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Luke 7:1-10 Amazing Faith!

Jesus had as many conflicts in Capernaum as the Northampton City Council does.  This was his home base for much of his ministry.  This fishing village of about 1500 is where Jesus called Peter, James, John and Andrew to leave their nets and follow him.  I would say there is some faith in Capernaum.  It was also the home of Matthew the tax collector, another man who made a great leap of faith to follow Jesus.  So why was Jesus so impressed with the faith of a centurion, given that half of his disciples came from the same village?


This passage is in the flow of controversy over the healing ministry of Jesus.  Jesus comes to town and heals a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Soon their village is clogged with people seeking healing, so packed that one group carrying their paralytic friend on a mattress can’t get near Jesus, so they actually take him up on the roof and pry up the tiles to lower him down through to where Jesus is teaching.  In Luke 5 it says, Jesus sees their faith and says, “Friend your sins are forgiven.”  See, there is plenty of faith in Capernaum.  But here is where the trouble really begins.  Someone says, “Hey, only God can forgive, this is blasphemy.”  Jesus ends that argument by saying, “pick up your bed and walk,” and heals the man.  Next Luke tells us about a whole series of controversies about Sabbath observance.  Jesus picks grain on the Sabbath and heals another man on the Sabbath, and things get so heated in Capernaum that Jesus decides to take a break and preach elsewhere for a time. 


We are picking up the story as Jesus decides things have settled enough to come back to town.  Now a centurion hears that Jesus is a healer and he has hopes for a slave he favors, so he works through the town elders to entreat Jesus to heal.  Is this the same group of elders who were angry and challenging Jesus just weeks before?  If so, there is a great irony in them now coming to Jesus and asking for the healing of the centurion’s servant. 


So Jesus is on his way and the centurion sends a messenger to say, don’t trouble yourself with the long walk Jesus.  I know you are a busy man, just like me you have your duties to attend to.  Just say the word and I know my servant will be healed.  Jesus responds: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  This seems meant not only to compliment the centurion, but also a statement back at all those who were upset with how Jesus healed previously.  They didn’t want Jesus’s healing power when he was helping the lame and the poor, (you know, THOSE PEOPLE; all the folks filling up the benches and loitering on Main Street.  That’s bad for business.)  But now they humbly request healing for the wealthy benefactor to the synagogue, a powerful centurion. 


A lesser man might have said to the elders, “You want me, a blasphemer, and one who commands devils, who disobeys the Sabbath, now you want me to heal a Gentile centurion’s slave?”  Jesus could have focused on the hypocracy, but he chooses to let that linger in the background, and instead focuses on the faith of the centurion, as a righteous Gentile, as one charged with keeping the peace through military repression of Israel, but who also acts with benevolence towards the houses of worship and acknowledges the authority of Jesus as a healer from God. 


Looking at Luke’s Gospel in this manner has changed my understanding of the purpose behind the narrative.  It should be subtitled: “Amazing Faith.” Luke the physician, who also wrote Acts of the Apostles as the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, has a consistent narrative theme of amazement and what God is doing, first in Jesus and then in the Holy Spirit.  Four fisherman leave their nets and immediately follow Jesus.  Amazing!  A tax collector named Matthew leaves his lucrative occupation to be the next disciples.  Astonishing!  Friends believe in the healing power of God and are willing to climb a roof and tear it off to get to Jesus.  Astounding!  A Roman centurion requests healing from Jesus.  Flabbergasting!   Luke will revisit this theme in the book of Acts.  The first baptism is an Ethopian Eunuch who is the Queen of Sheba’s Treasurer.  Dorcas, a wealth merchant of purple cloth joins the movement.  Cornelius, another Roman centurion, also joins the faith.  Luke keeps repeating to us again and again.  The response to the overflowing and healing love of God is astonishing.  Faith is awakening and you just can’t imagine who will be next.  Later Jesus says in Luke, that the reign of God is like a great banquet, where the usual guest are just too busy to come, so the master of the house fills the chairs with the lame and the blind and the poor begging on the streets so the food won’t go to waste.


Amazing faith responses to God is not the whole story here.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  That is not only Newton’s law of motion, it is a great spiritual dynamic as well.  Every time Jesus inspires faith and heals, someone else is angry and thinks he is out of line.  Crowds get so large Jesus has to preach from a boat, but he is rejected in his home town of Nazareth.  The same dynamic happens to Peter and Paul in Acts.  Paul starts awakening faith and draws people in, then he gets arrested and thrown in jail.  And then jail gives him time to write his many letters, which becomes the first Christian scriptures we still ponder today. 


So our brief text this morning about the amazing faith of the centurion, is part of the underlying structure of Luke’s understanding of the dynamics of faith.  We are both amazed at who responds, and baffled by the small-minded and angry resistance.  As readers of this Good News we are challenges to choose where we stand.  Are we the ones leaving our boats, walking away from our tax booths, tearing off the roof to get to Jesus, amazed that even a centurion or later a prostitute, will be people of great faith?  Or are we the ones arguing the finer points of law and theology, complaining that some of our favorite traditions are being upset, or feeling threatened by such an astonishing array of sinners joining our club?


I wish I could say exactly which side of that line I stand.  I want to say I am on that side of amazing faith, ready for what the great love of God will inspire next.  Sometimes I rise to the occasion.  But I also have places of resistance inside, feelings that the love of God calls me to places I don’t want to go.  I like some security, some predictability, I like my job and wouldn’t want to threaten that security.  I have cherished notions I don’t easily let go.  Am I any different than the religious leaders in Capernaum?  Don’t star tearing off my roof, do you know what we paid for that slate?  And God, I could really use some help with getting some big donors like the centurion.  It’s fine for all the newly healed lame and blind and formerly demon possessed to come to the new member class, but could you bring me a centurion? 


The Gospel of Luke makes room for uneasy believers like me as well.  Peter leaves his boat behind in a great act of faith one minute, and tries to lecture Jesus about going to Jerusalem, angering Jesus to the point of saying, “Get behind me Satan.”  Peter wants to walk on water, but soon sinks.  He vows to never leave Jesus’s side and then cruelly denies him three times. And on the story goes.  The Gospel and the love of God awakens great faith in our hearts.  We celebrate God’s healing power one minute and then resist it the next.  We move from action to reaction. 

The best news of this story is that Jesus can still be amazed by the human response to God.  If Jesus can be amazed by the faith of the centurion, then God can perhaps be amazed by me.  God is ever-ready to be amazed by you, by First Churches, by the people sitting out on the benches of Main Street, tourist and beggar alike.  Awakenings are ever possible! 

Love in the Abyss Romans 5:1-5

9781455501953_custom-30dedeba3cd673bcda8c88973028d06ca2f1c771-s2Tuesday morning, I sat down with our lectionary study group, eight local pastors I gather with each week to reflect on the next Sunday’s readings.  None of us were excited about Trinity Sunday, or the theological Rubic’s Cube of explaining the three-in-one God.  News was pouring in from Oklahoma City about the terrible tornadoes, and we were all feeling a sense of tragedy overload, Newtown shootings, Boston Bombings, and weekly pastoral tragedies in our congregations.  In the midst of this, we had Paul’s text from Romans 5,

“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I’m not above glorying in my sufferings, but its not the goal.  I come by stoicism naturally growing up in farm country, and I like this passage, because I struggle to with perseverance.  I need help to hope.  A common emotional progression is not always as Paul says, but rather that suffering produces frustration; frustration brings self-pity, and self-pity produces apathy and hopelessness.  I marvel when someone triumphs over suffering; a Gabby Giffords coming back from being shot in the head, an alcoholic who maintains sobriety for 20 years and sponsors others along the path, I even marvel at Anthony Weiner running for Mayor of New York City.  I always wonder why one person crumbles in tragedy and another finds their life purpose.  What is the foundation of hope and resiliency in the midst of tragedy and suffering?  (And a side note, does it have anything to do with the Trinity?)

Tuesday morning, as we were hearing the terrible news of tornadoes in Oklahoma City, NPR’s Morning Edition aired an interview with author Carol Shaben, who wrote a memoir “Into the Abyss”   about a plane crash in artic Canada, which her father was one of the few survivors.

On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Erik Vogel was uneasy about flying. It was snowing; his plane's de-icer and autopilot weren't working; and his co-pilot had been bumped to fit one more passenger on his 10-seater. But the young pilot was behind schedule and he felt like his job was on the line, so he took off, as he did most days, shuttling between the remote communities that dot the Canadian wilderness.

Author Carol Shaben tells NPR's Steve Inskeep what happened next: "He's hearing these chunks of ice coming off the props and banging like rocks against the fuselage. And he made a calculation error. He thought he was past the high point, but there was another rise of land, 2,500 feet, and he hit that top of that rise."

The plane crashed through a bank of trees, and as the fuselage plowed into the ground, broken bits of plane sheared off the roof like a sardine can. Six people died in the crash, and four men emerged from the wreckage: the pilot; a politician; a prisoner being transferred; and the police officer who was escorting him.

The police officer recalled that night becoming conscious and not realizing the plane had crashed.  He was buried up to his chest in dirt, has no idea what is going on, and suddenly his prisoner, Paul, emerges and starts digging him out, and rescues him.  It is Paul who drags everyone to safety and then searches for anything to burn and start a fire with, no easy job in three feet of snow and subzero weather.  Without this prisoner, feeding the fire the all would have died.  The police officer had been a Canadian Mountie and recovered numerous bodies of people who froze to death in the wild and assumed they would die. 

Shaben, the author weaves together how each of the survivors was transfigured by the crash and rescue.  Her father had a remarkable political career, and was especially moved by another plane crash, this one on 9/11, which moved him to work for greater understanding between cultures.  The pilot, struggled with guilt through the years, and after having his flying career stalled, since no one would hire him, he became a firefighter, and had the opportunity to save many more lives than those lost that day. But the most dramatic change was for Paul Archanbault:

Shaben:. He had a long prison record — who, you know, was an accused criminal, a drifter who had been drifting across the country since he was 15 or 16….. He got on a plane two days later and faced charges, faced a judge in court. And the judge said, 'You are to be commended for your actions and I exonerate you of all charges.' So this ne'er-do-well vagabond who'd had nothing but hard luck was all of a sudden hailed as a hero. So [his life] took a dramatic turn that way.

In the books prologue Shaben tries to explain what happened to them, turning to popular mythology writer Joseph Campbell, who wrote a book about heroic journeys, and the transformative power of a crisis that shakes our complacency through crisis.  We confront the precious and limited nature of existence and come out with a deeper understanding on the other side of suffering.  I think that is partly correct, however, not everyone is transformed by crisis.  If so, Hurricane Sandy and the Oklahoma tornadoes would be creating great religious revivals and an outpouring of meaning and purpose.  Crisis does bring people together for a time, there is an outpouring of compassion for the survivors, gratitude to still be alive, but the norm is most people gradually return to everyday life, and few even curse God or reject any goodness to life.

I think the real story of the plane crash is not just how each individual took their own hero’s journey to transformation, it is how their bond and their ongoing friendship gave them the strength and courage to go on and find new meaning.  It is a story of community, and of the transforming power of love and friendship.  Perhaps they would have still lived changed lives as sole survivors, by that would be rare indeed. Most people have the strength to hope and change because of love.  This is why twelve step recovery programs work so well, not because of the magic or brilliance of the steps alone, but because of the accompanying community.  Many people find hope in their terrible pain and suffering through Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, or working to transform gun violence. 

This is why we gather in church each week, and why we sing and pray and reflect on scriptures together.  We are not transformed by wisdom alone, or knowledge alone or the calming power of meditation and music.  It is love that is at the heart of things, and you can’t love by yourself. 

When people say they don’t believe in organized religion, or that they are spiritual by not religious, I ask them if they believe in community.  It is certainly hard to have community without organization, and hard to make community without passing through some disagreements and annoyances.  What I really want to say is “Where will you go when walking alone in your spiritual journey is not enough?”

Now I know you are wondering when I will get back to the Holy Trinity.  Thanks for asking.  The doctrine we call Trinity matters because it tells us that even God does not dwell alone.  The mystery at the heart of our one God, is that there is a communal in-dwelling together of three personas; Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit.  Love cannot live alone and it is always seeking more life to love.  This must be why God seeks us.  This is why we can hope.  As Paul says in the conclusion of our Romans reading:

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.




"How Can I Keep From Singing? Acts 16:16-34

My inner response to this scripture is best described by the word “disruptive.”  It’s troublesome, unruly, unsettling, disturbing.  We move from fortune telling slave girls, to demons being caste out, dark prisons of Philippi, Paul and Silas incongruently singing in chains, earthquakes, it all makes me feel like I’m watching an episode of Xena Warrior Princess or some other ancient fantasy.  I think Acts of the Apostles may be patterned on Homer’s Odyssey, the epic journey tale of a soldier coming home from battle.  This is the early Christian version of the epic spread of the word about Jesus.

The passage starts with disrupting injustice.  What happens to this woman, who only gets mentioned as a “slave girl?”  I hate it when a character enters the story for a few sentences, her already difficult life is turned upside down, and the scene moves on without knowing what happened to her, let alone her name.  She is literary collateral damage.

Just when scriptures are giving women a fair shake in the story, by extolling a woman named Lydia, who is the first documented Christian convert on the European continent.  Lydia was a merchant dealing in purple cloth, a wealthy women who hospitality, influence and generous spirit created a home base for Paul and Silas in Greece.  She stands on her own in the story, without drawing her status from a husband.  Then we have this contrasting story of the fortune telling slave girl, who seems to be an annoyance to Paul.  Paul castes a demon out of her, which may have given her some temporary relief, but her value is diminished to her masters.  We are left to imagine what becomes of her.

Our imaginations can be quite fertile this week, as we have been bombarded by the story of a Cleveland man holding women in captivity for years, in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  NPR interviewed neighbors and they were all astonished that such a thing could happen right there, by a man they all knew.  This wasn’t a far off land, but right by their home and their world view was shaken.

The slave’s disappearance from the story disturbs me because of watching so many people briefly emerge from homeless or addiction at Hillcrest House in Poughkeepsie and then disappear from the scene, so many that I cannot remember their names.  They came from jail, rehabs, psychiatric hospitalization, fleeing domestic violence, their stories a cascade of overlapping oppressions.  Just as we would caste out one demon, another would possess them and carry them back into the hopeless chaos.

I don’t like stories where people disappear from the plot without resolution.  This sentiment was captured by a photographer in Bangledesh, whose photo was in Time Magazine this week.  The photo is of a couple found in their final embrace in the rubble of a garment factory collapse.  A thousand people are dead, not from an earthquake of natural disaster, but of greed and oppression.  He said,

Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable — it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number — not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too.

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I can’t really judge Paul for his actions, I’m sure he was trying to help, but he too is quickly swept up in the tide, imprisoned for disturbing the peace and tranquility of the community, beaten and put in stocks.  Be careful out there do-gooders.  Changing the world and making a difference is not always a feel good experience, it often breaks your heart and sometimes gets you in trouble.

Paul and Silas were arrested and beaten with rods, perhaps another typical case of Philippian police brutality?  Since Paul and Silas were foreigners, is this also a case of racial profiling?  Greeks called everyone other than themselves “barbarians.”  They are held without trial, perhaps to be deported, or just to sit in the darkness without official charges, access to legal counsel, never read their Miranda rights.  What kind of barbaric legal system tolerates this kind of injustice?

But the story does not end here.  There is yet another disruptive force in the story.  Somewhere deep under the prison walls, the tectonic plates under the Macedonian prison shift.  Somewhere deep in the heart of God there is a shift to another plan.  God is never mentioned as the source, but in most times before our own, earthquakes, lightening, any great natural phenomenon was considered to be a tool of God.  Acts tells us that the foundations of the prison were shaken, the door immediately burst open and everyone’s chains fell off.

Freeing the captive is a great motif throughout scripture, from Moses  parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, to Jesus announcing the Jubilee in Luke with a promise of freedom for the captive, all the way to our times and The Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.  ~Nelson Mandela

This was a “faith-quake”, and it calls us to a great truth, that in the midst of trial and trembling, God has not forgotten us and is not removed from our suffering.  It calls us to remember the words of Psalm 46, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;”  “Faith-quakes” call us to anticipate and hope for the power of God’s love to shake the foundations of our human created prisons and oppressions, and break the chains that bind us.  God’s quake bends the iron bars we have so cruelly installed to lock out possibilities and potentials.  Where fear has shut and locked the door to close out our hopes and dreams, God bursts the lock and says “Be not afraid.”

To add to the ironic conclusion here, the captives do not flee into the night.  The jailer had slept through all the quaking, comes to see the doors open and is ready to kill himself for his failure, when Paul stops him and says, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  And the jailer immediately says, “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul and Silas suddenly have quite a group of converts, a jailer, his family, probably a few other prisoners, who were in for God knows what.  I wonder what Lydia the purple cloth merchant thought as Paul brought her new brothers and sisters in Christ to her house church?  Paul now has more of what he truly wants, not just freedom for himself from jail, but to free anyone and everyone from their captivity through encountering the life giving power of God, and bringing them together as a new community called church.

Its very humbling to me as a pastor to hear this story.  What am I to learn and imitate here?  I haven’t caste out any demons lately. Maybe my church growth strategy should be to get arrested for civil disobedience.  The one thing we all can do is to never lose heart and keep on singing.  I always wonder what hymns Paul and Silas were singing in prison.  Was it the Magnificat?  Or did they know a tune to Psalm 23?  Was there an early version of “We Shall Overcome?” Singing in prison is a grand tradition in the faith.  I unearthed this interview of William Sloan Coffin speaking with Bill Moyers in 2004, about being in jail and signing, and I will share it with as our conclusion.

MOYERS: It's been 30-plus years since you were arrested and jailed for trespassing in the US Capitol, when you were protesting the Vietnam War.

Your fellow demonstrators remember that during the night, when they were uneasy, even depressed, they suddenly heard someone singing. And it was you. Do you remember that?

COFFIN: Yeah. It was a group of clergy and laity concerned with Vietnam. And so, they were all pretty religious folk. So, I started to sing "The Messiah," as I remember. And quite a few people joined in. It was a good night.

MOYERS: What is it that enables a man to sing in prison?

COFFIN: Well. In my case music, after God, has been my chief source of solace. Song is an expression of hope. And hope is something that is experienced with a kind of psychological certitude, rather than intellectual certainty.

It's trusting that things all will be well when the day is done. Or, as Havel said wonderfully, "Hope is not waiting for something good to turn up well. But being grateful that something really makes sense." That's enough to make you burst into song.

Is it enough for you to burst into song?