Our gospel lesson this morning recounts how Jesus commissioned his disciples, how he sent them forth to be in the world. His instructions come at the very end of the chapter of Matthew, with the final words “…I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
When the Bible Study Group I used to meet with read this passage out loud, and we came to the line “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted”, there arose a loud and hearty laugh. The idea that Christ’s closest disciples, the ones who knew him the best, the ones who received his most fervent instructions, the ones who broke bread with him, and hung on almost every word he said, doubted, made as all laugh.
If that isn’t permission for modern Christians to question and challenge and discern anew what Jesus meant by his instructions, I don’t know what is! Doubt, even as we are worshiping him, even as we are trying to share him with our neighbors.
In the last 20 years, a kinder, gentler way of introducing Jesus to those who do not know him has come about: building hospitals and schools, providing pumps and filters for clean water, sharing hard earned resources with others so that they might have some basic items for living and growing. If we take some time to contemplate that the disciples still doubted, even as Jesus was about to leave them, then we can understand how others, who have little experience with Christ, might have some serious questions about who this Jesus is. But we know from our own experience that actions speak louder than words. And actions that help others who are in need speak much louder than words that proclaim traditions and faiths. That just makes sense to me. I hope it makes sense to you.
Because the Gospels are full of examples of Jesus reminding us that we aren’t the ones who get to judge others, not on their way of life, not on their choice of faith or their choice of no faith. We are the ones who are called to love our neighbors by offering them help when we can, by offering them prayers always, and by offering them a voice if they would like us to…
Every example I find in our gospels shows Jesus to be kind, patient, and respectful of those whom he helped. Not one shred of disdain, impatience, judgement, irritation or exasperation. With the disciples, yes. He had high expectations, and he showed his frustrations with them occasionally, but with those whom he healed, or helped, Jesus had only patience and loving kindness.
How many disciples will we make if we judge and dismiss our neighbors in need? How many will listen or know about Jesus if they feel judged and disrespected? How many might we reach with patience and loving kindness?
Of course, I’m preaching to the proverbial choir: our One Worshiping Community puts our money where our hearts are: with those in need. We may not have much, but what we have is dedicated to reaching those in need.
The irony is that as churches struggle with financial resources, as we struggle to stay alive, the call to love our neighbor, the call to serve our neighbor is no less strong: and Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age. Which means we continue to help others, even as we are challenged to help ourselves. Which means we can question, and doubt, and find new ways to express our love of neighbor, even if it flies in the face of the way things used to be done.
As this congregation prepares to head out into the wilderness, prepares to take a new path toward what it means to be a congregation in the 21st century, we will have the tradition of sharing the proceeds from our Endowment fund with organizations that are founded on the principles of helping those in need. Diverse organizations, diverse neighbors, receiving resources even when we may not have a building of our own. Even if we are technically homeless for a while.
If our actions are grounded in respect, founded on love, abounding in the gentle impulse to be non-judgmental, we are earnestly answering the call and the commission of our faith. If our focus is on those in need, and not on meeting our own needs, then we are faithfully carrying out what Jesus has called us to do.
Jesus commissioned the disciples, and in a way, commissioned us to make disciples of all nations. But in the world in which we live, many nations already have a faith, are already disciples of another religion. Modern Christianity has begun to find ways to partner with our brothers and sisters of other faiths, and with our sisters and brothers of no faith, to find ways to try and make the world a better place. I feel honored to be a part of that tradition.
We can worship God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and we can question, and doubt. That much is clear. I believe we should be questioning and doubting any action from any faith community or person of faith that is not based on love and respect, any intention that is not patient, gentle, or kind. It may be harder, but it’s the only way I know how to make disciples of the nations. Amen.
Our gospel lesson this morning tells of a time when a group of Sadducees approached Jesus with a question.
The Sadducees were a sect of Jewish believers that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, or in the existence of individual spirits, and placed a large emphasis on their obligation to an oral tradition founded on the strict adherence to the written law found in the Torah: the first five books of the bible.
Because they are a subset of Jewish believers, they are often lumped together with the Pharisees, another Jewish sect, but their beliefs skew away from what we know as traditional Jewish thought.
However different their beliefs, at the very least, we know from this morning’s reading that they considered Jesus a teacher, and they found him both approachable and open to challenging questions. It should come as no surprise then, that they would ask him about one of their central tenets: the existence of the eternal life.
The questions is based on a basic social and religious custom from Moses that states that when a man’s brother dies, if that man is single, his obligation is to marry his brother’s widow, so that she and possibly his children, may be cared for.
They take this basic custom, and for the purposes of making their point, stretch it absurdly, asking Jesus that if seven brothers married the same woman, and they all died, to whom was she married in the resurrection?
So while the Sadducees were respectful in approaching Jesus as a teacher, asking their question in a respectful manner, (as opposed to some of the Pharisees, who were sometimes rude and derisive when asking their questions) the underlying intent is to trip Jesus up with what might be seen as a confusing and confounding example.
Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
He begins by explaining that marriage is an earthly and human institution, or covenant, and that the life ever-after, or the resurrection, transcends human institutions and covenants.
He adds that the faithful children of God experience a resurrection that transcends death. Jesus not only holds steadfast to the concept of resurrection, he likens their spirits to angels. A sharp poke at the Sadducees underlying beliefs.
But he doesn’t stop there. He takes their most revered religious figure, Moses, and places him at the center of his response: because Moses referred to the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, Jesus implies that Moses himself understood God to be the God of the living; the living in this case being Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the resurrection.
For many, this whole exchange is both philosophically and theologically interesting, but for the children of God in today’s age, how might this scripture have meaning and relevance?
I personally find it a powerful concept that the life ever-after, the resurrection, transcends human conventions and institutions: it transcends any and all earthly covenants, and transcends death itself.
The resurrection transcends anything we can say or do, anything we can touch, or taste, or feel. It’s almost too big to understand: that our spirits, created by God to be unique and beautiful, transcend the physical and earthly rules, outlast the human bodies we’ve been given, and triumph over death.
Jesus has said it before: in the resurrection there is no marriage, no gender, no ethnicity.
What does this mean?
Well for me, it means I can take some spiritual risks knowing that God has my spiritual back! I can take a risk in forgiving someone who has hurt me, I can have compassion for someone who’s behavior is despicable, and is deserving of punishment. I can let go of any grudges against others, because their resurrection transcends my grudges, and renders them irrelevant and unnecessary.
For now, as God’s faithful children, our lives are focused on living in this age, in living faithfully and gratefully with the treasures and joys, the challenges and sorrows that come with life
In fact, maybe this idea of the resurrection transcending our earthly existence could help us appreciate some of the treasures we have in our midst, but often overlook!
Let me tell you a story by Robert van de Weyer, about a farmer, and two lazy children.
There was a farmer who was known to grow the finest gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants in the whole village. He had three fields of fruit bushes, and every day he walked around the bushes with a hoe, taking out any weeds that were growing, so that the bushes had all the goodness of the soil to themselves. By the middle of each summer, they were heavy with large, juicy fruit.
Sadly, he was not as good at raising children as he was at raising fruit. His two children were known as the laziest young people in the village. They spent all day eating and drinking and chatting with friends; they never lifted a finger to help their father. As the years past, the farmer became increasingly anxious about his children’s laziness. ‘When I’m dead and gone’ he would say to his neighbors, ‘all my fruit bushes will become overgrown with weeds, and my children will starve’.
Living a short distance from the village in a small hut was a hermit, renowned for his wily wisdom. The farmer decided to visit this hermit to ask for advice. After hearing the farmer’s story, the hermit sat for a few moments in silence, stroking his long beard. At last, the hermit rose up, patted the farmer on the shoulder, and assured him that he would teach the two lazy children to work. Then the hermit left his hut and went to see the two young adults.
‘I have something important to tell you,’ he said to them. ‘I happen to know that in those fields of fruit bushes there is a great treasure. It will be enough to feed and clothe you for the rest of your lives.’
It was now September. From then until Christmas, the two siblings went out into the fields each day, searching for treasure. They dug around every fruit bush, turning over the earth, in the hope of finding a chest full of gold. But by Christmas Eve they had found nothing. So they went to the hermit’s hut and accused him of deceiving them.
‘I haven’t deceived you’, the hermit replied with grin. ‘You must keep searching. I promise that by next September you have found the treasure.’
The siblings refused to believe him.
‘Very well, then,’ the hermit continued, ‘I will make a bargain with you. If by September you have not found enough treasure to buy food and clothing for you for the rest of your lives, I will share whatever I receive with you. But if you do find the treasure, you must share it with the poor in this village’.
The two agreed. So they continued to dig the fields, turning over the earth between the fruit bushes. The farmer watched with great satisfaction, pleased that while his young adult children searched for treasure, no weeds would grow. Thus, by the middle of summer, the bushes were again heavy with large and juicy fruit. The hermit came to the fields to see the two siblings.
‘Ah,’ he exclaimed, looking at the fruit bushes, ‘I see you have found your treasure.’
At first, they could not imagine what he meant. Then it finally dawned on them. Over the next few weeks, the hermit helped them to pick the treasure. Half they sold in the market, and the other half they gave to the poor.
And from then on, the two children of the farmer continued to work hard in the fields. Each year, they again sold half the crop and gave away the rest. And, as the hermit had predicted, the money they received was quite sufficient to feed and clothe them for the rest of their lives.
In this age, in this time and in this place, we are surrounded by treasure. We just don’t see it. Sometimes, in our frantic digging for treasure, we catch a glimpse of the treasure God has placed in our midst.
As bountiful and as beautiful as that treasure may be, it is the treasure of the resurrection, the life hear-after, that transcends even the largest bounty here on earth.
For our faithfulness, that resurrection is promised. For our love of God, that resurrection is promised. For our journey of forgiving, and loving our neighbor, that resurrection is promised. For our compassion for those in pain or sorrow, who make bad decisions, or have been victims of trauma, that resurrection is promised.
Living faithfully means spending our days digging for treasure, and sharing our bounty when we harvest it.
But let us not forget that when the time of resurrection comes, it will transcend everything that we could possibly know on earth, it will even transcend our own death.
The unique and individual spirit given to each of us by our God at our creation, will outlast and outlive our earthly existence, will transcend everything we could possibly know here on earth. A holy treasure.
In the week to come, let us find some ways to appreciate the treasures in our midst, and it that appreciation, let us consider how even more powerful the treasure of the promised resurrection can be.
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