I am drawn in by those men portrayed in movies and stories who are strong enough to stand on their own. They have charisma and courage and a penchant for adventure. Women swoon. Other men describe them as a man’s man. They are the American dream in bodily form. They can handle whatever situation they are placed in with a strong grace that leaves no doubt in my mind that I want to be just like them. I want that life they are leading where it all works out, where fear is never present, where strength and right conquers all.
Think John Wayne or Robert Redford or Brad Pitt. Or, if you must, think Kevin Costner.
I am drawn in because in some ways I have bought into this myth that I can be strong by myself. That if I have enough grit, strength, emotional stability, self confidence, or a certain je ne sais quoi, I will make it all on my own.
Except, of course, I know just as well as you do that such images are merely fabrications. The Marlboro Man walking alone in the fields with his collar turned up against the snow is not real in any true sense. It is just a flickering image of non-reality. A promise handed to us in subtle ways that make us think our lives could be so much more than they are. That we could someday, somehow escape our lives for that life we imagine is really worth living. That we could truly have it all. We still reach out for this illusion even though we know it will vanish into thin air. That in the end such images are worthless.
A Sermon on Luke 7:1-10
What’s crazy of course is this lie that I can do it all on my own. Are we so daft to really think this is true? Unfortunately, I know the answer for me; it’s yes more often than I’d like to admit. I get sucked in by these shiny illusions of self-reliance.
It would be easy to imagine our centurion as just such a man. If someone had arrived in life, it would be he. Not only had he risen above middle management, he had power. He declares, “I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” He’s the kind of person you’d listen to if you ever met him. He likely had charisma and brute strength and a powerful voice and a full head of hair.
He’s also pretty generous. You did catch that, right. Jewish elders came to Jesus to prime the pump, to tell this man’s story. “When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” Prestige and brawn and a good heart, what more could you ask for?
Well there is one more thing because our hero “had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.” And that’s why “when he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave.” We don’t know for sure if he highly valued the slave due to financial reasons or because his servant had become a part of his family. (However, I suspect it’s the latter, because otherwise he slides into that realm of a not so palatable salesman—“Jesus can you heal my servant so I can sell him and recoup some of my investment.”) Upon hearing the story from these Jewish elders, Jesus makes his way toward the man’s home.
Yet before he can even get there, friends of the centurion meet Jesus on the way. They had been sent them with these words from the centurion, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” You can add humility to that list of qualities that’s getting quite long now. This isn’t that false sense of humility that has come to be known as a humblebrag. This was the real deal.
Even Jesus himself is amazed. “When he heard this he turned to the crowd that followed him, and said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’” And because of this, the servant receives the touch of God and is restored to health.
Our nameless centurion then isn’t too far off from our original thought about him. Except for one thing. He’s not in this alone.
You caught it, right? He never appears before Jesus himself. At the start it’s a group of Jewish elders who come to Jesus to share the centurion’s story, and then it’s a group of friends who come to Jesus telling him he doesn’t need to come to the house. He’s not this solitary loner off on his own making his own way. He’s part of a wider community.
As commentator M. Jan Holton puts it, “This story challenges the perception that faith can remain a solitary endeavor. We in the West especially are culturally conditioned to believe that the greater strength is found in individual fortitude. Spiritually this manifests itself in the desire to categorize faith as private and personal, rather than a public matter.” So the image of a disciple of Jesus as something akin to the solitary figure of a Western movie couldn’t be further from the truth. We cannot follow Jesus alone; we need one another. [
Which generally can be accepted by folks until things go south. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard about a parishioner’s dark season of the soul after the fact. When life takes a wrong turn and things go off the rails, we tend to think we can handle it by ourselves, or perhaps that we’d rather not be brutally real and honest with our friends. So we circle the wagons and insulate ourselves at a time when we need the backup most of all.
Imagine if this centurion hadn’t said anything, if he had just stayed near the bedside of his servant without getting the word out. Or if he had just ignored the whole situation and gone off to work pretending everything was just fine. If he had, Jesus would have come into town and gone out none the wiser. The servant would have died. The man’s friends might have asked each other if they had heard about this illness beforehand, each wondering if their friendship really was as important as they thought given their friend hadn’t said anything. If he had remained disconnected, God’s work would not have been done.
Today we’re baptizing a little one, welcoming her into the household of Christ. I’ll ask the parents and godparents a few questions, and then I’ll turn to the congregation as a whole. “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in her life in Christ?” “We will” we’ll all say. In that instant we’re all reminded that being a part of the body of Christ means were in this together. That the life of faith isn’t lived alone. That it takes all of us to support each other in our way of faith.
Where are you in that journey today? Do you need the support of this congregation? Has your life become undone? Have the wagons been circling as you shrink further into yourself? Do you need others to rally around you to help go to Jesus on your behalf in order for you to find the healing that you desperately need?
Or do you need to open yourself up to supporting another? Has your life become so overfilled that you wouldn’t notice a brother or sister needing help? Have you gone all solitary, thinking that your faith can be contained in a neat little box with just you and God?
I want to tell you that great faith can be found here in Southborough, too. Faith reliant on the care and connection to others. Faith supported and strengthened by the full body of Christ, each of us for the other.
So how will you respond? Jesus is in town, by the way; he’s here. Will you give up the illusion that you can handle your life completely on your own? Will you build bridges to your sisters and brothers rather than erecting walls? Will you share deeply of yourself in this amazing and beautiful and scary and joy-filled world of ours? Will you open yourself up to love? Amen.