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All are welcome ~ Come as you are

Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Faith Of A Centurion - 05/29/2016

If I were back on the prairie places of my internship in southwest Minnesota, my Lutheran ladies friends would have looked at this week's readings – particularly the selections from 1 Kings and Luke – and the fact that we are welcoming four new members into the family of Eden on the Bay and they would smile knowingly at each other. Then they would have said – this kind of thing a “God wink.”

I believe they would be correct. These texts were not planned for this weekend … not by us, anyway. And yet they fit so well with what going on here at Eden.

From our 1 Kings reading: “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people ..., comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, … so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house ...” (1Kings 8:41-43, paraphrased).

There was at least a moment when Howard, and Ed and Cindy, and Jacki, stepped over that threshold for the first time and felt like foreigners. They walked into this place because they had already heard God's great name, they had seen the work of God's mighty hand, they already knew, like us, the end of the story … that Jesus would suffer and die on the cross and then rise again. But like so many of us, they were seeking a place where they could continue to hear this story, learn from our brother Jesus and be supported in this counter-cultural Christian Way of life. They felt moved to seek out a place centered in love of God and neighbor … a safe harbor in a world that is so often turned inward on self instead of outward to each other. They were seeking a place where they could find and grow into a strong sense of belonging and hope, a place where their presence was noticed and mattered.

And they found it here, Glory be to God. Solomon would rejoice in this happy event – this God wink.

Our “God wink” continued as we moved to our Gospel reading today, and as we often find when we move from Old Testament theology to the Ways of Jesus in our Gospel readings, the bar is raised, the intensity, creativity and surprising nature of God's love is ramped up in the lessons and life of our Redeemer, Jesus.

Here we have another kind of foreigner, an outsider seeking something that faith tells him Jesus can deliver – healing for one of his slaves. And so begins Jesus' teaching by example what he means by all these things he had just finished saying.

It probably serves us well to take a quick look at what the opening line of our Gospel reading is referring to today … “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” (7.1)

The “sayings” or teachings being referred to here are the beatitudes – the sermon on the plain, as it were in Luke, where Jesus teaches what it means to be a disciple of his Way. People had been coming to Jesus seeking to be healed. They were trying to touch him because they had seen for themselves or heard from others that the power came out from him and healed all manner of disease … physical and mental illness, even demons were cast out at his touch. And it didn't seem to matter who you were. As I've probably said before, healers and miracle workers were a dime a dozen in Jesus' time, but Jesus healing ministry was set apart, it was more powerful and – even more astonishing – it was free to all who asked.

It's in the midst of those people – people desperate to be noticed and to feel like they and their struggles matter – that Jesus began this teaching.

“Blessed are you who are poor … Blessed are you who are hungry … Blessed are you who weep now... Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven...” (6:20-23, paraphrased)

Jesus continues from here with a list of woes for those who are rich, whose bellies are full, who live joyfully in their abundance and have status and power in their communities, but who do not understand that abundance to be a gift from God and close their eyes and hearts to the many people around them who go without full bellies, laughter and acknowledgment every day.

He tells them to rise above the example set by those who hate and crush their enemies and to instead love them. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” (6.31) he teaches us. And there's more yet. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.” (6.37)

As this story of the Roman Centurion reminds us, Jesus did not confine his teaching to lectures in the synagogues or lessons on the plain that reveal the true and loving nature of God embedded in the scriptures. He walked his talk.

There is a lot we don't know about this Roman Centurion. We don't know anything about his employment history with the Roman Empire – what battles he's led, what favors he's earned at Rome. Maybe he's been a good soldier. Maybe not.

We don't know why he called Jesus to come heal his slave and why he changed his mind and sent a second group of people to dissuade Jesus from coming – which is something that it appears Jesus would have done, even though it would have made him unclean, according Jewish purity laws. Maybe the centurion really thought he wasn't worthy or maybe he was just embarrassed over his desperation and lack of power.

We don't know exactly what led the Centurion to seek Jesus out. Maybe the slave was Jewish and asking for Jesus. Or maybe the Centurion was a gentile who had become curious about Jesus and his teachings and hearings.

The Centurion could be someone being drawn into the Way of Jesus. But he was also a very powerful man in a Rome-powered world and for all we know he could have been a good political player. Perhaps being a benefactor and friend of the Jews was just smart networking that may made his job a lot easier – made it easier for him to control the Jewish citizens in his jurisdiction.

He was a slave owner too, and although slavery was thought of differently than we would think of it in our time, it still led to a lot of abuse and oppression. A Roman Centurion could do anything he wanted to his slaves, including kill them. It would appear that this man was a compassionate slave owner, but we don't know that for sure. He could have been desperate to save this slave because he was a good and skilled worker, hard to replace.

There's a lot we do not know.

But what we do know is that this encounter gave Jesus the opportunity to demonstrate just what he meant when he delivered his sermon on the plain among all those people following him through the Galilean country side into Capernaum.

The Centurion has won the trust of the Jewish elders, it appears, who encourage Jesus to respond favorably to the request to heal the slave. “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.” (7.4) But Jesus says nothing in response to the praise of the Centurion as he heads toward his home. It's only when the second group of friends come that the Centurion's message elicits a response.

The second message also tells us something else about the Centurion. He recognizes the authority of Jesus. Despite all the authority that he himself holds and wields over his soldiers and his slaves, he has reached a place where he has no authority and so he submits to the power of God made manifest in Jesus.

This is a big deal – considering especially that this man works for the Roman Emperor – the one who says he is the son of God and all the earth should submit to him. Luke tells us Jesus is “amazed.” I don't think this is an easy thing to do … to amaze Jesus. “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (7.9b) And then the slave is healed and restored to wholeness – and just at Jesus' word. The power comes out of Jesus even when he is not physically present.

And that, really, is very much like what takes place here, my friends. As we welcome Jacki, Howard, Cindy and Ed, we see people who look and live and believe very much like us. But also like the rest of us, there are many things we do not know about them. Like us, they have made mistakes, sinned and wandered away from God at times. We may never know all there is to know about these children of God – but God knows all.

God sees each of us for exactly who we are, warts and beauty marks alike, and God's word to us is Jesus' word to the Centurion: I hear you, I come to you, you are mine and nothing changes that. You come around this table and you are no different than anyone else there. You gather at this font and I see you, claim you as my own and proclaim your presence matters in this community, in this creation, in this time.

And God winks and rejoices in our assembly.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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