By mtaylor | Wednesday, November 9, 2016 | 9:03 AM
“Is It a Joke?”
November 6, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.
The question the Sadducees ask is a joke. Who would have ever guessed what funny, laugh-a-minute guys the Sadducees were? As a group they were wealthy and powerful. Their prestige insulated them from the real pain of the tawdry tale of the woman passed from brother to brother, never knowing the security of her own home. The Sadducees joke about it, but we live with the dilemmas hinted at in their joke. We also have questions, even if we do not speak them out loud. We know that since we are alive that someday we will die, and we also have questions about that. But we also joke about it. Jokes help us to bear the weight of the loss and the tears of grief. As a hospital chaplain I quickly recognized what many health care professionals eventually realize: the so-called “dark” humor that is often heard after a patient in the hospital dies is a natural expression of the feeling, “thank God, it was not my time.” The nervous giggle is a release of the anxiety that has been building over time, knowing the inevitable was on the way, but not knowing the precise time of its arrival. But with all of that said and with all of the allowances I can muster for the Sadducees, I bet the disciples were not shaking their heads when they walked away from this encounter, elbowing each other and saying, “those zany Sadducees.”
Our culture denies the reality of death. There are entire industries built on the premise that there are huge markets to buy products which encourage consumers to believe that they can stay young. Christians know that we will die. We stay humble with the reminder every Ash Wednesday, “From the dust you came and to the dust you shall return.”
So what can we do in honest, truthful response to the fact that we will die? One answer is that we live our lives as an offering to God.
I once attended a seminar on church management. For some reason the presenter talked about Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of need.” This is the pyramid with basic necessities on the bottom: food and shelter. As humans develop, we move up the pyramid and finally reach the top, which represents “self-actualization.” The man giving the seminar showed us Maslow’s pyramid plus one. On the top of the pyramid he drew an inverted pyramid. He said that this represents our desire to live on after death. For some wealthy people that can be achieved by leaving enough money to a university and having a building named for you. It could be that you publish a book and it is recorded in the Library of Congress. Not many of us will be able to have football stadiums named for us.
If we do think about how we can live on after death, most of us probably think about our legacy as our children. What endures for us? When we come face-to-face with the end of our lives, what shall remain? When we come to the final accounting of who we are, what we have done, of the roads we have taken and not taken, what shall remain? Will people sing songs of our heroic exploits and adventures? Or will our lasting influence be the lives of the people we leave behind?
I have heard many people, who have survived what they thought was their death, say with great conviction that God saved them for a reason. It is the belief that God has more for them to do. God has a purpose for their lives. What will we see when we stand on that threshold and look back on our lives? Will we only see the anxious accumulation of things? Will it only be moving from this year’s new and improved model to the next? Will we be seen climbing the unending ladder of acquisitions?
What withstands the devouring of death? As Christians we believe that only God is eternal. We are not. If we have any hope for any existence after this existence, then it is only by some attachment to the eternal God. That is what the resurrection is about. We believe that this is what happened in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God went head to head with Death and won. Jesus Christ is God reaching out to us, going to hell and back for us, in order to have us. We are so bold as to believe that the God who risked so much to have us will not be stumped by death when it comes to having us and loving us forever. We believe that the same God who has so relentlessly and ceaselessly loved us in this life shall love us in the next.
A four-year-old little girl named Laura comes to her pastor on a Wednesday night to ask about her beloved old kitty who did not wake up that morning and her Daddy buried him in the back yard. She asks, “Is Mr. Kitty in heaven?” Every pastor today has been part of the joyous celebration of marriage between two widowed persons who find love again. And then that spouse also dies. And sometimes there is another marriage. The questions which arise around most of those situations are where will the spouse be buried: next to the first husband or the second? I have yet to hear the question: whose wife will she be in heaven?
In most wedding ceremonies we promise to love each other. In most marriages we try our very hardest to love each other, whether we are good at it or not. In Corinthians Paul says that “love never ends.” Some of us have the experience of knowing love that lives on after the loved one dies. What does such love mean in the grand scheme of living and dying? It could mean many things. Whatever else it means; whatever else dies, love does not die. This is what it means for us to live our lives through the experience of the resurrection.
Jesus does not answer all of our questions, even though one of our fondest expectations is that he should. What Jesus does do for us is to point us to a God whose faithfulness to us is immeasurable and inexhaustible, and in that faithfulness we find enough to endure all that life and death will ask of us.
In response to the Sadducees’ question, which is really intended to prompt a debate, Jesus talks about the mystery of the kingdom of God – heaven. Jesus says that in the kingdom of God all of those who have been dehumanized will be restored to wholeness; those who have been oppressed will be set free; and those who have been treated as inferior will be raised up and called the beloved. Women will no longer be the property of men, treated as slaves, passed from man to man at will and whim. Jesus goes against his own tradition and against his present culture to say that women are the children of God, able to give love and receive love as they choose. In heaven, those who are children of the resurrection will know the joy and peace that was kept from them on earth.
When any of the Gospel writers say that Jesus was preaching and teaching, do you know what he was teaching and preaching? The same message that John the Baptist preached: Repent the kingdom of God is near. Jesus did not talk about “payday someday.” Jesus said the kingdom of God has drawn near. The kingdom of God is here and now. We live the resurrection here and now. We are the children of God, the children of the resurrection. We do not wait for justice. We do not wait for the hungry to be fed, or the captives set free. We are about the work of the kingdom here and now.
I will not leave you hanging wondering if Laura’s Mr. Kitty is in heaven. Remember, she is four. She is a concrete thinker. She is not thinking theologically or abstractly. As every good pastor would do, Laura’s pastor asks, “What do you think?” Laura says, “No, I don’t think so. What does God want with a dead cat?”