Sunday, May 29, 2016

Beloved Communities

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is Luke 7:1-10. I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Memorial Day.


Years ago, my husband and I had a friend recently retired from an Army career. I remember him telling us about the psychological effects of military hierarchy. "You're obeying orders from your own commanding officers and giving orders to the people under you. Ideally, that chain of command keeps you humble and flexible. You're responsible to your superiors and responsible for your subordinates. The fact that there are people over you means you can't exaggerate your own importance, but the fact that there are people under you means that you can't minimize it, either."

I think of our friend every time I read about the Roman centurion in this morning's Gospel. "For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me." We've all heard far too many stories about people who use their authority -- privilege or power or money -- to exploit anyone lower on the ladder. But the Roman centurion cares for the people under him. I suspect that his own position as a subordinate plays into his compassion. If he were ill, he would want his commanding officers to seek healing for him; therefore, he will do the same for his slave. Without even meeting Jesus in person, he is already loving his neighbor as he loves himself.  

It's worth remembering that Roman centurions would not have been considered friends by many people in first-century Palestine. Yes, Jews were allowed to maintain their religion, but Romans were still the agents of oppression, occupation, and taxation, a situation that ultimately led to three major Jewish rebellions beginning in the year 66. And yet this centurion not only cares lovingly for his household slave, but has forged remarkable alliances with the Jewish community.  "He loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us," they tell Jesus.

In a setting deeply divided by military, political and religious conflict, the Roman centurion has created a taste of what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many years later, would call "the Beloved Community," where discrimination is “replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” In the Beloved Community, Dr. King said, disputes will be resolved peacefully, by conflict resolution and reconciliation rather than military power, and “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred."

This Utopian vision arose from Dr. King's principles of nonviolence. We aren't there yet, and the rare glimpses we get of this ideal world generally don't last. The Roman centurion's model of love and social harmony didn't sweep first-century Palestine; if it had, the rebellions wouldn't have happened. But the centurion proves that someone entrusted with military power and posted to occupied territory can still act in the service of love and reconciliation.  

On Memorial Day, we remember those who have served, and especially those who have been lost in military conflicts, including occupations. Our country has occupied many countries over the years. All of those occupations have produced stories both of compassionate soldiers -- who loved and served the people among whom they lived -- and others who ruled, and were ruled, by fear and force. Even at its worst, though, occupation offers a chance for people from very different backgrounds to form relationships. If that Roman centurion had been a drone operator, he never would have learned to love the Jewish community.

My nephew is in the Navy, serving on an aircraft carrier. The Navy has announced that his ship will soon be deployed to the Persian Gulf. Before he enlisted, he researched military jobs and decided that being on a carrier is one of the safest, because carriers are protected by cruisers and destroyers far from combat fronts. I'm very relieved that he'll be in a relatively secure position, but I'm also troubled that he'll be surrounded by what he already knows, living in a bubble of other American military personnel. He is far less likely to die than he would be in the Marines or the Army, but he's also less likely to change his mind about other people, or have the chance to change their minds about him. All of us seek safety and familiarity, but they can become barriers to relationship, preventing the Beloved Community Dr. King described.

In fact, I learned about the Beloved Community from a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, about the unexpected moments of social utopia that often arise after disasters like 9/11 or Katrina. Our media and entertainment teach us to view such events as unleashing the worst in human nature, rampaging mobs that loot and pillage, but that's rarely what actually happens. Instead, people extend helping hands and work together, often overcoming preconceptions about one another in the process.

During Katrina, my father lived four blocks from the water in Ocean Springs, a hard-hit section of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When I visited him that Christmas, three months after the storm, everyone had a story. One of my favorites is from our friend Darlene, an art teacher in an at-risk school.  The Friday before the storm, she'd gone to school to get her classroom ready for the start of school the following week. She decorated the room with old students' artwork, to inspire her new students, and left a to-do list on one corner of her desk.

That weekend, the storm hit, and Darlene’s school became a National Guard barracks. A few weeks later, Darlene went to look at her classroom. "I thought it would be a mess," she told me.  "After all those young military guys had been staying there, I was sure the place would be trashed." Instead, everything was immaculate. The floor was swept. Darlene’s to-do list was in the same spot she had put it before the storm. And the National Guardsmen had covered the blackboard with notes telling the students how beautiful their artwork was. That occupying force, feared even though it wasn’t foreign,  truly had come to love and serve.

What does any of this have to do with us, here, today?  And what does it have to do with God?  As Christians, all of us are -- as the old Hebrew National commercial put it -- subject to a higher authority. Our service to that higher authority takes the form of loving and serving our neighbors, including anyone over whom we have real or perceived power:  our employees, our children, anyone who performs work for us in any capacity.  

Because we have not yet achieved Dr. King's Beloved Community, we also live and work in places divided by highly contested differences:  between religions, ethnicities, political beliefs, levels of income and education.  All of us are parts of chains, if not of command, then of privilege and prestige. It can be tempting to retreat into bubbles, spots of safety where everyone's like us, to try to protect ourselves from conflict. But when we do that, we shortcut the possibility of achieving, even for a fleeting moment, the Beloved Community.

Here's one last example for you, more explicitly about God. Eric Heidecker, whom many of you know, told me this story. Most of us remember the controversy surrounding the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 2003, the gathering where that election was ratified, Gene Robinson needed bodyguards, because he'd received death threats.

One day during the convention, Eric arrived at the convention center in Minneapolis and saw an ambulance parked outside. He immediately feared that someone had acted on the threats to hurt Gene Robinson. But Robinson was fine. The patient was one of his bodyguards, who was having heart-attack symptoms triggered by the stress of his job. Bishop Robinson sat with the bodyguard during the ambulance ride, and stayed with him at the hospital, and held his hand, and prayed with him.  The threat to Robinson’s safety became a chance for him to embody the love of God by serving the man who was being paid to serve him.  

I wonder if Robinson thought of the Roman centurion during that ambulance journey. May all of us think of him the next time we feel a conflict between being responsible to the authorities we serve, and being responsible for the fellow humans who serve us.


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