I Believe! Pentecost 22

I Believe! Pentecost 22

Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost: November 10, 2019

Year C, Proper 27: Haggai 1:15b-2:9;  Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

At the time of posting, there was no audio recording of this sermon.

In today’s gospel story Jesus replies to a difficult question with a difficult answer and one that we might not immediately understand. He’s given a sort of riddle about a woman who marries seven times – and just not seven times, but to seven brothers, in succession. Each brother dies, leaving her a widow. And the Sadducees, who are among Jesus’ critics, want to know: “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”

Well, let me tell you first the interesting thing about Jesus’ answer. The Sadducees are basically equating the woman in this story to the way women have historically been viewed: as property to be passed along from one brother to the next. Jesus isn’t having any of that. He says to them in essence that this woman isn’t anyone’s property. She is a beloved child of God. That’s what he means when he 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.”[1]

Here’s the thing. The Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection, and they are trying to mock Jesus – to show how unrealistic an idea eternal life is. They are trying to demonstrate that a thing we hold dear in this life, the covenant and bond of marriage, makes no sense in the next life. The Sadducees are trying to depict Jesus in a way that we might refer to today as a sham healer and snake handler—a fraud whose fundamental claims just don’t make any sense.

Context, I often say, is everything. So, let’s think about the 21st-century context of some fundamental claims of scripture.

We didn’t hear this in today’s scripture, but we know that two fundamental claims are to love God and love your neighbor. That’s fundamental, right? But much of our world is obsessed with power, prestige, wealth, control and “who’s right, we’re right, we’re always right”. It’s about control.

Well if we admit to the existence of God, then we have to acknowledge that the things we have are simply lent to us for a time. But the culture we live in says this is my home, my money, my whatever. One of my nieces as a toddler always started a sentence with “mines”. “Mines.” That’s typical of a toddler. The problem is that in society a lot of people keep that ethos for decades and cling to it. There’s also I can do with what is mine whatever I want, whenever I want. Sound familiar?

If we acknowledge the existence of God, then we might have to acknowledge that we are not in control, that we’re not the ultimate judge, and we’re not the great power of the universe. But the world says otherwise. Our society is full of people who insist on their own way. It happens at the simplest levels of human interaction, and it happens at the highest levels of government and industry. I’m here to tell you it even happens in church.

And what about loving God and loving our neighbor? Our society doesn’t always uphold this, does it?

Then there’s this idea of eternal life – a silly and unworkable idea according to the Sadducees. The problem is that the Sadducees – and often we – have failed to imagine eternal life as something we will actually like or conversely it is something we want, but we want it here on earth, right now. So, instead, we pursue eternal life here on earth. We have people who tell us that we’ll eventually live to age 150 or 200. No thank you. My grandmother lived a wonderful life to age 92. After age 90 she would tell us she’d had a good life and that was enough.

And think about what is promised to us is in eternal life: ineffable joys, never-failing care, the strength of God’s presence, rejoicing in eternal glory, being received into the arms of mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and being reunited with those who have gone before in the paradise of God, those people who we celebrated on all Saints’ Day. Sign me up. That’s why I hope that at every funeral Beckford Parish celebrates, people leave knowing that eternal life is a life of joy.

We don’t know everything. That may be a shock to some. What we do know as Saint Paul tells us in today’s epistle is that “God chose you [God chose us] as the first fruits for salvation.”[2] And how is it that we come to believe in what the Sadducees would tell is not real?

You’ve heard perhaps of the six degrees of separation concept, which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart. Here’s a story that is one degree of separation, about two people who are friends of a friend. And it’s a story about belief.[3]

Alice is a priest, and some fifteen years ago, a seminarian named Bill spent a summer assisting in her parish. The first time he served Communion to Alice, she looked him right in the eye and said, “I believe!”

He was stunned. He was taught as some were to never look anyone in the eye at Communion. And the Prayer Book clearly states that an appropriate response to “The Body of Christ” is a polite and reverent “Amen,” not “I believe” delivered with an almost evangelical fervor. Bill was interested that she said that each and every time she received communion.

Finally, Bill mustered up his courage and asked her, “Mother Alice, why do you say ‘I believe’ when you receive Communion?”

“I started that a long time ago,” she told him. “It was a time of questioning and doubt for me. I couldn’t be sure there even was a God. And I wanted to know.” Alice wanted to be certain. Actually, she wanted to be in control. And she figured the only way to get there was to as we say, ‘fake it till you make it.’ So it made sense to her one day to just started saying “I believe.” She admitted that what she really meant was ‘I’d like to believe,’ ‘I think I’m considering believing’, ‘show me how to believe,’ ‘improve my belief,’ and even “help my unbelief.” And one day she realized that she really did believe. She still had questions. She still had doubts. And a whole lot of still continued to not make much sense, but she believed.

Alice’s witness, her story, is a powerful one. It shows us how we can stand up to the powers that be in this society of ours, how we can continue to show another way to the world. Because we too can be witnesses to the power of God’s love and growing belief.

On Friday night I got to spend quite a bit of time with one of my seminary professors. If you turn the pages of your hymnals, you’ll find David Hurd’s name throughout. He was the professor of church music and is world-renowned as a prolific hymn composer and organist. He was in Winchester to do what he loves: teach.

When I got home it put me in mind of another November 8 exactly eight years earlier. I was reminded of a seminarian who had been upheld that day as a beloved child of God when two of David Hurd’s colleagues helped a seminarian who had blown an exam – completely overlooked an entire one-third of an exam, a seminarian who wasn’t prepared to preach in that afternoon’s preaching class. A seminarian who was struggling with unbelief. A seminarian those professors could have easily failed for being unprepared because really that’s what school is all about: show up and be prepared.

But they didn’t do that. One professor allowed the seminarian to finish the part of the exam that had been overlooked. “Hand it in by tomorrow noon”, he said. The other quietly changed the afternoon’s class schedule and rescheduled the preaching date without ever telling anyone else why.

Those professors were not measuring that seminarian by the world’s measure or even academic standards that day, but by God’s measure. It’s a powerful reminder that God is real, full of compassion and kindness as we heard in our opening hymn.[4]

I hope you are shown the way of love. The way of truth. The way of hope. When has it happened in your life? Sometimes, we have to look for it and other times it is right before us. We have to be open to it. And if you have not experienced in any other place, then I pray that love, that truth, that hope happens here in this place. We need to be that place for each other and show the world that way.

We come to God’s table with our brothers and sisters – with our empty hands extended to receive what God has to give us. We receive the Body of Christ. We believe.

Remember that our journey of faith is not one lived without doubt or questions or struggles. The life of a Christian, indeed any person of faith, is not one without trial or adversity. Think of the lives of the faithful in the times of the prophet Haggai we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning. Those times were troubled. The Temple had been torn down and was being rebuilt. Haggai challenges Israel to remain faithful to God and rebuild the Temple.

Also remember that our doubts, our struggles, our adversity can lead to a wondrous declaration like Mother Alice’s, “I believe”!

Remember the words of our gradual hymn. “Just as I am”.[5] Just as I am. I believe. I come.

[1] Luke 20:34-35, NRSV

[2] 2 Thessalonians 2:13, NRSV

[3] Cf. J. Barrington Bates, “The Way of Truth, Hope and Love”, November 9, 2013.

[4] Richard Mant, “God, my King” (No. 414, v. 5). Episcopal Church. The Hymnal, 1982: Hymns: According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. New York: Church Hymnal Corp, 1985.

[5] Charlotte Elliott, “Just as I am” (No. 693). Episcopal Church. The Hymnal, 1982: Hymns: According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. New York: Church Hymnal Corp, 1985.

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