They are coming to cut down the trees. Hollies and poplars stand at the back of my yard, and men are coming to cut them down. They say that it is to protect the power lines beyond them, but these trees could never reach those lines. If there were a danger, I would understand, but the only danger is to the trees.
Perhaps it is a mistake. Or perhaps the people doing this work, on behalf of Duke Power, are paid by the tree, and so they see all trees as threats. I don’t know. I can’t tell.
I do not see these hollies and poplars as threats. I see them as beautiful and alive and belonging as much to themselves as to me. Despite their beauty, and age (the hollies are large for their kind, but not large enough to reach the lines, not tall enough to do harm), men will be coming soon to cut them down.
It feels like the sort of thing that happens these days. People come, viewing the world through a lens so different from mine that I may as well be an alien, coming from a strange world or emerging like Cthulhu from the ancient mud of the seafloor. They do not value the things I value, or respect the people I value, and I have no frame of reference to communicate with them, no power to stop them, not really.
One evening soon, I will return to my home and look across to see nothing but stumps, or the odd mutilated shapes of trees that have been cut back, tops gone, limbs truncated, flat topped and disgraced, waiting for disease to set into the exposed cuts.
If I protest, nothing will change. This is not the first time that men with saws and forms have come and left notices in my mail or hanging on my door.
Have I failed them, these trees? Or have I failed the people who will cut them back? Should I be raising hell, protesting, complaining, demanding that they appreciate the beauty of the trees and the measure of the distance between the power lines and them? Should I fight to make these people see the value of something more than dollars and rules?
Lines of power are odd things. At least those near my house are lines that I can see. Still, they do less harm and carry less power than the lines I cannot see, the lines that lead these saw wielding puppets to my property, damaging things that will do them no harm, but that will give them profit.
Tomorrow, or soon, they come for the trees, and I do nothing. What will they come for next?
For a Roman centurion to take an interest in local religious observances was not strange. Rome worshiped many gods, a pantheon, and Roman soldiers came from all over the empire. We don’t know this man’s place of origin. It is possible that he was already familiar with the Jews before he ever became a soldier.
Whatever gods Roman had given him, he also recognized the God of the Jews, either instead of the gods of Rome or in addition to them. Luke’s Gospel does not make the claim that the centurion was Jewish. More likely he fit the category of ‘God-fearer’, a gentile who acknowledged the Jewish God and followed some manner of observance of Jewish custom. He was an outsider looking into the faith community.
The story has echoes of another one, an older one from 2 Kings 5:1-19, of Naaman, the Syrian, who came to Elisha, the Jewish prophet, to be healed. In a reversal of roles from Luke’s story, Naaman, who is also a military commander, is the one who is sick and a slave urges him to trust the power of the prophet Elisha in Israel. In another reversal, Naaman, himself a man with authority, does not recognize the power in the prophet’s instruction but expects a more magical approach.
There is also an echo of the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33. As Jacob’s powerful brother drew near, Jacob sent servants and gifts ahead of him to smooth the way. As Jesus is approaching this centurion’s home, the man sends groups of friends to do the same. Jacob meets his brother and receives a blessing, but the centurion (like his servant) receives a blessing before even meeting Jesus.
Any fool can come to obey authority. It takes wisdom to recognize true power.
Of course, authority has often been the trouble with religion. Jesus welcomed everyone at his table. He healed outsiders, touched people who were despised, preached forgiveness and inclusion. We who claim to follow Jesus often condemn and exclude, despise those who leave blemishes on our clean pews, and send the outsiders away. Of the few we invite to our table, many feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, and judged. Not that Christians are alone. Followers of every religion in the world have given outsiders plenty of reason not to come in, and given plenty of insiders reasons to leave.
We should beg forgiveness. All of that is only the imposition of authority, and it has nothing at all to do with true power. Most authority is exercised by those who fear losing it, while real power comes from love.
When he sees that his slave is sick, the centurion sends a message to Jesus, who happens to be in town. (The plainest reading of the second chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, tells us that Jesus had a home in Capernaum.) Perhaps this Roman had heard stories about Jesus, or perhaps he had witnessed a miracle himself. We do not know. It is possible that they had met, though Luke does not tell us so. We are told that this centurion had servants and means. He is credited with having built the local synagogue and with having grateful friends among the Jewish elders.
Like any good soldier, he has a plan. He does three things that taken separately are straightforward but that taken together are remarkable. He recognizes his opportunity — Jesus entering the town at his moment of need — and he seizes it. Second, he bases his action on his faith, whereas most of us use faith like toppings on ice cream — something sprinkled on top at the end. Third, he shows that he understands the difference between magic and true power — that the authority Jesus possesses comes from who he is, not from any ritual that needs to be performed, and that true power has a long reach.
A Roman soldier would have appreciated the long reach of power. In other gospel stories, people beg Jesus to come to them, to touch them, to perform some manner of ritual to cure them. Nearness and touch are part of their religious understanding — it is a faith of small distances, a near field understanding of power. The centurion suggests that true power is more like gravity — pervasive, continuous, unseen, but always touching everything.
We are often touched by things that come from far away: light from the sun, the words of a poet who died centuries before we were born, the gravity of memory. Open a drawer to find an object belonging to a loved one long gone — his glasses, her locket — and we are touched once again by the ones we have loved. Modern science posits the possibility that quantum particles may be connected over vast distances. Poets and theologians have known something of the same sort for thousands of years.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” People love to argue over this passage. Hold on, though, and don’t turn away just yet — past all the arguments, there may be something useful here, something practical.
It’s no surprise that Christians have argued over this Jesus saying. Christians argue over so many other passages, so many other notions, so many other lines in the sand. The world around us, and sometimes the world within us, is full of lines, walls, cracks, divides, most of them no more real or substantial than the edge of a cloud. People push other people away, or draw them closer, all for their relative positions, their ideas, their sexuality, their color, their religion or absence of one, their poverty or wealth, their education or ignorance.
None of it is particularly useful.
Oh, there are all sorts of theological arguments and ideas, if you are inclined to that sort of thing. Much of it comes down to who has power and authority over whom, which seems to miss the point. For instance, was the power of forgiveness or the power to withhold it given only to the twelve (or the eleven who were left after Judas) and so by implication limited to their spiritual descendants, the ordained priests who claim to trace their line unbroken through the patchy bits of history to the select few who received the Spirit of God from Christ himself? Or is this forgiveness (or lack of it) tied solely to baptism, somehow limited to entrance into the Church? Or is Jesus talking about sins committed prior to baptism or those that follow it? And what sort of sin is he talking about, and just what constitutes a sin anyway…?
You see why I say none of it is useful. Nothing in those arguments will get us through a dark night of the soul. There is nothing that would even brighten a cloudy afternoon. It is like giving a thirsty child a cup of honey — it’s very nice, but it won’t help.
Wait it a moment, though. How about this idea of retaining and forgiving, holding and releasing? There might be something useful in there.
How about the burdens we carry? You know, the ones we hold onto. And how about sin, however we understand it (it’s a bit like the famous definition of pornography — we know it when we see it), our own and that of others? We don’t really need to define sin to know it. Or experience it. Or regret it. Or do it, whether it is against God, or against other people, or against ourselves.
Burdens. Sins. Short fallings. Disappointments. Mistakes. Regrets. Injuries. Loss. I don’t know yours, and anyway yours are probably different than mine. We all have them, all of these things, in different measures and degrees and times, but we all have them.
This gospel claims that God empowers people to hold onto these burdens or to lay them down. More than that, it claims that this Spirit of God empowers people to help someone else do the same thing — to let go, to lay down a burden, or perhaps the opposite, to hold onto something precious, to carry a responsibility, to keep a shoulder to the wheel.
After all, the things we carry are not always burdens, and laying something down is not always freedom.
And who gets such power to hold or to release, to forgive or to be forgiven? Well, in this gospel, Jesus was talking to everyone who was there. He breathed the Spirit of God onto everyone present. There is no list of names, no picking this one but not that one. They are just called οἱ μαθηταὶ (mathetai, from the same word that gives us “mathematics”, or ‘that which is learned’.) These are the disciples, all who were there, without limitation.†
Jesus breathed onto his followers so that they might breathe in the Spirit of God. It is the image and symbol of God breathing life into the world all over again — a creation story, a new beginning. It’s a love story. It’s the miracle of forgiveness and of healing, the Easter story of God-whom-we-killed returning to fill us with the life that imbues all creation.
It is the power of letting go of what needs to be let go. It is the power of holding on to what needs to be kept and carried. And it is for everyone, the very breath of God.
† From this same Gospel, compare John 8:31-32: Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Why is this miracle so popular—the feeding of a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee? It is the miracle found in all four of the gospels, and it is odd that this one claims such attention. Jesus makes blind people see, heals people with a touch or a word, even brings the dead back to life, and we gloss over the details. Let him feed a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we keep talking about it.
Only one other miracle holds our attention this way—Jesus walking on the water of the same sea. Even raising Lazarus from the dead doesn’t seem to hold our imaginations so strongly. Yes, we talk about the resurrection of Jesus, but not in this way, and we tend to put that resurrection story in a category by itself. Ask any child in Christendom to tell about the miracles Jesus performed, and she will tell you about the loaves and the fishes and about walking on water.
We get it, on some level. The tale of feeding the multitudes fills our own hunger for security, addresses our fears that our own needs will not be met. In gathering the people, Jesus is our mother. In giving them food, he is our father.
It’s a story of comfort, needfulness, shelter. Something deep within us responds, seeing our simplest, basic needs of rest and food being met by the image of God. This is not a God of the heavens or of distant thrones or fire and thunder. This is God choosing to be present in the sharing of a simple meal.
This is God demonstrating the divine in the commonplace. It is epiphany in breadcrumbs.
As to walking on the water, who would not wish to do such a thing? We would revel like children in such a power, to feel our bare feet supported by the waves.
We suspect that our lives are ephemeral, shifting around us like water. If only we could learn to rest in the currents that we fear will drown us, to trust in the continuity of change to support us, then merely walking on water would seem a simple thing.
Perhaps it is no mystery as to why we tell each other the stories of these two miracles, no mystery as to why we treasure them above so many others. A blind man who sees is wonderful, and we sense that in some times and some ways each of us is blind. A sick person is healed, and we realize that any of us may succumb to illness. We accept that death comes to each of us, unless a chariot of fire comes to Elijah us away. Strangely, none of that is a match for our present awareness of the transience of life, or for our denial enabling us to imagine we are walking on solid ground.
All of us respond to hunger. All of us need rest. All of us need to feel that we are standing and not sinking.
It is no miracle that we tell these stories. It is only human.
Having these stories to tell? That is a God thing.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
The Other Side
He was tired. He must have been.
He tried to take some time off, to lead his friends and followers on a retreat, out in the wilderness away from it all, but when they got to the spot they found that everyone had gotten there ahead of them.
It was a little like going to Yellowstone to enjoy nature only to find bus loads of tourists everywhere you go. And these people haven’t come to look at the bears. They’ve come by the bus load with the sole purpose of finding you.
It was the same wherever Jesus went, first one crowd and then another. He took a boat, aiming to land at a nice secluded spot, but it’s hard to hide a boat on the water and the people came, a great throng of them, to find him.
I would have been irritable, cross, put out. If Jesus was, he covered it well. He seemed to reflect that while he had sailed to this unplanned rendezvous, these thousands of people had walked the long way round to find him. He saw that they needed it so badly, wanted it so much. So instead of leading a retreat for a few friends, he led one for a few thousand folk, talking to them, even managing to feed them.
Jesus tried again. After he had dismissed the people, some of them no doubt lingering while he urged them to head home, he sent his friends back across the water in the boat.
There they were, his friends, out on the Sea of Galilee. The story says that he had gone up on a mountain where he could probably see their progress. He was trying for some alone time. Maybe he got a little rest before the storm rolled in.
He watched the cloud line, felt the wind, watched the waves grow, and he knew that his friends would be afraid. People who know nothing about the water can be afraid of it. People like some of his friends, lifelong boatmen and fisherfolk, know enough to be terrified of what a sudden squall can do to them.
And he saved them, of course. It’s a famous story. Jesus walked on the stormy water, in the semidarkness of the early hours, and he calmed the storm and joined them in the boat.
There are some odd details.
For one thing, the story says that he meant to pass them by. We can’t quite tell whether he meant to pass by unseen or to pass by so that they would see him—probably the former. Never mind how he was managing to walk on the water. For another thing, Mark’s Gospel says that when he got into the boat, the wind ceased, without being clear as to whether it was cause and effect or happenstance, though we are inclined to see another miracle. Of course, this miracle meant that the rest of them had to start rowing.
When they reached the other shore, people recognized Jesus and started bringing crowds and fetching sick relatives, expecting Jesus to heal them. One might imagine a doctor finally opening a clinic in a remote valley of Appalachia. The people brought their sick and put them on mats, in the streets where Jesus would pass, in the marketplaces of their villages. It must have been a sight, and an unsettling one, his path bordered and measured by people who needed him. Some of them wanted more than others. Some only wanted to touch his robe, either to make the experience more physical or to let some power move through the touch, and he let them.
Of course, he did.
The people in our path—it’s all so obvious isn’t it?—we help them, though it would be nice if the Gospel were clearer on the whole walking-on-water and calming-storms and healing-people miracle thing. There are no explanations of the mechanism by which it works, if it still works at all. It’s a God thing.
We’re left to do what we do, and we watch for God to do what God might do, and we call the whole experience faith. It is a sometimes unsatisfactory arrangement, depending on one’s expectations.
When God passes us by, for instance, is it to remain unseen or in the hope that we’ll notice? Of course, the atheist would say that nobody is passing by—it is only the wind, or an idea, and no one knows where those come from or where they will go.
Faith is remaining open to the possibilities. It is not being stupid. It is being imaginative, hopeful, open, and humble enough to suppose that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.
The wind doesn’t listen to us, or if it does, it seldom agrees. We’re rubbish at walking on water. That sort of thing is God stuff, and not our job anyway.
Even in matters of faith, we don’t get to do the God things, which is good. We do the follower things. Our hugs do not heal, but they may help. We walk alongside the needy, like a kind non-believer might do, with the difference that we hope God is walking on their other side whether or not anyone notices.
We feed the hungry people, and we talk to the lonely ones, believing that God was already in the business of doing that before we got there. We think that the opportunity to help is also a God thing—not making people needy, but helping us to see them when they are.
Maybe, as some people claim, there were no miracles in that story. Maybe there were stepping stones in the sea, and everyone had food stashed away, and Jesus just got them to share. Maybe the storm just ended, as they all do.
Regardless, something happened around the shores of Galilee, something different enough that we have four gospels telling the stories. Something happened that makes us look more kindly on one another, something that helps us respond when needier people reach out and touch us.