“Questions, and more Questions” Colchester Federated Church, November 10, 2019, (Luke 20:27-38) Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

A ministry colleague once shared an interesting practice he did at his church called Ask Me Anything Sermons.  There are all sorts of versions of this practice.  Though the basic premise is that members of the congregation write out questions on notecards (questions about matters of faith) and their minister answers those questions to the best of their ability in their sermon.  I did this twice previously and had parishioners write out the questions the Sunday before preaching the Ask Me Anything Sermon.  I picked 7 notecards at random and took the week to write out a sermon, answering those challenging questions.

It’s fascinating to look back at some of the questions my parishioners wanted me to answer.  Questions like (and these are verbatim): “What is heaven to you, to the church, and how should I think about heaven?”, “Did Paul really think women should not be preachers or leaders in the Church?  If so, doesn’t he need some serious attitude adjustments?”, “How do I teach my kids about God when I’m not sure what I believe?”, “Why do people/animals need to suffer? (Why are sick babies born, why are sweet children/animals abused, why do we need to watch loved ones struggle with loss and pain?)”, “Don’t all the world’s major religions point to the same place?  What is that place?  Is it in our hearts?”, “Why did Jesus preach against divorce?  Instead he should preach for thinking a bit before you get married!”

Maybe we can try this here at CFC sometime if you’re interested.  Though the point is that many of us come to worship on Sunday mornings with questions on our hearts.  Life isn’t easy.  We wonder what to make of heaven, the place of women in the Church, why people suffer, how we relate to other religions of the world, and on and on.  We have questions about faith—good questions—and we want answers.  Though the humility of this practice of Ask Me Anything Sermons is to be able to admit that some of these answers are the pastor’s best guess.  Because the answer is actually not able to be fully known by human beings while we exist physically here on earth (whether we have a Master of Divinity Degree or not.)  We recognize that God is both knowable and unknowable because God is God and we are not.

Today in the Gospel according to Luke we see the Sadducees ask Jesus questions about life after death.  They had questions about their Jewish faith.  Jesus, the Pharisees, and probably most of the Jews in Jesus’ day believed that someday God would raise the dead, judge the wicked, and reward the righteous with eternal life.  However, the Sadducees (who were the powerful Temple leaders in Jesus’ day) didn’t believe in resurrection and didn’t hold to the more ancient Jewish view that the dead stayed eternally in Sheol (the underground dwelling of the spirits of the dead.)[1]  So they come to Jesus with a rather absurd scenario to perhaps prove their belief while simultaneously questioning Jesus’ belief.

The Sadducees remind Jesus that Moses taught that if a man’s brother dies (leaving a widow with no children), then the brother must marry the widow and raise children for his brother.  That was called a levirate marriage where the living brother marries the widow (though the widow’s children were considered the dead man’s descendants and would inherit his property.)  So let’s imagine (the Sadducees tell Jesus) that there are seven brothers in a family.  The first man marries a woman and then dies childless.  Same with the second and third all the way to the seventh brother who married the same woman and they all died without having children.  Finally, the woman died as well.  So, in the resurrection—whose wife will she be (since all seven brothers were her husband at one point or another in their earthly lives)?

Jesus responds to this question by reminding the Sadducees that people who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage.  Though in the age of the resurrection from the dead, people won’t do that.  The Sadducees are scoffing at the belief in resurrection because they are assuming that Moses’ Law will be enforced in the afterlife.  They are assuming that life in Sheol would be much the same as life is now with people having sexual needs and desires.  The idea of seven brothers all living with the same woman as a wife would not at all be what Moses had in mind.  And therefore there is no resurrection the Sadducees are thinking and questioning Jesus about this.

Though Jesus reminds them that in the resurrection people won’t die at all.  But will be like angels and they’re God’s children.  As the scholars who edited the Common English Bible Study Bible explain this passage, Jesus’ answer is explaining that after the resurrection, people live eternally and therefore there’s no need for children and thus no marriage and no sexual activity at all.  Jesus takes it a step further saying that even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised when he referred to God as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob to show that God isn’t the God of the dead, but of the living.  Jesus is saying that these ancestors of the Jewish people (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) are already enjoying the blessings of God’s presence.  So yes, resurrection is real, and it will happen.  But to apply all these earthly categories of how we live here and now (like levirate marriage) to what God will do with all of creation for the rest of eternity doesn’t make sense.  It’s not going to be exactly the same.

Now this passage doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility of reunion with our loved ones after we die.  That is a deeply held and comforting belief for many Christians.  Last Sunday was All Saints Sunday where we remembered those we have loved and lost in the past year.  And in a society that too often denies death and looks to keep aging and death at bay however we can, the Church is a place where we acknowledge that none of us will be here in these bodily forms forever.  Knowing this has consequences for how we live day in and day out.  Hopefully not living in fear of God who judges us harshly every time we fail.  But instead living with hope with our God who lovingly challenges us to be the hands and feet of God here on earth and help bear one another’s burdens so that we create heaven on earth.  Though will eternal life in heaven be exactly like life on earth?  Jesus seems to be telling us no, it won’t.  And his answer to the Sadducees’ question may leave us with questions and more questions.

Whether we fully understand this passage from the Gospel of Luke or not, whether we know exactly what we believe about heaven or resurrection or not—the comfort in today’s text may be in people coming to Jesus with the questions on their hearts.  Granted, the Sadducees did so in a rather aggressive way.  However, one can’t help but wonder if these were genuine questions they had and if they wondered why Jesus believed differently about resurrection than they themselves did.  Having questions and being brave enough to voice those questions or wrestle with questions is a good thing.  Anytime someone offers an answer to every single religious question or specifies that everything is black and white and there is no grey in faith—beware when that’s the vibe.  Because sometimes the trick to going deeper is to be patient and give ourselves time to live the questions.

It was the poet Rainer Maria Rilke who famously said, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.  Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”[2]

Having questions about matters of faith is a good thing.  It means that we’re paying attention and engaging with ideas that are sometimes hard to fathom.  We see this when Jesus himself and the Sadducees questioned one another about resurrection.  And for what it’s worth, here’s how I answered that question about heaven in that first Ask Me Anything Sermon—about what heaven is to me, to the Church, and how the person who asked about heaven should think about it:

Heaven is being at home with God, being in God’s very heart.  It’s never mattered to me if that’s a spiritual state of being or a physical location.  There are two Bible passages that have wonderful descriptions of heaven.  In John Chapter 14 Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”[3]  Jesus’ words reflect that we will be with him and that our hearts need not be troubled.  At the end of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos describes a vision of a new heaven and a new earth.  “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself with be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[4]  God will dwell with us, and we won’t be alone.

I’ve been at the bedside of people who’ve died, and have had a sense that the person is now beyond us.  Yet their life doesn’t just get extinguished.  After blessing the first patient who died during my on-call shift as a Chaplain, I was sitting next to him praying and looked up to see the sun rising out the window at the same moment.  I knew deep in my heart that this person was now home with God where there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain and that’s where comfort can be found.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Footnote 20:27 from The Common English Bible Study Bible with Apocrypha, 154 NT.
[2] Rainer Maria Rilke Quote, Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/717-be-patient-toward-all-that-is-unsolved-in-your-heart
[3] John 14:2, NRSV.
[4] Revelation 21:3-4.