“Community 101” – June 2, 2013

“Community 101” – Sermon June 2, 2013

Luke 7:1-10

“Let the words of my mouth . . . “

Welcome to Ordinary Time! We are now back in the season of the church calendar that is commonly called “Ordinary Time”. Not the same fanfare as Easter with the “Hallelujah Chorus” or Pentecost with “Come Holy Spirit”. Sounds a bit on the dull side doesn’t it . . . “ordinary”. You can almost hear Eyore’s voice in it. “Hey Eyore, how’s it going”. “Nothing out of the ordinary”. Actually, with no specific name, the Sundays are just marked with “numbers” therefore, it’s ordinal or ordinary. You might here “9th Sunday in Ordinary time or 2nd Sunday after Pentecost”.
It’s the season where the primary color in the church becomes GREEN; not because it’s summer in the northern hemisphere but rather that Green is the color that represents growth, so the theme during “ordinary time” is growth. How do we on this side of Pentecost, empowered by the Holy Spirit, continue to grow and develop in our Christian Faith and discipleship? It’s a long season, kind of like Hurricane Season here on the Island, that will go from now until December when the church calendar starts over again with Advent. And while the time will be marked as Ordinary, we know that we live in a world that is nothing but ordinary and this was especially true in our scripture lessons this morning.
In Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, his newly founded church was struggling. We hear this loud and clear when Paul forgoes the usual long rhetoric of his letter introductions and at verse 6 notes, “I am astonished”. He will go on with the rest of the letter working to further refine and define the Gospel of Christ for these new church communities so that they can grow in the grace and freedom of Christ.
In Luke’s letter, the struggles with his community might be more subtle but they are still just as challenging as Paul’s. To set the stage, while there is not 100% consensus, most scholars will put the writing of Luke’s gospel somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 AD. This would put it about 15 years after the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the 2nd temple by the Romans in the year 70. Since less than a generation had passed, I am sure that these events were still quite present in their collective memories.
His community would have been very diverse. You would have had Jewish Christians (Christians with Jewish roots); Christian Jews (Jewish Christians still attached to Judaism) and all others that we commonly call Gentiles. Because of certain themes in Luke, many think that, in the standard of that day, it was probably a fairly wealthy community. So, what were they struggling with? Probably a lot of the same things that we struggle with, but one thing in particular was how to be a community. Not just any community, but a diverse community seeking to live out what had been revealed to them in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ..
With that as a backdrop, I think it is helpful to both see and hear how Luke stages today’s lesson. In the last half of Chapter 6 we get Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” which is similar to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”. Here is where Jesus challenges us to “love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us”. And “If you just love those who love you, what good is that”. Hard words to live out. So what does Luke do . . . he shows them being lived out!
Chapter 7, Verse 1 and 2 . . . “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave, whom he valued highly and who was ill and close to death“. Whoa! Wait a minute! A centurion!
Now, when my ears first hear centurion, I must confess that I first think of John Wayne. Does anyone remember the scene in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” where at the crucifixion, John Wayne, playing a Roman Soldier, looks up and says, “truly, this man was the Son of God”? I also think of Russell Crowe in “The Gladiator” all buff and sweaty and strong. Listen to a 5th century description: “a centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly . . . he is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak.”
So while the Russell Crowe imagery fits (and maybe John Wayne too), they have also been described as “not to brainy and often abusive of the citizenry”. I’m sure that Luke’s audience is thinking that this guy represents all that is wrong with their country. They shut down our revolution; they destroyed our temple; they are messing up our economy; they are ruining our kids; they personify everything that is bad; in a nutshell . . . they are “the enemy”.
But Luke turns this upside down. Here is a centurion, an enemy occupier, who; is seeking out Jesus to help another AND the Jews are helping AND Jesus is going to go to him. WOW. I did not see that coming. What the heck is going on here? You mean that we need to “really” love our enemies? I did not think that you meant that guy over there. Maybe I could love some of my enemies, but not THAT person. All of a sudden, this centurion is seen, not as ruthless and heartless, but as human. Not as an outsider, but one inside the community. A person of great faith.
In verse 4 we read that the Jews in the community found this centurion “worthy” and even though he declared that he was not so, Jesus affirmed it. He was worthy. So I wonder, who do we look at this way? Who in our society do we exclude from “our community” based on old stereotypes. They don’t look like us or talk like us or maybe share all our beliefs. We accuse them for causing all of the problems of today. According to Luke, loving your enemies means looking past those stereotypes and inviting them in. That’s what the Jews in this story did. And they did more than that, they spoke up for another.
The centurion spoke up for his slave. Now, to our 21st century ears, this word slave can be a challenge for us. The issue of slavery and the Bible is one of those “elephants in the room” that we don’t want to talk about, but there it is. It’s hard for us because we are not that far removed from the hurt, pain, and injustices that came from the practice of slavery. Now while it is true that slavery in Biblical times was different, I am not about to gloss over it and call it something that it is not . . . the centurion had a slave . . . plain and simple.
Our text said that he was “valued highly” which some scholars feel could have been related more to economics than actual feelings. But, that word in Greek is probably better translated “esteemed” or “honored” or “precious”. I like, “he had a slave who was very dear to him”. He was special . . . BUT . . . he was a slave and so the point we need to focus on is that he had no voice. So the centurion speaks for him. And as we read, the centurion does not speak alone.
I think I probably read this passage over two or three times before it hit me that the centurion never actually speaks to Jesus. In Matthew’s version of this story, the centurion and Jesus have a one on one encounter. But not so with Luke. Why. Why did Luke tell the story this way? I believe that it was to show his community and ultimately us, that this is what community does. It speaks out for the other who has no voice.
And in this story, we have two extremes. We have a slave, a marginalized one, who has no voice. And we have a centurion, one who can speak and people do what he commands. When he says go, people say where; when he says jump, those in his command ask how high. Yet, Luke shows us that BOTH have a need for the community to speak for them.
Community means that we don’t have to go it alone. What can be hard about this is that at times, we have to ask for help. And speaking as a man, this can be difficult. I personally am not one who will ask for directions and I am not one who always seeks the advice and counsel of others. We are taught, and I think especially MEN are taught, that we can “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” or that “God helps those who help themselves”. And while these sayings are not bad, in and of themselves, we are not meant to go it alone. Our faith, while personal, is more than personal, it’s communal. That message is clear from Luke’s story.
But it is scary to ask. It shows a vulnerability that can be very frightening. We think that it shows us as weak; that we will beholden to another for their generosity. But true faith is lived, not in our solitary world, but in the community of others.
When our faith is enacted on behalf of another, it celebrates our web of human connectedness, especially in times of illness and tragedy. This is the imperative of faith living in the world. Today’s story ends with the servant being healed. But I think for Luke it was more than this. It was about his community being on the road to healing. Healed from stereotypes about other people; healed of not reaching out to those with no voice; healed of not asking for help. In a few moments, we are going to gather at the Lord’s Table. Here we will remember the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for us and at the same time we will also share in communion with each other. And the question that we need to ask ourselves is . . . who is at this table with us? Who might be missing? Who should we be reaching out too? Who needs me to speak for them? Does someone need to speak for me? Friends, this is community. This IS the Body of Christ . . . Thanks be to God!

Let us pray:
Almighty God, grant that the words we have heard this day
may, through your grace, be so grafted within our hearts
that they may bring forth in us the fruits of the Spirit,
to the honor and praise of your name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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