Follow Me!

Sermon by Keith, 3.1.2020: Mark 10: 17-31

Before I read this morning’s text, I want to go over a couple things.  First I want to ask you a question.  How many of you have been in a room with a group of people, and then maybe the speaker or the host or even just one of the people in the room says something that changes the entire atmosphere of the room, either for good or bad? 

That’s what happened with this text for me when I preached it before, probably about 7 years ago.  The text is usually given the title, “The Rich Young Ruler” and the story shows up in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Matthew tells us he was young and Luke tells us he was a ruler, thus the Rich Young Ruler.  I’ll read the text here in just a bit so if you aren’t familiar with it, you soon will be. 

When I preached on it before, when I finished and looked up to say, “The word of the Lord,” the atmosphere in the congregation changed. Before reading, there was my congregation, eager to hear a word from the Lord.  But when I finished, about half the people in the room had their arms crossed.  What’s body language saying when you are talking to someone and they cross their arms?  Yeah, I’m not listening to you!  And I’ve always wondered how this text has been used, maybe to beat you over the head about your giving. 

So, my invitation to you before we read the text is to just listen to it.  It is a hard text, but an important one especially since we find it Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  But it is also full of grace if we don’t put up walls to keep that grace out.

The second thing I need to let you know is I’m going to read a translation from NT Wright that is a little bit different than what you might be used to hearing but I believe it gets closer to understanding the first century Jewish worldview and I’ll explain why I use his translation as we get into the sermon. 

Are we ready?  Arms loose, relaxed, hearts and minds open.  Here we go.  (Read text).

Most of us have had a moment in our lives where everything changed and how you responded to and looked at the world was forever altered.  Maybe for you it was when you moved out of your parents’ house, or when you got married, or maybe even divorced.  For our country, one of those turning points was 9/11.  How we viewed our nation and our place in the world was drastically changed. And I’d even argue that the Second World War changed the trajectory that the entire globe was on, it literally tore a hole in world.  Everything was different, different governments and societal structures, different hopes and needs, and different possibilities and dangers. 

For the first century Jew, there were two events that changed how they viewed themselves in the world.  The first one was in the past: the Passover event that led to the people leaving slavery in Egypt.  The second was actually an event that hadn’t happened yet.  Something would happen, they believed, that would make everything different.  A great event would occur which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers, a time of prosperity when all the prophesies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring. 

That future day had an impact on the everyday of the typical Jewish person at the time of Christ. Their way of talking about all this was to distinguish between the Present Age and what was referred to as the Age to Come.  The Present Age, their current time, was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression. Good people were suffering while wicked people got away with wickedness.  But in the Age to Come, that would all be changed. 

So the question pressing on any Jew who believed this was, can I be sure that I will be one of those who will inherit the Age to Come, and, if so, how?  This is the question this man who stops Jesus wants answered. 

Now, many a translation puts his question as, “How do I inherit eternal life?”  A long Christian tradition has assumed that he wanted to know how he could be sure he was going to heaven when he died, but that wasn’t how the man in the story would have put it. 

The word that we often translate ‘eternal’ comes from a word which means ‘belonging to the Age.’  In this Coming Age, God was going to make the whole world a new place; when that happened, it wasn’t about escaping this reality. You wouldn’t want to be away in heaven but here on earth to enjoy the great blessing God was giving in re-created reality.

This understanding changes how we read Jesus’ words, “You will have treasure in heaven.”  Jesus doesn’t mean that this man must go to heaven to get his treasure; Jesus means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed.  The reason you have money in the bank is not so you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else.  The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last.  So it isn’t about escaping this world, it is about bountiful living in the next, recreated world and enjoying God’s blessing to its fullest.

Now, other groups had answered had answers for this rich, young ruler’s question.  For the Pharisee who worked with the common people in the village synagogues to the Essenes who had isolated themselves in the desert, to inherit the Age to Come meant living out their own detailed interpretation of the Jewish law.  More importantly, you had to join their group.  If you were in with the right group, you would be on the right side of the blessings of the Age to Come. 

So, you could look at the man’s question not as “How do I inherit the Age to Come?” but more like, “Jesus, just what sort of movement might you be leading?”  He wants to make sure he has his ducks in row and in the right group to get the most of the Age to Come. 

Jesus’ reply must have puzzled this young man greatly.  All he did was to restate the basic commandments from the Ten Commandments which every Jew knew well.  Or at least some of them.  Notice which ones he misses.  He starts the list with numbers 6-9, murder, adultery, theft, perjury.  Adds an extra one with ‘don’t defraud.’ and then goes back to number 5 about honoring your parents.  He omits number 1 to 4, putting God first, no idols, not taking God’s name in vain, and the Sabbath and also number 10 about covetousness.

Now, watch how the rest of the conversation comes round the back with a fresh twist on all the commandments (except Sabbath keeping).  Jesus’ basic demand is not for some logic-chopping extra observance, some tightening of a definition here, some tweaking of a meaning there.  No: It is for idols and covetousness to be thrown to the winds.  Sell it all and give to the poor

And it is for a radical rethink on what putting God first, and not taking his name in vain, might mean:  Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God; come and follow me.

Jesus’ new movement is indeed a radical revision of what it means to be God’s people, to follow the Law of Moses.  Because he, Jesus, is here, a whole new world opens up:  The Age to Come is not now simply in the future, though it is that, too.  It is bursting through into the present, like a baby chick so keen to be born that it’s already sticking its beak through the shell ahead of the right time.  Every time that you hear Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about that future reality of the Age to Come being pulled into the here and now so we can experience it today.

The discussion that follows the rich man’s sad departure reflects the disciples’ shock at being told that wealth won’t buy you a place in the Age to Come.  Their surprise only makes sense if we assume that they regarded wealth as a sign of God’s pleasure. 

Jesus cuts right through that surprise.  Wealth can be a blessing from God, but if that wealth gets in the way of loving God and neighbor, then it becomes a block to the overwhelming treasures God has in store for us.  Riches can no more go or get you into the Age to Come than a camel can go through a needle—a deliberate overstatement.  In God’s kingdom now and fully realized in the Age to Come, everything will be upside down and inside out, all things are possible with God, and the first will be last and the last first. 

In particular, though, those who have left family and possessions to follow Jesus will receive many more things back in the Present Age—a new and ever-enlarging family of their fellow-disciples, with homes open to them where they go.  And yes, persecutions are waiting for them, too.  Mark wants to stress that the paradoxical living in the Age to Come now clashes with Present Age.  They are at odds with each other. 

 So, what’s Christ’s invitation to us this first Sunday of Lent? 

It is to take his call to follow him seriously.  What is it that gets in the way of you following him?  Wealth?  Power?  Status?  Even our family or home can become idols that direct our love away from God and neighbor.  Take this week as an invitation to open your life to the call of discipleship.  Let the Holy Spirit work on you. 

Friends, the good news is that that all things are possible with God. God can take those things that hinder us from truly following him and transform them and us into beacons that point to the Age to Come.  We open our homes to each other and the stranger.  We share, not because of a fear of scarcity, but because of the abundance we have been blessed with.  We use our influence to lift others up instead of a continued race to the top of the heap.  God’s grace and love are shared in new and multifaceted ways.

All the early Christians came to believe that with Jesus’ death and resurrection the Age to Come had indeed broken fully into the Present Age.  The future hope had been pulled into the present reality to be experienced and embraced.  That day was a day that everything changed for humanity and all of creation.  Nothing has been the same since. 

That’s one of the hardest points for us to grasp today about their way of looking at the world and at God.  But if we even begin to take it seriously, we’ll see there is nowhere to hide from Jesus’ uncompromising–though cheerful and celebratory and blessing-filled—call to discipleship. 

The call “Come on!  Follow me!” echoes down through history to us today.  We are invited to respond with a cry of “Yes!” with all that we are and with all that we have. 

Amen.

Resurrection…Now!

Scripture: Luke 20:27-38

I have an interesting history with this passage.  It seems to pop up now and again in theological conversations I’ve had with people over the last several years.  One of those conversations was just an out of the blue phone call I received when I was sitting in the office.  “First Presbyterian Church of La Grande.  This is Keith, how may I help you?”  “You a pastor?”  Since I was kind of shocked at abruptness of the question, it took me a second to answer, “Yes, yes, I’m a pastor.”  “Well, my friend and I are having an argument.  He says angels are male.  I say they are female.  Who’s right?”  I’d never been asked a question like this before, so I had to think for a second, but this passage came to mind.  “Did you ever consider that angels are neither male nor female?  There is this passage in the Bible that talks about how in the resurrection we will become like the angels.  There is no longer any marriage or death.  When you read it, there is a subtle, possible implication in this passage that angels aren’t sexual beings, but created as eternal beings with no sexual identity.”  After a pause, I get a, “Well, that doesn’t do me any good” with a click on the line.

Actually, there is a lot in this passage that doesn’t really do us any good if we get stuck on them, like are angels male or female.  But if we start with the end of the passage, where the good news rests, it will make this passage come alive and have an impact on our lives and probably make us ask different questions.  The good news of this text is that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  Say that with me, God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.

So, keep that in mind as we start working on this passage.  We hear a lot in scripture about the Pharisees.  This is the first and only place in Luke where the Sadducees show up.  Just like today, there are different camps that believe different things about who God is and what God is up to in the world.  And one of the arguments between these two groups was “what is authoritative scripture.”  Basically, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, had any say in the theological life of the Jewish people.  Since Moses makes no comment about an afterlife, there is no afterlife.  To the Sadducees, when you died, you were dead.  No heaven, no hell, no resurrection, just the grave.  This life was the only one you are given.

But the Pharisees believed that God revealed the divine will not only in the books of Moses, but continued to speak to and through God’s people in their changing circumstances.  So as time went by, the Psalms, the prophets, the history of Israel as we have now in most of our Old Testament became authoritative to the Pharisee camp.  And from this new understandings of God’s promises evolved.  Like the resurrection of the body  You find a bit of an understanding for it over here in Daniel, and in a few versus in Ezekiel and the Psalms, and the prophet Isaiah writes poetic lines about being bodily present in presence of God.  So they took this understanding of resurrection and looked at what was happening around them in the culture.  Here is what they saw:  The righteous suffered and the wicked seemed to prosper and they knew that a just God wouldn’t let that be the final word.  From scripture, they concluded that God would raise the dead and the righteous would receive their reward and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.  Most of the general population believed in the day of resurrection and so did Jesus.  And this teaching drove the Sadducees mad.

That’s the background of this scene between Jesus and Sadducees. It starts off with this crazy question about this women’s married life that speaks to some of the laws in the first five books of the bible.  And we can’t get stuck here.  Their goal in setting up this extreme example was to put Jesus on the spot.  The crowds would see just how brainless such a belief was.  How can the dead be raised, the Sadducees say, if those who are raised aren’t even able to tell who is married to whom?

Since we are going to focus on the good news of this passage, that God is not the God of dead, but the God of the living, Jesus’ response not only affirms the life after death experienced in the resurrection but also goes on to briefly teach about what that life will be like.

First, since God is a God of the living, life on earth and life after death are not alike.  The resurrected life will not just be an extension or repeat of this life, thank God!  We experience death and decay here.  In the resurrection, we will be totally in the presence of the living God, completely enveloped in his presence and death and pain will be destroyed and all tears will be wiped away.

Second, there will be no marriage in the age to come.  For some of you, that might be a relief.  For others, you might be heart broken.  You love your spouse.  Again, God is a God of the living.  Jesus doesn’t say we won’t know our present spouse in the age of the resurrection, but rather that our relationship will be different.  I love Laura.  I love Laura with all my heart.  But we don’t have a perfect marriage.  I thank God everyday that she is able to forgive me for my screw ups.  But I can celebrate the fact that in the new life of the resurrection that my relationship with her will be so transformed that it will go beyond marriage.  But that also includes my relationships with you, too!  No one will be less than the other, no one will be greater than the other, but we will be focused on God.  In the Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way:  All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.

Third, there is no death.  All these rules about what happens when you die and keeping blood lines don’t matter any longer.  God is a God of the living, no more death, the resurrected will be like the angels in heaven, eternally serving, praising, and living in the presence of the living God.  Now it doesn’t say the resurrected become angels, but are like them, no longer experiencing death because God is the God of the living.  Our existence and nature becomes fully alive in the presence of God.

But in all these points, Jesus is debunking their argument based upon scripture outside of the books of Moses. This argument holds no water for the Sadducees.  But Jesus then turns to the book of Exodus to say, and again I’m quoting Peterson:  Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, “‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living.  To him all are alive.”  Now, this is really exciting and really hard to put our heads around.  Here’s why:  God, in defining Godself, uses the relationship experienced with these patriarchs of the faith to say who he is.  And God uses the present tense:  I am currently the God of Abraham, not I was the God of Abraham whom I dearly miss.  In this argument about the resurrection, Jesus is saying that to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in the presence of God.  And to say that they are living, it is necessary to conclude that they have been resurrected.  Don’t ask me how this works, because you can go visit the graves of the patriarchs today.  Their bones are in the dirt!  The best way I’ve been able to even attempt to grasp this is in a lecture I heard Tom Long give he said that when we die, we enter God’s time, eternal time, resurrection time.  If God is the God of the living, in our death, to enter God’s presence, we have to be fully alive, body and soul.  Wow.

So, why does that matter?  I said earlier that believing that God is not God of the dead but God of the living would have a impact on our lives.  Here’s why:  One of the reasons the Sadducees pushed against the teaching of the resurrection was that people who believed it pushed against the status quo.  If this life was all that you had, you will compromise with the powers that be and hold on to all that you can get your hands on.  And guess what?  The Sadducees were the ones who pushed for alliances with the Romans and were generally the wealthiest members of the Jerusalem population.  Don’t rock the boat.  Don’t push back or it might mess with this comfortable life I’ve created.  But what about those who pushed back, who said the Romans shouldn’t be in the temple, who pointed out the wrongs in this life, who demanded justice, who rocked the boat, who said God intended something better for the world he created?   These were the ones the Romans nailed to a cross and they were the ones who believed that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God.  Knowing that we will live fully in the life to come pushes us to live life fully now, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and all creation.  We come to the point that lives can be lived with a certain amount of hope, a certain amount of daring in working for justice, a certain amount of adventure, a certain amount of confidence because God is a God of the living.  We don’t have to let the things of this life control us, we don’t have to hoard and hang on, we don’t have give up when the path God is calling us down seems crazy.  God is calling us to live, live the hope of the resurrection today.

So, don’t get stuck on all the details of this passage.  Get stuck on God, for God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living and the promise of resurrected life in this passage invites us to live fully alive with God today.  But at the heart of it all will be a people who live.

God in Christ is making you into his living people by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

(Sermon preached by Rev. Keith Hudson on Nov. 13, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR)

 

Living: sermon by Keith, 11.10.13 Pentecost 25C

Scriptures: Psalm 98, Luke 20:27-38

As a person goes through their day to day routine, there are a variety of questions that a person can get asked.  Simple questions in passing, such as “How are you doing?”  that can begin a conversation on life’s joys and tribulations, or it can be answered simply, “Fine.”  Or the kind of question that has a relative definite answer, like “How long does it take to drive to Portland?”  Depending on the number of potty breaks, usually around four hours.  There are also the questions that are asked to find out what side of the fence you are on politically or religiously.  The person asking is trying to determine if you are on his or her side of the argument, if you are one of the good guys or bad guys.  Are you for gun control?  What do you think of Obamacare?  Do you say tomato or tomaato?

Then there is the kind of question that Jesus is asked this morning in the passage we just read.  The Sadducees already knew what side of the resurrection fence Jesus was on.  He believed it and taught it.  But to fully understand their question and what they were trying to do to Jesus in asking it, we have to understand who the Sadducees were.  They were the temple elite, the priestly class, and wealthy, and in the 1st century Jewish world, they would have been labeling theologically conservative.  Scripture for them only consisted of Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. No teaching was considered authoritative if it wasn’t given in these five books and they found no doctrine of the resurrection there.  In fact they found no teaching at all about an afterlife.  Death had the final say for them in the matter of life.

The other primary Jewish group at that time was the Pharisees.  They were the teachers out in the small town synagogues and were the ones we usually see Jesus butting heads with in the Gospels.  They considered Torah as authoritative, but also included the prophets and the oral traditions as having the same level of authority.  It would be what we call the Old Testament plus the traditions handed down all the way from Moses to that day.  It is in the oral traditions and prophets that spoke of the day of the resurrection that would take place somewhere far into future.  One day, God would raise the dead and give them a new glorified body.  It was not considered a resuscitation of the former physical body but a new form of existence.

Resurrection was hotly debated between these two camps, and it is because of this debate, Jesus is asked a question that comes straight from the heart of Torah.  “Based on the rules of marriage found in the Law of Moses, if a man dies leaving his wife with no children, his brother must marry her.  If this happens a total of seven times, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”  The reason for this kind of question is to make Jesus re-think his position, because they ask it in a way there are only two possible answers, answers that prove the Sadducees right and Jesus wrong.  Answer A is she is married to seven men in the resurrection.  This violates the law and God wouldn’t have a separate set of rules of marriage in the life that is found in the resurrection as there are now.  If Jesus can’t go there, opening the door to allow this woman to have seven husbands, then he must close the door completely, which is Answer B, there is no resurrection.  From the Sadducees point of view, it is the kind of question that will force Jesus to agree with them or be silent.

But Jesus does answer them, but not how they expected.  His answer is two fold and I believe it points to the heart of a Christian hope for the future. It’s important to look at what he says and what he doesn’t say as we explore his answer.  The first part of his response simply points to the inappropriateness to the question, given the difference between this life and the life to come.  We live in a world where death is a reality.  We will all die.  That’s a point both the Pharisees and Sadducees could agree on.  And because of the fact we all die, marriage and perpetuation of life in the family becomes essential while we live.  But in the resurrection, we are given the gift of life everlasting so there is no need to marry or a need to have children.  The Torah laws regarding marriage and family no longer hold sway in the resurrection because we belong to a new family, the family of God.  Any Pharisees who were in ear shot of this part of Jesus’ answer would have been nodding in agreement as they heard Jesus’ words.

In the second part of his answer, Jesus uses the scriptures that the Sadducees see as authoritative to reveal an implicit reference to the resurrection in Torah.  The resurrection of the dead is found at the heart of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.  God did not say from the burning bush, “Once upon a time I was the God of Abraham, was the God of Isaac and was the God of Jacob, and now I miss them all dearly.”   God says, “I am their God.  Now, right now, in this very moment, I am their God.”  God is a God of the living and not of the dead.  It follows then, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living, not dead, and in the presence of God.  And when Jesus points to this passage as support for the resurrection, he means Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are bodily in the presence of God.  Ironically, this response probably would have got the attention of the Pharisees, too.  Resurrection day was somewhere in the future, not something that was already being experienced by the dead.

Now here is where Jesus response to the Sadducees gives us hope for the future.  Now the hope isn’t only for those who grew up in a dysfunctional family or experienced divorce and can say, “Thank God I don’t have to spend eternity with him!”  nor does this passage remove the hope that we will be in the presence of loved ones when we die.  But this passage refocuses our hope in God.  God is a God of the living first and foremost because we have a living God who calls us into relationship with him.  God is not some spiritual force that flows through the universe that our spirit leaves at our birth and returns to in our death, but a personal triune God who created us in love in his image and declared us and all of creation good.  And this God who breathed the breath of live into us calls us into relationship from the day of our birth to the day we die.  This doesn’t mean we don’t take death seriously.  It destroys life and relationships.  Paul even calls death the last enemy of God.  But death isn’t stronger than God.  We know that because in God we find life.  God takes life so seriously that that he sent the Son into the world so we could experience eternal life with him, both body and soul, in this life and next.  And Jesus died, really died, experiencing agony and suffering on his way to the cross.   And God’s love of life broke out of the tomb that first Easter morning when God raised Jesus from the dead for us.

It is in his resurrection we get a glimpse of what the resurrection of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even our own resurrection is like.  His disciples recognized him, but he was not a disembodied ghost.  He walked and talked, he ate and drank, and the disciples touched him.  He had a body, but it was a different body.  Sometimes those who knew him best didn’t recognize him.  He could vanish or show up in rooms where all the doors were locked.  He was the same person in a different way.  In the resurrection, we don’t lose who we are by being dissolved into some universal spirit like a drop of rain being lost in the ocean.  As Shirley Guthrie puts it, “In an unimaginably different and better way we will still be the individual human beings we are now, with the ability to have genuinely personal relationship with God and other people in the eternal “communion of the saints.””

Sometimes talking about the resurrection raises more questions than it answers, the kinds of questions that just might not have a clear answer.  A question like how can Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob be bodily present with God when we can go visit their tombs today?  You know, I don’t know.  Scripture just gives us small glimpses here and there, but I trust and hope that in the words of Jesus to the thief of the cross that something happens that only can be described as a gift from God.  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  At the point of our deaths, we enter God’s time, eternal time, and we will be raised to be with Christ and God will claim us as his children.  Even when we don’t have all the answers, we can trust in his promises that in this life he will be with us and that we will be with him in the next.  Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and God’s love.  Because he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He is God of (pick 3 names of people sitting out there).  And he is the God of Bonnie, of Gene, and of Gordon.   He is God of the living and in him we find life.  Amen