Texts: Haggai 2:1-9
In preparation for today’s All Saints service , I asked Lesley to look through all of the bulletins from the past year in order to pull together a list of the people that we knew about who had died since last we celebrated the memory of the saints. Which she did. Including a burial for a person with the last name Currier. She asked me who it was, as there was no first name listed. All it said in the calendar was Currier burial. I looked puzzled and responded from my office that I did not do a service for anyone named Currier last summer. But there it was, in black and white. Now, as I write, several hours later, I vaguely recall going to the S. Duxbury cemetery for the service. I do not know now whether the burial was for a man or a woman, young or old. (My apologies to the family.)
Last month, I began to take seriously the fact that I have a significant gap in my memory of about 6 months. Certain events stand out. But to be pressed for a recollection of a burial say, or an email to which I might have responded (to say nothing of the ones I did not) I am very hard pressed to remember anything. The summer, for all its apparent brilliance was a greyish blur to me.
Now, I am quite often wrong (although I’ll deny it!) in my recollection of details about events, but I rarely forget that there was an event. This experience, among others recently, led me to think that it might be a way to think into the experience of the Hebrew people. They are supposed to remember this grand thing, called the Temple of Jerusalem. But there is no one left who does.
Haggai, our prophet this morning asks, ‘Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” The fact is that anyone who might have remembered the temple is likely too old to have made the trip back to Judah, or they’re dead. Nevertheless, Haggai’s question stings because he addresses not so much to the literal question of memory, but the question of the meaning and purpose of their lives. How shall you live? Shall the swords and torches of the Babylonian Empire’s armies have demolished all hope? For several years these returnees had been living next to the pile of rubble that had once been the temple. Through the prophet, God tells them, “You have sown much and harvested little. . . You that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.” There is more to life than this.
But for this tiny settlement of Jews, whose memory of the temple was as foggier than my memory of last summer, rebuilding seems an impossible task. But Haggai offers a word of encouragement and they begin. They turn from their old ways and discover that the treasure of the nations shall come, as Haggai puts it so poetically.
It is just this insight — that human existence is marked by a choice, the options for which are not always readily apparent, that marks Jesus’ ministry and the gospel as a call to “turn about” (metanoia) His is not a call to learn some special knowledge, not a call to academic exercises, not even a call to believe in God. Jesus’ call offers that real life, the life that matters, lies within the range of possibilities for any of us. But to the temple builder and to the disciple of Jesus, a word of courage is required for their will be many obstacles in the path.
In Luke’s retelling of an encounter Jesus has with the scholars who are trying to do him in, this dynamic is writ large. Life is not simple. And about which path we should follow as we engage these important questions, good people differ. In fact, Jesus, in his own response to the question of resurrection offers two different answers. But with a little teasing apart, today’s gospel lesson makes one thing fairly clear — wherever we place ourselves relative to these questions — what matters is that our thinking lead to actions that ennoble and free humanity as opposed to trap and destroy it.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the three early gospels, if you search for the word resurrection, you’ll find only one other brief mention of it. Luke 14:14. Jesus has been invited to a feast and he notices where people sit. He takes the opportunity to teach by noting that when you attend a banquet, you should not take the highest seat, that way you won’t be embarrassed when the host asks you to relinquish you spot for a more honorable guest. If you take the lowest seat and are later asked to move up higher, you will be honored. Jesus concludes by saying, “And when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
If you include the gospel of John in this search for resurrection, you only find two more instances of the word.
We can’t tell from this lack of reference by Jesus to the word resurrection that this means he thought little of it. It might mean that. It might also mean that the familiar needed no explanation.
One thing we can say, is that the Sadducees raise the issue through an arcane, how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin type question. It sounds like an academic argument because it is. The Sadducees had been trained to make just this kind of an argument to “religious” types. And the Pharisees, the tradition in which Jesus was raised, had a ready, academic response. Since the Pharisees long believed in life after death, they had to have discussed these conundrums and their answer was that certain things of this age do not apply to “that age.” Perhaps Jesus did not talk about resurrection because ultimately it lead one only to argument. Perhaps Jesus did not talk about resurrection because so often it became an argument having nothing to do with the lives of the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.
If there is a paucity of reference by Jesus to resurrection, there is a dearth of references to this later idea — That the kingdom of God is in our midst.
I could cite numerous examples. The Gospel of Mark begins by calling for a turn about — “Change directions. The time is fulfilled the kingdom of God is come.”
The Gospel of Thomas, is even more explicit.
Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you.
If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you.
Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known,
and you will understand that you are children of the living Father.
But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”
The Scholars lose their argument. They do not know.
That much is obvious from our reading. But it is important to know that this encounter is the third one of this kind in a row. And when this one ends, Luke drives the gospel to its climactic conclusion — Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. Luke makes it clear that for all their learning, for all their dogmatic assertions and arguments, the scholars who so rigidly adhere to the power of orthodoxy, know nothing. They live in poverty. And their fearful actions testify to it.
Luke’s point in ordering the material this way, must be to get us to see that resurrection has to do with living now in the wealth of love. The orthodox position puts off new life until its too late to do anything about the injustices of the present kingdom under which Jesus’ people suffer.
The people for whom resurrection makes a difference are not known because they worship on Easter, or because they proclaim some supernatural God – event that reverses the human experience of death. The people for whom resurrection makes a difference, see, in the hatred and anger, the violence and crass realities of the kingdom of this world, more than rubble and chaos. They see possibility for new life and they put flesh on the bones of hope — they live, not afraid of the future, but each day in a fullness that no mere argument for or against resurrection can touch.
I have been asked several times, since coming home from the hospital if my experience of lying in the ICU in the rather tenuous state in was in, caused me to see any light, or to make any life changes. My answer has always been no. This near death experience, if I can call it that, only confirmed to me that while life is delightful and precious and lovely, the point remains the same. Each day is a gift. I don’t remember much from those days, but I do remember feeling like it was going to be OK.
Perhaps we can learn two things from Jesus’ encounter with the Sadducees. The first is what I’ve been mostly talking about today — God is a God of the living. The important thing is about living your life, as our friends in AA say, one day at a time. But there’s a caveat to that, which I hope we learned today — we’r e also called to see a little deeper into life that the Pharisees and the Sadducees and see resurrection around us.
The second thing we learn comes from Jesus’ ambivalence about personal life after death. And it was Heinrich Rendtdorff who put it best. Rentdorff was a German theologian who died in 1960. He was ill for several weeks before he died. One morning, a few weeks before he died, after lying awake the night before he said to his wife:
“The last nights I have been thinking over and testing everything that we can know and everything that we have been told about what will happen to us when we die. And now I am certain of one thing: I will be safe.
About that that is all we know, and all we need to know. Amen.