25th Sunday after Pentecost November 10, 2013
When I got to church Monday morning, Kathryn – our parish administrator – was working on the bulletins.
“I can’t stand the text for this week,” she said to me. “It’s that crazy story about the woman who is married to seven brothers, one after the other.” We agreed that if there is any justice in heaven, they will all being washing her feet and serving her for all eternity.
This gospel story is one of those challenging texts that remind us that the Bible was written in a very different context than our own.
The story refers to Levirite marriage, a practice in which a woman who was widowed before she had children was married to the brother of her husband, so she could conceive a child for the family. It was based on the idea that continuing a family line was the primary goal in marriage. It also provided protection for a widow in a society in which a childless widow had no role or means of support.
The whole question makes no sense to us, with our contemporary understanding of marriage as companionship based on love and equality.
It’s easy this week to miss the forest for the trees – This woman is widowed six times and married off to seven brothers in turn, and the religious guys are worried about who she will be married to in heaven? Really? That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous – and that is exactly the point.
This is one of those stories in which the religious officials are trying to trap Jesus. The Sadducees are a minority religious sect who do not believe in the resurrection. They are trying to pose the most ridiculous question about resurrection that they can think of, to trap Jesus into making a mistake.
You’ve probably had this sort of conversation. Someone asks you, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” And you know they don’t want to have a discussion or hear what you have to say.
They are already convinced – either that every word of it is literally true, or that the whole thing is bunk. So you have to decide if you will try to engage in a real discussion – or if you just want to smile and say, “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” because some conversations are just too much work. Jesus dives right in, to take advantage of a teachable moment.
He makes it clear that the Sadducees are starting with a false understanding of resurrection. Their question doesn’t make sense, because life with God in the resurrection will not be like this life. Jesus tells them, and all his listeners – Life in the resurrection will be something new. There will not be marriage as we know it now. Resurrection is not a continuation of this life, with it’s social constructs and inequalities and imperfect solutions.
Life in God, in the resurrection, will be something completely new and unimagined. This past week I attended a conference on the topic of aging and loss. As clergy of the DRG, we faced head on the reality that life is full of loss, change and grief. That is not something I need to tell you. I know some of the grief and loss that many of you are facing. Others are facing struggles this community knows nothing about. Loss and grief are no strangers to any of us in this room, and the changes that come with aging eventually challenge us all.
We have all been in this place in our lives, probably more than once – when what we have known is no longer possible, and we face an unknown future. We have lost something precious. Or, life has changed within and around us until we don’t know just where we are or where to go.
The conference speaker – Harold Ivan Smith - reminded us that those who come through such transitions well are the ones who look forward to what is next.
Our ability to look ahead to an unknown future, to imagine something not yet experienced, is one of the gifts of our humanity.
It is important for us to find a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives – to look for new possibilities when we find ourselves in new places.
He offered questions to explore when we find ourselves in uncharted territory:
What am I now free to be?
What am I now free to do?
What have I always wanted to do?
What is my unique contribution to the world?
And my favorite – do I believe that my life comes to me as a gift and that there is in me a terrific thing? It may sound simple, but it is never easy – and the more profound the loss or change, the more difficult it may be to see a new future.
But as Christians, we carry two things into our uncharted lands. The first is the knowledge that we are not alone. We face our loss with Jesus at our side, walking with us through all of our dark valleys. And we have a community of faith, a community to walk with us, pray for us, even believe for us on the days we can no longer believe.
Our culture tells us to be strong – to pull ourselves up by our boot straps and get on with it.
Our faith reminds us that none of us is alone, that we are all loved and held by a God who never leaves us and a community that, however imperfectly, mirrors that love to us.
The second thing we know is that we follow a God of resurrection – of hope – of new life after death.
Do we believe that our lives – and our life together – are a gift from God? Our God is the one who is able to accomplish within us and through us far more than we can ask or imagine.
Do we believe that our lives have meaning and purpose? Our God is the one who came to earth to show us the way to live life with abundance by loving and serving one another.
Do we believe that God is ready to do a new thing, with us and in us, even when we can’t yet see what that thing will be? Our God is the Holy One who says, “See, I am making all things new.”