Sermon on 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43 and Luke 7:1-10 for the 2nd Sunday in Pentecost Year C
May 29, 2016, Memorial Day weekend
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,
“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”
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.
So, we have just read two amazing stories, one from our Jewish roots and one from the Jesus story as told by Luke. They are amazing by themselves, they are more amazing together, and it is an added amazement to me that they land on the Memorial Day weekend here in the States. These texts are the regular readings of the Common Lectionary, so they will be read and reflected on in many different denominations all around the world today.
Both texts, and Memorial Day itself, bring up the question, “Where in the world is God?” To me, that question is crucial.
It is as big as the universe – we could have asked, “Where in the Universe is God?” And it is as small as my own and our own personal spiritual journeys.
Who has not asked the question, perhaps often, and at various points in life, especially when we are desperate for God to show up in our lives, “Where in the world is God?”
It is also a global question: Where in the world of nations is God? Does God take sides? Where, in world wars, is God? Where in geo-politics is God?
Where in vast multitude of people, of races and languages and religions and competing hopes and dreams is God?
I only have about twelve or thirteen minutes here – it is almost a bit crazy to raise such big questions, as if there was a hope of answering them so easily.
But as your pastor, on Memorial Day weekend, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide some help as we ask those questions. Where do we go for guidance? We go to our wisdom tradition.
For us, as a self-consciously Christian community, we go to the scriptures of the Hebrew Bible and the Story of Jesus to find direction.
So, let us look at these stories that I have already called amazing and ask the question, “Where in the world is God?”
King Solomon’s Prayer
First, the story of Israel’s king Solomon. It is not obvious from the snippet we read, but the scene is the great dedication service for the brand new, lavish, opulent, gold-plated, wonder-of-the-world temple that he built.
I do not have time to explain the details, but know this: this story was told with bitter irony. By the time this story was written down, during the Babylonian captivity (which is the last scene in this long story, ending in 2 Kings) the temple Solomon built and dedicated has a pile of rubble; completely destroyed.
How did a small nation like Israel afford so lavish a temple? The book of Kings tells us that Solomon made Israel a slave state, conscripting forced labor from “all Israel” (1Kings 5:13).
Was it worth it? Did God need such an edifice to be present to God’s people? Well, no, actually. Seven times in his dedication prayer Solomon says, something like,
“Hear the plea… of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place”
– acknowledging that God’s dwelling place is not in a temple. Why not? Solomon already knows why not! He says this in the same dedication prayer:
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
Where in the world is God? Not in any one temple, not even the one built for Israel’s God! Where is God?
“Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” God.
But, humans are human. We need places of worship. From painted caves to Greek and Roman temples, people need places in which to gather to acknowledge the Holy, to contact Ultimate Reality.
We need visual cues like sacred art and architecture, and auditory cues like music and the spoken word. We need ritual and symbol, sacred actions and communal participation – all human communities have always done this in one way or another, and we always will; ask any archeologist or any anthropologist. It is in our DNA.
But let us never ever mistake the sign and the symbol for the reality they point towards. Our church cannot contain God. Nor are we so arrogant as to think that our theology can comprehend the Holy.
The Foreigner and God
This understanding has immediate and practical implications as we ask the question “Where in the world is God?” If God is not known comprehensively by, nor contained in our tradition alone, how should we relate to people of other traditions?
Solomon voices the answer:
“…when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land… and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you…”
What? Listen to the prayers of a foreigner? An uncircumcised Gentile? Yes. Where in the world is God? God is everywhere in the world, and so can be worshipped by people who we think of as “other” than us; as foreigners, as strangers, as aliens.
Who is an alien to God? Who is a foreigner to the Creator? What human being is not made in God’s image?
Let us be guided by this text from our wisdom tradition as we seek answers to the question, “Where in the world is God?”
The Jesus Story
Our tradition includes the Jesus-story, as I said, it is amazing how poignant todays’ reading is. This story is told by Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, so it is from the source we call Q. Matthew and Luke tell the same story, but differently.
The story is about a Roman army officer, a Centurion, who has a slave who is gravely ill. In Matthew’s story he comes personally to Jesus. In Luke’s story, which we read today, he actually never appears personally, but rather sends a delegation to represent his needs to Jesus – which wold be an act of deference, in that culture.
Hearing that Jesus has healing powers, he sends for help by means of the Jewish leadership. They are all-too-eager to comply because this Gentile Centurion has most likely become what is called a “God-fearer.” He acknowledges Israel’s God as God, or at least as one of the gods, and seeks to live a righteous life – although not submitting to circumcision, and therefore, remaining outside the Abrahamic covenant. Anyway, so fond he is of Judaism that he has put up his own funds to sponsor the building of their local synagogue, according to Luke.
The Centurion gives the Jewish elders the script he wants them to say to Jesus. It is deferential to the highest degree. He does not presume to be worthy of a personal audience with Jesus, but he gets it, that a man of authority, like himself, has power even in his spoken words of command, so he says,
“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.”
Most healings in the ancient world included some kind of medium of conveyance: a touch or, an incantation, or a potion applied to the body, but in this case, the Centurion believes that healing can be accomplished without any of that, even from a distance, simply at Jesus’ command. This is an amazing amount of faith, and it completely impresses Jesus who says, famously,
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Jesus thus reserves his highest words of praise, not to his disciples, not to his family, not even to another Israelite, but to a foreigner; an uncircumcised Gentile.
Where is God in the world? God is everywhere. And if we have the willingness to open our hearts, we can see God’s Spirit at work among people who are different from ourselves, even people whom we would naturally call enemies.
Remember, the Roman army was an oppressive force of occupation, even despite the personal feelings of this one Centurion. If the Jews rebelled in revolution, he would be leading his soldiers’ swords and spears against them, and there would be blood, as happened not long after those days.
But even in the context of oppression and the threat of violence, Jesus can find God at work in a person. Even a Roman.
God in the World?
Where in the world is God? Let us be guided by our wisdom traditions. They are repeatedly drawing our attention to the fact that this world cannot contain God. Where in the world is God? God is not in the world. The world is in God. God is the very ground of our being; the source of all being.
And so, it is right to say that God is everywhere in the world, as well as beyond this world. And God has not left himself without a witness in diverse cultures, and customs, in languages and religions.
On Memorial Day weekend we reflect with gratitude on the world that is so different now than it was just a generation ago. The president can go to Hiroshima where 140,000 souls perished in an instant, because now, the Japanese are our friends and allies. He can go to Germany and Italy and not find reasons for war, but partners for peace. This was unimaginable 70 years ago.
We are so thankful that fascism has been shown to be a false, horrific, small-minded and brutal ideology. The world of “us against them,” the ideology of “our people and our language and our religion and our culture against all others” only creates holocausts, and mass graves, from Auschwitz to Bosnia, from Japan, then, to the Sudan, today.
A Return to Fascism Today?
Could fascism return? Yes it could. The nationalist party was only narrowly defeated this Spring in elections in Serbia, just as their former leader, Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Nationalist parties all across Europe are growing in number and influence. In Poland, the very country of the death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the nationalists have been elected.
In Denmark the anti-immigration party has huge support. The extreme right wing party that started as a white supremacist group in Sweden is rising in the polls, as is Greece’s Golden Dawn and Austria’s Freedom party.
Their message is always the same: keep the foreigners out. They are a danger to us. They are not like us.
How does our Judeo-Christian tradition inform our conversations about immigration? How does the Jesus-story guide us to think about foreigners, and even about enemies?
This is as personal as the ballot that, one by one, we fill out on election day.
Being People of Christian Practice
But it is more than simply personal, in a political sense. This gets to the heart of each of our lives.
What is it in us that makes it hard to embrace the other? What is that part of our egos that feels threatened by people speaking languages we do not understand?
Why do we fear that the world of tomorrow will not look like the world of yesterday – has it ever? Look back; has it ever stayed the same in the past 100 years?
Can we not be people who practice the one thing Jesus called us to do:
“to do to others as we would have others do to ourselves?”
Yes, I believe we can! But not without the help of the Spirit in our own hearts. Not without the steady, daily practices of a Christian: practices like reflecting on our wisdom traditions, the scriptures, as we have done today, and practices like prayer and meditation; the very practices that help us to tame the ego and its non-rational, fearful, exclusivist lizard brain.
So, on this Memorial Day weekend, with great gratitude to God for all that has been accomplished to bring us to this day, in this democracy, in this blessed country, let us resolve to be what we are: we are Christians. We are followers of Jesus.
Our primary foundational story is that God crossed the biggest barrier of all and came to us. This is called true love. This is what we are called to. Nothing less!
Where in the world is God? God is everywhere. God is here. God is at work right now, spiritually, luring us to goodness, to the beauty of open-heartedness, to the truth of our essential oneness with God and with all the world.