This past Wednesday evening, I, like many of you, was in front of the television for the seventh game of the World Series. Besides being a stressful, nail biter of a game, what remains with me was what happened before the game even started. The Cleveland Orchestra’s String Section performed the national anthem with the crowd singing in unison. One voice comprised of thousands. It made me feel how baseball unites, bringing opposing teams together for the good of the sport. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that sense of pride in humanity.
Not much has been uniting in America these past weeks and months. The vitriol, fact-checking for truth or lies, fear mongering, and incivility of this election season has led to a significant amount of stress in over half of the adults in this country. I know I feel it. I want Tuesday to be over with; but I’m afraid that no matter what, Wednesday will not be any better.
I will be working the polls on Tuesday in Norwalk and this past week attended training as required by the State of Connecticut. We were told that security will be stepped up more than ever; the 75-foot rule will be monitored closely; intimidation can be expected. And we can expect to have lines from 6AM to beyond 8PM. We were told to prepare for lack of civility and a very long day. I don’t remember hearing these messages in over forty years of exercising my right to vote.
What can today’s Scripture say to us? How can we remain faithful to our beliefs, witnessing to a different way of being than what we are seeing in our society today?
First, let’s look at today’s Gospel. The scenario may sound familiar if we read between the lines. The dispute took place in a public arena. One political party had its supporters, the other had supporters too. Each ridiculed the other and attempted to entrap their opponent in saying something foolish. There were major divisions between both sides and the community was living under great tension.
You see, the Sadducees were the more culturally sophisticated of the identified Jewish movements at the time of Jesus. Their followers tended to be among the leading priestly families and the aristocracy. Their approach to Scripture was more conservative than that of the Pharisees; it was totally based on the Pentateuch, the Torah––the first five books of what we call the Bible.
On the other hand, the Pharisees believed that God revealed God’s will not just in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but continued to speak to and through God’s people in their changing circumstances. They looked at what was happening around them in their culture––the righteous suffered, and the wicked seemed to prosper––and they knew that a just god wouldn’t let that be the final word. They concluded that God would raise the dead; they embraced the idea of resurrection from the dead. It was a way of putting flesh on hope, so to speak, in days when justice in this world seemed irretrievable. They felt the righteous would surely be rewarded; they would surely be raised from the dead. Otherwise, life does not make sense.
Of this the Sadducees were horrified. It went against all that they believed it. So when they saw this Jesus of Nazareth, this charismatic rabbi who was attracting so much attention from Galilee to Jerusalem, was teaching similarly as the Pharisees were––especially about the resurrection––they had to confront him. So we have a first century political debate playing out in today’s Gospel. And of course, just like today, what hot topic do you go for? Family values.
The focus of the discussion of Jesus with the Sadducees is not the woman and what she has to go through having been married so many times (which was a cultural norm), but the intellectual quicksand into which Jesus and the Pharisees entered with such crazy ideas that were not traditionally followed. In Mark’s version of this story we hear in Luke, Jesus’ answer to their entrapment question is quick and sharp: “God is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mark 12:27). God is alive and amongst us. End of argument.
What does it mean to believe in a God of the living? I believe it means to live according to our Baptismal Covenant. It means to live following the important tenets of civil discourse, exemplifying the characteristics of a follower of Christ: respect, mutuality, deep listening, openness, honesty, humility, and careful speech. It is providing an example to our children of being polite, reasonable, and showing respectful behavior.
I think Haggai also has something to tell us today. He was a Hebrew prophet during the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, ca. 520 BCE. Only two chapters, his message is filled with urgency for the people to proceed with the rebuilding of the second Jerusalem temple after the exiled Hebrews were allowed to return from their captivity in Babylon. He shares with the people, and he shares with us today, “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”
Paul even speaks to us today, although his letter was to the Church in the Greek city of Thessalonika around 53 CE. He reminds his readers that even when things seem to be headed in a difficult direction, do not be alarmed. It would appear that they are facing a false teaching and are confused and upset. Sound familiar? Paul tells them to stand firm in their faith and what has been taught about the Christ.
He writes: “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”
What happens when it all – the world, the news, the sound bites, the violence, the hate mongering – seems too much? When it becomes overwhelming and we want to pull the covers over our heads, not wanting to get up in the morning and face whatever negative event occurred while we slept? Haggai gives us hope for the future. We need to hold fast to the future that Jesus and Paul set before us. God’s vision is always better. Faith has a future, we need to trust God in that future, and be faithful as God is faithful.
I subscribe to a number of diocesan e-newsletters. Plenty of bishops have written pastoral letters to their congregations this week about freedom, responsibility, civic duty, and faith––including our own bishops, Ian and Laura. However, Bishop José McLoughlin of the Diocese of Western North Carolina wrote these words that I think serve us also:
“Remember, our faith is grounded in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and the grace given to us in the resurrection. We are Jesus people first, living in a particular context––in the United States and in the state of [Connecticut]. Our identity as Americans comes second to our identity as disciples of Christ and is informed and shaped by our religious values. For us in the Episcopal Church, being followers of Jesus leads to a particular way we live out our faith, identity, and vocation. At the core of our walk with Jesus as Episcopalians is the Baptismal Covenant. This covenant is ancient and deeply rooted in the teachings of our Lord and in the earliest Christian communities following his death and resurrection. We engage the political realm because ultimately it is about the way we participate in the common good, the way we live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. ‘To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.’”
In a few minutes we will pray together. We will pray for our leaders, for our nation, and for each other. I pray that after this election, whatever the outcome, we find the courage and inspiration to come together as one people to seek healing and finding common ground.
The common ground for me in today’s Gospel is God. No matter what Wednesday or next week may look like, we need to remember that our catechism in the prayer book says that the mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” and that the Church lives out this mission “as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” We are about reconciliation today and tomorrow.
Be easy on yourselves this week. Practice patience. Practice resurrection. Practice your faith. Vote. God will be with us all along the way.