FEBRUARY 9, 2003
AN INTOLERABLE VUNERABILITY
Today’s Gospel finds Jesus in Capernaum—going to the synagogue for prayers, visiting the home of Simon and Andrew, healing Simon’s mother-in-law and the townsfolk.
Capernaum was a village on the Sea of Galilee—a village of those who fished for a living. First century Capernaum has been largely excavated by archeologists. When I was in Capernaum several years ago, I sat amid the ruins of the synagogue St. Mark talks about and visited the site of what may have been Peter’s house. The synagogue was smaller than the chancel area of this church—nearly as long but only half as wide. And the foundation of what could have been Peter’s house was even smaller. The houses were built almost wall to wall and the streets of Capernaum were only about four feet wide. What struck me about the town was how small and close it must have felt—how tight and confining.
The house was only one room. Peter’s mother-in-law must have been on a mattress of straw in one corner of the room. It would have only taken Jesus a step or two to cross to her and lift her up, healed of her fever. Jesus and the four disciples with him would have taken up much of the house while Peter’s mother-in-law prepared a meal for them. Living in that house would have been much like sleeping and eating and washing and talking in a space about the size of a modern-day kitchen—that tight, that crowded, that close.
When we’re told that the whole city “was gathered around the door”, we need to picture people crowded into a space about the width of a narrow hallway, stretching away in both directions. If Jesus sat in the doorway of Peter’s house only a couple of people at a time could have stood in front of him. A crowded, tight space—but not too crowded for the broken to find wholeness, for the suffering to find relief, for those in pain to find relief. So Jesus touched and healed until darkness fell and all who sought him had found him.
Its little wonder then that Jesus rose before dawn to go outside to a deserted place to get away from the confinement and narrowness of the day. He needed some space, some escape from how crowded and pressed upon he must have felt in Capernaum.
I was having a conversation with a friend and parishioner this week and the conversation turned, as most conversations these days do, to what may or may not happen in Iraq. I was saying that I was surprised and confused by how the coming war seemed so inevitable and that most people seemed almost to take it for granted.
My friend told she’d heard someone say that since September 11, 2001, Americans had been living with “an intolerable vulnerability.” The American people, after that terrorist attack, had—for the first time in recent history—felt so “vulnerable”, so unsafe, so exposed, so frightened that it has seemed unbearable—“intolerable” to us. An intolerable vulnerability….
Since September 11, the US government has been granted wide latitude by the public for anything that claims it will reduce this “intolerable vulnerability” and make us feel somehow safer. With almost no opposition either within or outside the government, there has been serious, perhaps irreparable, erosion of civil liberties and constitutional guarantees. All the government has needed to convince us to give away precious rights is to appeal to our fears, our vulnerability. We are promised that arrests without sufficient evidence, illegal searches and imprisonment without the due process are justified because we will be safe from terrorists. We are being “closed in” by our fears and vulnerability.
Jesus escaped to the open places outside Capernaum while it was still dark. He went away from the crowds and the tightness and the confinement and close quarters so he could pray. But when his disciples came searching for him and found him, he returned to the people, to the crowds to proclaim his message—the message he was sent to bring.
The Collect for today reminds us of Christ’s message. Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life you have made known to us in…Jesus Christ….
Jesus’ message is the same today as it was in Capernaum. We are FREE from Sin and given the LIBERTY of Abundant Life.
Freedom and Liberty are the enemies of fear and anxiety and that intolerable vulnerability. Abundant Life is life lived fully in spite of fear. Abundant Life is life lived with the courage and safety only God can give.
Personally, I question the morality of the coming war. I oppose it strongly. It is, in my mind at least, a war that will be waged, not out of a longing for justice and righteousness, but out of our intolerable vulnerability.
However, I also believe most of those who support military action in Iraq are convinced of the rightness of their point of view. Saddam Hussein IS a tyrant and a monster to his own people. But there is much that can be done to oppose and weaken him short of unleashing our nation’s military might. I believe we need to act out of courage rather than fear.
We will be no safer after much blood has been spilled and Iraq is defeated. The damage that this coming war will wreck will inflame and embolden those who wish us harm.
As a Christian, I feel I need to cling to “the liberty of that abundant life” Christ makes known.
Abundant Life is life lived fully in spite of fear and danger. We cannot ever be safe. But all that is most precious and most real cannot be taken from us by violence and terror.
In fact, I think there is freedom and liberty found in facing our feelings of vulnerability. Vulnerability teaches us humility. Vulnerability opens us to possibilities beyond returning violence for violence. Vulnerability can give us access to transformation, to newness, to hope. Living an abundant life takes much more courage than dealing death.
Perhaps the most troubling part of our current quandary is how inevitable the coming war seems. Even people who oppose military action in Iraq seem defeated. “It’s too late to do anything,” a friend told me about the coming war. “Too much is in motion,” he continued, “it’s simply too late….”
The vulnerable people of Capernaum—those sick and weak and possessed of Fear—sought out Jesus. Their brokenness was intolerable to them, so they sought out Jesus. And Jesus offered them freedom from sin and fear—he offered them abundant life.
He offers us no less.
Christ offers us that abundant life which empowers us to live courageously in spite of fear and danger, to live with hope and restraint and faith in a time of intolerable vulnerability. Christ offers us freedom and liberty, and it is never too late to seek him.
It is never too late to seek peace—though our country’s leaders seem committed to a fight to give us the illusion of safety at the expense of our national honor and integrity. It is never too late to bring the Light of Christ to this fearful, darkling world.
It is never too late to seek Christ and to seek peace….It is never too late….
The Rev. Dr. Jim Bradley
St. John’s on the Green
Waterbury, CT 06702