Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 29, 2016
The Second Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 4C
1 Kings 8:20-21, 30-39
Luke 7: 1-10
Because we moderns are so far in time and place from the language, culture, and history of Jesus’ first-century CE world, we may often fail to grasp the truly breathtaking quality of many of the events related in the Gospels. This morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is just such an instance of what we can only describe today as an episode of profound “cultural dissonance.” According to Saint Luke, in this morning’s encounter between Jesus, the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, and the Centurion, a regional leader of Rome’s brutal occupation of west Asia, we are witnessing a truly radical departure from ordinary and expected social arrangements in the fishing village of Galilee’s Kafar Naum.
Remember that the Galilee region of this morning’s Gospel has, by Jesus’ life and times, already seen several bloody uprisings against the Roman occupation of “Eretz Yisrael.” And although the Galilee had significant exposure to the Greek language and culture of its Greco-Roman world, the Jews of that part of the “Land of Israel”—including Jesus—were much more conservative and religiously observant than their brethren in Judea and Jerusalem. And they were also far more hostile to Roman tyranny over them. In fact, the Jews and the Romans of Galilee—the “people of God” and the “goyim,” the “nations”—were more hostile to one another there than probably anywhere else in the entire Roman Empire at the time. So, when a Centurion, the commander of an occupying Roman legion, makes a cautious plea on behalf of a valued slave—probably a Jew—to the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth with a reputation for the power to heal, we are witnessing a complete and utter reversal of social roles and the status quo: In first-century Galilee, Roman officers did not seek the patronage and assistance of Jews. But Jews, on the other hand, were entirely beholden to their Roman masters.
So this enmity and disparity between oppressor and oppressed probably accounts for the Centurion’s cautious strategy of approaching Jesus with his strange request through the mediation of the village’s Jewish elders. It also explains his reticence about having Jesus enter his house: after all, a favor is a favor, but appearances still matter. How would his fellow Romans and underlings regard his strange request of the Jewish healer? What would Jesus’ fellow Jews have to say about a revered rabbi—and, for some of them, “something much greater”—making himself “ritually unclean,” that is, “unfit for worship” of the Holy One, Blessed be He, by entering the house of a “goy”? This was just not done at that time in the Roman province of Galilee, where the boundaries between the oppressor and the oppressed, the perpetrators and the victims, were clear and well-understood by all.
And yet, things are not always what they seem to be at first glance. There is, as the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi described it in a famous essay, often a “grey zone” of ambiguity under oppressive regimes. And it’s into those “grey zones,” those twilight places, that sometimes the “kingdom of God” can enter and beckon us to “make all things new.” It turns out that the Centurion was probably what was known at the time as a “God-Lover”: that is, a Gentile with an intense interest in and attraction to the Jewish faith, who might also regularly attend local Jewish worship and even Torah study. Saint Luke tells us that this Centurion has actually built the local synagogue, still standing today, for the people of Kafar Naum. Whether he did this as a sincere expression of faith in Israel’s God, or as an early exponent of General Patraeus’ now-famous theory of counterinsurgency, we don’t know. It may have been a combination of both faith and pragmatism. (As a good friend of mine once said, “I never met a motive that wasn’t mixed.”) But, whatever the Centurion’s motivation, the Jewish elders of Kafar Naum—the village, by the way, that Jesus made his Galilean headquarters—are convinced of the Centurion’s good faith for, according to Saint Luke, “these elders appealed to Jesus earnestly, asking him to come and heal the Centurion’s slave.”
Social roles and cultural expectations can get very murky in the “grey zone.” To use the stark “black-and white” language and distinctions of the militant Jewish Essene and Zealot factions of Jesus’ day—who were impatiently awaiting and praying for the final battle between the “sons of light” and the “sons of darkness,” when God would utterly destroy the godless Roman oppressors and re-establish the Davidic monarchy ruling from a purified temple-city in Jerusalem—Saint Luke’s Gospel seems to be saying today that the power of God in Jesus Christ often operates in that shadowy world of the “grey zone.” In fact, there was a rabbinic teaching current at the time of Jesus that said: “God has declared: ‘Make for me an opening as large as the eye of a needle, and I will open it for you so wide that armies of soldiers with heavy equipment can enter through it.’” (The ancient rabbis’ “eye of the needle” metaphor ought to strike a familiar note for us followers of rabbi Jesus!)
The rapprochement between the Romans and the Jews, the “people of God” and the “goyim,” is enough in this morning’s Gospel to activate the power of God in Christ to heal. In fact, the Centurion’s slave is healed even before Jesus gets to the Centurion’s house. Sometimes, our so-called godless enemies and ambivalent seekers possess more faith than our friends and believers. Saint Luke tells us that even Jesus is astonished at the Centurion’s complete faith in the messianic in-breaking of God’s kingdom through Jesus’ authoritative power to heal. He tells us that the amazed Jesus turns to “the crowd that followed him”—in other words, to his “disciples”—and says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
So, what does all of this historical, cultural, and linguistic background mean for us? What is “the Spirit saying to God’s Church” today in our readings from Saint Luke’s Gospel and the Hebrew Bible? What is the “good news” this morning in our time and place?
Well, I think that the “good news,” the “gospel,” today is that the so-called bad news may not be as bad as we sometimes think, but only if we are willing to join Jesus in the “grey zone.” You have heard me say before that we in the Northeast are living in a region that many cynically describe as “the graveyard of the churches.” This is especially true for us here in Newton Centre, where we live in the shadow of so many great, modern universities full of those whom the nineteenth-century theologian Frederick Schleiermacher dubbed “the cultured despisers of religion.” I won’t speak for you, but I admit that, too often, I easily slip into the mindset of dividing the world into “us and them”: the secular and the sacred; the doubters and the believers; the moral relativists and the moral absolutists; the material and the spiritual; the “culture of death” and the “culture of life”; reason versus faith; science versus religion; east versus west. You name it: we can take almost any of the fault lines in our post-modern world and sink into some version of “us” versus “them” or, in the language of Jesus’ day, the “sons of light” versus the “sons of darkness”; the “people of God” versus “the nations.” It’s an old, tired story, and often, we seem doomed to repeat it endlessly. In the clamor of the depressing demagoguery of this presidential election cycle, I confess that I must constantly remind myself that Jesus died in a “B-movie” so that you and I don’t have to live in one! And that, I think, is the key to avoiding the pitfalls and dilemmas of constantly dividing reality into “black and white”; “us and them.”
When we invite God in Christ to shuttle between the antithetical worlds of our own making, dualism is overcome, and the “kingdom of God” becomes our new reality. Jesus Christ can and will heal our sad divisions if only we allow him to do this by recognizing his power and authority as the improbable messiah of God. Saint Paul reminds the gentiles of his day—and us—of this astonishing power in his Letter to the Galatians, where he writes that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:28f) To see this, however, we must actively look for Saint Luke’s beloved God-Lovers just like the Centurion living out there among us in our post-modern world: those persons who are seeking God, but who are unable—for whatever reason—to take that most difficult step of all in the spiritual journey: that one, short step out of ourselves and into God. I know that they are out there because, for too many years, I was one of them! I was one of those “spiritual, but not religious” persons about whom we hear so much these days: the so-called none’s.
I came home to my Christian faith and to the Church when I decided one day to take a chance on God and to wager it all on Christ. Or, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, I chose “to put my whole trust in Christ’s grace and love.”(BCP) And it didn’t happen in any dramatic way during an evangelical revival meeting followed by the now notorious “altar call,” during which “I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour.” It came instead while I was watching the network news one night during the early 1980’s, when Saint John Paul ll made his first historic visit to his native Poland following his election to the papacy. It was during those early days of the Solidarity Movement’s revolt prior to the final collapse of atheistic communism in Eastern Europe. As the Pope stood before the outdoor altar in Eucharistic vestments, holding aloft his primatial staff on which hung the dramatic, spare, and abject crucified Christ, the throng of thousands in that Warsaw square began spontaneously to shout, “We want God; We want God!” “Well,” I thought to myself, “that’s what I want; that’s who I have been seeking during these lost years wandering in the world of ‘the spiritual, but not religious.’” It was the image of the crucified and suffering love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ—held high before a crowd of literally hundreds of thousands—who called me home to the Church. So, as I watched my TV, I joined the chant of that crowd of Poles thousands of miles away with the words: “I want God. I want God!”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, there is a whole world of “God-Lovers” out there hungering and thirsting for God in Christ. But to find them, we must be willing to move—like Jesus and the Gentile “God-Lover” in this morning’s Gospel—into that ambiguous and often murky “grey zone” called the post-modern world by sharing our precious faith and hope with the lapsed and the un-churched. In Pope Francis’ words, we “dwellers” must reach out with love and mercy to the “seekers” and the “skeptics.” It’s not enough to wring our hands and lament the slow and steady secularization of North America and Western Europe. We must join our co-religionist in Africa, Latin America, and the rest of the global south by witnessing to “the hope that is in us” through a “new evangelization” of America and the West. And that “new evangelization” must begin right here in Newton Centre. We must tell our relatives and neighbors and friends and co-workers, in Jesus’ words, to “come and see” because, in the words of Saint John’s Gospel printed on an old Parish of the Messiah refrigerator-magnet, “We have found the Messiah.” And you too can meet him in the life of prayer; in service to our broken world through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; and, most profoundly and deeply, in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church—right here at the corner of Centre and Homer Streets. If you and I are willing to enter the “grey zone” and to listen respectfully and attentively to people there, I know that we will hear them—each in his and her own unique way—crying out: “We want God!” And when we do, it will be our duty and privilege to tell them: “I know where you can find that living God: you will see him in the merciful face of Christ Jesus”!