"Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, 'When a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name...and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.'"
--I Kings 8: 22-23, 41, 43
"A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal the slave."
Luke 7: 1-2
A few weeks ago I read a wonderful book called Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander. It's somewhere between a deep theological commentary on Scripture and a comic book, so it's not really a surprise that it was right up my alley. Mann and Mercy takes our Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, and weaves them together as one narrative. Normally this isn't how Scripture is suppose to be read because there are so many messages, so many themes, and it's nearly impossible to paint a clear picture that includes all of those details. Instead the book focuses on one particular theme and that is God's original dream for the people of Israel, that they would be a beacon to the rest of the world, that other nations would see this covenant way of living in relationship with God and our fellow human beings. As a result, then, all those nations would flock to Israel to learn how to live in this bold new way, a way in which everyone was treated with mercy and everyone received the appropriate manna. It's a great read, and because it's gorgeously illustrated, folks of all ages can enjoy it!
The cover of Manna and Mercy by Daniel Erlander. (See the bottom of the post for a link to pick up your copy!)
That all nations would flock to Israel to learn this bold new way of living. That is God's dream, and we see glimpses of it in our both our Old Testament and our Gospel readings. In our story from the First Book of Kings we find Solomon, the son of King David and supposedly one of the wisest people in history, standing at the Temple in Jerusalem just after its construction has been completed. The king prays this long prayer exalting the majesty of God, which fills the crowd with hope for the future, a future grounded in their relationship with God and one another. Solomon prays that God will not only hear the prayers offered by the Jewish people in this place but also the prayers of any foreigner, any Gentile, any one of those other people. Solomon reflects that great dream of God, that others will come from distant lands because of the name of the Lord our God. They will come to see just how we are suppose to live in union with one another and with God, and it is in that hope that Solomon prays for God to hear the prayers of the foreigners and do whatever they ask, so that they too will know God's mercy and love. For a Jew, especially a king, to pray that God hear the words of Gentiles, is pretty bold, and very much against the grain of the Law. But God's dream was shining through Solomon on that day, in the hope that others would see just how to live in a covenant relationship with God and each other.
Of course, we know how this plays out. After Solomon the kingdom is split in two, the Asyrians conquer the north, the Babylonians conquer the south, and God's dream appears to have gone up in smoke. But wait! Here comes Jesus, the living embodiment of God's covenant, and the dream is renewed because in him we see God's dream lived out. In our story from the Gospel of Luke we see Solomon's prayer come to fruition, at least in part. A centurion, a Roman soldier, a Gentile, a foreigner, has a slave with whom he is especially close, and that slave is near death. Out of respect for the Jewish Law, which had said that a Jew could not come under the roof of a Gentile, he sends his friends to plead with Jesus, knowing that if Jesus only says the word then his servant will be healed. This man is not your typical Roman. He has, according to those who came to Jesus on his behalf, shown great affection for the Jews and even helped build the synagogue at Capernaum. He, like the very ones Solomon spoke of in his prayer, is a foreigner who has been drawn to the people of Israel because he knows there is something special about this covenant relationship with God, and he wants to be a part of it. His faith is so great that Jesus commends it, saying he hasn't seen such faith in all of Israel. The servant, then, is healed because this fella, this outsider, was drawn to the way Jesus and his people lived lives of loving relationship with God and one another. God's dream, Solomon's prayer, coming true.
An artist's depiction of the faith of the centurion.
Israel had been set apart from all other nations for the purpose of being different from them. Others sought to rule, but Israel was never meant to rule over others. Instead, Israel would show the world how to live in relationship with God and one another. God had brought the people of Israel up out of Pharaoh's Egypt, a society built on the backs of the poor, where there were big deals who had more than others, and God said to Israel, "You will NOT be like this! You will show the world what manna and mercy look like!" Over time new Egypts would appear, often times taking the people of God into captivity, telling them that such a way was a sign of weakness. Still, God kept calling them, through the words of Solomon and the actions of Jesus, to show the world a different way. A better way. A way that is grounded in relationship with God and one another. As followers of Jesus we are the part of that calling, and it is up to us to show to show this different way, this better way, to the world. We look around and see so many similarities in our world to that of Pharaoh's Egypt, and we can hear God's voice calling us to a way that is not like them. It's up to us to show this way of living to the Egypts of our modern world.
How do we do that? Well, how will they know we are Christians? Will they know we are Christians by how much money we accumulate? Will they know we are Christians by how elite our status is? Will they know we are Christians by how smug and cold and angry we are? Of course not! Say it with me now: they will know we are Christians by what? By our love! By our love! Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love! And that's not just love that is poured out in our songs and prayers and sacraments that we share on Sundays but the love we show out in the world, to the ones who are not part of this community, to the ones who need to hear of the love of God and and need to feel the healing power of Jesus so very badly.
Churches are always asking themselves what they can do to bring people in, what programs can they put on, what can they do to fill up the pews so the church doesn't die. The truth is that while some programs or some charismatic preachers might draw a few folks in, none of those kinds of things will make them stay. The only thing that will do that is love. It is a love that is made manifest in the way we live our lives outside the walls of our church buildings, as well as by the welcoming presence that we have when new folks enter our houses of worship. It is a love that is shown to the very ones that we may find it so hard to love. It is a love that hopes for a world where all are drawn to God, where all have enough, and where all are treated mercifully. This is what Solomon prayed for and it is what Jesus embodied, that we would show the world a better way by loving others in such a crazy way that they would see it and be drawn into a relationship with God through us. This was God's dream then, and it is still alive now!
Visit Daniel Erlander's website to order your copy of Manna and Mercy!