Sunday Worship, January 22, 2023 - OLD CALLS AND NEW

Texts:  Genesis 13: 14-18; Matt. 4: 12-25
    The story of Jesus' call to Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John begins in a curious way.  The writer of Matthew tells us that upon hearing that John had been arrested, Jesus “withdrew into Galilee,” a polite way of saying that he made himself scarce.  He left Nazareth and traveled 20 miles north to Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Originally a small town, Capernaum had grown into an important town on the trade routes between the territory ruled by Antipas and that of his half-brother Philip who ruled the territories east of the Galilee.  Now, remember that John had been arrested because he condemned Antipas – we use the middle name of all these rulers because their father, Herod the Great, thought so much of his own name that he named three of his sons Herod.  John condemned Antipas for marrying Herodias, the wife of another of his half-brothers.  If you want to understand how really incestuous this whole thing was, Philip later married Salome, the one who had John beheaded.

    Capernaum, originally called Kefar Nahum, or the village of Nahum, was first settled around 2000 BCE.  The stony beach area from Nahum to Bethsaida, only a few miles away, contained the richest fishing area along the Sea of Galilee.  The village was occupied until 1000 CE, when it fell into disrepair, its shores overfished and the trade routes no longer relevant.

As European visitors began to “tour” Palestine in the nineteenth century, several wrote of the utter desolation of the site.  Although there was some excavation prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, it was only with the establishment of British rule that various religious groups managed to negotiate ownership of various sections of important sites listed in Scripture.  A group called the Franciscan Order for Custody in the Holy Land got first dibs on the village, and the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem ended up with the balance.

 As in other parts of the Middle East ruled by the European powers, archaeologists, such as William Albright and Leonard Wooley, two of the more prominent ones, began a flurry of excavation in the 1920s.  The excavations were enormous.  Think the excavation scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Following World War II, archaeologists withdrew until the end of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 that set Capernaum and other important sites within Israel.  The entire site has been fully excavated.  If you go there, you can go to a house traditionally called the house of Simon Peter.

    Matthew’s Gospel here puts Jesus squarely as following in John's footsteps.  “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” the gospel writer tells us.  So, even Jesus, fleeing the possibility of political persecution – sounds familiar – went to another place but did not stop delivering the message.  Like many people experiencing persecution in one place, he went to another, just hoping that someone will listen and things will change.  Sometimes the situation gets better; often it does not.  But Jesus, deciding his head was better on his shoulders, “withdrew” where he could continue his ministry. We usually don't think of Jesus as fleeing from anyone.  That idea actually goes against our thoughts of who Jesus was and represented.  Matthew soft pedals it by saying Jesus “withdrew.”  

    People leave their natal lands for many reasons.  We only read one small snippet from the saga of Abram, which begins several chapters before. His father Terah was born in the place called Ur of the Chaldees, and we can assume that Abram was born there as well.  His father decides the family should go to Canaan but then they settle in a place called Haran about 200 miles north up the Euphrates River., traditionally thought to be in the fertile mountainous region along the Turkish Syrian border.  We're not told why the family moved around so much; there is no indication that they were an agricultural family.  Like the modern day herders of animals, they were semi-nomadic.  They moved about as they needed.
    Enter the LORD, who tells Abram to get up and keep moving.  If you look at a map, you may wonder why Terah would have taken his family north only to head south toward Canaan, sandwiched between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.  Modern armies may move along modern roads over the Syrian desert but in ancient times, one followed a river, the source of water – and life.

However, Abram passes through the land because there were people in the land and goes down to Egypt but not before building an altar and hearing the  promise that this land, Canaan, will be given to his descendants.

    From his new home in Capernaum, his place of refuge from the danger that his mission produced, Jesus began to call followers.  Just like that small group of Baptists and Quakers who settled here in New Jersey, a community grew in response to the promise of religious freedom and fertile soil for farming.  The small community that developed around Jesus and his disciples in Capernaum became a house church; the house church of the first century grew into a larger community.   Remains of the old first century house church still exist in Capernaum, the potsherds dating from the late first century contain the sign of the cross, and the graffiti on the walls speak of the Anointed One, the Messiah.  The lesson to be drawn is that although we are small now, we still have the capacity to grow and develop as we answer God's call to us just as the four in Matthew answered the call of Jesus.

    Jesus reached out to the first four disciples, average people, like you and me.  Jesus called them to share his mission, and Jesus calls us to continue his mission.  We may think, well, the world was simpler then.  It's so complicated now.  I'm not so sure that it's more complicated; it's just different.  The disciples he called had to do the same things we do: earn a living, live with families, explain to them why they were going to follow this person, who some believed to be a mad man, on a mission that could cost them their lives.  That doesn't sound so simple to me. I can just hear Simon's wife:  We have kids to feed, my mother to take care of, and you're going to do WHAT??

    Here at Old First we face a new kind of call.  We are not called to forget our past nor to just wallow in it.  We are called to become a new kind of community.  The traditional Protestant church is thought of as a building where people worship, usually on Sunday mornings.  Sports programs in suburban towns like Middletown have cut into the traditional Sunday morning attendance.
Part of redefining ourselves is examining the nature of our larger northern Monmouth County community and finding those who are not served.  It's more than just demographics; we need to understand the community.  A recent study of millennials – those between 20 and 40 – indicates that many reject the church as hidebound and unwilling to tackle the really pressing issues that face us as a society, not to mention the difficult questions that face us in our search for meaning in our lives.

    The call we face here is not an easy one.  We have tried some different things in the past, but what we need to do is reach out beyond Sundays.  Some here have made suggestions that reach out to the community in service to the community.  One idea was a support group for parents who face special challenges with their children.  This building is empty during the week.  What kind of service might it provide, even if just a space to meet?   There is no lack of ideas on service to the community.  It is the call to serve that we hear in the Gospel.  The kingdom of heaven takes many forms.  We just need to respond in new and imaginative ways.

    Let us pray:  Creator of imagination, infuse our minds and hearts with your power and spirit so we may better serve you. In the name of the One who infuses our spirits, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen