This week, I had the pleasure of hearing about thirty Grant High school students read original poetry and excerpts from stories, at a reading at Broadway books. One of the readers I’ve known since elementary school. He wrote a gripping story about racing with his crew team. They thought they could place first or second, but as the race progressed, the rower in Seat # 3 faltered and the team grew angry. As he told the story, you could feel the adrenaline, and the taste the bitter disappointment, when they failed to place at all. It was unspoken, but the team knew: the reason for their loss was Seat #3. In the stress of the race, Seat #3 had become an outsider. But the young writer ended this story with a very potent observation. “I realized that all of us have had days like that, and any of us could have been in Seat #3. When I looked over at him, and saw tears streaming down his face, I realized, we had lost much more than a race.”
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin wrote that “In Christ’s sight, there are no insiders and outsiders, for we are finally of one nature and one flesh and one grief and one hope. And in Christ’s sight, if we fail in love we fail in all things else.”
The story we read from Luke today is about a Roman soldier outsider showing faith even greater than the religious insiders. Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” So, what kind of faith did Jesus find? What is this story about, anyway?
Perhaps the simple faith of the centurion was that he did NOT fail in love. His act of trust, which stretched across the boundaries of Roman and Jew, master and slave, to recognize a power greater than his own. The power of God’s love.
Remember the movies with the Roman soldier wearing the molded leather armor and plumed helmet? That was the centurion: powerful, violent, seasoned and wealthy. The centurion was a man who understood power. He commanded one hundred soldiers. To hold that prestigious role, he would have been a veteran soldier, earning about fifteen times as much as an ordinary soldier. And to the hearers of this word, he was an outsider, one of the Roman occupiers to be feared and despised.
This powerful man heard the word about Jesus, and acted in faith by trusting in a power higher than his own. The centurion did not express his faith by stating a creed, or agreeing to a doctrine. It was not an intellectual decision. He simply trusted in the power of Jesus’ word to bring healing.
What kind of faith are we talking about? Someone observed that many Christians, though we say we believe in God, are basically functioning as atheists. We operate on a day to day basis as though we have only ourselves to count on. Even with our best intentions, it is very difficult to trust that God is with us in the things we really care about and most yearn for: health, safety, a good life for our kids; issues of justice that we invest ourselves in; employment and career that is meaningful and enjoyable; enough money to make life less stressful; finding a life’s partner; loving successful marriage.
If we don’t believe in God as Divine Choreographer, or an advanced Santa Claus, making our wishes happen, how can we really trust that the things we most want really are in God’s hands? And if we can’t trust God to be with us in the important things, the burden really does fall completely on our shoulders, right? No wonder so many of us are worriers!
Some people say that trust is for the blind. But there are many ways to be blind. Educator and theologian James Fowler teaches about trust and different kinds of knowing. He tells of a conversation he had with a taxi driver. The driver says: “What is it that keeps you (a theologian) working? It looks to me as if you’re dealing in an area in which you can never know anything.”
Fowler’s replied: “There are lots of ways to not be able to know. There is a kind of not being able to know that says, I cannot know but somebody else can know. There is another way of not knowing. It says, I can know and others can know, but I don’t know yet. In that case, you have to decide whether you want to or should know. A third kind of not knowing is where you don’t know and no one else knows, so we are all equally lost, or blind. A final way of not knowing is to recognize that that which is most essential knowledge for our lives comes only with the investment of trust and commitment. Faith knows it cannot know God with the precision that we know physical objects. But our valuing, our purpose, and our grasp of life’s meaningfulness depend upon this more risky but essential knowing. That is faith.”
Or as one devout woman from a charismatic evangelical church said, in a prayer group one evening: “I don’t believe it, but I’m sticking to it. That’s my definition of faith.”
I believe our meaning and purpose is to act in commitment and trust. And I believe that we can trust that God will hold and strengthen us in disappointments and hurts and even in the sometimes overwhelming flood of loss that is part of being human and alive. And that as we do our very best to make wise, loving choices, God is at work with us.
The centurion said, “Say the word, and he will be healed.” That Greek word is “logos.” And behind that word, in Jewish thinking of that time, a word was more than a sound expressing a meaning. A word actually does things. The word of God is not simply a sound. It is an effective cause. In the creation story, God’s word creates: God says, Let there be light, and there was light. God‘s word not only says things, it does things. It is from the worse-than-a tornado-chaos waters, that God’s word creates something new.
When reading scripture, I find it helpful to read the passages preceding and following the one I’m studying. It gives context, and often sheds some light. The passage immediately preceding our story today is the parable of the two men who build houses. One is on a foundation of sand, which crumbles. The other man builds on a foundation of rock, so that when the flood arose, and the river burst, the house stands because it is well built. Jesus says to his followers: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words and acts on them.” The centurion heard, and acted.
In all the years I’ve been in ministry, and long before that, our Presbyterian Church (USA) and other denominations have been wrestling with issues around church leadership, ordination, and marriage for non-heterosexual members. Recently, our denomination decided upon more flexibility, allowing gay, lesbian and transgender members go through inquiry and ordination process, at the discretion of their Presbyteries, and congregations, who are best able to discern readiness and faithfulness for church leadership. Last June, shortly after that decision was made, some of us from Westminster marched in the Portland Pride Parade. I will never forget that experience, because it was the first (and only time) I’ve been cheered by the masses, simply for being Presbyterian!
It was quite moving, walking with my sons carrying our Westminster banner, marching with other churches, behind an order of Catholic sisters, and in front of Metanoia Methodist Peace Community, and witnessing the joy and appreciation of the thousands of people lined up along Portland’s downtown streets. Part of what was so moving, was that all of our churches have struggled to some degree with our faith and acceptance of sexuality and leadership. Our understanding of the scripture has been broadened by people like our own Dick Rohrbaugh, and cultural attitudes have changed as more GLBT people have come out. And still, there is honest uncertainty by some Christians about whether our affirmation of this diversity is truly what God wants. The best approach I believe, is humility. As we walked, I thought of this saying by the Rev. William Sloane Coffin:
“There are those who prefer certainty to truth, those in church who put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. And what distortion of the gospel it is to have limited sympathies and unlimited certainties, when the very reverse—to have limited certainties and unlimited sympathies—is not only more tolerant, but far more Christian.”
The trusting faith of the centurion is one that has limited certainties and unlimited sympathies. Christ calls us into a relationship of trust, with God, and with one another. Today, we are all invited to taste bread and juice that reminds us of how God provides what we need. This meal reminds us of how in each meal, in each day, God’s love invites us, and God’s presence is with us. It is also a meal that brings all of us around the table: young and old, conservative, liberal, evangelical, agnostic, trusting and doubting. In this meal, we are shaped into God’s family.
How would our lives be different, if we had faith like the centurion—faith that simply trusts that God can and will work for the highest good in our lives and world? What if, every day, we lived as though we trusted that? What would be different about your life? What would you be freed to do/be? How would our world be different, then?