Only Speak the Word
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 2, 2013
In our scripture reading this morning, the slave of a Roman Centurion has fallen ill and is close to death. The Centurion, hearing about Jesus, sends a series of messengers to him. First he sends some Jewish elders to explain that although he is Roman and thus an enemy of the Jewish people, he is worth helping because he has always treated the Jews well and has, in fact, helped to build the local synagogue. Jesus agrees, and sets out for the home of the Roman. The Centurion next sends some of his friends to speak with Jesus while he is still far from the house. They speak directly, in the first person, as the Roman’s personal representatives, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my slave be healed.”
I don’t know about you, but this first person speech is so powerful that I need to be reminded that the Centurion never appears in the story. Everything is done with words. The Centurion is present through his words, and the words accomplish his purpose – Jesus agrees to help him. Jesus speaks a word, and his word accomplishes his purpose – the slave is healed.
Now the context for Luke Chapter 7 is Luke Chapter 6. In Luke Chapter 6 Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, blessing those who are poor, hungry our mourning, and announcing woes for the rich, the satisfied and the mocking. He said that those who love their friends already have their reward, but that his followers should love their enemies, do good, lend without expectation of return, refrain from judgment, practice forgiveness, and “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” And Jesus concluded the sermon by saying, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.”
The Centurion is Exhibit A.
For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’
In other words, Jesus expects us to put his words into practice.
Our scripture is full of reminders that we live, truly live, only by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The psalmist cries “Speak to me that I might live,” and Jeremiah declares “Thy words, O God, were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart.” (Jer. 15:16) The long suffering Job, clinging fiercely to his God, stated the basis of his hope this way “Neither have I gone back from the commandments of God’s lips; I have esteemed the words of God’s mouth more than my necessary food.” (Job 23: 12). And our Centurion confesses in faith, “Only speak the word and he shall live.” But we have to seek the word.
Sometime a particular word can help us hear God’s word to us. In the fourth and fifth century, it was the tradition of pilgrims who came to the remote hermitages of the Desert Father and Mothers to greet the holy one by saying, “Please give me a word by which to live.” – Here is a contemporary parable about what such an encounter might look like.
A pilgrim came to Amma Ananda requesting word by which to I’ve. Amma gave her the word “Ah.” The seeker pronounced that simple syllable, and in a flash her heart opened to the wonder at the heart of life. The pilgrim walked away repeating the word, sensing awe in even the most commonplace wonders she passed along the way.
To another pilgrim, Amma said, “You’re lucky! Today, you get a bonus, for I’m giving you two words: thank you.”
The pilgrim was disappointed and said, “Amma, did I come all the way to be given so common an expression? How can this everyday phrase be a word of life?”
She answered him, “I assure you, if you make thank you your constant prayer word, you will find life in great abundance.”
To one particularly creative and adventurous pilgrim who had made a long and arduous journey to the hermit’s cave, Amma Ananda gave a small leather box, saying, “Here is a special ‘word’ for you.” The pilgrim opened the small box and to her surprise found inside the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Amma responded to the astonished look on the pilgrim’s face by saying, “With this tool kit the Word can inspire you to form just the right word for every life situation.”
Amma’s response to (yet) another pilgrim’s request for a word was simply to sit in silence. After about half and hour the pilgrim complained, “Amma, I have traveled a great distance earnestly desiring to hear from you a word by which to live, yet you say nothing!” As the disgruntled pilgrim rose to leave, Amma took a piece of paper and wrote on it. Then she folded the paper and handed it to the pilgrim. He unfolded the paper and read the message, “Silence will teach you how to live.” The pilgrim silently bowed to Amma and left the cave.
This story is an invitation to prayer. It asks us to consider what word God speaks to us today, what word we need in order to live. God speak to us as a congregation, of course, but I want to ask each of you as individuals, as mothers and fathers, as children and siblings, as teachers and doctors and lawyers and farmers, as people seeking work, or retired, as students, what word do you need to restore or strengthen your connection with the mystery at the center of life? What word do you need as a deacon, a good friend, in the midst of a season of grief, hope, or discernment, in order to live?
This morning, at the font, Ben heard God speak the word: “mine.” I would invite you, like the pilgrims to Amma Ananda, to seek a word for your spiritual journey. And when you have found it, mediate on the word, use it in prayer, watch for it in liturgy and song, catch its nuances in public use. I was invited to do this once as part of an Advent discipline. I was presented with hundred of words, including peace, come, welcome, yearn, desire, prepare. The season of Lent might have suggested words like watch, listen, weep, forgive, and another season might have lifted up justice, reconciliation, offer, give, hope. I chose the word presence to accompany me through the four weeks of Advent. I have kept it ever since as a word to use when I don’t know what else to pray for. I sit in God’s presence, I offer my presence to God, and to others. I attend to the places I have missed God’s presence during the day. I wonder why others do not feel the same presence.
This (holding my bear) is Remember, my build-a-bear. He sits on the bookshelf in my office watching over me as I work at my desk. I once said in a sermon that my favorite word in the Bible was remember,
Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.
Remember and keep all my commandments.
Do this in remembrance of me.
A week later this little guy appeared as a gift, a reminder to remember.
My friends, God has a word for you. I invite you to ask God for it, and when you hear it, to use it in prayer for a week, for a month. In doing so you will fulfill the words of Jesus, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a man who built a house upon rock; the floods came and the winds blew and beat against the house, but it did not fall; it was founded on rock. (Matt 7:24).
 Edward Hays (1999) The Ladder: Parable Stories for Ascension and Descension Kansas: Forest of Peace Publishing.