I was invited to share lunch last Thursday with Circle II. At one point the conveersation turned to the book written by a 12 year old that has become a national bestseller. It’s called Heaven is for Real. I didn’t know anything about it. Apparently, the boy, Colton Burpo, was just a few months shy of his fourth birthday when he experienced a ruptured appendix. He had surgery and woke up to say that he’d been to heaven. The book published 8 years later claims that Colton had seen his great grandfather, Jesus, including, of course, the wounds on his hands.
I must say that when I read about that little detail, my skepticism was heightened. And when I further read that the author of the book was not Colton, but his dad Todd, who is also an evangelical minister, it made sense. In the evangelical fold, much hinges upon the acceptance of “Christ’s wounds, open for thee,” as Catherine Booth put it in a famous hymn, “The Wounds of Christ are Open.”
Furthermore, it turns out that the 12 year old Colton did not write it. Over the years, as he told his story, and we can imagine, was encouraged in telling his story, his father decided to write the book, Heaven is For Real, claiming his son was the inspiration.
It is, of course, my own conjecture to say that the story is just that — a story trying to pass off as a factual account. Sages and seers through the ages have never been able to agree on this matter. Nevertheless, the wisest of them seem to agree with Jesus — it’s better to pay attention to other things for there are some things about which we know nothing.
One thing that we can claim with some degree of credibility, is that from the moment there was human conscience, it has been an insult upon that conscience to snuff it out. Something about our existence is severely diminished when we kill. It is hard to imagine that in matters of ultimate concern, this process is reversed, so that God only truly embraces with bloody hands.
This year for Lent, I’ve decided to quit playing the game of tip-toeing around this problem. It’s not entirely easy. Our church culture, language and ritual is saturated with the violence that was the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Nevertheless, the vision that has moved centuries of Christians is ultimately not the violence of Holy Week, but the expression of living in divine love so thoroughly that even when threatened with death Jesus throbs with power and hope. In the midst of the rubble that would become Good Friday, some could still say: “Though I am slain, yet shall I persist in love. I have seen in Jesus’ life reason to persist in the way of love, not violence.”
This is no ordinary love. And the story of the man that taught it, lived it, breathed it, is no ordinary story either. He had all kinds of enemies who so strongly disliked his message that God’s love gives all of people a spine, offers hope to all of God’s people, not just the rich and the famous, that they would kill him to shut him up. And yet, as we’ll see today, this is no everyday flavor of love that feels good when it feels good and flees when it is threatened.
Our opening story this morning reads like a pop-quiz. It is situated in the midst of a series of increasingly hostile encounters between Jesus and the worldly guardians of love. These Sadducees purport to be defending the law of Moses. Jesus thinks they’re defending something else.
The question is what? What are they so urgently defending? We all know our Sunday school lesson that they were sad, you see, because they did not believe in the resurrection. But that’s not even the part of the story.
The Sadducees were a political party who would believe what they had to in order to keep it, especially in the time of Jesus as their political power was on the wane. Nevertheless, they were still a distinct party of chief priests, elders, and other nobility. They taught a conservative ideology. The historian of the time, Josephus notes about their conservatism: They “have the confidence of the wealthy alone, but no following among the populace.” Josephus reasons that the Sadducees struggle to maintain their hold on power, not by appealing to the common good, but by stripping the idea of the common good of any real meaning, holding up power and prestige as the ultimate goal and stripping the poor of any right, while claiming that they serve them by being powerful. Indeed, this story seems not so much as to trap Jesus between two difficult alternatives, but to attempt to get Jesus to agree with their ideology of power and validate their existence.
Because this story is, at least on the surface, a story about resurrection, we easily find ourselves ignoring what for Jesus is the main offense of the Sadducees’ pop-quiz — they have completely and utterly used and abused the woman. This is not a story about resurrection, it is a story about “continuing the patriarchal family be securing its wealth and inheritance within it.” This is why I had us read from Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza this morning. She reminds us that Jesus, unlike the other figures of his time, and even contrary to the church that bears his name, offered liberation for the poor, even the hidden poor.
Resurrection for Jesus expressed the real possibility of the very living and vibrant community the Sadducees so methodically and intently set about to destroy by oppressing the poor — not just, as Schussler-Fiorenza notes, the poor like Lazarus, but the poor women as well. He concludes: You understand nothing. You are wrong. And you are part of the problem. Go away.
It’s hard to imagine that after Jesus completely decimated the Sadducees that anyone would attempt to continue questioning him. But some nameless scholar, who has been hanging out on the fringes of the crowd moves in for his chance. Scholars are often like this — they think their question is the cleverest question. I’m not smart enough to know why he asked the question — any Jew, rather conservative or liberal would answer with the Shema : “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.” How could Jesus answer wrong?
Perhaps the theologian was not interested in trapping Jesus. Perhaps the theologian simply wanted to be on the side of Jesus, to hear the teacher agree with his own answer. One teacher I know notes that these are “not just questions, but indirect pleas for relationship.” To be validated is as important as it is to actually do the hard work of learning. Because validation is not just brown-nosing, but an appeal from one human to another to recognize humanity, the questions which are asked that already have an answer, are questions about value and worth — questions that all of us, at one time or another, ask because to be human is to struggle to find answers to life’s most persistent questions, a struggle to connect where it feels we should connect.
In the conservative Jewish worship service, there comes a moment after the psalms have been sung, a moment after the community has together praised God, that the worshipper is invited to pray individually and silently for as long as it takes. But before they do that, they take three steps forward. Those steps moves the worshipper from her stuck spot to the precipice, where to look down is to feel vertigo. She is no longer in the mundane place of existence.
We can go through life unaware of the breadth and span of our existence, of the connection we have with one another and God. But to move to the precipice, to seek validation, is to bring the fullness and connection of our lives into the spotlight. Our scholar with his question to which he already knows the answer, is like the worshipper on the precipice. Perhaps the scholar did not intend to be here, but suddenly he is. And here he knows he IS. Here says Jesus, the kingdom is close at hand.
At this point, I wish I could tell you a story of some moment when I had a similar encounter with a famous person. While I’ve met some relatively famous theologians, I have usually kept my mouth shut. That, I suppose is a sermon for another time!
But I have had encounters with people that have led me to the precipice. I don’t think this happens terribly often, but it is not uncommon, and it does not require encounters with famous teachers.
All of you know that I have a bit of a reaction to hospitals. I’ve been known to pass out in a ward from some kind of sympathetic vasal-vagal reaction. But I’ve also had moments when that reaction has not bothered me and I’ve been able to connect. I remember one man, many years ago, who had cancer of the throat. He was probably in his late seventies. He was clearly dying. On my first visit, he asked me, by putting his finger of his tracheotomy hole, if I would wheel him down to the outdoor cafeteria so he could have a cigarette.
I told him I would. That was the moment. I was doing something for him that no one else would. Tears welled up in his eyes. The kingdom of God was at hand. Amen.