I remember the rose-colored sandstone enclosing us on all sides as we walked through a deep narrow gorge. And I recall the astounding sight that met us at the end of the path: the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, with temples and tombs, amphitheaters and everyday dwellings, all carved into the face of the rock itself. Tired, and thirsty, we paused for a break at lunchtime: perching on the smooth stones, we unwrapped the sandwiches we had packed and took long slugs from our water bottles. Our guide, a kind Jordanian man, dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, his head wrapped in a red checkered keffiyeh, stood a ways off from us, patiently waiting while we ate and drank. It was Ramadan, and he was fasting from sun-up to sundown. As we finished our meal, and continued with the tour, a few of us approached him, apologetically.
“We’re sorry to eat in front of you. Don’t you get thirsty, with all this walking?” He simply smiled, and shrugged, and said graciously, “It’s OK. I’m used to it.” Until I took this trip to Israel/ Palestine in college, I knew nothing about Islam. I found myself completely impressed by our guide’s humble, faithful discipline in keeping his fast. I marveled at how this commitment, this challenge, seemed to shape him, to ground him in strength and peace. That day, the stones of Petra itself amazed me, but so did the faith of our Muslim guide.
This encounter came to mind as I reflected on today’s Gospel story, particularly this verse: “When Jesus heard [the words of the centurion] 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.’” Thaumazo, the word used to describe Jesus’ amazement, usually depicts the astonishment that fills others as they encounter Jesus and witness his ministry. Here, the tables are turned, and Jesus himself is the one who is filled with wonder. Jesus was in Capernaum, a diverse and cosmopolitan city. The elders of the synagogue there seemed to have an enlightened viewpoint on religious and cultural differences. They were eager to cultivate mutually beneficial relationships with the force that occupied their people. When Jesus came to town, they saw an opportunity. They urged him to help a solider who had acted as a benefactor for the Jewish community. They said, “He is worthy of having you do this for him.” Perhaps they saw it as a trade of sorts—the soldier’s money and protection in exchange for the restoration of the slave’s health. The elders believed the centurion was entitled to a special favor from Jesus, that he deserved this healing miracle. But that’s not at all how the centurion saw things. Whereas the elders called him “worthy” of Jesus’ attention, he named himself “unworthy” to have Jesus visit his home.
This powerful, rich soldier sent his friends to meet Jesus on the road, to tell him he did not need to come all the way to his house. Maybe he wanted to avoid putting Jesus in an awkward position. But perhaps he was also trying to make clear where his allegiance lay. As a soldier of Rome, he had sworn to uphold a social hierarchy of exploitation with ultimate loyalty given to the emperor, who claimed to be a god. But instead, the centurion chose to publically humble himself before the God revealed in the ministry of Jesus. In so doing, he declared Rome to be an idol and he demonstrated faith in something radically different. No wonder Jesus was amazed and impressed with this man and his faith. The centurion understood a truth the religious leaders had somehow grown distant from. God’s healing presence is a gift. It isn’t something we earn, or deserve. It’s not a commodity that’s under our ownership or control. It cannot be traded as a favor. It can only be received and shared.
In the children’s book, The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst, twins Liza and Jeremy awaken one night, frightened, in the middle of a thunderstorm.
Mom said, “You know we’re always together, no matter what.” “But how can be together when you’re out here and we’re in bed?” said Liza. “People who love each other are always connected by a very special string made of love,” Mom explained. “Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love.” “Would it reach me even if I were a submarine captain deep in the ocean?” asked Jeremy. “Yes,” Mom said, “even there.” “Or a mountain-climber? ” “Even there. ” “A ballerina in France?” “Even there.” Then Jeremy quietly asked, “Can my string reach all the way to Uncle Brian in Heaven?” “Yes… even there.’”
“Does the string go away when you’re mad at us?” “Never,” said Mom. “Love is stronger than anger, and as long as love is in your heart, the String will always be there. Even when you get older and can’t agree about things like what movie to see…or who gets to ride in the front seat…or what time to go to bed. Oh, that’s right! You two should be in bed!” And with that, they all laughed as Mom chased the twins back to their beds. Within a few minutes, they were asleep even though the storm was still making the same loud noises outside. As they slept, they started dreaming of all the Invisible Strings they have, and the Strings their friends have, and their friends have, and their friends have, until everyone in the world was connected by Invisible Strings.
Healing faith is not a cure for all that ails us. It is the capacity to live as if we are connected to one another and to God by those invisible strings. It is the gift that comes to us when we let ourselves be held in that intricate web of love. We become well when we are bound to the source of life rather than severed from it. We are healed when we trust in God instead of seeking security in idols of our own making. The centurion and Jesus never actually came face to face. There were divides between them that could not be dissolved: Roman and Jew; man of privilege and peasant; soldier and Prince of Peace. And yet they both trusted that God could work across these differences, that divine love connected them in some mysterious and amazing way.
Safwat Marzouk, an Egyptian Christian and professor, writes about today’s Gospel passage and what it has to say about living in a religiously diverse world. He explains:
Some people’s firm grounding in their own articulation of faith leads them to reject those who believe otherwise; others are willing to give up on any peculiarity of a tradition in the interest of tolerance. Both approaches make interreligious or ecumenical dialogue difficult, for different reasons. The first approach blocks dialogue by assuming there is no chance that others hold some truth or goodness in their conviction…. The second approach blocks dialogue by assuming that tolerance happens only through focusing on what is common and shared. This reduces each person’s faith to a set of universal values, leading to a sort of subtle reductionist aggression toward both traditions…. When people take both their own faith and the other person’s faith seriously, when they find healthy ways to both cross boundaries and maintain them, then they can turn their differences into a source of theological enrichment. They can join together to bring healing, well-being, and peace to our broken world.
This week, we learned of an opportunity to be part of one such act of healing and peace. Amid a disturbing increase of prejudice, exclusion, and hate crimes against our Muslim neighbors, Christian communities are scheming, with the support of the MN Council of Churches, to make a public show of our support and solidarity. This year, Ramadan begins at sunset on June 5. It lasts for one month, until July 5. Thanks to the efforts of our summer intern, Ela Hefler, next Sunday, we will have signs ready to place in the church lawn, and ready for you to pick up for your yard and your neighbor’s yard. They will say, “To our Muslim Neighbors: Blessed Ramadan.” Sometimes it takes an outsider to amaze us again, to cause us to wonder at this gift of healing faith that is ours, to prompt us to marvel at the wellness that flows from God made flesh in Jesus Christ. Amen.