God of the living (November 10, 2013)

The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper C 27/Lectionary 32
November 10, 2013

The text for the sermon

Luke 20:27-38: Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus 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; 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.”

See also the first reading: Job 19:23-27

The Prayer of the Day:

Almighty God, our creator and redeemer,
before whom every mouth falls silent,
take captive our hearts,
fill us with the joy of the resurrection,
and strengthen us in every good word and deed,
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

+   +   +

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

Gotcha

It has become a staple of modern politics to ask questions that intentionally humiliate candidates.  I  like listening to Charlie Rose interview people.  He doesn’t shy away from hard questions, but the questions always seem like real questions.  They represent a desire to understand, not a desire to score points.

What we see in politics also happens at work and at church and in our families.  We use questions as weapons.  Even simple questions like “Did you buy any milk?” can be loaded accusations, unspoken implications that you don’t think, or don’t care, or don’t take enough responsibility for the family.  Such questions can also be innocent but still feel like an attack because they touch a nerve and cause us to react.

We are complicated creatures and relationships are hard.  We are not even aware, sometimes, of the emotions that roil around underneath a question – or of the way such questions might get heard.  But what is happening between Jesus and the Sadducees is not complicated.  It is a battle for honor, a battle for public opinion, for esteem in the eyes of the crowd.

Was Katie Couric’s question to Sarah Palin about the news sources she read designed to make her look ignorant, or was it a sincere desire to understand what shaped the mind of a new figure who had burst onto the national scene?

Shame and honor

Our family moved and I started second grade in a new school.  Everything about this memory is fuzzy except one central moment.  I had new jeans to wear and they were, of course, big enough to grow into. So they were long and the cuffs were rolled up in the customary way.  Our class was walking down the hallway and some older boy seated near the door in the back of his classroom looked out as I walked past and asked me a question.  I didn’t understand the question, but I got its message.  There was something terribly defective about me.

I heard it said somewhere long ago that our communication is 50% tone of voice, 40% body language and only 10% the words we say.  So I missed that 10%, but I got the other 90.  My older brother explained the question to me.  What they guy had said was “Are you expecting rain?”  Apparently the fashion had changed and you were supposed to roll up your jeans on the inside of your pant’s leg.  If you rolled them up on the outside, they were referred to as “rain buckets.”

What was the point of the boy’s question?  It was to put someone else down that he might feel superior.  And it only works if the crowd around him laughs, if the crowd rewards him by raising the level of esteem they have for his cleverness.

This is exactly what is happening in this event in our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus is being asked a question meant to shame him, meant to knock him down, meant to turn the crowd away from him.  And it’s not that Jesus’ answer would necessarily alienate the crowd, it’s that in this verbal exchange he might lose face.  It’s a verbal swordplay.  But the stakes are very high.

The challenge Jesus represents

Jesus represents a profound challenge to the religious/cultural/political/economic system.  The Temple, as we’ve said, is a combination of Wall Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, the Vatican and Hollywood.  The Sadducees are the privileged elite whose vested interest is in maintaining their wealth, power and privilege.  They are the great landowning families.  They are the high priestly families – which is to say they are the governing families.  Except for a small retainer class of soldiers, priests and scribes, everyone else – the vast majority of people – are subsistence farmers paying high taxes and rents to the privileged elite.

For the Sadducees, the way to honor God is to keep the temple operating; for Jesus, to honor God is to feed the hungry.  Jesus sees the heart of the law as justice and mercy; the Sadducees see it as ritual and sacrifice.  The Sadducees want social order; Jesus represents change.  The Sadducees are accountable to the empire of Rome; Jesus is a representative of the empire of God.

Jesus comes from the country and is backed by the masses.  The Sadducees are from the city and backed by money – and the soldiers that money buys.

Politics, religion and the economy are all mixed together in the time of Jesus.  The question of the resurrection is not just a religious question; it’s also about power and wealth.

Job’s suffering

Job’s argument with God is whether Job has done anything to deserve the suffering he has experienced.  If God is just, then the righteous should be rewarded and the wicked should be punished.  Those who honor God, who follow God’s commands, who do justice, who care for the poor, who speak the truth in the gate, they should be blessed.  Those who worship other gods, who violate the commandments, who lie and deceive to get what they want and plot against their neighbors should not.  But we all know that life isn’t fair.  The wicked seem to prosper and we are only half-joking when we say that “no good deed goes unpunished.”

A great deal of life’s inequity we, in our time, attribute to chance.  People were in the right place at the right time.  People were in a place where they had access to opportunity.  People bought a house in a community where the value of that house soared for reasons they didn’t foresee – but others bought a house next to a weak gas pipeline.

Some of life’s inequity is due to hard work, of course.  And some is the courage to take advantage of an opportunity.  But a lot is just chance.  Those who grow up in good schools have a better chance.  Those who grow up with parents who read have a better chance.  Those who grow up in stable communities have a better chance.  Those who have clean water and safe air have a better chance.

The ancients, however, didn’t see it as chance.  It was always the work of some god.  In places with multiple gods, the gods compete with each other – so you could explain your misfortune because of some other god working against your god.  But in Israel, there is only one God, so both fortune and misfortune must come from God.  If God is just, then the righteous should prosper and the wicked should suffer.

So Job suffers and all his friends want him to admit that he must have done something to deserve this.  The logic is impeccable.  God is just so a person must get what they deserve.  But Job will not concede.  He says, in our reading today, that he wants to carve his declaration of innocence into a stone pillar to testify for all time to his innocence.

The resurrection and the justice of God

This question of the justice of God and the inequity of life leads you to one of two places.  Either there is something after death where the scales are set right, or Job must have sinned.

If you say there is no resurrection, if you say there is no balancing of the scales after death, then the logical result of that idea is that everything is as it should be on earth.  Thus the wealthy are wealthy by divine right.  And the poor are poor because that is God’s just reward.

Your only other choice is to say there is no justice, only power – that there is no God, or that God doesn’t see or care.

Do you see how the idea of resurrection is not just a religious question, but a social, cultural and political question?  The idea of the resurrection means that just because you are powerful doesn’t make you right.  Being wealthy doesn’t make you honored in God’s sight.

So Jesus says things like “Blessed are the poor,” and uses sermon illustrations like the landowner who paid all his workers enough to feed their families, regardless of how many hours they worked. And John the Baptist talks about sharing your food with the hungry and giving away your extra coat.  And Mary sings of the world being set right, the poor being lifted up and the mighty cast down.

The Sadducees challenge

The Sadducees come at Jesus on this question of the resurrection and they think they have him dead to rights.  But Jesus outfoxes them.

There was a provision in the law that if you died childless, your brother was to take your wife to ensure that you had a son who would care for the mother and carry on your name and your property.  So the Sadducees make up a test case of seven brothers, all of whom die prematurely.  In the resurrection, whose wife would she be?  The Sadducees think this reveals the folly of the idea of life after death.  But this marriage law is designed to protect and provide for people in this life.  Indeed the institution of marriage is a part of this life.  In the life to come we won’t be dependent upon inheritance and fields and the strength of sons to work them – in the same way that we won’t need the police or armies or the NSA or, for that matter, politicians or priests.  As we heard two Sundays ago, Jeremiah says that you won’t need anyone to teach you to love God or love your neighbor, the law will be written on your heart.

But the really clever argument that Jesus makes has to do with the passage from Exodus where God encounters Moses in the burning bush and says, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  God uses the present tense – so even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long dead, if God is still their God they must still be living in God’s presence.

God of the Living

The Sadducees attack on Jesus backfires.  He comes out looking even better than before.  Of course, the outcome is that the high priestly families will simply purchase a betrayal for thirty pieces of silver and have Jesus executed as a threat to public order.

And then we will find out whether God is God of the living.  Then we will find out whether Jesus must have been accursed because he died an accursed death – or whether there is a resurrection in which God will declare Jesus innocent and true.

When we say that Jesus is raised from the dead, we are not just making a religious claim about life after death. We are not just offering a word of comfort to the grieving and the dying.  This is not pie in the sky, nor a promise of rapture while the world devolves into chaos and destruction. This is a declaration that God is a god of justice who comes to set the world right.  This is a declaration that the world doesn’t belong to the ruthless.  The world doesn’t belong to the mighty.  The world doesn’t belong to the wealthy.  God isn’t the patron of the status quo.  God is this strange, liberating God who sets slaves free, who forgives debts, who gathers the marginalized, who feeds the hungry, and teaches us to do the same.

Amen.

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