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You’ll notice on the back of our bulletin that the altar flowers are given to the glory of God in memory of Arthur Machen and Peter Machen by Rose Machen. Most of you know who these people are – Arthur was a long time and active member of this church and our Diocese. Probably most well-known around here for his book “A Big Little Church on a Hill” – a history of Good Shepherd.
It’s most fitting that their eldest son Peter is remembered today. He died in 1970 of wounds suffered in combat in Vietnam. (And also fitting for Memorial Day weekend – you may want to take moment after church to look into the baptistery. It was dedicated in 1945 in thanksgiving for the safe return of service men after WWII. And on the wall there is a plaque with the names of 92 parishioners who served in that war.)
So as I said – the bulletin reads – the altar flowers are given to the glory of God by Rose Machen. You see, Rose died two weeks ago on the 17th. So when we were proofing bulletins this week – that wording gave us pause. Rose is no longer with us – so today, literally, the flowers can’t be given by her. And while it may seem a small thing – we wondered – should we change it.
But we didn’t – as it’s a theological acknowledgment of God’s time. And in some ways gives even more significance to the dedication. We don’t know when we will join those remembered on our behalf in the fullness of God’s glory.
Almost everything in a church building and grounds – is given by someone in memory of – or in celebration or thanksgiving for – a person. Loved ones and family – or people who give in a unique and extra-ordinary way to the church’s mission. A memorial “by” someone – “on behalf of” someone helps us tell the world, express the value – which of course is immeasurable – of a person. It is literally a sign – this person mattered – this person was worth something to us.
If I asked each of you – “are you worth flowers on a Sunday, or a bronze plaque” - I’m pretty sure – no one would say yes. No matter what we may think inside – we don’t usually go around declaring our worth to other people, either. We would think it selfish, narcissistic, and grandiose. For the most part other people whose lives we’ve touched tell of our worth on our behalf.
This morning, we hear King Solomon daringly bring a petition before God, in the temple, in front of the chosen of Israel. It’s daring because he is praying on behalf of foreigners, immigrants who have entered his country. And by taking that risk, asking God to protect those who the chosen want out, Solomon on their behalf declares that the immigrants are as worthy of God, as those sitting in front of the altar.
Then fast forward hundreds of years, and we hear Jewish elders bringing prayers to Jesus on behalf of a centurion. A soldier of the Roman occupation, the empire that would inevitable kill Jesus. Jewish elders and centurions were not friends. You may remember that when John the Baptist is standing at the banks of the Jordan and the soldiers ask what they should do in expectation of the coming Messiah – John replies don’t extort money and be satisfied with your wages. Centurions took bribes from the temples.
But, because of what the Jewish elders do and say on behalf of the centurion, we assume this one was different. Even though he isn’t one of the faithful they explain – he is worthy of his prayer being answered because he loves our people. He showed us that love in using his wages to help build their house of worship.
And then there is the centurion. On behalf of a slave, a boy most likely, who would definitely have no worth, the centurion asks the Jewish elders to help him. To bring his prayer before Jesus. Because the centurion does not consider himself worthy enough to do so.
When have you been one of the people in these stories?
When have you on behalf of someone you loved or cared for – reached out to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit for help– because whether that person believed it or not – you know how valuable they are?
When have you prayed on behalf of people you didn’t know – maybe even people you don’t like – that they would know and receive God’s love and protection? Because you believe – all of God’s children are worthy.
And when have you been in the hardest position of all – which to me is the centurion – maybe in desperation – maybe filled with hating yourself because the situation you found yourself in – was one of your own making. (Maybe the slave’s illness is somehow the soldier’s fault – we don’t know). When have you felt unworthy and undeserving – but reached out to others for help, for support anyway?
That is a hard and isolating place to be – not believing our own worthiness.
Our gospel opened this morning with a curious phrase – After Jesus had finished all these sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. What sayings? Familiar sayings to us – do unto others as you would have them do to you. Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.
And then in Capernaum Jesus encounters an example of this happening before his eyes – perhaps that is why he is so amazed. Centurions and slaves – Jewish elders and centurions – taking risks and reaching out on behalf of each other. And on seeing that Jesus points and says – see that, see what these people from different backgrounds and beliefs are doing for each other? That is what faith looks like, Jesus declares.
Telling or showing someone their value to us can be risky. It can be just as scary to say – I love you – to someone who is close – as it is to risk loving actions towards people we don’t know. Yes, the characters in this story know each other – what’s amazing is how they come together. It would be expected that they know each other in isolation – not associating with one another.
It is that place of isolation – the belief there is no one who would take action, speak up, reach out on your behalf – that Jesus praises in this story calls us to imitate. Where are the places – who are the people in your life –who need you to reach out on their behalf? What keeps us from doing so? We all know there are isolated communities around us. But what about people in your world – friends, family, acquaintances. Is there someone who needs to see their worth through your eyes?
It makes sense that Luke’s gospel is the only one that tells the story in this way – with all these people relying on one another. There is a recurring theme in Luke/Acts (same author, two books) of people breaking taboos to reach out on behalf of another – like the Good Samaritan – letting go of their own bias and the worry of what people will think.
It’s great that the boy is in good health back at the house. It’s nice when there are happy endings. But I really don’t think it’s a quid pro quo reward happening here – there isn’t any eternal good news in that.
The centurion and the elders have already been transformed – they are already living their faith – because they are doing faith - that is the reward and what Jesus sees so plainly.
And I have a feeling – if the boy hadn’t lived – the elders would have mourned with the centurion – supported him with worship in their temple – and they would have continued to work together – on behalf of one another – and in so doing, declaring each other’s worthiness for all the world to see. Amen.