Proper 4 – Year C

Dynamic duos seem to hold a special place in our corporate imagination. The comic book world has given us superheroes such as Batman and Robin. Comedy has been enriched by the likes of Abbot and Costello; Rowan and Martin; Penn and Teller; Cheech and Chong. Movies wouldn’t be the same without Bogart and Bacall, Redford and Newman, R2D2 and C3PO. Evening network news was defined for a generation by the Huntley/Brinkley Report. The music world would be a lesser place without the creative collaborations Lerner and Loewe; Sonny and Cher; Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Just last week, I spoke of the unique relationship between those two great explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. And in the world of politics, all you need to do is to say the names Bill and Hillary. And lest we feel bereft here at St. Mary’s, don’t forget our own dynamic duo, our wardens Leslie Derrick and Larry Spang… two of the best there are.

Duos such as these work so well because each person in their own right is a superstar of sorts. But put them together, and that talent or influence or magnetism gets taken to a whole new level. It might not be too big of a stretch, then, to think of the two main actors in this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus and the Roman centurion, as being some kind of dynamic duo, of being in the same league, of the same caliber, as those other powerhouse duos I just mentioned.

Each of these two characters in today’s story was a person of influence and power in his own right. At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is already becoming somewhat of a rock star in the region. Even though we only find ourselves at the beginning of the 7th chapter of Luke’s story, Jesus has already wowed the crowds at the synagogue in Nazareth, cast out demons, performed multiple healings, gathered a band of disciples as followers, confronted the Jewish authorities, and preached his “blessings and woes” sermon (You remember the one that goes: “Blessed are you who are poor. Woe to you who are rich.”) to the gathered crowds. In other words, he had already made quite a name for himself.

The centurion, on the other hand, was a man who possessed a different kind of influence. As a part of the Roman occupying force, he was the unwelcomed town sheriff, as it were, appointed by an outside government to keep the Jewish citizens in his region under control. As a centurion, he commanded a force of 100 soldiers (the word “centurion”, like the word “century”, means 100), with more than enough military might to keep the local populace in line at all times. As he says in the gospel this morning, he is the kind of man who says, “Jump,” and everyone else – friend and foe alike – respond, “How high?” This particular centurion seems to be all of that and more… for he also seems to exhibit a real sense of respect and caring for the people over whom he is in charge… even to the point of building their synagogue for them.

It may seem, on first blush, as though these two powerful figures are the main actors in this morning’s tale. But despite the centrality of these two men in the unfolding drama of today’s gospel, you may note that Jesus and the centurion never actually meet. There is a different literary character… one which is actually played by a number of people at two different times in the short story today which provides the real energy behind this exchange between Jesus and the centurion. What binds these two power brokers together is the intermediaries which intervene on behalf of the centurion – first a group of Jewish elders from the town who come to Jesus explaining that the centurion’s slave was sick to the point of death; and later a group of the centurion’s friends who tell Jesus that he can just heal the slave from a distance if he wants to be spared the trouble of coming all the way to the house. And it is those groups of behind-the-scene mediators which I think are really the most interesting characters in this whole story.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes that unusual social phenomenon when a small idea suddenly catches on and becomes a global sensation. Whether it is the latest YouTube video to go viral; or this week’s #1 book on the New York Times bestseller list, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, which has been on the list for the past 76 weeks now; or the hottest product to be released by Apple which has people lined up around the block so that they can be first-day purchasers; Gladwell contends that the jump from small idea to universal popularity requires the same basic set of characteristics to be successful. One of those characteristics is that the idea needs the backing of a group of people Gladwell calls “connectors”. You probably know some of these folks. Connectors are the kind of people who seem to know everybody; who are simultaneously comfortable in a variety of social circles; who would say that they’ve never met a stranger – only a friend that they haven’t gotten to know yet. My 91-year-old mother is a connector. When I go to visit her, we can’t walk through a restaurant with her stopping at every table in the place to visit for a few minutes, since – at one point or another – she has crossed paths with everyone in the place. It is these connectors which create that viral aspect, as ideas or possibilities jump from place to place to place and context to context to context so quickly you can hardly keep up with all of the transitions.

The intermediaries in this morning’s gospel lesson were the ultimate connectors; people who were equally comfortable in the world of Jesus and the world of the centurion; people who were able (as it were) to speak multiple languages simultaneously, and so were able to bridge cultures and social strata and class and ethnic boundaries, and so create a seamless connection which allowed God’s grace to flow freely. Jesus and the centurion may have been the big names in this morning’s gospel lesson. But it was these intermediaries who were the real heroes which made the story come together, and allowed for a miracle to happen.

That is the greatest challenge – and that is the greatest hope – for the church today. For, like the Jewish elders, and like the friends of the centurion in this morning’s gospel lesson, we too live in a variety of worlds simultaneously. There is that world of which we are a part which is called St. Mary’s… and by extension that world called the Episcopal Church… and the universal Christian Church. And in addition to that, there is the world called our family, our circle of friends, our work or school world, our neighborhood, our professional contacts, our golf buddies, our coffee-drinking friends, the regulars we meet at the gym… the list goes on and on and on. Just think for a minute of all the different circles you are a part of in your own life. The opportunity which God has placed before each one of us is to be like those behind-the-scene characters in this morning’s gospel lesson, to be a connector… to actively, and intentionally, and deliberately, and thoughtfully be that bridge which draws those different parts of our lives together so that, in the end, we live in only one world – a world infused with the goodness of God… a world in which the grace of God is available to everyone.

A few weeks ago I spoke of all of the wildfires in California this year. I checked on an update yesterday, and according to Cal Fire, the number of fires since January 1 has already exceeded 1000. There is one specific fire, however, which I find to be particularly interesting. Perhaps you weren’t aware of it, but there is a blaze just north of Fillmore, up in Ventura County. This is not your typical forest fire, however. This particular fire has been burning now for almost 10 years. Yep, you heard me right… a fire that’s been burning non-stop since at least 2007. What makes this fire different than so many other fires which make the news is that this one is burning entirely underground. And every so often, it pops its head above ground, and burns an acre or two of grassland, just to remind the firefighters who monitor its progress that it’s still there, lurking in the shadows. The forest managers aren’t sure exactly what kind of fire this is, nor do they have much of an idea as to how to put it out. So, at least for now, they’re just keeping their eye on it as it goes about its business just below the surface, gradually reshaping the hillside above.

It is that kind of subterranean fire which God invites to be a part of today… a fire which may not be big and flashy and quickly extinguished… but instead one which burns steadily, stealthily, consistently, constantly changing the landscape ever-so-surely as it advances. That is the fire of faith which is the hallmark of living the Christian life. That is the fire of faith which draws together the various threads of our lives into one great and glorious tapestry.

Just this past week, your vestry approved the final version of the St. Mary’s Parish Profile, one of the cornerstone components in this discernment process toward the call of your next rector. That 22-page document describes the road which this congregation has taken thus far, and the path which we believe God is inviting us to travel into the future. But that profile is also so much more than that. It is a reminder that we are a part of something bigger… that we exist today because of the connectors throughout the ages who brought us to this place today… that this community will exist long into the future because we will be the connectors who will ensure that future generations will have a place called St. Mary’s that they can call “home.” That is the gift which God has given us so freely. And that is the gift that God invites us to share so freely with those around us. Amen.