A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.
In today’s Gospel Jesus reminds the people who are listening to him about Noah. The people in Jesus’ day must have known the stories of Noah from Genesis, how God became disgusted with the mess of humanity and decided to do away with everybody—everybody except for Noah and Noah’s family. Noah was saved because he paid attention to God, because he was listening for God’s voice, and probably because there was also in Noah the propensity to take care of others—not just his family, but even the creatures of the earth, the things that creep and crawl, that climb and claw.
I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day really thought much about whether Noah was an actual person, or whether he literally built and ark and filled it with animals. But I bet a lot of people, then as now, could understand a little bit of Noah as someone who gets a sense of what he should do to be faithful to God. Once this sense is gotten, preparations are made, things are put into place, and then it’s time simply to wait for God to act, to move, to make things happen, to point to the next step. I bet a lot of us have been at that place—we may not have been building an ark, but we’ve begun something that involved God (at least at the beginning). And then there’s a time of waiting, and wondering. For Noah, it meant wondering whether the rains would really come. Would there really be floods? Would his preparation and faithfulness really pay off? And then what would life be like after all the drama, when the waters are dried up and the animals are set free?
Jesus points to this time in-between, after one has felt God’s presence at the beginning, but before one has begun to feel God’s presence moving into the next step. It is a scary place and a vulnerable place. Jesus knows that whether we’re talking about Noah or us, or perhaps even himself, it’s difficult to wait, to watch and to listen for God.
How good, then that we have such a season as Advent, when the Church invites us to practice these spiritual disciplines of waiting, watching and listening. Advent helps us live with the in-between. The Church remembers and retells the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.
The liturgy helps us to recall the first coming of Christ, and our prayers help us to stretch forward for the second coming, but there is also a third way in which Jesus invites us to spend this season. That third way has to do with our living in the kingdom of God, not as it began, nor as it culminates, but right now, as it continues to unfold.
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about this kingdom, this commonwealth, this holy realm and way of God’s presence among us. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” “The kingdom of God is very near you,” he says. And finally, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.
In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions that we should be ready, but it’s not for most of us to go up on a hill and wait for God to come. In describing how we are to wait, Jesus describes some in the field (from which one is taken to be with God.) Others are grinding meal or making bread, and again, one is taken to be with God. We could continue the list—one will be teaching, while one is taken away. Another will be in a meeting, one at a store, another watching the children, and another working outside. In short, since we do not know when or how or where, it is for us to do the work God has appointed for us to do, and to carry on with faith, with love and with charity.
Saint Paul says in today’s reading that it is time for us to wake from sleep, and Jesus invites us to live in readiness for God’s next move. Live wakefully, with eyes and hearts open.
The season of Advent is not about escape or retreat from reality—it is about allowing God’s increasing light to shine upon us and from within us. The Collect of the Day captures the prayer of the season, really, that “we may cast away the works of darkness” and put on the armor of Christ’s eternal light. May we walk with faith in the light of Christ.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, November 21, 2010. The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, and Luke 23:33-43.
The Royals have been very much in the news this week with the announcement that Prince William will marry Kate Middleton. Whether you can’t get enough of the news and speculation, or whether you’re a completely anti-monarchist and tired of it already—it’s been hard to avoid the news. As we move closer to the wedding date, it will be even harder to avoid all this talk of kings and queens, princes—all this talk of royalty.
Especially in our country, founded as an experiment in democracy without royalty, language of a king or a queen can be problematic. For some, it brings a knee-jerk reaction—get the gun, call the troops, let’s defend the borders. For others still, it provokes a kind of teary yearning for a realm of someone like King Arthur, full of romance and chivalry, religious sentiment, and good taste.
All the more problematic, then, when we read scripture and celebrate liturgies that speak of God as King, or that speak of Jesus as king.
A little like some reactions to current monarchies, some theologians and preachers rebel against this language. Instead of the “kingdom” of God, they might speak of the “kin-dom” of God, or the commonwealth of God. But to avoid calling Christ “King” is to miss a major point in today’s Gospel. It is to miss a major point in Christian theology.
The image of a king is important because Jesus does so much to deconstruct that image. He turns it inside-out. He re-defines it. As people bring to the idea of “king” their own images and desires, Jesus holds a mirror up so that we might inspect those images more closely, and try to see the one behind the mirror—both our true self, as well as Jesus the Son of God.
At the cross, the soldiers mock Jesus and make fun of him, calling him, “king.” “The king of the Jews,” they name him. “If you’re such a great king, then do something. Show off. Save yourself.” And Jesus is silent. But then one of the thieves who is also on a cross next to Jesus understand something of his kingship and asks for favor. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief can’t really have any idea what he’s asking, or what kind of a king Jesus is, or what kind of a kingdom his may be—but he sees something in Jesus and his way, in his love that forgives, and receives, and leads to the love of God. And so the thief wants “in.” He asks for entrance, and Jesus gives it.
In this Gospel we see the kind of king Jesus is—that even from the cross, he extends his kingdom and invites everybody in.
The reign of Christ the King is like that—ever unfolding, ever extending, ever including each one of us.
It is a kingdom of reversals. As the Virgin Mary sings, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.
His is a kingdom of outcasts. When we read the Gospels it is a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except for their meeting in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcasts, of those who have nowhere else to go.
And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.
Even as we might wrestle with our perception of the kings and queens of our day, living in our world, on this Sunday, we can give thanks for Christ the King. We can give thanks he continues to reinterpret the meaning of power, of rule, of authority, as he continuing empties himself of those things so that we might be full. And being full, we empty ourselves so that others may be lifted up.
May we rejoice in this kingdom of reversals. May we open our doors to a kingdom of outcasts. And may we open our hearts to a kingdom of possibilities.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Posted by John Beddingfield at 7:30 PM
Monday, November 15, 2010
A sermon for All Souls' Day, November 2, 2010. The scripture readings are Wisdom 3:1-9, Psalm 130, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and John 5:24-27.
You may be familiar with the recent film, "Never let me go," or perhaps the beautiful book it is based upon by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is a strange story. In a somewhat forgotten, out of the way English boarding school, there are students, who turn out to be very special. They seem like normal students. They laugh. They play. They hurt each other. They fall in love.
But it turns out that they are actually clones—they are genetically engineered and are meant to live only for their usefulness, as organs are harvested for what is perceived to be the “greater good” of society.
There are art classes at Hailsham and the young people take great pride in what they create. But later in the story, it turns out that the whole reason for the art classes was the teachers’ attempt to show the State that the students (the clones, really) actually possessed souls. The effort fails.
The story raises the question: What is a soul?
What does a soul look like? Can it be seen? Can it be felt? Can it be studied? Is the soul just that part of us that responds to God? Is it that part of us that helps us feel emotion or have compassion for someone else? What, exactly do we mean when we talk about a soul?
Those of you who are familiar with my preaching will have noticed that sometimes, when I get stuck for an idea, or need a little help thinking about a particular word, I look at the writings of Frederick Buechner. Buechner is a writer, preacher, and sometime Presbyterian minister, and he often cuts through my ordinary sense of a word to help me notice something deeper.
And so, in his little book, “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC,” I looked up the word, “soul.” This time Buechner provided no definition. Instead there are cross-references. Under the heading, “soul,” Buechner writes, “see Spirit, Healing, Sex.”
Right there, Buechner reminds us of what St. Paul was trying to convey in so much of his writing—that the Greek idea of a spirit and body split might be helpful for philosophy, but it doesn’t describe what we know of ourselves. It doesn’t describe how God has created us. And it doesn’t even begin to describe what happens when we die.
The popular notion that the body dies and turns into dust while the soul floats up into the arms of God is not a Christian understanding of death. Body and soul cannot be separated so neatly. Scripture tells us that we die totally in this world, body and soul die. But then, in God’s mystery and miracle of new birth, both are raised to new life again.
Whatever is uniquely “John” about me in this life—the way I look, the way I move, the way I hurt, the way I rejoice--- all of that will die but be raised up again. I don’t know if I’ll have gray hair (prematurely gray hair, mind you) in heaven, but I think there will be something about me that you’ll recognize there and say, ahh, yes, that’s John over there.
Like Buechner says, the soul includes spirit, healing, sex, and it includes so much more—taste and smell, and sound, and movement, and feeling, all that we are is formed and informed by our soul. In tonight’s Gospel Jesus promises a day when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God. They will hear their name, they will see the Good Shepherd, they will embrace everyone they’ve ever known, and be received into the arms of God. These are physical things, only possible with a body, what Paul calls a “spirit-body” but a new kind of body nonetheless.
On All Souls’ Day we remember those who we have known and loved who have died. But even as we remember them, even as we miss them, we give thanks that we will see them again. We give great thanks, and we can take great joy in the reality that “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died … but they are at peace . . . in the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever.”
Thanks be to God for the giving us souls to love and rejoice and live for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Posted by John Beddingfield at 7:30 AM
A sermon for All Saints' Day, November 1, 2010 (Since this parish also celebrates All Soul's Day fully, we anticipated the All Saints' celebration by observing the feast on Sunday, October 31 and November 1. May the liturgical purists forgive us.) The lectionary readings are Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 , Psalm 149 , Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 , and Matthew 5:1-12 .
There’s a story about Austin Farrer, who as chaplain at Keble College went every morning to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. He was devoted, but his friends sometimes wondered why he bothered. “Doesn’t it get lonely in there, with just one or two students, and them, half asleep?” Dr. Farrer replied, “Quite to the contrary. What with all of the apostles, prophets, saints, martyrs, angels and archangels—well, it’s a wonder there’s any room for us at all.”
I sometimes think of that on weekdays for Morning Prayer. While there may only appear to be several of us, I can almost see Dr. Sterrett in the back, praying with us. Rev. Blackwelder is also here. There is Helen, and George, and Frank, and Margaret—telling us (gently) how the words should be pronounced.
We stumble into what Austin Farrer understood: that he was surrounded by the communion of saints. He knew that he wasn’t alone. He knew that he had help.
Talking about help from the saints can be tricky, even in an Episcopal Church. Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. Peter’s, All Saints’—but we are uncertain as to what precisely we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them one-dimensional? Do we think of the saints as lucky charms, good for the naming of a child or the excuse of dessert on a saint’s day? Are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile?
In short, do we pray to them, for them, with them, or in spite of them?
The New Testament writers use the word “saint” somewhat loosely. In many places all the faithful are referred to as saints. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Saints are marked people. They are marked by God with the word, Sanctus, or Holy. Some teach and lead, moving us closer to God. Some antagonize and agitate, all for the glory of God. Some offer mercy and show justice for the glory of God. And some really do exude a kind of holiness. They live transparent lives through which one sees the love of Christ. Saints are marked people.
But we too are marked. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry the mark of holiness and while the best of us might reveal a bit of the holy here and there, for the most part Sanctus is a name and a way that we are growing into.
In Revelation, John the Divine has a vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.
. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation shows us the future but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us.
I know that when my grandmother was alive, she prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me. Many of them have died. But my faith tells me that they have been raised to new life in Christ. They are with God and they are changed, but they are still praying for me and for all the world to be consumed in God’s love. Like love itself, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” prayer, too, never ends. And so the saints, the great ones, the ordinary ones, and those who are still improving—they pray for us.
The saints surround us and help us and pray for us, and that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing for us to have help especially for Gospels like today’s. The Sermon on the Mount is a seemingly impossible invitation to holiness. The Beatitudes, that lovely listing of “blessed be’s” sets the Christian standard so high, it feels unattainable.
But we have help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some didn’t quite meet the mark. Others came to embody the beatitudes. They became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.
The Beatitudes point us in the direction of holiness. We’re (very few of us) there yet, but we’re on the way. The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.
As the great children’s hymn reminds us
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.
May the saints inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Posted by John Beddingfield at 7:25 AM
A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 14, 2010. The lectionary readings are Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19.
At about 5:30 in the morning, I really thought the end of the world had come. It began with a bang, then a muffled thump, then a scratching and shifting, then more banging. It sounded a little like an enormous radiator turning on, like a giant ship creaking into a berth that is too small. I haven’t been in an earthquake, but I imagine it sounding something like this, except that the building was not shaking. But something was attacking the Stable Inn, the little conference center where we stayed during our recent mission trip to South Africa.
At first I thought it was a dream, but the noise was too loud, and too random. It would quieten down, and then start up again, even more ferocious. Were we being attacked by a lion, or an elephant? No—we were Springs, a small town about 15 miles from Johannesburg. Was the building coming apart? Maybe. Was a truck about to back into my room? Possibly. Finding jeans and jacket, and looking around for a club or a weapon, I decided that I had to go outside and see what was going on. If this was the end, well, I had said my prayers, and I suppose I was ready to go.
I went outside, my heart beating in my throat, and looked back up to the roof. And there, spread out over the tin roof of the hotel, were 7 peacocks—playing, chasing each other, having a grand peacock time, at our expense. Then I REALLY wished I had a suitable weapon.
Hearing all of that racket, in a strange place, I actually did wonder for a minute or two if that was the end of me. But as it so often the case—I was worried about the wrong thing. I had nothing to worry about then. I might have spent more and better time wondering how the experience of being with Sharron Dinnie, her congregation and Kwasa Center, might change me or affect the outlook of those of us from All Souls? I might have spent more time considering how I use the resources God has given me, about how I might be called to share those resources more creatively-- as opposed to worrying immediately about my own safety and wellbeing.
I don’t know about you, but I often worry about the wrong things. I worry about old age, but don’t pay enough attention to what I’m eating now. I worry about family members who will die one day, and yet I don’t connect with them now the way I could. I worry about things that scare me in the abstract, while ignoring the practical, here-and-now, everyday things that I attend to, which might even affect those more outlying, abstract things.
When it comes to thinking about the end of the world, about death, or about when Jesus comes back, about what some call the “rapture,” a lot of people do just that—they eagerly read the latest “Left Behind” novel by Timothy LaHaye and Larry Jenkins—but I wonder to what extent they’re willing to change their lifestyles so as perhaps NOT to hasten the ending of the planet. During Advent, our Adult Forum will be with Seth Walley, who will lead through a study of “the rapture,” the end times, some of the literature around it and some of the questions we might have.
Sometimes I hear people get upset about the Book of Revelation, as though it’s filled with scary stuff about the end of the world. I point out that Magiddo is a big hill in Israel where most of the major battles were fought. To say, “Mt. Magiddo” is to say, “Har Magiddo,” which became “Armageddon.” 666 is thought to be a twisted and bad number only because 7 is thought to be a perfect a number. Anything less than 7 would be off, would be warped, would probably be the sign of something trying to pretend to be perfect. On and on, the coding and symbolism continue. The Book of Revelation is a book of encouragement, written to Christians during a time of persecution. It would be as if a rabbi during Nazi Germany wanted to write a letter of encouragement to Jewish congregations—he would necessarily fill it with misleading images and symbols to fool the Nazis, but these symbols would be understood by their intended audience. It’s that way with Revelation. I sometimes marvel at the energy people will put into being afraid of odd terms found in Revelation, while the real thing to fear is the lack of biblical literacy by people who claim to be Christians.
Throughout scripture there is particular literature called, “apocalyptic” (from the Greek word for “the lifting of a veil” or “revelation”). Apocalyptic literature reflects a particular mood for a particular time—sometimes, it’s when a prophet preaches that the end times are near. Other times, people begin to sense that they are living in the last days when there is a calamity like famine or drought; or when there is an invasion or a war; in the days leading up to a new millennium or even during times of rapid cultural change.
In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of in such a time, of such a time. He makes it specific when he says that even in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Israel’s worship, the symbol of God’s presence among his people—the temple, Jesus says, will soon be no more. The day will come, Jesus says “when not one stone will be left upon another; [and] all will be thrown down.” The disciples hear this and they become alarmed—whether they think Jesus is going to storm the temple and help bring it down, or whether some calamity is on its way—the disciples ask him, “Teacher, when will this be?” And, how will we know when it will be about to happen?
Sensing their anxiety, Jesus slows them down. He begins to warn them about those who will come and take advantage of their sense of the final days. Some will make the most out of a sense of impending calamity, and some will do what they can to exploit fear. Some will say, “the time is near,” Jesus cautions. Others will say “wars and insurrections are coming.” But again, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified,” because certain things will happen along the way. In classic language of the end times, language that might have been from Isaiah or Daniel or Enoch or John the Baptist, or John the Divine, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… famines, earthquakes, plagues…” And then Jesus seems to warn them that as his followers, the religious leaders are going to question them and perhaps punish them and perhaps even persecute them.
But in the face of all of this, Jesus counsels that they should remain calm. They shouldn’t even plan beforehand what they might say. They should trust in God and trust in Jesus. He says, “not a hair of your head will perish,” which is not quite true given that soon after, Stephen is persecuted, John is killed, and many, many others will die for their faith.
But beyond being a history lesson, what does this say to us?
Most of us do not risk being persecuted for our faith. Much of our culture regards Christian faith as superstition. It’s an emotional or psychological crutch. It’s thought to be quaint; just a nice, old-fashioned cultural affectation.
For some in the church, perhaps that is an accurate characterization. But for others of us, our faith holds within it the same power it had for those early disciples. Something about the presence of Jesus in our lives—this Jesus who was born, lived a life like ours, was crucified, and was raised from the dead—this Jesus still lives through us and gives us the strength, the courage and the tenacity to live in these final days—whatever shape that “finality” may take. Whether (in the words of one preacher, Fred Craddock) “we go to Christ or Christ comes to us.”
I think the great challenge of living as a Christian in our day, in our culture, is not worrying so much about raptures, and end times—but by trying to live a simply faithfulness in relationship to one another, in our families, in meetings, with our colleagues, at the school conference, in traffic, in the line at a store, on the kids’ soccer field,… wherever we may be.
Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus promising, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By enduring—that is, simply living out our faith—getting up in the morning, saying our prayers (when we remember), loving our families (if we live with them) and going through the activities of the day, with as much faith and trust in Jesus Christ as possible. This is our preparation. This is our practice. This is how we become prepared for whatever may come.
The offertory motet today is by Mendelssohn, and even though the melody may not stay with us, I pray that the words would be engraved on our hearts:
They that endure to the end, shall be saved.
They that endure to the end, shall be saved.
WE that endure to the end, shall be saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Posted by John Beddingfield at 6:58 AM
Monday, November 08, 2010
A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 7, 2010. The lectionary readings are Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38.
You may have seen the results of a recent survey taken by people who drive in Fairfax County. Of 1,500 people surveyed, “75 percent said they think using a cell phone while driving is a distraction,. But 54 percent admit to doing it themselves.” 15 percent admitted to texting while driving, and they didn’t even ask how many people fiddle with the radio while driving, deal with children in the back seat, juggle food and hot coffee, or put on makeup. There are a lot of distractions both inside the car, and outside. When you think about it, it’s sort of a wonder that when we drive, we get anywhere at all.
We definitely would not get very far if we stopped along the way for every distraction that presented itself. To read every billboard, to notice every new thing, to pay real attention to the cars around us—we’d be dealing with distractions all of the time.
Even though he’s not driving, it seems Jesus is having to deal with distractions—the kind of distractions that are trying their best to slow him down, to get him off track, or to even to make him veer off course and lose his way.
In the Gospel we just heard a group of religious leaders try their best to distract Jesus and to throw him off his mission.
The Gospel reading takes place as Jesus has already come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention. The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses.
If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it. But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.
Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?
Jesus sees the distraction and refuses to be tripped up by it. He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not asking questions about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others. The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions than it was about love and sharing.
But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.
In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus resists the urge to get distracted by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group. Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.
Jesus tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.
As we continue to celebrate this week after All Saints Day, we can say with faith that death, itself, is a distraction. This is not to say that we deny death, or that those who face their own death or the death of a loved one are not in real pain. But what it does mean is that at a very deep level, there beneath the distractions of pain and loss and hurt and heartache, our faith gives us what we need to look death in the face and laugh at it. The words of St. Paul put it well when he says, “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15)
The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel the distractions.
In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”
Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day this Thursday, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.
But distractions do still come. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking. Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—distractions come in many ways.
Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear. But today’s Gospel also reminds us simply to focus on Christ and on his focus—the cross that is leads through death to live everlasting. Look for life, in other words, in every situation.
Distractions will continue to dance around us, occasionally needing to be swatted into their place. We might even fall for a few of them; but hopefully we won’t get too far off course. But with our eyes on the cross, like Christ, we can live life fully. We can celebrate life. We can radiate life.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Posted by John Beddingfield at 4:07 PM