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What Are You Worth?

April 27, 2008

Luke 7:1-10

It has been an unusual week, and Thursday was particularly interesting because many activities were happening. I went to the hospital early; two of our members had surgery. I also conducted Lib Allen’s funeral that afternoon. That same day, I met with a group of clergy, as I always do once a month in a Chinese restaurant. These guys were kidding me about having had so many funerals recently. It is fine if they want to give me a hard time about that; but when our own members start talking about the large number of deaths, I get a little concerned. I certainly do not schedule these deaths. They just occur, and we respond. Let me assure you that death is not all that is happening at Morningside.

Many happy occasions have occurred. On Friday evening, I went to Camp Awanita with Carole Johnson, a cadre of chaperones, and between twenty to thirty kids, very much full of life. On Mother’s Day, we will have a baby dedication service. You see next to the white rose in memory of Lib Allen a red rose, which honors a new baby added to our church family. You need to be aware of the numerous joyous occasions lest you become discouraged and begin thinking that we are all slowly dying off. That is not the way it is at all.

Yes, this week has been unusual. Winston Hardegree, a dear friend of mine, died after a long bout with cancer. Many of you knew him, perhaps through his articles in the newspaper. Winston was a master gardener. He was one of the best people I ever met at propagating cuttings. I used to tease him by saying that he could get a pencil or toothpick to root. He knew so much about plants, and he loved being outdoors. Though not a Morningside member, he certainly had an influence on many people in this congregation. Lib Allen, Ruth Webb, Bill Bishop, Winston Hardegree – all dear people, dear to this congregation – have all gone to heaven recently.

Last Sunday night, I received word that Tommy White had taken his own life. That news was the most difficult I heard all week. Tommy was, by my age, a young man. He was only forty-seven years old. He was quite the artistic master photographer. He photographed many weddings, including one here in February. We saw each other often and had frequent conversations. It is always very sad and very difficult for those who know a person who has committed suicide. After hearing the news of Tommy’s death, I decided I needed to preach this sermon. I want to have a heart-to-heart talk with you about a very important topic, an issue weighing on my mind and heart.

There is in this life a sense of tragedy. Miguel de Unamuno wrote a book entitled The Tragic Sense of Life. I do not recommend that you read this book because it is a real downer. It does not need to be in the church library. It is not especially a Christian book at all. The Tragic Sense of Life describes tragedy that pervades all of life. It is true that when we believe too many deaths have occurred in a short period of time or when we hear news about the death of a person like Tommy, this tragic sense of life creeps over us and seems to overshadow everything else.

Because of that tendency, I want to remind you that many other events are happening here at Morningside. During the month of May, we will have seven or eight weddings: one in Charlotte, one in Greenville, and the rest in Spartanburg. Three are scheduled for one Saturday. The first part of June promises to be one of the liveliest periods in the life of the church. We have scheduled Vacation Bible School for that week. All kinds of other activities and events are planned this summer for children and youth.

Wednesday of this week was a birthday, one you might have missed. William Shakespeare’s birthday reminded me of the fact that he depicts both masks of the theater in his plays, though he focuses less on comedy than on tragedy. Think of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. You certainly get a taste of Shakespeare’s humor and a sense of comedy in that play. If you have memorized any of Shakespeare though, the lines probably came from one of his tragedies, such as Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear, or Romeo and Juliet.

Following five trips to the hospital on Thursday, I spoke to a group of people with the Alzheimer’s Association. By anyone’s reckoning, Alzheimer’s is a mean disease. Many of you have experienced that, as Clare and I have with her dear mother. Some call Alzheimer’s “the walking death.” Earlier in the week, I started thinking and praying about my comments to that group. Joyce Finkle, the Program Director, maybe became a little worried when I told her, “I am going to come out of left field with this.”

I talked with the group about how important it is for us to find a way to laugh, even in the midst of tragedy. To some, that approach seems to be irreverent; but a little beatitude tucked away in the Gospel of Luke speaks about that very issue. Jesus says, “Blessed are you who weep now, for then you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

Laughter is a gift from God. Very often this gift comes in the midst of our most difficult circumstances. Did you know that the book of the Bible that mentions laughter more than any other book is Job? That fact surprises many people because we think of Job as a series of unmitigated tragedy, a story of suffering upon suffering.

The pages of the Bible do not shield us from tragedy. In fact, it is very honest. The Bible mentions seven suicides. Four of those who took their own life are not easily recognized, but you would recognize the other three immediately. Samson, a judge with unusual strength, decided to do things his own way, not God’s way. In the end, that cost him his strength. The Philistines, the arch enemies of the people of Israel, held him in captivity. They chained him like an animal to a mill wheel. During one of their pagan celebrations, the Philistines shackled Samson to the pillars of the temple of the false god Dagon. Samson pled to God, begging Him to restore his strength. God granted Samson’s entreaty, and Samson brought the temple down on his own head, killing himself and destroying many of the enemy.

A second suicide in the Bible involved the first king of Israel, Saul, who stood head and shoulders above other men. He was a great leader, inspired and charismatic. Saul had a disease that in our day and time I suppose we would call a bipolar disorder. Some moments he would be very elated, and other times he would fall into deep despair. Those bouts of manic depression caused him to become suspicious of the people he should have trusted most. Following his defeat in a battle on the Mountain of Gilboa, a battle in which his own son Jonathan died, Saul took his own life.

You know so well about the third suicide, that of the apostle Judas Iscariot. Judas traveled with Jesus for three years, listening to his teachings and witnessing his miracles. He saw Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees and heard Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount. Though with Jesus for three years, Judas never quite understood. When he finally realized that Jesus had not come to lead a political revolution, he fell into despair. He decided that he had to die for his own sins, and he took his own life.

The death of each of these people in the Bible is tragic. The pages of the Bible definitely contain the mask of tragedy. During my own devotional time this week, I came across a passage of Scripture, one I have previously used in a sermon. Luke 7 means a great deal to me, and I want to share its content with you.

By almost any reckoning, the Roman centurion mentioned in this passage is remarkable. I want to describe seven aspects about him. First, we know he was a man of wealth, simply by virtue of the fact that he was stationed in Capernaum, a town by the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was located on an important trade route, a crossroads. The centurion was given a choice assignment here. He could have been stationed in a much worse place. Other centurions were sent out into the wilderness. This man would have received a good salary for his position. We see from the account that he was wealthy enough to build a synagogue.

Second, this man understood power and authority. Centurions were to be special men, well-selected. Eight different times, the New Testament mentions various centurions. Without exception, every reference speaks well of these leaders. Selected because they were steady, calm-under-fire, and reliable, they possessed good common sense, refraining from rushing to judgment. They neither imperiled their troops needlessly nor hurried into battle. Centurions had the ability to make measured but accurate decisions. They were ready to stand and face any enemy when necessary, ready to die for Rome. The very word centurion means a person given authority over 100 men. A centurion stationed in Capernaum probably had many more soldiers than 100 were under his charge.

Third, this Roman citizen has a very unusual attitude toward slaves. Notice that the appeal this man makes is not for himself. He does not ask Jesus to come heal him or one of his family members. He asks Jesus to tend to a slave. Most Roman citizens regarded slaves as property, as chattels. They merely bought another slave if one of theirs became injured or died. This centurion shows a personal ethic of compassion and demonstrates that he values his slave.

Fourth, people generally do not like the soldiers associated with an army of occupation. We do not have to look far to see that. Most Jewish people hated the sound of Roman boots and detested the sight of Roman shields, Roman swords, or Roman banners. This man was part of the army of occupation. Here, Jewish elders were the first delegation sent to Jesus to dispatch the message that a Roman centurion needed Jesus’ help for his slave. The fact that they came on the Roman centurion’s behalf signaled that the very people who should have hated him most – the Jewish people – had befriended him.

Fifth, the centurion is deeply religious. He cared enough to build a synagogue. Who came and asked Jesus to help this man? Jewish elders coming is in itself remarkable. The elders were Gentiles who were attached to the synagogue. They actually worshipped the God of Israel, the one true God. They could not go into the inner sanctum in the temple in Jerusalem, but they could go as far as the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost court. Those who believed in God, Yahweh, could worship with the Jewish people. This man did that. Jesus knows he is a God-fearer, a believer.

Sixth, in spite of his wealth, status, position of authority, ability to wield power, deep faith, friendship to the Jews, and compassion toward the slaves, the centurion has great humility. He says to Jesus, “I am not even worthy to have you come under my roof.” Through the centuries, the Roman Catholic church has used that phrase in regard to the receiving of the wafer during the Eucharist. Three times they repeat, “I am unworthy to have you come under my roof. Speak but the word and my soul will be healed.” That recitation is a derivation of what we see here in the Gospel of Luke.

Finally, we see evidence of the centurion’s faith in Jesus’ power and ability to heal his servant. Scripture says that Jesus recognizes his faith and is amazed. As I read this, it occurred to me that Luke 7 is really about prayer. Do you realize that throughout this account, Jesus and the centurion never meet face-to-face? Their first exchange occurs through a delegation of elders.

A second exchange occurs as Jesus makes his way to the man’s house. The centurion sends friends to relay the communication to Jesus this time. I suspect that the centurion must have known that a Jewish rabbi coming to his house would be considered unclean, especially by the Pharisees. Jesus had had enough trouble with them already. The centurion, actually being considerate of Jesus here, says, “Don’t bother to come to my house.” Maybe he understands that Jesus would be considered unclean in the eyes of the Pharisees if he did that. The man makes his second request from a distance: “Speak but the word, and my servant will be healed.” Jesus grants this request from a distance. It is very much like the experience we have in the life of prayer. The centurion recognizes that Jesus has authority and puts his faith in Jesus. Jesus marvels at the man’s faith and says that it is rare to find faith like this, even among the people of Israel. He commends the man for his strong belief.

We, too, can commend this centurion on many aspects: wealth, respect for others, position of authority, compassion toward a slave, friendship with the Jews, religious commitment, deep faith in Jesus, status, and ability to wield power. He also has great humility. What does he state about himself? “I am unworthy.” A real contrast exists here between what the elders declare and what this man utters about himself. With the comment “I am unworthy,” this Roman centurion says what all of us feel at one time or another. We get our ox in a ditch and do not know what to do. We feel discouraged and despondent and begin looking for an exit sign. We feel as if we are all alone in the world.

About six-and-a-half billion people live in this world. At one time or another, every single one of us feels unworthy. We feel as if our life does not amount to much of anything. We feel somewhat as Tommy did, I suppose. When life becomes really complex, it is so easy to suffer from discouragement and hopelessness. I remember hearing a saying when I was growing up: “I feel so low down I could sit on a dime, and my feet would not touch the floor.” It is a way of expressing how unhappy people can feel. Think of the words of Hee-Haw: “Gloom, despair, agony on me, deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, agony on me.” Sooner or later, everybody feels unworthy.

It is hard to know how anyone could have helped Tommy. I am just one among those who wished we had had a chance. I wish I had had an opportunity to say, “Wait, Tommy. Please. Is there something we can do about this? Can’t we find another way? Can we work this out together? Can we talk through this?” So often, a person does not tell anyone about this feeling of depression. So often, a person chooses just to keep the despair hidden.

I want to identify another man. You tell me what his life is worth. He was conceived out of wedlock. He was born in a barn. He was a refugee to Egypt. He was the son of a simple carpenter. He began his ministry in the desert. He was disowned and disgraced by his hometown, the people who knew him best. He was an itinerate rabbi, homeless with “no place to lay his head,” he said. He was accused of trumped-up charges. He was denied, betrayed, and abandoned by the very people he had called friends. He was brought to trial in a kangaroo court. He was found innocent, yet presumed guilty. He was taken outside the city after a brutal beating and executed as a common criminal. What is his life worth?

I previously stated that centurions are mentioned eight times in the New Testament. Each time, he is always a person of good report. One centurion, upon seeing the execution of Jesus, observed, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” His comment is the only mumbling word of affirmation Jesus received when he died on the cross.

What is his life worth? Do you know what he thinks your life is worth?

There is a tragic sense of life. If you look at the cross and all you see is the tragedy, you miss it. The mask of tragedy is stripped away there on the cross. It is not replaced by the mask of comedy; it is replaced by stark reality. There in the face of Jesus, you can see the love of God, the love that includes every person on the face of this earth, all six-and-a-half billion of us. When we feel unworthy, we need to remember to look at the cross. If we can see how much Jesus loves us, how much he thinks our life is worth, then perhaps we can see that all is not lost. Nothing is hopeless. There on the cross we see the love of God for the centurion standing there, for the thief on each side, for the women who stayed, for the disciples who abandoned him, and for every single person. You are important. You are a person of worth. People love you, and God loves you.

Please, I beg of you, never forget that. If you get so despondent that you can think of nothing else except taking your own life, please call someone. Call me. Call any member of the church staff. Call your deacon, any deacon, your Sunday School teacher, somebody. Give that person a chance to remind you that God loves you. He will never give up on you.

Let us bow for a prayer. Gracious Father, please help us always remember that Your love is “love divine, all love’s excelling.” Help us see this divine gift of love revealed in the face of Jesus on the cross. Forgive us when we forget, and bring us back to You. Lord, we love You, and we long to love You more. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely


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