Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon; 2 Pentecost/Proper 4; Luke 7:1-10

We made it!  We got through the seasonal experiences of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, and we can now begin to live life normally.  If by “normally” you mean not having to worry about any special preparations or special sacrifices, you are correct.  But if by “normally” you mean plugging along through life following our old familiar patterns, you would be wrong.

Take a minute and think back two weeks to Pentecost.  What do you remember as the main point of that sermon being?  If you've forgotten, the main point was that you have been anointed by the Holy Spirit and have now officially graduated from disciples to apostles.  For those of you who were here that day, you also received diplomas and certificates of excellence as proof of that graduation.  You are now apostles, commissioned to proclaim the good news of God in Christ to the world.

But buried within that sermon was the reminder that apostleship didn't negate the need for discipleship.  Just because you have officially graduated to the role of teacher doesn't mean you are no longer a learner.  Being an apostle means that you are located firmly between Jesus and the world.  To the world you are an apostle, sharing and proclaiming the good news of God in Christ.  To Jesus you are a disciple, continually learning, continually striving, continually turning to Christ.  Another way of saying it is that you take what you learn here and go share it out there.

We have now entered the long green season of discipleship and growth.  Instead of focusing on the major events of the life of Christ, we can now focus on the life of the life Christ.  We can now focus on our own discipleship so that we can become more effective apostles.

But before we begin, I need to do a little explaining and provide some backstory for you.  First, the explanation.  Because the Sundays of Ordinary Time are numbered sequentially (a sequential list being ordinal in nature), and because Easter moves around, we don't always get to begin where we might logically think the beginning is.  This is why, when the gospel today begins, “After Jesus had finished all his sayings . . .”  you could be forgiven if you had no idea what sayings were being talked about.

Now the backstory.  I said Ordinary Time allows us to focus on the life of the life of Christ.  To recap the story so far:  Luke has given us the nativity stories of both John and Jesus, the ministry of John, the baptism and temptation of Jesus, and the beginning of his ministry.  He has been kicked out of his hometown, healed demoniacs, and called Peter, James, John, and Levi.  There have already been a few confrontations with Pharisees, and the twelve disciples have been named.  The Sermon on the Plain (Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount) has just been preached and it is here, after “all his sayings,” where we pick up today.

Today we hear the story of the Roman centurion asking Jesus, through some Jewish emissaries, to come heal a valuable and/or beloved slave.  There are some questions that immediately come up in this story:  What makes the slave so valuable to the centurion that he is willing to call for a Jewish holy man?  Is there more to this relationship that we aren't being told?  Why do people forget certain negative aspects of others as long as they are being catered to?  But I want to focus on the attitude of the centurion and Jesus.

The centurion seems to be a nice guy.  He treats his slave well.  He reportedly paid for the building of a synagogue for the Jewish people in the area (his military pay grade must have been exceptional).  He probably does his job efficiently and without treating the occupied citizens as insects to be crushed.  And he apparently works within and understands the boundaries of a structured hierarchy.

People might think that it was his understanding of that system that caused him to stop Jesus from coming into his house.  After all, he is a soldier with people both above and below him in rank and he would seem to be following protocol.

But if you look a little closer, it's not military protocol he's following, it's Micah 6:8 – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God.  Part of justice is to enforce laws, and he would certainly be doing that as a Roman officer overseeing an occupied country.  But justice also entails not kicking people when they are down.  This applies to unjust laws in our day as well as to how this particular soldier treated a conquered and occupied people in his own day.  To love kindness is a short way of saying, “respect the dignity of every human being.”  You could make the argument that he respected the Jewish people and exhibited kindness by his building a synagogue.  If presented with the need or opportunity, would we be as willing to help fund a local mosque?  And he walked humbly.  Notice that he sent people of Jesus' own ethnicity to request that he come (he didn't send a military detachment “requesting” Jesus' presence).  And in the end, he sent his friends (again, not a military detachment) to relay the words, “I am not worthy,” foreshadowing the parable of the Pharisee and the publican at prayer.

As for Jesus, we know about him – miracle worker, great debater, Son of God.  But there is something here that I think often gets overlooked, and that is both the placement and the patient.

In both Luke and Matthew, this story comes close after Jesus' sermon (on the mount in Matthew, on the plain in Luke).  There are a few healings here and there before this, but they seem to be more of an introduction to who Jesus is.  But once his sermon ends, Jesus gets very active, and it's here that his ministry really takes off.  We have a tendency, I think, to see Jesus as “going only to the lost children of Israel” in the beginning, and then to the Gentiles as a further extension of his mission and/or as a last resort.

In this gospel passage, however, we have a story of Jesus dealing not only with a Gentile, but with an enemy occupier.  He doesn't ignore the request.  He doesn't tell the centurion that he has not come to feed the dogs.  He willingly goes to heal the slave, and it is only at the urging of the humble soldier that he refrains from entering his house.

As we begin our long journey of discipleship through this long green season of Ordinary Time, this story lays the groundwork for how we are to live a life of discipleship in ordinary times in unordinary ways.  First, we can try to live like the centurion.  As people who hold the power in society, we can add our voices in support of those who are treated unequally, we can stand up for minorities in all situations, and we can continually remind ourselves that we are not worthy to have God come under our roof.

Second, as disciples of Christ, we can try to live as he lived.  In this example that means offering a hand to help include, respect, and/or heal those who might normally be called the wrong people.

For as Jesus and the centurion show us, it's by welcoming, including, and respecting the wrong people that we get it right.



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