Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 2, 2013
First, the texts:
1 Kings 18:20-39 text can be found here
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.
I saw a T-shirt worn by someone in an Advanced Placement English class which said,
“We can write and essay about an essay within an essay.”
That sounds clever, but why would anybody want to do that? The reason is that no story makes sense in isolation. The meaning of a story is only known only when it connects with other stories.
This is true for our personal stories, as we all know: my story is connected in a vast network of relationships – and you are part of my story, as I am a part of yours.
This is also true of the stories in the bible. Their meaning is discovered as we see connections to other stories in the bible, and to the story of the church, and finally to our personal stories.
We just read two stories: Elijah on Mt. Caramel, watching Yahweh, Israel’s God, beat the prophets of Baal and their god, in a great contest. Then we read the story of Jesus healing the servant of the centurion from a distance, without even having to go to his house.
Collections of Connections
Who told these stories? This is where it gets interesting. Jewish scribes handed down the Elijah stories from generation to generation. Those stories became part of a long collection of stories. Included in that collection is the story about the non-Jewish army commander, a Syrian, who had the disease they called leprosy. It’s a story worth mentioning because of its connections.
That commander with leprosy, Naaman, had a young Jewish servant girl who recommended that he go to the land of Israel, to the prophet Elisha, for healing. Long story short: he did, and he was healed at a distance, without Elisha even coming out of his house. (2 Kings 5)
You can see the connection between that story and the one about Jesus healing the centurion’s servant. In both stories, a non-Jewish army commander seeks healing from a Jewish prophet, and receives it, even at a distance, without any in-home action.
Connecting Elijah’s story
Why the lectionary asks us to read the story of Elijah and the contest between the gods today, when we read the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant, instead of the clearly parallel Elisha story is puzzling – but also fascinating. There is a connection there too, but it’s more subtle.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that story without seeing it, but this time I noticed something new: the author shows how Elijah’s story makes sense because of the past stories to which it is connected; one story in particular. He says,
“Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the
LORD came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”;
Remember the story of Jacob who wrestled with the angel through the night? He actually won the match, and so his name was changed from Jacob “supplanter” to “Israel,” “one who struggles with God.” (Gen 32)
Why, while telling the Elijah story, did the author bother to highlight the name change from Jacob to Israel? Because Elijah is also involved in a “struggle” with God – not a wrestling match, but a struggle to see if God is going to let Baal beat him in the contest.
A Story told from a Distance: Babylon
Consider who told this story of that struggle. We know from the last story in the saga that it was the Jewish community in captivity, in Babylon who told this story. Now we see that this story of Elijah and the contest of the gods that Yahweh won was being told by Jews many years later, who probably thought that Yahweh had lost the contest with Babylon’s god, Marduk, (or else, why did they wind up in captivity?).
Talk about a struggle-with-God story! How do you trust God in such circumstances? How do you have faith when the bad guys won? Can God even reach you at such a distance from Jerusalem and from the now-destroyed temple?
Israel has always been a people who have to struggle with God, to understand what it means to have faith, to trust, when things look utterly bleak, and the distance seems great.
Luke’s Centurion Story
How about the other story? Who told the centurion story? Luke did. Luke was a non-Jewish person, a gentile, writing for his non-Jewish church community, about the healing of a non-Jewish soldier’s servant. And the whole story comes to a climax in Jesus’ amazed-statement:
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Long after Jesus is no longer physically present, this story of the faith of a gentile is being told to gentile believers, the vast majority of whom probably never saw Jesus. Now he is as distant as it gets. It’s probably a struggle to have faith in such circumstances.
Miracle signs and faith
Let’s dig down deeper. Both of these are miracle stories: Elijah gets the fireworks from heaven, the centurion’s servant is healed. Both stories are told by and for communities that do not expect the same. The Jews in Babylon had no Elijah nor even Elisha performing miracles for their benefit, and similarly, the gentile church that Luke wrote for did not have Jesus standing among them either.
If it is a struggle to have faith, it is especially a struggle when there are no great signs, right?
Well, maybe a sign would help, but maybe not. Look at the stories: in Elijah’s case, what good did it do the nation that Yahweh beat Baal that day with pyrotechnics galore? The nation eventually wound up as exiles in Babylon. The score at half-time is irrelevant after the game is over. The bad guys finally won.
And the same is true in the centurion story. Maybe some people believed because they saw the sign, but not many. Were any other centurions converted? How about the Jewish witnesses of the healing? Jesus, remember, was deserted at his arrest, and died without anybody speaking up for him.
And that brings us to Jesus’ story. Jesus himself struggled with faith – think of the sweat on his forehead as he prayed for the cup to pass from him in the garden, just before his arrest.
Did Jesus get a miracle? No. There was no big dramatic divine intervention that night, was there? Judas gave Jesus the famous kiss and the soldiers hauled him off for the mock-trial. He was not spared by fireworks from heaven while they scourged him and crucified him.
And yes, he did struggle, even on the cross, crying out,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
There is no greater distance than the chasm of god-forsakenness; and Jesus experienced it all.
Jesus shows us Radical Trust
Here’s the point: Jesus models for us the kind of faith that doesn’t have to see fireworks, cures, nor last minute rescues. He shows us that it is possible to have the kind of faith that accepts the struggle and trusts God, in spite of the felt-distance.
This is the radical trust in God that Luke’s community needed to know was possible for Gentile believers. So, first they hear a story of a Gentile like them, a Centurion, having faith, as they struggle to do; and then they hear the story of Jesus, and learn what trust in God looks like.
So what is your story? What is happening in your story now? What are the struggles that challenge you? Maybe you are in, or have been in, one of those god-forsaken moments. Can you trust in God even when the bad guys are winning?
Yes, because your story is not alone. Your story, and my story, find meaning in being connected to a vast, intricate web of stories that include each other, our families, our histories, and our faith. So, we are connected to the stories Luke tells and the stories of Elijah and Elisha. We are connected all the way back to the creation story itself, which, in turn, connects us with every story on the planet.
From these stories we come to know God’s loving embrace of all of the people he made, as the story says, “in his image.” We come to see ourselves as included in the story in which the Creator “blessed them and said, be fruitful.” So our story is a story of the blessed people for whom God wills fruitfulness: shalom.
Our story also includes scenes of temptation and failure – like Adam and Eve’s, but that’s why it’s a redemption story! A story about God’s relentless mercy and love. In fact, to sum it up, it is a love story!
The End: Love Wins
And this is why we are able to continue to trust even when we feel forsaken, even when the bad guys are winning: we know the end of the story. We know that in the end, God does get what God wants: Love wins. Resurrection happens. New life comes out of the grave. Eventually we will, as scripture says, “participate in the divine nature.” Even “death is swallowed up in victory”! (2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:54)
And this is exactly why, just like those early believers that Luke wrote about in is volume two, the Book of Acts, we are able to be so fully engaged in our world on the side of love. Just like those early believers who were even willing to sell what they had to give to the poor we are engaged in all kind of ministries of compassion and mercy.
It’s simply because we understand our story as part of God’s great redemption story. We understand how deeply connected we are to the stories of all the people of the world, and even our planet’s story.
So, we tell stories about stories within stories – and in the end, it’s all one story. It’s God’s story; and we are all in it. It ends in love. In the mean time, we struggle, we feel the terrifying distance, and yet, like Jesus, we trust.