I flew to Atlanta last Sunday for the Festival of Homiletics. It was powerful, as always, and I am glad I went. One of the most amazing stories I have heard in a long time, though, was one I encountered before I even got on the plane.
I thought my time would be tight, but I was randomly selected for the TSA Pre-Check so I was there with time to spare. I sat down for lunch and then decided to walk. No doubt my steps were meandering so I was an easy mark for the woman trying to sign people up for an alternative electricity supplier tied to bonus airline miles. She stepped in front of me and asked if I lived in Illinois. Perhaps I should have kept moving. I’m glad I didn’t. For while we waited for forms to download on her tablet I took the chance to ask her name. Smiling, she said it was Thelma.
Thelma’s accent was vaguely familiar to me, but since I couldn’t place it, I asked. “I’m from Liberia,” she offered. Over the course of the next couple of minutes she gave me the condensed version of her people and her country. “My ancestors were freed slaves,” she said. “They moved to Liberia in 1850.” I did know some of the history of her country. I had not recalled the exact timeline of that wave of emigration and I marveled that this was even before our Civil War.
She went on to tell me that she had moved here ten years ago, living first in Minneapolis where she had work as a telemarketer. Her husband was already here, living then and now in Chicago where he is a child psychologist. Several years ago she got the job she currently holds and so she was able to join him in Illinois.
Together Thelma and her husband have a 2 1/2 year old little girl and a 12 year old son. Her eyes lit up to tell me about them. Only their son still lives in Liberia with his grandmother, her mother. Try as they might, they have not been able to bring him here yet. She said she last saw him six years ago: the last time she could afford to travel there. She worried when the Ebola virus hit her hometown and called her mother every day to offer advice on how to avoid it. “Wash your hands,” she told her. “Don’t let strangers in the house.” I commented that it must be hard to be away from her son. And her reply? She spoke aloud to me the very promises of God, quoting Hebrews 13:5, “I will not leave you nor forsake you.” She told me that has been true all of her life and she is more than confident this will always be so.
I walked away from that encounter changed somehow, with my eyes opened to how God works faith in unexpected places. Indeed. I could hear the voice of Jesus saying, as he does in today’s Gospel:
“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
For it is so that my faith has not been tested as Thelma’s has been.
- I have always lived within easy reach of family.
- I have never really had to sacrifice or put myself at risk to be near those I love. No, I have never had to pull up my roots and move myself half way around the world to be with or to provide for those I love.
- I have never had to worry that ones so dear to me might be taken by a virulent disease; never had to use up my cell phone minutes to do what I can to watch out for them.
- I have never had to fight powerful systems in order to ensure that I might one day have all my loved ones in one place.
- And no, I have never had to overcome the barriers which differences in race and skin color and an unfamiliar accent can place in the way of so many of our neighbors.
Oh, it is so that my life has had other challenges, yes, and like Thelma, I have known the truth that “God does not leave me nor forsake me,” but even so. I found myself surprised last Sunday afternoon to encounter such a deep witness of faith in one who to me was a profoundly unexpected person: in one who claims to have known great blessing, yes, but who has also experienced great heartbreak.
It seems to me there are a number of gifts for us in the story of the healing of the centurion’s slave in today’s Gospel from Luke. Surely, the authority which Jesus holds over life threatening disease is a place where I pause as well. Even so, for now I am taken with the wonder of being able to witness how God is often at work in powerful ways in people’s lives and I am grateful to encounter it from time to time as I did last Sunday afternoon. Oh yes, God’s amazing gifts are known in many ways, not the least of which is in building and sustaining faith in God’s people. Like with the centurion. Like with Thelma on Concourse B. And from time to time when I pause long enough to know the privilege of being able to glimpse it? I know myself to be most blessed.
- Church Innovations teaches a Missional Practice; Dwelling in the World, which equips us to have just the kind of encounter I had last Sunday afternoon. If you are interested in learning more about it, follow the link above.
- When and where have you encountered deep faith in a surprising place or person? What story did you hear?
- How have you been changed by encountering such faith in others? How did it strengthen you? How did it challenge you?