I am regularly astonished at how much I don’t know about the Bible. I mean that. Sure I’ve been wrestling with the Word regularly and faithfully for over 30 years. Of course, I still look forward to my weekly study, prayer and writing time when I seriously try to engage the ancient text in light of our contemporary context.
· But come on: over and over again when I pay attention to our Scriptures, I am astonished, stunned and enlightened by something nuanced and beautiful – albeit it challenging – in the old, familiar words I’ve been spending time with for all these years.
· It’s like ministry itself: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Well, just when I thought I’d seen everything... some new problem or blessing pops up that I’ve never even considered before.
Back in high school there was a song by Led Zeppelin, "Dazed and Confused" and that might also be the title of today's message, ok? Because in today’s gospel from St. Luke’s pen, two astonishing things grabbed my imagination this week: first, the story tells us that Jesus was astonished and challenged by the faith of a Roman centurion – I’ll say more about that in just a moment – but let that sink in, ok?
· A Roman centurion – a soldier from the occupying army of the empire – the enemy – the outsider par excellence – and the Bible tells us that, “when Jesus heard the centurion talk about his faith… he was amazed at him. And turning to the crowd that followed, Jesus said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."
· This is something to pay attention to, ok? That’s the first shocker for me…
And the second is the very clear but often forgotten reminder that the healing ministry of Jesus is NOT something new and unique. Rather it is rooted in a deep Jewish tradition of compassion and grace – a tradition as old as the commandments – but which is often misinterpreted by modern Christians who haven’t spent enough time with the Hebrew Bible – including myself.
· Again, when I paid closer attention to this story, an ancient parallel from the Hebrew Bible popped out at me – specifically the healing ministry of the prophet Elisha who also healed an Aramean enemy officer of leprosy to show the grace and glory of God.
· Scholars are clear that those who first heard this story – and others with ancient parallels – would have made the connections we have forgotten. Namely that “God's tender mercies cannot be held in or held back, but instead overflow every border, every boundary we set to contain them.”
And rather than assume that this is some kind of new teaching from Jesus… the early Jewish Christians would see a connection between Jesus and the God of Israel who always seeks to be compassionate to all in the human family… In fact they would affirm that what Jesus is doing is at the heart of Jewish identity, and signals that the ministry of the church is in continuity with the ministry of Israel. (Kate Huey, UCC Sermon Seeds)
Are you still with me? Am I being clear on this point? The ministry of Jesus is rooted in the ministry of Israel – AND – this ministry is ALWAYS about God’s amazing grace.
Now here’s some context and background that might help you share my amazement at this story, ok?
· First, these healing stories about Jesus in Luke’s gospel are given to us – and the early church – to balance the skepticism expressed by the hometown people to Christ’s first sermon. Do you remember that story – back in Luke 4 – about Jesus coming to his home synagogue, reading from the scroll of Isaiah 61 and then telling those who had watched him grow up that “today this scripture has been filled full with my reading and presence.” – do you recall that?
· You see, we won’t be able to appreciate what Luke is telling us in today’s story unless we can also remember that other one. So what happened after Jesus told his hometown crew that in their hearing that day, God’s promise that Spirit of the Lord was upon him and it had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and announce the year of the Lord’s favor to all people had been realized?
· What did the people do? First, the snickered – are you kidding me – this is Mary and Joseph’s kid – who does he think he is? That is, they didn’t believe or take him seriously. So Jesus told them some stories out of Israel’s past – specifically about how God led the prophet Elijah to once feed a starving pagan widow during a famine in Israel but brought food to no one else, and, how the prophet Elisha had once healed the Syrian military leader Naaman of leprosy but not the children of Israel when they were suffering – and that both acts were a sign of God’s grace as well as judgment, right? And what did his hometown community do at this? They tried to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.
Jesus reminded his people that God’s grace knows no boundaries or limits – that it isn’t theirs to own or control – for God’s Spirit blows wherever GOD chooses. Now why would this news be so offensive even though it is grounded in Israel’s history?
· Can you think of examples from our own story as Americans that call into question our sanitized and even sentimental understanding of who we are?
· Jesus was doing the same thing… reminding God’s chosen people that God is the center of all things – not them, their mythology or limited understanding of their own history – God who is compassionate beyond comprehension.
That sermon is the backdrop for today’s story when Jesus actually replicates the gracious healing of a military enemy once given to the world through the prophet Elisha. Are you still with me? Do you see how this is building? Ok, so Jesus has now left his home town and gone into the city of Capernaum, a border town in Israel, which was known as… the village of compassion. Interesting, yes? The village of compassion…
And when he gets into town there is a military presence in Capernaum that has been sent to make sure that taxes were paid and tolls were collected as demanded by Rome. Apparently the soldiers of the empire were not actually Roman – they just served Rome – but they were Gentiles – outsiders in the service of Israel’s enemy. And one of these outside Gentile enemies sends a message to Jesus to bring healing to one of his servants.
· Now think about that for a moment: what humility is involved in this request, yes? Here a captain of the army who is used to commanding others and getting results not only requests help from the ranks of the oppressed, but does so for one of his servants or slaves.
· Clearly, the centurion has chosen the way of love and compassion over the rule of intimidation and control, don’t you think? The soldier’s servant is too sick to ask for help for himself – so the one who is in charge makes a request for the one in need – in humility and compassion the centurion acts beyond the rules and socially acceptable order of the day: Jesus, only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.
· Remember the song: won’t you let me be your servant? One verse goes: I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joys and sorrows till we’ve seen this journey through. That’s what is happening in this story – and it is amazing to me – because it breaks down the barriers of race, class, religion, history and tradition.
The story concludes with two more amazing truths: one, the centurion’s servant is healed – made whole and restored to community – in what can only be called a miraculous way; and two, Jesus reminds those around him that once again God’s grace is greater than our short and selective memory for just as God chose to bring healing in the ministry of the prophet Elisha, so too God chose to bring healing through Jesus.
· Now, I don’t know how you deal with or make sense out of the miracle stories – I’ve been all over the map with them – sometimes trying to find rational explanations of them that make sense to my 21st century mind and sometimes just giving them over to mystery and grace.
· Mostly I prefer the later these days – mystery and grace – thinking that miracles are a reminder of who is really in charge. One wise soul put it like this: miracles are not something that violates the natural order, the laws of nature that seem to undergird our existence in the material world.”
Instead a miracle is "the interruption of the true order – the order of the creator God – into the demonic disorder of the present world.” Scholars seem to agree that the healings performed by Jesus are signs of the Reign of God drawing near, so every time we experience or witness healing, we too experience a taste of the Reign of God. This story teaches us that we shouldn't occupy ourselves with who deserves God's grace and mercy and healing… because we hear that "the reign of God went in search of the outsider. Rather it reminds us that it is so typical of God to be untypical: crossing boundaries before us, the power of God moves us out of ourselves and of our narrow worlds. (Huey)
And so I’m amazed – amazed at what I didn’t know about the Jewish roots of this miracle – amazed at how broad and radical God’s grace really is – bigger than both my imagination and tradition – and amazed that in this cynical age I can still be amazed. Every day, in ways most of us never see, God’s grace empowers us with courage and hope and faithfulness to such a staggering extent that we should be filled with amazement. When I pause long enough to notice, it blows me away: strangers reaching in this place reaching out to one who is sick with signs of love, nourishment and compassion.
· People of modest means giving both of their limited time and financial resources so that ministry in Christ’s name might flourish…
· Women and men who have been wounded and scarred by sin offering forgiveness in ways that can only be called miraculous…
· Prayers raised up without others ever knowing – visits to the lonely that go unreported and undetected – love, dedication and compassion shared beyond what we can ever imagine.
Last week I asked you what YOU did to bring blessings to your ordinary life: today let me push that deeper and ask when are YOU amazed by God’s grace in your life – in the world – in your heart. Think about that, please, and your own faith will grow and be nourished just as our Lord’s was so long ago.
(I don't usually "DO" prayer and praise songs but I love these words and this version is the least "churchy" in all the worst understandings of that word.)