By Way of Introduction
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary
at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016
2 Kings 5:1-14 Luke 7:1-10
I like writing letters of recommendation. I was asked by one of our youth to write one this week. I have it here, and will give it to him in youth group tonight. But writing it got me thinking about all the letters I have written over the years. Letters for high school honor societies, college applications, scholarship submissions, character references for employers, or for court systems, social services, and on behalf of foster-parents-to-be.
I have a formula for writing a letter of recommendation or introduction, which is not to say that every letter is the same. I begin by saying how honored I am to have been asked to write on another’s behalf, and I always mean it, because it is an honor to be entrusted with saying something important about another’s character, their conscience and commitments. I then describe how long and in what capacity I have known this person – say six years as pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church. Perhaps we serve together on the church council; or learn together in youth group; or worked together on a tag sale; we may have marched together for farmworker justice, met around the table in bible study, book study, adult education; we may just have had a series of great conversations in which we shared our lives, thoughts, hopes, struggles. These are important contexts.
I then try to describe in detail three particular encounters I have had with this person, and the gifts they either brought to the table or contributions they made to the task we undertook together, or work I have seen them do. I might describe, for example, describe the quiet but firm resolve with which May Skoury chairs the board of our nursery school, or the intense curiosity Jackie Copeland has as a listener and learner in conversation, or the maturity and confidence of Alexis Barnes as an emerging leader in the youth group, or the dry humor and natural storytelling of Mike Doehring when leading worship, or the thoughtful attention and honest questions Tristan LeClere has brought this year to the church council. And I will give an example for each.
For example, Alice Pala is a reflective listener with a deep personal faith. She often sits through three-quarters of our adult education classes before speaking, but when she does it is memorable – summarizing our conversation and moving us forward. I remember our Lenten programs on mass incarceration, during which Alice vividly described (on week three) how we distance ourselves from those we fear – how we move away with our hearts and minds long before we move away from them physically. That’s an insight that is still feeding me. You get the idea.
In a final paragraph, I then connect the dots and describe how these gifts could be further nurtured by the college the student is applying for, or bring honor to the committee granting a scholarship, or benefit the employer, or reward the courts or agencies trust, or bring hope and security to a foster child.
I’m curious. In a time of need, who would you entrust to speak on your behalf, to recommend you at a critical point in your life, or to give you a letter of introduction?
It’s impressive that all of the action in our two scripture stories today takes place, if you will, by way of such recommendations and introductions.
Second Kings tells how Elisha the prophet cured Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, from leprosy. The cure came about at the suggestion of an Israelite sleep girl who served Naaman and his wife. This foreign military ruler, the enemy, comes into Ancient Israel with a letter of recommendation from his king, appealing for help. There is no direct contact between the prophet and the Syrian foreigner. Elisha simply issued instructions from within his house that the general was to go and bathe seven times in the river Jordan, an instruction that Naaman was initially very reluctant to carry out, because he wanted to deal with the prophet face-to-face, not through intermediaries. But it is through intermediaries and at a distance, that the cure in effected.
Luke describes Jesus’ cure of a Roman Centurion’s valued slave somewhat differently. Apparently afraid that Jesus will not respond to the request of a gentile, the centurion sends a delegation of Jewish elders to introduce him. “He seems to understand that he will need the help of his community if he is to convince Jesus to heal his servant.” The elders speak of this Roman not as a foreigner or military officer but as “a worthy man with a love of our people,” as a benefactor and builder of the local synagogue. Jesus is, of course, not only willing to heal the slave, but sets out immediately for this centurion’s home. But before he arrives Jesus is greeted by another delegation, this time made up of the centurion’s friends. They deliver a speech – in the first person – on his behalf, emphasizing his unworthiness to have the prophet in his home (and perhaps sparing Jesus the ritual impurity entailed in visiting a gentile home). The centurion claims to be, like Jesus, under authority, that is responsible to a higher authority – in his case, Roman; in Jesus’, divine. And then the climactic moment: “Only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.”
Though Jesus and the centurion never meet, we are told that Jesus recognizes this man’s faith. The friends return home and find the servant no longer terminally ill but in good health.
I don’t know about you, but whenever scripture tells me that Jesus saw the faith of another, I want to know what he actually saw. In this case, he saw a whole community, a diverse community of Jew and gentile, making an appeal on behalf of another in need, a man who recognized his need for help, respected the difference between Jew and gentile, indeed feared it, yet who reached out on behalf of his servant who was near death. If this is what Jesus sees, “the story challenges the perception that faith can ever remain a solitary endeavor.” Too often
we cling to a stoic sense of private faith that longs to call out to others for prayer at a bedside vigil or in moments of desperate need. Sometimes it is the simple burden of everyday life that urges us to call out to another. When we finally do reach out, too often we do so with a sense of shame or failure that our faith is not strong enough to go it alone. Indeed, [though] the roots of one’s faith are embedded deeply within the individual heart, … a lived faith must recognize itself as part of the world. We require the larger community, especially the community of faith, to hold us accountable. It is this faith that helps us to encounter the joys, challenges, and tragedies of life and reconcile the unpredictable nature of each with the grace of Jesus Christ.
So I’m still curious. In a time of need, who would you entrust to speak on your behalf, to recommend you at a critical point in your life, or to give you a letter of introduction?
The story is told a young evangelical in Indiana who had the audacity to approach a Mennonite farmer in front of his own home and ask him, “Brother, are you saved?” Wanting not to offend, as well as believing that this young person posing the question was of good will, he seriously considered how he might answer. After a long pause, the farmer asked his questioner for a pencil and paper and proceeded to list the names of ten people he believed knew him well. Most, he explained, were his friends but some were less than that and might even be enemies. He suggested that the evangelist ask these people whether they thought him saved since he certainly would not presume to answer such a question on his own behalf.
That is the kind of faith that our scripture stories invite us to this morning,
- radically trusting our spiritual lives to the community in which we live and work,
- letting our faith be judged by our public words and deeds,
- being honest about our needs, and our need for one another
- as well the gifts we can offer one another.
This is powerfully symbolized in the meal we are about to share. The Eucharist is not lunch. You cannot eat is alone. We call it communion because it is a meal that can only be eaten together. You cannot serve yourself, but must be served. And it is so much more than bread and juice. It is nothing less than Jesus’ gift to the church of his very self, which we receive in faith – meaning
- as a community,
- honestly offering our lives to God and one another
- and receiving back strength enough for the day.
Truly, may it teach us to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.” (which is the hymn we sang next…)
 Brendan Byrne, S.J., The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Liturgical Press, 2015.
 M. Jan Holton in Feasting on the Word. Year C, Volume 3.
 This story is related by Stanley Hauerwas in one of his books, though I’ve told the story so often I have forgotten which one.