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.
Pastor Marc's sermon on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (May 29, 2016) on Luke 7:1-10. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
For a story about Jesus, our reading from the Gospel according to Luke today has a Jesus who doesn’t really say much. Even though he’s the focus of the story, Jesus says just one line while everyone else talks around him. And this split, where the main actor does only a little while everyone else says a lot, reminded me of something I saw Thursday night. I came home from our Year with the Bible study, put one of my kids to bed, and turned on ESPN to watch a lot of talking, a lot of commentary, a lot of buzzing about some athletes who were only saying a few words. I'm of course talking about the Scripps National Spelling Bee. By the time I turned on the competition, we were already down to the top 10. Each kid would come up to the mic to spell 1 word, and it was usually a word I never heard of. Each competitor was allowed to ask a few questions to help figure out the words, like where the word came from and what it means. And while they figured out how to spell their word, two commentators, a slew of sideline reporters, and camera shots of family members in the audience would fill the screen and cover up any opportunity for silence. The kids weren't saying much but everyone around them was.
Now it didn't take long until only 2 spellers remained. We were in the championship rounds. The spellers had 25 rounds to battle it out to see who was the best speller of 2016. The Spelling Bee opened up their secret vault of super duper hard words, the commentators speculated on what it would take for each of them to win, and I’ll admit, I was excited. I was into it because these kids were fantastic. One was 11 years old, a 5th grader who's never been to the National Spelling Bee before. The other was a sibling of one of last year’s champions. It was a classic rookie vs dynasty matchup. With lightning speed, they spelled what needed to be spelled. The 11 year old had 2 opportunities to win the whole thing, but he tripped up on his follow up words. As the rounds kept going, the commentators and crowd got more and more excited. By the time we were at round 15, everyone knew that both of these kids deserved to win. They both deserved to be champions. And it's that idea of being worthy - of who is worth having something happen to them - that question is in our gospel reading from Luke today. A Roman centurion, wealthy and powerful, a member of the army occupying Jesus’ home, has a slave who is ill. He hears stories that Jesus has the power to heal. The Centurion doesn't know Jesus, he hasn't seen him in action, and he's not part of Jesus’ team. But he reaches out for help anyways.
So how does someone reach out in Jesus time? There's no email or cell phones or text messages. The only way to connect with a person is by sending someone to find them. This centurion, an officer who commanded over 200 men, has soldiers and underlings he could send. But he knows that, when it comes to splitting the world into Jewish and Gentile, he's not in the Jewish side. The centurion has no reason to believe that Jesus, at this early point in his ministry, would even listen to a Gentile. So the centurion uses Jewish elders to find Jesus and summoned him to a Roman’s household.
Now, we hear in the text that the elders go because they’re ordered to but also out of respect to this centurion. They find Jesus, tell him the request, and say that this centurion, this outsider, this occupier, is worthy of a blessing because of the love he's shown to the Jewish nation. He funded the building of a synagogue, creating a house of worship for God even though we have no idea if the Centurion believed in God or not. We also don't know if the Centurion built this synagogue because of his faith or for another reason. In the Roman World, power was centered on men and you became powerful when more and more people depended on you. This dependency is less about being indispensable or about being generous in all that we do. It's about having so much authority, and so much control, that the life of others depends on you. The Centurion is a slave owner, with complete control over the slave. His soldiers are dependent on his leadership and his ability to command. The elders are dependent on their worship space because of what this Centurion did as part of the army in control of God’s Promised Land. So even if this centurion built the synagogue out of love, it's a love trapped in a system of dependency and control that is destructive and the opposite of what Jesus wants.
We don't know what Jesus says to the elders but we know he goes with them. And as they near the house, the centurion sends another delegation to meet Jesus. They bring this odd message for Jesus to stay away. The request, at first, sounds humble but the grammar, especially in the Greek this text was first written in, shows that the Centurion isn't asking Jesus to stay away: he's commanding him to. The Centurion is an officer. He commands. That's what he does. And he knows enough about Jesus’ culture to know that, by entering this Roman’s house, Jesus would lose the respect of others. “Just say the word,” the centurion says, “and my slave will be healed.”
And Jesus does say a word - but he says nothing about healing. And that’s odd. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus does say a word of healing but in Luke’s, he doesn't. Jesus doesn't really respond to the Centurion’s command to heal. Instead, Jesus responds to the Centurion's faith - a faith that says that Jesus will be Jesus. The Centurion only knows his own culture, his own reality, and his place in his world. He knows the authority he’s been given and how to wield it. He lives in a system that says some folks have more value than others. He is who he is - and he trusts that Jesus can only be who Jesus is. Jesus will be Jesus - and Jesus, in one way or another, heals.
That trust that Jesus will be Jesus, that's what faith looks like to Luke. And what Jesus does is unexpected things. He listens to a plea from an outsider and heals a slave who is at the bottom of life’s totempole. The walls we build to keep ourselves apart, to say who has value and who does not, are not the walls Jesus is interested in keeping. The ones who are worthy of healing, worthy of hope, worthy of love, and worthy of Jesus are not only the ones we believe who are worthy. Everyone is worthy because everyone needs healing. Everyone needs God’s love. Everyone, and especially those we push away for being different or who we see as outsiders, they are worth God’s love.
So, in Thursday night’s Spelling Bee, everyone felt these two kids were worth being co-champions. As each round passed by, the reporters and commentators, kept repeating the phrase “co-champions” like some kind of mantra, and if they said it enough, it would actually happen. As each word got spelled, and as that magic last round got nearer, the crowd kept inching out of their seats and I stopped sitting on my couch. I was just too excited. I wanted them both to win. I wanted them to feel the joy, feel the excitement, feel the happiness knowing they are worth being #1. They worked so hard. They handled the pressure of the national spotlight amazingly well. They were brilliant and they deserved to be champions and treated as they champions they are. And with our Jesus, who treats an outsider like an insider, who loves a slave like they’re a Centurion, imagine what our lives, our neighborhood, our world would look like if we saw like Jesus sees, love like Jesus loves, and saw the person next to us, the stranger outside these doors, the outsider who we don’t want to be on the inside with us - and loved them as our co-champion in life, because Jesus says we both are?
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