You're Asking the Wrong Question: A Sermon for Sunday November 6, 2016

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 6, 2016.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

Before we begin to look at tonight’s gospel text, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that a little over two months ago, Kalyn Falk and I stood right here at the front of the church and this community blessed us as we stepped into new roles as lay pastors to this community for a six month term.

Since that time many of you have been praying for us, have offered us words of encouragement, and have offered to help in any way possible as we dove into this new work.  Your support has been so wonderful and Kalyn and I want you all to know how much we appreciate being held and supported by our community in this new season of ministry.

Thank you all so very much.

Let’s pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight oh Lord, for you are our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Tonight’s reading is taken from the end of chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel, a chapter the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has helpfully titled, “The Authority of Jesus is Questioned.”  Tonight’s reading describes the last in a series of questions posed to Jesus by various groups who are seeking to challenge his authority and it begins like this: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question.”

As soon as I began reading today’s gospel in order to prepare to preach this evening, I was reminded that I am not, in fact, doing very well in my life long quest to be like Jesus because I would have approached this situation very differently than Jesus does.

One group of people asking me questions I could handle, two I might be able to deal with if I really stretched, but a third group? No way. By the time the Sadducees arrived on the scene I would either have had a meltdown, or left, or both.

But not Jesus, Jesus sticks around to listen to, and answer, the Sadducees’ question. Which is this:

“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.”

A few things to note about this question before we go any further. First, the Sadducees are describing a hypothetical situation.  There is no actual woman who has recently died who they are concerned about.  They’ve made her up to prove a point.

This was an important thing for me to keep in mind as I have been chewing on this passage over this past week because it is easy for me to get fixated on this fictional woman and her fictional life.  Because, while this story may be based on a fictional family the situation described is also based on an actual practice known as “levirate marriage,” which is described in the book of Deuteronomy.  (Deut. 25:5-6)

If a woman’s husband died and she didn’t have any children, she was in serious trouble. There is a reason that the Bible regularly calls us to care for widows and orphans – these were the most vulnerable people, the ones most in need of care.

On a good day, I would describe levirate marriage as a way of protecting this woman.  This is a provision that ensures that someone – namely the dead man’s brother – is responsible to provide for her.  This is a law that could literally save her life.

On a bad day, I might point out that it’s also a system that treats women like property and ensures that property stays in a particular family – the woman, her land, and all the dead man’s possessions are simply goods to be transferred from the brother who has died to the living brother. It’s a simple and efficient system for transferring property – unless, of course, you happen to be that property.

I have a lot of questions about this system. And I am so very grateful to live in a day and age where our beliefs about marriage, while far from perfect, have evolved to the point where if I imagined the death of my spouse, my worst fear would be missing him, not fearing that now that I was destitute I would slowly starve to death. I am grateful to live in a time where no one would ever even suggest that I am my spouse’s property… at least not if they know what is good for them.

But Jesus doesn’t address these issues because Jesus knows both that this is a hypothetical family and that the Sadducees aren’t looking for a discussion on laws concerning marriage.

So remember, the people in the Sadducees’ story do not exist – there aren’t seven men in heaven wondering whose wife this poor, tired woman will be, and don’t forget that we’ve been told right at the beginning of the passage that the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection.  They are asking a question about what happens to made up people in a place they also believe is made up.

So why are the Sadducees asking this question?  Let’s think about that for a little bit…

Actually, we don’t need to think about it for very long, this is baiting pure and simple.

This woman doesn’t exist. The Sadducees don’t believe heaven exists and lest anyone doubt what they are trying to do, they create a ridiculous story to prove their point.  They could have asked the exact same question by using a hypothetical story of a woman who had been married twice. It makes the same point, she’s had two husbands, who will be her husband in the life to come?  But they add not one, not two, but five extra husbands for a total of seven – seven husbands -to the story in an attempt to show how ridiculous the notion of life after death is.

They are using a ridiculous example because they believe the idea of resurrection is ridiculous and they expect that Jesus will be unable to give a reasonable answer thus showing that both resurrection and taking Jesus seriously are ridiculous.

And I believe Jesus knows this and he could have just said, “stop being ridiculous!”

But he doesn’t.

Jesus responds to the question rather than the attitude prompting the question.  In other words, even though he knows this is a question meant to trap him he treats it seriously and says,

“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.”

None of these men would be the woman’s husband, because marriage does not exist in the age to come.

And that’s good news.

In other words, Jesus is saying your question is based on the assumption that the expectations and practices that apply in this life will apply in the next, and that’s false.  Resurrected life, in fact, transcends this life.  Just because something exists here, doesn’t mean it will exist in the age to come.

So there will not be marriage in the age to come, but there IS an age to come, despite what the Sadducees believe.

The next thing Jesus does is construct a clever argument using the Sadducees own scriptures to prove that there is actually a life after this one.  If you enjoy an academically inclined theological argument, you’ll probably love going through this one in great detail, but here are the basics:

Jesus knows that the Sadducees are playing a game and he has several options in how to respond.  He can complain that the rules of the game are unfair, he can flip over the board, walk away and refuse to play, or he can beat them at their own game.

I would probably choose option 1, Jesus chooses option 3.

The Sadducees believed that only the Pentateuch, the first five books of our modern day Bible, were authoritative.  So, using only examples from those five books, Jesus shows that it is possible to conclude that there is a life after this one. (Them: Deut 25:5-18, JC: Ext. 3:6)

Jesus’ argument is impeccable.  Remember that this interaction is part of a larger story where Jesus is being questioned by various groups of people on a variety of theological subjects, but his answer to the Sadducees’ question ends the interrogation.  In verses 39-40 we read, “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher you have spoken well. For they no longer dared to ask him another question.”

If he’d been holding a mic and was so inclined, Jesus could have dropped it. Jesus has silenced all of his critics.

But Jesus isn’t looking to drop a microphone and strut away victoriously.  That sort of behavior seeks to set one person over and against another, it seeks to exclude, and Jesus consistently seeks to include.

I would LOVE to believe that, in similar circumstances, I would have behaved like Jesus does. That I would be able to see past the motives of the Sadducees and respond with a graceful, articulate answer. That I would not feel the need to complain about the unfair rules, or toss over the game board, or prove I was better than they were. I want to believe I would value a potential relationship over a right answer.

Except… and now it’s time for another confession.

Sometimes, when I meet someone for the first time, I engage in a little stalking – nothing too intense or worthy of jail time, I just check out their Facebook profile.

And I begin to form an opinion of that person based on what I find slowly, and subconsciously categorizing the information into “pass” and “fail.”

  • Likes Buffy the vampire slayer – pass.
  • Posts a lot of photos of cats – fail.
  • Seems to share my stance on key political or theological issues – pass
  • Really likes Tim Horton’s?

Unfriend. This is never going to work out.

We all have certain questions we use to judge others.  Does this person have good taste in music? Do we have similar theological beliefs? Are they safe? Can I share openly with them about my struggles? My sexual identity? My hopes for the future? My doubts?  If I am honest about who I am, will they reject me?

We all do this, sometimes consciously, often subconsciously and on the basis of people’s answers we choose to either dismiss or include them.  We choose to let them into our lives, or we wall ourselves off.

Sometimes we have good reasons for doing this. Some of us have been deeply wounded by other people and so we engage in a constant process of monitoring who is safe, and who isn’t.

And sometimes we have less than honorable reasons for doing so – we are looking not to understand or include, we are looking for reasons to reject anyone who disagrees with us. We are looking to enjoy the brief and fleeing rush of feeling superior.

And this is what the Sadducees are doing. They have already decided Jesus is profoundly unsafe because he doesn’t share their views, and they are looking to publicly shame him and call him out.

They want to use a ridiculous hypothetical story and their debate skills to show everyone present that Jesus is someone they should all dismiss.

But they lose. Jesus can’t be so easily dismissed.

The Sadducees are trying to say that anyone who disagrees with them can be dismissed, but Jesus says the opposite. Jesus calls us into this mysterious process of trying to live life with the very people we would most like to reject.  Jesus calls us to include, not exclude.

This is what is so mysterious and radical to me about Christ’s table – everyone is included.

Later in our service, Allison is going to invite us all to the table, and the words she uses will make it clear that everyone is invited. EVERYONE. We don’t have a say in the guest list.

Because this isn’t our table, it’s Jesus’, and Jesus says everyone is welcome.

Which means that I can’t choose to exclude any of you because you drink Tim Hortons’ coffee, vote for a different political party than I do, hold theological views I disagree with or just because I’m in a bad mood and don’t like the look of you.

And it means you don’t get to exclude me either.

Jesus looks at all of us with love and says, “come, you are welcome at my table. Come.”

Which can be scary, and more than a little uncomfortable, but I think it’s also what makes the table good news, what makes it the gospel, and it’s why I keep coming back to the table, again, and again, and again.

Amen.


Bearing God: A Sermon For Sunday December 20, 2015

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 20, 2015.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

This sermon is strongly influenced by the book “The God Bearing Life” by Kenda Creasey Dean, which I highly recommend.

This is a poem entitled “Virgin” from the excellent collection God Birthby Sam Gutierrez:

 

It seems that everyone

wants at least three to five years of experience.

Except God, that is.

[God] looks for the one willing to try something new.

 

Today’s gospel reading begins with these words, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…”

Although Mary’s story is a relatively familiar one, I think her decision to take a trip deserves some context so I’m going to back up about 10 verses to the point in the story where the angel Gabriel first appears.

Gabriel begins as he always begins, as God always begins -since this is really God’s message, not Gabriel’s - with the affirmation that all that God has created is good. “Greetings, favoured one!” Gabriel proclaims to Mary. “The Lord is with you!” Before she hears anything else, God wants Mary to hear this: She is favoured and God is with her.

As a young girl, Mary hasn’t had any time to “find herself.” She hasn’t taken a backpacking trip across Europe or enrolled in a course that changed her life or whatever the correct historical equivalent of those events might be.  Her identity is a gift, bestowed upon her by God alone.

Mary may wonder, “Who am I?” but God’s answer is clear, “You are my favoured one, beloved and beautiful to me.”

It is unlikely that Mary would have ever had an opportunity to develop a distinctive identity apart from the one given to her by God. She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity. She is too poor to purchase her place in society.

Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.

All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which may just be why God chooses her. Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favour.

So Gabriel begins by affirming God’s love for Mary and continues, as angels speaking to human beings tend to do, by telling her there is no need to fear.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”

God’s message to Mary and to us has two parts – affirmation and expectation. Because Mary is beloved by God, because she has found favour in God’s eyes, God has a plan for her. It is an astonishing plan: the angel in the living room, the impossible conception, the fact that her child will grow up to be a king.

The child’s name must have caught Mary’s attention. Jesus, a derivation of the Hebrew name Joshua, means “God save us.” Something revolutionary is happening here: God has just asked a teenage girl to help save the world.

The text doesn’t say how long it took Mary to respond to Gabriel’s message – seconds, minutes, hours, days. It just tells us that when she did respond she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 Young people are capable of an extraordinary commitment to someone who believes in them and of an almost ridiculous loyalty to a cause worthy of their total commitment.  Young people are amazing and we often take them for granted, but God never does. God did not choose a teenager by accident.  Who else would agree to such a crazy plan? I know I wouldn’t have.

God’s plan puts Mary in significant danger. Gabriel has come to share this news with Mary and Mary alone at this point. He didn’t call a town meeting to make sure that everyone around Mary would understand how she came to be pregnant before getting married. That would have been a classy touch, but instead, Gabriel leaves Mary to break the news to the people in her life. Will people believe her? Will she be judged? Ridiculed? Rejected? How on earth is she supposed to explain this to her parents, to her fiancé?

So it in not surprising that Mary decides that now is a good time to take a trip.  At the beginning of today’s gospel reading (Luke1:39) we are told that shortly after Gabriel’s visit Mary hastily departs her hometown and travels to the home of her relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth.  When she arrives, she greets Elizabeth who says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (41-45)

There are a lot of important things going on in this passage. This is an exchange between two Godly women with some insider knowledge about God’s plan to save the world and they theologize and speak with authority about what God is up to.

I imagine that Elizabeth’s words were a tremendous comfort to Mary.  I suspect that as she travelled Mary prayed that her relatives would be understanding and not turn her away. I imagine she rehearsed some sort of speech or story to explain to Elizabeth why she was there and what had happened, but Elizabeth’s words made any such explanation unnecessary. Elizabeth already understands and affirms both Mary and her secret- what a relief, what a blessing that must have been!

Elizabeth’s words to Mary heap affirmation upon affirmation.  Blessed are you among women Mary. Blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed are you because you believed what the angel told you.

So it’s not surprising that a few verses later Mary breaks into the joy-filled song we call the Magnificat that begins: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for [God] has looked with favour on the lowliness of [God’s] servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is [God’s] name.” (46-49)

I believe that this praise stems from more than just God’s choice to have Mary bear the son of God. I believe it is also the overflowing of gratitude she feels for the affirmations she has received along the way. Having given a very young girl such incredible news and such an important role to play in God’s plan to save the world, our loving God directs Mary to a supportive community of faith. In the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary will be surrounded by people with mutual experiences, mutual faith, and mutual hope.

Elizabeth’s initial response to Mary also shows the beginning of the redefinition of social realities that Jesus will bring about on earth.  Here is a story where the key players are women.  Joseph is absent and the priestly Zechariah maybe present, but he has been silenced because of his own disbelief. The social constructs of the time are beginning to shift.

Of the two women, Elizabeth is the more mature and as the wife of a priest she has a higher social status than Mary but it is Mary’s child who will become a king.

Elizabeth’s son John will have priestly credentials but the commoner Mary will bear the king, the Son of David, who rules over the priesthood.

Jerusalem, the exalted center of Christian worship, ought to trump humble Nazareth of Galilee; but the order of sacred geography is also being upended.

And this is just the beginning.

This redefinition of the social order is a key theme in the Magnificat.  The first three verses are Mary’s expression of praise to God for the great things God has done for her and then Mary transitions to more universal themes singing these words to God:

Your mercy is for those who fear you

From generation to generation

You have shown strength with your arm

And have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

You have brought down the powerful from their thrones

And lifted up the lowly;

You have filled the hungry with good things,

And sent the rich away empty.

You, O God, have helped your servant Israel,

In remembrance of your mercy

And to the promise you made to our ancestors,

To Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Mary’s song begins with the praise to God because of the things God has done for her personally and then moves into praise for God’s goodness to the rest of the world – it is praise for the way that God turns the expected on its head – the proud are made low, the humble exalted. The hungry will be full and the rich turned away empty.

The Magnificat is an amazing piece of scripture and so it is not surprising that it has become one of the most famous, most repeated passages in the Bible. I, however, have a real soft spot for the underdog, and so I’d like to highlight a verse that I think it also quite lovely. A verse the lectionary leaves out, but that we have reclaimed this evening. Verse 56 says,  “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”

Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months.The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened during those three months, but imagine with me for a moment what that might have been like. I imagine that it was a wonderful time for a young woman like Mary to spend such concentrated time with an older and wiser woman.

By now Mary’s body will have begun to change as her pregnancy progresses and her role in God’s plan will be something she can no longer hide from judgmental eyes.  But when this happens, she will have Elizabeth to turn to for support.

I think this tells us a lot about the nature of God. God is asking an awful lot of Mary. Being the Mother of God will be an unusually difficult job, but God will be with her and God will provide for her in lavish and unexpected ways.

Mary met God’s affirmation with a “yes” of her own. “Let it be with me according to your word.”  Her “yes” changes her life forever and because of her, the world is also transformed. Mary is actively involved in this transformation, undergoing all of the metamorphoses that occur during pregnancy plus a few that undoubtedly go along with being the mother of God’s son.   By saying yes, Mary becomes the means by which Jesus comes into the world.

While the coming of Jesus Christ in a virgin’s womb is the unrepeatable mystery of God, God also invites all of us to become God bearers.  Just as Mary had the choice to say yes to God’s plan, so can we. The moment we say yes to God, we also become God bearers. This is what Elizabeth did for Mary in those three months they spent together.  She reminded Mary of the prophecies, she reminded Mary of God’s promises, she reminded Mary of God’s goodness, and she reminded Mary of God’s love. I image they laughed together, cried together, and marveled at the ways their bodies were changing together.  As Mary was preparing to bear God for the whole world, Elizabeth also bore God to Mary.

In his book Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer speaks a universal truth using regrettably exclusive language. Here is my paraphrase of those words:

“the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to them. The Christian needs that other Christian again and again when they become uncertain and discouraged…They need their brothers and sisters in Christ as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.” (23)

Mary bore God, the savior of the world, for each and every one of us. Elizabeth bore God for Mary, and all of you, have in your own way, been a God bearer for me.

I am so grateful for the many ways that this community has been a community of God bearers for me.  In the eight or so years that I have been coming here, you have been a tangible reminder to be of God’s love. When you say hello, or shake my hand, or hand me a piece of bread and a cup filled with wine, when you pray when I have lost the words, when you say God can be trusted when I’m not sure it’s true, when you say God loves me when I can’t imagine why anyone would - in all these ways and more, you have been God bearers to me.

I hope you have experienced that here as well. I hope this is something we keep doing for each other.  I hope you have come to see just how loved, and valuable you are to God and to us.

And I thank you for being God bearers for me.

Amen.