2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 2, 2013
A pastor friend of mine called me with a story a few years ago. She was amazed that a family that she barely knew had sent a check for $300. She’d never met this family before being called to the bedside of their dying father. She visited exactly twice: leading them in a litany that commended him into God’s care, and the next day reading Psalm 90 and praying with them. They didn’t need her for his funeral; they were just going to have a small family gathering to scatter his ashes, she had offered them all needed at his bedside. I don’t tell you this story to inform you how much pastors should get paid for the care they offer, but to share what she said about what she felt the family was expressing with their dollars. “Sometimes the outsiders get it in a way that the insiders don’t always seem to,” she said. This family wanted to know that God was present at this time when heaven and earth were so close. The pastor’s presence with them testified to God’s presence and to the compassion of God when life and death hand in the balance. The story we have before us today is a similar story.
If you notice, the lectionary, has skipped again. In the Easter Season we were with Jesus as he prepared his disciples for his death and resurrection and for the coming of the Holy Spirit, once he was really gone. Now through the summer, we will travel with Jesus through his ministry according to Luke, the Evangelist who gives us a picture of Jesus as someone who cares about “the least of these,” and who includes the most unlikely suspects in his teaching and healing and compassionate acts. Today’s story is a perfect example.
As you hear this story remember that this Centurion is a “middle manager” of the oppressors, the Romans. He is the leader of 100 soldiers who are quartered in Capernaum, and he answers to a leader of a cohort – six centuries – who answers to the leader of a legion – 10 cohorts. But he is a man who knows how authority works. He is also a man who knows how to ask for what he needs. And so he asks for Jesus, who, he trusts, can heal his slave.
It is also important to see him as a man who cares about people. He obviously cares about his slave, who is important to his household. He cares about his Jewish neighbors. Even though he doesn’t need to worry about them at all, he has sponsored a synagogue for them. It seems as if they would not have had a place to worship if it were not for his care, definitely above and beyond his duty. They respond to his request for Jesus to heal his slave by telling Jesus that he is worthy of the care that he has requested because of his generosity. This un-named Centurion never even meets Jesus, if you notice. After delegating Jewish leaders to ask Jesus to come, he sends friends to tell Jesus not to come, because “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” I understand authority, he relates to Jesus, and know that what you command will be done. Jesus, who had been cruelly rebuffed in his hometown ended up chiding the people of Nazareth for not having faith that God was at work in him. Here he meets a complete outsider who totally understands both Jesus’ authority and his power, and begs for a favor, counting on Jesus’s compassion.
We don’t ever hear what happened to this Centurion. Did he become a believer in Jesus? A follower? Did he turn his life around, renounce his military command and come to sit at Jesus’ feet to learn of the Hebrew God? Jesus’ compassion and his healing power are available to this man without condition. Jesus does what the man asks without meeting him and without asking anything from him. He just loves him and grants his request.
I work alongside a lot of people who do good things, who are good people with real compassion for others and the world we live in. I know you do, too. Some of them are church people. But some of the loveliest people I know are not really much invested in church, and might not even claim to be believers in any way that makes sense to me. Some of the people in my family are like that, and maybe some in your family are like that, too. I know God loves them, even if they are not always so clear about that. I know that God is love and that love and compassion are always from God, even if the people who are sharing it may not see that. God gives people what they ask for and lets love flow through them simply because God loves. When I see that love at work, I rejoice, and sometimes it is my opportunity to share what I think is at work, God’s invitation to wake up to the steadfast love that anchors all of us in this world. I find myself wanting to tell them about Jesus, the person who embodies God’s love best in the world, and whose life and death and resurrection provide both proof of God’s love and the path to dwelling in the new life that God has promised to us. Sometimes I get the chance. And sometimes I have to just believe that God is already at work in ways beyond my understanding, and I’ll just have to keep testifying to my own story of God’s work in my life.
Maybe this outsider became a believer and followed Jesus’ work, following him even to his death and marveling at his resurrection. That’s not the important part of the story, Luke says. The important part is that God answers. None of us is worthy to receive anything from God, but God still answers with compassion, healing, willingness to be present, and marveling at the faith that compels us to ask and to trust that our prayers will be answered.
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.