Let me tell you about what I have seen in the world of the internet, it can be a dark and scary place. I am a TikTok lurker, I watch the videos and yet post nothing. On that app and of course, outside of it, there are those who look at the White, American, Christian Church and see only the ways in which we, the church universal–or American–has been… unkind, abusive, bullying people, pushing people toward the margins, demanding they not live into the fullness of who they are created to be. There was a time when Christians suggested that it was hypocrisy that was why people weren’t interested in the church, which might be true, but the reasons seems to be that we, the church white American, has just continually revealed, again and again, what the church is.
I watch people tell stories of their pain, of rejection, of abandonment, and the stories are told with disappointment, anger, resignation. And I want to respond to them every time, not all churches. I want to send them messages about my church, about each of you, about how there are congregations who love each person, just as they are. But in case you’re wondering, that response almost never works, certainly not with strangers online. Folks don’t want to hear that your church is different, because most churches say the right things, and some still will send someone away when they don’t fit the expectations.
Here’s the thing we can learn from the centurion and Jesus, not so much the widow but please know it pains me to marginalize an already marginalized woman in our story, the centurion was a man with power, clout, wealth, authority–he financed the place of worship for the people he occupied, and they were so in his debt they ran to Jesus when he asked. The centurion knew the context, he knew that if Jesus entered his home, Jesus would be ritually unclean, and would have to travel, and wash to be cleaned.
The centurion though, didn’t demand anything of Jesus, didn’t throw his power or wealth at the situation or at Jesus, he begged for the life of his servant. He acknowledged his place in the world, his place in the power, his representation of the empire, and that it wasn’t going to make a difference. He humbled himself and was moved to compassion for one who was close to him. It wasn’t power that was going to save his slave, it was love and compassion. He puts his place in society, he makes himself vulnerable the those around him, risks his authority for this beloved slave.
As a quick aside, slavery in the ancient world not the chattel slavery of the colonized United States. It was not based on race, and while sometimes it was the result of war, often, it was financial and for a limited time. And yes, the bible does acknowledge that slavery was a reality and set rules for how to care for ones slave, as some suggest, condoning slavery, don’t forget about the Year of Jubilee, the reset, where slaves would be freed, money and land redistributed. In this story, some have suggested that the way the centurion talks about this slave, there is a real personal and intimate relationship between the two.
Was it faith in Jesus that brought the healing? Faith in the Jewish God he might have met during his time posted in region? Was it faith that saving this slave was more important than the possible costs? I don’t know, but healing came to his house that day.
And this story is placed along side the story of the widow, a woman who was about to enter the most vulnerable place in her life, being alone, with no blood relative, in culture where women were financially cared for by men, not having one is dangerous. But, there were laws put in place for the care of the vulnerable, for the community to come alongside the woman, the widow, and assure that she is not left alone, to offer compassion.
That is what Jesus did, he offered compassion. The widow doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t ask anything of Jesus, not like the centurion. We don’t know if she knew who Jesus was or that he was nearby or, if lost in her grief, she was aware of anything happening near her.
Jesus sees the procession, sees the woman in this vulnerable position, sees the struggles of her future and is moved to compassion. In a move that feels the opposite of the distant healing of the slave, Jesus gets us and close with the man who had died. He touches the stretch, the means to carry the man, action that made Jesus ritually unclean for 7 days, and consequence that the centurion was trying to spare Jesus by telling him to stay away. Although, I’m not sure if there is a loophole when the dead don’t stay dead because Jesus says to the man to get up, and he does.
This changes this widow’s life and future. This action offers her security that had been lost with the death of son after the death of her husband. Because Jesus risked vulnerability and was moved with compassion and his compassion moved him to act, and healing came to her life that day.
Did you catch the beginning of our reading today? It started with: After he had said these things… After! Well, it seems like we should know what was said before… Just before this was Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, much like the Sermon on the Mount but in addition to the beatitude blessings, Luke gives us the woes–sometimes the Sermon on the Plain seems a bit harsher than the one on the mountain. But this is also where Jesus says to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.
And here’s the thing, the centurion was essentially the enemy. He was the physical embodiment of the empire, of their occupation, of how they don’t have control of their land, their bodies, their thoughts, that they were controlled at the end of sword and the centurion who asked for healing was the one wielding the sword.
And we, the church who swears we want to do good in the world, in the face of evil, who stand up to the powers like Jesus told us to, might wonder why Jesus would take time to answer this centurion’s request, why affirm the systems of slavery, why allow his position in the world to not be condemned but affirm him and assist his household. We understand the widow but the powerful… ? But we also see that the love and compassion and healing of God through Jesus know no bounds, will extend to beyond our expectations, to show love and compassion even to those who we would call enemies, they are worthy of love, and our siblings in Christ. This is at the root of who we are, who we are called to be.
In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says that a good tree will not produce bad fruit, and a bad tree will not produce good fruit. When the roots of the church are rotten it’s fruits are racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism. When the root is rotten the fruit is rotten, cruel, abusive, exclusive. They’ve been told by religious people they don’t belong because they’re gay, they’ve been told they can’t speak out because of their gender, they’ve been told their experience of their gender identity is crap, or racism isn’t real, or they aren’t allowed to ask questions, or they’re going to hell. It’s these roots, and these fruits, that people see, respond to, leave them hurt by the church, and I really can’t blame them.
But, when we are rooted in compass, love, seeking healing and mercy, opposing injustice, living with the example of love we have in Jesus. When we root, when we ground ourselves, when we grow in and are feed in the love of God revealed in the life, in the vulnerable compassion, in the generous mercy, in the active justice, in the life of Jesus, the fruit is good.
That’s what we are about, that’s how we’re healed, how we heal each other, and heal the world, love, compassion, justice. Good roots, good fruits.