|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.