In That Land

(sermon 11/10/19)

sunrise-under-cloudy-sky-illustration-67832

Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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I was online the other day and I saw a guy who was trying to stir the pot in some conversation. That isn’t all that uncommon; if you’re online finding someone like that takes maybe all of about fifteen seconds. This particular guy was commenting on something another person had written – but he wasn’t really all that interested in addressing the first person’s actual point; instead, he was trying to twist that comment into something different, something almost completely unrelated, just so that he could talk about one of his own pet issues. And even if he were successful at turning the topic in that direction, it was pretty clear that he didn’t even really want to have a real discussion, an actual dialogue about that issue; he just wanted a soapbox to stand on while he spouted his own favorite talking points for probably the umpteenth time.

Something very similar is going on in today’s gospel text. In this case, it’s the Sadducees who are playing the part of the internet troll, setting up a hypothetical situation for Jesus to wrestle with – a situation that they didn’t really care about per se, but that they wanted to use as a springboard to one of their own pet issues. As the text says, the Sadducees were a group who didn’t believe in resurrection and an afterlife. Their attitude was basically YOLO – you only live once, so make the best of it. Now, just as is the case with people who believe the same way today, that attitude can go in one of two directions. The first option is to live your life grabbing all you can get for yourself, and without regard for or caring about the needs of others. The second is to live your life being kind and compassionate to others, because that’s actually the definition of living this life well – it’s just the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to score points to get into heaven down the road.

So the Sadducees tried to set Jesus up with this weird, elaborate hypothetical. But rather than get mired down in all the potential rabbit holes in that hypothetical, Jesus just swats the whole thing away and pretty much says OK, you want to talk about an afterlife? Fine, let’s get into it. And then he makes an argument to them about the existence of an afterlife, using an argument based on logic and language that admittedly was probably more compelling to the Sadducees’ ears than it is to our own. But at the end of it all, Jesus’ position was undeniable – he was telling them that there is indeed a resurrection and an afterlife.

To be honest, the church hasn’t always done a good job with that teaching. We’ve either come up with bizarre, limited ideas of what the afterlife will be like – you know, robes, harps, angels’ wings, sitting around on clouds, a musical background that’s all Bach, all the time. St. Augustine writing that in heaven, we’ll all have the body and appearance we had when we were thirty years old; which would seem to trigger a whole new set of questions about people who died when they were ten. At the same time, we’d messed people up by trying to literally scare them to death, and setting up a burdensome set of checklists that they’d have to comply with in order to stay out of hell and get into heaven. We’ve messed things up when trying to understand the afterlife, probably most of all because we’re just finite, flawed human beings, and the very concept of life after this life is something far larger and more transcendent, more infinite, than our finite brains can really get around.

But none of those mistakes take away from the fact that the existence of an eternal afterlife is something that Jesus taught about unambiguously, and repeatedly. Yes, we can still mangle understanding that teaching with Fundamentalist four-step programs to guarantee that we’re part of the in-crowd, and to look down our noses at others who aren’t. And yes, it’s true that there’s a whole sub-genre of Christian literature written by people who have had near-death experiences and returned to write a book about their experiences. Heaven is for Real. Ninety Minutes in Heaven. Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell. My Half -Hour Stuck on the On-Ramp to Purgatory. Well, no, I made that last one  up, but the others are real books. And it isn’t my point here to demean these people’s stories, because I really do believe that there’s something real, and meaningful, and important in their experiences – but it does seem strange that each of them ended up experiencing a heaven, or hell, that was pretty much the kind of place they’d been taught about as a child, whether they continued to hold those beliefs or not as an adult.

One of the outcomes of these stories has been to continue to reinforce an overemphasis on the future eternal life in the sweet by-and-by, over against the current eternal life to live in the here-and-now. And honestly, a lot of people have come to feel awkward, a little squeamish, to think about resurrection and afterlife. I mean, we’re all intelligent, educated, enlightened people. We understand at least the basics of the laws of physics and how the natural world works, and doesn’t work. So we can get a little nervous thinking about miracles, and let’s face it, the idea of resurrection and life after death are really the mother of all miracles. I’ve talked with a lot of people who feel that awkwardness, who ultimately throw their hands up and say “I don’t know if heaven is real or not; I just care about being the best person I can be right now, and honestly, that’s all the reward I really need.” And you know, on one level, I absolutely agree with them. As a follower of Jesus Christ, my focus is completely on living in this life, and being in relationship with God and with people in ways that would please Christ. Pleasing him pleases me. I don’t need anything else. I’m not doing acts of kindness or compassion to earn any future reward or to get some golden ticket into eternity.

But the reality is that we worship a God of extravagant overkill. We don’t need any more reward for a life well-lived in Christ, but according to Jesus, God chooses to give us one anyway.

And whatever the actual details of that life to come really might be, we know, based on Jesus’ teaching, that it’s going to be amazing. When we reach that existence, when we arrive in that eternal land, it’s going to exceed our wildest, most extreme, unreal imaginings. Every wild, crazy, irrational thing that we could imagine as being the ultimate of happiness, contentment, shalom, reconciliation, reunion, peace, justice – that’s what it’s going to be like.

So yes, keep living and loving, and working in this world because you’ve been called to do that. Work to bring compassion, and justice, and peace, and truth, and healing to people in this life, wherever there’s hatred, and fear, and ignorance and injustice, and lies, and brokenness, because we know that the world certainly needs that kind of help. Yes, live this life well in the ways that Christ teaches us, because it’s sufficient as its own reward. Go ahead and live your life as if there’s nothing more to come, as if there’s no afterlife – but still enjoy the assurance of knowing that there really is.

Thanks be to God.

Past/Present/Future

(sermon 11/6/16 – Stewardship Sunday)

trap

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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Well, it’s finally here – this week we’ll all go to the polls and vote, and for better or worse, after the dust settles, we’ll have a new President-elect. I suspect that most of you are like me, tired of the whole process. Every day, the candidates trying to find an angle, an edge, something to discredit their opponent and boost their own image. Campaign surrogates and staffs scrambling to score points against the other side, beat the other person down, while simultaneously trying to defuse similar attacks on their own candidate. Some days it seems like it’s all just negative, all sleaze, all just debate and no actual discussion about actual issues. All just trying to score points and make the opponent look bad.

That same thing is very much what’s going on in the gospel text that we heard this morning, this story of a group of Sadducees questioning Jesus. The Sadducees were a religious group who were almost exclusively made up of the social elite, the upper crust. Because they were the group that was the most collaborative with their Roman occupiers, they became a powerful group politically. For the most part, they were the wealthy, the well-educated, the well-connected, and they looked down their noses at other parts of Jewish society. And as Luke points out, it was part of their religious beliefs that there really wasn’t any resurrection of the dead. To the Sadducees, you live this life, in this world, and when you die, that’s it. There’s no final judgment or accounting, and certainly no resurrection, so you’d better make the most of things while you’re here.

Luke tells us that this particular group of Sadducees came to Jesus and posed this question to him. And just like so much of our presidential campaign, it wasn’t really a serious attempt at discussion; they weren’t really trying to open up a meaningful conversation about the question; they already knew what they believed about it. Their intent was to try to get Jesus, this uneducated country bumpkin from the backwater of Nazareth, to say something that they could use to discredit him in the eyes of the large numbers of people who had begun to follow him. He was a threat to the Sadducees’ power, so they were trying to neutralize the threat by trapping him with his own words.

So what’s their question, which sounds so bizarre to us, all about, anyway? Well, it has to do with what’s called the concept of Levirate marriage. According to this part of the biblical definition of marriage, the scriptures say that God commanded that if a married man died childless, the next oldest of his brothers was required to marry his widow and the widow was required to marry the brother. The brother really didn’t have any say in the matter, and neither did the widow, who in this culture was considered the dead man’s property – more important than his other forms of property, but still, property nonetheless. And the two were supposed to have a child, who would then be considered the dead man’s son. This was important for several reasons. First, in a time before social security, pension plans, and 401(k)s, society relied on children to care for and provide for their aging parents. Second, and just as importantly in that culture, a son was needed, in order to keep the man’s wealth and assets, especially his property, in his family’s name.

So the Sadducees ask Jesus this question, stretching this scriptural command to the point of absurdity, and then asking Jesus whose wife the woman would be – more to the point, whose property she would be – after a supposed resurrection. It was intended from the get-go to argue that it wasn’t reasonable to believe in an afterlife and resurrection.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to use their question, and other points from scripture, to point out the shortcoming inherent in both the question and their beliefs. He told them that they were getting caught up in the letter of the Law, the literal words, and in so doing, had missed God’s actual intent behind the words. Inherent in his answer to them that he understands that marriage itself was intended to be an important part of God’s declaration in Genesis that it was not good for human beings to be alone, and that human beings should have the ability to choose a partner and helper in life to love, and be loved by, and and be in relationship with – but that it was only something that was needed in this life. Marriage wouldn’t be necessary to achieve those things in eternity, in an afterlife; they would be fulfilled simply by virtue of being in the presence of God.

In offering the Sadducees this explanation of the scriptural commandment of Levirate marriage, and warning them not to miss the real meaning behind the words of scripture, he points them to the future. He tells them to not get trapped in the past, and not to live only for the present, but to also be mindful of the future that God has in store. He invites them to open their minds and eyes and hearts, and to imagine what that future will be like – and how it will set right everything that’s wrong in this life. Just imagine: loneliness will no longer exist. Any unfulfilled need to love and be loved will no longer exist. A need to have one’s physical, spiritual, and emotional needs met will no longer exist – because all those things will be completely fulfilled, directly by God.

Anyone in this life who knows suffering, grief, illness, poverty, discrimination, oppression, will know full justice and health and love and mercy. Jesus tells the Sadducees that all of us, even those that the Sadducees would likely consider the lowest of us, will be on par with the angels – children of God. Jesus points them toward the incredible, wonderful reality of that future. He points them to this good news, this great news, for everyone who is part of God’s kingdom.

Well, this is a good week for us to think about the future, too, and not only about what the future of our nation, and our society, might be like in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election. This Stewardship Sunday, as we make our pledges of financial support for the congregation, we’re recognizing our past and our present, and we’re using the resources that God has entrusted to us to work for that future. To help our congregation continue to live out the particular mission that God has given us, and to make this world in the here and now at least somewhat more like that future world that God has in store for us.

But it’s also a good time to think about our own personal past, present, and future, too. Dr. Martin Luther King said that the arc of moral history is long, but it continually bends toward justice. In a similar way, we can all examine our own lives and ask if the great, overarching arc of our lives of faith are in fact, continually bending closer and closer to Christ. As we mature in our discipleship, and travel farther along in our faith journey, are we allowing ourselves to adjust our lives and beliefs to be more in accord with God’s will, as ultimately seen in Christ? I hope that when we examine our lives, even while we’ll undoubtedly see the occasional stumbling and steps backward, we can see ourselves progressing, moving forward on that arc.

And as we consider that, whether for our congregation or for ourselves, we can have hope because through Jesus’ answer to those Sadducees, he also assures us that even though we’ll never achieve that fullness of living out God’s will ourselves, God will ultimately establish us in that kind of abundant, eternal life. And on that point, there shouldn’t be any debate.

Thanks be to God.