Sunday, November 6, 2016
Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
Many of you know that I was invited to be one of the presenters at a consultation on “Multiple-Religious Belonging” at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry two weeks ago. Pastors, theologians, seminarians, and community leaders met to explore the impact on individuals and family households who identify with more than one religious tradition.
At least three of the presenters were serving religious communities that include Jews, Christians and Muslims. Among the presenters were First Nation women pastors from Canada. Susan is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation and in a prayer she offered one day, she acknowledged Chief Seattle (Seatlh), after whom the city was named, and the Suquamish people of the Pacific Northwest.
Like our Hawaiian kūpuna or elders, the Suquamish transmitted their history, literature, law and other knowledge verbally across the generations, without a writing system. The passing on of that history was and is the duty of the elders.
Over time a writing system was developed for both the Hawaiian and Suquamish languages. But oral tradition has remained a fundamental aspect of both traditions.
The tension between a written tradition and an oral tradition of language was at the heart of the division between two priestly classes in early Judaism – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Our lectionary reading from The Gospel According to Luke this morning was written sometime between 80 – 90 during the Christian era. In his account of Jesus’ ministry, Luke records Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees.
As this season of Pentecost draws to a close over the course of the next two Sundays, it is appropriate that our reading brings us back to our celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection.
As an elite and priestly class, the Sadducees believed that there was no doctrine of resurrection in the written Torah that included the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. On the other hand, the Pharisees emphasized the written Torah along with the oral Torah that emerged in the writings of the prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos and others as well as the Psalms.
In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were far from wealthy and powerful, but they were held, to some degree, in higher esteem by the people. When Paul, a Pharisee began proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues following his conversion on the road to Damascus, (Acts 9:1-22) he presented a Christian interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15) that was more in line in line with the Pharisees than the Sadducees.
The Sadducees who came to Jesus found someone who was a skillful interpreter who was able to show that the written Torah underscored belief in the resurrection. Interestingly, by the end of the first century it is said that even though Christians were opposed to the Pharisees, they were both allied against the beliefs of the Sadducees.
But for now Luke presents us with an encounter in which “the Sadducees are questioning Jesus about a mystery that they have already considered and rejected. Their questions are not for the purpose of genuine dialogue, but for the purpose of prompting debate, with the hopes of showing up Jesus and showing onlookers that Jesus is not trustworthy or knowledgeable.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C. Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 284)
Some of this may sound familiar in light of the political debates that have overwhelmed us over the last several months – of political candidates and their surrogates wanting to “show up” one another and show us who is not trustworthy or knowledgeable. Thankfully, “rather than taking the questioning as a personal attack, Jesus uses (the) moment as a time to teach about the love and mercy of God.” (Op. cit.)
The Sadducees begin their questioning of Jesus with a reference to what Moses wrote (Luke 20:27). It is clear that they are challenging Jesus’ belief in the resurrection of the dead by reciting the teachings of Moses in The Book of Deuteronomy about marriage. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
“According to the commandment, a brother-in-law was required to perpetuate his brother’s name by marrying his brother’s widow, if his brother died leaving his widow childless.” (Ibid., page 287) The Sadducees offer up a story in which a woman married seven brothers in sequence, and they all left her childless.
Their intent is clear and they are quick to seize on an opportunity to make Jesus a laughing stock. After all, nowhere in the Torah is there an indication of which brother the woman had “really” married. So they asked, perhaps with sarcasm, “In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?” (Luke 20:33)
The Sadducees were relying upon their adherence to the written Torah when they asked the question. As clever as their question to Jesus may have been, I have always wondered what we will look like at our own resurrection. I have always assumed that we would be resurrected at the age at which we died.
But what Jesus makes clear to the Sadducees and to us is “things do not work in heaven the way they work on earth.” (Ibid., page 286) Therein lies the great mystery of the resurrection.
The Rev. Dr. Nancy Lynne Westfield is a member of the United Methodist Church. She is among other things a poet, creative writer, gardener, cook and world traveler.
She is the Associate Professor of Religious Education at Drew Theological Seminary and Graduate Division of Religion in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes, “The mystery of the resurrection revealed by Jesus is that heaven is a place where those who have been dehumanized will be restored; those who have been oppressed will be set free; and those who have been treated as inferior will be raised up and called beloved.”
“Women will no longer be the property of men, treated as chattel – passed from man to man at will and whim. Women will be children of God, able to give love and receive love as they see fit. In heaven, those who are children of the resurrection will know the joy and peace that was kept from them on earth.” (Op. cit.)
Ah, you say, “such wishful thinking.” What evidence is there to prove that such a place exists? What evidence is there to prove that the resurrection is, in fact, a reality?
We cannot point to anything tangible, factual, or scientific in response to the questions raised. But what we can do is hold fast to our faith knowing that faith is the assurance of the things we hope for, the conviction of things we cannot see.
There are those today, who like the Sadducees of old, believe that there is no life after death. And there are those like Job, who amid the pain and suffering of his own life, declares: “ . . . I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:25-27) Job perseveres.
The Suquamish people themselves continue to persevere despite attempts in the past by the federal government to assimilate them through changes in land policy; the allotment of the reservation into separate parcels assigned to family heads in 1886; the destruction of Old Man House – their major winter village – in 1904; and the mandatory attendance of Suquamish children at Indian Boarding Schools from 1900-1920.
Chief Seattle expressed his concern over the fate of the Suquamish in a speech directed at the President of United States. The text of his speech was published in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887.
He said, “There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.”
“Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone.”
“At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”
Chief Seattle concludes with words that seem to hint at the mystery of the resurrection. “Let (the President) be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.”
It is a vision perhaps not unlike the vision that comes to us from The Revelation of John (Revelation 21:1-4) and its description of what is to come:
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,
and the sea was no more.
and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
ʻSee, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s people,
and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’”