The Faith of a Non-Believer

+ A sermon given for the Second Sunday after Pentecost (Year C) at First Lutheran Church, St. Peter, MN on May 29, 2016 +

Texts: Luke 7:1-10

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

During the past few months, we have heard a lot of rhetoric based on fear and hatred of people who are perceived as different than the white American majority.
We’ve heard politicians advocate building a wall to repel Latino immigrants, develop plans to deport Muslim Americans, and literally make federal cases over which bathrooms transgender students use at school.
Shockingly, these scare tactics have been remarkably successful both in garnering votes and forcing people to pick sides where they are encouraged to view the other side as their enemy.
And unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.
This fear of the outsider has been around as long as humans knew how to define who was an outsider and who was an insider.

There are a multitude of texts on our Bible that warn the Israelites against getting involved with foreigners – people outside of God’s covenant.
And yet, there are also countless examples of outsiders being integrated into or saving the Israelite people.
The Canaanite prostitute Rahab helped the Israelites conquer the Promised Land.
Ruth, the Moabite woman, a sworn enemy of the Israelites, pledged her loyalty to God and became the great-grandmother of King David.
Both of these women also become foremothers of Jesus.
Not to mention King Cyrus of Persia, who was declared by God to be an ‘anointed one’ – or messiah – for the Jewish people when he allowed them to return to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian exile.
It seems that no matter how many restrictions we make on who is included in God’s chosen people, God always manages to work through people outside of that definition.

God’s love for the outsider is not only well documented throughout the Bible, it is highlighted through Jesus’ ministry on earth.
In his very first sermon, Jesus preached that his mission was to “bring good news to the poor. [God] has sent me,” Jesus said, “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.”
Jesus then immediately names prophets who healed foreigners as examples for his mission.
Much of Jesus’ ministry was indeed spent with people living in need, who had been rejected by society, or who were oppressed.
And in today’s reading, we find Jesus again reaching out to yet another outsider.
But while Jesus often works with people living on the margins, today we see him reaching out to a person in a position of power and authority.

Illuminated Manuscript, Gospels (Creative Commons image by Ariel Tabritha, Walters Art Museum, on Flickr)

As he enters Capernaum, envoys come to Jesus on behalf of a Roman centurion. We can assume that this centurion was a foreigner – a Gentile living in Galilee – so by definition he was outside of societal norms.
But more than that, this man was an officer in the Roman Army – foreign occupiers who oppressed and terrorized the Jewish people – Jesus’ people.
While it sounds like this particular man was charitable and honest, he was still an embodiment of the hated Roman Empire – the Empire that dominated Israel, that ravaged its resources, and eventually would execute Jesus.
Even so, when the centurion sends for Jesus, he doesn’t hesitate to help.
So, we may wonder why Jesus would do this?
Why would he go out of his way to help the enemy – those who are taxing, imprisoning, and oppressing the Jewish people – the very people Jesus was targeting in his ministry?
Jesus had every reason not to help this man.
He had every reason to ignore his pleas and continue on his way.

At the beginning of the gospel reading, we heard “After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.”
If we look to the previous chapter, immediately preceding this reading, we can see that the sayings referred to are The Sermon on the Plain – Luke’s telling of the Beatitudes – where Jesus declares the blessedness of those who are suffering or persecuted.
But it is also where Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Just as soon as Jesus utters these words, he encounters a situation where he is forced to practice what he preached.
He has to decide whether to treat this man according to all of his societal labels – foreigner, heathen, enemy – or to see him as a fellow human – a child of God.
Thankfully, Jesus chooses the latter.

roman2bcenturion1But something interesting happens in this story – or doesn’t happen.
Jesus doesn’t demand a religious conversion before he heals the servant.
He doesn’t say “follow me,” “repent,” or even bother to meet the man!
We really have no reason to believe that this centurion or his servant became followers of Jesus. Even so, Jesus praises the faith of this foreigner, this Gentile, this oppressor and lifts him up as a model for us to follow.

The faith Jesus praised was one of humility.
This man of great power and might recognized that he was powerless over the illness in his servant.
This man, who commanded many soldiers, humbly deferred to a Galilean peasant to help him. He recognized his own limitations and unworthiness when compared to the abilities of this man, Jesus.
He was a man who, despite his role in an oppressive force, sought to do good for the people around him.

And by naming this Gentile to be an exemplar of faith, Jesus shows that people who follow other religions can also be forces for good in this world – that God can work through people who don’t believe in the same thing that we do.
To me, this seems both obvious and astounding.
We Christians have long tried to limit who is “in” with God – who has the right faith or belief.
We set up doctrinal litmus tests to see whether or not to work with another denomination rather than trusting in God’s ability and desire to unite us.
Martin Luther even said that the good works of non-Christians are not seen as good in God’s eyes.
But that’s not what Jesus says in today’s reading.
Jesus praises the faith of a non-Jew, a pagan, and says its greater than all the faith he’s seen among God’s chosen people, Israel.
Jesus shows that God is working through this man to do good in his community and to be an example of faithful living.
And to say only orthodox Christians can be forces of good and representatives of God in this world discounts the works of some of humanity’s most influential people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama.
It rejects the work of countless non-Christians working for peace and justice here in this community and around the world.
And I’m sure we can each think of friends or family in our own lives who aren’t Christian, or may not profess any faith at all, but who are forces for good in their community and sources of love in our lives.
Many people in the Church would tell us that these people are bound for hell because they don’t believe in Christ as their lord and savior, but Jesus praises the faith of this non-believer.
Jesus invites us to look again and see this centurion – and all people – as a beloved child of God and a person through whom God can work to do good in this world.

“Jesus Eraser” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

In her reflection last week, Brittani Lamb referenced a cartoon that is one of my personal favorites. It shows people with giant pencils drawing lines on the floor – boxing themselves in and others out. But in the midst of them stands a man with a crown of thorns that is busy erasing those lines, much to the annoyance of those around him.
It’s been said that whenever we draw a line to judge who is “in” and who is “out”, we are inevitably going to find Jesus on the other side of our lines.
Because with God, there is no “other.”
No one is outside the boundaries of God’s love and power.
Not Muslims, not atheists, not Roman centurions, not you and not me.
All of us are embraced as beloved children of God and all of us are people through whom God can and will work in this world.

Thanks be to God for that!

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