Where is Your Capernaum?

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.  Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered.  Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Matthew 4:12-17

[Note: this sermon is given a few days after the tragic shooting and killing of nine  people at Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston. Their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney was one of the nine.]

I wonder if you are a beach person or a mountain person. (How many of you are beach… how many are you mountain)… I myself love the mountains… though I grew up in Florida. And to be honest, I miss the water… We lived a couple of blocks from the Ortega river in Jacksonville… I’d cross that river several times a day over the Ortega River Bridge… people would be on the river… sailing… fishing… crabbing… shrimping… Occasionally, we would head to Jacksonville beach… a short 45 minutes away.  I still miss the water… but I would describe myself as a mountain person because I spent most of my summers in the mountains of NC.

I was thinking about that a month or so ago when I thinking about summer vacations… and hearing your plans… some of you heading to the mountains, others to the beach… it got me to wondering: Was Jesus a mountain person or a beach person? Where did he spend his time… what happened there? Out of that was born the idea for the summer series: Sermons from the Seas and Messages from the Mountains.

Today we’ll start at the sea and some of you may reach the conclusion that Jesus was a beach kind of person. (I’ll let you reach your own conclusion at the end of the summer)

I want to begin by asking you a question. When I say the name of the town “Capernaum” what comes to mind. Nothing? That has been the most common response I’ve received. Which is interesting to me.

When I say the name of the town of Bethlehem, what comes to mind? The birth of Jesus. Right? (O Little Town of Bethlehem)…

When I say, “Jerusalem”—maybe Holy Week and Easter come to mind, “All Glory Laud and honor… thou art the King of Israel”… we sing on Palm Sunday as we remember the day he entered Jerusalem, which ended up being the last week of his earthly life.

Now here is a harder one: Nazareth. What comes to mind? You know it, you just don’t know you know it. Think, “Jesus of Nazareth”— Jesus from Nazareth… (like I might tell people that I am Jody of Jacksonville)… it was his hometown, where he was raised by Mary and Joseph. A small village of about 500 people… sort of like Pala, Guatemala…

This morning, I want to make an argument that Capernaum should be added to the list of important towns in the life of Jesus. Why? It is where Jesus made his home… according to Matthew who says, “He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea”…

Why did Jesus make that his home? Was he just a beach person? Was it because he could find good seafood with all of those fishermen bringing in fresh fish every day. Of course not.

According to Matthew, it was upon hearing John was arrested that he made the move… Another reason Matthew gives was to fulfill prophesy. But I also think there is more.

Perhaps it was a safer place… In Luke’s gospel, it is clear one reason he was there is that he was thrown out of Nazareth after he preached that sermon on Isaiah. He had to leave town. Some people think Jesus left his hometown in order for his ministry to have a chance of being heard by a wider audience. Capernaum was a crossroads… more foot traffic… a border town… Jews and Gentiles… Perhaps he thought Capernaum would serve better than Nazareth as the home base for spreading his Gospel.

I don’t know why Capernaum is not on the list of towns we recognize as important to understanding who Jesus was and who he calls us to be.

It is the place where he would meet and call Peter, Andrew, James and John… He would meet, Matthew the tax collector working for the Roman government… There he shared his message in the synagogue… healed many people… including a servant of a Roman Centurion… get that… a Jewish rabbi healing a gentile’s servant! I looked for hymns with Capernaum in the lyrics… and there aren’t many!

But you know what is most important about Capernaum by the sea to me? That was where he based his ministry…It seems to me that this is where the people were who needed him the most… Jesus understood that his mission is to go where the people are and he was called to Capernaum.

His mission was especially to go to the people who were living in darkness… who were living in the shadow of death… and to shine some light… the Lord’s light into those places.

So I’ve begun to think that Capernaum is that place where we have opportunities to go where the people are… especially people living in personal, physical, spiritual or social darkness and share the light of Christ’s love into their lives.

I was listening to an interview with Rev. Pinkney who was talking about why he was a state legislator. He said he was called to do that because that is where many decisions made that affect the lives of his people. I was also impressed on the day he died, he had come home from Columbia because he had a meeting with leaders in the church and to be at the Bible Study. He was going to where the people were.

Simply put: Capernaum reminds us that our ministry is to go where the people are and where there is need.  We are called to take our faith out of the synagogue (in Jesus’ day) or the church in our day… and live it in a way that it shines light in the world.

How you live out your faith is so important and it matters. It makes all the difference in the world…We forget that sometimes…The world needs us to live out our faith not just at church but every day in the most secular places in world. Our personal mission is to live out the faith, not just in here—but out there!

Sadly, that is not what people often experience in Christians. Stanley Hauerwas summed up the problem:  “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.

When a poll of college students asked,

”Write the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Christianity”, the most common answer was, “People who don’t practice what they preach.”

Surveys by the Barna group confirm the judgement… “Among young outsiders, 84% say they personally know at least one committed Christian. Yet just 15 percent thought the lifestyles of those Christ followers were significantly different from the norm.”

Here is the challenge facing Christians who love Christ, who seek to follow Christ and share the light of Christ every day according to Philip Yancey,  “If we do not live in a way that draws others to the faith rather than repels them, none of our words will matter.”

We have such an opportunity to make a difference just by living lives of faith, love and grace.  Do you know there was a survey in which Americans were asked what words they would most like to hear?The first, was, “I love you”. Number two, “I forgive you” The third choice is surprising, “Supper’s ready”

What is interesting is that those statements are a good summary of the gospel story: We are loved by God, forgiven by God, and invited to the banquet table.

In the midst of a planet marked by brokenness—natural disasters, ruptured relationships, poverty and violence—  a world where a shooter can walk into a Bible study in Charleston and kill people out of hate–   the gospel is truly good news… a light in the darkness.

We say there is a better way to live in the world than by hate…I wonder if you read the story or saw the video of the families speaking to Dylan Roof after his arrest. The message was the same… “I forgive you…I am grieving, but I forgive you… I want you to turn your life to Christ… I forgive you…”  And the world and we were amazed!

We have something so good to share with people we meet every day… the word that they are loved beyond their knowing… the joy of forgiveness… and an invitation to share in a meal with others… you are no longer alone in this world.

How different from the daily messages they often hear in their lives.

Philip Yancey[i] was asking an audience about their own experiences of conveying grace to others. He said, there was a woman who shocked all of them. She said,  “I feel called to minister to telephone marketers. You know, the kind who call at inconvenient hours and deliver their spiel before you can say a word.

(Yancey reflects)“Immediately I flashed back to the times I have responded rudely or simply hung up.

“All day long these sales callers hear people curse at them and slam the phone down,” she continued. “I listen attentively to their pitch, then I try to respond kindly, though I almost never by what they’re selling. Instead I ask about their personal life and whether they have any concerns I can pray for. Often they ask me to pray with them over the phone, and sometimes they are in tears. They’re people, after all, probably underpaid, and they are surprised when someone with common courtesy (or kindness)”

Isn’t that the least the world can expect of Christians… common courtesy or kindness… where our lives shine a little light into the darkness of the world?

That’s what Jesus was doing in Capernaum… taking the gospel of God’s love and forgiveness and welcome to those who needed it most. Which is our mission, you know. So our youth and adults take a week to help people in Appalachia… they go where the people are. Some of you spend weekends going to a Habitat site… or helping people in Dorcas ministry- Why? Because that is where the people are.  Middle schoolers will go work in the inner city of Charlotte… Adults will take a long trip to the top of a Mountain in Guatemala… all to help those who need it… Why? Because that is where the people are…

This week the summer enrichment program had to go where the people were. This new ministry provides fellowship and fun and food for kids and families who are at risk for hunger. We have joined with Greenwood Forest Baptist in this program. They come and families can take home groceries.

Well, I went down to the fellowship hall last Monday— our very first day–with all of those volunteers… but no kids or families. They could have called it a day and said, well, maybe better next time. But not with Stephanie Arnold Workman around. Do you know what she and Patty Snow did? They got in the van and went to the Wrenn Drive apartments… where 1000 people live in over 600 apartments. About 500 yards from here. Most of them low income. They went and got the word out… and before you knew it we had 16 kids and 6 moms come to the program. I love what they did… they went to Capernaum… to where the people are! By the way, on Thursday, there were 38 kids and 13 Moms who came.

All those ministries are so important.

They bring light to people living in some fairly dark places and circumstances. And now I have a name for all of those places: Capernaum, by the sea.  One of the most important towns in the Holy Land. For that is the place where Jesus lived and taught us what it means to follow him… that is the place where we learned who Jesus was, what he was about… that is the place where we learned (if we were listening) what we are to be about—  which is to go where the people are… go… let them know that they are not forgotten… They are loved… they are forgiven… and they are always welcome to join us for supper!



[i] Thanks to Philip Yancey on this story and other quotes/survey information  in this sermon which are inspired by his book, Vanishing Grace.