Christ Church, St. Michaels
May 29, 2016
Many years ago when I was working in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, a very desolate and impoverished area, I was befriended by a Catholic deacon named Albert. Deacon Albert, as we all called him, was a staff member of the HIV/AIDS social service organization that I was managing.
Back then there was no treatment for HIV/AIDS. AZT therapy was on the horizon but not yet available to the mass market. With literally no medical options, our clients and their families were desperately in need of support, both emotional and concrete, in all aspects of their lives.
Most of the people in the valley who were living with HIV/AIDS were Mexican, and those infected were not only men, but also women, infants and children. Almost all of these individuals were impoverished and living in colonias – slums really. Their housing was frequently no more that a single wide trailer, with multiple people sharing beds and other aspects of living. Lack of funds to buy food and other household products was a real issue. There was no medical support for those who were sick and dying.
Several days after my arrival in the Valley Deacon Albert barged, and I do mean barged, into my office and said, “Mrs. Garrity you can’t lead this organization if you sit behind that big, fancy desk. You need to come with me.” I was a little stunned, but I dutifully followed Albert out of my comfortable office and into an ancient and very uncomfortable – no air conditioning, springs coming up through my seat – Toyota pick-up truck which was loaded, and I do mean loaded, with bags of food and toiletry items. Albert said to me, “Now you will get to meet the people and hear their stories – that is what is important. When you know their stories, then you can really begin to know how to help them.”
Off we went on what was to become a regular ministry for me over the next four years. It was a ministry of presence and healing, and it changed my life forever. I visited many homes in the colonias, and I came to know many people and their many stories. God was everywhere we went – so visible, so compelling – the Spirit guiding us in ways that I had never imagined. We went from delivering food and household products to reconciling mothers and their gay sons, baptizing babies, and conducting funerals.
And, as Albert had predicted, the knowledge that I gained from my frequent visits to the colonias did indeed give me critically important information – information that would be the foundation for the programs that we developed and the grants that we applied for in order to fund our programs.
However, the point I want to make here is that these people and their stories would have remained invisible – invisible -to me and to our organization had not Albert barged into my office that day and insisted that I could not lead the organization without seeing the people who needed our assistance, first hand.
Albert was a true advocate for the poor, the needy and the lonely. He had the courage to barge into my office and speak out loudly for them. He had the faith to believe that God would answer his appeal in some way, or ways, that he could not at that moment in time see or understand. Deacon Albert was the channel through which I learned about the people of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the needs of the people living with HIV/AIDS.
In today’s gospel reading from Luke 7, Jesus is approached indirectly by a centurion seeking help for a deeply cherished slave who was ill and close to death. This centurion saw something in Jesus that inspired faith. He believed that somehow, someway Jesus would be able to heal his sick slave – to prevent the slave’s death. The centurion decided to seek Jesus’ help in spite of the fact that he was a Gentile and a Roman soldier. Figuratively speaking, the centurion decided to barge into Jesus’ room, speaking up for someone in need.
But, believing himself unworthy of speaking to Jesus personally, the centurion approached several Jewish elders and requested that they be the ones to ask Jesus to come and heal the slave. The local Jewish leaders went to Jesus and said, " [The centurion] is worthy of having you do this for him" (7:4). Hearing this, Jesus “went with them” with little or, perhaps, no hesitation. Jesus was intent on going to see - going to heal.
Keep in mind that in ancient Rome "centurion" meant “captain of 100" - or captain of over 100 foot soldiers in Rome’s powerful army. Centurions were leaders of the cruel and brutal military force that had conquered the people of Israel, and who would soon participate in the execution of Jesus.
But, although he was a man who commanded over 100 soldiers, the centurion became a servant to his own servant by calling Jesus to heal him. The centurion was serving the Lord Jesus by reaching out to those in need, in this case a slave who was lowly and looked down upon by others. The centurion was the channel through which Christ’s power flowed and healed this dying boy.
Clearly, Jesus had a number of reasons to resist helping this centurion even though he was highly praised by the local leaders. From Jesus' perspective the centurion represented everything that was dangerous and sinful about the world.
We never learn why Jesus is so eager to help this Roman soldier; we learn only that Jesus did not hesitate in the slightest to head toward his house. Jesus had been called to see and to heal. And, Jesus responded – he was called and he went – even into unknown and potentially dangerous territory.
I think Deacon Albert was a little, if not very, like the centurion. In faith, Albert barged into the office of a new boss to whom he had not yet been introduced and said, “Leave the comfort of your office and come with me. You are needed in the colonias; they are waiting for relief, healing, reconciliation. You need to come with me.”
Albert’s courage was bold; he was willing to go out on a limb by reaching out to me on behalf of those in need. He was the channel through which I was able to understand the complexity of the problems facing the men, women and children living with HIV/AIDS in the colonias. He was also the spark of faith that opened the eyes of my heart to the presence of God in those around me and in those whom I was serving.
I think that it is important to note that Deacon Albert’s faith and commitment to and advocacy for the poor were not only a spark, but the flame that ignited my call to enter the process of ordination to the diaconate. Soon after leaving the Valley, I embarked on the discernment process at my new church in Palm Beach, Florida – and, the rest is history.
The lesson learned back then, for me – a lesson that I have never lost sight of – is that Jesus is asking us to go out into the world, to really see, hear, and know our brothers and sisters in Christ and to identify those in need.
Jesus showed us that our reaction to the complex challenges of the world needs to be brave, passionate, and filled with faith; faith that God will be with us – all the way. Albert modeled that for me. And, in my own small way, over the ensuing years, I have tried to model this way of being in my own life.
I believe with all my heart that there is no way to know God, or to understand fully his gift of Jesus – the Son of God incarnate – if we fail to go out into the world – fail to go out into the world and seek God– our Creator – in so many different people and in so many different places. For me, this is truly a thrilling but yet most humbling experience.
Knowing God – holding Jesus up as our model – allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and support us in our everyday lives – we are called to be centurions and Alberts – to have the faith, courage and passion needed if we are to be successful advocates for those in need.
Am I, are you, joyfully and fearlessly able to advocate for those in need, forever seeking new venues in which to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ? Do I, do you, dare to cross the invisible barriers in our communities and venture into places where we are not expected – indeed, where we are not even welcomed – to be seed throwers, fire starters, hope peddlers, risk takers and dreamers on behalf of the Good News of Jesus Christ?
If we do not know God by continually seeking him in others, in our own community and elsewhere throughout the world – if God is not an integral part of us and our everyday life how can we ever be a centurion or an Albert – how can we follow Jesus, beyond the cross and into the world as a blessing and a light to all those who live in darkness?
Let us pray. God, we turn to you in faith and in doubt, in joy and in anxiety, in hope and in fear, with boldness and with trepidation. No matter how we turn to you, we trust that your grace and love will hold us in your care, O God. Draw us together. Inspire us to preach your good news that faith and healing can be found where we least expect it. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.