“Faith”- there’s a word that is used a lot, but is the subject of what Paul would call the “wrong gospel” just as often as it is used helpfully. For Paul, the “wrong gospel” was that there were certain rules and rituals the early church insisted upon in order for someone to be allowed to be even be in the room for worship- circumcision for men, rules about food and other things. And he reminded that those considerations were not at all about faith or God’s grace. But there are other ways we as Christians can take up the “wrong gospel.” One comes from a misreading of the gospel today. The centurion is a man of faith. His slave is dying and he believes Jesus can heal him. And Jesus praises him for his faith. “Never have I seen such faith!” But one of the expressions we can hear today is “you just have to have more faith” as though if our faith were stronger our lives would be different or better. That is the wrong gospel. It’s another way of focusing on ourselves. Another equally disturbing message comes from beyond the church, but can be one we take up as well. It is demonstrated in the recent story about Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook who has written a book to inspire women who want to be successful in business, entitled “Lean In.” In response to the fact that many women still find it difficult to navigate the corporate ladder, Sandberg encourages them to be ambitious and grab power, to “lean in” to situations because she says” No one listens to the person on the edge of the room.” You have to lean in. That is a message that sometimes makes itself into our world as we wonder about the present and future of our church and where the people are. But “lean in” is not good news. In fact, I would suggest that our lessons from Scripture would suggest exactly the opposite about what it takes to be “in the room,” How God acts and how we should respond. God leans out.
Let’s take a trip back to our Old Testament lessons where Solomon has gathered the people of Israel for the dedication of the new temple. Thirteen years in the making, and a symbol of God’s glory. A place God would be said to be found, and God’s name would be praised and glorified. Massive wood carvings, lots of gleaming bronze and gold and silver. After all of the sacred objects were placed in the room, Solomon said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel. You have fulfilled the promises you made to my father, King David, and to our people. There is NO ONE like you. And I have built a magnificent temple for YOU.” The same attention to beauty and detail has gone into the magnificent cathedrals around the world. And our own worship space is known for its beauty. We built this for you, God. But the real point is that it is a place where we come to encounter God. God who comes to us.
Meanwhile, back to Solomon. He begins to pray, for a L-O-O-O-ON-G time. Talking about the promises God had made and asking God in each and every circumstance to hear the prayers of God’s people in this place. Our lectionary skips these verses, about twenty of them. But what is being said there is important. Here is what we miss. “Lord, God of Israel- there is no God like you anywhere. You keep your promises of love. Let what you promised my father be true… I know that no building can contain you, no space can contain you. Lord God, hear my prayer.
And when your people come to this place to pray – hear their prayer.
When they have wronged someone and they come to be forgiven-hear their prayer. When enemies have defeated them, hear their prayer. When there is a famine and they hunger, hear their prayer.
When they have judged others wrongly, hear their prayer. Hear them, forgive them and act- be God with your people. In this place. Hear our prayers. And just about when people have stopped listening, at the end, he shifts-
“Oh, and God? About the foreigner…”We’re praying for people who are not us, and not here? “When someone who is not your chosen people prays, someone who cannot even be in the room, but turns toward this place, toward you, because they have heard your name? Hear their prayers too. When people turn to you God, no matter where, hear them. So all may know your power and your name. This is unexpected. This prayer is about more that Solomon and the people of Israel- it is leaning and stretching out into a broader vision of how God acts and who God is. This is faith. Stretching beyond what seems supportable by our system. Because of who we sense God is and where and how God will act.
This is where we find the centurion today, a man who is not at the edge of the room, he is not even in the field of vision. He is wealthy and powerful, and he can lean in because of these things. The leaders of the synagogue know well that he built their synagogue. They owe him. And as a leader of an army unit of the government oppressing them he’s in charge. And this is how the leaders respond- that Jesus should do as the centurion asks because of these things. Not because of his faith. But at the same time, the centurion is also the foreigner, not even in the room. In fact he and Jesus never meet directly. He is the foreigner who turns toward God in prayer because he has heard of Jesus’ name. Hear my prayer. And the centurion is the one who gets who Jesus is and grasps God’s power. While the leaders are saying he is worthy, he sends messengers to say – I am NOT worthy. But I believe in who you are and what you can do. He realizes that his own power cannot control death, and that Jesus is the only one who can. In faith he turns.
And Jesus responds by leaning out. This is how God acts. God of the outstretched arm. God who came in the person of Jesus to enter our world to reach out. And to show God’s power and God’s love. Because it’s not about us trying to lean in, or prove we are worthy. It’s about God leaning out. And we who have received the love and grace of God, then continue this work and this movement. Leaning out in faith even when it seems to be beyond what our world says our systems can support.
Faith it’s not about our beautiful building, or focusing upon whether people are doing the right things to be in the room. And it’s not about hoping people will lean in so then we can meet them. The age old question has become- “we’re here, why aren’t they?” I think God, is calling to us in faith with a different question-“ they’re there, why aren’t you?” It’s scary, and gets us beyond our comfort zone. But this is the place of faith.
Calling us beyond this place, to look and to listen for all of the people who are longing for forgiveness, and healing, and an outstretched arm and love. Who have heard God’s name but are not in the room. To lean out. Lean out, reaching to others- and we’ll meet God together there.