Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sermon for November 10, 2013


Some Sadducees came up. This is the Jewish party that denies any possibility of resurrection. They asked, “Teacher, Moses wrote us that if a man dies and leaves a wife but no child, his brother is obligated to take the widow to wife and get her with child. Well, there once were seven brothers. The first took a wife. He died childless. The second married her and died, then the third, and eventually all seven had their turn, but no child. After all that, the wife died. That wife, now—in the resurrection whose wife is she? All seven married her.”

Jesus said, “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there. Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God. Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, ‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living. To him all are alive.” Luke 20:27-38, The Message

A preacher, newly called to a small country town, needed to mail a letter. Passing a young boy on the street, the pastor asked where he could find the post office. After getting his answer, the minister thanked the boy and said, “If you’ll come to the community church this evening, you can hear me tell everyone how to get to heaven.”

The boy replied. “I don’t know, sir. You don’t even know how to get to the post office!”

There’s a life lesson here – don’t take directions from someone who hasn’t been there. They are only guessing, right? Sometimes even your GPS will steer you wrong. It’s using data, not experience. The same holds true for heaven. There is no consistent map. We have the experiences of some who say they’ve been and come back. We have sacred data, otherwise known as Scripture. But to my ears, it begins to sound like informed guesses.

Today we read about a group of religious officials who confront Jesus. They are called Sadducees and they are a faction within first century Judaism that is quite traditional in their reading of the Torah. They also tend to be cozy with the Romans. They come to Jesus with a question about resurrection that is couched in the ritual of something called levirate marriage.  In levirate marriage, if a man dies, leaving his widow without a child, then a male relative, usually a younger brother, marries the widow.  So the Sadducees pose this question: suppose a man dies, leaving no child.  According to tradition, seven brothers in all marry this woman, but none of them father a child with her before she dies.  Therefore, in the resurrection to whom will she be married?

Understand, the Sadducees are the worst kind of Biblical literalists. They have not accepted a new idea in hundreds of years. They believe scriptural inspiration died with Moses. They take no risks. Their form of Judaism is decent and respectable. It is also a cold, indelectable, anemic version of Judaism. They hunt scripture to find a tricky way to back Jesus into a corner. They want him to say something that will offend their honor. They find an insignificant thread of the tradition and try to tie Jesus up with it.

Have you ever gotten one of those questions (or maybe you’ve done it yourself )? Have you ever had someone ask you a question and it sounds like they are open to your answer, but they really want to test you out, to categorize you, to see whether your beliefs are right or wrong? They want to be offended so they can feel justified and safe in their own beliefs.
“I was just wondering . . . where in the Bible does it say same sex marriage is OK?” 
“If you were to die today and stand before a Holy God, and He asked you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven,’ what would you say?”
 “If someone asked you who Jesus is, what would you say?”

I used to try to explain my answers, you know, reason with Christians who don’t like my ideas:
    “If someone asked you who Jesus is, what would you say?”
    “Jesus is my Lord and Savior? What do you say?”
Not good enough. Next question:
    “For you, where is the hope in that story if you don't believe the basic Gospel     message?”
Each answer leads to more gate-keeping questions. Then I start feeling defensive. Or l feel like I’m trying to convince someone who just wants to be right by making me wrong. That’s what happens in those conversations. A lot of times, we think they are leading to understanding, when in reality they create division and misunderstanding.

Jesus does it differently than me. In the reading from Luke, Jesus changes the conversation. Instead of a dialogue about content, he promotes awareness of a different context. In other words, don’t try to trip Jesus up with questions about how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle or how many husbands a woman will have in heaven. This is not about being right. It’s about living with joy. This is not about arguing obscure theological details to feed your ego. It’s about realizing the possibility that all ecstasies and intimacies will be ours. There are better things to think about.

I get you, Jesus. At least sometimes. I think that for most people, 90% of life feels like hell. People are not at ease with their selves and their world. Most of us are only at ease when we are distracted. That’s why the world is so busy. If we stay on the move, if we keep occupied, if we eliminate our downtime by checking emails and Facebook statuses on our phones, then we don’t have to face the feeling that we are not at ease with ourselves and we feel uncomfortable and scared in our world. For most people, 90% of life feels like hell. That may be a generous margin.

Some religious traditions developed an idea of heaven to distract people from suffering. For Christians, it gives us a goal. A reason for right living. A reward. It also gives us an escape.  We are left with an image of some bright place tucked behind a galaxy where birds chirp and organs play with heavy tremolo and angels bounce from cloud to cloud. For some this may be a remarkable vision of things to come. For me, it’s remarkably boring. Visions like these come from Madison Avenue, Hollywood, bad poetry and willful ignoring of astrophysics.

By the way, recent research poses an idea that the earliest church considered itself to be paradise restored on earth. The earliest Christians did not think of heaven or paradise as a reward beyond this life. Heaven was first and foremost in this world, made possible by the Spirit. They showed this by painting scenes of lush abundance in which humanity is liberated from oppression beneath domes of stars in the night sky.

In a world where people died, starved and killed each other, the early church offered a new reality. In a world where people faced alienation, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis, the earliest Christians had a word of restoration.

So here’s what I really want to know. Today. Here and now. Is it really heaven that we need? Is a vision of future glory going to make you more at ease? Does heaven help those who feel like 90% of their life is hell?

What do you really want from this one life, precious, short life that you have?

Happiness? We all want some happiness, right? Why do you want to go to heaven for that? If you want happiness, why not address it directly? Don’t talk about God, or self-realization, or heaven if what you really want is happiness, because heaven is not going to make you happy. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that heaven is a place of eternal misery? Once you get there, you will be completely bored. You would not want to go there. So it’s not heaven you want. It’s happiness. Let’s be honest about what we really need.

The same is true about pain. We want relief from suffering, don’t we? The dominant emotion in most people is fear. Almost everything we do in our lives is in search of some kind of security. Fear is always in the background. So, let’s not use heaven as a way to escape suffering. Let’s stop focusing on eternal security.  Let’s talk about why you are suffering and how you can find some joy.

All I’m saying is this: Don’t use God, or heaven, or hell, or anything else as a way to avoid the discomforts of life. Otherwise there can be no transformation.

Of course, we can always go to the old fallback plan – avoidance.  “I don’t want to talk about it.” I once got a call from a funeral home to do the service for a woman I never met. The family wanted a Protestant minister to do the funeral. I get this a lot – called in as a minister-for-hire for families that want religious services but who have no church home.

I was introduced to the son, Mr. Cooper. I shook his hand and said, “Hi Mr. Cooper. I am so sorry about the loss of your mother. Is there anything you would like said today? Is there anyone who would like to speak on your mother’s behalf?”

Mr. Cooper was a tall, middle-aged man, white hair with a tanned, active appearance. He shifted on his feet, and smiled and said, “No, just do you thing. Just do a simple service. You can even talk fast if you want to get it done quicker.” A small group of mourners began to arrive at the funeral home. At first, people seemed emotionally disinterested and uncaring.  But after a while, I realized they were lost. They did not know how to cope with their pain. They did not have the skills needed to bear this burden. It was easier to avoid the pain. “Just do your thing. I don’t want to talk about it.”

The funeral was done in 15 minutes. I read out of a book. Got in and out. And I’ve always regretted it.

Because life is pain. And fear. Because 90% of life can feel like hell. And our good news says, “Don’t avoid pain. Embrace it. Transformation awaits.” Mr. Cooper got what he said he wanted. I said, “Everything will be all right.  You will meet your mother again in paradise.” And I’ve always wondered if he got what he needed. I’ve wondered if, instead of having someone water down the pain, Mr. Cooper really needed someone to light a path out of the darkness.

Henri Nouwen talked about this in his classic book The Wounded Healer. He wrote to ministers. But In this case, let’s not think about professional clergy. Let’s imagine we are all ministers. We are all called to do healing, relationship-nurturing work. Nouwen says that the primary task of ministers it not to take away pain. Ministry does not allow people to live with the illusions of immortality and wholeness. Ministry reminds others that they are mortal and broken. When we get that, liberation starts.

There is a Greek word we use to describe this process of liberating transformation: ἀνάστασις. We read about it in today’s text. We translate it “resurrection” and it has LOTS of theological, emotional, and spiritual baggage. It’s fodder for one of those questions that ancient or modern Sadducees might ask: Do you believe in a literal bodily resurrection from the dead?

In this way of thinking, resurrection is passive. It is something given to believers so they can get to heaven and be with God. Resurrection is something done to you.

Let’s make it simpler than that: ἀνάστασις literally means, “to stand up.”

This is not a passive understanding. It is active. It is imperative. In my mind, the word is always followed with an urgent exclamation point. Stand Up! Arise!

What if you are one of those people who feel like 90% of life feels like hell? What if I told you that it can be different? What if you could move from 90% – 89%? It might not seem like a lot, but that’s one percent less pain and once percent more at ease with yourself and your world. In that one percent, you’ve gained an infinite amount of happiness. Imagine a reverse Richter Scale where one percent represents an exponential decrease in suffering and an exponential increase in happiness. That’s where the moment of transformation happens. That’s a moment of resurrection.

And it’s not going to happen with some outside source doing it for you. It happens when you stand up! Resurrection is defiance of death. Resurrection is the forerunner of gladness.
Resurrection is a newness. Resurrection is our reminder that we are mortal and broken. When we get that, liberation starts.

Don’t worry about heaven. I can’t guide you there. Here’s what I can do. Here’s what Pastor Gloria can help you with: Be like Jesus, and focus on the context, not the content. Seek what you really need.
If you want happiness, stand up.

In the face of all that wants to steal your joy, stand up.

If you want less pain, stand up. In a world where people die, starve and kill each other, offer yourself a new reality. Stand up!

In a world where we faced depression, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis, hear a word of restoration. Stand up!

Stand up to that which stifles your hope.
Stand up to those who want to hamstring you with their expectations
Stand up to that which pokes holes in the clay jar of your joy.
Stand up in grief.
Stand up to hatred.
Stand up to injustice.
Stand up to fear.
Stand up!

And when you stand, join hands with others who are struggling do the same thing as you.

And  that . . . that is a resurrection.

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