Second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 9C, May 29th, 2016
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are not many places in the New Testament where soldiers are mentioned. It seems appropriate to read one of those passages today, on Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those who have served their country, and especially those who have died for their country. There’s just one problem: this soldier, this centurion, like all soldiers mentioned in the New Testament, was the enemy. He was a Roman, a commander in the army that had conquered Israel and occupied it, imposing heavy taxes that devastated the middle and working classes of the day. This particular Roman, we are told, built a synagogue, a place of worship, for the local Jewish community. I hope he did it because he sincerely respected them and God, but he may just have done it to make them dependent on him—a common Roman tactic. And, even if the centurion did indeed believe in God, and that’s why he built the synagogue, he was part of the occupying army that was building temples to pagan gods on Jewish soil, and pressuring Jews to worship them. Armies can defend and protect, but armies can also do terrible things. It all depends on who’s giving their orders—who’s in charge. Who has the authority.
The centurion, like all those who serve their nation in the military then or now, understood authority. We don’t know the depth of his faith, whether he had learned from the Jews around him to believe only in the Lord our God, or if he had just accepted this Yahweh as an addition to the many so-called gods that he and all the Romans worshiped. We don’t know if he was a good man or a bad one. We don’t know how he treated his men, or his family, or his slaves. We don’t know if the faith he had that drove him to seek out Jesus was the beginning of a lifelong commitment or just a temporary thing. We don’t know if he was worthy of God’s healing, and we know even less about the slave he wanted Jesus to heal.
The first delegation the centurion sent to Jesus was very concerned with whether or not he was worthy to have his request granted—they had a list of good deeds he had done that should earn him at least some of God’s favor. But the centurion’s own words show that he was concerned with his own worthiness, but rather with Jesus’ power. He didn’t say, “hey, I’m such a great guy, I’ve done all this stuff for your God, so therefore you should help me.” He said, “My servant needs help, and you have the power to do it.” And Jesus was amazed! This was true faith. It wasn’t about trying to bargain with God, it wasn’t about any kind of quid pro quo, it was about recognizing where true power and authority lies. The greatest authority in the world belongs to God; it’s not in our hands. God gives gifts and blessings not because we earn them, but because they are in his power to give. All good things come from God, and the centurion recognized this. And that was the faith that amazed Jesus.
The centurion was a foreigner, an outsider, a pagan, a member of the army that had invaded and conquered Israel. Yet he was still a child of God. Jesus did not come for one tribe or nation, but for all people. And he has authority not just over one tribe or nation, but over all people—including the centurion and his slave. And the centurion recognized this. He recognized that his worthiness wasn’t the issue—only God’s power and grace. And Jesus was amazed at his faith, and the slave was healed.
Today is Memorial Day. We are here to honor and commemorate those soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who died in the service of their country. They, too, were men and women set under authority, just as the centurion was. And we do not honor them because they were perfect or more worthy of remembrance than other people. Some of them were good, some bad. We honor them because of their faithfulness to their country, and we honor them because we were the ones who sent them out to fight and die on our behalf. In the centurion’s case, the authority was Caesar’s; in the case of our service men and women today, because the United States is a democracy, the authority is the people of the United States—you and me. We are the ones who choose the people—presidents and congresspeople—who decide when and where to send them out to fight and die. As the centurion recognized, the ultimate authority is God’s, but we the people are the ones who wield that authority, and choose others to wield it on our behalf. Many men and women have fought and died that we might have that freedom.
With authority comes responsibility, to God and to our servicemen and women. We have a responsibility to God, to use his authority in ways that he would have us do. It is important to remember that all people in the world, both here and abroad, are beloved children of God, whether they are Christians or not. God created them; God loves them; God yearns for their salvation. Even when they are the enemies of our country—just as the centurion was an enemy of Israel. And our service-men and women, too, are beloved children of God, who have chosen to put themselves in harms’ way for our safety. They make many sacrifices, some the ultimate sacrifice. The authority we have would not be possible without their sacrifices. We should not take it lightly, or use it without considering the consequences. No one should be called to make such sacrifices unless there truly is no other choice.
There are times, in this sinful world, where war is necessary to protect and defend the innocent from the evils in the world. America has fought wars that were good and necessary. But America has also fought wars that were neither good nor necessary. It is our responsibility as God’s people, as fellow children of God with all humanity, to use the authority given to us as Americans in godly ways: in the spreading of peace and healing whenever possible, reserving war for times when it is truly necessary. War has a cost, and we honor those who paid that cost on our behalf.
We have a duty both to God and to our servicemen and women and to the world. And that duty is to support and care. We worship a god of healing. This story we just read is not just a story about faith and authority, it is also a story about healing and restoration. We are called to bring God’s love and healing to all the world … but we have an especial responsibility to bring love and healing to those who sacrificed on our behalf. This can be physical healing, but spiritual and emotional healing, as well. We act as God’s healing hands in the world when we support the families who lost loved ones in their service, taking care of them in their grief. We act as God’s healing hands in the world when we are there for our veterans—not just on special days like Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but consistently and regularly. Many veterans who return from war report feeling isolated and alone: lots of people want to shake their hand and thank them for their service, but don’t want to listen to the troubles they have adjusting to civilian life again, or the troubles they have dealing with their experiences. It can be hard to listen to their stories and their struggles but if we send them out to fight and risk their lives, we owe them at least that much. As God’s people we have a responsibility to bring healing to the world, but this responsibility is even greater when it comes to those whom we have asked to sacrifice on our behalf.
There will come a day when God’s plan of peace and justice and love for all people will come to fruition. There will come a day when there is no more war, no more hate, no more violence, and no more sorrow. On that day, Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will come here to earth. All will see and know that he is the true authority. The dead will rise, and all people will see God’s salvation. On that day, all will be healed. We wait in hope for that day of resurrection. While we wait, may we always use our authority wisely, may we always remember those who gave their lives that we might be free, and may we always care for those who have served.