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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.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. -Luke 7:9-10
I think there are certain passages in the Bible that we would prefer to skip, as we read through it; and it strikes me that this is probably one of them. This is one of those passages that we have a hard time dealing with – that is easy to dislike – because I don’t think there are many people who have not had some experience, either in their own lives or with a loved one, with this kind of illness. And so to hear about the grief and the desperation that drove the Centurion to seek out Jesus’ help – that makes sense to us. Yet we feel this is unfair – a Centurion, a Roman soldier, occupying force within Galilee and Judea, not part of the in-crowd around Jesus, not part of the group we usually root for in the Bible, this is the guy who gets his servant healed. And all of us, with our own experiences of grief and loss and desperation are left feeling rather deflated and hopeless.
Why can’t we have miracles now? Why can’t we have these shows of power, of God’s holy and healing presence among us, that would make those whom we love so dearly rise, and walk?
There are those, here in this country and around the world, who do believe that by acts of faith we can restore the health of a human being. There was a couple in the news just recently – now, in 2013 – a couple in Philadelphia who were jailed for the death of their second child from bacterial pneumonia, who had not sought medical attention although they had seen this illness coming. They had, instead, prayed that the child might be delivered from his illness, and that didn’t work out so well.
And we would like to believe that people like this are outliers, part of a minute fringe group that does not have a great presence, but in fact this is a good-sized faith community in Philadelphia. It’s a church that encourages its adherents to this level of faith healing. And so they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Seeking medical attention for this child might have meant being turned out of this community that they knew, and that held them, prayed for them, prayed with them… But as it was, they not only lost their child, but the very community that they had counted on, being told that they had not prayed hard enough, that the child’s death marked them as sinful people who deserved, somehow, to lose their child.
It’s a no-win scenario.
I wish that in 2013 stories like this were relics of the past. I find myself being glad that this couple is being prosecuted for the deaths of their children. I find myself glad that they are being held accountable. I don’t know if that makes me a good Christian or not, but it’s how I feel. And yet, I’m left very uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of these two stories, in the news and in the Bible, as they come out so close to one another, and leave me unsettled. Because it doesn’t take a lot to hear in this Gospel story just what that couple heard, just what their community would have them hear: “Have faith and your loved one will be healed.” Doesn’t it sound like it’s all right there in front of us? And I think it’s especially uncomfortable to so many of us Christians who wonder if we are walking the line of faith correctly: if we are really putting our faith in humanity more than we are putting our faith in God, if maybe we ought to be just a little more faithful, just a little better at this Christianity thing.
You’re not getting that answer in this sermon. I don’t have it yet, sorry.
I do have a story for you, though. You’ve probably heard it before, it’s made the rounds in some form after most major recent disasters. There’s a flood – a huge, rising flood – and it threatens to swamp a man’s house. He goes up higher and higher in his house as the waters rise, until finally he’s sitting on the roof. And he shouts out his prayer: “Okay, God, I have faith in you, and that you will rescue me! Please come rescue me!” At that moment a guy in a canoe comes paddling by in the flood, and calls out, “Hey, you look pretty stuck – let me take you to higher ground!” But the man on the roof refuses: “No, thank you, my God will rescue me.” So the guy in the canoe goes on, and as the flood waters rise higher, the man on the roof prays again, “Oh, God, I have faith in you and that you will rescue me! You can come on down and rescue me now… please! Please?” And a woman comes by in a motorboat and calls to the man, “Hey, you look like you’re pretty stuck up there – come with me, I’ll take you to safety.” But again, the man on the roof refuses: “No, I’m fine. I have faith in my God, and my God will rescue me.” The woman shrugs, said, “Have it your way…” and goes on her way, looking for others who were stranded. And the flood waters keep rising, until the whole house is underwater and the man stands on his roof, knee-deep in the flood, shouting to the heavens, “Okay, God, now would be a really good time! Please God, I have faith! Come down and rescue me!” And as he is looking up to the heavens, he sees a helicopter descending, and a police officer sticks her head out and shouts, “Here, catch hold of the rope and we’ll pull you up! We’ll take you to safety!” Yet again, the man refuses, insisting on his great faith in God and his certainty of divine rescue. So the rope gets pulled back up, the helicopter leaves… and the inevitable happens. The man gets swept away in the rising flood waters and drowns. And when he finds himself in the afterlife, face-to-face with God, he gets pretty annoyed. “Alright, God,” he says, “What happened down there? I had faith! I never doubted that you would come rescue me! I waited for you! and you let me drown?!” And God responds, “Look, I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
The passage in this morning’s scripture lessons says more about our views of illness than about our views of faith. Specifically, it says more about our ancient views of illness than about ancient practices of faith. Because when illness is caused by demons and sin, of course you’re going to pray. And of course you go to your local prophet to be your healer, and if the Son of God happens to be wandering around your neighborhood, so much the better. But the thing is that we don’t live in that kind of a world anymore. In the words of John Polkinghorne, Cambridge astrophysicist and Anglican priest, we do not live in a world in which a Divine Being snapped Divine Fingers and create a world that was then exactly as it is now. Rather, God created a world that continues to create itself; that would continue to involve us in an ongoing Creation. And as we continue to create ourselves and we continue to learn about this world, we discover that it is not, in fact, demons who cause illness; that the things that cause illness cannot necessarily be prayed away. We know now about microbes, and germs, and little malignant cells with no sentience and no malice, and no idea what they are doing to the sentient beings that they are inhabiting.
So we don’t go to our local prophet. And we don’t take our ill relatives to our local pastor (for which I am grateful). We go to those who understand – with our current knowledge of illness – germs, and cells, and human biology and physiology. We go to the people whom we know can help, in whatever capacity that looks like. In other words, really, we do exactly what the centurion did.
Because, it’s funny, but this isn’t really a story about prayer. This isn’t really a story about one man being particularly “in” with the Divine – having such a good relationship with God, having such a powerful means of prayer that he could effect the healing of his slave.
Rather, it’s about a man in relationship with his community. This is about an outsider – a Roman, an occupier – who came in and did not see the occupied as inherently “other”, or as less-than, or as necessarily even different, but who came in respectful of those whom he served near. He came in serving them, helping them to build a synagogue. I think it’s worth noting that this man – this manifestation of the occupying force – managed to have two sets of friends that he could send ahead, to see Jesus on his behalf; the first set being the Jewish elders of the town, who pleaded in a totally unscripted moment on behalf of the occupying power. “This man is not one of us, Jesus, but he is a good man, and he is a loving man, and he is worthy of your attention.” We see in the centurion not a man who sits idly by his servant’s bedside, head bowed in prayer, sweating with the intensity of his praying. We see a man whose prayer is in his very action, in his choice to send his friends out to Christ. We see his prayer in the choices that he makes – to ask for the help he needs – and in the relationships that he has formed. We see this story as the story of one who recognizes that answers to prayers do not necessarily come in a divine flash of lightning that ZAP! heals the slave – in the way, perhaps, that we would want it to happen – but that healing and answer to prayer and divine presence come more often through human hands. This is a man, probably, who would have gotten on that canoe – let alone the motorboat or helicopter – as the flood waters rose.
And that faith, that Jesus commended so highly? That faith that he had not seen, even in Israel? I wonder where he heard it. Was it in the second message, a verbatim message from the centurion, delivered in the first person and saying, “We’re a lot alike, you know. I have authority over the men that I lead, you have authority over the powers of this world. We’re similar, you know that, Jesus? So I think you can help me out here.” Or is it in the inherent similarities that the centurion leaves out? The similarities in their perspective – in not looking at people as “other”, the implied statement from the centurion that he is friends with the Jews, to the point of helping them build their synagogue; the implication that “I am going to you even though I am not one of yours, because I don’t look down on you. I am asking for help from my slave, because even though he is ‘lesser’ than I am, I see him as a full human deserving of healing and deserving of love.”
Does this remind you of anyone? Maybe? Just a little bit?
This is a story of Jews and Gentiles coming together. This is a story of free men and slaves coming together and seeing one another as human and seeing one another as made in the divine image.
This is a story of someone who really gets it, very early on in Jesus’ ministry.
And we – most of the time – pretty much get it. We hope. This should be – this is! – very helpful to us as we read through an otherwise rather difficult text. Until we remember once again that God’s not so into these feats of power and these displays of miracles that show off what a great God we have. But that’s kind of Luke’s point, throughout the entire Gospel: we have to remember that Luke himself was a Gentile, writing to Gentile audiences, and that the underlying argument throughout the Gospel is that the God of Israel is a way-more-powerful God, and a way-more-worthy God, than any of those piddling little gods that the Greeks and the Romans and everyone else in the Mediterranean basin are currently worshiping. So everyone really ought to convert to this new Christianity thing.
We don’t really need that now, though. We don’t get the same displays, we don’t get the same emphasis. The whole divine healing thing is a rarity, at best. But in this moment of worry and fear, of wishing for those miracles, we are in great danger of being stuck up on that rooftop, letting the help float past us; refusing the very relationships – the experts and the friends – that actually will bring us the healing that we’re seeking.
And it makes me wonder: if those parents in Philadelphia had just taken the help that is out there – there’s a lot of help out there, for little kids who are sick – might they have experienced the very healing presence that they were so ardently praying for, in the hands, and in the smiles, and in the compassion, and in the wisdom, and in the knowledge of the doctors and nurses who could have restored life to their child?
For it is actually faith in God – not the lack thereof – that gets us to put ourselves and our loved ones into the care of those who are actually called to be healers; those people in whom we see the compassion and the presence by which we recognize God in this world. And we remember that we cannot always separate faith in humanity from faith in God – that only suggests that God can’t work through us, which we all know isn’t true. And it strikes me, from what I have seen, that there is a whole lot more presence in the hands of a nurse, or of a doctor, or of any compassionate person, than there was in the church that cast such judgment upon those parents; the church that would put the grief of parents aside, and cast them out of community.
And it strikes me that there is more healing presence in this space and in this time here today – in the letters and notes that I know you send to one another and to our loved ones; in the calls and the visits to those who are ill or grieving; in the prayers that we offer here every single Sunday as a community and that we carry in our hearts throughout the week. I know there is more presence here in the healing that we can – each and every one of us – offer, whether it takes the form of a canoe, or a motorboat, or a helicopter, or whatever the situation calls for. There is presence, and there is healing, right here.
And there is one more thing I know: that centurion’s slave, who was healed by Christ and by faith, is not still walking around Galilee and Capernaum. It’s two thousand years later – you know he didn’t make it that long. You know that the life that Jesus gave to that poor slave only extended a life that must, still, necessarily end. Jesus did not grant immortality to anyone. But I know that the love that is palpable in this story continued to be present. That the community that surrounded the centurion, and that went out seeking healing on his behalf, that same community gathered around him when, inevitably, he grieved. What survives, in these miracles and in this healing presence; what survives to this very day is that love and is that community and are those relationships that make God’s healing presence known to us, here and now. In this very place and in this very moment, in the sacred meal of which we will partake, and in the coffee and the cookies that we’ll have after that. In the parking lot on a Sunday, or on the rooftop, with the floodwaters rising. For as long as love prevails, God’s healing does as well.