It’s interesting being on facebook with a lot of pastors. I hear all these comments, these questions about our lectionary text for any particular weekend. This week’s text drew many insights, many questions, many imaginative responses. Some wondered why the first group of petitioners who spoke with Jesus said the Centurion was worthy and deserving of Jesus’ help, but the second said he was unworthy and didn’t want Jesus to feel as if he were being asked to come into the house. Some wondered about what it means to be under authority, or to have authority and as our society struggles with questions of authority this raised some interesting questions. Others wondered about faith and the trust that the centurion had placed in Jesus. Some wondered if the centurion’s slave held a special or unique relationship with the centurion and what that might mean. All of these are good and interesting questions.
But I am drawn again and again not only to Jesus’ boundary crossing behavior but to his astonishment. Not only is Jesus immediately willing to go to a gentile, even enter his home and risk ritual defilement but before he gets there he learns that God has been working in and through this centurion, someone outside the Jewish faith. Before Jesus himself can even get there God is at work in this man’s life. The centurion expresses a faith beyond Jesus expectation. Faith which does not come from us but is a gift of God appears richly and vibrantly in an outsider. When we see Jesus astonished by God we see Jesus’ humanity affirmed. Isn’t it surprising? When I think of Jesus being astonished by God I find myself on the edge of heresy. God surprises God’s very own self. There is something wonderful about that. God make’s God’s self vulnerable to us.
I suspect that it is part of our human condition that we tend to avoid surprises. We seem to seek out familiar patterns and affirm what we already know even when these patterns aren’t healthy, or good. Often it is easier for us to stay with the familiar than to risk something new. If we stay with what we know we don’t risk being disappointed, but we may also be shutting out possibility, shutting out hope, shutting out change. Our scriptures tell us that the Spirit will blow where it will and this uncertainty disturbs us. We have a tendency to want to predict where God will show up and how. To name God, to claim God, to wrap God in our doctrines and theologies. As if we could describe God and contain God within our understandings. Seminary students are perhaps the worst at this!
Yesterday I read an article about the band Mumford and Sons. Perhaps some of you know this band? It’s a Christian inspired rock band. This article stated that attending a Mumford and Sons concert was a ‘church-like’ experience. Yet for most of us church and a rock concert are as far apart and disparate as we can imagine! We cling to the way things have always been, our familiar comfortable descriptions of life, of church, of God, of simply the way things ought to be. We hold as inviolable the roles we maintain for each other. This centurion was a rule breaker, a boundary crosser. Imagine the conversation between him and his supervisor. “You get too close to these Hebrews! You have no boundaries! I’ve even heard that there is a slave you have allowed yourself to get close to! You are weak and your weakness makes us all weak!” Yet in his willingness to be vulnerable to those he was in charge of governing, he became an agent of healing, an agent of change, an agent of God. His ultimate authority was not the culture, it was not his commander, it was not ‘the way things ought to be.” It was God in all her goodness, grace and mercy. It was God exhibited and made manifest in all of God’s creation.
What are the boundaries within which we seek God? Do we look for signs of God at work only in our own faith, in our own culture, in our own understanding?
I wonder what it would mean for us to stand astonished with Jesus as we see God working in those places we least expect to see God working in. What would it mean for us to actively search for God in the midst of our daily lives? To search for and affirm the goodness of creation? I want to show you a video clip. Perhaps you’ve seen it, or one like it. We live in an age of surveillance, but what are we looking for?
Isn’t that something? We see what we expect to see. Part of our Christian calling is to see and affirm the good in the world. When we actively seek and affirm the good in the world, we change ourselves and then the world we live in changes. We actively call out, we elicit, the good in the world and we have faith that it will answer us. When we seek the good in the world we are deliberately provoking it, we are calling for it, we are acting in faith that it is there even when we don’t see it, and we call it into expression. We are agents provocateur provoking the world to manifest goodness.
We hear God’s affirmation of life, of creation, repeatedly in the Genesis accounts, where God pronounces a benediction over all of creation, good, very good and we are asked to respond to creation, to life, from a place of faith; affirming this goodness, and as we do we become part of the inbreaking kingdom of God made manifest in the world. To continue to believe in the goodness of all creation is an act of defiance. The world is all too ready to provide evidence of pain and suffering, of evil and wrong doing. When we affirm the goodness of the world we do so in defiance of all that is painful, of all that would tear us down. John Caputo, puts it this way, “The world resonates with the echo of God’s ancient blessing of creation, so that every time the wind blows or a child smiles, we can, if we have ears to hear, detect there the murmuring of the “good” that Elohim pronounces over things, the movement of the Spirit of God listing where it will.”
Many of you know of the story of Anne Franke, a young Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis during WW2 with her entire family in an attic. She did not survive the concentration camps. During the years that Anne and her family hid in the attic Anne kept a journal and before she was taken away she wrote the most profound and hopeful statement, that after all she and her family had been through, after all the news of what was happening outside to others, she still believed in the good. She was a light in the dark.
Yet we do not know what she might have said if she had seen the camps. For that we must go to Etty Hillesum. Etty was older than Anne and more politically aware. She lived and worked for a time in a work camp. She knew more details of the horrors awaiting her if and when she was put on the train. Etty was so well loved by friends and family that they actually tried to kidnap her to save her from the camps, but she refused. She knew that if she escaped others would suffer. The last word we have from Etty was a postcard thrown out the side of a train headed to Auschwitz. It said simply, “we left the camp singing.” I imagine her friends thinking, “if they were singing Etty, it’s because you led them.” Etty was not naïve. She questioned the good in mankind, in her guards and oppressors. In one poignant entry she states that she had spent the afternoon watching a guard strutting back and forth by the fence and struggling with the idea that he too bore the image of God.
These stories reverberate because they astonish, because they inspire. These are stories of people who in the midst of pain and loss beyond imagination found hope, found courage, found love, found God in the strangest places, in the oddest circumstance. In our scripture today we have a group of Jews coming to Jesus asking him to do a favor for a Roman centurion. He was one of the oppressors, but they argued, he really was a good guy! He wasn’t a jack-booted thug who ravaged the countryside but one who took pity, who encouraged their worship, who showed mercy. But what a strange place to find God at work! What a strange man to display incredible faith, to bear witness to the authority and power of God. What a strange man to express such humility and surrender. Jesus was astonished! Isn’t that amazing?
When we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit we begin to see the possibility of the impossible. We begin to doubt the certainty of our assumptions and the way it’s always been. We do not give in to cynacism and despair but defiantly proclaim that what today seems impossible is possible and that this impossible possibility is groaning and stretching within us desiring to be born anew each and every day. We deliberately engage in a second naivete, not the innocence of an Anne Frank but the informed and knowledgeable faith of an Etty Hillesum, knowing the full spread of evil, of pain and wrongdoing in the world we continue to believe in the good.
Believing in the goodness of the world is an act of defiance, it is an act of faith. It is to take God’s benediction upon creation as truth. It is to affirm with Elizabeth Barrett-Browning that earth is crammed full of heaven and for those who have eyes to see every common bush is ablaze with God. Our faith asks us to believe beyond belief that God is acting in the world even when we cannot see it, perhaps especially when we cannot see it. Our faith asks us to be astonished, to stand in awe of God working in the shadows, in the unforseen places in distant, unknown people, in strange faith traditions, in strange cultures. Our faiths asks us to be astonished to stand in awe of God working even within our own shadows, our own darkest, most seemingly irredeemable places. Our faith asks us to surrender ourselves and our expectations that God might astonish us with grace and redemption beyond belief. May it be so.