Sunday, November 11, 2007

Living in the Present

Proper 27 – Year C (Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)
Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 17:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5; Luke 20:27-38
Sunday, November 11, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke is a rather puzzling one. It centers on a theological disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, two sects of Judaism at the time of Jesus. While there were a number of differences in the beliefs of these two groups, the primary difference being debated here has to do with belief in resurrection. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, the Sadducees, not. In the on-going debate, the Sadducees would often pose trick questions to the Pharisees, in an attempt to disprove the Pharisaic belief. In the incident recorded in Luke, the Sadducees pose a hypothetical question to the Pharisees, using the ancient tradition of levirate marriage as a backdrop. Levirate marriage was the custom that if a man died without producing a child (presumably male), his brother would be obligated to marry the widow and produce an heir to carry on the name of the dead man, keep his property in the immediate family, and provide security for the brother’s widow. In this case, the Sadducees pose a hypothetical situation in which a man with seven brothers dies. Each brother, in turn marries the widow, and subsequently dies before producing an heir. Now, at the resurrection, who will the unlucky widow actually be married to? This is obviously an absurd example used in an attempt to reinforce the Sadducee’s position that there is no resurrection.

Unlike other encounters with the Sadducees, in our current reading, there does not appear to be any attempt on their part to trap Jesus, but rather merely to get his opinion on this long-running debate. In effect, Jesus’ response puts them in their place. His considered opinion is that life in the resurrection will not be like life as we know it. There will be no need for people to marry and produce children because people will not die. Children simply will not be needed to carry on the family name. To drive the point home, Jesus even appeals to scriptural authority, to an authority that the Sadducees acknowledged and respected. He references the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, all of whom were obviously dead by the time the scriptures were written. Yet, scripture states that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not die to God, but live to God (4 Maccabees 7:19). For these patriarchs to be made alive to God could only happen through resurrection.

Why is this theological disagreement between two Jewish sects of importance? At the time that Luke wrote his Gospel, it is quite possible that that the early Jewish-Christians may have had genuine concern about what resurrection would mean for them and for their loved ones. But is that still the case for us today? Are we still concerned about what resurrection means and how it will affect us? To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a contemporary Christian, or at least, a contemporary Episcopalian, ask about resurrection, other than in the context of Christ’s resurrection. We just don’t seem to be worried about such matters. But, despite that, I think there is still something that we can and need to learn from this rather puzzling story.

I find it a marvelous gift that many times when I read a passage from Scripture, I find something new, hear something that I had not heard before, or have an insight that I had not had before. That’s the beauty of our Scriptures. If we let it, the stories and messages can be new and fresh every time we approach them. That was my experience with this puzzling Gospel lesson. As I initially read the lessons early in the week, I saw something that I had not seen before. Or rather, to be more accurate, what jumped out at me was what I didn’t see in the text. It was what the people in the story seemed to be missing.

If we look at the lesson from Luke and consider the focus of the characters’ concerns, we see that in the debate between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and the trick question that is used to illustrate this debate, the focus is on the future. They are concerned with what will happen to them and their loved ones in the resurrection – in some incomprehensible future event. They are worried about what will be, about what might be. They are obsessed with what will happen in the future, and as a result, are missing out on what is happening in the present. That’s what’s missing. Being present to what is happening in the present, in the here and now.

How many of us fall into the trap in which the Sadducees and Pharisees have become ensnared? How many of us focus on what will happen in the future – tomorrow, next week, next month, next year? I think our society has become so goal oriented that that’s where we devote a great deal of our attention – on how to get to the next goal, be it a major career goal, or be it a relatively innocuous one, such as “how am I going to find time to do the laundry?” Or even worse, we succumb to worrying about things that might or might not ultimately happen. Here’s a few that I have run across in my own life. I have so many meetings this week, when am I going to find time to prepare my sermon? Or, the car’s making a funny noise. How will I get to work if the car breaks down? Or, the stock market is acting like a roller coaster, wreaking havoc with my retirement funds. Will I have enough money to live on when I retire (25 years from now)?

I see this future-oriented focus in many of the students that I encounter in my role as Episcopal Chaplain at UCLA. I find that in the 23 years since I completed my undergraduate degree, not much has changed. When I was a student, I just wanted to get through with my education so I could get on with my life. I knew that my education was important, but also tended to view it as merely a stepping stone, and at times, a stumbling block, standing between me and the rest of my life. Many of today’s students are of the same mindset. But this mindset is not reserved for students. How many of us even now in our jobs or other life circumstances see the situation we are in as merely another hurdle to be endured on the way to our real goal?

Admittedly, thinking about and planning for the future is important, and has its place. But it need not be all-consuming. For if it is, in the process of being focused on what will be or what might be, we run the risk of missing out on what is going on right now. What we particularly miss out on is something that is very subtle, yet oh so important to our development as human beings, to our development as God’s beloved children. We miss out on the gentle and subtle ways that God moves in our lives, touching us, speaking to us, caressing us, nurturing us.

Being an engineer and planner by training, I do tend to be future-oriented. But one of the most important things I have learned from the church is that God is present in the here and now, and that if we are not attentive to the subtle ways in which God operates in our lives, we will surely miss them. This was made very clear to me during my seminary education. Being back in school, I had the occasional tendency to view seminary as another hurdle to be surmounted before I could get on with my life as a priest. But I had experienced enough of God’s grace to know that God speaks to us in the present. So I allowed myself to enter into the moment and not worry about what the future would hold. As a result, seminary turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Unfortunately, some of my classmates viewed it merely as a hurdle. And as a result, they had a miserable time, feeling that it was, by and large, a waste of time. How sad. How unfortunate that they felt they wasted three years of their lives. If they had been open to the present, been attentive to how and where God was moving in their lives, they might have found that instead of three wasted years that delayed them from achieving their goal, that they had three wonderful years, filled with God’s love and grace, that would nourish and enrich them for the rest of their lives.

While the story in today’s Gospel lesson is future-oriented, and in my interpretation, cautions us against obsessing about the future and allowing ourselves to live in the present, I think the same principle applies to our almost equally pervasive obsession with the past (no disrespect to the historians in our midst). Just as we worry about the future, we also have a tendency to worry about the past. Why did I say what I did? Why did I make that decision? Why didn’t I do such and such? If only I had . . . Here, too, worrying about the past takes us away from the present, from being available to experience God’s grace. If anything, if we have messed up in the past (and we all have), we are in need of God’s grace and mercy. But we aren’t going to find it by looking backwards. Sure, we may learn some lessons by looking at what we did in the past. But obsessing about it won’t change things. And it won’t allow for God’s grace to enter in to help ease the pain or frustration or embarrassment. The only way for that to happen is to be in the present, in the here and now, to be present to God, to allow God to give you what you need to help you deal with the past.

But perhaps most important is that living in the present is about formation, about us being shaped and molded and stretched into something new, into a new person that we may not be able to see, but who God surely sees. That’s what living in the present is really all about. It is being open and attentive to what God is doing in our lives in the here and now. It is about allowing God to form us into the persons that God wants us to be, who God is calling us to be. Persons who have past experiences – experiences that were in the present at one time, but which are no longer. Persons formed in the present by the loving hands of God, to be the persons we are called to be in the future.

There is perhaps no greater example of this than Job, from our Old Testament lesson. The Book of Job is often thought to be a story of one man’s struggles. But it is more than that. It is the story of one man’s faith. Job has experienced unimaginable misery in the past. But despite what his friends and his wife tell him, Job does not choose to dwell on what has happened, to renounce God for what has happened. He does not worry about what will happen in the future, to plead with God to make his life better. He stays faithful to God by living in the present. In one of his most famous speeches, recorded in today’s lesson, he says “For I know that my Redeemer lives.” These words are recognition that God is even now active in his life, working to bring redemption, to bring God’s grace and mercy into his life, to form him into the person he is ultimately called to be. And if he focuses on what happened in the past, or worries about the future, he will surely miss the joy of seeing God at work in his life.

When it comes to our dealings with God, with experiencing God in our lives, let us not be like the Sadducees and the Pharisees, worrying about what will happen in the future. Let us not be like Job’s friends, urging him to dwell on what has passed. Let us be like Job, who boldly proclaims out of his experience “I know that my Redeemer lives,” here and now, and that he is working in our lives, in great and subtle ways, forming us to be the people God is ultimately calling us to be. Now that is something not to be missed!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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