The Faithful Centurion: A Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Pentecost

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

Jesus raises the dead with a wand (Roman catacomb, 3rd century)

The gospel story for the Second Sunday of Pentecost[i] describes a world in which things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to.

A Roman centurion treats his slave more like a friend than a piece of property. When the slave gets sick and is close to death, the centurion implores the Jewish community to help him find a healer.

Normally, Jews and Romans were not on the best of terms. Occupying armies just don’t get much love, and besides, doesn’t everybody know that foreigners are just “not our kind?” If only we could build a wall high enough to keep them out!

But this Roman centurion has somehow made friends with the local Jewish elders. He has even built a synagogue for them. So they are happy to help.

The Roman has heard some stories about Jesus and his healing gifts, so he asks the elders to go beg Jesus, that he might come and heal his slave.

Now we’ve heard a lot of stories about Jesus getting the local clergy mad at him, so we may be surprised to learn that there were also some of them who admired Jesus, and maintained good relations with him. That is clearly the case here. And what the elders say to Jesus is this: “The centurion is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people.”

So far, not much is going the way we would expect. A centurion treats his slave like a friend. A Roman loves the Jews, and the Jews love him back. And as for Jesus and the local clergy, they are getting along swimmingly.

But there are more surprises to come.

Jesus goes with the elders to find the centurion’s house, but just before they arrive, the centurion sends some friends out to say, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; that is why I did not presume to come to you myself. But only speak the word, and my servant shall be healed. For I know something about authority, since I have soldiers serving under me. I say to one, `Go,’ and he goes, and to another, `Come,’ and he comes, and I say to my slave, `Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

How strange to see a Roman officer humbling himself before a wandering Jewish rabbi. “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof,” he says.

And Jesus is “amazed.” That word in the gospel is usually applied to people who are amazed at Jesus. But here it is Jesus’ turn to be amazed. And why? Because the centurion has total faith in the power of Jesus to heal his slave, even at a distance.

“Just as I command my slaves to come and go as I wish, I believe that you have the power to command sickness and death to depart from my house. Only say the word.”

It may seem a little odd that this exchange doesn’t take place directly between Jesus and the centurion. The centurion communicates through intermediaries. This is, he says, because he is not worthy to have Jesus even enter his house. It’s a pretty extraordinary bit of deference on behalf of the powerful Roman.

In any case, Jesus turns to the crowd which has been tagging along because this was clearly the most interesting thing happening in Capernaum that day, and says, “You know what? I haven’t found this kind of faith among any of you folks who go to church. You all could learn something from this centurion fellow. You may call him an unbeliever, but he’s just given you some of the best spiritual teaching you’re ever going to get.”

And then, because this wants to be an odd story from beginning to end, the servant is suddenly well without Jesus ever saying a prayer or speaking a healing word. This miracle happens offstage, and we only hear about it later.

Notice that Jesus never actually meets the centurion or the slave. Everything happens at a distance, through intermediaries, rather the way that prayer works. We may not meet Jesus directly, in the flesh, but his effect on us is still palpable and powerful. And as the centurion believed, it is faith that makes that connection happen.

This strange little story is about a world which is repeatedly and radically disrupted: social and cultural barriers are crossed, enemies act like friends, the master/slave hierarchy is upended, earthly power humbles itself, the religious experts are schooled by a pagan outsider and oh, by the way, a healing miracle happens without any fanfare or even the slightest tangible demonstration of cause and effect. Just another day in the life of the God of surprises.

We could take a number of things from this story, but today my question is this: Who outside our own faith communities has something essential to teach us? And are we capable of appreciative amazement? Are we capable of receiving that teaching with gratitude and humility?

Where are the ones, beyond our institutional and theological boundaries, who are practicing social imagination and nurturing a better future? Where are the ones who are already doing holy work without even knowing God’s name?

Who are the ones
living a practical faith
serving a need
working for change
refusing injustice
breaking boundaries
loving enemies
making peace
showing mercy
finding the lost
tending the sick
visiting the prisoner
binding wounds
soothing the suffering
comforting the afflicted
nourishing wonder
fostering delight
shielding the joyous
organizing the powerless
repairing the world
welcoming the Kingdom . . .

Who are they and how can we learn from them?
How can we support them?
How can we join them?






[i] Luke 7:1-10 (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)

Is the American Dream a Con Game?

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

Oftener it falls, that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into the clouds, then leaps and frisks about with me from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he is bound heavenward and I, being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise …

— Herman Melville, The Confidence Man

In Melville’s final novel, a ‘mysterious stranger’ boards a Mississippi riverboat on April Fools Day, initiating a series of scams upon the gullible passengers. Appearing in various guises, the stranger collects money for distant charities, solicits investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and sells miracle cures, all the while encouraging his marks to have confidence in the dream of better lives and a better world. He is the “winged man” who promises to carry them “heavenward.”

However, the marks soon learn that the hopes and dreams on offer are a total fraud. Melville describes the inevitable disillusion: “I tumble down again soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and have lost the faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither where I would be.”[i]

That riverboat still haunts the American imagination. We fall in love with dreams and schemes of better futures, better selves, a “life of exaggerations,” and invest our confidence in those who promise to deliver. This may work out for some, but more often there is the sting of disappointment, a sense of betrayal. As Greil Marcus has written, “America is a trap: its promises and dreams … are too much to live up to and too much to escape.”[ii]

Unattainable promises. Impossible dreams. The lonely crowd grows sullen, resentful, angry, like Nathanael West’s California dreamers in Day of the Locust (1939). Lured by the prospect of a New Eden out West, over the rainbow, they slave and save until they can afford to move to “the land of sunshine and oranges.”

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges . . . Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time . . . They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment . . . They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.[iii]

W. H. Auden described West’s novel as a parable “about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.”[iv] Either way, it’s a figure we all recognize: the Confidence Man, duping the suckers with his promise to make America great again. “Believe me. Believe me. It’s going to be terrific.”

And what happens when the dreamers tumble back to earth? Most of us muddle on as best we can, but in Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic musical, Assassins[v], nine embittered and unbalanced Americans find a single target for their anger: the President of the United States. In a carnival of lost souls, a smirking barker (the Confidence Man in disguise!) doles out handguns like cotton candy to a new crop of eager marks. If you keep your goal in sight,” he sings, “you can climb to any height. Everybody’s got the right to their dreams.”

No job? Cupboard bare?
one room, no one there?
Hey, pal, don’t despair-
You wanna shoot a president?
c’mon and shoot a president…

John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, Charles Guiteau, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, John Hinckley and a couple more broken dreamers line up to claim a gun as their means of grace and hope of glory.

And all you have to do
Is move your little finger,
Move your little finger and
You can change the world.

The climax takes us to Dallas, where the gang of murderous misfits pressures Lee Harvey Oswald to join their ranks and assuage their shared malady: “a desperate desire to reconcile intolerable feelings of impotence with an inflamed and malignant sense of entitlement.”[vi]

In the finale, all nine assassins come to the front of the stage, singing out with all the confident uplift we expect from our musicals:

Everybody’s got the right to some sunshine!
Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams.
Rich man, poor man, black or white,
Everybody gets a bite,
Everybody’s got the right
to their dreams……

The smiling cast stretches out the last word, “dreams,” for a full twelve seconds as they raise their guns high. The moment the music ends, they all fire at once, a deafening volley, and the stage goes black.

When Assassins premiered in 1990, it was not well received. It seemed too dark and crazy at the time. But when I saw a rare revival this month at Seattle’s ACT Theater, it somehow made perfect sense, so dark and crazy has America become in these latter days.

We all clapped and cheered, of course. It was a fabulous production. The cast was great. It wasn’t all grim. There was plenty of humor. And Sondheim’s songs! But I had tears in my eyes as well. As Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country…”

As the applause went on, I thought of Kierkegaard’s story of a theater which had caught fire backstage as the show was about to begin. The manager grabbed the first actor he found to step through the curtain and warn the audience to evacuate. That actor, alas, was dressed as a clown. “The theater is burning!” he cried. “You must leave immediately!” The audience roared with laughter at the clown’s performance. Such pathos! Such irony! The more he shouted and pleaded, the more they laughed, until they were all consumed by the flames.




[i] Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade in Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Uncollected Prose, Billy Budd, Sailor (New York: Library of America, 1984), 452

[ii] Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975), 22

[iii] Nathanael West, Day of the Locust (from my personal transcription in a 1968 commonplace journal, original page unknown)

[iv] Wikipedia reference: Barnard, Rita. “‘When You Wish Upon a Star’: Fantasy, Experience, and Mass Culture in Nathanael West” American Literature, Vol. 66, No. 2 (June 1994), pgs. 325-51

[v] 1990, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman

[vi] John Weidman interview, quoted in Misha Berson’s Seattle Times review, March 9, 2016

The roads where we once traveled

Near the end of my Camino: weary but happy.

Near the end of my Camino: weary but happy.

If I forget my past, Facebook will remind me, popping up a past post for any given date. Today’s memory is a photo and blog link from May 10, 2014, the day before I completed my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. I began writing this blog on that journey, and while I try not to repeat myself, I will mark this anniversary by re-posting my blog from that day.  If you are curious to read about my next day’s arrival in Santiago, you can find that here. And all my Camino posts may be found in the April and May archives for 2014. If any of you are inspired to walk the Camino yourselves, I say yes, do not hesitate. You will be blessed.

Songs to Sing and Tales to Tell (May 10, 2014)

And when my journey’s finally over,
when rest and peace upon me lie,
high o’er the roads
where we once traveled,
silently there my mind will fly.

– “Parting Friends”

This is one of the many shape note songs I sang along the Camino. I also sang hymns for Holy Week and Easter, made every tunnel and underpass echo with Kyries and Alleluias, and on a few evenings when a guitar got passed around in a hostel, taught choruses from Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” (“we’ll meet again on some bright highway, songs to sing and tales to tell”) and Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” (“I am the least of all your pilgrims here, but I am most in need of hope”). And several times a day I would break out with “Dum pater familias,” the medieval Latin song for St. James that rallied the spirits of the pilgrims who sang it as they walked. Prior to headphones, singing was an important part of the pilgrimage experience – shared voices imprinting the path with songlines.

On my penultimate day, the words of “Parting Friends” are especially apt. My mind indeed flies back over the roads I’ve traveled and the people I’ve met. Previous posts have mentioned some of these, but let me record three more who have embodied for me the spirit of the Camino.

The first is Janine, the hospitalera who welcomed me and six other pilgrims to a humble albergue in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, a village lost in the vast Meseta like a small boat adrift at sea. In a place forgotten by time and history, this grandmotherly woman provided the most exquisite hospitality, as if we were her own family. The next morning, she saw me off with a blessing. Pointing to her “corazon” and mine, she indicated that we were connected. Then she made a walking motion with her fingers and said, “Buen Camino.” She repeated this touching ritual with each of us. Like saints of old doing good in lonely outposts for no earthly reward, she simply existed to love the stranger.

Then there is Tomas, who has occupied a tiny abandoned village in the mountains near the Camino’s highest point and created, in an eclectic assemblage of flags, signs, sculptures and makeshift structures akin to outsider art, a haven for pilgrims seeking a tranquil respite by day, one of his 35 mattresses by night, or shelter from the storm anytime it’s needed. Whenever he sees a pilgrim approaching, he rings a temple bell to greet and bless them. If a cloud covers the mountain with fog and darkness, he rings the bell to guide lost pilgrims to his safe haven. This is his life: to live as a hermit in order to serve the pilgrim.

Finally, on a shady trail through a eucalyptus grove yesterday, I saw a young man kneeling in the dust to pray before a wayside cross. I don’t know his name or his story, but the evident depth of his devotion reminded me how serious a matter the Camino can be.

And now I am at the outer edge of Santiago, in a quiet albergue with very few occupants. Most pilgrims who get this far simply continue on to the great cathedral less than an hour’s walk from here. But I didn’t want to drag myself to the finish late in the day, wearied and worn by ten miles of walking. I want to arrive fresh and renewed, to finish my Camino in the light of the rising sun on the day of Resurrection. So like Jacob of old, who camped just short of his destination in order to collect himself for the morrow’s big encounter, I shall rest and reflect and – who knows? – maybe wrestle with angels till daybreak.


Related Posts

Hospital for the Soul

The Movement of Hearts and Souls


Daniel Berrigan: Sword of Wisdom, Maker of Peace

Berrigan in cuffs

There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war— at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake. — Daniel Berrigan[i]

On May 17, 1968, nine Roman Catholic activists broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, transferring 378 files to the parking lot to be incinerated with home-made napalm. As the fire burned, the “Catonsville Nine” prayed for peace. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, but four of them, including two priests— Daniel and Philip Berrigan— went underground, eluding capture for a number of months, occasionally surfacing to speak at antiwar rallies.

At one of these public appearances, following a dramatic tableau of the Last Supper with giant puppets, Dan Berrigan made his escape inside one of the Apostles. “I was hoping it wasn’t the puppet of Judas,” he said later. His comical getaway affirmed irrepressible life even as it mocked the powers of death. Berrigan, a puckish and playful spirit, knew that laughter could be a serious form of subversion.

After being sheltered by 37 different families, Dan Berrigan, S.J., was finally captured August 11, 1970, in the house of Episcopal lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow. He was reading Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates when F.B.I. agents showed up at the door.

On Palm Sunday of the following year, I designed a liturgy where two carpenters constructed a large cross near the altar during the course of the ritual. At various points, dialogue between the carpenters would interrupt the liturgical texts. The two workers expressed curiosity about the intended victim and the nature of his crime. They wondered about the morality of their own complicity in the official machinery of death. What if they just stopped making crosses? Would it make any difference? Or would they just find themselves without a job? In the end, they suppressed their doubts and finished the cross, hammering it together loudly during the eucharistic prayer: This is my body, given for you … This is my blood, shed for you …

It was no coincidence that I had just been reading No Bars to Manhood, Dan Berrigan’s compelling account of the influences and experiences underlying his Christian activism. Its conclusions were clear: as witnesses to the Resurrection, the friends of God must say no to death. No more cross-building. No more remaining passive spectators at the world’s crucifixions. “There are times so evil,” he wrote, “that the first and indeed the only genuinely prophetic function is to cast down the images of injustice and death that claim [the human being] as victim.”[ii]

A Newsweek blurb on my well-worn 95-cent paperback from 1971 reads, “Daniel Berrigan is the sort of priest who causes the lights of the Vatican to burn through the night.” The actions he took and the company he kept often strained the patience and understanding of his clerical superiors. One of his friends in the Society of Jesus told him, “Do you want to know why you’re in trouble so frequently? It’s because you and some others show us what Jesuits can be. And that’s why we can’t stand you.”[iii]

Today, when so many horrors are cloaked in euphemisms like “collateral damage,” Dan Berrigan’s truthful language still delivers a shock. His response to the charge of incinerating draft board records is justly famous:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest from thinking of the Land of Burning Children … We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here. The death stops here. The suppression of the truth stops here. This war stops here.[iv]

Even in his contentious moments with the Church, Berrigan understood his priesthood to be deeply rooted in the ethos of his religious community, where, he wrote, one’s life might “be purified of the inhuman drives of egoism, acculturation, professional pride and dread of life.”[v] In the trial of the Catonsville Nine, when asked whether such radical protest was in harmony with Catholic teaching, he replied, “May I say that if that is not accepted as a substantial part of my action, then the action is eviscerated of all meaning and I should be committed for insanity.”[vi]

For those of us who tend to play it safe in conforming our own choices to the gospel, Berrigan’s life of witness poses hard questions about discipleship and the imperatives of conscience. “He was dangerous, as holiness should be; he was a sword of wisdom.”[vii] A college student, after hearing Berrigan speak at Stanford in the late Sixties, put it this way: “Father Berrigan has raised the ante for all of us.”[viii]

That student’s religion professor, Robert McAfee Brown (one of my own most admired teachers), considered the question of whether the Berrigan brothers were signs or models. Their words and actions clearly signified the world’s sin and brokenness in parabolic gestures difficult to ignore. But were we obligated to model our lives after theirs, or might we find other ways to be faithful, according to our own distinctive calling? This question has troubled the conscience of many, including my own.

“We must continually ask ourselves why we are so attracted to them.” Brown wrote, “when we hear what they say and yet do not do the things they do … [T]heir actions provide a disturbing sign that we must take seriously, particularly if those actions are not yet the model most of us are prepared to imitate.”[ix] Brown himself had the courage to live into those questions for the rest of his life, becoming one of the most eloquent theological voices for justice and peace.

As “the man who hears handcuffs close upon him,”[x] Berrigan felt a deep kinship with biblical prisoners for God like the prophet Jeremiah. “There is a meaning to things, however dark and damaging … Jeremiah wrestles with the meaning; his wrestling is the meaning; it defines the moral substance and limits of his activity in the world. At the same time, his struggle with the unknown One interiorizes, draws to a fine point and gravity his moral life.”[xi]

Like Jeremiah, Berrigan knew a God who contends with human injustice, who plucks up and breaks down our tainted and presumptuous projects.

We are so used to an acculturated and childish religion, whose ethos has joined forces with the society— with its militarism and racism and fear of life, that we are almost illiterate before a document such as Jeremiah’s. Can it be true that God is not a Niagara of pablum, spilling His childish comfort upon the morally and humanly neutral, whose faces are raised blankly to partake of that infantile nourishment?[xii]

Not every Christian received his rhetoric gladly. And the radical priest’s liturgical fusion of sacrament and protest also drew fire. After baptizing a baby in the chapel at Cornell, he kissed the new Christian’s forehead and invited him “out of the world of war and destruction.” While presiding at an “Electric Mass for Peace” on the same campus, he made explicit connections in the eucharistic prayer between Christ’s blood and the blood shed on both sides in Vietnam. Some saw these things as careless, even blasphemous. Others found them prophetic and profoundly faithful.

Berrigan’s words and actions had a deep and lasting influence on many in the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements, as well as progressive Christians. His dramatic forms of witness also drew immense media attention, for which he took some criticism as a “media freak.” But his vocation was stronger than the temptations of celebrity. As Paul Elie, chronicler of the great twentieth century Catholic writers, noted in a New Yorker blog:

He created no foundation, nonprofit, or N.G.O.; headed no pacifist think tank or Jesuit school of advanced study; gave no TED talk; engaged in no stagey dialogues offering equal time to the military point of view; and never reframed the ideals of nonviolence in any pocket-size manual for personal growth.[xiii]

Berrigan had no neutral gear. Even when the public spotlight moved on to other subjects, his writing lost nothing of its urgency and fire. In The Discipline of the Mountain, his poetic reflection on “Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World,” he wrote, “There is a hell for those who go too far, and there is a hell, or at least an anteroom of hell, for those who refuse to go far enough.”[xiv] Going far enough for the sake of the gospel was the driving force of his life. But as he once confessed to Robert Coles, “We are groping. We shouldn’t be sure of ourselves, because we can’t be, not now— not ever.”[xv]

Only death is sure, and that finally came last week, on Orthodox Holy Saturday, to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in his 95th year. I barely knew him, hearing him preach twice and breaking bread with him once in a Los Angeles rectory. But this loss feels personal. He was both sign and model for many priests of my generation, and there are things he said which haunt me still.

In 1964, midway in his life’s journey, Berrigan imagined the moment of his own death:

As I walk patiently through life
poems follow close …

The poem called death
is unwritten yet. Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise,
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.[xvi]

And then what? Only faith can say, that Easter faith which alone can contain and complete the fullness of human life. At the end of his meditation on Dante’s Purgatorio, the poet/priest peers beyond death’s horizon to see a resurrected humanity being gathered into God.

Leading the way are “the intractable ones” who have suffered prison, torture and martyrdom for their faithful witness. In them we see at last “the human venture vindicated.” Their faces and Christ’s face become as one, in an upward gaze that “breaks the glacial will of God.”[xvii]

They embrace         one after another
Tears    laughter     two weathers
contending in one sky



[i] Daniel Berrigan. S.J., No Bars to Manhood (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 49

[ii] ibid., 97

[iii] ibid., 19

[iv] q. in Robert McAfee Brown, “The Berrigans: Signs or Models?”, in The Berrigans, ed. William Van Etten Casey, S.J. & Philip Nobile (New York: Praeger Publisher, 1971), 62

[v] q. in Edward Duff, S.J., “The Burden of the Berrigans,” in The Berrigans, 19

[vi] ibid., 15

[vii] Daniel Berrigan, The Discipline of the Mountain: Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), 99. The quote is by Berrigan, describing “an Indian holy man” with whom he once led a retreat. But it also seems aptly applied to Berrigan himself.

[viii] R.M. Brown, 61

[ix] ibid., 66, 69

[x] No Bars, 99

[xi] ibid., 96

[xii] ibid., 97

[xiii] Paul Elie, “Postscript: Daniel Berrigan, 1921-2016” (New Yorker online, May 2, 2016)

[xiv] Discipline, 39

[xv] Robert Coles, “Thinking About Those Priests,” in The Berrigans, 219

[xvi] Daniel Berrigan, “A Dark Word,” Poetry Magazine, April 1964, online at

[xvii] Discipline, 119-120