Sermon for the Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27C) November 10, 2013. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Job 19:23-27a2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Psalm 17:1-9Luke 20:27-38

God of the living

I have been thinking about change – no surprises there.  Many things have been changing here at Grace: a new rector is on board; work is underway to restore the Parish Hall; a labyrinth has been painted on the chapel floor.  Some changes may be welcome, and some may not, for I am aware of my own mixed feelings as I prepare to leave in two weeks.  It turns out that parish life is like every other kind of life: always in flux.  You’ve noticed that, right?  Nothing holds still.  Moment by moment things are coming and going.  Things are arising and passing away.  Groups form and groups dissolve.  People are born and people die.  This fall, as I watched the colors change in the maple, beech, and sumac trees, I was absorbed by the sight of leaves falling.  Leaves fall with such simplicity!  When the right moment comes, they simply drop – no drama, no fanfare, no resistance, no holding back – they just let go, giving themselves freely to the wind.  I felt as if I could watch those leaves forever, for I’d like to learn to let go like that, with that kind of ease.  Instead, here I am with all my mixed feelings about comings and goings, about impermanence and flux and change, digging my heels in half the time, wanting things to stay put, to be manageable, to be under my control and to turn out the way I want them to.   Thank God for stability and duration, but the problem is that we can get attached to keeping things the same, and then we suffer, and we add to the suffering of others.

My thoughts turned not to today’s Collect, but to a Collect that we hear every year at the end of September.  It goes like this: “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure….” Love things heavenly, and hold fast to what endures.  But what is it to which we should hold fast?  What is it that endures?

For example, does life endure?  Is there life after death?  Is there a heaven?  These age-old questions have surely perplexed human beings ever since we evolved to the point of self-awareness and of realizing that we were going to die.  Over the millennia, across various cultures and traditions, all kinds of answers have been supplied, some of them very elaborate, imaginative, and speculative.  On the other hand, some individuals and groups have been reluctant to make any conjectures about what heaven is like, or whether an after-life exists at all, because they trust only what they have directly experienced.  I heard a story last week about a Zen student who asked his teacher, “What happens to us when we die?”  “I don’t know,” the teacher replied. “But aren’t you a Zen teacher?” the student retorted.  “Yes,” he said, “but I’m not a dead Zen teacher.” 

“I’ll wait and find out for myself” might be what some of us say when we’re asked what we believe about heaven and life after death.  And some people flat out reject any possibility of life after death.  That was the position of the Sadducees, a group within Judaism that considered the Torah, the first five books of Moses, to be their only source of authority – if you couldn’t find something in the Torah, then it couldn’t be true.  Based on this material, they found no reason to believe in the resurrection.  The Pharisees, by contrast, believed that Moses had provided an oral as well as a written tradition, and that the oral tradition justified believing in the resurrection.  Whether or not to believe in the resurrection of the dead was the subject of heated, even violent, argument between the two groups (Acts 23:6-10). 

So when the Sadduccees came to Jesus to ask a question about the resurrection, they were not posing the question from the point of view of a grieving person who is looking for solace or hope, nor were they posing it from the perspective of a seeker who is sincerely searching for truth.  They already knew exactly what they believed – that resurrection and the after-life were a fantasy.  In presenting Jesus with the hypothetical case of a wife who died and found herself confronted in heaven by seven husbands, each of whom presumably wanted to claim her as his own, their purpose was to show that belief in the resurrection or after-life was absurd.  They were out to trick Jesus and to make him look like a fool

What did Jesus say in reply?  Well, he says, the after-life is real; there is a heavenly life beyond the grave.  But our risen life is not merely an extension or repetition of life on earth.  In some sense it is beyond our imagining – there is no marrying there, he says, and no death.  Jesus doesn’t go into details about what heaven or the age to come is like; he does not indulge in fanciful speculation.  But what he does say is that it is real, and mysteriously different from the sensory world that we know on earth, just as the Risen Christ was Jesus of Nazareth, but not recognizable in the usual way.  In today’s passage, Jesus turns to the Torah, the part of Scripture that the Sadduccees recognized as valid, and recalls what God revealed to Moses beside the burning bush: “I am… the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).  Jesus takes this statement as implicit recognition that resurrection is real: God is God “not of the dead, but of the living, for to [God] all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38).  In God, all live.

What this means is that within all the comings and goings of life there is something eternal. Our loved ones may die, but in God they are alive.  Our days may disappear like smoke, yet within and beyond all the arising and passing away we glimpse something that will never die: the enduring love and life of God.  Where is heavenly life found?  Right here.  And when does it begin?  Right now.  Do we need to die in order to be in heaven?   No – to be in heaven, we need in fact to be very much alive.  Moments when we are caught up in love, moments when we are fully present, moments when we look deeply into life with eyes of love, are moments when we touch what is ultimately real.  

I’ll tell you one way to get a glimpse of heaven.  I invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and to bring to mind someone who is easy for you to love.  Take a moment to relax and to let someone who is easy for you to love come to your mind.  It may be someone who lives close by or it may be someone far away.  It may be someone you saw just this morning, or it may be someone you haven’t seen in years.  Let someone come to mind who is easy for you to love, and if no person comes to mind, see if there is a beloved pet that you want to hold in mind just now.  For just a moment, let’s enjoy what it feels like to gaze with love on this other being, what it feels like to honor fully our affection for him or her.  If you like, you may want to imagine the person gazing back at you with tenderness.  The person sees you just as you are, and loves you just as you are, and you don’t have to change a thing.

Can you sense that love?  In a way it doesn’t matter if the person is physically close to you or is somewhere far away.  Even if they have died, they are always as close as your heart.  Love knows no boundaries of time or space.  Sometimes a person may even be more present to us when the person is absent.  Love is reckless, abundant, and ever upwelling.  It crosses time zones; it passes freely between this world and the next; it knows no bounds and no frontiers.  God is God not of the dead but of the living, and when we love, we come alive and we step into heaven.  As St. John puts it in his First Letter, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 John 3:14).  Or, as the philosopher Gabriel Marcel once said, you know you have really learned to love someone when you know that you see in the other that which is too precious to ever die.

I wonder if that experience, that knowledge, is what enabled Job to proclaim, even from the depths of unimaginable loss and suffering, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth… [and] in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). 

That is the Christian message of hope, a message that can carry us through life with joy, even as we watch the leaves fall, even as we recognize the truth of impermanence and change.  When we hand in our stewardship pledges next week, it will be with grateful hearts for the heaven that is proclaimed and made known in this community, and that we anticipate knowing in fullness in the age to come. 

I will end by quoting part of a song1 recorded by Celtic folk singer Mary Black: 

In your eyes
Faint as the singing of a lark
Somehow this black night
Feels warmer for the spark
Warmer for the spark
To hold us ‘til the day when fear will lose its grip
And heaven has its way
And heaven has its way
When all will harmonize
And know what’s in our hearts
The dream will realize

Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes
Heaven knows no frontiers
And I’ve seen heaven in your eyes.

1. “No Frontiers,” lyrics by Jimmy McCarthy.