Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jesus at Home

Jesus at Home

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Mark 2:1-12

Have you ever used the phrase, “I felt right at home”? It’s a pretty good phrase for purposes of describing some degree of comfort about a situation. I’d say Ichiro Suzuki makes himself right at home standing at home plate or at first base. I’d say that Tom Brokaw was a broadcaster who was at home in front of a TV camera. I know people who feel most at home when they are out tending their garden, or working under the hood of a car (my brother Bill), or standing by a river bank with a fly rod in hand (also my brother Bill), or playing with an Xbox or a Wii.

So, often, this being “at home” business is not meant to be taken literally, it’s a figure of speech. I was pondering that thought as I read the first verse of our passage for today:

“When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,

it was reported that he was at home.”

If Tom Brokaw could be said to have been at home in front of a TV camera, I believe Jesus was at home in the same way in Capernaum, where his ministry drew people almost effortlessly.

“He was at home.” The scholarly commentaries don’t even pause at this verse in their eagerness to talk about the rest of the story: the healing, the controversy the healing occasioned, the folks who brought the paralyzed man and lowered him through the roof, the man himself, the authorities and their quibbling about the language of forgiveness, and so on. But just for this moment of reflection that we have together, let’s have a look at that first verse, and not let it slip by us quite so quickly.

Now, if we know the whole story of Jesus, we know that he is very often referred to by his contemporaries as “Jesus of Nazareth.” We associate him with Bethlehem too, of course, and we do so because of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. But it is clear in the gospels that Jesus’ actual hometown was Nazareth, where Joseph was a carpenter and made his home with Mary. So how is it that he was “at home” in Capernaum as Mark reports?

Well, we know that after John the Baptist was arrested (Mark 1:14), Jesus came to Galilee, a region in the farthest north part of what was Israel in those days. And right at the farthest north part of that region was the little town of Capernaum. The name comes from a Hebrew word made up of two words, “caper” - meaning “village (of)” and “nahum” – the same as the name of the fierce Old Testament prophet, Nahum, whose name means “comfort.” – though there is no evidence of any connection between the prophet and the little town that I know of.

If you go to Israel today, you can see the ruins of little Capernaum, which has not been occupied for many centuries, but has been thoroughly excavated in modern times. There you would see ruins of a home which has many indications that it was once the home of Peter and Andrew, and very likely the house where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). It is located very near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The house is just a few hundred yards from the town synagogue, which is also in ruins that are visible today.

In those earliest days of his ministry, Peter’s house was coming to be known for the healing that was taking place there. Mark reports that in addition to healing Peter’s mother-in-law, many who were sick were brought to Jesus until, “the whole city was gathered around the door.” (1:33) After that, Jesus left the town for the countryside to visit other towns and synagogues, but people in need of healing showed up everywhere he went, and he ministered to them in ever-increasing numbers. He could hardly move without mobs of people gathering around him.

So when we turn to Mark 2 and it begins by telling us that in Capernaum “it was reported that he was at home,” it was not so much telling us where Jesus’ actual home was as it was a way of explaining why, when “it was reported,” that is, when word got out, “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door.”

And what brought so many people to him? The obvious answer would seem to be: their search for healing. But there is no evidence in Mark that the paralyzed man was seeking healing per se, though it is clear that his friends were seeking it for him. So, a paralyzed man, lowered through a now-demolished roof by his friends to the feet of the one with the spreading reputation for healing looks up into the eyes of the Healer. Jesus, Mark says, saw “their faith.” Whose faith? The ones who were so sure he could help their friend that they risked destroying a roof to get him to Jesus? The faith of those friends as well as the paralyzed one? Whatever particular individual or group, Jesus saw evidence of faith not proven by facts, and it was that evidence of faith that caused him to say to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now, we ought to stop right there. These folks knew of the authorized and acceptable places to go to seek forgiveness for sin. They could go sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, though carrying a paralyzed man all the way there would be a task more than a little daunting. Still, there was the faith they heard expounded in their synagogues, which had things to say about the forgiveness of God. To hear a word about forgiveness they might have gone elsewhere. But Jesus’ word was not just a word about forgiveness. He declared that forgiveness was granted, claimed for himself, as it appeared to the religious scholars nearby, the power to forgive sin.

I once read that back in the fifteenth century, in a far-off place in Russia called Kerajestan, a church was built. Construction took place during a time when a deadly epidemic was stalking the land. So familiar were the people with the victims’ sufferings, they built their church with wide doors, and gently sloping ramps, so the sick could easily be carried in. As the people constructed their church, they remembered this story in Mark, of the healing of the paralyzed man. And so, for many years, this particular church also left the dome of its sanctuary unfinished, open to the elements, covered only by a large tarp. For those Christians, the hole in the roof became a sign, a powerful symbol of their calling to be open to the Word, and to minister to human need. For whatever reason people may have needed to get in, this congregation was committed to finding a way.

As long as forgiveness is the way of our faith, it’s a little like maintaining a sort of hole in our otherwise self-satisfied spiritual roof, a reminder that we need to let more into our understanding of what it means to be in the presence of Jesus than what we already know about our faith, an essential reminder that Jesus not only has the power to forgive, he has the power to surprise us and change us, to make us disciples who are the next generation of stretcher-bearers, carrying those who need forgiveness into the presence of the Lord, on a stretcher through the roof if need be. Persistent disciples are called to be like that.

An ancient theologian of the church once wrote, “In everyday life... we must hold ourselves in balance before all created gifts... We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”(1)

Important as the healing of his paralysis must have been to the man on the mat who came dangling through the roof, Jesus’ words of forgiveness provided the transforming, always-spoken ‘yes’, thanks to the friends who carried his needs into the presence of the Master.

In Herb Gardner’s 1962 play, A Thousand Clowns,(2) a man named Murray spends his time standing at Lexington and 51st in New York City, making simple apologies to people on the street, complete strangers, because he discovered that when he did this, they would almost invariably forgive him. “I’m sorry,” he says, to those walking by, and in almost every instance, they forgive him on the spot. He reflects, “That’s the most you can expect from life, a really good apology for all the things you won't get.”

But don’t you wonder what would have happened if he had stood on the street corner telling those who passed by that he forgave them? Wouldn’t you imagine that the responses probably wouldn’t have been so warm? Some folks might even have become hostile, this was New York after all, not generally perceived as an “I’m sorry” kind of city. Probably most of us can work up our own lists of things for which we believe we’re owed an apology, but admitting that we’ve done anything that requires forgiveness comes less easily.

We are invited to be such friends for each other, carrying them to the Master if we can, figuratively or literally, so they also can hear the good news of forgiveness of a God who loves us more than we could imagine to have been possible.


(1) Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius.

(2) Debra Farington drew my attention to the interesting connection between Mark's story and Gardner's play in her article, "Dose of Forgiveness," in Christian Century, February 7, 2006, p. 17.

copyright ©2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved