May 29, 2016, Sick Servants and Wet Firewood – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell

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I love it that this story begins with a rich and powerful military man, a Roman, no less, who asks Jesus to save the life of a mere servant. The translation we use says that the centurion valued his servant highly, and that might just sound like it’s a financial sort of thing – maybe the centurion was worried about the death of his servant because his death meant a great monetary loss. But really, the word means that the servant was precious to him, someone he honored and respected, a beloved servant. Peter uses the same word when he talks about Jesus as the cornerstone, chosen by God and precious. And Matthew tells us that the centurion is troubled because his servant is suffering terribly. We don’t even know the name of the centurion, but we know from the start that he is a man of compassion. But more than that, he is the only man in all of the gospels whose faith amazed Jesus.

This man is a perfect example to us of one who knows how to pray. He simply asks Jesus to heal his servant, with complete confidence that Jesus is able to do what he has asked. And by the time his messengers had returned to his house, the servant was all well.

I don’t know about you, but my prayer life is a lot messier than this. I read this story and I find myself questioning my own ability to pray, and the strength of my faith. It doesn’t happen very often, if ever, that my prayer is granted immediately and completely. In fact, when I read this story I find myself identifying much more with the Jewish elders than with the centurion of great faith because I so often fall into the trap of trying to convince God to listen to me. “This man deserves what he asks of you,” they told Jesus. “He is a God-fearing man, even though he’s just a Gentile, and he’s been very generous to the synagogue. You really should do what he asks.”

Just like those elders, I find myself so often anxiously filling my prayers with reasons that God should listen to me. “This person has suffered so much,” I tell him. Or “This person’s children need him to be well.” I worry that my prayers weren’t fervent enough, that I didn’t say it right, that my prayer wasn’t any good because I got distracted and started thinking about what I was going to make for dinner right in the middle of my prayer. Or I compare my prayers with other people’s prayers and feel inadequate.

I think sometimes what it would have been like to be in Elijah’s place, standing before the whole kingdom against four hundred and fifty priests of Baal, just waiting for that fire to come down and cook the cow. Faith can be terrifying, if we forget who we’re putting our faith in. We are so very much like Peter sometimes, who was actually walking toward Jesus on the churning waves of the sea and then looked down at his own feet and sank like a rock. But that’s not the end of those stories, because God sent fire down that burned up Elijah’s whole sacrifice, stones and all, and Jesus reached out to Peter and took his hand and hauled him safely back into the boat. Faith is not an end in itself; faith is not a pass/fail subject; faith is reaching out, however imperfectly we do it, to the one who reaches out to us, and who is able to help us.

The prayer of the good centurion began with his love and compassion for his servant who was at the point of death. He made his request to Jesus with humility, and in full confidence that Jesus was able to restore his servant to health. And Jesus healed the servant, with no more than a word. We might be tempted to conclude that the moral of the story is that we need to be more like the centurion, with his unwavering faith that surpassed anything Jesus had found in all of Israel. But we would be wrong. The moral of the story is this: that the God we go to with all our prayers and all our fears is the same God who healed the centurion’s servant with a word. We pray to the God who is in charge. Of everything. And no matter how confident we feel, or how not-confident; no matter how deserving or undeserving we think we are; no matter how much we feel like Elijah standing in front of his soaking wet sacrifice waiting for lightning to strike, the centurion tells us we have come to the right person.

Because one thing we know when we pray, one thing that happens every single time we pray, is that our God listens to us. He always hears us. He’s never out to lunch or taking a nap. We never get a busy signal, or one of those annoying automatic-response emails: “God will be out of the office until July 23rd. We are sorry for any inconvenience.” But there’s more, because we need more than a sympathetic ear. We pray to the God who is able to do all that we ask. And saying that feels as bold and as risky as Elijah pouring water on his firewood. But that is what the centurion knew, and it is what we proclaim.

There is a doxology that we pray at the end of evening prayer that comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. And it makes a stunning claim – “to the one who is able to do far more abundantly than we can ask or imagine – to him be the glory for ever and ever.” We don’t just confess a God who is able to satisfy our requests – we confess a God who can do more than we can ask, more than we can even imagine. And that’s where the strength of our faith lies – not in our confidence, not in our worthiness, not in our ability to pray well enough – but in the God who listens to us and who has the authority to help us with anything and everything we bring to him – abundantly, no strings attached, no conditions – because he is the one in charge.

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