By Pastor Linda Dolby
Jesus had a terrible reputation. He spent time with the wrong kind of people. He ate with the grungy and despised of the world. He associated with the worst among us. He reached out to the poor, the broken, the marginalized.
But Jesus also found himself among the powerful of his time. He associated with people of means and influence. He even drew near to the purported enemies of Israel and dared to praise them.
In Luke 7, Jesus is approached by a centurion seeking his help. He had a deeply cherished slave who was ravaged by illness. This centurion sees something in Jesus. He believes that somehow, someway, this Galilean subject of Rome, this mere peasant, might be able to do the impossible: that Jesus might be able to heal the sick and stave off the forces of death.
A centurion is not your typically friendly neighbor. Centurions are the sharp edge of Rome's power, a cruel force that has dominated the people of Israel. Later, this very same empire will order the execution of Jesus. Jesus has a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion, even when he is commended by the local leaders. From the perspective of many of Jesus' neighbors, this centurion represents everything that is wrong about the world.
And yet, Jesus accompanies them. He is willing to see this centurion. Jesus does not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. But on his way, another set of intermediaries enters the scene.
The centurion sends friends to stop Jesus from coming into his house. He recognizes that he is unworthy to host Jesus. This is a rather extraordinary display of humility and submission for a Roman military leader used to having his orders followed, not questioned.
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.
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."
What was the content of the centurion's faith? What did the centurion believe? What faith did Jesus see in him? The centurion believed and recognized Jesus' power over the forces of death. As a military officer, he likely understood well how powerful raw force could be. He knows how swords and masses of trained men can create massive destruction in their wake. He recognizes such power in Jesus, but there is a difference in Jesus' power, a difference the centurion believes can make all the difference in the world.
Military might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead. An army can't heal his faithful servant. Imperial power cannot gain the affections of a people, but only their fear. On this Memorial Day weekend, it good to remember that Jesus' power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire. Jesus' power heals people and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That is, Jesus' power turns the world upside down and inside out. That a centurion would recognize this power is the very essence of faith; faith is seeing the world with God's eyes, to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God's love and God's grace.
There was a distance between Jesus and this Centurion. Jesus was a faithful Jew, and the Centurion was a Gentile; in those days Jews kept as much distance as possible between themselves and Gentiles. Jesus was a man of peace, the Centurion was a man who was accustomed to using violence in fulfilling his duties. Jesus was a representative of God, seeking to free God’s people; the Centurion was a representative of Caesar, involved in suppressing and oppressing the Jewish people. There were distances between these two men that we can’t even imagine. Yet God is able to overcome those distances, bringing healing and health to this Centurion’s home. That’s the nature of our God.
God is one who bridges the distance, and makes people well. Even the distance that exists between people - a distance marked by race or ethnicity or economic status, or political sentiment, or religious beliefs.
Some insight this scripture came to me in the movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey breaking the race barrier in baseball in 1947. Rickey is the team executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is a man under authority, and he orders men around and they obey him. He is also a man who, for twenty years, has carried around inside him a memory of the intense pain that ripped apart a black man who played on an early team he coached, when a hotel where the team was staying for an away game refused him a room because of his color. Rickey got the hotel to back down, but the hurt he saw in that man stayed with him as a lasting heartache, until he finally came to see that he had not begun to address the evil from which that incident had sprung, and that he could choose to use his authority to integrate baseball.
Rickey had come to understand enough about racism to know that Robinson needed to be on the Dodgers because of his athleticism, not because Rickey wanted to integrate the team, and that he, Rickey, needed to stay out of the limelight and provide Robinson all the help he could, so that Robinson, No 42, could survive the hatred that would come to him. Rickey is unwavering. And when Robinson, enduring abuse after abuse, asks him why, Rickey answers that he had not done enough long ago.
The theme of redemption recurs in the film. The team lawyer tells Rickey that he is breaking a code, an unwritten law, and that people forgive you when you break laws, even sometimes admire you for it, but when you break codes they seek to destroy you. And Rickey himself confronts the manager of the Phillies by asking him if he thinks, when he dies, that God will be satisfied that he cancelled a game over Robinson’s race. The guy backs down, the game goes on.
And somehow, in the 1947 season, Robinson received the power to heal from taunts and gibes, from a baseball hit in the head and letters so ugly the FBI was called in to handle the threats in them. Robinson prevailed as a ball player, becoming Rookie of the Year. And Rickey went on to hire more non-white players, including AfricanHispanic superstar Roberto Clemente.
Branch Rickey actions came in a time when segregation was legal in America, when public restrooms had signs for White and Colored, when black people’s skin was considered to be contaminating, and when their abilities were considered to be inferior.
Such deep prejudice has not left us in this country, as we see and hear and fail to notice nearly every day. Rickey says, in one scene, we just won a war against fascism in Europe, we need to win one against racism here at home. .
Our habit of honoring people for their power, of ingratiating ourselves to their powerfulness, and of heaping contempt upon the powerless as unworthy, unworthy of their food stamps or their low-income housing, their free health care or their college admissions, persists without much question.
The heaping of abuse upon the powerless whom we consider unworthy continues to plague us. It is the kind of illness that is only cured by people like Branch Rickey, who dare to stand up to it, and to say No.
God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us; God will even enrage us when God's grace extends even over those we deem unworthy of such a gift. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
God is one who bridges distances and guess what: God wishes to bridge those distances through the church today. It seems as though there is so much these days that divides us. Where do those divides exist? Who is it that we ignore, or dislike, or suspect, or fear? Who might think the same way about us? Or feel a bit uncomfortable; perhaps even unwelcome, here in our midst? With whom are we estranged? With whom are we unfamiliar? There is a poem by Edwin Markham that says:
He drew a circle that shut me out --
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Who do we shut out? Think about those who are at distance from us, in a variety of ways. God wants to make a difference in their lives. God wants to bring them healing and hope. God wants to transform them with the power of the Gospel. God wants to invite them into the peace and joy that comes from faith in Christ. God may even be planning to do that through you and me. May it be so.
Let's pray. God, we turn to you in faith and in doubt, in joy and in anxiety, in hope and in fear, with boldness and with trepidation. No matter how we turn to you, we trust that your grace and love will hold us in your care, O God. Draw us together. Inspire us to preach your good news that faith can be found where we least expect it. In the name of Christ our Lord.
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