Scripture: Matthew 8:5-13
Back in 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres made waves early when she came out as a lesbian on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That, however, was a long time ago. When she became the host of her own daytime talk show in 2003, Ellen made a career out of being about as uncontroversial and unpolitical as it gets. Other people talked about the news; Ellen pranked other celebrities, shared funny drawings by kids, encouraged kindness, and – always – invited people to dance.
In the past couple years, Ellen has been back in the news a few times. Why? For her friendship with George W. Bush. She and her wife were first shown sitting with the Bushes at a football game late last year. Some people thought this was charming: two unlikely friends reminding us that we can transcend everything that divides us! But Ellen happened to have a lot of fans who were not necessarily George W. Bush fans, who in fact thought that George W. Bush had done some pretty problematic things, and they were not amused. Ellen pushed back: “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’” she said, “I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”
I’ll let you make up your own mind about Ellen and George and their unlikely friendship. I’m not here to preach about that. What I am here to preach about is times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political. And sometimes, something as simple as who you choose to associate with can be political.
In today’s story, Jesus is approached by a person in need of a miracle. That in itself isn’t unusual. People in need of miracles seek out Jesus all the time. In this particular case, the man has a servant at home who is paralyzed.
Somewhat more unusual is that the person looking for a miracle in this story is not Jewish. Jesus does interact with Gentiles from time to time in the Gospels – after all, they were part of the world he lived in, too. Usually, though, when we read about Jesus interacting with a foreigner, it’s not by accident. Our ears are meant to perk up a little.
It may sound quaint, this idea that just interacting pleasantly with someone from a different part of the world would be somehow notable. And yet perhaps we’re not as far removed from that kind of thing as we think. I’m not just talking about our attitudes toward literal “foreigners.” I mean anyone we perceive as different, as other, as outside the fold in some way: people of different races, religions, socioeconomic strata, sexual orientations, or – dare I say? political affiliations. In fact, these days that last one seems like it has more power to overtly make us foreign to one another than anything else.
As Ellen and George show us, even interacting nicely with someone across that boundary can still make some ears perk up.
The “foreigner” who comes to Jesus in this particular story is not just a Gentile. He’s a centurion – an officer in the Roman army, which is to say, the occupying army. He plays an active role in the oppression and subjugation of Judea. His literal job is to promote Roman supremacy. He is not just someone from a different place or someone who bears a different identity; he is someone who consciously or unconsciously has chosen a side.
Knowing this, what will Jesus say?
It is possible that we do hear a note of reluctance in Jesus’ voice at first. The text renders his response “I will come and cure him,” but the Greek probably reads more like, “You want me to come and heal him?”
The centurion is unfazed. “I know how these things work,” he says. “I obey commands from someone over me, too, and I know all you have to do is say the word, and it will be done. You don’t even have to come.”
And Jesus shakes his head in amazement, and the centurion’s slave is healed.
I could make this a sermon about bridging our divides and how we can all just love each other despite our differences. I could, but I don’t actually think it’s that easy. In last week’s passage, Jesus was standing up to the hypocritical Temple elites, turning their accusation of a powerless woman back on them. I really wrestle with the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus spends so much time condemning the Temple leadership, the local leaders in cahoots with the Roman government, and yet seems to take such a moderate stance toward the actual Roman oppressors. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus does his own part to subvert the power of the Roman Empire in favor of the Kingdom of God. But never once does he look a Roman in the face like he does the Pharisees and say “Woe to you.”
In fact, in this case, he says “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.”
But this faith is the faith of the oppressor.
And so his response is political. Certainly many of his fellow Judeans would have seen it that way. Because sometimes who you choose to associate with is political. Who you sit with at a football game is political; who you say woe to and who you heal and who you praise, all of that is political.
And I struggle with it, I do. I struggle with the fact that this centurion is surely just a regular guy, doing the job he was taught to do, valuing the things he was taught to value, just like all of us surely are, on both sides of the so-called aisle or neither; and yet he is actively part of a system doing real harm. I struggle with the calls I sometimes hear to just be friends, and find unity despite our differences, despite the real injustices at play, despite the real people “unity” inevitably leaves behind. Because it’s one thing to disagree over taxes, right? And it’s another thing to disagree over whether white supremacy should or should not be condemned, and still go on with your dinner party.
But Jesus doesn’t go into all that. Instead what he sees is someone who needs a miracle – and not only that, but someone, even, whose “foreign” life experience has taught him something about what faith means. Jesus many initially be taken by surprise at the centurion’s request – but in the end, he refuses to put this human being before him into any of the boxes that the surrounding world has drawn.
And still, last week Jesus was standing firmly on the side of the powerless, and the week before that he was preaching good news to the poor. And I struggle, I do, with how to hold it all together, how to be uncompromising and unflinching in my stand for what is right, how to live into my baptismal vow to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves; while refusing to let my heart be hardened against those who may not see things the way I do.
And I really don’t have it figured out. But somewhere in the struggle I hear Jesus calling me to both.
And maybe, just maybe, there is grace in the struggle. And maybe, just maybe, we can struggle together.