Sermon: “Healing the Centurion’s Servant”

May 29, 2016: Second Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 96
Luke 7:1-10

Author CS Lewis wrote: “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

I think he’s right. I also doubt that it seemed that way to the centurion two millennia ago, or to the slave who was dying. They read those small letters up close, so close that they could probably see very little beyond. First the letters spelled out the need, the desperate need for the healing of this man. When the second set of messengers got back, they found those letters spelled out the extraordinary love and power of God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

“Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”

In the summer of 1990, I went back for my second week as a church camp counselor – that’s how young ministers “paid their dues” in the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ. I brought some things I thought would be handy, like big sheets of paper, markers, storybooks, and so on. I also brought something I hadn’t brought the year before: a guitar. I’d started to learn to play that year, and my plan was to have it there to practice with and to calm myself with when the day got overwhelming. I had no intention of playing for anybody else.

Somebody spotted it, and so of course they asked me if I could play for the daily chapel services. I ended up playing a lot that week. Fortunately, camp songs tend to be pretty simple to play, so I managed to get by.

One of the deans asked me why I hadn’t brought the guitar the previous year, to which I could only say, “Last summer, I didn’t play guitar.”

Those who came for Senior Ministry on Thursday heard my public debut on ukulele (you can see video of that performance here). It was very different than my guitar debut in 1990. I made a plan about playing, I practiced, I worked at parts that were hard like the transition from a G chord to an E Minor, I wished I had more time to work on parts that were hard, and I listened closely to decide, well, whether I could get away with it, or whether I should just play the guitar instead. In the end, I took a deep breath, left the guitar at home, and carried the ukulele down to the Building of Faith.

I’d been playing for less than 50 days.

I won’t claim that I was good, but I took the step. I may not have learned good sense in 25 years, but I’ve learned something about stepping out in courage.

I summoned enough confidence or trust or assurance in my own abilities to put my fingers to the strings in front of other people and begin to play.

There were more obstacles between the centurion and Jesus than there were between me and a successful ukulele performance. He was the local military commander of a client king Herod Antipas. He wasn’t a local, but a foreigner, and ordinarily the people would have as little to do with him as possible.

This centurion, however, had been drawn to the faith of Israel and Israel’s God. He’d given toward the construction of the synagogue, and treated the community leaders with such respect that they told Jesus he was worthy of the attention. In fact, they were willing to be his first messengers to Jesus.

That had to have been hard. The centurion came from wealth and power. I doubt he asked for help many times in his life. He couldn’t have had much direct experience of Jesus, certainly not nearly as much experience as I had practicing the transition to an E minor chord on the ukulele. When I played on Thursday, I had a pretty good notion whether I could hit it or not. The centurion couldn’t fully know what to expect from Jesus.

He demonstrated his confidence in Jesus’ power and authority so persuasively, by comparing Jesus to his own power and authority as a military officer. In his unit, I’m sure, when he said jump, his soldiers asked “How high?” only after they’d started jumping. He trusted that all Jesus had to do was give the order and his slave would be well.

What he didn’t know was what Jesus would say.

Jesus could have said no.

I wonder if that’s part of why the centurion sent that second set of messengers, to lessen the threat of rejection, to give Jesus one or two less reasons to say No. In doing so, he left us with those words of confidence and trust which won Jesus’ unqualified approval and have been remembered and treasured ever since.

Is there anything stopping you – stopping me – from asking?

I was having lunch with Gloria on Friday and she said something so true that we run the risk of forgetting it. Everybody, she said, has a story with loss and struggle in it. You do. I do. Everybody around us does. The youngest of us does, even if they don’t know it yet. The oldest of us does, and time brings the twin opportunities to love and to lose, to succeed and to struggle.

What do we do amidst the struggle?

I know I hesitate before asking God. In general, I have other places I can go for support: family and friends when I’m sad, music when I’m frazzled, books and the Internet when I’m puzzled, doctors when I’m sick. I go to God mostly when I’ve reached beyond my last human resource.

And even then I’ll hesitate, because I do fear rejection, that my plaintive plea will provoke only a painful “No!” I’ve prayed for people’s healing countless times. Sometimes they get well. Sometimes they die. I can’t see any reason for one happening or the other, and I’ve never known God to tell me why.

Why this one “Yes,” and that one “No.”

Sometimes, I’m sure, it’s just that I can’t tell Yes from No. I’m convinced that sometimes we heal beyond the boundaries of life, that we find healing through death. That’s true, but it doesn’t change the sense of loss, or the feeling that I asked, and Jesus said, “No.”

But when I summon the courage, I do become aware of something very precious indeed: the presence of our living, loving, comforting God traveling beside me. That’s the clue I cling to that these “Noes” are “Yeses” in ways I can’t yet see.

Author Carolyn McCulley wrote: “Men trust God by risking rejection. Women trust God by waiting.”

We also trust God by waiting.

I don’t know whether that’s gender-bounded quite so precisely, but she’s right. Waiting is another way to trust God, and it’s just as hard as stepping out to risk rejection. I’ve done that, too, living through days that weren’t what I’d hoped for, days of sorrow and tears. I’ve lived through days which were ordinary, days I wanted to be a better day. Some healing only comes through the passage of time, so patient or no, we find ourselves waiting.

Author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr wrote: “Faith does not need to push the river because faith is able to trust that there is a river. The river is flowing. We are in it.”

In the river of faith, we both wait and reach out.

The journey isn’t necessarily easy. All rivers run to the ocean, but they don’t run straight. There are twists and turns, deep channels and shallows, snags and rapids and dams and, as we know here in Hilo, waterfalls.

From within the river, feel free to cry out about the obstacles and the pains and the losses. They’re real, and they’re painful. God comes with healing.

From within the river, feel free to wait and see what is around the next bend. We can’t see it yet, but we will. There may be healing right there, just beyond our view. If it’s not around that bend, perhaps it will be the next.

The ultimate destination, however, the ocean to which all rivers flow, is the one in which healing is all, welcome is all, love is all: the healing of the centurion’s servant within all of us.

Whether you see or whether you wait, be assured that you will find God’s healing for all your hurts.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , | Posted on May 29, 2016

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