“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Luke 20:38
Dennis Volstad of Ripon, Wisconsin, had a surprise for the people who came to his funeral. A short time after that funeral, each of those in attendance received an unexpected letter from Dennis’ attorney. [i] It seems that Dennis, a quiet man who owned the local dry cleaner, had amassed something of a small fortune during his life. In his will he left this provision: The sum of $500,000 was to be divided equally among the people who attended his funeral. 270 people had shown up, so each of them received $1851.
That gift of money came as a complete shock to the people who were at the funeral. And while it’s not a vast sum, I wonder what it made possible for the people who received it. A trip they’d wanted to take? The payment of a bill they were really worried about? A doctor’s visit they’d been putting off?
Don Jorgenson was the executor of the estate, and he mentioned a detail that I found both beautiful and heartbreaking. Among Dennis’ papers, Don found Dennis’ New Year’s resolutions. They were: (1) Live a life that is pleasing to God and (2) Find true friends – and not be lonely.
I love the idea of Dennis’ generosity breaking into people’s lives from beyond the grave in ways that they never expected. I’m also haunted by his loneliness in this life – and the missed opportunities to have the kind of relationships he longed for.
The reporter who shared the piece closed with this reminder: “Although a funeral is an important time to show someone you care, there is one time better – sooner.”
Dennis’ story gets at a question that arises from today’s gospel. What does life after death have to do with life now?
The Sadducees come to Jesus with a ridiculous question. They set up a hypothetical situation based on a practice called levirate marriage, in which the brother of a deceased man was obligated to marry his brother’s widow. There’s some scholarly debate about how widespread this practice actually was, but to the extent that it existed, it did serve as a kind of protection and economic support for widows. As we’ve discussed before, widows in the ancient world would otherwise have had few practical or financial resources for survival.
But the Sadducees spin out a wild scenario – a woman who is married off not just once to her dead husband’s brother, but again and again and again as one after another, her husbands die. By the time the seventh one kicks the bucket in this bizarre tale, the Sadducees get to their question: “In the resurrection…whose wife will the woman be?”
The Sadducees are a group of religious leaders who, unlike their counterparts the Pharisees, do not believe in resurrection. Which begs the question: Why are they even asking Jesus about this if they don’t believe in resurrection? It seems clear that they are trying to get Jesus to say something controversial on the record.
And what does Jesus say? First, he says that resurrection is real. He doesn’t give us many details about what that time looks like, but he speaks with the assumption that it exists.
Jesus also says in his own way that our categories in this life are limited. They have their place, but they have their limits. If you’re single, be single. If you’re married, be married. Both can be sacred paths. But we do not know what those paths look like beyond death. That might be unsettling, but it’s a reminder that our human imagination is limited when it comes to what God makes possible. The best we can do is imagine resurrection as the best version of this life, but God’s imagination is so much bigger and bolder than our own.
Think about the woman in the situation that the Sadducees describe. Thankfully she seems to be hypothetical, but imagine if she were real, and she happened to be there listening what Jesus says to the Sadducees. Jesus would be saying that in the next life she would be free of the human laws and traditions that had so confined her in this life. No more being passed from one man to the next regardless of what she wanted. No more being defined by whether or not she’d given birth to children. No more fear about her economic insecurity. To that woman Jesus’ words would have sounded like blessed freedom.
So much about life after death is unknown to us, but here’s what Jesus tells us to trust. It is in God’s hands. God is the God of the living, and to God all of us are alive, even those who have already died. And God desires something more for all of us, something far beyond what this life offers.
Here’s the challenge for us today. If we follow a God who is a God of the living, how do we make sure that all people have a chance at living fully before they die? If God is about resurrection, how might we be about life breaking into death on this side of the grave? We do it by making sure that people like Dennis don’t feel lonely in this life. We make sure that no one goes hungry in this life. We care for the planet that has been entrusted to us in this life. We provide medical care for people’s minds and bodies in this life – including for our veterans who have faithfully served this country. We honor the inherent dignity of each human being in this life.
Today we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism for Breana. We remember that in baptism we are joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that nothing can ever change that. Breana belongs to God. No matter what other identities she holds in this life – spouse, parent, friend, whatever profession she might choose, whatever artistic or athletic endeavors she might pursue – she will always be a child of God first and foremost. Today we pray that God’s promises to us in baptism shape the promises we make to the people around us in this life.
I’ve been reading a new memoir by Sister Helen Prejean.[ii] She’s the nun who served as a spiritual advisor to death row inmates and became a fierce advocate against the death penalty. The movie Dead Man Walking is based on her work.
At one point very early in Sister Helen’s training she writes a paper in which she explores what it really means to live one’s faith. It leads her to ponder questions of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. She knows that resurrection is at the core of the Christian faith, but she asks: “What does that mean?”
Maybe the mystery of life coming from death is not only about end-of-life-on-earth death but also part of our ordinary experiences of loving and losing, of feeling our life is taking shape, getting purpose, drive, zing, only to plummet, sometimes, into confusion, darkness, and despair. Soar and plummet, soar and plummet…What does it all mean?…Whom do I love?…Who really loves me?…Time is running out.
Eventually Sister Helen says this: “We’re talking resurrection? Meaning life after death? What about life before death?”
So what about life before death? The God of the living calls us to live and to love in such a way that all people might know life abundantly.
Resurrection begins now. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“I pray that the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” Ephesians 1:17-18
During seminary I spent my internship year with a wonderful congregation in Sierra Vista, Arizona. They provided a beautiful community in which to learn how to be a pastor. I’ve often thought how much the folks here and the folks there would enjoy one another. There was an older gentleman in the congregation whose wife had died a few years earlier. He came by the church every Wednesday afternoon to spend time in the Memorial Garden, where her ashes had been placed. He would sit there for a long time visiting with her. Sometimes he would stop by my office on his way out, and one day he told me that he talked to his wife every day throughout the day, as if she were still alive and right there with him. He talked to her while he did household chores, while he drove around town, and while he sat in his favorite chair and watched television. He asked me one day if I thought it was OK that he talked to his dead wife. I said that of course I thought it was OK. It was a way of staying connected to her and keeping her memory with him.
This man’s wife had been the cook and preparer of meals in their household. She had also been a long-time volunteer at the local hospital. Before she died, she made arrangements for her husband to have lunch at the hospital cafeteria each day after she was gone. When she eventually did die, he managed to figure out breakfast, but he went to the hospital at the same time each day for lunch, and then he brought a few leftovers home for supper. If he failed to show up for lunch, someone from the hospital checked on him. That had been part of his wife’s instructions to her colleagues there.
I’m moved every time I think about how they remained connected even after her death. He kept talking to her in the present as if she were still here. She had made sure he would be fed and cared for in a future that she would not be able to share with him. The separation of death was there, and it was painful. But there were also moments that transcended that separation, connecting this life and the next.
When we hear Jesus’ words in the gospel today, it can be tempting to think of them as a list of future rewards or punishments, a distinction between this life and the next. And Jesus does allude to a heavenly reward that awaits people who are persecuted for the faith.
Jesus uses the language of blessings and woes throughout his sermon. Blessed are the poor…blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep. And then there’s the reverse. Woe to you who are rich…woe to you who are full…woe to you who are laughing.
Our culture has trained us to think of being blessed as something we earn for being especially deserving. But the word here for “blessed” can mean something closer to satisfied or unburdened.[i] Feeling unburdened is such a rare experience these days. It sounds like a gift.
And on the flip side, the word for “woe” is meant to be a clear contrast to “blessed,” but it doesn’t really mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” It’s a bit like our word “yikes”; it’s meant to get our attention. So Jesus is promising relief to those who are facing difficulty, and he is saying “look out” to those for whom things are easy or comfortable.[ii]
But time is not always linear, especially time in scripture. These blessings and woes aren’t necessarily just describing some future of rewards and punishments. I think that Jesus is reminding us that life brings it all together – poverty and wealth, hunger and fullness, weeping and laughter. We will have all of these experiences in this life at some point. We will hunger for something that we can’t have. We will feel satisfied by something we didn’t expect to happen. We will feel financially insecure. We will receive a surprise gift to get us through a hard time. We will cry because the grief and the worry are overwhelming. We will smile as we remember that silly thing our loved one used to do.
This life is not neat and tidy. This life is a jumble of joy and pain, tears and laughter. Sometimes all at once. Sometimes with the past, the present, and the future all tangled up together in echoes of memory and longing and hope. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look out, your life will not always be easy. You will experience difficult, heartbreaking things. But those heartbreaking things will not break you forever.”
In today’s second reading two words are repeated several times. Those words are “inheritance” and “hope.” We have both because of Jesus. We inherit the promise of God’s presence, an unshakeable love that holds us fast in this life and in the next. And like any inheritance, we do nothing to earn it other than being born as children of God. It’s the immeasurable depth of God’s grace that makes that promise true for each and every one of us – and for the loved ones we remember today.
Jesus is the source of our hope. Jesus is the source of our strength when it feels like the grief will pull us under. And it has nothing to do with getting what we deserve or being rewarded or punished. It has everything to do with what Jesus has done for us already.
Listen again to the words of St. Paul in Ephesians: “I pray that the God of our Lord, Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…” (1:17-18).
As we kneel around the altar for communion this morning, we experience that hope in a different folding together of time. We are part of the communion of saints, meaning that we are joined with all those who have come before us, all those whom we have loved and lost, all those yet to be born. We are joined to all the people around the world who receive this meal. We are part of a community so profoundly beautiful and interconnected across time and space that we cannot comprehend it. It is holy time and space. Take a moment this morning to savor being part of that body of Christ, that communion that has no end.
We remember so many people this morning. I love what theologian Frederick Buechner writes about remembering. He says:
Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether, where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change…Who knows what “the communion of saints” means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us.[iii]
Jesus is the One who was, who is now, and who is to come. By defying death, he has defied time. And so today and every day to come, we receive the inheritance that only he can give, a blessing that sends us out with hope. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Thank you to Matt Skinner for his helpful commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256