Proper 27, Year C: Luke 20: 27-38: Life After Death

You can see all the lectionary readings for Proper 27, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

This week I preached the sermon at church, so I’m putting it here.

Let me take you back to this week in 2013. At that time, I was the church school coordinator here at Grace and I was basically preparing our curriculum week-by-week to go along with the lectionary readings. I would email the teachers–usually, I would paraphrase the Gospel reading for the week and then give ideas about how we might teach to that week’s readings. 

For this particular passage that year, I started off by writing, “This week’s lesson is a tricky one. I have been wondering how to teach this one since I laid out the yearlong curriculum in August.” Yes, I do like to plan ahead. Then I endeavored to come up with a good lesson for it and requested that Father Owen respond with any further explanation he might have. 

Naturally, when I realized this was what I had to preach about, I went searching for an email from him about this from that time. Unfortunately, if I had one, I didn’t save it. So, let’s see what we can do with it and I hope this little honest opening from me helps us all appreciate how great Father Owen’s sermons are week after week—no matter the subject.

The first thing that popped into my head when reading this gospel passage is how people are continually fascinated with the afterlife. There are endless books and stories about it. There are psychics making a living off connecting people with their dead loved ones (some of them are likely sincere in considering themselves psychic, but I suspect many have learned parlor tricks and how to read people and are just performing for money). 

I was at a local event last year all about ghost-hunting in Rockland County. A psychic performed for the crowd and people seemed to believe she was connecting them to their family members in the afterlife, but I was very skeptical. I tend to be skeptical and a fact-checker, so she wasn’t able to convince me that she was doing anything other than clever guesswork and showmanship.  

In spite of my tendency to skepticism, I have to admit I do enjoy watching ghost-hunting shows and I’ve heard some fascinating ghost stories from people I know. I may not believe all of them, but I can’t deny someone’s personal experience, nor can I deny the painful grief that often leads people to seek solace from ghost stories and psychics. 

In today’s world, people continue to find stories of the afterlife compelling—whether from a ghost-hunting television show or accounts of near-death experiences. Some of these stories come from various branches of Christianity and others are from other religions or from popular culture. People the world over want to know what comes next and they’re hungry for information on eternal life. 

Now let’s dive into the Gospel. First, we should look at the context. Jesus has been teaching in the temple area and the people are loving it. Throngs of people are listening and the leaders are feeling threatened. 

So, first some leading Pharisees send someone to try to trip him up by asking him a tricky political question—thinking his answer would get him in trouble with either the Romans or the people, but Jesus gives them a clever response. (That’s the one where Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”) I’m just glad I didn’t have to preach about taxes today. 

Next, the Sadducees approach Jesus with their own tricky question. Now there are a few things to know about the Sadducees to understand the motives behind this weird question. 

First, they rejected the idea of life after death. Second, their entire theology was restricted to the Torah (the first 5 books in our Bible). Third, they were collaborators with the Roman Empire, colluding to keep the people in line and themselves in power and wealth. They were defenders of the status quo, both politically and religiously. 

Perhaps the Sadducees want to pigeonhole Jesus. The Pharisees, another prominent sect of this time that I mentioned before, do believe in Resurrection. The Sadducee questioners may be testing whether they can dismiss Jesus as just another Pharisee and therefore not a radical threat to them.  As aristocratic city folk, they may look down on Jesus as a rustic small-towner with dumb ideas.

As I said—the Sadducees followed only the written Torah and they reference Moses in their question. They expect Jesus can’t answer them based on the Torah because Moses didn’t write about anything they thought Jesus could reference in this case. 

But Jesus finds an answer in the Torah. In the third chapter of Exodus, God speaks from the burning bush and refers to the fathers of the Israelites in the present tense. To God, they are all still living. Death is indeed an end, but not the end of everything because God is eternal.

The question is meant to be ridiculous and the Sadducees are presenting it as ridiculous to belittle the idea of resurrection, but it’s also not without some consequence for real people. 

For example, my own grandmother (we called her Granny) had four husbands in her time—first she had her seven children with my own Grandpa James.

Then after his death, she married my other Grandpa Lawrence (there was this whole weird thing where my mother’s mother briefly married my father’s father—I know it may seem weird, but things in Texas can be weird). Then it turns out they did not get along at all and they got that marriage annulled. 

Later Granny married Uncle Pete—not my real uncle but that’s what the family called him, and then when Uncle Pete died she married a guy the family called Brother Bowlen—I think he was called Brother because my family was Assembly of God and they tend to call their fellow churchgoers “brothers and sisters”. 

And look, I can relate the story of the several husbands of my Granny in a humorous way—I have a lot of funny stories about growing up in rural Texas and I can tell them with a full-on Texas accent. I don’t always have a strong accent, but it lingers in certain words or when I talk to my momma on the phone.

But here’s the thing–my granny was a widow more than once, and the Bible has a lot to say about how we should care for widows and orphans and the poor. That’s what’s behind this quirky question about a woman widowed seven times. 

She was remarried because in that patriarchal society there were few other options for a woman to afford to live. She required a husband or grown sons to provide for her. The same was true in Texas for much of the last century. 

There’s a harsh reality behind this somewhat silly question, but the rich and powerful Sadducees aren’t concerned about the real lives of widows in need. They are just trying to score points off a rustic rabbi.

Because they have already made up their minds about resurrection, the Sadducees aren’t asking this question in fairness. They are looking to trip Jesus up. They hope to find a way to ridicule him. Jesus does not respond as expected (as usual—it’s part of what I love about these passages where people question Jesus). In a similar passage in Mark, he expresses more outright frustration, but that is not included here. 

Jesus uses this as an occasion to teach, which was so much of what his ministry was about. He teaches us about the love of God even when a question is asked insincerely. He emphasizes that heaven and earth are not the same. There’s also a certain beautiful equality in the idea that we will all be like children of God—from the poorest and lowliest to the richest and most powerful.

The language Jesus uses, that in the resurrection we will be like angels, like children of God, is not super concrete but it’s imaginative and evocative. It requires imagination and we can entertain the possibilities of a complete transformation. Other passages in the New Testament use various metaphors to describe that transformation. 

Paul writes that “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” In First John, it’s written that “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” I love that. In Second Thessalonians (one of our other readings for today) the author says we are called to “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All these resurrection metaphors are tantalizingly vague. 

Jesus doesn’t answer all our questions. The rest of the Bible doesn’t answer all our questions. There’s a lot of mystery in our faith, and that’s ok. I think it’s rather beautiful. There are variations of Christianity that claim to have all the answers. There are cults out there that claim to know an exact date when Jesus will return (and they will adjust those dates when they come and go without incident). 

That is not our faith. I know it would be comforting in some ways to have more clear-cut answers, to know precise details about eternal life. But all the answers provided, like in this very short passage, are vague and not greatly detailed. It may not be so satisfying but it is hopeful and it’s about trusting God. Our faith is one of mystery, but also one of hope. The hope is not in knowing specifics, but in knowing Jesus. 

We may not know the details of resurrection, but we have a God whose love abides for us beyond death. For those who have died, for those saints we celebrated last week on All Saints’ Day, for the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, God’s love is eternal. We trust in a God who transcends time, and whose love endures forever. 

I love the idea of a transcendent and eternal God, but I don’t want to live with my head in the clouds, dreaming of what might be. I just want to know how I should live now. And how should we then respond to this beautiful mystery, to Jesus and these glimpses of hope and eternity? Are we living like those who abide in the transcendent and eternal love of God? Do we love like we are the children of that loving God? 

Marcus Borg once wrote that “an emphasis on the afterlife focuses our attention on the next world rather than on this world. Most of the Bible, on the other hand, focuses our attention on our lives in this world and the transformation of this world.” Let us do our best to transform ourselves and this world.

Proper 26, Year C: Luke 19:1-10: For Sinners

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 26, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

I can’t read today’s passage without remembering the song from childhood Sunday school.

Jesus is passing through the city of Jericho. A rich tax collector man named Zacchaeus (who happened to be a short guy) wanted to see Jesus, so he climbed a sycamore tree to see him. Jesus saw him in the tree and called him by name telling him to come down so Jesus could come stay at his house.

Zacchaeus came down and welcomed Jesus to his home. Again people complained that Jesus was hanging out with sinners.

Zacchaeus repented of his wrongdoing and said he would give half his money to the poor and he would repay people four times what he cheated them.

Jesus declared the tax collector one of God’s chosen people and said, “The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.” Again, Jesus focuses on sinners who need him and who truly repent.

Our focus should be on helping those who need it the most. Sometimes they might be as rich as Zacchaeus but still hurting and looking for answers. Often they will be in physical need as well as spiritual. We are here to serve and love.

Proper 25, Year C: Luke 18:9-14: Pray With Humility

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 25, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

This week’s Gospel reading is another story Jesus tells, and it’s a pretty straightforward morality tale—but it’s about someone who thinks he’s moral and isn’t—and about someone immoral who at least has the right heart to talk to God.

The story starts by saying that there were some people who thought very highly of themselves and looked down on other people. We all know those people. If you don’t know some in real life, then you’re bound to recognize the personality type in people we see in the news and other media. So Jesus tells a story to address these kind of people.

One of the characters is a Pharisee (I’ve talked about Pharisees before—just going to copy what I said then here: Pharisees were a certain religious group of the time; in the gospel stories they often seem to be very high and mighty about how good they were at following all the rules and looked down their noses at those who didn’t–sound familiar? Well, there are plenty of pharisaical types around today, too, and I can be guilty of the same, so I’ll try not to point fingers here. For more on the Pharisees, click here. They also had great influence on Judaism and they weren’t all bad in spite of the way some of them acted toward Jesus in this story and others.)

The other character is a tax collector. Tax collectors at the time were not just guys who worked for the government and did their job and it happened to be collecting taxes. They were hated people and they often cheated and took more than required to pad their own incomes. Their reputations were generally very bad.

So you’ve got these two guys: the respected, religious Pharisee and the hated, immoral tax collector. And they’re both at the temple the same day to pray. The Pharisee uses the tax collector in his prayer, thanking God he’s not as bad as that guy. I’ll quote directly here because it’s almost comical what a jerk this Pharisee is about saying he’s so glad he’s better than the other guy:

When the Pharisee prayed, he said, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not as bad as other people. I am not like men who steal, cheat, or commit adultery. I thank you that I am better than this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I give a tenth of everything I get!’

from Luke 18:9-14, Easy-to-Read Version

Meanwhile the tax collector is completely broken and humble. He only prays for God’s mercy and admits he has done wrong.

And Jesus says that it is the tax collector who goes home right with God, not that pompous wienie, the Pharisee. Jesus said, “People who make themselves important will be made humble. But those who make themselves humble will be made important.”

So the theme of this week is humility and not looking down on others and thinking you’re better than them. It’s easy to translate this story into thinking about how we treat others and how we go to God in prayer. We don’t go to God and say, “Gee, God, aren’t I the greatest? Isn’t the world so lucky to have me?” We go to God and say, “I’m sorry for the wrong things I did, help me to do better.”

Of course, certain kinds of dramatic humility can actually become prideful. People who go on about “woe is me” and “I’m terrible at so-and-so” all the time and wallow in self-pity can actually be practicing a kind of self-centeredness that is the flip side of pride. I don’t know if I’m expressing myself well, here, but maybe you know what I mean. If you’re on Facebook, you probably have at least one friend who writes vague grumpy things like, “Well, that’s that then. I give up.” And it’s so obviously attention-seeking and not true humility. (I know I have been attention-seeking myself, so I admit that). Being humble is not being that kind of humble, but more just acknowledging our imperfections and not feeling prideful and better than other people. Lift others up at all times.

Proper 24, Year C: Luke 18:1-8: Keep Praying

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 24, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

The Gospel reading this week starts by saying, “Then Jesus taught the followers that they should always pray and never lose hope.” I like that beginning. It tells us exactly what the story is about. No confusion there. He taught them by using a story, which he did so well so often. He told them about a judge in town who didn’t sound like such a great judge. He didn’t care about God or what people thought or apparently about what was right. A widow came to him and begged him to do justice for her because someone was mistreating her. In those days (and in some places today), women who lost their husbands had very few rights and abilities to take care of themselves or protect themselves. In this town, the judge was probably the only authority she had to go to for help. And he couldn’t care less. He didn’t want to be bothered to help her. But she kept on asking for justice, over and over. Finally, he decides he’ll help her just to get her to shut up and stop pestering him, even though he doesn’t care about God or the woman herself.

Jesus said, “Listen, there is meaning in what the bad judge said. God’s people shout to him night and day, and he will always give them what is right. He will not be slow to answer them. I tell you, God will help his people quickly.”

So if even this bad judge would come around and answer the woman’s plea, how much more would God himself answer our prayers?

So the theme of the week is prayer, and continuing to pray and have hope that God will answer. Of course God may not always answer the way we want, and people don’t always pray for the right things, but if you’re praying for something important, like justice, then you should keep on praying. Praying for material possessions are not as important as praying for good to happen in the world.

Keep praying, whether you will get an answer or not. The important thing is to just keep praying.

Proper 23, Year C: Luke 17:11-19: Noticing Others

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 23, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

The Gospel reading today is about one of the miracles Jesus performed and how the people he healed reacted. It’s kind of a cool story. Jesus walks into a small town and is met by ten men, though they keep their distance, because they have leprosy. You’ve probably heard of leprosy, but if you want more info, check here. You can also Google it, but I wouldn’t recommend an image search. Anyway, leprosy is pretty nasty and people back then thought that it was highly contagious (it’s actually not that contagious unless you have close and repeated contact–see link above). Those with leprosy were outcasts because they could no longer be near friends and family for fear of spreading the disease; they just had to hang out with other lepers. So that’s why they kept their distance and call out to him rather than coming close. They have obviously heard about Jesus and his power to heal so they ask for his help. He simply tells them to go to the priests, and on their way to see the priests they are healed. There was a law that said you had to go to the priests to have them examine you and prove if you had leprosy or not (and if they gave you a clean bill of health you could go back to your family). He hadn’t healed them yet, but sent them for that examination—they trusted him enough to go, and sure enough they were healed.  

Upon finding they are healed, nine men continue on, but one man turns back to go find Jesus again. He praised God and bowed in front of Jesus and thanked him. The Bible notes that he was a Samaritan, so not one of the Jewish people. Jesus says, “Ten men were healed, where are the other nine?” He says here’s a guy who’s not even one of our people and he’s the only one who came back to praise God? Then he sends the man on and tells him he was healed because he believed.

Jesus always notices the people the rest of society ignores: the poor, the sick, the troubled, the immigrants, even women (big deal back then). He notices these ten sick guys and heals them, and then he notices that the one who came back to thank him was not even Jewish but a Samaritan–another kind of marginalized person. We must also seek to notice people like Jesus did and to serve those who need our service most. We don’t seek to please the rich and powerful but to help and save those who need God’s love most.

Proper 22, Year C: Luke 17:5-10: Faith Is for Service

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 22, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

I love how this passage starts in the Easy-to-Read Version:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Give us more faith!”

It’s almost comical. I don’t know that I would think to request more faith.

So Jesus tells them if they have faith as big as a mustard seed they can tell a mulberry tree to hop up and plant itself in the ocean and the tree will obey. Jesus is still in hyperbole mode and it’s also a comic idea to see this tree picking up its bottom branches like lifting its skirt and waltzing into the sea.

Then Jesus tells them to imagine they have a servant who comes in from work and you don’t tell him to relax, you ask him to prepare you dinner. He is after all doing his job. He doesn’t get special recognition for doing what he is supposed to be doing anyway.

These two little stories seem like they’re telling the disciples not to get caught up in asking for rewards, but just to do the work. They are demanding more faith, when they should just be using their faith in God’s service.

Proper 21, Year C: Luke 16:19-31: Invisible People

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 21, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

This week’s lesson is again money or love-of-money related. There are a lot of things Christians like to harp on about related to morality, but Jesus talked about money more than a lot of those things. The only thing he talked about more was the Kingdom of God.  And he wasn’t talking about how we should all be making more of it and enjoying the good life, but more about how we should be sharing and taking care of the poor. I think we probably all know that, but there are some people out there that seem to teach the opposite. 

Here’s the basic story. There’s a really rich guy who lived in luxury and had a fine time of it. At his gate there is a beggar named Lazarus. (I just love how Jesus doesn’t bother giving the rich man a name but he names the poor man—how like him to humanize the weaker, needier person and just describe the other as a rich man—not what everyone would have done.) Lazarus is so poor that he wishes he could just eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table (the implication is that the rich man didn’t even share these) and he was so bad off that he was covered in sores and the dogs licked his sores. It’s descriptive and horrific.  

Then both men die and Lazarus is carried by angels to Abraham’s side (Abraham is considered the forefather to all the Jewish people and Jesus is talking to his Jewish audience–I think we can safely call it heaven) and the rich man goes to Hades (hell). Now the roles are switched. Lazarus is happy and comforted in heaven but the rich man is in agony. Now he is looking up and wishing he could just have a tiny piece of what Lazarus has. So he calls out to Abraham and asks him to send Lazarus to him with just a drop of water to soothe his agony. Abraham responds that it’s impossible to do so. So the (former) rich man asks that Abraham send Lazarus to his family to warn them to change their ways. Abraham says they have Moses and the Prophets (the Jewish scriptures) so they don’t need further warning. The man says they will repent if someone dead comes to them. And Abraham responds that even if someone rises from the dead, they will not be convinced.

I think it’s important to not get bogged down in the eschatology here. (Eschatology: the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.) From what I understand, that is not really the point of the story. Jesus didn’t say, “Look here’s what happens when you die” and go on to describe heaven and hell. The story is more about the two men, poor and rich, and how the rich man ignored the poverty at his own gate. A lot of the Bible studies I’ve read in preparation have talked about this issue and how Lazarus was invisible to the man until he was himself in agony and had to look up and see Lazarus finally happy. Who might be invisible to us? Have we ever felt invisible to others when we were in need?  I know there have been times my own kids probably felt invisible to me when I was caught up doing something (you know how they start repeating “Mommy mommy mommy” over and over because they seem to think you don’t hear them if they don’t repeat). Who might we pass by every day and not even see them–outcasts of society who are hurting and needing attention? What are we doing to help them and not hurt them further?

Proper 20, Year C: Luke 16:1-13: Love God Not Money

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 20, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

This week’s lesson is all about the money, or specifically the love of money and of course the love of what money can buy.  

Again Jesus is telling a parable. I love how much Jesus liked to teach with stories.  He was obviously never a boring teacher. He told them about a rich man who had a bad manager working for him. The rich boss finds out the manager isn’t doing a very good job, so he says he’s going to fire him. The manager decides he’d better do something to get the rest of his town to like him so when he’s out of a job they might be good to him. So what he does is call in people who owe his boss money and tell them to change the amount owed so that they pay less. Then those people are happy with him, but his boss isn’t paid all he’s owed. He’s pulling a trick that loses the boss money but pleases the rest of the town.  

Now here’s the tricky part. Jesus says the rich boss praised the manager for being clever, though he hadn’t been honest. Then he says that’s what the people of this world are like, and that they are smarter than God’s people. It sounds like Jesus is praising dishonesty, but I don’t think that’s what he means. He goes on to say that if you can be trusted with a little, you will be trusted with a lot, but if you can’t even be trusted with a little thing, then how could you be trusted with a lot? If you can’t take care of someone else’s property, how will you be able to have property of your own? Then comes a very famous line, “No servant can serve two masters at the same time. He will hate one of them and love the other. Or he will be faithful to one and dislike the other.  You can’t serve God and Money at the same time.” You may have heard you can’t serve God and “Mammon” but modern versions just make it money.  (See more about Mammon here.) This, I think, is the crux of the story. And when we love money and material things so much that our focus is on them and not on the things of God, then we can’t properly love God and follow Christ.  

Proper 19, Year C: Luke 15:1-10: Lost and Found

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 19, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

Jesus is criticized by religious leaders for teaching sinners and tax collectors.

So Jesus responds with a couple stories. First, he asks them to imagine you are someone who has 100 sheep and one is lost. The owner of the sheep goes and searches for it, leaving the other 99 in the field. When he finds it, he rejoices with his friends. Jesus says there is more joy for one lost sinner than 99 good people who don’t need to change.

Second, a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. She looks carefully until she finds it, and then she asks people to celebrate with her that she found it. Jesus says God is also happy when one sinner repents.

Again we must consider if we are living and loving like Jesus. Are we judging our fellow church members or fellow citizens of our towns and cities? Are we extending hospitality and mercy to those who need it most, to those who are hard to love as well as those who are easy to love and easy to look at? Look at your life and church today and see if you are reaching out and including people or judging and excluding people.

We can also consider the mercy extended to ourselves. We all have our moments (or years) of lostness, of failing and flailing. But God reaches out to us with love and forgiveness at all times. And we are all the same at God’s table–whether we are frequently lost or always on hand and serving. Thank God for his mercy.

Proper 18, Year C: Luke 14:25-33: Commitment to Jesus

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 18, Year C by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the book of Luke.

Jesus says to the people traveling with them that they must hate their family and their lives–this seems like a strong hyperbole to make a point. They must love him more than their family, more than their lives. He says they must carry their crosses to follow him.

He also talks about planning before beginning a project. Basically they must examine their lives and how they will give up everything to follow him.

Following Jesus is not something one does lightly or easily. It takes commitment and sacrifice. To love as radically as Jesus will change your life and you have to be ready for it.