Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Yesterday I attended the 118th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, along with our priest associate Jane Tillman and our two lay delegates, Diana French and Natalie Boyce. We did a lot of the business of the church—approving budgets, receiving reports, and holding elections. I am honored to have been elected as a deputy to the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to be held in Baltimore in 2021. I was also reappointed by the Bishop as the Chair of the Commission on Ministry, which facilitates the ministry of all the baptized, but particularly those who are considering a call to ordination. And Jane was appointed to the Board of Examining Chaplains, which certifies that candidates for ordination have learned all they are expected to. St. Paul’s, you are well represented!
The convention is always a little bit like a family reunion to me—a wonderful opportunity to be with friends who are in many ways like a family to me. It is a chance for us to catch up on what has happened in the last year; to marvel at how each of us has grown; to hear and tell stories; and to draw closer in love.
As we drove home from Springfield, Natalie commented on how much our brothers and sisters in Christ do for our communities throughout Western Massachusetts – one comes away inspired by the good hearts and busy hands of our brothers and sisters! In the Bishop’s address to the convention (copies of which are on the table at the back of the church) he talked about a call from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to be revolutionaries for the work of Christ. He delineated many ways that revolution is already happening in our diocese, and then challenged us to double down on parish renewal this year, thinking about how we might revive each of our churches. He ended by reminding us that we are capable of more than we think we are, and quoted St. Paul saying, “We have not been given a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love and power.” I am inspired to another year of ministry here and throughout the church. Thanks be to God.
How are you with death? Even if we have been through the death of many loved ones or have spent a lot of time reading and thinking and praying about it, I suspect most of us are at best uneasy about death—and maybe some of us are downright scared. It is, of course, the greatest unknown.
My maternal grandfather died on January 1, 1971. I was 8 years old and ended up as the youngest person at the funeral. That’s mostly what I remember; I don’t think I quite knew what death was, not in any deep sense. My first memory of a really gut-wrenching experience of death was when my Aunt Judy died in 1983 – when I was 21. You will remember I talked about her last week; Judy was a younger sibling of my father, and always felt closer to being my contemporary than any other aunts or uncles. I was shocked by her death in her mid-thirties. I remember lots of tears, from me and many others. I was absolutely devastated.
I would like to think my view of death and its aftermath has become more well-rounded – or at least less murky – in the many years between then and now. But I’m not so sure. While I know I have a much better understanding of the mechanics of death, and am slightly more at peace with death, what happens after death is still a mystery.
Of course, many would argue that death is not really the subject of this morning’s gospel passage, and they’re probably right. This is the story of Jesus being tested by religious authorities – or rather, it is another effort to entrap Jesus and show him to be a false prophet.
At question is the nature of resurrection. You will recall that the Sadducees were a Jewish sect that maintained the Temple in Jerusalem. As such, they were of the highest social strata. They believed that the Torah, which is made up of the first five books of the Old Testament, was the only source of law. Because the Torah doesn’t include any reference to the afterlife, or resurrection, they rejected these ideas as they were embraced by the Pharisees and by early Christians.
So the Sadducees pose this Torah argument. Such intellectual sparring was a favorite past time of Jewish scholars. A sure clue that this is the nature of the argument is the phrase, “Moses wrote for us.” They start with a statement from Torah, and then work to extrapolate a conclusion that jives with their theology.
The example they use is called “Levirate Marriage.” the root of this term is “levir,” meaning brother. This law comes from Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which sought to ensure the preservation of one’s family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother.[i]
The Sadducees spin out a ridiculous story of seven brothers, one after another marrying the woman, and then dying in succession, with no children. I must pause here one moment to note that this is, in fact a very sad story—a woman passed from brother to brother, being forced to confront her barrenness over and over. One commentator, Nancy Rockwell, has noted that this is an example of the way that the real feelings, and the real possibilities of women outside of their role as the bearer of children, have systematically been ignored through most of history. She notes that the Sadducees are, “lasting evidence of how you can be civilized and cruel at the same time.”[ii] There is another sermon in the inequities of thoughtless laws and cultural mores; I hope you will forgive me if that is not where my mind wanders today.
They believe they have caught Jesus with proof that resurrection is impossible. A woman who is married seven times, with no male heirs—if she had a son with one of the husbands, that brother would be her clear partner—that woman has a problem in the afterlife, as they see it. Who would be her husband in heaven? This is proof enough for them that it is ridiculous to believe that there might be any life after the temporal one on earth.
Temporal – that’s the rub. The Sadducees seem to believe that things in the afterlife will be structured just as they are now. But Jesus makes it clear that heaven and earth are not the same. He says, “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.” [v. 35] The human (and God-sanctified) relationships of our world will not be the same in the next life.
And what that makes clear to me is that we simply don’t know what follows death. Death is the GREAT unknown; we all wonder what comes next. Perhaps you have experienced the death of a beloved spouse or family member, or close friend; undoubtedly you were left questioning. “Jesus does not answer all our questions, though one of our fondest illusions is that he should.”[iii] But what can we deduce from what Jesus does say?
“In verse 38 [he says] that God is the God of the living—the God of newness, forgiveness, and liberation. Oppression on earth does not dictate the rewards of heaven. The bondage and slavery of human life does not inscribe how life will be in heaven… Resurrection is, especially for the least, the lost, and the left out, a place of honor and respect.”[iv] Our faith teaches us that God’s grace is abundant, both in our lives and in our deaths.
One other point: You remember I said earlier that the Sadducees rejected the idea of resurrection, since it is not mentioned in the Torah. With this belief, they are of course understood by the first hearers of this gospel to be in direct opposition to Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah. So that first intended audience for this gospel would have heard this lesson and also understood that the Saducees were of the former age: The age of waiting for the Messiah.
But these early Christians were of a new age, inaugurated by the coming of the Christ, Jesus, who was resurrected from the dead and thus conquered death and created a continuance from this life to an eternity in the presence of God. And they would have understood that, as Christians, we live in two ages: both the present age, where God is active and present; and also in anticipation of the age to come, where “God will bring the world to the fulfillment God intends for it.”[v]
In this passage, Jesus proclaims the end of death itself. He foreshadows what is to happen when he is crucified and resurrected. It is an Easter message!
Of course, all this is mystery, isn’t it? It doesn’t make much sense to us who live now in this temporal moment. One commentator has said, “We cannot help but make meaning of life as we know it, and all that it offers, from within the perspective of life as we experience it…. We cannot help but experience and engage God from within the horizons of our creaturely experience…. The mistake, however, is to insist that all life can mean is contained within the horizon of our own experience…. There is profoundly more to life than just the human experience of it, even if that means we cannot wrap our heads around it.”[vi]
We do not understand what death is. We do not know what comes next. Therefore we must live and die with the mystery. But our God has told us that we can be assured of eternal life with God when our time here as mortals is done. God offers us abundant life, both here and forevermore. God’s abundance transcends our experience of life and explodes the boundaries we try to put around it. Luke reminds us that our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to God all are alive. We lean into that promise, now, and at the hour of our death.
Let us pray:
Merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life: Raise us, we humbly pray, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness; that when we depart this life we may rest in him, and at the resurrection receive that blessing which your well‑beloved Son shall then pronounce: “Come, you blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.” Grant this, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. Amen.[vii]
[i] Lose, David. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=828, accessed 11/06/2019.
[ii] Rockwell, Nancy, http://biteintheapple.com/the-barren-woman-at-the-edge-of-eternity/, accessed 11/07/2013.
[iii] Willson, Patrick J. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 289.
[iv] Westfield, Nancy Lynne, Feasting on the Word, pp. 286,288.
[v] Stuart, Laird J. Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume 2, Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 208.
[vi] Senior, John E. Feasting on the Gospels, p. 210.
[vii] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 505