1st Reading: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
2nd Reading: Galatians 1:1-12
Gospel: Luke 7:1-10
A couple of days into my first week as a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center, I was so happy to get parking at the Mass Transit station. As I got on the hospital shuttle, I heard my first news reports, that the twin towers had been struck. The announcer actually said, “There are planes falling out of the sky all over America!” Of course I pictured hundreds of planes falling from the sky and we certainly watched in San Francisco, because not all aircraft were accounted for and reports were that there might be one headed our way. We glanced at the television screens in the lobby as we walked by and in the patient rooms. Of course it was the same 5 seconds of video over and over again with the bright circle drawn around the second plane to hit the towers as it crashed.
That day I was called to a patient room. A man there was unresponsive. His sisters had come to be with him and they wanted a chaplain. I sat down with them to hear their story. This brother had been estranged from his family. They hadn't spoken in years, but when they got the call he was sick, they dropped everything to fly across the United States to be with him. I was there in the room when the doctor broke the news to them that their brother was dying. I talked with the sisters about what kind of prayers would be meaningful to them in saying goodbye. We all headed off to lunch with the agreement we would come back at 1 and pray over him. The guy died during lunch.
I was beside myself. We said our prayers there in the hospital room, anyway, but I felt like I had failed. This man was alone when he died, and of course that is the last thing any of us would want, right? I went to debrief with my supervisor that week. I had so many questions. Why are some healed and some not? Why couldn't he have waited for our prayers? What more could we have done? I wanted to know because I was just beginning my chaplaincy and I wanted to do better in the future. I wanted to be there for my patients. I wanted to have all the right prayers. I wanted families to have closure.
My supervisor told me that each person dies in their own way and it made absolute sense to her that this man died on lunch. He was estranged from his sisters. Why would he want them there at his death? He waited until they left and then he did what was more comfortable for him. He wasn't with them in life. Why would he want to be with them in death?
Through my year-long chaplaincy, I had a lot to learn. I'm glad I did chaplaincy, because it was ministry where people are hurting most and most open to thinking about their higher power's hand in their life and how they might be a better person. And it prepared me for this ministry, where I get to visit all of you in the hospital and talk about questions of life and death and why is there suffering and the different forms that healing takes in each of our lives.
I think the Disciples, too, were wondering about these questions of life and death and healing. Certainly the crowds that were following Jesus around wondered. Here is this Centurion, a very powerful man, used to having everyone obey his commands. Except this disease in his servant won't obey him and his servant can't obey him as long as he's got this disease. This important Centurion, this powerful man that has slaves and messengers and has built the temple and commanded in the military, now finds himself powerless. So he goes to one he believes has power, Jesus. But he's so used to the way his life usually works, that he first credentials himself. He wants to make sure that Jesus knows he is a man worth helping, that he would be in a position to help Jesus someday, and pay back the debt he would incur by having Jesus heal his servant.
It reminds me of Martin Luther caught in the storm, “Spare my life and I will become a monk!” Doesn't this sound like some of the bargains we make with God? “Heal me, heal my daughter, my son, my husband, and I promise I've learned my lesson. I'll be kinder to others. I'll eat all my vegetables. I'll (fill in the blank).”
So what do we know so far about this Gospel story? 1. The Centurion is a powerful person. 2. The Centurion finds himself powerless. 3. He admits his powerlessness and asks for help from Jesus, who he believes to be more powerful than he is. 4. He gets others to make a case for why he is worth helping. 5. The Centurion sends a message to Jesus that he doesn't need to be physically present to heal his servant. The Centurion expresses a deep and profound faith in the power of Jesus for healing.
This Centurion goes from putting faith in his own credentials and worthiness, to putting his faith in Jesus. This Centurion, who we never see—he always sends a messenger—believes in Jesus, who he never sees, to heal someone important to him without coming anywhere near him. And Jesus holds up the Centurion as an example of what it means to have faith.
Paul is writing the people of Galatia about what it means to have faith. They are turning to a different Gospel. Gospel means “good news.” There is all kinds of good news in this world, but not a lot of it is lasting and real. One false Gospel the world holds up is that if we have the right connections and friends, if we are important enough, nothing is impossible—we can have whatever we want. However, I think we've all figured out that no amount of money or fame or possessions will ever make us happy or make our marriage healthy or make our kids behave or keep us from illness or pain or death. Another false Gospel is that we can have control. The sisters at the hospital wanted to control their brother's death and they were disappointed. I thought I could have control of people's grief and I lost that assumption very quickly. And if you think I was struggling with questions about the meaning of this interaction, you should have met the young doctor who had to break the news that their brother was dying. It was as if he had personally failed that this man wasn't going to make it. Here is a doctor, someone with the power to heal and to give life, who had passed countless anatomy exams and some of the most difficult classes one can take, and he was reduced to this pitiful, helpless person. He's a lot like the Centurion. Why couldn't this man be healed? What more could I have done? What more power could I have that would have kept his man alive? Weren't my skills good enough? Wasn't I worthy?
I do have some good news. We have very little power compared to God. Anything good we can do is because of God. Why is this good news? When we have the power we usually misuse it. God uses God's power for the life all Creation. God doesn't use this power just on those who are worthy, thankfully, since who among us would be good enough, or on those who can reciprocate. Instead God has mercy and compassion on us and uses God's power without prejudice, generously providing life and healing, for the citizen and the foreigner, for the Christian and the Muslim and the Jew, for the responsible and irresponsible, for the powerful and powerless. God isn't seeking our approval, or taking orders from us, but knows a better way and does what is best, whether we can see that or not.
Neither are we slaves bound to do everything our master commands. We do have the power of free-will. So now I'll ask you the same question I asked the Confirmation class last week. Does God's abundant love and grace and healing make you want to sin less or sin more? Of course they were trying to get my goat, so they said, “More!” But really, God is like a mother or father, who finding out their child intentionally broke a window, shows mercy and forgiveness on the child, and helps the child find a way to make it right. Now because of that forgiveness, is that child really more likely to want to do the same thing again? I doubt it! We want to please God because God is so kind. We want to live differently because of the forgiveness and healing God provides for us.
So what about this man who died at the hospital? Where was Jesus there for him? He wasn't healed. He died. If Jesus can heal from far off, as the Gospel indicates, why wasn't he healed? I like all my questions all tied up in a neat little bow, so I'm going to offer a couple of different perspectives. One is that God sees the bigger picture. What would this man's life been like if he had been healed—what would have been the quality of life for him? Many times death can be a relief—from pain and suffering, from mental anguish, etc. Another perspective is that Jesus brings life and healing to all living things, so maybe it meant more life for someone or something else that he died. Healing can take many forms. Maybe once this man died, his family came to a place of peace about his role in their family, or maybe they learned something about themselves. And finally, as Christians, death is not an enemy, because death is not the end. There is eternal life. Yes, we experience glimpses of it in this life, but in our death we are reunited with God and one another, in the Kingdom of God.
Let us, too, put aside the false Gospels of this world, stop trying to prove we're good enough to receive God's healing and love, and simply open ourselves to receiving God's generosity, and then stop expecting others to be good enough or worthy for us to share our bounty with. Let us be just as giving as the one who gives us life, shares power with us, and brings us healing.