Listening to the Stranger
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

June 2, 2013

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Luke 7:1-10

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

Our God is persistent. God tries every means available to get God’s message across. We are used to God using prophets and apostles to speak to people. But God also uses dreams and visions, from Jacob and his son Joseph to Mary’s husband Joseph and the Wise Men. God even acts in darkness, at night, when no one can see.

It is not surprising that God would send people of faith out to try and preach a word to those outside the covenant. What is surprising is how often God speaks through people who are outside the covenant,or who have no credentials, or who would never align themselves with the people of God to speak the word that God needs spoken.

From Cyrus the Persian who ended the Babylonian exile, to the Centurions of the Gospels and Acts, God speaks through many we would otherwise dismiss. There is an important lesson for us in this.

The reading from 1 Kings this morning begins with Solomon turning from the gathering of Israel and facing the altar of the newly built temple. We skip over the part where Solomon proclaims that no house built by hands can contain God, but asks God to listen when the people pray. Our reading picks back up when Solomon makes a most remarkable prayer request:

When somebody shows up, somebody not a regular church attendee or member of our church, (and they will show up because they have heard of the great things you have done, Lord, and the great love that you have, and the might acts of grace and liberation and forgiveness and hope that you have shown); when they show up here, Lord, listen to their prayers. Even if they have not ever served on a committee or prepared coffee hour or handed out bulletins or sat through budget meetings or rocked somebody in the nursery or taught Bible Study or Sunday School, or even professed a faith in you or us or anybody, listen to their prayers.

Okay, I may have updated the language a little bit, but that is what he is saying. Somebody not us, somebody not of the covenant, somebody who just came in because they heard something was going on here, or heard about a funeral or a wedding we did for their aunt or their cousin. Hear their prayers, Lord.

That God would listen to strangers is not new or unique to Solomon. It is a thread that runs from Genesis to Kings to Isaiah to Luke. It stands over against the exclusionist claims of Ezra, Nehemiah and Jonah.

Ezra and Nehemiah cast out all the foreigners so that the nation of Israel could be pure and secure and not turn away from God (because that has always worked, hasn’t it?). Jonah thought that no prophet should go to the Gentiles, no hope for repentance should be granted outside of Israel.

Luke picks up and runs with the theme of listening to outsiders, both by God and by us. Between Luke’s Gospel and the book of Acts (Luke 2.0), there are Ethiopian eunuchs being baptized; reminders of Elijah and Elisha healing and feeding Gentiles; and faithful Centurions.

It should not surprise us that there are Centurions in the Gospels and Acts; there were Centurions throughout Israel, they were the sergeants of the occupying pagan army. And yet our Centurion this morning, and Cornelius in the book of Acts, are each held in high regard by the church leaders of the day. They helped build synagogues and gave alms and were generally friendly towards Israel.

The religious leaders all speak of his worthiness based on what he has done for them. The Centurion claims otherwise.

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 say the word, and let my servant be healed.

As humble an answer as any of the faithful might give.

This unnamed Centurion comes because he is in need. He does not use his position to try to manipulate, coerce or coax Jesus. He says that he understands authority, being someone who has to take orders and has to give them. And he sees that Jesus has the authority over unclean spirits and illness and all of the powers that stand in the way of life.

But say the word, and let my servant be healed.

Jesus is astounded. He has rarely found such faith among the faithful.

Perhaps what is wrong with the story is not that the unexpected ones can have great faith, but that we label people “unexpected ones.” There are people who are faithful even though they do not fit our categories, or our membership, or our projected view of what faithful looks like when we imagine it. God speaks through people who have no church or religious affiliation or stated faith, and even through those we might otherwise dismiss or deny out of hand.

Perhaps the message of faithful Centurions is this: If an occupying army is a clear and visible sign of the deadly effects of empire and the ways of the world, then a less visible but more pervasive and just as deadly problem is dividing the world into us and them. For God is still speaking: through surprising messengers and impossible voices and dreams and visions and strangers, and sometimes even, by the grace of God, through us.

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

Thanks be to God.