“God Up Close;” Luke 7:1-10; June 2, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Up Close”
Luke 7:1-10
June 2, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01I have to be honest, the first time I read through our Gospel reading, I sort of shrugged and said “so what.” It’s not exactly a well-known story in the Bible, with all unnamed characters other than Jesus. At first I was honestly a little bored. Like the formulaic “man walks into a bar” joke scenario, the Bible gives us several, “Jesus enters the scene, something happens, someone’s healed, the end.” And so, my eyes glazed over a bit at this one. But as I read a bit closer and dug a bit deeper I discovered that there is a message in here that’s different from ones we’ve heard before, and maybe even more interesting than the usual bunch of stories because it is so rarely talked about. And sometimes when the characters aren’t given names it makes it just a bit easier for us to read our own names in these stories. So as we unpack this story today, lets think about where our own stories fit in.

Slide02In our Gospel today we hear of a man, a centurion who had a slave that he highly valued that was ill and close to death. The man sends out some Jewish elders to ask Jesus for healing. The elders speak highly of the man, saying that he is worthy of miracle, was a builder of the temple. This is the modern version of: “He’s a good guy, look at all these good things he’s been doing.”

Slide03Jesus goes with them. I don’t know if they asked him to go with them, or what instructions they were given by the centurion, but he go with them. I wonder what they talked about on that walk, if they used that time to fill in some more details about the centurion’s character or if they used their personal audience with Jesus to ask some questions of their own, but Jesus comes towards the centurion’s house and while he’s still a little farther off the centurion sends other friends of his to go tell Jesus “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” He explains, or rather his friends explain on his behalf, that that is why the centurion did not approach Jesus, he didn’t need him to show up. Rather, he says (through his go-betweens), “I, too, am a man of authority. When we say ‘do this,’ people do.” This reminds me of a bit of a old boy’s club nod and a wink saying, “I know how these things work.”

Slide04The centurion trusts that Jesus will just do Jesus’ job, and doesn’t need to mess with the particulars of his life, of his situation. I can see him wondering: If Jesus is a man of authority, why is he spending his time on house calls? If he is King of the Jews, why is he dirtying his own feet on his walk out to this man’s house, who is not even a Jew himself? The man is rather self-deprecating when Jesus comes to his own doorstep. He doesn’t believe himself worthy of miracle, worthy of a visit. But here is Jesus showing up.

As you say your prayers before mealtime or at night, do you ever expect Jesus to appear right there in your dining room or bedroom? When you call on God’s presence do you expect God to actually become present? Or are we more comfortable with Jesus at a distance? Sending our mediators, perhaps asking other people to pray for us, sending your pastor or favorite Christian author into scripture for you? Thinking, oh, I’ll let them figure out this faith thing for me. I’ll let them take care of the healing, take care of this faith business. While it is certainly a good thing to invite the spiritual support of others, we shouldn’t be surprised by the spiritual support of God’s own self.

SLIDE 6 - JesusThe amazing thing about God becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ is that God does show up. God becomes human. God becomes part of our experience. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth God puts on skin, becomes earth-bound. Jesus’ incarnation is God taking the extraordinary effort of showing up, of making the God beyond all heavenly expectations into a God that experiences all the realities of this world. This is God showing up.

The centurion doesn’t believe he is worthy of a miracle, but does believe that Jesus is capable of it, whether he is worthy or not and he appeals to Jesus’ authority. He is a rather unusual character to extend such a request, whether it is in person or not. The centurion was a Roman soldier. Slide07Generally when we see dramas of scripture acted out Roman soldiers are cast as the “bad guy,” or at least the “not great” guy. They are often the law and order types in Biblical stories, the rule followers, the maintainers of the status quo. The Romans, particularly the Roman soldiers were the ones who were carrying out the systematic oppression of the people of Israel. Jesus is the one bringing out about the liberation of God’s people. Jesus is cast as the rabble-rouser Jew, the revolutionary, in opposition to both law and order of his time. But it is this man who calls for Jesus’ healing, with Jewish leaders who will vouch for his good character.

Preacher and Luther Seminary professor, David Lose shared this reflection on the character of this centurion:

“[The centurion] is more complex than perhaps many of his day or ours want to make him out. He is a Roman centurion and a man who does good for those in his community. He is part of the force occupying and oppressing Israel and he builds synagogues for the townspeople under his authority. This passage reminds us that we should never reduce someone to one attribute or judge someone based on one element of who they are.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass with cardinal electors in Sistine Chapel the day after his electionPope Francis reminded us of that this week as well. During a homily at mass last Wednesday at the Vatican, the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice and invited his hearers to meet all people, whether they believe or not, at the place of doing good works. The fact that he included atheists among those who are redeemed by Christ and invited to do good works shocked many. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion – and here’s the mind-blowing element of the story – even though we have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. [1]

Slide11Which brings us to an important question: you may believe that Jesus Christ was born and lived and died for our sins, but do you believe that Christ has the power to bring healing? Do you believe that our savior can indeed save? In this story, the faith that Jesus commends doesn’t even seem to have much to do with an individual proclamation of allegiance to all that Jesus is, but rather a simple faith in what Jesus can do.

Slide12Who are the people in your life who might have this basic inkling of faith? Who are the people looking for answers, grasping for hope, searching for healing? Might we bring Christ to them, to their doorstep? Might we pray on their behalf? Might we acknowledge their desire for connection to something greater than their own efforts? Might we, like Jesus, commend such a desire to be connected to goodness, their efforts to be a “good person?”

SLIDE 13 - HealingThe centurion had certainly heard about Jesus and all that he could do, but doesn’t expect or feel like he needs Jesus to show up, just to proclaim healing, and the healing will happen. Even in this rudimentary faith, Jesus makes the effort, not just to heal, but to come close. In this Jesus teaches the centurion what sort of savior he is, while commending the tremendous faith that the centurion already has.

Slide14God can proclaim healing at any distance, but God wants to be close to us. God desires to be a God of relationship. God’s desire to be real and present in our lives and in our world is the difference between sending flowers from a florist and planting a garden in your front yard. It is the difference between sending a flat postcard and sending a care package with homemade cookies and jam. This is the difference between sending a text message saying you’re thinking about someone, and sitting beside them in the hospital praying with them while holding their hands.

Slide15In Jeremiah 23:23-24 we read “Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD.”

Do we believe that we need Jesus in our own personal lives in order to be whole and healed, or do we believe that God should just heal from a distance? Might we need to invite God closer to our own lives and our own experience?

SLIDE 16 - God is NearGod is both a God nearby and a God far off. When we are worried people experiencing tragedy in Moore, Oklahoma or West, Texas or Boston, Massachusetts, God is still also beside us in our daily concerns, in our skinned knees, in our broken hearts, in our need for forgiveness. It is a definite act of faith to expect God to show up for the healing of those we care about on a large scale, but we needn’t be surprise when God answers our large-scale concerns for healing and comfort for those that need it, with a simultaneous personal care for our own lives as well. We might not see ourselves worthy of God’s care and concern. We may echo the centurion and say, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” But still, God shows up.

So where do you find yourself in this story? Are you the centurion comfortable and secure with God’s power at a distance? Might you believe in God’s salvation for others, but not quite sure that you’re the one that needs saving? Are you the centurion’s slave, desperate for healing, but without the perceived agency or resources to care for yourself? Are you one of the elders, deeply concerned for one of the “good people” in your life that might not know what sort of salvation Christ has in store for them? What is your response to Jesus showing up? Or do you even call him there to begin with? Who are the people in your life that are seeking Jesus? How might you bring Him near?Slide20

[We discussed our answers in groups within the pews.]

As you think about who you are, may you seek to invite God’s presence into your own life and may you not be surprised when God does indeed show up. Amen

“As God Sees,” 1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17; June 17, 2012; First Congregational Church of Williamstown, MA

“As God Sees”
1 Samuel 16:6-13, 2 Corinthians 5:11-17
June 17, 2012, First Congregational Church of Williamstown

by Salvador Dali

Time for Children

Who can tell me what you see in this picture? [Old couple, vase, people playing instruments] What else? Did you see the picture differently when other kids suggested something different? How about in your life…are there people that seem different after you know what someone else thinks about them? In our scripture today we were told that God looks to the heart of a person rather than to their appearance. This week as you talk to your family and friends I’d like you to think about how you can look to someone’s heart, the way that they show love and care for other people and think about people differently because of it.

“As God Sees”

Who should lead? This is the question of our passage in Samuel and quite frequently the question in our day-to-day lives. Millions of dollars are spent on ad campaigns telling us who would be the right candidate for any given office: mayor, senate, congress, president. We are told why they would be the right person for the position and why their opponent would be the wrong person. Anyone who has turned on a television in the past year has undoubtedly seen many of these ads, particularly for the presidential race. Though there are discussions based on experience, and platforms, there is also inevitably discussion of who “looks more presidential.”

Some argue that John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 was due in part to his ability to look better than Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential election debates. In fact many who had listened to the debates on radio said that Nixon was the better debater, but those who watched on television thought Kennedy was more successful in the debate. As Kennedy was the one elected, it’s hard not to think that his presidential appearance was a factor.

As in Samuel’s day, we have expectations of who will lead us. We feel like we know what they should look like, what sort of background and qualifications they should have. In our Old Testament passage today we read that Samuel initially goes along with these expectations, looking to Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab and thinking, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But God requires greater discernment, saying to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”

Samuel then passes over the seven older sons of Jesse and asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest one is keeping the sheep. Samuel says, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The anticipation built in this passage likely carries a different meaning for a reader of Paul’s time, because they know two things:

First, someone out keeping the sheep could be quite far off, taking perhaps a few hours to be reached and brought to the place where Samuel and the rest of Jesse’s sons were gathered for a sacrifice. I can also imagine the frustration of the other brothers in first being passed over and then being made to wait for their youngest brother, who was not important enough to even be present at the sacrifice. Though the text says nothing of the brother’s objections, I can’t help but compare this image to that of Cinderella’s step sisters trying to dissuade the prince from searching for their step sister turned maid when he came searching with that glass slipper.

Secondly, in Jewish tradition seven is a number of wholeness. Jesse had seven sons that Samuel had examined. Surely the one God had chosen would be among the seven, and if not, does that mean that who ever is to come is more than whole?

When the youngest son, David arrives, the Lord speaks to Samuel saying, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”

This is the one. I don’t know about you, but I envy the clarity of this declaration that the Lord gives to Samuel.

Though I do defer to God’s will in prayer, God’s desires for my life are rarely as clear as a direct “choose this, not that.” Still, this passage contains an important message that is applicable in our lives: we are told that the Lord focuses on the heart, rather than the outward appearance.

In the Hebrew, this word leevahv that is translated most often in English as “heart,” means something different from how we know it today. Leevahv can also be translated as, “the mind,” “inner soul,” or “determinations of will.” To look to one’s heart is to truly examine a person’s being, intentions, and desires. So what was it about David’s leevahv that made him so desirable as a leader?

Tony Cartledge, an Old Testament commentary author tries to answer this question. He wrote:

“Consider the significance of David’s openness—his spirit of adventure, his delight in trying new things, his willingness to let God work through him. David’s heart was not closed because his mind was not made up and he made no claim to having everything figured out. The impression we get is that David’s heart was open to the future, open to new possibilities, open to mystery, and therefore open to the spirit of God. As David remained opened to the spirit’s presence and leadership in his life, God’s spirit remained with him from that day forward. As a result, God accomplished great things through David.”[1]

Notice that David did not suddenly become older, or more scholarly, or wealthy; he was still a young, naïve shepherd boy. But God saw through the unassuming exterior and sociological context into the midst of who David was, and deemed his will enough to serve God as the anointed leader to supersede the now disgraced Saul. If we read ahead in scripture we know that David indeed has his own failings, but he was still called and anointed for God’s service. And though he was human and therefore fallible, he was still used for God’s purposes. God’s will was still enacted through David.

My sister, Amy, teaches fifth grade language arts. In order to help her students get in the right mindset for revising their papers, she has students put on “Re-vision” glasses. These are made from 3D movie glasses with the lenses popped out. She teaches that when you revise something you have written you are supposed to look at the paper with new eyes, as “revise” means literally to look at again. This is what God asks us to do, to look again, to “revise” our perceptions of one another, looking not at the external markers of how someone has been cast in this world, but rather to their heart, to their intentions, into the midst of the will of that person.

Our New Testament passage today offers us a new lens through which we may see to the heart of one another, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us listen to God’s Word together as we are reminded of our New Testament passage today from 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verses 11 through 17:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

This passage invites us, in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, to look not to what we profess about ourselves, but to what God professes about us as a part of a larger new creation. Through the example of Christ’s life, we are shown what it means to love, what it means to show care for our neighbor, and we are given a glimpse of the limitless grace of God. This call to regard one another through looking to the heart is a call for us to glimpse Christ’s transformative powers at work in one another.

I heard this story once; perhaps you may have heard it too, about a monastery. As the monks were getting older and passing away, no new monks were coming into the community and eventually there were only five monks left in their order. A few miles from the monastery lived a hermit who many thought was a prophet. As the men of the monastery discussed the bleak state of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he would have some advice. The five monks went to the hermit and explained their situation and he said that he didn’t know how the monastery could be saved. He said the only thing he could tell them is that one of them was an apostle of God. They were confused by this and wondered what it could mean. They were doubtful that one of them could be an apostle, and each wondered if it were true, who could it be? As they thought about this things began to change in their community. Because they weren’t sure who was apostle among them, they began to treat one another with a new kind of grace and respect, on the off chance that one of them might actually be an apostle of God. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect. As others from the outside visited the community, they noticed the care that the monks showed one another and some decided that they too wanted to be a part of that community. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order of respect and grace.

What would your life look like if you regarded the people you faced day to day in light of God’s grace? How would that change the person in front of you in line at the post office or grocery store? How would that change your family? How would that change this congregation?

This phenomenon of seeking God’s divinity revealed through the other is what Barbara Brown Taylor would call reverence. In her book, An Altar in the World, she writes,

“reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self–something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding…reverence stands in awe of something–something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits–so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.”

This sort of reverence is what God desires when we look at one another, to look not at outside indicators of affiliation, class, or profitability, but to look to the heart. My seminary’s beloved Hebrew professor, Carson Brisson was known for a blessing that he pronounced at the end of class. It goes something like this:

We should offer each other all that we have to offer, but if we base our care on what we have to offer there is no future. We should strive not to fail each other, but we do fail each other, so if we base what we call love on the fact that we haven’t failed each other yet, we don’t have a future. There are communities that present compelling intellectual and heartbreaking emotional evidence that the claims we find ourselves belonging to are falsehood. Those communities must be heard. Love must first listen, it doesn’t have to agree, but it has to listen. However, nevertheless having listened, we do find ourselves included in, drawn to, lifted by the claim that there is a love in God’s own heart that has been given to us and that even in the failures and confusions of our own lives corporate and person, this love never fails and this love never waits for a cause. Therefore, beloved, may joy and nothing less find you on the way. May you be blessed, oh may you be a blessing and may light guide you and countless others, whose invitations we may not even been aware of were sent, all the way home.[2]

This blessing speaks of a depth and breadth of love that God calls us to grant to one another. A love based not on a person’s worldly worth or perfect record, but on the beauty of lives and hearts transformed by God’s redemptive power. It is my prayer today that we all may seek to re-vision this world and each other in light of God’s great grace. Amen.

[1] p 204 Smith Hewly’s Bible Commentary

[2] Blessing by Professor Carson Brisson.