Proper 27c, November 6, 2016

November 7, 2016

Some Things Do Change

Luke 20:27-38


27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 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. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 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. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 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. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”


Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor is a gifted Episcopalian preacher, writer and educator. She tells the story of a parishioner she once knew who had been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. While this woman only had months to live her husband died very suddenly from a massive heart attack. While at the graveside, a well-meaning friend attempted to console her by saying, at least you’ll be together again soon. After the service, Rev. Taylor dropped by the woman’s house where she broke down in tears and said, I’m never going to get away from him, am I?


I don’t know what Barbara Brown Taylor said in response to the woman’s despair, but I’m sure it was some reassurance that she would not continue to endure whatever pain that relationship brought into her life.


I believe the primary message that we are to glean from the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we will not continue to suffer the same pains in the world to come that we experience in this one.


Unfortunately there are some things that never seem to change in this world, but in God’s great cosmic design — some things do change! The enemies of Jesus were able to have their way for a day, but by bringing Jesus Christ back to life, God was proclaiming to the world that the bullies aren’t in charge. Hatred and violence haven’t departed from the planet, but these are not the most powerful forces in the universe. It’s the love of God that prevails, and that is good news for all of us.


Who knows how that woman’s husband made her life miserable, and clearly she had to endure that pain for too long, but there’s only one relationship we are bound to maintain upon death, and that is our relationship with the Lord of Life. I like to think we will enjoy the company of all the others that we have loved, but Jesus indicated in this very passage that in the kingdom of God we don’t have to abide by earthly protocols.


One of the most satisfying aspects of this morning’s scripture reading is how small of an impact the Sadducees had on the course of Jewish history. We don’t know that much about the Sadducess because it’s a sect that died when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. The Sadducees were aristocratic Jews who considered life to end upon death. They were generally very wealthy and powerful, and they had no regard for what would happen after death. They only recognized the authority of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and that led them to be primarily focused on maintaining the Temple and their own well being. So when Emperor Nero destroyed the Temple they pretty much lost the focus of their attention, and upon their death there was no resurrection of their way of thinking.


My impression is that this was a pretty self-satisfied group of people who approached Jesus with their question about the resurrection – which was not really a question. They thought they were setting a significant intellectual trap for Jesus. They thought they could get him with this question of who would be married to who in the case of a woman who had been legally married seven times, but Jesus showed that you can’t skirt around the truth of God by appealing to legal technicalities. And he did it by using a passage of scripture that they considered to be authoritative. He went straight to the formative experience of Moses himself, who heard the voice of God in the burning bush who announced that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – men who continued to live in the eyes of God.


You might say Jesus answered their question with a bit of a legally technical response, but it had enough ring of truth to keep them from asking him any more questions. I often wish Jesus would have elaborated on what we might expect in the world to come, but I guess I should be grateful that he said as much as he did about the way our lives in this world intersect with the world to come. And one of the good things that he seems to be saying in this passage is that eternal life isn’t just the continuation of our mortal lives.


Death is actually the end of many things for us. Our debts don’t follow us in to the afterlife. Some people will carry student loans to their last breath, but even those get cancelled upon death. It’s likely that there will be some accounting of some kind when we die, but we will be free from all our earthly contracts. Marriage is an earthly contract, so the woman who was married seven times won’t have to worry about taking care of seven men. The woman who’s husband made her life a living hell was free from him upon his death, and these are good things. But love is a bond that’s made in heaven, and it’s easy for me to believe that the loving bonds we create on earth somehow remain in the world that is to come.


Jesus doesn’t exactly say what it takes to become one of the children of the resurrection, but those Sadducees seem to represent the opposite of what it takes to be such a person. I like to think we all have an avenue to resurrected life, but it also seems to matter how we live. Jesus spoke of those who are worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection of the dead, and that word, worthy, is a little unsettling to me. Jesus seems to be saying that there are ways in which we can defy God’s gracious offer for new life, and he used those Sadducees to illustrate what it looks like to not be a child of the resurrection. Jesus wants us to see that we aren’t just residents of earth, but there are ways of becoming profoundly stuck in this world.


I don’t share the attitude of the Sadducees, who refused to believe that anything extended beyond this life, but I’m pretty sure there are ways in which I can behave a bit like a Sadducee. I don’t consider myself to be as self-satisfied as they were, but it’s pretty unnerving for me to consider all of the ways I seek to preserve my life on earth at the expense of my eternal soul. Like most reasonable Americans I probably pay more attention to the funds in my pension plan than I do to the treasures I’m storing up in heaven.


So I’m a little unsettled by what Jesus meant when he spoke of those who are worthy of the resurrection. But I can’t believe God measures our worthiness in an unforgiving way. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, I believe God loves us all in an unconditional manner. I don’t believe we can prevent God from loving us, but we can create a lot of interference between ourselves and God. We certainly can harbor attitudes that prevent us from living in a relationship with God as we go about our lives on earth.


Today is the Sunday we remember those who have ended their time on earth who we trust have truly experienced resurrection. This is a mystery that we can’t explain, but it’s a concept that can profoundly inform the way we live our lives. It’s a concept that can give us confidence to live without regard for the way things typically operate on earth. We don’t have to be guided by conventional earthly wisdom. We don’t have to worry so much about being successful in the ways of the world. People who believe in resurrection only need to be concerned with being guided by love because it’s the work of love that God allows to stand the test of time.


We remember many of the things that our loved ones who have died did for us, but I dare say the best thing that any of them did for us is to touch us in loving ways. It’s love that somehow gets to us more than anything else. Love is the fuel for resurrection, and when we live with love we are being successful at living – regardless of how things turn out in the short term.


This world is a messy place, and it’s easy to get caught up in tedious matters that have very little consequence. We often pay more attention to matters of earth than to those of heaven, and we are often confused about how to be as loving as possible. I dare say the person who tried to comfort the terminally ill woman who’s husband just died with the assurance they would be together again soon was trying to be a good friend. She didn’t mean to strike terror in the heart of her friend.


But the good news is that the power of resurrection is not in our hands to botch or to stifle. We can sort of complicate matters sometimes, but we can’t stop God from doing what God wills to do for all of us. And God can use our mistakes to create opportunities for new understandings. Had that woman not said what she said about her friend being reunited with her husband soon, that woman might not have broken down and shared her despair with someone capable of offering a new perspective. Had those Sadducees not been so obstinate we might not have gotten these assuring words about the reality of resurrection.


Unfortunately, some things never seem to change in this world. People continue to behave badly, the truth gets masked, and fear prevails. Wrong things occur and death happens. This world isn’t an easy place to be for people who love God and seek the truth, but Jesus wants us to know that we don’t have to live in despair of the ways things often go in this world. We are invited to live with trust that God can take death and turn it in to life. It takes a lot of courage to live as a child of the resurrection in this material world, but this is the gracious offer that our resurrected Lord has made to us.


We have been invited to live in a profoundly new way, which is to trust in the resurrecting power of God. It’s a beautiful offer because in the kingdom of God some things do change.


In the kingdom of God, the forces of death and destruction do not have the last say. The people who rule this world are not in charge of the next one. The things that are most valued in this world are of no use in the next. The failures that haunt us in this world will not be there in the next. The tormentors of this world disappear in the next, but the bonds of love remain.


The message of the resurrection isn’t so good right now for people who love the way things are, but one day we all will benefit from this gracious design. No doubt we will all come to see the ways in which we have denied some uncomfortable truths, and there may well be some pain involved in that realization, but the largest truth that we all will come to see and experience is how perfectly we are loved by our creator, redeemer, and resurrector. The God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and us!


Thanks be to God!



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