Luke 7:1-10…May 29, 2016, Pastor Phil Fenton
Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Luke 7:9
Any honest preacher will tell you that he or she would be perfectly content never to preach on a miracle again. Someone is ill; Jesus makes them well again. A blind man sees, a deaf man hears, a woman bent double by disease suddenly stands tall again; all very wonderful for the people concerned, but in the careers of most preachers, such miracles range from few and far between to entirely non-existent. We have just seen too many people pray and not see, plead and not hear, pour out to heaven the most fervent faith and not stand. And, really, how could such things happen? Centuries of scientific thinking has led many to conclude that things like this are impossible. Many feel that they make Christian faith look outdated or naiive.
But we need to realize that our questions are not the questions of those who first heard these stories. We hear the same words they did, but not in the same way. In the world of the first century pretty well everything was regarded as a miracle, from the sun going up, to the rain coming down, to the ups and downs of human life. It was all in the hands of the gods, or goddesses. These deities ordered the world as they wanted. So our ancestors weren’t bothered about how something extraordinary happened as we would be. If you had lived then what would have mattered to you was why those divine beings had made whatever choices they had.
For our purposes this morning, let’s join them, forgetting about the how and focusing on the why. When you do this, you find these miracle stories not so off-putting; they become quite interesting, in fact. When you look at the why you are apt to find God in the details. What are the details? Well, in Capernaum there was a certain man, an officer in the Roman army. He was a captain over 100 foot soldiers in a legion. He had begun his career as a soldier in the army and had worked his way up through the ranks. His loyalty and skill and courage in battle were noticed by his superiors and he was made an officer.
His years in the army, his time on the battlefield had not made him callous and hard. Somehow he had maintained a heart, a softness toward others, even for the Jews, even for his servants.
And when a particular servant becomes ill, he dispatches leaders from the Jewish community to have Jesus come and heal the servant. He has heard that Jesus has some special power and, as a person who respects power, sends for him. Together with softness of heart he demonstrates humility, “I am not a good man. I am not worthy.”
And Jesus commends the man’s faith, lifts it up as exemplary over the faith of the supposedly faithful. Here’s the mind-blowing detail of the story. We have no particularly good reason to believe he becomes a follower of Jesus. He doesn’t ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seem particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his faith and Luke records it.
Why is this story given to us? To tell us that God is in the details. A simple story, a slice of first century life. A man in the legion of an occupational army, but still a gentle man, a good man is at the center of this story of faith. Not orthodox faith. Not doctrinal faith. Not institutional faith. But faith that gets Jesus’ appreciative attention and reveals what God is up to. Goodness, gentleness, humility – maybe not the same thing as confessional faith – but if we let Jesus take the lead here, they can certainly be BIG, BIG doors through which God can enter this world.
I can easily imagine the centurion becoming a follower of Jesus’ way. I can hear him years later telling his faith story: “I was just going about business as usual, you know, drilling the men, inspecting their arms, commanding them in the camp and in the field, and then my favorite servant got sick and I had the good sense to reach out to this Jesus I had heard about. And that’s how it all started, and my life has never been the same since.”
Details. Details. Those were his. You have yours. I have mine. They are as different as we are different, as our circumstances and opportunities are different. And the God who became flesh to live among us and in us and through us is in all of them. Nearly everything is interesting if you go deeply enough. Pay attention to the details. They are where God is seeking you, purposing to find you and make your life and its details a BIG, BIG door through which he might enter this world.
I believe Teilhard de Chardin, the French scientist and mystic, was right when he said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are essentially spiritual beings having a human experience.” You and I, that Roman centurion and every other human being sooner or later asks questions like, “Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going?” I think we know deep in our bones that until the soul and God find one another and make a home together, there is disharmony. Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? These are questions answered in the details.
The number one question I am asked as a pastor is, “What is God’s plan for my life?” (The #2 question: “Should I tithe based on my gross or my net?” My answer to that is, “I don’t care; just tithe!”) To the question about God’s plan, my answer is, “God does not have a plan for your life, but God does have a purpose for your life. The plan, the details are yours to work out, according to your particular gifts and talents, according to the opportunities and circumstances of your life and a lot of other factors. You figure that part out. The purpose, however, is the same for you and for me. It is to place our total selves – everything we are and everything we call our own, everything we strive to be or have – at the disposal of God’s purposes, which are codified for us in Jesus’ great commandment, ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.’” Then you can fulfill God’s purpose for you as a rancher, an attorney, or a homemaker, or a preacher. In that awareness, David was as religious when he obeyed God’s call to be a shepherd as he was when he was anointed with the special grace of kingship. It means that Jesus was every bit as religious when he worked in his father’s carpenter shop as he was in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the details, in our careers, with our possessions, in our aspirations, we are to be continually asking, “Am I honoring God and lifting up my neighbor in need?”
God is in the details. To help you get at the details to see what God is doing there and how you might honor him and lift up your neighbor at every moment, I put together a spiritual exercise called Faith Journeys: How God’s Story Became My Story and My Story Became His Story. There are copies in the narthex.
It begins: Christian theology is fundamentally incarnational. John 1:14 says, ‘The Word which was in the beginning with God, i.e. Jesus, became flesh and dwelt among us.’ This means that God is mixed up in everything about us, is present in all of our comings and goings. Think about the details of your life, where and how God has been present, how you have become the person that you are, and what God is asking of your life today. Write your life story from each of the following perspectives:
Geographical: the “Wheres” of Your Life” Where were you born? Where have you lived? Where have you traveled? Has traveling changed you? How has this shaped your understanding of God, Christ, others, the world and life in general?
Chronological: the “Whens” of Your Life When were you grow up? What were the significant local, national and global events at these times?
Relational: the “Whos” of Your Life Who have been the significant people in your life: parents, siblings, friends, children, mentors, bosses, spiritual guides?
How has your understanding of God, Christ, others, the world and life in general been shaped by the “whos” of your life?
Economic: the Role of Money and Possessions In Your Life – What was your parents’ attitude toward money? Did you feel rich or poor as a child? Do you feel rich or poor or comfortable now? Have you ever had a significant financial loss? How do you feel when you give your offering?
Spiritual: You As a Person of Faith What is your earliest recollection of thinking about God? What image of God did you have in your earliest thinking about Him? How has your image of God changed over the years?
Write, and listen into the details of your life and discover how God has been and is bringing you closer to him and to your life’s purpose.
And be sure to include the not so good things. God is in those details as well.
My life was never more awful or wonderful than when I was caring for two failing parents. None of the old rules applied. I became parent to my parents – that’s not natural! You begin to treat them like children – take things away from them that could get them in trouble, harm them – their checkbook, their car keys. You scold them for making poor choices in diet and health. Their need becomes so great and their demands so exacting and intense that you begin to lose sight of them in their healthier days, in their vitality.
My dad had a number of degenerative diseases, and though his mind remained mostly clear, he chose to shut everyone and everything out – he interacted only minimally, grudgingly with his surroundings. For my mother it was Alzheimers. I was at the same time primary caregiver for my year-older brother who had suffered a devastating head injury, leaving him totally dependent on others for even the smallest of functions. There was a time when all three were in a nursing home. My dad and brother shared a room, but, due to having no short-term memory, my brother was oblivious to the man in the bed next to him. Mom couldn’t tell you my name but knew me as a “friendly” and wanted to dominate my time when visiting. And if I didn’t give it all to her she would resort to cursing me in the most graphic language retained from an earlier and more colorful time of her life.
All of these dynamics came into play the night of my dad’s death. I sat on the side of his bed trying to coax a few last words from him: Instructions? Regrets? –Nothing. My brother, who could hear my voice, lay in his bed 4 feet away, saying over and over, “Phil, where’s Dad, I need to see Dad, I haven’t seen him in years!” And Mother was in the doorway, as mad as I had ever seen her, polluting the scene with profanities. In the midst of this, Dad quietly slipped away.
Crazy. Awful. But in the details of that crazy, surreal night something else was happening – grace was there. I and they were in the presence of a holy God and none of this would be for nothing. None of this would be lost. Some of you have been through this experience and too have seen God spin gold from it, making of you a healing minister who has special eyes that instantly see others who are in the same pain and using you to bring much hope.
That night, and all of those strenuous, frustrating years of my family’s decline that led to that night, remain today as blessing. It’s all blessing.
God’s beauty is all around us all the time, in the details, saying, “Hello! Hello! I am here! There is possibility beyond everything you can imagine!”