Sunday, May 29, 2016

The God-Fearers

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 29, 2016

Year C: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 18:20-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

The God-Fearers
            If you’ve heard me preach more than a few times, you’ve heard me talk about how we Christians – the Church – how we should live differently than the average person out in the world.
            It’s an issue that I think about a lot: does what we do in here – our praying, our singing, our hearing God’s Word, our asking forgiveness, our exchange of peace, our receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ – does any of it make one bit of difference in how we live out there?
            Are we noticeably more loving, more generous, more forgiving, than the average person in Jersey City?
            I ask myself that all the time.
            Would anybody even know that I’m a Christian except for the fact that I often wear a strange plastic white ring around my neck?
            These are important questions, right?
            But, at the same time, there’s a real danger that we paint the world with too broad a brush.
            Yes, there are certainly plenty of people out there who worship the Baals of today – who worship today’s false gods – the false gods of money, fame, sex, security, fear of the other, a sense of superiority over others, the list goes on.
            There are lots of false gods out there – and lots of people who worship them.
            But, there are lots of other people who are kind of like modern-day versions of the centurion in today’s Gospel lesson.
            You’ll remember that back in the first century the Romans ruled Israel and, naturally, the people of Israel didn’t like it very much. In fact, many hoped that the messiah would be a great military leader who would drive out the Romans and finally restore Israel’s independence.
            So, the Jews should have viewed the centurion – who was a commander in the Roman Army, usually with authority over 100 men – the Jews would have viewed the centurion not just as a foreigner, but as an enemy.
            But, that’s very much not the case here.
            We’re told that when the centurion’s highly valued slave became gravely ill he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus asking him to come and heal the slave.
            Now, we might imagine these Jewish elders following the centurion’s request – or maybe command – kind of grudgingly, unwillingly – I mean, could they really say no to this powerful Roman soldier?
            But, very surprisingly, it turns out the Jewish elders want to help the centurion. They urge Jesus to heal the slave.
            The Jewish elders tell Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
            So, let’s get this straight: This centurion is a high-ranking Roman soldier who loves the Jewish people and, not only that, he built them a synagogue!
            Even Jesus is impressed by the centurion, saying, “I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
            So, in today’s gospel lesson we meet a high-ranking Roman soldier who loves the Jewish people – has, in fact, built them a synagogue.
            We meet a high-ranking Roman soldier who loves the Jewish people and, yes, they love him in return.
            What’s going on here?
            Well, it seems that the centurion was what is known as a “God-fearer.”
            Back in the first century, God-fearers were Gentiles, non-Jews, who were drawn to God, who at least sometimes worshiped alongside Jews, but were not quite willing to go all the way and convert to Judaism.
            And, I think there are a lot of people out there in the world today who we might call modern-day God-fearers.
            There are the people who grew up in the church but over time have drifted away yet who still hear the echo of their faith, who walk by churches and feel a little tug to go in but who usually just keep on going.
            There are the people who have been hurt by the church, maybe physically or spiritually abused, who feel great anger and betrayal at the institutional church, who struggle to separate their feelings toward God from their feelings toward those who say they love and serve God.
            There are the people who are on a spiritual quest, who are searching for the Source of all that is, the Heartbeat of all creation, the Love that is the root of all love.
            There are the people who, in our often individualistic and lonely society, are looking for community, are looking for the simple but profound feeling of holding another’s hand in friendship and offering peace, are looking for the oh so human experience of sharing a meal together.
            There are the people who come to church – come to our church even – but aren’t sure how much of all this they really believe – are not ready or willing to receive Communion no matter how many times I say all are welcome – are uncomfortable reciting the creed – and, yet, and, yet…
            There are modern-day God-fearers all around us here at St. Paul’s – they’re in our families – they live next door or across the street.
            I often encounter them when I’m standing outside before the services – or I run into them as I’m walking around the neighborhood wearing this strange white plastic ring around my neck.
            Sometimes they look away, wanting to avoid contact, while other times they’ll stop and want to talk.
            There are modern God-fearers all around us.
            Sometimes they come to Stone Soup looking for a good meal with neighbors.
            Sometimes they’ll come to our music and arts events, looking to be inspired and comforted by beauty.
            There are modern-day God-fearers all around us – don’t look around, but there may be some of them here in church with us right now.
            The God-fearers may never be ready to become pledging members of St. Paul’s, may never receive communion, may never stick around for coffee hour - or may only come for coffee hour!
            Who knows, right?
            What matters is our hospitality and love.
            Long ago the centurion loved his Jewish friends, loved them enough to worship alongside them, even loved them enough to build them a new synagogue!
            That love and generosity must have only been possible because the Jewish community first welcomed and loved the centurion – loved this man who they had every reason to consider not only a stranger, but an enemy.
            May we offer that same kind of welcome to today’s God-fearers – may we offer that same kind of love – love that reveals us, at last, so clearly, to be quite different from all the worshipers of false gods out there in the world.