Sermon preached November 10, 2013
Texts: Luke 19:1-10
“I Love Lucy” theme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMJRfWxqctc
How many of you over 40 knew that song? How many of you under 40? How many did not want to raise their hand because it might give away their age?
This summer, on our way back from visiting our daughter in Rochester, New York, we took the long way back and stopped at the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz museum in Jamestown, New York, Lucy’s hometown. Lucille Ball had a remarkable television career. “I Love Lucy” was on the air from 1951-1957 when it morphed into “Lucy and Desi Comedy Hour” which was on the air until 1960. These shows were followed by “The Lucy Show” and “Here’s Lucy” so that Lucille Ball was an on-going presence on television for twenty-three years. Twenty-three years! Remarkable. These were different times but I tried to think of a contemporary actress who has had that kind of staying power. One candidate might be Jennifer Aniston who was on “Friends” for ten years beginning in 1994, and has certainly been in the spotlight since. Just this week we heard that she has a new hair style! It seems these days Jennifer Aniston is known as much for being Jennifer Aniston as she is for her acting. That has something to do with the different times we live in – not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, just different.
When Lucille Ball was doing “I Love Lucy”, her show shared a theme with countless other situation comedies – they were set in family life. “I Love Lucy” was on with “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” Leave It To Beaver.” Lucy’s family dynamic was unique, though, in that her husband played a role not unlike his real life persona – Desi Arnaz played a Cuban band leader, Ricky Ricardo. By the way, it is easy to forget that during this show, Cuba had not yet become a communist country under Castro. Some of the humor played on Desi’s accent. A famous line from the show, when Lucy had made a mess of something was: “Lucy, you got some splaining to do.”
Rewind even further back, to Roman occupied Palestine. This is a time before tweeting, Facebook, text messages, television, even before radio or telegraph. For ordinary people in the harsh economy of Rome, there probably was not a lot of time for entertainment anyway. Yet people enjoyed stories. They enjoyed debates. Debates could be about serious issues, to be sure, but there might also be a certain entertainment value in them.
In the Jewish community of Jesus day in Roman occupied Palestine, there were some vigorous debates about religious matters, with differing groups taking differing positions. Sadducess were part of the Jewish aristocracy, part of the priestly class. The Sadducess religious views were distinct in two ways. They accepted only the Torah, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament, as Scripture, whereas most of the Jews of Jesus time also accepted the prophets and the writings. The other issue which made them distinct was their rejection of an afterlife. They did not believe in a resurrection of the dead.
Jesus, apparently did, along with the Pharisees, who are so often at odds with Jesus in other places in the Gospels. But what kind of absurd belief is this, contended the Sadducees, and they set up a Scriptural test case. A woman marries a man, the oldest of seven brothers. The man dies. According to the Jewish practice of the time, if a man dies before his wife conceives an heir, then his brother is to take her as his wife and conceive a child who will be treated as the older brother’s heir. Marriage in that day was less about romance than about property and heirs. In the case set up by the Sadducees, though, all seven brothers die. Then the woman dies. The question they pose is this: In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus, you got some splaining to do.
Jesus responds brilliantly. They think that resurrection life is just some kind of continuation of this life, but it is not. “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.” Jesus shifts the whole premise of their question. He does even more, but I take that up in a moment.
Eugene Peterson in The Message renders some of Jesus’ words this way. “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there…. They have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies will be with God.”
But wait! Jesus, you got some splaining to do, not to the Sadducees, but to us. How often when we come together to mourn our dead, to grieve our losses do we take comfort in the idea that in the afterlife our loved ones will be reunited with each other, and one day we will join them. Is Jesus here taking that away? Is he dashing that hope? Jesus you got some splaining to do.
I don’t think that is what Jesus is up to. The Sadducees are not really asking a serious question. They are asking a rhetorical question, thinking that they will have stumped Jesus. Jesus responds brilliantly by digging deeper. You don’t even understand the question you ask, and perhaps not even the God about whom you ask it. Speculation about resurrection and the afterlife is o.k. and I don’t think Jesus is really making a very serious statement about how we might relate to others after death. His concern is elsewhere. “God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.”
What is brilliant about Jesus response is that he takes a rhetorical question and turns it into an existential question, that is a question about who we are going to be and how we are going to live now. Are you alive in God now?
Religious questions are wonderful and always welcome here. A strong faith is a faith strong enough to ask questions. At the end of the day, however, the question we each need to answer is who we are going to be and how we are going to live now. It is who we are going to be and how we are going to live toward God, God’s love for us, God’s work in the world. The Sadducees, at least in this story in Luke, wanted to major in minors and Jesus won’t let them.
So what does life alive to God look like? What does it mean to have all our ecstasies and intimacies rooted in God? There are all kinds of places in the Bible we could go for an answer. We could look at the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. We could look to I Corinthians 13, where we are told that faith, hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love. We could look to Romans 12 and its description of life transformed by the renewing of our minds. We could look to Galatians 5 and its list of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. A few years ago, I proposed using five words to describe what life alive to God might look like: joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice. Being alive in God should have joy to it, not a shallow smile slapped across the lips but a deep sense that one is loved and a deep appreciation for the beauty in the world. Being alive in God should mean that we can be more honest, authentic and genuine in our lives. Begin alive in God means being gentle – learning the strong art of forgiveness, being gentle on the earth. Being alive in God means being generous, generous with our resources, but also generous in spirit. Being alive in God is to know that God is at work toward a newer world, at work toward inner and outer transformation, at work toward a world of justice and shalom and that work of God in the world is our to share with God and with each other.
The crucial question we need to ask ourselves often is how alive we are in God. The Jesus way is the way of being alive in God now, then trusting God with our lives when this life ends.
This focus on being alive in God that Jesus is putting forward in his discussion with the Sadducees does, though, have some implications for the topic the Sadducees begin with – marriage. Being alive in God becomes a criterion to evaluate our lives, our relationships and our institutions. While the focus of Jesus in this story is not on the afterlife nor on marriage, he does, in a quiet way offer a cautionary word about marriage and families.
Now I have some splaining to do. I am a family person. I cherish my family. My family has helped me be more alive to God in wonderful ways. I want our church to be a family-caring, family-nurturing place. But the church, by which I mean the Christian church through history, and maybe especially in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries has sometimes made an idol out of families. In a recent blog post on the Christian magazine Sojourners site, a single woman wrote about “the isolating power of family-centered language” (Emily Dause, 10-21-2013 I am 27, single, and my father has passed away. It seems everywhere I turn in the Christian world… I am excluded, because I am not part of a family. A pastor comments excitedly on the number of new families joining his church. If I joined, would my membership be valuable? Respected Christian leaders urge us to support “family values.” Are values really tied to family units, or can I have values, too?... A church bulletin asks me to bring enough food for my family to the church gathering. Am I even invited in the first place?
The writer understands that most of those who speak in such ways mean well, but good intentions alone are not sufficient. The Church of Jesus Christ, concerned as Jesus is with being alive in God, needs to acknowledge that sometimes we have made an idol out of families, particularly families of a certain kind. The Church of Jesus Christ, concerned as Jesus is with being alive in God, needs to say that marriage matters, all marriage; that families matter, but families of all kinds; and that persons who may not see themselves in a family matter. What matters most is being alive in God, and that possibility is open to us all by God’s grace – open to us all: single, married, widowed, divorced, gay, straight.
And one of the remarkable things this God of Jesus Christ does in our lives as we seek to be more alive in God, as we seek to be people of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice, one of the remarkable things this God of Jesus Christ does is create something like an extended family. And here we are, trying together to be more alive to God. Amen.