A Sermon by the Rev. Elice Higginbotham
For the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Chappaqua, New York
Now, this is part of the sermon.... I'd like to invite you to open your bulletin, and take out the yellow slip that is stuffed in it. This is your commitment card for Consecration Sunday. This is an expression of commitment from you, or your family. Please not that it is, intentionally, anonymous. There is no place for you to put your name, because it is no one's business but the keeper of the records to know what you are pledging. "To express my (or our) gratitude for all God's gifts, I (or we) seek to give back to God some of what I (or we) have received, so that the Good News of Jesus Christ may be extended through the mission and ministry of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Chappaqua, New York."
If you and your family already have made a decision about a financial pledge for this Church Budget Year 2005, please indicate that amount on the line with the dollar sign. If you haven't made that decision yet, but feel that you might be able to by the time we collect offering this morning - then please write the amount you decide on, on that line.
I trust that, whatever your financial decision, you are able to pledge your prayers to the mission and ministry of our church. And I invite you, therefore, to make a considered decision and pledge to pray this year for some particular aspect of the life of First Congregational Church. It can be anything - you know what is important to you about this faith community and its ongoing life.
When we take up our offering a little later this regular offering for today, gift for today, both your sealed enveloped from the Board of Stewardship, with your pledge card, which you should have received in the mail - put that in the plat, if you have it with you; AND your anonymous yellow commitment card. At the time of our offering, we shall be dedicating our gifts for today, and our financial pledges and our prayers for our church's ministry and mission in 2005.
Now... that wasn't a distraction from Bible reflection, because it's interesting to me that the scripture lessons that we're given for reflection on this Sunday - this Consecration Sunday, the Sunday that our Board of Stewardship has chosen to begin the collection of pledges toward our ministry and mission ion 2005, all have something to do with... traps and distractions. The traps and distractions that present themselves in these lessons tempt, or bully, or persecute, or seduce the people of God away from their endeavor to be the people of God. Is it a little comforting to us, to know that the biblical peoples could get just as distracted from practicing their faith as we can? (Just in case you thought the Bible was full of nothing but perfect models. No way.)
Our Gospel lesson for this morning comes right at the end of a whole series of stories about attempts to trap Jesus into saying something that would undermine his popularity with his followers. The Sadducees were the classic conservatives of Jewish life in Jesus' day: the property-owners, the historic elite, and - under the Roman occupation of the Holy Land in Jesus' time - the ones who kept the wheels greased, kept things running smoothly so that their position of privilege did not suffer much, even as their country was taken over by a foreign power. The Sadducees did not care much for the appeal of this teacher who preached good news for the poor; as the rich, they were pretty much accustomed to having the good news to themselves, and preferred to keep it that way.
And so they set out quite deliberately to try to make Jesus look bad. They asked him about the Levirate marriage law. Pretty obscure, huh? Anyone here know what the Levirate marriage law is? (What, you didn't learn that in Sunday School?) Levirate marriage is a provision of ancient Jewish tradition and law that presumably was laid down by Moses for the purposes of survival: namely that if a man died leaving a childless widow, his next brother was to marry the widow, so that she could produce an heir - not for her benefit, of course (women didn't count), or even for her second husband, but for the brother who died. The practice of Levirate marriage, as it is called, was specifically to provide the firstborn with an heir, by hook or by crook. In an era when the family or the tribe was everything, when it was one's total identity and reason for being - dying without an heir, and an heir whose parentage and bloodline was wholly within the tribe, was unthinkable; it was to historically disappear; it was extinction. Much of early Old Testament history bears the mark of how important the survival of the tribe is, and how the people knew that God was their God because God kept them alive, kept them together as a people, unique from all other peoples.
So... Sadducees asked Jesus a convoluted and thoroughly far-fetched question about a worst-case scenario: a man dies childless, his widow is married on to the next brother, who also dies childless, and so on and so on, through seven brothers! No heirs, just lots of marriages for the poor widow, who never has any choice in the matter. "Now, Jesus, in this resurrection, this new life you're always talking about - which one will end up with a wife? Which brother will be the lucky one to claim an inheritance in the new life? How do we interpret this subtle point of Mosaic law? Hm-m-m???"
I think the Sadducees were trying to goad Jesus into saying what we modern, mainline religious people would probably say: "Oh come on, don't take that stuff so literally!" But taking Mosaic law literally was exactly what being a Jew in Jesus' time and place was all about; anyone who wanted to claim authority, interpreted the claim on the grounds of faithfulness to the law of Moses; anyone who wanted to be stoned as a heretic said "Don't take Moses so seriously!" We can see that Jesus was a good verbal jouster, because he managed not to say that the law of Moses doesn't matter, but rather to say that the Sadducees' question really just isn't relevant to it.
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore...
Resurrected life, life in the new world that God is building, is one in which new relationships are built, and old ones are changed, in light of God's future, not in light of our limited experience. Resurrection is not just resuscitation, replication of old lives and old societies - it is an entirely new way of being and relating.
But I think there may be a hidden punch to Jesus' answer, one that we often miss in our modern culture. Remember that the custom of Levirate marriage was a survival strategy. In that society and culture, the males of Israel had to produce heirs, or the society would not survive - and God's will was for the people to survive. It may be hard for us to appreciate nowadays how Jesus really is taking an ax to a fundamental root of Jewish being. He essentially is saying, in his answer to what the Sadducees put forth as a cunning legal subtlety, that "What you Sadducees have understood as the definition of your survival, the key to who you are, is no longer what matters to God! You are not God's people because of your tribal ancestry. You are not God's people because of your ethnicity. God claims you - and you claim God - in a whole different way! Your self-centered definition of yourselves is a distraction from the real business of being God's people!" Who's trapping who here? And "They no longer dared to ask him another question, - thus ends the passage.
How do we understand ourselves as the church, as the faithful community of believers, here in this time and this place, where God has set us down to be God's people, and to tell our world who God is? What is so ingrained in us, and in our understanding of ourselves, what do we have to do just because we've always done it - that it may actually get in the way of our doing God's work, of building God's realm of love and justice?
Maybe, on the Sunday we devote to dedicating our gifts of time, talent, and certainly our treasure to this church's ministry - could it be -- money? Are we so defined by the money we have, or the money we're afraid we don't have, and how we've decided to use it, however much it is or isn't ... that we may lose sight of ways to minister to each other, and to our community and world in entirely different ways? That's not saying that we don't need money, any more than Jesus was saying that we don't need marriage. Jesus did not deny our human need for intimate friendship, for procreation, for the identity and strength of a bonded family and community. He said, let us not approach our tasks as God's people by fearing extinction; let us build new community. Let us not approach ministry by defining it as what we are able to pay for. Let us hear the needs in our church and community and world, and determine how we shall use our resource of money to respond to those needs - because those needs tell us something about the ministry to which God calls us. Can we claim God and God's realm in a whole new way, with our gift of money and how we use it at First Congregational Church?
The ancient Jews experienced a stressful transition when they were allowed to return home and pick up their national life again in Jerusalem, after generations in exile in Babylon. They had lands to begin to cultivate again, houses to build, a whole society and social order to re-construct - probably not easy, given that there were other generations who had remained at Jerusalem, who had not had Babylonian educations, and who had had to scratch out a living from the ruins left by their former conquerors. The prophet Haggai called for the restoration of Jerusalem's ruined temple. This wasn't just a public works project, or an attempt to re-build morale by downtown beautification. It was an acknowledgement that a divided people, made up of very different experiences of conquest, exile and oppression, needed to be brought together and re-unified. To re-establish the temple - that is, a common center of worship of a common God, the faith and practice that gave the people of Israel their very identity - that was, in essence, was to re-establish the nation.
But kind of circled inside a hopeful and victorious message of our lesson from Haggai, I find a funny little trap. The beginning of the chapter is such a celebration of hope in unity. And then, there are these four funny verses that follow:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Ask the priests for a ruling: If one carries consecrated meat in the fold of one's garment, and with the fold touches bread, or stew, or wine, or oil, or any kind of food, does it become holy? The priests answered, "No." Then Haggai said, "If one who is unclean by contact with a dead body touches any of these, does it become unclean?" The priests answered, "Yes, it becomes unclean." Haggai then said, "So is it with this people, and with this nation before me, says the Lord; and so with every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean."
What's that about, and what does it have to do with rebuilding the temple, or with unity? We need to know a little history, about a division on the edge of all this unity. If you've been to Sunday School, you know what ancient Jews felt about ancient Samaritans - they couldn't stand each other! Even though they were close relatives ethnically, they had elaborate rules to keep them separated, because they feared mutual contamination. In historical accounts of the rebuilding of the temple, these Samaritans had come and asked to share in the work - and they were brusquely rebuffed! They were unclean, likely to contaminate this project of renewal! Here, in the prophecy of Haggai, more than three centuries before Christ, in the midst of this call to unity and, we find this little sidebar that says: be unified and committed, but don't include those guys! These verses about the "unclean" contaminating the "clean" are meant to convey a very clear message about whose God we're really talking about here: we're talking about an exclusive God, who plays favorites. Our hope and our triumph depend on our excluding from God's care those with whom we don't want to identify. (If you were an editor, do you think you might have just cut these verses out? Don't you kind of wish somebody had?)
So reading this text 2,000 years later - I think these distracting verses call us to watch out for a trap. Even as we are reaching out for God's promise, even as we are thanking and praising God for the gift of life and hope, symbolized by consecrating our pledges to our ongoing church life - we, too, can be distracted by our fears and our prejudices and our assumptions. We can be worried and depressed into protecting what we have. We can fear so much that we won't have enough, that we let the bottom line determine what we do and who we are, instead of seeing our bottom line as a gift, whatever it is, to be used where we see the need for ministry.
Friends, Jesus refused to be distracted from the serious business of building a new world. We are the people who name ourselves as followers of Jesus. Our pledges of money, and our pledges of prayer; our pledges of time and our pledges of talent, can be the building blocks, the road signs, the symbols, the investment capital for that new world, around a Table where everyone is welcome. Amen.