25th Sunday after Pentecost
November 10, 2013
Luke 20: 27-38
Dale Bannon was the first person to ask the new pastor the question: “What is heaven like?” I knew why he was asking, because he’d made it clear that he wanted to stay right where he was, in the life he’d loved and with the people who were such an important part of it. Others have asked me since then, some of them for the same reason and some because they are afraid.
These people in today’s reading are not asking the deeply troubling question of our age, what happens to me after I die? They really just trying to trap Jesus into some pie-in-sky answer that will make him a laughing stock in front of their intellectual friends. Sadducees only accepted the writings of the first 5 books of their Scripture – the Torah. They were generally high achievers and very narrow-minded religiously. They might have been some of the rich that Jesus was excoriating when he told them that their present comfort WAS their reward. As Luke tells us, they did not believe in a resurrection after death, an idea that is more emphasized in later Scriptures like the prophets and the other writings. The story they bring is based on the Law that says that if a man dies before his wife bears him a son, his brother is expected to marry her and that the first son from that marriage will be the heir of the first husband. It is a law that protects a man’s claim to pass on his property and belongings to a male heir. It is a law that means a woman will always have a protector and a provider. Having a son to carry on the family name is immortality in those communities, so it’s important.
But Jesus quotes the story of Moses, their hero, in his answer. The God who meets Moses in the burning bush doesn’t claim to have been the God of his ancestors only in the past. Not, “remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I was their God, back in the day, and remember them so fondly.” No, God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He is the God of the living, says Jesus, not the God of the dead.
But first Jesus gives us a really important hint about what resurrected life might be like. The children of God are not tied to the life that they have lived on earth, they are safe with God, like the angels, in a new way. That’s the good news. That may be when the poor and hungry have their fill, when the mourning will be comforted, when the persecuted will be restored.
As the Sadducees glibly ask their question, they skate right over the some of the deepest sorrows of this life: a husband dying so young that his wife is left without his baby, and without provider for her old age. Women were passed from father to husband to son as property, a responsibility, someone who is unable to provide for herself. It ignores the indignity of a woman who is handed off from brother to brother like cattle or a piece of land. It skates over the loss of someone you love, someone you have pinned your hopes on, who dies much too soon, and the feeling that you must be cursed because all your husbands die. The promise of resurrection brings with it the expectation that what happens in this life is not the end of our story.
We know the pain of life for people even in our own lives of privilege as middle-class Americans: the losses we suffer that change our image of ourselves, that cause bitterness and helplessness; the circumstances that test our hope and our faith that God cares what happens to us. Maybe some of you have experienced the pain of living in circumstances that rob you of your dignity, keep you hungry and poor, consign you to a life of virtual slavery or pain. Jesus’ assurance that there is life beyond this life makes it possible to live with your heart somewhere else, to claim your place as God’s child, even if the present circumstance seem to deny it.
We see in Jesus’ resurrection that God’s promises are trustworthy, and that death is never the end of the story for those who believe in those promises. We can live this life with freedom to love and play and embrace the beauty of the world, expecting that it is a glimpse of the joy to which we are called forever. Even though it is shaded with pain, the loveliness of this life gives us a view of what it means to be loved into health and fullness forever. Jesus will go on to show us that being children of God does indeed mean that we are children of the resurrection. It means that those who dare to trust God’s imagination about life with God forever will find their rest forever in the arms of Jesus.
So what do we do in the meantime? We are free to live this good news by sharing our hope and our material blessings with those whose current lives are miserable. We can be God’s hands of mercy in this life, because we know it is not the whole story for us, and because we want all people to live with the freedom that comes from being so beloved by God that we are invited to live in that love forever. Paul tells us that “love never ends.” This is the hope to which we are called. Amen.
Now may the peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.