The God of the Living

Haggai 1:15-2:9Luke 20:27-38

The God whom we worship is the God of the living…

My thoughts this morning may not fully cohere. If you’re anything like me, your week draws together a variety of experiences that may or may not have anything to do with each other. They swirl around in a way that shapes us and moves us, raises questions and doubts, affirms and uplifts us. Perhaps for you, this time in worship is an escape from those experiences, a moment of respite from an otherwise hectic, chaotic week. Or maybe it is a time in which these thoughts themselves can find rest, like the slow settling of the sand of the ocean floor after it has been stirred and churned.

I, myself, feel drawn in many directions in response to many conversations and moments of this past week. Together, they begin to weave a tapestry of experience for me, threads that are a reflection of my own sense of identity as a Christian, as a pastor, as a parent, as a Presbyterian. There are the conversations with young parents in our neighborhood at the park, in the grocery store, at social gatherings, about parenting and education and Christian identity. There is the conversation I had with a young Muslim woman from India about God and religion and language and metaphor and gender. There is the chapter from the Practicing Our Faith book on “Dying Well,” a chapter written by a friend of mine from Louisville whose own young daughter has been on our prayer list for the past few months facing life-threatening medical conditions. There is also the knowledge that some of us are wrestling with the loss of our own friends and loved ones this week.

And as these thoughts swirl around, at the center of it all sits our lesson from this morning, as the Sadducees confront Jesus on the meaning of resurrection with a particularly bizarre hypothetical question about a woman widowed seven times over.

This week, these moments have been threaded together for me. The conversations have carried on their own conversations with one another with me as both participant and bystander. Parents speak with Sadducees, authors speak with the grieving, Jesus speaks with a woman from Mumbai; and all of them speak to me. And in some way, in all of them I hear the echo of a sermon title picked in advance of a midweek bulletin deadline: “The God whom we worship is the God of the living…”

Earlier this week, Elizabeth and I found ourselves at a parents group. As our children played and snacked, the conversation turned, as it often does, to a variety of parenting topics: what tricks work or don’t for sleeping and discipline, what schools our children attend or will attend? One young mother mentioned that she had discovered a school nearby that was particularly appealing as it was “Christian-based.” The phrase leapt out at me, so I asked: “What does that mean, ‘Christian-based’”? To be fair, they had just begun exploring the place, but the things they mentioned – intentional parental involvement in the child’s education, the teaching of personal responsibility and moral values, a classically-based form of education – didn’t sound uniquely Christian – or “Christian-based” to me. Questions bubbled in my head for days afterwards. Doesn’t a society like ours demand that a word like “Christian” be defined a bit more precisely? Was this a school where science would be treated with suspicion and contempt, where the Bible is the only textbook considered worth reading? Or is the intent to be broader, perhaps in the sense of equating “Christian” with “Western,” more a civic than a theological definition? Or, perhaps more cynically on my part, could this be nothing more than a marketing device, a group recognizing that the brand name “Christian” might mean adding a few thousand dollars to tuition costs, recognizing the demographic to whom it might appeal?

As a Presbyterian, it is my firm conviction that we have something unique to say to this conversation within our society. We tend not to be suspicious folk. We approach education, including science, with a healthy respect. We see that there is knowledge to be gained, and that this knowledge can be in the service of God. But in the midst of this societal discussion, I am also concerned that we have lost our particular voice. We have been distressed by self-righteousness, particularly in its more hypocritical forms, of some Christians in our society. “We’re not that kind of Christian,” we might say. But it can be very easy to say what we are not. To say what we are is far more difficult, and so we might be drawn to broad platitudes. Being “Christian” can easily become a synonym for someone who won’t rock the boat, who sticks to the tried and true ways, who is known as a pleasant, polite, respectable, reasonable person. Or as a pastor colleague of mine is fond of saying, “It’s nice to be nice to the nice.”

It is at this moment that the text this morning begins to tug at me, asking for another read, a closer inspection. Perhaps Jesus might have something to say about what it means to be a Christian? The Sadducees, part of the theological elite of Jesus’ day, come to him with another one of their litmus tests. They bring this question of a woman who marries and then watches one husband after another die as she follows the cultural teachings of Moses. It’s almost as the though the Sadducees are asking the first century hypothetical equivalent of the “If God is all powerful can he make a rock so heavy he can’t even lift it” kind of question (which, by the way, if anyone asks you that, tell them the answer is, “yes” and watch them squirm).

Jesus, in typical fashion, refuses to answer the Sadducees’ question, which focuses on to which of the seven husbands this woman will be married in the afterlife. Instead, he bypasses their query altogether in favor of a cryptic answer about being married in this life and not being married, and how the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is the God not of the dead, but of the living. It doesn’t appear that he intends to shed any light whatsoever on the question they might be bringing. Is he advocating not to be married at all? Probably not, since the patriarchs he mentioned, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were all married. Is it an answer that sheds some light on life after death? Perhaps, since we learn from the story that these particular Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection; but Jesus obfuscates almost more than he clarifies, because those same patriarchs he mentions would be among those whom the Sadducees would consider dead, not living.

As life sprinted past my door this week, I couldn’t help but wonder if Jesus was saying something altogether different, as he torques our minds and hearts, taking a straightforward question and giving it a roundabout reply. Is he speaking to something deeper, an unstated assumption that the Sadducees are making? Could it be that he is pointing out their utter lack of sympathy for the woman in the story, be she real or hypothetical, and their desire to use her as a theological object lesson? What of her pain, this woman who has been widowed seven times over? Is this not of interest to them? Is it only her ultimate fate as an eternally married woman that matters to them?

If the God whom we worship is the God of the living, then perhaps what this means is simply that God, ultimately, matters. God is connected, most intimately, into the lives we live. The God about whom Jesus speaks is a God who is a paradox – wholly other, and yet wholly involved in the lives of those whom this God has created. That is the very meaning of Christ’s whole ministry, that the word that speaks, “Let there be light” become flesh in a stable in Bethlehem; that the one who creates is also the one who heals, who serves, who loves, yes, who even dies and rises. God is not an abstract concept to be studied and debated; God is present and desires a relationship with God’s beloved children.

And maybe that is the message of hope, or at least of comfort, for many of us this week. Names enter our prayer list week after week, names of those who are ill, struggling, dying. Some of these names might be unknown to many of us; but each of them matters at least a little bit to someone among us, and a great deal to those who surround them with care and comfort. Their fate, our fate, is not meant to be fodder for abstract theological lessons. Instead, their fate, our fate, is a matter of utmost importance to God. The God whom we worship is the God of the living, even, and especially, at those moments of brokenness and death. Dying well, Amy Platinga Pauw writes in Practicing Our Faith, means holding fast to the promise that not even death can separate us from the love of God; it also means recognizing the reality that death does separate us from the love of those who hold us dear. And so we surround, we hope, we weep, we lament, and we embrace, reflecting something of the nature of this living God whom we worship.

And just as all of the dust of these conversations was beginning to sift and settle, I sat down at a dinner next to a young Muslim woman from Mumbai. The occasion was the annual banquet of the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau of Atlanta. The Executive Director, Soumaya Khalifa, has spoken here at OPC before, and is someone I am fortunate to call a friend. The opening invocation of the interfaith banquet was led by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy. I asked the woman what she thought of the minister’s prayer, which chose to focus on the image of God as “Father,” a concept that is explicitly forbidden in Islam. “I found it very interesting,” she told me. “You know, parent language is very common in many cultures to speak of God. But why ‘Father’ and not ‘Mother’? And if God is the Father, then who is the Mother?”

This led us down an interesting path as we discussed the meaning of “Father” as a recurring theme in Christian theology. Human language is, by definition, limited. Every attempt to describe the divine will fall short, and so for each description there is both a “yes” and a “no.” The meaning of such words is never meant to be literal, in the sense of God having gender or being the reproductive source for humanity. Instead, the meaning is meant to be descriptive, evocative, metaphorical. This should be particularly important to those of us who follow a Christ who spoke mostly in parables. I reminded the woman that there are examples in Christian Scripture, though not as many, where the description of God is clearly feminine: a woman who loses a coin, a mother bear who protects her cubs, a mother eagle who shelters her young. But rather than getting caught up on the semantics of it all, the real message at the heart is this phrase that keeps echoing: the God whom we worship is the God of the living. Whether we describe God as Father, or God as mother, or God as shepherd, or God as friend, there is an intimacy that we see at the heart of God’s character and relationship with us. And we, who dare to call ourselves Christian, know this God most fully in the one whom we dare to call Christ. God sees, God knows, God cares. God heals, God embraces, God graces.

Friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ, as the stirred up sand of our weeks begins to sift and settle, my hope is that we will know more fully this truth, that the God whom we worship is the God of the living; that our faith matters in the lives we lead: not as the key to unlock secrets, but as an invitation to live in the midst of mystery; not as belief in one who can be easily defined and circumscribed, but one who is beyond language itself and for whom our words and metaphors, at their best, give a mere glimpse; not as certainty in the one who simply takes away pain and answers prayer in the ways we expect, but as certain knowledge that this one is the first one to shed tears for injustice and brokenness, and calls us to nurture resistance to the powers of death in this world; and not as a faith that attempts to be an apologetic, answering the questions that might be thrown at us, but as trust that our openness to the conversations and relationships that come our way, even with those Sadducees, might shed some light on this living God for the whole world to see.

sermonsMarthame Sanders