I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple.
Stephen F. Austin. Darrell K. Royal. “Kinky” Friedman. George W. Bush. Troy Aikman.
What do these famous individuals all have in common? If you said they’re all famous for contributions to Texas history, you’d be right. Yet despite their fame in the Lone Star State, none of them were born in Texas. This story holds true for many other famous “Texans.” That’s how I knew I had a shot in Texas as an Alabamian; perhaps I was born with an advantage if some of the biggest contributors weren’t actually born here, either. Again and again “outsiders” have come to Texas and made a undeniable impact.
This week my sermon series on the colors of Mardi Gras brings me to green, representing faith. Matthew 8 tells us simultaneously one of the most encouraging and most unsettling stories of faith found in Scripture. As he enters Capernaum Jesus encounters a centurion who asks that his paralyzed servant be healed. When Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s home to heal the servant, the centurion answers with a stunning confession of faith: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”
While possibly encouraging to some of his listeners, Jesus surely shook everyone within earshot to their core by answering, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Pay attention to the details here, folks. Some present may have been encouraged but all were shaken because this was the last thing anyone expected. Jesus, a Jewish teacher followed by Jews, places the crown of faith on a centurion. The supplicant here is an outsider as a Gentile, but much more of an outsider than a non-Texan who becomes a famous Texan. He’s a centurion, loyal to Rome and the face of that which oppresses the Jewish nation. Furthermore, some scholars have looked to the original Greek to posit that there was a pederastic (adult male to adolescent male) sexual relationship between them. While I can’t see enough evidence for such a definitive claim, we’re kidding ourselves if we think the crowd didn’t have such an offense to Jewish morals on their mind given its frequent occurrence among Roman authority figures. With all of this background, Jesus still says what he does about the man’s faith. But he doesn’t stop there, in essence declaring that many like this man will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven while many who are “from here” and “belong here” will be excluded.
This story is indicative of how God works on the whole. Faith in Jesus comes from unexpected places to tell us unexpected things. Simply put, if we’re going to follow the Jesus who recognized the centurion’s faith we’re going to have to be okay with being uncomfortable at times. In fact, if your faith never shakes you to your core, I’m positive you aren’t always following Jesus because our cores need shaking. Like the centurion, we are all born as outsiders to the Kingdom. It’s far too easy to let feelings of what might be called spiritual nativism take hold now that we’ve been welcomed in. This is exacerbated for those of us who grew up in Christian homes or a nation which some have declared to be “Christian” in origin. If we allow ourselves to fall into thinking faith can only be recognized in people “from here” and should only tell us things we already know, we may miss out on experiencing and learning from the kind of faith that catches Jesus’ attention.