Only Speak the Word
A sermon by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue given at
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Douglas, Georgia, on June 2, 2013
Only Speak the Word
Settling the students down for the morning, a kindergarten teacher asked the children, “What do you want to be when you grow up.” The usual answers of firefighter, doctor, veterinarian, and teacher together with a few surprises including, “I want to be an American Idol.” But the usually quite skilled teacher let her professional mask slip when the shiest boy she had ever taught piped up, “I’m going to be a lion tamer!” She couldn’t stop her face from rearranging to show her disbelief and without a thought she said, “A lion tamer. Wouldn’t you be too scared?” Without the slightest trace of uncertainty, the boy said, “I’d have my mommy with me.”
The boy trusted his mom to be able to face any danger and so with his mommy with him, even this shy boy could take on the world. What would that kind of trust be like? The boy’s faith in his Mommy is not so different from the Apostle Paul writing, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
In our Gospel reading, Jesus never meets the Roman Centurion face to face. He comes to praise the officer for the messages the soldier sends by way of his friends. And yet, even by proxy, the faith of the soldier comes through.
As Jesus returns to his home base of Capernaum, Jewish elders approach with a plea on behalf of another. They have come to make the case for a most unusual act. They want the Jewish rabbi and healer, Jesus, to go to the home of a Roman Centurion. This is, of course, much worse than asking a Florida Gator to visit the home of a Georgia fan. The request is more like asking a Jewish doctor to volunteer to treat a Nazi soldier. Romans were the oppressors. So the synagogue leaders are sent first to ease the way for this boundary-crossing act of healing.
The elders sent by the Centurion tell Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” Jesus never shows any signs that he is a respecter of persons. He doesn’t need anyone to measure up before he brings love and healing. After all, Jesus will rescue the woman caught in adultery from a crowd ready to stone her to death and he will talk to the Samaritan woman at the well who most every one else in town seems to have shunned. God’s love does not need to be earned or deserved, but the elders intent is to help the Centurion and Jesus doesn’t quibble with this exercise in getting buttered up for a favor.
Then the Centurion finds having Jesus even come under his roof too much to ask. In an act of humility, this Roman office, the leader of 100 soldiers, sends word that he is unworthy of Jesus. Humility is not beating up on yourself, but seeing oneself rightly. We don’t know how the Centurion saw Jesus, whether as a great prophet or the Messiah, but the Centurion knows himself to be unworthy of Jesus presence and doesn’t want to ask Jesus to defile himself by coming into the home of a Gentile. We know this would have been no problem for Jesus. He made a specialty out of breaking bread with those a respectable rabbi shouldn’t even speak with, much less share a meal. But the Centurion’s second ambassadors say more.
Luke’s Gospel goes on to recount, “the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”
The Centurion understands power and authority and he just asks that Jesus speaks the word to let his servant be healed. With this second group of friends approaching Jesus, the Centurion, who remains out of the picture, moves from relying on works, to a great show of trust. For the Jewish elders proclaim the soldier as one who had built the synagogue. But moving from hoping to deserve favor, the Centurion declares himself unworthy and then says he doesn’t even need Jesus to be present for the healing. Jesus is amazed at his faith.
In his 1993 bestseller, The Alchemist, author Paulo Coelho writes of a father with two sons that lived in the time of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. The father had a dream in which an angel appeared to him to say that “the words of one of his sons would be learned and repeated throughout the world for all generations to come.” The father woke crying tears of gratitude. He had a son who was a military man, but the other was a poet who “delighted all of Rome with his beautiful verses.”
In Coelho’s story, the father died soon after as he saved a child who was about to be crushed under the wheel’s of a chariot storming through the streets. Coelho tells us that as he lived a life correct and fair and in a loving way, the father went to heaven where he met the angel from his dream. He thanked the angel for letting him know that the poetry of his son would last through the generations. The angel said, “The verses of your son who was the poet were very popular in Rome.” He added, “Everyone loved them and enjoyed them. But when the reign of Tiberius ended, his poems were forgotten.”
The father doesn’t understand until the angel reveals the day in which the father’s other son sent word to the Son of God to heal his servant only to then send another group to say those words that would ring through the ages, “My Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only speak the word and my servant will be healed.”
There have been times in my life when I have mustered up faith to take a stand. Rare, but it has happened. For example, my wife, Victoria, and I had quit our jobs in the Washington, DC area to go completely freelance at writing and photography. Our daughter, was then five months old and Victoria had stopped working to care for her and to write. I was working a job with 50 hour work weeks only because I also brought work home to work on at night and weekends. We had published one book on the Appalachian Trail and Victoria contracted for another, a general backpacking guide. We were also writing regularly for magazines. We wanted a simpler life, spending more time with out girl during these important early years. So we moved back to Georgia to housesit and get serious about writing and photography. We were also trying to tithe. Every time we made some money, we gave ten percent of it back to God before we spent on any of the rest. Money was tight and this was difficult to say the least. I complained to God that I wasn’t interested in daily bread, but would prefer weekly, monthly, or best yet, annual bread. Sometimes money got so tight that I felt like we were skating by on hourly bread.
I had done book and magazine design and I tried to spread the word in Georgia with some printers. I man visited us to talk of getting me to design and help him self-publish a family history. This was a godsend. He wanted quickly and had the money to pay right when we really needed it and weren’t sure how to make ends meet. Then he brought the text and anyone could see this was no family history. What he wanted me to typeset was white supremacist hate literature. Pure. Simple. Evil. And we had an infant daughter. No sign of another source of income. Nothing else to do to earn the money we needed. Bare bones need. And yet, we found that we could trust God more than that. The temptation to let the ends of the money we needed justify the means of earning was not so great that we couldn’t say no, even when the man became irate and threatening.
Looking back on it, I honestly don’t know how we made it, but we turned down the easy money and God remained faithful. We often lacked for what we wanted, but we never wanted for essentials. It was a golden time in many ways.
But this is for me perhaps the exception that proves the rule. I am not the hero of this story. This is one small example in a life where I have just as often held on tight to what I want and feel I need rather than letting go and trusting God. As a priest, I have watched up close as people have shown faith that takes my breath away as much as Jesus was stunned by the trust the Centurion showed. I think of it as the faith to walk away.
For the words of the Centurion ring through the centuries as the novel The Alchemist states because this level of trust is not common, even among those who follow Jesus more closely than most of us. The faith of the Centurion is the faith to have his friends make the request to Jesus and then walk away, coming back home.
I have been with men and women in Hospice, parents in the emergency room and in all those other places of uncertainty that ministry takes me and have prayed with people whose trust that one way or another the situation will work out absolutely gives me pause. It’s easy enough to be the professional on the scene, to have the faith, to pray, to hold hands and trust. But I am talking about the woman facing ovarian cancer who is more concerned about the other patients receiving chemo that herself. The man studying to be a deacon in the church who realized he could still visit other patients and pray and he did faithfully well after it was clear that his own healing would not come this side of heaven and he did so with prays of hope and faith and joy.
Every sermon I have preached has been to a congregation where some were living it better than me and every year I pray for people whose absolute trust is more akin to that of the Centurion than the prayers I catch myself praying which hedge God’s bets just in case. Encouraged by their example, I do go into hospital rooms now not merely asking for God’s will whatever that may be, but boldly speak healing knowing that God can and will do more than we can ask for or imagine. I have seen amazing healing of heart, mind and body follow. I do not always get what I expect or even what I sometimes hope for as I pry, but I do find God to be unfailingly faithful and when I look back I see God’s handiwork all through even dark situations.
I don’t know what you are facing or will face, but I do know that like that kindergartener who could face down roaring lion’s with his Mommy at his side, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Unlike the Centurion’s first plan to impress Jesus with his good works, you don’t need to earn or deserve God’s love and mercy and grace. But just as the Centurion came to see rightly that he could boldly ask God for what he needed and then have his petitioners walk back home trusting that all would be well, you and me both should place just that kind of strong faith in our risen Lord.