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Sermon for Proper 27

So there come to Jesus some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection. And yet they come to ask him a question about the resurrection. But instead of asking him a big, hopeful question about what new life is like and how to be ready for it, they ask him a silly question, a trick question, a how-many-angels-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin kind of question: If a woman marries a brother then another brother then another brother then another brother and so on and on into absurdity-they are clearly enjoying the moment-now whose wife will she be in this so-called resurrection? There they are standing in their fine clothes right there with Love looking at them, right there with new life breathing in their faces, right there with the Peace of God that passes all of our understanding just waiting to offer them what we all want-a word of peace, of love, of new life. And they ask a trick question!

I guess they thought, "Gotcha, Jesus!" But when the moment had called for depth, for humility, for an openness to the heart of the matter, they had asked a tiny, silly, trite question. And I've done that too. And maybe you have as well.

You know, you can ask tiny questions and be trite even about fairness, even about justice. I know this. I have always, even as a child, had a hang-up about fairness. When the cake was cut, I watched to see that everybody's piece was as big as the others', especially mine. I kept track of whose turn it was to do the dishes or who got to sit by the window on a car trip. As a kid growing up in Mississippi in the '50s and early '60s, I didn't really think too much about the huge justice questions shaking the ground of our world-school segregation, job discrimination, and lack of respect for people with dark skins. My parents worried about the meanness of the times and the need for new life with colorblind justice, but as a little kid and then as a self-absorbed adolescent, I really didn't. Fairness was a very tiny word for me, such as, "It's not fair that my sister gets to stay up until 11 o'clock and I don't!" And justice was a very small concept too, such as, "Wait until our Mama gets home and I am going to tell on you!"

If you are lucky, blessed, really, and I was, then your parents and your teachers and your community of faith make fairness a big word and justice a holy word. I remember, for instance, my eighth-grade history teacher, Mr. Moore. He wore hideous Hush-Puppy shoes. And he had a foreign accent-I think he was from Ohio. And, ohhh, his strict grading-streams of red words coming back to you at the bottom of the little essays you'd written for him. But every morning, at least for an hour-thanks to Mr. Moore-we asked bigger questions and we lived in a larger, richer world than Bailey Junior High.

Mr. Moore did not tell us of an innocent world or a pure world. Oh, my! He told us of terrible things, wonderful things, such as the people who came to this new world-the people we were proudest of on all the family trees-well, he said they were often the losers of the old world. This was news to the ancestor worshipers among us.

And he told us that war is never simple, seldom glorious, and always deadly, and that Abraham Lincoln was a great man and he read us his speeches. He said that the Constitution is a wonder of the world. He said that might is a very different word from right and that the story of human beings is not a straight line but a spiral, so don't draw straight lines from one event to another.

Sometimes we listened to voices on a record player. I remember FDR saying. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." And then Mr. Moore showed us an atom bomb exploding and he wept. And more than once Mr. Moore said, in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961, that lots about the Confederacy was misguided and that slavery was very, very wrong and segregation was too. And he said that the United States of America was a grand experiment, a country of working people who vote and for us never to take working or voting for granted.

A little, balding, florid man, he paced and talked to us in a loud, high-pitched voice. Every few days we would notice him pop something in his mouth and a little foam would sort of trickle down the side of his chin. It was probably an antacid, but we thought it was nitroglycerin, and we were convinced that one day his heart would burst, in the passion of his telling, in the passion of his love for the larger questions, the bigger world, the deeper possibilities for justice and freedom and new life.

Mr. Moore is dead now. I don't know if he was a member of a church or what creed he professed. But I know that he asked the big questions and spent a lifetime teaching others to ask them too, and I trust that he is in the arms of the living God getting some answers.

What are the questions that occupy your days? Are they worthy of your attention, of your life? Or are you stuck, as I have sometimes been, just wearing yourself out asking and answering the tiny questions, the petty ones?

Surely, like the Sadducees, we all find ourselves from time to time majoring in the minors. There is Jesus healing the lame, giving sight to the blind, setting people free from whatever binds them, loving and bringing new life, and the Sadducees are figuring out ways to ask questions that will prove that it really won't work. Now isn't that bizarre? Here is Jesus offering them and us a Word from the living God, and they, and sometimes we, just try to beat the Word and doubt the Word and question the Word to death.

Maybe for them and sometimes for us, it's hard to believe in the big things when we have so many niggling, little issues and struggles that we let take up lots of space in our minds and hearts. When we are fixated on the little stuff, how can we step back and believe in life everlasting? We probably all know, to our chagrin, that the church is not immune from tiny questions and trite arguments. I remember a friend of mine, retired after 40 years of ordained ministry, telling me that the worst church fight he ever saw was over what color to paint the worship space. Does that sound familiar to you?

A good way to kind of lift up your heart above the fray is to listen to our teachers, to the Mr. Moore's in our lives, who keep pushing us to open our eyes and see the wonder and beauty and the terror and hunger of the world around us. And to see the breadth of opportunities to love our neighbors and to see the heights and depths of the spirit when we love our God with all our hearts and minds and strength and soul.

I think of teachers like the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He looked at the Nazis who claimed that they were cleaning up the world for Christ, and he looked at the churches who were reeling in terror for fear of their lives, and Bonhoeffer sees all that and asks these huge questions:

What is the cost of discipleship? What is the cost of accepting God's grace? Grace is free, he said, but it doesn't come cheap.

And then he lived the answers. And Bonhoeffer taught young pastors in Germany, even in the midst of that evil, to pray for the sins of their country and what became the confessing church. And he wrote words from prison which thrill our hearts to this day asking the big questions and dying a martyr's death though surely Bonhoeffer is alive in Christ.

Or Martin Luther King Jr., who, even when reviled and persecuted and jailed and spat upon, kept his eyes upon the prize and had a dream of the kingdom of God among us and asked the big questions and offered them to us so that one day we might ask of each other, "What is the content of our characters?" rather than judging each other by the color of our skins. King, too, died a martyr's death, though, surely, he too is alive in Christ.

Or Bach who asked, "What does God sound like?" Or Schweitzer who asked, "What is the wideness of God's mercy?" Or Mother Teresa who asked, "Who does Christ look like in his distressing disguise?" And then they all lived their answers.

And, of course, there are countless other teachers who just live open to the spirit, always asking, always curious about the big things, always alive to the possibilities. For as Jesus told his tiresome questioners so many years ago, "Our God is a God of the living, not the dead, and all are alive in God."

Now what would it be like if we spent our lives asking, "How can I be ever more alive in God?" and "How can I help others to be more alive, too?" Wouldn't those be questions to fill our days with the glory and love and peace of God which is past all our understanding and all our questioning and yet is so very, very near.

Surely there are questions which are worth spending all the days of your life answering. What are yours?

Let us pray.

O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment and light rises up in the darkness for the godly, grant us in all our doubts and uncertainties the grace to ask what you would have us to do that the spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices and that in your light we may see light and in your path may not stumble. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.