Tuesday, November 13, 2007

God is God of the living, not the dead

Peter's sermon from last Sunday...

Intro. Today's readings look at two sides of the human condition—the readings from Haggai and Thessalonians basically deal with disappointment, fear, and the loss of trust. They ask can God be trusted in the face of disappointment? They explore the condition of despair. The Gospel reading looks at a very different side of our nature—that aspect of our nature that can assume that we are right in our point of view, that we know the mind of God. It explores the condition of pride and vanity.

Now I don't know about you but I have been on both tracks—there are times when I am struggling with some disappointment in my life and wonder if God is even present to me, and there are other times I am so sure that I am right and know the mind of God and I am proud of it! We are a strange species at times fragile and afraid and at times sure and confident. In either case we find ourselves in some kind of ‘bad faith', either God cannot be trusted, or I know, as others don't, the mind of God--either despair or pride.

Let's look more closely at each of the readings and see what clues they offer:

1. Haggai & Paul The people Haggai is preaching to are really struggling—the temple they have built after returning from Exile seems but a shadow of the one they remembered. Hadn't God promised a New Jerusalem and a New Temple? (Is.55) Haggai reminds them of the ancient story of the Exodus—that from the poverty of slavery God built a nation. God is with them now in their struggle and they are not to be afraid, but trust in God.

Similarly, Paul writing to some Thessalonians who were in a panic because they thought that they had missed Jesus' second coming and had been left behind. Paul says to them, “stand firm in the tradition."

Each of these answers speaks so forcibly to us as we gather here to remember the tradition. You may have come here today wondering if God could be trusted in the face of your doubts and fears? How do we deal with those fears that at times seem overwhelming and where God seems so very far away? Both Haggai and Paul give us a simple and direct answer: remember the story! Remember what it is that brought you to faith in God in the first place and don't give up!

Thursday I met a man from Mexico who is an organizer for migrant workers not far from here. He was feeling very sad because one of his workers had been taken to prison and was very despondent. We talked about ways he could bring hope to this man. I suggested to him that he might arrange to bring him communion so that this man, though separated by bars, could know that he is still a part of the community. He thought that was a great idea. This is why we take communion to our shut-ins and sick members—to give some tangible sign that they and we belong together in God's beloved community.

All of us face doubt and fear—and all too often we feel that we are alone in our fears, but as we pass the Peace we remind each other that no one is alone and that God is present, even in our disappointments. This is what we do for each other.

2. The Gospel takes us to the other side of the human condition—the pride and confidence of being right. The Sadducees thought they were right and looked down on the superstition of others. They confined their religious beliefs to the literal text of the five books of Moses. On this basis they denied any belief in an afterlife. For them resurrection was limited to the passing on of one's name through progeny.

They drew Jesus' attention to a prescription contained in the marriage law. (Deut. 25:1-10) In a male dominated society, it is a law designed to secure a male progeny, and to protect the property of male heads of households, who die before fathering a male heir. It was also designed to protect the widows from a life of poverty in a patriarchal culture where property was held by male heads of households, and widowed women were often forced into abject poverty.

The Sadducees then tell a rather outrageous tale of seven brothers, each marrying in turn the widow of the first brother. Then they pose the question, if there is resurrection, whose wife will she be? Now note the premise of their question: a woman's role is subservient to men. We can get the irony of their question if we imagine that the woman had been the questioner! The conversation might have begun like this: “Lord, you know I have been married to seven brothers, but I really only ever loved one of them. Will I be able to be with him in the after life?" Or, suppose she simply said, “Lord, I'm tired of being pushed around to satisfy these seven brothers, can't I get some relief in the after life?"

Do you begin to see the theological significance of the tale now? If there is a resurrection it throws into question the fabric of the social system that defines people by their relationship to the existing power structures. If there is a resurrection, then it is possible that places of privilege and places of subjugation will no longer apply. If there is a resurrection, a patriarchal system that subjugates women to men could be overthrown.

In fact, that is just what Jesus replies to this trick question. He first says that resurrection life is not about the possession of one person by another, but in the resurrection life all are children of God.

But then Jesus adds a clincher to his argument. He points out that their view of God is inadequate. He cites the very scriptures they hold as foundational to argue that God is the God, not of dead, but of the living. From their own scripture there is the witness to a power that transforms the life of this age by that of an age yet to come, and is on its way even now. Jesus' real complaint against these Sadducees was that they viewed the tradition as somehow frozen in the sacred texts of Moses, rather tradition is a living and ongoing reality that is always being re-appropriated to a new understanding of God's love and purpose.

Now we know there are Sadducees in the church today who believe that they have the final word on whom God welcomes into the church and on what condition. They are saying that gays can only be a part of us if they are celibate, that women can only be a part of us if they stay away from the altar.

I recall a man who felt strongly that women should not be at the altar and when, long before women were being ordained, I introduced women chalice bearers he refused to take communion. So we always scheduled a man alongside of a women and he then chose which side to go to the communion rails. Then when on vacation in San Francisco he went to the cathedral where on that occasion there were only women! He could not choose and so took communion. His family teased him and brought him out of his stiffness.

We have looked at two sides of the human condition—the fear of being left behind and the pride in being right. And each of us will find ourselves on each side of this spectrum. But here, in this coming together around bread and wine we are invited to find a middle way—the way of trusting God in the face of our fears and the way of humility in our search for the truth.

The psalm for today describes this balanced approach to our human journey as one that is focused on God's ongoing victory in the progress toward justice and righteousness. We do not live in a static world, but one in which God is actively seeking to transform us by the qualities of mercy and faithfulness qualities that are in contrast to those of the world around us.

The psalm reminds us, as Augustine said of old, our souls are restless until they find their rest in God. The balanced way is to know that God is near to us in our fears, and the praising God is the best antidote to pride.

Jesus said, God is God of the living, not the dead, and this means that God is present to us in all dimensions of our lives, our fears and disappointments and our times of pride and arrogance. God is constantly nudging us to respond to love as a way to comfort us in our fears and challenge us in our pride. Amen.

No comments: