Have you felt like an outsider? Me too. The T-shirt says it all. Let me tell you when I have definitely felt like one.
Years ago, in another part of the U.S. far, far away... I started my first year of college at a university in southern Ohio in 1969. For those old enough to remember, that was essentially the first time in my life when white people were being told that “black lives matter.” The Civil Rights movement was being met with violence from white Christians who were in desperate opposition to the idea of equality with someone of a different skin color. There was a lot of vitriol arising from black and white separatists alike. At the university my first year I was assigned a roommate who was African American. We got along great and became close friends. One evening she invited me to attend a party with her. When I walked into the room, I was the only white person present and the anger and fear in the room were palpable. She vouched for me. I wasn’t one of those white people. No one ever really got friendly, but I was allowed to stay.
My first marriage was to a man who was a native of Colorado. I met him after my family moved here from New Jersey. He was Chicano. His word. His self description. While I knew that, I didn’t understand what it meant until the day he asked if I was sure I was ready to marry someone who is a member of a minority. I was so naive that I looked at him incredulously and said with some sort of Jersey arrogance, “What? You’re a minority?” Not a minority I had learned to identify. We were married and I was introduced into a large hispanic family from the San Luis Valley. It was always obvious that I was the outsider, but this time there were enough people who knew and loved me that I was accepted over time even though I never could learn to speak Spanish. And there were times I faced discrimination because of my hispanic last name and anglo face.
And of course there is always the annual late January Motorcycle Swap Meet at the stock show complex. You know, the one where two motorcycle gangs had a brief but fatal shoot out last year. As most of you know, my husband Peter is a Harley rider. We have been known to put on our leathers and attend the show with other bikers. Some are unaffiliated with any group. Some belong to groups for Vietnam Vets, Harley owners and some are fundamentalist Christian riders. And then there are the outlaw gangs with names like the Mongols, the Banditos, the Sons of Silence or the Hell’s Angels. When those clubs enter the swap meet en masse, we have suddenly switched from feeling like we belong to being the outsider.
Have you ever felt discriminated against? Was it your skin color or your native language? Perhaps a disability? Perhaps it was your gender? How you dressed? Your accent? Maybe your religion. Maybe it was long hair and rock and roll?
How many of us have experienced a time in our lives when we felt like an outsider? Raise your hands. Can you remember what that felt like? Being on the outside of a group and looking in. Being referred to as “one of those people” or “people like that.” What was the challenge? How were you different?
Or just maybe it was about your system of belief - what your life experience has taught you about God and the nature of Jesus? Divine? or not divine? That is a question, but it is not meant to divide us.
And what are our own limits for accepting someone else? When do we judge another to be “someone like that,” someone who is not like me. Where do we draw the line? Where do we draw the circle? The enclosure? Who is on the outside? Who doesn’t get into our family? Who have we decided that God couldn’t possibly love? Perhaps our line is drawn out of hatred or fear or something we absorbed as a child. Lines that were carefully drawn to protect us from “people like that” (Jim Burgen). Who do you think of when you hear the phrase people like that?
Many times in my life, I have been labeled “someone like that?” And yet I still ponder, what is my criteria for deciding that someone is “like that?” Fear? Moral repugnance? Physical repugnance?
A few verses before this story of the centurion (Luke 6.27-28), Jesus has instructed those around him to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” In other words, to love someone who is “like that.” Personally, I find that to be a very tall order in our world of war and rape, sexual abuse and perversion. This is a recurring theme throughout the Gospel of Luke. Everyone is invited to the table. Jesus is not constrained by status or nationality, disability or skin color. He spends time with the wrong kind of people. Jesus reached out across constructed societal boundaries throughout his ministry. Jesus didn’t draw lines to keep others out.
Neither does God. According to an ancient proposition about the nature of God:
God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose
circumference is nowhere.
I don’t know what that means to you, but for me it means an infinite supply of God’s love and grace flowing endlessly.
This formulation has been attributed to a whole assortment of philosophers and theologians. The earliest citation I found was circa 400 BCE by an early Greek philosopher. At some point it became a “sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.” I want to pause here so that we can imagine this. There is no outside, no enclosing wall, no circumference. (Emerson) There is no “other” or “people like that.”
Today’s scripture seems like a straight forward story of the outsider who is not only accepted by Jesus, but is praised by Jesus for his faith. He has been vouched for by the local Jewish elders.
Both Jesus and the centurion had boundaries to cross. Jesus has mentioned before in scripture that he was sent by God to the people of Israel. But have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t ask for the Jewish credentials before he heals someone? or use that to judge whether one is worthy?
The Jews were in service to the Roman occupiers. The Romans were people of another faith. They were the oppressors of the Jews. It would not be a stretch to suggest that the Jews despised centurions. The centurion was a gentile and the enemy of the Jews. But this centurion, having reached out as a servant leader and erected a synagogue for the people he ruled, was accepted by the Jews who are convinced of the centurion’s love for them. They vouch for him. Look - he even has love for his slave.
What was the thing that was enough to make them cross invisible boundaries drawn by others in the sand? The Centurion believed the stories of Jesus healing the sick. Jesus is said to have marveled at the centurion’s great faith. The Jews crossed their boundaries with this Roman officer because of the centurion’s affection for them as a group of people.
It’s about operating with love, not suspicion. Humanity looks on the outward appearance of the other. God looks on the heart. ( That’s my spin on 1 Samuel 16.7) It is about reaching out to those who are despised and untrusted. According to scripture Love has no fear, no judgement. Jesus was an embodiment of that kind of love - God’s unlimited Love. A circle with no circumference.
Humans build fences and create dogmas and creeds that limit who is in and who is out. But I believe that God will not be constrained by the boundaries we draw around one another. God will surprise us. God is showing us that circumference is no where - it’s an illusion that we end somewhere and others begin. Einstein referred to that human reality as a persistent illusion. If we can believe beyond that persistent illusion, we might even experience our own lives as bigger. Because Spirit is endless.
Let us pray.
O endless Holy Spirit,
Help me to open my mind and my heart so that I might have a glimpse of seeing the world through God’s eyes. Allow me to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God’s Love and Grace as embodied in the Christ. Help me to be that Love. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.