The following sermon was preached by Mark P. Bangert, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, November 10, 2010.
His passion in a sense had already begun. Jesus had made his triumphal entry upon the cloak-strewn path into the city of his execution. The unstoppable march to his death was on its way, even as the religious leaders and theologians were seeking to lay hands on him, hoping to trick him, discredit him, and thereby interrupt his popular teaching career.
The sadducees had an additional agenda. Perhaps with a few clever questions they could both expose what they hoped others would see as his incompetence while also getting Jesus and others to admit that there is no life after death—a defining tenet of their theology.
So we meet the seven brothers, and their one wife. If the Mosaic manuals on systematic theology and ethics are to be taken seriously, the sadducees argued, then we end up with a kind of reverse polygamy consisting of a woman with seven husbands—isn’t that right, Jesus? And, by the way, doesn’t such a conundrum make one conclude that life after death is poppycock? What’s final about life is death. Clearly all the signs point to that. Clearly that’s what Moses implies. Even God knows what limitations there are on life. The rest is wishful thinking.
What makes sadducees of us—especially in November at LSTC—is not our conservatism, nor is it our zeal for knowing and vigorously defending the truth, both sadduceean traits. Rather the signs among which we live do bewilder us, bewitch us.
More than the signs, their meaning is what confounds us.
Death and its heralds seem currently to sound ever more loudly. The lack of civility among all the politicians and their abject disregard for the common good creates a cacophony that takes one’s breath away. Healthcare for all is now threatened, giving death an unbridled ride through the populace. The earth has been deprived of energy reform. The churchwide offices—so long a mirror of whom we imagine ourselves to be together—were amputated, curtailing life together as we knew it. Detractors bluster and debunk, prophets take their seat in the temple and proclaim that the grand design needs no god and that morality can exist quite apart from anything like a god—thank you, very much.
And within, November rages with cold winds of anxiety and overwork, belying the sunshine and warmth we see and feel. Will there be a congregation for me? Where is the money going to come from? Will there be students two years from now? Will ALL the wings be shuttered? Are we in the midst of our own unstoppable march to death?
The sadducees were not interested in resurrection; for them it was a ploy.
But we are. Indeed, for us it is way more than an interest.
Jesus’ response gets our attention. He dismissed the marriage issue quickly, and immediately got to the heart of Sadduceean problem: Death and God do not coexist. If God, then life. Moses has more to say, Jesus replied to their question, now making them look incompetent. Their beloved Moses made it clear that God is a God of the living. “At the Bush,” Jesus said, truth lies “at the bush,” three words serving as a kind of shorthand for Moses’ call narrative at the burning bush, his subsequent short-lived attempt to domesticate God with an inquisitive end run for observation of the flame, and his encounter with the grace-filled “I am who I am.” The Living One. All of that at the bush.
At the bush you will find not only the God of the living but a living God. It was Moses who made this known, Jesus proclaimed. Issues of dead husbands and a dead wife are of no consequence.
What is of consequence are the November winds that continue to howl and rage without and within. Trying to take refuge in the bush seems distant. Even seeking respite in oncoming Advent falls short, as this year’s preaching students are learning from texts full of broods of vipers and a life-quenching flood. Little comfort there. Feels like the flame has gone out, like the voice from the bush has been silenced by laryngitis.
But the God who spoke from the bush is the same God who showed up at the tomb. There, at the tomb, God made known that God reigns over death; indeed, at the tomb is the God who reigns over the Novembers of our lives.
In this, to quote the Apostle Paul, we are to stand firm. How hard is that? Usually way harder than we anticipate, but no more difficult than it was for Mary Magdalene. There, at the tomb, she stood on the first Easter Day, peering into the empty tomb which reflected the emptiness she felt inside, the same emptiness that has settled among us, trying to make sense out of the death that had seeped into every corner of her life. Looking up she didn’t, maybe couldn’t, recognize the living one that entered her November. All she saw and felt was emptiness, her life a chilly damp tomb, a landscape of depair. Instead of the Living One she could only make out a gardner. That is, until he spoke. Mary. With that hope came alive and she was given a new life.
That name calling still goes on. You know that, I know that, and the name calling yields waters that bring life to parched landscapes.
And here’s the thing: precisely on November landscapes does the Living One do his work. In that sense God is God even of the dead, for the dead are the ones brought to life through Jesus Christ.
This is God’s time, this November. At the tomb God makes known just what it is God is doing with our Novembers. Here at the table, across from us, next to us, are living signs of the living God. Here at the table, in the grain and grapes reside the promise of an earth reinvigorated, made new. Here at the table (or did I mean tomb?) resurrection comes to us as tomb-food, angel food, nourishment for hungry daughters and sons. At the tomb (or did I mean table?) the Living One turns death to life, turns November to December, turns December to January, January to March, March to April, April to….