Sermon for May 29, 2016 (Lectionary 9 C)

Sermon for Lectionary 9 C
May 29, 2016
Michael Coffey

Luke 7:1-10
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.

I wonder a lot lately
            if there aren’t a lot of groups that could never come together.
I like to think that we can someday
            find reconciliation and harmony and peace and unity
            among the disparate political, social, religious, philosophical groups.
But really, come on,
            it looks pretty bad right now.
I mean, it’s so bad right now
            that even in our nation’s two major political parties
            people can hardly agree on how to be united and accomplish anything.

So I read with wonder and amazement
            this week’s Gospel text about the centurion.
In fact, this text is so filled with amazing claims
            and unbelievable interactions, which we probably mostly miss,
            that we have to review some details to make sure we hear it.
Jesus is in Capernaum, an area outside of Jewish territory.
He’s among foreigners and non-believers.
A centurion was a soldier employed by the Roman empire
to enforce laws and taxation,
and keep people from rising up against Rome.
He was part of the oppressive system.
But he also has a slave, an indentured servant,
whom he cares enough about to seek help for him when he is sick.
He is a man of compassion and heart.
The centurion has power and authority,
but he defers to Jesus’ power and authority.
He sends intermediaries, Jewish elders,
who love this guy because he treats them so well. That’s weird.
Then as Jesus approaches, the centurion completely humbles himself,
and says he is unworthy to be seen by him.
At the same time, he trusts Jesus’ power and authority
and begs him to heal his servant.
Jesus is wowed by this man,
and apparently sends healing power to his servant.
Jesus welcomes and accepts the faith of a centurion,
a man caught up in the system of power, control, oppression,
a man whose job and employer
is opposed to the very kingdom that Jesus is preaching and making.
Jesus also has deep compassion on a slave, a servant,
someone of no account in anyone’s system of accounting.

Everything in this story says:
None of these people should be getting along,
seeking a common goal,
helping each other,
or doing anything except fighting and working against each other.
But everything in this story says:
            All of these folks are brought together as one.
In this story filled with compassion, humility,
            faith, openness to the stranger and the enemy,
            healing, power and authority compared and contrasted,
            the good news of God in Christ breaks through:
Christ brings us together around our common need
and God’s universal mercy.
Christ brings us together around our common humanity
            and God’s uncommon grace.
This is the good news as Luke’s Gospel tells it:
            Everyone is being united through God’s mercy
                        to be one, new community of mutual care.
Call me naïve. Call me a dreamer.
            Call me something I probably can’t say in public.
But in our world of growing division,
            ideological walls, self-righteous religion on the right and the left,
            I still think the good news of Jesus
                        has the power to unite and create a new kind of community,
                        and it does it over and over again, even among us.
In our divided and polarized world,
the church is not one side or the other in human conflict,
it is the place where all sides come together
to create a new community of love and service
in the name of Jesus who welcomes us all,
challenges us all, forgives us all,
renews us all, and makes us something more than we were
when we were content to be in our little club
                                    of like-minded and easy to get along with friends.
            Because the church is where Jesus is proclaimed,
                        graciously makes himself available for renewal and healing,
                        generously forgives, and lifts up all who are falling down.
Now, I admit,
            not everyone wants to play that game.
Not everyone wants to hang out with Jesus
            when he welcomes everyone into the new community.
Not everyone wants to be at the same table
            with people whose politics or lifestyle or blatant sinfulness
            are less appealing than your own politics, lifestyle, and blatant sinfulness.
But there it is. That’s what we are because of Jesus.
Christ brings us together around our common need
and God’s universal mercy.
Christ brings us together around our common humanity
            and God’s uncommon grace.

I’ve been watching the new CNN program
            “United Shades of America” with W. Kamau Bell,
            and from the first episode, I thought it was terrific.
Kamau Bell is an African American comedian
            who through comedy and commentary addresses
            all the issues that divide us in American culture.
In the first episode, he did something so startling
            and unexpected that it was hard to believe:
                        He hung out with members of the Ku Klux Klan.
                        He interviewed them, had dinner with them,
                        attended a cross burning (or cross lighting as they call it),
                        and listened to how they expressed themselves
                                    with anxiety and disbelief,
                                    but also with humanity and openness,
                                    not openness to their racism and bigotry,
                                    but openness to them as people.
This very act of people getting together
            people who have no business getting together
            and at least being open to one another’s legitimate existence
                        is the only beginning point for some kind of transformation.

And in the church, we trust that doing that
            in the name and Spirit of Jesus,
            does in fact transform us all because of God’s mercy for all.
We start by seeing everyone as a person
who has wounds that need healing,
even people who don’t or can’t see their own woundedness.
We start by seeing everyone as worthy of God’s mercy
because God is the holy and merciful one.
We start by assuming that we do not possess, control,
own, or manage the truth of God,
but only participate in it through the good news of Christ
and the living presence of the Spirit that animates us to love.
One primary thing we do as church
is we gather together around the table of Jesus’ self-giving love,
and share the ritual meal of table fellowship in Christ.
When we come together around the table,
we come like the centurion, utterly humbled and awed,
we come thankful for each other person
who is here sharing the same grace with us,
we come grounded in the hard truth
that we all have mortal, frail lives to live,
with pride undone by the grace that God nourishes us with
beyond our worth,
and we leave encouraged to love more and judge less.

New York photographer Richard Rinaldi
has been doing a photography experiment.
He gathers strangers he finds on the streets
or in train stations or other public places.
He takes strangers who would most likely never interact
in a personal or meaningful way,
and poses them together in positions that evoke friendship,
or family, or love, or intimacy of relationship.
And what is awkward for these strangers for the first few minutes,
ends up being transformative.
They end up caring for each other,
expressing compassion and connection to each other.
The article I read says:
Even when the subjects seem eager, their body language often concedes a certain hesitance, at least at first. Ten minutes later, though, it's like Thanksgiving at Aunt Margret's.
And that's the really weird thing. Yes, Richard puts the people in these poses, but the sentiment that seems to shine through is real -- at least so say the subjects.
At first, Brian Sneeden, a poetry teacher, saw no rhyme or reason for posing with 95-year-old retried fashion designer Reiko Ehrman, but eventually he, too, felt a change. "I felt like I cared for her," Brian says. "I felt like it brought down a lot of barriers."

This is how the Gospel works, how the church works.
It is this experiment being done by the Spirit through Christ
            to bring people together around word, font, and table,
            and creating a shared humanity through God’s grace,
            bringing down barriers, and stirring up compassion and love.
The Gospel is not about one side of human thinking being right
and the other wrong,
and somehow the church has to be on the right side.
It is about all sides being drawn into a new reality in God’s mercy.
No other movement or way or approach
will lead to a community of peaceful reconciliation
and life-giving mutual care and love.
It is about a favorite word of mine: magnanimity.
            To be magnanimous is to have greatness of mind and soul,
            or as one definition puts it:
Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes her delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts her to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.
Aristotle thought magnanimity was the crowning virtue to have.
The opposite is also a great word: pusillanimity, having a puny mind.
            Not so great.
Jesus is not only the one who acts with divine magnanimity in all his life,
            but also the one who creates a community of his own body and blood,
            a community that is his own crucified and risen self
to act in the world with the same greatness of mind and spirit,
                        rising above our small minded ways,
                        and living for the bigger picture of bringing people together
                        through our common humanity and God’s uncommon mercy.


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