The section of the Bible told here is Luke 7: 1-10, where Jesus heals the slave of a Roman centurion, without ever seeing the slave, because he was so impressed by the faith of the centurion.
Sometimes bible stories really speak to us. Other times they don’t. As a christian, that’s trickier for me when the stories I don’t like are about Jesus. I’m not sure how to tell people that “I don’t like Jesus in Mark”, or “The jesus in this story really seems like an asshole”.
But I believe we’re supposed to wrestle with texts, and on days that I believe in God, I believe we’re supposed to wrestle with God, and I think we should be open and honest about that. So I’m going to wrestle, and tell you all about it, because Church, more than any place else, should be a place where we can honestly say what we think about religion.
First, a few reasons I don’t like this story:
The language used to say ‘slave’ is actually ‘beloved slave’ – which indicates this man may have been the gay lover of the centurion. I don’t like that one of the few gay characters mentioned in the bible isn’t even physically present. And I don’t like that one of the only gay characters mentioned in the bible is a slave, who would have been bought and paid for, and that slavery isn’t even addressed by Jesus as being wrong.
I don’t like how this story emphasizes faith over actions. The actions of the centurion were almost certainly horrible- the romans were sometimes crucifying thousands of people in a single day, and people were dying and starving in obscene numbers. But because of his faith in Jesus, Jesus decided to heal the centurion’s slave, without a word about how to take care of other people, or stand up to oppressive powers.
And in this story, as in so many others, there are crowds of people just out of sight- the outsiders who are ignored as Jesus walks by. Those are the people I relate to. In the crowds of people who have come to see the miracle worker, I can see the people with chronic pain, or hands that don’t work. I can see the people with mental illness, and can see how they stand on the outskirts. That’s not even mentioning the people who couldn’t come to see Jesus because they had to work, or watch children, or couldn’t walk.
Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of people who are each hoping for a miracle, many praying for healing, most of whom are left behind when Jesus move on. Do they not believe enough? Does their wavering faith, so much weaker than the Centurion’s, make them unworthy of healing and love? The story has been used to support that belief, to say that “if you believe, you will be healed”, saying that your life doesn’t matter as much to God if you don’t believe enough to be healed.
So of course I don’t like this story. In settings like this one, I would always be one of the people Jesus ignores. I am always one of the doubters, one of the christians who doesn’t believe the stories really happened.
And I don’t agree that our worthiness of staying alive depends on how solid our faith is in a man we’ve never seen. Our bodies work in amazing ways, and sooner or later, that ends. Our worlds change in ways that leave us confused and uncertain, unable to find our way through spaces that used to make sense or be accessible to us. Sometimes we heal, and other times we don’t, but we are not more or less worthy because of that.
Today, just as 2,000 years ago, we are left behind by Jesus. We are still wrestling with our depression, chronic illness, and cancer. Our illnesses and bodies remain a source of shame, exclusion, and despair for so many of us.
But if our faith is based around following Jesus, then the question to ask ourselves, to examine whether or not our religion is ‘working’, is whether or not our communities are better for his visit.
When he was here, he spent time reminding us to love one another, to feed one another, to care for people who are sick- all things we can still be doing today.
We are told to be the church- to be the body of Christ moving through this world. That makes us his hands, his mouth, his beating heart, and we are responsible for proclaiming to one another that we are worthy. That we are here for one another. We are not greater than death and disease- but we can be greater than shame, and abandonment, and being hard on ourselves for not praying harder. And when we are the body of Jesus for one another, we aren’t left behind at all.
We can’t pray our way out of illness and death, and we don’t all get miracles. But sometimes we get a casserole, or a voicemail, or someone being willing to sit with us on our hardest days. And sometimes the miracle is the strength within ourselves to say ‘i need help’- the strength required to be vulnerable in front of each other. For me, that’s the hardest part.
But christianity is a religion of community, and here, at First Church, I see you all living into that. Jesus is present when we come together- as he said- “wherever 2 or more are gathered in my name, there I am also”. When we say to each other “you are worthy, you are loved, you matter to me”, we bring Jesus back again, and we don’t leave anyone behind.
We will keep calling him back for as long as the work remains, and as long as we gather in love to take care of one another. I don’t believe the work will ever be done- but I am grateful to do that work with all of you.
And all god’s worthy people say, Amen