Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
November 7, 2004
Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Luke 20:27-38
Hag. 1:15b-2:9 …¶ In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, 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. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.
Luke 20:27-38 ¶ Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to himand asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the secondand the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
¶ Jesus said to them, “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. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
How many of you have ever read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It’s the story of a man named Arthur Dent, rescued from the Earth right before it was obliterated to make way for an interstellar highway and who begins a series of adventures with his friend Ford Prefect who he now discovers is actually a writer for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and is responsible for that publication’s entry about Earth: “Mostly harmless.” It’s a bizarre and remarkably funny story full of all kinds of strange diversions and random adventures.
At one point in the story, they describe a supercomputer that had been built millions of years ago designed to answer the question of “life, the universe, and everything.” When the computer had finished its millennia of calculations, it declared that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” was “42”. Needless to say, the scientists were perplexed by the answer. When they inquired of the computer what that meant, it responded that the question had been kind of vague. So they built another computer that worked for millennia on figuring out what the question was. When that computer was destroyed weeks before it was finished calculating—it turns out that the computer was the earth—they figured they’d just make up a question and settled upon: “How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man?”
It’s a silly story but it does speak to a certain truth: since our very beginnings we have been seeking answers. Whether it is to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything or questions like “Am I my brother’s keeper?” human existence has been marked by seeking the answers to questions.
You can see this in children all the time. Kids are always asking “why?” From the embarrassing questions in the supermarket like “Why is that lady’s hair blue?” to “How do the people fit inside the TV?” it is almost as if we are programmed in our genes to want answers.
We could almost see them building a computer to answer all the big questions of life. Hoping that in one great technological epiphany we could find the answers we’ve been seeking so long. It is part of our human nature to ask these questions. To want answers. It is no less true of matters of faith.
THE GOSPEL LESSON
In tonight’s New Testament lesson, we read about Jesus being asked a question by the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the aristocratic and priestly sect, allied with the temple authorities and sympathetic to Rome. A close reading of the gospels shows us that they are likely to have been the group that eventually turned Jesus over to the Romans, not the Pharisees. In fact, the Sadducees disagreed with the Pharisees on a number of important issues, not the least of which was the Resurrection of the Dead.
The Sadducees believed that once you were dead, you were dead. The Pharisees agreed, but believed that when the Messiah came, the dead would be raised to new life in a Resurrection of the Dead. The Sadducees understand that Jesus himself holds a belief in the Resurrection of the Dead and so they put a question to him about how that all works out.
In the Biblical law, if a man dies without an heir, it is his brother’s responsibility to marry his wife and provide the dead brother with an heir. The child that is born to the surviving brother and widow counts as the child of the deceased husband. This is called “levirate marriage” and was known throughout the ancient world.
The Sadducees pose a question in which a woman’s husband dies and she marries the next oldest brother. That man, too, dies without producing an heir, and so the woman marries the next sibling. And so on. She winds up married to all seven brothers before she herself dies. The Sadducees ask, in the Resurrection whose wife will she be?
Now, the question here is meant to make mock of Jesus’ and the Pharisees’ beliefs. The question is really trying to point out how silly the idea of the Resurrection of the Dead is. But Jesus does not let that deter him. Jesus answers by noting that their presuppositions are all wrong. He notes that in the Resurrection there will be no need for a human institution like marriage or for producing heirs. That life is sufficiently different that applying human ideas and institutions to it makes no sense. He then provides a rabbinic proof of the resurrection by referring to the Exodus story and the identification of God as a God of the living and not of the dead.
Jesus got asked a tough question. But, in reality, the only questions worth asking are tough questions. That doesn’t mean we enjoy hearing them. Watching the presidential debates, you could see the sighs of relief on both Sen. Kerry and President Bush when Charles Gibson asked them to talk about the strong women in their lives. Finally, a question not about foreign policy, terrorism, abortion, gay marriage, the economy. You could see them relax. The problem is, no one votes for a candidate based on what they think about the strong women in their lives. Just as no one votes for a candidate because they support motherhood and apple pie. We all know that it’s the answers to the tough questions that matter.
This is no less true for us, even though we are not the leaders of the free world. We, too, have difficult questions to answer:
- How does one reconcile a Christian’s duty to respect life along with respecting the free will and rights of women?
- How does a Christian reconcile Jesus’ call to ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘put away your sword’ with the need to defend justice and the rights of the oppressed—sometimes by force?
- How does a Christian reconcile the overwhelming ethic of love and inclusiveness found in the Bible with some of the words in the Bible?
- Given God’s preferential option for the poor as expressed in Scripture, what is the proper Christian attitude toward wealth?
- How does a Christian deal with the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations and yet treat with respect and dignity those who are members of another faith and are themselves made in the image of God?
- To what degree should a Christian allow loyalty to a particular nation or state to influence their decision making? Are we American Christians or Christian Americans?
- What is the proper intersection of Christian faith with political involvement? On what issues?
In a few minutes, our brother Colin is going to stand up here and answer some questions as part of his entry into membership in the church. I am sure that he’s glad that he doesn’t have to answer any of the questions I just posed. Quite the contrary, the questions that he’ll have to answer can be answered with a simple “I do” or “I will.” The questions that I posed above cannot be answered so simply.
Jesus got asked a tough question and it’s fair to say that he does not provide a simple answer. It is an answer that still has to be wrestled with. Our Christian faith is not about finding the simple answers to tough questions, it’s about struggling with the questions. Wrestling with them. Working through answers that involve a considerable amount of guesswork and gray.
It is one of the things that annoys me about all the “What Would Jesus Do?” wristbands, t-shirts, etc. It’s not that it’s a bad question to ask, it isn’t. But it almost presumes that we can know with great certainty what the answer would be. There are questions it doesn’t make any sense to ask that way: “Would Jesus take the parkway or Connecticut Avenue?” “Would Jesus trade Jorge Posada for Randy Johnson?” Those become nonsensical.
And there are quite simply questions that Jesus never faced or was asked. Questions about welfare reform, gay marriage, stem cell research: no one got around to asking these questions of Jesus. We don’t actually know what his answers would have been. We have to struggle with it.
FAITH AND MYSTERY
It is a reminder to us that our faith cannot be reduced to simple equations or formulae. Jesus himself, in his answer to the Sadducees reminds us that very often our presumptions about the questions can be wrong. The answers are never as simple as we would like them to be. The answer is almost never going to be yes or no, almost never going to be “42”.
We live in a rationalist world. In a place and time dominated by technology and binary thinking: 1 or 0. Yes or no. Black or white. Our faith is not that way. Our faith defies such simplification. At the core of our Christian faith is a belief in a God who is three and one. An indivisible God who is known to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. Each distinct from the other yet one God. That’s a really hard thing to work out simply. And it should be.
Our faith requires a tolerance for ambiguity. A willingness to believe in yes and no at the same time. A willingness to hold things in tension. A willingness to embrace mystery.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery” says Paul to the Corinthians. Our faith is mysterious—not in the sense that it is secretive, but in the sense that it contains wonders that we may not be able to fully grasp. It contains questions that can never be simply answered. It contains truths that have to be held in tension with other truths.
It is that mystery that we partake in during the Eucharist, in which we claim that Christ is present in the meal. How? We don’t know. In the hymn “O the Depth of Love Divine” Charles Wesley writes:
“Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts,
how the wine transmits his blood,
fills his faithful people’s hearts
with all the life of God!…
Sure and real is the grace,
the manner be unknown;
only meet us in thy ways,
and perfect us in one.
Let us taste the heavenly powers,
Lord, we ask for nothing more.
Thine to bless, ‘tis only ours
to wonder and adore.”
There are a lot of places out there that will tell you they have all the answers. Just join up with them and they’ll tell them to you. This community is not one of them. We can’t tell you we’ve got all the answers. But we can ask the questions, struggling with the answers, together.
Sometimes there’s a tendency to think that people who dress like me and stand in pulpits like this have all the answers. We don’t. And don’t ever believe us if we say we do. There are all kinds of questions I struggle with. All kinds of questions of God’s justice that I want answered. Things that I cannot even begin to understand. Why does God allow the wicked to live on to old age and prosper and the righteous suffer?
And there is one more thing. Another question that defies easy answers. Why should a God whose omnipotence knows no bounds, who is master of the cosmos, trillions of galaxies spanning distances so vast we can only refer to them as infinity—why should such a God care about any of us, least of all me? There is no simple answer to that question. There is no good reason that I can think of. There is certainly nothing that I have done to merit that kind of attention and love. Certainly plenty of things I have done to merit being ignored. It, like so many other things, is a mystery.
I cannot tell you why God loves us, only that he does. The Cross and the Empty Tomb proved that. We know that God loves us. We know that God graciously offers life and eternal life to us without price. We know that God walks with us in our times of doubt and despair. We may not know why, we may lack the easy answer. But, the knowledge of that should be sufficient for us as we grapple with the difficult questions of life and faith.