Not worthy

Good morning, Friends!

We’ve got kind of a funny story for our gospel reading this morning. By “funny”, I mean that it looks like one kind of a story, but really, it’s another. On the surface, this looks like a miracle story. But really, it’s a story about faith and trust. It’s just a different kind of miracle.

We’re so used to the idea that miracles are something God does supernaturally. We forget that the big changes are sometimes the ones which take place inside of us. Sometimes miracles are really just natural and quiet. God is doing something God really wants to do. God loves healing! And the biggest miracles of all are sometimes the ones that happen in our hearts.

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Luke 7:1-10

Now, to really understand this story, we have to remember what a centurion was. A centurion was a Roman officer, and the Romans were the ones who had conquered Jesus’ country. They took it over, they killed a lot of people, and they ran the country for their own benefit.

The Romans were ruthless, and the Roman armies were absolutely the most powerful and effective military force in the world at that time. The basic unit was the legion, about 5,000 men. They were armored, with helmets, wrist guards, shin guards, sometimes with breast plates, and always with shields. The whole outfit weighed about 60 pounds.

When the Romans got lined up for battle, they formed several lines deep, shoulder to shoulder, close together. The shield of one soldier overlapped the shield of the soldier next to him. There was just enough room between the shields to reach out with a sword and strike whoever was in front. All the opposing army saw was a wall of shields, with helmets above and shin guards below, and a narrow row of eyes looking out at them.

It was like a wall of armor. And they were trained to move together, slowly and in step as a unit. If a Roman soldier fell, the others would move in and close the gap, leaving the dead and wounded behind. They would keep marching ahead, straight at the enemy, with rows of soldiers behind the front line supporting and pushing when the two armies crashed into each other.

The legions were divided into groups of 100 soldiers, called centuries, and a centurion was the officer in charge of a century. He was the equivalent of a captain in today’s army.

Even ordinary Roman soldiers could order a civilian to do almost anything. On a march, a Roman soldier could make any bystander stop whatever he was doing, and carry his armor and his gear for a mile. That’s where that phrase Jesus used about “going the extra mile,” comes from.

A centurion – an officer in charge of 100 soldiers – was a powerful person. He didn’t just have the power to order people around, he literally had the power of life and death over his men. There were other officers higher than centurions who gave orders – tribunes and generals – but the centurions really ran the army.

We’re sort of used to the idea that Jesus talked to unlikely people. He talked with lepers, he talked with Samaritans, he talked with people who spoke Greek as their first language instead of Hebrew or Aramaic. He talked with people who had diseases and demons. He talked with notorious public sinners, with tax collectors, like we saw last week. Jesus even talked with women, which was unheard-of for a religious teacher at that time.

But for Jesus to talk with a Roman, and with an officer at that – it’s hard for us to imagine the equivalent. It would have been unbelievable to people at the time.

One of the things this story does, is it encourages us to imagine that even people who are on our hate list or our public enemy list may not on that kind of a list with God.

The story starts out by saying that this Roman centurion wasn’t just tolerant of the Jews. It says that he was their friend. He respected Jewish life and he admired their faith. He had even built them a new synagogue. Presumably he tried to see that the Roman rule sat lightly on everyone in the immediate neighborhood.

The centurion could never become a Jew himself. He was always on duty, while Jews had to stop everything on the Sabbath. But even though the centurion was part of the occupying army, his heart was with the people of the area.
It’s also strange that the centurion would take so much trouble over one of his slaves. Slaves were defined by law as property. Slaves were like living tools, who could be treated any way their master wanted.

A master could beat his slave to death, for any reason at all, and nobody else would think twice about it. Older slaves could be killed when they were no longer good for useful work. So, for someone as important as a centurion would care that much about one of his slaves was very strange indeed.

What really makes this story unusual, though, is that the centurion never even met Jesus. He wouldn’t ask Jesus to go out of his way to come and help.

I’ve always wondered about that point. Was the centurion too busy taking care of his sick friend, to leave his bedside? Or would it have been awkward for somebody like him, a powerful officer, to talk to a wandering Jewish carpenter? Was the centurion ashamed to ask for help? Or did he think that a good, religious Jew like Jesus would never enter a house like his?

It doesn’t say, and we’re left to puzzle over it. We don’t know why the centurion thought it would be too much trouble for Jesus to come, or why he thought his home would be the wrong place for Jesus to enter.

A lot of people still have that attitude, that sense of their own inferiority or unworthiness. All down through the years, people have been saying, “Lord, I am not worthy for you to come into my home, into my heart, into my life. You’re too great, and I’m not good enough.” We don’t ask, even though it says that Christ is knocking at our door already, asking to come in.

I’m sure that Jesus would have come, if the centurion had asked him to. There is no record of Jesus ever refusing to help someone, if the request was sincere and the person really meant what they were asking for.

I grew up in the Catholic church. One of my earliest memories is of going to Mass with my grandfather. There’s a point in the Mass where the whole congregation repeats a line from this morning’s story. In the old days, everyone would beat their chest with their clenched fist. I can still remember watching my grandfather hitting his chest and saying, “Lord, I’m not worthy for you to come under my roof; speak but the word, and my soul will be healed. . .”

Christians have said that prayer for centuries, for two thousand years. And some Christians still say that prayer today.

It’s about humility, and that’s good. But the prayer sort of gets it right, and sort of gets it wrong. It’s good for a powerful person to be humble. But we need to remember that God cares about us, and lifts us up.

Don’t ever say, “Oh, I’m not good enough. God would never bother about me.” In the Bible, it says that God numbers and keeps track of every hair on our heads. God counts every sparrow that falls to the ground – and we’re worth a whole lot more than a bunch of sparrows.

God always hears your prayers. God hears the prayers of your hearts, the ones you don’t say out loud, the prayers you keep bottled up inside you. God hears your sighs. God knows when you’re discouraged and don’t feel any hope. Everyone has times when you don’t dare ask for things, because you don’t feel you deserve them. God knows all about depression and despair.

What stands out about today’s reading is that this isn’t primarily a healing story. It’s a story about understanding and trust. The centurion knew who Jesus was, and what Jesus could do, and he trusted that Jesus would be able to help him.

Over and over in the gospels, we hear that someone who’d been sick, or outcast, or lost, or paralyzed for years could be helped, and it only took one touch for Jesus to do the job. Today, we hear that it only needed one word to be spoken. In other stories, it says that one look from Jesus was enough. In still other stories, one moment to listen told Jesus all that he needed to know.

One touch, one word, one look, one listening moment – that’s how quickly God can work.

It ought to make us pay closer attention to each and every moment in our lives. One moment with God, and our world can be changed forever.

The power of God is the power to turn from death to life, from being broken to being whole, from carrying an impossible burden to being free. And that power of God can act in one moment for us.

Let’s start taking those moments more seriously, folks! Even when we feel least worthy and totally unable to face Jesus, one moment can turn us around.

It can take us from pain and tiredness into joy again. It can bring us from darkness and being lost into the light of God’s own presence. One moment can set us back on the right track. Let’s take the opportunity of those life-changing moments more seriously.
The Roman centurion had his own way of expressing his confidence in what Jesus could do. He said, “I’m an officer in the army, and I have a hundred soldiers under my orders. I say to one person, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to another, ‘Go,’ and he goes. I tell my servant, ‘Do this,’ and it’s done. In the same way,” he said to Jesus, “Whatever you say, it happens. . .”

That kind of certainty, that kind of expectation that things will happen, is what the centurion intuitively felt about Jesus. He said, “If you only say the word, it will happen.”

He didn’t say, “I order you, Jesus, to heal my servant” – he knew that he couldn’t order Jesus around. That’s getting it the wrong way. No, what he said was, “Lord, if you speak the word, it can all happen in a moment. I know it. I’m certain of it. I trust you, Lord, to make this healing happen.”

Not many people have that kind of trust or faith in God. We doubt what God can do. Even if we say we want to be followers of Christ, we just don’t believe what we can ask for.

This story is all about trust. It’s about prayer, and it’s about the very nature and essence of our relationship with God. It’s about understanding the power of God, and it’s about trusting that power is available and that God is willing to work on our behalf.

If a soldier, and an outsider like that, could ask Jesus for help and get it, how much more is he willing to help us? If one word from Christ is powerful enough to heal someone at the point of death, what could one word or one touch do for us? What can one moment make happen?

Let’s take that moment together in worship now. And let’s try to live some more moments like this one. Because we haven’t even begun to see what God can do. We’re only beginning to understand the power and the love of God.

It’s OK to be humble. It’s OK for us to realize we don’t deserve all the good we receive. But don’t ever let that stop you from asking. You are worthy, because Jesus says you are worthy. It isn’t something you have to earn or buy. You are worthy, because Jesus loves you. He gave his life for you.

No matter how unworthy you feel, even at your worst and lowest, remember that God loves you. No one is an outsider to God. You are worthy, because God says so.
And you can trust that if God says anything good about you, that it will happen.

Whether it’s your healing. Whether it’s lifting you up. Whether it’s restoring you. Whether it’s giving you guidance. The Lord is your light, and your salvation. What do you need to be afraid about? The Lord is your rock and your high place. You are safe. You are worthy. You are loved.

Oh, and P.S. – the Roman officer’s servant was healed, too. I wonder how he felt about it?

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