Sermon Preached on November 10, 2019 – Belonging III
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
What Really Matters
When we consider this morning’s Gospel, we don’t need a Biblical scholar to tell us that the question the Sadducees pose to Jesus text is a loaded one. A set up for disaster. We’ve seen enough TV court room drama and police shows to know a leading question/trick/trap when we hear one.
And we’d be right – throughout the Gospels, the religious authorities are trying to ‘catch’ Jesus out so to speak, get him to say something incriminating. This morning let’s ask some questions ourselves. First, where and when are we? (Because context matters!)
It’s the first century of what we call the Common Era, and Jesus is sparring with religious leaders at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the second temple, rebuilt about 500 years earlier under Persian rule, after those who had been exiled returned to Jerusalem. The chief priests and scribes are trying to navigate life faithfully in what was Judah, but is now called Judea, though it’s still under imperial domination. As Biblical scholar Dr. Cameron Howard writes: “Persian rule has shifted to Greek rule and then to Roman rule; the kings have changed, but the stressors are largely the same. The religious leadership in Jerusalem has found a delicate equilibrium — and, for some, a measure of power. Then, here comes Jesus.”¹
Which prompts our second set of questions: What’s going on then, in our Gospel story? Why does it matter? Or what in here really matters? What’s the core of the message?
The Sadducees, as religious authorities, turn to Scripture and theology as a litmus test, a secret handshake, a code to work out how Jesus fits — or doesn’t — into their carefully negotiated webs of authority.² Jesus won’t play – he doesn’t care about their authority or their interpretation of Scripture. His answer is the first century version of “you’re missing the point.” Pay attention to the right things. Don’t let theological debate get in the way of following the living God. Don’t get so hung up on being “right” that you ignore the needs of the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Our God is the God of the living. Our God is concerned with the welfare of God’s people, that’s what matters to God. What truly matters is not whether the Sadducees win the argument by being ‘right’ in their theology, but that their relationship with God, their understanding of God’s ways, leads them to be in relationship with those in need, and to respond as God would have them respond.
As we said a moment ago, context matters. Here we are, 20 centuries later, a long way from Jerusalem. Religious authorities sometimes still get wrapped around the axle about being ‘right’ and doing right theology, as if that matters more than anything else, as they struggle to grasp the miniscule amount of authority or power still afforded them. But most of us know better, don’t we? What really matters has less to do with being right – and more to do with living into being the people of God.
The gist of our Gospel rings true for us even now, maybe even MORE now, as we struggle to find our way in an increasingly contentious and morally confusing time in history. As we said last week, we like to win, we like to be right. But what really matters isn’t being right, or even being theologically orthodox (right theology/right believing), but following God’s ways, walking in the way that Jesus showed us.
Our God is the God of the living – and the living are in need of our care, compassion, attention. The living are hungry. Thirsty. Exploited. Homeless. Abused. Overworked. Out of work. Lonely. Despairing. Addicted.³ Frightened. They are in our midst, in our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, our homes, and our parish. They don’t need us to win theological arguments with one another, and certainly don’t want to argue about religion. What they need is for us to SEE them. To be fully present with them.⁴ To SHOW them through our responses that they are loved and of worth, that they are God’s own beloved. They need us to proclaim Jesus through our actions.
Now I’ll admit, I love Scripture and the study of Scripture, and I believe that walking with the text week in and week out shapes us and informs our lives in important ways. I believe the text matters, and so do people. That’s what our Gospel tells us today – that our interpretation of the Scriptures is only as important or effective as what we do in response to it. Scripture matters – only if it matters to us, to our lives, and to the lives of others around us. When we read the Scriptures as people of faith (rather than academics in the religion department), we bring the entirety of our lived experience to the interpretation of the text.⁵ We can test every spirit, we can apply our understanding of the context of the material, we can question and weigh things out – we aren’t literalists, we can engage our full brain. When we apply our understanding of the text to our own context, and wrestle with it – we’re making a good start. But what makes it truly faithful reading is our belief that through the Holy Spirit, our reading of the Bible text will transform our understanding⁶, expand our hearts, deepen our souls, and move us to transform the world in which we live, right now. In our own time and culture. That the text matters to us, as children of the living God; and we, in turn, live in such a way that it matters to others. Living into the Scripture, a living embodiment of God’s compassion, presence, attention and love for God’s people.
When the Sadducees pose this question of the woman married seven times, they are posing a technical question; and in asking they’re hoping to either entrap Jesus, or to at least have a better sense where he stands (liberal, progressive, conservative, independent?). Is he with them or against them? Yet Jesus’s answer is about God being the God of the living. I imagine Jesus didn’t see this question as a technical or
procedural challenge (an interesting case when it comes to applying the law) – but instead that he considered what this hypothetical situation says about the woman and her experience. He SEES this woman for who she is and what she experienced – she was seven times widowed and barren. She deserved to be comforted and protected. Our God of the living is more concerned with her being treated with compassion and care in this life, than her status in the resurrection. Those who walk in the God’s ways, know what really matters to God is the tending of God’s people.
Here we are, in a post and beam church on the coast of Maine, gathered as a community of faith, people who do our best to walk in the ways of God, to follow Jesus in the way of love. As Bishop Brown has said, there are essentially three questions as we consider our parish’s future: Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing about it? Our answers (or one version of those answers): we are the community of St. Bart’s, a community of: extravagant welcome, authentic engagement, and transformative love. We’re here to live out those Kingdom values in our own families, our neighborhoods, in the greater community around us.
As we were reminded last week when we reaffirmed our baptismal vows: We’re here to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. To help one another persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. To proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
The specific way in which we live out these baptismal promises ebbs and flows, shifts and changes, as our community responds to the needs of God’s people. As we pay attention to others, see them, and choose to be fully present with them.
Make no mistake – that we are here matters: to the children and families of the daycare; to those who rely on the Yarmouth food pantry; to the families of Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative (and those who have taken part in hosting, driving, supporting the program); to those practicing their English in the ESL class; to those in need of essentials at St. Elizabeth’s; and to those fed at Friendship House; and it matters to countless others.
That we are here matters to us: to those who have been part of this community – those who formed it, those who helped it live into what it is now, and those who will carry it into the future for people yet to come. It is good to be part of this together – a community that is authentic, compassionate, welcoming, proclaiming God’s transforming love.
May we continue to be living, breathing testimony to God, shaped by the text, and the love of God and one another, and may we keep focusing on what really matters – being responsive to God’s people, and living out our Kingdom values. Amen.
1 Dr. Cameron B. R. Howard, “Be Present and Engaged”, Sunday, November 03, 2019 12:02 PM, workingpreacher.org.
2 Dr. Cameron B. R. Howard, “Be Present and Engaged”, Sunday, November 03, 2019 12:02 PM, workingpreacher.org.
3 Dr. Cameron B. R. Howard, “Be Present and Engaged”, Sunday, November 03, 2019 12:02 PM, workingpreacher.org.
4 Dr. Cameron B. R. Howard, “Be Present and Engaged”, Sunday, November 03, 2019 12:02 PM, workingpreacher.org.
5 Dr. Emerson Powery, Commentary on Luke 20:27-38, November 10, 2019, workingpreacher.org.
6 Dr. Emerson Powery, Commentary on Luke 20:27-38, November 10, 2019, workingpreacher.org.