t want to appear like I’m in charge of that committee. We have people in this church who have more experience in many areas or are better educated than I am and/or have more business sense. I’d be a fool to try to be the wet blanket on the gifts the Lord has put in this church. Could that be risky? Maybe a little. But we can put coordination procedures and accountability measures in place far easier than we can clone me or make me smarter. Those are organizational challenges. What about spiritual challenges?

Jesus said the kingdom of God is here. Do you believe that? If we do, the time is now to follow after Jesus and work together to determine what work the Lord is calling us to do. But I’ll tell you, it’s impossible to share warmth of God’s love with someone if we don’t have it for ourselves. It’s not reasonable to expect unbelievers in the community around us to be drawn to what God is doing among us collectively if it’s not happening for us as individuals. And I’ll say this, it’s almost impossible to accomplish anything for the kingdom of God if we believe we don’t really have to. Hey, I know, we’re Lutheran and I know we say all the time, there’s nothing we can do to be saved and that is absolutely true. There is nothing we can do to contribute to our salvation. We are quick to quote Ephesians 2, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But we sometimes forget to keep reading, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We can’t do anything to merit salvation. But there is something we can do: we can work to make sure our neighbor hears the message of the Gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, the message of God’s pure grace for sinners. This is a unique message in the American church landscape today because here we don’t condemn sinners nor condone sin but confess it and receive the forgiveness Jesus earned for us.

Jesus began His ministry by walking and calling the twelve to follow after Him. He continues His ministry among us today by sending us to make more disciples by baptizing and teaching. He does it through us, often even, even with our weaknesses and failures. He is faithful. It’s His kingdom. The more we keep that in the forefront of our plans, the easier all this is. The kingdom of God is at hand. He has called us all to follow after Him. Let’s get to it. Amen.

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Message for the Baptism of Jesus

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

The audio for this sermon can be heard by clicking the embedded player below.

Mark 1:4-11

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

baptism of JesusThe text for the sermon this morning is the Gospel reading concerning the baptism of Jesus. We will be concerned with verse 4, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Just exactly what was John’s baptism? What effect did it have on the people who received it? Who commanded John’s baptisms and why? What does it mean to us that Jesus was baptized by John, into a baptism of repentance? How you answer these questions is important. Who is Jesus to you? That is the heart of the matter. We might be better to ask the question, “How is Jesus for you?” Well, this morning we find out.

Mark tells us that John was in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark does not record any of John’s initial reluctance to baptize Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, John comes to do one thing—preach the repentance that needs to happen for people to be ready for the coming of the Lord as was foretold by the prophets. The Lord was sending Jesus to the people. They were not ready to receive Him. They needed to know why Jesus came. John told them He came to save the people from their sins. In this way, the Lord sent John to prepare the way by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Bottom line, if you don’t have any sins, you don’t need Jesus.

John came to preach to those who thought they didn’t need Jesus. They could probably could use a number of other things—the Romans to leave, a leader who was really a believer, and what else? Let’s put it this way, they wanted the nation to get back to its religious roots. Any of that sound familiar? But if you asked them, they probably wouldn’t admit to needing salvation from the judgment of the Lord. After all, they were sons of Abraham who didn’t really need Jesus. In many ways we are just like them, when we think that the real problem with our world is those people out there instead of us, you and me. We need to be very careful we are not attempting to rely on our Lutheran pedigree instead of grace of Jesus Christ for our salvation. When we do so, we are relying on something or someone else than Jesus for our salvation.

I remember a few years ago now, when a rather well-known former Lutheran pastor died. His name was Richard John Neuhaus and he was a former Missouri Synod pastor who ended up converting to Roman Catholicism some years ago. Years before he died, while reflecting on what he suffered through the treatment for cancer that he was sure to be his end, he wrote: “When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my won. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of ‘justification by faith alone,’ although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will…look to Christ and Christ alone.”[1]

For that kind of clarity in understanding the Gospel in both his speaking and writing, he will be greatly missed. Pastor Neuhaus knew he needed Jesus.

Stop and think, “Do you need Jesus?” Why? Think about it for just a second. Do you need Jesus? Just stop and think about your own attitudes toward those sinners out there, the real dregs of our society, the prostitutes and the pimps and those who partake of their services, the drug pushers, the murderers, the God-haters. Think about your attitudes toward the Muslims, and the Palestinians and the Hamas leaders and the really twisted criminals you read about in the paper, those who hurt and abuse children, and the atheists. Already I can see in your faces some of the repugnance I just stirred up by mentioning them to you. And I know what you think I’m going to say. You think I’m going to say, we’ll we’re no better than any of them. But you’re wrong. If we think we’re better than they are because we’re Lutheran, or because we have faith, or because we don’t do those bad things like they do, we’re worse than they are. Most of those folks live with the guilt every day that they are sinners but at least they’re not what, that’s right—hypocrites. We’re worse than they are when we trick ourselves into thinking they need Jesus more than we do. Now I’ll grant you that on a completely human level, those are terrible crimes and those kinds of people destroy the very fabric of our society but I’m here to tell you that in God’s eyes, our sin is every bit as bad as theirs. And if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Don’t be tricked into thinking that we’re the good folks and they’re the sinners. We need Jesus.   I need Jesus.

John came to preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you the truth, unless we can honestly recognize in ourselves our need for the forgiveness of sins that Jesus came to bring, we are far from the kingdom of God. Unless we can look upon the so-called sinners of our society with the same love and compassion with which Jesus looked on them in his day, we are far from the kingdom of God. As Christians we must see the atheists and the God-haters and the Muslims as in every bit in need of God’s forgiveness as we were and still are for we sin daily. John came to preach to people like me and you. We need to repent of all our sin. To honestly confess it and hear the forgiveness won by Christ at the cross for all people and for us.

Now we have to find an answer to the question, “What does it mean that Jesus came and was baptized by John into a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” Jesus comes to be baptized as a sinner because he was not one. He came to be baptized as a sinner so that he could be identified with sinners. He came to be baptized into a sinners’ baptism so that we sinners could be baptized into a righteous baptism. When he goes to the cross, he goes in our place, carrying the weight of the sin of the world poured onto him at his baptism in order to suffer under it and receive the full punishment for it that we might not suffer the punishment we truly deserve for our sins. St. Paul tell us in Second Corinthians 5, “God made Him who had no sin, to become sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.” We get baptized to be declared holy in the sight of God. Jesus gets baptized to be a sinner, to be one of us.

If it helps you, think of it in terms of laundry. Sinners being baptized in the water made pure by Jesus death, come out of that water no longer sinners. The dirty laundry doing into the wash machine comes out clean. That’s how significant baptism is. That’s how significant Jesus’ baptism is for us. But then look at Jesus, pure, sinless Jesus, Righteous Son of the Righteous God. Jesus is sinless. Are you going to wash your finest linen table cloth in the same load as your children’s muddy soccer uniform? Of course not, but that is what Jesus is doing by being baptized with a sinners’ repentance.

Away from laundry, back to theology. The catechism teaches us that Jesus became man in order to be born under the law, to act in our place under the law and fulfill it for us and to be able to suffer and die for our guilt because we failed to keep the God’s Law. Jesus does this by what we call His active obedience, in this case it is His being baptized! Jesus is baptized at the beginning of His earthly ministry in order to show us that the salvation He brings is through His perfect obedience to the Law in our place. He fulfilled the righteousness of God here at His baptism and again by obeying the Law of God even unto death. Just after He is baptized, we hear the benevolent proclamation of the Heavenly Father, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” The Word from heaven is the announcement that indeed the Father is well pleased with His Son’s obedience and in Jesus’ obedience we have our salvation. This is what Jesus’ baptism is all about.

We are in the Season of the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. The season starts with the arrival of the Wise Men who know that this baby on Mary’s knee is the king of Kings. It continues today with the revelation of the voice from heaven that Jesus is the Son of God. In 5 weeks time, the season will end with the same voice from heaven announcing on the transfiguration mount that Jesus is His Son. And the next time we hear that Jesus is the Son of God is from the centurion “who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” Baptism. Transfiguration Mount. Cross. Jesus for you, dear Christian.

Remember that your baptism is a gift that is powered by nothing else than the loving actions of Jesus. At baptism all the reality of the cross is brought to us through the conduit of the promise attached to the water. Know that in your baptism you are loved by God your heavenly Father. And having been loved by God, let us truly love one another. Amen.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus.  Death on a Friday Afternoon.  New York: Basic Books, 2000, p. 70.

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Message for Christmas Morning

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

The audio for this sermon can be heard by clicking the triangle in the embedded player below.

John 1:1-14

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

4167382731_2897034090The text for the sermon this Christmas morning is the Gospel just read, those ethereal words from the beginning of John’s Gospel focusing on one thought, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we saw his Glory, the glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

These words from John’s Gospel are deep words. They are deep because they go all the way back to the beginning. “In the beginning” of John’s Gospel harkens us back to the beginning of the Scriptures, Genesis 1, “In the beginning.” There we read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” From John’s Gospel we know that the Word was there in the beginning. Before all things, the Word was there. In fact all things were created through the Word, for it was that God spoke, and it was. “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” These are deep words.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid and I was learning to swim, I splashed around in the shallow end of the pool for a long time. I learned to float on my back and more or less get accustomed to the water. But there came a day when it was time to see if I really knew how to swim. I was tossed into the deep end of the pool. I came up sputtering and kicking and treading water and splashing because I couldn’t touch the bottom. These words at the beginning of John’s gospel are like that in many ways, we cannot touch the bottom of them because they have no bottom. Their bottom is eternity. And all around them is kind of fluid too like water. Word. Life. Light. Darkness. John is a witness to the Light. John was not the light but a witness to the Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. The Light came to the dark world. The Light gives men a chance to be born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. These words are quite different from “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Those words are anchored in time and place. The beginning for John is THE BEGINNING, before time. Reading John 1 is like being thrown into the deep end of the pool at least until we reach verse 14, until we get to these words, “And the Word became flash and dwelt among us.”

At these words, the infinite God of timeless eternity enters into and submits Himself to be bound by time. I don’t know if you ever watch any science fiction. Seems like I used to watch more when I was younger but I was always intrigued with how the filmmakers portrayed travelling through the in between spaces of time. There was always some sort of windy tube undulating in space through which the characters were usually flying or tumbling. When I read these first lines of John’s Gospel, I don’t know, maybe I watched too much sci-fi as a kid but I kind of imagine those depictions of eternity until I get to these words “And the word was made flesh.” If I was the filmmaker, I would have James Earl Jones doing the narrating and all that spindly wormhole stuff going on and music crescendoing and then whoosh to a shot of a single cell beginning to divide into two in the reddish twilight of the womb of Mary zooming out to watch her mending clothes or preparing supper. Whatever she would be doing it would be completely ordinary because that’s what happened. With these words, John is attempting to describe the indescribable reality that infinite Word of God, begotten of the Father, took on human flesh and was born into the very ordinary, sin-darkened world of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem.

When I was in seminary, I got fussed at one day for using a word incorrectly. The word I tried to use to describe what the eternal Jesus did when he became flesh was “transcend.” I had said something along the lines of “Jesus transcended heaven and came to earth.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. First off, the word means go up, or to pass beyond the limits. What I had meant to say was that Jesus had crossed over into our world from eternity. Now, there are a lot of religions that use this word transcend and what they mean is that through faith we, we must transcend, we must go past the limits of what normally holds us back whether in our experience of the divine or the eternal, or on a human level travel past what hold us back in our service to one another. These ideas are not bad but they are not Christian ideas. If we transcend, it means we go up to eternity. And in these religions we would then be seeking a series of transcendent experiences where we escape these limits that flesh and blood place on us and deal with God in spirit and in truth. Except that is not what Jesus did.

Jesus knows that we cannot do that. He knows that we cannot go up to him. We cannot meditate long enough or fast long enough or prepare ourselves in any way properly enough to go up to heaven and meet him there. Our sinfulness and our fleshliness and our createdness anchor us in time and place and cannot, in fact, transcend it. And he never intended us to. Christianity is in fact quite a different religion from the rest of the world’s religions. We believe that we do not enter eternity so much as our Lord, Jesus leaves eternity to dwell with us, to take on our human flesh and is in every way human, and flesh and blood and bone like us and becomes anchored with us into time to travel with us. In fact he was like us in every way except that he was without sin. He took on human flesh so that he might carry in his body, our sins and our frailty, our weakness and our pain. All of that he carried in his own body to the cross. And there at the cross we behold his glory full of grace and truth.

The eternal Word, begotten of the Father, there at the beginning, before all things were made, came down from heaven and was made man and he dwelt among us. When I would get thrown into the pool as a kid, it seemed like my mom or someone else was always close by to make sure that I didn’t get overwhelmed by the instability of the water around me and could reach out at any time to save me and often did until I learned to swim and I guess here is where this particular metaphor starts to break down. But allow me one more extension of it. The Lord knew that Israel would need to know he was there with them in the desert and so he dwelt with them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night and those pillars were called, the kavod Yahweh, the glory of the Lord. It was the real presence of the Lord for Israel’s leadership and protection and benefit. Once Israel had settled in the Promised Land and Solomon built the first Temple, the Lord went and dwelt there in the holy of holies. And all Israel knew that in the holy of holies of the temple dwelt the glory of the Lord. On that first Christmas morning when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, we beheld His glory, His divine presence for our benefit. And not content that we should have simply glimpsed Him at one point in time, Jesus promises to abide in us even as we abide in him and it is the real presence of the Lord that we insist is here at this altar whenever we eat and drink this bread and wine according to His command and promise.

We behold the glory of the Lord through the signs and miracles of his birth, the star, the angelic choirs, the piety of the shepherds, the miraculous birth of a virgin, and then later through the signs and miracles of his life and ministry on earth. But we see the glory of God not just in Jesus’ miracles and wonders but also in his suffering. We behold his glory in that he was nailed upon the cross, that he was scourged and beaten and despised and humiliated.

We rejoice this Christmas morning that the Word was made flesh for us and dwelt among us on our behalf and brings to us knowledge of the inestimable love of God our Father who sent Him. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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Catching up on the blog here

January 26, 2015 Leave a comment

catching-upIn an effort to catch up, I’m going to post just two sermons before this past Sunday’s, Christmas, the Baptism of Jesus, and this past Sunday’s message for Heavenly Host Sunday.

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2014 in review

January 7, 2015 Leave a comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 40 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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