Thursday, March 03, 2005

A sermon for Lent

As I have mentioned before, now and then I've preached a sermon at our church. Doing a sermon is the most challenging sort of writing and speaking that I have ever done, by far, no contest. A paper or a lecture on quantum mechanics is easy by comparison. To do a sermon right, you have to dig right down to the bottom and discover what you really believe to be true. Then you have to find a way to drag it back up to the surface without bending or breaking it, so that you can show it to everybody else. Then again, you have to realize that what you believe isn't the point at all. (Some echo of this process, perhaps, can be found in what follows.) You want to do a fine job and speak well, naturally. But you also know that, for every comment on how good a speaker you are or how nice it was, you have failed a little. For you have failed indeed if they've listened to you and not to the thing you were trying to say -- not to the Thing that was trying to be said through you.

This sermon was given in November of 2001, two months to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Yet I think it has a Lenten feel about it; and I hope you find in it some meat for your own reflections.

Getting real
(sermon preached at Harcourt Parish, November 11, 2001)

Even the most ordinary language has a kind of poetry to it, which we usually don't notice, because we are accustomed to it, or maybe because we are too busy talking to realize what we are saying. But even the commonest turns of phrase, which we have heard a thousand times, can be pithy and penetrating expressions. One of my favorites is to describe an issue as "a can of worms". You could hardly ask for a more vivid image: a tangled mass of wriggling, unpleasant complications, which you'd probably rather avoid altogether. A can of worms. Poetry, I'm telling you.

There is another phrase, even better, that we sometimes use as a response in certain situations. If someone is making a ridiculous argument or dwelling on trivialities, we want to shake them out of their foolish concerns, and turn their attention to more serious matters. We say to them: "Get real."

That is a phrase that I could imagine Jesus using – particularly when, as in today's Gospel, he is faced with a group of religious leaders who are trying to entrap him with some clever theological conundrum. Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Is it right to heal a man on the Sabbath day? Get real!

Some say that our nation has been undergoing a process of getting real since the attacks on New York and Washington two months ago. This is a commonplace idea on the editorial pages, but I really think there may be something to it. Millions of Americans are rethinking their priorities. News stories that not long ago would have dominated the headlines are now relegated to that little moving line of text at the bottom of the cable news. Jokes that were funny and advertisements that were appealing last summer, no longer are. We are now in a war, with all of the terrible realities that war brings. And we are learning new truths – some surprising, many unpleasant – about the world and our place in it.

This process of getting real, that we now may see in our society, is of course all too familiar from our own lives. Many things may "wake us up": An appalling loss; an agonizing personal crisis; a sudden, unexpected accident; the grim diagnosis. So many things that we thought were terribly important, turn out to be of no account. So much that we took for granted, turns out to be the real substance of our lives.

You see as well as I do the common thread here. That thread is death. It is the nearness of the reality of death that calls us most insistently to abandon our fantasies and our frivolities. When the time comes to get real, therefore, it will be how we face death, and how we understand the meaning of death, that will make the difference.

Jesus is dealing with the Sadducees – not a very numerous group among the Jews of the 1st Century, but a very influential one. They tended to be priests and scribes, the educated elite of their day. The Sadducees only accepted as Scripture the books of Moses – the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis through Deuteronomy. The Psalms, the Prophets, and so on they rejected. And they also rejected what we might call the supernatural elements of the popular Judaism of the day. They did not believe in angels or demons, and they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. The Sadduccees believed that this present life was all there was, and that when you died, you were dead and that was that.

By all accounts, they were an irritating and argumentative bunch. (Later on, in the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul basically starts a riot between the Sadducees and the Pharisees on the high council of the Temple, just by bringing up the issue of the resurrection.) (Do you know anyone like that?) So when the Sadducees show up and try to discredit Jesus, they come armed with their best rabbinical arguments against a life after this one. They bring up a law in Deuteronomy about a man marrying his brother's childless widow, to produce an heir for his brother. To really make their point, they pose a situation in which seven brothers all marry the same woman, one after the other. In the next life, who is married to whom?

And here is Jesus's answer. You Sadducees don't understand anything. The new life, the resurrected life of the age to come, is not just an extension of this life, as you imagine. Those who are raised are children of God, the equals of the angels. They do not die anymore, and neither do they marry one another. So your whole question is ridiculous. Get real.

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I had better meet one issue head-on. I for one cannot read this passage without a little uneasiness. Perhaps people in unhappy marriages find Jesus's answer a source of comfort, but those of us in better circumstances do not. The Mormons, who are very family-oriented and who are (shall we say) not overly constrained by traditional Christian teaching, even have a different kind of marriage. If you are Mormon, you can be married "for time and eternity" – which means that you are still supposed to be married in heaven, and these words of Jesus don't apply to you. Frankly, that doctrine seems to me like a comfortable piece of fiction, and I believe that we must look elsewhere for real understanding.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we know so little about the new life that is promised to us, and so much of that knowledge is negative. We will be cleansed of our sinfulness, we will no longer be subject to death, and so on. All negative points. Unless we are careful, we will have a purely negative idea of the resurrected life. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:
I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer "No," he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality.
Negative knowledge only takes us so far. To understand the new life as a positive reality, to glimpse that torrent of love and knowledge and strength and joy which the resurrected life must bring, we must find a way to go deeper.

Having knocked a few holes in the argument given by the Sadducees, our Lord presents an argument of his own. When God appeared to Moses, Jesus reminds them, God said that he was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. But all of those patriarchs had died centuries before. God is not God of the dead, but of the living. To him, therefore, Abraham and all the rest are alive indeed.

He is God of the living. The sting of our Lord's argument is that this is exactly the sort of thing the Sadducees themselves might have said. What they would have meant was that when a creature dies, God no longer truly cares about it. But Jesus tells us that what God cares about cannot truly be dead. In short, the most real thing about us is God's relationship with us. The most real thing about Abraham was and is that God is the God of Abraham. And because of that, Abraham lives – not as some fond memory of the Creator, but with a life that is indeed more real than our own.

How could it be otherwise? For God, the theologians tell us, is the ground of all being. There is no other source of reality. In the end, what you and I are to God is exactly what we truly are. And what are we? We are people who are loved by God. That divine love is not some kind of generalized benevolence toward humankind, but a powerful and personal and particular love for each of us. It is a love that made us and gives us life from moment to moment, a love that saves us at a terrible cost from sin and death, a love that labors in us to make us more perfectly and eternally lovable.

So when the time comes in our lives to get real – and that time always is now – then we know where to begin. We begin at that place within us where God meets us, for that is where we ourselves are most truly real. And the more real we become, by his grace, the more of our lives that meeting-place will encompass. It is our business to learn to meet God in the whole of our lives. In the end, everything else will fade – ambition that does not serve him, knowledge that does not seek him, wisdom that does not honor him, joy that does not praise him, sorrow that is not shared with him. These things will die. Only what is real can be raised. Only what is loved can live.


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