Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
May 29, 2016
“Grief and Resistance on Memorial Day”
Luke 7: 1-10
After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5 “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
9 When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, “I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.”10 When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.
A Roman centurion begged Jesus to heal a servant that was dear to him. He said, “I don’t mean to bother you. You don’t need to come to my house. Just say the word and he will be healed.” Jesus marveled at this level of faith and criticized others around him for their lack of belief. And sure enough, when the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.
This is an inspiring story about the healing powers of Jesus – notably demonstrated not simply as the power of touch from human hands or human contact but that a word from Jesus could be commanded from a distance.
To be honest, however, in the healing genre, this stretches even further my intellectual ability to imagine. I get the power of touch. And I understand the will power, the well-power, of the person who needs healing to affect it by believing in it. As recovery circles often say, we must participate in our own healing. Take power from your illness. I get that. Plus, we all know how friendships, family, and feeling connected to a community makes a concrete difference in our health and recovery.
In fact, a story on CNN about Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who was the victim of gun violence, as well as others who suffered traumatic brain injuries, report that having loved ones present and actively encouraging their recovery can make a profound difference.
Kimberly Glassman, chief nursing officer for NYU Medical Center, said she has witnessed many occasions of unconscious patients waking up amid the support of families and believes they have played an important role in their recovery.
"When we have been able to speak to patients who have been in that state and woken up, it's very common for them to say that they heard people talking to them, they could feel people touching them," she said. Being at the bedside of the patient may not only transfer familiar signals of touch and sound, but it also means a lot to the family members. And even nurses, she said, feel more connected to the healing process when family members are there to encourage them and watch out for the best interests of their loved one.
But Jesus wasn’t at the house. Certainly the servant did have people surrounding him. And when you know that there are people praying for you from a distance – from anywhere in the world – it makes a difference too. That’s why we pray. That’s why we have the Prayers of the People. Speaking a word, naming people, even when they don’t know it, makes a difference.
So this story is about the healing power of Jesus, so powerful that it can be spoken as a word from a distance. This is a story to encourage those who heard it then and those who read it now to have faith. “Look at how much faith the centurion had. Go and do likewise.” Believe in that which stretches beyond our intellectual capacity to accept as logical. Because, truth be told, sometimes we can be too quick to dismiss something as simple, but healing, as a word. Jesus shows the power of a word.
But this is also a story meant to challenge the hardened hearts of the religious authorities. Just listen to Jesus criticize them by praising the faith of the Roman centurion. He said, “Even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” Standing there and hearing that would have been very hard to swallow.
Remember when Dennis Rodman praised the dictator of North Korea? Many people thought he had lost his mind. The former basketball star called Kim Jong Un “really awesome,” and became friends with one of the most despised people in the world – not that we don’t all need friends. But brutal human rights violations and the unimaginable suffering experienced by his people make him a pretty unlikely candidate for any kind of praise.
Just as unlikely as anyone representing Rome. Centurions were soldiers who represent the Evil Empire. They protected Roman interests, enforced Roman law, and kept locals in check by whatever means necessary. High taxation, abuse, seizure of property, political imprisonment, and crucifixion were all tools in Rome’s repertoire of tyranny. Rome wasn’t just an uninvited guest in Israel, they were a reviled enemy. It was about these people that Jesus said, “love your enemy, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the shirt off your back…” All of these commands were calls to love Israel’s biggest enemy. But if Jesus’ call to love Romans irritated or even infuriated his Jewish audience, his willingness to heal one of them must have been seen as treasonous – quite literally aiding and abetting the enemy.
But can you paint such a broad brush against every individual who represents such an institution, as brutal as it may be? If you noticed in the reading, some Jewish elders actually argued in favor of healing the servant of this particular centurion. They said, “He deserves to have you do this for him. He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.” That really says something about this man. And I can only imagine that if word got back to his superiors in Rome, he would have been just as reviled by them as the victims of Rome’s brutality would have been by the idea of helping him. It probably would have been dangerous if the centurion’s generosity was known. And yet, I wonder whether the centurion’s generosity had anything to do with the willingness of Jesus to heal his servant. Would it have mattered to Jesus whether he was a nice guy? Because wasn’t the point that he represented Rome?
This really became true for me when I got an angry email on Thursday about the choir singing America the Beautiful in commemoration of Memorial Day. For them, such a song represents the worship of country, not Christ. Their point: Patriotic songs in worship advocate God’s particular blessing upon the United States over and against any other nation on earth. Fortunately their email instigated a dialogue and in the end the individual agreed that I could mention their critique today. And spoke about it with Billie and Rob.
Truth be told, such danger is, in fact, all too common. Some churches do turn worship into patriotic rallies on such occasions as Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Veterans Day. But linking the love of God and country as equal is blasphemous. Jesus is Lord, not the co-Lord and Savior.
Dangerous things have happened when churches are co-opted into blessing the activities of government. The first time I saw pictures of Nazi flags draped behind the crosses of churches in Germany, it made me sick to my stomach. It’s one reason why our friend Wolfgang from Germany, who recently retired from Messiah Lutheran, so strongly objected to the presence of any country’s flag in the sanctuary of a Christian church.
So I agreed with the criticism that the presence of such music may look like it represents blind support, particularly of the military activities of any nation. But the question becomes, is it OK to remember the individuals who died in the service of their country during worship?
Think of the Roman centurion. He was simply an individual who represented Rome, and who, in his case, certainly had no choice but to participate in that system. Yet within even the confines of his limited autonomy, he was subversively generous and chose to build a synagogue for the people he was supposed to keep under his control.
I went online to gain some perspectives on the challenge of what a progressive church should say on Memorial Day. Certainly blind patriotism and complete avoidance aren’t the only choices. I was surprised by one of the first things that came up in my Google search – a prayer by Rev. Dick Kozelka.
Dick was Park Hill’s pastor in the 60s. But in another small world example, he left here to be the pastor of the church I belonged to years later in Minneapolis. And this week I learned that the man who gave his eulogy was my mentor in seminary. Around that funny little, incredibly small-world circle I came across a prayer he had written for Memorial Day: 
God, lift the hearts of those
For whom this holiday is not just diversion,
But painful memory and continued deprivation.
Bless those whose dear ones have died needlessly
Wastefully, as it seems,
In accident or misadventure.
We remember with compassion those who have died
Serving their countries in the futility of combat.
[When all the answers fail the question such deaths ask
Provide this fulfillment:]
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
He really named it. Accident or misadventure. Honoring the memories of those who died serving their country does not bless the activities of those who sent them into war. As we know, all too often with questionable or dubious rationales.
The silence of progressive Christians to the suffering of those mourning the loss family and friends is regrettable. Whether it is the loss of life through death or loss through injuries of mind, body, and soul. The tragedy of those living with PTSD, with the howls of suicide filling their brain, the strain on marriages…
Think of the love of Jesus for the Roman centurion. For his fear of loss, losing someone whom he held so dear, who was not just a servant to him… Think of Jesus’ love and willingness to heal someone who represented the Empire of Rome. We then know to uncouple the individual from the system they represent.
More than exhorting people to take Memorial Day more seriously than a day off to grill meat in the backyard, families of veterans just want churches to join them in mourning their loss.
We can do that, while the same time:
We do this so that we can to these things:
Jesus taught us to look beyond that which people represent to find and love the individuals we will see if we look. And then he demonstrated this through the healing power of a word and the encouragement to go and do likewise.
 Zack Hunt, “The Treasonous Love of Jesus”
 Whether or not this particular song does so, it represents a certain musical genre that includes such sentiment
 The last part of the prayer was condensed but retains the spirit
 These points were from or were inspired by Jonathan Agnier, “The Tragedy of Patriotic Worship” http://www.patheos.com/blogs
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and a Travelling around the world