November 6, 2016


Proper 27C

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley D. Johnson, III on November 6, 2016


In today's Gospel lesson, we have a familiar scene, one that recurs throughout the Gospels, where Jesus' opponents, in this case, the Sadducees, come to him with a question, seeking to trap him. How do we know it's a trap? In this case, it's easy: it says right there that they don't believe in the Resurrection, but yet they've come to ask him a question about it. As happens each time, however, the Gospels show Jesus not only managing to extract himself from their trap, but exhibiting a wisdom from beyond.


The Wisdom of Christ, the Sophia of God, therefore, is something for us to consider, no matter our view of the historical nature of the Gospels. From where does this Wisdom come?; from where does it spring forth, exactly?


More than the miracles, which can often be a stumbling block for people in this modern day and age, the Wisdom of Christ, Christ the Word of God, can be a connection point for us, leading us to a deeper understanding and experience of our faith.


I'm afraid also that our modern ears don't quite pick up on the magnitude of what's going on here with the Sadducees' question. Because women, and therefore, wives, are no longer considered the property of their husbands, we might look at this as a question for anyone, male or female, who has been married more than once: who is my spouse, my partner, going to be in heaven? Goodness, I hope it's this one and not that other one!


But that, most decidedly, is not what's going on here. This was a question of property rights; it was a trap. To whom is she going to belong in heaven? That was the question. So consider what has happened here: Jesus has obliterated the patriarchal notion that she will belong to anyone! This woman – indeed, all women – will enter heaven freely, of their own accord, fully and completely, and not as ones who are known in relation to the man, or men, to whom they were married on earth. Is that revolutionary? You bet your sweet bippee it was, and is.


In fact, one of my pet peeves, in our Eucharistic prayer, where God is identified as the God of our ancestors, and then there is a list of male names (Abraham, Isaaac, Jacob) is that often women are added to that list in an attempt to recognize and honor them as well...but the problem is, it is always, and only, the wives of the men who are listed – women, again, are only listed or recognized in relationship to the men to whom they were married....and what do we do when we get to Jacob, we mention both Rachel and Leah? That can lead to some interesting questions.... “Mommy, why does Jacob have two wives? Is that even ok?” “Ummmm, you know, that's a good question honey; why don't we ask Fr. Ian at coffee hour after church.”


No, I think if you're going to list women, it better be Ruth, Judith, and Esther, Mary of Nazareth, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany (Martha especially, since she's the only person in the Bible who yells at Jesus twice). Certainly the matriarchs Sarah and Rebecca are worthy as well, but they are worthy in their own right, not just as spouses, and there are plenty of other female heroines from which to choose as well.


But I digress...


My point is that we see today the full, liberative force of the Gospel of Christ in action.


This is the Word which liberates us all. And this kind of understanding is what has allowed devout feminist women and men, such as myself, authentically to come to faith in Christ, and practice our faith in a tradition where liturgy and scriptural interpretation has been dominated and controlled, until very recently, solely by men.


And that's a very important point for today, as we find ourselves on the edge (for those of us who haven't voted early) of having the opportunity to vote for a woman for President for the first time in the history of our nation, So, that's a pretty fascinating coincidence, or God-incidence, as I like to call it, between today's Gospel lesson and the election.
And yes, Fr. Ian did ask me if I would preach today on the importance of our vote, which might be a little daunting to attempt; but for those of you familiar with my preaching, you know I don't shy away from these challenges, do I?


Many of you know by now that my guide in such matters is our church's great, late-20th century theologian, William Stringfellow. I have mentioned him many times over the years I have been with you, but today I am going to draw on him more fully, because it seems like this is my one chance to do so, and because he is directly on point in this matter. Listen: “our duty as Christians is to participate...because there is no such thing as neutrality about any public issue....Those who suppose they can withdraw only deceive themselves, because deliberate abstinence or asserted neutrality are themselves forms of involvement in politics....To take the most obvious example: In American society, citizens who do not vote give the weight of their vote to the candidate who happens to win the election. Their abstinence, or neutrality, amounts to support for the winner, since their vote, if cast, might have defeated the candidate who won. The not really abstention or neutrality, but the uncritical and undiscriminating use of suffrage. Such citizens allow others to determine by their votes the political consequences of their default. It is surely a form of involvement, but it seems a generally stupid way to be involved...”[i]


Stringfellow then asks this question: “But if there is no option of withdrawal, if silence is a form of involvement, if default abets the winning side...then how shall Christians and how shall the Church be responsible in their political involvement? How shall they be involved and yet remain unstained by the world?...Surely, the answer to that is: in the very manner of Christ's own ministry in this world....Christians know that no institution, no ideology, no nation, no form of government, no society, can heal the brokenness or prevail against the power of death. And though Christians act in this world and in particular circumstances in a society for this or that cause...they do so not as servants of some race or class or political system or ideology, but as an expression of their freedom from just such idols....Thus, Christians are perpetually in the position of complaining about the status quo, whatever it happens to be. Our insight and experience of reconciliation in Christ are such that no estate in secular society can possibly correspond to, or much approximate, the true society of which we are citizens in Christ. We are, therefore, in every society, aliens. We are always, in any society, in protest. Even when a cause for which we have ourselves supported prevails, we will not be content, but will be the first to complain against the 'new' status quo.”[ii]


There is also the argument that we ought not to take freedoms such as the right to vote for granted.


We need only to look to the witness of those who risked their lives, their freedom – who were beaten and arrested, and later intimidated, disenfranchised, and menaced, as they strove to secure, and then enact this right for people of color and for women to vote. There is something in the human spirit – a yearning for freedom, for the right to vote one's conscience, to vote for the candidate of one's choosing, in a free and fair election, that is directly related to the consolation of one's spirit.


This is not to say that our system is perfect, or that it even necessarily lives up to the ideals I just expressed. I am not naïve. And indeed, a healthy critique and realistic view of our system helps prevent us from falling into partisan traps and those idols Stringfellow mentioned above. I believe we have, at least most of us, moved beyond the illusion that truth and justice are the main goals of those in power; indeed, greed and self-interest are, it seems, more often at work, unfortunately; and so, our involvement as Christians becomes that much more important. Indeed, the right to vote, much like our ability to gather freely in worship, is fundamental to the thriving of our spirits, as we navigate how best to live and serve and work in the world today.


Ultimately, for us as Christians, our faith, our hope, must be, and is, in Christ, and not in any principality or power.


Regardless of the outcome of the election on Tuesday, the poor will still be with us; there will still be the sick who will need to be tended to; and there may, unfortunately, be a heightened need to protect and stand in solidarity with people of color, with those on the margins, and with those of differing and minority religious traditions, as the very real evil of white supremacy in this country has been unmasked, brought back into the mainstream, given a seat at the table, and has had new life breathed into it.


The theme for this year in our campus ministry is “how do we keep Christ alive in the world today?”; “Where do we see the Gospel at work?” Those are the things I would ask you to look for.


Because this is the place where we recharge our inner spiritual battery to go out in service to Christ in the world. We do not come to church out of some misplaced sense of obligation; rather, we come to church to be nourished and fed, so that we can go forth and do Christ's work of healing and reconciliation in a broken world. And at this altar, in the Eucharist, is where we can and do encounter Christ most intimately and profoundly. We are deeply in need of God's support, and so we pray for strength. And what do we hear? From the first lesson: “My Spirit abides among you; do not fear.” From the second lesson: “You have been chosen as the first fruits for salvation, through sanctification by the Spirit....”


Remember: pray as if it all depends on God; and then go out and serve as if it all depends on you. And, yes, please, remember to vote.




[i] Strinfellow, William, “The Liturgy as a Political Event,” from Dissenter in a Great Society, pp. 150-64. [ii] Ibid.

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