Sermon for Sunday, November 6, 2016
Jesus loved to argue. In Luke’s Gospel he argues about scripture, poverty, taxes, does God love foreigners, can rich people get to heaven. Jesus’s first great debate in Luke’s Gospel is at his Bar Mitzvah, at age 12, he got so caught up in debate at the Temple, his parents left town without him, only to find him later arguing with the rabbis. I loved that story growing up. When I was in Baptism class, our pastor was very concerned about my radical ideas about nonviolence and becoming a conscientious objector to the military draft spilling over to the rest of the youth group. We argued about what “turn the other cheek” really meant. Pastor Roy wanted me to be a preacher, but not quite so liberal. He wasn’t a great preacher, I don’t remember any of his sermons, but he was a great listener and he loved the congregation. He was present in time of need. He did not change my mind about politics and theology, but Pastor Roy remains a role model for me in that he engaged, discussed argued with me. Sometimes I’m sure I was a pain for him, but he never sidelined me. He taught me the value of staying engaged in the midst of disagreement, arguing respectfully, is of great value, even if it is costly and exhausting. And now I have been an ordained pastor for 25 years and if Roy is listening, thank you, and I’m sorry, and I was right about Jesus and nonviolence.
I am a true believer in dialog, by my faith is shaken. Listen in to what Jesus had to deal with, because when it comes to rhetoric, some things never change. This is his one and only argument with the Sadducees in Luke’s Gospel. Who are the Sadducees? They did not believe in resurrection, that people would be raised from the dead, so they were “sad-you-see.” (I could not resist.) Sadducees were aligned with the leaders of the Temple in Jerusalem and became extinct when the Temple was destroyed, and they only believed that the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; were authoritative texts. That is why they begin their question by saying to Jesus, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us…” Jesus favorite source of quotes is the prophet Isaiah, but the Sadducees would not see that as a credible source. Jesus might say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, freedom to the captives.” Where did you get those quotes Jesus? MSNBC? NPR? Another wing of the corrupt media elite?
This is a huge problem in a debate. We can’t even agree on which texts, narratives and information have legitimacy, let alone what they mean. This is where any chance of reasonable and open discussion dies an early death, crucified by opposing news sources and Facebook memes, the discussion descends into Hell for three days, only to be resurrected again later. We live in separate con-texts, so no amount of quoting our favorite sources will matter in the discussion. Later Jesus does something very important to any hope of dialog, and quotes from the other sides texts. Here is what Moses said in Numbers …We have to be somewhat fluent in other people’s texts if we want to have any conversation. We have to cross the bridge to the other side of the river.
Let’s look at the issue. Like many debates, the Sadducees have constructed a farcical situation based on a remote possibility, designed to make any answer from Jesus look stupid. I give them a great deal of credit here for humor and creativity. They drag out a text from Deuteronomy 25:5, written over 1000 years ago about marriage. The practice was that when a women’s husband died, a brother or next male kin would marry her and bring her into the household so she would not be without a male patriarch to protect her. In a patriarchal society, this was presumed benevolent and caring, although it was also a good way to keep all the property in the family. And by property I don’t just mean real estate. The woman was property too. So imagine if there were seven brothers, each marrying her in turn, and then dying, whose wife will she be in heaven? I’m glad Jesus did not take this question too literally and pick a brother. I have been through a divorce and I don’t want any ambiguity in heaven about to whom I’m married. Earthly marriage is complicated enough. So I can imagine the audience around Jesus eager to see what he does with this firecracker. Personally, in challenging the resurrection I would have gone with this question. What body will I have if resurrected to heaven? Will I look like I did when I died for all of eternity? It probably wasn’t my best day. Could I have my 21-year-old body please, especially if it is for all of eternity.
I love what Jesus does here. It’s a great pivot to what he wants to talk about. He says to the Sadducees, what if heaven isn’t at all like you think. Imagine there’s no marriage. No women are property too. Imagine all the people living for the day. You may think I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. You see what Jesus did there? He widened the horizon. Here is my modern translation of Jesus, “Since you brought up the subject of immortality, I don’t think heaven is simply a reward for the faithful where the limited and unjust cultural practices of power, status and right and wrong will stand. Instead, I believe heaven is a Beloved Community where just and loving relationships will thrive. All the divisions humans create on earth will disappear.”
Jesus refuses to get trapped in a rhetorical loop that goes nowhere. We know in our context that talking counterpoints about emails, Russian connections, Vincent Foster conspiracy theories, sexual misconduct, financial misconduct goes absolutely nowhere. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans have not changed their mind about Clinton or Trump for months no matter what happens. Because we all have deeper values, experiences and world views that remain underneath our dialog. Our opinions are just proxies for all this deeper stuff, so we have to get beyond the shouting match.
Jesus does this by going out into the eternity and the nature of God and heaven. Here is another great thing Jesus does. Imagine how God might look at this. He goes back to the most important story about Moses, whom the Pharisees revere more than anyone. Where does Moses get his aura of greatness? At the burning bush, right!? At the burning bush, God calls Moses and says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Jesus says in Luke, “Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Let’s follow the logic. To God, Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Harriet Beecher Stowe, are just as alive as everyone in this room. They are not actors on this earth, but they are the living cloud of witnesses who still surround us. These are the saints who have gone before us, who live in the Beloved Community already, whom we not only hope to join in the future. In God’s eyes we already live with them, and are called to nurture the Beloved Community on earth, because that is what is truly real.
We might only be able to realize this dream of “Thy Beloved Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” in partial and incomplete ways on earth, but if all the unjust earthly status quos are going to be completely undone in heaven, then we are called to do our best to live beyond them now. Don’t wait to get to heaven. Join the communion of the saints right now, by doing the work of eternity.