What's Tony Thinking

My November 6 Sermon in San Miguel


On Letting God Be God
Luke 20: 27 – 38
Community Church of San Miguel De Allende
November 6, 2022

Linda and I are thrilled to be here with you at the Community Church and in the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende. Thank you for your invitation and your gracious welcome. A special shout-out to my friend, Anna Copeland, who encouraged me in this endeavor. She tells me she is envious.

So today is for us a beginning, a beginning of a time that I’m sure will go by all too fast, at least for us. Should the time of my residency go more slowly for you . . . well, this too shall pass.

If today is a beginning of sorts, it is also, as we follow the church year and the lectionary texts, a time of ending. This church year ends in two weeks when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. And the scripture readings today and these several Sundays all take us to the last week of Jesus’ life.

After entering Jerusalem, then, Jesus went to the Temple, drove out the money-changers and vendors and then spent each day there teaching. Meanwhile, Luke tells us, “The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him.”

So the atmosphere is, to say the least, tense. And that tension prevails in the Temple as well, where Jesus is asked a series of three questions, each posed with hostile intent. Each is a sort of trick question. The first about his authority, a second about paying taxes to Caesar, and now the third and last, about the resurrection.

It’s important to know a bit about the folks that pose this last question. They are from one of the competing sects of Judaism, called the “Sadducees.” Bit of an unfortunate name, as they sound, well, sad.

The Sadducees where a well-fixed crowd, urban and aristocrats. So you can imagine how they regarded this itinerate rabbi from the countryside. Beyond that, the Sadducees were competitors with another group we know better, the Pharisees. And — last but important tidbit — they rejected the idea of a resurrection of the dead.

So they cooked up an elaborate, and quite clever question about the resurrection. According to Levitical law, if a man died leaving a childless widow, his brother was to step up and marry her to produce a family for his brother. So the Sadducees cooked up a scenario where a particular woman married into an apparently not very hardy family. Brother after brother marries her then croaks, until she has been married to all seven of them. The clever question — coming from those who already know they dismissed resurrection — whose wife, then, will she be in the resurrection? You can almost hear the “gotcha” hanging in the air.

There was to this elaborate question no genuine spirit of inquiry, no desire to learn. The intent was to argue, to embarass, to force Jesus to choose a side and offend another.

I don’t know how things are here in San Miguel, but I come from a United States where choosing sides and test questions, attempts to get to a place where we can say “gotcha” and one up the other side, are the order of the day. I recently listened to an interview with two politial scientists whose studies led them to describe our political atmosphere in the U.S. as one of “calcification.” Hardened.

I suspect some of us are here to escape that — I know Linda is — so I won’t say any more of U.S. politics. But two millenia later we are still up to humanity’s old games, attempts to embarass our opponents and establish our own superiority.

When the Protestant Reformer John Calvin was converted he described his conversion as receiving from God “a teachable spirit.” At the time he was a young man, training to be a lawyer. “My spirit,” he said, “was hardened, strangely lacking suppleness for one so young.” His conversion softened him. It gave him “a teachable spirit,” which I think is a wonderful phrase.

I can relate. As a much younger man, I abandoned an academic career path, in part because I was sharpening my own skills and tools of argument and snappy repartee. I feared it would end up hardening my own spirit.

These days we spend our summers at an old family cabin in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. One of our favorite jaunts is to drive to the little town of Imnaha, population 60, for Taco Night at the Imnaha Tavern. We took our grandson Colin there this past summer. He polished off something like 9 tacos. He loved the funky old place with antlers on the wall and rattlesnakes in the freezer. One of its features is a huge array of funny signs. Like the one that says, “Beer . . . because your friends just aren’t that interesting,” or “Because of ammunition shortage, warning shots will no longer be fired.” But my own favorite is the sign that says simply this: “You might be wrong.” You might be wrong.

Resurrection was not an idea that the Sadducees were entertaining. Their condition was “calcification,” hardness of heart. They were certain they were right.

At my first church, more than forty years ago, we found on arrival a deeply divided congregation. One group that had moved into the congregation during the time between pastors understood themselves as “born-again Christians.” They looked upon others in the congregation as “not really Christian.” The others returned the favor. It was a challenging setting for this wet-behind-the-ears fresh seminary grad.

One day after a couple weeks on the job the “born-again” group showed up at the church office, saying they wanted a word with me. There were a dozen or more, too many to fit in my tiny office. So I came outside on that warm August day, where the temperature felt as if had been raised even further by the evident agitation of my visitors.

“What we want to know,” they said, “is have you been ‘born-again?’”

Truthfully, I was terrified. Little in my background had prepared me for such a confrontation. Any answer I offered would be wrong for some in my new congregation. I thought for a minute then said, “Well, I guess the proof’s in the pudding.” But then, thinking that adding in some Scripture might be a really good move, I added, “Or as our Lord said, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’”

That slowed them down and eventually they retreated, some grumbling. I was, however, pretty proud of myself, even a little smug. I thought “aren’t you clever?” Yes, I probably thought, “Gotcha.” I see now, in hindsight, what I failed to do. I didn’t think about how I could love these folks. I didn’t stop to think how I could show them grace.

Here in speaking with the Sadducees Jesus responded not to the bad attitude behind the question, which I definitely would have done. He responded head-on, and seriously, to their questions.

And here’s what he says:
They ask whose wife will this poor woman — who has been widowed six times — “whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” Gotcha now Jesus.

But he says simply, you are confusing the present age with the age to come. You are assuming that eternal life, resurrected life, is simply an extension of what we now experience. The apostle Paul says something similar when discussing this topic. It will be, he said, as if a seed is sown in the ground, a little, dry gnarled seed. The plant or tree which grows up bears no resemblance to the seed. So it is with the resurrection. There is a new creation.

I imagine that some of you, like us, get the New York Times on-line. If so, you perhaps recall that one of their writers, Nick Kristof, has had a practice of doing interviews with various Christian leaders often about near Easter.

A couple years ago he interviewed the President of Union Theological Seminary, which happens to be my alma mater. Kristof asked Union’s President Serene Jones about the resurrection.

“Do you think of Easter as a literal flesh-and-blood resurrection?” You can almost hear the unspoken, “Are you one of them?” Just to be clear Kristof added, “because I have problems with that.” After some back and forth, Jones re­plied, “For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.”

A friend  of mine reflected on this exchange later in the pages of The Christian Century. He said he was surprised to hear Jones “retreating back into the 19th-century mind of Adolf von Harnack,” a liberal theologian who championed the idea that the resurrection is but a metaphor.

“My surprise turned to dismay,” wrote my friend, “when I read the comments her words provoked. Predictably, many Times readers loved what they saw as a ‘bold’ embrace of centuries-old, and for some of us tired, liberal orthodoxies. But it was the cocksure umbrage of conservative Christianity that burned up the comment section. “She isn’t a Christian.” “She doesn’t believe in God.”

“And thus,” observed my friend, “modernity’s wearisome debate grinds on. We have placed ourselves in a ridiculous bind. Religious sophisticates deny the resurrection and then try to build a flimsy faith on the back of the very symbols that flimsy faith derides. True believers accept the resurrection by putting on a pair of blinders that block out the modern world. You believe or you don’t.”

“Here’s the thing: the two sides only seem like opposites. The truth is, both leave the believer in charge. The choice is yours: accept the resurrection or don’t. Either way, you’re the boss. No one in this argument seems ready to acknowledge that God’s boundless work might defy the boundaries of the human mind.”*

Which is where the Sadducees stood. They had the right answer. They were the boss. And it’s where so often we stand as well. As if the whole matter were up to us. Up to our decision.“Do I believe in the resurrection?” as if it were all up to me, to us. We are the deciders.

But, we’re not — and thank God for it. Letting God be God means knowing, “You might be wrong,” — even better — “that God’s boundless work defies the boundaries of the human mind.” It means knowing that before God in Christ we all stand in need of grace for we have all made too much of our own wisdom, virtue and cleverness.

One of the things that I notice about funerals and memorial services in our day is that these services are largely focused on the deceased. We celebrate their virtures, their quirks, the funny moments, their achievements, and their contributions to church and society. All this can be great. A memorial service or funeral should be personal and should honestly recall the particular person we gather to remember and for whom we thank God.

And of course the great festival of the Day of the Dead has just happened here — we caught the tail end — with it’s remembrance of those who have gone before us, something we also do on All Saints and All Souls Day.

So a fulsome remembrance of the dead, of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us — yes. But what I seldom hear any longer in the churches I know best is the proclamation, the preaching, of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this, I humbly submit, is a problem. It makes the faith about us, our virtues, our life, our personality. But the Christian faith is not about us. It is about God, about what God has done, what God is doing and what God has promised.

These days, as I am not serving a congregation of my own, I don’t do many funerals/ memorial services. In fact, I decline invitations to speak at such services in my former congregations to respect the current pastors and support their ministry.

But recently I was asked to preach, both by the family and by a successor, at the service of a good friend who had been tragically and brutally murdered.

To simply remember that man, who was a wonderful human being, was not enough. That occasion, but really all our deaths, require the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the victory of God over the powers of Sin and Death, which in this instance had so brutally broken into the lives and home of these dear ones.

I read out the defiant declaration of the Apostle Paul:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting? . . . Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I preached of the God who has in the resurrection of Jesus Christ met and defeated the powers of death, of Christ who died for us, who has been raised for us and who will surely come again for us. In the face of such brutality and sorrow, nothing less would have done.

So often, I fear we are like the Sadducees or a columnist in the New York Times, speculating, “Do I, do you, believe in the resurrection?” — but doing so without real personal investment. At that funeral such, dis-interested speculations had no place.

What did have a place, and what has a place, each time we gather is a bold declaration of the power and grace of God, of God’s promise that having died with Christ we shall be raised with Christ.

So let us conclude with the words of Paul which follow that defiant shout “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Death, where is thy victory, where is thy sting?”

“Therefore, my beloved,” concludes the Apostle, “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Amen.


*”The Same Old Debate,” by Matt Fitzgerald, The Christian Century, April 24, 2019

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