November 10, 2019: The 22nd Sunday After Pentecost

November 10, 2019: The 22nd Sunday After Pentecost
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Psalm 145:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

     Have you ever received a call from a “pollster?” That is someone who asks for your opinion on a particular social issue confronting the nation such as health care for all, 2nd Amendment rights, a particular candidate or incumbent for political office, and so on. It has been my experience that such calls usually involve hypothetical questions – and for good reason. You see, after ostensibly asking for your true opinion, the professional pollster’s real aim begins to emerge as they pose all sorts of hypothetical situations. “So, you would vote for ‘so and so’ even if he smoked marijuana while in college?”  The pollster didn’t say the candidate did, after all this is a hypothetical question. But in so asking, a seed of doubt has been planted that they hope will sway your opinion. Sway it so much that you will come over to their side, to their way of thinking.

I thought of hypothetical questions this week while reading today’s gospel lesson. And I was reminded of some sage advice from a Seminary professor years ago: “Beware of hypothetical questions; they are never as innocent as them seem.”

     Luke tells of an encounter between Jesus and some leaders of a Jewish sect known as Sadducees who ask him a hypothetical question.  The Sadducees were particularly loyal and conservative Jews who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. (As we learned in Christian Ed Class a few weeks ago, that’s why they were “sad – u – cee!”) They didn’t believe in the resurrection because they could not find such a belief in the Old Testament. Now, the truth is, the resurrection of the dead is affirmed in the Book of Daniel. But, the Sadducees believed the only books of the Bible to be considered Holy Scripture were the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, and not any of the prophets. Yet, a careful look at this story tells us that these leaders really weren’t interested in the eternity of wedding vows, or the legalisms that surround remarriage, or, for that matter, the resurrection of the dead. See, if we back up a bit to Luke chapter 19 we might remember that from the moment Jesus overturned the tables of the money lenders at the Temple and screamed about the misuse of God’s house – from then on the chief priests, scribes and leaders of the people (that is, the Sadducees and Pharisees) kept looking for ways to kill him. So, as Jesus continues his mission and teaches in the Temple, various groups come and try to trap him with hypothetical questions they hope will cause people to doubt his authority: questions about whether it’s lawful to pay taxes, and now, about remarriage and resurrection.

What I love about this story is that Jesus responds with an example from Exodus – you know, one of those books of Moses (Exodus 3:6). In so doing, he suggests that the resurrection of the dead is not a return to the same old way of life, or that eternal life or resurrection is simply an extension of this life with its marriages, births, graduations, retirements, and so on, but something completely different. Jesus affirms that we will, indeed, know each other in the age to come but not because of marriages, but rather, because we will be one with each other as equal children of God. The reality is, Jesus seems to care far less about heaven and resurrection than we do. Christians tend to obsess about what heaven will be like, who will be there (or better yet, not be there). Jesus simply says that resurrection is something different and that’s all he says about it because there is something far more important at stake here.

See, Jesus has been teaching his followers to stop worrying about the future, about resurrections, who will be married to whom, who will be greatest in God’s kingdom, and, instead, recognize that God is God. Death is a detail we dwell upon and understandably so, and yet, Jesus points out that in God there is no life and death, what matters right now is our relationship with God and with each other. Jesus urges his followers and us to focus on what God has called us to do: to love and serve with all our heart, soul, body, mind and strength. Jesus says, “God is God not of the dead, but of the living” and so his followers focus on living as God’s people right now.

     The Church at Thessalonica was very much aware of the persecution that was happening all around them and they were convinced that Jesus would return any moment. So they began to “circle the wagons” and look inward towards self-preservation and just wait for the day of Jesus’ return. Paul reminds them God is God not of the dead, but of the living. In this, his second letter to the church, Paul urges the people to action, to stand firm in their faith, to hold fast to that which they were taught. And what were they taught? To be active in living their faith, to share the light of Christ, to get out there and bring healing and wholeness to their communities, to be God’s reconciling presence in this world today. When Christ returns, when the dead are resurrected, then we will learn about what’s next, but, as for today, Paul says, we have work to do. So get busy with fulfilling the mission of the Church as you have received it. God is God not of the dead, not of idleness, but of the living, the active.

     The Prophet Haggai was around for about three years which pales in comparison to the 40-year ministries of Isaiah and other prophets. Nevertheless, his message was of the utmost importance to people of God then, just as his message is important to us today. 

Now, to understand that message, we need to put today’s reading into context. Throughout the entire time of their Babylonian exile, the Jews pled with God to return them to Jerusalem, to let them rebuild and worship at their glorious Temple again. God answered their prayers and they did return home. In fact, by the time Haggai arrived on the scene, it had been 20 years since the people returned and yet, the Temple still lay in ruins and God wanted to know why. So Haggai asked the people, “What have you been doing for twenty years?”  Does that question suggest that God wants a nice place to live? On the contrary, just as the Sadducees question isn’t about remarriage, Haggai’s message isn’t about Temples, but rather, it is about action. Haggai says, “You asked for freedom - you’ve had it 20 years and done nothing with it, you’ve not restored anything but your own homes, you’ve only looked out for yourselves, and then you wonder why your nation continues to flounder?” God is God not of the dead, but of the living.

And the people heard that message and began to work together to rebuild their temple. And in the process national policies and practices were reformed too, and an era of prosperity returned to Jerusalem and the entire nation. Now, in today’s reading, the new Temple is really taking shape. Some are astounded by the beauty and splendor of that place while others begin to complain that it is nothing like the past, like how things used to be, how it is merely a shadow of what once was. And just like a pollster trying to get us to come around to their way of thinking, hypothetical questions begin sowing seeds that will either help the people embrace the change or complain about it. Haggai reminds the people that the God they serve is God not of the dead, but of the living. And Haggai shifts their focus away from the present moment and invites them to see the vision God has for them, “The splendor of this place will be greater than its former … and God will give to this place a prosperity” you never dreamed possible. “But most of all,” and this is the crux of his message, “God’s presence is in our midst right now… the God of the living ... And it is God’s presence that sustains us, guides, protects and resurrects us, we need nothing else, so take heart … and get back to work.”

     Today we gather for our Annual Meeting. Such is always an occasion for celebration, just as it is a time of discernment about our continuing life together. And no doubt, there will be some hypothetical questions asked or, at least, thought as we look to the new year ahead of us. The reality is, this is not the same parish we were a year ago, or the year before that, or before that just as next year we will not be the same parish we are today. How do I know that to be true? Because in this parish, the God we choose to serve, is God not of the dead, not God of the idle, noteven God of the hypothetical “what ifs”, but the God of the living, of the active, the God who invites everyone – and I do mean everyone - who enters these doors to truly know an abiding and active faith that changes lives and whole communities.

That, my friends, is the power and promise of resurrection when it is lived not simply as something in the future, but in this present moment today. It is a resurrection from exile, from sin, from exclusion, from fear of change, from fear about the future, from hopelessness and grief. It is the power of God. How we respond to that transforming and resurrecting work of God is clearly ours to choose and explore. But, oh, how wonderful to know that God is God not of the dead, but of the living. May that knowledge and that promise of God continue to transform us, resurrect us, and be alive within us today, tomorrow, and in the age to come. Amen.