Joel D. Kline
November 7, 2004
Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
William Willimon, dean of the chapel at Duke University, tells the story of four chemistry students at Duke unwisely choosing, on the eve of a major exam, to take a road trip to the University of Virginia. The students partied longer than they ought to have done, and got back to Duke too late for the exam. Sheepishly appearing before Dr. Bonk, their noted professor, the four concocted a sad story of woe, telling Professor Bonk that while they had left Virginia in plenty of time, they had blown a tire on the way home. What’s more, the spare was flat, and by the time they could get the tire fixed and return to Duke, they had missed their exam.
Dr. Bonk was amazingly compassionate and understanding, agreeing to give them a make-up exam the following day. When they arrived the next day, Professor Bonk handed each a paper with only one question: Which tire went flat on your car?
This morning’s Gospel lesson tells the story of a group of Sadducees approaching Jesus with a seemingly unanswerable question, apparently hoping to embarrass Jesus publicly when he finds the question confounding. The story follows on the heels of other religious leaders trying to trap Jesus with a question about whether it is lawful to pay taxes. The question behind that question was where to place one’s ultimate loyalty, with Caesar or with God.
In today’s lesson the Sadducees challenge Jesus with a question about resurrection, creating a seemingly impossible scenario based on the ancient practice of levirate marriage, spelled out in Deuteronomy 25. Levirate marriage holds that, should a man die without children, his brother is obligated to take the widow as his wife and have children with her. Since the ancient Jews believed that one lives on in one’s descendants and in their memory, this practice was especially significant. But the Sadducees take the practice to extremes, and question what would happen in the event of a sad series of deaths, as each of seven brothers dies after marrying the widow, and all are childless. “In the resurrection,” question the Sadducees, “whose wife will the woman be?”
As in the case of the wise professor who sees through his tardy students’ excuses for their absence, Jesus recognizes that the Sadducees speak only hypothetically; they little care about the woman in their scenario. Indeed, they could be talking about a piece of livestock, considering how little compassion and care they display about her predicament. Truth is, the Sadducees tell this story, wanting to prove their own biases, which include the conviction that there is no resurrection. In the hypothetical situation the Sadducees have created, the woman can’t be married to all seven brothers in the resurrection, nor can it simply be said that she returns to being the wife of the first brother—two facts that convince these critics of Jesus that he will not easily find a way out of the bind their question creates.
But Jesus responds by redefining the question. With Professor Bonk, Jesus offers an alternative exam, one that underscores that Jesus operates out of a very different perspective than do his questioners. The Sadducees cannot conceive of the possibility of resurrection because they cannot see beyond business as usual. Even were there to be a resurrection, the Sadducees assume that it would involve only more of the same. It would be an extension of the world as we know it; the quantity of time may increase, but the Sadducees can little grasp that resurrection is God’s way of speaking of a new creation, a time when justice and peace will become more than idle “pipe dreams,” a time when the power of evil shall be decisively broken, a time when God’s creative, saving work shall come to fruition.
All this is to say that the critics of Jesus are working out of an “old world” mindset, a world of unjust social arrangements, a world of grief and violence, a world of deep division and brokenness and war. But Jesus responds by encouraging the Sadducees to envision a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking and relating—life in the kingdom of God. This is why Jesus reminds his critics that the God they claim to know and to serve, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Jacob and Isaac and other pillars of faith through the years—this God is the God of the living, not the God of the dead.
A few years back I was asked to write a meditation for the back of one of our Sunday bulletin covers, and I was excited about the prospect until I took a closer look at the assigned text. It was today’s text, whose message I continue to find difficult to distill into a few short paragraphs. But in the weeks prior I had come across one of Yogi Berra’s picturesque sayings. Berra, you may remember, was the New York Yankees catcher back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s who in his own garbled way said some profound things, once asserting that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
In effect, is this not what Jesus is saying to his critics? In the life of faith, keep focused on the main thing. And what is the main thing, but to maintain and nurture our rootedness in God, to embrace life in God’s kingdom, a life of compassion and grace, of peace and self-giving love, of servanthood and hope. When Jesus speaks of the God of the living, he is prodding his critics to expand their vision. In effect, says William Willimon, Jesus is saying to that group of critical Sadducees, “Your questions betray your limited point of view, your narrow frame of reference. The resurrection is not just some extension of your world. It is a whole new world, the world as God intended the world to be.” It is a world in which the woman of your story is “a child of God, not a piece of property.” It is a world in which each of us lives as children of the resurrection.
The power of this text is its reminder that resurrection requires revolutionary thinking. Resurrection is not simply talking about a pie-in-the-sky future; it is announcing that God, even now, is creating a new heaven and a new earth. In the letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul speaks of God having a plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in God, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
Resurrection thinking demands that we anticipate the coming a world in which God makes things aright, a world in which victims of injustice find healing, a world in which the horrors of violence and warfare are replaced by God’s peace, and a world based upon a new order of compassion and grace becomes possible. And in anticipation of resurrection, you and I are called to live now as if God’s kingdom is fully among us. You are I are to model resurrection living.
Biblical scholar N.T.Wright reminds us that resurrection as envisioned in the New Testament “means that Jesus’ followers now have a responsibility to tell the world that the new creation has begun; that justice and peace are now to be put into operation in all the world; and that all this could happen because the power of evil has been decisively broken.” This is indeed the power of the cross and resurrection, that you and I find the strength and courage to live now in the light of God’s gracious love and forgiveness, God’s compassion and loving-kindness. It is this remarkable promise that the critics of Jesus were unable—and unwilling—to see. And yet today, how difficult it is to envision life in the realm of God.
We have just come through a turbulent political campaign, and, whatever the nature of your political persuasion, few would argue that the results make clear that ours is a divided time. Pollsters tell us that concern for moral values ranked high in the minds of voters this year, with many identifying the moral agenda of the Religious Right as the moral agenda. From my perspective, perhaps the greatest learning to be gathered from the recent campaign is the need for the more progressive church to take the lead in expanding the discussion about the nature of morality for today’s living. The moral agenda for today dare not be defined exclusively by the Religious Right, with its rigid understandings of abortion, homosexuality, and marriage.
Certain that they have rightly understood the Scriptures, the Religious Right narrowly defines morality, remaining strangely silent about the pressing moral issues of justice for the poor, and the morality of entering into a war based on assumptions we now know to be false. While the Scriptures insist care for the poor is a central component of the life of faithfulness, the voice of the Religious Right has little to say about care for the poor and our responsibility to eliminate those conditions that create poverty. And even though the teachings of Jesus again and again challenge the very fabric of our consumer and militaristic culture, the Religious Right would have us believe that Jesus blesses the war in Iraq and, indeed, the whole military-industrial establishment. Those of us in the peace church tradition, convinced that the New Testament announces that all was is sin, find ourselves uncomfortable with the message of both major political parties and their assumption that military might is the only way to combat terrorism.
We can rail against the narrow understandings of the Religious Right in this country, but far more importantly, is this not a time when you and I are challenged to deepen our embrace of the New Testament vision of living as citizens of God’s kingdom? Is this not a time for keeping the main thing as the main thing in life? And what is that main thing, but the promise of God’s compassion and love remaking and recreating human life?
To live as citizens of God’s kingdom is to offer an alternative voice. While other religious traditions would use the gospel to exclude and judge those who are different, we are called to embrace all manner of people and to speak words of grace and hope. While other religious traditions apparently give little priority to caring for the environment as God’s creation, you and I are called to struggle seriously with what it means to be caretakers of the earth. While other religious traditions assume that God blesses our nation’s war efforts, you and I as followers of the Prince of Peace are called to go the extra mile in relationships, to love our enemies, to pray for those who would persecute us, to work and pray for that time when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and God’s righteousness shall flow among all creation like an ever-flowing stream.
This is the power of resurrection living, embracing life in God’s realm, celebrating the God of the living, not the God of the dead, inviting all humankind to recognize themselves as children of the resurrection. Sisters and brothers, the call is to walk in the footsteps of Christ Jesus our Lord, letting our love be genuine, pursuing the things that make for peace, rejoicing in hope, holding fast to what is good, blessing those who would persecute us, proclaiming the good news of God’s gracious love. Now is the time to announce anew, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.”
O God who holds us in the palm of your hand, O God who promises to raise us up on eagles’ wings, we come acknowledging our need for the refreshment, the renewal, the grace, and the peace that you offer us. We come confessing that we have tried to go it alone in life, that life frequently seems overwhelming, that the pressures and needs of life feel oppressive to us.
God, we come acknowledging our limitations and our need for you. We come seeking to take refuge in the shadow of your wings. We come praying that you would raise us up on eagle’s wings. Renew us, O God. Restore us. Redeem us.
Loving Creator, hear us now as we turn our thoughts to those in special need of your healing presence. We remember and pray for …
Holy God, bring peace to your hearts and to all creation. Guide us in paths of discipleship. Form your kingdom of justice, compassion, and self-giving love among us. May the knowledge that you hold us in the palm of your hand fill us with courage and strength, that we might live lives of hope, faith, and joy. We pray in the name and spirit of Jesus the Christ. Amen.