May 29, 2016
1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39
Oh, how I love this story of Elijah. It’s unfortunate that the lectionary doesn’t include the whole account from of Kings. It’s really quite humorous – almost a double-dog-dare between the Elijah and the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal; and it’s all set up by that bully of a King, Ahab.
So, in the rest of the story, leading up to Elijah’s firey miracle, the prophets of Baal are given first pick of bulls for the sacrifice. They get to go first in demonstrating the power of their god. They built their altar, put the sacrificial bull on it and invoked the name of Baal to send fire to burn it. Elijah taunts them, sarcastically telling them to shout louder so that Baal can hear them … perhaps Baal is too far away; perhaps he’s on vacation or maybe he’s simply asleep and they need to wake him. So, they shout louder and louder. They even bleed from self-inflicted wounds, according to their tradition. But Baal doesn’t answer. Of course, Baal can’t answer because Baal is nothing more than a figment of the Canaanite’s imaginations.
Now, the bulk of our reading picks up when it’s Elijah’s turn. YHWH’s response is swift and dramatic – I mean Cecil B. Demille or Stephen Spielburg couldn’t have made it any more dramatic. Everything is consumed by the divine fire, including the stones and water. Poof! I’ll bet Elijah was mighty smug standing there in that moment. Must have been hard not to stick out his tongue, give ‘em the raspberries and say: “Neener neener neener. Told you so! My God’s better than your god!” But he didn’t. No, he just stood there and listened to the people cry out: “The Lord alone is God, the Lord alone is God!” Those words eventually became part of the confession of faith for the Holiest of Holy days in Judaism – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is an important moment.
Why do I love this story so? Oh, I enjoy the “my God’s better than your god” contest. I enjoy the special effects and drama. And I hate to admit it, but I even enjoy Elijah’s sarcasm. But what really captures my heart is God’s faithfulness here. I mean these are fickle, unfaithful people. These are Israelites who yet again have gone astray – worshipping a foreign, fake deity. God simply could have turned away or sent fire and brimstone to smite them. But God didn’t. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) was living into the covenant made with God’s people. God responded with amazing yet restrained power, all for the sake of God’s people. They didn’t earn it. They didn’t ask for it. Yet God was faithful. That’s powerful for me. That is the same ever-faithful God who poured out love and grace through the life of Jesus Christ.
And in our Gospel story today, we find another even more powerful example of God’s faithfulness. No, there are no dramatic special effects. Yet this story, in my mind, is way more powerful.
It starts with: “After Jesus had finished all his sayings” – What sayings? Let’s clarify that, shall we? This narrative follows much of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – full of good stuff like the Beatitudes, loving our enemies, not judging others and stuff like that. Those are the sayings referred to here. So, Jesus has just finished one of the biggest sermons ever and we find him entering Capernaum. You know, I imagine that he was probably incredibly weary and hungry from a full day of preaching. And what is he confronted with when he gets there? – yet another request for healing. Oy vay!
And to top it off, the one requesting the healing is not an Israelite – not even a Jew. No, not only is this guy a gentile, he’s a centurion of the occupying Roman army! Whoa. Let’s bring that into a modern perspective, shall we? Let’s see, during WWII he could have been a Nazi. Today he could be a member of Hezbollah, or Al Quaida, or I suppose even Isis. Think about that for a moment. Sit with that. Have you got a good grip of that? That’s who this centurion represents. Yet, who this centurion is and what organization and power he is affiliated with or working for doesn’t matter a hill of beans to Jesus. Of course, I expect that from Jesus. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
Something else that’s surprising for me is that this guy, this Roman, is edified by the Jewish elders. Did you catch that? The Jewish elders told Jesus that this guy, this bad guy because he’s a Roman occupier, is worthy of Jesus’ healing his slave, or servant if you prefer (depends on the translation). They said: “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.” This is an acknowledgement that he is a good human being, in spite of his affiliations. I think it’s clear that the centurion truly does care about his servant. When I read that the slave is “valued highly” by him, I am convinced it has nothing to do with money or ability. He values his servant because he cares about him as a person and probably as a friend.
If that’s the case, why didn’t the centurion go directly to Jesus himself? It’s just a request – a really BIG request but a request none-the-less. Why send someone else who might screw up the message? – Because as a Roman occupier, a non-Jew, a bad-guy for all intents and purposes, he believes that he is unworthy to go before Jesus himself. He feels unworthy to have Jesus even step one foot into his home. But, for the sake of his beloved servant, maybe just maybe if some worthy Jews go to Jesus, Jesus will have pity on the servant and heal him. In the centurion’s mind, it was a long shot that he had to take.
Worth – value – just who determines that anyway? Who has the final word? Well, it’s not us. Yet, we are often our own worst enemies, deeming ourselves or others unworthy or worthless. Have you ever felt unworthy? I’ll admit it. I have. When I was struggling, really struggling to come to grips with my sexuality – inundated with and buying into all of the homophobic rhetoric that’s out there, I felt completely unworthy of God’s love. And God, our ever-faithful God, loved me through those dark nights of my soul. And God had to be really patient with me, because I can be really stubborn. Yes, I know now that I am a beloved child of God. It took time and a lot of wrestling with myself and with God to accept that truth.
What’s your story? What has made you feel unworthy or worthless? I’m here to tell you that is not your truth. The truth is you are worthy. You are priceless in God’s eyes. Everyone and I mean EVERYONE, regardless of what we think, is a beloved child of God. And each of us must live into our own truth and authenticity, to fully become who God intends and created us to be.
I know that I must sound like a broken record, but it’s true! It doesn’t matter who we are, who we’re affiliated with, where we’ve been, what we’ve done or left undone, or where we are on life’s journey – each of us is worthy of God’s love! Each of us IS loved by God!
And as Paul told us in his letter to the Romans … yes, to the Romans … the bad guys of his time … there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us – any of us – from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus! This story of the centurion is just one more example of Jesus demonstrating God’s love for ALL, regardless of who the individual is. Jesus’ modus operande is to respond in love … to the centurion, to the Canaanite woman and her daughter, to the Samaritan woman at the well…to ev-ery-one, including me and you.
“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son” … for our sakes, for the sake of humanity … for the sake of the world and all that dwells therein. God IS ever faithful with God’s radical, unconditional and abundant love. We can’t earn it. God’s love can’t be bartered, bought, sold or stolen. The ancient Israelites couldn’t forfeit it, neither can we. It’s there, always there for us. So, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth!”- Because our worth is unalterable in the eyes of God. Each of us is precious and each of us is loved. Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that. Thanks be to God. Amen.