Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sermon for Proper 27

St Paul's, Carlinville--Luke 20:27-38, Job 19:23-27a

Is anyone here into video games? I’m not, but, apparently, a lot of my “friends” on Facebook are addicted to something called Candy Crush. A long, long time ago, in the days before the internet was available to ordinary households, my children persuaded their mother and me to get them something called Nintendo, which I think you can probably now get at antique shops, but, for a while there in the early 1990s, was the “state of the art” in home video game systems.

The most popular Nintendo game was something with the unlikely name of “Mario Brothers.” Mario is the character whose actions are controlled by the one playing the game—he looks sort of like a Venetian gondolier in painter's overalls. The object is to guide Mario through a series of 32 increasingly hostile environments that are known as "worlds.”  In each world, Mario confronts various hazards—deadly objects being thrown at him and monsters that want to eat him, and the like.

There are two very interesting features of the worlds that Mario travels through. First, they allow him to behave as if he's immortal, because, most of the time, he is. Mario is able to cheat death by performing various feats —some rather routine, some more heroic—and thereby earn extra “lives.” So when he gets eaten or falls off a cliff—not to worry, there's usually an extra life waiting for him. Second, when Mario makes the transition from one "world" to the next, he takes with him all the weapons and other paraphernalia and extra “lives” that he had earned in the previous one. In these two respects, Mario is an expression of two common human fantasies and aspirations. 

We all go through a phase in life—generally in childhood and young adulthood—when we really do feel like we're immortal, like we're immune to death. As the list of those people whom we've known and are indeed now dead gets longer and longer, and as the physical decline of middle age sets in, we tend to lose that particular fantasy. But it usually takes a much longer time—if indeed we're ever able to do it—to let go of the notion that, like Mario, we can take it all with us when we move from this world to the next one. Those of us in “civilized” cultures, of course, are sophisticated enough to know that we can't literally transport our physical possessions, including money, into the afterlife. But we're not so sophisticated that we don't cherish the idea that we can hold onto our accomplishments, our experience, knowledge, relationships—in other words, our status, in this world. We want to get credit for all that, to have it all be transferable to whatever comes next. 

In the Mario Brothers Nintendo game, each of the worlds is different from the others, but there is an essential consistency between them. The terrain and the hazards vary, but the same rules apply. What you do and what you learn in one world can help you in the next. 
This was precisely the assumption that the Sadducees were working under when they presented Jesus with what they thought was an unsolvable conundrum.  The Sadducees were a party within Judaism.  They were known, in particular, for not believing in any resurrection of the dead—when you're dead, you're dead; no afterlife, no immortality, no resurrection. That's it.  So the Sadducees asked Jesus, suppose a woman's husband died, and she married one of his brothers  (as was the custom under the law of Moses) and then, in succession, she married each of her five remaining brothers-in-law, each of whom also dies. Whose wife will she be at the resurrection of the dead? (My first question would be, what's she feeding them for dinner?) 

The Sadducees didn't believe in a resurrection, but they figured, if there were such a thing as a resurrection of the dead, or immortality of the soul, or a kingdom of heaven—in other words, a world beyond this present one, then there must be some consistency between this world and the next. The same rules must apply. Two plus two equals four in both places. The difference between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven is merely one of degree, and not of kind. 

And this is not really very surprising, is it, when anybody makes such an assumption, whether it's the Sadducees, or us, or the manufacturers of Nintendo? We have no other experiential model to work from. Most people see quite a bit of variety in a lifetime, but whatever we do or wherever we go, there are certain things we can count on to remain the same. Water is wet, when you drop something it falls down and not up, and all forms of life do what is necessary to procreate themselves, reproducing after their own kind. 

But Jesus's answer to the Sadducees' puzzle suggests that “it ain't necessarily so,” that the rules which apply in this world don't necessarily apply in the next, that the kingdom of heaven is not only grander or more glorious than the kingdom of this world, but that it is an entirely different kind of reality.

Is anyone here a trekkie? Brenda and I not only enjoyed classic Star Trek, but also Star Trek: The Next Generation while it ran for several years. As one who is interested in language and communication, one of my favorite episodes of that show is when the crew of the Enterprise encounter an alien being who seems to speak their language, but they still can’t understand him, nor he them. The words he uses, and even some groups of words, made sense taken by themselves, but none of it seem related to the situation at hand. It was as if he were just talking nonsense. As long as the crew of the Enterprise assume that this alien uses the same basic categories of grammar and syntax that govern all human languages, they continue to be baffled.  Only when they are ready and willing to jettison that assumption do they make any progress in deciphering the deceptively familiar-sounding gibberish that comes out of the alien's mouth. They have to realize that they are not just dealing with a different reality, but a different kind of reality. 

In the early 1960s, following Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba, thousands of refugees fled, with only the clothes on their back, most of them ending up in south Florida. A good many, if not the majority, of these refugees were from the cream of Cuban society: affluent, well-educated, highly skilled.  I was very young at that time, but I do remember hearing about Cuban refugee doctors who were earning a living in Florida sweeping floors and hauling trash. These were trained, licensed, and experienced physicians who found that their status in the world they left behind was not immediately transferable to the new world which they had entered. Most of us associate the saying “you can't take it with you” with the moment of death, but these folks found out that it can sometimes apply much sooner. The only thing they were allowed to take with them was their living and breathing selves. In this new world, the old rules didn't apply. Their education, skills, and standing in the community had to be reconfigured to the new reality they were living in. 

Jesus's answer to the Sadducees' conundrum makes the same basic point. “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage ...”. They live in a new kind of reality. Rules and relationships from the old order don't carry over into the next. The only thing we take with us, the only constant factor, the only true point of reference, the only reliable anchor we can hold onto, the only "rule" which applies equally to this world and to the world to come ... is our relationship with God, our relationship with the one who brought us into this world and will bring us into the next. We don't have any hidden weapons or extra lives to fall back on. We don't have any certification or credentials to give us a head start on establishing our status in the world to come. We only have Jesus, to whom we have been bound in the waters of baptism. We have only Jesus, who has given us his Holy Spirit in order to give voice to our prayers. We have only Jesus, who nourishes us with his own life in the sacrament of the altar. We only have Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, blazing a trail for us into the uncharted and unknown wilderness of death and resurrection. We can say, with job, “I know that my redeemer lives ... and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” The knowledge that this one relationship alone is all we take with us on our passage from this world into the next gives us all the motivation we need to invest in that relationship, to cultivate it, to strengthen it, to nurture it so it's as healthy and vigorous and dynamic as it can be. It's all we’ve got, but it’s also all we need! Amen.

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