Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 05/29/2016

Today is the last Sunday in May, the Easter Season is done, Pentecost has passed, and we have made it through Holy Trinity Sunday. Now we move into Ordinary Time for the summer and fall, the second half of our church year. Our paraments – on the altar, the walls, the lectern, and pulpit – are now green in color and they’ll stay green for many months, something that makes Sue Holmgren very happy.

During these early weeks in Ordinary time, we’re going to hear stories of healing, forgiveness, and new life. In our text today, we have an encounter of healing, just after Jesus has finished delivering his Sermon on the Plain, with its blessings and woes. We remember his words from that sermon, “Blessed are those who are poor, who hunger, who weep; and woe to you who are rich, and well fed, who laugh” . . . Jesus goes on, calling us to “Love our enemies . . . to not judge others.”

After this sermon, Jesus has now entered the village of Capernaum. A Centurion has sent some Jewish elders to speak with Jesus, asking for an intervention on behalf of his servant, who is dying. This Centurion is a professional officer in the Roman army, presumed to have admirable traits, such as strength and stature. He is quite likely a quick-thinking and alert, yet sober warrior, a leader of 100 men. He has obviously heard about Jesus but doesn’t want to approach him directly. This powerful man feels unworthy to be in the presence of the Jewish Rabbi, the religious man who has such an incredible following. So instead, Jewish leaders are sent to speak with Jesus, and they explain how the Centurion loves the nation of Israel and is the builder of their house of worship, the synagogue in Capernaum. This officer would like Jesus to come into his home and heal his much valued slave, the one who is near death.

As Jesus approaches the Centurion’s home, however, word is sent to Jesus that he should trouble himself no further. The officer not only feels himself unworthy to speak to Jesus, but also undeserving of having the Lord come into his dwelling. This man is unworthy, undeserving, humble and unassuming. What a contrast we have here! It’s a surprising display of humility and submission for a man who’s used to having his orders followed. This military man is someone with much power and respect among his soldiers and in the village of Capernaum, yet he stands in awe of an encounter with Jesus. He can’t bring himself to face the healer, and instead sends word to that effect through his friends. He implores, “Jesus, simply say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

Jesus is amazed at the faith of the Centurion and says this to the crowd following him. He has not found such great faith even among God’s chosen people of Israel … Imagine how the crowd must have heard this: Jesus is praising a Gentile, a foreigner, a soldier of the hated Roman occupiers. Their closed, self-centered world is opening up to, of all people, their oppressors. All that Jesus has been teaching – all of the healing and the compassion and tolerance – it’s not just for the Jewish people but for all who are outside their nation, too.

And this Centurion gets it. He’s recognized a different kind of power in Jesus, a kind of authority that will make a huge difference in the world. The officer knows all about military might and power, how swords and trained soldiers can create fear, and control the masses, and leave devastation in their wake. But his kind of power doesn’t heal a sick servant. The military has no means to make this situation right.

Jesus’ power isn’t like that of Rome. Jesus has been given all manner of authority, and he’s using it to bring about God’s kingdom. As we remember Jesus preaching in the “Sermon on the Plain”, he advocates lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful, turning the world upside down.

And it’s the Centurion who sees this authority and has faith in it. Faith that Jesus will look at his suffering servant through the eyes of God, that the servant will be renewed by God’s love and grace. On the one hand, this Centurion’s faith is bold, because he doesn’t hesitate to use the Jewish leaders as well as his friends to deliver his plea to the Lord. But on the other hand, his faith is also humble, with a clear sense of how unworthy he is to be in the presence of Jesus.

The Centurion bravely makes a “back-door” connection with Jesus; in his own way, he is bold. But bold is not so common an attribute, back then or now. Isn’t it much more likely that we find people who are shy and modest, unwillingly to step up and claim what is needed? People with a sense of unworthiness, unable to make a faith connection, a church connection? … to set foot in this sanctuary, to hear God’s words of grace, to partake in the Lord’s Supper? How is it that our family members, our loved ones and friends, who were baptized and grew up in the church, how is it that they now feel unworthy to come back and see what church is today?

How do we define worthiness?

Is it attendance at worship services? I know many who still feel they must be present at church services every week, and even though life has changed significantly in recent decades, they still hold themselves accountable to that requirement. They worry about being judged for failure to meet expectations.

While I think this kind of thinking is often a childhood carryover, at least for people my age, rather than having anything to do with the treatment received by a current congregation, old impressions, especially guilt – well, they don’t go away quite that easily. Sometimes it’s simpler to avoid church all together than risk judgment for sporadic attendance.

I think we can take a stab at the many reasons for a sense of unworthiness in others: maybe it’s been hard to lead a clean life – they’ve experimented with drugs or been addicted to alcohol. Perhaps there’s been a divorce or the children aren’t perfectly well-mannered. Maybe there’s no money for nice clothes. We can try to convince ourselves such attitudes are remnants of the past, but they really do continue to affect people. Carryovers from decades past do exist. And sometimes without even realizing it, we perpetuate that mindset, that underlying belief that it’s necessary to live up to some model of goodness to achieve worthiness.

For example, let’s take weekly church attendance and think about what we have been taught, what we’ve heard over the years. Does this sound familiar? I know I’ve said it: “God gave you seven days; the least you can do is give back one hour!” Hasn’t the emphasis typically been on worship as our duty to God, as if worship is primarily our gift to God? But what if we began to shift our thinking slightly, to the truth that worship is God’s gift to us because God knows that we have a deep need to be in relationship, a deep longing to grow closer, through God’s gifts to us – confessing our sins and receiving words of forgiveness – hearing God’s Word in Scripture and in sermon – partaking in the Bread and the Wine. Each week we are invited to satisfy our need to be with God.

Would it make a difference in our conversations if we talked about the invitation rather than the duty? Truly, we are invited to be here. Might we consider working to remove the vestiges of guilt and expectation that feed unworthiness, and could we instead work toward acceptance and welcome?

When we sense that unworthiness is a factor in those who avoid church, we remember the Centurion, an outsider, a Roman soldier and enemy of the people of Israel. He believed that he was unworthy of consideration, but he showed great faith and Jesus blessed him with the healing of his servant. Surely no one expected this soldier, this Gentile to be singled out as a man of great faith.

And in our time, we may want to consider that God is using outsiders like the people who’ve drifted away from organized church to share truths and understandings that are difficult to hear. Are we open to such faith encounters, believing it is possible that God is using others to teach us about the kingdom God desires on this earth?

Jesus didn’t hang out with the perfect of the world. He recognized faith in unlikely places and unlikely people. May we, too, recognize that God’s love and will and works extend beyond the confines of the church, to the unlikely and the “perceived” unworthy.

Amen.

Vicar Terry Frankenstein

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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