Many years I was new to the staff of a church and very green to ministry. At a staff retreat we had a chance to get to know each other. The typical questions were asked of me: What strengths do you bring to the job and what are your growth areas? I have no idea what I named as my strengths but I remember clearly my answer about weaknesses: I don’t like conflict. Not many of us do! I had gone through two lengthy interviews with the search committee, been wined and dined by some of the folks and finally preached to the congregation in a “candidating sermon”. In spite of all my interactions with a variety of individuals there, it turned out that I had stepped into a conflict already brewing when I began my ministry with them. We ultimately hired an outside agency to navigate the choppy waters of heated divisions with a reluctant congregation. Even when the hired consultant mapped out the process by which we would speak and listen to each other, some folks raised their hands and objected to his process! Seriously, I thought? So we will introduce conflict into the conflict resolution process for which we are dearly paying?! Unbelievable.
Since that early experience I have interviewed in churches carefully, trying to uncover any hints to their past history and habits, just as search committees try to get a true read on me. I was struck when talking with the search committee at my present congregation in the course of two long interviews that people spoke about former pastors with grace. People seemed to genuinely care for each other. I signed on for the position and I have been blessed with a church family that is relatively drama-free! The result is that we enjoy a deep level of trust for one another. I have never taken that for granted! Thank you, Lord Jesus!
Making my preaching plans this past summer, I looked at the lectionary passages for November 10. This was to be the Sunday we voted on full LGBTQ inclusion including same-sex marriage. I couldn’t believe that the gospel reading for the day talks about marriage! But, as is often the case, it’s about more than marriage when you dig into it. I discovered that this passage is near the very end of what is called the “controversy section” in Luke’s Gospel. This is a pretty good identifying factor for where we find ourselves as a congregation right now. We have had some of the most courageous conversations with one another in the past couple of years. We need simply look outside the red doors of our church to see that we are stepping into a minefield when talking about same-sex marriage. Just as our congregants stand in different places on other societal issues, we are not of one mind on this issue either. And yet we choose to face one another, speak honestly, and listen with respect. We have invited the Spirit of God to lead us in our process and God has shown up powerfully. Why should that surprise us?
So here’s the passage from Luke’s Gospel: The Resurrection and Marriage
20: 27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[a] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20: 27-38)
So let’s unpack a few details from this story. The Sadducees are one of two dominant groups of Jewish leaders who present Jesus with an exaggerated scenario. They take one Jewish custom and push it to an extreme. Fact: Women were completely dependent on men in Jesus’ day. Marriage was the means by which a woman procured security for her future. On her wedding day, the father gave his daughter to the new husband, as a property deal of sorts. The woman prayed that she would be able to have children as that was the chief goal of the union. If a woman’s husband died the levirate practice ensured that the husband’s brother would marry the widow to provide for her needs. If there had been no children from that first marriage, the first child born to the wife with the new husband would be given the name of the deceased husband. That would keep his name alive. Additionally, a child in the new marriage would save her from the stigma of being childless. So the Sadducees present this fictitious dilemma to Jesus. It’s almost a humorous story because she seems to be the cause of their untimely deaths! They ask Jesus, if she ends up married to seven brothers before she herself dies, still childless, whose wife will she be in the afterlife?
Hmmm. Thoughts? Just crickets? More background to the story is the fact that the Sadducees did not believe that there was an afterlife. So we begin to understand that they are not truly concerned about this issue they’ve placed before Jesus. They just want to stump Him. They want to make Him look foolish. They should know better! Between Luke 19:28 and 20:47 different groups throw potshots at Jesus, trying to bring Him down. They’re threatened by Him. This is called the controversy section of Luke’s Gospel and guess who doesn’t win?!
There was a two party system in Jesus’ day. The Sadducees and the Pharisees held the places of honor as Jewish leaders but they had different stances on different issues, resurrection being one of them. They viewed each other as enemies because they both desired to be the preferred rulers over the Jewish people. Anyone else heard of a two party system where both sides are deeply divided??? There are definitely more parallels to our story than I initially realized. What does it take to get the two sides to stand together in a partisan political system? Something like the crisis of 9-11 perhaps? Apart from that terrible yet unifying moment in our history, it seems like the lines are drawn very clearly. We witnessed that this past week with the election results from around the country. And now, no matter where we stand politically, we brace ourselves for a presidential campaign season that will be grueling at best. Lord Jesus, have mercy!
So Jesus was surrounded by folks who were entrenched in their own positions. They didn’t hesitate to use Him as a pawn to prove their own points. The hypothetical question posed to Jesus was meant to stump him. It was disingenuous and Jesus knew it. His way of unmasking their ulterior motives was to simply teach as if what they asked was of authentic interest. He refused to get pulled into their game. He corrected them on two issues. Even though they really didn’t care about His answer, Jesus assured them (and us!) that the human relationships on this side of heaven pale in comparison with what they will be when we stand with Jesus in glory. Even the richest marriage relationships will not be expressed in the same earthly ways. Our resurrection bodies do not decay or die and our loyalties need not be to only one person. The expansiveness of God’s love allows us to connect with all the saints evenly. For those of us deeply in love with our spouses, we might feel sadness when thinking that we don’t have the same claims on each other in the afterlife. But Jesus urged the believers to let go of this world as the model for the next. Resurrected bodies are transformed. Heaven will be more wonderful than we can imagine and we won’t worry about who is paired with whom. As we have honest and sometimes difficult conversations with each other and with God about who and what constitutes marriage, perhaps it is reassuring for us to know that this is an issue only on this side of heaven!
As I stated earlier, the other irony in this discussion is that the Sadducees, who asked the question, didn’t even believe in the afterlife! But Jesus did. His resurrection from death is the cornerstone to our Christian faith so He needed to address this theological misunderstanding. Jesus does it by questioning their interpretation of scripture. The Sadducees only believed in the first five books of our Bible so Jesus took a passage from Exodus 3:6 in which Yahweh self-identifies as the “God of Abraham…Isaac and…Jacob.” For Jesus, this reference by a living God to men long-since deceased proved that they were still alive in some form. This could only be if there was life after death. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day did not share the same interpretation of scripture and this kept them apart. Each insisted on their rightness and tried to use Jesus to prove their own position. The Pharisees would have embraced Jesus’ teaching on this point of scripture. The Sadducees, not so much!
Folks in our congregation want to be sure their voices are heard when we vote on broadening our inclusion of those in the LGBTQ community. We each have deep convictions about our understanding of the Christian faith including scriptural interpretation. The different places people stand concerning scriptural interpretation of same-sex marriage has divided the Church, divides families and communities. Sitting in the midst of our debates are loved ones who are part of the LGBTQ community. So the way that we speak our minds and listen is very important. As in other areas of church life, we are called to trust that other members of the church family land where they do because they have prayerfully sought to understand Biblical teachings. Otherwise we are among the crowds who pressed in on Jesus in the Controversy Section simply trying to use Him to gain points for our own agenda. There’s plenty of that to go around in our present political climate but we are called, as followers of Jesus, to conduct our business in a different—a compassionate—way.
In the scenario that the Sadducees fabricated, the woman is still childless at the end of her life and widowed seven times over. In the face of this terrible tragedy what is the woman left with? Human relationships have failed her but she is left with God. Ultimately that’s the only assurance any of us has. Our mortal bodies eventually give way to death but we are never alone. Nurturing our relationship to God is our highest calling. If this is our priority in the Church we will be able to act with grace even in the most controversial theological areas. We can speak of our convictions passionately but the way we do it will indicate to others that we are followers of Christ.
It is impossible to have a church family that has no conflict. When human beings live and grow together, there are inevitable differences. I’ve learned that in my ministry. We can’t avoid conflict and it wouldn’t be healthy to pretend like we’re all the same. To run from difficult conversations dishonors the beauty of our God-given differences. We are called to give a glimpse to this world of what life on the other side of heaven looks like by they way we live here. On the other side of this earthly life there are not competing groups grasping for power. No one owns anyone else. No one is alone. No one’s needs go unmet. Like the deepest of loves that we experience here, when we join our Maker at the end of our frail lives God’s boundless love unites us as one family. We belong together. Dividing lines are gone. Conflicts are resolved. Together we lift our voices in praise of the Creator in whose image we all are made. Amen.