Welcome to this season of change! I imagine it is strange not having Rhonda here up front – it will take some getting used to. I’m Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry here in the Diocese of Virginia, and it is my privilege to be with you today. I bring you the greetings of your bishops and diocesan staff as you prepare for the future.
In this season of change all around us, it is easy to go to a place of “hunkering down.” In the larger world, there are continuing acts of terrorism and struggles for power. In our own nation, there is one of the most surprising political seasons in our history, with people on both sides of the political spectrum shaking their heads in shock. In our state, we’ve got felons running for office, accusations of misconduct on both sides of the aisle, children being killed in the crossfire of drug wars and dying as a result of human misery. And here, at Grace, we might worry what the future holds in the wake of the retirement of the rector.
We may think it is a new phenomenon, this gothic litany of a world of pain, distrust, loss and worry, but in fact it mirrors much of what was going on in the world when today’s Gospel story came to pass.
As we enter into the season called Ordinary Time, in this year we will be walking with the Gospel of Luke. Luke was a historian – he begins his Gospel with a preface that tells someone named Theophilus , a pseudonym meaning “friend of God,” that he is writing this down to make sure everyone gets the true history of Jesus – but rather than thinking of him as a writer of dry and boring facts of history, he is really more like a political reporter, the Jeff Schapiro or Dana Milbank or Cokie Roberts of his age. Yes, there is reporting of facts, but there is also the richness of those adjectives and adverbs that move the story from simple statements of events to something deeper, more textured, something that gives us an insight into the feelings and motivations of the participants.
When we get to this point in the story – today’s Gospel reading – Jesus has just finished teaching the people the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the grieving, blessed are those who hunger for justice…this is akin to a political platform, a statement of principles for his ministry, lifting up those who are hurting, oppressed, the least and the lost, and saying that eventually these souls will be given the richest reward and the mighty will be brought down.
Given the political climate of Rome-dominated Israel in this period, this message is both highly risky for Jesus to say and incredibly comforting and exciting to the Jewish people. Rescue is coming, although Jesus’ idea of what that looks like may be different than that of his listeners.
So now we come to this story, and with whom are we confronted? Not one of the listeners to that sermon, those oppressed, overtaxed, underserved people…instead who is the center of the story?
A Roman soldier, a centurion. A middle-manager in the Roman army. The enemy.
We know little of this man except for his role and his employer. He might not be ethnically Roman – there were some soldiers in the army who came from previously conquered states, but he represents the kinds of Romans with whom the Jewish people interacted most – they were the local muscle, the occupation force, making sure that everyone complied with the laws. They would commandeer a Jewish home to house some of the soldiers. To say they were hated would be an understatement.
Now it is odd enough for a Roman centurion to be the protagonist in this story of Jesus, but it is even stranger for the Roman centurion to show weakness. And yet this is exactly what he does. He comes to Jesus, a Jew with a reputation for healing gifts, and admits that he is afraid that his servant, his slave, is ill and may die, and he seeks Jesus’ aid.
Now here’s the interesting thing in Luke’s reporting: he shows first how different THIS centurion is from everyone’s perception of Roman soldiers – others say “this one is a good one – he even built a synagogue for us” – and the centurion doesn’t even approach Jesus directly asking for help. He sends others to ask for the healing, and his message is an interesting one:
“I know you can do this, and we both know you don’t need to come here to do this. Just attend to this from afar.”
This centurion does something that is both strategic and surprising. I don’t think we notice because we are dazzled by the healing.
He says “I know you can do this from afar, because you are someone of authority. I get that. I am a man of authority as well, who can order others from a great distance and they will do what I tell them. You don’t need to come to my home.”
Yes, he is attesting to Jesus’ power. But he is also naming the political reality: Jesus cannot come and interact with a Gentile because of Jewish purity laws. A Gentile military leader cannot interact with a Jewish leader because it will appear to undermine his authority, particularly to his fellow Romans. This is a delicate diplomatic mission.
But diplomacy cannot hide the facts: this military leader is submitting his authority – secular authority – to Jesus’ divine authority, for the good of someone who is not respected by society, a slave who serves a Roman soldier.
And Jesus gets that. He knows the risk for this centurion. He also knows it is an opportunity to demonstrate the power of Almighty God. The centurion, that representative of Roman empire, is bending his knee to the authority of a teacher and miracle worker who is a Jew, and not even a Jerusalem Jewish leader, a power player, but an upstart rebel from a backwater town out in the Galilee.
And so the healing occurs. From a distance. No touching. No prayers directly over the hot, prone form of the slave. No, a healing from a distance that doesn’t compromise the Jewish laws of ritual purity. A healing form a distance that doesn’t politically compromise the position of the centurion.
And then there is amazement, but the funny part is that Luke reports that the amazement is not in the people who were with Jesus. It is not even with the people who were with the slave who suddenly was cured.
It is Jesus who was amazed. Amazed at the trust the centurion placed in him. Amazed that a centurion would recognize his authority and power when the centurion had been trained for years to view the Roman empire as the ultimate power. Amazed that Jesus’ word could reach across the boundaries of convention, of law, of military might, so that this centurion would place the life of his slave above the rules of empire and society.
I would imagine that political reporters of today would have a field day with this story – “Rebel rabbi crosses political boundaries to save his enemy!” – but the reality is that what Jesus did in that healing act was the logical extension of what he had just taught in the Beatitudes. Relationship…caring for each other, even those others who we view as less than us or as our enemy, is our primary value, because God, who is so much greater than us, values us beyond reason.
Perhaps Jesus was amazed that his message took root, and that it even took root among the least likely of people, that centurion. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “I haven’t found faith like this ANYWHERE, not even among my own people.” He has reason to be amazed.
But perhaps the message of this story is that we too need to be open to amazement, to the possibilities that whisper even in this most difficult of times. We too need to hear that Jesus has a word for us, a word that says “You may feel like things are just impossible, that the world is crashing around us, that terrorists lurk at the airport, that lowest-common-denominator politics will lead to the collapse of all we hold dear, that all is being turned upside down and it is frightening. But it will turn, and it will turn toward justice, respect and peace.”
And even here at Grace, where there are questions about what the future may hold, there will be surprises that Jesus will offer, comfort and support from afar. He doesn’t have to physically stand here to make it happen. We know he is a man with authority, that he can tend to our needs even from the furthest reach of the heavens.
But perhaps we can surprise Jesus by NOT being amazed when something wonderful happens. Perhaps he can say “nowhere in the land of Israel have I seen such faith as that which the people of Grace Church had in me and my authority.”
Let’s amaze Jesus…and thank him, too.