A sermon preached May 29, 2016, based on Luke 7:1-10.
"Pardon us, Jesus. We know that you have just come back from preaching - welcome back, by the way, Capernaum is so glad to see you again - anyway, we know you must be exhausted and all of that but we wondered if we might as a favor. It's not for us, no, it's for a friend. Well, not a friend so much as a guy you should know. Well, it's not for this guy you should know so much as it's for his slaves.
"That doesn't sound good does it? Well, you should probably know that this guy you should know a Roman. He's a soldier, a centurion, actually. He commands the garrison that Rome posted here when they took control. But he's not that kind of Roman, you know what we mean? He's been good to us, and he listens to us. And you remember that synagogue you preached in when you were here last time? This guy who is not quite our friend built that for the whole town.
"And anyway, he is very kind, and kind to his servants, and now one of his closest servants is lying down, eyes closed for days, his breath getting weaker and weaker every hour. Our friend heard about you, and it seems like you're the only hope this servant has got. Could you come? He is a very kind man. And it wouldn't hurt to have a centurion rooting for you. And it certainly wouldn't hurt Capernaum if he he owed us a favor. We know you're tired, and you've done so much, and we're so glad you're here. And it has been our privilege to let you speak in the synagogue from time to time, and we'd love to keep allowing you there for a long time, if you understand. Do you think you could maybe do this favor for us, I mean, for our friend, well, really, for his servant? The servant is the most important thing, of course."
Favor is a funny thing. I suppose it's no surprise that so many people tried to win the favor of Jesus. Even his enemies couldn't help themselves. Just a little while after Jesus returns to Capernaum, one of the Pharisees will invite Jesus to supper, a great big dinner party where all the neighbors come and be impressed because Simon the Pharisee got Jesus to show up. And while he is there, this same Simon is whispering behind Jesus' back - "he can't be a true prophet. a true prophet would never say that. A true prophet would know better than to talk to them, or let her touch him." Not that it stopped the invitations. A Pharisee here, a tax collector there, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, all of them asking Jesus to come by the house, stay a while, teach us, meet our friends, come do your thing, let us show you off - I mean, let us show you around.
A centurion, a Roman, is a different matter though. To enter a Gentile's house would be a favor of a whole different magnitude, because simply stepping across the threshold was to become ceremonially unclean in the Jewish community. The Jewish person walking into a Gentile home would already be planning that baths and the quarantine period, and all the other tedious purification rituals they would need just to be able to eat and worship with other people afterwards.
"Please, do it anyway Jesus. Please just go along. One hand will wash another and all will be alright in the end."
Then come the centurion's own friends. Carrying with them a great big exit sign, they are ready to point the way out of the dilemma. They bring the centurion's own words - "don't trouble yourself, there's no need to come inside, just say the words from afar and all will be well."
These are the moments that make us love Jesus, because we know he won't take the easy way out. When a sinful woman interrupts a nice dinner party, and begins caressing Jesus' feet the purified Pharisees recoil in disgust, but Jesus thanks her and says "your sins are forgiven." When given the chance to heal on the sabbath, Jesus will take it, right in front of God everybody. When a leper asks Jesus to heal him, Jesus doesn't just say a few words. Jesus reaches out and touches the leper, he touches the unclean one and makes the man whole. Jesus is the love that crosses the line, the love that takes everything that others call unclean and transforms it into something good. This is why we love Jesus more than the law. This is why we have the assurance of Christ's love, because Jesus will not take the easy way out when it comes to loving us, either. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And so, the centurion comes and says "please, Jesus do not bother, I am not worthy" and if you have been paying the slightest attention you know exactly how Jesus will responds. "Of course you are worthy. If two sparrows fall and my father knows it, how much more important are you and your servant! I am coming to your house today, and I won't even need a wet rag to clean off afterwards. For where I go, God makes things clean, God makes them whole.'
Well. That's what should have happened. But if you were paying the slightest bit of attention to the reading today, you heard that this is not what happened.
And that's why, when it comes to Jesus, we have to give more than our slightest attention. Because as soon as you try to reduce Jesus to a predictable pattern — as soon as you make him into a mere figure of some ideal like love, or justice, or perfection — he will act in a way that makes you question whether you even know what love, justice, and perfection really are. The centurion will set the stage for a great story of reconciliation. The spotlight will be shining on the servants deathbed, the smoke machine will be blowing a holy mist that envelops Jew and Gentile, powerful and powerless, and Jesus will look this scene all from the offstage wings and say "Nice job. Go ahead, and get up nameless servant." and then Jesus will walk away - he never sees their faces, never hears their names, never turns to face the Jewish crowd and tell them "See, God loves everybody."
Our faith is not "God heals," though he does.
Our faith is not "God is love," although that is true.
Our faith is not "God loves everybody," although that is more true than most of us want to admit.
Our faith is that Jesus is Lord.
"I'm a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes. I say to my servant 'Do this,' and the servant does it." When Jesus heard these words, he said, "I tell you, even in Israel I havent' found faith like this."
In my own life of faith, I'd say that roughly 3 out of 10challenges consists of actual dilemmas, genuinely perplexing questions or moments when I don't know what to do.And those 3 out of 10 are the ones we talk about most, the ones that occupy our thoughts, the ones we labor over. But the other 7 out of 10 challenges are not real dilemmas at all. They don't require any particular discernment, or revelation. They are questions of authority. Who is in charge here: me, or Jesus?
If your Jesus, whatever your understand of him, is not in charge, then he is not Lord.
And if he doesn't have the authority to surprise you, to write the script in a way you didn't expect, then he is not living.
Our hope, our salvation, is in a living Lord. A Lord with authority, and a Lord who surprises us.
Go. Come. Do this, he says, and not always with great theatrics.
Let him say the words, so that we might be healed.