Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
“Have Faith” (This year’s version!)
Luke 7: 1-10, May 29th, 2016
Last year, on June 28th I said: “faith is a topic every pastor is expected to fully embrace, understand and practice, and have two or three good sermons dealing with faith at the ready, at all times! So here I am opening up yet another conversation on faith! In case you are missing the point… it is really hard to follow the teachings of Jesus without talking about faith! Faith is what Jesus advocated and constantly acknowledged when it occurred in his presence. Faith is what you and I need to have if we expect to be healed by the saving grace of our God. It is that important and that simple. Yet, it is not easy to always have the faith that we need!” I said those exact words in my last faith sermon, and I believe that these words still cling to the truth. Perhaps this is why, without really planning it, I have chosen the same topic and the same sermon title barely a year later.
It is said that faith can move a mountain. It has also been said that faith is like the ocean: some days the tide comes roaring into shore, getting stronger with every wave; and other days the waves grow smaller and smaller as they pull further and further away from the shoreline. There is this constant tension between the strengthening and weakening of faith as we too journey back and forth through our lives. However we understand the ebb and flow of faith, we all need some – that’s for sure. Our scripture lesson this morning has Jesus praising and lifting up the faith of a man who asked for healing for one in his household. The lesson implies clearly we all ought to strive for faith like that man had, which he displayed on that day. ‘When Jesus heard this (when Jesus heard the man humble himself as he asked for healing for his servant) Jesus (he) was amazed at the man’s faith (him), and turning to the crowd that followed him, Jesus (he) said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”’ /Luke 7:9/
Our conversation about faith today, has however, taken a turn, pointing us in a different direction, or at least taking us to a new level of understanding. This request for healing which leads to the actions and response taken by Jesus, comes from an unexpected source, a Centurion! The man, the Centurion, was a soldier in the occupying army of the Romans whom were oppressing the Israelites during this time period. Thus his turning to Jesus and asking for healing, on behalf of his slave, sets up a dynamic that truly shacks up our understanding of who can be healed through faith! So we start with a soldier representing the enemy of an oppressed people, and we compound this when we acknowledge that the one needing healing was a slave, the ultimate form of oppression; and furthermore he was the slave of this soldier whom has the nerve to ask Jesus to heal this man… who was connected to the Centurion only in slavery!
What we need to focus on carefully, in this passage, is that Jesus not only heals the slave, but marvels at the level of faith that the soldier has. So now we need to consider carefully the implications that this scene implies for us in the Twenty-First Century, as well as for those that were oppressed and persecuted under the rule of the Roman Empire that this Centurion served, in the capacity of a leader, within the ranks of the Roman Army! One Biblical scholar remarks: “People might respond less than positively if we preach that Jesus cares about, ministers to, and wants to bless our enemies.” /Jeannine K. Brown/ You and I, we have already heard the outcry for those that that took down the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11th, 2001. We have been at war ever since. The debate about our terrorist enemies still rages on. But try to imagine how you might feel if someone serving in one of the armies of a terrorist group were to reach out and ask for help, healing of some sort, for their personal family or household? What if I, as your pastor, were the clergy person approached to give a blessing or prayer to such as these? In large inner city emergency rooms this scene is played out virtually every day. Two victims of a gun fight are brought to the trauma center for emergency aid. A chaplain is brought in to pray for the injured. But as the scene unfolds, only one is a victim, the other the perpetrator! Does the chaplain treat both equally? Does that chaplain bless them both?
Jesus’ encounter with the Centurion, this surprising encounter with faith, is important for us to acknowledge and consider. Faith is not a commodity we only acquire on Sunday mornings or during a Bible study class. No, faith can show up in situations and in circumstances that are truly astounding! Faith can manifest itself within personalities within our society were we least expect it. The average Jew, at the time of Jesus, was not expecting to see a man, such as the Centurion, approaching Jesus with such an astonishing display of faith in the power of Jesus to heal his slave! It is important to note that he did not make the healing a prerequisite to his having faith. He confessed faith in Jesus even if the slave was not healed. Our gospel writer wanted us to know that faith, such as this, was even amazing to the man Jesus!
Remarkably, the Centurion even understood and respected the authority Jesus had over the powers of healing! “6 And 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; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For 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.” /Luke 7:6-8/ If only we could see this level of respect in our communities. Unfortunately, this level of respect is missing!
This accounting of Jesus healing a slave at the request of a military leader who was part of the oppressive army of Rome opens up vast possibilities for us to consider. What if there are people of faith within the ranks of people we now consider enemies within our society? What implications does this bring up for us? What does this do to the horrific phenomena of ethnic and racial profiling that seems to be proliferating within our own country in recent times? On an official website that addresses this topic I found this definition, which speaks to answering the question: “What is ethnic profiling? Ethnic profiling is the use of racial, ethnic, national, or religious characteristics as a way of singling out people for identity or security checks. It refers to law enforcement and security officers making decisions about who is suspicious based on race, ethnic group, or ethnic identity rather than reasonable suspicion.” /Open Society Foundation/
Have we, as Christians, begun to grapple with the contradictions and issues surrounding this problem? Have we drawn the connection back to our Bible lesson for this morning? Jesus crossed the boundaries surrounding this issue a long, long time ago! The actions of Jesus strongly point to the wrongness of this occurring, even while showing amazement that a man caught up in the profiling that had clearly occurred for him, because of his identification with the Roman army. The man was able to step forward and cross the line into the then Jewish religious community asking for help, based on his personal faith and identification with Jesus, the Rabbi and healer!
What jumps out of this extraordinary text is the telling sign that God, in this case ‘God through the personification of Jesus’, sees us all the same’. In this sense, it means our biases, our affiliations, are not necessarily that which defines us. It is our hearts. God looks into our very souls our minds and responds to our deep felt and sometimes humble faith. This is what we witnessed to in this reading. This is also what we need to look for as we view and evaluate others around us. Not some biased measurement of profiling, based on ethnic background or racial origin, nor out of our fears. No we must look into someone’s heart. We need to look for the good in others. God sees us for who we truly are. Let us seek to know others in that same light. In the so doing we are allowing our faith to grow and strengthen – just as the next stranger we meet is seeking the ear of a loving God – to see themselves for the sons and daughters of the same loving creator God in which we all share.
This is Memorial Day weekend, awaking many emotions in the hearts and minds of Americans who have loved ones that have served their country and given the ultimate sacrifice. The faith of those men and women who have trusted in God their very lives, to serve the Country they love, is oftentimes surprising! As we turn our eyes to current world realities we also honor those who currently serve in the uniforms of our military. We especially lift up those that are now on the front lines defending others that face the horrors of terrorism and war. These array of memories, these realities, both test our faith, and our personal journeys. Let us remember their service, and honor the faithfulness in which they carry out their trust in God, for the sake of the people of God and the country they serve. They serve so that folks like you and me, can freely worship the God of our understanding.
Today is also a special day, filled with emotions of various levels and degrees. We are saying God bless and praying for a safe journey for a special couple, a family that has journey with this faith community for over three and a half decades. They will be greatly missed. Their journey among us has touched many lives; their joint ministries have served the needs of countless individuals in this community and beyond. Their shoes will be hard to fill for those of us that now must follow in their footsteps. God bless you Phyllis, and thank you for your ministry to both this your church and your service to the larger church, especially here in Florida. And thank you for the many ways you have touched my own life over this past decade. Dick, your tough work ethic is hard to miss. Your humility, in the midst of your love for serving the people of God and this your church, has been seen in heaven. May your abundant faith, faith that has been witnessed to by others, allow that faith to carry you both ever forward.
“Hear now these ancient words as written in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 7, verses 1-10.”
1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And 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; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For 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.” 9 When 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.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
“Allow these words, spoken by Jesus so long ago, to open your heart and your mind to new faith.”