Ordinary Time 9C — June 2, 2013

Outside Over There

Luke 7:1-10
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And 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; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For 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.” 9When 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.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
When I was growing up, there were only a couple of kids in my neighborhood who didn’t go to some kind of church most every Sunday.  Pretty much every family we knew had some sort of religious affiliation.  It was just the way things were when I was young, and I’m sure many of you have the same sort of memories.  In fact, membership in mainline Protestant churches reached its peak in the mid-1960’s when I was a child.
But just a generation later, my children have had a very different experience.  It isn’t only the fact that Rachel has grown up with children who come from many different religious backgrounds – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist.  I would have to say that one of the most notable differences between her childhood and mine is that the majority of her friends come from families who practice no faith at all. 
As far as I can tell, there’s not a lot of difference between the children I grew up with and children today.  Every one of Rachel’s friends that I’ve met have been unfailingly kind, respectful, polite and genuinely nice people.  They have always addressed us as Dr. Rothenberg or Rev. Rothenberg.  None of them has ever raided our liquor cabinet or been arrested for drug possession.  The vast majority of her friends have the desire to do pretty normal things – get jobs, eventually get married, have kids, etc., etc.   They’ve grown up into good people even without the benefit of any kind of church experience. 
Many of the people of Rachel’s generation are what religious researchers have begun calling the “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  Most people in their 20’s or early 30’s have grown up with very casual or non-existent connections to a religious community and now that they are adults, they feel no particular need to join one.  Some of them are spiritual but not religious, many of them believe in God, but few of them regularly engage in what we consider “church.”
So it was somewhat remarkable a couple weeks ago when the new pope made news by suggesting in a sermon that Jesus Christ redeems everyone.  Everyone.  Including those who are Roman Catholic and those who are not.  Those who believe and those who don’t.  Christians, atheists, everyone.  Even the Nones.  The pope went on to say that all people are created in God’s image and all are redeemed:
“The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”[1]
Vatican officials tried to put their own spin what the Pope said, but it was pretty clear that this Pope was expressing a genuine openness to people of other faiths or no faith at all. 
One of the characteristics people have really liked about Pope Francis is that he lived a simple life when he was a Jesuit priest.  He cooked his own meals, lived in a small apartment, and relied upon public transportation.  His simple lifestyle brought him into contact with ordinary people – fervent and not so fervent Catholics, Christians and non-Christians, pious and not so pious people.  And as it has for my children, living and working and being with people of other faiths and non-faiths does something to a person, even a person who has dedicated his life and work to Jesus.
For starters, spending time with people who do not believe as you do makes you far less likely to judge or condemn. When we really get to know people with no religious affiliation or different religious affiliations, and see them doing good things every day – in our schools, in our neighborhoods, and our workplaces, it becomes harder for us to believe that God has split the world up into two categories of people – insiders and outsiders, good and bad, saved and damned.  When your friends and neighbors are Buddhists or Jewish or atheists, it becomes more and more possible to believe that the Holy Spirit is truly present in the good we see them do every day.  As the Pope seemed to say, the good we do draws us together — not the things we believe.  I’m not talking about works righteousness or earning our way into heaven with our good works.  It is about expanding our view of how God works within every person and within different communities of faith.
The pope was preaching about Christ’s inclusive love for everyone in the context of the story in Mark 9 where the disciples tell Jesus that they tried to stop a man from casting out demons because he wasn’t one of them, an insider.  But the Pope been could have gleaned a very similar homily from the text we just heard from Luke because it is the story of another outsider becoming involved with Jesus’ ministry.  In this story, the outsider is a Roman centurion. 
Centurions show up frequently in the New Testament.  Which is not particularly surprising because centurions would have been a very visible part of daily life in Judea and Galilee.  Centurions were sort of the middle management in the Roman army.  They were put in charge of about 80 soldiers, but ranked below those who commanded larger cohorts and legions. 
A centurion like the one in our text today would be considered an outsider  — not only is he not Jewish, but he is also a visual, daily reminder of Rome’s brutal, occupying force.  If you were a Jew living in 1st century Palestine, a Roman centurion might seem as threatening as a German soldier in occupied France or Italy during World War II. 
Of course, in this story from Luke, we never actually meet this particular centurion.  Instead, we hear about him from other people – first a group of Jewish elders and then a group of his Gentile friends.  The Jewish elders come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf and ask Jesus to heal the centurion’s slave who is very close to death.  Then the centurion’s Gentile friends come out to tell Jesus that the centurion feels unworthy to receive Jesus in his home and that he trusts that all Jesus needs to do is speak a word in order to heal the slave.
So it’s really sort of stunning what Jesus ends up saying about this outsider —  “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  Can you just imagine how that statement sounded to those hearing this story in Luke’s time 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ ascension?   Because if one thing hadn’t changed in those 40 years, it was the fact of Roman occupation.  Rome was still brutally enforcing its will on every kind of Israelite.  The centurion was still a potent symbol of Rome, yet it is this outsider that Jesus considers more faithful than any of the insiders.  Jesus never meets the centurion, yet at the end of this story, Jesus is amazed enough to exclaim, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 
It may be worth stopping for a moment to recall Jesus’ peculiar habit of associating with outsiders.  Luke spends a lot of time documenting how Jesus drove the religious establishment absolutely nuts on a regular basis.  You remember Jesus’ first public sermon in his hometown synagogue at the very beginning of his ministry? Jesus first reads from the scroll of Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…to let the oppressed go free.”  The crowd loves his reading and for a moment, Jesus is the hometown boy made good. 
But then Jesus goes on to remind them of Elijah’s ministry to a widow from the wrong side of the tracks in Sidon.  And then Jesus mentions Elisha’s healing of Naaman the Syrian – an archenemy of Israel.  It was like Jesus telling his friends and family that God had become a chaplain for the Ku Klux Klan or that God has passed over a Sunday school teacher to take care of an ailing Hindu.  It is that kind of direct and intentional identification with Israel’s enemies that makes Jesus’ hometown crowd want to push Jesus off a cliff.  Unlike the Vatican spokespeople, the guys in charge of Jesus’ synagogue don’t even give Jesus a chance to clarify his incendiary statements.
And after he makes it out of his hometown by the skin of his teeth, Jesus just keeps on going – blessing and healing and eating with all sorts of unacceptable people.  A crazy man, a mother-in-law, demonics, lepers, paralyzed people and tax collectors.  He plucks wheat on the Sabbath – a definite no-no. And then Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in the synagogue of all places.  Jesus’ actions absolutely infuriate the scribes and Pharisees. 
Have you noticed that Jesus almost always does these controversial things right in front of the religious leaders as if he is intentionally doing it to make sure they cannot miss it?   Like when Jesus heals the leper in Luke.  First he tells the man not to tell anyone.  But then Jesus says, “Oh, by the way, make sure to go show the priest.” 
But here’s the thing — Jesus is never telling the religious establishment anything they shouldn’t already know.  Jesus isn’t making this stuff up as he goes along.   Jesus was always telling the religious establishment exactly what was right there in their own scripture.  There’s nothing particularly creative about what Jesus is saying or doing. 
But the religious establishment didn’t interpret scripture they way Jesus interpreted it.  They used scripture to decide who was in and who was out.  Then Jesus comes along to remind them that God’s sense of community is much bigger than they think.  From the beginning, God reached out not only to Israel but also to all of creation.  God loves it all.
Every time Jesus inspires faith and heals in the gospels, someone gets angry and thinks he is out of line.  Crowds get so large Jesus has to preach from a boat, but he is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth.  The same dynamic happens to Peter and Paul in Acts.  Paul starts awakening faith and draws people in and as a result, he gets arrested and thrown in jail.  But there’s even a silver lining to that because jail gives Paul time to write all those letters. 
What was it about the centurion that impressed Jesus?  What does it take to amaze Jesus?   Remember the centurion’s request.   The centurion asked for healing.  But he wasn’t asking for himself, but for the least powerful, least visible person in this story – the slave.  Remember the slave?  Did you even notice the sick guy in this story?   In all of the fuss over the centurion and the Jewish elders and the Gentile friends and Jesus, it is easy to forget who is really suffering in this story. 
A slave could be ignored.  A slave could be replaced.  If the centurion had enough money to build a synagogue, he surely could have bought himself a replacement for the sick slave.  He probably could have purchased a couple replacements slaves.   
But the centurion couldn’t do that. He could have, but he didn’t.  He wanted this guy to be healed.   And I think that’s what gets to Jesus.  That’s what amazes Jesus.  It is not because the centurion built a synagogue, although that was a pretty nice thing to do.  And it isn’t even about what the centurion believes about Jesus.  We don’t hear about what happens after the slave is healed, but we have no reason to believe the centurion becomes a follower of Jesus.  In fact, the centurion doesn’t seem that anxious to meet Jesus.  And Jesus doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting the centurion involved in the on-going life of the faith community.  All the centurion believes is that Jesus can do something that he cannot – save the life of his slave.  And ultimately, our faith ultimately boils down to this – the realization that we are not the ones in charge and there are limits to what we can do or know or be. 
It is the centurion’s concern for the kind of person that Jesus is concerned about that seems to stun Jesus.  Of all the people in this story, the centurion is the only one who is truly following the commandment about loving his neighbor.   Maybe the centurion never read the commandment in the Bible or heard it in a sermon.  But that doesn’t matter one bit to Jesus.  The centurion is living out the greatest commandment.
We tend to imagine that there was a time in which faith was so much easier than the time in which we live in right now.  But the truth is this – the church today is no different from the church in Jesus’ time or Luke’s time or any time.  We believe that the diversity we see around us now is somehow different or more threatening than the back in the good old days – whenever you imagine those good old days were.   The truth is that most if not all of the early Christians had family and friends who did not share their beliefs.  Perhaps Luke includes this story and the many others like it to remind Jesus’ followers that God’s love doesn’t end at our boundaries.
Jesus continually reminds the religious community that their most hated enemies are God’s best friends.  Jesus does it again and again, right in front of them and he does it so blatantly, so in-your-face that you begin to realize that the healings are not only for the benefit of the sick and the lame and the poor and the rejected people.  In fact, the healings also seems designed to remind the religious people – the ones who think they are the healthy ones – may in fact be the most needy people in the room.
The same God who showed up in the man crucified on a cross, regularly shows up where we don’t expect God to be and never, ever stops delighting in surprising us.   May God would open our hearts and eyes to see that God’s love extends far beyond the confines of our church or faith, and God’s healing power is truly for all.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Huffington Post, May 22, 2013.  “Pope Francis Say Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics.”  Accessed Wednesday, May 29, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html