Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church
June 2, 2013
Presenter: King Grossman
I begin with a quote from Wendell Berry: “The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles . . . only by a spiritual journey . . . by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, the interchange between the Roman centurion and Jesus makes me question where the centurion was along the path of his spiritual journey, where am I; and, pray God, my homily helps you and me ask ourselves this question in a little clearer light.
The centurion had been behaving publicly in ways that won him the favor of Jewish elders. He had built them a synagogue, and treated the Jews with respect, even with love from the point of view of the elders who went to summon Jesus to heal the centurion’s infirmed slave. It seems the centurion deftly maintained all the right connections, having turned natural political adversaries to his side while keeping his esteemed position in tact with the powers that be—the Romans. But on Jesus nearing the centurion’s home, other friends came to pronounce this message, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am also a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” The message was unusual enough coming from a man of worldly authority for Jesus to be amazed; and then Jesus said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such a faith.” My question is why not? The centurion’s confession of treating the Jews with seeming respect and love while also being a man that used power capriciously enough to make him feel unworthy of Jesus, probably holds the answer. I emphasize the confession at this point, not his ongoing lifestyle and behavior. After all, there is no evidence that the centurion resigned his compromising position of doing an oppressor’s bidding, or sold all his worldly possessions, as Jesus on another occasion asked of a rich young ruler.
This encounter with the powerful yet contrite centurion brings to mind the hubris of American political leaders today trying to bring democracy at the end of gun barrels to people, or of corporate leaders funding efforts to destroy union organizing, or union leaders taking home fat paychecks and selling out their workers, or in the face of global weird-ing (make that devastating manmade climate change) me moving slowly on the commitment to make my home sustainable and renewable with solar energy, rainwater trapping, and vegetable gardens. Where is their contriteness, where is mine? When will we confess to wearing masks of righteousness, and at the same time in our hearts and actions doing harm, going with the cultural flow, not the Holy Spirit’s flow? Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes, or put off doing what I dream of doing to create a little more heaven on earth? Perhaps the bad behavior can’t change much until the confession is sincere and the individual is aware of his or her own internal conflicts.
In John A. Sanford’s book The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meanings of Jesus’ Sayings the act of “repentance”—in the Greek, metanoia, which means “turning about”—is given new dimension. Sanford, a Judeo Christian devotee of the seminal psychologist Carl Jung, suggests we would do better than simply turning from our behavior by first turning to face our “Inner Adversary”. He writes, “The adversary is the person within who contradicts the outer front: the one who thinks the thoughts we do not want to acknowledge as our own, who has feelings and urges we dare not openly express because to do so would throw into jeopardy the egocentric role and image we have assumed for ourselves. . . . This is the Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll, the one who manages to bring about some evil in spite of our pretensions to virtue or, more passively, the one who stands between us and our conscious goals or ideals and prevents our achieving them. . . . The more we are identified with a mask the more the unconscious will set up an opposing viewpoint in the form of the inner enemy. The more we pretend to be this or that, the more the enemy will be the opposite. Therefore, it is only as we become conscious of the mask we wear that we can hope to make peace with it.” So, praise God for the Roman centurion’s confession to Jesus. I call this the beginning of shrinking the devil down to size. Our Savior sure seemed to appreciate the effort.
For me this is more a journey than a point in time, although repentance, a turning about, has to be at the start of every journey. And once on a spiritual journey, it’s hard to get off and stay off the rails. This is why I believe the Roman centurion went on to find more of the peace that passes all understanding, which Jesus promises to those who follow Him. I pray he did. Notice that Jesus accepted the centurion’s request not to go all the way to face him, and Jesus healed the slave anyway. It was the centurion’s friends who returned to see the slave restored to good health. Perhaps, Jesus knew that the kind thing to do for the centurion was to give him time to get more comfortable in his faith. To allow the centurion to shrink the devil down to size, to become more at peace with the paradox of being a flawed human and fully lovable by God.
When I do something in my thoughts or my actions that create shame or guilt, something I consider a sin, on a good day I’ll ask for forgiveness and prayerfully state my willingness and desire to repent¾to turn from my sin and go a new way, a way our Loving Creator would be pleased with. But there always is some haunting blue feeling that follows my repentance. If I knew how to eradicate sin from my life, I would certainly do it. I do not know how. As long as I simply rely on God and try to will away the thoughts or behavior, I stay stuck in cycles of sin even after repenting. Sometimes it seems the harder I try the worse it gets. So, my prayer has changed to ask God to “help” me repent. Help me become more whole, holy, and healed, so I feel the need to repent less often.
Franciscan Richard Rohr in his book The Naked Now: Learning To See As The Mystics See suggests: “You will seek only what you have partially already discovered and seen within yourself . . . Call it the ‘Principle of Likeness,’ if you will. The enormous breakthrough is that when you honor and accept the divine image within yourself, you cannot help but see it in everybody else, too, and you know that it is as undeserved and unmerited as it is in you. That is why you stop judging, and that is how you start loving unconditionally and without asking whether someone is worthy or not. The breakthrough occurs at once, although the realization deepens and takes on greater conviction over time. . . .
“Wholeness (head, heart, and body, all present and positive) can see and call forth wholeness in others.
“What you see is what you get. What you seek is also what you get,” Rohr states.
This journey for me is as much a circle of wholeness, inside a square of God’s containing love, as it is a cross experience. Death and resurrection require the blessed cross, but living in joy more of the time requires other help. As a visual person who gets a great deal out of religious icons connecting to the mystery of Our Loving Creator, it’s easy to believe we would benefit by having as many circles and squares as we have crosses hung as icons on our walls, inlaid in churches’ stained glass windows, worn as jewelry, engraved in the leather covers of family bibles. Reminders that it is a religious experience indeed to circle back on ourselves, on each other, to be boxed in by God’s love, all of it centered on the cross of truth, love, and human paradox. A Jungian psychologist Christian friend of mine, suggested a way to get centered and look inward to what is distressing me, making me a victim blaming others, would be to practice what Jung himself did when unsettled. Jung would sit and draw circles and squares while meditating, listening for God. I tried it, circles beside squares beside circles over and over, and something seemed missing until I added the cross. Then, somehow it was all there before me but disjointed, unconnected. That is, until I drew the square that I consider the bounds of boundless eternity, God’s ever containing love; inside the square I drew the circle of connectedness to God, myself, humanity, and all of creation; and inside the circle I drew the cross of death and redemption, which I need over and over, not just in the hereafter, Praise God. This settles me, brings me a glimpse of the peace that passes all understanding. You may or may not want to try it. I’m positive there’re as many ways to connect with God and oneself, as there are imaginations alive and well. What’s more, I pray the Roman centurion did some version of this on many an occasion.
Perhaps Crosby, Stills & Nash sang it best: By taking ourselves “back to the garden”, we invite members of the community and citizens of the world along for the rides of their lives.