“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

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing; Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8; March 17, 2013; FPC Jesup

“How Beautiful are the Feet,” Lenten Practices: Foot Washing
Isaiah 52:7 and John 12:1-8
March 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout our Lenten series we have been studying many different practices, iconography, fasting, prayers of petition, walking a labyrinth, and prayers of confession. Though many of these practices have the concerns of others in mind, most of those practices can be done just fine alone. Today’s practice however, requires interacting with others in a way that might not be the most comfortable thing.

Slide02The practice is “foot washing.” Within the context of our worship service today we will translate this to hand washing. But for now I’d like to stay with the image of foot washing.

Have you ever watched the TV show, “Dirty Jobs?” In this show the host, Mike Rowe takes on some of the dirtiest jobs that there are out there. And boy does he get dirty. From trash, to sewage, to tar, to animal carcasses, Mike Rowe has dealt with all of these things, and given the outside world an often-nauseating look into each of these worlds.  I know there are some of you in this congregation that have experienced your own dirty jobs, working with manure or animals or other such things in ways that would make your suburban-raised pastor faint.Slide03

What I’m trying to get at here is that one of the dirtiest jobs in Jesus’ time was that of a foot washer. In Jesus’s time traveling primarily involved walking. There was no plumbing of any kind, there was no pavement, no real regard for sanitation. People’s feet were very, very, very, dirty.

Slide04How strange is it then that when Jesus comes to Bethany, Mary places herself at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with perfume, and drying them with her hair. Her hair! The thought of it grosses me out. Her concern was clearly not for her own vanity, but for worship of Jesus Christ.

SLIDE 5 - Jesus FeetIn the dirt and in the grim of those road weary feet of Jesus there was also beauty. These feet weren’t the feet of someone who kept at a distance. They were the feet of someone who walked among the people. Jesus was both God and human, and in his walking he was very human. If you have the power of heaven and earth, why would you choose to limit yourself to being constrained within a body? And if you must be in a body, is it really necessary to do all of that walking? Couldn’t he fly or in the very least, ride a donkey?

My favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes about this, “The four gospels are peppered with accounts of [Jesus] walking into the countryside, walking by the Sea of Galilee, walking in the Temple, and even walking on water…This gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the road, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market. If he had been moving more quickly – even to reach more people – these things might have become a blur to him. Because he was moving slowly, they came into focus for him, just as he came into focus for them.”

SLIDE 8 - Pedestrian CrossPart of Jesus’ ministry was being very present, very human, and in every definition of the word, “pedestrian.”

In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 52:7 we heard

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”

Slide10How beautiful than were the feet of Jesus, the announcer of peace, the embodiment of good news, and the provider of salvation?

This passage in Isaiah exults the feet of ministry. Feet of peace, good news, and salvation are much more than the dirt that may cover them. Their beauty stems from the goodness of the person attached to them, but it also stems from their own work: their ministry of walking on the earth, of bearing goodness as they travel. This ministry will make them dirty, at times will cover them with callouses, blisters, heel spurs, but these feet are beautiful because they are feet that are in motion.

Slide11This is my family with my Great Grandmother, Granny Ruth, who lived to be 101. She used to say “I’d rather wear out than rust out.”

Slide12This is the call also of the disciple. We are not meant to sit around with clean feet. We are meant to be in motion. We are meant to keep our eyes open, our hearts open to those who might cross our paths. We are meant to get our own feet dirty,SLIDE 13 - Mary or in the case of Mary, our own hair. Mary’s act of love for Jesus required a disregard for her own well being both hygienically and financially.

In response to today being St. Patrick’s day, a seminary friend of mine, Rachel Jenkins wrote this lectionary themed limerick: “There once was a woman named Mary. /Though Jesus’s feet were quite hairy, /she opened the jar /and poured out the nard /and foreshadowed that he would be buried?”

Her alternative last line is: “and everyone spit out their sherry.”

SLIDE 14 - MaryThey were indeed shocked and probably would’ve spit out their sherry if they were drinking it at the time. This perfume that Mary was to be used for burials. Though Jesus was frequently pointing to the short life before him, only Mary seemed to understand that perfume for burial was exactly what this situation called for. Jesus’ ministry was not leading to election to a political post or to celebrity status; it was leading to the crucifixion, it was leading to death.

Slide16Mary immediately receives criticism for the wastefulness of her actions.  As if on an episode of “The Price is Right,” Judas readily identifies the 300 denarii that went into purchasing that perfume. He was upset with how much money she “wasted.” As a bit of an aside, the author of this gospel tells us “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” (John 12:6) Judas desire was not for the money to serve someone else, but rather that it might serve him. He was looking not for the humility of service, but for personal promotion.

While Jesus was alive, the disciples never seemed to really understand what Jesus was calling them to do and be in their world.

Luke 9:46-48 tells us:

“An argument arose among [the disciples] as to which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’”

Jesus was always doing things like that, making flipping things on their heads and reordering their expectations.

In Matthew 20:26-28 Jesus corrects the disciples saying:

“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And in the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, he demonstrates this service to his disciples in one of the most unexpected of ways. He takes on the “dirty job” of washing their feet:

“[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (John 13:4-17)

Richard J. Foster writes in his book, “A Celebration of Discipline”: “As the cross is the sign of submission, so the towel is the sign of service…. The spiritual authority of Jesus is an authority not found in a position or title, but in a towel.” [1]

Contemporary society is familiar Jesus’ call in Matthew 16:24 to deny ourselves, taken up the cross and follow Jesus. We are much less familiar with the call to take up a towel and follow Christ.

SLIDE 23 - Towel and SandalsTaking up the towel involves kneeling at feet. Taking up the towel involves making ourselves dirty in the process. Taking up the towel in the way that Jesus demonstrates involves washing the world clean. Not just the parts that need some light dusting, but the parts that need a deep scrubbing. Jesus washes the feet of Judas. All throughout the story of this last supper Jesus points to his knowledge of Judas’ imminent betrayal, but still he kneels before him and serves him. This is the sort of servant-hood to which Jesus is calling us.

Foster writes about this: “We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant. When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be in charge. There is great freedom in this. If we voluntarily choose to be taken advantage of, then we cannot be manipulated. When we choose to be a servant, we surrender the right to decide who and when we will serve. We become available and vulnerable.” [2]Slide25

When we choose servant-hood out of love of God and desire for the care for the world that God loves, we are taking up that towel of service. When we go out to share God’s love, our feet become beautiful. May we seek to share God’s love with all we meet in both word and action. Amen.


[1] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 126, 128.

[2] Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 132.