|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Leaving Capernaum – Epiphany 5
Capernaum is one of the prettiest places you could ever hope to see. I don’t know what you have in your mind when you try to picture the Sea of Galilee, but I promise the real thing is even more beautiful than you are imagining. I remember the first time I crested the hill and descended down the steep mountainside toward the water and the string of little villages on the north-side of the lake where Capernaum is located, and it brought tears to my eyes it was so beautiful. The whole region around the lake is dotted with orchards and fields of grain, and dozens of species of birds nest in the tall eucalyptus trees that surround the shore.
The ruins of ancient Capernaum sit right in the midst of all this idyllic beauty and tranquility, so when you visit it very quickly makes sense why Jesus chose this particular place to be home base. I mean, Nazareth is nice, and Bethlehem is fine, but Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee really is remarkable. He could have gone to bed at night, after a long day of healing and teaching, fallen asleep with sound of lapping waves on the stony shore, and awakened to a cool morning breeze and sunlight dappling on the tranquil water. And not only was it beautiful, it was – and still is – small and peaceful, so Jesus would have quickly come to know everyone, learn their stories, and quickly make a big impact on the community.
With such an ideal place for a home, it’s no wonder Jesus had a hard time leaving it. According to Mark’s gospel, after spending some time there and coming to fuller awareness of his power and his purpose, he realized he had a decision to make. Should he stay there in idyllic Capernaum and continue helping the beloved people of this peaceful seaside village, or did he need to visit other places and spread his love with more people? It seems the answer wasn’t obvious. I’ve sat in the little cave just up from Capernaum where tradition says Jesus retreated to pray for clarity and guidance, and I figure a night of prayer for Jesus is like, I don’t know, roughly seven years or so for the rest of us (like dog years for the Son of God), and at the end of it he made up his mind. He had to leave. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he said, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
In the 1960’s a priest named Vincent Donovan was sent to take over a Christian missionary outpost in the Masailand of Tanzania. The Masai are the tribal people who still live on the high plains of east Africa, in the midst of all the raw natural beauty of that wild part of the world. Before Fr. Vincent’s arrival, for nearly 100 years the Church had maintained a missionary presence there, with a church, several schools, and a significant hospital. Missionary Theory said at that time that if you introduce much needed services to an area like this—things like schools and hospitals—the people will come to you. They will see that you bring something valuable to their lives, and while you teach the children or provide medicine, you will have opportunities to share the gospel. Which sounds pretty logical, right? Except Fr. Vincent learned that in the 100 years that the mission had existed, not a single Masai had become a practicing Christian.
Fr. Vincent quickly realized the absurdity of expecting the local people to want to learn about Christianity simply because the mission was there. Evangelism doesn’t happen by osmosis, so if he wanted his neighbors to know the gospel, Fr. Vincent was going to have to do something different. Instead of staying in the safe enclave of the mission, he would have to venture out to where the people were. In a letter to his bishop, Fr. Vincent wrote:
I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy—and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa…just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible.
Eventually, Fr. Vincent went to live among the Masai in order to share more directly about God and Christ and the hope of the gospel. He had some successes and he had some failures. It took time to learn how to truly share in their lives, and in the end, after spending many months with them, several villages did choose to be baptized altogether. But to get to that point he had to leave that beautiful, safe little mission, so that he wouldn’t be part of another century of fruitless missionary work. Fr. Vincent, you see, realized that he was living in his own sort of Capernaum, his own perfect, safe little place, and he was going to need to step outside of it if he was ever going to share the good news with anyone new.
This past week I made my annual pilgrimage to the Parish Episcopal School “Lost and Found,” located down in the Snyder Building in a quiet little hallway off the gym. This time of year, sweaters and hats get set down hither and yon all day long, meaning the lost and found is the busiest it will be for the whole school year. When Melody mentioned that both the girls were missing a few items, I knew that the first place to look is the lost and found tub in that quiet hallway. As I rifled through the mass of fleeces and jackets and solitary mittens, I had a moment of realization: I think many of us look at church like a sort of lost and found. When we feel like we’re “missing” God, we come to church to “find” him. We think, “Huh, I must have set God down somewhere…I’m not sure exactly where…but I know where to go looking. I’ll go back to church!” Which is poignant and lovely, and I’m absolutely thankful that for so many of us, the first impulse we have when it feels like we’ve lost touch with God is to return to church.
The problem is that we assume everyone else knows where the lost and found is, too. If they are looking for God, they will eventually think to come looking here and then they’ll find him, because, you know, God is here. We know that if people will just show up and walk through our doors and sit down in a pew, they’ll realize what they were missing, what they’d lost, what they’ve been looking for all along. But the life of Jesus shows us that God does not live in specific buildings, any more than he lives in specific idyllic seaside towns. God does not sit and wait for people to come to their senses, realize they’ve been missing him, and then go looking for him in the nearest inclusive Episcopal church.
Just like the disciples had to follow Jesus out from the peaceful perfection of Capernaum, we have to wake up and realize that Jesus is concerned with far more than what happens in this building. We are no more Jesus’ Lost and Found than Capernaum was, and he wants us to go with him to seek out all the ones who are lost, all the ones who are lonely, all the ones who need love and forgiveness, and share with them the remarkable and life-changing news that they are seen and known and found by God.
Sharing the good news, being evangelical, is not about trying to grow the membership numbers. It’s not about scorekeeping with the other churches in town. It’s not about budget growth or a fiscal strategy. It’s about wanting others to be found like we were found, wanting others to experience what we’ve experienced, wanting others to know love like we’ve known love. If we think that having a beautiful, idyllic church is enough to attract other people here, if we think that everyone who yearns for the love and acceptance of God will eventually find us on their own, if we think that just existing here in all our lovely ecclesiastical refinement will be enough to share the good news of Christ with the wider community, we will be about as effective as the missionaries to Masailand.
We must be brave like Fr. Vincent, brave enough to follow Jesus beyond the comfortable confines of our campus. You may know where the lost and found is located, but many others don’t. They don’t know where to look for the meaning and love they’ve been missing. They don’t know that Jesus is looking for them all the time, that they’re not really lost at all. They may just need someone like you, someone with the courage to share some good news, the good news.
My friends, Jesus has left safety and comfort of Capernaum.
Will you follow him?
 Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Orbis Books: New York, 2003), pp 13-14.