Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost, November 10, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Job 19:23-27a+Psalm 17:1-9+1 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17+Luke 20:27-38

Some of you know that I have a fairly extensive presence on social media. Part of the reason for that is to create visibility for All Saints and to promote a counter-narrative to a narrow view of what it means to be a Christian. Okay, it’s also to share pictures of my dog, Ella, but that’s just how it is. But for all the good that comes from the kind of exposure Ella and I have on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, there are times I am tempted to delete my accounts and/or throw my phone or computer against a wall to make the craziness end. This happens most often when I follow a thread, usually on Twitter, in which the interlocutors are debating the minutiae of some given topic – usually theological amongst my friends – and they end up arguing about things that just don’t matter. Who cares if we use purple or blue during Advent? Is an east-facing altar really superior to one that allows the priest to face the people? We spend so much time debating and arguing about small things, that we forget about the stuff that really matters.

This is what this proposition by the Sadducees reminds me of. They don’t even believe in the resurrection so what difference does it make what happens after this woman and her spouses die? It is the ultimate gotcha question.

Jesus, unlike me, does not hurl anything against the wall, however. He answers a silly question with a serious answer. I think there’s a lesson in there for us. And the answer Jesus gives is that things are not the same in God’s reign as they are now. In my heart of hearts, I like to believe that the underlying message is that this unnamed woman is not just someone’s property to be handed down from brother to brother so that she can do the one thing expected of a woman at that time: to produce a male heir. I hope that at least part of what Jesus was saying is that she is of value on her own, not in who she marries or how many children she has or doesn’t have. And yes, I’m reading more into the text that is actually there, but our Jewish cousins use midrash, or storytelling, all the time in interpreting texts, so consider this a midrash on the objectified woman.

It is, though, Jesus’s final line that is the crux of the matter. God is a God of the living, not the dead. This does not mean that God has abandoned those who have died. On the contrary, in God, death has not won; all are alive in God’s reign. It’s a perfect segue from our readings and our remembrances from All Saints Day when the veil between the living and the dead is so thin, when we see that the great cloud of witnesses, the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, continuing to praise God through all eternity. God is a God of the living, including this woman whose life was not her own on this side of the grave. She is not just an object on the other side but beloved of God because she bears God’s image, fully and completely, independent of her status as a woman.

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this comforting. The self that we bring before God, the essence of who we are, is beloved. For the woman in our story, it was about marriage and children, at least that is what her culture said. In truth, all those external attributes matter not at all, not for her and not for us. Our family, our education, our career, our bank account, our marital status, our gender identity – this is not what matters to God. We are beloved because we simply are.

This may seem a counterintuitive message on a day when we are asked to give of our lives and labors by making a pledge to this church for the coming year. Because those dollars pledged do matter, not to our eternal salvation but to supporting the mission of this place. But you aren’t loved because you give or unloved if you don’t. That’s not between you and me or the vestry or anyone else in this congregation. That’s between you and God. However, your gift, your pledge, does matter to an awful lot of people.

The research in which I have been engaged for my doctoral project has shown me just how vital All Saints has been in Hoboken since one of my predecessors arrived in town back in 1980. We were in the forefront of providing for those burned out by the arson fires of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The Hoboken Clergy Coalition was a direct result of the memorials held in front of the buildings where 55 people died over a five-year period, many of whose names were never recorded. In Jesus’s Name Charities, the emergency food bank for which we still collect food every week, was the first joint ministry of the coalition. Then came the Hoboken Shelter which continues to provide housing for 50 persons every night, more than 500 meals every day, and 1,000 showers every week. All Saints Episcopal Day School began as a ministry of this parish. All of these bear the imprint of All Saints Episcopal Parish, as does the Jubilee Center, which started 23 years ago in the community room at the housing authority buildings on the west side of town.

None of this magically happened. It took vision and prayer and diligence on the part of the people of All Saints, and it took the commitment of dollars. Lots of dollars. The work of the church through the ages has been made possible because people of faith have given sacrificially of their money and their time and their talents. They understood that God’s generosity to them demanded generosity in return, not out of duty or obligation, but out of joy. We are blessed so that we can be a blessing to others.

This week, the church commemorated Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple who died in 1944 having served only two and a half years as archbishop. He is famously known for saying that the church is the only society that exists primarily for those who are not its members. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist for those of us who show up each week, who teach and provide hospitality and serve in a multitude of ways, but our principal mission is not inward-looking. It is outward-focused. This world needs some Good News. Our neighbors need to know that they are beloved of God, not for what they do but for who they are. And this includes all of our neighbors, rich and poor, black and white, documented and undocumented, gay and straight. There are, as Paul said, no more distinctions for all who are in Christ Jesus.

This is at the heart of our commitment to give generously to the work of the church. Each of us individually can only touch so many lives. Together, we can change the world, or at least our little patch of God’s creation that we call home. Over the past almost-four decades, our little parish has made an enormous impact on this city. I can’t wait to see what God has planned for us in the coming year.

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost, November 10, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas