Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
After my dad came out of his successful heart surgery in April, the first stop in his healing process was the ICU. At first, before Dad was released to a regular room, we could only visit him for 15 minutes at a time, once an hour, so as not to tire him out. For the other 45 minutes my Mom and I hung out in the ICU waiting room, making and drinking the bland - but free - hospital coffee, getting our family caught up with how well Dad was doing, and waiting for the next opportunity to visit. My mom loves to talk to random people, and so during one of these breaks she struck up a conversation with another lady in the waiting room, whose brother had be operated on by the same surgeon as my Dad.
This woman asked us if we had looked up Dad’s doctor on the internet yet. We hadn’t. But when we did, we learned that apparently Dad’s doctor is a world-renowned heart surgeon who splits her time between Wisconsin, California, and traveling around the world to perform children’s heart surgeries for free.
Whoa. Dad could not have been more fortunate. This amazing surgeon happened to be in town at the exact moment that Dad needed her, since just four days after Dad’s surgery, she was due to fly back to South America to do more heart surgeries on children in the amazon. If we would have had time to “do our homework,” we could not have chosen a better surgeon for the job. What had Dad done to deserve getting this amazing world-famous heart doctor as his surgeon? Nothing, really. He is not more or less worthy person than the next guy who needs heart surgery. My Dad was at the right place at the right time. Which, I like to think was definitely a God thing.
Sort of like in today’s Gospel reading. We’re wading back in the Gospel of Luke for the summer, and are going to hear story after story of Jesus healing the sick, eating with sinners, telling stories and teaching people about the kingdom of God – and all along the way encountering people who are at the right place at the right time to come face to face with the divine, to personally experience God showing up in their own lives.
For the centurion in Capernaum, Jesus was certainty at the right place at the right time. His worthy slave was sick and nearly dying, and I like to think that the centurion had done his homework about the physician in question. He heard something about Jesus, since Jesus had been to Capernaum before, healing and cast out demons on his previous trip. Perhaps the centurion was hoping for a repeat performance on behalf of his slave.
Which is a pretty strange request, if you think about it. After all, the centurion is pretty close to the top of the food chain in Jesus’s time. At the top were Roman citizens, military and political leaders - men with power. Toward the bottom were all the people that the Romans had conquered, such as the Jesus’s people. Slaves were at the very bottom of the pile, often seen as “living tools” of their masters. So here we have a centurion, a Roman citizen, a military leader who answered to very few, ask for healing on behalf of his slave. This from a guy who could easily have commanded or threatened Jesus. Instead, he asks the Jewish elders to intercede with on his behalf.
Presumably, the elders thought this centurion was a worthy candidate for Jesus because of he seemed like a “good guy” to the Jewish people. It might be the case of a little “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” You built our synagogue, and so we’ll put in a good word for you with Jesus. It makes sense, since proximity to power is the next best thing to having power yourself.
But we know that that’s not how Jesus rolls. Jesus decides to make this house call because he judges the worth of people from an entirely different criteria than that of the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, not much has not changed in the world since the time of Jesus, has it? In the eyes of the world, our worth is still based on where we measure up in the social strata. We are being perpetually judged on some combination of birth – ethnicity, nationality, gender – mixed in with our capacities of money, power, influence, successful parenting, our house, job, extracurricular activities, college we went to, vacations we take, cars we drive, ways we do more and be more.
Because if we can do “all the things,” THEN we will be worthy of notice and therefore worthy of love. If only we can “do it all” and be “good enough, “THEN we will MATTER. THEN we will matter to the world. THEN we will matter to ourselves. Only we never actually get to THEN.
This is not how God operates. Jesus came to show us exactly how God judges our worth. Jesus came to knock down the ladder we can never climb, to short circuit the treadmill we can never catch up on, to smash the game board we can never beat. Jesus came to spread the radical notion that all people are worthy of God’s love.
And in the Gospels, we get to follow Jesus as he lives this out by preaching and healing – encountering all kinds of different people along the way. Some of them, like the disciples, stick around the whole time, while others pop in, play their rolls and then we never hear from again, like healed slave and humble centurion.
All kinds of people pop in and out of our lives too. Like the lady we met in the ICU waiting room. Her brother had been in the ICU for a month when we met her. And after Dad was released from the hospital, we never saw her again. We’ll never know if her brother pulled through or not. But God does. To God, she is important. She and her brother both matter.
I really like a quote from the show Doctor Who that goes, “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important” To put it another way, in the words of writer Frederick Buechner, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you.”
I think both Doctor Who and Fredrick Buechner are right. You. You are important. God needs you for the party.
But there ARE people who are excluded from the party, people who are seen as worth less than other people, based on how our society treats them. We may not have slaves and centurions in this time and place, but we have questions of worth of our own to ask ourselves if we are paying attention.
Which kind of people have you seen that are treated as having worth more than others?
Who is worth more?
Black lives or white lives?
Men’s lives or women’s lives?
Straight lives or the lives of people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender?
First world lives or third world lives?
CEOs or those who are homeless?
Political leaders and refugees?
These questions make us all uncomfortable because we know that something isn’t right in the state of the world. And the centurion of all people, the enemy of the Jewish people, is the one in the story who “got it.” And that completely shocked Jesus, which is probably pretty hard to do. In the centurion’s example, we see faith, humility, and concern for others came from the last place that we would expect. We see that he, the “most worthy” in the eyes of the world, giving away his power and authority, so that the slave, the “least worthy,” could be healed and made whole. And that could been seen as a miracle in and of itself.
The centurion saw that treating others with the dignity and worth they deserve did not make his worth become less, like a zero sum game. He saw that our worth actually is not worth anything when other people are treated as having less worth. Worth is not something I can hoard, or store up extra for myself. It can only be seen and shared. Worth doesn’t come from our own making. We can’t give it or take it away. We can do our best to deny it, but it is still there, given only by the grace of God.
The God’s party - feast of victory for our God - is not complete without you. And it’s also not complete without those people we are surprised to see are invited. That means, as Fredrick Buechner says, the party is not complete without others too. You are important. They are important.
We need one another, because together we are whole. Together we are Holy. Together we are one, as Paul writes later in his letter to the Galatians, “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.” (Gal. 3:28) We need all of God’s children for the party – black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay, and transgender, leaders, refugees, men and women.
Together we are complete. Together we are the children of God. Together we are worthy, because it is God, not the world, who has given us our worth. Amen for that.