May 29, 2016

Second Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 8:22-23 ,41-43; Psalm 96:1-9; Galatians 1:1-12; Luke 7:1-10


Every relationship is a blank canvas at first encounter.  The initial encounter might be a glance, a formal introduction, a handshake, a business transaction, a gesture, a child born, an animal saved.  But the instant the encounter begins, the canvas is marked, and the seam in time between when the canvas is blank and when the canvas has been marked is so fine as to be undetectable.  The transition from nothing to the beginning of all that will be is profoundly unattainable.  And yet – for an undetectable portion of a second - there was only possibility and probability.

Among the infinite outcomes of any human encounter is one pair of opposing possibilities: the scam and the generous gift. Scams are as probable as they are concrete.  Acts of help may be as exceptional as they are mystical.  Deceit runs easily across lines of difference, especially when the deceiver knows more about the wants, desires and weaknesses of the deceived.  Helping across lines of difference, on the other hand, takes strength of character and courage to embrace the unknown.

Imagine if you will, two young American tourists, as curious as they are naïve.  They have jumped the Mediterranean by way of ferry from southern Spain to Morocco.  As they go to board a train from Tangiers to Fez, these two travelers - holding general seating tickets - are brusquely ushered by a train attendant to a particular car and told that in the car were there assigned seats.  Conveniently there are two local men, much older and worldlier than the tourists.   The men convince the youth they must get off at the first stop in order to change trains, if they wish to reach Fez.  This was told to them even though the train they were on was certainly headed to the southern city already.

Imagine that these tourists went against their instincts, getting off in the next town only to be cajoled by the companions to get in a large van with them and four other large men awaiting them outside of the train station.  Frozen, these young travelers knew they had been had.  They looked to the train attendant for help, and he ushers them outside.  With tears in their eyes the youth resist getting into the van and are left on the side of the Moroccan highway.  A few minutes later the train attendant who had forced them out, waves them in and offers them hospitality for the night.  He will then get on the train with them in the morning to see them safely to Fez.  Had he done so in the presence of the criminal element, he would have pitted himself against a band of thugs that also outnumbered him.  He was wise to wait.  He was good to have helped.

“[The] kind of relationship on which helping is based...cannot be manufactured,” writes Alan Keith-Lewis.  “It begins at the moment that any two people meet.  It grows as they work together, but it cannot be forced or hurried.”

In today’s gospel we hear a story of a mystical encounter between two men who will never meet: Jesus and the Centurion.  The latter sends representatives, emissaries, go betweens.  They are Jewish elders rather than Roman soldiers.  He was wise to send the ones who would be more naturally received.  The Centurion’s request is for healing of a highly valued slave near death.  Jesus is willing to go to the seat of the occupier of his homeland to offer this healing.  The Centurion likely knows what a social, political and soul challenge that would have been for Jesus.  So he sends a second friendly delegation to relieve Jesus of the burden of crossing that threshold of difference.  The request is that Jesus would heal the slave remotely, and it is said that in fact the slave is healed.

This and other stories of remote healing are the scriptural compass pointing us in the direction of intercessory prayer.  We need not know how or why, but we know that those intentions travel their mystical paths and have unknowable impact.

Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles talks about the phenomenon in helping relationships when the line between the helper and the ‘helpee’ becomes blurred.  Not only does the giver end up transformed in the mutuality of the relationship, the two are mystically one in friendship and relationship.  Once two subjects who now occupy a single canvas.

Holy Matrimony is a helpful example of this kind of mystical union.  Obviously, it is set apart from other relationships for its particularities.  But the premise of the unifying connection is present in all relationships of mutuality and particularly in helping relationships.  In their book about making marriage work, John Gottman and Nan Silver emphasize the importance of allowing one’s spouse to influence oneself.  They imply that in marriage we must be both impressionable and impressive as we blur the line between giving and receiving.

Every helping relationship has the sort of atomic makeup as has a marriage.  Though the kind of mutuality and helping relationship as in today’s gospel are rare, marriage and helping relationships are made even in wartime.   “Mercy is a precious commodity in the midst of war,” writes a small town Presbyterian pastor[1] as he reflects on this Memorial Day.  Ultimately, mercy and meaning are what we seek on days like Memorial Day when we celebrate those who have died against difficult, dignified, complex or even uncertain backgrounds.  We reach out over the seam of time in honor of their lives and the meaning and value that they give to ours today.  It is our own mystical gesture of mercy.

As we do, may we pray remotely to the master of remote healing and repose:

Give rest, O Christ, to your servants with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.