glory of god

glory of god

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Healing in Charleston, Capernaum, and Hiroshima: A Sermon for Memorial Day Weekend

This past week, as the temperatures soared into the 80s and 90s, I finally clued in that summer is coming and I’d better make plans if I intend to do actually do anything. I’ve been in denial up until now. In fact, the snow shovel is still in the backseat of my car. But the calendar says it’s almost June, so I have started to think of travel options. Likely I’ll take my cancelled trip to Minnesota in August. The college committee I’m on will meet again then, and I have been considering going to Germany and Austria as well—Munich, Salzburg, and Vienna. When I was 14, I sang with a boys choir and we toured those cities, among others. I haven’t been back since, it so would be fun to go as an adult, when I can appreciate it fully.

That this is Memorial Day weekend is another clear sign that summer is closing in on us. Though, of course, Memorial Day is more than the start of the summer season, a time for big car sales or the opportunity to refresh your wardrobe with 70% off sales at Kohl’s. Memorial Day is a sacred time—to stop, to pray, and to give thanks for those who answered the call to service, and died fighting for their country. Many died in a valiant fight for justice and peace, and others in wars whose purpose were less clear. But regardless of government policy and what we think of any particular conflict, all were real life human beings, sons and daughters, people with dreams and hopes and lives to live. Lives that were taken too soon.

What’s particularly moving for me about Memorial Day is the fact that the soldiers we remember and honor were white and black, Native American and Chinese American; they were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and atheist; they were straight and gay, married and single, some were parents and others barely out of high school. They were Democrats and Republicans alike. Most were men, but women die in military service, too. They are Americans, and more importantly, they are human beings, of every background.

While there are numerous stories and legends as to origins of Memorial Day, and claims by cities and towns to have hosted the earliest observance, it seems that the first widely publicized event was held in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. It was organized by liberated former slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, who beautified a burial ground for Union soldiers with flowers, inviting 3,000 freed African American school children, Union troops, black ministers and white missionaries to gather and pray together. An historian described the event: “African Americans invented Memorial Day in Charleston, South Carolina. What you have there is black Americans recently freed from slavery announcing to the world with their flowers, their feet, and their songs what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a Second American Revolution.” 

Over time there were more observances around the country, with numerous changes and developments along the way. For a long while it was held on May 30 and was called Decoration Day—that’s what my grandmother called it—until Congress formalized the name and re-established the date on the last Monday of May in 1968, principally to create a long holiday weekend. Many veterans groups would prefer it revert back to May 30.

So, it’s interesting that our gospel reading for today features a soldier—a centurion. A centurion was a commander in the Roman army, who had charge over 100 men, called a “century.” He wasn’t the highest authority in the army, but he wasn’t a nothing either. He was a mid-range officer—like a captain. Although strong, centurions were often the first killed or injured in battle because they usually led attacks, leading by example, rather than ordering their subordinates from behind. As a result, they were especially well regarded for their bravery, and also feared for their strength and fierceness.

Today’s gospel says that the centurion was in Capernaum, a village on the Sea of Galilee, and the hometown of several of Jesus’ disciples: the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John, all fishermen, and also of Matthew the tax collector. It was a Jewish village, which served as the home base for Jesus’ ministry. Now, you might wonder why a centurion and his slave were there, probably with other men as well—maybe the whole century. Well, because they were Roman occupiers, making sure that the Jewish populace stayed in line and didn’t start any funny business, so that they knew who was boss. The centurion was a constant reminder of who was really in charge and had the power over people and their lives. And that was the Roman Emperor.

Luke suggests that this particular centurion and the Jewish populace got along well. He even helped them to build their synagogue. Though, it’s interesting that Matthew’s gospel, which also includes this story, makes no similar claim about the synagogue. Luke, who wrote a little later than Matthew, was probably trying to soften things, to make the centurion and his slave seem more deserving of Jesus’ mercy and healing power—in fact, he has the Jewish leaders come right out and say he’s worthy of mercy and healing. We should remember that Luke has a particular way of writing which makes the Romans seem more attractive than they really were, from the Jewish point of view—probably because he was trying to suggest to the Romans that Christians weren’t really a threat, they could live together, all of that. In reality, most of the people in Capernaum probably would have looked upon the centurion with suspicion and fear. He was a Roman soldier, an oppressor of the Jewish people, and as it happens, a man similar in to those who would one day crucify Jesus. 

Now, the healing in this passage is both interesting and significant. But to me, the more interesting and more significant aspect of the story is about transcending boundaries, overcoming prejudices, and accepting people for who they are, and not what they represent. What we think of as the miracle, the healing of centurion’s slave, is really the vehicle in the narrative (in fact we don’t even see the healing happen—it occurs off stage) for a profound and audacious act of boundary crossing by Jesus, who disregarded everything people had thought about who was acceptable and who was not, who was in and who was out. And in the end, the acceptance, the inclusion, and the healing of division ends up being the truly profound miracle. 

In a book called The Meaning in the Miracles, English theologian Jeffrey John has written: “It is important not to miss the extent to which the centurion in this story represents the foreigner, the oppressor, and worse. For Jesus’ contemporaries the centurion was a creature with supernaturally evil connotations, as well as being a symbol of all-too-real, earthly barbarism and cruelty. It was not for nothing that for three centuries Gentile soldiery had been thought of among Jews as beasts, subhumans or limbs of the devil. When Jesus so warmly commends the centurion for his faith, it is as if a survivor of Auschwitz has commended a Nazi kommandant. Yet for Jesus the weight of inherited group hatred counts for nothing. His immediate welcome of the man is an instance of his constant refusal to approach or judge people as members of a class, race, sex or category of any kind, but only as an individual. He deals with the human being, ignoring the label, and this is the heart of Jesus’ ‘inclusivity.’ To the consternation and disgust of others, he is completely non-tribal and prejudice-free….”
That’s powerful analysis, isn’t it? And, in fact, it’s exactly what we find throughout the gospels and throughout Jesus’ ministry: in the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well and in the healing of the Syrophoenician Woman’s daughter, all foreigners or outsiders, whom the religious and social prejudices of the day would want exclude and ostracize. But not Jesus, who instead breaks down walls and barriers, borders and nations. Jesus calls us not to see enemies in our midst, but fellow human beings and even friends.

Of course, it can be hard to live up to that high calling. Sometimes it’s very hard, especially in societies that are so fractured and stratified and convinced that the only way for us to get ahead is by pushing others down. It can be hard in a world that is so addicted to war and death—in Jesus’ age, in our age, and in every age in between. But if Memorial Day reminds us of anything, it must be that life is better than death, that peace is better than war, and that friends are better than enemies—whatever their color, race, religion, nationality, or background.

We saw this lived out in a powerful way this week as President Obama visited Hiroshima. It was not an uncontroversial visit, of course. Healings across boundaries and difference rarely are uncontroversial, as Jesus showed us. But the result is, hopefully, a restored humanity. Now, no one apologized for the atomic bombs that took hundreds of thousands of lives and maimed even more, and neither did anyone apologize for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, nor for the horrors of the war that followed. The history and politics involved are probably just too complicated. Instead, they did what they could: they came together as human beings, in prayer and hope for a better future, for our people, for our nations, and for the world.

“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,” President Obama said. “The world was forever changed here, but today the children of this city will go through their day in peace… What a precious thing that is. It is worth protecting, and then extending to every child. That is a future we can choose, a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.” It is powerful statement. It is a powerful hope.

But even more powerful than any words was the President’s embrace of the survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, and their embrace of him—people still bearing in their hearts, in their souls, and in their bodies the marks of that horrific day 71 years ago, when fire and death rained from the bright blue sky. The New York Times writes that the first of those survivors to embrace Obama was Mr. Sunao Tsuboi, aged 91, a chairman of the Hiroshima branch of the Japan Confederation of A-and H-bomb Sufferers Organizations. He gripped President Obama’s hand and did not let go until they had spoken for some time. “I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter,” Mr. Tsuboi said. “I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.”

Boundaries were crossed, divisions were transcended, and broken human lives began to be healed. On this Memorial Day weekend, if fallen soldiers and victims of war could reach out to us across time and across eternity, if they could grasp our hands and share with us the deepest thoughts and longings of their hearts, it would surely be much the same as we saw in Hiroshima. They would remind us of the preciousness of life. They would remind us of how short and uncertain life can be, and they would remind us of how we have to strive together for peace and understanding—so that their deaths will be the last. I believe if we in our time hear them, if we fulfill their hope for a better world, they won’t have died in vain. And Jesus’ vision of a restored humanity—manifest so powerfully in his encounter with the Roman centurion, breaking down walls and barriers and prejudices—well, that vision will truly come to life and we will all be healed. May we help God to make it so.

Let us pray:

O God our heavenly Father, look mercifully on the unrest of the world, and draw all people unto thyself and to one another in the bonds of peace. Grant understanding to the nations, with an increase of sympathy and mutual goodwill; that they may be united in a true brotherhood wherein are justice and mercy, truth and freedom, so that the sacrifice of those who died may not have been in vain; all this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Prince of Peace. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

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