November 10, 2013
Sermon by Mark B. Pendleton
Christ Church, Exeter
The Sadducees, the protectors of the religious status quo of the day with the Temple in Jerusalem at the center of their power, used the same devise the Pharisees would often use: in today’s language one might call it the “trick question.” But in Jesus’ day they were questions that rabbis or teachers would routinely be asked by those who tried to sort out and interpret scripture into their daily lives. The scenario imagined a childless woman who would have experienced more than a fare share of heartbreak in life having seven husbands die before her – when she died to whom would she be married in the resurrection?
Jesus must have seen through the feigned earnestness of those asking the question, for it is said that the Sadducees did not even believe in resurrection. Who were they to try to trap Jesus into a question and answer gaff? It was in many ways a ridiculous question: not unlike the question serious theologians tackled in the Middle Ages: how many angels could dance on a head of a pin.
I suppose these kinds of questions are alive and well in every generation. At their heart they try to get us to imagine a life beyond what we know and see and experience in this reality. We use the same kind of imagining when we consider how prayer works.
I have certainly overheard people wonder at times how God deals with the crushing volume of prayers that come God’s way. Does God prioritize? Do prayers get lined up in a kind of heavenly DVD rental queue where God sorts through the new releases and the old standbys that have been around for a while? Last week our preacher referred to a fast track for sainthood: is there a similar express or EZpass lane for our most urgent prayers? Or are they sorted based on how sincere and genuine they are: the tax collector’s humble prayers a few weeks back seemed to win out over the Pharisees gloating me-centered petitions? Prayers that seek meaning, clarity, and reassurance, like: God make my faith stronger. Help me forgive. Help me be more patient, kinder, more open to hear criticism, smooth out my rough edges, let me have thick skin just enough to protect myself from hurt but not wall me off from real feelings and emotions. In the cosmic queue of prayers, we are inclined to believe that these are the better way to the heart of God than the throw-away prayers most offered day to day. Just imagine the volume of prayers offered at the purchase of each and every Powerball lottery tickets? Innocently enough turning God into a divine Jeannie in the Bottle granting us at least three magical wishes. Imagine if we could only harness the energy of Powerball prayers to solve global poverty and end all war. Who knows? It might work that way, but I don’t think so.
What is clearer to me in the gospel story, in this back and forth rabbinical argument, is that the people asking the question seem uninterested in the answer. They remain entrenched in limited and literal thinking, failing to imagine anything beyond what they can touch and feel. They assumed that the same rules and conditions that applied in this world apply in the next. What was binding here, must be binding there, right? In Jesus’ case, there was a right answer to a wrong question. Very little is the same in the resurrection as it turns out. People don’t marry. What’s more, they don’t even die. They are like angels and are children of God, for God is of the living and not of the dead.
What I most relate to in this exchange is Jesus’ reaction to the smallness of the question. In the face of something so expansive and limitless as the resurrection, what room is there for legalities? God is opening a totally new life to us both here in this world and beyond, and many of us, like the Sadducees, can get caught up and lost in the fine print. And churches love the fine print. We call it by different names: dogma, theology, rubrics, canons, and even Biblical truth -- when and if we limit, hem in and reduce diving possibilities we miss the mark. Which is probably why I am drawn the thinking of the German medieval mystic Meister Eckhart who wrote “God is greater than God.”
I believe that we have a complex relationship with the concept of more.
This past week it was announced that thanks to NASA’s Kepler spacecraft there may be as may at least 40 billion Earth-like planets in the galaxy. The New York Times reported that one out of every five sunlike stars in the has a planet the size of Earth circling it in what they call the “Goldilocks zone” — not too hot, not too cold — where surface temperatures should be compatible with liquid water. The idea of an expanding universe potentially full of planets that could contain remnants or fragments or advanced forms of life was stunning news – and at the same time hard to wrap our minds around. We have made room for imaging life beyond in the words of most contermporary of the Eucharistic prayer we use on occasion when we pray: God: “At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. By your will they were created and have their being.”
Some look for more in the heavens, while others try to find it in earthly things. The so-called prosperity gospel of the last few decades that grew around some of the mega-churches of our country promised wealth and happiness to those who donated to these ministries. The idea preached was that God wants us to be happy in this life, and the fastest way to be happy in a materialistic culture is to think positively, work hard and attain wealth. If God is the one who gives us what we desire, why not pray with the expectation of prosperity. This theology may work at the edges in a booming economy of the 1990’s, but many of these preachers and ministries have, not surprisingly, fallen on hard times since the economic downturn of recent years.The prosperity gospel is not the “more” that Jesus was speaking about and hoping that his followers would understand and embrace.
Jesus speaks to us even today about what I would call the “sin of smallness.” When we turn an infinite God into one seemingly fixated on every move we take, each thought we have, every mistake we make. God’s creation does not spin around our axis. The planets do not orbit around us. We are apart of a divine experiment much larger. Thus Jesus eggs us on through this gospel reading: “You’re thinking too small.”
Believing this: how might we live if we truly open up our lives and our minds to newness and possibilities? Play it less safe, take on more risks for the good of others and for the health of our souls. This might not be easy for those of us who are “steady as you go” type of people who have survived by drawing inside the lines of expectations. But when we stretch our minds, expand our horizons and open our imaginations, new things can happen. Consider Psalm 51:10 -- Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
In pulling back the veil that shrouded the world, what Jesus does is to give us all a taste of what awaits us. We do believe in a beyond, an after, and much more than we see and feel. Learning to trust, imagine and form a hint of belief is what all that we do is about: daring to believe in the certain hope of the resurrection, that our future will be with the angels, we might have courage enough to start living and acting like the angels we will one day accompany.