A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho by Rev Brian Ellison, Executive Director of the Covenant Network.
Sunday, June 2, 2013
I have heard, over the years since you called my friend Marci to be your pastor, about this church. I’ve heard of your commitment to welcoming all people into your worship and service with authenticity and grace. I’ve heard of your sense of humor and joy in ministry together. Indeed, in meeting a few of you this weekend, I’ve experienced it firsthand.
But one of the things that made the strongest impression on me, particularly in years when I myself was serving a church of very widely varying opinions on how the church should be dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, were the pictures (posted on Facebook) of your church in the Boise Pride festival. Wearing T-shirts proudly proclaiming the love of Jesus and the fabulousness of people. Boldly apologizing for the sins we in the church have sometimes caused our brothers and sisters. It is a faithful witness, and to this gay man who at that time in my life did not feel I could be so bold, it was a powerful and important one.
Four weeks from today, I’ll be seeing another Pride festival; I’ll be preaching at First Presbyterian Church, at the corner of 12th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City. The last Sunday in June is a high holy day, up there with Easter and Christmas: Pride Sunday. It’s a day for celebrating the gospel truth that God really does love everyone, that God invites everyone to the table. And it is a call for that church—this enormous, historic brown stone and stained glass church, with little gates on the wooden pews and the font in which Theodore Roosevelt was baptized—for that church to pile out the front door onto Fifth Avenue after church and hand out water to the walkers in the New York City pride parade, clergy wearing their collars and marchers wearing … well, whatever they’re wearing … all the church saying to all the world: God loves you, no matter what you might have heard.
That’s the New York City I generally imagine in my head. And it exists in Boise and a lot of other places, too. Which is a great thing to celebrate. But then there’s something else – in a lot of places, and in Boise, and in New York City, too.
Two weeks ago, Mark Carson, a 38-year-old man was walking with another man through Greenwich Village, when a man called him an ugly name, insulted him and then shot him in the face and killed him. Part of a trend—twice as many homophobic hate crimes since the start of this year over last year, in one of the most tolerant and diverse places in the country. Just yesterday morning, a 19-year-old man walking with his boyfriend was approached, called a slur, and hit in the head by a man who then ran off before police tracked him down.
It makes us wonder: Can we celebrate progress while the world keeps falling apart? And not just on this subject. Does it make sense to take two steps forward when the next day we just take two steps back. To have one evil rectified or one prayer is answered when a thousand more seem to go unresolved? What is there to say when the kingdom of God we long for isn’t quite the kingdom of God we seem to get?
Well, at least today’s Bible story gives us some good news, right? It’s a healing story!
The Bible testifies all over the place to God’s desire for newness and wholeness of life, with Jesus as the frequent dispenser of those new beginnings, those restorations and reconciliations. Here is a story that gives us some hope for the world.
You ever notice how when you read Bible stories they become so familiar that you miss stuff in them? Especially these beautiful stories of Jesus in the gospels. They become so sainted and holy and “Precious Moments” that we drop them all in our “Jesus healing the sick” file in our brains and stop really hearing them.
That’s too bad, on the one hand, because I think it’s hard for stories locked in the file cabinet to really transform our lives. And it’s too bad for another reason–something I hate to admit: I think anyone who would really listen to this story … really read it … well, I think we would find that’s it’s all kinds of crazy. This story has so many problems that listening to it honestly might just make us wonder about this whole Jesus thing after all.
Let’s start with the main characters. It’s about a guy and his slave. The very first thing you learn in the story is that we’re talking about a person who is indentured in service to someone else, whose own humanity and identity and vocation has been subsumed within someone else’s with no way out. It’s not like slavery is a quaint old concept either, we’re only 150 years past it as a fundamental and tragic building block of our nation’s economy. Children and women are routinely trafficked in many places around the world today to commit unspeakable acts against their will. Slavery is real and it is awful, and confronted head-on with a living breathing example of one of its practitioners, Jesus says … No comment.
Then there’s the fact that the slave’s master is not just any ordinary businessman; he’s a Roman centurion, which is to say he is the foot soldier in the evil empire’s oppression of the people—God’s people, even. True, Rome’s rule isn’t this man’s fault, but he certainly seems to be living comfortably enough because of it; he expresses no hesitation about the role he plays, which is enforcing the people’s indignity. And here are the people of his district, fawning all over him, strangely drawn to care for their captor. And about this odd state of affairs, this perpetuation of injustice, Jesus says … Nothing.
It’s not just the unsaid, but also the undone, that should trouble us if we’re paying attention. The centurion doesn’t even go to Jesus himself; he sends, as usual we might suppose, other people to do his bidding. There are words here—things he tells others to say about his own unworthiness—words but no obvious action.
And then there’s the slave’s total absence from any of this—do we even know that he wants to be healed? What is his faith, if any … doesn’t it matter what he believes? Have we bothered to explore what the centurion’s motivation is for wanting the slave to be healed? Is he really moved with compassion or is he just tired of making his own coffee every morning? What will happen the next day anyway … was the result of Jesus’ glorious work that the slave could (as it were) go back to the fields?
To top it off, the story gives us just about the least dramatic, least satisfying healing moment ever. It happens offstage, mentioned almost as an after-thought. In fact, it sort of forgets to say that Jesus healed the man at all.
But there it is. A story of healing. A story of renewal and wholeness. A story of Jesus. It’s not the story we might want, or might expect. But it’s the story we get.
Today is an exciting day around here – I’m pretty honored to be a part of it. There’s a lot going on. Graduates are being celebrated and sent off to commence their lives in the world. Deacons and elders are being ordained and installed, their gifts and work ahead being wrapped up in God’s gifts and work. The Lord’s Supper will be shared by us all, our everyday foretaste of a heavenly feast. This is a full service … and a messy one. There’s too much Holy Spirit stuff here to try to pull it all together and put a bow on it. Sometimes church is like that. It’s not elegant … but it is full.
And come to think of it, at our best, this is how our lives are too, aren’t they? It all overflows with the currents and cross-currents of home and family, work and school, news and politics, friends and world and every once in a while solitude. And just like in today’s church service, God’s in all of that stuff, too, even if it isn’t quite so explicit. God is alive and at work in all these places, we know this, but not with an elegant golden thread that so obviously winds its way through. Sometimes it’s obvious but sometimes it’s a faint whisper, sometimes it’s all but invisible.
In fact, that’s how it is in the whole world, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily the world we might want, or might expect. But it’s the world we get.
The same New York City that experiences the pride of celebrating all people’s humanity, the love of Jesus for every man, woman, and child made in God’s image … that same New York City experiences that other kind of pride—the kind that goeth before the fall—where one human being tells another that they aren’t what God wants.
But this is the world. And this is where God is. When Jesus shows up we might like every story to be like a magic wand being waved. The leper is touched and the healing occurs. The mud is put on the eyes and sight is restored.
But the world we live in is a Luke Chapter 7 world, and healing rarely happens that way. Justice is rarely a matter of a single spoken word. Every problem is not healed by each just action. The day you or I offer a cold cup of water to an overheated stranger, he will be better and a thousand more will still thirst. But the witness of the scriptures and the promise of the gospel is that it still matters. That, in fact, it couldn’t possibly matter any more. That this is the kingdom of God.
The day after Boise Pride one less kid will go to sleep afraid, knowing that this community will stand with him even if his family won’t. That is the reign of God.
The day one of you high school graduates moves into a dorm room and shows kindness to an awkward roommate or wisdom in a tough moral choice or patience with a failing friend … that is the reign of God.
The day a new deacon first holds the hand of a home bound member and makes them smile for the first time in a month. The day an elder invites someone to teach Sunday School and that teacher invites a child to church and that child hears about Jesus’ love for them and it clicks for the first time … that is the reign of God.
And there will still be more work to do, more fear to overcome, more pain to heal, more kids to teach … but it is no less the reign of God.
So let us commit ourselves again to the modest work of showing God’s grace. Let us trouble ourselves to make our way to the centurion’s home. Let us be notice, and even be astonished by, the smallest gesture of goodness in the world around us. Let us do one healing thing even when a hundred are left to do. And may our Savior find in us “such faith” that through us, the world might—little by little—be transformed.
May it be so. Amen.