December 30, 2007

"You Can Do It"
Scripture: Matthew 8:1-13
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  Jesus had spoken with authority on the mountain where he gave his great sermon. Now in the book of Matthew we see how that authority played out in practice, in the streets of everyday life. Jesus demonstrates his power to heal, first to one of Israel’s own outcasts, an Israelite leper, then a Gentile through the compassion of a Roman Centurion. In both these stories the principal participants believe that Jesus is capable of healing. The leper had probably heard rumors of Jesus’ abilities and the Centurion may have even witnessed a healing or two. Both the leper and the centurion violate either the law (Lepers were supposed to stay away and call out “Unclean” in the presence of others) and the Centurion broke a social code of ethics, a social barrier and acknowledgment that someone else had authority that he did not. But Jesus broke those barriers as well, first by touching an unclean person and then healing a Gentile in spite of the fact that their time had not yet come, “to the Israelites first, then to the Gentile.” So what was Jesus demonstrating in both instances?

  Think about the leper. No one had touched him for a long time, so to be touched meant something significant to him. I can just imagine the tears welling up in his eyes at the feel of that touch. The leper knew that Jesus could heal him. The question was, would he? And then to feel that touch. It was the beginning of his reintegration back into society, the beginning of his becoming someone again. That touch meant new life for him. That’s why Jesus sent him immediately to the priests to be certified clean. The leper was not to tell anyone what had happened until he had been certified clean by the priests, then the good news of what happened could be told. Then the leper could be restored to society. That was a precursor to what Jesus was all about, what the good news was all about, restoring God’s fallen people to right relationship with God. The leper had taken a big risk, but Jesus took an even bigger risk. He risked social isolation and being “unclean” because of the man’s faith. That touch was the beginning of the Good News put into action and the man’s being restored to society.

  Now think about the Centurion. He knew what authority was and he believed that Jesus had the authority to heal his servant. I can just imagine the humility of bowing to an itinerant preacher, a man of lowly status. I can just feel him giving up of his authoritative status, swallowing his pride to bow down and plead with Jesus. Perhaps for that Centurion the crowds didn’t matter any more. His compassion for his servant was even greater than his fear of ridicule and perhaps reprimand from his colleagues. The Centurion knew that Jesus could heal his servant, knew in his heart that he didn’t need to come into his home, but would he? That bow before Jesus was the precursor to the flood of Gentiles in that generation and future generations who would come pouring into the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus knew that many of the Israelites would refuse to believe and the Kingdom would expand to those outside the Law of Moses. Jesus knew that blessing was soon to come to all people.

  The question for us today becomes what does it mean to recognize and submit to the authority of Jesus, to feel his touch and bow down acknowledging his authority? Nothing in the New Testament suggests that faith is a general awareness of the supernatural dimension or a general trust in the goodness of a distant God. Faith in Christian terms means believing that God has entrusted his authority to Jesus to exercise it for the salvation of the world. Faith is believing that Jesus has the authority to restore people to God. That might come in the form of healing. That might come in the form of what some call being born again. That might come in the form of a moment of instant recognition that one is sinful and in need of wholeness that comes through proclaiming that Jesus is Lord of life. It might come in the form of our acting through faith on behalf of another, of helping others find their potential and wholeness.

  A story is told of a young man, Teddy, who was the recipient of a teacher’s dislike. She knew that a teacher should not show favoritism or dislike toward their students. But she couldn’t help but dislike Teddy. She knew he came from a rough family life, that his mother had died when he was a little younger. He came to school dirty every day and smelled a funny smell. His hair hung low over his shoulders before it was popular to have it that way. He seemed slow intellectually and was behind the other students in his school work. No matter how much she tried the teacher just couldn’t like him. She concentrated on her best students the year she had Teddy and for some reason took delight in red marking his papers and with a flourish she would write “Poor work!” And by Christmas time she knew he would never catch up with his work enough to pass the fifth grade. He would have to repeat.

  That year this teacher received gifts from all her students, including Teddy. She began opening them in front of the students, exclaiming her delight as each gift. When she came to Teddy’s gift, wrapped in brown paper bag, she was aware that the other students had fallen silent and she felt a little embarrassed as she unwrapped it. Two items fell out when she managed to get the tape off the paper. One item was a gaudy rhinestone bracelet with several stones missing. The other was a bottle of cheap perfume half empty. She put the bracelet on and dabbed a bit of the perfume behind her ears, thanked Teddy and then finished opening the rest of the packages. After refreshments the bell rang and the students left, all except Teddy. He walked up to the teacher and said, “You smell just like my mom and her bracelet looks real pretty on you too! I’m glad you liked it.” After Teddy left the teacher sank into her chair and began to cry. She resolved to make up to Teddy what he had been missing for quite some time, a teacher who cared.