Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Both/And God...

My deepest appreciation  to Kathryn Matthews Huey, D. Mark Davis, Jeannine K. Brown, and Verlee A. Copeland, pastor of First Parish Congregational Church in York, Maine for their priceless insights on today's Gospel reading.

Luke 7:1-10
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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

We could be forgiven, I think, for reading this passage from the Gospel, stopping a moment, re-reading it, and saying, “wait, what?” So much flies in the face of what we expect. Take your pick: the faithful centurion, a slave owner who considers a slave as dear to him as his child, the Jewish leaders who address Jesus without questioning his authority or ability to heal, the faithful humility of a Gentile who doesn’t want his impurity to rub off on the One who can heal his beloved servant…

Like so many people who play a part in the Gospel accounts, we don’t know this centurion’s name, but there is a lot that we can imply – he is in Capernaum with about 80 soldiers, making sure order is kept and the taxes are paid. He was a man of means, no doubt; centurions made fifty to one hundred times what an ordinary soldier made… but for some reason, this centurion chose to spend his money on the people he was tasked with subjugating… Somewhere along the way, it seems, this Gentile, this pagan, this outsider fell in love with the people of the God of Israel.

Yes, the taxes still got paid, and yes, order was still kept, but this crusty, battle hardened veteran made it a point to show compassion to the people of Capernaum, even building a synagogue for them.

And then a favorite servant fell ill. All of his power meant nothing in the face of illness. He couldn’t order the servant to be well, he didn’t have the authority to arrest the illness, all of his money could not buy health for this young man who meant so much to him. All he could do was watch as his servant, more than just a prized possession, withered away.

And yes, the translation we read makes it sound kind of cold and calculated: this slave was worth a lot of money and was sick… like the poor centurion’s Mercedes was leaking transmission fluid or something. I think the original language makes it clear that the relationship was more nuanced than that…

Make no mistake, slavery is slavery. In Roman law, slaves had no rights whatsoever, they lived and died at the mercy of their owners. Educated, skilled slaves had it better than unskilled slaves, to be sure – those with no education lived very hard, very short lives at hard labor in mines or quarries… but for even the most educated, most skilled, they were only of value as long as they performed, and if they dared rebel or in any way displease their owner, they could be summarily executed, crucified, without trial and without recourse.

A person could be sold into slavery to pay a debt, they could sell themselves into slavery, and they could be freed by their owners or, if permitted to save money, eventually buy their freedom. But they were property, nothing more, less than human.

But this centurion, he had a special place in his heart for this particular slave. The language that Luke uses to describe how the centurion acts when he learns of Jesus is telling – our translation says that he “sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.” The word for “ask” is stronger though, different – perhaps a better word is “beseeching,” even “begging.” This wasn’t a man worried about losing money, this was more than financial, this was deeply personal. In fact, later, when he sends his friends to stop Jesus from entering his home, he says “But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed,” and the word for “servant” there is “pias,” a term of endearment which could be translated “child.”

Now, in defense of our rather cold and matter-of-fact translation, it is way too easy to go too far with all of this; however beloved the slave is to this centurion, he is still a slave, still property, still a possession, not an equal… he is an outsider to everyone, both to those in the Roman culture and, like the centurion, an outsider to the Jewish people.

And everyone knows it – the Jewish leaders know it, and they make it a point to tell Jesus that, even though this guy is a Gentile, and even though he is part of the Roman occupying forces, he deserves to get what he is asking for.

The centurion knows it – I have no real proof of this, but I imagine the centurion walking back into his house after asking the Jewish leaders to bring Jesus, and freezing in the doorway, suddenly realizing the position he has put the itinerant rabbi in.

You see, if a Jewish person entered the home of a Gentile, he or she would be immediately unclean, and would have to undergo ritual purification and a waiting period before allowed to resume participating in worship.

He was deemed worthy by others, but deemed himself unworthy to expect such a sacrifice – as Fred Craddock puts it, that isn’t a bad set of credentials, when you think about it. So he sends his friends to Jesus with a very specific message: I know you have authority from the God who sent you. I know how authority works. Say the word, Jesus, and it will be done.

And just like that, it is done.

I want to take a couple of steps back for a moment. I find it fascinating that the Jesus who meets these Jewish leaders at the gates of Capernaum is somewhat different than the Jesus we meet in the book of Mark, who, when confronted by the Syrophoneician woman seeking healing for her daughter, argues with her, saying he was sent to heal faithful Jewish people, not pagans. Here, Jesus doesn’t bat an eye about healing the outsider property of an outsider.

In other words, in Mark, Jesus appears to see God as an either/or God, and is convinced otherwise by the dogged faith of an outsider.

Here, in Luke, Jesus sees God as “both/and.” There is no arguing, no sense that God’s love and grace is a limited commodity that must first be meted out to the deserving Jewish people and, if there is any left, then to the Gentiles… No, in Luke God’s grace and love and healing are limitless – available even to those hostile to God’s chosen people! Jesus is acting on his own commandment to “love your enemies, and do good to those that hate you...”

Yes, the centurion is an outsider. He represents all that is wrong in the province of Judea – the hatred and disdain of Rome, the occupation, the oppression, the starvation brought on by tax upon tax upon tax, the constant cloying temptation to give in to Hellenization, to go ahead and worship other gods, lesser gods like Caesar…

But this outsider is different, yes. The taxes are still being collected, order is being kept, but this guy is making it a point to give back, to show his love… and what’s more, the centurion, for all his flaws, believes! He has hope – trust – that this Jesus, this emissary of the Living God, can and will do what he asks of him.

And Jesus turned on its head the prevailing understanding of who was invited to the welcome table, by his willingness to restore health based not on who held the printed invitation, but on who by faith was willing to walk through God's front door of mercy.

Many times, those of us who were in church nine months before we were born and haven’t stopped since forget – we forget that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We are a community of aliens and strangers who have been loved and accepted and saved and brought into relationship with God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Doctor Delmer Chilton tells the story of a Lutheran World Relief project in India to develop better agricultural methods and sanitation practices. The project would start its efforts in each village by training a villager to be in charge of that project.

In one village there was a couple who had only one child. They had had six pregnancies and six years. All six babies had died in their first year of life. The parents believed that the devil had come and snatched their children away. When the seventh child was born, her parents named her “Garbage,” in the belief that if the devil heard the family calling her garbage he would not want her and she would live.

Imagine growing up being called Garbage by everyone, including your parents. She was an outcast in a village of outcasts; a nobody in a community of nobodies.

Until the Lutherans came to town. Garbage was the person picked to head up the program. Following Indian tradition she was given a title. And so it was that lowly Garbage became instead The Esteemed and Venerable Garbage. And with the change of name came a change of status. The one who was out was now in, the one who was low was made high, the one who was nobody became somebody.

That’s how Jesus treated that centurion. Sure, he had power and all, but as far as his standing in the Jewish faith, he was nobody – he couldn’t worship in the synagogue he had built, he was unclean. But because of his bold, audacious faith, Jesus included him in God’s love, mercy, healing, and forgiveness.

And that is how God is with us and with all people. We label others as less than us or other than us; and God takes our labels, our fearful alienation, and turns them into faithful reconciliation.

We are a community of aliens and strangers whose names have been changed from nobody to somebody by the love of God. We are called of God to open our hearts and our lives so that, “. . . when a foreigner, a stranger, someone not of our people . . .” is willing to walk through God's front door of mercy; they will not only be welcomed, they will be transformed.

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