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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Faith of an Outsider,   The story of the centurion’s faith. (No longer in the lectionary but a great text.)

Pentecost 2     Luke 7:1-10

The centurion.  The Roman centurion.  What do you see in your mind’s eye?  What images do you remember from the movies?  Or  what pictures come into your mind from Sunday School lessons of early childhood?  ....  Do you see that metal Roman helmet, with the purple plume on top?  And then the metal breastplate, firming fitting around the chest.  And then the sword  there in the sheaf.  And then the skirt.  And then big strong muscular hairy legs.  This centurion, in our mind’s eye, isn’t some young nineteen year old kid, but a man, thirty or thirty-five year’s old. Yes, we have mental images of Roman centurions. 

The story of the Roman centurion for today is one of those wonderful stories from the Bible. We have a brief outline of that centurion, and from that very brief outline, we can draw a rather descriptive portrait of this centurion.  We can paint our own picture of the centurion from today’s story.

The centurion was a good man, with a gentle heart and deep faith in Christ.  He was, what I would call, a good man.  It says in the Scriptures for today that he deeply cared for his servant when his servant was sick.  He had deep feelings of compassion.  In Matthew’s gospel, it says that the servant was paralyzed;  that he was near death;  and he had feelings in his heart for someone who was near death, was very sick.  Well, that’s the sign that he is a good man.  You wouldn’t expect to find such feelings in a rugged centurion.  You wouldn’t expect  to find those feelings in a tough Roman centurion who was living so very far away from home? You would expect him to have feelings of compassion for his own son or daughter, wouldn’t you?  If his son or daughter was near death, you would expect him to have feelings of compassion for his own child.  Or if it were his mother or father who was dying?  Or his wife?  If it were one of his own children dying, of course, you would expect him to have feelings of compassion.  But he had feelings of compassion, not merely for his own children or family, but for his...servant, his slave, a piece of personal property.  You see, the centurion was a good man, with a good heart.  He was a gentle, kind, loving man, not fitting our stereotype of a centurion at all. 

He also was, how do I say it, an unprejudiced person, an unbiased person.  It says in the passage for today, that he “loved our nation,”  the Jewish nation.  Now, Roman centurions weren’t known for their love of Jews.  I mean, most Roman centurions hated the Jews, were prejudiced against the Jews.  I mean, the last place that a Roman centurion ever wanted to get assigned  was  that God forsaken corner of the world, called Palestine, that desert out there next to nowhere.  I mean, who wanted to get assigned out there in that God forsaken deserted  corner of the earth.  And so most Roman soldiers were prejudiced against the Jews.  But here in the passage for today it says that the centurion loved our nation.  .....I have been trying to think of some parallels.  In your imagination, would you imagine yourself living in the 1860s down South in Mississippi;  you are white and all your friends and family are white, but you are also know to love the black race?  Or you are black and you love the white race?   Hmmm.  Or imagine that you are living in Pakistan today or you are known to love the Indians?  Or imagine that you are living in Palestine today and you are known to love the Jewish race?  Or a Jew loving the Palestinians?  Do you get the picture? .....  I have been trying to think of words today that would genuinely describe someone who is different than they are.  Positive words.  Can you think of any positive words?  I can think of negative words like with a negative  prefix e.g. “unprejudiced”...unbiased...but I can’t think of a positive word which describes somebody who truly loves people who are different than they are e.g. a Palestinian loving the Jewish race.  Can you think of a positive word like that?  That describes someone who truly loves other people who are very different than they are, against whom the rest of the world is prejudiced?  That’s what the centurion was.  He had true feelings of affection for people who were different than he was, people against  whom the rest of the world was prejudiced.

What did he do in the story for today?  Remember?  He built their synagogue.  What kind of person is this who not only is unprejudiced towards someone else, but is willing to build a temple for their religion.  Imagine a Jew in Israel building an Arab mosque?  Does that make sense?  Or a Palestinian building a Jewish synagogue?  Or a  Hindu building a temple in Pakistan?  Or a Pakistani building a temple for his enemies in India?  What kind of person is this centurion?  ....   (I also thought to myself.  Many of you in the congregation today have been to Capernaum on the north end of the Sea of Galilee, where the story for today unfolds.  And many of you have seen the archeological foundation of that synagogue, the very synagogue that the centurion built.)

The centurion was humble.  In the story for today, the Pharisees said:  “Jesus, the centurion is worthy to have his servant healed because he loves our nation and built us a synagogue.”  Leave it to the Pharisees to think like that;  the centurion is good enough to deserve God’s healing power.  And many Christians today echo the same beliefs:  ‘That person is a good person, God.  Goes to church.  Is kind.  A generous tither.  If anyone deserves to be healed, that person does.”  Or some of you may feel that way about yourself.  “God, I’ve been faithful.  Come on now;  I deserve your healing presence.”  But not  the centurion  who said:  “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come to my house.  I am not worthy to see you.  I am not good enough.  I am a soldier.  When I say go, my troops go.  When I say come, they come.  I am a centurion.  I command a hundred footsoldiers, barking orders for them to obey.  But I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.”  “I order executions, whippings, killings.  I am not good enough to have you come to my house.” I mean, he could have said, “Jesus, I am a good man and a loving person. And because I am such a good person, I am honored that you will come into my house and heal my servant.”  But these weren’t his inner feelings.  He genuinely felt unworthy to have Jesus come to his home.

The centurion also had deep simple faith.  He said:  “Jesus, you just say the word and my servant will be healed.  Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house.  You don’t need to come and put your hand on his forehead and say, “rise, get up and walk.”  You don’t need to spit into the ground and take up some mud and touch his body with it.  You don’t need to take some olive oil, and pour it over him.  Jesus, you don’t even need to come to my house.  All you have to do is from right here,  you say the word and my servant will be healed.  My servant doesn’t even believe.  I am the one who believes.  You don’t even need to go see the guy.  The servant is a mile away;  you just say the word and he will be healed.”

And Jesus said:  “Let me tell you.  I have never seen... such all of Israel”  And Jesus said to the centurion,  “You can go home now.”  And he went home, and found his servant healed.

I ask you this question:  What kind of faith did the centurion have?  What was his faith like?  His faith was simple.  It was like this:  “Jesus, I believe that you can heal my servant.  You can help my servant.”  ....  His faith isn’t what I would call a dogmatic faith;  it wasn’t a creedal faith.  “Ibelieveingodthefatheralmightyandinjesuschristhisonlysonour LordwhowasconceivedbytheHolySpirtandbornoftheVirginMary.” His faith is not a rapid fire repetition of a creed, the Apostles or the Nicene.  He had never heard of the Apostles or Nicene creeds;  of course not;  they hadn’t been written yet.  ....Nor was his faith a Biblical faith.   Did he really believe, like in the Book of Colossians,  that Jesus created all the heavens and the earth and everything that was made was made by Jesus Christ.  Is that what the centurion believed?  Or did he believe that, like the book of Revelations,  that Jesus will come at the end of history to judge all the good and the bad?  Is that what he believed?  Did he know the stories of the New Testament?  Of course not.  The New Testament hadn’t been written yet.  ...Nor was his a  Sunday School faith?  the kind of faith you learn in Sunday School or church?  No, his was a very simple faith, a simple faith not resting on creeds or Bibles or Sunday School.  His was a simple, simple trust that Jesus could and would heal his servant.  And Jesus said of this kind of faith:  “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”  Perhaps there is a simplicity of faith that we sometimes lose within our institutionalized religions, a simple faith which may be much deeper than our creedal or Biblical faith, a simple belief in the power of Jesus to meet our deepest need

And so you see, this is such a simple little story.  Just that long.  One short paragraph.  But from this simple story, you can paint a rather lovely portrait of a gentle man, a good man, a person who had deep simple faith in Jesus Christ.

But importantly, in the story, the centurion was what?  He was an outsider.  He wasn’t part of the church.  He wasn’t part of the religious establishment.  He wasn’t part of the religious culture.  He was an outsider.  He wasn’t a Jew.  He wasn’t part of the inner core of the church;  he was an outsider of the church.  And this is one of the many “outsider” stories in the Bible.  ...  Can you tell me, why does Jesus seem to have this deep love and affection for people who are outsiders?  How you ever figured that out?  Why does Jesus seem to love people so deeply who are outside the church?  He seems to have an attraction for them, a fascination for, an appreciation of them.  ..... I would like to give you three examples.  Do you remember the stories about the taxcollectors?  One of his very first disciples. And people didn’t like the tax collectors.  They were stealing the people blind.  But Jesus saw something good, kind and beautiful inside the tax collectors.  ....Or how about another group.  The lepers.  The lepers were like first century people with Aids;  people stayed away from people with Aids.  Stay away from people with aids because you may get it.  And you stay away from those people with leprosy because you may get it.  You stay six feet away from them on an upwind and eighteen feet away from them on a downwind.  so people with leprosy because you may get it.  You stay six feet away from them on an upwind and eighteen feet away from them on a downwind.  You never got within wind of lepers.  They were the outsiders.  But Jesus was so different.  What did he see  in the lepers?   Something beautiful and good.  Everybody else thought that they were outsiders and bad sinners, but not Jesus.  And such would be Jesus’ attitude towards people sick with Aids today.  How very often do people with Aids feel like they are today’s lepers.  And what was the third group of outsiders?  You know, the women caught in adultery.  I wonder why the man was not caught in adultery and only the woman.  Seems impossible to me.  And you remember that Samaritan woman at the well, who had all those live-in guys erroneously called husbands?  Why does Jesus always finding something good in outsiders?  Those who are outside the walls and boundaries and membership of the current religiously acceptable organizations?  People who are outside the religious establishment.  People who are outside the church.  Outside the culturally accepted pattern of the day.  Why is it that Jesus is always attracted to them?  ...  Could it be that people within institutionalized religion have this insidious temptation and tendency to have the form of religion but without its power;  that we assume the posture of faith without the power of the simple inner faith of the heart?  Jesus  said of the centurion, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel.”

Now, to be honest, I had known several people like him;   people who are outside the institutional church but have deep and simple faith in Jesus Christ.  Two stories. A man who came to my mind right away was a man by the name of Forrie Dale.  Now, Forrie Dale was the father of Ken Dale,  and I used to go over to see Forrie Dale when his daughter was dying of cancer.  Sometimes a person makes such a deep impression on you, that you can’t remember if they are alive or dead;  their memory is so real and vivid to you, and so it is with Forrie Dale with me.  It’s hard for me to imagine that he is dead.  But he had these beautiful grey\blue eyes, and he looked just like Magoo.  And he had the face of a Doxhound dog, really sad lines and eyes to his face.  He had the saddest face and eyes in the whole wide world.  And I absolutely loved to go and see Forrie Dale.  And he was an outsider. And why was he an outsider?  He was so shy, you would never catch him around people  He was so shy he would never get into a church.  He was shy beyond shy.  Forrie would never talk.  He let his wife do all the talking;  he never said boo; and I would be there for hours.  And it would come time for me to leave;  after I had seen and prayed with his daughter who was dying of cancer, and then he would walk me out to the car, real slowly,  and he would lean up against my bumper and put his foot up on my bumper, cross his arms and look at me with those big grey/blue eyes.  And then he would say some very simple thing, such profound simple statements of faith.  Such as after his daughter Pat had died:  Pastor, he said slowly, with the twig of grass coming from his mouth, someday I’ll be there with Pat too.  I know it.  or  “Pastor, it’s really hard.  It’s really hard.”  Here was a man of deep, deep, deep faith.  It wasn’t a creedal faith:  I believe in god the father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”  It wasn’t a dogmatic faith:  “before the world began, Jesus was.”  His was a simple faith that God would help him;  that God would give eternal life to his daughter;  it was a simple, simple faith. He never came to church in all the years that I knew him, except for weddings and baptism and special occasions.  He was just so shy...but what faith. 

A second story of an outsider is a story that happened the other night.  And I tell this story with  the permission of the family.  And so I got a call at church the other night, just before l0:00, and the asked:  “Could you come over to the hospital.  My father is dying.  My mother is there.  And we want you to come and be there.  I want to tell you up front that my father is not a church person;  he’s an outsider;  he is not part of the church.”  I said, OK I will be there shortly.  So I finished my details;  got into the car and drove over to the hospital;  and there was this old man there is this room.  At the head of the bed was mother, daughter and granddaughter.  We chatted, and I asked him, “How old are you?”  85.  Oh, my dad is 85.  How long you been married.  61 years.  My mom and dad were married 60 years.  I know you.  You may be like my dad.  And I said to him, “You are a fortunate man.  There you are, surrounded  by the love of your wife,  and your daughter and your granddaughter.  You are surrounded by love,  and I said, you know what?  You are surrounded by all of that love. Do you know that you are surrounded by the love of God as well?  That the love of God goes all around this bed?  And do you know that God is going to love you forever and ever and ever?  And you may live ten seconds or ten minutes or ten days  or ten months, or ten years.  I don’t know, but what I do know is that God will love you forever.  Do you know that?”  And he said, and I quote:  “Nobody ever told me that before.”  ....  God loves you.  You are surrounded by love.  Your wife, your daughter, your granddaughter.  You are so surrounded by love.”  I went back to see him the next day and said:  “Do you believe in God?”  A slight postive nod.  Do you believe in Christ?  Another positive nod.  You know you are going to live with Christ forever?  Another postive nod.  And then he paused and quietly asked:   “Will I get to see my mother?”  ... And a big tear came down his eyes, deep love for his mother.  Yes, his was a simple, simple deep faith.  Not a creedal faith, I believe in one god, the Father from all eternity.  Nor was it a Biblical  faith, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and son of man.” Nor was it a Sunday School faith of stories imprinted on his early childhood mind. Rather, it was a simple faith, that God could help him and save him now.  And that man is saved.  That man knows Jesus Christ. That man knows God.  And you know what?  Down deep in his heart he doesn’t feel worthy.  Because at 85 years old, it ain’t right, believing at 85 and never having been part of the church.  He doesn’t feel worthy, and just as the centurion did not feel worthy, so people outside the church often do not feel worthy of God’s love. 

I think of other people who are outside the church.  You come to this church on Tuesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, and Saturday night,  and you will find our fellowship hall and other rooms filled with AA people.  Alcoholics Anonymous. And I find so many of those people in those groups and they truly believe in the power of God and in Jesus Christ, and they don’t feel worthy.  “I’ve got this alcohol problem. I’ve been an alcoholic for twenty years.  I am not worthy to be a Christian. I have messed up my whole life.  I’ve messed up my wife and kids and everybody.  I’m not good enough for God.”

Or I think of another group who has deep faith who are outsiders....many of the people who have Aids today.  I run into people and hear so many stories of people who suffer with Aid who do not feel worthy; who feel like outsiders of the church;  that people in the church are prejudiced against them;   they are not welcomed in church because it will suggesting that we are embracing homosexuality;  but so many of those people with Aids have deep, deep faith in Jesus Christ.  And when I look out at the people in our congregation who are living with Aids today, they often don’t want members to know “the” secret because of unwelcoming prejudice.  But the faith runs deep.

So this story is a simple reminder that the church belongs to God, and that God doesn’t belong to the church.  It’s just a simple reminder that we belong to God, and that God doesn’t belong to us;  that is, God is not the church’s private possession.  God created the whole wide world, all races, all creeds, all colors, all nationalities;  God created the whole wide world and the whole wide world belongs to God.  So let’s not say that God belongs to the church.  I love that quotation:  “God knows those whom the church knows not;  and the church knows those whom God knows not.”  Because God knows the heart. God knows the heart, and God knows the heart of a simple, trusting, devout faith. 

So...then, why bother with the church.  If it’s true, I don’t have to be part of the church.  Why did we bother to come here today.  Why do we bother to be part of the church?  I knew I should have stayed home.  I could have gone boating.  Could have done my gardening.  Why did I come here today?  If I can have simple faith without the church, why bother with the church?  It will save me time and money.  You’re painting yourself into a corner preacher;  you’re working yourself out of a job.  You are giving support to my husband or wife who doesn’t belong.  My job is hard enough trying to get them to come to church;  they finally did; and now they are hearing this sermon which doesn’t support my efforts to get my spouse into the church.  If you can have simple faith without the church, why bother with the church?  ...It’s very simple.  It is through the church that the stories of grace are told, the stories that nourish our faith.  It is through the church that you hear that wonderful stories of grace e.g. that of the centurion.  It is through the church you hear stories about Forrie Dale and the man at the hospital.  It is through the church that your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is nourished and strengthened. We all need the church.  And the church is God’s instrument in the world.  God couldn’t do his work without the church.  But, it is true, you can find simple true faith outside the church, outside the religious establishment, outside the formal religious culture.

Well, I love that story for tonight, the story of the centurion, and may we all learn from that story tonight.  And importantly, may all of us learn to love and appreciate the deep faith of people outside the church, with the same kind of love that God has for them.  It may be your husband.  It may be your wife.  It may be even one of your kids right now.  Who is to say what is inside the heart of those around you.  But  I know many a family at Grace Lutheran Church whose members may not be in the church, but underneath it all, there may be deep faith.  Many people at the earlier services said as they left:  Yes, you were describing some people in my family. As Pastor Johnson left the early service, he made a telling comment to me.  He was our Visitation Pastor and is now doing funerals for neighboring funeral homes, for people who don’t have church home.  He does four or five funerals a week for people outside the membership of the institutional church;  he visits these people in their homes before the funeral.  His remark to me as he left the church today?  “Ed, there’s alot of faith out there, in those people. Yes, simple faith.”

The Roman centurion.  Compassionate.  Unprejudiced.  Humble.  A deep simple faith.  Jesus said that he had never seen such faith among the Jews.  Perhaps we have much to learn from....the Roman centurion.  Amen.

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