A Surprising Faith
Belmont UMC—June 2, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Helen LaFrance was born in Kentucky in 1919. Though poor, her family did own a bit of land where they raised tobacco and cotton to sell, chickens and other farm animals, and vegetables for the table. They enjoyed a simple rural life of gathering with family, working hard and going to church. Helen’s family encouraged her to read and learn as much as she could. She only finished the eighth grade in school.
When Helen finished her chores and school work she was allowed to have free time and she spent that time doing the thing she loved most, drawing and painting. Her mother encouraged her and helped her make colors from dandelions, walnut bark, berries, and bluing. She would draw and paint on anything she could find, even left over wallpaper.
Helen was a memory artist, painting from memory the rural scenes from her childhood. Church scenes were among her favorite. She said, “Sometimes something gets on my mind and I try to paint it. I just try to tell the truth. I guess I’m just good at it because it’s what I like to do. I just thank the Lord that I have tried.”
In her 40’s Helen LaFrance finally made enough money to buy art supplies and began painting in between loading dried tobacco on conveyor belts in tobacco warehouses and cleaning offices. In 1986 she began painting full time.
For most of her life no one really paid much attention to Helen’s work, which is considered “outsider art.” Outsider art is art that is outside the mainstream; it is art done by those who are self taught. Along the way someone took an interest in Helen’s gifts and Helen LaFrance went from outsider artist to having a quite a following of collectors, that include Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumble. (Source: “Memory Painting: The Work of Helen LaFrance” Kathy Moses Shelton)
There is a large movement of those who collect “outsider art.” These persons are able to see the beauty and value where others cannot or have not.
The two main characters in our Gospel story today would be considered “outsiders” by their communities. It is a surprise to see them paired together in this way. One is a centurion, who would have been in the militia of Herod Antipas. He is likely a God-fearer, one of the non-Jews who were attracted to the Jewish faith because of its monotheism and ethics. Most God-fearers did not convert but attended Jewish services and kept the commandments. The centurion has contributed toward the building of the synagogue. He does not approach Jesus directly but sends Jewish leaders to plead for help. The Jewish leaders try to make the case for the value of this outsider. The Centurion is not a Jew; he is a Roman and a part of the oppressive Roman system. And yet here he is in our Gospel this morning, asking for Jesus’ help.
The slave would have been the ultimate outsider—someone who has been completely marginalized. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the first century in Israel would see value in this individual. The surprise of this story is that the slave owner becomes the voice of concern and compassion for his voiceless slave.
We know that Jesus sees the needs of the least and the last; that is clear throughout the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke. Jesus sees beauty and value where others cannot. We see him reaching out to the poor, to women, to children, to those who were wounded and ridiculed, to those who were ostracized and to those who suffer from mental and physical illnesses. Jesus sees beauty and value in each supposed outsider and he welcomes them into his circle of love and kinship.
But we are surprised by his response to the wealthy centurion. Maybe he is moved by the compassion of the centurion for his slave. Maybe he is moved by the centurion’s humility and vulnerability at making the request and yielding to another’s authority. In this outsider Jesus finds a surprising faith and the catalyst of another person’s healing. Jesus says of the centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus is saying, “This man gets it. This man knows God. This man sees others as God sees them—with value and beauty.”
The Centurion has faith in God who sees value and beauty in every human life—in those at the highest levels of society and those who are pushed to the margins and those mundane ordinary people in this world. God sees value and beauty in you and me and loves us beyond all that we could imagine.
It is faith in God who brings together these unlikely players in a story of healing. The Centurion becomes a surprising hero and advocate and this reminds us of another story that comes up in our lectionary cycle in July. In that story Jesus tells us a parable about a Good Samaritan. Luke tells us a story about a good Centurion.
In our human drama, at the point of great need, the lines between who is inside and who is outside are blurred. At the Boston Marathon bombing, people rushed to help each other and they did not stop to check their credentials, or party affiliation, or race, or status, or religious background, or nationality, or sexual orientation. They were moved by deep compassion for those in need. At the point of human need there are no outsiders and insiders. Should it not always be so?
The Centurion has faith in God who brings us together around the table where there are no outsiders, only family. Sometimes the folks who pull their chairs up to this table side by side and share the bread and the cup together are surprising pairs. But here we are all God’s children, equal in every way, and we come to receive the blessed gift of grace.
During the height of apartheid in South Africa, Reverend Ike Maloabi was picked up by security police and detained without trial. Peter Storey and another minister were allowed to visit him and they took Holy Communion. They were placed in a corner with a prison officer to watch them.
Since Methodist have an open table, Peter invited the officer to join them. After some hesitation, he accepted. Peter writes, “And Methodists always served the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters first, don’t we? So I passed the cup to Ike, and he drank. And Methodists would never take communion before offering it to the stranger in their midst, so the cup was naturally passed next to the prison officer. Now this white Afrikaner had a dilemma. He realized that if he wanted to receive the means of God’s grace, he would have to place his lips for the first time in his life on a cup from which a black man had just drunk. You have to come from South Africa to know what that means. After a long pause, he took the cup and he drank—and for the first time, I saw a hint of a smile on Ike’s face.” (With God in the Crucible, pp. 70-71) I suspect there was a smile on the face of God as well.
Our communion table is not very big, but it symbolizes a great banquet table so long and large that one cannot see to the end of it. Picture it in your mind’s eye (close your eyes if that helps your imagination). See the long table and try to see to the end of it as it disappears over the horizon. See the people sitting in chairs around the table. Some are in wheelchairs. I see a woman signing the words of the liturgy to her friend who is deaf. I see a young man who cannot see me for he is blind. He leans forward to smell the bread and the juice and the sweet aromas make him smile. He reaches out to gently touch the crust of the bread, the stem of chalice. I see people of every nation and race gathered side by side. I see families of all kinds and single folks and a young woman assisting an older woman to her chair. Little children are running around everywhere. I see a Roman centurion with his arm around his young slave.
And I see Jesus standing there. He’s walking back and forth and helping people find their seats and he’s smiling. He’s saying something, a word he keeps repeating over and over. Can you hear him? Listen, he’s saying, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful . . . .”