Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Defining and Revering

Scripture appointed for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes Haggai 1:15b-2:9; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; and Luke 20:27-38

Those Sadducees irritate me. I can understand their need for rational religion, if that’s what caused them to argue that there is no resurrection. But when they construct a test case and build it out of the very belief they insist they don’t hold, they’re demeaning other people’s religion—as they do here, suggesting that belief in resurrection is absurd.

In this, they are like the anti-God writers today (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens) who tell their readers that only idiots believe in God.

Well, they have a point. The God they demolish in their books is a pretty silly cartoon of the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity. He is an old white man with a great long beard, alternately sappy and peevish, a figure like Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore in Harry Potter, but without his intelligence, his integrity, and his dry wit. The God Dawkins and Hitchens don’t believe in, I don’t either. They aim way too low, and write as if they haven’t read much theology.

In a like way, Sadducees and Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament all appear to have been trained in religious law, but to have no appetite for religious mystery. This encounter some of them have with Jesus today is just one more example of how narrow minds were persistent in the effort to trap Jesus, to catch him saying something that could be held against him in a court of law, or at least used against him as sound bytes in public debates and sabbath day sermons.

Don’t feel bad on Jesus’s behalf, however. He’s always up for a good theological brawl. And we’d never have heard of Saduccees and Pharisess and scribes if their presence in the Gospels didn’t advance the cause of Gospel-writers. These narrow legalistic minds are the perfect foils, sometimes just the right catalysts, for Jesus’s revelation of God.

The law mentioned by Sadducees today allowed a practice called levirate marriage, from the Latin “levir”, brother-in-law. Imagine a man who died without children. His brother was obligated by this law to take his brother’s wife and have children by her. Providing children in this way ensured the flow of property within the family, including security for the brother’s widow. You can find this law in chapter 25 of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, and while you might not be motivated to look that up, you might find it interesting to read what the consequences were if the brother-in-law refused.

But let’s get ourselves out of the first century and back to the present. What might we make of this Gospel?

You might say that this little case study shows how absurd it can be, in any culture, to define a person by her or his relationship to someone else.

“In the resurrection… whose wife will the woman be? For the seven brothers had married her.” And if you were acting this as a skit, that last line would go on to include, “Har, har har!” Which is another reason these Saduccees irritate us, as they demean this woman, and for that matter these several brothers-in-law.

But don’t we have our own struggles defining ourselves and our nearest and dearest? Possessiveness is one form of struggle, and we see it when spouses try to clip one another’s wings or undercut one another’s growth, and when parents fail to cut the strings they’ve attached to their growing children’s freedom (and sometimes when grown children collude and don’t want those strings cut).

Another form of struggle is ours when change redefines relationship. A married person is suddenly single because of the death of a partner. In another couple, each becomes gradually single through separation and divorce. We may react to the demeaning priorities of the Sadducees, but divorce in contemporary America creates custody battles that treat children as if they were property.

And if we’re cataloging changes, the Great Recession keeps them coming, rippling into the future, as lost jobs, lost homes, lost illusions, and lost luxuries redefine who people are. Shift up (or down) from economics to politics, and wonder how the elections of 2010 may redefine who we are as a nation. Or may not.

In common to many of our definings and our redefinings is that, deeper within us than all our gainings and all our losings, is the core of who we truly are. With the memory of last Sunday’s baptisms still fresh, let’s remember that there is no purer sense of that core identity than what we discover at the font, where we stand revealed as children of God, members of Christ’s Body, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God; where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever; and where we receive the astonishing call to grow into the full stature of Jesus Christ, with the help of all his people.

In the light of all that, hear a slightly tweaked version of what Jesus said to the Sadducees: “Those who belong to this age define who they are in terms of their relationship to husband or wife or parents or children, job or profession, schools attended, political party or religious affiliation—all those empty spaces you fill in on an application. But those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection—those who know they’ve been accepted and can stop filling out the application—they aren’t owned, except by God, and they aren’t afraid of change, because they’ve done their dying, realizing they can’t own anyone, can’t control the lives of others however near and dear, heck, can’t control their own lives, and instead choose to entrust themselves and all whom they love into the care and keeping and transforming love of God.”

You may have noticed that Jesus ends his encounter with the Sadducees by pivoting and sinking a shot from half-court.

“And the fact that the dead are raised is shown by Moses himself, the great law-giver, in the story about the bush. That would be the burning bush, and I’ll bet that story isn’t your favorite because it’s so, well, non-rational. But there Moses faced the sheer mystery of who God is, and how God calls a person to grow. Telling the story, Moses speaks of God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—not defining God in terms of a bunch of dead people, but revealing how the dead are alive to God.

“And just as important in that story: when Moses tries to get God to define God’s self with a name, God answers, “I am who I am.”

And that’s not a bad model of self-definition for us all.

It requires reverence in response to the sheer otherness of God. And the role that reverence plays in our love of God teaches us, invites us, to respect the distinct otherness of each person we love.

And to recognize our own: that each of us is other than the multiple ways we are defined by our relationships. And it is there, at our core, that we encounter God in prayer, in silence, in conscience, and in reflection on our actual experience as children of God who are called to grow, and to revere that inner life that has less to do with law, more with mystery and grace.