A guest sermon preached November 10, 2013, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Madison.
Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton. I serve as chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal campus ministry just down the road at UW-Madison. It is wonderful to be with you this morning. I need to tell you, first off, how grateful I am for the friendship of the community at St. Luke’s: for Mother Paula, Diane Brown (who serves on the SFH board), and the many of you whose lives have touched us at St. Francis House, and perhaps been touched by St. Francis House, too, through the years. One thing I’ve learned in my first year-plus at SFH is that, when St. Luke’s brings the dinner, you better not miss. Table cloths, candlelight. Y’all bring a culinary experience. And so, this morning, I bring the thanks of many happy bellies filled. And I thank you for the invitation to worship the living God with you today.
I must confess, this morning’s gospel seems like a strange one to invite a campus minister to preach. Strange because it’s about marriage and resurrection, and I work mainly with students, young adults who aren’t married and can’t imagine themselves dead.
But you do not need to be married or dead, I think, in order to appreciate what the Sadducees are up to with Jesus today. Hint: it’s a trap. Like this one time in confirmation class when a bold youth stood up and interrupted the priest to ask a question. He said, “Suppose a green dragon - no, Godzilla - ambles into the confessional one day. Godzilla tells you that he’s gonna destroy the whole of New York City. Tomorrow. Eat every last person. This is his confession. You, as the priest, aren’t supposed to tell, are you? What’s the word - confidentiality? So the monster makes clear he’s gonna eat ‘em all. In the next twenty-four hours. You’re the only one who knows. So here’s the question: would you rat out Godzilla, or not?” The rest of us, twelve-year-olds in the class, sat there, utterly mesmerized by theological eloquence of the questioner. But none of us for a second believed the question was sincere.
This is the Sadducee's Godzilla question. Two helpful things to know about the Sadducees’ trap is that Sadducees 1) don’t believe in resurrection, and 2) only count the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture as authoritative. So the Sadducees are true to form today when they quote a law from those first five books (because that’s all they quote) to make the idea of resurrection look silly. That’s the setup. Marriage just happens to be the poor, unsuspecting sap the Sadducees use to make their point.
So this guy and this gal marry, the Sadducees say, have no kids; he dies. His brother, following the law, marries the woman, “for his brother,” but they have no kids, either; he dies. And on and on. Seven times. Then comes the sneaky question, probably not a new one to Jesus, “In the ‘resurrection,’ therefore” - wink, wink - “whose wife will the woman be?”
Now, before we go on, let’s say it out loud: the gist of the Sadducees’ question - to whom will the woman belong? - makes us cringe. (1) It is hard enough for us to process the unthinkable separation death presents to married persons without also having to navigate an ancient understanding of marriage in which the woman functions just a half-step above property. To make things worse, the law the Sadducees cite is clear that the brothers’ obligation to marry the woman is less about the provision of and care for the new widow, even as property, and more about providing an heir for the deceased brother, presumably a son who will carry on the family name. What a mess.
Jesus speaks his answer: “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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
Lots of things in Jesus’ answer on which one might comment, but I want to point out just one, what seems to be the central shift Jesus introduces to the imagination of the Sadducees. Remember that the law that required the brothers to marry the widow each time was intended to give the first brother an heir, a child. So the shift Jesus introduces to the Sadducees is aimed at the single word, “children.” For the Sadducees, who don’t believe in resurrection, the only hope left is having children. For Jesus, who elsewhere calls himself the resurrection, true hope rests in becoming children. Having. Becoming. That’s the shift at work in the assurance when Jesus says “…they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
Take a moment to feel the relief of that shift, as women are no longer measured simply by their ability to bear children for men. Feel the relief of that shift, as “having children becomes a vocation for some, rather than an obligation or a necessity for everyone.”(2) Feel the relief in the knowledge that imbalanced structures of power over and property do not, finally in the end, hold back the Kingdom of God in its fullness.
Jesus invites the Sadducees, and us, into the impossible possibility that resurrection makes children, even of the childless; that resurrection gives hope, even to those who have failed the hopes they had had for themselves and those whom life has unfairly disappointed. Jesus invites the Sadducees, and us, to receive the salvation that we could not and cannot make for ourselves, but which comes, in God’s mercy, as gift.
The Sadducees knew that, in the absence of resurrection, the only hopes worth having were the ones they had a hand in. Not unlike them, when we forget we walk as children in God’s sight, in resurrection light, even good Christians will live lives of what one theologian calls “practical atheism,” as we anxiously occupy ourselves with projects that can take or leave the presence and action of God. It’s a kind of self-protection. A kind of insurance against the possibility of God’s not showing up.
It is a difficult thing to be asked to need God. Easier to direct our distracted energies toward ambitions that would keep us from becoming too vulnerable. Easier to seek out achievements of wealth, status, and success by which a we might be remembered as good people who made a difference and left a mark for the better. The general term for all of these pursuits is what we call “legacy.”
And while none of these things are of themselves bad, the words of the psalmist echo over the emptiness of those who spent their lives trusting in these things: “The horse is a vain hope for deliverance,” sings the psalmist. “For all its strength it cannot save.”
Anglican priest and theologian Sam Wells writes that, “There is no human survival after death. Instead there is real death and astonishing resurrection. And in every case that resurrection is not our human achievement but the gift of a gracious God.”
This morning, I wonder if you can imagine what the Sadducees could not: a gift that transcends even your ability to produce or control it. A gift you don’t have a hand in. I wonder if you can imagine a gift that extends beyond your known limitations and failures. Failures of the past and limitations of your future. I wonder how it feels for you to rest - rest - in the promise that the most important title you could ever hope to earn in this life is already yours: child of God.
Humor me for a moment, and close your eyes and picture these words. Child. Of. God.
You are God’s child. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, death’s hold on you is ended. You are God’s child; you have been given all that you need to make a home in the generous waters of mercy, love, forgiveness, and peace. You are God’s child.
You can open your eyes.
And hear God’s reminder that, together, we are God’s children, for whom, through our Lord, death has been defeated. We are God’s children, set free from our debilitating attempts to save ourselves, and so we have become a people who can love one another and strangers without hesitation, reservation, or fear.
To live like a child may seem daunting, especially in the trust required to believe it’s true. But take heart. You are loved. God’s child is who you are.
(1) It should be noted that the marriage liturgy of our own prayer book allows for a woman to be, alternatively, presented or given away, usually by her father, reminding us that the idea of women as property, implicit in the Sadducee’s question, is not as historically distant from us as we might like to imagine.