A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on
May 29, 2016.
Principal reading Luke 7:1-10
This reading from Luke comes right after what is known as the reading on the plain which contained many teachings of Jesus hence the opening line, after Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people. Then we hear what on the surface seems to be a story of miraculous healing and it is and it is more than that. A Roman centurion, an outsider to Jesus’ group of followers has heard about this healer, this teacher, this marvelous person Jesus and he has a dilemma – he has a slave who apparently is very important to him who is gravely ill and he is looking for healing for him. Whether or not this importance is rooted in economics or personal feelings we don’t know but the slave is important to the centurion. This man, as the story tells us, is a commander of armies with great authority and those under him do his bidding without question. It brings to mind the saying; if he tells them to jump they ask ‘how high?’ So in most scenarios that come to mind, he could have gone to Jesus and demanded his help. But he knows that is not the way to approach it. He is not part of the followers of Jesus but the story certainly indicates he has a respect for the Jewish people and their beliefs so he asks the Jewish elders to intercede on his behalf and they ask Jesus to heal the centurion’s slave for the centurion is a friend of the Jews; he is worthy, he has even built our synagogue out of respect for our beliefs and traditions. Convinced, Jesus goes to help the centurion. Before Jesus can reach him, still realizing how outside social norms of the day that this is, the centurion sends his friends to speak to Jesus telling him not to come to his house for he is not worthy, saying ‘just speak and my slave will be healed’. Jesus is amazed at the faith shown by this roman centurion – not anywhere in Israel has Jesus seen this level of faith before. The centurion and Jesus never meet; Jesus never touches the slave. And the slave is healed.
This is a story of healing, a story of amazing faith, a story of Jesus’ love and healing extending to the outsider, even the enemy; a story of congenial and respectful coexisting between people of different beliefs; a story of mutuality between groups from different power and economic classes; a story of Jesus’ love and healing and grace reaching out to the slave, the one who has no voice in either society – either that of the centurion or that of the Jews.
How does this inform our faith today? We live in a world 2,000 years later where money still buys power; where those with no voice need others to speak up for them; where the powerful take what they desire with little or no regard for the rights of others; where equality of all people is still not the norm.
I can turn on the news or look on the internet at pretty much any time these days and see and hear news stories about people hating and excluding and blaming and inciting others to violence – it’s scary and it’s all too real unfortunately. But you might say, we hear about all that hate and prejudice and fear on the news too but we don’t harbor those fears and prejudices here in North Yarmouth Maine. We know the love of Christ here in our midst and we are welcoming of all people. We live and let live.
I read an article this week put out by the BTS Center about what college students think about religion and the church. They think that at the best, the church is a nice place to come – it is a place to find quiet and rest – a place of ‘comforting silence’. Not so bad – certainly one of our goals as a church. But behind those words ‘comforting silence’ is the perception that most churches are silent on issues that matter to young people today. Churches are not a prophetic voice of justice and how to mediate it. In fact, most churches avoid discussing justice issues altogether. Their perception is that church members say, yes we know there are social justice issues, we vote, enough said. They claim that the ‘church has not often been a place where information about justice, and the nurturing of action toward justice is cultivated’ . This article further says that young people are leaving churches because churches don’t care about social justice issues and that sermons are designed to make members feel better about themselves with no push to direct listeners to address issues outside the church in more than just very general and vague terms. Churches avoid uncomfortable conversations about specific, real-world pains. Quite an indictment from college students of today – of churches and pastors.
Jesus cared about social justice issues. There is no way around that. If we follow Jesus and want others to follow Jesus as well, we need to care about social justice issues. It is not enough to provide a nice place to be on Sunday morning. The church needs to be at the forefront of social justice issues of the day. The church needs to be the one who speaks up for those with no voice in our world – those who are feared, those who are hated by some, those who are oppressed, those who cannot help themselves, those who are discriminated against. It is not enough to be a voting citizen who believes in Jesus. If we truly believe in Jesus then as a church we need to be at the forefront of social justice issues. This is what Jesus is calling us to be and do. What are the social justice issues in our community? Let’s identify them and discuss them.
I know all this can seem impossible and people struggle with how and where to start because there are so many differences of opinion. I believe the place to start is in learning how to have difficult conversations. In September I will be holding a gathering where we will begin learning how to have difficult conversations. And then as we move forward together we will look to identify what social justice issues in our community need to be addressed and how to do that. As I said, if we follow Jesus and want others to follow Jesus as well, we need to care about social justice issues. Avoiding them is not an option.
God loves everyone. What can we do as a church to make sure that all people know that? Saying it is not enough – it takes action and faith to walk hand in hand just as the centurion in today’s story – action and faith that can begin to bring healing to our world. Amen.