This past week, it was my honor to offer the blessing at the Utica Observer-Dispatch’s Teen All-Stars Breakfast. Distinguished high school seniors from our area were awarded for their good deeds, accomplishments, and acts of service to the community. I was invited to participate in this event by Dave Dudajek, who I know through his daughter, Jaime Burgdoff (one of our congregants here in Boonville).
It was amazing to hear about these local teenagers and everything they’ve managed to do in high school. My memories of high school mostly involve staying up late, watching B movies, and driving around town with friends when we had nothing better to do. But these folks are already making an impact on their world in the name of what they believe is right.
At this event, Donna Donovan (president and publisher of the OD) gave an address where she talked about these students’ upcoming freshman year at college. They would be challenged and inspired to grow in new directions and their horizons would be expanded far beyond what they could possibly imagine at this point. She also told them that this would only be first of several “freshman years” they would experience throughout the rest of their lives. Each new experience, journey, accomplishment, and challenge will lead them into yet another experience of being a wide-eyed and wet-behind-the-ears “freshman” who is just now figuring out who they are and what life is all about.
In Zen Buddhism, this is called “Beginner’s Mind”. A person has Beginner’s Mind when she or he is absolutely open to each new moment, each new experience in life. All of life, the whole universe even, becomes a teacher to a person who has Beginner’s Mind. Each and every moment is the moment when Enlightenment might happen.
I think this is what Jesus meant when he used the word “repent”. We associate that term with guilt and sorrow for one’s sins, but in the original Greek the word “repent” is metanoia (“change the way you think”). When he says “Repent”, Jesus is inviting us to think differently and look at the world through a different set of eyes, open to what the Spirit of God might be saying and doing in any particular moment. The kind of awareness and openness that metanoia entails corresponds quite closely with the Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind.
In today’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we can see Jesus issuing just such a call to repentance (metanoia, Beginner’s Mind) even though he never actually uses that particular term.
The story opens with a rare and unlikely character: a Roman Centurion. He was a soldier in a hostile, occupying army. Imagine that, instead of first century Judea, this story was taking place in Paris, France in 1941. In that setting, this Roman Centurion would have been a Nazi Commander talking to a local priest. The hostilities between nations would have created a barrier between these people that was almost impossible to overcome. After that, there are also the barriers of race and religion. These invading European pagans would have been offensive in the extreme to Jewish inhabitants of Judea. The people of Judea, in turn, would have seemed backward and barbaric to the Roman Centurion, who was trained to think of himself as a great hero of the Empire: making the world safe for Roman order and peace. There is no reason on earth why this Roman Centurion and these religious Jews should have any amicable contact whatsoever.
However, something seems to have already happened before Jesus ever set foot on the scene. We learn that there is a private relationship between this Centurion and the Jews. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles and prejudices had already been conquered. The Centurion had become a benefactor of the Jewish people, even laying down the money to sponsor the building of their synagogue. The Jewish leaders, in turn, had come to respect this one Centurion in spite of his being a Roman soldier.
The Jewish leaders probably thought of themselves as quite liberal and progressive for having made such a stretch in their worldview to include him. When Jesus was passing through and the Centurion sent a request to him through the leaders, they took advantage of the opportunity to highlight what a good relationship had developed. As Jesus was hearing the request, the leaders interjected, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
What a lovely moment of intercultural understanding and the power of respect to overcome differences in even the most hostile circumstances! Too bad Jesus came along and felt the need to ruin it.
Jesus, you see, has this strange knack for cutting to the heart of a matter, turning things around, and getting you to see the world from an upside-down, inside-out perspective. In this case, he does just that by answering the religious leaders’ inclusive magnanimity with a snide remark: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Did you get that? Jesus said, “not even in Israel”. Who are the Israelites? They are! Jesus is saying that this pagan foreigner actually has more faith than the religious leaders of his own people! What would that be like in today’s terms? Imagine if the President of the United States pinned the Congressional Medal of Honor on an Al Qaeda terrorist, saying that this soldier represented the very best in America. People would be outraged! They would take to the streets in protest! They would call for the President to be impeached and tried for treason! Well, that’s the same level of outrage that the Jewish elders would have felt when Jesus said that a Roman Centurion had more faith than any of them. How dare he?! Just who does this Jesus guy think he is, anyway?!
Well, here’s what Jesus is doing in this situation: he’s creating an opportunity for his compatriots to adopt a Beginner’s Mind. He’s dropping a truth bomb on them so huge that it will hopefully shock them out of their preconceived notions about reality. If they can stay with him in this moment and be open to what he is saying, they’ll find themselves looking at the world in a whole new way.
Up until now, they’ve had a very ego-centric view of themselves and their role as “God’s chosen people.” To them, being “chosen” meant that they were endowed with a certain kind of special status that made them inherently superior to every other race, culture, and religion on the planet. So, from their perspective, they really were being quite kind and generous in their endorsement of this Centurion as “worthy” to receive the benefits of Jesus’ healing ministry.
But Jesus saw right through their generosity and exposed it for what it really was: Arrogance. Implicit in their charitable endorsement of the Centurion was the presumption that they themselves occupied the center stage in God’s unfolding drama in the world. Sure, they were presenting a kinder, gentler form of religion in that moment, but it was still a very self-centered vision (no matter how open or welcoming it might appear to be).
In reality, it’s not up to them to decide who is worthy or unworthy. In reality, being “God’s chosen people” has less to do with status and more to do with being part of what God is doing in the world. In reality, God’s work in the world extends far beyond the borders of any one nation, religion, race, or culture.
By highlighting the superior faith of the Roman Centurion, Jesus is drawing our attention to that reality. Jesus is inviting us to repent in that metanoia sense of the term, to think outside the box, to cultivate a Beginner’s Mind, an open heart, and an expanded consciousness. Like Donna Donovan said to the youth at the Teen All Stars Breakfast, it’s about engaging in a lifelong series of “freshman years” that challenge us and invite us to an ever greater sense of openness to life’s opportunities.
Here in the church, even when we’re being quite open, accepting, and progressive, it’s still quite easy to fall back into that ego-centric sense of superiority about being “God’s chosen people”. It’s easy to think that it’s all about us and our church. What Jesus wants to remind us of today is that it isn’t. We are part of what God is doing in the world. God’s mission includes us, but it’s also bigger than us, and it’s certainly not about us.
In order to participate in God’s larger mission, we have to move beyond the seductive idea of being a welcoming or even a growing church. We have to look for a faith that’s greater than our own and ask ourselves, “What is God doing in the world at large and how can we be a part of it?” And then our next task is to commit all of our resources to pursuing those ends, even if it costs us our very lives.
Where do you see God at work in the world at large? Who are the “Roman Centurions” in your life, outsiders whose faith and participation in God’s mission might go unrecognized by established religious authorities? How is God calling you to partner with these religious outsiders and participate in God’s larger mission?
These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves as a church and as individual Christians. This is the mentality, the Beginner’s Mind, that we need to cultivate day by day so that we can be more open to what God is doing and more faithful followers of Jesus, whose great big love honors and embraces the faith of all people: Israelites, Centurions, and even Presbyterians.