“Who is worthy?” – Sermon for May 29, 2016

Categories: Sermons

"Jesus Heals the Centurion's Servant", James Tissot, c. 1886-1894

“Jesus Heals the Centurion’s Servant”, James Tissot, c. 1886-1894

“Who is worthy?”

A Sermon on Luke 7:1-10 for the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C; preached May 29, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister

 

I wonder… what do you-all make of this centurion and this story about him?  What is your judgment about him?  What are your questions—questions of him and questions about him?  What are your conclusions, based on what we know from this story?

Do you presume this centurion to be a paragon of faith and of faithful seeking?  One who breaks out of our stereotypes of an ancient centurion as a ruthless military leader, full of violence and lacking compassion, this one having a heart for his servant-slave, caring that he’s ill, willing to go to great lengths to help…? From what he’s heard through the grapevine, or perhaps through the proactive work of God’s grace creating faith within him, this centurion seeks out Jesus in faith, believing and trusting that Jesus possesses the power of healing that is needed… is that who this centurion is?… a prototype of someone like Cornelius, the centurion to whom God leads the apostle Peter in the book of Acts, the one who becomes one of the very first Gentile—or non-Jewish—converts to Christianity…?  Is this centurion in today’s story set out as a model for us to emulate, in our lives and walks of faith?

This would seem to be one of the most common ways we Christians have received the witness of this story.  From the Protestant Reformer Heinrich Bullinger, who admonished “Now, let us learn from this man’s example to come to Christ in all our troubles, and to open all the sorrows of our mind to him and to crave his sure and undoubted help”[1]… to the Communion liturgy of the Roman Rite, wherein worshippers echo the centurion’s very own words, confessing that they are not worthy to have the Lord “enter under [their] roof, but only say the word and [their] soul shall be healed”[2]… from those witnesses to so many others, this centurion has been seen as an exemplar of faith and devotion, a seeker whose trust is admirable and (hopefully) emulatable.

That, of course—you knew was going to say this—that, of course, is not the only way one could see this centurion, though.

I wonder if, instead, any of you have made out this centurion as a calculating, co-opting user and abuser of power.  After all, let’s be honest about the situation—he is, in fact, a centurion, an officer of the occupying imperial force,[3] an oppressive regime the locals did not want to be there.  And he has slaves—or at least one slave—and as much as we might be able to explain away about ancient slavery not being the same as the chattel slavery of Africans in the American South, it was some form of slavery nevertheless.  So there are some basic issues there from the get go.

Beyond that, though, did it occur to you to wonder about why this centurion had built the Capernaum synagogue for them?  Did he really have any special love for the Jewish community, some affinity for the Jewish faith even?  Or could he have been making a favor for political gain?  ‘A synagogue here, a temple here, then I’ll have the people wrapped around my finger.’  We wouldn’t be familiar with any politicians like that, would we?

Maybe I’m painting a little too harshly… not all such acts are entirely bad or massively manipulative.  As one scholar notes in reference to our relationship to authority, “Some hanker after a structured existence, where order prevails and where the lines of authority are clearly drawn.  They respect those who occupy places of power and who in reasonable ways maintain peace and stability.  They may even willingly forfeit personal rights to established authorities for the sake of harmony.”[4]

And yet, while some users of power are well-meaning, not all end up being so benevolent.  That same scholar also notes that “Others… are suspicious of any exercise of authority.  Experience has taught them that authority figures, however well-meaning, will inevitably dominate and manipulate those over whom they have power.”[5]  Perhaps, maybe, is that sort of thing going on with this centurion’s interaction with Jesus?  Is it all a manipulative little game?… See if the new guy in town will come at my bidding…?  Display a little false modesty… ‘oh, I’m not worthy’… but still make it clear that I do have authority and people do, in fact, do what I tell them.

There is one glaring exception to this centurion’s ability to order things around, though.  “I say … to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it,” claimed the centurion.  Except, of course, he couldn’t say to his slave “get well,” “be healed,” “don’t be sick.”  Or, well, he could say it, but not much would come of it.  So maybe he’s just so caught up in the way he thinks power and the world itself is supposed to work that he can’t realize what’s really up, what’s right in front of him.  And so I also wonder if any of you heard Jesus’ words to the crowd—“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”—and thought it was just as likely they were a snide, sarcastic aside, a Woody Allen, a breaking of the 4th wall, as they were any affirmation of the centurion.  ‘What a buffoon!  He doesn’t even realize the ridiculousness of what he’s saying.”

When it comes down to it, the whole thing seems to revolve around that nagging question of whether this centurion is “worthy”.  Should he get Jesus’ help or not?  Even the story itself seems up-in-the-air about this one, with the Jewish elders emphatically asserting that he is worthy, and the centurion himself cautioning that he is not.

Who is worthy?  Who is worthy?

§

Who is worthy?  It’s a question that always weighs heavily on my mind whenever we come around to Memorial Day (and other national or so-called “patriotic” holidays).  Let me be clear, before anyone’s hackles rise too quickly:  my pondering is not at all about whether our war dead are worthy of remembering.  It is a good and rightful thing to pause in commemoration of anyone who has gone before us, and especially so when we have some sense of their life having been laid down to our benefit.  Or laid down for the valor of a cause they believed in.  But you see, that’s just it… precious, too, were the lives of folks on the other side of the battle line.  Many of them believed, I can imagine, in the nobility and sanctity of their cause, too.  Sure, in some cases, the “worthiness” of one side is clear in comparison to the atrocities and overall threat of the other, but can we say that of all the conflicts our country has been in?  As the 20th century hymn, from the time between the world wars, sings it:  “This is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine; but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.”[6]

And does the worthiness of the cause make a human life more or less worthy of honoring and remembrance?  A poem beloved to me, by Walt Whitman and titled “Reconciliation,” comes from his collection reflecting the experience of the Civil War, and goes like this:

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
For my enemy is dead—
a man divine as myself is dead;
I look down where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.[7]

“A man divine as myself dead.”  Who is worthy?  Who is worthy?

§

The gnawing angst over who is worthy… it creeps in about ourselves, too, no?  It’s not always that we worthy over whether someone else is worthy.  In fact, it’s probably not even most often that we do.  The very human anxiety over our own worthiness, it has eaten away at greater souls than any of us:  the nervous striving to prove ourselves competent and confident—bigger or brighter or better or bolder—but also the sometimes rapid, but often sinisterly slow spiral into despair—the cutting the teen does to her wrist in the privacy of the bathroom, the just-one-more drink that habit or habituation pours for us, even the simple and quiet despair of a lonely night…

§

 “When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.”  I don’t’ think the story ever settles whether the centurion is worthy or not; the elder’s “he is worthy” and the centurion’s own “I am not worthy” still both ring in our ears by the close of the scene.  We still don’t know whether the centurion’s desire for the healing of his slave was genuine or just another episode in his power games.  For that matter, we don’t know anything about the slave himself, the one who actually got healed, whether he would be judged worthy or not.

But you see, that’s just it.  Jesus healed the slave anyway.  God doesn’t make thorough analyses and assessments of our worthiness quotient before deciding whether or not to come to us, to be in relationship with us, to heal us, to save us.  As the apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”[8]  The Protestant Reformer Martin Bucer, commenting on the mere fact that Jesus went with the elders to head toward the centurion’s house in the first place, writes that “In this phrase we can see the incomparable goodness and submission of Christ.  For although the centurion was a heathen man, and his messengers were also puffed up with a vain show of holiness, eventually Jesus of his own free will offered to go and see the servant of this foreigner.  What deed can be more gentle and loving than this?  And who is the one who will not look for help at his hands?”[9]

The good news of the gospel, my friends, is that all of us—each and every one, male and female and transgender and intersex, white and black and Asian and Latino/a and multiracial, rich and poor and middle class and struggling-to-keep-up-the-appearance-of-middle-class, doctoral candidate or D-minus student, war veteran or war protester, American or Arab, citizen or Syrian refugee, activist or contemplative, Congregationalist or Catholic, Red Sox fan or Yankees devotee—all of us can look for help at Christ’s hands.  All of us can come seeking the One in whom there is light.  God’s work does not depend on our worthiness… or lack thereof, our ability to use power… or lack thereof, our humility… or lack thereof, and even—dare I say—our faith… or lack thereof.

Who is worthy, my friends?  There is but one full and complete answer to that, and that is Jesus Christ our Lord.[10]  But with the Worthy One at our side, we shall find ourselves embraced, forgiven, loved, healed, reborn.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.

 


[1] Heinrich Bullinger, quoted in “An Ecclesiasticall Exposition upon Saint Mathewe 8”, in Augustin Marlorat, ed., A Catholike and Ecclesiasticall Exposition of the Holy Gospell After S. Mathewe:  Gathered Out of All the Singular and Aproved Deuines (which the Lord Hath Geven to Hys Church), trans. Thomas Timme (London:  Thomas Marshe, 1570), 155; appearing in Beth Kreitzer, ed., Luke, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 2015), 151.

[2] The Roman Missal, trans. according to the 3rd Typical Edition (Washington, DC:  United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), 669.

[3] This would seem a fair and accurate claim regardless of whether he’s specifically a Roman centurion (which is unlikely, from historical evidence) or rather a centurion of Herod Antipas’ forces.  Either way, it is ultimately a force linked—whether directly or more distantly—to occupation and empire.

[4] Charles B. Cousar, commentary on Luke 7:1-10 for Proper 4, in Charles B. Cousar, et. al., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, vol 3. [Year C] (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 368.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lloyd Stone, “This is My Song”, 1934; see, for example, The New Century Hymnal (Pilgrim Press, 1995), #591, or Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #340.  Emphasis added.

[7] Walt Whitman, “Reconciliation,” Leaves of Grass (Philadelphia: David McKay, c1900).  Emphasis added.

[8] Romans 5:6-8, NRSV.

[9] Martin Bucher, quoted in “An Ecclesiasticall Exposition upon Saint Mathewe 8”, in Marlorat, A Catholike and Ecclesiasticall Exposition of the Holy Gospell After S. Mathewe, 155; appearing in Kreitzer, Luke, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, 152.

[10] Here I am echoing (or attempting to echo) Karl Barth’s assertion of Jesus Christ as the sole person “elect” by God, and/but that in Christ, and his solidarity with us in our humanity, we all share in that election.

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