2 Pentecost—Year C
May 29, 2016
1 Kings 18:20-39, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10
My hometown of Atlanta was known in the 1960’s as “the city too busy to hate” because, unlike a number of southern and northern cities, Atlanta had not had any race riots. That is not to say, however, that Atlanta didn’t have its share of problems that were fueled by people like Lester Maddox, the owner of the Pickrick Restaurant, who said he would not serve African Americans even after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Maddox, who would actually become governor of Georgia, gained publicity by handing out ax handles to customers so they could keep three Black Georgia Tech students from being seated in his restaurant. In my house we used to call him Lester Mad-ax.
Now imagine, to paraphrase N.T Wright, that about that time in 1965 Atlanta, you decided to build a completely open and accepting restaurant for people of all races. There would be one entrance and one dining area, and one set of restrooms. Everyone would be treated the same—with dignity, courtesy, and unconditional acceptance, befitting a beloved child of God. So you design this restaurant, hire a contractor, and start building your dream, which you believe is also the dream of Jesus and his Heavenly Father. Once construction is underway you go to Birmingham to build a similar restaurant in the heart of that conflicted city. But then, you receive word that things are going badly with your project in Atlanta. Apparently, some conservative Christians living nearby convince the contractor that you made a serious mistake in the design because you misunderstood God’s will. These new people said there needs to be two entrances, one for Whites which would lead into the main dining room and one for everyone else that leads into a secondary dining room in the back. You are horrified, so you write a letter to the contractor to rectify the situation immediately.
This is exactly why Paul writes his letter to the Galatians. He builds the church on the one foundation of the crucified Messiah. This means that all people are invited to be full membership of the one family of God. They are to build their fellowship with one another, not based on religious, ethnic, or racial factors, but based on the free gift of grace which is Jesus Christ. As they say, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. But while Paul is busy founding other churches throughout the empire certain followers of Jesus from Jerusalem show up proclaiming a gospel that is based not on the free grace of Jesus Christ, but based on the need to first become Jewish before you can be a full follower of Jesus. Therefore in order to get the full blessing of God Gentile men must be circumcised. Naturally this means Gentiles are considered second-class members of the church.
So Paul writes to the leaders of the church: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” In chapter 3 he writes, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified….did you receive the Holy Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard about Jesus Christ….There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Sad to say the dividing up into “us” and “them” based on merely human categories continues to bedevil the church and its understanding of the good news. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America, and not just according to race, but also according to class, sexuality, and in this silly season, according to political ideology.
It would be easy at this point to preach a painless sermon on the value of inclusivity in church. It would be painless because all of us are already in favor of that project, and we have a wonderful inclusivity statement to prove it. If all we do is pat ourselves on the back for being so wonderfully liberal then we’re not looking deeply enough at what is going on in these readings.
For Paul, it wasn’t just a matter of God’s grace inviting everybody into the church it is also a matter of building deep and lasting connections with one another across every type of human barrier. I heard someone say, for example, that if you only have one language spoken in your church you still have a ways to go to reach your fullness as a witness to the unity brought into the world by Jesus.
That’s why the deeper issue today is not inclusivity but faith. It is a lack of faith that keeps someone trapped in our fear of the other. We may believe Jesus is the eternal Son of God but he doesn’t believe Jesus has enough power to overcome a lifetime of fear or resentment of the other who is so different. It is a lack of faith that keeps us from following Jesus outside our comfort zone into relationships of depth with people who have scared us our whole lives.
On this Memorial Day weekend it is fitting that a soldier is the hero who shows us what deep faith looks like. The centurion not only believes Jesus loves him and his sick slave, but he also believes Jesus is so filled with the power of God that Jesus only has to speak the word for healing to happen. This soldier is a Gentile pagan, yet he develops a loving relationship with his Jewish neighbors. He is even willing to explore their profound belief in the One True God whose meaning is love. He uses his own funds to build their synagogue. The Jewish elders are the ones pushing Jesus to heal the Centurion’s servant because they are a deep relationship with this non-Jewish soldier.
Jesus is on his way to do just that, when the story takes another turn: the centurion sends a delegation to tell Jesus he doesn’t have to come in person, rather all he has to do is say the word and his servant will be healed. Jesus is amazed at the faith of this man. For this Roman soldier who is used to giving orders and being obeyed recognizes his need of Jesus and has the humility to admit he needs help. For him faith is not an abstract belief system in the head. Faith is the willingness to trust that Jesus not only has the power to love, but also has the power to heal—even from a distance. He says, “But only speak the word, Lord, and let my servant be healed.”
By the way, it can be helpful to find a person to identify yourself with in the gospel stories: in this case I am not Jesus nor the centurion, but the servant who requires a friend and Jesus to help make me well.
At the end of his letter to the Galatians Paul writes, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world, for neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything: but a new creation is everything.” See N. T. Wright’s Galatians for Everyone
This pagan soldier is living into the new creation brought by Jesus Christ. For us it means trusting that Jesus is powerful enough to heal us who are also trapped by all manner of unconscious prejudices and fears that keep our hearts closed to the other and to God.
Thanks be to God that it isn’t the quality of our faith that we trust in, but the quality of Jesus’ faithfulness that brings us to our seat on the lap of the Father, along with the people who scare us or make us mad.
I suspect that’s exactly what happened to Lester Maddox because he did some progressive things as governor and after his time in politics he had a brief stint as part of a two man comedy act—called the Governor and the Dishwasher: his partner was an African American musician named Bobby Lee Sears, who had worked as a busboy in his restaurant. Wikipedia