Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bringing order to chaos

Proper 7C.  23 June 2013.

Luke 8.26-39


            When I started my research on the reading from Luke this morning, I read one scholar's opinion that, as readers and preachers, we should not be so quick to dismiss demon possession as if it were a misdiagnosis of mental illness. 


            I would say that most of us would prefer to read it that way, because it explains away the problem—it gives us language to talk about it, and it allows us to say things like, "Well, nowadays we have medicines that can control that."  But to do that is to patronize both the problem and the people of those bygone eras.  Whether or not mental illness was in play misses the point that it was a living reality for those people at that time.


            So instead of dismissing the problem as ancient and irrelevant to us, let us rather look with compassion on what seemed like an impossible situation.  As Luke tells the story, Jesus as his disciples have arrived in the country of the Gerasenes.  Notice that Luke helpfully writes, "which is opposite Galilee."  In other words, Jesus has come into a land that would have been lived in, mostly, by Gentiles. 


            And I have to take just a moment here to talk about Gentiles, because I think we misunderstand Gentile as meaning simply non-Jewish.  To my mind it makes more sense to think of Gentiles as being regular people—actually most people—who don't really observe any religion.  They're not bad people; they may be very decent, moral, honorable folks, they just don't believe. 


            You will see them at weddings and funerals.  They have a look on their face that says they're worried that someone is going to come up and say, "You shouldn't be here."  If the funeral is at a funeral home, they might look up at the front and see a Cross, but they're not going to complain about it.  They understand that the dominant religion is Christianity—and that's fine.  In my experience, they really are nice folks.  They just don't believe.


            There was a man in the country of the Gerasenes who had demons.  He was naked.  He didn't live in a house; he lived in the tombs.  He was tormented.  We imagine him as dirty, impoverished, lonely, and just as scared as he was scary. 


            Now, again, it's easy to sort of jump to the idea that this man had a problem that he might have had some control over—maybe not enough to keep it together for long, but we want to say that he just let himself go.  It's not like that.  You have to enter the story as Luke tells it.  The man was not able to control his actions.  He has become possessed. 



            Please let that sink in, because it's crucial to understanding this story.  He is possessed, captive, unable to control his actions or his words.  I can't think of another way of expressing it, except to give you this analogy, but if you have ever fainted or had to vomit, that's about it.  What you are looking at is a man, but that's not him screaming and throwing himself on the ground.  That's the demon doing that.


            The demon is screaming at Jesus, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me."  He said this—says Luke—because Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.


            Jesus asks the demon, "What is your name?"  And the reply is, "Legion," because many demons—not just one—had taken over the man.  The Legion had asked Jesus not to send them back to the abyss.  The abyss being a place of death and hell.  On the hillside a large herd of swine had been feeding. 


            So reading this as a devout Jew, you would be astonished and terrified by the uncleanness of a man who was possessed by demons who lived in the tombs, because it meant perpetual defilement.  And then to hear of a herd of swine would also be a indication of an unclean environment.  And Jesus is there in the midst of it all with his disciples. 


            Jesus gave permission for the unclean spirits to come out of the man and into the swine, and when they came into the swine, the swine—now possessed by the legion—ran into the lake and drowned. 


            The swineherds, which are like shepherds but for swine, ran off and told what had happened to everyone, and they came to see.  And they found Jesus and the man who had been possessed, sitting with Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were terrified. 


            All that happened was terrifying.  The possession, the power of Jesus to end the possession—or at least, redirect the possession into animals that then caused the animals to die, the man who had been possessed and unclean, even by Gentile standards, was okay.  It's all simply terrifying.  And what do the people do? They asked Jesus to leave.  They were scared. 


            The man wanted to come with Jesus.  Well, of course, he did!  The man didn't want to be possessed in the first place.  If he goes with Jesus, Jesus can protect him.  But Jesus tells the man to return to his home, as a kind of living symbol of what God can do.  And the man does that.  He went away proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. 


            It's a very chaotic story really.  Though it is a miraculous story of redemption, it is also grotesque.  I don't know what it says about anything that the demons didn't want to be sent to the abyss, but they wanted to kill the animals.  I don't know what it means that they were unable to kill the man.  There really are a lot of questions that linger around this story—such that the event likely traumatized that community for years.  Surely the farmer who owned the swine would have been upset for a long time—it was a financial loss. (Pause.)


            My father has a saying just before he undertakes some project of organization.  He says, "Let's try to bring a little order out of chaos."  In modern physics, this could be understood somewhat ironically.  If you have heard anything about fractals—the concept that even within seemingly chaotic systems there is a measure of order.  Perhaps at the level of God's own consciousness, this is understood, but at our own particular level, we are limited.


            The power of God is the power of being order.  Jesus is able to free the demon possessed, because he can be order at such a high level as to have dominion over the chaos.  The Legion obey him because even they themselves are unable to control the chaos of their world.  Theirs is a world of disorder and pain; Jesus's world—the Kingdom of God—is world of redemption and healing. 


            Jesus is able to bring order to the chaos, or perhaps, to see the order in the midst of the chaos, and to command it. 


            We may never know the specific possession that took over the young man's life in the Gerasenes, but we do know what it is to be overtaken: by situations outside of our control, and by internal thoughts that seem beyond our control.  Again, this is not to dispel or explain the power away from Luke's account; but to find the text's relevance in our lives.


            I have often borrowed an expression from the Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock, "that some people put their lives together with short pieces of string."  We all do to some extent, though we may not want to admit it.  We all bump up against the boundaries that contain us: financial, emotional, situational, relational, intellectual. 


            I remember when Karin and I were new parents that one of the first things, in fact, the first thing that we needed to do was to instill in our children a sleep schedule.  To regulate rest, and then to keep to a meal schedule, little routines that give structure.  A child begins to learn by the rhythms of a parent that this is the time to eat, this is the time to play.  Bedtime was a process, not a moment.  It still is.  The process of bathing, changing into pajamas, reading from books, offering prayers, and tucking in at night.  And though that process as varied in minor ways, it is still essentially unchanged for the last seven years.


            A child may have a temperament that adapts well, or they may still fight and fuss, but rhythm is a powerful tool of comfort.  Even on the worst of days, the child knows: this is when my body will be fed, cleaned, read to, kissed, and given rest. 


            To this day, when I am trying to go to sleep at night and can't seem to quiet my mind, I will close my eyes and imagine that I am in my bed in Bridgewater with the lights off.  And my father—who was always, when I was a child, the last to go to bed—is brushing his teeth in the hall bathroom.  He turns off the light, pulls the door to, and as he walks to bed he whispers in the direction of my room: "Night."  He didn't know whether I was awake or not, if I had heard him or not, but I heard him every night.  And every night, he said it. 


            And if I need a final benediction, a blessing over my life as I try to quiet the demons, as I try to sleep—even to this day—there is nothing more I need than to call to mind the sound of my father's whisper.  It represents order the midst of chaos.


            We outgrow the home of our childhood, but we never outgrow the need for order, and the love that it imparts.  Jesus is that order.  The one who is able to comprehend chaos, and oppose its tyranny without fear.


            Jesus is able to give you peace for your anxiety, calm for your troubled mind.  Jesus knows the difference between what possesses you and who you really are, which is a child of God—a treasure born of God's own love. 







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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

She got prettier

To listen, click here.

Proper 6C.  16 June 2013.[*]


            Almost exactly four months ago, we read the story of Mary of Bethany coming to Jesus with pound of pure nard—a rich, heady perfume—and she begins to anoint Jesus' feet and kiss them, wiping them with her hair.  I preached on Isaiah that Sunday[†], but you might still remember it.  It was from John's gospel.  It was a costly sacrifice, offered in love.  A meaningful thing offered in the most meaningful way.  Mary of Bethany's act of love foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. 


            Well, that is one of the stories of a woman coming to anoint and kiss Jesus' feet—and wipe them with her hair.  And today we come to Luke's gospel, and we have another woman and another bottle of perfume, and another situation.  In fact, this kind of thing happens in each of the four Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark, and John, there is also dialogue between Jesus and someone else—telling us that the women are doing this in preparation for Jesus' burial. 


            But today we read from Luke, and Luke's version is different.  So I'm asking you to make space in your minds for the same scenario with a different meaning. 


            The story Luke tells is that Jesus has come to the house of a Pharisee for dinner.  A woman comes to the house.  Luke does not give her a name.  She is described in two ways.  A woman of the city.  A sinner.  And we are meant to know what that means. 


            She learns that Jesus is at the house of Simon, a Pharisee, and she gets a jar of expensive alabaster ointment.  Now look at how the story is told.  She comes to the house.  No invitation.  And she stands behind Jesus, weeping.  Can you imagine it?  She arrives.  And she starts to cry.  And as she cries, the ritual begins, the feet, the ointment, the hair, the kissing. 


            Simon, the host, sees this and begins to criticize, not the woman, but Jesus!  "If this man were of God, he would know what kind of woman this is.  He would not allow her to touch him."  Jesus said to him, "Let's say two men owed money to another man.  One owes 500, the other 50.  Both debts are cancelled by the lender.  Now, which one do you think is more grateful.  Simon responds, "The man who owed 500."  And Jesus says, "You got it."


            See in Luke, it's not about burial; it's about forgiveness.  And for Luke, the thrust of the story is to show that Jesus forgives this woman for her sins.  We don't have a problem with that now, but back then it was understood that only God could forgive sins.  Luke is showing us that Jesus is from God, which is the primary meaning of this text.


            But I'm going to have to ask for Luke's forgiveness this morning.  I have given you the primary meaning he has given to the story, but for some reason, whenever I think of this story, I can't focus my mind on the interaction between Jesus and Simon. 


            There are probably hundreds of sermons to be preached about that interaction, but I can't take my eyes off of the woman.  The conversation recedes into background noise.  I can't stop looking at her and thinking about her, because she was crying.


            It's hard to listen to someone talk when someone else is crying.  How many times have the children bumped into something, dropped something, and tears start to flow.  Karin and I want to talk about something, but we can't. 


            You have to look at the person who cries. It is not a sign of aggression; it is a sign of compassion that we see them.  How bitterly awful it would be if the natural response to seeing someone in tears was to shun them.  No.  To see someone in their weakness and allow ourselves to be silent and compassionate is probably the most godlike thing we could ever do.  Because we all know what it is to be hurt. 


            So I sat down and just let this woman cry, and anoint Jesus' feet.  She never noticed me.  I wanted to go over and speak to her, but I was a little shy.  And honestly, what she was doing was so intimate that I really didn't feel I should go over there. 


            Why is she weeping?  Is it because she is sorry for her sins?  (Pause.)  Is it because she knows that Jesus will be forgiving her?  (Pause.)  Is it because she feels that she has already been forgiven?  Or maybe I was over thinking it.  It might be that all three of those reasons are in play.  Remorse, anticipation of a new life, and the beginning of new life itself…all rolled into one. 


            I wanted to ask if she could tell me, but two thoughts got in my way.  I remembered that when you ask someone to think while they are crying, they stop crying.  You can't actually think analytically and cry at the same time.  Something to do with the limbic system.  Did you know that?  So that's the first reason I didn't ask. 


            The other reason is that this was too beautiful.  There is beauty in seeking forgiveness.  There is beauty in knowing that you are forgiven.  Beauty in a woman's hair and tears and ointment… 


            Most of the beautiful things we see draw us in.  How many times have I walked from the living room to the kitchen and caught sight of the sunset?  There is the pink and red and blue splashed out on the sky.  It stays that way for an eternity if you watch, but in the twenty seconds it takes to refill a glass of water, it's all gone.  If you stand there and watch the colors, though they seem completely still, they are constantly changing.  Beautiful.  Drawing you in.  Changing the way you feel and think.  Beauty does that. 




            Roses on the mantle.  I gave them to Karin for our anniversary.  Pink and white.  They are so pretty when they arrive, just barely open.  You think they can't get prettier than that.  But watch them.  The next day they are just a little more open, and you think they can't get prettier than that.  But there they go…everyday, prettier and prettier.  Just like the women we love.  Just when you think a woman is as pretty she can get, watch her closely…she gets prettier.


            It starts when they're very young, and it never stops.  Maggie's hair is like corn silk.  I never thought it could get prettier, and then one day Karin put it up in pig tails.  She was only 2 years old.  She giggled and flopped her head and ran down the hall.  A day older, a day wiser, a day prettier.  (Pause.)


            At the last church I served there is a red Persian rug right beneath the Altar.  It was given by a parishioner many years ago when the wall-to-wall carpet was changed to a dusty sort of brown.  And being such a drab color, the carpet made the church seem a little depressing.  So someone gave this red Persian rug.  One parishioner said—"It lifted the whole place." It made the church prettier. 


            Years went by and the drab wall to wall carpet needed to be replaced, and they replaced it with red, the color of the carpet here.  And the issue arose: now that we have a new red carpet, should we do away with the old red Persian rug?  Well, it was probably…I don't know, how old.  It was old.  There were many places it was thread-bare.  It needed some TLC. 


            One of the ladies who was there when the rug was first given paid for the rug to be cleaned, and after it came back, we put it right back beneath the Altar.  It looked strange to me.  The carpet around it was new, and here is this old thread-bare rug.  One of the ladies said, "Isn't it pretty?"  I said, "I don't know.  How do you say it's pretty when it's thread-bare and fraying?"  She said, "The rug is pretty because it's thread-bare and fraying."  And that's when I remembered that we were in church. 


            In the kingdom of God, beauty changes you.  Beauty in a woman's hair and tears and ointment.  Beauty in an old woman gazing at a rug which she has visited at Communion every Sunday for forty years.  There is beauty in that woman's face.  Her hair has turned white from working and praying—sleepless nights after losing her husband—sleepless nights worrying about her children.  Her hair is short and white now, but it has always been long enough to wipe the feet of Jesus. 


            Gazing down at that carpet, and running her mind over each fiber and each memory—I didn't think it could happen—but she got prettier. 


            There is a woman who runs a vegetable stand.  She is tiny.  She probably weighs 100 pounds, maybe less.  She smokes her cigarettes and she sells tomatoes and cucumbers and melons.  A few people, not many, honk their horns as they drive by.  She waves with just the smallest tilt of her hand.  She sits beneath an umbrella on faded lawn chair and crosses her legs, puts an elbow on her knee and takes a long drag on her cigarette. 


            When business is slow she just sits there.  Cigarettes, Diet Cherry Coke.  And her head will tip down as thinks of everything and nothing.  And when the everything gets to be too much she shakes her head just a fraction of an inch, just to shoo away her thoughts.  She brushes the ash from her knee, and reaches up with her pinky finger to flick a tear away.  If she doesn't do that, more tears will come. 


            There are deep wrinkles in her face that have come from years of cigarettes, and sun, and she has no figure at all.  She looks familiar.  You know her.  She is the woman from the city, the sinner.  You should invite her to church, but she probably won't come.  She doesn't go where she is invited.  She finds out where Jesus is staying first, and then she goes.  And when she gets there, she doesn't ask if it's okay to cry, or smoke, or anything else. 


            Why?  Because she is authentic.  Because there is nothing about her that is false.  The dinner party is false.  The best china…not the stuff you use every day.  People are wearing nice clothes…not those old things you wear when you cut the grass.  The conversation is predictable and polite…and false.


            And here is humanity in all her broken beauty.  She stands there weeping behind a man she knows.  She saw him; he saw her—and they know each other, because they're both authentic.  She is authentically broken, and he is authentically compassionate.   She reaches out her hands, and hair, and kisses God.  There is the holy.   It can't get prettier, and then it does.


            "I sing because I'm happy.  I sing because I'm free.  His eye is on the sparrow.  And I know he cares for me."


            I watched her for the longest time from across the room.  I studied every strand of her hair, and counted every tear.  Finally, my eyes drifted away from her to Jesus.  There was a look in his eyes.  He knew I wanted to talk with the woman.  He knew that I was nervous.  Somehow he invited me over.  I got up slowly and walked over to her.  It took me awhile to get up the courage, but I asked her, "Had you met Jesus before he came here?"  She didn't look up.  But she nodded yes.


            And then the words came out of my mouth before I had a chance to stop them, "Why are you doing this?"  And she looked up at me and said, "He loves me."


            And just like the sunset, the roses, and Maggie's pig tails…she got prettier.




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

[*] Adapted from Proper 6C.  13 June 2010.  If I could only preach one sermon, or if I had to choose my favourite and best sermon to date, it would be this one.  I have preached it in four churches and at a chapel service at Eastern Mennonite High School.  It probably moves me more than the congregation.

[†] The Fifth Sunday in Lent. 17 March 2013.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Compassion and love for you

Proper 5C.  9 June 2013. 

Luke 7.11-17


            You won't find the story of Jesus visiting Nain in any of the other Gospels; it is unique to Luke.  The context in which Luke places this account is just after the story of the centurion and his servant, which we read last week.  And the story of the centurion is immediately after the Sermon on the Plain.  As I have often said, you can learn a lot from the context in which a story takes place. 


            The Sermon on the Plain is similar to Matthew's version, called the Sermon on the Mount.  It is given as Jesus is emerging into public life.  It's like an inaugural address.  And in the sermon, Jesus spells out his core vision of how life should be lived. 


            If I were to condense those teachings, I might say, "Live your life in compassion and love for other people, regardless of how they treat you.  Be a person of peace and generosity and integrity, and let the chips fall where they may." 


            The Sermon on the Plain serves the function of telling us what will be the core of Jesus' message and ministry, but it also serves as a standard against which the life of Jesus himself will be judged.  Do you see what I mean by that?  Jesus is talking the talk; now for the rest of Luke's gospel we are going to see if he walks the walk.


            So Luke takes us to the centurion's servant, and despite the fact that the centurion is not a Jew—not one of the "chosen people"—Jesus has compassion, admires the faith of the man who built the synagogue in Capernaum, and heals his servant.  Jesus is walking the walk.


            And then Luke writes, "Soon after healing the centurion's slave, Jesus went to a city called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out.  He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town,"


            So, Jesus has compassion on the centurion and the centurion's servant.  Great.  Fine.  In a sense, that was small potatoes compared to what follows, which is the death of an only child to a woman who had lost her husband.  You already know this, but women were of little account in first century Palestine, unless they had a husband or a son or some kind of relative to look after them.  So here is a woman who has lost every possible means of support, and she must now grieve both the lost of her husband and son.  It's a gut-wrenching scenario, even to this day—though in Jesus' time it would have been so much more so, because there is no viable future for the widow. 


            I have sometimes wondered about the crowd that is with her.  Friends maybe.  I don't know.  You'd like to think that they had conveyed that if she needed anything, they would be there.  Husbands telling their wives, "Please let her know that if her roof leaks, I'll come over and fix it." 


            Wives offering to bring bread ,and vegetables from their gardens, if they have any.  Little offers of help with the arrangements.  I would like to think that people are people—and that the language of compassion was spoken with fluency well before Jesus' time.  And I'm sure it was, but it only goes so far.  It cannot bring back a husband or a son.  It can help you get by for a few days, maybe even a few months, but after awhile… 


            Luke writes that "When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her `Do not weep.'  Then he came forward and touched the bier…" For a devout Jew in first century Palestine, that would be like licking the bathroom floor.  You don't touch the things that dead people touch.  It makes you physically and ritually unclean, which means that you cannot be around those who are ritually pure.  You would need to undertake purifying rituals, and time would need to pass for you to be able to consort with your family and friends again.


            So for Jesus to touch the bier (the platform that carried the man) he is placing compassion ahead of the purity codes.  He will do that again and again and again.  Always choosing people over protocol.  Always choosing compassion over custom—and yes, even Holy Scripture. 


            Jesus said, "Young man, I say to you, rise!"  This is an account of Jesus, who is Life, calling into death.  Compassion calling into grief.  Order calling into chaos.  Just as in the beginning, when the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.  And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 


            "Young man, I say to you, rise!"  This is not just for you, young man.  It is not just your death I am ending.  Your mother has died a living death, and your rising with raise her. 


            "And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.  Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, `A great prophet has risen among us!' and saying also, `God has looked favorably on his people!'"


            Do you know why they said that?  Because what happened was a recreation of another story that many of them would have known: the story of Elijah, which we also read this morning.  The story of Elijah, that great prophet, who came to the widow of Zarephath.  A woman who had nothing.  Elijah asks her for something to eat, and she says, "I don't even have enough for myself and my son.  I'm going to make what little we have and we're going to eat that, and then probably die, because there is nothing left." 


            They are as poor as Job's turkey.  Elijah says, "Do not be afraid; go and make a little cake for me, and then make something for you and your son.  You are not going to run out, because until God sends rain on the land, your food and oil will not be empty—God will provide enough for you."


            And it happens just as Elijah said.  She makes some for him—giving hospitality out of her extreme poverty—and she has enough.  In the midst of this, her son dies.  The widow's son dies.  And Elijah prays, "O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again."  And the life came into him again.


            It's just like that story, except that it's a little different in some very important ways.  Elijah asks God to raise the boy.  Jesus raises the boy.  Elijah is alone with the widow.  Jesus is surrounded by crowds of people.  Elijah is a prophet; but though he is called a prophet, Jesus is much, much more than a prophet. 


            And so Jesus brings the story of Elijah forward to his day and puts an exclamation mark behind it; because if Jesus is willing to have compassion for the widow that even costs him his ritual purity, then how much more will he come with his love and compassion to everyone else?   And that will be the rest of Luke's Gospel. (Pause.)


            For a long time, I have been frustrated by this story, I have to tell you.  It's like the frustration that you feel when you'd like to give someone something, but you can't afford to.  You see, I'd like to give you all the same thing that Jesus gives the widow—a happy ending, and an end of grief.  Without that, the story is still as a beautiful and amazing as it was centuries ago, but it remains just that: a story.  I'm not saying it didn't happen; I'm saying that it happened, but I cannot, through force of desire, make Jesus bring back a loved one for you.  I can't tell you how much I wish I could.  


            I think every cleric, every parent, every person who has ever been inspired by the compassion and love of Jesus has met with the same frustration.  I was just talking with a very good clergy friend of mine who had gone through a really rough patch.  He had been fighting depression during the cold hard winter months, and he said that one time he said to God, "You know, Lord, I say good things about you."  And the underlying feeling, of course, is: where are you for me?  Where were you for my parishioners?


            So even though I continue to believe that Jesus has love and compassion for you and me and everyone else, I cannot—through force of desire—recreate this account.  But I can re-enact it.  I don't mean, re-enact like "Civil War Re-enactment," where people dress up and perform it, although I suppose we could do that.  Some of our earliest forms of modern theatre were the mystery plays—acting out themes and stories from the Bible.  But that's not what I'm talking about.


            To re-enact is to re-establish in our minds that the same Jesus who comes and cares for the widow and her child is the same God we worship and adore today.  For reasons known only to God, Christ came at a specific time and place and revealed himself to a specific people in specific ways. 


            I cannot give him to you has he gave himself in Nain.  I cannot force him to raise your child, and thereby raise you from grief.  But I can re-enact the promise of Jesus that his compassion and love are not bound to this story. 


            I can re-enact the night in which he was betrayed when he took bread and wine—as the old Roman Missal reads—"into his sacred and venerable hands," and give them out to you.  Jesus is still:


            Life calling into death. 

            Divinity calling into humanity. 

            Compassion calling into grief. 

            Order calling into chaos.


            As you reach your hand into what feels like a dark room of faith—which we do again and again in this life—it may be difficult to believe that his hand is also reaching out to you.  But it is.  Of that, I have become convinced. 


            Sometimes it tastes like bread and wine.  Sometimes it looks like a stranger.  Sometimes it sounds like a voice from the past.  But God is always coming with compassion and love for you.  God will always be faithful to you, because he loves you very, very much.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, June 3, 2013

He built the synagogue

To listen, click here.

Proper 4C.  2 June 2013.

Luke 7.1-10


            On Pentecost Sunday—two weeks ago—I spoke about the awkward and often painful feeling of not belonging, and how the Holy Spirit's work, at least in part, is to impart God's acceptance of us, and direct us outward to those who have not yet experienced God's comforting embrace.


            It is one of the recurring themes in the New Testament, because it's one of the recurring events in the life of Jesus that people came to him who were not considered worthy of inclusion among God's people.  Jews were meant to marry Jews, and Gentiles, Gentiles; Samaritans, Samaritans, and so forth.  At the more basic level within Judaism there were laws that governed what you could touch.  The purity codes regulated the amount of time one was considered ritually impure, based on one's exposure to unclean things. 


            Therefore, when Jesus interacts with people who are described in the Gospels as lepers, sick, a Samaritan, or what have you, there is meant to be a heightening of suspense in how he will be responding.  We don't really experience that suspense anymore, because we have heard many of these stories before.  We know the character of Jesus is one of compassion and acceptance.  We also live in a vastly different culture where we say that we believe all people are created equal—and we no longer really treat people as clean or unclean. 


            You might disagree with me on that point.  I have a clergy friend who does indeed believe that when we avoid other people we are implicitly following an unwritten purity code.  At least one that we have for ourselves.             


            I mean, you remember from elementary school and even high school when you knew other kids who were a little different, but they really weren't foreign.  You saw them at the store, or at the Fair.  You saw them around town.  They were from here, just like you, but you just didn't really run in the same circles.


            But then there are the people who are not at all from the Shenandoah Valley.  They don't know about ice cream with Grape nuts in it.  They don't know that there isn't a lick of butter in apple butter.  They don't know to turn left where the old barn used to be.  You get to know them a little bit and you realize that people are people.  They're okay.


            It was like that with the Roman occupation to some extent. You had the soldiers who were just out there to keep an eye on things.  Like shepherds for Rome—or as we might say today, they were embedded amongst the people.  …Out there in the fields and towns keeping an eye on things, making sure people weren't trying to organize some kind of rebellion. 


            A centurion might be deployed to work under Herod Antipas or Pilate, and he'd go out there, bring his wife, and they would have a home.[*]  He would go around and introduce himself—everyone knew who he was and why he was there.  Maybe some people resented his presence, or maybe they were too innocent to care.  "He's not going to run my farm; he's not going to work in my vineyard; whatever."  "He can please himself."  "Fine.  Live and let live, I always say."


            And you go on about your life and he goes on about his life.  No big deal.  You are not close to him, and he's not close to you, but it's okay.  He learns about apple butter and grape nuts ice cream.  He learns to turn left where the old barn used to be.


            A year or two go by, and he's been buying milk from the same dairy.  He's been buying grain from the same place you buy grain.  He smiles; you smile. 


            "Nice day."

            "Yep, nice day." 

            "It's going to rain." 

            "Boy, we need it though, don't we?" 

            "We sure do.  Did you hear about Mrs. Miller?" 


            "Yeah, but, you know, she lived in pain for so long." 

            "Oh, I know, I know…" 

            "Still…it's not going to be the same."  Little conversations maybe, here and there.  He's part of us, but he's not part of us.  It's a little awkward maybe, but…isn't life always a little awkward around the edges?


            And after awhile, one day, he shows up at your congregation at the rabbi's home.  Well, now…Is this an inspection, or is he just visiting?  He nods; you nod.  He sits down.  Is it okay for him to be here?  Well...  You know what a thousand pound gorilla gets to do, right?  (Answer:) Anything he wants.  He's a Roman centurion.  His boss is one handshake from Caesar.  He can sit wherever he wants to sit.


            The rabbi finishes reading from the Torah.  He sits down to teach.  It's a little sermon about God making a way through the wilderness for the Israelites and how God has made a way for this little congregation in Capernaum.  They started off with only a handful of families, right here in the rabbi's home.  Bit by bit they grew, a few have died, but children have come along.  They added on to the rabbi's house to put a few extra seats and some more tables for the occasional potluck. 


            The rabbi finishes up the sermon, they sing one of the Psalms, and have prayers, and at the very end, the rabbi asks everyone to sit down, because he has something he wants to talk about.  He says,


            "Folks, it has always been a pleasure for me and my wife to welcome you into our home each Sabbath.  We have been meeting here for many years.  You will remember when my beard was short and we began meeting under the trees while this house was being built.  And you remember when we moved in here, just a handful of families. We are now just able to accommodate everyone, but you and I know that the town is growing, and we need more space."


            "I think the time has come that we seriously consider building a synagogue.  It is all well and good that I keep the sacred scrolls of the Torah in my house; but the Torah deserves to be enshrined, and the place where we gather deserves to be a size that will accommodate the growth we deserve and expect to have." 


            "Now, I know it's a lot to ask.  None of us are people of unlimited means.  We might not be able to afford to build the deluxe model, but we can have what we need if we believe, and pray, and stay faithful.  I have had generous offer of some bricks, and another offer of timber from an old barn, and the piece of land we have had our eyes on is ours if we make the offer.  We just have to decide to get ourselves together and raise a little money, and start building.  So, that's about the size of it.  Are there any questions?"


            A hand goes up at the back.  And you look over, and it's the centurion.  Uh oh.  What's he going to say?


            The rabbi says, "Yes, uhm…Mr. Centurion.  You wanted to say something?"

            "Thank you, Rabbi.  Folks, I, uhm..I know I'm not from around here.  But when Cathy and I were new, the people of this synagogue helped us find what we needed, and were really nice about it.  Uhm…you know, I don't really make speeches, but you need a synagogue, and, well…I'd like to build it for you.  Thank you, Rabbi."


            Well, there's a little gasp in the crowd.  People are smiling.  The rabbi just fell off his chair. 


            In two weeks, a detachment of the centurion's guard arrives and in two days, they've got a roof up.  It's all funded and built by the centurion.  Well, there was precedent, you know?  Herod built the Temple in Jerusalem.  It provided work, and it ingratiated him to the Hebrew people.  The motives may have been a little mixed, but you know…that's politics. 


            If Herod can build the Temple, a centurion can build a synagogue.  Who knows?  Maybe the centurion was inspired by Herod, or maybe the centurion is climbing the ladder?  I don't know.  But I do know that Luke writes that the centurion loved those people—and there is no reason that that can't be true, too.


            I think it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said, "People don't trust each other, because they don't know each other."  There is always a little suspicion at first, but even if you only pass someone on the same set of stairs…  At first, it's nothing.  But the repetition becomes interesting.  Clearly, you are both following your standard routine.  You don't know what set of circumstances brings him there at that precise time, and he don't know what set of circumstances created your habit, either, but every day at precisely 2 o'clock, you are going up, and he is going down. 


            The first couple times, it means nothing.  And then there's a little embarrassed grin when you both acknowledge that you are, in some sense, a creature of habit.  It moves to "Hello," and from there to a conversation at some event, until finally he's sitting next to you at your daughter's wedding. 


            "Lucian built the synagogue." 

            "But he's a Roman officer!" 

            "Lucian built the synagogue."

            "So now it's Lucian?  You forget that if you get out of line, he can haul you up to Herod!"

            "Why would we get out of line?  He built the synagogue.  And his name is Lucian.  Did you hear that his servant is sick?"

            "No.  I'm sorry to hear that."

            "Yeah, it doesn't look good.  He has asked a couple of us to go ask Jesus if he can come and heal him."

            "Why doesn't he go himself?"

            "Well, he says he's not worthy to do that."

            "Not worthy?  He built the synagogue!"

            "I know."


            So they go to Jesus. 


            "Lord, this man is worthy of your help.  He built the synagogue.  He's a good man." So Jesus comes along.  And as they are approaching the house, some friends of Lucian come out and say, "Lord, don't trouble yourself.  He says, I am not worthy for you to come to my house.  I know what it is to have power.  If you say `Let a thing be done,' that thing is as good as done, practically it is done. So if it is done, why not say so? [†]  Just say the word and my servant will be healed." 


            And Jesus was amazed.  He says, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." And Jesus heals the slave.


            Because he built the synagogue?  No, not just that.

            Because he didn't think himself worthy?  No, not just that.

            Because he believed Jesus could do it without even coming to his house.  No, not just that.


            Because of all of it.  Because with Jesus the lines are never drawn around people on the basis of their background.  Even a centurion can find the kingdom of God.



[*] My wife tells me what my exegesis should have; centurions were not allowed to be married.  I decided allow myself poetic license, adhering to something Voltaire once said—that has become a personal credo: "It is more important to be interesting than accurate." 

[†] Profound apologies to W.S. Gilbert and anyone who has ever heard the Act II Finale of The Mikado.