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Hating the Godfather

Proper 7, Year A

Matthew 10:24-39

The Godfather, the classic 1972 film by Francis Ford Coppola, opens with a garden wedding at the family estate.  It is a homecoming for Michael Corleone, the favorite son who’s just returned from a tour in World War II and is enrolled at Dartmouth.  The picture is clear early on—Michael loves his family, but he doesn’t want to be a part of it.  The Corleones are a crime organization and they are as tight knit as they are patriarchal.  They have a culture all their own, an import of Sicilian semi-feudalism where powerful families are essentially rulers of small fiefdoms—thus the idea of the godfather.

Michael wants to live a more Americanized life with an American girl.  He wants to be a part of a different kind of social order than the one in which he was raised.  And yet the whole drama of the film is the dissolution of this ideal.  Michael is drawn back into the life of his family and its social order and realities.  He ends up replacing his father as the Godfather.  If only he had hated his father and mother, his sister and brother, a little more.

The teachings of Jesus we find in the Gospel reading for this Sunday are hard, unsettling verses. It’s difficult to imagine Jesus as some peace preaching proto-hippie with a sentence like Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” If we are going to be Jesus followers we can’t hope to just all get along with the ways of the world.  Division and strife, Jesus tells us, will be the marks of the coming of his coming.  Jesus didn’t come into the world to bring peace by settling all of the social relationships of the day; he came to create a Kingdom in which authentic shalom—overwhelming peace and wellbeing—would be possible.

Jesus is following Jeremiah here in dismissing the kinds of peace that does not change the fundamental violence of the way things are.  “Everyone is greedy for unjust gain,” Jeremiah proclaims, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (6:13-14).  As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “Too often Christianity in our time is justified as a way of life that leads to stability and order.  ‘The family that prays together stays together’—but such sentiment cannot help but lead to an idolatry of the family.”

Jesus is calling for us to see God as our Father, the community of disciples as our brothers and sisters.  He is calling us to move into a different identity than the one we are given at birth by our family and our society.  We are a military family, we are a patriotic family, we are Southern family—these identities won’t stand.  Our only hope is that our biological family will join us in the new family of God.

Jesus is paraphrasing the verses of Micah 7:6 in this teaching on the strife that will come to families.  This is part of a passage in which Micah is describing the dissolution of society.  It is there that he speaks of the break down of the family, but his response isn’t to say lets work on restoring family values and teaching kids to respect their parents.  Instead, Micah goes on to say, “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (7:7).  In other words, the solution to the break down of society isn’t to restore and reaffirm the social order.  It is instead to have our lives reordered by God.

So what does this look like for us?  Jesus certainly isn’t instructing us to go start a fight with our parents or pick a conflict with our brothers or sisters.  He is only calling on us to enter into his way and life, to join the family of God.  If we do that he is simply warning, strife will come and you will have to bear your cross.  It might be that we choose to leave a corrupt family business or one that works to destroy the world, it could be that we find that we have to quit our jobs because of its exploitation of people or the creation, it could be that by simply living a life that doesn’t worship money we find that others take offense.  The conflicts aren’t ours to choose, they are simply the admission price of following the Prince of Peace into his eternal, just and beautiful Kingdom.

If you want to see the alternative just watch The Godfather Trilogy.  In the end Michael Corleone dies a violent, lonely death—his soul and body broken.  What life could he have had if he had chosen a different kind of belonging, if he had chosen to live for God rather than the Godfather?

 

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The Walking Dead and Waking Saints

Passion Sunday

Matthew 27:11-54

The nice thing about having to preach or write about the scriptures is that some time or other you run across a piece of a familiar passage that is utterly strange.  This happened when I read one of the options for the Gospel this Passion Sunday, Matthew 27:11-54.

It starts out familiarly enough: Jesus goes before Pontius Pilate, is condemned and then crucified.  When Jesus died we all know that the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  What I barely remembered though was this verse: “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:52-53; NRSV).

In a pop culture that is obsessed with zombies it is hard not to imagine this scene as a clip from “The Walking Dead.”  I can see the streets of Jerusalem with rotted bodies wandering through the alleys, clothed in tattered robes.  It would be a terrifying sight to be sure.  Read more

Groaning and Flourishing: Gathered by Our Creator’s Care

Over Christmas I went bird watching near my parents house in Arkansas. Driving to a Wildlife Management Area I passed Lake Conway where nearly 7,000 barrels of oil spilled from an ExxonMobil tar-sands pipeline. The site in the lake nearest the spill still had containment buoys eight months after the accident. There was a man in a air boat and hazmat suit testing the water with hundreds of ducks and gulls and cormorants were feeding in the water nearby. Since then there have been other spills. Most recently West Virginia’s waters were poisoned by the ironically named, “Freedom Industries.” The damage done is beyond calculation and it will take years to know the full effects. These examples are just to name some of the ways in which creation is groaning in pain and eager longing for God’s Kingdom to arrive Read more

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The Risks of Baby Dedication

Luke 2:22-40

Imagine this at your baby’s dedication.  You go up front where the preacher does her blessing; perhaps water is sprinkled or maybe even your baby is baptized in a little font.  Pious prayers are said, God invoked—it’s a routine that happens month by month in the cycle of the church’s life.  Then a man walks in, “led by the Spirit,” and promises that your child is destined “for the rising and falling of many” and that he will be “opposed so vigorously that it will reveal the intentions of many.”  Then this man says that you will find your own soul “pierced by a sword.”  A little blue or pink New Testament would hardly seem an appropriate gift after all of that.

Jesus was certainly no normal child and that was marked by the extraordinary way in which he entered the religious life of his people.  Simeon and Anna saw in Jesus someone who came to save the world but also to disturb it.  They knew from the start that Jesus was going to stir things up and that the forces of death would soon mount up against the power of life.

It would be easy to leave this as a nice story that doesn’t mean much for us.  We can just go on talking about welcoming children into our churches—crayons and a couple of bible themed coloring sheets to keep them quiet.  Read more

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What Are You Waiting For?

Isaiah 35:1-10

Matthew 11:2-11

I keep being told these days to wait.  In sermons, blog posts, earnest Advent Facebook updates, the message has been, more often than not, “wait.”  Waiting is good.  Waiting trains us in patience, one of the most important virtues we can cultivate.  Advent, however, isn’t the time for it.  As our gospel for this Sunday reminds us—the wait is over, the kingdom has come.

The passage opens with John in prison, a place made for the worst kind of waiting.  He wants to know from Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  This is critical for John because he is about to die and he knows it.  Should he die still praying for the Kingdom for which he has been preparing? Or can he uncork the bootlegged Champaign in celebration of its arrival? Read more