Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 6, 2016
“They Are Still Alive”
Luke 20: 27-38 – Common English Bible
“Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked, 28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless. 30 The second31 and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.” 34 Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. 36 They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection. 37 Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.” (References to Deuteronomy 25:5; Genesis 38:8)
Did anyone drive a black car to worship today? Be careful driving home – at least until you get back to the city limits. It’s illegal to drive a black car in Denver on Sunday. Do any of you have an ice cream cone in your back pocket? Good thing you’re not in Georgia, unless it is Monday through Saturday, when it’s perfectly acceptable – lawful – for you to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket.
Who would come up with these? But do a google search for absurd laws and you’ll find plenty of doozies. Some strangely specific, like, in South Dakota it’s illegal to sleep in a cheese factory overnight.
Some nonsensical, like, whale fishing in Nebraska is illegal – not to mention impossible.
Some laws are sort of odd but understandable, like, using goldfish as bait in Minnesota is illegal. But that doesn’t explain – why aren’t you allowed to get a fish drunk in Ohio?
Some laws still on the books are disturbing, like, it’s illegal for a woman to cut her hair without her husband’s permission in Michigan.
Or like one of the ballot issues in Colorado this year: slavery is unconstitutional except if one is convicted of a crime.
Every state has their own version of absurd laws. In some cases you can kind of guess what prompted the law: Like, in Louisiana, you can be fined $500 for having a pizza delivered to an unsuspecting neighbor. That kind of makes sense. And certainly something must have happened to explain, why is there a law in Iowa that a one-handed piano player must perform for free? Or that you can’t play golf with explosive balls in Massachusetts. That makes sense, but do you really need a law for it?
The Bible has plenty of its own examples of absurd laws and rules, or at least, outdated ones and certainly created in a vastly different context than our own. Some laws were about hygiene. Some were dietary laws. Some laws helped to shape a common identity. And some laws sought to protect vulnerable citizens, like widows. That’s the only explanation that makes some kind of sense here: If a man dies and leaves a wife but no child, his brother is obligated to marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. So… maybe protecting vulnerable people wasn’t the only reason. As scholars note, in a deeply patriarchal society, this was the only way that the eldest brother’s name could continue – in essence, giving him eternal life.
The Sadducees posed the absurd extension of this law, “Tell us, Teacher, what about this: There were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
Questions have many functions. Questions may be posed to gain knowledge or understand a situation better. They can also be posed in order to win an argument or attempt shame an opponent. Not answering a question makes the person asked seem like they have something to hide. The one asking usually has the advantage because they have taken the power to shape the conversation.
The Sadducees are not asking Jesus a question in order to understand better. They don’t even believe in the idea of resurrection, unlike their counterparts the Pharisees. The Sadducees were simply looking for ways to entrap him. Now, Jesus had already proved adept at such strategies, for example, brilliantly answering the question about paying taxes to Rome. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s.” That silenced the religious authorities who stood there with their mouths open. So they came back and tried another one. Jesus appeared just as wise and calm this time.
You can picture them snickering as they asked. The Sadducees might have thought their question was funny; that they were being clever. But their wealth and power and prestige in the community insulated them from the real pain in this story about a woman passed from one brother to another after another. But that’s about as funny as groping and kissing and tic tacs, “locker room talk.”
We can laugh about absurdities like laws against whale fishing and ice cream cones in our back pockets, but this was the stuff of real life, where women really were property you could do with what you wanted and served as the convenient butt of jokes. Gee, come to think of it, how much times have changed and haven’t changed…
Remember, the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection so they had a vested interest in making the situation seem absurd. In fact, you can even imagine the whole crowd standing there listening, poking at each other and laughing too.
But questions about resurrection or an afterlife or heaven are not absurd. Sophisticated people in our modern times may think of them as outdated, a holdover from a more primitive time, but I have questions too.
Like, on this All Saints Day, where is my father now? And what happened to my nephew after he was killed in a tragic farm accident when he was only two years old? The pastor at Ryan’s funeral explained that “God wanted another flower in his garden.” I wanted to get up and walk out. I’ve also heard variations on “his soul was too pure for this world.” And “he’s in a better place now.”
Setting aside the distress of those statements, upon the death of a loved one, we all have questions. We all search for answers and meaning. We need that. My dad lived a good life, not perfect, but he was a decent man who took care of his family and was active in his community and cared deeply for his church. He deserves something good. But, I have questions, like, what age is he? When he died, did he start whatever comes next at the age he died, perpetually 88 with a bad hip and a weak heart? Or did he revert back to a handsome young farmer? Or when he was a new dad? On his first trip overseas? Is Ryan perpetually two years old, never progressing farther than the sandbox in the backyard? Or, what about reincarnation? These aren’t absurd questions to me. But they also not the place to start.
Since the Sadducees brought up Moses, Jesus deftly used Moses to respond, calling forth the revered names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus explained to them, Moses spoke at the burning bush of the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God didn’t say, “once upon a time, long ago, I used to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I remember them fondly, but now they’re dead and long gone.” No, God speaks in the present tense to announce that God was, is, and continues to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus explained, to God, all of them are still alive.
Everyone listening stood there stunned. He said nothing about resurrection. Nothing about a place called heaven where the dead gather in eternal rest. He said, to God, they are all alive. How could they argue with that?
It’s human of us to want to know where and what the dead are doing now. It’s also very human to want rules created so that only some people “get in.” Things like “You have to have been baptized.” You can’t have taken your own life. You have to have said the right words, first confessing “I am a sinner.” We have arguments about whether pets are allowed in or if they have a separate heaven. All to the point of absurdity, right?
Puritans created something called the “Halfway Covenant.” Some nonsense about being able to baptize the infants of church members who couldn’t describe having had a conversation experience. In this Halfway Covenant, those infants could be baptized, but would not be allowed to take communion until they could report their own conversion experience. Presumably because of the fear of what would happen to unbaptized children if they died.
For some people, heaven is a reward to be won for meeting certain criteria, just as hell is the punishment for having failed. But to understand the grace and mercy of God is to see just how absurd this is, as silly as the Alabama law that makes it illegal to wear a fake mustache to church with the intent of making people laugh.
I don’t know where my father is or my nephew or anyone else. But Jesus assures me that God is still their God. To God they are still alive. They still belong to God. And to belong to God is to have life. To have life is to be real. And they shall always be real to me, in whatever form I choose to remember them.
I encourage those for whom heaven makes no sense whatsoever to picture their loved one doing exactly the thing that gave them most joy in life. So, if I want to picture my father, it’s not in a puffy cloud floating around but sitting in his boat throwing a line into the water. Not pulling out a fish, but just casting out at whatever may be, or not be. There, he was at peace. And that brings me comfort. In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald said heaven is “a trout stream where no one else has even been allowed to fish.” The late-great comedian Robin Williams said heaven is “having a front row seat to Mozart, or Elvis,” or whatever your taste may be.
If you thought of your own loved ones, what can you picture them doing when they were at their happiest?
Is there a resurrection? Jesus didn’t answer that question, nor many of the others we may have. Instead he points to a God whose faithfulness is beyond time, a God of infinite possibilities, whose grace is inexhaustible, in whom we all live and move and have our being, now and forevermore.
 The New Interpreters Study Bible
 Patrick J. Willson, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4