Thursday, November 14, 2013

Obeying God

Scripture for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost includes Haggai 1:15b-2:9; II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

That Gospel is no more about marrying than the Garden of Eden story is about gardening, or Jonah and the whale about fishing.

But, just like those other stories, this one is about obedience. What is required, to obey God? Adam and Eve flunked that quiz— Jonah, too, just couldn’t get the hang of it—both old stories declaring it’s indeed a very old story that we human beings find obedience to God a mighty challenge.

Adam and Eve refused to believe that God would put them in such a lush garden only to tell them that some of that luscious fruit right within their reach wasn’t for them. What kind of God would that be?

Old Jonah refused to believe that God would send him, a bona fide Hebrew prophet, to preach repentance to those heathen in Nineveh—as if God would give a fig for anyone but the chosen people. What kind of God would that be?

So there’s a good question worth asking: What kind of God are we called to obey?

The Gospel writers keep calling out onto center stage the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees, religious types straight from the central casting department of established religion. They’re called out to blurt out bad answers, and to tease out good answers, to that question, What kind of God do we have?

A wonderful thing about these characters is this: once you get beyond their first-century religious chatter, their attitudes are easily recognized as timeless and universal. These are Jews, but these are also Episcopalians and Methodists, Eastern Orthodox and Southern Baptists—and while I’m not on firm ground saying this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are also Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. They represent what people do in response to the call to obey God: We find varying ways to attempt obedience, then we grow so attached to those ways that we take issue with others and with how they attempt obedience. We come apart over it, fracturing the bonds of unity. We wield our diverse viewpoints and practices as if they were weapons of war, not tools to build a kingdom of God.

It’s against a background of religious controversy, denominational rivalry, and sectarian violence that the question becomes urgent: What kind of God are we trying to obey?

In today’s installment from Luke, the spotlight is on the Sadducees. Their position was that there is no resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees, by contrast, affirmed resurrection. Before there was such a belief, Israel believed that one lives on in one’s children and in their memory. That was the old time religion, and that’s what the Sadducees believed.

What they do in their questioning of Jesus is to try to push belief in the resurrection right into the realm of absurdity. They try to make it seem ridiculous.

The thing is, from what little we know about the Sadducees, we see that the writings they held sacred were the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, the Law of Moses. It is into that ancient code that they reach now to ridicule resurrection. They dredge up a provision from the Book of Deuteronomy, directing that if a man were to die without children, his brother was obligated to take the widow as his wife and have children by her. When this cumbersome system worked, it ensured the perpetuation of property within the immediate family and provided security for the brother’s widow. This law expressed the old-time religion’s belief that we live on through our children.

So these Sadducees ridicule their own belief, as they slash and burn the doctrine of their rivals. (This is where the devil loves to get in and work mischief.) There’s something awfully ironic about this, isn’t there? The law on which they base their conundrum was meant to protect widows; instead, their attitude demeans the widow, treating her as property, a pawn on a patriarchal chess board. That all this is triggered by an odd case study in marriage makes the net result feel all the more, well, ironic.

It’s not a bad instinct, to turn to marriage for an answer to the question, What kind of God are we obeying? Read the prophets and see how the relationship between God and Israel is described as a marriage. And if there is one spiritual value that dominates the Hebrew Bible’s vision of God, it is “hesed”, faithful lovingkindness. That is God’s chief attribute, the key to Jewish theology, Jewish ethics, and Jewish tradition. Isn’t that the missing ingredient in the Sadducees case study?

When the officiant in an Episcopal liturgy addresses the congregation gathered to celebrate and bless the marriage of a couple, he or she declares that holy matrimony “signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.” And there’s more: Holy Matrimony is intended by God for the couple’s mutual joy. Other purposes are intended: help and comfort, nurturing of children… but the first is joy. And that is for sure a missing ingredient in our kinky case today. Which makes one wonder if faithful lovingkindess and joy aren’t closely related.

“So that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” insists the apostle in his letter today; that’s the purpose of obedience, that’s why to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us.”

The faithful lovingkindness that is God’s “hesed” carries people through crisis. The prophet Haggai reports the promise of God, “For I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear… Not even when I shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land, and all the nations…”, yet more proof that the prophets watch the same evening news that you and I watch. And yearn for the same just peace.

Opposing that justice, defiling that peace, breaking faith, destroying trust, fracturing unity, is the attitude that people can belong to anyone other than God. Jesus answers the cynicism of the Sadducees by declaring that no one but God can own this widow. And what does it mean to own? To hold in faithful lovingkindness.

Students of the origin of words tell us that at the root of “obey” is a Latin verb “to hear”. To obey the God of “hesed” is to hear the Spirit who abides among us wherever hesed is practiced, the Spirit that renders fear unnecessary. Freed from fear, we obey by hearing and welcoming God’s claim upon us in faithful lovingkindness, God’s call to consider and do what such love invites, what such love requires, and to delight in what such love gives