Here is a poem about finding rest in the midst of life. I’ve titled it “Selah”.
I hope it blesses you with peace.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Here is a poem about finding rest in the midst of life. I’ve titled it “Selah”.
I hope it blesses you with peace.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
I remember a night in college, when I had made some bad choices and fallen into some things I had sworn to myself and to God I’d pull away from, dreaming I went to hell. I remember it distinctly – I was hanging, in agony in a place of cold darkness – poked and prodded, with voices whispering to me. Then a voice like metal being scratched echoed over what seemed like surrounding hillside all around me – “Though many will see through you, you will be undone”.
I woke with a start, shaking, cold, and covered in sweat. Having grown up in a very strict, legalistic Adventist sect that emphasized strict adherance to countless arbitrary religious rules to prove you were on track with God, I had developed a hamster-in-a-treadmill approach to faith I was just learning to get away from – where I felt I was never enough, and worried one day I’d go far, break one two many of the rules, and fall off into the night, lost and forgotten.
I had come to know God’s grace through evangelical Christians at my high school and through the transformation of my home church that had begun to turn to verses like Ephesians 2 which proclaim a deep, extravagant grace not based on what we do, but purely on God’s love in Christ. I was coming to understand that nothing I could do could make God love me any more, and nothing I could do could make God love me any less. Little by little I was coming to let go my fear that I had failed God, failed myself, and failed others – and that this time, I had gone too far. Looking back, though those sins were big to me at the time they would many of them be viewed as so paltry to a lot of people I’ve counseled over the years struggling with guilt from addiction, from crimes they’ve committed, or even struggles over their sexuality. But the guilt was just as real, the shame paralyzing.
Even though the idea of grace was setting me free some from the treadmill, in reality the funny thing about the evangelicalism that was teaching me about grace was how loudly it proclaimed a hell I had never known. In the Adventist sect of my childhood, we learned to get on the treadmill of performance early, but hell wasn’t a big part of the equation. Hell was pictured in the Adventist church of God movement as an end to life – sort of a capital punishment, putting the wrecked life of one who refused healing out of its misery. It might be painful, but it would be quick like the newspaper in the flame quickly curling away in the heat being transformed to ashes.
I had never heard hell described as it was in evangelical circles – described as a place where God beats and abuses those that do not know Him. A place of burning fire, torment, and agony. A place of torture and loss that continues forever. And how preachers I would hear could wax eloquently and descriptively about this fate!
I didn’t think it had gone down deep, but that dream that night showed me how deep in my soul that imagery evoked pure terror in my heart. Even though I knew Christ my fears that I had failed Him that remained from the legalism I learned as a child hung with me, mixing with these images in a night of sheer fright.
Ultimately I came to terms with these feelings. Praying I came to see some of the connections, and find the words of Romans 8 to be speak right to my heart –
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future,nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Around that time I wrote a poem expressing my struggle over this fear of hell. Now, years later, I grimace at the roughness of its style, but I can still remember the depth of feeling behind its word–
I have a fear few know
which dreams of old did show
that off night’s edge I’l fall
ne’er to his gilded hall
and then I cry.
I have a dark, clear dream
of shadow’s bright unseen:
Wailing horrors, homeless sprites
illumed by darkness’ piercing light,
and then I cry.
I have a terror true
from the voice crying “You!
An enemy shall be,
though many through you see;
and then I cry.
I have a phobic fright
of plunging past he night
to a world without sun
where I become un-done
yet still live
and then I cry.
I have an agony
which looks to be for me
– crucified again, me dying without end–
And then I cry,
“I see the vision vile
yet still shall serve you while
my fate does lie in doubt.
Please drive the darkness out,
And then you cry,
“Let light in darkness shine.
O Son, you yet are mine
though dark night lies within.
I the Dawn did begin
and complete you.”
And then, I cried.
Another fear that gripped me, as it seemed to grip others in the group of evangelical Christian friends I was a part of, was – what about those that did not know? Did not hear? A deep fear was at the heart of many of our efforts to share about our faith. We feared that, if we did not share how our life had been set free by our experience of Jesus, others might also face that horrible fate we had heard so luridly described by preachers.
Reflecting on our experience of hell is, I think, important on Holy Saturday. In the early Christian creeds we read that Jesus is said to have “descended to hell”. I have become convinced that in confronting the fears that the way we talk about hell produce in us, it is important to take time to reflect on how Christ’s taking hell into himself on Holy Saturday by descending into it should transform our thoughts on hell. In my own life, deciding to let Jesus’ experience of hell transform my view of hell rather than my fears of hell transforming Jesus has been liberating.
What seeing hell in the light of Holy Saturday has taught me is well summed up by the title of a book by Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyey. His book, which examines the way in which Christ’s descent to hell on Holy Saturday is understood in the earliest churches, is entitled Christ the Conquerer of Hell. The Christian Holy Saturday message is that whatever hell might be, Christ has both experienced it and conquered it.
This is well pictured by how Petra, in their song “Creed”, paraphrases the apostle’s creed.
They say in this that Christ descended to set the captives free.
The traditional image of Holy Saturday is of this – a harrowing of hell. Christ in death enters fully into the experience of hell to set free those held in its grip. This is rooted in the teaching of 1 Peter 3– “ For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient.”
Although there are a number of alternate explanations of this verse in modern scholarship, the earliest Christians imagined this to be talking about how in the time in which Jesus experienced being fully dead and buried physically, his soul experienced whatever lies beyond for one cut off from God and, in that state, he reached out to those cut off from God’s grace. And many accepted his grace and rose into God’s paradise on Easter morning.
In a way it was him doing as he promised the thief on the cross and remembering him and all who, like him, died without seeming hope in his death.
This image has transformed my view of hell in a number of ways.
First of all, it showed me that it is our desire, not God’s to see people suffer in torment.
This image is of Jesus reaching out even to those who the religious world seems to think have no hope, even after their death, to offer grace. This is not the image of an angry God in whose hands sinners dangle on a thread fearfully over fire, as Jonathan Edwards and many revivalist preacher since have pictured. It is not a God quick to condemn and ready to cut off ties. Rather it is the God of 2 Peter 3 who is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” This is of, as Desmond Tutu pictured in his book Made For Goodness, the God who even in our deaths continues to leave the 99 sheep safe in their fold to search out that one lost sheep who has lost her way.
This removes all fear for me that if I am struggling, seeking to follow God as best I can, I will trip up like I dreamed that night in college and be rejected. No, God’s love is bigger than my failures.
Yet it also removes all fear that if I do not share my faith enough, others will be damned for my shortcomings. God is quick to reach out, to forgive. Even in death Jesus reaches out to the lost and hurting calling them to new life. Perhaps even in their deaths, others who seemed to have never encountered God in their life or at least accepted God may yet experience at that moment the Christ who descended into hell meeting them, offering them forgiveness and grace.
Holy Saturday reminds me that even in death Christ stands ready to meet us. And the Christ we meet in death, yes even the Christ those of us who have fallen off the wagon, failed miserably, and yes even those who fought Christ tooth and nail meet is the same man with nail-pierced hands who never gave up even on Judas. Who never gives up on any us. We do not need to fear for those who die without seeming in our eyes to meet Christ, nor for those who die tragically of overdose or suicide. We need to remember that the God they meet in death is the God who even in his death continued to reach out with nail-pierced hands in love, a God who loves them and wants them to go home even more than we do.
A God who chooses to err on the side of acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and grace rather than condemnation and sin.
To close, here is a beautiful song about the fierceness of God pictured not as a fierceness to condemn, but a fierce and ferocious love. This is the God we meet in Good Friday, in life and in death:
May this Holy Saturday help set you free from your fears.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
One of the questions I always get asked as a pastor, is why did Jesus have to die? Most times, it is linked with the question — does God really require someone to die, blood to be spilled, for people to have peace with God? Many people find this idea hard to square with the image of a loving compassionate God. Theologians call this question of why Jesus had to die “atonement theology”. Earlier this year when I did a series on peace, I did a post about this question. I’m re-sharing it below as a way of exploring the divine side of Good Friday. In my other Good Friday post, I look at what it means that Jesus is fully human and what his death teaches us about our own mortality. I hope this post helps some of you who struggle on Good Friday on the question of “Why did Jesus have to Die? Is it that God is Longing for a Pound of Flesh?”
= = = =
I am coming to believe our answer to this question has a direct connection with our response to questions of violence and peace-making.
In the Gospel, we find God appearing as one of us in Jesus. Scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 5 tell us that somehow, God coming as Jesus, this human being who died the horrible death of crucifixion for our sins enables a bridge to be built so that people who have been cut off from or estranged by God can be reconciled to God and at peace with God.
To people who feel cut off from God this can be a very liberating message.
I still remember growing up in a very rule-based religion that pictured God as an angry King out for his pound of flesh if you did not live up to his standards. It was overwhelming for me to discover through friends in a Christian club in high school about a God who loves me, no strings attached. I heard about a God who thought I was so worth love, that God risked all – even suffering and death – to embrace me in God’s arms. I remember the turning point when, while listening to the words of a Christian rock song about the cross, I realized Jesus went through what he went through so I might know I am forever loved, forever embraced, and forever accepted by the Creator of the universe. It changed my life and is why I do what I do every day as a minister.
But one thing later bothered me: I understood that in Jesus God risked death to open wide God’s arms to embrace me in love. But why did we so often talk as if somehow it was necessary for God to forgive me for someone else to die? Why did we talk as if God required anything before God would forgive anyone? Where did this idea that God was out for a pound of human flesh come from? At times our way of talking about why Jesus died made God seem pretty bi-polar to me. I know something had to be off with how I grew up hearing God’s justice and love working together.
I would always answer saying “Well, you don’t understand the Trinity – the Son is God, the Father is God, the Spirit is God … so it ain’t like that”. Which, though true, didn’t answer the question – Why couldn’t God just forgive us without someone dying? Isn’t God “God” after all? Can’t God do anything? Doesn’t this picture of God paint God out to be at best a bully, and at worst a really violent person in a pinch?
After all, when we forgive each other, it doesn’t always have to have strings attached. And certainly I don’t have to wait til someone suffers or dies in your place before I can forgive you.
The last few years I’ve found a number of Christians also asking this. They point to Jesus’ teachings on non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Jesus’ own example of non-violence, and suggest that this picture of a God out for human flesh, who can only be appeased in somebody dies, and only then forgive us doesn’t square with Jesus’ call for us to be nonviolent in order to perfect like God is perfect. Nor does it fit how Jesus extended forgiveness in his earthly life, which we Christians say is out picture of who God is.
A number of theologians have suggested that a picture of God more in line with Jesus’ example is one where Jesus’ death on the cross is not about violence or bloodthirstiness in the heart of God. They are calling us to rediscover the many other explanations of atonement which Christians have embraced both long before what I heard in evangelical churches growing up appeared, and which now are being forged long after such explanations first became popular.
I want to suggest a few authors we can turn to in order to begin to explore what a God who is not out for a pound of flesh might look like.
First, let me suggest the writings and talks of C. Baxter Krueger, a southern preacher and theologian. In addition to writing theology in popular language Krueger also has created a line of fishing lures. (You can bet based on my previous posts on fishing that a theologian who makes home-made fishing lures is a man after my own heart).
Krueger calls Christians to rediscover the foundational ideas that the early Christians, who helped put our Scriptures together into one Bible, embraced. Central to these ideas is the understanding of God as a Triune God of love. In his ministry Perichoresis (see http://www.perichoresis.org/) Krueger points to how losing sight of the idea of God as including in God’s own nature a community of love has led us to envision God as split between extremes of love and justice (by which we really mean vengeance), imaging an angry hateful God who is our Father and a loving caring God who is God’s Son who rescues us from the Father. This leads us to miss the point in so many aspects of our Christian lives.
Krueger beautifully explains how realizing that from start to finish God is a community of love, fully shared between the Father, Son, and Spirit and now fully available to us transforms our picture of love both on his website and in his books. A good starting place in exploring Krueger’s thought is the following blog on why Jesus had to die:
Another author I would encourage you to look at is James Allison. James Allison is a theologian who explores the connections between the thought of Rene Girard to modern Christianity. Girard taught that we get our theology wrong by thinking God is the one demanding a pound of flesh. Instead, he says that it is we, human beings, who are trying to demand a pound of flesh from each other from the beginning. And when God comes in our midst, it is not God demanding a sacrifice from us but we demanding a sacrifice from God. It is not sinners in the hands of an angry God, but a loving God in the hands of angry sinners.
James Allison gives a very thoughtful presentation of what the story of Jesus looks like if we understand that it is we, not God, who are the blood-thirsty ones, in his little article, “Some Thoughts on the Atonement”.
Allison has put some of this material as a Christian education course at http://forgivingvictim.com/. That resource, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, is on my Christmas wish list (hint, hint) because I think re-discovering how the Gospel dethrones violence of the strong to the weak is an important thing Christianity in our day needs to grapple with.
A final resource I would mention on the discussion of the atonement is Tony Jones’ A Better Atonement. This book explores the in’s and out’s of various approaches to this question of why Jesus died.
My own personal conviction is that the approach that sees in God this drive for a pound of flesh is not just at the heart of some of the mind-crushing legalism so many believers face, but also at the heart of why so many feel they must embrace the slave-holder Christianity mindset I have spoken of before. To feel right with God they feel they must scapegoat some other group, drive them out, sacrifice their humanity. It also I think is at the heart of how easily here in the Dixie-belt we wed our Christianity with calls to warfare or prejudice. It is also why I think too many Christians too quickly are willing to call for warfare against “culture”, against people with different values, or even against people of other faiths. Ultimately we become like what we worship, and if we believe God is out for a pound of our flesh, it is easy to let such an image of God influence us to feel it is OK for us to be out for the pound of flesh of others.
Discovering that Jesus is in fact the Prince of Peace I think is so important for us finding the way to join Jesus on the path of peace-making, in a world of violence, bigotry, bullying, and war.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here,
your progressive redneck preacher,
Ahh! The beauty of newly budding flowers.
The sight of birds in flight.
The … *Ahh.. Ahhh… Ahhh-choo!*
One of the sights and sounds of springtime in the southeast US is that thin sheet of green that announces springtime. No, not the grass. The sheet of green on my car. On my porch. On my deck chair. You know the one.
In honor of all of these sides to spring, I recently wrote the following poem. I hope it blesses you.
My wife said it made her itchy and sneezy. I hope it doesn’t do that.
But if it does,… well, I suppose that is the cost of Spring weather. After all, didn’t we learn in grade school “April showers bring May flowers”.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive Redneck Preacher,
Sprinkled upon ground lies in sheets like fresh fallen snow
That blanket warm with new life
Replaces the shimmering white
Off frost upon grass
That like fragile glass once crunched underfoot
In music of fragility
It lies green and thick upon the hillsides
Touching the accoutrements of
Our human accomplishments
Our anthills of asphalt, steel, and pressed wood
Busy with our scurrying forms
Buzzing with electric motion
Green fingers fall soft
Awakening us as from restless dreaming
With the throbbing pulse
Of Spirit song flowing through it
As her mothering presence
Labors amidst us to birth new life
Like butterflies emerging
From empty shells
Wiped away in filmy layers on my fingers
It reminds me of my own
Tumult, scurrying, and frantic fear
Which sets the anthill of my heart
To constant motion
My feelings blown like birdseed on the breeze
Unable to settle
Whispering to me how
It is not some silver hued sign of threat
That I feel
Hovering over my soul’s horizons
As my Tortured pasts try to teach me
The Mothering Spirit endures in me
So some new spring may dawn within
Breaking my long winter’s chill
“Why is this night different than all others?”
So our Jewish brothers and sisters have been marking the beginning of this week of Passover which began today, for millennia. Rarely does that celebration coincide with the holiest of weeks in the Christian year, the week leading into Easter, but it is so appropriate that this year it does so. This is a reminder to those of us who are Christians of how inter-related our faith is with theirs. It was during Passover week that the events Christians celebrate in the days leading up to Easter occurred. In fact in most languages other than English, the word for the Christian celebration of Easter and the Jewish celebration of Passover are the same.
It is important to recognize that this night which they celebrate at the beginning of Passover is why our faith is possible. It is the foundation of who we are — the story of how God unexpectedly chose to side with the oppressed, as yet unknown, family of slaves against the most powerful empire of the day, showing that the God who is (“I AM”) is the one who sets free the captive, the slave, and the oppressed. That story which is remembered every Passover night by our Jewish brothers and sisters is the foundation for the faith we Christians share too, linking Christians, Jews, and Muslims in a shared heritage.
On Passover we should remember as Christians that our faith grew out of Judaism with Jesus, the early Christians, and the apostles viewing themselves as faithful Jews.
As a way of remembering that connection and reflecting on how this powerful story can shape our faith today, I am re-posting a poem I wrote earlier in the year as a reflection on some powerful experiences I’ve witnessed as a pastor and a chaplain. May it inspire you to reflect on how the God who resists empire, slavery, and bondage on behalf of the oppressed, forgotten, and enslaved continues to call us all to be people of the Exodus today.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here,
your progressive redneck preacher.
O Come, Deliverer
“O come, o come, deliver me,”
cried those under Pharoah’s lash.
Their hearts longed to soar free
with eagle-feathers bright and brash.
Staff raised high, Israel did see,
with mighty ocean crash
the flaming light of liberty
their backs freed from burning lash.
Like waves I hear this cry still roar
echoing in many deserted hall
lined with cots for the homeless poor
abandoned by those called great and tall
whose money moved to distant shores
when profits began to fall.
“Deliver” echoes still in whispering call
where others lie, victims of a hidden war.
Their broken bodies writhe in withdrawal
from poisons that trap them like iron doors
and wrap their minds in darkling pall.
“Deliver” cries children from other homes
whose minds and bodies lie broken by neglect.
Their hearts bear wounds and scars like broken bones
that will not set but must lay wrecked
uncertain for minds what healing comes.
Oh God, who once set Israel free and yet brightens our sky
what light in such shadows can you bring
what freedom shine in their eyes.
“Deliver, Oh deliver,” their stories sing,
and I cannot help but question why
and what shape will we see rise on morning’s wings
in answer to their ceaseless cry.
I was blessed today to join in a conference about LGBT concerns at the United Church of Chapel Hill.
Hearing people’s stories and experiences reminds me of the many same-gender loving and transgendered individuals God has blessed me to know in my own life and in my ministry.
During the conference, one participant who was very excited about her own church’s desire to support LGBT people in their life, asked the very pressing question — “Where, from the Bible, do we get our support for same-gender couples?” That question reminded me of this sermon I preached some years ago, while pastoring a church in Fayetteville, NC, the town that serves Fort Bragg, NC, just a little before the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, where I look at Jesus’ response to a same-gender loving man.
I include this message as my Lenten Study on the Life of Jesus this week. I hope it blesses you with a deeper vision of Jesus’ love for all, and most of all the place Jesus has for you.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here,
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,
Our Gospel reading today comes from Luke 7
1 After he had finished speaking in the hearing of the people, he entered into Capernaum. 2 A certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and at the point of death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and save his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they begged him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy for you to do this for him, 5 for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue for us.”
6 Jesus went with them. When he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. 7 Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you; but say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I also am a man placed under authority, having under myself soldiers. I tell this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude who followed him, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” 10 Those who were sent, returning to the house, found that the servant who had been sick was well.
These are the words of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I want to begin my sermon today by reading an excerpt of a story about a young man named Josh Melo, taken from http://www.suicide.org/memorials/joshua-melo.html
“I had to cut my son down from the tree,” said John Melo, father of 15-year-old Joshua Melo, who died by suicide after being relentlessly bullied because some students thought that he was gay. “I told the kids at the funeral that if you don’t get together and confront the bullies, it will be your parents cutting you down. You guys have to stick together, stand up to the bullies, take away their power and they will back down. If you guys don’t do it, the system won’t.”
“All I could hear was John’s screams,” said Maria Melo, Joshua’s mother.”He came in like a madman. Joshua was already so stiff. John couldn’t pull him down. He was cold and John was hugging him. I started to scream.”
“[After Joshua was cut down from the tree], I just went outside and hugged him…I just hugged him,” Maria said. “I told the coroner that I needed time to hug and kiss Joshua before they took him away.”
John has since removed the tree. “The tree is already gone,” said Maria. “John cut it down and burned it.”
Joshua Melo was a sensitive, shy, polite, caring, talented, and intelligent 15-year-old 10th grader who attended Strathroy District Collegiate Institute in Strathroy, Ontario, Canada.
Joshua hanged himself on November 26, 2004; he was suffering from severe depression after enduring endless bullying because some bullies at the school believed that he was gay.
“Last Friday, Joshua couldn’t take it anymore and took his own life,” said John Melo. “Something went really bad and he just snapped. He couldn’t take it anymore. Joshua was the type of boy to bottle everything up inside and this had been going on for a long time…It’s more than heartbreaking.”
“He had been harassed daily,” said John. “He had been subjected to constant homophobic slurs.”
“Joshua couldn’t walk down the hall without someone laughing and teasing him,” said one student.
“It’s like they were trying to torture him,” said another student.
“This situation makes me sick, real sick,” said another student. “Joshua was a good guy. Many things have to change at our school. How could this have happened? How? This is horrible, and I think that the people who did this to Josh should be in jail. I am so sad about all of this.”
And another student said: “They hated Joshua because they said he was gay, so they called him every ‘gay hate name’ that they could. It just didn’t stop. They never left him alone. And now I know they are happy he’s dead.”
Last Saturday night Pastor Kat and I were blessed to represent our church and our community as the only two pastors at Fayetteville, NC’s Equality NC gathering, in support of civil rights for all Americans. While there, the hosts of the event shared equally chilling tales from towns and neighborhoods in our own state in which young men and women felt so bullied and put down based on the fact their classmates – and, at times, their churches – thought they were gay that they too saw ending their own life their only options. Many of these young teens – some who were young and gay, some just young and misunderstood – actually reached out for help from their schools, their families, and their churches and only found equally heart-breaking judgment. In fact, studies have shown about one out of four gay teenagers attempt to take their own life because of the rejection at the hands of family, friends, and faith leaders.
I want to suggest to you that the experience of this centurion, who experiences Jesus healing his “servant who was dear to him”, is an experience that speaks volumes to all people who have felt like outcasts, especially to gay and lesbian people.
Who was this centurion? What was his experience of Jesus, and why do I say it speaks to all outcasts, especially those made to feel like outcasts because of their sexuality?
I feel this centurion’s experience of Jesus speaks directly to the experience of those who feel like outcasts, especially gay and lesbian people, because despite his power and wealth this centurion was in many ways the ultimate outcast; because despite the centurion feeling he could not approach God due to being the sort of outcast he was, Jesus shows him that he is no outcast to God because God honors and accepts the fact that the centurion is reaching out to God even though no-one else does; and finally Jesus’ responses teach the centurion and us that being an outcast, even for being gay, cannot keep you from becoming a shining example of faith to others.
At first glance, without knowing the back-story to this encounter, we can wonder “how in the world could this centurion be an outcast?” After all, he has power – the full power of the Roman empire behind him. After all, he has wealth from Roman taxes in his pockets. After all, when he speaks and acts, people have to listen. And after all, doesn’t even the leader of the synagogue, who is a leader in the Jewish community, even respect him.
But often there is more to a person than the world sees, and someone who presents themselves as a happy smiling face, as a good straight-laced guy, whom the world looks at as “having it good”, isn’t. The centurion is in fact a stranger in a strange land, an outcast in Israel. To begin with the centurion was the enemy and unwelcome among Jesus’ people. The centurion was the soldier for the Romans, a foreign power that the people of Israel and Capernaum hated. No doubt he heard cursing and insults muttered under the breath on every street he marched by local people, even though he knew he was just doing his job, defending his country. Have any of you ever gotten the message from those around you that “your type” is unwelcome in their neighborhood, their job, their community because of your background – whether the place you were born, the color of your skin, your accent, or the person you loved? I know many who have, including gay people, and feel this soldier’s experience speaks clearly to that.
What is more, he was outcast from his own faith. The fact that this Roman soldier was so well-spoken of by the local synagogue leader but yet was not accepted into the synagogue itself shows that he was in a group of people known as “God-fearers”. What was a God-fearer?
A God-fearer was an outcast.
God-fearers were individuals who had met Jewish people, who worshiped the God of the Bible, and become convinced the God of the Bible was real. They had read its pages and seen its faith lived out. They had become convinced that there was no God but the Creator of the universe, the one who thundered out the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. This soldier had come to believe in and worship the God of the Bible, then, as a God-fearer.
But a God-fearer was also an outcast. A God-fearer was one who had come to worship the God of the Bible, had tried to join the people of the Bible – at this point, the Jewish people – and been told your kind are not fully welcome here. These were people who, for as many reasons as there are laws in the Old Testament, had been told they were not fit to join the faith of the Good Book. Sometimes it was because they would not have the surgery of circumcision, sometimes it was because they had a job that got them in touch with people who made them too unclean to go to the temple. And there were other reasons I will get to in a minute. But being a God-fearer, someone the synagogue leader respected and spoke up for, but also said “he is not a member here”, meant that this soldier when he tried to join the faith of Scripture, the faith of Israel, had been told “your type isn’t fully welcome here”. So even in the realm of faith, when he opened his life to God, he was told he was not quite good enough to belong. He was an outcast.
Have you, friend, ever been told your kind was not good enough to join the faith of the Bible? I have known people who were told because they were divorced, because they were married to someone of a different race, because they were poor or homeless, and yes because they were gay that the faith of Scripture had no place for them. Oh, how the centurion’s experience speaks to us today!
But there is something else about the centurion, something theologians have been trying to push into the closet for centuries, but now modern scholarship has begun to uncover: the centurion’s lover was a man.
Isn’t it interesting how carefully worded the description for his sick friend is placed in our modern translations: a “ certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him”. But even there the wording is clear: his dear servant, his dear companion.
You see in the Roman world it was outlawed from about 10 years before Jesus’ birth til about 150 AD for a Roman soldier to marry and have a wife and family while in the service. The reason? Because than he would be divided and afraid of fighting on the battlefield.
But there was a way around this rule. Soldiers were allowed to carry their personal slaves or servants with them wherever they went. These kept up their homes, provided their meals, and provided what else was needed for their “master” but if they had any children, the army did not recognize them as the soldier’s and so no money needed to be set aside for them; and no apportionment of money could be justified for any “family” that was produced if their marriages were recognized. So their expenses had to come out of the soldier’s own income.
So a man who wanted a wife would convince the woman he loved to get a job as his servant, and she would become his entemous doulah, his maid-servant who was dear to him”. And everyone with a * wink wink * and a nod would acknowledge that she was his lover with that phrase.
But some soldiers – and many in fact – would go another route. These, like Alexander the Great before them, were not interested in wives, but in – for lack of a better phrase – husbands. And what would they do? Well they would convince the man they fell in love with to become their man-servant. And he would be called theirentemous doulos, their man-servant, or sometimes just “servant who was dear to him”.
You see this phrase in Luke was a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that the man who was sick and near death was in fact this soldier’s male lover. That phrase, together with the Greek phrase pais or “beloved boy”, was known by all Greek-speakers to be like the phrase “partner” in American society. Certainly it can mean someone you work with in business. But it also can clearly mean someone you love, you share your life with, that is for all intents and purposes your spouse.
The fact this was no mere servant but this soldier’s beloved, his life-partner, the man who had his heart, is made even more clear in the Greek of Matthew 8, which calls this man not his doulos or servant but his pais, or “the boy he loves” which can literally be translated “boy-friend”. Pais would have been understood by anyone who had to been to Greece as a term used for man’s long-term male romantic partner.
I think personally this relationship may very well have been the reason the leader of the synagogue who readily admits what a good man this soldier was, how much he loved God, and did in the community, could not in good conscience let the soldier move from being a God-fearer, still an outcast in the house of God, to a full member of the synagogue. “Sure, centurion, you paid to build a synagogue, sure you help the poor and needy, sure you read your Bible and pray, but not only are you a different race and a foreigner, but you are dating a man? If I let you in, who knows what my synagogue members will do?”
So you see now that this man’s experience of Jesus speaks directly to the situation these young men and women I spoke of earlier have had, speaks directly to all outcasts, and speaks pointedly to other gay and lesbian men and women in all ages and times.
What did this experience teach us? What can a real experience with the living Jesus speak to us, especially those of us who feel like outcasts cause of our background, our race, or the person we love?
The centurion’s experience of Jesus, I believe demonstrated to him that though in the eyes of the world he was an outcast, he was fully and completely accepted by God because God saw his heart was open to God.
To me it looks like the centurion actually had begun to begin the lies the world had thrown at him, the lie that he was somehow less than other people because of his race, because of his background, because he loved a man and not a woman. I say this because the Gospel of Luke makes it clear that even though Matthew says the centurion begged Jesus, the centurion did not actually do it in person. No, he did not feel worthy enough to go and approach Jesus, the Son of God, and ask for help – let alone for his life-time male lover. I have been told all my life what a shame it is to be who I am; I must be shameful he must have thought. No, he doesn’t even approach Jesus himself but has others go to Jesus for him. He doesn’t feel worthy to talk to Jesus for himself.
How shocking it must have been for him that Jesus said immediately when he saw the love this man had for his life-partner, when he saw the faith this man had not only in God but in Jesus as God’s Son, that he would come into his house. But, wait, the man must have said to himself, how can the Son of God come into my house? Though I love and long for God, I have been told all this time I don’t deserve to be fully a part of his family because of who I am and who I love.
Now, suddenly, he finds himself loved, accepted, and embraced by God not as from a distance, but as God’s own beloved child in whom God was well-pleased. And Jesus not only says this in words but demonstrates it by healing the man this man loves by the power of God.
You know for years this man had kept his faith in God, even though he had been told he was not acceptable and probably told his love was dirty. This man’s faith reminds me of the lyrics of a song by Boyzone I heard one year at a Pride event where I was ministering. Listen with me to this song for a moment.
I believe, deep in his heart, this man chose even in the face of rejection by the people of God, to keep to his faith in God because like the singers of Boyzone, he knew if what he heard was true – if God really heard his prayers, one day he would hear from God that it didn’t matter what people said, and who attacked, that God’s love for him was true and would last.
And now, in a moment, Jesus had declared it and he knew in God’s eyes he was fully accepted.
Friends I believe that this is what the God revealed in Jesus is saying to you, to me, to all the struggling children told because they are gay, because they are different, because they are “sissy” or “tomboys” or whatever that they are not good enough. God is saying yes every prayer will be answered, yes every tear heard, and if you can just listen you will hear it doesn’t matter how they answer, it doesn’t matter how they attack, my love for you is true. You – just as you are, not as others wish you to be – you, just as you are, are my Beloved Child and in you I am well-pleased.
Friend, if we are truly his Body, isn’t that message – and not the message of rejection, the message that leads young men and women to think the noose and not the altar of God is the place to find freedom – what we need to tell those young people? And if we don’t, if we reject them, do we not also have their blood on our hands?
Finally, I want you to notice that not only does he discover that God accepts this centurion and his love as God’s very own – not despite his differences, but even including them – but actually discovers that he can become an example of faith to others. A part of why he and his boy-friend aren’t fully welcomed by the synagogue and kept at a distance is the same reason gay couples often are told “you can’t be a member of the church”, because being a member means you can be a leader. And being a leader means being an example of faith. Culturally, this man’s life was “too wrong”, “too different”, for him to be an example to anybody in the eyes of that culture. After all, who would want a foreigner, a person of a different race, a gay man in the military, to be their example of faith?
Jesus has the perfect opportunity to declare for all time that being gay is wrong, horrible, and sinful here if he felt that way. In other accounts of healing, if someone is sinning Jesus turns to the person and says “go and sin no more”. If this man had been sinning by loving who he did, Jesus would have said that to him. He doesn’t. Instead of doing that in this passage, Jesus actually holds this man up as an example that the “good upstanding Bible-believing” people who have excluded him need to imitate. Notice how Jesus says … “I tell you, I have not found such great faith, no, not in Israel.” I like how Matthew renders Jesus’ words in His account of the same events in Matthew 8:10-11– ““Most assuredly I tell you, I haven’t found so great a faith, not even in Israel.I tell you that many will come from the east and the west, and will sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven “
You see Jesus holds this centurion up as an example of faith and even goes so far to say this man proves what Jesus has been saying all along: that God’s love isn’t limited to “Israel”, to people who fit the picture of good, religious, Bible-believing folks. No people from all over – from East and West – have a place at God’s table and, if they reach out to God, will be welcomed.
Jesus’ words to this gay soldier suggest that what makes you different can be not a hindrance, but something holy. Those very things others put down in you, if you give them over to God, can be a blessing to others. And who you love can become a holy thing. Yes, you can be a gay saint. Yes, you can be not just a soldier but a Christian soldier. And yes God can use the fact of you being who society calls “the wrong race,” “the foreigner,” “the outcast”as a blessing. You are no mistake – God does not create any garbage. You, just as you are, are God’s beloved child in whom God is well-pleased.