My grandmother’s birthday was on “Decoration Day.” May 30, 1898. We made an annual pilgrimage to my grandmother’s house in South Jersey on Decoration Day, and went to the cemetery, where we put flowers on family graves (That was also the day we flipped her mattress).
Decoration Day began as a tribute to Civil War veterans, and then evolved into Memorial Day, a day to remember all veterans in all the succeeding wars, even those after the one that was to end all wars. It is a day laden with emotion and memory for many people, and a reminder to all of us of the price of war, a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many. With the destructive power available to us now, capable of destroying the entire earth, and as we learn more about the emotional and soul wounds of war that everyone brings home with them, it is ever more critical to find ways to resolve differences and disputes in more creative, less devastating ways.
So this story from Luke’s gospel which Inge just read for us might serve as a little vignette about dealing with differences, some very significant, and about healing. It is set in occupied Galilee, where Roman soldiers are present everywhere and live in the towns. So there are “issues” here–not only the “issue” of occupation, but also the issue of slavery. And here, the issue of sickness nearing death.
The Roman centurion–meaning, he had command of 100 men–has a slave whom he values highly, and we get the impression he values him not only for the good work the slave does, but for who he is, the character of the man. The slave is “sick and about to die,” so the centurion, having heard of Jesus and his healing abilities, sends a delegation of Jewish elders, whom he knows and apparently has worked closely with, to ask Jesus to heal his slave. The elders comply, not just because the Roman officer ordered them to do so, but there is clearly some respect and even affection among the men. “He deserves this,” the elders tell Jesus, “because he loves our nation and built our synagogue.” Intrigued, Jesus goes with them.
When the centurion hears that Jesus is actually coming to his house, that this rabbi and healer would go to this trouble not only for him but also for his slave, he sends friends to tell Jesus that he really doesn’t need to come into his house–aware of issues of purity and defilement. “Lord, don’t trouble yourself,” he says, “for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus is not only moved by the centurion’s faith in his ability to heal, from a distance even, but more importantly by the man’s humility, his willingness to cross cultural boundaries for the sake of his servant, and his recognition of Jesus’ authority. For the centurion knows authority–”I myself am a man under authority,” he says, “with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and that one ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Jesus is amazed, Luke tells us, and uses the centurion’s faith and humility as a lesson for the crowd. “I tell you, I have not found such great faith in Israel.” And when the men return to the centurion’s house, they find his servant healed. He is not the only one.
Capernaum has also been healed. A divided community of people have overcome cultural and religious and class barriers for the sake of human need. Each character in this story can see the goodness in the others, which leads to genuine encounters, and finally to healing. [Safwat Marzonk, The Christian Century, 5/11/16, p. 23]
It is a model for dealing with other divisions and barriers. First, identify the human need, the need that is deeper than any religious or cultural or class difference, one which everyone can identify with. In this case, it was a beloved man so sick he was near death. But it might also be a child whose belly is swollen from hunger. A father cradling a son wounded by a bomb. A farmer picking up a handful of dust in his drought-stricken field. A mother weeping over her daughter overdosed on heroin.
The centurion sent a delegation of Jewish elders, whom he knew because he had worked with them; he had spoken with them and listened to them, saw how they lived, how they worshipped. We need to do the critical work of listening to one another, of learning from one another, having those difficult conversations that do not smooth over differences but address them, honor them, open to the possibility that we might actually learn from one another’s differences–differences in religious traditions, in life experiences, in nationality or culture or sexual identity. That doesn’t mean giving up the uniqueness of our own tradition or who we are, so that there’s no “there” there, but allowing the differences to stand alongside one another in a bigger truth.
And the centurion himself, though he was clearly a man used to authority, even in service of an occupation like Rome’s and an institution like slavery, even the centurion modeled a kind of leadership desperately needed in today’s world. Leadership not only of wisdom and
compassion, but also of humility.
A year ago, retired U.S. Representative John Dingell, who had served the 12th Congressional district of Michigan for many years, was coaching Wisconsin congressman Ron Kind. “Ron,” Dingell said to him, “never forget that you’ve got an important job, but you’re not an important person. The second you start thinking that you’re an important person, you start to cut corners and think the rules don’t apply to you.” [cited by Peter Marty in The Christian Century, 5/25/16, p. 3] Alas, there are too many people in leadership positions today, not only in our country and community, but throughout the world, who consider themselves more important than the jobs they’ve got or are seeking.
It is true not only in government but in the church as well. Peter Marty, editor of the journal The Christian Century, tells the story of an awards ceremony 6 years ago in New Haven, CT at Yale Divinity School, where 4 distinguished alumni were honored. Nai-Wang Kwok, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), received the Lux et Veritas (Light and Truth) award, awarded each year to alumni “with demonstrated excellence and distinction in ministering with Christlike compassion.”
Kwok has “devoted his life to the Christian community in Hong Kong [the citation read], advocating for human rights, democracy, and justice. In addition to writing or editing more than 20 books, Kwok spent years working in the slums and public housing projects of Hong Kong. He has served as general secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council and founder of the Hong Kong Christian Institute.”
Kwok’s acceptance speech was three sentences long, delivered in his strong Cantonese accent. “I see I have come back to receive my report card from my Yale education and experience. I find it is an A-, which means that I have done a number of good things, but clearly I have more work to do. Thank you very much for this honor.” [Marty, op cit.]
We have done a number of good things, but clearly we have more work to do, as a
church, as a nation, as individuals. New occasions teach new duties, as the hymn says, and we know that the world in which we live requires that we go about the work remaining for us to do with flexibility, with humility, with creativity and imagination, with courage, and by the grace of God. We must learn to sing new songs to the Lord, as the psalmist says–
Get out the message—God Rules!
He put the world on a firm foundation;
He treats everyone fair and square.
Let’s hear it from Sky,
With Earth joining in,
And a huge round of applause from Sea.
Let Wilderness turn cartwheels,
Animals, come dance,
Put every tree of the forest in the choir—
An extravaganza before God as he comes,
As he comes to set everything right on earth,
Set everything right, treat everyone fair.” [The Message]
“Set everything right,” O God, and give us voice and courage to sing your song. So may we and the earth be healed. So may we at last have peace. There’s a Great Day coming!
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark