“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

“Simply Giving;” Luke 3:10-18; December 23, 2012; FPC Jesup

“Simply Giving”
Luke 3:10-18
December 23, 2012
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

An angel came to his mother telling of his surprising and miraculous birth. He lived life as a revolutionary, an outcast of society. He preached the truth of God’s judgment and God’s grace. He proclaimed the coming reign of God and the establishment of God’s Kingdom among the last and the lost and the lonely.

AJohn the Baptistny guesses to who I might be talking about?

Since we’re in church, just a couple of days away from Christmas, Jesus seems like the logical answer. And that’s correct of course, but this same biography belongs to Jesus’ cousin, John, also known as John the Baptist, forerunner of Christ,  “the voice crying out in the wilderness.”

John the Baptist is not who we typically think about when we think about Christmas. His stories understandably take a back seat to that of his ever more famous, ever more eternal second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth. But John too was born out of an unexpected pregnancy and called into a counter-cultural life. SONY DSCAngels announced both of their births. An angel came to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and told her that even in her old age she would have a baby. An angel came to Mary and told her that even though she was a virgin she would have a baby. Surprises all around.

The two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary met together and share their news. When Mary told her cousin of her pregnancy, John leapt in his mother’s womb, excited to be in the presence of Jesus. But then, they grow up and the Biblical narratives are silent about any interaction the two of them might have had throughout their childhoods or adolescence.SONY DSC

 Thirty or so years pass and we are told that, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This was before Jesus’ ministry officially began at the wedding in Canna. Before Jesus had worked a single miracle, John was proclaiming God’s will with strength and conviction.SLIDE 4 - Saint John the Forerunner John is often depicted like this picture here. Here in this otherwise formal portrait, John is disheveled, a wild man who lived out in the wilderness. He was described wearing a leather belt and a tunic of camel hair, living off locusts and wild honey. His message was not for those who were concerned with appearances, but for those concerned with God’s work throughout our lives and into eternity.

Here in this place he speaks out to a gathered crowd. This is the message we heard a few weeks ago, John the Baptist speaking of how when Jesus’ kingdom comes to fruition “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Though the end result of this kingdom is a great and glorious thing, such perfection requires eliminating the parts of our lives that are not pleasing to God and fully submitting to God’s will for our lives. John preaches of this refining fire to a gathered crowd and they are, of course, concerned:

SLIDE 5 – John Preaching to Crowd“What should we do?” asked the crowds.

“What should we do?” asked the tax collectors.

“What should we do?” asked the soldiers.

To each, John replied with a message of giving, a message of generosity. What he says is neither complicated nor spiritual. To the poor crowds: share what you have. To the tax collectors: take only what is fair. To the soldiers: don’t extort. In everyday language, these are the rules of the playground: share, be fair, don’t bully.

John gives them very practical commands of how to move forward with their lives, how to redirect their lives towards God’s will. John does not tell them to leave their current lives, but rather to go forward just where they are, but with hearts bent towards God’s will.

 Luther Seminary Professor, David Lose writes about this saying, “Caught between eschatological [end times]  judgment and messianic consummation [the coming of the Messiah], the crowds hear John speak of a role in the coming kingdom they can play. It demands neither monastic asceticism nor spiritual pilgrimage. John invites them to participate in God’s coming kingdom wherever they are and whatever they may be doing. All they need just enough faith to God at work in and through the ordinary and mundane elements of our lives.”[1]

We are told in our passage in Luke that, “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.” He answers their unspoken question saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

How wonderful to imagine that John was such a reflection of God’s desire that he could be mistaken for the Messiah. What an incredible image, living a life so in tune with God’s will that a divine connection was assumed. The apostle John tells us in John 1 tells us: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”SLIDE 11 – John with Water and Dove

When we say, “what should we do?” John provides an interesting example. He is not Christ and does not pretend to be Christ. But he is so assured in God’s call on his life that he’s willing to go out to preach and baptize. He is so assured in the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus Christ that he lives his life pointing to Christ. After that first womb-concealed leap in Jesus’ unborn presence, John continued to rejoice in Christ’s incarnation throughout his life.

John gives this gathered crowd specific measurable instruction on how to give and receive in this world, all having to do with money. John also provides a very specific example on how to give and receive in this world that has nothing to do with money and everything to do with relationship. SLIDE 12 – Hand extendedJohn lived his life rejoicing in the company of Jesus Christ. As we are already in the midst of this season of giving, this is an important example to remember. In this Christmas season we will both give and receive gifts, but we needn’t get caught up so much in the gifts themselves, but rather on the relationships that surround them. When we give let us remember John’s command for sharing, fairness, and consideration, but also the simplicity and unconditional nature of John’s joy in God’s presence.

SLIDE 13 - PresentMy sister and I were talking the other day about some gifts we have given and received over the years. No matter what the material gift was that was received, the ones that had the most impact were those that reflected a genuine, unsolicited knowledge of the recipient. These were gifts that required listening, required paying attention, required being in relationship. The greatest gift we can receive was the gift of being known.

SLIDE 14 – Wise Men GiftsWith this in mind, the gifts of the wise men initially seem quite strange. They are coming to celebrate the birth of a baby and bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Seems like quite the strange baby shower presents. Surely these were not gifts that Mary and Joseph would’ve registered for at Babies R Us. But the gifts are also right on track because they point to a knowledge of who this little baby Jesus will become. These are gifts of knowing Jesus’ future. The gold was the symbol for the king; frankincense for the priesthood, and myrrh for healing. These gifts, then, point to a greater gift: the most important gift of this season that cannot be wrapped up in a box or written on a check.The most important gift is the gift of Jesus’ life, which is offered at his birth. Even as a baby, these gifts tell us that Christ is the great king, the priest of all priests, who came to heal this broken world. SLIDE 15 - Jesus as Present

This Christmas let us remember that Christ has come to exchange with us the gift of being known. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead… I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”[2] Say this with me, “I want to know Christ because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” May we desire to know Christ with that sort of intensity, secure in the knowledge that Christ desires us to reveal ourselves to him as well.

SLIDE 18 - Leaping But let us not let our leaping with joy in Christ’s presence be contained to the wombs of our world, the places where we are comfortable, secure, and nourished. Let us leap throughout out lives, sharing the love of Christ. May we, like John, be a witness to the light of Christ, giving the gift of Christ’s love into this world. Amen.