Sunday’s Sermon: Welcome the Outsider

We have all seen and enjoyed the classic movie “Forrest Gump.” It is the classic movie of a young man who has some mental disabilities and is trying to make it in an ever-changing world.

One of the movie’s memorable scenes takes place when young Forrest attempts to find a seat on the school bus. It was Forrest’s first day of school. Even though Forrest had lived in his hometown his entire life, he is an outsider who is trying to fit in where there was already established communities and friendships. Forrest unfortunately finds seats that looked open were not really open. Students responded to Forrest with glaring looks and the uninviting words of “seat’s taken” or “you can’t sit here.”

Forrest was given a message no one wants to hear. He was not welcomed into the pre-established communities. The students were in no hurry to welcome him into their circle of friendships. It is really to that community’s disadvantage they didn’t welcome Forrest. As we know, Forrest was a caring and generous person who gave complete devotion to those he cared for. Who wouldn’t want a friend like Forrest in their life? Just imagine how their community would have been strengthened had Forrest been welcomed to sit with them.

That’s not just a statement that analyzes a great movie scene. I think it also speaks to us. What would change in our circle of friendships if we allowed the Forrests of our lives into them? What would happen if the outsider become one of us?

This is what I want us to reflect on as we examine our Gospel passage from John 7:1-10. As we do so, what I want to say and encourage you in is to always reach out and find ways to welcome those who have no community. This goes beyond inviting someone to church. It means to welcome those who have no community, the outsider, the Forrests among us, to be part of our community and friendships.

Luke 7:1-10 may not seem like a passage where we can make this statement. On the surface level, this passage tells of when Jesus heals a Roman officer’s servant in Capernaum, who was suffering from a life-threatening illness. However, when we go deeper into the passage we see there is more to this interaction. It is truly a passage where Jesus reaches out and welcomes an outsider into the community.

The outsider in this story is the Roman officer. He was a Centurion. In the Roman Empire, a Centurion was a military officer who had authority over approximately 100 soldiers. Centurions were known for their integrity. Most of the references to Centurions in Scripture are generally positive. This includes Luke’s mention in Acts 10 of Cornelius, who became the first Gentile to decide to follow Christ.

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke is very complimentary of this particular Centurion. He is someone of deep compassion for his sick servant. He is also someone who has heard of Jesus. This perhaps meant that the Centurion had heard reports about Jesus and was trying to wrestle with what this meant for his life. Though Luke uses positive terms to define the Centurion, this doesn’t take away from what the Centurion represented for Luke. He was an officer of the very government that was controlling the people of Israel. He was also likely a Gentile, which, according to the laws of the time, meant that he would not have been welcomed into the community unless he was willing to enter a long conversion process.

This Roman Centurion was not “in” the community. He was an outsider. For this reason, I believe the Centurion represents something that is going on in our culture today. All around us there are people who are hungry for the Gospel, are wrestling with who God is, but feel like an outsider with no community or place to go. They wrestle with the same questions we wrestle with, but they feel as though they have no place to go for strength or support. On any given Sunday, roughly 82 percent of our commonwealth are not in church. They are people we know: Farmers, bankers, mechanics, teachers, business leaders, co-workers, friends, family, and the person who bags our groceries at Kroger. They are searching, seeking, wondering, and questioning who this Jesus is and are looking for a place to belong.

Just like the Centurion, sometimes these very same people reach out to the community looking for answers or help. The Centurion reached out for Jesus knowing that within him is the power to heal. He knew Jesus had authority from heaven to do the wondrous and sought him out with the help of Jewish elders. When Jesus nears the Centurion, Luke says he sends some friends to stop him and to tell him only to speak a word of healing. He humbled himself before the Lord and offered an expression of faith. The Centurion recognized Jesus’ authority to heal comes from the power given to him from the Father. He trusted in Jesus’ word knowing it had the power of God.

The Centurion felt unworthy to be in Jesus’ presence. This is why he sent the Jewish elders and his friends to meet with Jesus and speak for him. However, they felt he was worthy to be in Jesus’ presence. The Jewish elders express to Jesus the virtues not of the servant but of the Centurion. They say he is a man worthy of Jesus’ help. We can assume that the Centurion’s friends likely agreed. The elders say this is because of the Centurion’s love for the Jewish people and that he helped to build a synagogue. In the eyes of the Jewish elders, the Centurion’s good deeds were reason enough for Jesus to help him. It was a position based on what the Centurion had done instead of who he is and desired to be. The Centurion was welcomed by the Jewish elder because of what he had done for them.

We in the church can be like the Jewish elders. The temptation is real for us to define entrance into our communities based upon what someone has done for us. Sometimes our actions articulates a message that says we welcome someone only if certain  “requirements” are met. These might be to have an acceptable job, come from a good family, or dress in a certain way. When we place unspoken requirements upon an outsider in order for them to join our community, what we are really doing is placing a boundary between us and them. Welcoming becomes a tradable commodity when the invitation to join our friendships is only extended when someone does something for us.

Jesus’ welcome is something entirely different. He goes to the Centurion and reaches out to him. In responding to the Centurion’s desire for his servant to be healed, Jesus reaches out to the person who was outside the community and who represented much of what was wrong about the times Jesus lived in. He looked within the Centurion’s heart and saw him for he truly was: A Child of God who was seeking to understand what it meant to follow Jesus. Jesus even takes the Centurion’s statement of faith and says he had not seen any like this in all of Israel. The Centurion, the outsider, understood what many in the community struggled with. That is that Jesus is God.

Jesus welcomed and encouraged the Centurion in his faith and brought him into the community. He healed the servant, but just as important he made the outsider welcomed in the kingdom of God. This is significant because it paved the way for the Gentile ministry Luke will describe in Acts. Those who were once on the outside are now welcomed into a relationship with the Father and the community of the church.

When we think back to that scene from “Forrest Gump” what Jenny does for Forrest reflects what Jesus did for this Centurion. Jenny saw Forrest for who he was and welcomed him into her community. That community was strengthened by what Forrest was able to bring to it. There were no pretenses or requirements. All that existed in their relationship was a desire to grow with one another.

Could you imagine if we welcomed the outsiders around us in the same ways Jesus welcomed the Centurion or Jenny greeted Forrest? All around us there are people who are hungry, seeking, and yearning for a community that will welcome and encourage them in our common journey to grow in Christ’s love. Jesus has given us the way forward. As our communion liturgy reminds us, all who love Jesus, repent of their sin, and seek to live in community with one another are invited to the table of fellowship. Imagine if this was our guide as we seek to welcome all people into our communities and be Christ’s hands and feet each day.

Jesus has welcomed everyone to the kingdom and into the fellowship. Our call is to go out and be those who welcome others, unconditionally, into our hearts, lives, and communities. There are no outsiders in God’s kingdom. There are only those who are seeking community and need the church, to welcome them and say, “yes ‘you can sit here.’”

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