This sermon looks at two contrasting stories. The first is the powerful centurion who humbled himself and demonstrated unusual faith. The second is the widow who lost her only son and the compassion that Jesus has on her. These two stories demonstrate how the kingdom of God is the great equalizer where everyone is welcome.
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Have you seen the movie Hidden Figures? It is amazing.
It is a true story that takes place in the early 1960s at NASA during the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
It also was a time when the United States was racially segregated. There were White bathrooms and Colored bathrooms, white drinking fountains and colored drinking fountains, and on down the line.
The main character of the movie was an African-American woman named Katherine Johnson. She was a brilliant mathematician, but because she was a colored woman she was only allowed to be a low-level member of the “colored computers” in the West building.
Harrison, the boss, played by Kevin Kostner, needed someone good at geometry, so they brought Katherine to work in the West building. There were 30 or 40 people working in this room and only two women. Katherine was the only person of color. The men brought in a separate coffee pot and labeled it colored. On her first day she needed to go to the bathroom, only to discover that there were no colored bathrooms in the west building. So, whenever she needed to go to the bathroom she had to walk a half mile across campus, in high heels and a skirt, no matter the weather.
One day she had taken a bathroom break and it was pouring rain. When she returned, the boss, Harrison, got frustrated with her and asked, “Where do you go for 45 minutes at a time?”
There she was, dripping wet, exhausted, humiliated, and put on the spot with every eye in the room fixed on her.
““There are no colored bathrooms here, or anywhere except the west campus,” she says, through tears. “And I work like a dog living off a pot of coffee the rest of you don’t want to touch.”
The next scene shows Harrison in the East building, with a crow bar, knocking down the sign that says, “Colored Restroom.”
The sign hits the floor and he says, “There. At NASA we all pee the same color.”
Do you see what happened when Katherine explained her situation to Harrison? You could just feel that he entered into her pain for the first time.
He suffered with her and it moved him to take action.
He had compassion.
The word compassion means to suffer with. Com means with, and passion means to suffer.
That is what I see in our story today in Luke chapter 7 and that is what our world needs today.
So, let’s take a look at the text and see what we can learn about Jesus, about compassion, and about the Kingdom of God that Jesus invites us into.
I invite you to look at Luke 7:1-17. You can see that it is a contrast between two characters.
On the one side we have the centurion. He is a commanding officer in the Roman army. He is a powerful man who represents the oppressive occupying force of the Roman Empire.
On the other side we have a Jewish widow. In those days, society was male-dominated and women were only financially secure through their husbands. If a husband dies, then the widow becomes dependent upon her son. In this case the woman has also lost her only son. That means she is at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder.
These two stories were not just randomly thrown together in Luke’s Gospel. They are placed next to each other for a very important reason. To understand that, we need to go back to Luke chapter 3 and remember something that John the Baptist said when he was preaching in the wilderness.
Do you remember three weeks ago? John quoted Isaiah chapter 40.
He said that when the Messiah comes he will bring the mountains down and fill in the valleys, make the crooked paths straight, and smooth out the rough patches.
The Messiah will make everything level, so that ALL FLESH will see the salvation of God.
This is a primary theme in Luke’s Gospel.
We saw it in Mary’s song when she said
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
We saw it when Jesus was born among the animals and the shepherds in Bethlehem.
We saw it two weeks ago when Jesus quoted Isaiah in his sermon at Nazareth, that he would set the captives free and announce the year of Jubilee.
Now, in chapter 7, we see two stories that show how this is lived out in real life.
First, we encounter the centurion. He is a good man. The Jewish people tell Jesus that he is worthy because he has given them great gifts. He is a benefactor for them.
But, notice how the centurion speaks to Jesus.
He says, I am not worthy. I did not presume. That is the same word as worthy. I did not consider myself worthy to come to you. I know what power looks like. Simply say the word, and my servant will be healed.
The powerful centurion came to Jesus in humility.
And Jesus was amazed at this Gentile’s faith. No where in Israel had Jesus seen faith like this.
Then, Jesus encounters the widow. She is mourning the loss of her son. She is mourning the loss of everything. She is powerless and in a dire situation.
Then Jesus has compassion for her. Like Harrison with Katherine Johnson, Jesus enters into this woman’s pain and it moves him to action.
He touches the dead man and brings him back to life.
With his resurrection, this woman’s hope is restored to new life.
Do you see how this image is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and a picture of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God?
Listen, there is nothing wrong with being rich and powerful and at the top of society. That is a gift from God. But, do you see what an encounter with Jesus does to the powerful? It brings them to humility, and to compassion.
Likewise, there is nothing wrong with being poor or on the outside of society. The promise of the Gospel is that God suffers with you and exalts you to equal status with everyone else.
People of God, this is the Kingdom Life that Jesus invites us to indwell in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our schools, and in our world.
When we place our faith in the power of Jesus, and not in ourselves, and when we suffer with each other in the way that God suffers with us, then we can all work together to bring healing and new life to a broken world.
Who are the Katherine Johnsons in your world today? Who are the people whose suffering is going unnoticed right in front of you. Let us pray that God would open our eyes so that we might suffer with those who are suffering today and bring the healing of God to a broken world.