Saturday, November 09, 2013

Good Gracious

 Luke 20:27-38

            Some day, I think I’ll write a book called Famous Scenes Left Out of the Bible.  One of those scenes actually belongs in the twentieth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel in the middle of our story this morning.  The included scene would have the text read like this:  “There were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married the widow, and so in the same way all seven married her and died childless.  Finally, finally the woman died.  And Jesus looked at the Sadducees for a moment in total disbelief.  Then he snickered.  The snicker became a laugh, then a guffaw.  And Jesus, turning to his disciples saw that they were trying to hold in their laughter.  And the Sadducees grew very angry.  But Jesus, totally losing it, fell down upon the ground, rolling in the dirt, laughing uncontrollably.  “This,” he said, finally composing himself, “is the darnedest story anybody ever cooked up.”  But clearing his throat and wiping away tears from his dusty face, Jesus proceeded to teach the Sadducees a lesson.  They were chagrined to hear him say that Moses himself testified to the resurrection when he spoke of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  So therefore, said Jesus, “God is not God of the dead but of the living.”

            Worse things have been done to the Bible.  In fact, one has to wonder why all three of the Synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—report this incident.  In all honesty, I imagine that they found it far less funny than I do.  I think it might be that they were all writing to audiences who, far enough removed from the Easter event, had some trouble with the notion of resurrection.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think that the Early Church was necessarily plagued with exactly the same issues that bedevil the post-modern world.  But we know, for example, from another source, namely St. Paul, that there were significant numbers of people in the ancient Church who had a hard time with the notion of resurrection.  Paul writes in 1 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?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”  A little later he goes on to say, “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?’”  So well before any of the first three gospels took shape, Paul was acknowledging that there were folks around who had trouble with the notion of resurrection, let alone the fact that on resurrection hangs the truth of the Christian faith.  If you have trouble believing in the resurrection, don’t feel so alone.

            Perhaps you are beginning to wonder if I am in as great a fog as any Sadducee.  Don’t I know that we are half a year away from Easter?  Am I not aware that St. Thomas’ Church has been building towards this day now for well over a month as the culmination of your stewardship season?  What has all this marrying that the poor woman did with so many feeble and worn out husbands—all with the added problem (from somebody, somewhere) of monumental infertility—what has all this to do with what we are here for on this special Sunday?

            This story is the quintessential example of a crowd of people, very sure of themselves and their point of view, who ask the wrong question. They miss the point entirely.  A generation ago, The Episcopal Church had a great Presiding Bishop by the name of John Elbridge Hines.  Bishop Hines used to begin his sermons with a prayer that included the phrase, “When we would make much of what cannot matter much to thee, recall us to the heart of our confession, Jesus Christ, Lord.”  In the light of that, most of us are Sadducees at least some of the time.  We make much of what cannot matter much to God.  We ask stupid questions, which, by the way, is not at all the same as expressing honest doubts.  We fritter away our time on things that are forgotten in a day or less.  The religious as well as the non-religious are not exempt from the danger of missing the point by making much of what cannot matter much to God or anyone else.

            So what is the point? 

            Everything in the gospel hinges on Resurrection.  Is the whole message one of love?  Then love and resurrection are inseparable.  Is the thrust of the New Testament about serving others to relieve suffering and to make a better world?  Then service and relieving suffering are inextricably tied to resurrection.  Is the theme of the gospel salvation, or transformation, or eternal life, or morality, or outreach, or justice, or right relationships, or honoring the Truth, or claiming one’s most profound Selfhood?  Yes and yes and yes to all of that.  And every one of those things, properly understood, is an expression of resurrection.  For God is God of the living, and if you are either alive or want to be, God is all about raising you from the dead.  That is what our baptism means.  It is our initiation into a community of resurrected persons sharing the life of the resurrected Jesus.  And it is more—our baptism is.  It is living out that life, practicing the precepts of Jesus, cultivating the Mind of Jesus, acquiring the habits of Jesus, doing the works of Jesus.  It is from beginning to end about being raised little by little, day by day, action by action from death to life.  You want to know what dead is?  It isn’t so much what you’ll be when you are a corpse.  It is lifeless, tasteless, meaningless, pointless stuff—relationships that are poisonous, attitudes that suck, inflated egos that try to mask insecurity with bravado, self-medication through one thing or another that never quite eases deep pain nor bleeds away old anger.  It is what the New Testament writers refer to as “the world” or “the flesh,”—not to be confused with the marvelous body you have.  Spirit and life and resurrection are all rolled up in the same ball, and that ball is the life of God, the power of God:  the power that raised Jesus from the dead and raises you from the dead.

            That is the point. 

            But we are left with a question, aren’t we? What must we do, what can we do, to live the resurrection life more fully? Or, if we haven’t yet begun to live it, how do we start?  It is a fair question, and it deserves an answer.

            Practice being grateful.  If you hang around the Christian community very long, you are bound to hear a bunch of one-syllable words, an important one of which is grace.  Essentially, grace refers to the giving action of God.  The one thing we can safely say about God is that God is always giving.  Every once in awhile, something hugely significant breaks into our awareness.  In 1999, on a sun-drenched autumn morning I started the drive from Santa Fe up towards Taos through what is properly called the Land of Enchantment.  I looked westward at mountains rising out of the desert, an overwhelming sight.  Full of joy, I exclaimed out loud with no one to hear me in the secrecy of my truck, “O God, thank you!  It is unimaginably beautiful.  Thank you for whatever you did to cause such beauty!”  I sighed and drove on.  In a second or two, I heard the words—not a human voice or a disembodied spirit, but words that formed so large in my mind that they might well have existed outside of me:  “Frank, I made it just for you.”  Tears sprang.  Alice Walker, my favorite theologian, says in The Color Purple that God is always flirting with us, trying to get our notice.  Her character Shug says that God is pissed every time we pass the color purple and don’t notice.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.[1]  And that is just the start of it. God made it all just for you, as if you were the only being on the entire planet. God gives it all just for you.  Free of charge.  Millions upon millions of years, billions even, went into the making of you.  Flaming stars turned dark and died, flinging their dust across distances you cannot fathom, and their glory is right now in the stuff sitting here in the form of you.  Pinch yourself.  Feel what once shone as light, which you now feel as flesh. 
            Live with that awareness, breathe deeply that joy, and you cannot be depressed forever or down for long.  You’ll want a thousand tongues to sing your dear Redeemer’s praise.  And if you catch the spirit that made you, you will find yourself, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, wanting to mirror that life that gave you your life and keeps on giving it to you no matter how you beat it up.  When you were conceived and later born, you embodied the DNA of your parents and took on their characteristics.  We are born again in baptism so that we can take on the characteristics of our Maker and Redeemer.  And before long, we find ourselves finding ourselves oddly when we start losing ourselves.  We begin practicing, awkwardly at first and then with increasing confidence, giving ourselves away.

            That is what God does, and when you do it, God is palpably alive in you.  Grace and gratitude are inseparable, two parts of a continuous cycle.  Charis, or grace, is at the heart of the Great Thanksgiving, which we call eucharist.  And that brings us up to this very moment.  We have gathered today to make eucharist.  A part of our eucharistia is making an act of thanksgiving the way we most frequently do, and that by giving a gracious gift.  Call it a pledge, call it commitment, or call it your estimate of giving.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you make the connection between what you give through St. Thomas’ and your life in Christ.  Don’t pay the Church for goods and services.  Give to the Body of Christ because you are the Body of Christ and you want to be as giving as the Body of Christ in the manger, as giving as the Body of Christ when he fed five thousand, as giving as the Body of Christ on the cross.  And don’t stop with the card you fill out today.  Find some way to turn your thanksgiving into a gift every day.  Pay compliments.  Tip generously. Laugh hilariously. Love profligately, especially those who are hard to love and who therefore need it the most. 

            And should you ever come to the moment when you puzzle over who will be whose lover or wife or husband in the resurrection, may God recall you to the heart of your faith:  that you are alive in God and God is alive in you, for which grace you will never cease giving thanks.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in Chief Modern Poets of England and America, 4th Edition (New York:  Macmillan, 1962), p. 60-I.

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