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November 7, 2004 (All Saints Sunday)
Pastor David Barber
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
About six weeks ago some of you read in the Heartbeat that I was grousing about turning 59. In the scheme of things that's really not a very important issue, and if that's all that I've got to complain about, then life is actually pretty good for me, isn't it?
Even so, this was still a difficult milestone for me. I like the way the grouchy cartoon character by the name of Maxine puts it. She says, "Growing older is a walk in the park...where no one picks up after the dogs."
I suppose there's a number of reasons for my feelings, but at the heart of it I believe is coming face to face with my mortality and my death. Sometimes my life seems like an out-of-control freight train heading toward the abyss.
I say to myself, if I'm fortunate, I still have another 20-30 years to live, but then I think how fast the first 59 have gone and I quickly realize that very soon the twilight will be upon me.
I sometimes get filled with anticipatory grief when I reflect on saying good-bye to Karen, to children and grandchildren, and other people and causes that have been near and dear and in which I've invested my life.
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday and we sing "For all the saints who from their labors rest." Both the theme of this day and our Gospel tell us that this is a good day to talk about death, including our own, in light of our Christian faith.
The Sadducees in our gospel for today help us with this discussion. They concocted a rather humorous and bizarre situation concerning the resurrection from the dead.
The Sadducees based their teachings and their doctrines on the first five books of the Bible, and since resurrection from the dead isn't mentioned in this section of scripture, they didn't believe in it.
As a result they wanted to embarrass Jesus and make his teachings look stupid. They presented a far-fetched situation in which a woman was married to seven brothers. The basis for the question that they used was taken from the Book of Deuteronomy.
"If two brothers live on the same property and one of them dies and there is no son, then the widow is not to marry outside the family. It shall be the responsibility of the dead man's brother to marry her. If a son is born to this relationship, then the son will be considered the son of the dead man so that his family will continue in Israel."
Using this principle to the point of being outlandish or ridiculous, the Sadducees presented a situation in which there were seven brothers. The oldest got married and died without having children. Then the second brother married this woman, and he, too, died...and then the third, and eventually this happened to all seven.
I don't know about you, but if I were the fourth or fifth brother, I'd start getting a little nervous. These brothers all died without having children. And then last of all, the wife of all these seven brothers, who should have been given the "medal-of-honor" or a "Purple Heart," died as well.
In order to make Jesus look foolish for his naïve belief, the question is now raised "In the resurrection whose wife will this woman be, for all the seven had her as their wife?"
After the harried life that she lived, the woman could probably care less about this question. One husband is hard enough to train, but seven husbands? Can you imagine the adjustments she had to make with seven different husbands? In fact, she would probably be thrilled to death just to spend a couple of centuries alone by herself off in some corner of heaven.
Had she heard the reply of Jesus, she might have been relieved when he said, "everlasting life can't be reduced to the conditions of the temporal life. That life that walks by faith and trust each day as a friend of God can't be reduced to some blueprint, or picture, or easy formula where everything falls neatly into place.
"It may be true," says Jesus, "that the children of this age marry and are given in marriage, but that's certainly not true for these men and women who are worthy to rise from death and live in the age to come...They are children of God because they have risen from death."
Now, I don't know if our creativity and imagination would dream up something as far-fetched as the scenario of the Sadducees, but we do have our questions.
For instance, sometimes the questions go like this: "What will happen when I die? Will I know my loved ones after death? Do I immediately go to live with God after I die, or do I wait until the Day of Judgment?
Do I really have to spend an eternity playing a harp, or going to worship, or listening to Pastor David's sermons--provided he isn't the guest preacher or the punishment that has to be endured in hell?
Perhaps these two Norwegians who died give some insight to our questions. Unfortunately, one went to heaven and one went to hell. One day Knute, who went to heaven, called Pete on the phone down in hell.
We may think our questions are important...and perhaps they are. But says Jesus, there's a far greater question that needs to be addressed.
All of life, here and hereafter, consists of friendship with God and nothing less is worthy of the name of life. The only question then that really matters is this: "Do we know God and does God know us? Do we walk in friendship with God through Jesus Christ each day that we've been given as a gift? That's really what eternal life is all about.
God is the source and the content of our hope. It lies only with Christ--the one who has entered into our living and our dying--the one who is the life of all life.
Our hope lies with Jesus--the one who doesn't show us every little detail of the way it's going to be--but sends us out with a promise--his promise.
Perhaps the promises of marriage or any covenant relationship for that matter serve as an example. When two people commit themselves to the covenant relationship, the content of their promise is not a certain standard of living. It's not a promise to provide some grandiose picture of what the marriage will now become.
They give to each other only a promise of faithfulness in joy and in sorrow and in all that the years will bring. Often times, it's this promise--and only this promise--that enables two people to hang in there together.
In a marriage or a covenant relationship, it can't be the blueprints we make together that become all important. All too often, these blueprints are simply destroyed. And when this happens, the only thing we have to fall back upon is the promise--the promise to be there for each other come what may.
This is also true for the many questions we ask for which there are no answers. All we can do is to journey faithfully within the promise of Christ.
I wish it were different than this--not only as a pastor, but also as a person. I sometimes feel so helpless and powerless when all I can offer to you is a promise and not some grand picture about how it will all turn out.
As I watch a family agonize over their loved one in the intensive care unit of the hospital, I wish I had more to bring them than simply the promise of God: "My grace is sufficient for you."
When I see a person struggling with his or her cancer--fighting and hoping that this won't get the best of him, I wish I had more to offer this person than simply, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"
When two people come together before this altar and want to share their life together in wedded love, there should be more that one can do than to send them out with a prayer and a promise.
And when these same two people are in my office sometime later--trying to figure out where everything went wrong--how in the world can a promise of mercy, forgiveness, and grace, be significant in a time like this?
When our world as we know it changed on September 11th, and every day we board a plane we detect within us the scent of fear, how can the gift of a person by the name of Emmanuel--"God with us"--make any difference in the tremendous turmoil and confusion of our lives?
And when I stand at the foot of a grave of someone you love, I wish there were more that I could do for you than to speak these words: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."
In those days when we yearn for an answer--in those times when we long for a blueprint and none is to be found--to entrust one's life to such a promise seems to be so senseless and also so very foolish.
And yet, I've discovered that those who walk each day in faith and trust as a friend of God have found the hope, the strength, and the courage to venture forth in the midst of uncertainty and fear. For God is all we ever need in life and in death.
Because we are called friends of God, gone is the need to travel with a blueprint or even a trip plan from Triple A. Gone is the need to have all our questions answered.
All of our blueprints and all of our unanswered questions are only extra baggage when we know we belong to God in Jesus Christ. For this friendship--this relationship will not be severed even by death itself.
The promise is sure. The promise is true. "None of us lives to himself and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."
It's with this assurance and with this hope that we remember our loved ones today and all the saints of God. And it is also with this assurance and with this hope that we reflect as well on our own dying.
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org