Sermon:The Godfather & The Gospel: Going to the Mattresses

by therevknits

Alex and I received a letter this week with the date for our interview for his permanent resident status and work permit, which basically means official US government recognition that we are, indeed, a family. It will mean he can work, it will mean we can travel abroad, it will just mean so much. We will probably be able to go to Italy near the first of the year, and I have no doubt my mother in law will greet us with, “finally! if only you’d been here three months ago when I really needed you…” because she’s Italian.

I meet people all the time who say, “Oh, I married an Eyetalian, too!” Really? Does your Eyetalian laugh at every fancy cheese selection in every supermarket everywhere? Does your Eyetalian own a 16′ red, white, and green flag? Does your Eyetalian mock Olive Garden and roll their eyes anytime anyone calls anything “Tuscan?” Can your spouse give you a calm socio political explanation for the rise of the mob? ‘Cause I didn’t marry an Eyetalian. I married an Italian.

And everybody knows that what Italians know best is… Don’t say fashion. And everybody knows that what Italians love best is… Don’t say pasta. And everybody knows what Italians revere most is… don’t say the Virgin Mary or the Pope. And everybody knows that what Italians value most is…Family.

But I’m American. Family genealogists have not found a drop of Italian blood in my line. And I come from generations of Protestants, which means I have a small family spread all over the world that sometimes connects on Facebook. I love my parents and my brother, but I don’t share the same sense of family that Alex was raised with as an Italian.

And Jesus has something to so with that. There is tension in Jesus’ view of family. The same guy who chastises Jewish leaders for not properly honoring their fathers and mothers says things like today’s scripture. The same guy who hands off the care of his mother to a disciple as he is dying says things like, “Who is my mother, who is my brother?” when his family shows up while he is working. When people talk about Jesus being all “family values,” I always raise an eyebrow. Jesus values family, but there were times when it was not his first value. There were times when his work came first, and he wasn’t apologetic about it.

Jesus wasn’t Italian, but there was a Mediterranean influence in his life. His country was run by the… italians. I mean, they were Roman, but where is Rome? Italy.

So when I was watching/reading The Godfather this week, I wasn’t totally surprised when I found something that illuminated something Jesus said…. Something that kinda doesn’t make sense to us but might in a more Mediterranean culture. And its an odd thing… Something I heard all my life but never understood. It’s about ‘going to the mattresses.’

If you’ve never seen The Godfather, well, my goodness. Mario Puzo, the author, had written two critically acclaimed books with horrible sales when he decided to quit worrying about Art and write a bestseller. And he did. Launched on the crazy America of 1969, The Godfather was a book for a changing culture. And the movie, two years later, launched the careers of three unknowns: author Mario Puzo, director Francis Ford Coppola and actor Al Pacino. It was a movie about family, in both senses. It was about a family, and it was about The Family. Images like the horse head in the bed and phrases from the movie became just understood parts of American life. If you know what it means when I say that somebody sleeps with the fishes, thank the Godfather. And if somebody tells you, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” and you know you should be concerned… Thank the Godfather.

But I’d never understood the lines in the movie about going to the mattresses. Every time there’s some kind of trouble, somebody asks if they’re going to the mattresses. What? And then I read the book. (Passage from the book.)

Oh, now that makes sense. And here, from this glimpse of an old school Mediterranean culture, is that same tension over family we hear in Jesus’ life. Going to the mattresses is not about keeping their families safe, its about keeping The Family safe. And thats weird, because Italians value family above everything. But in these intense troubles, they leave their families for the concerns of their mission.

And, yes, I get the irony that Jesus’ mission involves saving people and The Corleone’s mission is more about.. Not saving people. But its a little more modern glimpse, more graspable slice, of a similar old world Mediterranean culture. And it can help us understand and live in the uncomfortable tension between Jesus’ values of family and his mission. We don’t need to ignore the weird scriptures in which Jesus downplays family values, we can simply understand that there are moments when the needs of his mission temporarily outweighed his need to be with family.

The Gospel of Mark, in particular, raises the idea that Christians, when we come together in shared belief and love of Jesus Christ, can be a new kind of family. One drawn together by love of Christ that magically makes us love each other. And your church family can drive you crazy… Just like your real family can drive you crazy, right? But when you go through something rough, your church family is standing right beside your blood relatives.

Yesterday at the auction, Cecelia sat and cried, one hand in her daughter’s, one hand in mine. Family.

One night when Charlie was in the ER, I came back to see him, and the nurse stopped me and asked if I was family. As I wavered in my answer, because I really wanted to see Charlie, he pipes up with, “That’s my preacher. Of course she’s family!”

We may not be family, but we’re Family, you know? Although our loyalty is not to a Godfather, but to.. God the father. And when you go through something rough, your church family is standing right beside your blood relatives, because sometimes shared mission temporarily trumps blood.

When Alex (and his family) proposed to me, I gave a tentative yes, and his mom hugged me and said, “benvenuta in famiglia.” welcome to the family. I think all of the color drained from my face. Alex asked me what was wrong, and I whispered, “that’s what they say in all the mob movies.” Alex poked me and whispered back, “She IS a Bonanno.”

But it was days later, when I got up from my bed to get a glass of water in the middle of the night and found her crying in the kitchen…and Alex was asleep in his room, and there was no computer with google translate available. And my experience with The Family took over, and I held her hand like I hold yours when you cry, and she poured out her heart to me, like a parishioner and a pastor, like a mama and her daughter. And we cried together as she spoke of her past and her future, her fears and her anxieties, her worries about Alex and her husband… Her hopes and dreams for us.

And even though she spoke Italian, I understood everything she said. And she realized I understood everything she said. It was then that I realized that families bound together by blood, adoption, marriage, or love of God, they can all have the same love, especially if God’s Spirit is welcome in those bonds. It was then that i realized that being part of this family has prepared me to be a part of their family, and that the mission that keeps me going and the family they expect me to be… They can all be even though they have to exist in tension, you know… Like a family.

May God the Father have your loyalty, may the mission of Jesus Christ be your work, and may the Spirit of God be present in all your families. Amen.