A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 2, 2013 (Proper 4, Year C)
If you’ve ever heard an entire battalion’s worth of boots striking the ground in lock-step unison, you know it’s a sound that is both impressive and intimidating. There’s a sense of foreboding and inevitability that marks such a display of military might. Or maybe you remember the Cold War images of the Soviet army marching through Red Square or old footage of the Third Reich parading through Nazi Germany. Even with all the weapons technology, there’s still something visceral about thousands of combat boots uniformly announcing the arrival of the ground troops.
This drumbeat was part of the soundtrack of everyday life in the Roman Empire as soldiers in formation marched across the dusty earth of ancient Palestine. And it was not only a threatening sound to the Jews, it served as a constant reminder that they lived in an occupied country. Their entire religious structure and culture was allowed to flourish only because the emperor let it.
It is out of this climate of fear that we encounter the unnamed centurion in this this morning’s gospel. This centurion was a soldier, a Gentile, a member of the Roman occupying force. In other words, he was an enemy of the Jewish people; part of the oppressive regime that kept them in line, taxed them heavily, and insured allegiance to the emperor. A centurion was the equivalent of a captain, a mid-line officer. They were typically from humble origins, men whose military skill and bravery got them promoted to positions of leadership — as opposed to the senior officers who often received their positions based on noble status or patronage. In this sense, centurions were the backbone of the Roman army; battle-hardened veterans whose ability under fire was essential to victorious campaigns under the banner of empire.
But there was clearly something different about the centurion we meet in this story. In a world of command and control and might makes right we see something in his character that didn’t fit the stereotype. First of all, he had concern for the health of one of his slaves. Most slaves were considered expendable; you certainly wouldn’t find an officer going to any lengths to save the life of a slave. Now, you could read this cynically and say, “Well, of course he wanted Jesus to heal this slave who Luke tells us was ‘highly valued’ by the centurion. He didn’t care about the person but about his productivity.”
But this doesn’t really fit with what we hear from the Jewish elders he sent as messengers to Jesus. They ask Jesus to come and they basically give the centurion a character witness. “Not only does he love our people but he built our synagogue.” In other words, we’ve known him for a long time and even though he’s supposed to be our enemy he’s worthy of your attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if people on both sides of the fence saw the relationship between the centurion and these elders as fraternizing with the enemy.
This is definitely not our stereotype view of a Roman soldier and it was presumably highly atypical. Many of these soldiers — especially ones wielding authority — put their faith not in some obscure Jewish healer but in themselves through their self-identity with the Roman Empire. The armor they wore matched the armor that protected themselves from vulnerability. There was chain mail around their hearts defending them from feeling too much emotion. You can’t blame them in a sense. In order to carry out their mission effectively they had to dehumanize the Jews among whom they marched and trained and dutifully kept them underfoot. Their main goal was to stamp out any seeds of dissent and nip even the whiff of possible rebellion in the bud.
There are a lot of centurions in Hingham and throughout the South Shore. Not the Roman soldier oppressive kind but many (predominantly but by no means exclusively) men do the same thing. We build up lots of heavy armor around our hearts. We don’t want any cracks to show in our work life, our relationships. We have many responsibilities that we’re juggling and we think if we take our eye off one of them for even a split second by baring our souls, it’ll all come crashing down. People rely on us at work and at home; there are demands placed on us by technology; there are financial obligations. Suddenly we feel like we’re walking around with heavy burdens on our shoulders with no relief in sight and it can lead to some bad habits or decisions.
One reason we do this is fear. Fear that people will find out who we really are underneath all of the protective armor — that we’re not as strong or powerful or smart or competent as we want them to believe; fear that the outer trappings of our lives could come tumbling down with the gentlest breeze; fear that even a single mistake will unmask the facade we have so dutifully built up.
This leads us to a centurion’s outlook on life: show no weakness, show no vulnerability, show no authentic emotion. And I think a lot of this comes down to self worth. It’s interesting that “worthiness” is cited twice in this story. When the elders approach Jesus they tell him that the centurion is “worthy of having you do this for him.” And then they give the proof — he loves our people and he built our synagogue.
The thing is, Jesus doesn’t look at anything we do or accomplish before deciding whether we’re worthy of his love and compassion. The default mode is that we are worthy and there’s nothing we can do or say to prove this to Jesus. We are worthy by virtue of our creation in God’s image and this worthiness is indelibly sealed through the relationship of baptism.
And yet this centurion — this man of authority, this representative of Jewish oppression — gets cold feet. After Jesus had decided to come to him — and is on his way — the centurion sends out another group of people to tell Jesus not to bother because he doesn’t believe he is worthy to have Jesus come under his roof. What he doesn’t know is that Jesus came into this world to do just that — to come under the roofs of those who don’t feel worthy of God’s love and assure us that we are indeed worthy. That no matter what we do or fail to do, we are worthy of God’s love and tender compassion.
So we can drop the facade. We can unload the burdens we carry. And we can revel in the freedom of relationship with Jesus Christ. The one who bids us to bear one another’s burdens, calls us each by name, and reminds us moment by moment of our absolute worthiness in God’s sight.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013