Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Least Likely: A Sermon for Advent 1

I have gone off-lectionary with this sermon. I was reading the marvelous Brian Stoffregen's commentary on the lectionary gospel, and he made an off-handed reference to this passage, Matthew 1:1-17, as a possible alternative reading. I went with it.

Some have called me chicken. That is their right. But I had fun with this text. Maybe 'fun' is the wrong word. I felt connected and excited about the dawning of this beautiful season, and the amazing women whose stories we can tell as a part of it.


I suppose I’ve been fascinated with genealogies from the time I was a little girl. Maybe it’s because I am an adoptee, and for much of my life there was always a kind of mystery to my background. Maybe it had something to do with old family photographs—I could look for hours at my parents’ black and white or sepia-toned pictures or daguerreotypes showing the faces of people long dead. Many such pictures, of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, hang in my hallways. The questions they raised up in me were always, “Who are they? What is their story? And how are they connected to me?”

The first Sunday in Advent seems to be an appropriate time to look at Jesus’ genealogy. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, consider it important enough to include genealogies, though the two genealogies are very different. The first Sunday of the new church year, which for us will also be the year of Matthew, is the right time, I think, to delve into the genealogy of Jesus as found in Matthew’s gospel, and to ask about some of the names it holds: Who are they? What is their story? And how are they connected to Jesus? How are they connected to us?

Hopefully something jumped out at you when you I read our passage from Matthew just a few minutes ago. I’ll let my seminary professor, Ann Ulanov, lay it out for us. She writes,

Nothing odder or more stimulating occurs in the genealogies of Christ’s ancestors than the appearance of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba [she who is called ‘the wife of Uriah’]… Why does Matthew place them among the “begats,” which for the rest consists only of men and the lines of fathers? Why only these women... What is special or distinctive about them? And why have we heard so very little about them in our traditions and our teachings? What explains their presence in the Tree of Life leading to Jesus? [1]

Before we look at the individual women in Jesus’ family tree, let’s remember this: every time a genealogy appears in scripture, it’s meant to tell us something important about the person at the end of the line, the ultimate member, in this case, Jesus. Genealogies point to character, but they also speak to something deeper. To know one’s roots is to be able to live in connection to the past as well as the present. In the ancient world connection with one’s ancestors is incredibly important. Through his genealogy, Jesus embraces all those people who came before him. He is the product of all these souls, whoever they may be. Their struggles tell us something about what Jesus himself will face.

The first woman to be found in our passage is Tamar (Genesis 38). Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and Judah is the patriarch of the tribe bearing his name. Judah had three sons, and Tamar, a non-Israelite, was wed to the eldest. However, he died before they had any children. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about that hypothetical woman who was married to seven different brothers in succession: remember that passage from Deuteronomy, describing what is called the Levirate duty.

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage… and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. ~Deuteronomy 25:5-6

Tamar was the wife of a man who died childless, and who had brothers to fulfill this obligation. So, her husband’s second brother married her. However, he was not willing to father children by her, and so he died as well. Judah, seeing that two of his sons had died, became unwilling to risk the life of the third, as he saw it, and told his daughter-in-law Tamar to live as a widow.

We cannot overstate the tragedy of this kind of situation for a woman in ancient Israel; to be a childless widow is to have virtually no value in that society. Starvation and death were two very real possibilities.

Tamar takes matters into her own hands. Dressing as a temple prostitute, she sits by the side of the road when she knows her father-in-law will be passing by. He obligingly goes into her, and not recognizing her, fathers twin sons. When all is revealed, he admits that she was in the right—it was his family’s duty to give her children. Tamar and her children are in Jesus’ family tree.

Rahab’s (Joshua 2:1-24) name will be familiar to you if you know the story of the conquest of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelites as they enter the Promised Land. Rahab is no pretend prostitute: she is the real deal, living in an apartment in the city’s walls. By virtue of her profession, she is not only an alien to the Israelites, she is also an alien among her own people, living on the outskirts of society as well as the city. Rahab aids the Israelites in return for their promise that neither she nor her family will be harmed in the coming invasion; they are identified by a red cord she hangs out her window. Rahab and her family are spared. Rahab and her child are in Jesus’ family tree.

The story of Ruth (Ruth 1-4) is another story of an alien, non-Israelite woman married to an Israelite man, whose husband dies, leaving her alone and childless—along with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, both of whom have had the same terrible hand dealt to them. Ruth and her mother-in-law return to Bethlehem where an opportunity presents itself for Ruth to join herself in marriage to Boaz, the male next-of-kin to her deceased husband. Ruth, at the time of the harvest festival, takes the advice of her mother-in-law and memorably anoints herself and lies at the feet of Boaz, her gentle suitor, after a feast on the threshing floor. Ruth and her child are in Jesus’ family tree.

The wife of Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12) is included in the genealogy, but not by name. Women were left unnamed in the ancient world for two main reasons. The first, and far most common reason, was that women were not considered important enough for their names to be recorded. The second reason to leave out a woman’s name was to protect her honor and dignity, when to associate her name with a story or an event would tarnish it too badly. That latter one seems to be the reason here. The wife of Uriah, whose name was Bathsheba, came to the attention of King David when he spied her from his rooftop while she was performing a ritual bath, a ritual required of all Israelite woman. David was immediately seized with desire for her, and sent for her, and took her, even though he knew she was the wife of one of his most trusted generals. When she told him she was pregnant he tried to cover it up, first by calling the general home, and finally by having him killed. God punished David for his crime—which apparently included rape as well as murder—the child born to David and Bathsheba did not survive. Bathsheba was subsequently taken into the palace to be a queen of David’s. In the end, as the mother of King Solomon, Bathsheba was a woman of great influence. But her original connection to David was so scandalous that Matthew, apparently, chose to leave her name out of it. Still: Bathsheba and her child, Solomon, are in Jesus’ family tree.

Does a pattern seem to emerge as you hear these stories, all together? We have entered into this season of Advent in which we prepare ourselves to celebrate a mystery. The mystery at the heart of our faith is that our all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God chose to take on human flesh, to live among us in Jesus. What thread ties together the stories of these women who are Jesus’ ancestors? To put it in one word, scandal.

Each of these women either comes to be pregnant in a way considered scandalous, or comes to pregnancy with her own scandalous background. And when we think of the story of Jesus’ birth, the inclusion of these women begins to make sense. Jesus is the son of a woman who found herself to be pregnant out of wedlock, and not by her intended. Jesus was the son of a woman whose fiancĂ© had every right under the law to take her out and have her stoned.

But Jesus is also the son of a woman whose intended was visited in a dream by an angel. Jesus is the son of a woman whose fiancĂ©, instead of “quietly putting her away,” decides to marry her, because whatever the nature and source of this pregnancy, he becomes convinced it is the handiwork of God. Jesus is the son of a woman who is also convinced of God’s role in her pregnancy; in another gospel she announces that, “the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:49).

I believe these four women—the woman who achieves pregnancy by trickery, the prostitute who bargains for the lives of her family, the woman who seduces by her innocence and hard work and love for her mother-in-law, and the woman who was raped by a king—these four women take their place in Jesus’ family tree as a sign to us. Though they may seem to be the least likely candidates to be a part of Jesus’ genealogy, they are a sign to us that, with God, nothing is impossible. They are a sign to us that, no matter the brokenness in our own lives, God stands ready to redeem. They are a sign to us that Jesus will take his stand alongside the least and the lost, the sinners and the sinned against. They are a sign to us that the Savior whose birth we await in this Advent season stands ready to save us all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Ann Belford Ulanov, The Female Ancestors of Christ (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1993), 1.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving: Sermon on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

I once heard someone say, “You can tell your life story in two ways. You can say, ‘I can’t imagine how I got from there to here.’ Or, you can say, ‘Every road I traveled, every choice I made, was designed to bring me right here, to this place.’” If you think about it, both are completely true. We marvel at the winding and twisting path that somehow brought us to the present place. At the same time, we recognize that who and where we are has a kind of weight to it, a sense of a larger vision than our own. We Christians call the one who spins and oversees that vision God.

In this morning’s passage from Deuteronomy, we have a kind of “life story” of God’s people. Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses retells the entire story of salvation, and he does so under very particular and poignant circumstances. Moses and all the tribes are camped together in Moab, just beyond the Jordan. They have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and they are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses is dying, and he knows that he will not have the privilege of entering into that land. Despite being God’s mouthpiece with the Pharaoh, and despite being the mediator of God’s plagues upon the Egyptians, and despite being the great liberator, the one who led the people out of Egypt, Moses sees the people all the way to the edge of the Promised Land, and no further. The reason scripture gives is this: when the people were crying out for water in the wilderness, and God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff, Moses struck it not once, but twice. Moses’ sin is that single, momentary lack of faithfulness; Moses’ punishment is that he will never enter the land himself.

And so, on his deathbed, Moses recounts this long history, with all its twists and turns. And here he gives instructions about what would constitute a good and proper expression of thanks from God’s people to the One who is their redeemer, the One who heard their cries, and brought them to this new place of abundance. Moses is invoking his authority as the leader of the people. Moses wants the people to be appropriately thankful.

One of my very favorite movie musicals of all time has to be “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Adapted from a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, it tells of Millie, a young woman in the Pacific northwest during frontier times, who impulsively marries Adam, a backwoodsman, just a few hours after meeting him. She soon learns that he is one of seven brothers who are eager to have a woman around the house to cook and clean up after them. Somewhat in shock, but still hoping she hasn’t made a dreadful mistake, Millie cleans up the pigsty of a house and cooks an enormous meal for her new family. When the men descend upon the meal like a swarm of locusts, pushing each other out of the way to grab the food, spilling it while they are stuffing their faces, Millie delivers them a lecture on their shameful behavior. It has absolutely no effect. In a rage, she turns the table over, like Jesus with the moneychangers, and yells, “If you’re going to act like hogs you can eat like them too!” Millie is horrified by the fact that the men don’t give thanks before diving into their meal. The rest of the movie follows her attempts to civilize her new brothers and her husband. But her initial rage has a powerful effect. The next time the brothers are at table, they bow their heads, chastised and docile, while Millie offers grace. And the grace she offers echoes some of the words that Moses proposes for God’s people to say when they offer thanks. Millie prays:

“O Lord, thou has brought us through desert, mountain and wilderness to a good land, a land of wheat and gain where we need never hunger. We thank thee for thy care and thy bounty. Amen.”

Here’s the grace that Moses suggests:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” ~Deuteronomy 26:5b-9

Moses encourages the people to remember their story, with all its twists and turns, and to tell it to one another in the act of offering their thanks to God. It is a story that could be told any number of ways, including, ‘How did we start out there and get here?’ Moses answers that question, and in so doing he tells the story in the other way as well: ‘Every road we traveled, every choice we made, was designed to bring us right here, to this place God had chosen for us.’

In describing how to give thanks, Moses encourages the people to remember the hard parts, the painful parts of the journey as well as the good parts. He doesn’t want them to edit them out or to forget them. The act of thanksgiving, in some way, always involves holding together the bitter and the sweet, and gazing upon them, and knowing that, somehow, however improbably, we have been guided and cared for and blessed.

I saw a beautiful needlepoint tapestry the other day. It was large—maybe five feet wide and four feet tall. It depicted a scene from the life of King Solomon—that moment when he is determining who is the true mother of the child claimed by two women. The tapestry is almost finished, though there are three small areas, just a few inches here and there, where it is not complete. Still, the family that owns the tapestry has decided to frame it, because the tapestry will never be finished. The Jewish woman who began and nearly completed it, a labor of love for her dear husband, died more than sixty years ago in a concentration camp in Poland.

The tapestry is a treasured family heirloom. It contains memories both powerfully good and terribly painful—the love of that woman for her husband, the manner in which she died. The family wants the tapestry framed by Thanksgiving. They want this treasure to be a part of their celebration, filled as it is with the beautiful and the painful, inextricably woven together, like all our lives.

It is the season in which we, as a nation, turn our attention to those people and things—tangible and intangible—for which we are grateful. We have an entire day set aside for this giving of thanks. Like the Hebrews, we are the descendants, most of us, of people who traveled to this land from far away. Also like the Hebrews, we have had our ups and downs, our conflicts, the moments in which our actions were filled with honor and courage and beauty, and the moments in which we failed in our common human vocation. The good and the proud mingle together inextricably with the painful and the shameful. This is our heritage, these are our lives. This is Thanksgiving: holding together the bitter and the sweet, and knowing that, somehow, we have been cared for and blessed.

Moses advises us to gather for a celebration! He says, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” Among the ancient Hebrews, the Levites were the upper crust, the ruling class of temple priests. And the aliens—well, they were wanderers in the land, just as the Hebrews themselves had been. They were the most vulnerable people in a society, the ones without tribes or families to fall back on in hard times, the people most likely to fall into slavery. Moses’ intention is to gather all these people together at table: the upper crust, the vulnerable immigrants, and everyone in between.

The advice of Moses suggests that we need to broaden our scope when it comes to celebrations of Thanksgiving. We need to broaden our definition of who’s in the family, who is invited to the table. When we consider our lives, the beautiful and the painful, the bitter and the sweet, we start to recognize that the God who blesses us doesn’t intend for the blessings to stop there. The blessings we receive are to be given away, shared, dispersed, like the pie and the stuffing and the cranberry sauce. Everybody gets some. That’s God’s vision for every human being on the planet.

We can each tell our life story in any number of ways. At Thanksgiving, we have an opportunity to tell it again—while bustling around the kitchen, or gathered around the table, or sitting on the couch with pie and coffee. For each one of us, we can marvel that we started out there and ended up here. Each one of us can trust that a powerful and loving heart created the vision, was guiding us, even in the times we felt confused or alone. And each one of us can celebrate—truly celebrate—the bounty we have been given at God’s generous hands. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Wolf and Lamb Society: Sermon on Luke 21:5-19 and Isaiah 65:17-25

In the year 999 of the Common Era, it was widely believed that the world was about to come to an end. The millennium approached, marking the first thousand years since the birth of Christ (give or take a few years, as we now know). Throughout the Christian world, everyone embraced this anticipated (or dreaded) reality, from the huts of the lowliest indentured servants to the fortresses of the most powerful and wealthy nobles. Everyone believed they were about to experience Judgment Day, which meant one of four possibilities: heaven, hell, limbo or purgatory.

We Protestants have never thought much about purgatory, so a brief refresher may be in order. Purgatory was believed to be a spiritual realm that would be a kind of temporary housing for the souls of persons who were in venial sin. Venial sins were minor sins—offenses committed without full understanding, for example, or that were somewhat inadvertent. In this spiritual realm, those who were in venial sin would be purged of that sin over time—hence the name, “purgatory.” And those who were alive could do certain things to shorten the length of the stay in purgatory, either for themselves or for those they loved. In order to shorten one’s sentence, one would pay to obtain indulgences. So: pay a certain amount of money, get a certain amount of time off the sentence to purgatory.

Again. It was the year 999, and Christians were convinced that the world was coming to an end, and everyone faced that final reckoning. So people began loading up their valuable possessions. Princes and paupers, housewives and ladies in waiting, all began piling up their jewels, their gold, their silver, their artwork, their tapestries—everything of any monetary value whatsoever was collected and made ready for transport. All these expensive items were brought to the church. And so they began to arrive—at cathedrals, at country chapels, at rectories, at monasteries, at convents, the carts and wagons and caravans of goods began to arrive. The frightened faithful sought to purchase relief from the punishments they believed they were about to receive by divesting themselves of their wealth, and turning that wealth over to Mother Church.

I think you know what happened. On January 1, 1000, just about everyone woke up, alive—except for those who were already sick, or had accidents, or died in any one of the ways we normally die. The world had not ended. The elites of the Christian world were considerably poorer. And Mother Church was considerably richer.

More than a thousand years later, the world has still not ended, though in every single generation since, there have been people who believed that the end was imminent. That is not to say the world will never end. It’s a basic Christian tenet that Jesus will return, at the consummation of all things, and his return will herald the fulfillment of God’s reign here on earth. It hasn’t happened yet. But Christians believe it will. And this is the time of the year when the calendar of the church turns our attention in this direction. The lectionary passages for today point us to the end times.

In Jesus’ day, the idea that the Temple would be destroyed seemed to portend the end of the world. The Temple had been destroyed before—the Temple in whose porticoes Jesus walked and taught was not Solomon’s original splendid creation, but the one rebuilt by the exiles after their return from Babylon. The Temple of Jesus’ day was the second Temple. But memories of the first Temple were powerful in Israel’s culture and scriptures, and its loss permeated their worship and poetry and history. The Temple was God’s home on earth. Without the Temple, where was God? That felt like the end of the world.

I heard someone say recently that when reading a passage of scripture we have to look at it through the lens of three different times. We have to look through the lens of the time being described—in the case of our Luke passage, we’re talking somewhere around the year 30 CE, the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Then we have to look at it in terms of the time it was written, which is often much later. In the case of our passage, it was written more than fifty years later, around the year 85 CE. And, finally, we have to look at the passage through our own lens—the time in which we are reading, and ask—where, in this passage, is the Good News for us today?

These three lenses draw our attention to three very different but related realities. Jesus is talking about the destruction of the second Temple. And he is talking about the Temple in ways that would be heard as blasphemous, and shocking. That’s the first lens.

But remembering that second lens, Luke is talking to a congregation that knows that the second Temple has already been destroyed. Luke is describing the very real things that happened in the year 70, when Jerusalem was utterly decimated by the Romans. And Luke is talking to Christians who are already undergoing the kind of persecution Jesus describes. Listen to this eyewitness account of the destruction of Jerusalem:

The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling would have thought that the whole city was ablaze...With the cries on the hill were blended those of the multitude in the city below, and now many who were emaciated and tongue-tied from starvation, when they beheld the sanctuary on fire, gathered strength once more for lamentations and wailing...Yet more awful than the uproar were the sufferings. (Josephus, cited in Luke, David Tiede.)

For Luke to remind his readers about the destruction of the Temple that had already taken place was devastating,. That’s the second lens. And for us to look through our own lens we have to take into account a world in which, still, many anticipate that the end is near. We look around and see wars and insurrections. We look around and see earthquakes, famines and plagues. We look around and we see dreadful persecutions and suffering. We look online and find websites all too willing to provide us with specific dates. How do we understand what we are reading and witnessing? Where do we find the Good News? Where do we find our hope?

I believe we find our hope by going back to the scriptures that informed Jesus; we go back to those words that gave him hope. Today, the lectionary offers us the chance to have our understanding about end times informed by Isaiah.

God speaks through Isaiah to people who have undergone the exact same thing as Luke and his congregation—those who have seen the Temple destroyed, the first Temple. God speaks to people who know devastation and loss and persecution. God speaks to people for whom the situation may well seem hopeless. And God says: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” [Isaiah 65:17]. God’s vision for the people is a complete renewal of everything—there is nothing that is not covered in that phrase, “new heavens and new earth.” Instead of framing end times in descriptions of destruction Isaiah speaks of God’s acts of creation.

Not only will the former troubles and trials be forgotten, God says, but, “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress” [Isaiah 65:19]. These are words out of time—these are words for this generation, and Jesus’, and Luke’s, and Isaiah’s. God’s vision for “end times” is one in which every tear will be wiped from our eyes. God’s vision for “end times” is a vision for “new times”—a new heaven, a new earth.

And just look at how that vision plays out.

God promises health at every age, and astonishing longevity. [Isaiah 65:20].

God promises that people will enjoy the fruits of their labors—no small promise in a time when so many were slaves or indentured servants. [Isaiah 65:21-23]

God promises to hear the cries of each and every human heart— “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” [Isaiah 65:24]

And God promises something that, is so extraordinary, it seems truly as if heaven would have to come to earth to make it so: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” [Isaiah 65:25]

Imagine: The Tea Party and the Move-On people will sit at table together. Those who watch Glenn Beck will dine with those who watch “Democracy Now.” The Bristol and Mark fans will have supper with the Jennifer and Derek fans. It all seems too magical to be real. And yet, these things can be and have been done. Societies are made up of wolves and lambs who have somehow learned to live together. Like the people of South Africa after the fall of apartheid, who participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, telling their stories of human rights abuses and then moving forward to live in harmony. Like Julia Grant, the widow of Union General Ulyssess S. Grant, and Varina Davis, the widow of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who lived near one another and became best friends. Wolf and Lamb Societies, where people who have no reason to trust and forgive one another, decide to do just that.

The church turns our attention to end times in these November and December days. How shall we respond? We could respond with anxiety and number crunching and attempts to nail down where and how and when it all will come about. Or, we could choose to live in the present as if the coming reality were with us already—lives of reconciliation and forgiveness, trusting in the promise of God’s new heaven and new earth. We could choose to work hard at our labors, trusting in God’s promise that we will enjoy their fruits. We could choose to trust that God hears the cry of every human heart even before the prayers are on our lips. We could choose to trust in God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Welcome to the 'Family': Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

Just how do we define ‘family’? The Random House Dictionary provides no fewer than fifteen different definitions, beginning with the one that has become a political hot potato in our day: “family: a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not.” This, we are told, is the “traditional” family. But right on its heels is another definition, “family: a social unit consisting of one or more adults together with the children they care for.” For some people, these definitions are equivalent. For others, they are contradictory.

Just think of all the ways that word, ‘family,’ has been used in our culture. When I was coming of age in the 70's and 80's, it was fashionable among people who'd had a little therapy (or who'd been reading certain kinds of self-help books) to speak of the difference between the “family of origin”—that is, the family in which you grew up—versus the “family of choice”—that is, the friends with whom one surrounded oneself. ‘Family’ even took on a slightly negative tone, and was contrasted with ‘friends,’ the ones you could really depend on, the ones who promised: “I’ll be there for you.”

And then we have the other strange and sinister uses of the word. Having grown up with a vague awareness of the local mob, which was only enhanced by movies such as “The Godfather” and TV shows such as “The Sopranos,” it's hard to forget that ‘family’ is used to refer to members of the Cosa Nostra, the Mafia. And who can forget that most notorious of ‘families,’ Charles Manson and the people who were willing to kill at his bidding?

And now, think of our many, disparate experiences of ‘family.’ Yes, two parents and children. Or, one parent, stepparents. Step grandchildren. Grandparents and aunts and uncles raising children. Couples who choose to remain childless, for any number of reasons. Families that are loving or not; close or distant; right next-door or thousands of miles apart; wonderfully thriving and nurturing or horribly broken and dysfunctional. Any and all of these can describe, truly and accurately, ‘family.’

Here’s my point in deconstructing this word that probably means something pretty significant to every one of us: it’s a word we need to use carefully. And it’s a word whose use in church, particularly, needs to be informed by the gospels. Our understanding of ‘family’ needs to be informed by Jesus.

Jesus is asked a fairly loaded question revolving around a particular definition of family in our gospel reading today. The context is spelled out in verse 20, just before our reading begins, where it says, “So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said…” Some Sadducees approach Jesus, and we are told right up front that they are skeptical of at least one of the basic tenets he teaches. Here’s how to remember what the deal is with the Sadducees: The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection—so they were sad, you see? (My apologies—that was awful.)

I was intrigued by something I learned this week about the Sadducees. In this teaching, their rejection of the idea of the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees are actually holding on to the most ancient tradition of Israel, in which “eternal life” means, simply, that one lives on in children, and in the memories of the living. “For the ancient Israelites, before a belief in the resurrection of the dead, ‘eternal life’ was understood as producing heirs (sons?) who would continue the family's ownership of their land.” Therefore, it was a fundamental ethical obligation of a family member: to ensure that those you love will live on after death.

And so the story the Sadducees lay out for Jesus—one bride for seven brothers—may sound just totally implausible and absurd. But it’s based on traditional teachings that are very much about this understanding of eternal life. Here’s how it’s described in Deuteronomy:

When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage… and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. ~Deut. 25:5-6

That’s the concern of the Sadducees: that no one’s name will be blotted out. It’s the concern they bring to Jesus, who is teaching another kind of eternal life. And so they ask this question. One bride, seven brothers—in the resurrection, whose wife will this woman be? Of course, the Sadducees don’t really care about the answer. Their goal is to make Jesus look and sound silly, while scoring a point for their team.

Instead, Jesus turns their argument on its head. Marriage is for this age, he says. But in that age—in the age of resurrection—there will be no marriage. “Indeed,” Jesus says, “they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection” [Luke 20:36].

Jesus is going about his normal radical business of redefining social relationships every way he knows how. At this moment he continues with his re-definition of that weighty word, ‘family.’ In eternal life the significant relationship is not marriage; it’s that we are children of God. This is the same Jesus who, when told his mother and brothers were waiting for him outside, said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” This is the same Jesus, who when a man who wanted to follow him said that he first needed to attend his father’s funeral, said, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” [Luke 9:60]. And to another who wanted to just go home and say goodbye before his missionary journey, this is Jesus, who said, If you look back, you are not fit for the kingdom of God [Luke 9:62].

This is Jesus at his very hardest. This is Jesus telling us something that may feel very much like bad news, not good news, because so many of us treasure our family relationships. But this is Jesus offering the very best possible good news to the least and the lost—to those who have no family, to those who have no circle of love and goodwill holding them together. This is Jesus offering a home to the homeless, a meal to the hungry, a warm coat to the shivering, and urging us to do the very same. This is Jesus saying, yes, family is important—but why not build a family on love rather than blood, on the true desire to come together rather than social obligation? Why not build the kind of family that will truly last?

We gather this morning to welcome three new members to our church family, although it seems odd to call them “new.” They come to us, not as strangers, but as brother and sisters in Christ, nurtured in faith in many different places and contexts. They come to us out of that mysterious combination of God’s call and free will and happenstance that often forms the basis of the families in which we find ourselves. They come to us, it is our very fervent hope, in search of a home and a meal and warmth—in search of that very peculiar experience of ‘family’ that constitutes the church. And they come to us, not only looking for welcome but for work—ready, each one of them, to join in the ministry of this particular corner of Jesus’ redefined and reconstructed family unit.

The church is a family, perhaps a family that needs constantly to reexamine how it understands and defines itself so that we are sure we are in line with Jesus’ understanding of family. To be a member of Jesus’ family, we do not need the right bloodline, or to be one of a number of brothers ready to perform his obligation to keep someone’s memory alive. We do not need any particular social status or marital status or parentage or ethnicity or anything at all. We simply present ourselves, ready to hear God’s word and to strive with all we are to let it inhabit and inform our lives and actions. That’s it. Welcome to the family. Thanks be to God. Amen.