“Resurrection for All,” November 10, 2019, the Rev. Louise Kalemkerian

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (track 2 readings)

In the name of our all loving God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, AMEN.

About four months ago, back in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, we began a long, winding trip with Jesus to Jerusalem. Along the way he did some of his most important teaching, the parables of The Good Samaritan, the Lost Coin, the Widow and the Judge, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and healed and blessed along the way.  Today we find him having arrived, and in the Temple teaching.  The showdown he was expecting with the religious leadership has begun.

He is confronted by a group of Sadducees.  The Sadducees were a religious sect who wanted to maintain the priestly caste… and insisted on a literal interpretation of the Written Law; consequently, they did not believe in an afterlife, since it is not mentioned in the Torah.[1]

Jesus is given a sort of riddle about a woman who marries seven times – and just not seven times, but seven brothers, in succession. Each brother dies, leaving her a widow. After all, marriage vows are only valid while both partners are alive, right? “Until death us do part,” as we used to say, or “until we are parted by death,” as the Prayer Book now says. And the Sadducees, who are among Jesus’ critics, want to know: “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?”  My question: did anyone ask the woman?

The custom they describe, still practiced in some parts of the world, is a way to try to ensure that a child is produced if a man has died and leaves a childless widow behind. The dead man’s brother fathers, or tries to, a child with the widow so that the deceased man will have an heir and his widow will have a child. She will not be alone. His name will be remembered. The life of the father will continue through the child.

But there is nothing but death in the Sadducees’ riddle. Brother after brother dies without producing an heir. Time and again, the widow does not bear a child. Finally, she too dies. Who will remember her? Who will carry on the name and traditions of the family?

“Ah,” say the Sadducees, “all is not lost, we suppose, if you believe in the resurrection, which we do not. If there is a resurrection, perhaps she will not be alone after all. She has been the wife of seven men. Which will be her husband in the resurrection? To whom will she belong?”

Jesus gives a startling answer. “God is not a God of the dead, but of the living.” In these words he not only promises there is a resurrection, but he changes all the terms in the Sadducees’ riddle. Not only is life in that age, the resurrection, not just some everlasting version of life in this age, but this woman is getting into heaven, because she is a child of God, not because she’s a wife, or a widow, or a mother. It won’t be because she was barren or fertile or married or widowed or forgotten or remembered on earth. It’s because she is, as Jesus says, “considered worthy of a place in that age,” and, like everyone else who enters the resurrection, “cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Jesus is saying that in the resurrection, life will be different. This is all he said about resurrection in all four Gospels: God is the God of the living. And then, in short order, he went on to test the waters for himself. He died, surrendered life as we know it, and then when his friends came to anoint his body, they couldn’t find him anywhere.

To the Sadducees and to us Jesus is saying that there are things like marriage and customs around marriage and family life that are for this age. In the resurrection, our lives will be changed. What will matter is being children of God.

At the same time, questions about resurrection are not simply about how to imagine our lives in the beyond, but affect our decisions now. They are personal, relational, meaningful.

In a real sense, this is a relief.  Our struggle is an old struggle; it has a storied history.  We aren’t the first to wrestle with ultimate things, and we won’t be the last.  Most importantly, Jesus understands.  Note that his response to the Sadducees is not an angry one.  He doesn’t scold; he challenges.  He invites them to stretch themselves.  To see anew, to see again.  He asks them to think beyond entrenched categories of what’s possible and impossible, because nothing is impossible with God.

And that is Jesus’ point. What we want resurrection life to be is, in part, what we want or wish life to be now. There is probably a little Sadducee in all of us.  However much we want to believe, bodily resurrection doesn’t compute with life as we know it.  If it is true, then it breaks all the rules, and it definitely leads to absurd situations.  For instance, if resurrection is real, then what about cremation? Or about persons who have lost limbs? Will they be raised with or without their missing appendages? Will any of us recognize each other or will we be transformed into creatures of light?

The Bible doesn’t answer any of these questions.  It refuses to approach resurrection as a rational kind of thing.  Instead it talks about resurrection as a mystical phenomenon which is based not our belief in God but rather, God’s belief in us, in the goodness of matter and creation. It is based on the fact that every person is created in God’s image, that God never abandons us, and in our ongoing union with God. [2]

What the Bible teaches about resurrection is found in Paul’s letters, especially I Corinthians 15, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?… For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” (v.12,16) And Paul makes clear in Romans 8 that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (v.38-9) Nothing. Jesuit scholar Randy Sachs writes “Paul concludes that God, who provides us with the kind of body appropriate to this life, will also transform it in a way appropriate to the new life of the kingdom of God [I Corinthians 15:42-50]. How this happens remains a mystery.”[3]

The children of resurrection know that questions about Jesus are not finally academic questions.  They are questions of life and death.  They are questions with stakes so high, so consequential, and so profound, we dare not theorize them.  Imagine what resurrection would feel like for the woman trapped in the Sadducees’ story.  She will no longer be owned.  She will not continue to be property.  She and all women will not continue to be passive in their place in society. Women will have agency.

Imagine her arriving — finally, finally — in a place where her worth and her belovedness don’t depend on her husband, her fertility, or her sex appeal.  Imagine her basking in the safe, unconditional, and eternal love of the God who created her.

I think of all the women who have been separated from their children, their families, along our southern border, or separated from same by incarceration, whose lives have been deemed to be of no value by the government. I think of women who have been driven into prostitution as a way to support their families.  I think of women trafficked and treated as property by smugglers.  I think of women who are married off as children.  Any of these women, and countless others, whose existences have been devalued by patriarchal systems. And I imagine them being welcomed by Jesus as his beloved.

If our questions and objections about faith require us to invalidate the lived experiences of actual people who are suffering in this life, then we are asking the wrong questions and favoring the wrong objections.  The children of resurrection are children of love. Always. Period. [4]

1] www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/pharisees-sadducees-and-essenes

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “God of the Living,” in Home by Another Way, p. 205.

[3] John R. Sachs, S.J. “Resurrection of the Body”, in The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, p. 1111.

[4] Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus, November 3, 2019.

Categories: Sermons