June 2, 2013
One of my family's favorite movies is "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." It's about a Greek-American woman who defies the traditions of her Greek-American family by falling in love with and marrying a man who is not Greek. Cultures clash, as you might expect. The constant refrain from her father, who is the most upset about her marriage, is the word exenno. After the initial meeting with the groom's parents, which was definitely a clash of cultures, the bride's father complains to her mother about how they were nice to the other family but there was no response. Exenno! His daughter is marrying an exenno. The groom's whole family is exenno.
I watched this movie several times before I finally thought to ask my sister, who speaks Greek, what exenno means. It means stranger. Tulla, the bride, was marrying a stranger and marrying into a family of strangers. In this circumstance I don't think Tulla's father used the word stranger merely to reflect the fact that they didn't know the groom's family. They weren't strangers simply because they hadn't yet met. They were exenno, stranger, because they weren't Greek, they weren't like them. They didn't have the same traditions, the same religion and beliefs. the same anything. The groom and his family were the others. They were strangers. Exenno.
To the casual observer the Roman centurion in the gospel lesson surely would have fit the definition of exenno, stranger. He was Roman. He was a person of authority in the Roman army. The Romans were the occupying force that held the people of Israel politically and culturally hostage. This man was the oppressor.
Yet from the very beginning of the passage we hear things about the centurion that conflict with our idea of oppressor. He does not ask for healing for himself. He asks for a slave, whom he valued highly. I would guess that in that time a slave's life would not be of high value to anyone by virtue of his or her status as slave. Yet the centurion cares enough about the slave to ask for healing. He does not come to Jesus himself, but sends Jewish elders to speak to Jesus for him.
What do they say? They tell Jesus that this man is worthy of Jesus' attention. Even though the centurion, by definition, is part of the oppressing, occupying force in their land, he is kind and sympathetic to the Jewish people. He loves them. It was he who built their synagogue.
Jesus doesn't question the elders about the man at all. He hears of a need and he responds. But before he can reach the centurion's home, friends of the man intercept Jesus once again. They bring a message from the man that Jesus doesn't even need to darken the door for the slave to be healed. The centurion knows that he is not worthy of Jesus being in his house. But the centurion recognizes authority when he sees it. He too is a man of authority. He only has to speak a word and his will will be done. He knows Jesus has authority, not in directing people to do what he wants, but the authority over life and death. All Jesus has to do is speak a word and his slave will be healed.
The best part and the most curious part of this passage for me is that Jesus is surprised by this. The text says that when Jesus heard this he was amazed. He turns to the folks around him and proclaims that even in Israel, he's never seen this much faith. The one we might consider exenno has a strong and surprising faith.
I've learned something about myself in the last few weeks. Too often I see people as exenno, stranger. I don't think I do this consciously. But more often than not that's the particular lens through which I see the world. But sitting in storm shelters with people tends to change that lens.
Not only seeing the devastation from the storms on television but seeing it up close, meeting people who have been directly affected by them, makes one realize that no matter what these folks believe or don't believe, no matter what might keep us apart under "normal" circumstances, they are our neighbors. They're our family. We're theirs.
One afternoon last week I rode around with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance representative embedded in the Red Cross. The rep is also a Presbyterian pastor. We were making connections at different places where people in the Hispanic community might go seeking assistance. He, on behalf of the Red Cross, wanted to make sure that everyone receives help, no matter what their circumstances might be. I realized once again that other people aren't exenno. They aren't strangers. They're sisters and their brothers. They're neighbors. They are people in need and our call is to do everything we can to help meet that need.
A friend and colleague wrote about this passage that Jesus didn't see worldly circumstances or labels or categories. He saw need, and he replaced that need with healing and wholeness. The Roman centurion was not exenno to Jesus. The slave was not exenno. They were children of God in need. That's all that mattered.
The needs of our neighbors in our state are overwhelming and they are ongoing. If more storms hit this week as they are predicting, more need may arise. Everyone here and around the country have stepped up to meet these needs. But as I've said far too many times these last months, it can't be only in times of crisis and disaster that we remember that we are family, not exenno. I know I have to work and work hard to lose the lens of exenno. I don't want to see people as strangers at any time, state of emergency or not. And I want to lose my surprise that faith can come from unlikely people in unexpected places.
I met two women last week who'd lost their home in Bethel Acres. All they had, literally, were the clothes on their backs. The first thing they said to me was how grateful they were for the help they'd received and they couldn't wait to be able to pay it forward. That surprised me, but why? Because before the storms I would have thought of them as exenno? Why should I be surprised that I see faith in unexpected places?
The faith of the centurion probably surprised Jesus and I imagine it surprised a lot of the people who were with him that day. But we have story after story of God using unlikely people to do God's work in the world. Whatever they may believe or not, they are not exenno. And who knows, maybe they've seen us as exenno as well, unlikely and unexpected neighbors. Let's work to make sure that none of us are exenno. Let's work and work hard to remember that we are family. Let all of God's children say, "Amen."