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.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B: Luke 1:26-38: Mary the Willing Servant

Advent wreath with 4 burning candles

Source: iStockphoto.com

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Today’s Advent reading is the very start of the Christmas story–the angel Gabriel comes to young Mary in Nazareth. Gabriel tells Mary she is very special to God. She is surprised and confused. I mean, who wouldn’t be?

The angel tells her not to be afraid, because God is pleased with you. He tells her she will be pregnant and have a baby boy, whom she will name Jesus. I love this part because my middle son has played Gabriel twice in our church’s Christmas pageant, and he does an almost British accent and rolls the R when he says grandly, He will be grrrrreat and will be called the Son of the Most High; and of his kingdom there will be no end!

Mary asks how it will happen since she is still a virgin and the angel tells her the power of God will cover her. The baby will be called the Son of God. He also tells her that her cousin Elizabeth, considered too old to bear a child, is also pregnant, because God can do anything.

 

Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let this thing you have said happen to me!” Then Gabriel leaves her.

I love this story. It’s supernatural but also very human. A young woman having an out-of-this-world experience. She’s shocked but she’s also accepting. I hope that in every encounter with God we can also be so willing to be servants. Cherish the mystery but be willing to say yes to it, too.

 

The Transfiguration: Luke 9:28-36

Florence -  Transfiguration of the Lord

Source: iStockphoto.com

You can see all the lectionary readings for The Transfiguration by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Luke.

This Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s all about Jesus’s transfiguration—suddenly appearing amazing—glowing brightly and then being joined miraculously by Moses and Elijah—ancient forefathers of the Jewish people.

Jesus climbs a mountain with three of his disciples: Peter, James, and John.  While they were watching, Jesus changed before their eyes.  The Bible says, “His face became bright like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  Then two men were there, talking with him. They were Moses and Elijah.”

Peter (always quick to speech and action, not always thinking so hard about it first) said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you want, I will put three tents here—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Peter was ready to worship the three of them right there and then.  But then they heard a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son. He is the one I have chosen. Obey him.”

In Matthew’s version of this story, Peter James, and John were freaked out at this experience (as one might expect).  They fell to the ground in fear, but Jesus came and touched them and told them not to be afraid.  When they looked up they saw that Jesus was alone and he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen.

In this version it just says that they didn’t tell anyone about it for a long time.

This can be a bit of a confusing lesson; there’s a lot of weird, miraculous stuff happening here, but I won’t overexplain it.  A quote on the Worshiping With Children website (one of my favorites when I was teaching church school) says, “this story is meant to be savored as presented rather than to be explained.”  I like that and it seems like good advice.  What you mainly need to know is that Moses and Elijah are ancient fathers of the Jewish people.  Maybe it would be like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln suddenly appearing in front of you (well, that’s not a 100% perfect comparison, but it might help). Just imagine! Your teacher, whom you revere but do not yet fully understand, is not only glowing, but is joined by ancient wise fathers of your people. It would be both beautiful and terrifying.

Dwell on that image today and dwell on the awesomeness of God. Meditate upon the mystery.

Trinity Sunday, Year A: Celebrate the Mystery: Matthew 28:16-20

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Holy Trinity – Source: iStockphoto.com/Bernardojbp

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Trinity Sunday, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

This is a very short story. The disciples go to Galilee to meet Jesus at a mountain. They worship him there but some still have their doubts (they’re only human). Jesus tells them (I just can’t bring myself to paraphrase this):

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This command from Jesus is known as the Great Commission—he is instructing the church to go on and share the Gospel with the whole world and teach others how to follow Jesus. Notice this is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the Trinity that is God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The wording in the great Commission, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is the same wording we use in creeds and at baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals. The Trinity is a mystery and a paradox—beyond our understanding, but we know God as three in one—God the Father and Creator; God the Son our Redeemer and Teacher; and the Holy Spirit, our Guide and Comforter.

We may not fully grasp the concept of the Trinity, but we can love and embrace the mystery on this day of celebration.