A Sermon for 29 May 2016

            A reading from the gospel of Luke 7:1-10. Listen for God’s word to us.

“After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 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; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 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.” 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.”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

            Have you heard the story of the little boy and a shop owner? Award winning author and blogger Chiao Kee Lee writes it and it goes like this: “A store owner was tacking a sign above his door that read “Puppies For Sale.” Signs like that have a way of attracting small children and sure enough, a little boy appeared by the store owner’s sign. “How much are you going to sell the puppies for?” he asked. The store owner replied, “Anywhere from $30-$50.” The little boy reached in his pocket and pulled out some change. “I have $2.37,” he said. “May I please look at them?” The store owner smiled and whistled, and out of the kennel came Lady, who ran down the aisle of the store followed by five teeny, tiny balls of fur. One puppy was lagging considerably behind. Immediately the little boy singled out the lagging, limping puppy and said, “What’s wrong with that little dog?” The store owner explained that the veterinarian had examined the little puppy and had discovered it didn’t have a hip socket. It would always limp. It would always be lame. The little boy became excited. “That is the little puppy that I want to buy,” he definitively stated. The store owner said, “No, you don’t want to buy that little dog. If you really want him, I’ll just give him to you.’” The story goes that at this point, “The little boy got quite upset. He looked into the store owner’s eyes, pointing his finger, and said, “I don’t want you to give him to me. That dog is worth every bit as much as all the other dogs and I’ll pay full price. In fact, I’ll give you $2.37 now, and 50 cents a month until I have him paid for.” The store owner countered, “You really don’t want to buy this little dog. He is never going to be able to run and jump and play with you like the other puppies.” To this, the little boy reached down and rolled up his pant leg to reveal a badly twisted, crippled left leg supported by a big metal brace. He looked up at the store owner and softly replied, “Well, I don’t run so good myself, and the little puppy will need someone who understands!”

The author goes on to write: “The part that really got my eyes filled up with tears was when the boy got upset and said, “That dog is worth every bit as much as all the other dogs.” It goes straight to the heart of what we, as human beings, have . . . worthiness. In the little boy’s eyes, just because the little puppy was without a hip socket doesn’t mean he is less worthy compared to the others. As human beings, we are the same,” writes the story’s author. “Just because we are not perfect doesn’t mean we are not worthy. We are created exactly the way we are supposed to be. We are perfect in our own imperfections. Worthiness is merely a perception defined only by ourselves. Like that puppy,” says the author, “I am worthy and so are you” (by Chiao Kee Lee on http://thedirty30sclub.com/blog/2011/10/the-boy-and-the-puppy/).

Why is worthiness something we’re so quick to define for ourselves? Let alone for others? Why is it that we human beings so quickly come to our conclusions about who is worthy and who is not? . . . Who deserves our time, our money, our affections, and who does not? A world in need surrounds us daily. Consider our neighbors whose families are coming apart at the seams from the stresses and strains of life in this post-modern world. Or what of our beloved family members, either near or far, who going through health crises? On this weekend especially we remember all who have given their lives to keep peace in this world. The sacrifices they and their families make for the benefit of all. And that’s just to name a few of the people of all ages, races, and creeds in this world who are in dire need each day. . . . Which of them are worthy of our time, attention, and money?

Jesus is up against the very same question every day of his life. Here he is, in this story, which the gospel of Luke alone records. Jesus just has been among his disciples and great crowds saying to them things like: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. . . . And love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. . . . If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you (Luke 6:20-21, 27, 32, 37-38a). These are the words of his infamous Sermon on the Plain as the gospel of Luke tells it – not on the Mount as is recorded in the gospel of Matthew. . . . No sooner does he finish speaking, than Jesus is going to have an opportunity to put into action the sentiment of his very own words.

According to Luke 7, Jesus enters Capernaum. In his day, this wealthy city was known as the crossroads of the nations. Capernaum was over on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee and one of the last stops in Israel on the way to Lebanon to the north and Syria to the east. Living in Capernaum when Jesus arrived that day is one we can only assume is a pretty well-to-do Roman centurion. It would seem this man is of rank for he speaks from the experience of commanding other men. “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes,” says the centurion. “And to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (Luke 7:8). Which, it would appear, is part of his problem. According to the text, the centurion has a highly valued slave who no longer can fulfill his orders. He’s sick – near death, in fact; and this has the centurion so upset, it’s as if he’s pulling in favors to save him. . . . Now, I realize the word alone leaves a bad taste in many of our mouths because we’re most familiar with 18th and 19th Century slavery in America. And while the institution of slavery always is denigrating of human rights, it’s presumed slavery of Jesus’ day was nothing like the chattel slavery of America’s past. While the man was the property of the centurion, commentators believe he was treated with dignity. Some even note affection or at least the admiration of the centurion for his slave. After all, for his slave, such a prominent Roman is willing to bother his friends, the Jewish leaders, and even this one called Jesus he’s heard about. Supposedly the centurion is a God-fearer. A non-Jewish believer who is seeking to live by the moral ethic of Judaism. He’s ensured a synagogue was built in Capernaum – so that the Jews of the village had a proper place to worship the LORD their God. The floor of that very synagogue has been found under the remains of the Second Century Capernaum synagogue. And it’s an amazing spot on which to stand as you realize Jesus lived many of the days of his ministry in Capernaum a stone’s throw away at Peter’s house and often worshipped and preached right there in that synagogue. The Jewish elders of Capernaum explain to Jesus the gratitude due to the centurion for his generous devotion to God and the community of Capernaum. “He is worthy of having you do this for him,” they say, “for the centurion loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us” (Luke 7:4-5).

Whether Jesus agrees with the conclusion that the prominent God-fearing centurion is worthy, or whether Jesus is blind to such worldly distinctions and knows he needs to go help a sick slave few others might deem worthy; Jesus shows that both the slave at the bottom of society and the non-Jewish centurion are worthy of his attention – not because of anything they’ve done. But because of who Jesus is. . . . He said it at the start of his ministry, according to the gospel of Luke – words reminiscent of his pregnant mother’s magnificent song: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed as he was beginning to live out his baptismal call. “Because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). . . . In other words, those in the most dire need are worthy of his attention. Those in the most serious of situations are the very ones he was sent to serve. The Spirit of the LORD our God lives among us to seek out the lost. . . . Jesus spent his whole life giving his time for, paying attention to, and having affection for the very ones the rest of the world quickly would conclude are not worthy.

What about us? As his body alive here and now, who do we deem worthy of our attention? To which ones shall we give our time? Who shall we use our money to help? . . . Once we realize that all are worthy in the eyes of our God, the questions kinda become obsolete. . . . Any in dire need deserve the attention of the body of Christ, the church; for, as we see with the centurion and the slave, all are worthy of our Lord’s. . . . We might take a lesson from Jesus as to where to begin. As those advocating for the centurion’s slave crossed the path of Jesus; likewise, all in need who cross our paths are worthy of our attention. But if that way of living ready for constant response is too much for us, maybe we can take a lesson from that little boy. Remember the one wanting the lame puppy? He wanted that one exactly because of their common need. He knew he understood the little puppy’s struggle because he’d lived through it himself. That kind of solidarity with another in need can be an incredibly motivating force. The wounds we have lived through, give us understanding for the wounds with which another struggles right now. Listening to the experience of our lives and honestly responding out of the pain our hearts have felt, opens us to the kind of empathy another needs. In this way, we come to know our true vocation – the real reason we are here in the world. The way we, like Jesus, live out our baptismal calls as our particular gifts, abilities, and history are used for the glory of God. . . . In great thanksgiving, let us ever be ready to respond!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)

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