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When I first moved to this area, I heard about a dessert called Smith Island cake. Smith Island cake was a specialty of Deacon Tom's late wife Lucy. Smith Island cake hails from Smith Island which is Maryland's only inhabited island in the Chesapeake Bay. The cake is made up of very thin layers of sponge cake with icing between each thin layer - eight layers in all. It's a thing to behold ... and will blow your diet with one bite!

My family had a similar cake specialty from Scandinavia known as blotekage which we served at Easter. It was four layers of sponge cake with fruit fillings between the layers - one pineapple, one apricot, and one raspberry - and all slathered in whipped cream. I was methodical in eating this: I began with the pineapple first, then the apricot, and then I saved the raspberry for last (I love raspberries!). But needless to say, just like that Smith Island cake, you only ate a small sliver!

I think scripture is much like those layer cakes. We begin our encounter with the word at the outer layer and as we read and reread the scriptures, new things pop out for us as we work our way down the layers of meaning. Thomas Aquinas taught that there were at least four ways, or layers if you will, of how we interpret scripture: literal, metaphorical, ethical, and transformational. Different layers are apparent to us at different times.

For me, reaching the raspberry filling layer of scriptural encounter was when I entered seminary and learned Greek. I enjoy languages and I learned there are times when the scriptures are downright cryptic and quite difficult to translate. This often happens when we encounter the idioms - those unique phrases in every language that really have no simple, direct translation. In today's Gospel reading, we encounter one of those quirky idioms.

We are early in Mark's narrative about the ministry of Jesus and we encounter him teaching in the synagogue. A man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus with a question: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" If you consult different translations, you'll find this question rendered in a variety of forms. One of my Bibles has him saying, "Leave us alone, Jesus of Nazareth!" The reason is that in the Greek, we encounter a very strange phrase which literally translated is, "What to you and to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" Hmmm ... "What to you and to us" ... seems like we have something missing here ... like ... a verb? This is a strange phrase and not typical of Mark's narration style, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. What does one do with this curious phrase?

Translators have struggled with this for centuries - hence the variety of ways it comes across in English. But given the rules of engagement for Greek translation and that the word translated as "what" can also be translated as "who," I'm going to suggest another way to render this. It could also be translated, "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" Now there's a very pointed question!  It is not a neutral question either - it is one which demands an answer. Anyone who has ever hear the name of Jesus of Nazareth must answer the questions: "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" and "Who are you to me?"

I suggest these two questions are the focus of the season of Epiphany. In every Gospel reading, we are hearing stories of people who encounter Jesus and have to answer these questions: "Who are you to us?" and "Who are you to me?" I'm going to give you spiritual "homework" today. Take these two questions and make them central to your prayer life for the remainder of the Epiphany season. "Who are you to us ... here at Grace Church?" and "Who are you to me?"

Now I know when you do this, there's a little voice in your head that will want to quickly answer these questions. That voice ... the one that just said, "What little voice in my head is she talking about?" That is the voice of your left brain - the logical part of your mind which will jump to the front and want to quickly answer the question posed. The Buddhists call this the "chattering monkey" brain. Try to be still with these questions and don't fall for the quick answer of the chattering monkey which will, invariably, answer with the standard fare: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Messiah, Son of God, Redeemer, etc. Those are other people's words ... they are not yours. Instead, sit with these questions: "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" / "Who are you to me?"

In a few short weeks, we will turn a corner in our Church year from Epiphany, with it's focus on "Who are you to us, Jesus?" to the season of Lent where we turn to self-examination and ask the question, "Who are we to you, Jesus?" / "Who am I to you?"

As you ponder the questions of who Jesus is, also remember the unclean spirit asks, "Have you come to destroy us?" This is also a disturbing question, but one we should not fear. We know there are those things within and without which are not of God - the "unclean spirits" lurking in our selves, our homes, churches and communities. There are things which need to be destroyed, to die, so that new life can emerge. We need not fear when the answer comes that something in us needs to die in order for God to raise us to new life. This is the hope of the resurrection which is promised to us.

As we engage the questions "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth? Who are you to me?", may another layer of faith and trust be revealed in our  walk with Christ.
 
 
_Have you ever made a decision in life and then found yourself either in over your head or at least somewhere you didn’t think you’d be? Maybe it was taking that advanced placement class that was probably 10 times harder than the corresponding college course and ending up overwhelmed. Maybe it was taking the job that turned out to be totally different than what you thought it would be – either for good or … not. Maybe it was something joyful like falling in love and getting married … only to find out, as all married couples do, that marriage requires us to negotiate difference and even … <gasp> … to change. Our lives are punctuated by choices we make where we really don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. This whole week I've had the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime going through my mind as I've wrestled with the gospel reading. The song asks those "big questions": "You may ask yourself, 'How did I get here?'" "And you may ask yourself, 'Where does this highway go to?'" We resonate with those questions because that's the journey of life and the journey of call - it leads us to places we’d never expect and sometimes we're overwhelmed by it all.

In today’s gospel reading, we hear about the call of the first disciples of Jesus. Our collect for this morning begins “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.” Certainly, Simon, Andrew, James and John all answered this call readily – or in Mark’s favorite word “immediately” – as they dropped everything to follow Jesus. Mark’s paucity of detail makes this call somewhat unsettling for us. We’ve wrestled with this in our Coffee Talk Bible study. What made these fishermen chuck it all to follow Jesus? In a culture where family honor depended upon supporting your family and often continuing in the family business like James and John seem to be doing, this seemingly sudden change is shocking. In addition, these disciples certainly had no idea of what this call would demand of them or the unforeseeable “over their head” moments which would come.

Perhaps if we this of this call as more of a process than a punctiliar, one-time event it might make more sense. One of the things I value greatly about our Anglican heritage is that we do not view call and conversion as one-time events but rather as ongoing processes in the spiritual life. This idea of spiritual life as process comes out in the opening words of the Gospel reading where Jesus uses the terms repent and believe. In the Greek, they take the form of “repent and keep on repenting” and “believe and keep on believing” – both of which support the idea that repentance and believing are processes not singular events. Call and conversion are also processes. Mark does not give us a back story on the disciples, but it is very likely they had a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the way things were. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was working on them for some time before Jesus showed up. Perhaps it was being fed up with the burdens of Roman occupation. Maybe it was the monotony of casting nets in the water over and over and over. Perhaps this call to follow Jesus was the tipping point where the invitation drawing them out of their small lives of fishing on the Sea of Galilee and into participating in something much bigger than themselves was just irresistible.

The nature of call is journey not destination – it is process and not event – and it is NOT about wearing a collar. Each of us is called by Christ to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation and redeeming love in this very hurting world. The call to follow Christ changes over the course of our lifetimes and moves us to different situations and relationships not of our own choosing. Each phase in this journey will challenge us to change and grow and there will be times we feel completely overwhelmed. It is a journey which leads to those “over your head” moments where we encounter our limitations and finitude – but paradoxically those are the very moments we encounter God’s grace. We likely will not feel it at that point of being overwhelmed but we can see it in hindsight.

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I encountered families who accepted the call of Christ and through that call were moved to care for their dying loved one in their home. Contrary to the myth that a dying person is a “burden” on their family, the caregivers I worked with would describe their experience as a privilege and a blessing. However, make no mistake - caring for a dying person is hard and it is overwhelming. The nature of this work draws family and friends out of their comfort zone to do things they never would have imagined. I recall one case of a woman in Hancock whose son took care of her. Her son was almost 60 and a bit rough around the edges. He had been a railroad engineer, an equestrian stuntman in many western and Civil War movies, a musician, and a long haul truck driver. He was a disaffected Roman Catholic with unresolved issues about church. He was kind of a long haired gruff country type – not exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to be caring for his dying mother. But Butch had a sense of obligation to his mom and I believe God placed that sense of obligation in him to call him to something bigger than himself. When I met him, he was worried about what would happen as his mother lost her faculties. He didn’t think he could give his mother a bed bath or help her to the toilet. And yet, when his mother came to those points where he needed to step up and do things he didn’t think he could do … he did them … and he did a good job. We’ve talked since his mother died and he looks back at that time with some amazement that he was able to do many things he’d never imagined himself doing. And as one who watched this journey unfold, I daresay some of his rougher edges became just a bit more polished – a bit more gentle. God’s grace and the support of a hospice team gave him the ability to be more than he’d ever imagined he could be.

Christ’s call to follow him requires a response from each of us. He calls us to be disciples, to go into situations and places not of our choosing, to risk the changes which must come, and to trust that when we are overwhelmed God is still present with us. Each of us lives this call as we respond to the needs of family, friends, coworkers, fellow students and even complete strangers. Christ calls you to proclaim through your words and actions the good news of God’s redeeming love. It’s up to you to answer the call readily.
 
 
_When I moved here from California back in 1988, I found it rather curious that people back here would ask, “What high school did you go to?” I would tell them, “Edison High” and that would usually bring about a quizzical look. I’d then explain it was “Edison High School in Huntington Beach California” and then they would say “OOOHHHH! You’re not from around here.” I came to learn over time that the question of what high school you attended was a way of asking not only where you came from but who you are – your values, your family connections, your history. I didn’t really understand this because California is a very transient place. If you stayed in the same place for more than about two hours, you were likely to have a street named after you. Not so in Maryland … people want to know where you come from.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel doesn’t seem terribly impressed with where Jesus came from! One cannot hear this passage without the snark … “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I find it interesting that Philip, who bears a Greek (not Hebrew) name, is called directly by Jesus. Philip then, in turn, goes to his friend Nathaniel (a Hebrew name meaning “Gift from God”) to tell him about finding the true Gift from God, Jesus – the one about whom Moses and the prophets had spoken. But then Philip tells him where Jesus comes from – he’s the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Now any good Jewish scholar would know better than to believe the Anointed one would come from Nazareth! The prophets are clear – Bethlehem, the city of David and out of the tribe of Judah would be from where the Messiah hails … not Nazareth in Galilee. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Can anything good come out of … Brunswick? You heard me … can anything good come out of Brunswick? Nazareth wasn’t the only place in history with a questionable reputation. I was at a house blessing for my friends Katrina-Marie and Brett Meacham on Epiphany and there were two women at the party who hail from Brunswick – both graduates of Brunswick High School. One of them asked me if I knew the town’s unofficial motto. I said, “No … lay it on me.” She said, “Heels, whores and liquor stores!”* Hmm … really?! I fact checked this … with Roma Hebb. I told her I’d heard about an unofficial motto for Brunswick … and she shot back with, “Heels, whores and liquor stores,”* She even said this was once in the paper! Yes, Brunswick has a … reputation. Can anything good come out of Brunswick?

I think Philip’s response to Nathaniel’s cutting remark is poignant: “Come and see.” He doesn’t argue or try to force Nathaniel to see things his way, Philip merely says, “Come and see.” You cannot force someone into a new understanding, a new belief, or a new identity … but you can invite them to “come and see.” Nathaniel takes Philip up on his offer and goes to meet Jesus and Jesus does not ask anything about Nathaniel’s past. Instead he tells Nathaniel the truth about himself: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” No deceit … Nathaniel may be wrong, but he is sincere! Jesus doesn’t ask Nathaniel about his past or where he is from – perhaps because it is irrelevant. Jesus tells him who he is right now – an Israelite in whom there is no deceit. When Nathaniel is amazed and converted by Jesus’ words, he receives a promise: “You will see greater things than these.”

Philip’s invitation to Nathaniel to “come and see” had nothing to do with the past – the past of family origins, hometown or personal history. Come and see was an invitation to be present with Jesus here and now and a promise of hope for a future. It answered Nathaniel’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Over 2,000 years of history rings with a resounding “Yes, something (better yet, someone) good DID come out of Nazareth!” Can anything good come out of Brunswick? You are the Body of Christ here in this community – the answer depends upon you. Will Christ’s love and forgiveness be present here? Will we reach out to the last, lost, little, least and lifeless in Christ’s name? Will you invite others to “come and see” the good things happening here at Grace and be a part of this community?

Can anything good come out of … Brunswick? I believe it can … and Christ is counting on you to make it so.

* Vestry member Joyce Weddle reports that the "unofficial motto" was originally "Heels, Hores and liquor stores" - the Hores being a family who lived in town. Over time, the saying became a bit more colorful!
 
 
Father Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation wrote this for his meditation today:

"The Magi, certainly neither Jews nor Christians, read God’s presence in the night sky. Today some would dismiss them as New Agers, yet look where their wonder led them.

'Wondering' is a word connoting at least three things:
  • Standing in disbelief,
  • Standing in the question itself,
  • Standing in awe before something.
Try letting all three 'standings' remain open inside of you. This is a very good way to grow spiritually, as long as the disbelief moves beyond mere skepticism or negativity.

When Scholastic philosophy was at its best (in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries), the development of an idea proceeded by what the great teachers called the questio (Latin, “to seek”). Our English word “quest” comes from that same understanding. The systematic asking of questions opened up wonder and encouraged spiritual curiosity, refining the question itself instead of just looking for the perfect answer. I am sure the Magi’s questions changed before, during, and after their epiphany."

January 6th was the Feast of the Epiphany. This word "epiphany" means to come to a new understanding about something. We might call it an "a-ha!" moment where suddenly we receive a new insight we had never experienced before.

Today we observe the Baptism of Jesus and hear Mark's rather sparse account of this event - which has an "a-ha" element. Last Tuesday, we began our Coffee Talk Bible Study and looked at this very passage. What we discovered is the text left us with some uncomfortable questions.
  • If John's baptism was about confession of sin and repentance, why did Jesus (the sinless one) participate in it?
  • Why did Jesus seek out John in the first place?
  • Did Jesus need to repent? If so, of what?
These aren't questions we can really answer as the text does not give us much of anything. What we can say with confidence is that Jesus had an epiphany about his stature before God. We don't always think of Jesus as one who engaged in a spiritual journey. It's tempting to think of him as being "fully and spiritually mature" from the beginning. But if we take Mark on Mark's terms, we know nothing of Jesus' childhood and suddenly here he is with John being baptized in the Jordan. The heavens open, the Spirit descends and a voice says, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." What immediately follows this text is that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days. Mark does not tell us if others heard the voice from heaven. Perhaps only Jesus himself heard it and his time in the wilderness was one of testing that voice's proclamation. We don't really know - but we do know Jesus' self-understanding and sense of call changed at his baptism.

And this is something we share with Jesus because our baptism changes us too. Many of us cannot remember our baptisms. Those who were baptized as older children or adults do remember it and it is a powerful memory. But whether we remember or not, we are changed.

I wrote a three part article a few years back about what baptism does for us. In religious "technical terms" it was about the ontology of baptism. Ontology is one of those "hundred dollar theological terms" which really just means the essence of your being - your core identity. I believe three things happen to your core identity, your ontology, at baptism.

First, you become a Minister of the Church. You are not a volunteer - you are a Minister. If you turn to page 855 in your Book of Common Prayer, you'll find a section of the Catechism about the Ministers of the Church: "The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons." Notice the order! Lay persons are the first and largest order of ministry in the Church - this happens at your baptism. When I was ordained a deacon, my mother gave me a card an in it was the linen cloth which was used to dry my forehead on March 14, 1965 when I was baptized at Clairemont Lutheran Church in San Diego California. She wrote in the card, "I want you to remember your first ordination." Baptism makes you a Minister of the Church! So the questions you ask are not whether or not you will minister - you are a minister. Instead you ask, "What ministry is God calling me to do?" "Where will I do this ministry?" "How will I do this ministry?"

Second, you become a Steward of God's good creation instead of a consumer of resources. When we are baptized, our focus changes from consuming goods and services to thinking more broadly about how we relate to the whole of creation. Just because I can buy a "gas guzzler" truck, does it mean I should? What will be my total investment? What is the carbon footprint? Will this vehicle help us conserve non-renewable resources? You see the questions change as we become aware of what our needs are and what our wants are. I have a degree in Marketing and let me tell you I can take any want you have and turn it into a need ... at least a perceived need. Our consumerist culture is really good at that! But as Stewards, we are called to ask deeper questions about how we care for God's creation in responsible ways.

Third, you become an Evangelist to tells good news. I know, the "E" word can be a little unnerving. I think this is mainly because the word has been hijacked by those who would prepend it with "tel" - as in "televangelist." Many of these kinds of evangelists have a style of preaching which sounds very accusatory: "Have YOU been saved?" "Do YOU know Jesus as your personal savior?" "When did YOU give your life to Christ?" Do you see how all those statements are focused on YOU? It can feel like a finger pointing at you and it puts us on the defensive. I'm sorry, but that isn't good news! I think the more effective way of telling good news is first being the Good News: Are you loving towards all? Do you readily forgive others and conversely ask for forgiveness of others? Loving and forgiving are the hallmarks of the Christian faith an the Good News. Being authentic in your faith is another hallmark - not trying to force it on another but being inviting of others. We have a saying in Cursillo that before you talk to your friend about Christ, talk to Christ about your friend. That is so important! Your best witness may be one of prayer and presence over quoting Scriptures and trying to force your faith on another. Baptism makes us Evangelists - and we tell the Good News by our deeds and our words.

Our Lord's baptism changed him and our baptism changes us. We are called to be ministers, stewards and evangelists ... and to wrestle with what that means. It appears our Lord wrestled with these identity questions ... and I think we can too.
 
 
"What is in a name?" William Shakespeare penned this rhetorical question in Romeo and Juliet. "What is in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." While the underlying sentiment is true, one could rename a rose anything and it would not change its underlying reality, when we encounter names in the Bible we find they do have meaning.

One of my seminary professors of the Hebrew scriptures told us "nomen est omen" - in other words, your name tells something about your call from God or your destiny. This starts at the very beginning of the Bible with the naming of Adam - from the Hebrew adamah or "dirt." Fitting for one formed of the earth isn't it? His wife was named Eve or Chava in Hebrew, meaning "mother of all" - also quite fitting. They had two sons, Cain and Abel (or Kayin and Hevel). Cain came from the verb to create and Abel ... well ... his name meant "vapor" and when you have a name like "vapor" you probably will not be around long in the story. As we hear, Cain kills Abel but then after his banishment, he goes on to become a worker of iron and bronze - an artisan ... one who creates.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name or, if you remember the old 1928 Prayer Book, we used to call it the Circumcision of Jesus. Circumcision and naming went together in the Jewish tradition and we hear that Mary and Joseph named him Jesus as the angel Gabriel had given them this name. Jesus is the Anglicized version of a Greco-Roman translation or his Hebrew name. That means we are two translation levels deep and we often forget the underlying Hebrew here. Jesus' Hebrew name was Yeshua - or Joshua.

Joshua means "deliverer" and certainly the Joshua of the Hebrew scriptures was a deliverer - he delivered the Israelites into the promised land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. God had declared that no one who remembered Egypt would be allowed to enter the promised land - even Moses dies outside on Mt. Nebo after having seen the promised land. To us that might seem harsh, but God new that those who remembered Egypt with all of its magnificent buildings, its infrastructure, and the abundance of wealth and food would likely grouse and gripe about the promised land being a bit of a "fixer upper." And so, the torch was passed to Joshua to bring the Israelites into the promised land. He delivered them.

Jesus also is a deliverer. He delivers us from the power of Sin and Death but he also delivers us from a past into a future. On this New Year's Day, we find ourselves contemplating the ending of the old year and the beginning of something new. For some, leaving the past behind is a good thing. There are those who tell of having a life changing experience when they came to know Jesus and how it changed their lives for the better. I think of Henry Covington, one of the central characters in Mitch Albom's latest book Have a Little Faith. When Henry turned his life over to Jesus, he left behind a life of crime, drugs and addiction and launched My Brother's Keeper, a ministry to the down and out in Detroit. He left behind a dark past and used his gifts to reach out and bring the gospel to others who needed to hear a word of hope.

But while we hear stories of those whose futures look brighter than their pasts, the opposite can also be true. We might find ourselves in a place where our future looks dim and our past looks much better. This can happen because of chronic illness, loss of a job, death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis. We may be facing a future which is uncertain and even fearful. We might wonder where our deliverer, this Jesus, even is.

Kathleen Norris wrote a book called Dakota several years ago which was a memoir of just such a situation she faced in her life. Kathleen had grown up in Lemmon, South Dakota. Now if you are from Dakota, you know there really is only one Dakota which happens to be divided into North and South (and only so the states could double their representation in Congress). Lemmon straddles the border between the two states. It is a sleepy little town, 12 city blocks by 12 city blocks, where the weather report and the farm report dominate the news. Kathleen left this little town to pursue her dream of becoming a writer and swore she would never return. She married and built a glamorous life in New York City amidst other writers and artists. It was the life she had dreamed about ... until her mother died.

Kathleen and her husband returned to Lemmon with the intention of settling her mother's affairs, selling the house and getting back to Manhattan as fast as they could. But that isn't what happened and in her book Dakota, Kathleen reveals the process of how she and her husband made the decision to leave Manhattan behind and settle in Lemmon with no jobs and a very uncertain future. In this journey back, she discovers the fierce beauty of the plains, becomes connected with a Benedictine monastery and eventually takes the vows of an oblate (as a Presbyterian no less), and how eventually she becomes a published author - something which had eluded her in Manhattan. But when Kathleen made this decision to stay in Lemmon, the future looked uncertain, even fearful and her glamorous past in Manhattan must have at times looked pretty good and been hard to let go.

Our lives are lived forward and our God continues to deliver us out of our past and into our future. Regardless of whether the future looks bright or perhaps may be uncertain and even scary, our God came to us in Yeshua - Jesus our deliverer. And Jesus promises that no matter what our future holds, this future is held in Gods hands - and those are trustworthy hands indeed.
 

Grace Episcopal Church, Brunswick, Maryland