God of the Living

My sermon from this past Sunday.  I’m a bit late posting it; I’m in a very busy week as a project comes to completion.

Luke 20:27-38

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

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Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our living God, through Jesus.  Amen.

Job says the great words, I know that my Redeemer lives.

Paul says to the Thessalonians, stand firm and hold fast.

Even our Psalmist today speaks in present tense.

God is not of the dead, but of the living.  To God, ALL of them are alive.

And yet these words come at the end of an odd exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees.  The first question I have about this encounter is, why are the Sadducees asking him questions about something they don’t even believe in?  They won’t believe the answer anyway, so why bother?

Well, they bother because they are trying to trap Jesus.  It’s basically the gotcha politics of the first century.  “What kind of questions can we ask him so that he openly commits heresy?  So that he does something that gives us what we need to haul him up in front of the governor, Pilate, and get rid of him?”

What Jesus is saying is important, but the context in which he says it is just as important.  Keep in mind, Jesus has already had his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with palms and shouts of Hosanna.  Now he is teaching in the temple, and the Jewish authorities are incensed once they realize his parables are ways to teach against their corruption.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, don’t they?  These are not merely historical observations, they are the realities of the human sinful condition.

As Lord Acton said in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Jesus sees this clearly, and answers with words that disrupt the Sadducees’ intent as well as the societal norms it’s based on.

In Jesus’ time, such a question – whose wife would the woman be – wouldn’t be seen as strange.  Women were property.  Surely this is just a simple question of inheritance.

That way of thinking is very separated from real people.  When our theology fails to touch human bodies—when theology becomes disembodied—how easily we can move to a place of using that theology to justify an override of fair treatment of individuals.

Jesus’ response steps completely away from these assumptions of women as property.  He is speaking of “children of the resurrection” – in other words, an ethos drawn from the age to come.  The patriarchal model of women as property, given and taken to continue that patriarchal structure, is no longer needed.

Jesus’ answer is one that could be seen as envisioning marriage as something in which both parties fully consent and participate – a radical departure from the model of his day, one that only in the last few decades has even taken serious root in our own lives.

But I wonder if Jesus’ answer is more particularly meant to push the Sadducees towards a far more expansive understanding of the love and grace of God.

For if our pondering of their question were only limited to what we know of God in THIS life, then our answers would be likewise limited.

Jesus invites us in this answer to their limit-bound question to step into the place of limitless possibilities – the place of resurrection.

Jesus invites us to dream.  To truly live as children of the resurrection, who have been freed from the sin that has bound us in the past.

In so living, we also affirm that when Jesus invites us to dream, he is not advising us to disregard our obligations to care for this lifetime and the world in light of the afterlife. We are here and the world – us and our companions – is saved as much here as in an uncharted beyond.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians continues this hopeful vision: stand firm and hold fast.  God is faithful and will comfort you and strengthen your hearts for whatever is to come.  Indeed, we can use this passage to address our own faith in a time in which we experience threat to the predictable order of things, and in which the very existence of planetary life is at risk through human folly, war making, and greed.

Jesus knows the question the religious leaders have posed to him is a political one, wrapped in theological trappings. As usual, he responds to what lies beneath the trappings, exploding some assumptions along the way. Following on the heels of celebrating the Feast of All Saints last week, it’s an especially potent point that Jesus makes here: that in the eyes of God, there is no question of the dead versus the living, “for to [God],” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.”

ALL alive, on this side and the other side of the table.

On this side of the table, we feel the distinction keenly, and Jesus does not dismiss or disparage this. Bent as he is on breaking down the walls of division, however, he cannot resist pressing against this one, the wall we perceive between the living and the dead. With his own death and resurrection almost upon him, Jesus pushes against that wall, shows it for what it is, challenges us to enter anew into our living and into our world that is so much larger, so much more mysterious than we dreamed.

God of the Living
A Blessing

by Jan Richardson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still

forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.

© 2013 Jan Richardson

Dear friends: our lessons today don’t counsel us to passivity or to sitting on the sidelines, letting God take care of the future. We are called to live faithfully, to act lovingly, and to care for the earth regardless of what the future brings. Faithfulness is not about a divine rescue operation, but about becoming God’s companion through actions to save the world and bring justice and beauty to one another. Heaven will take care of itself; our task is here on earth, undergirded by the trust that whatever the future brings, we are in God’s hands.

Amen.

For All The Saints

All Saints Day is pretty much my favorite day on the church calendar.  I love this day where we remember those who have gone before us, and remind ourselves that we, too, are saints “on the way” together.  I had my congregation bring photos of folks (or pets) that have gone on ahead of us, “to the other side of the table” so that our worship would be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.

Luke 6:20-31

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Dear saints of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving Creator, through Jesus.  Amen.

We have exquisite lessons today, especially the gospel and the second lesson.  The gospel, of course, is the beloved Beatitudes through the lens of Luke.  The second lesson is from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus.  The root word of that city’s name is ephatha, which means “be opened.”

Be opened.  Isn’t that really the core invitation of Jesus?  Be opened to the possibilities that God offers.

And if we look at the Beatitudes through that window of “be opened” it enables a number of possibilities.  Each Beatitude, in fact, proposes a way to be opened.  They might be summarized like this:

Be opened to a completely new way of living.

Be opened to the potential for radical hospitality and inclusion.

Be opened to re-thinking your priorities.

Be opened to the world turned upside down.

And in so doing, be opened to the fullest experience of this All Saints Sunday.

Our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Daniel, describes a vision of Daniel and is generally considered to be a Jewish apocalyptic text.  Modern scholars hold that such writings are for the purpose of exposing a system of imperial domination, and countering that domination with an alternative view.  In Daniel, the systems and modus operandi of the earth are eclipsed by the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven by the faithful.

This is echoed in the Beatitudes.  Meaning, those who the world says are the winners, aren’t necessarily so.

The world is turned upside down in God’s peaceable realm.

The holy ones in the first reading are clearly on God’s side, on the side of good.  The beasts – that is, the empires of the world – will not be victorious in the end.

I don’t know about you, but I take some comfort in the understanding that this is not a concern that is unique to the 21st or even the 20th century.  This has been going on for a REALLY long time.  But I also take comfort in realizing that this claim by God’s people that the empires of the world will not have the last word, is a story whose ending is writ only in the mind of God.

I had a seminary professor who was fond of saying “such is the nature of the human condition.”  And this tendency towards empire-building is a part of that nature.  Understanding this helps me see humanity in the long view.  We haven’t brought this on ourselves only in the last 20 or so years; it’s just how humanity is.

But alongside the reality and endurance of empire, we must also hold the reality and endurance of the message of Jesus.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus truly sees the people in front of him.  People he has reached.  People he may have actually touched, or healed.  The “blessed” he describes may very well be the people sitting before him, along with the disciples.

And what does this text say about that “human condition”?  Jesus uses the present tense.

That doesn’t change for us.  We don’t say, “blessed were.”

I truly believe that in every gathering of human beings, each one of these conditions is present.  The poor (not necessarily in terms of income).  The hungry (maybe for something other than food).  Those who weep (for any one of a million reasons).  And also the others, who are termed “the woes”.  Those who might be seen as card-carrying members of the imperial structure.

But Jesus doesn’t leave them out here.  Rather, this is their invitation to shift direction, that familiar Greek word metanoia.  Jesus is proclaiming a kingdom that is truly open to all:  the “haves” can share immediately in the new existence God has instituted, to the degree to which they participate in Christ’s calling to enter into true solidarity with the “have nots.”

If that sounds a little uncomfortable, then I hope you will stay with me just a bit.

Jesus is describing ways of living that conform to God’s commitment to see the poor and unprivileged raised up.

The communion of saints—that intimate unity we share through Christ with one another, including those who have finished their race—creates a community, a new social reality. Jesus’ sermon describes that community as – well, odd. Its values do not match life experience, in terms of who typically experiences happiness and how. Nor do they conform to the cold logic of cost-benefit analyses. Jesus calls the church to more than acting differently or seeing the world differently. He calls us, each of us, to a new existence in which God’s generosity benefits the downtrodden. That generosity creates a culture formed and sustained by the mercy of God. Woe to those who are missing opportunities to experience tangibly the giving and receiving of that mercy!  Because oh, what blessedness they – or we – are missing.

I look around us today, at this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.

What blessedness did they not miss?  What opportunities did they completely embrace, knowing that in such places and situations was the fullness of God?

I can only speak of my own experiences.  I’m sure you all have plenty of your own.

My father was an aerospace engineer, minted from MIT, class of 1950.  He began work at Bell Helicopter in Buffalo, NY after graduation, and shortly after marrying my mom, got an offer to relocate to San Diego.

As you can imagine, that was just about the easiest decision of their lives.

Dad worked on all the big projects of the Space Race – Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and others.  And when he retired in 1992, he looked forward to being able to play golf as much as he wanted.

Only problem was, after a month of playing golf 4 days a week, he was bored.

He wandered over to my home congregation, where they were only too happy to put him to work on property management and analysis.  Then they got him hooked up with the senior center, and next thing I knew, my dad was a justice advocate for seniors.  He’d be in Sacramento more often than not, “making politicians uncomfortable” as he put it.

As he expressed to my mentor pastor, “shouldn’t we leave the world a better place, if we possibly can?”  And I know my dad did.  He worked tirelessly to make life better for seniors who were largely forgotten.

Dad did not miss the blessedness of serving others.  And I know you all have similar stories.

Even the folks whose photos or portraits surround us who aren’t personally known to us – we know that the path they trod on this earth was one that brought them blessedness, even in the midst of struggle, and oppression, and violence.

Because that path was one that told them “be opened”.

Be opened to walking alongside those whose existence you might not have noticed before today.

Be opened to the realities and lives that don’t align with yours.

Be opened to the possibilities that your presence might bring to others, by the grace of God.

Be opened to the very real likelihood that by and in your presence, God is working not only in their life, but in yours as well.

Who do we remember today?  Who lived this calling in our sight, whose dedication to service is seared in our memory?

When we gather on this All Saints Day, we remember those who have gone ahead of us.  That’s a simile, for “those who have died.”  We think of them as having died and gone ahead of us, to the other side of the table.

The other side of the table.  Christ’s table, that of Holy Communion.

There is an old tradition in church architecture, of a half-rail around the table.  We have something similar here.

That half-rail is where the faithful generally gather for communion, whether at the rail itself or simply on this side of the table.

When my husband died, a colleague wrote me: “At the moment Michael was welcomed to the “other side of the table” as I like to call it, we were likewise gathered to receive the Lord’s Supper on this side of the table.  This particular moment of sharing was an honor we did not realize we had been granted.”

The faithful departed gather at the other side of table, as we gather on this side.  And all are guests at the feast that has no end.

For all that has been, for all those who have been, thanks.

For all that will be, for all those who will be, yes.

Amen.

 

Before we sang our sending hymn, I read this poem for the saints among us today:

A Last Beatitude                     by Malcolm Guite

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;

The faithful servers on the coffee rota,

The ones who hold no candle, bell or book

But keep the books and tally up the quota,

The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,

The quiet ones who organise the fete,

Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,

Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.

God knows the depths that often go unspoken

Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,

Or the slow healing of a heart long broken

Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.

Invisible on earth, without a voice,

In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.