Sermon for Second Pentecost -
Vicar Julie A. Kelly -
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen”
You are too skinny, I am too fat. You need more hair, you need less stuff. You need a sexier car, I need a tiny house… it goes on and on. The church is no different. You need to vote my way, You need to be my religion, you need to agree with me, and you don’t have enough to give more because you don’t believe enough. If you believe enough, if you had more faith, you would have everything you wanted. Pray harder, ask more- ask differently for the same thing, if you don’t get it, God said no because you don’t deserve it. It goes on and on.
We are inundated by the world and even the church with messages of how we are not enough, how we need more, and how we can fix it all if we just do the right things and have enough faith. If we would just pray more and believe more our lives would be golden.
Today, the gospel lesson appears no differently but I want to shatter the image that this passage tries to pass off as true. So, I need to explain some things first.
Theology. Let’s begin with that. Any fans of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” in the house? The dad, “Give me a word, any word, I show you is Greek.” Theology, ‘Theo’ means God and ‘ology’ is ‘understanding’ or ‘study of’ so, theology is understanding God. See, is Greek?! In seminary speak theology is our “lens” through which we understand who God is and how God works. There are a LOT of theologies out there- because we are trying to put a human label on God.
The one that is a largely representative of the Lutheran understanding of God is called the theology of the Cross.
Put as succinctly as possible,
Theology of the Cross is about a God who is all about relationship. As in, God submitted to human limitations- limitations like skin that bleeds and bruises, wrinkles and burns in order to be present with us; to have skin to skin intimate contact with humanity. God in human form as Jesus Christ was birthed and nursed by a human mother, felt the sting of a spanking from his father, was touched by bleeding women and lepers, laid hands upon dead boys in order to give them life and bled and died upon a cross- all to be with us. This Cross in this theology or lens is the symbol of love and sacrifice on God’s part and this theology reveals a God who suffers with and for us, never leaving us, instead immersing Godself into our lives- with all the joy and suffering that entails. This God created us for relationship.
I tell you all this because the reading this week is deep and confusing and is a difficult passage filled with all kinds of messages that appear conflicting and hidden. But in the confusion, if we break it down very carefully, we find messages of hope and promise.
On the surface, when you read our gospel lesson this week, it appears to be about having enough faith and being worthy of Jesus attention and healing.
1After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” 9When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. The word of the Lord, Amen.
The Centurion had great faith and the people said he was worthy because he did good things. So, of course Jesus healed his slave.
When we take a moment and absorb this passage, a lot of questions rise up. Just a few are: Wasn’t the slave worthy of healing just because he was a human? Why was he more worthy because he was beloved? Why didn’t the slave’s faith matter? For that matter, why didn’t Jesus deal with the slavery issue? Was the Centurion a believer in Christ or did he just trust in Christ’s authority? What if he had not had that much faith? What about all the people who believed and weren’t healed? What about the thousands who surely had heard of Jesus and could use long distance healing but didn’t get that? Why was the Centurion worthy just because he loved the Judeans and built them a synagogue? Does that mean if I don’t do good things then I’m not worthy?
Suddenly we can begin to wonder if the Centurions worth or faith are why the slave was healed- or was it something else at play? When we start asking these questions, we suddenly realize that if we take this passage at face value, then those preachers that tell us we just need to believe enough or pray harder are absolutely right. They preach a prosperity gospel to us- “ if you can believe it, you can achieve it!” and subsequently it is our fault when someone we love dies, when earthquakes kill thousands, when drought is unrelenting, all because we obviously didn’t have enough faith in our lives or when we prayed- and for that matter, no one who prayed for life, safety, or security had enough faith.
Then we get to the issue of worth; We doubt ourselves already- remember, we are told at every turn that we are not smart enough, beautiful enough, young enough, faithful enough, strong enough and even that we are not savvy enough- so our faith is a crutch to some. So we doubt our worth. We aren’t sure we can “get into” heaven because we did bad things- or not enough good things. In other words, we aren’t worthy enough- so we doubt our right to salvation and more so, our right to even approach God in prayer. Why would God listen to us, let alone come to us?
The twist of the knife comes when we live a righteous life, give generously to those around us and our church, have vibrant prayer life and faith and then we still face illness, poverty, disaster and death. To which the “helpful” folks around us might tell us that God needed this to be glorified. And my challenge to that is, what kind of God needs to take a 6 year old girl in a vicious stabbing in order to be glorified? What kind of God needs a woman with mental illness to be homeless and subject to rape and beatings and insecurity and fear to be glorified? What kind of God needs hurricanes and AIDS and starvation to be Glorified? Because that God I want nothing to do with and my sneaking suspicion is, you don’t either. What kind of God needs humans to hurt or die in order to look, feel, and be a better God- to be glorified? What theology or lens views God that way? Not one I can adhere to.
While this story appears to be about being worthy and having faith in Christ as Messiah, it simply is not. In fact, it is about how worthless and faithless we are- so some of the messages are true, but that Jesus still comes to us and is willing to defile himself to be present with us. I mean come on- being human is dirty work- and God was willing to submit through Jesus in order to BE dirty with us. Did you know that If Jesus had continued on and entered into the Centurion’s home, he would have defiled himself. He would not have been able to enter the temple or be around other rabbis and his community until he completed a lengthy ritual cleansing.
So no, the Centurion isn’t worthy- no matter what he did or felt for the Judeans. And for that matter, neither are you nor I. He also didn’t believe in Jesus. He was faithful, yes, but he makes it really clear- he believes in systems, in authority and chain of command. His request had nothing to do with Jesus being Messiah, and had everything to do with his recognition of Christ’s authority alone. And that trust- that belief that the authority of Christ was so great is what awed Jesus. He had a faith in a system he didn’t understand or believe.
You see, the point of this story, isn’t that if we have faith like no other Jesus will come and perform miracles in our lives. It isn’t that we can earn our worth to have Christ present. We don’t have to ‘understand’ the whole church, the cross or life of Christ. Rather we just have to trust the authority of Christ because it is proven and is secured by the cross already. And this authority is heard and passed on through generations to be lived out and received by us today..
This story is about theology of the Cross- because Christ heals on the trusting request of an unworthy unbelieving man. He doesn’t heal his slave because the Centurion did good things. We don’t even know if he believed in Christ. But we do know he trusted that Christ would come and be present and that even though he was unworthy, that Christ has authority over life and death.
This hasn’t changed today. The authority of God’s word, of God’s presence is here. It is in your faith that this system, this church, even though led by sinful, imperfect humans like me, like you, has authority in our lives and in this world. We come together and trust that the authority of Christ is present with us, that our salvation is secured and ultimately we are healed and granted wholeness through Christ even when we don’t always believe and are unworthy of approaching Christ. It isn’t about worth or faith- it is about presence, trust, and God’s love and sacrifice for us.
We can’t earn it folks. We can’t do it on our own. And that is ok. We are human. That is why as Lutherans we believe in a theology of the cross- that we need God to be present with us and to redeem us. That the Holy Spirit, through the life and death of Jesus Christ is here to fill us, to help us, to guide us, because on our own, we are faithless and worthless at any given moment. But we are LOVED, we are desired, we are pursued by God and with the Spirit, in the body of Christ, we are completed, we are sanctified, we are redeemed and we are made whole.
The Roman Centurion shows us that we don’t have to have the faith to move mountains. We don’t have to pray just right- because our God is present, coming to us, willing to defile Godself for us, in order to bear our pain and suffering together.
Julie A. Kelly
Vicar - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sermon forSecond Pentecost
Written by Julie A. Kelly
May 29, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California