|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
January 23, 2011
the next few weeks, we’ll be working our way through the book of Matthew,
and I have to admit that I’m never as excited about preaching on the
gospels as I am preaching on, say, the book of Judges. It’s not that
I have anything against Jesus – it’s just that the stories of
Jesus are so familiar that I often feel inadequate to shed any new light
on them for you. It’s more fun as a preacher to tackle something like
the tale of Ehud, the left handed Judge who kills the evil King Eglon of
Moab by slipping a knife so far into the fat king’s belly that no
one even realizes he is dead giving Ehud a chance to make a surprise attack
on the Moabites and free the Israelites from oppression. Now there’s
a story that hasn’t been preached to death!
And so I admit when I initially read the passage from Matthew today I wondered how I could put a fresh face on a story we know so well, but then I saw something I had never noticed before, something that makes me think about Jesus in a new way. Matthew 4:13 says, “Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea...” Listen to that again: “Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea...” You know what we have here? In these few short words, we see Jesus grow up. Unlike the gospel of Luke who gives us that snippet of a story about Jesus visiting the temple as a boy, Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ childhood. Matthew goes right from the birth story to Jesus’ baptism, and the only thing we are told about Jesus during those years is that he lived in Nazareth. But now, that little boy who lived with his Mom and Dad in the small rural town of Nazareth is ready to strike out on his own and like any young man starting his new vocation, the first thing Jesus does is set up housekeeping in a new place. He travels a good day’s journey to settle in the town of Capernaum, a fishing village about the size of Alfred on the northwestern Sea of Galilee. Although in our world, Alfred is considered pretty tiny, Capernaum was three times the size of Nazareth. It had its own synagogue, and a wide main street running north and south through the town that was criss-crossed by smaller streets leading to housing districts. Most of these housing districts were quite poor. The houses were made of coarse basalt blocks and reinforced with simple stone and mud rather than more expensive mortar. It is probably in fact, more accurate for us to envision the houses in Capernaum as akin to tenement buildings since several families might share a single courtyard with a cooking oven and grain mill. The rooms of the houses were small and dark and there were no bathroom facilities nor drainage. If you remember that Capernaum’s major industry was fishing, you can only imagine the smell that must have permeated all of life in such conditions.
Nevertheless, Capernaum was where, Matthew says, Jesus “made his home”. Before chapter four is over, Jesus will pull up stakes and move on becoming the itinerant preacher that we are familiar with, but verse 13 likely encompasses some period of time that remains unspoken. The phrase, “made his home there” certainly suggests that he was in Capernaum long enough there to unpack his bags. He was there long enough to become a familiar face on the street, shop at the town market, meet his friends for lunch, watch the sunrise over the beach. This gives us a very different way of thinking about Jesus: I mean, what would it be like to have Jesus as a neighbor?
Imagine for a moment, that Jesus moves into the house next door to you. There he is living on Pine Hill Drive or shopping at the Hornell Walmart. What would that be like to see him all of the time, in your ordinary day to day routine world? “Oh, hey, Jesus,” you say when you see him at the Dollar Store, “What did you think of that basketball game last night?”
What would it be to have Jesus as a neighbor? There could be some real advantages. If you were throwing a party and ran out of wine, you could send some one next door with a bottle of water and say, “Jesus, would you mind changing this into a nice Pinot Noir for me, please? I’m all out.” Or if you cut your finger, you could run over and ask Jesus to stop the flow of blood for you. He’d be great at the neighborhood picnic – multiplying the fish casseroles and keeping the rainclouds and wind at bay.
Of course, there would be disadvantages too: all those crowds constantly milling around his house trampling your rose bushes. And just imagine Jesus on the community planning board – you’d never be able to pass any kind of neighborhood codes. Jesus would be that annoying committee member who was constantly arguing the case of the undesirables. He’d insist on allowing the neighborhood to become populated by the kinds of people who park pickup trucks on their front lawns or paint their doors pink.
Maybe that’s why Jesus only makes it ten verses before he’s hitting the road again, off to preach to the other parts of Galilee. Having Jesus living right next door and inhabiting our work-a-day world turns out to be more uncomfortable than most of us want to admit. There are distinct advantages to an itinerant Jesus who is always on the move – or more importantly, a Jesus we can get away from!
I remember as a child being amused by my mother’s ability to switch moods mid-stride. As the mother of five kids, trying to maintain order and a degree of cleanliness in the house was always a challenge and on occasion my mother would give vent to her frustrations:
“Hell’s Bells!” she would exclaim, “am I the only one who can pick up a dirty dish?! I had this place looking spotless an hour ago and look at it now!” She punctuated her rant with exclamations of her martyrdom and the banging of pots and pans.
Sometimes, in the middle of her venting sessions, the phone would ring and my mother would storm over to the phone, yank it off the hook, and then say in a suddenly calm and friendly voice, “Hello, this is Shirley DeMott.” Her ability to rail unfettered to us about the burdens of motherhood one moment, and suddenly switch to emoting goodness and welcome to the person on the phone the next never ceased to amaze us … and amuse us. We never doubted my mother’s love for us even if we sometimes drove her to distraction but she could not trust that the person on the phone would interpret her rantings in the same way and so she learned to present a sanitized version of herself to the public.
As do all of us. Our spouses, parents, and children see us in all of our sullied reality. We answer an acquaintance’s, “How are you?” with a smiling, “I’m great. And you?” and then go home and complain to our spouses about the lousy day we had that has left us feeling anything but great. We voice the uncharitable thoughts to our closest friends that we would never admit to strangers, we use language at home that we would never dream of using in church, and we trust that our children will know that we love them in spite of our occasional lapses of patience. When you live elbow to elbow with someone, you cannot hide the truth of who you are. You cannot hide your frailties and flaws from those you sit across a table from and see you when you get up and before you lie down at night; and while most of the time, we take comfort in having a place where we can still be loved and accepted in spite of the messy reality of our true selves, we must confess that there are also times when we go too far. If we are honest with ourselves, each one of us must admit that there have been times when we have asked our loved ones to accept from us behavior that we would not only be reluctant to show others but that we would be ashamed to show others. It’s not too much to ask our children to endure a few “hell’s bells” and justified frustration with their inattention to housekeeping but it is too much to ask them to endure an always severe tongue, constant impatience, perennial nitpicking, or a deaf ear to their needs. It’s not too much to ask our spouses to accept an occasional grumpy mood but it is too much to foist on them a temperament that sulks, that judges, that revels in cynicism, or takes pride in our own cantankerousness. Sometimes in our trust that our families will accept our worst, we go too far and become the worst. The Christ who is named Emmanuel, God with us, sees us not as a stranger but as someone who shares our living space with us every day..... and it’s not always a pretty picture. No wonder the first word out of Jesus’ mouth as he preaches to the people of Capernaum, the place where he has made his home, is, “Repent.”
“I am here to tell you that God loves you. God is with you. Now change!” Jesus tells us.
“I have seen the good in you and know what wonderful possibility for kindness there is in you but I have also seen the way you treat your brothers and your sisters, the way you take for granted those who care for you the most. Now change!”
“I know the weaknesses of your flesh and the good news is that God forgives the frailties of your spirit. God will not hold against you the sins of the past but will show you mercy and a steadfast belief in who you can become. Now change!”
“The Kingdom of God is near. I have moved into your neighborhood and am living elbow to elbow with you, and from what I’ve seen, I think you can do better than this,” Jesus tells us. “Don’t worry: I’ll be with you – I’ll help you do it – but brother, sister, let me be brutally honest here: You need to think about making some changes in your life!”
A man writing in a Christian blog told about attending his father’s funeral where he listened to his younger brother give thanks for the laughter and love their father and mother shared throughout their marriage:
“As I listened to my brother describe the wonderful partnership between my parents, I couldn’t help but think back to a day my brother cannot remember because he was too young at the time. In fact, my father and mother did not always have the best relationship. I remember in my childhood a long period when my father was frustrated with his job and the cards life had dealt him, and he took out his frustration on my mother. Day after day he returned home from work to plop himself in the living room chair where he would growl at everything my mother said and return her kindnesses with bitterness and sarcasm. One particularly bad Sunday, we attended church clumping to our pews conscious of the dark cloud of my father’s mood hanging over us all but as my father listened to the minister’s sermon, something came over him. He excused himself after worship, sought out the pastor, and they sat closeted together for several hours. According to my father, on that day, he realized what a wretch he had become, and he and his pastor prayed together for God’s forgiveness and grace. From that day on, my father was a changed man. He made a real effort to treat my mother with respect and speak only in tones of love. His efforts sparked a similar response in her and their marriage grew to become one marked by joy and partnership. My brother doesn’t remember that change, but I do, and it has made me believe very deeply in the power of repentance.”
Jesus has moved into your neighborhood. He is living elbow to elbow with
you. Now that he’s gotten a really close up view, what do you think
he would say?
1. This is a paraphrase of an article I read that I, of course, can’t find again now that I want to use it. But trust me, it’s a true story.