A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash
May 29, 2016
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Here we are, on Memorial Day weekend, a congregation that strives for peace, reading a story that seems to glorify a warrior centurion.
Here we are in a congregation that works for racial justice, reading a story that celebrates a slave master’s devotion to his slave without every questioning slavery.
Here we are, living in a country that revels in its escape from colonial occupation reading a story makes the Roman occupation sound just fine.
Here we are, a congregation of folks who have called out to God for healing and only sometimes seen the cancer cured or the Parkinson’s slowed - reading a story about Jesus just waving his arms from far away and miraculously taking away disease.
Here we are, some of us, wondering if we are worthy of anything - with the words of the centurion echoed in the words of Roman Catholic mass “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Here we are, sitting with a text that is problematic. This is a text that would have been shocking, too, in the decades after Jesus. He healed a Gentile’s slave? He gave aid to a Roman occupier?
” But if we've been paying attention to the Gospel of Luke, we shouldn't be so surprised. The foreigner and the stranger and our worst enemy are as welcome at God's table as anyone else is.” (Eric Barreto, http://day1.org/4886-an_unexpected_faith)
There is one qualification for Jesus’ compassion, throughout the gospels, one qualification - someone’s deep need. Over and over again, Jesus heals the least expected person. He builds a bridge between peoples who are separate. He declares forgiveness and value, inclusion and hope. He offers love without anyone ever earning it.
This story of a Roman occupying soldier & the healing of a slave, then, is the same as the whole of Jesus’ ministry. We are in the first week of what the church calls Ordinary time - and the Gospel passages in this time are all day to day scenes in Jesus’ earthly ministry. We’re not preparing for Jesus’ birth, nor follwing him into the desert to be tempted, nor turning toward Holy Week and Pentecost. We are just following Jesus around Galilee, for ordinary moments. And what Luke, especially, tells us about those ordinary moments is that Jesus’ ministry was about teaching compassion, and offering compassion. It was about expanding community, and showing the way toward the reign of God, where everyone has a seat at the table. Jesus’ ministry was about God’s expansive love. Some of the healing stories & some of his preaching was about upending systems and building justice; every single story of Jesus’ ministry was about God’s expansive love.
In this Gospel, Luke the physician emphasizes healing and compassion. This is what comes in the chapers before:
Jesus spoke of proclaiming good news to the poor.
He called the disciples, and Peter said, not me - I am a sinful man! But Jesus called him anyway.
He cleansed a leper who said, Lord, if you are willing...
He healed a paralytic whose friends brought him near.
He ate with the tax collectors.
Then he preached, what in Luke is called the Sermon on the Plain. He started with blessings. Unexpected blessings for unexpected people: blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are you who weep. Woe to the rich, and the full, and those who are happy now. Hatred and exlusion will be turned over in God’s realm, so start loving and blessing - do not revel in momentary good fortune.
And then he taught his followers: Love your enemies. Be merciful, just as your father is merciful. Judge not.
The sermon ended with Jesus telling them to act with compassion, to act with mercy:
”...the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation.” (6:49)
If you take all of those verses and add them to a layer cake - healing and community, overturning expectations, loving your enemy and blessing the least expected person - it sounds like this story, healing the centurion’s slave.
The Jewish elders would give testimony about the centurion. The centurion would care so much about the slave that he would call in favors. Jesus would reach across the divide. Bridges would be built. Suddenly, where there were three separate communities - the Jewish elders in a local synagogue; the Roman centurion and his household; Jesus and his followers - there was one community, and a person healed.
Now, I want to talk about miracles for a moment.
This week I read a fascinating examination of belief in the miracles of Jesus. I’m going to link to it in the transcript of this sermon because I think it will resonate with many of you. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2016/01/how-the-miracles-of-the-bible-obscure-the-miracle-of-jesus/ )
The author, Christian Chiakulis, posits there are three ways to interpret miracles as Christians. The first is to go all in, believing literally in the miracles of the Bible and reports of incredible happenings today. He thinks that belief manages not to question why some people get miracles and others do not. The second kind of belief in miracles thinks they happened in Bible times but God chose to stop. Chiakulis calls that God incomprehensible and says that’s “once upon a time” belief. He rejects both of these belief structures, and offers a third:
A man was born into one of the most violent and unjust periods in human history. He was born into a world where slavery and oppression were omnipresent, where violence was the primary means of conflict resolution, where most people lived lives of utter misery.
This man fought the systems of oppression, injustice, and violence with a quixotic and short-lived ministry based on a radical set of principles: equality for all, including women; an equitable distribution of God’s earth; an alternative to violence. This mission would end predictably: with the brutal suppression of the movement by means of the public and macabre execution of its founder.
But somehow, against all logic, the movement endured. Spurred by the memory of the man they followed, Jesus’s supporters continued to fight for his vision throughout the Roman empire. The vision persists even today, buried under layers of doctrine and dogma, for anyone with ears to hear or eyes to see. Two thousand years later, the mission of Jesus is still being fought for around the world.
[It is time for us to put away] belief in magical miracles for the much more powerful and enduring miracle of Jesus Christ.
No fairy tales man’s imagination can create will ever come close to the very real miracle that a man born into the most inhumane of worlds presented to us a vision of humanity at its very peak. (Christian Chiakulis)
I will say that I embrace Jesus’ miracles and modern ones as sources of mystery, having experienced unexplained wonders often enough to know my human mind cannot fully comprehend the world. Yet.
You could tell this morning’s story a different way. The miracle could be the living out of a vision of a world without divide between people. The miracle could be the connections between the slave and his master, the elders and their occupier, the Jewish community and the Roman community, the connection between all of them, and Jesus.
If you are concerned about the capriciousness of healing stories, perhaps it is good to be reminded that now, at Teresa of Avila said, we are Christ’s hands in this world. It is our work as his followers to bridge divides and building connection, to heal the sick, to offer compassion to everyone we encounter, from the member of our church who needs chicken soup to the visitor who needs welcome.
Our work, too, is to bridge between disconnected communities, to see past stereotypes, to offer compassion to all we encounter.
It is our work to care for & listen to - not ignore - the veteran.
It is our work to greet the stranger. It is our work to somehow see the humanity in both sides of warring factions. It is our work to see everyone as worthy. This is our call.
It is our task in the more abstract sense to believe as Jesus did, that everyone should be healed and in Jesus’ name we should call for healthcare for all, for housing for veterans, for fair wages.
Yes, we cannot invoke miraculous physical cures but we can see the unseen person in need of healing, we an break down the divides of race, class, and nationality.
When we manage to see Christ in the other;
When we manage to proclaim that in Christ there is no other;
When we embrace a vision of the world in which everyone is worthy of healing,
When we are even just one tiny fraction as merciful as God is merciful,
then we are part of a miracle.