November 6, 2022
“Love God” (Matthew 22:15, 23-40) — Rev. Chelsea Page

Why do we have to have an election right on the heels of Halloween? It’s already such a scary time of year! Do we really need fake blood AND the violence that’s going in our politics, all at the same time? This is the time of year when we are reminded that our civilization is plagued by conflict and death. As threats to democracy begin to feel normalized, perhaps even inevitable, as death is inevitable, it’s a good time to ponder if there’s anything we can do about it, while we are waiting to see what happens on Tuesday when the votes are counted.

Our story today has the same feeling of suspense, killing time while waiting on a scary outcome. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, trouncing his opponents in all the political debates, but we know he’s going to lose in the end anyway. For no matter how well he answers the leaders’ questions, they will still find some reason for the Romans to kill him. So what is getting Jesus through this tense time of facing his own imminent death? One thing – his hope in the resurrection.

So when the Sadducees come to Jesus denying the reality of the resurrection, they are really coming after him where he lives. Like many Jews of his time, Jesus believed with all his heart that God would provide new life after death, to make up for the fact that this life under Roman occupation was so full of suffering and devoid of justice. Reality was so dismal, this couldn’t be all there was. God’s promises of a better life had to come true somewhere, so why not after death, was the thinking. Jesus’s trust in the love and justice of God leads him to emphasize the greatest commandment, the importance of loving God. But seriously now, can something as abstract as “love for God” really help us to face something as physical and real and final as death?

Today we have many religious and spiritual mindsets to choose from, to help us confront the reality of our own deaths. Besides denial and avoidance, which is a strong tradition in our consumer culture, the most common response is probably still the belief in personal immortality. For the Sadducees, who believed death was simply the end, personal immortality came from being remembered by one’s children and living on in those who come after – hence their obsession with not dying childless and passing on the family name. Today we understand that we can leave a legacy to future generations and be remembered even if we don’t have children of our own.

One of my favorite spiritual ancestors who I remember often, is the inventor of the Burbank potato. Luther Burbank lived and worked not far from me in Northern California and I planted many of the famous heirloom vegetable varieties he bred. He was a huge scientific celebrity in his time. In 1926 at the age of 77, he attracted great controversy and even death threats when he called Jesus an “infidel” in a newspaper interview. He was promptly invited by the First Congregational Church of San Francisco (part of our UCC family) to give a public address to an audience of 2,500 people. He stood before his haters and his liberal supporters and echoed Jesus’s great Love commandment with these joyful words.

“I love everybody! I love everything! … All things, plants, animals and men are already in eternity traveling across the face of time, from when we know not, to where who is able to say. … Do you think Christ or Mohammed, Confucius, Baal or even the gods of ancient mythology are dead? Not so. Do you think Pericles, Marcus Aurelius, Moses, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Aristotle, Tolstoi, Franklin, Emerson are dead? No. Their very personality lives and will live forever in our lives and in the lives of all those who will follow us. All of them are with us today. No one lives who is not influenced, more or less, by these great ones according to the capacity of the cup of knowledge which they bring to these ever-flowing fountains to be filled.”

I love Luther Burbank’s notion of immortality here. It is like Jesus insisting that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not dead at all because they live on in us.

But let’s take this sense of earthly immortality one step further, to the actual belief in life after death, a continued personal existence in some other dimension. Maybe you share Jesus’s faith in resurrection. Maybe you have a detailed vision of the afterlife, as the LDS do. Or maybe you have a sense that everything is one, and take the Buddhist view that even if you do not continue as a separate being, you will become part of everything and continue on that way.

Many of you may remember that my dad died two years ago – not the dad you have met here at church recently, my other dad. (Yes, like the woman in our story today who had many husbands, I have had many mothers and fathers.) Lately I have been consoling myself over the death of my father by thinking, if death was good enough for Groucho Marx, it is good enough for my dad. If Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Joan of Arc, and every single great soul all the way down to Jesus has gone through the gates of death before me, then it is good enough for me too. All I have to do is follow.

Which brings me back to how loving God can actually really help us. If the afterlife was a heavenly candy-land which the saints built or earned through religious actions, I would be in trouble, for I am not that devout. If life after death was merely a kind story to ease our final fears, a sweet dream of peaceful passage into a world beyond, I would have no hope, for I am not naive. If the afterlife was a simple continuation of what currently is, as the Sadducees assumed it would have to be, I could not believe, for I do not see how that would be possible.

But Jesus said the afterlife will not be a continuation of marriage, nor ANY earthly happiness we manage to preserve up to the moment of death. For new life is not a continuation, but a restoration. It will be comprised specifically of everything that has been trashed and broken during this life, gathered up by God and made whole. All those people and things that have a tendency to fall apart at our feet or wander away and get lost – the lingering regrets and fragments which haunt us in this life, are in fact the substance of the next. We are promised that ALL we have loved and lost will be knit back together within the larger frame of eternity. To love God is to glimpse this majestic power at work repairing the universe, and tether our hearts to the One who makes all things whole.

So friends, when Jesus says that God is “God of the living,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be immortal. Rather, it means that God is so much more alive than we have ever been. There is a Big Life that God wants to give us, God’s own life, where all things are put to rights.

I love being part of a church that encourages us to trust in God for the next life, and focus our hope on where WE can make a difference – in the present, right here right now, in THIS political moment, which must become a turning point for something better. Let us do OUR part to put things to rights. We do this not only with our ballots, but with our bodies and our actions. So make sure you vote on Tuesday, and don’t stop there. Let us be for the living, as God is for the living. Amen.