Sermons That Work

According to the Gospels…, Proper 7 (A) – 2008

June 22, 2008

According to the gospels, a big part of the ministry of Jesus was that he refused to be scandalized.

First, he refused to be scandalized by garden variety sinners. Indeed, he was often seen in company with them: prostitutes, who sold their bodies, for example; or tax collectors who ripped people off. He knew full well what they were up to; he didn’t countenance their behavior, but he didn’t reject them.

Nor was he scandalized by victims, by the losers in his world. These included the handicapped, the marginalized, all the literal and metaphorical lepers who were shunned by self-proclaimed “good people,” sometimes for reasons that appeared religious. With such victims he kept company, and he did what he could to help them.

Jesus wasn’t scandalized by any of these people. So, as a result, some people were scandalized by him. These were the authorities, the big shots, the self-proclaimed “good people.” They resented very much his refusal to be scandalized. For, you see, their world depended on some people being dismissed as rejects so that others could enjoy huge advantages. It was very much a win-lose system.

It’s too bad they acted that way. Besides doing harm to others, they did harm to themselves: they missed out on a blessing.

Elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel we hear how John the Baptist, while still in prison, sent messengers to ask Jesus whether he was indeed the expected messiah. It seems that John was starting to have doubts. Jesus sent the messengers back to John. They were to tell him what they had found out. Jesus was not scandalized by rejects; he was busy helping them. He met this messianic requirement. Then he added that blessed indeed is anyone who takes no offense at this, anyone not scandalized by what he was doing.

Jesus was not scandalized by sinners and victims. More than that, Jesus was not even scandalized by the victimizers. He knew what they were up to. He publicly criticized it, and he watched his back, but he was not shocked or surprised. He recognized that, like their victims, these victimizers lacked freedom. Their power, their prestige, their pride may have kept them ignorant, but they were enslaved by their own injustice. They have crashed, they have burned, but they simply did not know it.

Jesus refused to be scandalized. This scandalized others. They launched a conspiracy that carried Jesus to his death – and to resurrection.

What about his disciples – both his first followers and us? Jesus invites us not to be scandalized by anyone. And he warns us that by living in this way, we will scandalize other people, those who draw dividends from an unjust world.

Admittedly, Jesus is asking a lot of us. He tells us to buck the system big time. We are not to become players in the world’s most popular game, where people become either victim or victimizer, the one who rejects or the one rejected. Or to put it differently, the world lives in fear. They fear their enemies. If they appear to have none, they manufacture some. The game must go on.

Jesus tells us not have enemies. If others see us as theirs, that’s their problem, but we are not to treat them as enemies, as opponents, as effective threats. We are not to be scandalized by them. We are not to play that game.

Thus we do not permit others to define who we are. We refuse to travel this way of fear.

Instead, we accept the identity that comes to us from God. We are his children; we are of infinite value; we are free from the scandal system. And whether or not they know it, this identity is available to everyone else as well.

Accepting this is not easy. We have to die to the old way, the old identity, governed as it is by scandal and fear and death. We make this escape by being baptized into Christ. We live a life loyal to our baptism as we die repeatedly to the world’s way, to our old identities, to the trap of scandal and fear. We live in a way oriented to God, the One who sees us as his children, who graces us with life. This is the way of the cross: dying to the world of death that we may live the abundant life for which we exist.

To some, this life, with its demands for forgiveness, sounds impossible. Others imagine it as unbearably weak. The truth is just the opposite.

Forgiveness contains the strength of God. Forgiveness means we refuse to be imprisoned in the scandals of this world. We refuse to be remade by the evil done to us. We reject the stifling identity a win-lose world would thrust upon us. We accept instead our identity that comes from God. Because we are God’s children, manifesting the divine image and likeness, we are free not to be scandalized. We are able to forgive others, that they too may be free.

None of this is easy. But it’s the only way out of the darkness. It’s the only way into the light that waits to welcome us all.

What we are here for, on this Sunday morning in June, is to renew our commitment not to be caught by the scandal system, not to allow the world to define us. We are here to renew our discipleship.

It’s all quite subversive, of course. Today we celebrate how victimization and force do not have a future, that death doesn’t reign here any more. We rejoice, today and always, that we are beloved daughters and sons of the God of life, children of the resurrection.

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Christopher Sikkema


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