Author: AJ Langston

Sermon 7/16

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 Whose Wife Will She Be in the Resurrection

July 16, 2017

Luke 20:27-40; I Corinthians 15

​For some reason I started thinking about this passage a few weeks ago. My thinking was prompted by a conversation I had with my wife. We were talking about my mother who was married to my father, Jim Swicegood, for 31 years until he died. Then she was a widow for a few years and started going out with Charlie Bunn after his wife died. Charlie and my mother were an “item” for 22 years until he died five years ago. My mother often said that she was fortunate to have two good men in her life. So my wife mused, “I wonder which man she will choose in heaven. Your dad or Charlie Bunn.” Maybe my mom had decided it would be just to hard to choose between them so she would elect to spend one night with my dad and the next night with Charlie Bunn. I don’t know whether God would like that. Or maybe there’s a form of polygamy in heaven. Some Mormons would vote for that.    

​So here’s the gist of this passage. Some Sadducees, a party of the Jews who did believe in the resurrection to eternal life, came to Jesus with a convoluted problem.    

        Once upon a time there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman a woman and died childless. The second brother took her for his wife. And this happened again and again…to the second brother, and the third and the fourth down to the seventh. Talk about an unlucky family. If I were the seventh brother I surely would be watching my diet and exercising furiously, and made sure my life insurance was paid up. She outlasted every one of them, and at the end, which one was hers?

​It’s an silly little scenario, proposed by Jewish religious leaders. They draw on an old law from Moses, tucked away in a obscure corner of the Old Testament. Moses taught, “If a married man dies but had no son, his brother shall marry the widow and get her pregnant so the family name shall continue” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6).​

​It was called “Levirate marriage” and we don’t know how many times the rule was invoked. The brother was obligated to do this duty, regardless of whether she was a babe or as ugly as home made soap.

​And this wasn’t simply an arranged marriage. There was an element of justice here. Widows had no rights in ancient Jewish society. Somebody needed to protect and provide for them. Not only that; if there were male children, they could inherit the family property someday.

Now, the first surviving brother didn’t have to do this. He could refuse. If he did, the widow could go to the village elders to complain. If the brother still refused, the widow would spit in his general direction, take one of his shoes, and he would forever be known as “The Man Without a Shoe” (Deuteronomy 25:7-10).

​And then after they’ve laid this all out, they pop the question to Jesus, “When all of them die, whose wife shall she be in the resurrection since all seven were married to her?’ Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels.”

​A quick history lesson about the the Sadducees? They were the party of privilege; they were the ruling elite. Their priests held the majority in the seventy-one-member Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council. By tradition one of their members held the office of high priest. Most of the Sadducees were wealthy members of the upper class. What a scene! Here is Jesus encountering Israel’s priestly aristocracy. He is obvious making an impact on Jewry for them to stoop to argue with an itinerant healer from Nazareth.

​Jewish society was sharply divided between Sadducees and Pharisees on most political issues and religious issues. The Pharisees wanted to overthrow their Roman oppressors, so they bring the coin to Jesus and ask him if men should pay taxes to Caesar. The Sadducees cooperated with the Romans to preserve their political clout and ruling class status. In theology, the Pharisees followed the rabbinic traditions with all their moral and legalistic regulations. But if there was one doctrine that defined the Sadducees it was their rejection of the resurrection. For them, when life is over, it is over. There is nothing that awaits us beyond this life but dark extinction.  

​What’s curious is that a group of Sadducees, who traditionally do not believe in the resurrection ask Jesus a question about whose wife this woman will be be in the resurrection.  

​We know immediately that they are jousting with Jesus. They are wanting him to mis-speak, to stutter and stammer with his answers. But Jesus, always the master of the situation, replies to their question and makes two points. The first point is the most important. In the age to come, he says, meaning that there will be an age to come. Meaning there will be life after death. Meaning that there will be a resurrection of the body, which Paul writes about in I Corinthians 15.

​The second point is less important in this passage, but I suspect it is more important to us, and actually quite disturbing to some of us. In the age to come, Jesus declares, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage.

​How many times have you heard at a memorial service? She’s gone to heaven to be rejoin her husband. In fact, one of the pastoral prayers for a Presbyterian memorial service goes something like this: “And we look forward to a glad heavenly reunion.”

​Jesus’ words here contradict that assertion. And that can be very hard to hear for those of us who have had deeply devoted marriages. It can be confusing– or relieving– to those who have been married more than once or who are divorced or separated.

​On Wednesday I came home at noon after playing golf and Barbara wasn’t there. She usually leaves me a note but there was no note. I didn’t think much about it. I sat down in my recliner, which is better than any sedative at inducing sleep, and drifted off into nappy land. I woke up at :2:30; she still wasn’t back. “These are long errands she’s running,” I thought. At three I had an appointment and came home around 4. She still wasn’t there. Quiet alarm bells began ringing. Has something happened to her? Has she left me? After all, I’m not the easiest person in the world to live with. I know that. But when I looked

at where we store our suitcases they were all there, and more telling, our two cats were still in the house. She might leave me but never leave the cats. About 4:30 she came home, and I was gladder than usual to see her. She had enjoyed a long lunch with a friend, and then run errands. I’ve often told her that I am nothing without her, and I mean that every time I say it. I can’t imagine life without her, here, or BEYOND HERE. Some of you here today really understand what I mean. So if there is a heaven, and I can’t be married to her in the life to come, well then, I would just as soon join my golfing buddies in hell.  

​It reminds me of the young Presbyterian pastor who began his ministry some years ago in a small southern town. Those were the days of the temperance movement, remember those days. An old woman in the church, the president of the local WCTU, found out that the young pastor liked to have a glass of wine with his dinner now and then. She asked him to stop by and read him the riot act: the evils of alcohol how it has ruined individuals and families, how he was setting a bad example for the youth in the congregation. Finally when she was finished her diatribe, he said, “But Martha Jesus turned water into wine in his first miracle at Cana of Galilee. “ And without missing a beat the old woman said, That’s just another one of those things I don’t like about Jesus.

​So I’m not very keen about Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees here. Is it sacrilegious to argue with Jesus? I don’t know but like the old teetotaling woman, this is just another one of those things I don’t like about Jesus.

​But let’s stretch our minds a bit and gather what we know from Scripture about the life to come.  

​For openers, the entire N.T. rises or falls upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Without that, we have nothing, no Bible, no church, no faith.

​What is it like? The best we have is Paul’s description here in I Corinthians, that we who have physical bodies will be raised a spiritual body. Does that mean that I will have hair again, or won’t need glasses or hearing aids? I don’t know. I don’t.  

​The world to come, Jesus teaches, is not like this world. In fact, it is dazzling in its difference. The first are last and the last are first, there is no pain or suffering or tears, where death itself will be completely abolished….and where even the most precious god-given institutions of them all – marriage and family – will be a thing of the past.

​We don’t know exactly what that will look like, but we know enough from Jesus to realize that we will all be part of intensely spiritual community, sharing relationships of love, compassion and self-giving.

​One of my favorite passages is from II Corinthians 4: “Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath entered the heart o human beings, the things that God hath prepared for those who love Him, who are called according to his purpose.”

​I’ve always loved the poster we placed on our refrigerator a few years ago. It shows a pathway through a redwood forest, winding off into the distance until it disappears from sight. The wording on the poster says, “We can trust an unknown future to a known God.”

​What I have found across my lifetime is that God keeps his promises. I believe that when our loved ones die they are transported into the presence of God, something like this life, but with all the good parts included and the bad parts wiped out.  

​Whose wife will she be? We have no idea. There’s lots that we don’t know, but one thing that we do. God loves us and gave His Son for us.  

​As Patrick J Willson wrote about this encounter with the Saducees, Jesus does not answer all our questions, though one of our fondest illusions is that he should. What he does is point us to a God whose faithfulness to those whom God called is immeasurable and inexhaustible, and in that faithfulness we find enough to endure all that life and death will ask of us.  

 

 

 

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Sermon 6/25

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The Seeds We Sow

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

June 25 2017

A sower went out to sow.  This is a parable that speaks to discouragement.  Whenever we begin something really important–whether it’s a marriage, or a new business venture or parenthood–we always start with a high level of idealism and hope. But life has a way of bashing our ideals and dashing our hopes.

That’s exactly what happens to Jesus.  He begins his ministry by coming into his home town, preaching at his home church.  He’s the local boy made good.  In Luke 4 we hear that everybody has good things to say about him. They know his daddy and his momma.  This is Joseph’s son, they all say.

And then he preaches–he preaches a sermon–a sermon that tells them that God isn’t just a God of the Jews, but a God who loves foreigners as well.  That’s bordering on heresy.  As he preaches, they get a little uncomfortable, then they begin to squirm in their seats, until finally, they think: “This isn’t preaching; this is meddling.”  Their warm reception turns hostile as the magnitude of Jesus’ message sinks home.

And then, his listeners get up from the synagogue and drive–that’s the word “drive” him out of town, chasing him to the edge of the cliff, where they would have pushed him off, but Jesus manages  to escape.

He leaves his home town, and goes forth into Galilee.  He is at first a sensational success.  Common people flock to his side, hanging on his every word.  He touches the ears of the deaf and they hear.  He lays his hands on lepers and the diseased flesh becomes clean. Enthusiasm for his ministry spreads like wildfire throughout the region.

This is how his ministry opens.  But turn the calendar a few months later, and there is a change in mood.  Like the people in his home town, people begin to realize that Jesus’ message is hard.  You have to give up a lot to follow him.  You have to take no thought for your own life, and live your life in service to others.  You have to abandon your priorities and let Jesus set your agenda. 

And so, one by one, those who follow him begin to fall away.  As they do, Jesus begins to feel discouraged.   In Luke 12 he says, “What stress I am under.”  So Jesus tells this parable about discouragement, the discouragement he himself is facing.  He is sowing the seed, the seed of the Gospel.  But now he realizes that much of what he wants to accomplish will not materialize because of factors beyond his control.  He sows the seed, but birds gobble up some of the seed; other seed falls on rocky ground, and cannot take root; Some fragile shoots do manage to take root, but the sun parches them.  Some seed falls among thorns, and is choked to death. 

So much seed sown.  So much effort.  Such scanty results.   So much of what Jesus wants to accomplish, he realizes, will never come to pass. 

So, on those days when we are asking ourselves, “What have I managed to accomplish?”–and it seems that we haven’t accomplished all that much, we should turn to this parable with all our honest discouragement, and see if there is anything in it to help us gain perspective on our lives.

I.

I confess to you that I have my own black moods of discouragement about the ministry.  I wonder what I have really accomplished.  There seems to be as many failures as successes.  And like the other helping professions, you can never really quantify what you’ve achieved.

I got a chuckle out of what a fellow Presbyterian minister said.  He was working on his resume, and as he was writing about his ministry, he hit his “spell checker” key on his computer.  His spell checker didn’t recognize the word “pastoring” and suggested the following alternatives: (A) PASTURING, (B) PESTERING, and (C) POSTURING. 

Well, we take on many roles as pastors.  How effective we are, we never really know.  And that’s discouraging at times.  We are the consummate sowers, and very little seed seems to take root.  Maybe my discouragement, and the discouragement that is common for colleagues in the ministry, comes from our living in a bottom-line culture. 

When I back away and try to gain a little perspective on the business of ministry, a couple of things come to mind.  Yes, it is true that many people are unresponsive.  But God has that problem with each of us. 

And there are moments, not many, but there are moments when I’m given some insight into the harvest my own ministry has brought.

Those moments always occur at unexpected times and at unexpected places.  One of those moments took place on the when I returned to Portland to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of Westminster Church.  I gave it my best, and by the grace of God, Westminster turned around from being a dying church to a vibrant church with a powerful ministry and outreach to the community.

After the 100th anniversary service, I went to the door where I traditionally stood on Sunday morning to shake hands.  A woman I only knew casually was the first person out.  She said to me, “I just want you to  know that while you here, you saved my sanity and my marriage.   I was going through a very hard time personally, and my husband and I weren’t getting along.  Our marriage was hanging by a thread.  Every Sunday you said something in your sermon that helped me get through the week.  I just want to say how much your ministry meant to me.”

Well, that was it.  I had never talked with her about any of her problems.  I had no idea what it was I said in those sermons several years ago.  But there was something, some seed that germinated in my mind, and was typed on the word processor, and preached in that pulpit, that lodged in her heart.

I’ve concluded that in the ministry, discouragement comes along with the territory.  All of us called to the ministry are just like everyone else, frail

human beings. 

But we have no right to let discouragement be our permanent mood.  We do have our days of discouragement and nights of disillusionment.  But we have no right to wallow in discouragement unless we make God out to be a liar.  For the promise of God in this parable is that if we sow the seed, there will be a harvest.  We may not know what the harvest is.  We may not live to see all the plants that come up.  But there will be a harvest. Some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, some hundred-fold. 

II.

Discouragement is our theme for the morning.  The discouragement we feel when we’ve given something our best and the results don’t show up.  Discouragement is not only the vocational affliction of ministers.  It belongs to anybody who wants to make her life count for something.

It’s interesting to note how many people we regard as highly productive did not feel they had accomplished much.

Robert Louis Stevenson, whose words have inspired generations, penned his own epitaph, which reads: “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.”

And I have always been haunted by Jesus’ very last words, his very last words on this earth, according to the Gospel of Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

At that moment, I believe, Jesus felt like his life, his ministry, his mission, had been a failure. And in his death, he felt so discouraged and beaten down that he wondered if God had abandoned him. 

Could we conclude this about discouragement?   Could we conclude that there is a law of life operating here?    One, we tend to misjudge and underestimate our influence.  Two, because we can’t see the results of what we’ve done, we fall prey to discouragement.  Three, and supremely important, the Lord of the harvest will bless and multiply our efforts thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was murdered while presiding at Holy Communion at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in San Salvador.  He was murdered by a member of a death squad; he was murdered because he was a partisan for the poor and the marginalized.  He wrote these words a few weeks before his death:

It helps now and then,

to step back

and take the long view.

The kingdom is not only

beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime

only a tiny fraction of

the magnificent enterprise

that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,

which is another way of saying

that the kingdom always

lies beyond us.

No statement says all

that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses

our faith.

No confession

brings perfection,

no pastoral visit

brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes

the church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives

includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds

that one day will grow.

We water seeds

already planted,

knowing that they hold

future Promise.

We lay foundations that

will need further development.

We provide yeast

that produces effects

far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,

and there is a sense of

liberation in realizing that.

This enables us

to do something,

and do it very well.

It may be incomplete,

a step along the way,

an opportunity for the

Lord’s grace to enter

and do the rest.

We may never see

the end results, but that is

the difference

between the master builder

and the worker.

We are workers,

not master builders,

ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets

of a future not our own.

Romero is right.  There is a liberation in failure, knowing that WE cannot do everything.  There is unspeakable comfort in knowing that God will take our best efforts, multiply them, and create a future not our own. 

There was a mother who had four children under the age of ten.  She had given up a career as a promising lawyer because she felt nothing was more important than rearing her children. 

It had been one of those days every mother knows about, when anything in the whole world seems more attractive than motherhood.  Two of her children had been fighting all day.  The third one had the chickenpox. And the fourth child woke up in the morning with “an attitude” that only got more belligerent with the passing hours. 

During the day she thought about her college room mate, who had decided to forego having a family to concentrate on her career.  She had just received a letter saying that her room mate had been named a senior partner in one of New York’s most prestigious law firms.  There was her college room mate, knocking down a huge income, meeting with important clients in government and business, and here she was, a lowly housewife with four little sick and ungrateful urchins. 

She had cried a little that day.  Her oldest daughter saw the tears, and stopped her fighting long enough to ask, “what’s wrong, mommy?”  Her mother replied,  “Oh, nothing, dear.”

When the day finally wound down and with all four children tucked in, she went back into the den to see an encyclopedia open on the floor.  A page had been torn from it.  She went and got the scotch  tape and stopped to repair the damage. 

That little act seemed to symbolize her whole life, forever picking up after her children, and trying to make things right for them.  As she pieced the torn page of the encyclopedia together, she noticed that it was a picture of a child’s face.  When she finished taping it together, she happened to turn it over, and on the back was a one page map of the world. 

It dawned on her that as she was putting together correctly the countenance of a little child, she was also affecting the shape of the whole world.  And she was reminded once again of why she was a mother.

A sower went out to sow.  That’s the main business of life, this business of sowing.  It’s what you do in your job or in your home.  It’s what I do every day. 

This brings us back to where we started, with the ministry of Jesus.   So many of the seeds he sowed didn’t make it.  But a few did.  A few did.

And whatever is the passion of your life today, take this message home with you.  Whether your passion is parenting, or a business venture, or some problem you are working on, take this message home with you.  Most of the seeds you sow won’t make it.  But a few will.  And those few will produce the kind of harvest that will more than justify your life on this earth.

Categories: Weekly Sermon