- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 5 Pentecost
In the Name...
A husband once did something really stupid and his wife chewed him out for it. He apologized and they made up. However, from time to time, the wife would mention what he had done. "Honey," the husband finally said one day, "why do you keep bringing that up? I thought your policy was 'forgive and forget.'" "It is," she said. "I just don't want you to forget that I've forgiven."
In the “Godfather" movies there's a scene where Michael Corleone goes to Rome to negotiate a business deal with the Vatican. There, he meets with a cardinal who asks if Michael would like to make his confession. Michael cracks a joke about how it would take too long, but, since he wants the cardinal’s help, he agrees and starts to go through the motions. First, he mechanically tells of his marital infidelities. Then, he admits ordering the murders of various people including his own brother. And as he speaks, he becomes more reflective and, finally, overwhelmed by the burden of his guilt, he breaks down and starts to sob. The cardinal pronounces the ritual words of absolution, and then says, “I know you don’t believe this, but, you have been forgiven.”
Some have told me they find this scene scandalous and say that's what's wrong with the Church. Here we have a career criminal, cold-blooded enough to kill his own brother and he just walks away. Justice demands he get a taste of his own medicine.
And, it's true this is a scandalous scene, but, the scandal is the scandal of the Cross. Like it or not, and as offensive to our human passions as it may be, behind the cardinal’s words is the Blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and the power of the Holy Spirit who cracks open Michael's heart and gives him tears of repentance for the horrors he has committed. In a sense, it's a resurrection moment. Michael was morally dead and now finds life. Some may still call this a scandal, but, I would suggest, something of a scandal always happens when grace is at work.
Consider today’s Gospel. A ruler named Jairus begs Jesus to help his sick child. Jesus goes with him, but, on the way they encounter a sick woman and, while Jesus deals with her, people report that the child has died. When they arrive at the house, the professional mourners are there already, wailing loudly, beating their chests, ripping their clothing. The crowd laughs at - the Greek word is really "mocks" - Jesus. But, he goes to where she is lying, takes her by the hand, tells her to get up, and she gets up.
Now, did you pick up on the scandal in that story? Actually, there were two; two things that people in Jesus' time would have found outrageously offensive. The first was that on the way to Jairus' house, Jesus stopped to chat with a nameless woman.
Jairus was a wealthy and important man. There's a common assumption that the rich and famous get what they want, or think they should. And Jairus was probably somewhere between panic and anger as he watched Jesus waste valuable time. But, for Jesus, every soul in distress was worthy of his attention. This poor woman needed him just as much as a rich man's daughter, even if that was contrary to the social norm.
And the second thing Jesus did which was scandalous was that he physically touched the dead girl. It's hard from our perspective to see anything morally wrong with this. Maybe distasteful, but, not wrong. But, that's not how the people there would have seen it. To them, touching a corpse rendered a person religiously unclean. For a man who calls himself holy to touch a corpse was as scandalous as if he had hired a prostitute. That the girl was raised is almost beside the point. Fine, make a miracle, but, he shouldn't have done it that way.
To make miracles, though, often means that we have to go places, do things, and spend time with people who are considered scandalous by the standards of society. In fact, we are here today to celebrate the greatest of all God’s scandals - the Cross - and not only what that has done for us, but, also what that has made us. For Christ makes each recipient of grace also a minister of grace. His expectation is that those who have been forgiven will forgive; those who know new life will offer new life to others; those whom the Spirit lights will give light to the world. And, it is an audacious expectation because in this world, grace appears as scandal, and mercy appears unjust.
Man sees an important person being disrespected. God sees a woman in torment restored to health. Man sees a hypocrite who defiles himself. God sees a family reunited. Man sees a Mafia boss who should be executed. God sees one of his children restored to new life.
And some people simply cannot stomach it. They want a world more orderly than that. But, what we have been given is a world of undeserved mercies, where small decencies are scandalized by the generosity of God.
Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus giving some instructions. He tells those with him to get the girl something to eat, and not to let anyone know what has happened.
We can be confident that the girl gets her dinner. We can be equally confident that the other order is promptly ignored. I mean, would you keep such a story to yourself? Why then does Jesus issue this order in the first place? He knows what people are like. Does he really expect to be obeyed?
It seems to me that even though he's sure people will talk; he gives the order so that nobody can say he was trying to promote himself. Jesus doesn’t want to be labelled simply as someone who comes into town and does a bunch of neat miracles. He doesn’t want to be known as the go-to guy when somebody’s sick, or if you need fish and loaves multiplied. He has something much bigger to do. And what that will do will mean not just healing for one person or a few, but, for all creation; not only new life for Jairus’ daughter, physically dead from some illness, but, new life two thousand years later for a Michael Corleone, who, spiritually speaking, was a walking corpse.
As we look at the world, there are times when it is hard for us to hear the words of the cardinal. “You have been forgiven.” There are times it's hard to believe. Even harder some times to believe that we are called upon to pronounce those words ourselves to others.
May we recognize the opportunity to pronounce them when it is placed before us and may we welcome the grace they bring. Both for our benefit and that of all God's people.
In the Name...