Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon: The Trickster Jesus Trips the Trap

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Ph.D.
Nov. 10, 2013
Luke 19:27-40

[View the recording of this sermon here:]

What a terrible conundrum the Sadducees have posed here.  If I were a person who had been widowed and remarried, this text would be very troubling for me.  They say we’re supposed to be reunited with our spouse in heaven, right?  But what if you have loved and married two people who tragically died before you? Who would you end up with in heaven?  How would you choose?  What a terrible conundrum the Sadducees have presented to us.  It seems to leave us with no way out.  In fact it may even plant the seed of a desperate notion – perhaps it would be better for there to be no heaven at all.  Perhaps it would be better if there was no resurrection.

This is exactly what the Sadducees want you to think.  They are trying to get you to doubt the resurrection.  Because they have a great deal at stake in convincing you that, a) the resurrection does not exist; and b) it makes no difference in this world, even if it does exist. 

But be careful – this is a trap!  
And like a clever animal in the woods, we must find out where the trap is, avoid the tempting bait, and trigger it to snap on itself without catching us in its deadly grip.  Jesus, being the clever Brer Rabbit that he is, the cunning trickster Bugs Bunny, is going to show us exactly what the Sadducees are up to. 

Chomping on his carrot and walking nonchalantly around this trap hidden in a pile of words, Jesus shows us that this riddle really isn’t about marriage at all.  The Sadducees have posed a puzzle that actually has nothing to do with marriage.  It has to do with protecting their own power, and trying to get rid of that meddling trickster rabbi.  Let me explain.
In Jesus’ time, and in some cultures today, women were viewed as property to be bought and sold.  Marriage for them is not the way we understand it.  For us, it’s a mutual relationship between two equal partners who choose each other.  In Jesus’ day men from each family made the decision about the fate of the women and bargained with each other over the bride price, the dowry.  Once the financial arrangements were made and the wedding ceremony complete, the wife became the property and responsibility of the husband.  But according to the law given by Moses, who tried to put some protections in place for the wife, if the man died and there were no sons able to take care of the woman, the brother of the deceased was obligated to take her into his home so that she would not be left on the street.  He had to marry her, and she was now the his responsibility.

In this twisted scenario posed to Jesus, however, the Sadducees present a situation where the second brother dies and she becomes the next brother’s wife. And he dies and she becomes the next brother’s wife, and so on down the line.  It’s like a bad joke on the Hollywood musical – “One Bride for Seven Brothers.”
Tell us Jesus, the Sadducees hiss, whose wife will she be in heaven?  Or rather, whose problem will she be in the afterlife?  You want people to believe in the resurrection?  You want people to believe in heaven?  Then try to solve this riddle, Jesus.

It’s like a tense courtroom drama, and everyone gathered around is on the edge of their seat to see if Jesus can answer the riddle.  Now why do you suppose these 1st Century lawyers are posing such a convoluted question to Jesus?  What could possibly be their motivation? 

All along the Gospel of Luke these lawyers have been after Jesus, challenging him, trying to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  They really think they’ve got him now.  They think they’ve found the perfect way to get him to admit that the resurrection is neither real nor true.  Because if the resurrection is not true, then Jesus is a sham.  The trap is set, the jaws are ready to snap shut and shut up this rabbi for good.  Will Jesus take the bait?
But once again, the lawyers have made one fatal mistake.  They think that the realm of the resurrection, what we call heaven, is just going to be a continuation of what we have in this realm on earth.  They assume the relationships of power and the systems they have firmly established in this realm will carry over into the next.  They assume a continuation of a system where women are considered less than men, where the wealth of a nation is concentrated into the hands of a select few; where people of their nation, culture or religion are considered superior to everyone else, and thereby are permitted to do whatever they wish, no matter who it hurts. 

And why wouldn’t they want this arrangement to continue in heaven?  It’s one that benefits them.  They win, they have the power and money and authority to make all the decisions.  And they’ll do anything to keep this rabbi from messing with their cushy arrangement.

But once again, Jesus is too clever for the lawyers.  Jesus takes their riddle – their convoluted conundrum, their legal system that confuses everyone and tries to trap people with words and keep them in bondage – Jesus takes it all and flips it over, turns it inside out. Like the trickster turning the tables, Jesus cleverly avoids the trap and snaps it shut, empty of its prey.

He teaches them that in God’s realm:
women and men are equal, women will no longer be property traded among men;
the rich are emptied and the hungry are filled;
the ones who are laughing all the way to the bank while so many people cry in desperation will find the accounts empty and the poor finally having what is owed to them for their hard work and toil.

The resurrection, Jesus teaches them, is not about God’s blessing the rich and powerful in heaven.  It’s about God’s reversal of the status quo already happening on this earth, and the reign of the elite coming to an end.  The rich have stolen and hoarded God’s blessings on this earth, and God will not allow that to continue.
So who doesn’t want a resurrection?  The ones who like things the way they are.  And they don’t want YOU to believe in the resurrection either.  Because then YOU will challenge the way things are.  So far they’ve done a pretty good job in confusing people about heaven and making them think that the resurrection has no effect on this earth.  The philosopher Sören Kierkegaard once went through the streets of a city asking people if they believe in the resurrection.  Most of them said yes.  But then he asked them, what difference does the resurrection make in your life?  The majority answered . . . not much.  The most it did was to give them a vague hope that maybe they would live on a cloud somewhere and be free from pain and worry when they die. 

Not that this isn’t a comforting and pleasant thought.  But what Jesus is trying to show us is that the resurrection has implications right now.  Because Jesus was resurrected, is resurrected, it means that the way things are is already being changed.  The proclamation of Mary and John the Baptist and the prophets before them and all the prophets since are already having an effect in this realm. 

The mountains are being laid low, the valleys are being lifted up, the twisted and rocky paths are being made smooth;
The poor are claiming their rights as human beings; women are claiming their rights as full citizens; races are claiming their rights as children of God.

The Sadducees want desperately for this not to be true.  Read the Gospel of Luke when you get home – you’ll see that the only things they care about are the accumulation of wealth, the amassing of power, and their ability to make decisions that benefit themselves, no matter the costs to others.

Doesn’t this sound similar to the very situation we have today? 
Where women are still regarded as less than men in much of the world, and in this country earn 75 cents to a man’s dollar.
Where the wealth of nearly every nation is concentrated into the hands of a select few.
Where the people of one culture or religion or race or nation or corporation consider themselves superior to others and give themselves permission to do whatever they wish, often using the convoluted conundrum of the legal system to justify their claims and seize what they want.

The Sadducees of our time will do anything to confuse you, and keep you quiet so that they can continue to do as they please.  They are trying to convince you that Jesus’ resurrection is not real, and that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans this side of the afterlife.

Don’t be fooled.  Jesus has already proven the Sadducees wrong, uncovered the fallacy of their assumptions and their logic, and revealed the trap for what it is. 

In fact, the Trickster Jesus has already tripped the trigger, and the trap has snapped shut.  But it wasn’t empty.  Jesus stepped into that trap himself, knowing full well what he was doing.  The Sadducees, together with the scribes and Pharisees and the Roman government and military - all the power-brokers of their day – thought they had Jesus right where they wanted him on the cross – the most deadly trap of all.  
They thought they had taken care of Jesus for the last time on that cross.  They thought they had gotten rid of that meddling “wascawy wabbi” for good!

But when the women go to the tomb expecting to find a corpse and anoint his body – the trap is empty for good.  
God – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jesus - is the God not of the dead, but of the living.  For in God, all of them are alive.

You, too, are alive!  You have been made alive through your baptism into Christ.  You don’t have to let yourself get caught up in ridiculous word-puzzles meant to make you doubt the significance of Jesus for your life and for our world.  And you don’t have to worry about who you will spend eternity with.  The resurrection is so much more than we can even imagine with our mortal minds.  You can be assured of Jesus’ promise that you will be like angels and that you are children of God, because you are children of the resurrection.  Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sermon: Beatitudes, Not Platitudes

“Beatitudes, Not Platitudes”
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Ph.D.
Text:  Luke 6:20-28
Nov. 3, 2013

[The video from this sermon can be found at this link:]
These teachings from Jesus about blessedness are some of the most famous and well-loved.  But what I’ve noticed is how easy it is to handle them as trite clichés.  For every one of these beatitudes there are corresponding platitudes.  For example:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

To which some people respond – “Ah yes, money can’t buy happiness” and “The best things in life aren’t things.”  How easy it is to say to those in financial poverty:  “Don’t worry about being poor now, God is going to bless you in heaven!” 

Doesn’t quite cover the rent, does it?

The same with:  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” 

How easy to say to those who suffer from malnutrition and food poverty:  “Just wait.  Your time is coming.  The trickle-down effect will find its way into your hungry mouths eventually.”

Doesn’t quite pay the grocery bill, does it?

And on this All Saints Sunday when we remember those who have passed into eternal life, our eyes filled with tears and our hearts choking with grief, we hear these words:  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

In our culture that fears death and cannot tolerate deep mourning, this teaching is often reduced to:  “Oh, you’ll get over it.”

I don’t know about you, but I need something more.  I’m not content to just gloss over these words and skip out to brunch.  I need a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ teachings really mean for me, for our society, and for our church.  I would guess that you, too, are longing to know what Jesus’ teaching means for yourself, for our congregation, and, most importantly – for our future.

So let’s go a little deeper into this text to understand the words, to wrap our heads and hearts around Jesus’ profound teaching, and to listen carefully to what they are speaking to us across the centuries.
The poor.  The hungry.  The grieving.  Let’s take a moment with each of them.

The poor.  The word in Greek is ptochoi (p-toe-koy). It literally means “poor people.” Religion scholar Richard Swenson points out that the word contains a verb: “ptuo,” (p-tu-oh) which is Greek for “I am spitting.” The English cartoon sound, “ptooey,” comes directly from this verb.[1] In other words:  Blessed are the spat-upon.

Some of you may be familiar with the superstitious practice of spitting to ward off evil spirits or outcomes.  Swenson tells of a Jewish mother who, whenever she heard that misfortune had befallen someone, would ritually spit three times, acting automatically to protect her children and her world from the danger and evil that stalk us all.

In other words:  Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God….”
What does it look like for a church to welcome the spat-upon?  If theirs is “the Kingdom of God,” what does that look like?

I’ll tell you what it looks like.  It looks like the passing of the peace in this church on a Sunday morning.  We have people in this church who for various reasons have felt spat-upon by the world.  Either because of their lack of income, or the mistakes they’ve made in the past, or because of their sexual orientation, or their race, or because of their age or health.  But in this space all of them are claiming their rightful place in the sanctuary of God’s house.  Welcoming the spat-upon sounds like their voices singing and making joyful noises unto the Lord.  It feels like hugs with people who are normally looked down on in our society.  It looks like relief and joy on their faces, knowing there is at least one place, one church, where they are welcomed, valued, and treated as a full-fledged member of the church of God. 

In other words, a Beatitude Church is a church that welcomes all people.  United in Christ is a Beatitude church!

How about the hungry?  The Greek word is peinao (pay-na-oh).  It’s not just feeling hungry because you skipped lunch.  This is the kind of hunger that causes suffering, and the kind of suffering that causes hunger.  It points to a deeply broken system that allows certain members of society to be so financially destitute that they cannot provide for their own basic needs – food, housing, clothing, and access to resources such as clean water and medical care. 

Jesus contrasts this with the word chortazo which means “to be filled.”  What does it look like for a church to bless and fill those who are in desperate need?  What does it look like to be a Chortazo Church?
It looks like the front of our narthex with baskets filled with items for local food pantries.  It looks like people taking grocery bags to be filled with Thanksgiving items to give to local families in need this holiday.  It looks like a crowd of people walking through the streets of Milton to raise awareness and funds for the hungry through the CROP Walk.  It looks like folks volunteering to help serve and make dessert items for the monthly meal at St. Andrew’s in Milton.  In other words, a Chortazo church is a church with lots of opportunities to bless and fill the ones who are hungry.  United in Christ is that congregation – a Chortazo church!

And that leaves us with the grieving.  Klaio (clie-oh) in Greek.  What do we do with loss?  How do we as a church handle sorrow?  You’re seeing it today.  We are lighting candles, reading the names of those who have died in the last year.  It’s these kinds of rituals that help us to remember the ones who made us who we are.  You can take a walk up through the cemetery after church today and remember the saints who founded this church, who looked at this field in the 1800s and saw a vision of ecclesia plantanda – the church planted. 

Not one of those original founders remains.  Every one of them was mourned as they passed into eternal life.  But the church held that grief, comforted those who mourn, honored those lives, and sustained the work of this congregation to this very day.  What does it sound like to have the weeping of those who are in deep sorrow transformed into gelao [hard “g” ge-lah-oh]:  laughter? 

It sounds like a gaggle of teens gathered for a youth lock-in in September, the smoke from their bonfire wafting over those grave stones in the distance.  It sounds like a baby’s cries or a 6-year-old forgetting to use his inside voice, interrupting the quietness of our worship service as if to say, Here I am!  I am a little saint of God that needs all the love and understanding of the grown-ups around me, even if I get on their nerves sometimes. Later this month it will look like our youth buying presents for children in need with money from the Rich Huff Fund. In a few weeks gelao will sound like children raising their voice in song for our Christmas pageant, and playing silly giggling games at the New Year’s lock-in.  Their laughter peals out across the centuries, greeting the sounds of the weeping of their ancestors as if to say:

“Take heart!  Your grief is not in vain.  Look at what your life has meant.  Look at what your faithful ministry has planted!  Those who go out weeping with their seeds will return rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”  We are the harvest!  United in Christ, we are the Gelao Church!

The poor, the hungry, the mourning – all of them are welcomed and transformed in the Beatitude Church.
And there is one other blessing we don’t want to forget:  “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

These two verses encompass all the previous verses we just discussed.  The poor, the hungry, the grieving: they have all experienced being excluded, reviled, defamed, and yes, even hated.  And yet, impossibly, Jesus proclaims that when you find yourself among those excluded and hated, you are to rejoice and leap for joy.  How can this be?  Is Jesus really so naïve?  How can he make such an imperative command to “Rejoice!”

The key is in the reason Jesus gives for the ability to rejoice – misthos, which means “reward.”  Jesus says, “For surely your reward is great in heaven.”  Sometimes that verse is translated, “Your reward will be great in heaven.”  But Jesus is not talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.  No, he’s talking about right now, right here, heaven is giving you - equipping you - with what you need. 

At this very moment: God is working on your heart and your mind, moving you through the process of grief so that you can metabolize the loss and find your way in the world.
At this very moment: God is working on your heart and mind, moving you to not only feed those who are hungry and provide for their immediate needs, but also to confront the very system that sets up these injustices in the first place.

At this very moment:  God is working on your heart and mind, moving you to not only embrace the ones who are spat upon and avoided in this world, but to stand with them in solidarity to say, “This is a beloved Child of God who has much to teach us about what it means to come into God’s presence with gladness.”

At this very moment: God is equipping this church to reach out to the hated, the despised, the lonely, the grieving, the hungry, the poor, the shamed, and the shunned.  In this very place, God is creating and equipping the Beatitude Church.  Brothers and sisters of United in Christ – you are the Beatitude Church.

Blessed are you!  Blessed are you for your witness of Jesus’ love in this world.  Blessed are you for the church universal.  And blessed are you for the Kingdom of God!  Right here, right now, at this very moment! Amen!

[1] [Swenson, Richard, “Commentary on Luke 6:20-31”;]

Friday, November 1, 2013

Video: Sermon for Reformation Sunday: You Don't Need a Ladder to Get to God

This sermon was preached at United in Christ Lutheran Church on Reformation Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.  The video can be watched on Youtube by clicking on the following link: