God is Much Bigger, Proper 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43; Psalm 96:1-9; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

The Great Fifty Days of Easter have come and gone. We prepared ourselves in Lent for the passion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. During the Great Fifty Days of Easter we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday where I am sure you learned about the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, here we are, in the season after Pentecost. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling among us. What does that mean to us then?

Today’s scriptures give us some good pointers: Solomon intercedes for the “foreigners”, Jesus is amazed by a centurion’s faith, and Paul is astonished by how fast the early Christians forgot what they were taught.

In today’s Hebrew scripture, we read part of I Kings Chapter 8. In the beginning of chapter eight, which is not included in today’s reading, King Solomon has just finished building the grand temple for God. He “assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites” (I Kings 8: 1a) and prayed to God. The part we read is about Solomon praising God and God’s faithfulness. The reading then jumps from verse 23 to 41. Solomon pledges to God to hear the foreigner who is not God’s people of Israel, to hear this foreigner’s prayers so “that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.” (1Kings 8:43). The missing verses are general prayers for the Israelites. Doesn’t that tell us our care for foreigners is important?

In the Gospel, we have two persons of power. One holds military power, the other spiritual power. The one with military power is desperate because his valued slave is ill. He could have sent his soldiers to take Jesus to go to his place to heal his slave. Nevertheless, he asks Jewish elders instead to invite Jesus to heal his slave. Not only does he choose not to use violence, but he also uses his humility to show forth his trust and faith in Jesus. He has faith in Jesus and lets him know that there is no need for him to go to his humble dwelling, but asks Jesus heal his slave from a distance. Jesus, the spiritual leader is amazed at his faith. Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” The cultural and class boundaries between these two leaders are brought down. A person is healed.

The scriptures today reminds me of an inspiring, and amazing story I want to share with you about the beginning of a Christian organization in a place where Christianity is not the dominant culture.

In Hong Kong, there is a place called St. James’ Settlement. This settlement is a triad consisting of an Anglican Church, an Anglican school, and community service center. The story of how this place was founded is very inspiring. In 1949, the late Bishop Ronald Hall who oversaw the Anglican Church in Hong Kong saw the need to minister to a group of youth in a small town named Wanchai. The youth were hanging out in this town and had gotten into trouble. There were very limited resources then. He had no place available to gather them. The need was really great. A Taoist Temple in the neighborhood had some rooms that were available for use. He worked with the minister in charge and was able to use a room to gather the youngsters and started the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. By gathering the youth, offering them the love and guidance that was lacking from the families, these youth escaped a downward path into juvenile delinquency. Because of their love of God’s children, two different religious leaders were willing to work together to help the young people. This humble beginning of youth ministry in a Taoist Temple eventually became the triad it is today: a church, a school, and a community service center.

By not confining ministry to one’s religious establishment, and focusing instead on the love of God’s children, a Christian institution was formed with the help of Taoists. Great things have been done. Services have been extended beyond serving youth spiritually and academically to serving the wider needs of the community, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the elderly. The people of Hong Kong certainly know God’s name through this Christian organization.

This is the message of today’s Gospel. Because of the centurion’s love for his slave, who had much lower social status, he is willing to seek help from another leader. Jesus shows us he is not confined to healing only Jewish people, but has compassion for the centurion’s slave.

Due to instability and violence in the Middle East, the United States is experiencing an influx of refugees. However, the fear of terrorists infiltrating our country is so great that people, even Christians, oppose to the humanitarian act of accepting these people.

Saint Paul admonishes the Galatians and says that he is “astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” Jesus has commanded the disciples “to love your neighbors.” What has happened to his teaching? Isn’t this St. Paul’s admonition? We are so quickly deserting the Gospel of Jesus, rejecting the neighbors who are foreigners and in dire situation. Can we learn something from the Centurion and the Taoist minister in Hong Kong?

In this season after Pentecost, we are learning how to apply Jesus’ teaching in our ministries. Fresh into this season, we are shown Solomon’s intercession for foreigners. This is what is expected from us, to love our neighbors even when they are not the same as us. Although they are foreigners, they are faithful like the centurion.

The Guthrie Center in Massachusetts was transformed from a church to a holy space that honors the traditions of many faiths. On the door entering the church, it is written:

One God – Many Forms
One River – Many Streams
One People – Many Faces
One Mother – Many Children

King Solomon has built the house for God, but he asks, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1King 8:27) Let us not confine God to our liking, our church, or our belief. God is much bigger than that. Let us follow Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbors.” Amen.

Download the sermon for Proper 4C.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata
The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour (COS), San Gabriel, Diocese of Los Angeles. COS is the oldest Protestant church in San Gabriel Valley. It has become a multicultural congregation in the last few years with English, Cantonese, and English services. Ada is very involved in multicultural ministries, especially Asian Ministry. She served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) and just finished her term. She is the Chair of Chinese Ministry Advisory Committee in Diocese of Los Angeles. She is a member of Multicultural Ministry, Commission on Ministry, Disciplinary Board, and EAM in the diocese. She is also a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, a Chinese Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church; and Bloy House, Episcopal Theological School at Claremont. She recently had visits to Asian Anglican Dioceses accompanying the Rt. Rev. Diane Bruce, Bishop Suffragan of Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often does her meditative walk.

False gods or the One True God?, 2 Pentecost, Proper 4 (C) – 2013

June 2, 2013

1 Kings 18:20-21,30-39; Psalm 96; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10

The Bible stories appointed for today have a considerable resonance. That is actually something quite unusual in these days of the Revised Common Lectionary, as the lessons are no longer chosen to relate to each other. The resonance, therefore, is more coincidence than a result of any intentionality.

First, we have the prophet Elijah speaking to the Israelites, a story told to us in the First Book of Kings. There is a kind of contest between Gods at work here, between the one true Lord God and Ba’al. “If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”

Among the ancient Israelites, the cult of Ba’al was the greatest and most enduring threat to the worship of Yahweh alone. And Ba’al was not so much one competing god; it’s a term that can refer to a number of gods, and even to human officials: gods who were patrons of cities, a god of the rain, and even Ba’al Zebub, the “lord of the flies” who will be identified as the “prince of demons” in the New Testament.

Elijah is calling the people back to the worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And it is not a popular move. The people seem to like worshiping both Yahweh and Ba’al; you might call it covering all bets, or playing it safe, or anticipating any contingency.

And Elijah calls on God, who sends down a lightening bolt to consume an offering presented. The Israelites see this and they are converted, falling on their faces and proclaiming, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”

Then, in his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul is astonished that the people are so quickly deserting the true gospel for a different one.

And he writes that if he were trying to please people, he would not be a servant of Christ.

Again, there is some kind of completing god here. Scholars are not quite sure what that other gospel was exactly, but we surmise that it was different enough to cause the apostle alarm. “If anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed,” Paul says. Not ignored, not forgotten, not even left behind – but accursed.

Like the prophet Elijah, Paul is calling the people back to the one true God.

And in the story of the centurion and his slave from the Gospel of Luke, we have another set of gods at play. As a member of the Roman army, the centurion would have worshiped Jupiter, Apollo and Diana – among many others.

Now the centurion was well liked among the people in Capernaum. “He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us,” they tell Jesus.

The gospel writer tells us next to nothing about the centurion, not even his name. We do not hear that he converted to Judaism, or afterward followed Jesus. We are told simply that he loves God’s people. And notice carefully: Jesus and the centurion never encounter one another face-to-face. First, some elders come to Jesus, and later the centurion sends some friends to carry his message.

The message the centurion sends is a familiar one: Tell Jesus, “I am not worthy to have you come under my room; but only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”

For Jesus, this is enough to grant his request. The servant is healed.

The reason Jesus grants the request is clear: The centurion has described himself as “a man set under authority.” And the authority under which he sets himself in that of Jesus, not one of his own pagan gods.

So we have three very different contexts, three different writers, three different sets of characters – and one common theme: God who is true versus gods that are not.

Now, people’s involvement with and worship of false gods is as old as the hills. What has changed is the false gods we worship. Nowadays, our worship is not so much of the idols of Ba’al or the many gods of ancient Rome.  But make no mistake: There is more than one contrary gospel out there.

The false gospel of prosperity, for instance. This is very common in today’s world. It’s a belief that when we gain economic wealth, it is because God is rewarding us for our good behavior. And according to the proponents of this misguided theology, the behavior that God is most likely to reward just happens to be financial giving in support of some religious leader!

And the false gospel that the Apostle Paul was likely railing against: Gnosticism. Among the many tenets of this belief is a sense that salvation comes through our righteous works. Paul repeatedly preached against this deception, affirming that salvation is by grace, a divine gift. Our good works form a necessary part of Christian life, and they are pleasing to God – but they come as a response to the gifts of grace, not a means to earn them.

And then, for Christians, the most contrary gospel of all: the belief that the message is more about the messenger than the message. This is a tricky one, because we Christians do worship and adore Jesus Christ as an essential person of the Triune God. Yet, as our Presiding Bishop has said, Jesus asked us to follow him, not to worship him.

Now, Jesus is certainly our primary example for Christian living. But when he preached, he did not trumpet his own virtues. He never tells his disciples to “preach Jesus;” instead he instructs them to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

What Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God has drawn very near. It is imminent.

This kingdom of God was – and is – a very important construct for Jesus, as it should be for us.

The kingdom of God: the time and place where everyone in all the world becomes willingly subject to the one true God. The time and place when we will see the consummation of God’s justice, love and mercy. The time and place in which everyone will be valued, respected and cared for adequately.

It is a vision still unfulfilled, but still intensely compelling:

A world without hunger, without oppression, without sickness, without violence.

A world of peace, liberty and, yes, prosperity.

And a world in which these are not the standards enjoyed by a few, but the ethical basis of human rights for everyone.

The god of Ba’al has proved to be false, the teaching of the Gnostics has proved to be heresy and the gospel of prosperity has proved to be contrary to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

All these – and more – distract us from the core message of our savior Jesus: The kingdom of heaven has come very near you.

This is our hope. This is our salvation. This is our destiny.

So let us continue to bring this reality ever nearer. For the duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.

 

—The Rev. Dr. J. Barrington Bates is the author of sixteen essays published in scholarly journals, including “On the Search for the Authentic Liturgy of the Apostles: The Diversity of the Early Church as Normative for Anglicans,” in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Anglican Studies. He lives and writes in Jersey City, N.J.