SERMON The God of the Living

The Holy Gospel according to Luke, the twentieth chapter.

27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” (Luke 20:27–38 ESV)

Moses wrote for us. In Deuteronomy 25, to be exact. The rules by which a dead brother’s name is to be remembered. She shall not be married to a stranger, but “[h]er husband’s brother shall go into her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” And the first son — meaning he keeps going in if she bears daughters — shall bear the name of the dead brother “that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”

(And there was go with the blotting out again!)

This all reminds me of Abraham and Sarah, and the promise of God that the two will have many descendants. And their failure to trust God’s time, and God’s abilities, when Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a present, telling him “go into my servant, that I may be built up by her.”

And Ishmael is born. Abraham and Sarah try to fulfill the promise of God on their own, with their bodies, according to their impatient wills. It doesn’t work. Not that Ishmael isn’t a blessing, and receives a promise of his own, but that he is not the one in whom and through whom the promise of God will be fulfilled.

Jesus says something similar here. The Torah allows — even requires (though the matter appears to be conditional by beginning this teaching with the qualification, “If brothers dwell together” כּי־יֵשְׁבוּ אַחִים יַחְדָּ֗ו) — that brothers do this duty for each other. This appears to be a woman’s right, to have a son that will bear the name of her deceased husband, and she is allowed to shame a brother publicly for his refusal. Strong stuff.

But it assumes death, and the finality of death. It assumes that all we leave behind of value is what we beget, or can build or hew with our own hands. And Jesus no longer speaks of the finality of death. “They cannot die anymore,” he says. And they never were truly dead, as God is God of the living, and to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to remind ourselves that our ancestors in calling and faith are not dead.

It is to remind ourselves that we are preserved — our names, our patrimony, our descendants — not through our own efforts, not because (as men) we go into our wife’s handmaiden or our dead brother’s widow, but because we are united to Christ in his eternal life.

And Jesus also suggests here that our temporal arrangements — in particular, marriage — are of no meaning in the resurrection. That we marry not for sacred or holy reasons, or to fulfill some natural order of creation, but rather, as Paul said to the church at Corinth, for crass and almost utilitarian reasons, because “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

We are not married for time and eternity. Because in the resurrection, all of the things we arrange — good ordered or not, pleasing to God or not — are of no importance and of no value. No one “belongs” to anyone in the resurrection, not spouse, not child, not slave.

Death is not real, and so we do not have to worry about what we leave behind. We who have no children will have as many descendants as those who have conceived and birthed many.

We love in the here and now because we are called to love. And we leave it to Go to fulfill the promises we are made when we love. Whether we marry, or not — or beget, or not — we belong only to Christ. Whose eternal life we share, whose resurrection is ours.

The Gospel

A real question. And a real answer.

Where was [God] when I was being abused? where was he when my daughter was on the streets? Where was he when my family needed him? Where was he when I was raped? WHERE WAS HE!!!?

God was there, with you, bleeding, hurting, cowering in fear, feeling the rage, taking the blows.

With you. Suffering. With you.

That’s where our God is. On the cross. Beaten. Raped. Tortured. Bleeding. Dying.

With us.

For us.

As one of us

[At this point, the person who asked the question was sitting in a Bible study in a women’s shelter, and she was angry at the pastor who said “God is here,” in the shelter, in the group. And he probably meant well. Later, someone else — a young woman who has her suffered her own horrific abuse tried to explain a little more what was happening.]

She was angry because “God is here” as her son is on the streets and her daughter is raped repeatedly and her husband abused her for 10 years and she was just horribly fucked over by life. But God was there. I understand, why would he let that happen to her? Why would God let all her family be raped and sold and murdered and abused and just LET THAT GO.

Where was God when they needed Him??

And where is he now?

This is all I’ve got. Because I don’t know why.

I don’t know why.

I can only weep with you. My tears, my sorrow, my rage — all pointless. Like so much else I do. It’s all I have.

I know there is a cross, bloody, covered in gore, and an empty tomb, a borrowed tomb, someone else’s final resting place, where he was laid. I know he was dead, but he is now alive.

And on days when it seems most pointless, on days like today when I have no hope, when I know all I am is failure and rejection, I know that tomb is empty.

He is risen.

Wounded, broken, but alive, perfect.

For me. For you. For the world that wounded him.

Touch his wounds. The wounds he let us give him. Know he’s real. Know he lives.

It’s a terrible answer. It’s all I have. It’s all the hope there is.


(The person who asked this question has since disappeared.)

He Is Risen Indeed!

Today was Easter Sunday in the Western Church, and I didn’t preach. Nor I am going to pretend I did, though next Sunday, April 3, I will preaching and presiding at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. If you are in the area, please, come and hear some good news! And receive the grace of God!

Easter (Year C)

  • Acts 10:34–43
  • Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
  • 1 Corinthians 15:19–26
  • Luke 24:1–12

1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1–12 ESV)

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

The eleven did not believe. They dismissed the reports of the women out of hand. But Peter had enough sense to wonder, to want to go look for himself.

And he found an empty tomb, with the burial shroud crumpled up (or nicely folded, however you envision it) where they had lain him. And Peter marveled at what he saw.

Marveled. Because Jesus is no longer dead. It would soon become apparent to all that he had risen from the dead. But it would take a little time. It would take the breaking of bread, it would take Jesus meeting his disciples as they huddled, frightened, in a locked room.

But the world would come to know — Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

LENT Never God’s Last Word

12 Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. 13 For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.

14 “Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. 15 What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? 16 The Lord once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit. ’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 17 The Lord of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal. (Jeremiah 11:12–17 ESV)

Didn’t I just say on Sunday that disaster wasn’t a punishment from God? That suffering wasn’t a sign of the judgement of God?

They aren’t. And I believe it. Jesus said so. At least in the case of the seemingly meaningless. Like the collapse of tall buildings. Or death at the hands of the state.

But in scripture, God frequently uses others — Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, and by allusion, Romans — as means of judgment upon Israel. For Israel’s idolatry, for its failure to care for the least in its midst — strangers, widows, orphans — for its faith in its own power, strength, and wealth. These are Israel’s sins, the sins that matter, the sins that bring judgment. And so, the Lord has decreed disaster against the house of Israel, and nothing — nothing — can avert it. Not sacrifice, not pleadings, not prayer.

Do not pray for this people. The judgment of God is coming And nothing can save them.

There are consequences for sin and faithlessness. David and Solomon’s kingdom was divided because of its faithlessness, the northern kingdom disappeared underneath an Assyrian onslaught because of its faithlessness, and now Judah — little Judah — will face a Babylonian army because of its faithlessness.

In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God outlines the blessings to come if Israel follows the covenant God has made with it, and the curses that will come if Israel proves faithless. But it isn’t an either/or promise. It is a both/and. “When all of these things come upon, the blessing and the curse,” God tells Israel in Deuteronomy 30, when you consider your exile and/or miserable state because you have failed to uphold the teachings of God, and you “return to the Lord your God,” then God will restore Israel.

Repentance. This is what God truly wants. This is what Jesus tells us matters. Repentance that leads to trust in God, and self-giving love of neighbor.

Sometimes it does not come in time to avert the disaster. Sometimes the disaster is needed to teach and refine and burnish. Sometimes the disaster catches us unawares, and we are gone. There are events in my life — like the ending of my first pastoral internship — which I have come to see as a judgment upon my faithlessness. God teaching me, in disaster, in dislocation, in exile, how to be faithful. Because I wasn’t. I didn’t pay attention the way I should have.

Repent. Turn your life around. Be who God has called you to be. Even as the fire consumes you.

Even as the fire consumes you.

Because judgement is never God’s last word on our sin. Resurrection is.

How Sex Is Different

I wrote at length earlier this year about sexual ethics — who Israelites were not allowed to have sex with, who Israelites are allowed to marry, why God’s marriage to Israel/Church is a really awful marriage, and who apparently is not off limits according to the law of God — in order to show that homosexuality (or rather, homosexual acts) are no different in scripture from adultery or cavorting with one’s daughter-in-law. Or the neighboring Canaanites.

Because homosexual acts — specifically men lying with men as with women, whatever that might mean — are bundled with a whole bunch of other acts in Leviticus 18 & 20 which are condemned, and which Israel shall not do “as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (Lev. 18:3) So, while homosexual acts may not be different from any other breaking of the covenant in Leviticus, sex itself is different from all the other rules and teaching God gives to Israel.

It’s different because God says something very specific about the consequences that will flow from Israel’s failure to adhere to these specific rules:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25 ESV)

and

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Leviticus 20:22 ESV)

The word vomit here comes from the Hebrew root קיא which means roughly what it says — to spew out, throw up, disgorge, cast out. It’s a very physical act. And an unpleasant one, an involuntary one, something a person does when she or he is very sick. Or poisoned.

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

But that said, nothing I wrote in my first essay on Leviticus 18 & 20 is changed. Israel is still built upon a violation of these very commandments — Abraham married his half-sister; Jacob took two sisters as wives; Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law; and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all born because their father took his aunt to be his wife. Granted, all of these things took place before the teaching was given (though the teaching was given to Moses, who by all rights should be excluded from the assembly as per Deuteronomy 23:2 because he was born of a “forbidden union”), but Israel would not exist — would not be standing before Mt. Sinai or wandering in the wilderness receiving this teaching — were it not for its sister(s)-marrying and daughter-in-law-fucking ancestors.

Again, this sounds like so many of the if/then, else/then construction that comes with the Torah. If Israel can stay clean, can keep from worshiping other gods and doing all these things it is told not to do, then Israel can stay in God’s good graces and keep the land. The land won’t be poisoned with its sin and will not vomit Israel out.

But none of this can be seen as an abstract command to the people of God. It cannot be read outside of the story. And in this story we have, Israel cavorts with other gods, it sacrifices its children to Molech, and very likely continues to do all of the things condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20. Because of this, the Assyrians and the Babylonians come. Israel is conquered. And exiled.

The land does vomit Israel out.

Israel pays a harsh price for all of its sin, for all of its idolatry, for all of its faithlessness.

But never does Israel stop being the people of God. Never, after God’s initial pique of rage in Exodus 32 to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, and a terrifying threat to walk away completely from Israel in Judges 10, does God ever disown Israel. Or abandon Israel to the ultimate fate of annihilation. Resurrection always looms as a promise. Jeremiah’s valley of slaughter becomes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, and the very breath of God makes new life where there was only stillness, silence, and death.

Where there was only the faint memory of a people.

Christians have longed feared the consequences — both collective and individual — of sin. We read the Bible and fear the wrath of God. Sinners didn’t just put their eternal souls at risk, they also put the wellbeing of the entire community at risk as well. Famine, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invader were all seen as consequences of allowing sin. So we teach ourselves to keep the law, to adhere to the teaching, if for no other reason than because that’s what virtuous and upstanding followers of Jesus do. And possibly because to do otherwise invites divine retaliation, the punishment of God, upon all of us.

But that’s not what God really tells Israel, not in the Old Testament nor in the New. The promise of God is not prosperity and success for those who walk the straight and narrow path (not even in Deuteronomy!), but resurrection for those of us who have perished in our sin. Christ came not to bear a burden for us, but with us. His defeat of death is the defeat of sin. It is the promise that whatever the judgment of God upon our sinful, chaotic, and deeply disordered lives (as individuals and as the people of God), our bones will not lay bleaching in the sun forever. Our dust will not moulder in the graves for eternity. Death has no hold over us. We are raised with him who rose.

We are raised with him who rose.

The Wages of Sin is … What, Exactly?

On my recent drive from Indianapolis to Baltimore, Jennifer and I sang some of my songs. (Just the words. I don’t play guitar or ukulele and try to drive at the same time. I fear that would end badly.) We do this often. One of the songs I started singing was this, something I wrote for a friend’s installation as a pastor in Virginia and based on a passage in Deuteronomy:

Basically, it’s a fairly faithful rendering of this:

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ESV)

And as I worried about whether our van would overheat as it crossed the hills of West Virginia and western Maryland, I found myself thinking about what it means that God has set before us “life and death and good and evil” (my rendering; the actual passage bundles the good and the bad together). And what it meant that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere follow the path of life.

After all, God commands Israel, through Moses, to “choose life.” Not just for ourselves, but for our children and their children (and their children) as well.

This passage is part of the blessings and curses that God proclaims to Israel regarding the following — or lack thereof — of the teaching God has just given to Israel through Moses. It’s echoed by Paul when he writes in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

And this verse is, at least in my experience, frequently used by fundamentalists to try and persuade. (I remember this from a lot of Chick tracts.) “If you are a sinner, you will surely die,” it says. The implication is, I think, that you will suffer for your sins, or perhaps even be struck down. God has no tolerance for sin. (That’s it part of a lengthy discourse on sin and reconciliation that begins with Paul speaking of Christ’s death, and our baptism into his death, frequently is ignored.)

I thought about these verses, about the promise from God that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere to the covenant.

Because Israel failed. It’s interesting, the Deuteronomy passage included blessings and curses. And both came true. Israel was blessed. Israel was cursed. The has been blessed. The church has been cursed.

Israel’s story is the story of failure. Of defeat. Of conquest and of exile. That fact — that Israel failed, and doing so, tells us what the church’s life as the people of God has will look like. In Leviticus 18, for example, after God gives Israel the long list of sex acts Israelites are not allowed to do:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28 ESV)

This bit about the land vomiting Israel out if it fails to adhere to these rules is repeated in Leviticus 20:22. And given the history, of Israel’s conquest, of the disappearance of the norther kingdom (Israel/Ephraim), and the conquest and exile of the southern kingdom (Judah, Benjamin, and Levi), it would be easy to describe what happened as exactly that — the land vomiting Israel out.

We tend to look at the law and consider the matter of consequence and punishment. The wages of sin are death, as if somehow we can avoid death.

But we all die. Jesus died. So, when God tells Israel that failure to adhere to the convenient means Israel will perish, he’s merely describing what is to come. When Paul speaks of sin and death, he speaks of something we all experience. As the Qur’an says,

Every soul shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise, he indeed is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception. (3:185, modified Khan & al-Hilali)

And so, threatening me with death for sinning is merely stating the obvious. I’m going to die anyway.

No, God has another answer to sin. To Israel’s failure — to our failure. And that’s resurrection.

It’s already there in Deuteronomy.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV)

It’s already there in Ezekiel 37, where God asks if the dry bones, the dead things, can live. (Ezekiel 37 seems like an answer to Jeremiah 7 & 8, in which God promises nothing but suffering and death for Israel. “Do not pray for this people,” God tells Jeremiah, “for I will not hear you.”) And then brings them to life.

This is why Jesus died. Because we die. Because our deaths are meaningless without his death. Because he rose and in him we rise. Long before writes of the wages of sin, he confidently tells the church in Rome:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11 ESV)

Dead to sin. Alive to God in Christ Jesus. There can be no real resurrection without death. And yet, in our baptisms, we are made part of the death of Christ. We taste his death, so that even before we die, we may taste something of his resurrection. And know it’s real. And live like it’s real.