Sermon for November 10, 2013, Pentecost +25, Ordinary 32 C on 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.”
When Michelle and I were first dating, back in college, we did what new couples do: we introduced each other to the things we loved. I introduced Michelle to coffee. She introduced me to Aaron Copland’s ballet, Appalachian Spring.
We listened to it together, back in those days, by going to the college sound lab, asking them to play it, and sitting next to each other, each wearing these enormous head phones they had back then. There was no internet to download the song from, and no iPods to play it on in those days, which feels like the dark ages, but it was wonderful.
The music, which is all about the awakening of the world to Spring, begins with a long, slow, somber passage, which I take to be about the world asleep in winter.
Suddenly it is broken wide open by an energetic set of violins playing a new melody. Spring has burst through the cold crust of the earth with the first shoots of new life. The music then dances with joy and delight.
When I first heard the music, there in the sound lab with Michelle, I remember how those first bursting violin notes, after the slow, somber part grabbed me. I got goose bumps. It was like a stab in the heart.
It took me to a place where suddenly I was not thinking about how close to lunch time it was, nor about the school assignments I needed to work on; I was entirely in the moment, but somehow not in the same mundane reality.
It was beautiful, joyful, and yet, it had an element of painfulness in it, the way nostalgia does, the way the smell of fallen leaves does. It was both satisfying and at the same time a feeling of longing for something that wasn’t there.
C.S. Lewis experienced the same feeling. He called it “joy,” but only because no other English word would adequately translate the German Sehnsucht.
Lewis described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” He writes:
That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead…the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
(From “Afterword to the Third Edition,” The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992, available at http://www.calvin.edu/admin/provost/faith/cs_lewis.htm)
In his book, A Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis told the story of a young English boy playing in his backyard next to a stone wall. The boy notices a bit of the stone is missing. He looks through the opening onto a seascape. He can just barely make out an island in the West. It fills him with longing. He has never been to the island, but somehow it feels like it must be his true home. The boy grows up elsewhere, and in the story, spends the rest of his adult life searching for that island; searching for home.
Where do such feelings come from? Why is it that beauty can fill us with wonder – not just with pleasure, like we get from chocolate, or coffee, but with a feeling that points to another world? A world we were made for, but are away from? A world we long for.
Lewis thought about how odd it was that we have feeling like this. A fish, he said, would never complain about the wetness of the sea; that is the environment it was made for. But we humans are always feeling as though there is another world we were made for.
We have ideas that do not seem to be able to arise from a purely material world. We believe that justice is real, even if we only see shabby human approximations in this life. We believe that there is such a thing as pure love, even if we wonder if we have ever really known it.
We ask questions about meaning as if they matter; what does my life mean? Why am I here? What is the purpose for being alive for this brief span of years, only to die and to fade away?
These feelings point us to a world beyond this one; one we were made for; our true home. A world beyond the resurrection.
If the Sadducees came up to me, as they did to Jesus, with their skepticism about the possibility of resurrection, these reflections would come to my mind first.
In their defense, we have to admit that the Hebrew Bible they read has precious little to say about life after death. We read a bit about it from Daniel, but that was one of the books their group did not accept as part of the Bible.
Jesus, in his reply, was very clever. He gave them an answer that shut them up. He took a scene from the part of the bible they did accept, from Torah (the Pentateuch). It was the scene in which Moses mysteriously encounters God at the burning bush. Moses asks the god of the bush to identify himself. God says to Moses,
“I AM WHO I AM….Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you…The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14-15)
Jesus makes the point that God is the God of the living, not of the dead, so the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must be living, not dead; they died but were raised to life; so therefore, the resurrection is real. There is life beyond this one.
The Sadducee Perspective
Who were the Sadducees? We don’t know much really. After the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, they disappear from the historical record. But Ancient Jewish historian Josephus tells us that they were rich, they were the chief priests who controlled the temple and wielded a great deal of economic power. They were in complete opposition to Jesus. Barely a few verses before our text Luke has told us:
“Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him;” (Luke 19:47)
They did not believe in resurrection, so they believed that this life was the only one that mattered. Therefore, they thought, abuse the peasants, push them off the land to expand your estate, create enormous economic burdens for them, keep them virtual debt-slaves – no problem. Get it while you can; this is all there is.
The Resurrection Perspective
Jesus, by contrast, had an entirely different perspective. This life is not all there is. One day, in the future, the playing field will be level. There will be no class system in heaven. There will be no rich and poor. The way Jesus described it, children of the resurrection are all “children of God.”
This meant something practical and crucial to Jesus. It meant that the truest truth about us is not what we see in front of us in this life. We see poverty, disease, inequality, discrimination of all kinds, but one day, after the resurrection, these will all be gone.
I’ve got a robe, you’ve got a robe,
All of God’s children got a robe.
When I get to heaven
goin’ to put on my robe,
Goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.
(source: Taylor, Barbara Brown; Bartlett, David (2010-04-12). Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 4 (Kindle Locations 10743-10745). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.)
If heaven is where we end up, and in heaven we all wear the same robe (so to speak) then we better start living that way right now, as Jesus did.
Only one life, so soon it’s past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.
What will outlast this short life? What will remain into the resurrection? As the poem says, “only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Jesus gets to define what that means. And he did. In his famous parable of the king at the end of time who separates the sheep from the goats, he explains his separation criteria. He says that people had ample opportunity to do things for Christ, that would last.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matt. 25)
“Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Resurrection and Us
We are people who believe in resurrection. That is why we pay close attention to Jesus and we live into the truth that he taught us.
Jesus’ perspective was a resurrection perspective. It gave him an entirely different concept of money and what it is meant for in this life – completely opposite the Sadducees’ materialism and exploitation.
Jesus’ perspective also gave him hope. He knew they were after him to kill him. He knew that they would be successful. But he believed in resurrection – that this life is not the end. And it wasn’t. He is like the first bursting of Spring life from the cold winter earth that the Appalachian Spring Ballet music captured so well: the first fruits of a harvest of resurrection that we will share in.
What is important in this life? What matters? What is the role of money in this life? How do we look at other humans? Where will we go after this life? These are questions that belief in the resurrection touches deeply.
It touches our understanding of our relationships, and our obligation to each other, to be experts in forgiveness and mercy. It touches our understanding of mission beyond our walls to the “least of these.” It touches our sense of hope as our years draw to an end. It touches our stewardship of our financial resources, especially in a time of great need for our congregation.
“Only one life, so soon it’s past”
So, from the perspective of resurrection, what matters? What lasts? What is big enough to be worthy of our longing? Where is our true home? How shall we then live?