Committed to the Here and Now

Sermon Preached November 18, 2007
St. Mary's Episcopal Church - Stone Harbor
Proper 28C

There was a skit on Sesame Street that I really loved as a kid. It went something like this. One of the grown-ups, maybe Luis, is sitting on the steps of 123 Sesame Street reading a story to the kids. After awhile, one of the Muppet monsters walks by carrying a sign that he reads aloud – it says, “The end is coming.” He keeps on walking, but then returns again in a few moments. This goes on for quite awhile. The children giggle a little bit each time the monster comes by, but Luis keeps reading the story and they, for the most part, continue to listen. Finally, Luis reaches the end of the story, and – perhaps you’ve already guessed it – the monster walks by with a new sign that he reads which says, “The end is here.”

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the end – specifically the date, December 21st, 2012 because this is the date on which many are expecting the end to occur. Last July, The New York Times Magazine featured an article by novelist Benjamin Anastas called “The Final Days” in which he explored some of the mystery of 12-21-12. Apparently the present day popularity of this prediction centers around something called the Harmonic Convergence – a 1987 gathering of people in a number of locations around the world – including Stonehenge, Mount Shasta, and Central Park. The Convergence was promoted by José Arguelles, the author of a number of “books about the Mayan cosmos and his experiences with telepathically received prophecies.”[1] Arguelles got the word out that the convergence was “an earth-changing event requiring 144,000 participants . . . to free the planet from the dissonant influence of Western science and synchronize with the ‘wave harmonic of history’ set to culminate in 2012.”[2] And in a way that only our modern technological advances would allow, people did gather for the Harmonic Convergence and the media did cover it extensively and soon the year 2012 had taken on a significance of mythic proportions.

And here, I confess, I am quite a skeptic. After all, people have predicting the end of times since the beginning of time and, so far, they’ve all been wrong. The early Christians thought that the second coming would occur in their life time. “Christians in Europe attacked pagan territories in the north to prepare for the end of the world at the first millennium; the Shakers believed the world would end in 1792” and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have offered more than their share of predicted end times: 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 and so far, we’re still here.[3] In more recent times such end time predictions have led to the tragic deaths of many including The People’s Temple, founded by The Rev. Jim Jones; the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland; and the Heaven’s Gate cult in California.[4]

We live in a culture that has a preoccupation with the end times. But Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel warn us, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.”[5] O.k., that’s fine, but how will we know who we should believe and how will we know when that time is truly near? Those to whom Jesus was speaking in the temple were wondering the same thing. “Jesus said, ‘. . . the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’”[6] And this statement begged the question: “When? When will that day come?”[7]

Jesus’ answer had two parts. In the first place, he gives them a list of events – wars, insurrections, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” earthquakes, famines, plagues, dreadful portents, and “great signs from heaven.”[8] These things are typically associated with end times in the Scriptures. In the book of the prophet Isaiah it is written, “I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, one against the other, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.”[9] The book of the prophet Ezra, from the Apocrypha, says,

“So when there shall appear in the world earthquakes, tumult of peoples, intrigues of nations, wavering of leaders, confusion of princes, then you will know that it was of these that the Most High spoke from the days that were of old, from the beginning. For just as with everything that has occurred in the world, the beginning is evident, and the end manifest.”[10]
But what is different about the list provided here in Luke’s gospel are the words Jesus adds – a bit of a surprise: “When you hear of” these things, he says, “do not be terrified” because “the end will not follow immediately.”[11]

So just when those in the temple are thinking he is about to tell them when the end will come, he stops short and says “do not be terrified.” And here is the second part of Jesus’ answer. The reason they are not to be terrified is that, when the time comes, they will have “an opportunity to testify” – an opportunity for which they are not to prepare for, Jesus promises, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”[12] And with this simple phrase, it comes into focus why we should not worry ourselves about the end of time. Knowing when the end of time will come will in no way prepare us for it. Because, in that moment, there will be nothing for us to prepare. God will provide us with the words we need in the moment.

Jesus then refocuses his questioners from concern about the end times to concern about the present time reminding them that it is by their endurance that they will gain their souls.[13] And what is this endurance that we are called to? Endurance is about life in the present, a life fully committed in the here and now to Christ, to living in the body of Christ, the Christian community, always working toward fulfilling the promises made at our baptism:
· To continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship
· To persevere in resisting evil
· To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ
· To seek and serve Christ in all persons
· To strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.[14]

When we do these things we will come to recognize that the monster’s warning that the end is coming will do nothing to provide sustenance or direction for the present and that being focused on following Christ in the here and now, living in the story of the our present days, will leave us nothing to fear when that future time does come. Because Christ will give us the words and the wisdom we will need in that moment and our endurance now will have gained us our souls.

[1] Benjamin Anastas, “The Final Days,” The New York Times Magazine, July 1, 2007 accessed online on November 15, 2007.
[2] Anastas.
[3] Anastas.
[4] “When Devotion Means Death,” BBC News: Africa, March 18, 2000 accessed online on November 15, 2007.
[5] Luke 21:8.
[6] Luke 21:6.
[7] Luke 21:7.
[8] Luke 21:9-11.
[9] Isaiah 19.2.
[10] 2 Esdras 9:3-5.
[11] Luke 21:9.
[12] Luke 21:13b-15.
[13] Luke 21:18b.
[14] BCP 304-5.


God is a God of the Living

Sermon Preached November 11, 2007
Proper 27C / Veteran's Day

A couple of weeks ago, we heard in Luke’s gospel, a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now today, we are introduced to a group of Sadducees. Just who were these people and why were they so often critical of Jesus’ ministry? The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two of the best-known Jewish sects. They were around since at least the 2nd century BC and their influence was felt until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD[i]. The Pharisees were primarily concerned about the right practice of Jewish law. That is why in the reading two weeks ago, the Pharisee was described as one who was praying, tithing, and fasting – all associated with the proper observance of the Jewish law. As it relates to this morning’s reading, one of the differences between these two groups of Jews that is important to understand has to do with their understanding of death and the after life. The Pharisees “believed in the resurrection from the dead and the existence of spirit beings such as angels and demons.” In contrast, the Sadducees, “denied the resurrection of the dead, as well as the existence of spirit beings. The Sadducees believed. . . that the soul dies with the body. Therefore, they taught that there were no rewards or punishments after death.”[ii] And, for the Sadducees who had everything they needed and then some in the present life, they really didn’t need an after life. They saw that all they had now was evidence that they were insiders with God – a 1st century Prosperity Gospel.[iii] Because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, their question to Jesus in today’s gospel was really just an attempt to trick Jesus.

They present a scenario in which a childless woman is widowed, and, according to Jewish custom, the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow in an attempt to “raise up children for his brother.”[iv] This practice is described in the book of Deuteronomy:

“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”[v]
The Sadducees then take this scenario to an almost ridiculous extreme suggesting that the woman remains childless with this brother and, in fact, with each brother until she has, in fact, been married to all seven and still dies childless. Now, they ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”[vi]

The Sadducees expect that Jesus will not have an answer for them which will, in their estimation, prove that the resurrection of the dead is not a reality. But instead, what Jesus tells them is that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.”[vii] God is a God of the living. Death and resurrection are not about reward or punishment. The resurrection is not about making up for the inadequacies of this life. One commentary says that resurrection is:
“a declaration that God’s love will not be thwarted, not even by death. . . . [Jesus] resurrection is the declaration . . . that those who stand for God cannot be defeated, even by death.”[viii]
So, for Jesus, the Sadducees question reflects their ignorance about what is important. For God is not ultimately interested in marriage, in mother- and father-hood, in brother- and sister-hood, but rather, God is interested in life which can only be fully known and fully experienced through our relationship with God, not through relationship with other persons. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus says.[ix] This is the way life is. But those who live in anticipation of resurrected life understand that, flawed as our human relationships may be, they are just fine as long as our first priority is on our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.[x]

Today is November 11th – Veterans Day - a date set aside to celebrate the day on which the Germans signed the Armistice in 1918, marking the conclusion of World War I. It was President Woodrow Wilson who in November of 1919 issued his Armistice Day proclamation, in which he wrote,

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation.”[xi]

It would, however, be nearly two decades, 1938, before Congress passed a bill that that set aside each November 11th as a civic holiday promoted “to the cause of world peace and. . . hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.” Sixteen years later, in 1954, Congress passed an act to change the name to Veterans’ Day and President Eisenhower invited all U.S. citizens to take time on this day to remember “all those who fought so gallantly” and to rededicate ourselves “to the task of promoting an enduring peace.”[xii]

Veterans’ Day only occurs on a Sunday every 6 or 7 years and is, in fact, a civic, not a religious, observance. Yet in light of President Wilson’s original intentions for Veterans’ Day as a time to “show sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation,” in light of President Eisenhower’s urging to rededicate ourselves “to the task of promoting an enduring peace,” and in light of our promise, made in the Baptismal Covenant, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” I think it is appropriate to make mention of the holiday today and I invite you, at this time, to name those whom you know that have lost their lives serving in our military. . . . Since March 19, 2003, when the United States entered Iraq, 3,168 American military have lost their lives in Iraq[xiii]. Among the dead are Benjamin D. Tiffner, Lui Tumanuyao, Christine M. Ndururi, Kevin Bewley, Daniel J. Shaw, Carletta S. Davis, John D. Linde, Derek T. Stenroos, and Adam J. Muller who died in Iraq this week.[xiv]

Into your hands, O God, we commend these our brothers and sisters, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most loving Savior. In your infinite goodness, wisdom, and power, work in them the merciful purpose of your perfect will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[xv]

Jesus says, “. . . the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”[xvi]

This reference to the story of the burning bush is meant to remind the Sadducees (and us) of that great moment in which God first reveals himself to Moses as the great I AM – “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’”[xvii] One commentator points out that this “is not who God WAS but who God IS. God has no past tense. The dead who die in the Lord are not lost to God the way they are to us, trapped as we are” in the time constructs of our own making.[xviii] Instead, God is a God of being, a God of presence – a God, not of the dead, but of the living, a God of the living and resurrected Christ. And, it is “this notion of God’s ultimate victory in Christ that ought to give us courage to stand for peace even at the cost of our lives.”[xix]

[i] Bryan T. Huie, “Who Were the Pharisees and the Sadducees?” Here a Little, There a Little (March 16, 1997, revised March 13, 2007) accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[ii] Huie.
[iii] “Proper 27 – Year C,” Preaching Peace accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[iv] Luke 20:28.
[v] Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
[vi] Luke 20:33.
[vii] Luke 20:38.
[viii] Preaching Peace.
[ix] Luke 20:34a.
[x] “This Week in Preaching: Luke 20:27-40,” The Center for Preaching Excellence (Calvin Theological Seminary) accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xi] Quoted in “Veterans’ Day,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xii] “Veterans’ Day.”
[xiii] “American Military Deaths Since May 1st, 2003,” Anti-War.Com accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xiv] Anti-War.Com.
[xv] Adapted from The Book of Occasional Services, 2003, (New York: Church Publishing, 2004), 176.
[xvi] Luke 20:37-38.
[xvii] Exodus 3:14.
[xviii] “This Week in Preaching: Luke 20:27-40.”
[xix] Preaching Peace.