Sunday, June 2, 2013

An expansive Gospel

Living in Ordinary Time: Insiders & Outsiders
Luke 7:1-10

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There’s a lot we Americans don’t know
about life under occupation by a foreign, oppressing power.
Throughout our history as a nation,
we’ve been threatened, even attacked.
But never occupied.

To understand the impact of today’s Gospel story,
and especially to reflect on the dynamics
of beings insiders or outsiders,
we must nevertheless try to imagine life under occupation.

Both occupiers, and the occupied,
have to walk a very fine line.

If the goal is some semblance of peace and stability,
both occupiers and occupied
have to navigate a narrow middle ground,
that keeps them falling into chaos, or into utter defeat.

The occupiers—in Jesus’ case, the Romans—have to show their power,
often enough, and fiercely enough,
that every person they rule knows, without a doubt,
where the line is that they dare not cross,
and what will happen if they cross it.
If they get too soft, they will lose their influence,
and the public will start taking advantage of them.
If they come down too hard, they will incite an open rebellion.
Even if they could easily crush a rebellion,
they don’t want all that chaos.
It makes their rule all the more difficult and unstable.

The occupied, in the same way, 
have to find a middle ground if the goal is peace and stability.
They need to dance between collaborating with the occupiers
and losing their identity,
losing the respect of their fellow citizens,
or crossing the line into open rebellion
and unleashing a violent reaction that may not only
cost them their own lives,
but the lives of their neighbors and family.

Of course, sometimes the goal may not be short-term stability.
Sometimes, you need direct resistance
to shake up the stability that keeps oppression in place.
But inevitably, not everyone among the oppressed
has the same short-term strategy.
Some, in the interest of personal survival, prefer stability.
Some, in the interest of longer-term peace,
prefer to shake things up.

For first-century Jews living anywhere in Palestine—
Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee—
these dynamics were at work, every moment of every day.
You could not escape the harsh reality of the occupation.
The hills were dotted with crosses,
as grim reminders of the execution of rebels.
Everywhere you went, there were soldiers nearby,
watching, ready to intervene if necessary.

So the main insider-outsider dynamic here is obvious.

The people of the Covenant, the Jewish People,
worshipers of Yahweh,
who shared a strong ethnic and religious identity,
are the insiders.
This is their homeland, their temple, their traditions, their culture.
And the Covenant, established many centuries earlier at Mt. Sinai,
clearly defined the boundaries.
Inside the covenant, outside the covenant.
Jew, Gentile.
Righteous, wicked.
Clean, unclean.

Therefore, the Gentile Roman militia are clearly the outsiders.
They are foreigners in this land.
They are foreign to the faith of Israel.
They are outside the covenant.
They are, in fact, enemies of the people.
They are the oppressors.

But this kind of situation creates other camps of insiders-outsiders.
Because the oppressed have different ideas
about how to live under oppression.
Some camps emphasize peaceful cooperation,
and avoid any kind of resistance or confrontation,
focusing on religion, not politics,
believing their deliverance one day, 
will come only because of God’s intervention,
not any action on their part.
Some camps advocate for quiet resistance,
not enough to attract attention from the Romans,
but slowly undermining their rule.
Some camps are violent insurrectionists,
urging freedom at any cost.

And each of these draw boundary lines around their camps.
They try to protect their group from being influenced by the others.

Now keeping all this in mind,
look again at the Gospel story in Luke chapter 7.
This is an amazing story on many levels.
But I want to look at it through the lens of 
this complicated relationship of insiders and outsiders.

Here in this story we see a Gentile Roman centurion,
commanding officer of the local regiment of Roman soldiers.
Called a centurion, because he commanded a century, 
or 100, more or less, individual soldiers,
who enforced the rule of Rome in any given city.
Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army.
They made this violent occupation possible.

So a beloved servant of the centurion became deathly ill.
He—get this, now—called some elders of the Jewish community,
who went to ask Jesus for the favor of performing a healing.
And the elders added a personal addendum to his message,
saying to Jesus, “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.”
These were, no doubt, elders with whom the Centurion had
carefully cultivated a relationship of trust over the years.

The centurion was a master of public relations,
by showing support for the local people and their religion.
There’s no hint in the text that he was a worshiper of Yahweh.
But he did build a synagogue for them.
That was brilliant!
Capernaum, at least, had peace and stability,
because he did favors for the people,
created a situation where they were beholden to him.
They would never rise up against such a benefactor.
As the proverb says, you “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

So when he wanted a favor from Jesus, 
he didn’t come and ask on his own.
He sent Jewish elders,
community leaders that he safely had in his pocket.

We don’t really know the motivations 
for why he reached out to Jesus in the way he did.
On the surface, it would appear, part of the motivation,
is that getting Jesus to come heal his servant
could be a public relations goldmine.
To have the most well-known itinerant healer in the region
make a house call, with a crowd of adoring fans in tow,
would go a long way toward reinforcing
what a good and righteous and important man he was.
Hard to imagine that didn’t cross his mind.
Hard to imagine it didn’t cross Jesus’ mind as a possibility,
but he went anyway.

But then something happened before Jesus got there,
that utterly amazed Jesus.
The centurion sent his own friends ahead to meet Jesus,
with yet another message.
His own Gentile friends, not the Jewish elders,
came this time to Jesus with this direct message:
“I don’t want a public healing event.
I haven’t done anything to deserve your personal attention.
You have lots of other people you need to take care of.
Just say the word, and I know God will honor you,
and show compassion to my servant.”

Surprisingly, shockingly, 
the centurion had no desire to prove himself,
no desire to earn the favor of the people,
or the favor of God for that matter.
He simply had a need,
readily admitted it,
and trusted that Jesus would meet it.

Jesus stopped in his tracks.
He turned to his disciples and
and his other Jewish friends and followers,
and shook his head, saying,
“Never, have I met anyone of our own people,
who has as much faith as this Gentile,
this captain of the Roman military.”

Jesus openly praised the Centurion, the outsider, for his faith.

Now I grew up hearing this story in Sunday School,
and thinking, and being told,
that the faith of this man, that Jesus was so amazed at,
was that he believed that Jesus could heal with only a word.
That he didn’t have to be present and touch his servant,
but that his word alone could heal.
That was the take-away message.
That’s the kind of faith we should have!
Faith in Jesus’ words.

But what, exactly, was this faith that Jesus saw in this man?
What kind of faith did he see,
that stood out as greater than the faith of anyone in Israel?

I wonder.
Was it the man’s belief that Jesus could heal with just a word,
without actually seeing and touching the servant?
Was that belief, that intellectual acceptance,
the faith that amazed Jesus?
No, I don’t think so.
By this time, Jesus had already healed lepers,
cast out demons, and cured the blind and lame,
and all kinds of other people
with nothing more than a word.

His very first miracle, turning water into wine,
he did without any physical contact with the water.
He only passed a message to the servants 
to fill the jugs with water.
He healed the son of a nobleman,
without ever setting eyes on him, only speaking.
He healed ten lepers, 
just by telling them to go show themselves to the priest,
and they were cured on the way.
I’m sure by this time, thousands of people all over Israel
believed Jesus could work mighty miracles,
with nothing but his spoken word.

So the Centurion believing Jesus could heal the servant
by only speaking the word,
was well and good.
But it would not have shocked Jesus.
He would not have claimed 
he had never seen that kind of faith in Israel.
Because he had!

I think what amazed Jesus about this man’s faith
was his sheer humility and vulnerability,
and a profound trust in the goodness of God,
as an outsider to the covenant.
Somewhere along the line,
the centurion must have gained more than 
a rational understanding,
an intellectual respect for their God.
Maybe he had come to trust in their God’s
character of love and compassion.
Maybe he trusted God would not abandon him in his need.
And he was humble enough to admit his need.

This is truly remarkable.
It is no wonder it shocked Jesus.
This centurion was chipping away at the wall 
separating the occupiers from the occupied.

He, who had the power to exert his will in that community,
he, who had the emperor’s armies ready to back him up,
bowed himself humbly before one of the people under his authority.
I’m sure he could have demanded that Jesus come,
and come immediately.
Instead, he showed deference to Jesus.
He reached out to find the human connection,
a commonality they shared,
their shared human experience of being in authority.
“I know you know what it’s like,” he said to Jesus.
“To say to people, ‘come here,’ and they come.
So you do the same for me.
Just speak the word. My servant will be healed.”

So . . . twice in this story,
the insider takes an astonishing step toward the outsider.

The most powerful military figure in the region—
an insider from the standpoint of the Roman Empire—
is shockingly humble and deferential to Jesus,
an outsider to his system of power,
and does not want to impose on Jesus’ valuable time.
And then Jesus—
an insider from the standpoint of the Jewish covenant—
quickly, willingly rushes to the aid of this outsider,
a Gentile centurion,
a military officer enforcing the oppressive policies of Rome.
and then proclaims this officer’s faith as greater than 
anything seen among the Jews.

The common denominators, for both the Centurion and Jesus,
were humility,
and a deep trust in the goodness of God.
Let me repeat—
humility, vulnerability, and trust in God’s goodness.

I have to wonder whether this is not also the way forward today,
in navigating the relationships we have 
between the various circles that define us.

We do have boundaries. Boundaries are helpful, useful,
they give us identity and purpose.
We at Park View, at least members here, are Mennonite.
That’s a marker.
It denotes who we are, and who we aren’t.
We are Mennonite.
So we are not Catholic or Lutheran or Methodist.
There is a difference. And it must matter.
Or we wouldn’t have these distinctions.

Yes, some boundaries are fluid.
And there is movement in and out.
It’s not cut and dried.
But the very fact that we call ourselves by a certain name,
creates an inside-outside reality.
We are this, and not that.
We are here, and not there.
We are inside this boundary marker.
Others are outside.

That is not a bad thing. It’s a human thing.
I like knowing who my family is.
If everyone is equally my family,
then I don’t really have much of a family.

Where it gets problematic
is when this insider-outsider dynamic creates barriers
that we use to try to prevent God’s grace 
from flowing freely to all.
The good becomes evil
when our distinctions leads to being
judgmental, accusatory, condemning, separatist.

Let’s be clear about who we are,
what we are about.
Let’s be clear about the center that holds us together.
And then from that center,
extend ourselves toward the other,
expand our reach toward those outside the marker,
and be humble
and be vulnerable
and trust in God’s ultimate goodness.

Won’t this help us greatly in reaching across boundaries
that divide Christians today?
Between left and right, Republican and Democrat?
Between Catholic and Protestant and Anabaptist?
Between camps within our own church,
that subdivide the church around various issues—
pacifism, sexuality, abortion, immigration, evolution,
relationship to government?
Won’t this help us in navigating relationships even outside our faith,
with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, even atheists?

Our instinct is to get protective, to withdraw into our camp,
to build the fortress stronger.

I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t also be amazed at our faith today,
if our instinct became the opposite.
If—being perfectly clear about our center, our identity—
we extended ourselves from that center, 
toward those outside,
with an attitude of great humility,
genuine vulnerability,
and a deep trust in the goodness of God.

It seems sometimes, in the church today,
there is so much defensiveness about our position,
we define ourselves by what we are against,
that we fail to ever make a truly human connection
with those outside.

I pray we might lead the way, like Jesus, like the Centurion,
and chart a new way of being with those 
outside our defined group.
May the Holy Spirit enable us to be like Jesus
in our humility, vulnerability, and trust in God’s goodness
and expansive love.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is an expansive Gospel.
By nature, it expands beyond our small categories and boundaries.
I don’t mean universal, in the sense that any path is the right path.
I mean expansive, 
in the sense that at the center of the Gospel 
is Jesus the Christ, the Lord of All.
And from that center, the Gospel expands to all,
crossing all human boundaries.
And the manner in which we cross those boundaries,
was demonstrated in our Gospel story, 
by Jesus, and the Centurion.

May our lives, and our Gospel witness,
be just as expansive,
with humility, vulnerability, 
and deep trust in God’s goodness and love.

—Phil Kniss, June 2, 2013

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