(I preface this sermon with a warning, that, at some point, there is a chance lightning may come down.)
Many of us have made, or have had made on our behalf, Vows of Baptism. We renew those Vow’s over Easter, and whenever we witness a Baptism here at the Church of the Good Shepherd.
But, what does it mean to, “proclaim the Good News of God in Christ”; to “seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace among all people”? Oh, we know what the words mean. They sound real good! And man! Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we actually started living like that!
We live in a world of many diverse cultures and religions, and technology has brought those cultures and religions right into our homes. Like never before, we can explore, question, and try to understand different peoples and their faiths. Like never before, we can explore, question, and try to understand our own culture and faith. Like never before, this should be a time when different races, cultures and creeds come together in a Golden Age of understanding. Sadly, that’s not the case.
Too often, we use our religion as a protective cloak. We wrap it around ourselves, secure in the knowledge that we hold the truth. We feel sorry for those who clutch cloaks of a different color or material, because, somewhere along the way, they made a wrong turn. They didn’t accept a certain person or truth in which we believe, and so, somehow, they are less than us.
Sometimes, rather than wrapping ourselves in religion, we throw our cloak away entirely. We give up some of those beliefs and practices which shape and define our identity, and which lead us into a shared life in community. Let’s all just agree that God is good, and that we should be nice to each other. Sometimes we look at another person’s cloak and wish to take it, or take a piece of it, and claim it as ours.
(Here’s where the lightning comes in).
Nowhere in our Baptismal Vows are we asked to promise to make everyone we know into an Episcopalian. Nowhere in our Baptismal Vows are we instructed to force people to accept Christianity.
No. We are to proclaim the Gospel through our lives and our words. We are to look for the Christ we know is in everyone, and to serve everyone. And, we are to work for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of EVERY human being, regardless of how or if they pray, the color of their skin, their physical or mental abilities, or which bathroom they use.
So, how do we do that? How do we hold onto our faith traditions while loving and respecting others?
In today’s Reading from Hebrew Scripture, King Solomon is dedicating the Temple in Jerusalem. He asks God to hear the prayers offered before the altar. The Book of Kings has many paragraphs describing who may offer prayers, and for what reasons. What’s important is, that in the middle of those petitions – for rain, success or failure in battle, for forgiveness; in the middle of all of that is a paragraph requesting God hear the prayers of the foreigner, the non-Jew, and to do all the foreigner asks of God.
Solomon is not asking God to hear only the prayers of the people of Israel, but the prayers of ALL people. Solomon is not trying to water down, or compromise his own beliefs in order to make others comfortable. He wants others to feel welcomed, and to be comfortable in their own beliefs so that they, too, can be closer to God. Foreigners are neither forced to worship, nor are they forbidden access to the Temple. They are welcome to make their petitions to God in this sacred space.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is calling the church back to its roots, back to the basics of their faith. Apparently, travelers and merchants have been introducing different ideas and practices in the community, and the Galatians have begun to adopt some of the practices as their own. Paul, who really could stand to take some sensitivity training, is trying to get the people to re-discover their truth. We, also, must continually look for, and hold onto those things which make us a community of Christians, without being intolerant of others.
So we have Solomon encouraging acceptance of the foreigner, while Paul is urging us to remain clear as to who WE are.
Luke gives us a narration of what tolerance, respect, and being grounded in one’s faith look like in practice, when they are lived out. In fact, this is a story of how tolerance, respect and faith can overcome barriers, and tear down the walls we build between us.
Two forces, who are usually seen as opposing each other, come together to help a third person, a slave. A Roman leader, in command of Roman troops, is working together with the Jewish Elders. And it’s not only to help his slave. Luke tells us the Centurion loves the Jewish people and has built a synagogue for them. The Centurion knows of Jesus, the great healer, and he asks the Elders to approach Jesus on his behalf. Did the Centurion stop being a Roman soldier? Did the Elders surrender any of their Jewish identity?
Two communities we often believe to be antagonistic to each other, indeed who were often at war with each other, are able to see the good in each other, just as they are, without demanding either side give up something, or change their identity in any way.
The Elders see the Centurion’s love in his building the synagogue. The Centurion sees the love of the Elders when they act as a mediator with Jesus. This recognition and understanding of the goodness in each other allows them to see each other as fellow human beings, whose differences are valued, not feared.
To me, this is the true miracle of the story. I believe it is the coming together of these two very different communities in love and respect, and in the faith they have in Jesus, which is the miracle. And it is so powerful, even Jesus is amazed! “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
It is also the power of this miracle of people working together for the common good which leads to the healing of the slave.
It is this very power Jesus calls each of us to use. The power to heal a sin-sick world. Proclaim the Good news! Seek and serve Christ in all people! Strive for justice and peace! It’s a lot to ask. It’s a lot to do! But with the help of the community, with the help of each other, we can do it. And, together with God’s help, we WILL do it.