June 2, 2013, Pentecost 2 – Go to the One in Charge
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There is a fairly well-known book by Rabbi Kushner that seeks to provide an answer for the age-old dilemma of the Problem of Evil, which is this: why do terrible things happen in a world governed by a good God. I haven’t read the book; I only know the title, but I mention it because I think the title of the book really gets at the heart of the way people understand our relationship to God. The title is: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. Regardless of what the book has to say, the title illuminates something that we feel in our hearts to be true: that there is something immoral and basically just unfair when a “good” person suffers evil – or, the flip side of that coin would be that a “good” person somehow deserves God’s blessing and protection. We felt it in our bones when the first graders of Newtown were gunned down by a crazy man; that was injustice of the very worst and most intolerable kind. We feel it when we pray for the healing of someone we deeply respect, or someone who has been very good to us. The good, the kind, the innocent, the generous – we feel that they have a special place in God’s heart.
And that is exactly what the elders of the synagogue thought when they brought the request of the Centurion to Jesus. This is a good and righteous man, they told him. Although he is a Roman, part of the occupying forces, he shows respect to the Jews and honors the God of Israel, even to the extent of paying for the construction of the synagogue. Here is a man who surely deserves your attention, and who is worthy to ask for your help in healing his servant. And the elders were right; from all the gospels tell us, that the Centurion was a very good, devout man, whose faith was praised by Jesus himself. But the main point of the story of the Centurion is that the elders failed to understand what it is to have faith in God, so that the faith of this Roman military man shone out as a correction and an example to them, and to all of Israel.
And since the gospels were written for our benefit, the story of the Centurion is there for our correction and example as well, because as human beings we make so many of the same mistakes as the Jewish elders did. So where did they miss the mark? First of all, their failure of faith was not that they forgot that everyone is a sinner, so that the Centurion couldn’t deserve God’s favor any more than the next guy. They were diligent students of the Holy Scriptures; they knew as well as we do that mankind is sinful and that we are all dependent on the lovingkindness of God. They surely had Psalm 14 memorized, “There is no one who does good, no, not even one…”
What God’s own people had failed to understand, and what the Centurion grasped in his spirit, was that our faith in God has nothing to do with what we do or who we are, and absolutely everything to do with who God is. And that was such a big thing that Jesus himself was amazed and delighted when he saw it. It didn’t happen often that people took Jesus by surprise, but those rare times in the gospels when Jesus was amazed, when he was just absolutely struck with joyful wonder, were always moments when he found people who had faith. Because the amazing, delightful thing that faith reveals is the lovely truth of the gospel – that in Christ we have free access to the one who is sovereign over all of creation, so that we human beings, who are a mixed bag of kindness and evil and generosity and selfishness, are simply invited to bring all our needs to the only one who can do something about them. Boiled down to its simplest form, faith is that humble, childlike trust that has eyes only for the Father. It is like the child who falls down and comes with muddy clothes, and scraped knees, who doesn’t even think about the dirt or the blood or the runny nose, but just runs into the arms of the one who can make things all better. That’s the faith that the Centurion had; that’s the faith Jesus wants for us all to have.
And real faith is something that can only be received as a gift from God, because everything natural in us feels that it somehow has to depend on us – at least a little bit. Don’t we find ourselves bargaining with God: “I’ll do this, or I will stop doing that, if only you will hear me and answer my need.” Or we pray, “God, you know how much this woman’s children need her,” or “Gracious Father, remember how kind this man has been to his friends and family.” For our own petitions I think we are more apt to see our unworthiness, and we hesitate to come, afraid that God will remember our failures, our gossiping and our unkindness and our greediness. And here’s the thing; our Father does remember everything. He knows our failures, and he knows our fears, and he loves us.
He cares more than we can ever know about the children of the woman who is dying of cancer, or our friend who is struggling with addiction. He cares about our small secret pain and about suffering so huge that we can hardly bear to look at it. He cares, but even more, he is the one who has the authority to do something about it.
I think it is very important to know that we are never wrong in bringing our feelings to God. God will never condemn us for expressing our outrage at the suffering of others, or even in expressing our frustration with God himself. Read the Psalms, pray the psalms – we have been given words in God’s own Scriptures to rant and rave against the cruelties and injustices of the world, and to pound our fists against God when we don’t like the way he is handling things. “How long, O Lord! Will you forget us forever? Don’t you see what’s going on? Don’t you care?” Theologians throughout the centuries have tried to explain how it is that God allows so much pain to exist in his world, but if you read his word, God doesn’t ever make excuses for himself. He allows himself to be implicated in every accusation we can make because he is the man in charge. He is Lord of everything, Lord of the whole broken, corrupt creation, and he will not take himself off the hook. Instead he put himself on the cross, because he has committed himself in love to bring healing to this world, and to remake it in perfect goodness. There is a story about Harry Truman, when he was President, that he had a sign made for his desk in the Oval Office that said, “The Buck Stops Here.” By that sign Truman acknowledged himself as the man in charge, which meant that ultimately he was the one who took responsibility no matter what. And the cross, purely and simply and eternally, is God’s sign that tells us just that: “The Buck Stops Here.” No excuses, no sharing the blame; he accepted it all. He is the Lord, and there is no other.
Elijah understood that in his dramatic “Battle of the Baals.” He knew that he didn’t need to yell and scream or hop up and down or cut himself to get God’s attention or favor. Heck, Elijah knew he could pour water on the firewood and it was all the same – because his faith was in God and in his power. The Centurion simply knew that Jesus was the one who could heal his servant. It didn’t depend on his own worthiness; there was nothing the Centurion could do or needed to do to make it happen. No matter what the elders thought of him, he didn’t even feel that he was worthy to have Jesus enter his house. He sent his friends to meet Jesus on his way, saying, “Lord, I am not a good enough man to have you come into my home. But I know all about authority; I know that you only have to say the word and my servant will be healed.” And the quietly wonderful end of the story tells us that his faith proved true: “When those who had been sent returned to the house,” Luke tells us, “they found the servant well.”
In the Roman Catholic liturgy, the prayer of the Centurion is used at the time of Communion, and having grown up in the Catholic Church, I often pray it myself before I receive the bread and wine: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” When we pray this we remember the faith of the Centurion, and in our hearts we say, “We come to you, Almighty Father, not because of anything we have done or can ever do, but because our lives and our health and our joy depend always and only on you. Give us the faith of the Centurion, so that day by day we may believe these truths: that you love us, that you intend only good for us and for all your creation, and that absolutely everything is under your authority.” Amen