Proper 27 C
10 November 2013
Grace Episcopal Church
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I read a lot of stuff getting ready for today’s sermon . . . including a lot of sermons by other preachers. And I didn’t find much I liked . . . until I came across something by Barbara Brown Taylor, and I confess that if there are any original ideas in THIS sermon, they’re probably hers.
I was struggling because on the one hand, the Sadducees aren’t asking a sincere question in today’s Gospel . . . they don’t really want to know what Jesus thinks. They’re just trying to point out how ridiculous the idea of resurrection is. They’ve never believed in the idea, after all. But, on the other hand, while their question is not sincere, Jesus’ answer IS. And, as far as I can tell, aside from a few passing references to the afterlife elsewhere in the Gospels, today’s passage is the sum total of Jesus’ teaching on resurrection. So, how to handle this?
Well, first of all, it’s interesting that the question comes up in the context of marriage . . . ‘cuz that’s one of the places where it still comes up. I was working with a couple once, preparing for marriage, who wanted the wedding vows in the Prayer Book changed. “Why does it say, ‘until we are parted by death?’” “If we both have eternal life, why is death the end of this marriage?” Good question. On the other hand, I once heard of a woman whose husband suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. All sorts of people attempted to comfort her at the funeral by reassuring her that she would be united with her husband in heaven. She was horrified by the idea: “You mean that I’m never going to get away from him?”
If life in the world to come is just a continuation of life in this world, not everyone is gonna look forward to living forever. And, if eternal life IS simply a continuation of life in this world, as the Sadducees point out, it’s gonna get really complicated. It might be helpful to point out now that the Sadducees are basing their question about the woman with seven husbands on Jewish law, which cares less about her marriages than about her children.
Long before anyone thought of the possibility of resurrection, the Israelites believed that they lived on in their children. We still talk this way sometimes, but for those ancient Israelites this idea was of crucial importance. As long as there was someone to remember them (remember all those genealogies in the Bible?), as long as there were descendants to carry on the family name and the family gene pool, then they still had life . . . even though they were long gone. So what about those people who didn’t have children?
A man who died without an heir was finished (and, yes, it was all about the men back then). Without an heir everything a man had been and done was gone. And this was not considered just a personal loss; it was a loss for all of Israel. So God gave Moses a law. This law stated that a dead man’s brother must marry his brother’s widow, adding her to his own household, in the hope of producing an heir. If this widow had a son, then the boy was raised as the nephew of his biological father. Legally and socially, the child was the son of his mother’s first husband.
Given the customs of the times, this was a compassionate law, all in all, which the Sadducees made ridiculous by multiplying it times seven and turning it into a riddle. They didn’t agree with the Pharisees, who DID believe in resurrection, because such belief was something of a new fangled thing. Moses said nothing about resurrection, after all. And it really is a rather absurd idea . . . isn’t it?
We all have a little bit of the Sadducee in us. No matter how much we want to believe in resurrection, it can be hard to wrap our minds around it. Although we may all agree that the question we heard from the Sadducees today is absurd, we may have our own questions that don’t seem absurd to us at all. For example, in heaven, after the resurrection, will babies who died as babies still be babies? Will those who died at a very old age be old in heaven, too? And if not, what age will everyone be? In the 4th century, St. Augustine worried about these questions and he finally decided that in heaven everyone will be 33, because that’s the age that Jesus was assumed to be at his resurrection.
But maybe when we go on and on in this fashion, trying to guess what will happen to us after death, we’re approaching the issue from the wrong direction. Isn’t all of this questioning and worrying, all of this effort to try to address the idea of resurrection rationally, really a form of trying to control the future? . . . knowledge is power after all. The truth of the matter is that we have control over next to nothing in this world, and we certainly don’t have control over anything that happens in the next.
Furthermore, the Bible says next to nothing about resurrection and when the subject is broached it’s not treated as a rational kind of thing . . . the Bible talks about the resurrection as a mystical kind of thing. And this is where we might consider approaching the subject from a different direction, from a different point of view. That preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, whom I mentioned earlier, helped me with this idea.
As much as we might like it to be, our resurrection is not about us . . . it’s about God. And it is not dependent upon our belief in God; it is dependent upon God’s belief in US.
Rather than talk about what we believe in or don’t believe in, perhaps in this case it’s important to point out what God believes in . . . God believes in the creation, in the Incarnation, in the essential goodness of matter, bodies, flesh. Resurrection is based on our origin in God and our ongoing union with God, which means that anyone who has ever been part of God’s life never stops being part of it. We belong to God forever, the God who loves bodies as much as spirits and who does not file them away in separate drawers the way most of us do. We belong to God, body and soul; we belong to God who is the God of the living, and in God we never die.
An old friend, Barry Bates, tells a story that might be helpful to us. Quite a few years ago there was a priest – I’ll call her Susan – who had a seminarian – I’ll call him Tom – who was assisting in her parish for the summer. It was a great parish and Tom was looking forward to his time there. However, he became a little worried the first time he offered Susan the chalice at Communion. She looked him right in the eye and said, “I believe!”
He was stunned.
First of all, he had been taught never to look anyone in the eye at Communion. He still wasn’t certain why that was, but it used to be a kind of unspoken rule. And second, the Prayer Book clearly states that the appropriate response to “The Body of Christ” and “The Cup of Salvation” is a polite and reverent “Amen,” not an ebullient and loud declaration like “I believe!” Nevertheless, over the course of the summer, Tom adjusted to Susan’s ways, and became accustomed to hearing “I believe” week after week.
His last week there, Susan invited him to dinner. It was one of those late-summer evenings that are just perfect for sitting on the porch, rocking. Eventually he mustered up his courage and asked her, “Why, Susan, do you say ‘I believe’ when you receive Communion?” “I started that a long time ago,” she told him. “It was a time of questioning and doubt for me. I couldn’t be sure there even was a God. And I wanted to know. I wanted to be certain, to be in control. And I figured the only way to get there was to ‘fake it till you make it.’ So one day, I just said, ‘I believe.’ What I really meant was, ‘I’d like to believe,’ or, even better, ‘I think I’m considering believing.’” It was all very tentative.
And it was an invitation to God, at least as she intended it. As she explained, it was almost as if she were saying, “Show me how to believe,” or “Improve my belief,” or even “Help my unbelief.”
“It was many, many years later,” she continued, “that I realized, O my God, I believe. I really do. Oh, I have questions, sure. And I have doubts from time to time. And a whole lot of this just doesn’t make any sense. But I believe, and that’s all that matters.”
The journey of faith is not a life lived without doubt or questions, the life of a Christian is not one without trial or travail, the earthly pilgrimage is not about control and power. And in the end, the resurrection is not about us but about God . . . and God’s love for us.
And all of this begins not with the declaration, “I know,” or “I want,” or “I insist”, or even “I wish” . . . the journey of faith begins but with the simple, hopeful proclamation, “I believe.”
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