Monday, June 6, 2016

Learning to Love the Wrong People
(Making Sense of Roger, His Grandma, and Jesus)

A sermon preached at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, Year C. The readings are 1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)Psalm 146Galatians 1:11-24, and Luke 7:11-17

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton, I am the priest and chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center at UW-Madison. Go Badgers! It is really great to be with you again and, being with you, to be with friends. It feels like yesterday we celebrated SFH’s 100th anniversary here, in this space, way back in April, and I continue to be grateful for the strong friendship our communities share. I count your Rector, Miranda, a dear friend and colleague and cherish her leadership on the SFH Board, along with Celia Fine, and many of you who have similarly served in years past or in other ways support our Episcopal faith community on campus. Above all, it is a privilege to worship the living God with you this morning.

So, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is healing again. “Again” because it happened last week. “Again” because there are some 31 healing episodes recounted in the gospels. (If you’re like me, they maybe start to blend together in your mind. Don’t worry, no quiz today.) “Again” because it’s Luke’s gospel, and Luke, having been a physician, is keen to record especially stories of healing. Most of all, “again” because this is Jesus, and healing is a symbol and promise of what God in Christ is out to do. In each of us, all of us, in and across the world: healing, reconciling all things, in all the world, to God.

So it’s just another healing. On the surface, just another in a string of miracles that shows us who Jesus is, namely, the Messiah even mightier than a prophet. But it’s not just another healing. For lots of reasons, but especially this one: Luke wants to tell us about the time Jesus raised to life a widow’s dead son, but first Luke gives us this five word introduction to the story he wants to tell: “After healing the centurion’s slave…” (1) These five words are our door into the rest of the story. We don’t get the rest without these five words. And though they’re just five short words, by inviting us through this door, Luke is setting up a mystery and showing us God’s mischief.

As a first step into the mystery that happens when Luke introduces the widow’s son’s healing through the door of the centurion’s slave, I want to tell you another true story inspired by this one. It’s the story of Roger and his grandma. 

When Roger was a boy, he watched, like most children watch, the examples of his parents and grandparents. They weren’t always trying to be examples and may not have been aware, always, that Roger was watching them. Most days, they were simply getting up each morning and living their lives. But Roger was watching them, especially Roger’s grandma. 

Brother Roger with children
Some years later, World War II comes along. Roger is now a little older, and Roger does what he’d seen his grandmother do during the first World War: he moves to a town on the edge of the fighting and opens up his home to refugees. Jews. He hides them and moves them to safe places. When the Nazis find out about Roger and what he is doing, they chase Roger into exile. But then, when it feels like no one is looking, Roger comes back to the small French village called Taizé and starts hiding refugees again. 

Soon the war ends. There is no longer a need to hide refugees, but Roger does not leave Taizé. He stays there and opens his home again, this time to German prisoners of war, the same soldiers who had chased Jews, terrified for their lives, into Roger’s home the first time. The same ones who had sought Roger’s own life, to kill him. Now he sets his table for them. Now he binds their wounds.

The village of Taizé
By any reasonable measure, Roger’s behavior does not make sense. Like his grandmother before him, Roger is a mystery. I can easily imagine individuals on both sides of the conflict asking Roger, “Just whose side are you on, anyway?” You can imagine each side feeling simultaneously grateful and betrayed. Maybe humbled. As if Roger saw a part of the story they couldn’t see, and they knew it.

Roger’s is a 21st century version of the doorway through which Luke shows us Jesus, raising the widow’s son after healing the centurion’s slave. Taken together, the healings help us recognize Jesus as the long awaited Messiah of God. But here’s the rub: the job description of the Messiah is to free Israel from centuries of occupation and, most urgently, the oppression of Rome; oppression carried out weekly, daily, hourly, minute to minute by - drumroll! - centurions! To be sure, we’re told this centurion is well liked for his community involvement and local charity work, but there is no mistaking that the centurion is only in this community at all because he is an agent of occupation for Rome. Rome, the oppressor from which Israel prays the Messiah will free God’s people. Jesus commends this centurion’s faith on his way to the widow’s hometown, where Jesus saves her son.

It’s still good news, no doubt. Salvation! But it’s also confusing. Jesus does the things a Messiah will do, but he does them equally for the enemies of the people he’s supposed to free. By healing the centurion’s slave and widow’s son back-to-back, it’s as if Jesus is saying, “That word you keep using” - Messiah - “I do not think it means what you think it means.” And if Messiah doesn’t mean what Israel thinks it means, if Messiah can mean mercy for Rome, what does that mean for God’s people? What does it mean to be chosen? Just whose side are you on, anyway? The disappointment is palpable when John the Baptist calls out from prison just a few verses later, “Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?”

It’s easy to understand why John asks the question. It’s understandable to want your enemies erased. But through his defeat of death and so also his defeat of the violence by which we seek to erase one another, Jesus confronts us with the uncomfortable possibility that the Son of God has not come to choose our sides, but to invite us onto God’s.

Do y’all remember the story about Jonah and the fish? Jonah is my hero for being honest, and his is the ultimate side-taking story. God tells Jonah to speak God’s love to the people of Nineveh, and Jonah knows he’s being asked to preach to Tar Heel fans, or whomever that is for you ("Tar Heel" is code for people who are clearly in the wrong and don’t deserve it) and he makes a beeline in the opposite direction and it takes a big fish to set things right and even then Jonah whines about God’s mercy in the end. 

The icon of Christ and His Friend.
The challenge for people like Jonah, and me, and maybe sometimes you, is that God’s side, God’s love, is broader, wider, and altogether more generous than I would like. Dorothy Day, that great founder of the Catholic Worker movement one time said, “I only really love God as much as the person I love least.” A part of me wishes she hadn’t said that. Another part of me thanks God that she did.

The other night at dinner, Jude, my four year old son, puts his hands on his forehead and squeezes his eyes and he says, “Daddy, when I close my eyes I can see pictures sometimes.” Right now, I want you to put your hands on your head, close your eyes, and see a picture. Picture an injustice in this world that breaks your heart. It can be big as in global or as intimate as your immediate family. Picture someone or someones it breaks your heart to see hurting. Now turn the picture in your mind until you see the party in the wrong, an instrument of injustice, and the ones also loved by the living God. Not the ones whose behavior should be condoned or excused or even quietly abided, but the ones, nonetheless, whom God also loves. Because anyone can choose a side. But God in Christ does not. You can open your eyes. 

Peter says it this way, that God shows no partiality. Paul says that while you and I were still sinners, Christ died for us! Who has time, then, to worry as our society does about the reputations we’ll acquire if we get caught hanging out with the wrong people? Instead, Christ has defeated death and opened for us the new possibility of love without fear. Jesus has freed us from loyalty to our past divisions. Christ is now calling us onto the side of God’s mercy, the side of the healing and the binding of wounds.

Wounds like those bound by Roger and his grandmother. Jewish refugees and German prisoners of war. Widow’s sons and centurion’s slaves.

Young adults gather for prayer at  
the Church of Reconciliation at Taizé.
In the years after the war, Roger founded a religious order in that town called Taizé. Today the community is comprised of one-hundred Christians from over thirty countries across the globe. Protestant and Catholic. They’re still in the same small village, and tens of thousands of young adults visit each year, enjoying the hospitality (2) Roger began with those first refugees, but they also travel to new Taizés, which is to say new towns on the edge of the fighting. Towns like St. Louis, where they’ll invite others to gather and pray with them and community leaders this coming spring. 

Of course, there are Taizés closer nearby. Sometimes there are even Taizés inside us. Spaces where God might make beautiful things in place of the fears we have carried. By these rhythms of Word and Table, sacrament and song, God, give us courage to trust your love more and more. God go with us as we takes faithful steps and seek those places and people where our reluctance to love might meet Christ’s promise of peace. The peace of the One who is healing all things.


(1) Two disclaimers: the RCL actually gives us six words, "Soon after healing the centurion's slave," but as I explained in the sermon, I'm a simple man and five words keeps the point on one hand, where I can count it. Second, as a parishioner observed on Sunday, the original Greek doesn't contain the phrase, which is a product of the RCL. The RCL is trying to give scriptural context in a lectionary setting. That's not to say the phrase is wholly an invention, though. The Greek ἐν τῷ ἑξῆς might be translated "soon afterwards" or "in the time that followed thereafter." In any case, Luke's intention to connect the stories for us and give us a juxtaposition reflective of the challenge of Jesus' particular messiahship remains.

(2) Roger's instinct for a hospitality that does not choose sides but instead seeks to live God's love eventually cost him his life. On August 16, 2005 a women with a mental illness stabbed and killed Brother Roger during one of the community's prayer services. Brother Roger was 90 years old. In 2015, the Taizé community celebrated the 100th anniversary of Roger's birth and the 75th anniversary of the community.

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