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February 5, 2006 (Sunday 5 · Time after Epiphany)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Grace and peace to you from God our loving Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
In today’s gospel lesson we hear how after leaving the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus enters the house of Simon and Andrew and heals their mother. This is Jesus’ first reported healing, and after that, even though this healing was within the privacy of a home, the word spreads.
Due to his healing touch, Jesus quickly becomes famous, and people begin to gather around him. If it was Jesus’ intention to run for office, Capernaum would have been the place to start a political career.
Instead, because of this overwhelming reaction in Capernaum, Jesus is challenged to separate himself in order to reaffirm his mission and identity in this world.
After a night of healing Jesus wakes up early and retreats to a solitary place to pray. Hopefully this is a familiar practice to many of you, as we find ourselves doing this even in the midst of the busiest times in our lives. But it is comforting to know that even Jesus needed to get away from people and pressure to commune with God and remember his true mission and identity.
This time is interrupted, however, by his disciples, who are “hunting for him” and inform him that that every one in Capernaum is looking for him too! What does it mean for Jesus to be hunted by the good people of Capernaum? I think they knew a good thing when they saw it and wanted Jesus to stay with them as some type of local leader and spiritual guru. Wouldn’t we want the same thing?
This scene in Capernaum reminds me of an old Woody Guthrie song called “Christ for President.” The chorus is “Let’s have Christ as President. Let’s have the carpenter for our king.”
We’d vote for him wouldn’t we! That would fix everything, wouldn’t it!
If we think about it, Jesus wasn’t meant to be the leader of our institutions. But if this text from Mark is any indication, it’s always been our temptation to make Jesus that type of leader. Even today politicians make claims that a vote for them is a vote for Jesus.
In Capernaum, Jesus is faced with the temptation to become that type of leader early in his ministry. But instead of giving in to this popular demand, he retreats in order to reassert his mission and identity in the midst of others’ desires for his time and energy.
Haven’t we all at one time or another felt caught up in an event or situation that begins to have power over our lives? Does it ever get to the point where you’ve needed to step aside in order to question the direction you were moving and what forces were driving you?
I had an experience like that when I went to college. When I arrived at Saint Olaf, I saw a community that was separated into many cliques that rarely interacted with one another. I was a popular guy on campus, and I decided early on to make it my mission to try to bring these separate groups together by being a friend to all of them.
When I became involved in school politics, I witnessed how poor the communication was between the administration, the students and faculty, and the Regents, who were the council that ran the school and voted for policy changes.
I decided I would expand my mission not just to bring students together, but to use the political system to bring all the groups into closer dialogue for the good of the community.
This led me to run a write-in campaign to become the student representative to the Board of Regents. I felt like this position offered the most potential for immediate positive change in the campus community.
At first this experience was very positive. I really believed I could change things and make a difference. I wanted to fix the problems I saw in the community I was a part of, and people rallied around me in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
I had long conversations with people that had never voted before to get them to vote—even if it wasn’t for me. I tried to convince them that trying to change our community mattered.
I met almost every student coming in and out of the cafeteria for a week before the election and shook their hands and tried to get them to memorize my name and the position I was running for.
The coolest publicity stunt of the campaign was quite awesome! My friend Russ drove my friends and me around campus in his truck, which was equipped with giant speakers strapped to his cab and our radio tuned to the campus station where my friend Adam was in the studio broadcasting hilarious pro-Graber propaganda.
The next day I heard that professors put aside normal coursework to discuss my campaign in four different classes. It was a real rush to be in the middle of a movement like that and my school had never seen anything like it!
In the end I lost the election by 20 votes, but hundreds wrote in my name, and it was the largest election turnout in school history, and the largest among Minnesota colleges that year—a feat our lethargic school had never achieved.
After it was over, almost every current student leader pulled me aside and told me I could run for any position I wanted the next year and win.
There was a lot of temptation involved in hearing something like that—that my name, separate from the mission I had set in front of me, had power of its own. I had to retreat and ask God to help me understand who I was in the middle of all of this.
I think in a lot of ways my identity and mission had gotten wrapped up in what others saw in me as kind of a cult of personality.
During the campaign I felt like I was in charge of the situation, but afterwards I realized others were probably using me for their own reasons, and the fame and the power created by this situation may have had more control over me then they should have.
For some time after the rush of that campaign I struggled with a genuine desire, not to help the community as much as to be crowned king of the campus.
Our text for today makes me think Jesus faced some similar issues. He becomes the center of life in the community of Capernaum and through his healings there, he becomes so popular he could probably set up shop in town and live there forever, quite comfortably.
And what a good place to live, where everyone was made healthy and whole and owed it to you. (I wonder how long it would take for a place like that to become a gated community?)
Jesus could have probably stayed there forever, like a pastor in the midst of a congregation that loved him and had no problems whatsoever. But instead Jesus leaves the scene and retreats to a place where he can reaffirm his mission and identity in the real world—and for the whole world.
Mark tells us that “the whole city was gathered around the door.” In the midst of this overwhelming public gathering around him, Jesus chooses to retreat away from this place of power, in order to remember that his kingdom is not of this world, but that he is moving toward the cross, where his true identity and mission were to be made known.
While in this world, Jesus did not shun the need for real bodily healing in the people he meets. Jesus is a true healer in body and in spirit. That is a part of his identity and mission.
When confronted by the need for healing, Jesus couldn’t help but heal. But Jesus did not come only to heal the physical sickness and disease of this world. It is through the cross that his true healing mission brings wholeness to all sinners in this broken world, once and for all.
I’m sure that the path to the cross was a hard path to take even for Jesus. I take comfort that even Jesus needed to step away from the limelight and the temptation of power in order to remember this mission and identity. We can learn from Christ’s example here.
We all get wrapped up in our identity as defined by our work, our culture, our ability to perform up to par, according to someone else’s expectations—and we lose track of our true mission and identity in this life, as a child of God, and as a part of God’s plan for the world.
We all need to step aside and have time alone with God where we can remember who we are and whose we are. Where do you go to talk to God? What do you say to God when you ask for this help?
We all need these times of retreat, in order regain the strength and direction to advance.
This past week Pastor Barber and I were able to go to Kaua‘i to be a part of the Pastors’ Retreat for the Hukilau Conference. And we were able to spend time with our bishops, Bishop Finck of the Pacifica Synod and Bishop Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
One of the most important things I learned from this time is that we as pastors can’t do it all ourselves. We need to remember that we are working for God, and it is only through God’s strength and guidance that we are able to continue to lead our congregations in their mission and have the identity of pastors.
The last thing Bishop Hanson told us was that before he goes to bed each night, he says a prayer that was the prayer of a former Pope. It is a simple prayer for clergy, but I bet we all could use something like it as we retreat into sleep each night. “Lord, this is your church, I have worked hard to serve it today. But now I’m tired. Good night.”
Bishop Hanson seems to know that he can’t live out his mission or identity on his own. I imagine there would be a real temptation for a bishop to try to take the church into his own hands and try to fix every problem through his own power.
But bishops can’t do it alone and neither can we. We are not supposed to have it all figured out. It’s okay for us to let go— to retreat from where the world is taking us in order to get our mission and identity back from God.
I think that’s what Jesus does in Capernaum.
And because he didn’t give in to our desires to give him a seat of earthly power, we will not have a President Jesus anytime soon. Nor will we find a guru in Jesus.
What we have in Jesus is a savior, a brother, and a friend—a healer of the places we can’t fix through a visit to the doctor’s office. God gives us a relationship with a person, and that relationship is where we truly know who we are and where God is leading us in this world.
In closing, I pray this week that you may know the peace of God in your life. And that you may trust God knows your true identity and is leading your life’s mission with such care that you can retreat into Jesus’ healing presence and rest in God’s loving plan for you.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Copyright © 2006 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org