Sermons That Work

Maybe You Saw the Movie…, Proper 8 (B) – 2006

July 02, 2006

Maybe you saw the movie “The Godfather, Part II.” In that film, the Mafia godfather, Don Corleone, goes to Rome to negotiate a business deal with the Vatican. He is not interested simply in business; he wants to gain respectability.

There in Rome he meets with Cardinal Lamberto, who asks if he would like to make his confession. At first Corleone refuses. He makes a little joke about how it would take too long. However, he wants the cardinal’s help, and senses something redemptive in his presence. So Corleone begins his confession.

First he tells of his marital infidelities. Then he admits ordering the murder of his own brother. Overwhelmed by the burden of his guilt, he breaks down and starts to sob. Cardinal Lamberto pronounces the words of absolution, then says, “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”

Some may find this story scandalous. Here we have a career criminal, an adulterer, cold-blooded enough to plot the killing of his own brother, and yet he’s said to be forgiven, redeemed. Some may say that what’s called for here is not mercy, but retribution, revenge, a settling of scores. Let the Mafia man taste some of his own medicine!

Yet if there’s a scandal here, it’s the scandal of Christianity. Behind Cardinal Lamberto’s words is the blood of Jesus, God’s Lamb, who takes away the sins of the world.

And the Holy Spirit is hard at work in this encounter with Don Corleone. The Holy Spirit cracks open the hard heart of the Mafia man, and gives him tears of repentance for the horrors he has committed. The scene of confession becomes a resurrection morning. Don Corleone is raised from the death brought by his sins into the new life Christ offers him.

Some may still call this a scandal. But I would suggest to you, something of a scandal always happens when grace is at work.

Consider today’s Gospel. Jesus raises from the dead a twelve-year-old girl. We’re not given her name, but she’s the daughter of Jairus, a big man in town.

Jairus makes a fool of himself in public, begging Jesus to help his sick child, insisting that he can restore her to health.

Jesus goes with Jairus, but on the way they encounter people coming to meet them who report that the girl is dead. In the face of this terrible news, Jesus invites Jairus not to fear, but simply to believe.

When they arrive at the house, the professional mourners are there already, doing what they do when someone has died: they wail, they beat their chests, pull out their hair, and rip their clothing. They ritualize the final separation that death brings. Their frenzied actions are void of hope.

The crowd laughs at Jesus when he insists that the girl is not dead. He goes to where she is lying, accompanied only by the three disciples that are with him and the girl’s parents.

There Jesus takes the girl by the hand and tells her to get up. She gets up immediately and starts to walk about. Jesus tells them to give her something to eat. After all, she is twelve years old — still a growing girl.

Do you hear scandal in that story? What Jesus does seems to be nothing other than a compassionate response to the girl and her father. But those around Jesus must be shocked. For what does he do with the girl everybody believes is dead? He takes her by the hand! He touches a corpse!

According to God’s law in the Hebrew scriptures, touching a corpse renders a person unclean. The people around Jesus are shocked, much as some people today may be shocked when Cardinal Lamberto absolves Don Corleone. The people around Jesus believe that purity must be maintained, and they have Bible texts available to quote in their favor.

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus giving some orders. He tells those with him to get the girl something to eat, and he commands them, strictly orders them, not to let anyone know what has happened to Jairus’ daughter.

We can be confident that the girl gets to eat. We can be equally confident that the other order is not obeyed, and that the story of Jairus’ daughter spreads like fire through dry tinder. Would you keep such a story to yourself?

Why then does Jesus issue this order? Why does he follow up many of his miracles with the insistence that people keep mum about them? Does he really expect to be obeyed?

It seems to me that he doesn’t want to be labeled simply as someone who comes into town and does a bunch of neat miracles. He doesn’t want to be known as simply the go-to guy when somebody’s sick, or you need bread and fish multiplied.

Instead, he wants people to know him because of something yet to happen, that work of grace more scandalous than any other, when he will die on a cross of shame and be raised in glory by the Father. That scandal will bring grace, not just to one person or a few, but to all creation. It will mean not only new life for Jairus’ daughter, dead from some illness, but new life for Don Corleone, who, spiritually speaking, has been for a long time a walking corpse.

We are here today to celebrate this greatest of all God’s scandals: the cross and resurrection. Some people simply cannot stomach it. They want a world more orderly, more fair than that, and in a way their desire makes sense. But we are given instead a world of undeserved mercies, where fear gives way to belief, and small decencies are scandalized by the generosity of God. Yet in this world we quite readily become fixated on scandal and we overlook grace.

We see a hapless victim dying on a cross. God sees the lamb victorious over evil.

We see a law-breaking rabbi who touches a corpse. God sees a once-dead girl now dead no longer and restored to her father’s arms.

We see a Mafia godfather, a man of steely heart and vicious life. God sees one of his children, hard heart now broken, tears flooding forth, now dead to his past and given a fresh start.

So often what we see is scandal; what God sees is grace.

Can we learn to recognize grace when it happens, sometimes in front of our faces? Can we be party to scandal that may shock the decent, but release the power of resurrection?

Each of us is on the receiving end of reconciliation. Christ always addresses us through words like those of Cardinal Lamberto: “I know you don’t believe this, but you have been redeemed.”

Christ always risks ridicule and misunderstanding by lifting us from death like Jairus’ daughter, and restoring us to life and to relationship.

Christ always dares to make present to us his most audacious scandal, the cross and the empty tomb. His grace comes to us free, but its price for him is the cross. For us he bears shame, abandonment, and death. He does it for us. He does it for all.

One further scandalous demonstration of grace to add to these others: Christ makes each recipient of reconciliation also a minister of reconciliation. His audacious expectation is that those who have been forgiven will forgive; those who know new life will offer new life to others. Christ’s expectation is audacious because in this world, grace appears as scandal, mercy appears unjust and leaves us uncomfortable.

The time comes for each of us when we can be a minister of God’s audacious grace if we are willing to weather the scandal.

It may be a matter of defiling ourselves, appearing to others as impure by society’s standards.

It may mean announcing to a hardened reprobate that his sins, her sins, do not exceed God’s ability to forgive.

It may mean making room for undeserved mercies for ourselves and for others, understanding that all are sinners and all are redeemed.

May we recognize the opportunity when it is placed before us. May we see past scandal and welcome grace.

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Christopher Sikkema


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