Monday, August 24, 2009

Capernaeum I: To be welcomed and to challenge...

Last week, I was getting ready to assist a young man of our congregation as he worked to finish a sermon for August 23rd. For years, I have enjoyed working with young adults who are willing to take on the challenge of preaching to their parish communities. This young gentleman did a great job, focusing on the passage from Ephesians regarding Paul's counsel to avoid temptation and the wiles of the Evil One. I think he did a great job, bringing in images from movies (he is a cinema buff) and from his present life-a young man setting out from his childhood home to embrace life as a rising adult in college.

Me, I got caught on another piece of the lectionary puzzle. The passage from John's Gospel that was offered this past Sunday is a continuation of Jesus' "bread discourse" from the sixth chapter that we have been hearing from this past month in Year B. The place where this discourse occurs in and around the small, seaside town of Capernaum. It takes place at the outset of Jesus' earthly ministry. He has called his twelve, others are gathering around him and it is time to reveal by word and action his presence in the world as the Messiah (but not to "name it," at least not for the next couple of chapters in each respective Gospel).

I have learned that when a passage, place or idea from scripture stick in my thoughts and imagination for more than a few days, it tend to be God's way of inviting me to deeper reflection on what is happening both in my life and in the way that scripture pertains to it.

So, here I am working with the narratives of Jesus' experiences in Capernaeum. In broad strokes, this period of his earthly ministry earns mention in all of the gospel accounts. All of them line up generally along with themes I will write about over the next couple of installments. All of them speak deeply to me about the challenges of being a leader, a preacher and a prophetic voice to a parish...or really to any community of faith. Jesus faces the challenges of convicting people of his new "presentation" as the Holy One of God, the Messiah. He is working over ground, and visiting locales, that he is familiar with-they are clustered in walking distance around the town he grew up in and people know him here. He is the son of Mary and Joseph, the apprentice carpenter. People know him from his boyhood, and his family-his brothers and sisters-as neighbors, colleagues and friends. Now, he is charged by the Holy Spirit to begin his teaching, preaching and healing ministries in this familiar environment.

You would think that would be easy.

Not so.

I think it will help fist to look at the locale of his ministry along the Sea of Galilee. Capernaeum, in those days, was a small sea-faring community that stood close to the headwaters of the great inland lake. The River Jordan is a short walk from the harbor...and from this point much of the local and transit commerce on the water took shape. People had both a degree of cosmopolitan exposure, and local "color" in their way of being. In other words, these are men and women who make their trade and their lives from a sea that has a reputation for being quirky and challenging in its weather and fruitfulness in catches and harvests. They see a lot of strangers, and much of the region comes to them. I wouldn't guess that they are particularly jaded. They are just accustomed to seeing strange people do and say strange things. That leads to a rather challenging mindset. People are not likely to be too surprised by novelty...and they are not too impressed with it, either. It is not easy to get them to see things from a novel point of view; and they will be hesitant to express a "liberal" tolerance when the familiar amongst them fails to act in accord with expected and normative behaviors.

Good for Jesus. Daunting as that attempt may be to proclaim the Kingdom in his own proverbial back yard, he does just that. He is a familiar son of the region who shows up one Sabbath's day and as he takes his place in the synagogue-as young men are wont to do- in order to offer up the reading from the holy books; he instead begins to teach as "one with authority." Not only does he teach thus, he acts out with deeds of power (dunamis in Greek-dynamic, wondrous). He heals lepers, casts out malignant spirits, makes the crippled whole...and then sits down to eat with the outcast, the less acceptable members of local society. It is rough enough that he chooses to preach and challenge the minds and imaginations of his peers and superiors. That he should also step outside his role as carpenter, tradesman and neighbor by exhibiting the gifts of a prophet, a holy person and then choose to eat with sinners and people with bad reputations...will the local community ever be able to recover?

It should all be a "good" thing for him to be this way. At a time and in an era where most Jews yearned for signs that Messiah was near, his actions should have been welcome. As a man of faith, if it became clear that my neighbor has "the gift" of prophecy and healing, I should think I would be happy to hear and see the proof of God's immediate presence next door. Would I complain about the increase in traffic, lack of parking and the new and unfamiliar elements now hanging around outside her front door? Jesus, in beginning to reveal himself, actually disrupts the lives of those who have known him his whole life with this new way of being and with his words that seem to liken him not only to God being active in the world, but to him being active as God-the Son, incarnate.


This Sunday, as the young man of my parish struggled with preaching on resisting temptation and how being "free" to choose right from wrong can't be done outside of community with each other and with God, I was chewing on the bread discourse. Jesus says, "I am the bread which comes down from heaven...the one who eats of me will have life eternally." He outrages people by drawing a parallel between himself and the manna that sustained Israel in the wilderness. Many depart...even some who had attached to him in the earliest days after the calling of the twelve. Some of the scribes even begin to plot his destruction with some assistance from the Herodians.

Jesus, in Capernaeum, begins to show his way to the world-that the poor and outcast are the ones who will be taking the upper seat in the kingdom, that all are welcomed to the feast, that he is the feast. The sick are healed. The blind receive sight. The twisted are made straight and firm. This is success, right? And yet, he faces instead the probity of his peers, his neighbors. Those who should know him best are the very ones who struggle to accept him as he is becoming.

Even as he is "familiar" to the people of Capernaeum, he also demonstrates how tough it really can be to be recognized as a leader with a prophetic voice when most around you choose only to see what they choose to see in your actions and hear in your words.

This is the first hurdle to pastoral ministry...overcoming expectation and the various projections that factions in the community tender, often before beginnings can even be just that. So, over the next couple of installments, I hope to do a little work reflecting on Jesus in Capernaeum...and through that perhaps we can get to a deeper place of welcoming those people who present challenges to our present, familiar routines and perspectives.

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