All Saints by the Lake
November 10, 2019
Treasure found on the Temple Mount, dating from the 7th century CE
The book of Haggai is one of those “minor prophets” that most of us only recognize because of one phrase from Händel: “I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land …”
Haggai is prophesying about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the people of Judah have returned from exile in Babylon. The Temple was burned to the ground when Jerusalem was sacked, and only the oldest among the exiles remember what it looked like in its former glory. The prophet encourages them by promising that God will not only support them in the rebuilding, but provide splendid treasure to adorn the holy space.
As Christianity changes in the 21st century, the question of sacred buildings and their uses has been much on people’s minds, and particularly on the minds of the people of this congregation. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Parish of All Saints by the Lake finalized the sale of the building that formerly housed the Church of the Resurrection, and our Archdeacon is here with us this morning to mark the occasion with a presentation and take questions after the service.
As much as it was well understood that the merger and the sale of 99 Mount Pleasant Street were the faithful, sensible thing to do under the circumstances – and as much as we are deeply relieved that the leaks in the roof are no longer our problem – bidding farewell to any sacred building is still deeply wrenching for those whose lives’ milestones were marked within that space. Baptisms, weddings, funerals, celebrations of all kinds, fellowship around the table at church suppers, afternoons spent packing Christmas baskets or teaching children Bible stories – all these memories are deeply connected with the place where they happened, and any movement towards deemphasizing buildings because of the very real resource drain that they represent, needs to take that into account.
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus is in that same rebuilt Temple, about 600 years later, and he’s in the middle of being asked trick questions by a bunch of different political and religious parties because the authorities are trying to trick him into saying something seditious. The Sadducees, the old-fashioned theologians who don’t believe that God raises the dead, tell him this absurd story about a woman who has to marry seven different brothers, one after the other, because none of them can give her children, and then expect Jesus to be stumped when they ask which one will be her husband in the resurrection. Jesus upends the whole question by telling them that they have their whole premise wrong: there will be no such thing as marriage in the resurrection, and thus no need for a choice.
This is certainly a clever rejoinder on Jesus’ part, and the way the Gospel concludes – “God is not the god of the dead, but of the living” – is a ringing affirmation of God’s love and the new life it offers. But for those of us who do have loving ties with others on earth, Jesus’ assertion might seem to go a bit too far. If there is no marriage in heaven, does that also mean there are no families? Will we no longer recognize or love those whom we love here on earth? If everything in heaven is so exclusively focused on God that human bonds of love no longer matter, how do we look forward to that future state while still embedded in our networks of relationship in this life?
In a way, it’s a parallel question to “if our church buildings are nothing but a burden, how do we let go of the memories we’ve made and the blessings we’ve experienced there?” If human marriage is nothing but a temporary contract to be left behind when we transition into eternity, how do we understand the real and meaningful relationships we have now, in the light of our faith?
I would propose two possible responses to these questions. The first is that I think the way I’ve phrased both of them – “if our church buildings are nothing but a burden” and “if human marriage is nothing but a temporary contract” – overstates the case. Church buildings can be a burden, certainly, and human marriage can be such a contract – and certainly the story of the poor woman married seven consecutive times, apparently with little to no choice in the matter, hardly makes a compelling case for the institution.
But more importantly, I think the issue really boils down – as it so often does – is not the object, or the institution, but the question of what you do with it. Marriage as a patriarchal means of exercising control over women and children is very different from marriage as a public acknowledgement of a deep and lifelong bond of love. A church building kept open by a tiny group of stubborn people who have no larger understanding of God’s will than “we want everything to be the same as it used to be” is very different from a church building that serves to provide shelter and support for the songs of worship, the laughter of children, the filling of hungry bellies, and the planning and coordination of efforts for justice and peace.
I believe Jesus when he says that life will be different in heaven in ways that we can’t even imagine. But I don’t believe that God wants us, or asks us, to lose our individuality in our resurrected life, or to stop knowing and caring for those other individual, beloved children of God who have impacted our lives in particular ways. To put it bluntly, I believe that my sister will have her babies in heaven – and I believe that our grandfather is cuddling them there now – and I don’t want to go to any heaven where that isn’t the case. I don’t believe that any of the love, and faith, and meaning, that we have found here on earth by the grace of God, will be lost when we achieve that larger life that comes after death and resurrection.
And conversely, that which was not loving, and not faithful, and not meaningful, will be purged away – including, perhaps, an experience of marriage like that of the woman in the story, since it certainly doesn’t sound like much of anybody was finding blessing or life in that experience.
And the same goes for our buildings. While we must be honest about the realities of the 21st century church, it’s also a mistake to go too far into the other direction and claim that somehow buildings shouldn’t matter. Nothing God has ever given us is wasted, and that includes the many faithful lives that were quietly lived in churches that no longer exist, or are no longer used as churches.
God is the God not of the dead, but of the living. And that means that even as we reckon with the inevitable changes that come both in this life and the next, everything good about our lives, everything true and loving and God-given, will endure.
Dorothy Klein says
Grace: An absolutely profound if not brilliant sermon. Thank you.
Grace Burson says