I worked as a hospital chaplain one summer while I was in seminary. Each day I’d go room to room in the two units I covered and offer to meet with the patients. Some took me up on the offer, others did not. If there were friends or relatives in the room, I’d offer to talk with them as well. As you might guess, many of the conversations I had were profound and meaningful. People would sometimes open up about their lives: They’d tell me about why they were in the hospital; they’d share their hopes and their worries; they’d wonder about the meaning of life. Even if we didn’t talk about weighty subjects like God or fear or death, the time we spent together was always powerful and holy.
Our connection was strong but it was also temporary. Each morning would bring a new updated patient list and it would often show that people with whom I’d formed a bond or had an intense talk had been discharged or transferred since the end of my shift. They were suddenly out of my life and I had no idea how their story continued and what impact– if any – I had on their lives.
We’ve all had people come in and out of our lives – in church or work or school. Friendships form, advice is given, lives interact. But then our paths diverge and we lose touch and more often than not we’re unaware of how our actions have affected them.
In the passage we’re look at this morning, the Centurion believes his actions can have an impact on his servant’s life. But doesn’t come personally to Jesus, instead he sends others to make the request for him. Jesus agrees to help and begins to head toward the centurion’s house but the centurion stops him, saying that he is not worthy to have Jesus in his house. The centurion trusts the God’s work will be done, even long distance. The centurion – whether present with Jesus or just sending along his request – has faith that his actions will have an impact, even when he can’t see them at work.
There is a lot of hurt in our world right now. We’re living in a time of intensified divisions. Family and friends are at odds. There is real fear that lives will be negatively affected. Women, people of color, the LGBT community, refugees and immigrants, are all worried that their rights are in danger. Everyone is concerned for their own safety. And, in the midst of that suffering, we want to do God’s work. We want to do our part to create God’s Kingdom: the world of peace and equality and justice that God intends for all humanity, the Kingdom that the prophets spoke about and that Jesus lived and died for.
We want to heal the suffering – or at least help to soothe it. We want to be a balm for the pain. So we try to do God’s work. We carefully consider how our faith informs our vision of our world and then we act. We speak up about rights – maybe we march and attends rallies, or we talk with others with whom we agree or disagree. We volunteer, we give money, we pray for the sick and the scared and the suffering. And we do it earnestly and honestly. Believing that God can hear us; believing that it will make a difference.
And then we wake up the next morning and we’re not sure if we’ve had any impact. People are still without homes or healthcare. People we love are still battling illnesses. People are still afraid.
The centurion didn’t really know what was going to happen when he sent the elders to Jesus. Sure, he talks a big game, saying that he has faith that Jesus will heal his friend. But, hey, we all say things like that, don’t we? When we can’t see the immediate effects of our actions and prayers, it’s easy to doubt that we’re really making any difference at all.
The work of building God’s Kingdom is daunting. It’s a ton of work and it seems impossible and it may feel like we’re being defeated over and over again. But, you know what? It’s what we are called to do. It’s what we choose to do when we choose to follow Jesus. This is work that’s been going on for thousands of years before us and, the truth is, we will not see it completed in our lifetimes. But that doesn’t mean we can stop trying.
And it doesn’t mean that we don’t have an effect. Our actions do make a difference.
We know that Jesus was doing God’s work as he went through Capernaum that day. But, chances are he wouldn’t have found his way to the dying servant on his own. Jesus only intervened because the centurion acted. If the centurion hadn’t sent word to Jesus, his friend would have died. And even though he didn’t go to Jesus himself, even though he couldn’t see Jesus with his own eyes, the centurion trusted that his actions would make a difference.
All the time I spent in those hospital rooms affected the patients’ lives somehow. They may not remember me or be able to talk about our time together but in some way we were both changed by our interactions.
Is it difficult to believe that our actions make a difference? Can we believe that we have an impact on other’s lives and on our world even if we don’t see the changes immediately? Or if we never see the results?
On the day before his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. told an audience about seeing the promised land, about hearing God’s call, and wanting to follow God’s lead even when he knew he’d face danger. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.” He said, “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
King never got to see the results of his work. Never experienced how his words and his action helped our country become a better place. He recognized that it was a real possibility he would never see the outcome but he kept it up because he knew it was God’s will.
Our ancestors of faith, from Moses through the Prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, all did the work that we are now called to do. They each played a part in getting our world just a little closer to God’s Kingdom. And we’re still talking about them today. We’re still feeling the effects of their actions.
Our job now is to keep moving forward. When the mountain seems too tough to climb, when the setbacks seem too great, when the fear threatens to overcome us, we still have to keep moving forward.
When we feel discouraged and think our work’s in vain, we can spend time in prayer, allowing the Holy Spirit to revive our souls.
When we feel that the work is too difficult, that there’s no way we can lead like Moses and King, that it’s impossible to have the faith of the centurion, we can simply tell stories of Jesus’ love and try our best to love like him;
And when we feel like giving up because we can’t see the outcome of our work, we can gather together as a church; supporting each other, impacting one another, and gaining the strength to try again.
Eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has in store for us. It can be challenging to believe that our work makes a difference when it can’t be seen. But when we act, doing God’s will, working together with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, our world will change and we will get closer to the Kingdom. May God be with us on our journey.