Sunday, November 11, 2007

Trick Questions

Here's this morning's homily. If anybody reading this is a veteran, Happy Veteran's Day, and thank you for serving your country.

In addition to being my wedding anniversary, today is also Bali's first birthday. A gala day indeed!

The Gospel is Luke 20:27-38.


Fittingly enough, given today’s Gospel, today is my wedding anniversary. The Sadducees would probably find my history almost as confounding as the one they use to try to trick Jesus. My husband was married and divorced before I met him; furthermore, he and I had two marriage ceremonies, neither with benefit of clergy. I wasn’t religious yet when we got married, and Gary still isn’t. Our first wedding was in City Hall in Manhattan, on a Tuesday morning in August of 1995. We chose a weekday because Gary had always wanted to go to work and say, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I just got married.”

Our second wedding, a few months later, was on November 11, the sixth anniversary of the day we met. At my bridal shower, a friend had sung a song she’d written for us; it began, “Susan and Gary, they marry and marry.” We held the second wedding in a restaurant. Ninety people witnessed the decidedly non-traditional ritual I’d written. Friends and family offered blessings, and we exchanged ceremonial objects and vows. I wore a purple corset over a green velvet gown I’d found for $25 in a thrift store; Gary wore black leather pants and a linen poet’s shirt. After the ceremony, one of the barkeepers came up to me and asked cautiously, “That was a really . . . interesting wedding. Are you . . . French?”

My marriage doesn’t conform to many of the rules other people use to recognize and organize such things. People who don’t believe in divorce might consider both of my weddings invalid, because Gary had already been married. People who believe that marriages must be church-sanctioned might frown on us because our relationship has never been formally blessed by clergy. People who believe that proper weddings involve white gowns, tuxedos, and multi-tiered cakes would be nonplussed by our two weddings, which contained none of those things. During the twelve years of our marriage, we’ve met people who question our relationship because we’ve chosen not to have children, because Gary has chosen to stay home to do the cooking and housekeeping while I bring home the paycheck, because I’m a church lady and he identifies as a non-denominational pagan. It turns out that other people have all kinds of rules for what makes a marriage real, and ours doesn’t fit a number of them. But that’s okay. Our marriage is real to the state; much more importantly, it’s real to us, because we love each other. The rules that other people have sometimes wanted to impose on us are, quite simply, irrelevant.

When the Sadducees ask Jesus their question -- the one about the woman who marries and marries and marries and marries and marries and marries and marries -- they are asking which marriage he considers real, which one God will honor after the resurrection. Jesus dismisses the question as irrelevant. The Mosaic marriage laws regulated family life here on earth, ensuring that widows would be cared for and lines of inheritance preserved; but life after resurrection is entirely different. In the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells his audience, there is neither marriage nor death. All are loved and cared for, and all partake in God’s great bounty.

The Sadducees were asking a trick question. They didn’t believe in the resurrection, but did believe in the law set down by Moses. Mosaic marriage laws would be rendered nonsensical if everyone who had died could just get up and walk around again; therefore, the rules that Moses gave his people must make resurrection impossible.

The Sadducees were a wealthy group, aristocrats who compromised with Rome to protect their worldly fortune. Jesus’ teachings threatened their wealth and power, as he continues to threaten wealth and power in our own day. The Gospel we heard this morning comes immediately after another trick question, the one about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus answers. The Sadducees tried to trick him into saying that one could not be both a good Jew and a lawful citizen of an occupied country, but he sidesteps their challenge.

So they move on to the next challenge, designed to trick Jesus into saying that one cannot be a faithful follower both of Moses’ teachings and of Jesus himself. Jesus turns this second trick question on its ear. Moses himself believed in the resurrection of the dead, Jesus tells the Sadducees, for Moses said that God was the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. Since God is the God of the living and not of the dead, Moses himself must have believed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob still lived in God’s presence. And the Sadducees are struck silent, as they were after he answered the question about taxes. Jesus has outwitted them again.

Behind all this legal and theological sparring lies great urgency. Jesus isn’t just parrying arguments from intellectual opponents: he’s maneuvering for his life in increasingly tight quarters. Ultimately, he will be cornered in the Garden of Gethsemane, and nailed to a cross, and buried in a tomb. The Sadducees and his other enemies will, once again, think that they have won, that they’ve delivered an irrefutable blow. And again, they will be proven wrong, struck silent by an empty tomb. God’s love will, again, make human law simply irrelevant.

As Moses and Jesus both knew, we need human law to govern political and social life. Earthly laws, properly formulated and administered, can help us work towards social justice, towards making this life the best it can be both for us and for our neighbors. But beyond the grave, human law no longer applies. That realm is God’s, the place of perfect freedom where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither married nor single: where all will be like angels and all will be at home. None of us has seen this place: we can only imagine it.

The Sadducees are threatened by Jesus because his Gospel promises change, the vision of a world where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. The first do not consider this good news. In their frantic and angry clinging to what is, to maintaining their current social status, the Sadducees have rejected any exploration of what might be. They have denied imagination, which may just be a denial of God himself.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, in his book The Prophetic Imagination, observes that “The speech of God is first about an alternative future” (64). God has never been in the business of keeping things the same. Every cherished, age-old practice on this planet began as a new-fangled invention, fiercely protested by the keepers of tradition. This is a sensitive subject in the Episcopal Church, with its “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. Human traditions, including the traditions of the church, are beautiful reassurances of continuity, and they deserve their place of honor in our deliberations. But when they are imposed as law rather than expressed as love, they too often stifle life, rather than nurturing it.

We are currently embroiled, in this country and in this church, in a long and exhausting debate about what kinds of relationships can be called marriage, about what kinds of love can be recognized as real. Most of you know where I stand on this issue, and the rest of you can guess. I love my unconventional, nontraditional marriage, and because I love being married, I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to love being married, too. For me, that desire is a natural outgrowth of the Great Commandment to love my neighbor as myself. I want my neighbors to have the same benefits and happiness that I do. As a result, I believe that this is an area where national law and church tradition both need revision to reflect a broader vision of social justice, a more loving alternative future. Some of you agree with me on that, and some of you don’t. This isn’t a debate anyone can win with intellectual arguments, although many of us on both sides will keep trying: asking each other trick questions, using selected snippets of Scripture as proof of the rightness of our own positions.

The debate is important to our life here on earth, to the life of our nation and the life of our church. But although I cannot prove it, I have a hunch that when we arrive in the presence of God, in that place we cannot yet imagine, all of our previous categories will become, quite simply, irrelevant. In the end, all that will matter is the love of God, the love that transforms everything it touches: healing even the deepest wounds, bridging even the widest divisions, and emptying even the most tightly sealed tombs.



  1. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Happy Anniversary, and here's hoping for many more happy years together for you and Gary.


  2. Happy 12th anniversary, Susan and Gary! I remember fondly your non-traditional wedding. And I recall that it was quite an action-packed weekend for me; the next day, I ran my first marathon.

    Thanks for mentioning me (obliquely) in your homily.


  3. Happy Anniversary Susan & Gary!

    May you have many more.

    Best wishes,

    John W.

  4. A couple days late, but Happy Anniversary!

    I loved the homily; I'm so glad you post these. While I am not religious myself, I do respond to some religious/spiritual writing/music/thought, and yours are definitely in the positive group.

    Ann and I married fairly young (21/22), and tried to blend our own desires for the wedding with our parents' more traditional views. Tim Kirk -- a fanzine artist just then turning professional -- did us a drawing of two dragons in tux and gown that we were going to use as the invitation. My parents reluctantly agreed, but Ann's totally refused, and had traditional ones printed up -- spelling my name wrong, which I still haven't gotten over, especially when my parents said they wanted to use the misspelled ones instead of the dragon ones, too. We turned Tim's drawing into the Thank You notes instead.

    Ann wanted to make her own purple dress, but her mother said if the daughter wore purple, the mother could not attend the wedding. They settled for beige with purple trim.

    Ann's family was Catholic, mine whichever Protestant church was closest to wherever we were living; I think I was "Episcopal" at the time. We needed extra counseling from the priest because I wasn't Catholic. (He, a dreadfully dull old man, was hip enough to, in the middle of reading us all the questions we had to be asked, answer one himself: "Of course you want to have children and will raise them Catholic." As, like you, we didn't want children, it was nice to not have to lie about it.)

    The reception was at Ann's parents' house, and her sister made the cake (her first attempt -- pretty successful -- at a tiered wedding cake); these were our choices, to keep things simple.

    It was a nice day that I don't remember a lot of details about; it was pretty blurry even at the time. But it has worked out well for us: we celebrated our 35th anniversary in June.

  5. Jesus was also asked a trick question about divorce. In this instance he didn't make a rhetorical reply but directly said that remarriage after divorce was adultery.


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