“When Jesus heard this he was amazed…”

Luke 7:1-10

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.

 

I wonder what Jesus was thinking as he made his way to the Roman centurion’s home. Do you think it could be possible that while Jesus was walking across the village of Capernaum he had some questions about what he was doing? He had made the choice to go visit and help this foreigner, an outsider to the Jewish community, a Gentile soldier. But could it be that even as he made his way he had some lingering doubts about whether going was really a good idea? Now there are some key Bible stories that may have been running through his memory and providing a model for what he was doing: that passage about the great prophet Elijah and how he raised the son of the widow of Zarephath, a definite foreigner to the Israelites; or the one about Elisha healing Naaman of his leprosy. Those prophets of Israel who preceded Jesus were very clear that God’s love and healing crossed national and ethnic borders. There’s no question about that.

But still, a centurion? He wasn’t just a foreigner; he was an oppressor, an enemy.

In fact, by the time that Luke wrote this story down on paper, some 50 years after the first Pentecost, Caesar’s armies had brutally squelched a Jewish attempt to throw out the Roman occupying forces, resulting in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. A Roman centurion was therefore a profound symbol of oppressive power. A centurion—now, as the Confirmation class learned last week, importantly, that’s not to be confused with a Centaur. A centurion, rather, was a fully human Roman officer who commanded one hundred soldiers. Perhaps more significant is that he would have been paid as much as 100 times the amount of the typical Galilean’s wages. That salary is what allowed this particular centurion to become a generous benefactor for the Jews of Capernaum and even to build a synagogue for them. Of course, we can’t know why he would do that. Maybe his slave, whom he valued so much, was a Jew and had inspired this generosity. In any case, the crowd that showed up on Jesus’ doorstep deemed the powerful centurion, though an enemy, worthy of help.

But is that why Jesus went? Because the commander was worthy? Was it because he was powerful and wealthy and generous? No, that does not sound like the Jesus who had just proclaimed good news for the poor in Nazareth. Jesus had not come to serve the rich and powerful but the poor and meek and those made humble by the systems of domination that controlled so much of life in the Galilean countryside. They were the ones he came to bless. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a rich, young ruler to give up all of his wealth and possessions and redistribute his money to the poor. So as Jesus walked across town, he must have been wondering, “What will this look like to the peasants whose liberation I have come to proclaim? Will they still be able to trust that I am fully on their side?” I wonder if Jesus carried this question with him.

At the same time, over on the other side of the tracks, there must have been some doubts running through the centurion’s mind, too. Perhaps there had a been a transformation going on in his life for some time, during those years of deployment to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had been learning that these foreign peasants actually had some wisdom to share, and a beautiful culture, and cherished friendship. His assumptions as a Roman citizen had been upended. More than that, his sense of power had collapsed when his beloved servant had fallen ill. The centurion’s title, his wealth, his training—none of that could offer any help to his dying friend. He recognized that he was truly powerless. Now he was the one who had been made humble.

Who hasn’t experienced such a moment? We spend much of our time and energy achieving and maintaining a sense of self-sufficiency. We develop our own skills, we obtain some wealth, we seek security. It can be hard to admit that we don’t have what is required, that we need help. Perhaps a day such as Memorial Day, which brings to mind loved ones who have died, reminds us also that our lives are not finally within our control. We cannot completely protect those we love. We cannot save ourselves. That can be a difficult thing to acknowledge, but it is also liberating, too, especially with the good news that is present and active in all our vulnerability and need.

Such a transformed and truthful understanding of life led the centurion to recognize that he could not receive Jesus the way he usually received official visits. Roman power truly meant nothing when compared to the power that Jesus represented, the power of God’s love and abundant life. So he sent messengers to meet Jesus and to humbly explain to him and any others who were listening his understanding of real power.

Luke tells us that Jesus returned from the encounter filled with amazement. He was amazed. In Luke’s Gospel, there is story after story of people being amazed by what God is doing in Jesus—from Joseph and Mary and the shepherds to the disciples. Like them, now Jesus himself was amazed. Even he was astonished by the things God was doing. And it was because of an outsider’s trust and humility and ability to recognize so clearly what Jesus stood for.

What would it take to amaze you? What if God were at work somehow among that particular group of people or community that you’d rather not have anything to do with? Or with supporters of some other tradition or religion or political party? Could God really be there? How amazing would that be?

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story about this kind of amazement. She said when her book became really popular and she began touring to talk about it, she got really overwhelmed by it all and afraid about what changes it might bring to her life. At a dinner on that tour, she was seated next to another Christian writer, one she had said some “snarky things” about in the past, as she put it. It turned out she really liked him, though. And she asked him for advice on how to navigate all the craziness in her life. He said to her with nothing but love,

“Nadia – you are just participating in something God is doing. God doesn’t do things alone and we can’t do redemptive things without God. You are already good enough in God’s eyes to be participating in this. God’s grace is enough for today. It always is enough for today.”

And she learned that God may be found in surprising places.

I think Jesus himself learned this in a new way that day in Capernaum. Amazed, Jesus healed the slave. But then what I find even more amazing is that he went away without saying another word to that Roman commander. He didn’t tell him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. He didn’t tell him to put down his Imperial armor and quit his allegiance to Caesar. He didn’t tell him to say a believer’s prayer or to publicly profess his faith in him and the God of Israel. There was none of that. The fullness of God’s grace had already been experienced in that moment.

This morning, God promises to meet us where we are. There are no requirements to make yourself worthy. There are no situations beyond God’s concern. There are no lines we could draw that could keep anyone out. God is present, and what is left for us is to be amazed.

 

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Where is Wisdom Found?

Sermon on Proverbs 8 for Holy Trinity Sunday

Where is wisdom found? It is graduation time, and the question may be on the minds of students preparing for the next chapter of academic life. Who will we choose to be our teachers? Plus, it’s campaign season, so in that context, too, some wisdom could really come in handy for the decisions we need to make together as a country. Then besides all of that, who doesn’t seek wisdom in navigating both the big choices and daily challenges of one’s own life? Where is wisdom found?

Surprisingly, the poet of the Hebrew book of Proverbs says that Wisdom is not difficult to find. Wisdom calls out on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads. She raises her voice beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the city. These represent places of great importance for day to day life, and they are precisely where God’s wisdom is present and active. The places where commerce is conducted and where judges’ decrees are pronounced and where policy decisions that affect the common good are made: there wisdom makes herself known. Wisdom, this biblical teacher says, is not confined to mountaintops or to ivory towers. Wisdom isn’t achieved only after a long journey of hard work and determination. No, wisdom seeks to be heard and heeded in the nitty gritty of real life. Wisdom speaks in this very moment.

Further, Wisdom is not confined to one nation or one sect or even one religion. Wisdom speaks to the whole of the earth. “My cry is to all that live,” she says in that beautiful Proverbs chapter. All that live in this one interconnected web of species we call Earth are the recipients of Wisdom’s urgent message.

What does Wisdom say? The message takes different forms and meaning depending on the context of the moment, but it is consistent at its root: We cannot live without God and one another.

It sounds really quite simple, doesn’t it? Oh, but so often foolishness tells us it is possible to make it on our own, without God or neighbor. And we can, for a while. Living by and for ourselves might even seem to pay off in the short term. But it doesn’t last. It can’t. Wisdom is the way of things in God’s world. Wisdom is woven into the fabric of the universe. Wisdom is available to all; not a secret attainable by only a few. The problem is that foolishness can appear so attractive, its call to self-sufficiency, accumulation of wealth and stuff, quick fixes that avoid real relational problems. This is why wisdom must call out so boldly and persistently.

Where is Wisdom found? Just about any place you look, wherever there is a need to restore right relationship with God and neighbor. She was found, I believe, in the crowds who gathered in six continents this week to call on governments to break free from overuse of fossil fuels and abuse of the earth’s atmosphere. She was found in the Mall of America rotunda not long ago, that huge center for commerce, through the prophetic voices who gathered to insist that Black lives do indeed matter and that systems built on privileging only certain lives cannot stand in God’s interconnected and interdependent world. She was found in the advocates at our State Capitol this week seeking funding to help people who are homeless and living in poverty. She was found at the General Convention of the United Methodist Church where people of faith in that church body would not back down and will not back down from the conviction that God’s inclusive vision can never exclude people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

You see, wisdom does not deal in meaningless platitudes; she speaks into real life concerns and situations with an invitation to a life-giving, sometimes difficult, way of abundant grace. She relates to what really exists. And often she speaks through real people like us.

I think the concept of wisdom as described by Proverbs could be exceptionally helpful in our world, where many think of God, if they think of God at all, as an absentee creator who’s just waiting around to dole out punishments from time to time. Proverbs is clear that the Wisdom of God, who was present at the very beginning of creation, is still creating. Wisdom is still designing and setting limits to chaos. Wisdom is still delighting in human beings and all the inhabitants of creation.

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson points out that there are a number of images used to describe Wisdom in the book of Proverbs: street preacher, life-giver, agent of justice, architect of creation, God’s darling child, butcher, vintner, sender of prophets, and compelling host.

I have to say that the image of architect is one that has interested me this week. Now, if you had asked me a year ago what architects did, I probably would have said that they sit at big drafting desks or computers and design buildings. And that’s true. But as we’ve progressed through our building renovation here at church, I have seen how architects also revise plans, work with contractors, work with committees and even present at congregational meetings, select materials, make trips to city hall, revise plans again, cut costs, paint shovels gold for groundbreaking ceremonies, and celebrate when the work is done.

What a comforting image that is for our God, especially when there seems to be so much chaos and disorder in the world around us. God, through the master craftsman and architect Wisdom, is still creating, still designing, and yes, still taking delight in human beings and the rest of creation.

In one of my favorite novels, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson describes the powerful love that her narrating character, 76-year-old John Ames, feels for his 7-year-old son. Rev. Ames writes this to his son: “There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. Your hair is straight and dark and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”

That, to me, is wisdom. When we are able to find joy and wonder in mere existence, the existence of other people, the existence of creation, the existence of God, then we have listened to Wisdom’s call.

Where is wisdom found? In a lot of voices inside and outside of the church, thanks be to God. And Wisdom has come to each one of us. May we be still enough to listen, to remember that God is God, and to take delight in all that God has made.

 

Missing Sermons

Good afternoon! Pastor Ingrid’s laptop died unexpectedly, taking a few written pieces to the grave with it. A new computer arrived yesterday, which means sermons will be posted regularly again. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter. Jay’s sermon for May 8.

The Gospel according to John, the 17th Chapter.

20”I ask not only on behalf of these disciples, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

 

One of the opportunities I have as a pastor, from time to time, is to be interviewed by a student in high school or college who is working on a class assignment on religion. I really enjoy that. For any students here today, keep me in mind if such an assignment comes along. However, I’ve found that there is one particular challenge in this kind of thing. When interviewed for school projects, I typically wish I had a lot more time to discuss the kind of topics that are brought up.

As an example, I remember getting an email from a student once who introduced himself as the nephew of a friend of a friend of mine, and he wanted to set up an interview for class. It would take a half hour, he said. He just had ten questions. We sat together in my office, he set up his video camera, and started out with question number one: “tell me about your faith tradition.”

Well, there were things I wanted to say about Lutheran history, about who Martin Luther was and what led to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, as well as how the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches have come a long way in healing divisions since that time and have found ways to work together. There were things I wanted to say about this congregation of Holy Trinity, about our worship and life together in community and engagement in the issues of our neighborhood. There were things I wanted to say about the ELCA and our church’s response to God’s grace through service to others and working for justice and peace throughout the world. At least ten minutes passed before I figured I’d better stop. My interviewer nodded. And then he asked the next question: “How do you explain evil and suffering in the world?”

These were really great questions, and he was right to ask them. But I realized that this would not be the time to explain everything I had ever learned or thought about related to a given topic. I needed to get to the heart of the matter.

This is often the case, it seems to me. When talking about our faith in God, there is so much to say. That’s true for any of us, whether we’ve taken theology classes or not. A life of faith is shaped by countless factors. How would you tell the story of your faith, as it stands today? How much time would you require to say all that needs to be said about the people and events that have helped to shape it?

I’m convinced that the biblical writers faced a similar challenge. Even though the Bible is a big book, keep in mind that it is essentially 66 letters written to various communities telling a story of faith. But in any story, choices need to be made. You can’t say everything, even in the Bible. I love how the writer of John puts it at the very end of his Gospel, saying, “I’d like to tell you about all the other things that Jesus did, but if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” This isn’t meant literally, of course. The point is there’s just so much that could be said about God’s love revealed in the life of Jesus, and John wants us to know how big and very important this message is.

Sometimes the biblical writers try to pack everything in. The passage from Revelation today, for example, the culmination of this great and mysterious letter to seven churches, makes use of multiple symbolic images for Christ. Who is the living Christ? The alpha and the omega, the first and the last. But Jesus is also like that tree of life in the garden, with fruit offered for the health of all. But that’s not enough. He’s also the morning star, a light in every darkness. But that’s not all. He’s also a river of life that can pervade every nook and cranny of need, quenching the thirst of any who drink. No image alone is enough, so Revelation includes several for us to draw upon, even in this one short passage.

When it comes to matters of faith, there’s always more to say.

There’s nowhere in the Bible I see this struggle more than in the 17th chapter of John. The setting is the last supper Jesus had with his disciples before being betrayed and crucified. It’s known as his “farewell discourse,” but I’ve also heard it described as a long Minnesota goodbye. At least in my family, goodbyes tend to start in the kitchen, move to the living room, and then out to the street. It’s longer than necessary, but it’s all meant to communicate love. That’s true for Jesus and his disciples as well. Much of what he says is formally a prayer, but at the same time there’s so much that he wants to communicate to his disciples before he leaves them. This discourse is admittedly difficult to follow at times, but there’s a hard to miss, passionate invitation into life with God. That’s what Jesus keeps coming back to, and maybe it’s with a passion that simply transcends words, this strong desire he had that they would deeply know the love of God in a way that transforms them and their world.

It can’t all be said. But Jesus leaves them and us with an important lesson. To experience this life in God, this deep love of God, you will need each other. You will encounter God through loving one another and through listening to the multiple experiences of faith among you. You’ll start to really know God’s love through listening to and believing the testimony of the women as they come from the empty tomb. Our church today still has room to grow in how we listen to and believe and celebrate the unique experiences of women on matters of faith and society. The followers of Jesus then and now will come to know the wideness of God’s love when we listen to one another and share our lives together.

When Jesus prays for unity, I don’t think he was praying that just that we all would get along and certainly not that we would all act or think the same. He was praying that we would experience God through our interactions with one another. And when we love and trust others who are different than us, we may start to learn that God is more than we ever expected.

Two Sundays ago I missed being in worship with you all as I was on vacation visiting family in California. I noticed that there were many things this Episcopal church shares in common with us: passing the peace, sharing communion, a liturgical order. But as I’ve reflected on it more, it occurs to me that it was in the differences where I saw God that day: their excitement to welcome our children since it had been months or even longer since there had been kids in their church, the kindness of the priest and the way she so warmly blessed several members of the church who were preparing for a vacation, the enthusiasm that was present in such a tiny congregation. Experiencing and knowing God doesn’t come just through our familiar and comfortable faith practices; it comes even more through opening ourselves to what is different.

And I don’t think Jesus had just the church in mind when he prayed this prayer because if we can encounter God in one another, that can happen anywhere. This prayer of Jesus is as important now as ever, when there seems to be a growing culture of mistrust of people considered different somehow: immigrants, Muslims, people of different abilities, and the list could go on. This prayer can bring us back to the heart of the matter: we need each other if we want to know God. We need each other to know the wideness of God’s love for the world.