Proper 4c, May 29, 2016

May 30, 2016

Divine Connections

Luke 7:1-10


1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am 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.” 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.


As I thought about this story of the centurion seeking the aid of Jesus to heal his valued servant I was prompted to consider some of the circumstances that greatly affected me as I was growing up. I’ll try to draw some lessons from this reflection of my formative years, but I’m inclined to indulge in an extensive portrayal of some critical relationships that I had as I grew up.


As you may know, I grew up in Wynne, AR, and my sister and I were the third generation of Murray’s to be born there. Our father and our grandfather were both born there, and Wynne had been good to our family. My great-grandfather came to Wynne with the railroad, and I think it provided him with a decent living, but my grandfather, Thompson Bernard Murray, known by most people as Tom, was a man with an eye out for opportunities. Born in 1898, he served in WWI, but unlike many of the men who participated in that war, he didn’t have to endure the misery of the trenches. Tom managed to become a motorcycle courier, and while riding around France on a motorcycle wasn’t without it’s risks he was able to avoid the worst of the horrors of that war.


Following the war, he convinced my grandmother to marry him, and I think it was against the will of my grandmother’s family that she married my grandfather, so you might say he “married up”. He wasn’t a man of means when they got married, but he worked hard and got lucky, and in 1926 he obtained the Chevrolet/Oldsmobile franchise for Wynne. My father was born that same year, and things were good for my family. In time, my grandfather was able to buy some farmland on the western (flat) side of Cross County, and he bought some hilly land on the east side of town on Crowley’s Ridge where he built a pond and an apple orchard.


I say that my grandfather did all of this, but of course he was a man who had a lot of help. Tom fully embraced the role of being the boss. In fact, I think he probably shared some characteristics with the centurion that’s described in this morning’s passage. My grandfather was church and community-minded, and he knew how to get along with people, but he was also a person who had a strong sense of authority. He also had a servant. I guess technically, Robert Anderson Jr. was his employee, but I think it’s accurate to say that this man was his servant.


Robert Anderson Jr. was best known as Jr., and Jr. began working for my grandparents before I was born. I’m not sure what all he did prior to the terrible car accident that left my grandmother a quadriplegic around the time of my birth in 1957, but by the time I knew what was going on, Jr. was intimately involved in all of the operations of my grandparent’s household. Jr. did whatever they needed him to do. He cooked, he cleaned, he mowed, he helped get my grandmother in and out of bed, he drove her where she wanted to go, and he did whatever odd job my grandfather needed him to do.


As we all did. My grandfather felt free to utilize any of us for whatever he needed to be done. Once I got old enough to be of use, my grandfather often sent me with Jr. to carry out various tasks. Jr. was a master of loading the back of a pickup with brush or debris. I could never believe how much he could get in the back of a truck, and to this day I take pride in my capacity to pack a truck – a skill I directly attribute to Jr. I also remember very vividly the day Tom sent Jr. & I out to scoop dead catfish out of his pond. Somehow the oxygen level had gotten out of whack in his catfish pond, and I spent a hot summer day with Jr. in a john-boat removing dead bloated catfish.


I don’t know how Jr. was compensated for his work. I’m sure he wasn’t well paid, but it was probably more than my grandfather wanted to pay him. Tom was frequently irritated with something Jr. had done or not done and every once in a while he would fire Jr., but the truth was that he couldn’t live without him, and it was never long before Jr. would be back at work at my grandparent’s house.


My grandparents were totally dependent on Jr., and this became perfectly clear to me one day when I was out with Tom and we stopped by Jr.’s house. Right inside the front door of Jr’s house I was amazed to see a pay phone. I’ve never known of anyone to have a pay-phone in their house, but somehow my grandfather had arranged for Jr. to have one. Jr. didn’t always get his bill paid, and the phone company would occasionally cut off his service, but my grandfather had convinced the phone company that it was essential for him to be able to call Jr. and they had agreed to put a pay phone in his house.


Jr. had a hard life, but he never failed to greet me with a smile and a friendly word. In fact Jr. was probably the most consistently pleasant adult I knew as I was growing up. I always enjoyed hanging out with him in the kitchen of my grandparent’s house because I never encountered any judgement in there about how I looked or what I was up to. I loved my grandfather, but he could be pretty demanding. Jr. was always easy to be around.


Of course time takes it’s toll, and by the time my grandfather got in to his eighties he was having a hard time getting around. He had some mini-strokes that impaired his movement, and his knees were largely worn out. By the time he was in his mid-eighties he couldn’t get in or out of bed without assistance, and Jr. was there for him. Jr. was very literally his link with the living world, and this became painfully clear the day Jr. was shot and killed by the deranged father of his girlfriend. That was a horrible day for everyone that was connected to Jr., but just how connected my grandfather was to Jr. became evident when my grandfather died two weeks later.


Jr. died an untimely death, but the tragedy was compounded by what went on at his funeral. I was home on a break from seminary when all of this happened, and Jr.’s funeral was one of the worst worship services I have ever attended. The pastor in charge of the service had asked me if I wanted to speak during the service, and I had declined, but I grew to regret that as I listened to what he had to say. That pastor basically described Jr. as the kind of person you didn’t want to be. He talked about how Jr. had not made time to be in church and how he had made time to engage in all the things that he considered to be of the devil. He basically declared that Jr. was in hell because of the choices he had made and that he hoped we wouldn’t make the same mistakes.


Jr. wasn’t in church on Sunday mornings because he was usually getting one of my grandparents out of bed and cooking their lunch. I knew he enjoyed some night life, but in my opinion he deserved to have some fun. Jr. wasn’t a churchman. I never knew him to speak of anything religious, but he knew how to serve the needs of other people, and Jesus had a lot to say about the value of that. Jr. taught me what it looks like to be a servant, and it’s not a glamorous occupation, but the work he did was holy.


When we got to the gravesite and I told the pastor I did want to say something, and he let me have the last words. I was too emotional to say much, but I’m happy that I was able to speak these final words over his grave: Robert Anderson Jr. was a good man.


This recollection of the relationship between my grandfather and the man who served him for decades doesn’t exactly parallel the story of the centurion who came to Jesus in hope of having his servant healed, but what I do know is that their lives were tightly intertwined, and I was powerfully influenced by both of them. And as I consider both this Biblical story and my own story I’m mindful of the way in which most of the spiritually enriching experiences we have in life occur within the context of relationships.


The centurion was motivated to seek the aid of Jesus because of his deep connection with his ailing servant. This powerful man had become aware of how powerless he was to address the need of this person that he valued, and it was his state of powerlessness that caused him to turn to Jesus for help. Jesus was amazed at the faith the centurion had in him, and it seems that it was the centurion’s understanding of his own authority that enabled him to understand the authority of Jesus. The centurion understood his own strength and his own weakness, and he recognized that Jesus had something he didn’t have.


Unfortunately, it’s often under the pain and stress of disease or death or estrangement that we come to recognize our powerlessness, and it’s those circumstances that cause us to cry out to God. It’s the brokenness that we experience in life that often moves us to engage with new people and to experience the saving grace of God. I feel very fortunate to have been influenced by the strengths and the limitations of my grandfather and of Jr. My grandfather was able to accomplish many things, but in significant ways he was helpless without Jr.


I wouldn’t say I was led to Jesus by my experience with Tom and Jr., but I would say that my understanding of how we experience Jesus Christ in this world was reinforced by my relationship with both of them. My grandfather was very supportive of my decision to go in to ministry because a number of experiences in his life had provided him with a deep understanding of how powerless financial resources really are. Money couldn’t heal my grandmother. Money couldn’t get him out of bed when his own knees wore out. It took the touch of a number of caring human beings to make life bearable for him.


I was reminded at Jr.’s funeral of how easily we can get confused about what it looks like to live in relationship with God. Jr. wasn’t a person who showed up at church very often, but he did show up to cook and clean and do whatever else my grandparents needed him to do. I think he often showed up late, but he showed up for them in a powerful way, and by doing what he did I think he revealed a lot about what it looks like to do the work of God. Participating in the life of the church is a beautiful thing, but I think we all know that it’s not the only way to live a Godly life.


It wasn’t the officially religious people that impressed Jesus with their faith. It was a centurion – a person who was officially outside of the faith that touched Jesus with the extent of his faith.


You just never know where you will encounter God’s angels in this world. Sometimes it’s hard to see who they are because they are connected to us in many other complicated ways, but I believe God works through a lot of different people in a lot of different ways to provide us with the kind of saving grace that we are each in need of receiving.


I believe God can use each of us to exhibit some amazing faith at critical moments and to enable the power of Jesus Christ to become manifest in the life of others. God has provided us with the gift of relationships, and we should never underestimate the power that comes through those people who’s lives are intertwined with our own. God touches us through the hands and hearts of other people, and for this beautiful gift I give great thanks.


Thanks be to God. Amen.


5 Responses to “Proper 4c, May 29, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    I suspect that a number of us “church people” have not cared for our relatives as Jr. did, your sermon was very meaningful for me.

  2. Rex Robbins Says:

    Nice sermon Thompson. I wish more Christians could get Jesus’s message to judge not. I’m glad you got the last word.

    Hope you are doing well.

  3. michael wilson Says:

    Thanks Thompson for reminding us that even the most powerful people arIe powerless for some things -and then we have to rely on God – Mickey Wilson

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