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Archive for November, 2016

When I was about seven, I was busily writing the “Further Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” stories, which my sister illustrated with crayon drawings. We’d sell our books on the sidewalk to whomever passed by us. Most children had a lemonade stand; I had a small publishing enterprise. Grown-ups would stop to look at the books and they would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I said, “I want to write stories and I want to tell stories.” They would say, “That’s nice.”

When I was twelve they began saying to me, “That’s a nice dream, but it’s too hard making a living writing stories” then off they’d go with a barrage of facts, making writing stories sound like an utterly ridiculous goal.

Invariably, they finished up by saying, “It’s nice to have big dreams, but you need to face the facts of life. You need to get a real job with a real income like everybody else. This is, after all, the 20th Century.”

The way they said it made it sound as if the mere fact of living in that century settled the issue for all time.  It was as though they agreed with Clifton Fadiman’s statement, “All of life is an earnest search for the right manila folder in which we get filed away.”  As if they lived in the grip of fatalism that believes everything is as it has always been and forever will be. As though life proceeds like clockwork. As if something need to have happened only a couple of times in the past three years for our minds to declare it “inevitable” and “irrevocable.” As if a leaf is green because it could be nothing else. The poor are poor because they are poor. Everything is as it is due to routine, predictability, and given enough time and government research grants, everything shall be explained and demystified.

“The world is as it is. It can’t be changed,” they seemed to be saying.

Yet, when I hear God speaking through the prophet Isaiah, “And a child shall lead them” I wonder why will it be that a child shall lead humanity into the incredible beauty of God’s vision for our lives that is poetically described by Isaiah? After all, children in the ancient near east and even today are among the most vulnerable and least powerful persons in a community. On their own, children do not create legislation, pass laws, or even have their voice taken seriously by those who do make laws. They depend upon others to keep them safe and provide for them. They depend upon adult leaders to lead them into lives of creativity and vitality.

On their own, children are often unable or at the very least find it difficult to protect themselves or their interests.  Just look at the news reports and magazine articles about child labor in India, Pakistan and throughout South Asia, not to mention the plight of children in refugee camps in Turkey, or the young girls sold as brides to men old enough to be their grandfathers.

So, why does God tell us through the prophet Isaiah, in God’s peaceable kingdom a child will be the leader?  What is it about a child that will make them the best choice for leadership?

Well, take a look at the painting of the peaceable kingdom. What is it that adults see? Do you see all the animals just hanging out together, predators and prey standing next to each other? Do you see their faces and do you detect the smiles on their faces as if the painter Edward Hicks said, “Now, everyone say cheese?”  Do you wonder why it is that they are smiling? Is it because the prey is no longer fearful? Or maybe they are calm because they are in a forest with such an abundance of water and plants to eat, that hunger isn’t an issue for any of the animals, so the predators have decided it’s good to be a vegan. Do you see the children in the painting? Why are they the age the painter has depicted? And, did you notice that one is a male and one is a female? Do you see the angel? Can you see far into the background and see William Penn, the Quaker, affirming a peace treaty with Delaware tribe? Yet, what does this have to do with the peaceable kingdom and Isaiah 11?

Well, let’s think about it through the eyes of a child. What does a child sees in this painting? Does the child see the peaceable kingdom as perhaps really the Garden of Eden? I wonder if children would see the picture divided between the animals’ peaceable kingdom and the humans’ peaceable kingdom? I wonder if children might see more than we see?

Several years ago, Tina and I and two of our children went to see the movie August Rush. It is a marvelous movie not only for the music that runs like a thread throughout the story connecting each of the people together and drawing them together, but also for the story of a young not quite twelve year old boy who hears music in all the sounds of the world around him whether he is standing in the middle of a corn field as the wind blows the stalks in amazing swirling and flowing patterns or he is standing in the middle of New York City listening to music being created by the interplay of car engines, horns, shoes scrapping across pavement, water bubbling in a fountain, and people’s voices echoing in the air of the city. Each of these is its own symphony playing notes of music that is his life, which is seeking the music of his long lost mother and father’s lives, so they might be reunited and made whole.

While no one believes him or understands him, the boy refuses to give up on this vision and he finds imaginative ways to make the music of his life spread far out into New York City knowing that his mother and father will hear it and be drawn to him.

Perhaps, that is the reason God chooses a child to lead humanity to the peaceable kingdom. Maybe, it is because children see life as amazing. A child makes no rigid distinction between the tales of wizards and fairies and the tales of historians. As G. K. Chesterton notes, there was a reason why Cinderella was younger than her ugly sisters. “A child“ ,he writes, ”of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon.”

I think this is the reason children picked up Harry Potter books and couldn’t put them down.  I think they became enmeshed and awed to wonder by a world that is beyond our predictable, everyday routine. Where there are brooms to ride in games played high above our heads, invisibility cloaks and maps that show people moving about a castle school where the pictures talk to you. At least, I know this is why I couldn’t put them down and will be re-reading them for years to come. The Harry Potter books and books about knights of the round tables, princes and princesses and others like them invite us to open our minds and imagine there is more to life than what we see.

In imaginative literature, music, plays and art, we are invited to look beyond the surface of life and see that a leaf is green for a reason that has nothing to do with rational science.

In many ways, Isaiah is, also, reminding us to look beyond the surface of this life to see that a leaf is green because God meant it to be. Every leaf that is green or red or yellow and not beige is so because of God’s choice. The world is something, which has been meant, designed, brought into being by God’s choice. And, it is here for our wonder, our surprise and our enjoyment. Even the repetition of cycles and routines is meant more for us to wonder about than to see them as dull and pointless. Maybe, we are supposed to be looking at the grass as a signal to us. Maybe the stars are trying to get us to understand some message they have for us, maybe the rising of the sun each day is making a point we will discover only if we pay close attention to it.

Perhaps, the point it is making is that God has chosen the order of the world and the repetition within creation as a way to speak to us about its vitality and health. Like the child who laughs at a joke and says, “daddy tell it again and again and again. Or, like the child who falls in love with swinging on a swing and says, “Mommy, do it again. Do it again!” I wonder if God says to the irises each spring and apples and oranges “do it again. Do it again.” So, we might wonder at the continual renewal of life and be surprised at the first blooms of flowers popping up from the ground, reminding us how God creates life anew each day.

Maybe, the shoot that springs forth from the tree stump is God’s way of reminding us that God is the God of green life. That God is the one who brings forth greenness when we have felt as if we were dry as summer dust. Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 12th Century about the veriditas or the greening, healing power of God. “God through Christ is bringing the healing and lush greenness of God’s kingdom to a shriveled and wilted humanity.” Even, Paul’s word to the Roman church in chapter 15:13 of his epistle might be translated as Eugene Peterson has, “Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!”

Maybe we need a child to lead us in becoming children, so we might see the new heaven and new earth, which is not fully our present heaven and earth, coming into being as God intends it to come into being with a shoot coming out from the stump of Jesse and a wolf living with a lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a child leading us to hear God’s music of life creating the symphony which draws all people and creation together into God’s peaceable kingdom.

I pray this may be your vision and your hope for this Advent and Christmas, as surely as it is mine.

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“Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (I Cor. 1:30.)

As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.”

These statements from the Theological Declaration of Barmen affirmed that Christ is King of our whole life. In doing so, they rejected the white supremacy, anti-Semitism and authoritarianism of Nazi regime that sought to take over the German Evangelical Federation of reformed churches and pronounce Adolf Hitler not simply the leader of the government, but head of the church supplanting Jesus Christ and declaring himself God.

The more than 100 pastors who signed this declaration in the town of Barmen, Germany and who went to their churches and preached this the next Sunday did so fully aware that they would be arrested and put into concentration camps, which they all were and where nearly all of them died.

Declaring Jesus Christ as Lord of the entirety of our lives, is a bold and profound statement of faith affirming that every aspect of our lives is evaluated from the basis of our being faithful followers of Jesus Christ. No ideology, no political party, no philosophical understanding, no Ann Rynd, no economic theory, no government or contemporary cultural movement replaces our commitment and obedience to God in Christ, who is the image of the invisible God, for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible whether of thrones or dominions, or rulers or powers-all things have been created through Jesus and in him all things hold together. This does not make it easy or convenient to be a follower of Christ.

For one thing, we will be challenged to live fully the love ethic of loving God with the totality of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies, but at the same time we are called to stand with those who are the most vulnerable in our society to being bullied, to being oppressed, to being abused whether through words, emotional abuse or violence. We are challenged to be like the peacemakers who were trained to accompany Christian mission co-workers in places like Columbia and Iraq as they taught people how to read, to write, and to learn skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing or farming as well sharing the gospel, except we may be doing this in or own communities with Muslim brothers and sisters or Jewish brothers and sisters as well as migrant workers, the LGBTQ community and immigrant communities.

After World War II, one of the pastors who was present at writing of the Barmen declaration, Martin Niemoller, wrote this, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is the reminder that followers of Christ must be as publicly present and vocal in teaching and living the gospel as Jesus was when he sat with lepers, prostitutes, radicals, tax collectors and other people society labeled outcasts.

In this public presence, we are challenged to speak up as hate surfaces more and more. Since the election over 10,000 acts of hate have occurred ranging from signs of swastikas to words saying kill the Jews, Muslims, Latinos and African Americans appearing on dorm rooms, automobiles, public buildings and throughout social media, to a Muslim woman being robbed, to Hispanic and African American teachers at a New Jersey school being told by students that they didn’t have to listen to them anymore because those teachers would be gone soon; to the FBI releasing information that there was a 65% rise in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, to the announcement that a White House advisor to Trump is Steve Bannon the one who gives voice to white supremacists and anti-Semitics to Kellyanne Conway of the Trump campaign threatening U. S. Senator Harry Reid for speaking out against Trump.

As the Theological Declaration of Barmen reminds us when we are speaking out against hate we are to be “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together,” as Paul wrote to the house churches of Ephesus. “The Christian Church,” the Barmen declaration states, “is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it hasto testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order and that it lives and wants to live solely from God’s comfort and from Jesus’ direction in the expectation of his appearance.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

We are challenged to affirm that in Christ all false barriers separating us from other people have been broken down as Paul reminds us, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, nor male or female, for all are one in Christ,” all are one humanity and no one is to be excluded or denied their humanity. All the ways humans devise to create stratified societies are acts of sinfulness whether it is of elites and ordinary folks or wealthy and poor communities or creating societies based upon some lives mattering more than other lives because of an ingrained, cultural myth of superiority and inferiority or because some are considered chosen and some condemned or some deemed civilized and others uncivilized, since Jesus frequently crossed social boundaries to heal and to bring into the community those relegated to the margins, affirming by his actions that all persons are created in the image and likeness of God and all are to be treated with respect.

We are to do all of this while knowing we are God’s beloved and clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience as well as bearing with one another in relationships where forgiveness is given and every aspect of our community life together is wrapped in self-giving love, which binds everything together in a harmony yielding peace.

We do this way because the one we declare to be Lord of our life is the one who is a total reversal of the roles usually assigned to royalty, leadership and servitude. He refuses to be the master of the world, the mighty monarch, the spiller of blood. His reign subverts our notion of kings, presidents and leaders. He is the king who serves the other. He is the president who dies for the other. He is the leader who is ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. Most insufferable, most repugnant of all, is the fact that he is a powerless sovereign, president, leader. Dying on his cross-throne, Jesus is thrice taunted for the fact that he does not save himself. “You a savior?” they jeer. “Then save yourself.” Soldiers with their sour wine chide, “Aren’t you a real king? Save yourself.” Even a criminal scolds: “I thought you were supposed to be a Messiah. Prove it.”

Jesus is so thoroughly unlike any notion we have of kings, presidents or leaders because he disavows armies, offers himself without self-defense, does not seek power or to rule over people by domination and intimidation, and he refuses to use or condone force and violence, even against his enemies. Indeed, his word from the cross to those who oppose him, reject him, mock him, and crucify him is simply, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Christ is the king who appears weak in the face of the powerful and accepts the humiliation of being whipped and spat upon as well as the humiliating death on a cross. Christ is the leader who is utterly innocent and yet completely accepts the appearances of utter guilt.

One of the criminals crucified with him embraced this startling truth—and he was saved. “We deserve it after all.” He said, “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Later, when the same criminal asks, “Jesus, remember me,” Jesus responds, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” In his response to the criminal Jesus reveals himself to be the king who is full of mercy and uses his power to save others.  Which is what he did throughout his life whether feeding five thousand people in the wilderness or raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus uses his power to save others. He doesn’t use it to save himself.

The kingship or presidential presence of Christ is not about power, certainly not the political or juridical power to “save yourself and us” from the ignominy of crucifixion. But, ironically, his power to save is revealed as he tells the criminal, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” All of this makes Christ’s kingship an abomination for any earthly royal or political power aspiration, since it is an assault upon the desires of every tribe or nation that ever craved ascendancy or empire. Which ought to give us pause because we live at a time when many nations and people are seeking ascendancy or at least hegemony, when power and wealth are the basis for celebration throughout the world, and when saving ourselves at all costs is acceptable, using whatever means are available, even if it destroys the lives of others.

René Girard, professor of language and culture at Stanford University, is a rare contemporary thinker who confronts the implications of Christian faith. In his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Girard shows how Christ dismantles the triangle of desire, violence, and retribution. He writes that, “In Christ there is no envy, greed, no lust for power, and no vengeance. Christ is the only sovereign to embody such principles.”

Girard continues by saying, “It can be shown, I believe, that there is not a single action or word attributed to Jesus –even those that seem harshest at first sight-that is not consistent with the rule of [God’s] Kingdom. It is absolute fidelity to his own preaching that condemns Jesus. There is no cause for his death other than the love of one’s neighbor lived to the very end.  He goes on to say that when we acknowledge Christ as God and king we accept his reversal of everything that dominates humanity.

We accept the challenges and the inconvenience of being a follower of Christ, walking down the same stony path he trod, being willing to lose our lives, giving up being centered in ourselves and picking up the cross leading to the fullness of joy and the deep peace of God’s love for us and all humanity as we too love our neighbor to the very end. Amen.

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Darkness falls fast in these autumn days and we know the darkness will continue to grow in the days ahead of us as we venture into the cold days and nights of winter. Yet, many people feel darkness has been falling upon them for longer than a season. Whether it is the news of the high infant mortality rate of Rochester, the continuing struggle to solve the education issues plaguing city schools, the rise in the suicide rate of middle age white males and veterans or the year-long election cycle that has been filled with hatred spewing forth on a daily basis with threats of jailing political opponents and deporting millions of people, scandal after scandal in a drip-drip-drip leaking of documents by a group caught in their own brand of self-righteousness or encouraging violence against people who are different as the answer to the frustration and despair of an economic prosperity that has become nearly unreachable for many people in this country regardless of skin color or ethnicity as has the myth of an American Dream created out of a model of unending consumerism fueled as Wendell Berry writes by a commerce of violence, or voter suppression by the government or public institutions being assailed as useless and cracked cisterns incapable of holding water let alone our society; all have contributed to the weariness and darkness many have experienced and may experience as fear of the future imprisons people.

This darkness seems to deepen with the images Jesus describes for his followers in this morning’s reading from Luke. The image of armies surrounding us, the need to become refugees to escape the violence of war, being hated because we are followers of Christ, the woe to women who are pregnant or who are new mothers, the enslavement of one people by another people, even creation will shake, rattle and roll as the Jerusalem Temple is destroyed.

Yet, all of us gathered in our own community of faith like gatherings of other communities of faith in Irondequoit, Rochester, New York State, America, The Northern Hemisphere and around the world know the darkness will be driven away by the light. Darkness, hate, despair, fear and hopelessness cannot overwhelm and imprison us because God’s light will not allow it to do so. This is the starting place of joy and hope that dispels fear because God promises to be doing an entirely and completely “new thing” that will not resemble the old or grow out from the old.

This is the promise uttered by the prophets and the psalmists, particularly during Israel’s exile when the promise from God was that even exile will be transformed into a viable place for life. This promise as Walter Brueggemann wrote in his book “Theology of the Old Testament  “which defies every logic, but which could not be devised by those who reiterated the oath, assures Israel that its life and eventually all of the historical process, is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality.” Rather, it is God’s powerful intention for well-being, abundance, justice and compassion to bring into reality a newness of life that cannot be extrapolated from the present, but is an utterly new life. The words of God the prophet Isaiah speaks tell of God’s promise to overcome all that is amiss whether caused by Israel’s disobedience or the untamed forces of fear and death. The newness of God’s new creation will touch every aspect and phase of life as every portion of life is re-created by the positive, life giving power of God’s love enacting wholeness, abundance and restorative justice for all human communities as hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. In this extraordinary new creation the light of God’s love will drive out fear and darkness.

Perhaps this is the reason doctors without borders and nurses without borders risk their lives to tend to the wounds and disease of patients in places where medical services and medicines themselves are in short supply, but too often where the violence of war is abundant. Perhaps this is the reason for the Red Cross to bring food, clothing, toiletries and blankets to places like Haiti and Syria and Louisiana. Perhaps this is the reason why Hope Fellowship travels to re-build homes and communities in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. Perhaps this is the reason why our mission team travels to communities to repair, re-build homes and lives each year. Perhaps this is the reason why the community garden has nearly doubled in size and may grow larger next year. Could it be they want to live in a world where babies are not born for sudden death, but live long full lives; where no more shall the sound of weeping or cry of distress be heard in the world because of hunger, disease or violence; where an adult lives a long full life filled with meaning and where people shall build houses to live within and will plant vineyards and vegetable gardens, whose produce the gardeners will eat and enjoy because no one will take it from them or force them to work for those who oppress them; where the shalom-the peace of predator prey living together in harmony and where violence no longer exists?

Could it be that the hope of God’s new heaven and new earth where peoples, habitations and nature are all woven into a complex relationship of wholeness has been heard as an invitation to take part in God’s creative transforming mission-Missio Dei- to the world? Could it be that when they have heard the prophet Isaiah proclaiming God’s intention to create an entirely new world where heaven and earth are to be one unified creation they were reminded of God’s creative capacity to create life anew because God’s creative word speaks a vision that comes to realization. This Missio Dei vision of a new heaven and new earth does not come out of nothing not does it come out of the ashes of a destroyed creation, rather it is the creation out of the chaos of human endeavors, of a spoiled and polluted nature and of everything in between. In this Mission Dei, God is transforming creation so thoroughly that the former things will not be remembered and will no longer influence or effect the present or the future.

Imagine a totally new beginning for Irondequoit and Rochester where everyone has a place to live in safe and decent homes, where everyone can freely move about without fear of violence or the fear of driving through dangerous neighborhoods, where a person isn’t stopped by police simply because of the color of their skin or because they fit a certain profile, where no one is a stranger and where everyone has meaningful work and a living wage. Imagine buying your home and knowing you can keep it forever – no one threatening to take it from you because they want it, or because you’ve been laid off, or made redundant, or had your job shipped overseas. People can breathe again – really breathe – without fear that life will be snatched away from them.

Last year, I asked you to imagine this congregation being a totally new congregation, designing and planning its organization in new ways, finding new ways of getting things done,  discerning new ways for us to worship God, designing a new way of welcoming visitors by first getting to know them as friends, and discerning the way we reach out into the wider community around us based solely on Missio Dei-God’s creative transforming vision of a new heaven and new earth. Letting the past be the past without any power to control, determine or define the future. Letting go of all the ways we compare ourselves to other congregations because we are focusing on being authentically who we are. Letting go of the old paradigms and schemes for growing the church by focusing our life together on God’s mission for this community and for the world.

I challenged you to join the Israelites who came back to Judah from Babylonian exile and respond to your situation the way they did as recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their response was to rebuild the city and the Temple and to rebuild their community by once again committing themselves to centering their lives in God and God’s way of being a community where well-being, health, and growing and sustaining life was for every person. This is the hope contained within the promise of God’s new heaven and new earth, a hope inviting people to live today in God’s new heaven and new earth.

Interestingly enough,  this is the invitation to living the golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do to you” and being mindful that the yardstick by which we measure others will be yardstick by which we ourselves will be judged. Both of these are simply calls to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is the hope of the sacredness of life at every moment of life, of welcoming the stranger either the migrant or the refugee as sisters and brothers whose desire for a life of stability, of health and well-being and peace is the same as our own, of ending poverty and the immorality of homelessness, of encouraging all people to dream the vision of God’s new heaven and new earth then act on that vision.

We have made good beginnings in meeting this challenge of participating in God’s mission to the world through the continued support of the mission team, the Live Nativity teaching the real story of Christmas that is the birth of Christ coming as a gift to us of God’s love, the expansion of the community garden that grows community by growing relationships, the prayer windsocks and prayer shawls, the new opportunities of joining with other Presbyterian churches by using a $50,000 grant to change lives in metropolitan Rochester as well as the Love Thy Neighbor project.

While God will bring this new heaven and new earth to fullness as Jesus taught us that God will do, the call to be Christ’s body here in this place at this time challenges us to fully participate in Mission Dei- God’s creative transformation of the world, it challenges us to consider how to best use our increased financial and human resources in reaching out beyond ourselves into the community of Irondequoit and Rochester and the world, so whatever we do reflects God’s expansive and inclusive will for the world and not our limited vision of what is possible, challenges us to be an entirely new Summerville Presbyterian Church focused on creatively thriving knowing that as Paul reminds us that if God is for us, which God is, who can be against us, who can hold us back from living in God’s new heaven and new earth today? No one.

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Gotcha is a slang term derived from the phrase “I got you”and usually refers to an unexpected capture or discovery of something. I learned about this term 51 years ago when I began working as a reporter for a small weekly in California. The editor wanted me to know that asking questions that will make someone look either foolish or guilty about something without having facts (you remember those) to support the question was a no-no. Usually, the gotcha question was something like asking a politician, “Sir, when did you stop beating your wife?”  Typically, this creates quite a stir and any quick answer will make the politician look either foolish or guilty or both.

Gotcha, however, is not a new game. It is the same game the Sadduccees were playing with Jesus when they asked him their long, convoluted question about levirate marriage. Whose wife, they asked, would a woman be in the resurrection after she had married a man with seven brothers. Essentially, levirate marriage is the tradition where a woman marries a man and if he dies then she marries his brother. When the brother dies, she marries another brother, and so on, one after another. So, they ask Jesus, “Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?

Couple of things to remember about the Sadducees. First, the Sadducees came out of the priestly cast in ancient Israel and over time gained control over the rituals in the Jerusalem temple a position which also made them power brokers in affairs of state during the Roman rule of the ancient near east. From their perspective God was intricately tied to the Temple and the rituals and liturgies of the Temple and without the Temple the people could not worship God or be God’s people. Also, they did not rely on the oral tradition like the Pharisees did for their interpretation of scripture. Indeed, they considered only the five books of Torah-Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy- the real scripture unlike the Pharisees who included the prophets and psalms as scripture. In addition, they rejected much of the Pharisees’ teaching, including the resurrection. The did not believe in resurrection. They thought resurrection was at best a lot of nonsense. That’s why, when they ask Jesus the question, they don’t care about his answer. All they wanted to do was to win the debate, embarrass, discredit, or destroy Jesus, so the crowds would stop following him. That’s the reason they ask this clincher question, “Whose wife will she be?”   with an unmistakable sneer just waiting to shout “gotcha!” For the Sadducees, gotcha is not a game, it is a weapon designed to destroy the opposition.

Jesus, of course, answers their question by simply pointing out the inappropriateness of the question, given the difference between life in this age and the age to come. In this age, the fact of death makes marriage and perpetuation of life essential. However, in the age to come there is no death and the earthbound nature of marriage will give way to the greater life promised to the children of the resurrection. Then, Jesus follows that with a wonderful example of midrash or interpretation, by adding testimony from Moses, who in the presence of the burning bush confessed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the living, “to whom all of them are alive.”  This is who God is, Jesus says, the One in whom and for whom death has lost its sting forever. God is God of the living, now and in the resurrection.

This, of course left the Sadducees speechless. They clearly had lost the game of “gotcha.” But, they had lost more than this because what they failed to realize is they were playing this game with God. The Sadducees were so certain of their own perspective about God that they had become blind and had become overly focused on the small stuff of life that is unimportant, rather the big stuff of life that is important. Their blindness and focus on the small stuff led them to disregard the significance of the Temple as a place of worship. This wonderful building with massive stones and the appearance of stability and long lasting traditions was important for the Israelites because it was the symbol pointing the people of God beyond themselves, beyond the power structures of the world around them-the kings or emperors and the wealthy who benefited from power as well as beyond the peoples’ own limited vision of all God was doing in the world by pointing the people to the God, who takes an unformed mass of lifeless chaos then molds and shapes it to create life, creating a world capable of sustaining life through God’s ordered and intricate interconnections and interdependencies with a rhythm of work and rest, and by pointing to the God who commits God’s own being to an intimate relationship with a particular people as the way to demonstrate to all people how wondrous and marvelous God’s love is and how God’s intention is for all creation to have life in abundance within the tranquility of the wholeness of peace.

The Sadducees were so caught up in the small stuff of life they had forgotten why the Lord prompted the prophet Haggai to call the people to rebuild the Temple after they returned from exile in Babylon.  When the Israelites returned from Babylonian exile and met those who had never left Judah and they discovered they had to rebuild their community. The returnees had to build homes, rebuild social structures, and rebuild relationships. They also began to rebuild the Temple, but somewhere between planting and harvesting and trying to rebuild their economic life along with their community life, they focused on the small stuff and stopped rebuilding the Temple. Eighteen years later, the prophet Haggai calls the Israelites back to complete the rebuilding project.  After all, they had finished homes, shouldn’t God have a finished home?

But, that’s not why God wanted them to rebuild the Temple. The Israelites need to rebuild the Temple because they have sowed much, but harvested little.  They move from work to home and back to work then back to home in a routine like a hamster running on a wheel, moving fast, but getting nowhere because they were centering their life on the small unimportant stuff of life and not on the big important stuff of life such as where their life is centered or on whom their life is centered.

Rebuilding the Temple will guide the people to once again center their lives in God and their relationship with God, the relationship that is foundational for the rebuilding of their community.

Yet, the Sadducees were also blind to really seeing God. God doesn’t need to live in a building nor will God somehow vanish if the building is destroyed. To suggest that any of that is true is absurd. God is present with us in the middle of lives as the psalmist in our reading this morning reminds us, but God also transcends creation. God is not caught within the creation God brought into existence, which is in part the reason God created humankind. We are supposed to represent God within creation by acting in the way God acts with compassion, patience, steadfast and self-giving love. Now, the Temple, like church buildings, is simply the place where the people of God gather together to acknowledge the big stuff of life, which is that God is the one who gives them life, God is the one who sustains life and it is God who can be counted upon to save life by transforming the circumstances of life in ways we may not always see or appreciate except in hindsight.

Unfortunately, as the centuries pass blindness and a focus on small stuff become hardened like concrete among some of God’s people and they no longer see the way God is at work in the world to change the world. All they see is a building and they mistake the building for God and they begin worshipping the building and the rituals conducted inside of it instead of worshipping God. Sort of like worshipping the organ, instead of using the organ as one more way of praising God through sung or instrumental prayer or worshipping the layout of the sanctuary instead of using it to creatively worship God.

It is the same when people instead of worshipping God, worship the rules of piety, particularly rules about who is ritually pure enough to be included in the community and those who are ritually impure and must be kept outside the community. Or, the way some folks will hide themselves away in a small, isolated community thinking they are the only “true people” of God. The result of all this is that those who are supposed to be God’s representatives and witnesses to the world actually separate themselves from God just the way Adam and Eve did in the garden. And, with the same result.

So much so that when God comes to be with us in Jesus, they ask foolish questions about the resurrection as if the God who creates life out of a lifeless mass of chaos cannot resurrect life from death, betraying both their foolishness and their disdain for God and for God’s people. Also, they fail to do what God calls his people to do – live here and now in the joy and the anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises of life by living today as the people God calls them to be and in the way God calls them to live.

This is Luke’s lesson for us who are gathered here this morning. It is an invitation to open wide our eyes and our ears, so we might not fall prey to the mistakes the Sadducees make nor be as, Calvin tells us, “foolish and rash by being focused on rearranging the furniture of heaven and taking the temperature of hell.” For when we do so, we focus on the small stuff and forget the big stuff, as the psalmist reminds us, that we are called to be the generation “that lauds the works of God to younger generations and declare God’s mighty acts and the glorious splendor of God’s majesty to the next generation, so all might sing aloud of God’s righteousness and abundant goodness.”

We forget that we do not need to worry about our future because our future and the world’s future is in the hands of God who in Jesus Christ has triumphed and will triumph over all the powers of suffering, sin, injustice, and death. We forget that God in Christ has freed us to live today in the joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s promises of life as God’s servant church, empowered by the Holy Spirit to do what Christ commissioned us to do- Go out into the world teaching everything that Christ has taught us.

As Julian Hartt reminds us, “We and the world have a great and desperate need for the gospel. The power of that word is not in utterance but in concrete life. The power of the word is that a real, transcendently righteous and creative love is within the God, who is comprehensively and decisively in charge of all life and God willing shares this righteous and creative love with all creation in its life now and with humankind in the resurrection life lived with God.

Hence, while the church has an utterance to make, sermons to preach, hymns to sing, and prayers to offer, above all it has a life-giving, life sustaining compassionate, abundant love to share, which is the big stuff of life lived from the inside out, as Richard Carlson writes, “Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple revelation that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around. As you focus more on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you would rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in the present.”

May it be so for you and for me today and all days lived in the light of God’s presence where the fullness of joy and the tranquility of wholeness dwells.

 

 

 

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