Reading Luke 7.1-7
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Before I started doing what I do now, I used to do something else. I worked for the National Coal Board, one of Britain’s long-gone nationalised industries, in the Industrial Relations Department. This used to go down well at parties – a bit like saying you’re in the Royal Marines – because people thought I was grappling daily with the National Union of Mineworkers, who were then the storm troopers of the labour movement. In fact, I worked in a building that overlooked the back garden of BuckinghamPalace, and the most I grappled with was a biro. Our office monitored the mineworkers’ productivity scheme. We crunched numbers and wrote reports, and it was hard to believe that anything I did had the power to affect things on a coal face deep down in Yorkshire or South Wales.
Some days, I would see through my window a person whose job seemed to have everything that mine lacked. Two busy roads converged outside, and when the traffic snarled up a police officer would come to unsnarl it. He (and it always was a he) would approach on his BMW motorbike, which he would park slap in the middle the road. He would dismount, magnificent in long leather boots (with oversize zip up the back) helmet with police badge and flash, and big biker’s gauntlets.
He would stride into the middle of the traffic, and for half an hour, he would rule the world. He would wave on the traffic imperiously for a while, and then it would be as though he took a dislike to a particular vehicle: he would point, raise his hand and, whether it was a moped or a juggernaut, it would coast meekly to a stop. And I would look at him and think, ‘That’s power: he says to one “Go,” and it goes, to another “Come,” and it comes; and to another “Turn,” and behold, it turns.’
The traffic cop is a figure that the centurion in the gospel would recognise. One is a soldier occupying a country on behalf of a dictatorship, the other upholds the law in a democracy, yet both of them are enforcers: they can make people do things, whether they want to or not. Each wears a uniform of authority, and can back up his authority with force: the soldier has a sword on his hip, the police officer has a truncheon, and (even back in 1981) a firearm is only a radio message away.
The centurion is used to directing the traffic of other people’s lives – he can order his servant to clean his kit – but now his servant is sick he can’t order him to get better; even the Roman military machine has its limits. And it is because of this that he makes approaches to Jesus, who seems to lack everything that the soldier has. Jesus wears peasant homespun; he is not into power dressing. He commands no troops, but has just a ramshackle group of followers who are free to leave whenever they like, and often do the opposite of what he tells them. But the soldier sees in this peasant another person of authority, of power; not the centurion’s power to coerce, but power of another kind.
And so he does this brave thing: it’s as if he takes off his uniform, and climbs out of his armour. He puts himself in the hands of the peasant, shows himself not as a person in power, but as a person in need. And Jesus turns to his followers and says, ‘That’s faith. That is what it all this is about. I haven’t found faith like that among you; not in Israel.’
Now, you and I have power. Each of you has an area of life where you have some. It may be looking after children; it may be controlling a lot of money or people, making decisions that affect lives; it may be caring for someone who is sick or frail, or looking after a pet. It may be at home, at work, at school: somewhere where you say, I am the one who has to direct the traffic here. And the question is, without ceasing to be who you are, without cutting and running from your responsibilities, without pretending you are not good at things you are good at, can you say, ‘There are things here I can’t handle alone, and I need help.’
For many people, the world’s a boasting match that you have to compete in – ‘Yes, I can do that. No problem. Leave it with me,’ when you are saying inwardly, ‘How am I ever going to do that?’ Here, though, we can be real. Here, God asks of us not that we hide our power, or run from our responsibility, but that we step out of our armour for just an hour, and admit, ‘I cannot do it all, not in my own strength.’
The structure of this service helps us to do that. Soon after we arrive, comes the Confession: a moment to admit, Sometimes I get things wrong. Later on come the prayers of intercession: a moment to admit, I cannot meet the needs of others on my own. And as we do this, God begins to build us up, assuring us that we are forgiven, promising to honour our prayers, nourishing us through the scripture readings and through the bread and wine of the Holy Communion, when we physically take into ourselves what God has to offer us, fuel for the soul. And then, our strength renewed, God tells us, ‘Go…to love and serve.’
A healthy pattern of life and worship we can see as following the shape of a letter S: S theory of worship we move from ‘Power’ to ‘Need’, from being copers to admitting that we can’t entirely cope; then God refreshes us and sends us out again, replenished and recharged, for the week ahead. Then, next Sunday, the pattern repeats. That is the theory. And to help it happen, we need to step out of our armour, and make the centurion’s words our own:
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you,
but only say the word, and I shall be healed.
The ‘S’ theory of worship adapted from The Dynamics of Religion, Bruce Reed, DLT, 1978.