Monday, November 11, 2019

What Is Resurrection Like??

'Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but 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. And 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."'
--Luke 20-: 27-38

One of the greatest joys that I experience as a priest is the opportunity to listen to people’s questions.  Sometimes I have an answer for them:  Do Episcopalians read the Bible?  That’s a pretty easy one; Do the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus?  Depends on who you ask; Do dogs have souls?  Absolutely!  Engaging with questions such as these help us to wrestle with our faith and grow to a spiritual maturity that we do not get if we just accept everything at face value.  But there is one question that I get, one question that every clergy person, bible scholar, and theologian gets that simply cannot be answered, at least not in the usual manner:  What is heaven, or resurrection, like?

Jesus himself had to answer such a question. We find him in this week's Gospel passage during the final week of his life, teaching in the Temple.  After confrontations with the Pharisees, now is the Sadducees’ turn to go toe-to-toe with Jesus, the only time they ever do so.  We talk a lot about the Pharisees, but who were the Sadducees?  The Jewish historian Josephus described the Sadducees as wealthy, urban, conservative aristocrats.  Where the Pharisees cared little about politics—they were more concerned with keeping Judaism alive, and indeed would be the ones who would do so after 70 AD—the Sadducees were very much involved in the political scene.  They were the high priestly class, part of the collaboration system with the Roman Empire, and hell-bent on maintaining their wealth and status.  They followed only Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—and ignored the prophets, the wisdom literature, the histories, and most  other teachings.  They did not believe in a day of resurrection; after all, if you’re rich and powerful, who needs an afterlife?  Nor did they believe in a coming Messiah. Both events would cause a disturbance to their carefully ordered lives.  So when they approach Jesus with a question about life after the resurrection, they are not at all being sincere, but rather they just want to trip him up with a question that’s not really a question but something designed to humiliate him and his ridiculous belief.  As one pastor I heard earlier this week call it, this moment is “gotcha journalism” at its finest. 

A handy guide to the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees

Their question goes something like this:  OK, Jesus, if there really is a resurrection, suppose a woman’s husband dies and they have no children, prompting the man’s brother to marry her in accordance with the Law, but he dies childless, and the pattern continues until the woman has married all seven brothers without bearing a child. So whose wife will she be at the resurrection?

You can hear the smugness come through, can’t you?  "We got him!" they’re saying to themselves, maybe even with a dude-bro fist bump or two.  Then Jesus responds, and his response is so profound that Luke says in the very next sentence following the end of this lection, that nobody dared question him from this point forward. 

So let’s unpack that response.  The Sadducees think that if there is a resurrected life, then it must follow the same pattern as this one, and this life is governed by Torah, the Law.  In the Law there is the prescription for a man to marry his dead brother’s widow if no children are born.  The reason that this Law exists is to maintain justice for the widows, to be sure that they are not forced to live as beggars or prostitutes after their husbands’ deaths.  It is a well-meaning law, but it fails in one crucial way:  it treats women as property.  “Whose wife will she be?” they ask, implying a sense of ownership. 

Immediately, Jesus rejects this.  His rejection is not of the law or of marriage but of the possession of women.  He acknowledge that in this age women are “given” in marriage, but it is not so in the age to come; that is, in the resurrected life with God.  It’s important to remember that marriage was not a love focused institution, but a patriarchal institution, whereby bloodlines were kept alive and family allegiances were maintained by giving a daughter away in exchange for a dowry. As Jesus points out, however, in the resurrected life with God, no one is “given” in marriage because at that time we will understand the true meaning of marriage, that it is not about property but about belonging. As our own marriage rite says, it is a reflection of Christ’s love for us, a reminder of our own belonging to the family of God.  To imply that a woman would remain the property of a man in the age to come is to infer that God’s future is merely an extension of our own present, but Jesus makes clear that resurrection entails transformation into something new, or in this case into that original vision of how God intended for people to be in relationship with one another.  The closest we get to seeing that vision in this life are the Sacraments, including marriage, which give us a glimpse of God's grace and love in our material reality.  In the resurrected life, though, we will not need such outward and visible signs because we will be wed one to another, and all of us to God.  This vision of belonging, of unity with God, is what the resurrected life is all about and hearkens back to that original vision that God had for us when we walked in the Garden with God in the evening breeze.

This original vision of God if fulfilled when all people know the justice of God, which is so often proclaimed by the prophets and by Jesus. This is an important piece to remember, because, as collaborators with Rome, the Sadducees had a stake in maintaining unjust systems.  Of course, they will deny a resurrection, or some life to come with God, because if there is no resurrection then this life right now is all there is and the only opportunity for God’s justice to be realized, and that is bad news for a Jewish population under Roman rule.  It’s bad news for anyone who has known and still knows the sting of injustice.  But resurrection gives hope to the oppressed, a promise that even if justice is denied to them now, there will come a day when God will break through, and the dream of justice for all God’s children will at last be realized.  Such a promise was terrifying for the Sadducees. 

Still, they figured they had the Scriptures on their side; after all, where in Torah can you find a reference to resurrection?  You can’t.  At least not the word ‘resurrection,’ but just as Christians would later read between the lines and find the Trinity in the words of Scripture—despite the literal word never being used—Jesus does the same thing with a passage from Torah very well known to the Sadducees.  He cites the encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush, and God’s invocation of God’s name,  “I am,” present tense, and the statement by God, “I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  The inference here is that in some sense Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still alive, otherwise why would God use a present tense verb—rather than, say, “I was the God of your ancestors back when they were still alive"?  God doesn’t do that because, as Jesus points out, to God, they are, indeed still alive.  The proof of resurrection, then, is the living God.  God is alive, which means that those who know, love, and worship, this God are also alive. So there must be a resurrection, there must be life beyond this life, because our God is one who was, is, and ever will be alive.

An icon depicting Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush.

How fitting, then, that we hear this passage one week after All Saints Day?  We were reminded then that those we love but see no longer are alive because Christ is alive, and Christ is alive because the God whom Jesus called Abba is alive.  As it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever.  Still, that first initial question is not really going anywhere:  what is heaven like?  Jesus’ response to the Sadducees may not fully satisfy our curiosity with regard to that question, but it does help us remember two key points: 1) resurrection is real for us, for those we love, and for Jesus because I AM is the living God, and 2) resurrection life is not some extension of this life but it is a transformed life wherein the constraints of this age, including the injustice that is dispensed daily, is replaced by the grace, mercy, and love of God, and we all know our belonging in the family of God’s whole, redeemed creation.  Resurrected life, or heaven if you will, looks like the reality that God always intended for us.  Ridiculous hypotheticals like the one proposed by the Sadducees are not the point, and the more we throw them out to trip one another up, the further we get from the real point.  As scholar William Barclay put it: it would save a mass of misdirected ingenuity, and not a little heartbreak, if we ceased to speculate on what heaven was like and left things to the love of God.  May that love bless, preserve, and keep you in this life, and the life to come

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In the Company of the Saints

In March of 1935, a small group of Asheboro-ites—or whatever one calls folks from Asheboro—set out to form the first, and still the only, Episcopal congregation in Randolph County, North Carolina.  There was no building.  Their first operating budget was $300 for the year, and the monthly stipend for the priest was $16.50.  By August they had found land for their new building while they worshipped in the chapel of the local funeral home. They needed $2000 to move forward, but by April of 1937 they only had $600.  They needed $1400 more, still they chose to move forward on faith.  By the grace of God, everything came together.  A large crowd gathered to lay the cornerstone later on that same year in what one onlooker called the middle of nowhere.  Why would anyone want to build a church way out here, she was overhead saying, to which Bishop Edwin Pennick responded, “If a person cannot find God in such a beautiful setting, I doubt they can find God anywhere.”  By the end of the year, the roof was on and services were being held in the Church of the Good Shepherd.

Good Shepherd, Asheboro, NC

This church, for whom I am blessed to serve as rector, has undergone several changes in the decades that followed, not the least of which was our most recent Great Mold Remediation of 2019!  Still, the dedication and faith of those saints who gathered in the funeral home, pushed forward with their plan for a church building even when they didn’t know where the funds would come from, and chose to put a house of God in the middle of nowhere, has made it possible for us to be here.  Their love for God and desire to share the expressions of that love that are so powerful known in the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement have made Good Shepherd the special place that it is. 

When I arrived here just over four years ago, I made the Feast of Pentecost my first Sunday among the faithful at Good Shepherd because, as the birthday of the Church, Pentecost is a day of new beginnings, a day that looks towards an exciting future that is guided by the Holy Spirit.  In the same way, the Feast of All Saints seemed like a perfectly fitting day for us to return to our space after a lengthy process to clean up this holy house that saw us, like our ancestors, worship for a while in the local funeral home's chapel! Why All Saints? Because, naturally, it is the day that we remember that we are surrounded by the saints of God, and nowhere was that more apparent that gathering together for worship this past Sunday after being away from our sanctuary.  Our holy fathers and mothers who put so much of themselves into our church, who worshipped here, who were baptized here, who were fed here, and who were buried here, they were all around us that day.  Our parishioners know their names and speak of them often; in fact, several of them were prayed for at our annual All Saints Evensong liturgy to honor all those who have died in the past year.  We may not be able to see them, but they were there, that great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints.  

Our bulletin cover for the Feast of All Saints

It is the faith of the saints that sustains us in this journey of ours.  What a comfort to know that we don’t go through it alone.  Could you imagine?  I need to be reminded that my mother is still with me—in the cardinal that rests outside our oratory window when I pray, or in the sunset over the surrounding hills that Asheboro is famous for.  We all need those reminders, we need to know that we are not alone because none of us were ever meant to be alone.  Blessedly, we Christians—crazy lot that we are—are promised that, when the world would have us believe otherwise, even death cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus, it is the same love that abides in all the saints.  In death, we are reminded in our burial rite, life is changed, not ended.  And so the lives of the saints are not ended when they finish this earthly course, but they are merely changed.  They continue to live and thrive, surrounding us with their grace and their prayers until the day we see them again.  

That is their ministry now, to pray for each of us.  In return, we pray for them.  Some have asked me why we pray for the dead; after all, they’re with God, so they’re ok, they don’t need our prayers anymore.  It’s not about need, though.  It’s about relationship.  Our relationship with them does not end in death, and to pray for them reminds us not only of that fact, but also of the good news for us that our own lives will not end at our earthly deaths.  It’s a back and forth between the Church Triumphant, those who have gone on to glory, and the Church Militant, those on this side of the Kingdom who still face the struggles of our lives.  

Relationship is perhaps the single defining characteristic of All Saints Day.  We celebrate the relationship we have with those saints we love but see no longer, and through their examples of love and faithfulness—and yes, even failures and frustrations—we are reminded that we are among them, saints ourselves.  Broken, yet beloved.  Frail, yet freed.  Sinners, yet saved.  All of us are part of the communion of saints, continuing in the foundation of prayer, worship, and fellowship laid by our holy fathers and mothers.

That foundation, that cornerstone that was laid, is nothing less than Jesus Christ.  Himself dead and buried, but by the power and grace of God made alive, a promise not only that we hold on to for him, but for all who die, including those we remember today, including ourselves.  As the heavenly saints partake in that banquet that he set for them from before the foundation of the world, we earthly saints share in the same banquet, which we call Holy Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord's Supper, or Communion.  In the great prayer of the Church we hear Jesus’ words to his apostles, echoed through eternity for all the saints, “Do this for the remembrance of me.”  Remember.  We do not parake in this holy meal to simply recall an event in history, no.  We re-member; that is, we become a member again, we reconnect with Christ and with all the saints who partake in this Communion, and we reaffirm our place in the communion of saints by the communion of Christ’s body and blood.  With those words of his, the lid is blown off of time.  The past is brought into the present, and the eternal is now.  We are tied to all who have ever offered this prayer before us, bound together with all throughout history who have shared the bread and cup.  We are united through the future to the heavenly banquet that awaits us all, where the feasting with Christ and his saints never ends.  In the midst of that celebrating, while moving beyond time, we are joined by the saints of God at every Communion rail.  Standing or kneeling beside us, they are there.  Our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, grandchildren, and dear friends.  All Saints Day brings them to the forefront of our minds like no other day can, that we may, at all times and in all places, feel their presence among us.

Yes, brothers and sisters, the Church is not a building, and the last six weeks of remediation work have helped our congregation remember that.  It is where ever the people of God gather, people home Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians called saints, and he wasn't talking about folks who had died, but rather those living and struggling through their respective journeys.  Yet, I must say, this past Sunday it was good to be home.  It was good to be back in our space, with the saints in Asheboro, surrounded by all the saints, and encouraged by our worship together to continue in the faithful work that was begun in them.  May all the saints, who from their labors rest, pray for us.