Right Answers to Wrong Questions
Key Passage: Luke 20:27
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: faith, doubt, answer, sadducees, question, influencers
November 10, 2019 • Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
All Saints’ Church, Brooklyn, New York
You have probably figured out, on the basis of what you have read about your guest preacher this morning, that I dwell in a part of our church that speaks a number of different languages. This morning in the Episcopal Church in Europe, at least six different languages will be heard across our Convocation, and very possibly more.
So I have brought along what I thought might be something interesting to share, a slightly different translation of the gospel we heard this morning. It’s a somewhat more contemporary version of the story. I’ll give it to you in English; it goes like this:
Some investment bankers, those who say there is nothing real beyond the world of money and wealth, came to Steven and asked him a question. “Teacher, we know that Jesus taught that the poor are blessed and the meek will inherit the earth. Now, after the financial crash in 2008, practically all of the growth in wealth went to the richest people, and none went to the poor and meek. What evidence is there that these poor people are actually blessed, as Jesus said?”
Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of a loose translation. But it may be a closer parallel than you think.
Let’s talk about Sadducees for a minute. All we really know about them from the record of scripture is that they were a small group of people with pretty bleak views. They didn’t believe in the possibility of resurrection; and they rejected the idea that the oral tradition of Jewish teaching had any authority. The only thing they thought mattered was the written word of the Torah.
But there’s more we have learned about them. For one thing, they were from the upper classes of Jewish society. They were the most educated, the wealthiest, and the most influential people.
They were the families that managed the most important institution in Jewish life—the temple. The sons of these families were the temple priests, and they set the rules for who and who did not have access to the most significant place in the life of society.
So the Sadducees were not some strange cult that had fringe ideas; they were the most significant people of their moment. They had the power, they ran the places of power, and they were the arbiters of what was important and what was not. They were influencers. They conferred social status.
And so the idea of a place where God’s authority had more significance than their own, a heavenly realm that was not a place where their influence held—that was just plain rejected out of hand.
Or to say it in other words: the gospel lesson appointed for our hearing today is really describing in a quite accurate way our own moment in history as the church in our society. We are living in the Sadducees’ world.
We are living in a society, in a culture, deeply shaped by the wealthiest, the most powerful, the most educated—the influencers. We are living in a society that discounts the possibility or the presence of the spiritual, and that values only what can be measured, stored, put in a database, or monetized—and denies the importance or meaning of anything else.
The Sadducees come to Jesus to challenge him. They’re not that interested in what he thinks about marriage and how it works in heaven; they’re convinced there is no heaven. They’re trying to prove the truth of their own convictions by tangling Jesus up in a game of prooftexting.
And that is our situation. This Gospel lesson isn’t about a long-ago dispute between Jesus and a forgotten sect of ancient Judaism; this gospel lesson is about what our culture, what our institutions of power and influence, come to say to us—the body of Christ, the church, the beloved community.
Just a little more than hundred years ago, in the worst months of the first World War, the great German sociologist Max Weber gave a lecture at the University of Munich and declared that as a result of social, economic, and scientific progress, the world had become disenchanted.
He didn’t mean that the world had become sadder; he meant that the possibility of the spiritual, the idea that there is such a thing as the sacred right here in the frame of this life of ours, no longer held a claim over the minds and hearts of modern people. The spiritual dimension of our lives had been reduced to strictly contained and controllable realms—literature, maybe, and art, but certainly the private sphere.
That is the question our culture comes to us with. And our culture is just like the Sadducees; it is convinced it already knows the answer to the question.
The Sadducees came to Jesus asking about marriage in heaven, but they came already prepared with their answer. Their answer was that there is no heaven, because there is no afterlife.
The world comes to us asking—how can anything be blessed, or beloved, or sacred? And the world comes prepared with its answer: its answer is, there is no sacred in this world because there is no spiritual realm. And if nothing is sacred, then our faith is just an exercise in tradition, sort of like singing the national anthem before the Mets game—and nothing more meaningful than that.
I keep up with things back home chiefly by reading the New York Times online, and I am still thinking about an essay by Frank Bruni I read a couple of weeks ago. The essay tried to make out a simple case: That the democratic candidates might find themselves doing better in the middle of the country if they dared to talk about the place of faith in their lives. Not a specific faith, not a particular kind of belief—just anything to show that they are people with a spiritual dimension to them.
What was a lot more interesting than the essay were the thousands of comments that followed—the vast majority of which took the form of: religion has no place in our politics; the separation of church and state should mean that no one in public life talks about their religion, or perhaps never even has one; religion causes all the problems in society, and besides it’s all just obscurantist and old fashioned.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the obvious point that the framers of our Constitution had no desire to deprive anyone in public office of the right to religious observance. What I want to draw out of those thousands of comments is the Sadducees’ mocking question.
Where I live now, the idea of the separation of church and state, of the separation of religious belief from the public square, isn’t just an idea about neutrality; it’s about hostility. I have come to think of it as a fear of faith—a rejection so reflexive and so absolute that just like those Sadducees, it comes at us already knowing all the answers to the questions.
I’m telling you this because—at least if all those comments responding to that essay by Mr Bruni are any indication—that is all going to come to be true here, too. We here are headed toward a time in which what we do here in places like All Saints is fenced off, and quarantined, and kept at a distance from the places where decisions are made and work is done.
Because after all, the truths we proclaim here are truths outside the grasp of Google. They can’t be monetized or give a great return on investment. Because they are truths about the power of love—and that is not a thing that any person, any community, any nation can turn to its unique advantage. So it isn’t interesting. It’s even threatening—because just like Jesus, it speaks of an alternative power structure where the powerful of this world have no control.
Now that may sound a little challenging—maybe even a little depressing. But remember—when the Sadducees come with their mocking question, Jesus has an answer.
The answer he gives makes it clear that they are asking the wrong question. It’s easy to be certain of your answer if you control the question. But then you might end up failing to get to any truth other than your own. That’s what Jesus sees.
Is there an afterlife? That’s the wrong question. The right question is, when the living God makes a covenant that encompasses the past, the present, and the future, are you prepared to do what it takes to take up your part in it?
And when the world comes to us asking us: Is there a spiritual life? That’s the wrong question. The right question, the question we, the Body of Christ, must learn to ask in return, is: What is sacred for you? What is the thing so precious, so profound, that it makes you stop in wonder and awe?
We won’t win by arguing. We won’t convince the skeptics and the cultured despisers by playing their game along with them. We won’t even win with clever sermons.
What will work is an answer that invites the skeptics and the doubters to ask the right question: What is sacred for you? Where does your sense of the possibility of the holy get the best of you—quite literally the best of you?
Our task as disciples is not to offer the world better answers; it’s to help those who come doubting or wondering to ask the right questions. And then our task is to listen to their answers, treasure their stories, and help those who come see within them the abiding presence of God’s transforming love already right there in their own lives. Amen.