Saturday, January 21, 2017

Light in the Shadows

Matthew 4:12-23
Ordinary 3
January 22, 2017
William G. Carter

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

And so Jesus begins his work. He has been baptized, and a Voice from heaven named him as the Christ. He had worked through his calling with a retreat in the wilderness, confronting the voices of temptation and getting very clear about what God wants him to do.

Now he begins a movement. He calls Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him. They leave their nets in the water and they go. He calls James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, and they leave behind their unmended nets and their father, and they go. Here is the teacher and four men who follow him and learn from him. The movement is underway.

All of the Gospels begin his ministry this way. Jesus calls people to himself, and doesn’t particularly describe what they will do. As job descriptions go, “fishing for people” is a little bit vague. Presumably it involves casting a net for the Kingdom and catching whoever you can. But it’s too early to know what they will be doing or what they will be learning. Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” and the journey begins. The movement begins.

What is so striking in Matthew’s description is where the beginning takes place. It’s not in a church, but beside the sea. It’s not in a worship service or a pep rally, but in the workplace of ordinary people. And it’s not in the large city of Jerusalem, but in the outer region called Galilee. What Matthew offers is theology as geography.

What does that mean? Well, I think I know. Many years ago, on my one and only trip to the Holy Land, we took a bus from the town of Nazareth toward the Sea of Galilee. It was late in the afternoon when the bus pulled off the road to a gravel parking area. The Old Testament professor who was one of our trip leaders took us up a grassy path to the Cliffs of Arbel. I wasn’t sure why we had made the stop.

When we got to the edge of the cliffs, his purpose was made clear. The Sea of Galilee was stretched out before us. It’s a fresh water lake, thirteen miles long, just as long as Lake Wallenpaupack, although at points a good bit wider, and surrounded by mountains a good bit higher. Professor Whitaker said, "Put your fingers like this ..." He said, "That's a stretch of about six miles. Within that span is where Jesus did about ninety percent of his ministry."

To put it simply, he was a local boy. Everybody knew him. There was nothing exotic or different about Jesus. He was raised twenty miles away in Nazareth. He blended in because he was just like the rest of the people. He wasn’t any taller or shorter than anybody else, and if there was a halo around his head, it certainly wasn’t obvious to the people of his new home in Capernaum.

Capernaum was the last jumping off place before you got to Gentile territory. In fact, it was a fishing village where Gentiles and Jews lived side by side. The proximity to the Gentiles, the unbelievers, may have been what led the prophet Isaiah to speak of it as the “land of darkness.” That’s how he described it some eight hundred years before Jesus began to shine.

It was the “land of Zebulon and Naphtali,” two of the ancient brothers of old Joseph, the old, old Joseph from the book of Genesis.  The territory was way northeast, far from the intellect of Jerusalem. I imagine if somebody looked at the map, they might have called it the “armpit of Israel.”

And that’s where Jesus made his home. Let that sink in for a minute.

Maybe we thought it was an impressive place. No, not really. In the time of Jesus, if you wanted an impressive city, you could go to Sepphoris, a wealthy and cosmopolitan community where his mother Mary may have had her family roots. But Sepphoris doesn’t even rate a mention in the New Testament.

Or there is Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, named after one of the Caesars. These days, it’s where all the tour buses unload. When I visited, they had a Holiday Inn. According to tradition, it was built upon a graveyard, so all the Jews called it “unclean.” That may be why it’s never mentioned in the Bible, even though it was – and still is – a flourishing city.

No, Jesus moved into Capernaum. He had a home in Capernaum. He knew the fishermen. He went to the synagogue. There was only one synagogue, so that’s where he went.  For all we know, he set up a wood shop there and put down some roots. Matthew says it was his home. Let that sink in.

It was only in the crisis of John the Baptist’s death that he began to preach, and his sermon was the same sermon that John preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It was a nine word sermon; some of you wish I would preach a nine word sermon, and I would if I believed you would listen to it.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s all he said at first. People began to believe it. They began to trust it was true. Heaven was drawing near. God invited them to let him rule over them. That was all the reason they needed to repent, to change. And the more that Jesus said it, and the more that people believed it, the more it seemed that light was breaking into darkness.

So it’s no wonder that he could walk along the lake shore, see a couple of brothers throwing their fishing nets into the water, not really catching anything, and then he could say, “Come, follow me. Let’s catch some people.” And then, walking a little further, he could see two others, two other brothers, mending a broken net. Standing by the shore with two of their commercial rivals whom they knew, he could say, “Come along with us, come follow me. Let’s catch some people.”

The story goes on to say they always knew how to fish. They went back to fishing now and again. But there was something about announcing the presence of God that began to touch broken hearts and repair broken lives. Because that’s the core of the message: God is here. Not that God is coming someday, which is also true in some final sense, but that God is here, right now. Not that God is everywhere, which in some abstract sense is true the same way that you can say the atmosphere is everywhere, but that God is somewhere, that God is here.  

What would it mean if God is here? Not in glitzy Sepphoris, shiny Tiberias, or holy Jerusalem – but here, in Capernaum?

I like the story of Kathleen Norris. She was a young author living in New York, trying to publish some poetry. It wasn’t going well. The news came that her grandmother died in South Dakota, leaving behind a house that nobody else in the family wanted. So Kathleen said, “I’ll take it.”

Moving there from Manhattan was a huge adjustment. The land is desolate, and there really are more cattle than people. Somehow she started going to a church in a little town called to Hope. So she writes:  

The small metal sign for Hope may or may not be up. The wind pulls it down and it can be a while before someone notices and reattaches it. But you don't need directions... ten and a half miles along the road, at the crest of the second hill, you'll be able to see where you're going, a tiny ark in a sea of land that unfolds before you for nearly fifty miles...You will pass a few modest homes and farm buildings along the way, some in use, others in disrepair. The most recently abandoned, a classic two-story farmhouse, has boarded up windows and an extensive but weed-choked corral. A house abandoned years ago is open to the elements, all its windows and most of its shingles gone.

Then you come to Hope Presbyterian Church, home of 25 members. The place doesn't look like much, even when most of the membership has arrived on Sunday morning, yet it's one of the most successful churches I know. Along with Center School, the one-room schoolhouse that currently serves nine children from ... southwest Corson County, Hope Church gives the people who live around it a sense of identity.

Hope has a noble and well-used upright piano whose sound reminds me of the honky-tonk pianos in Western movies. But when Carolyn plays her quiet-down music at the beginning of a worship service, "Shall We Gather at the River" or "Holy, Holy, Holy," she's as effective as a Russian Orthodox deacon striding sternly through a church with censer and bells. We know it's time now to listen, that we will soon take our journey into word and song, and maybe change a little along the way. By the time we're into our first hymn, we know where we are. To paraphrase Isaiah 62, it's a place no longer desolate but delightful.

There is no indoor plumbing at Hope, but the congregation celebrates with food and drink at every opportunity. Once, when I arrived on Sunday, I noticed several popcorn poppers in a back pew. That was for after church, to get everyone through the annual congregational meeting. (Kathleen Norris, Dakota, pp. 160-163)

Her description makes me wonder how people regard this place: we have considerably more than 25 members, but we're woefully short on popcorn poppers. Yet a good church is still a good church. A good church tells you who you are: it gives you a sense of identity. And when people worship with Word and song, the place is no longer desolate. God meets us as we gather in God's name, as we go out to do God’s work in the world. And the ground beneath our feet becomes holy ground.

So the sermon today is a bit of theology as geography. The light of the Gospel shines somewhere, not merely everywhere. And I invite you to reflect on how it might be shining on you.

Some of the people among us are having a bleak winter. The dark clouds overhead are a mirror for the gloom that threatens their spirits. But a phone call comes from a friend, or a meal is delivered, or a kind word or an unexpected greeting card pierces the darkness of light. For the moment there’s the vision that the kingdom of God has come near, really near.

Some of our church folks marched in Washington D.C. yesterday, a few in New York and Binghamton. They wondered if it would do any good, if their voices would even be heard. One of them said to me, “It was so powerful to surrounded by an enormous crowd, and to renew the conviction that standing up for justice and inclusion is God’s work.” It was as if they were with Christ himself, casting the net and gathering ever more souls into an enormous movement of love, grace, and welcome. For them, an affirmation that God is close at hand, with light that will not be extinguished by darkness.

Or consider whatever unseen forces have brought you here today. Maybe it was loneliness, or a disillusion with the ways of the world, or perhaps needing a safe place where somebody might take you seriously. Who knows how you got here? But you’re here. And my prayer for you is that somehow the light finds you, that the light shines on you – and that somehow, the dawn breaks, the clouds part, and you have the clear and abiding sense that God is here, and not just here, but everywhere you go.  

And why do I have this conviction? Because in the middle of nowhere, in a small fishing village where nothing really ever happened, Jesus comes to four fishermen and says, "Follow me to the kingdom of God." As they set aside what they were doing, they took on the work of gathering others into the net, to join in an unfolding adventure. They set out with Jesus to yet-unknown places and it felt like they were going home.

This is how the Gospel becomes a movement. Those who lived in darkness discover they are now bathed in light . . . and it’s time to invite others to leave the shadows and be healed. For those with eyes to see, it happens all the time.

Years ago, I was honored to serve a few years as the trustee of an Ivy League seminary. After the business meeting, a few of us would gather at a watering hole. Inevitably one of them would ask, “Now where do you live again? Clarks Summit? Where is that?” These were ministers mostly from major cities: Atlanta, Manhattan, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh.

So I’d have to explain where I live: “It’s northeastern Pennsylvania, a few miles above Scranton, between the Poconos and the Endless Mountains.” One of them would smile and say, “Well, we should help you get to a church in a town that somebody could find.” And they would laugh.

I would smile too, and then I’d say, “Jesus has no problem finding the people in my town. That’s good enough for him, and it’s good enough for me.”

Listen, how about if you and I follow Jesus and catch him some more people?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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