“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” ~Maya Angelou
27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “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. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but 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. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
The worst gridlock I ever got caught in was the evening that took 2 hours and 45 minutes to get from the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown to the Bay Bridge, a distance of 13 blocks. This was in the mid 90’s. And I am reminded of the only time in all my years of ministry that I was late to a wedding. I left Chinatown and on my way to officiating the wedding, I got stuck in the Annual Folsom Street Fair. As all of us living in the Bay Area know, traffic gridlock has become the new normal. Gridlock, no-win situations, occur in other intersections of life as well, and not just on our city streets. You are stuck in a no-win situation when welfare pays better than a minimum wage job, after child-care expenses. You are stuck in a no-win situation when you can’t afford to marry the person you love because you will lose the benefits you are receiving. You are caught in a no-win situation when you, a starting quarterback for the 49ers, kneel during the singing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice and systemic oppression, resulting in unemployment for the past 2 years. You are stuck in a no-win situation when you, an Asian American who has benefited from Affirmative Action, are faced with a situation where your son or daughter is denied admission to Harvard even though their GPA and SAT scores are way higher than the African and Latino American students who have been admitted.
In todays gospel reading, the Sadduccees were setting Jesus up in a no-win situation. The Sadduccees perceived Jesus as a threat and came at him with entrapment questions to challenge his authority. The Sadduccees ask Jesus about the resurrection but don’t get what Jesus is talking about. They don’t really want to get it; they just want to debate him and try to show him up, embarrass him in front of the crowd. They posed a question in terms of a hypothetical woman, married to a succession of seven short-lived brothers, all of whom who try valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to bear a son by her. The woman dies. “So tell us”, they ask Jesus, “who gets her in the resurrection”? The Sadduccees want Jesus to tell them whose wife the widow will be in the resurrection. The Sadduccees’ question is based on a type of marriage known as Levirate Marriage, practiced by societies with a strong clan structure in which marriage outside the clan was forbidden. The term levirate is itself derivative of the Latin word Levir meaning “husband’s brother.” So the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow. Levirate marriage can be a positive in a society where women must rely on men to provide for them. The practice of levirate marriage is strongly associated with patriarchal societies where women are under the authority of, dependent on, in servitude to or regarded as possessions of their husbands.
It is a good law, well-intended, to provide security for Jewish widows in patriarchal societies. But the Sadduccees were not at all concerned about that law and even less concerned about the need of widows. The Sadduccees were out to trap Jesus and to get him in trouble by setting him up in a no-win argument. The Sadduccees wanted Jesus to tell them who would care for the widow after she died, in the resurrection, in light of the fact she had been widowed 7 times and died childless.
It was a trick question because the Sadduccees didn’t even believe in the resurrection! Their belief system was set, fixed, and the idea of resurrection had no place in their theology. Their real interest was to embarrass Jesus and to prove their case of how ridiculous the idea of resurrection was. This kind of questioning is similar to the way candidates for ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament are sometimes tested on the floor of Presbytery. There was a time when candidates who answered yes to the ordination of LGBTQ candidates or to performing same-sex weddings would be denied ordination themselves.
Jesus sees through the Sadduccees’ trickery and seizes the opportunity to give an answer that we all need to hear. Jesus says, “Get out of your old-world way of thinking. The resurrection is a new way in a new world. Unjust social arrangements—in which women have no hope, no standing and no safety net unless they are married—will pass away! The age to come will be a whole new way of life that you cannot even begin to comprehend.” In the new realm of God, security is to be found in God, not one’s mate or one’s progeny. Remember that for Jesus, brothers and sisters, and even mother, is to be found in the community of faith. Resurrection speaks to the question of justice. Resurrection of the dead helps make sense of the complexity and messiness of this life. The Sadduccees, as members of a wealthy sector of society, found sufficient security in this life. Their vision of God was bound by the benefits and privileges they enjoyed. They took to heart that wealth was a sign of blessing. Thus, this life was enough. But what about those who have not been so blessed in this life? Where do they find ultimate justice? We don’t even know the name of the woman in today’s story. Without children, the woman bears no significance and so she is nameless. Jesus answers and exposes the holes and limitations in the cultural expectations in this particular age, such as marriage. This is dead thinking. God is God not of the dead, but of the living. God is about something much, much more. Resurrection means living on even though circumstances should not allow it to be so. The question of who a socially disadvantaged person “belongs to” itself belongs to this age. And it misses the miracle of resurrection. The nameless woman in the story dies, claimed by no one. Her resurrection does not rely on these men. Resurrection is about how everyone is claimed by God.
The Roman Catholic Church today is beset with serious problems. Among them is that not enough men want to be priests. The shortage of priests has reached crisis proportions. On October 26, in a revolutionary decision, the bishops gathered at the Vatican voted 128 to 41 to allow an exception to what has essentially been a 1,000 year ban on the ordination of married men as priests. In their solution, there was never a consideration given to the role of women. In the June issue of the Atlantic, James Carroll, a Catholic priest from 1969 to 1974, wrote a scathing article titled: “Abolish the Priesthood—to save the Catholic Church, return it to the people.” He left the priesthood because of clericalism which he described as the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy—a caste system, operating with a cult of secrecy, theological misogyny, sexual repressiveness, and hierarchical power based on the threat of a doom-laden afterlife. To save the Catholic Church, Carroll issues a call for equality for women as office-holders in the Church. He writes:“Transformation means yes to female sexual autonomy, no to male-dominance; yes to married clergy, no to double standards; yes to contraception and to full acceptance of homosexuals, no to the sovereign authority of clerics.” That is resurrection thinking.
In last Tuesday’s (November 5, 2019) Science Section of The NY Times, Jane Brody wrote a column titled, Making Meaning Out of Grief. She introduced the author David Kessler and his new book, “Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief”. David Kessler, a grief expert who himself needed to find meaning after the sudden death of his 21-year old son, writes that “meaning comes through the finding a way to sustain your love for the person after their death while you’re moving forward with your life. Loss is simply what happens to you in life. Meaning is what you make happen.” After the death of his son, Kessler writes: “I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t stop at acceptance. There had to be something more. That ‘more’, he concluded, is meaning.” He calls it “the sixth stage of grief, the stage where the healing often resides.” For Mr. Kessler, he strives to keep others from dying of an accidental drug overdose like the one that killed his son. Some find meaning from recalling fond memories of the loved ones they lost like the eloquent eulogy Mary Ann Berthoud’s husband, Philippe, delivered at her memorial service. For Jane Brody as a 16 year old, she found meaning in visiting her mother in the hospital every afternoon after school and being by her side when she took her last breath. Many families take great comfort in being able to donate organs of their deceased loved ones to save the lives of others. Resurrection is about finding meaning.
We are Easter people, people of the resurrection, people of hope. We gather weekly on the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. And that means that we believe God can do miracles with our lives and that we can find meaning even in death. In last Tuesday’s Chronicle, sports columnist Scott Ostler (November 5, 2019), wrote this story about Colin Kaepernick. “Two Sundays ago, while the NFL games were in progress, Colin Kaepernick strolled through a homeless tent city in Oakland. He handed out backpacks filled with snacks and personal supplies. He brought in a food truck. Kaepernick’s visit to Oakland got zero media attention because he didn’t want any. Thanks to the NFL who has exiled Kaepernick from professional football, the onetime hero to 49ers fans has become a folk hero to the folks who have few heroes. That is resurrection! We believe that God can transform hatred to love, vengeance to forgiveness, exploitation to justice, war to peace.