Nov. 10, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Nov 10, 2019 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27C)

November 10, 2019

The gospel reading we just heard isn’t about marriage or about a woman having multiple husbands, not even about how very suspicious it would be for seven husbands in a row to all die while married to her! It’s about the world of this life and the world of eternal life for children of God.

The Hebrew Scriptures speak of having children as the way to be remembered after death, for one’s name and family identity to be carried on in the world. This presumes one’s offspring are honorable and stay in line with the family, but those same scriptures tell of familial conflicts, children who cause grief or dishonor, and even that not everyone has children. The Sadducees believed this was the only life there was, so you’d better make your mark with it with progeny. Their question to Jesus refers to a practice still around in some parts of the world today; that a man who dies with no child to carry on his name, could still achieve this by his brother marrying his widow and naming the ensuing child as heir to the deceased first husband, and so that the widow would not be childless or alone. Thus, the life of the deceased husband was remembered, and he lived on in the sense they considered important. Like their many testing questions earlier, they are trying to make Jesus look bad or trap him. They ask Jesus whose wife this woman would be in the afterlife, which one of these seven men would own her.

As posed, it is a bit absurd, all the more because the Sadducees say there is no resurrection. This is the point Jesus addresses, and does so through the revered Moses, whom they cited to bring Jesus down. He can see that their focus is about nothing but death; each of the seven brothers dies, there are no children, and finally the widow herself also dies. The Sadducees’ riddle mocks belief in resurrection by implying there could be no correct answer for such a situation. But Jesus changes the terms of their riddle knowing their question is not about marriage or widows or heirs or posthumous honor, but is trying to apply the ways of this earthly life to the realm of eternal life, about men having children as heirs, rather than knowing they are all children of God.

Resurrection life is not some ‘up there’ cloud version of this life with the same rules in place. Resurrection life isn’t where this widow waits patiently behind a pearly gate while the seven brothers stand around figuring out who she belongs to now. If she’s going to heaven it’s because she’s a child of God, not because one of them claimed her as his wife, or because she did or didn’t have children, or how many times she married, or even if the men were or were not forgotten. Jesus says, “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.”

All of those traditions and rules about heirs, and marriage, all the rituals of ownership or claiming children to have them live on for one’s honor and memory are for those living in this age. Jesus says life in the resurrection is different, and rather than spell it all out and argue rule by rule with the Sadducees he says what matters is our being God’s children. All that other stuff won’t be needed then. Yes, children in the here and now are important, he’s said that and more, and marriage is to be honored, as is loving those around us. All of that is life-giving for us, for us in this time, this world. Yet as life-giving and important as they are, that’s not getting us or the widow into heaven. Knowing those things are about this life help us to remember that we don’t get to live through our spouses or our children—they too are children of God, their first and last and most fundamental identity, (even if we do get to name them and raise them). Rather than consider how we will live on through them, we treasure them in this life, in the time we have with them. We give thanks to God for those we are given to love and all the ways we get to share God’s love, be it family by blood or marriage or choice.

That love is how we are redefined in God’s life, how we know each other as family in this very room, sisters and brothers in Christ. When we get to know someone here, how easily we soon feel like they’ve been part of this family for years. It doesn’t depend on having spouses or children or other relatives, where we’re from or how many questions one has; this family of Christ is contagious, growing from one to another as we find the good news alive in our midst, see the face of Christ on each other—be it visitor, teacher, worship leader, chorister, bread baker, acolyte, newcomer. This welcoming family in Christ is both the one putting bread in your hand at Communion and the one serving up community through coffee and snacks afterwards.

Like other families, I know we don’t always agree on everything, we each know how we like things or what’s best – and so in this family we look to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to show us the way. Even the Apostles argued about how to be church, how best to manage money, who will lead, whom to send, whom to call forth. Some thought others weren’t keeping the traditions correctly while others thought they were too entrenched in old ways. Amid squabbles about the things of this life, (and this life isn’t so easy!) Jesus teaches them and the Sadducees –and us– by pointing to God’s words to Moses, whom they themselves had invoked. He tells them, “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.” Jesus is declaring the resurrection to these Sadducees who don’t believe in it, using the authority they have just cited. Jesus is speaking of when Moses met God at the burning bush. He did not meet the one who was God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, rather Moses met the one who said “I am.” “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ (Exodus 3:6) Although all three of them were dead long before God spoke these words to Moses, God is still alive with them. So, Jesus says, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

With Veteran’s Day tomorrow, Newsweek had a story online saying many veterans are uncomfortable with being ‘thanked for their service.’ (Tareq Haddad, 11/9/19) Some said they never know what to say in response, or that it dead-ends the conversation, others that it felt impersonal. The poll showed “most veterans and service members preferred gratitude that went beyond simple platitudes,” preferring to connect on a more personal level. One source said, “What we’ve learned is if you’ve met one veteran, you’ve met one veteran. We are as diverse in our interests as are civilians.” So rather than assume we know how they understand or live with their military experience, those from the article would rather be asked about it. There are some here today to ask.

We do so many things to preserve our lives through science, pharmaceuticals, youth treatments, and we leave legacies of generosity, illustrious careers, some through sheer notoriety. Usually after death one’s name is carved in stone or bronze at the interment site, but if you look at a military cemetery or our own columbarium and you see a uniformity of markers and typeface. Even as each represents someone who was unique and lived in this world, we also know their life is not in the name on that headstone, but they are alive in God’s life.

I started thinking about how today’s gospel relates to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. Begun nearly 100 years ago with the grave of an Unknown [soldier] from World War One, then were added Unknowns; from World War II, Korea and Vietnam (though once the identity of the latter was known, the body was returned to the family for burial, and the empty space marked anew for “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen.”). Their honor or value in this world did not depend on lineage or rank, how or where they served, or even having spouses or children to keep their memory alive. Their honor is instead be revealed namelessly, by their self-giving and a willingness to serve for the sake of others. The Sadducees believed this was the only life there was, and sought to be immortalized by their names and stories being carried on—and then here is this Tomb of the Unknown Soldier marked not with a name, but saying “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” I shudder to think how many more wars might need to be represented there as we wrestle over what divides this human family, we who all live in God’s creation.

May we find comfort and hope in Jesus telling us we can die no more because we are children of the resurrection, and that to God we are all alive. Amen.

My thanks to the Rev. Amy Richter, visiting academic at the University of KwaZulu-Natal-Natal, South Africa, for perspectives on family in this world and the next.

© The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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